Post-Pandemic

Something I’ve noticed: throughout this crisis business people have been fretting how hard it will be to reestablish everything “like it was” when this is all over.  I wonder if they’re not thinking big enough.  It seems to me that a system as fragile as capitalism is bound to tumble when something suddenly becomes more important than money.  Humans and mortality.  Most people fear death.  Religion, historically, has come to fill in that space, but as we grew more and more confident in our ability to prevent large-scale death capitalism, the real opiate of the people, stepped in.  Make money!  Buy things so that those of us with lots of money will get even more!  We’ll live extravagant lifestyles and laugh at those of you who’ll keep spending to keep us where we are!  Then people stop spending.  Nobody’s laughing now.

Is there not a better way to construct society?  Sure, some means of exchange is necessary, but do we have to give such power to an abstract concept such as money?  Granted, gods are abstract concepts too, but at least they’re spiritual rather than material.  That which is made of mere physical stuff is bound to disappoint eventually.  When our sun balloons out into a red giant, everything we know here on earth will be gone.  The physical stuff anyway.  I know this opens me to accusations of wishful, wistful, escapist thinking—maybe something spiritual will come rescue us—but I assure you it’s not that.  What I’m referring to is meaning.  There’s value in it, and you can’t buy it.

The coronavirus crisis has us all, on some level, asking about the meaning of it all.  God hasn’t intervened, and the numbers are still climbing.  Nature dictates that they will eventually stabilize, and decline.  Our capitalist society, however, is scrambling to figure how to make sure everyone pays their taxes, their bills, and somehow manages to find toilet paper (which is a great investment at the moment).  Are these the bases for meaning in life?  Can’t we do better than that?  Can’t we find a system that values what is truly unique and rare?  Each and every person on this planet.  And some of us would go a step further and include our animal people too.  Life.  Life is value.  Money can be thrown away, as we all know.  Sometimes quite easily.  As long as it lands in the coffers of those with too much, everybody’s happy.  Well, not everybody.  Maybe not even most.  Perhaps it’s a good time to reassess our priorities.

Captive to Capitalism

Some people are born capitalists, while others are not.  I recall the old TIAA-CREF ads showing some famous thinker and stating that some of us don’t have time to think about money.  Since I’m an obscure private intellectual I feel hard pressed to put myself in such exalted company as university professors, but here I am anyway.  I just don’t think much about money, other than to panic over my lack thereof.  It doesn’t motivate me and as long as I can get along without too many worries, I seldom think about it.  Or so it used to be.  Then I bought a house.  Suddenly everything is about money.  This needs to be fixed, and that requires repair.  Instead of spending weekends writing (as I’m fond of doing), I now try my hand at skills like carpentry and masonry.  At least now the grass has started to turn brown.

I was never offered TIAA-CREF as a fiduciary option.  (I can’t believe I even know what fiduciary means!)   Having grown up poor I didn’t think much about things like retirement or dental care.  These were things middle class people did.  Now that I’m technically part of the club, I think back to being a poor kid working my summers away.  I had lots of time to write in those days.  It’s not that ideas for writing have stopped—they’re rather backed up—but the concerns and cares of this world have forced me to think about that thing I’d rather not face.  You see, capitalism takes no prisoners.  Once it starts the entire world has to play its game, otherwise the rich can’t keep getting richer.  Those of us who’d like to make a living by creativity take jobs that, in turn, take our time.  And more than just 8 hours a day of it.  Some people don’t realize that money doesn’t motivate everyone.

Accuse me of being a utopian; I promise I won’t take offense.  I can imagine a world where money would be an opt-in.  I’m careful to be discreet about it, but there are frankly some of us that would work for books, should our other basic needs be covered.  Secular monks, perhaps, unleashed from dogma and allowed to roam where the human mind can go.  Once you start thinking about money it’s difficult to stop.  You want to have a cushion that will soften unexpected eventualities—which seem to be coming somewhat more frequently these days—and every time you rub your back after a fall you think that pad should be a little thicker.  Getting paid for writing?  In your dreams!  I’d say more about it but I think Lowe’s is open now.

