Amendments

Funny thing about freedom of speech.  It doesn’t really exist in a capitalist system.  Words, I suspect the powers that be know, are extremely potent.  Any system that brooks no rivals will insist on silencing dissidents.  And not just on a national scale.  Several years ago I was interviewed by a Catholic magazine for an editorial position.  I was between jobs and this looked like a good fit; in fact, the woman who arranged the interview told me that if this position didn’t work out they’d likely be able to find a different one for someone with my particular skill set.  When the power that was interviewed me, however, he noted that I had a blog.  “If we hire you, you’ll need to take it down,” he said.  It would confuse readers who might think I was speaking for the Catholic Church.  My candidacy did not proceed.

In a job I would eventually get, in academic publishing, a similar concern was expressed.  Although I hold an earned doctorate from a world-class research university, my opinions might be mistaken for those of some true authority.  Problematic.  This issue keeps coming up.  I write fiction and publish it under a pseudonym.  Sometimes I think about coming out of my literary closet, but the issues pour in hard and fast when the door’s opened.  What would those who read my nonfiction (both of them!) think?  Would I discredit myself because I have too much imagination?  What would an academic employer say?  If I ever went back on the ordination track, would a congregation of any sort understand a clergy person who thinks such things?  I get enough flak from writing about horror films.

The fact is, freedom of expression is very, very limited.  Capitalism measures all things by the bottom line and anything that might cause that trend to waver is forbidden.  Lack of team spirit.  If you want to publish, don’t work in publishing.  It’s like saying (if I might be so bold) that you shouldn’t teach if you earn a doctorate, because you might actually contribute to what we hopefully call knowledge.  This dilemma has become an entrenched part of my psyche.  I grew up innocently writing fiction.  I completed my first stories about the age of 12 or 13.  I was eventually groomed for the ministry and so the fiction had to be set aside as one of those “childish things.”  Was it?  Perhaps.  More likely though, it was simply a lesson that I would find repeated throughout my adult life.  Give lip service to freedom of speech, but don’t ever use it.

A Few Days

My fellow blogger over at Verbomania (worth following!) posted a piece on the word Romjul.  In case you haven’t read the post, Romjul is the Norwegian word for the period between Christmas and New Year’s Day.  It’s kind of a liminal period.  Not really holiday and not really not holiday, in northern climes it’s often cold and dark and you don’t feel like getting out to do much.  In many reasonable parts of the world it’s a given that this should be time off from work.  With all the preparation that goes into Christmas and the standard convention of starting the New Year with a freebie, and the fact that the days of the week for the holidays are movable, it just makes sense.  In these developed States, holidays are left to employers.  Mine granted two days off: Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.  What are your choices when they fall on Wednesday?

Romjul gave me a good feeling.  I cashed in a vacation day or two to take some time off.  The years when I’ve worked between the holidays I’ve found nobody in their offices or answering email, and that led to long hours of waiting for the work day to end so that I could actually do something productive.  In America we love our work.  At least employers love our work.  I talked to a young man who had to cut his holiday short to be into work on Monday, December 29.  He’d just returned from an international trip, but his employer insisted he be there.  There was no work he could do because his colleague whose input he needed had taken that day off.  Work is like that.

I recalled a snow day when I had to commute daily to New York City.  New Jersey Transit got me as far as Newark but the trains were shut down from there.  I had to take a PATH train that took me close to my Midtown location.  It was running late.  A woman was panicking about not being on time.  A wise, older gentleman said, “Employers just want you to show up.  They’re not looking for a full, productive day of work.  They just want you to come in.”  I believe he was right.  Employers like to make their puppets jump, no matter if there’s anybody there to watch the show.  In a civilized world, as in much of Europe, we would celebrate Romjul.  If not for religious reasons, then for simple humanitarian ones.  In late December we can all use a week off.

Conversations

Arnold Lakhovsky, The Conversation, via Wikimedia Commons

While I tend not to discuss books on this blog until I’ve finished them, I realize this practice comes with a price tag.  Reading is a conversation.  Your mind interacts and engages with that of another person (or persons, for books aren’t usually individual efforts).  I find myself as I’m going along asking questions of the author—whether living or dead doesn’t matter—and finding answers.  Materialists would claim said answers are only electro-chemical illusions spawned by this mass of gray cells in my skull, only this and nothing more.  The realia of lived experience, however, tells us something quite different.  These interior conversations are shaping the way I think.  There’s a reason all those teachers in grade school encouraged us to read.  Reading leads to an equation the sum of which is greater than the total of the addends.

