Tag Archives: morality

Apologizing for Whatever

Maybe you’ve felt it too. The insecurity of liking something other people don’t. Having grown up an Evangelical, I had to try to explain myself at multiple points for liking scary stuff. I love Halloween. I spent my young Saturday afternoons watching monster movies on our black-and-white television. After losing a long-term job at a decidedly gothic seminary, I began consoling myself with horror films. I don’t know why. I also don’t know why other people shun those of us with this particular habit. It’s not like I’m going to make you sit down and watch them with me if you don’t want to. You don’t even need to buy my book, and if you do (thank you!) you don’t have to read it.

One of the issues I’ve often grappled with is why “Christians” dislike horror. Reading the accounts of the martyrs is way worse than almost anything I’ve seen on screen. Revelation, let’s face it, is a horror show of Schadenfreude and ultra-violence. The Calvinistic idea that God would create the vast majority of people to burn in an eternal Hell of fire for reasons best kept to himself (yup, he’s a guy) is hardly charitable. So why do Christians say you shouldn’t watch horror? One of the observations from this lowbrow viewer is that the message behind horror is often good. Moral. Ethical even. We have trouble getting around the form of the message to see its substance.

I seldom talk about horror movies. Maybe that’s why I write about them so much. But the fear of judgment remains strong, even with maturity. The lurking Evangelical fear is that watching horror will entice the young to become interested in evil. I think it’s fair to say that all Christians are somewhat fascinated by evil—where does it come from? Why doesn’t God stop it? Horror films seldom glorify the monster. The protagonists, often flawed, fight evil and sometimes succeed. Do I really need to justify this interest at all? It’s no exaggeration to say that, although no longer an Evangelical I still feel the weight of both their stares and those of others who can’t understand why a nice guy watches such unbecoming things. My book doesn’t answer those kinds of questions, but it may contain implicit answers within. Of course, you’ll only know that if you read it. Not that I’m asking you to do so—it doesn’t even have a title yet.

Endings

It’s hard not to feel sorry for survivors. In a hostile world, the ability to resist the entropy lapping at your toes is a feat that inspires admiration. Although independent bookstores are making a comeback, there aren’t many around. An evening spent at Barnes and Noble, if allocated well, can evoke some sympathy even for a dying giant. While my wife had an appointment next door, I spent a good while in the fiction section—really the only part of our local B&N that is well stocked. My time among books, excessive to some, is my solace. It’s not a bad vice to have. Seeing others out shopping for books also delivers a message of hope to a world disinclined to read.

In the B section I saw an edition of A Clockwork Orange. If you read my post on Anthony Burgess’s book in the last few weeks, you’ll know that the American edition has always lacked the last chapter. I wondered if maybe, just perhaps, if this edition might contain the missing ending. It has been several decades since the original embargo. I picked it up and, indeed, the last chapter was intact. I stood in the aisle and read it. Say what you will about Barnes and Noble, but nobody thinks this kind of behavior odd. Once again I was transferred back to Alex and the world of his droogs, only to discover that the ending was something like I had anticipated. If you’ve read the standard American edition you know that it ends abruptly. Writers know how to draw a story to a close. Herewith I offer a spoiler alert.

Alex, now 18, has a new band of droogs. They sound quite a bit like his previous gang. Then he notices he doesn’t feel like the old ultra-violence one night. He goes to a coffee shop where he finds Pete, his old gang-mate, now married and holding a respectable job. He realizes with a kind of horror that having a child and wife appeals to him. He’s growing up. Critics often said Burgess was a moralist with Christian sensibilities. The original ending to A Clockwork Orange might suggest that’s true. Alex may be converted, but he’s unrepentant. Indeed, as he thinks of being a father he envisions his son being just like he was, and the cycle of violence and reform spinning on and on into the future. Shortly after I closed the cover, my wife met me in the store. I was amazed at how 15 or 20 minutes immersed in reading had shifted the mental world I inhabited. New information had changed me. This is the power of books, even when they’re found in Barnes and Noble.

Doing the Math

Erich Fromm once defined evil as “attraction to what is dead, decaying, lifeless, and purely mechanical.” Certainly Fromm doesn’t hold the cachet he once did, but this way of thinking about evil has stuck with me. It’s not so much the dead, decaying, or lifeless part—that’s part of nature—but the purely mechanical. I don’t disparage the many machines we have that make life easier, and modern life possible—can you imagine your job without computers? The problem in my mind, as Fromm defines it, lies in the word “purely.” Purely mechanical. By the numbers. You see, we often forget that being human, and thought itself, isn’t about pure logic. Our brains evolved to be half emotive and have rational. Our feelings can be smart. When we reduce all of life to numbers, according to Fromm’s definition, we’ve entered the realm of evil.