The Grind

I’m headed back to New York City after a staycation of almost two weeks. Even shifting standard arising time back only an hour from 4:00 a.m. seems cruel and unusual punishment this morning. New York is a very different place to go for work than it is for play. Serious New Yorkers, of which I am not one, tend to avoid the fun places visitors go. Times Square is simply a venue from which the hike to work begins. Most of the buildings are gray and dedicated to the making of money. My thoughts go back to my one transgressive trip in over the holidays to see a show. How different New York was then! Ethereal lights, sublime music, and the magic of story. Today it will be unsmiling crowds surly to make cash flow again. The concrete underfoot today will be much harder.

When I come in with family I feel less cold. New York can be very lonely for such a crowded place. Indeed, it isn’t unusual for me to go for days with no one at the office saying a single word to me. That’s the kind of place Manhattan is. Too many humans to be humane. Unless you’re here to play. Such play is, however, costly. Magic never comes for free. The holiday lights will still be up here and there. Warm memories of the past few days will linger for a little while. Soon the steel and cement will be the only realities once again. Soft skills meet the cold razor of cash with predictable results.

It seems to me that I’m yearning for boyhood once again. Those first tentative years of learning about life are all misleading. Suddenly it dawns on you that good will is reserved for the holidays and the remainder of the year is dedicated to money and things others deem as important. The bus is approaching, but the last time I was in the city was for fun. Today I won’t even glance at the theater district as I dodge cars to get out of Times Square as quickly as possible. There will be the all-too-familiar lines at the Port Authority during rush hour this afternoon. I’ll leave work wondering how a city can possibly be so schizophrenic. Yes, I’ve been profoundly happy in New York City. I’ve also been ground down to the very nub by the exact same place. Such is the nature of a world where money reigns.

Build a God

One of the more amusing gifts to find its way under my tree was a Design Your Own Deity magnetic play set. Since I have roughly only this brief holiday break for play in the entire year, I hope to make the most of it. Nevertheless, things like this always suggest something a bit more profound than they were possibly intended to do. The origin of deities is, by its nature, an unresolved question. Partly it’s because regardless of the reality of gods, religions are human constructions. Claims for revelation are frequently made, but the implementation is always our own. We can’t help but think that divinities are motivated by the same kinds of things that people are. I suspect that’s because we make gods in our own image.

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Historically there are few religions that were admittedly made up. We tend to treat with scorn more recent religions since we’ve become skeptical of a make-your-own deity talking to a person in the post-Enlightenment world. It’s much easier to believe if we say it happened long, long ago. Before we had the reassuring uniformitarianism of science, much could be left to the meddling of deities. Once we had a naturalistic paradigm, the door seemed to have slammed shut on supernatural explanations. Gods, who had been persons, now became symbols and symbols seemed to be less important than the real thing. Hadn’t we been designing our own deities all along? Now don’t we feel silly!

One of the common misconceptions of modernity is that ancient people weren’t very smart. We believe that because they lacked our technology. Looking at the way technology now demands most of my time, I wonder if that’s right. In the light of gadgets, deities have been squeezed out. I’m quite aware that the career choices I’ve made—involved with thinking about gods in some description—are hopelessly outmoded in the technological world. Still, as I look at the political landscape I see that we are still in the process of making our own deities. My play set includes some pretty exotic divinities. One that it seems to be lacking is Mammon. Of course, it’s best not to offend the currently reigning god, even if it is just a symbol.

Philistines in Midtown

It’s an old story. In fact, it’s in the Bible. The enemies of Yahweh perish. Since Israel’s god could not be represented iconically, the story goes, an iconic ark stood in for the divine presence. After a certain unpleasantness with the Philistines, the ark was captured and taken to the temple of Dagon. There, the statue of Dagon fell down in worship before the ark. Philistine priests, embarrassed for their deity, set the statue upright again only to come back the next morning to find their god not only toppled, but decapitated. I’ve always found this story intriguing. I wrote an academic article about it some years ago, which, as far as I can tell, has been ignored by subsequent scholars of Dagon. Of course, the Philistine god eventually went on to fame at the hands of H. P. Lovecraft. Today most scholars are far too parsimonious to care about that, so I’m left to follow my imagination when it comes to the old gods.

