Internet Epistemology

Where do we find reliable information?  I’m asking this question on an internet-based medium, which itself is ironic.  While spending time with some younger people, it’s become clear that the web is their source of truth.  You find purveyors of information that you trust, and you accept their YouTube channels as representing correct data.  This can be a disorienting experience for an old doubter like me.  One of the reasons for studying for a Ph.D., apart from the vain hope of finding a career in higher education, is to hone critical thinking skills.  When I went through the process, that involved reading lots and lots of print material, assessing it, and weighing it against alternative views, also in print format.  You learn who really makes sense and you judge which publishers have good information more frequently.  As you navigate, you do so critically, questioning where they get their information.

Now, I’m not one of those people who think the younger generation is wrong (in fact, there are YouTube educational videos about just that).  The situation does, however, leave me wondering about how to fact-check when you don’t know the publisher.  It may be an older person’s problem, but it’s essentially the same dilemma behind self-publishing—the reason you trust a self-published book depends on the author alone.  Is s/he persuasive?  Did s/he document the sources of her/his information?  Are those sources good ones?  The young people I know seem quite adept at filtering out obviously biased information.  Many YouTube personalities footnote their presentations with links to sources (many of them online), and after an hour of watching I’m left questioning what’s really real at all.

You see, many of these internet personalities have sponsors.  Sponsors bring money, and money biases anyone’s angle toward the truth.  In fact, many of these YouTube sources call out the lobbying groups that influence public opinion for political ends.  Only someone completely naive—no matter their generation—would not acknowledge that government runs on money provided by corporations with interests to be protected.  There have been reliable sources, even from the days of print, that prove beyond any reasonable doubt just how corrupt governments tend to be.  But who has time to fact-check the government when the rest of the information we receive is suspect?  Those of us with training in advanced critical thinking aren’t immune from biased information.  It’s just that there’s so much data on the web that my head’s spinning.  I think I need to go read a book.

Always Have with You

The place wasn’t meant for a family of six. Properly speaking, it was a one-bedroom house, or hovel. The attic, from which we could see the sky through the roof, was divided into two rooms, with no doors. You had to pull down the stairs in order to climb up there and that trapdoor had to be kept closed in the daytime. The house was heated by a single, oversized gas stove that sat in the middle of the living room—no ducts, vents, or radiators here. The bathroom had only a sink and a toilet. No tub. No shower. The only window that opened was the kitchen window, and before we moved in my mother insisted that my step-father pull out the nails that held the vinyl blinds permanently closed over the windows that would never open. The only reason we weren’t called “white trash” is that we lived above the Mason-Dixon line.

Reading Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America was, therefore, a little bit uncomfortable. First of all, bullies who care only for the wealthy are nothing new in American politics. Second of all, it reminded me of how, when I was found without a job, no college or university wanted to hire a guy with no connections, despite the Ph.D. That’s business as usual in these United States. What I have realized is that in this nation of self-made individuals, those allowed to make it often start from a class higher than my own. I was a first generation college student, and once my step-father gave in to the pressure to put a proper bathtub in his house, I’d come home to find carp swimming in it. White trash and ivory towers clash, don’t you know.

The saddest part of this book is that nothing has changed. Four centuries on and we still treat the poor with contempt. We love rags to riches stories because they’re so rare. The vast majority of the poor have a very hard existence. Even though, according to government statistics, we were considered a poverty-level family, we had it better than many. True, there were too many cars in the driveway, all of them used—very used, and the house was bulldozed as unfit for habitation immediately after we moved out, but many have it far worse. This book opens some old wounds, but it should be required reading for all politicians. Not that it would make much of a difference, though. The suffering of the poor is just far too easy to ignore as long as there is money to be made off of anyone less fortunate than yourself. That’s the American way. It always has been.

In Control

Those who know me know that I treat my workdays like clockwork. I leave the apartment every day, catch the same bus, and leave work at the end of the day, all according to schedule. Traffic is a variable, of course. Yesterday as I came out of the Port Authority Bus Terminal at 7:15, blunted with my reading on the bus, I noted we were a bit late for my liking. I got to work before 7:30, though, and was interrupted by a message from my brother, asking if I had made it out of the Port Authority okay. I was a bit confused—weather delays do happen, but what could have made today any different than any other Monday? It was then I learned about the bombing. It happened five minutes after I left.

Now, I’m not trying to over-dramatize this. I was above ground and the bomber was below. I didn’t even hear it go off, although there were a lot of sirens on my way to work. The only serious injury was to the bomber himself. What really got to me, when the idea had time to settle in, was how close I’d been. So were thousands of others at the time. Over the summer I went to Penn Station just after what had been assumed to be a terrorist attack. Jackets and personal effects lay scattered on the floor. People had dropped things and ran. In that case it had been an innocent tazing of an unruly passenger that had set off the panic. I’m not a fan of fear on the commute. I don’t think, however, that we should give in to the rhetoric that our government will surely use to describe all this.