I’ve been reading through Walter Wink’s oeuvre.  Specifically his trilogy on the powers.  Although this was written going on four decades ago, I’m struck by how pertinent and necessary it is for today.  As he posited in his first volume, the embrace of materialism has blinded us to spiritual realities.  Wink was bright enough to know that biblical texts were products of their times and that simple acceptance of these texts as “facts” distorts what they really are.  He also convinces the reader that institutions have “powers.”  Call them what you will, they do exist.  Throughout much of western history the “power” cast off by the church has been somewhat positive.  Christianities has established institutions to care for the poor and for victims of abuse and natural disaster.  Orphans and widows, yes, but also those beaten down by capitalism.  They have established institutions of higher education to improve our minds.  Until, that is, we start objecting that our improved outlook demonstrates that the biblical base isn’t literal history.

Churches then often fight against those educated within its own institutions.  Ossified in ancient outlooks that value form over essence, many churches take rearguard actions that we would call “evil” if they were undertaken by a political leader such as Stalin or Hitler.  Those evil actions are justified by claiming they are ordained by an amorphous “Scripture” that doesn’t really support those behaviors at all.  I’ve been pondering this quite a lot lately.  Although I taught Bible for many years my training has been primarily as an historian of religions.  I specialized in the ancient world of the northern levant, for that culture provided the background of what would eventually become the Bible.  Reading Wink, I think I begin to see how some of this fits together.  I won’t have the answer—we many never attain it—but I will know that along the way I’ve been engaged in fruitful conversation.

Job’s Jobs

Many years ago, after Nashotah House decided it no longer required my unique outlook, I bought a book.  (That’s my default reaction.)  This book was on how to write killer cover letters.  I don’t remember the title or the author, but I followed the advice, well, religiously.  It got me nowhere.  Business tricks, at least historically, don’t work in academia.  Sitting at home, pondering my sins, I flipped to the chapter on advice to take if none of the rest of this was working for you.  Here’s where the human side began to show through.  Have you been eating onions or garlic before your interviews? it asked.   Do you need to lose weight?  Try dressing nicer.  It occurred to me that the business world lacks the imagination required for denying jobs.  And besides, who was getting any interviews before which I shouldn’t eat garlic?

Business advice is, in a word, shallow.  It assumes that if you’ve got the goods there’s no reason you won’t get hired.  Reality is a bit more complex than that.  I often ponder how people simply go for what they want.  They reach for the biggest piece without pondering the repercussions of their actions.  I see it in my small world of publishing all the time.  Those who are “hungry” (read “greedy”) succeed.  Those who wait behind to help others simply can’t compete.  So the cover letter book did get that part right.  Is it possible, however, to devise a society where everyone fits?  Not all are created equal, perhaps, but do we have to reward those who seem to care only for themselves?  Let them eat garlic.

The cover letter book, in the end, never really did me any good.  I found my way into publishing by being willing to aim low.  I’ve written many cover letters since leaving Nashotah House, and only two ever led to a job.  Those who work in business, what with their concerns about readers’ aromas and weights, seem never to have considered the intricacies of the intellectual job market.  What strikes me as particularly odd is that there are plenty of smart people out there, and yet they haven’t organized to offer alternatives to the greed-based structure on which our work lives are based.  They can’t, it seems, gaze beyond capitalism as a mechanism for helping individuals lead productive lives.  Business operates on the principle of replaceable parts, many of which happen to be human.  And even those who know how to write can’t hope to compete against those who prefer cogs that know to avoid onions.

Pay Per View

One of the things editors can teach academics is that the latter should pay more attention.  Especially to the world of publishing.  An erstwhile academic, I learned to go about research and publication in the traditional way: come up with an idea that nobody else has noticed or thought of, and write about it.  It is “publishing for the sake of knowledge.”  (Yes, that is Gorgias Press’s slogan, and yes, it is one of my hooks—marketing, anyone?)  The idea behind this is that knowledge is worth knowing for its own sake.  Researchers of all kinds notice details of immense variety and there’s always room for more books.  Or at least there used to be.  The world of publishing on which academics rely, however, is rapidly transforming.  Money changes everything.

The world has too many problems (many of them generated by our own species) to pay too much attention to academics.  Universities, now following “business models” crank out more doctorates than there are jobs for employing said wannabe profs, and those who get jobs pay scant attention to knock-on changes in the publishing world.  Just the other day I was reading about “pay per use” schemes for academic writing that, unsurprisingly, came up with the fact that most academic books and articles lose money.  If someone has to pay to read your research, will they do it?  Especially if that research is on a topic that has no obvious connection with the mess we’re busy making of this world?  Probably not.  Publishing for the sake of knowledge is fast becoming a dusty artifact in the museum of quaint ideas.