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This past week, on my way to work, I spied a mannequin fallen in the Garment District. There used to be hundreds of fabric stores around here. I’m always interested in those that remain. Cloth is so basic to human needs. The mannequin was behind glass, behind a chain fence. She’d clearly fallen in the night. She was decapitated. Of course, Dagon came to mind. I’m sure that others walking by the store had the same thought. Fallen before the invisible almighty, an idol meets its end.

Once upon a time, I’m told, biblical literacy was common. I don’t mourn its passing because I believe society has become sinful, but I do mourn it because the stories are timeless and important. There is something very poignant about the idea of a foreign deity falling, headless, before an even more powerful, invisible foe. That foe these days is the equally omnipresent and omnipotent dollar. After all, I am standing in Midtown Manhattan where the only language that everyone can speak is that of Mammon. Writers of fiction and erudite scholars beyond the reach of mere mortals ponder the great mysteries of ancient gods. The rest of us walk the streets to our assigned places so that we may participate in its endless worship.

Hallowed Be Thy Income

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Some time ago, I was invited to attend a “best practices” session where the language was businessese. As I suffered through statements about how everything can be quantified as numbers and how emotions should be left at the door but creativity should flourish, I began to wonder when I’d become so cynical. I mean, the presenter really believed this–it was clear from his eyes. He’d been so indoctrinated that he really believed selflessness was letting somebody else have their way when they’re your supervisor. Then it hit me. It was so obvious that I felt silly for not seeing it sooner. Corporate culture is a religion. The business world has its own specialized vocabulary, belief system, deity (Mammon), prophets, and ethics code. Those who believe it pass their teachings on to the next generation with the zeal of converts. It gives their lives meaning and purpose. It even has its own origin myth, going back to Adam Smith. All the elements are there.

A point that I come back to repeatedly on this blog is that a solid definition of religion does not exist. I once had a boss who told me there was no such thing as “religious studies.” Too many universities also believe that. When we see terror all around committed in the name of religion and our response is to decide the business curriculum is far more worth saving, I believe we’ve just decided on our religious preferences. Reward and punishment. The price of non-conformity is high. Ironically, our motivational speaker indicated that we shouldn’t be just like everyone else. Only, just don’t be too different.

I couldn’t help but to think back to an episode of Ruby Wax. While living in the UK some friends had a television license and we watched an episode or two. Ruby Wax is an ex-patriot comedian. On one episode she followed a vacuum cleaner salesman for an upscale vacuum manufacturer. Her path took her to a motivational convention which was—there’s no other way to describe this—an emotional religious ceremony. Although their god (Mammon) may not suck, his prophet (the vacuum) most surely did. At the time I saw the episode I thought it was simply entertainment, something at which to laugh. I’ve been to enough business seminars now to find that I’m a heretic in this faith. I may not know much, but I do know selflessness when I see it. And it is a trait that takes a lifetime to master and those who have belong to a different line of work altogether.

They Might Be

Last week I mentioned that a letter-writing friend had sent me two articles from the 1868 Prescott Journal newspaper. Some time ago I did some research into the history of newspapers since many of the stories from the early days of the medium seem difficult to accept. Perhaps it was a more credulous time, or perhaps newspapers were a form of entertainment as well as information, but the occasional hoax made its way into the pages of even reputable papers. I’m always surprised how many tales involve a kind of biblical literalism, whether stated or not. The second story from the aforementioned Wisconsin newspaper has to do with a giant skeleton unearthed at the Sauk Rapids. At ten-foot-nine, this veritable Goliath was estimated to have weighed some 900 pounds when alive. This prodigy sparked some piety in the writer, who concludes by stating, “We hope ‘642’ [the article doesn’t hint at the referent here] may learn humility from this dispensation of Providence, and that a view of the ‘femur’ and ‘fibula’ of this deceased stranger, may teach him the futility of all attempts at fleshy greatness in these degenerate days.”