Some, in the past as well as present, have posited numbers as the only real truth. No matter where you are in the universe 2 + 2 = 4. It’s about the only certainty we have. I think what Fromm was concerned about was not this kind of certainty, but rather that which sees only numbers as being important. Think of the multibillionaire who’s lost sight of the human misery he (and it’s generally a he) has caused to become so wealthy. It’s not something towards which an enlightened individual would aspire. Purely mechanical it is, by definition, evil. We’ve all known people like that—those who just can’t get beyond the numbers whether they be the bottom line or the instructions for the doomsday device. The human element is missing. Are we truly beyond good and evil?

Does it add up?  Photo credit: Cpl. Jovane Holland, Wikimedia Commons

Does it add up? Photo credit: Cpl. Jovane Holland, Wikimedia Commons

Governments, once upon a time, were put in place in democracies to protect the interests of the people. When people are mere marks—numbers at an inauguration or cheated at the polls—we’ve entered the realm of purely mechanical. Of course, intellectuals are out of favor now. Why be troubled with the news when you can make up your own? 2 + 2 need not equal 4 if you say it loud enough. Behind stage, however, you’ll make sure your accountants know the score. Those who wish to start a New World Order must insist that the classics are outdated. While we’re counting out the days in our prison cell it might be a good opportunity to read. I plan to have Erich Fromm on my list. I’m only human after all.

Surfeit of Ego

img_3098

In a world with finite resources, many commodities are in short supply. One clear overabundance is that of ego. We’ve seen that clearly in the long, long months of this year’s political campaign and the single month since then. Running a nation is no longer to be a servant to the people but to the self. So it was while out on an errand I noticed a tract stuck in my car door handle. I’ve mentioned Tony Alamo before. This incarcerated evangelist has a disturbing number of supporters in New York City, at least to go by how prevalent his flyers are in Midtown. I’d never, in my suburban Jersey neighborhood, had my car violated by one before, so this was something new. What caught my eye was the grammatically inept headline: “Bill Clinton, The Pope, and I.” As a title it should have said “and Me.” Letting that foible pass, we’re still left with a religious zealot classifying himself with duly elected world leaders.

I know that the Roman Catholic Church is not a democracy, by the way. Popes, however, are elected from among their peers, and so it’s not purely a matter of one man putting himself forward as the people’s choice. Alamo’s headline screams of a wounded ego. Donald Trump’s famously thin skin does the same. Not that that makes me for one second sympathetic. I grew up with a religion that taught self-denial, self-abnegation, and putting others before oneself. Self, self, self. Selfishness used to be a sign of poor manners or bad breeding. Now it’s the way to the highest political office in the land. We clearly have a surfeit of ego. The same is true for the terrible plague of racism and sexism that have become the flavor of the day. Too much concern with self.

Not only is this a political aberration, it also goes against human nature. In the literal sense. Our species has thrived because of its sympathy for others. We see this is primate societies. When one individual, even—or especially—an alpha male, asserts himself beyond the good of the group, he is taken down. In addition to our opposable thumbs, we’re also endowed with a sense of fairness, of sharing. Call it the ethics of nature. Not only that, but most religions agree—the sign of a just society is one where everyone is cared for. So it may be that we don’t have enough coltan to make all the smart phones we need but we do have enough ego at the top to go around, and then some. Might I suggest it might be time for a fire sale?

Biological Imperative

DiamondNothing used to make you feel smarter than being in a British bookstore. With that curious blend of proper, insane, and bawdy, books are displayed that you might find surprising. Alarming, even. Last year as I strolled around Blackwells in Oxford, I spied Why is Sex Fun?, by Jared Diamond. I mean, it was sitting right there, face-up, on a table with perfectly respectable, straight-laced books. Curious, but not curious enough to pick it up in a public place, I remembered the title so that I might find it on Amazon, where it could arrive in a nice, safe, opaque box. I finally stored up enough points on Amazon to get it, but then the problem was how to read it. I do a great deal of my reading on public transit—a place where you inordinately care what others might think of you. Finally, planning a seating strategy that would hide the cover by sitting on the left-hand side, next to the window, I took the book along, hoping it would keep me interested to and from work.

Subtitled The Evolution of Human Sexuality, the book isn’t salacious at all. It is scientific, but not clinical. I’ve mentioned before that all religions have something—quite a lot, usually—to say about sex. While religion doesn’t play into Diamond’s book, morality does. What I found interesting is his use of the phrase “God or Darwin,” which comes up a few places in the book. Diamond is a witty writer, and he explains that not all his phraseology is to be taken literally, but I appreciated his hedging his bets, nevertheless.