Millions of people live and work in New York City. Such things as these disrupt the flow of our daily lives, but we can’t let the agenda of fear control this narrative. I felt a tinge of it when I headed back to the Port Authority at the end of the day. Police barricades were still up on 8th Avenue. Reporters with cameras were at the scene. A potential killer had been here just hours before. This is New York. Without the overlay of fear, this was simply business as normal. Any city of millions will harbor potential killers. If terror controls the narrative, it has won. If politicians use this fear to win elections, the terrorists win them too. I’m doing what we must do to defeat the fear. I’m just getting back on the bus.

United States of Ego

We all know the type. The guy who brags that he can do something complex without all the study and “hard work” (scare quotes theirs) necessary beforehand. When he starts strutting his stuff, and realizes that it is much harder than he thought, he has to find a way of backing down without losing face. We all know somebody like that. Now we all know somebody like that by dint of his being in the White House. Politics, like most complex things, isn’t as easy as it looks. When you’re president of the United States, backing down quietly’s not an easy thing to do. Why not start a nuclear war instead? Better dead than read, as the saying goes.

Thing is, braggarts may convince others that they don’t know what they’re talking about, but they’ll never convince themselves. The truly sad thing is we’ve never lived in a country where it was possible to buy your way to the White House before, based purely on ego. Don’t get me wrong—I know that every president has to be an egoist to some degree. What the previous 44 have had, however, is considerable knowledge of politics. Even the dumbest of them read. They knew this wouldn’t be some simple task that you could simply wing, like a business deal. You have to do homework. A lot of it. And it’s not easy. Even the relatively simple life of a professor of religious studies requires years of training. Hours and hours and hours of reading and thinking. Believe it or not, it’s hard work.

Now we have a chief executive tweeting that it’s hard to be president. Everyone, it seems, except 45, knew that. That’s why most people would never bother to run for the office. Our civilization utterly depends on experts. That surgeon that works on your heart, you swear, had better be an expert. Those guys who build the missiles we lob onto whomever we feel like, had better be experts. And even if your steak comes out of the restaurant kitchen poorly prepared, you send it back for expert treatment. And yet, we’ve elected the least qualified candidate who’s ever run for the office in over two centuries of history. His expertise: pleasing himself. Greed is a poor substitute for leadership. Even now that it’s crystal clear we live in a headless state, his supporters cheer him on. Let’s hear it for the poor uber-wealthy. Those guys need all the help they can get.

Stand Up

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At first glance, we had little in common. In fact, of all the people in the room the only one I knew was my wife. We were gathered together to find ways to defend ourselves against our government. Those who normalize Trump and claim that his nearly 3 million vote loss qualifies as a mandate are blind. Those of us who have been complacent, believing that our government—even with obviously inferior candidates such as the Bush family offerings—was in the process of self-balancing have found the bar of the scales of justice broken. Founded as a democracy, we’ve “elected” our first dictator, who, if unchallenged, has already indicated that our civil and human rights are just chattels to be bargained away around the boardroom table. Once those of us who survive the next four years stagger out, I wonder if it won’t be time to establish a test to be president. A basic competency test.

For my job, I’m evaluated on basic competencies. An editor, for example, has to understand both the language in which the job is undertaken and possess a fair amount of skill in a variety of administrative tasks to perform adequately. Why doesn’t the most powerful job in the nation require a set of basic competencies? Things such as a basic vocabulary test and being able to point to foreign nations on a map? It may sound elitist, but I grew up in a working class family and although I’ve never run for political office, even I knew the value of legitimate education. Watching a politician surrounding himself by fact-deniers in a cabinet of untruth should demonstrate to even those who voted for him that we’ve put an incompetent politician in power. We’ve batted our eyes at a man we don’t know and have asked him to dance.

I’ve made it more than half a century without needing to be political. We now all have to become political. It’s distressing to see others my age saying “what can you do?” with a shrug of the shoulders. We can organize. We can resist. We can insist that the values that 3 million more voters showed in an historic win of the popular vote be represented by our government. This is not status quo ante. This is not just another political snafu. We all face a challenge to basic democracy and a level of untruth unprecedented even by politicians in the past two centuries. Don’t sit still. Get involved. Stand up for human rights, because your government elect has made it clear that it won’t.