Quite apart from the pious closing, the idea that giants once inhabited the earth is indeed biblical. Studies have been undertaken that speculate on why people of antiquity believed in giants, and one of the more plausible explanations has to do with the discovery of megafauna bones. Not having a conceptual world wherein dinosaurs or mammoths might fit, giant leg-bones and ribs, for example, look pretty much like those of people. Only much larger. Whatever the reason, people all over the ancient Mediterranean believed in an era of giants, and that belief made its way into the Bible as well as into Greek mythology. Only, if the Bible says it, it must be true, no? And so, finding giants in the earth is not to be unexpected.

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Interestingly enough, this craze of finding giants has not ceased. The internet keeps bogus photos of unearthed giant skeletons alive and the explanations we’re given amount to proof of the flood. After all, the Bible says giants came before the flood, and if Noah wasn’t a giant, well, they had to have been wiped out, right? But then they show up again later in the form of the Anakim or Goliath and his kin. The question of whence the giants 2.0 came is not answered, but if it’s literally true then there should be no surprise if one should turn up in Wisconsin. After all, other oddities have turned up in that same state, some of which still defy explanation in the rational world of the twenty-first century.

Bleak Friday

Among the high holy days of capitalism, Black Friday stands as a beacon for those in the service of Mammon. It seems that we’ve taken the basic process of fair trade and constructed from it an über-religion based on getting more for less. Certainly in my little world of academic publishing I’ve encountered those who believe marketing a book is far more important than what it actually says. Ironically, my last two publishing jobs were located through LinkedIn. LinkedIn allows you to put your professional life online and those who shop for souls are free to “find” you, read about your accomplishments, and even occasionally contact you with employment options. It may not work for everyone, but it has for me. LinkedIn will also email you with opportunities, and this Black Friday as I opened my email I discovered that the top article they’d selected for me was entitled, “How Neuroscience Is Key to Successful Marketing Strategies.” Welcome to the temple of Mammon.

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Neuroscience has been as fascinating to me as it can be to a layperson. Since we all encounter the world through the gateway of our brains, we stand to learn a lot through its study. Of course, my mind always goes to the deeper questions: what can we learn about religious belief through neuroscience? What can the study of the brain reveal to us about reality? Will this science eventually reveal to us that more than brains are involved in the pure, raw experience of the ultimate? Of course, you can also use this study to figure out how to make a buck. We are so eager to make money that we’ll open stores on the prototypical family holiday itself, before the turkey is even digested. Try to corral the stampedes in a day early, and the great god Mammon smiles. We consume, therefore we are.

If you want to shop, someone has to be on duty. The worker might be enticed from her or his family by the prospect of “time and a half” pay. It might sound tempting, but I ask what the baseline cost really is. We’ve known since at least the days of the Charlie Brown Christmas and the original Grinch that happiness does not accompany owning more stuff. As a society we’ve promoted materialism so heavily that we are left feeling empty without the urge to buy making us feel like we’re accomplishing something important. I still find learning new things more satisfying than buying new things. Ironically, just below the neuroscience article, LinkedIn suggests I read “The End of the Public University?” It seems to me that Black Friday might have more than a single connotation. Of course, I’ll have to check in with Mammon on that; the smart money’s on the most demanding god.

Have a Blessed Day

“Last stop: New York Port Authority. Have a blessed day.” This secular blessing is sometimes appreciated after the harrowing commute to Manhattan, but I often wonder about its origins. Bus drivers are among the most under-appreciated of employees, I reflected on Labor Day. They are routinely blamed for matters beyond their control: accidents that snarl traffic for hours, mechanical problems, highway construction. Often I only reach the Port Authority Bus Terminal on time two days a week. I always say “thank you” to the driver while exiting, however. I’m very glad it’s not me behind the wheel.