This book isn’t really titillating. In fact, it’s somewhat depressing. Perhaps it’s just phrasing again, but the production of offspring is described in economic terms. Resources, investment, efficiency, and the like. I think back to being a child. My family life wasn’t ideal, but I never thought of myself as anyone’s resource or investment. I was just me. That delusion stayed with me until I started working in the corporate world. I quickly discovered that others considered me a resource. “Human resources,” we call it. An investment. My efficiency was valued. Was it God or was it Darwin? Although I learned a lot from this little book, I wonder if it was worth the effort of having to hide the cover on the commute. After all, we’re all stuck together on this bus, units of investment, born to yield a profit. Why not have a little fun on the way?

Moral Money

Yesterday I spent at the Mid-Atlantic Regional American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature meeting. Not a registered guest, I was there in mufti. Those who know me stopped by to greet me, even without a name tag, but I noticed, as I increasingly do, the youth of the attendees. Apart from the business discussed, the issue of these younger colleagues kept arising. It’s as if the tap was left on but the glass is already full. Presidential aspirants aside, we live in a world where people are increasingly realizing that you can’t squander resources. We have compulsory education to try to make the next generation smarter, more fortunate than our own. And those who have the inclination and ability to go on for advanced study, we throw into menial jobs and poverty because, despite the myth, a doctorate doesn’t help your financial prospects. Universities have become businesses and one of their top-end products is the doctorate. The doctorate with no future.

Sitting in the lobby between appointments, I can’t help but thinking back to a younger me. I am part of what older colleagues are calling “the lost generation” of humanities scholars. Those who have the credentials but no opportunities. A wasted resource of a nation that loves reality TV and blustering windbags, as long as the windbags are billionaires. It makes me sad to think that instead of making a place for those driven to high achievement, that we’ll offer them poverty-level adjunct positions with Obamacare, food stamps, and excessive hours. When they burn out, like a high wattage bulb, we’ll go to the closet and screw in another to replace them. Just don’t turn off the tap. Graduate students bring in money.

This is a moral issue. Since it involves what are scare-quoted as “the elite” we seem not to care. Isn’t it fun to knock down those who think they know too much? I sit in the lobby and watch the bearded young men, the young ladies with heavy backpacks thrown over their shoulders, and I want to warn them all. And it’s not just me. My colleagues, lost generation or not, all agree. We’re sending our best students to oblivion. In the most prosperous nation in the world. You can tell we’re prosperous because all it takes to gain the confidence of a political party is lots of money. Lots and lots of money. I won’t mention the obvious that such loose lucre could be put to good ends, making jobs for those who’ve poured their lives into bettering their minds. Or maybe I will. It is a moral issue, after all.

IMG_0213

The Boy on the Bus

GirlOnTrainCommuting by bus isn’t the most efficient way to do research. While mostly I read non-fiction related to my research interests, monographs are difficult because of the concentration required and the constant interruptions of the road. Journal articles are, still, jealously protected by university libraries so that you can’t access them without an account. So once in a great while I read a novel on the bus to forget it all. I’d heard people talking—literally—about Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. It is a story about a commuter, and my wife was kind enough to give me a copy for my birthday, so I recently climbed on board to read it. The problem with reading fiction on the commute is that it is difficult to clear your head to negotiate the streets of the city when you’re done. You’re in an imaginary world for a while after you put the book in your bag. The nice thing is you can’t wait to get back on the bus to read some more. It makes commuting bearable. Almost pleasant. Especially when the protagonist’s commute is worse than yours.

I won’t throw any spoilers into this post, but I think it’s fair to say that the story involves trying to find a murderer. It is also a story about adultery. In fact, without adultery there would be no story. I seldom turn to novelists for a course in morality, but The Girl on the Train does have an underlying message that rings true: honesty is crucial for a civil society. The small cast of characters in Hawkins’ book have difficulty being honest with others and with themselves. This makes for a gripping ride, of course, but I couldn’t help thinking throughout that if people were honest the situation would never have occurred. Of course, then there would be no story. And I would’ve had to read something else on my commute.

My reading over the past few years has intimated that something about civilization has put a tremendous strain on people. Whether it is the constant pressure to increase productivity while time off is being stolen by ease of access (cell phones work in the middle of the woods. You can get your email while on a plane), we are never really offline. Our relationships, once the defining factor of who we are, have now become diversions from the time off work. Morality has reverted to what you can get away with. I can recommend The Girl on the Train for those struggling with a long commute. Once in a while I’d look up, surprised to find how fast the trip had gone. It might also give the reader pause to consider the larger implications. Honesty is an undersold virtue. Without it, this civilization we’ve built, and continue to build, cannot long last.