For those still in the academic sector that means that research projects now have to be selected with an economic element in mind.  “Would anyone pay for this?” has to be one of the questions asked early on.  The question has to be answered honestly, which requires getting out from beyond the blinders of being part of the privileged class of those who are paid to think original thoughts.  Academia has followed the money.  A capitalistic system makes this inevitable.  How can you do business with an institution that doesn’t play by your accounting rules?  And academic publishers, which have difficulty turning a profit due to low sales volume, are bound to play along.  This situation will change how we seek knowledge.  More’s the pity since some of the things most interesting about the world are those that nobody would think to pay to view.

Private Matters

Mercenaries have long been part of human culture.  With some exceptions, people really don’t like to fight to the death meaning that wars have often relied on those willing to fight for pay.  As society buys more and more into capitalism—and capitalism always means you want what someone else has—we’ve had to pay armies to become a massive part of our national existence.  In the United States the military budget is the most massive drain on taxpayers’ dollars, dwarfing all other areas of government spending.  Even Dwight Eisenhower, himself a military man, warned the country of the military-industrial complex.  It was becoming too powerful, he believed.  Knowing better, we continue to spend to curb our fears—generally unfounded.

The other day I was reading about the private military industry.  I didn’t even know there was such a thing.  Yes, I’ve known of mercenaries since I was a kid, but I think was got to me was the word “industry.”  This has apparently now become a legitimate line of work, I suspect with tax breaks and other kickbacks.  What’s more, it’s recognized by governments as a legitimate business.   Perhaps I spend too much time in my own headspace—I am a Bibles editor after all—but I felt like I’d just crawled out from my scriptural rock.  There’s an entire industry where your job is to be a fighting force for hire?  Victory to the highest bidder?  The ultimate, weaponized free agents?  How does that feel?  Mercenaries have often suffered in reputation.  Now we recognize them as just another job.  I guess that’s one way to handle unemployment.

While the Good Book is considered outmoded by many, I do think it has many things right.  One of its most compelling messages is that we should be peacemakers.  We should love one another, seek to help, not to harm.  Nobody’s going to pay a lot for that, however.  War is more profitable.  Meanwhile the education industry—even it can be capitalized—suffers.  We don’t want to pay for cooperative ventures where the entire human race, and other species, might benefit.  That we deem too expensive.  After all, there’s only so much money to go around for bombs and missiles and whatnot.  How are we supposed to protect that which we’ve extorted from others if we don’t have a massive military?  I suppose we could hire freelancers, but then, that costs money.

 

Evolving Tales

There’s nothing like a six-and-a-half hour flight to get some reading done.  I’d made good progress on Kurt Vonnegut’s Galápagos before leaving for England, but the plane ride gave me time to finish it.  While nobody, I think, can really claim to understand Vonnegut, there are clearly some trends in this novel that demonstrate his struggle with religion.  There may be some spoilers here, so if you’ve been saving this book for later you might want to wait before reading the rest of this.

As the title suggests, it’s a story about evolution.  Charles Darwin had his first divine epiphanies about evolution while visiting the Galapagos during his voyage on the Beagle.  Land creatures isolated from others of their species adapted to the environment in which they found themselves, and over eons passed on useful traits to their progeny.  If humans only had as much foresight!

With his trademark cast of quirky characters about to set out on a cruise from Equador to the Galapagos, Vonnegut has war break out.  Riots and pillaging take place.  Vonnegut takes broad aims at capitalism and business-oriented thinking, and how these represent the devolution of our species.  Of course, being Vonnegut, he does it with wit and verve.  Vonnegut was a writer not afraid to use the Bible in many ways, including what experts would call misuse.  As the surviving passengers make their way onto the stripped, but functional ship, he notes that they are like a new Noah’s ark.  They end up populating Galapagos with humans that evolve a million years into the future.

A thought that caught me along the way was a line where he wrote that in the long history of David and Goliath conflicts, Goliaths never win.  This kind of sentiment could do the world some real good right now.  In fact, although the book was written decades ago, one of the characters, Andrew MacIntosh, reads very much like a foreshadowing of 2016, down to the descriptions of how he regularly mistreats others.  In Galápagos MacIntosh gets killed during a rebellion, showing that grime doesn’t pay.  The cruise goes on without him.  Galápagos is a book that points out the evils that our system encourages, or even necessitates.  There can be another way.  The survivors land on the barren islands and set about adapting because they have no other choice.  A more egalitarian scenario evolves largely because females are in mostly charge.  While not intended as an actual solution to social ills, Galápagos is nevertheless not a bad guide, especially when shipwreck seems inevitable.