Photo credit: Hudconja

Photo credit: Hudconja

A few months back, however, I noticed that a few of the drivers, while announcing the terminal stop, will add “Have a blessed day.” Last week I sat back further than usual, and heard an interesting exchange as I awaited my turn to exit. The driver had wished us a blessed day (whether we wanted one or not), and several of the passengers, upon disembarking, said back, “Have a blessed day.” I’m sure the driver appreciates it. As a lifelong student of religion, however, I found it fascinating. New York City is a great place to observe religious developments. “Have a blessed day” is innocuous in its lack of specificity. Who is doing the blessing here? At the behest of what intermediary? The driver has literal street cred by making it to the Port Authority unscathed. S/he has the power to bless and to curse. Those of us helpless as passengers are at their mercy. If the driver doesn’t drive, we can’t serve the god Mammon.

I always thought “Have a blessed day” was like an after-sneeze blessing. It is unusual for the sneezer to panegyrize their blesser by wishing good fortune back. Most often they are too busy blowing their noses. Here on the bus the driver might be Muslim (it is clear that some are), Christian, or Hindu. Some are likely among the most deserving of atheists. A blessing laid is a blessing played, however, and many are the passengers who are now returning the favor. We don’t know which deity is being invoked; it may be that it is simply the force that is with us. As we climb off that bus into a city that crushes a human soul as easily as a cockroach, we all could benefit from a blessed day. And I wonder on my way to work whether I’ve just witnessed a new religion being conceived.

Yes, Mammon

In the continuing coverage of the most recent New Jersey scandal the Star-Ledger, on Monday’s front page, posted a picture of San Giacomo Apostolo in Hoboken. San Giacomo is traditionally the brother of the equally mythical St. Ann. The statue, which stands outdoors in a public street, has monetary donations tacked to it. The image flashed me back to my Nashotah House days when students became visibly excited nearing the date for the procession of Our Lady of Walsingham at the proto-shrine in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Seminarians would beg for an opportunity to hoist the holy statue, or at least be a lowly acolyte. (These were grown men, mind you — many of them seeking the priesthood as a second career.) I never attended Walsingham, but it was my understanding that pilgrims and penitents at the festival also adorned their lady with money in hopes of some gift of grace. I grew up in a blue-collar household where paying ladies for favors was itself considered a sin.

Looks like Our Lady has put on some weight

Looks like Our Lady has put on some weight

While on a recent trip home, I saw a church for sale. As I started to break out my checkbook, I recalled how closely money and religion are tied together. The more I pondered this, the clearer their ancient, entangled roots became. The religiously observant bringing gifts to the temples of their gods was a standard act of piety and civic duty in the ancient world. Temples were expensive and the staff could only be supported by continuous donations. In the Ugaritic tale of Kirta, our protagonist seeks a son and makes a vow to Lady Asherah that if he successfully procures a wife he will make a statue of her in silver and gold. The favors of gods may be purchased. Today credit cards are accepted, but we are still caught in the web of those who claim God has asked them for your money.

For sale, God not included

For sale, God not included

When I was a teenager a friend invited me to attend a public presentation by some visiting Rev. Harrington, a popular evangelist. Several times during his high-energy sermon he sent the collection baskets around. The first time it was for your standard church offering. The second time was for any change you had in your pockets. The third time was for a special blessing. For those who had checkbooks ready, a thousand-dollar donation would get your name on a personalized plaque in his private jet. Years later I saw Harrington on television during an interview on his private estate. He puttered around it in a customized golf cart with wheels designed not to scuff up the gold-plated bricks that constituted the drive before his opulent mansion. “If we’re going to walk on streets of gold in heaven, I want to get used to it here,” he casually explained.

So, as an (unofficial) agent of Asherah, if you are seeking to make a divine investment, get out your checkbooks and I’ll tell you where to send the donations (checks made to “cash” please!).