Circus of the Absurd

As long as I’m thinking about ethics, my thoughts turn to the fair. Every August our county 4-H Fair becomes an event in our lives. Since my family has been involved with 4-H for many years, we always try to spend as much time there as we can afford. Jobs and daily life tend to get in the way, of course. While there we get to see the animals that are missing from our lives, and reconnect with art and culture. Robotics are now part of our local fair, and this is the first year that I’ve ever seen pigs there. And there were the political booths. Just around the corner from where the sheriff’s office was giving out free gun locks to prevent kids from shooting someone accidentally was the booth supporting Trump. I’ve never been so strongly tempted in my life to walk up to a total stranger and say, “You are kidding, right?” But no, like the Donald himself, a flashy large sign displayed their ignorance for all to see. We live in the era of the delightfully uninformed.

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I’m no political pundit. I tend not to trust any politicians much. I distrust businessmen even more. The fact is the only thing you need to be a viable candidate for President is money. Over the past several weeks Trump has shown himself to be anything but qualified for political office. Major newspapers run articles that seriously question his sanity. And yet here are good people who don’t have the sense to maybe put up an embarrassed, small sign saying “Sorry folks, we’ll try again in 2020.” We find it hard to admit our mistakes. Especially when the stakes are so terribly high.

I go to the fair to support 4-H and to enjoy an evening out with my family. Although I spend most of every day in a different state working in an isolated cubicle, I can always count on seeing people I know at the fair. I enjoy the arts tent where young folks are making their first steps into lives filled with creativity and imagination. The more technical tents can be intimidating where kids a quarter my age are launching model rockets and those under half my age are building robots. In the herpetology tent I see a snake amid a bed of shredded newspaper. He’s hiding under the photo of a prominent non-politician who has a large booth displaying his name just across the grounds. And I remind myself this is the first year they’ve had a swine tent. I wonder if anything will be the same next year.

Nightmares

I spend a lot of time thinking about monsters. Could there be any more statement of the obvious? The deeper issue, however, is why. Why am I, among countless others, drawn to the monster? This may not be politically correct—I apologize in advance—but that which is unusual naturally draws our gaze. Humans, along with other conscious creatures, are curious. (There’s another trait that reductionism hasn’t adequately explained; we’d be far more secure sticking with what we already know works.) The out-of-the-ordinary will keep our attention although we’re told not to stare. The monster is defined as something that isn’t “normal.” We’re captivated. We stare. Indeed, we can’t look away.

477px-Frankenstein's_monster_(Boris_Karloff)

The media play into this with their coverage of Trump. I realize I risk participating in that rude behavior by even addressing the topic, but as I hear intelligent people everywhere asking why Trump has captured the imagination I have to ask, have you seen the headlines? Newspapers that don’t endorse him run huge headlines when his name is in the news. It’s horrible, but I can’t look away. Historians scratch hoary heads and wonder how Hitler came to power. Populism combined with an undereducated population in a democracy may be an equation that political analysts should try to solve before it’s too late. Meanwhile, my thoughts turn to monsters. Ugly, large, and threatening, they rampage through my dreams and now my waking reality. I watched in horror as the electorate lined up behind Reagan. Bush, I told myself, was an aberration. Until the second time. Then I realized it was the summer of Frankenstein indeed.

From my youngest days I recall the antipathy that my classmates showed toward school. I didn’t mind school that much, or at least the learning part. Gym I could’ve done without. I never did get the socializing thing down. Feeling a bit like Frankenstein’s monster myself, I realized I was a pariah (that was a vocabulary word). When did monsters shift to being worthy of emulation? The monsters of my childhood were to be feared, and curious creatures will always keep an eye on that which causes fear and trembling. The media say we don’t want Trump but they give him all the air time he could wish and more. In headlines in massive, almost misshapen letters. They’ve expended their superlatives on what they tell us we shouldn’t see. They have, perhaps unwittingly, played into the very hand bitten by that which it feeds. I can’t help it. I’m staring.

Soulful Phantoms

PhantasmagoriaPhantasmagoria is a most appropriate title for the book by Marina Warner that bears that single-word name. The back cover bears none of those helpful tags that give the reader a handle by which to categorize the book. The subtitle helps somewhat: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media into the Twenty-first Century. The book is about ensoulment. The popular rage among many academics is the exploration of embodiment—the times and trials and wisdom of having a physical body. (We all know it, but it is the scholar’s job to think about it.) Warner asks what soul stuff is and pursues this through many media: wax, air, clouds, light, shadow, mirror, ghost, ether, ectoplasm, and film. She’s not suggesting that souls are made of these things, but rather that people have used these media to explore what a soul might be. Apart from being a fine historical resource on these different avenues of exploration, individual chapters in the book focus on various artists, psychologists, parapsychologists, writers, and Scriptures. This makes for a fascinating, if challenging, exploration to undergo.

One of the topics that emerges in the discussion is how soul distinguishes itself from other unquantifiable aspects of being human: what is mind, for example. We can’t really define soul, but it is frequently differentiated from mind or personality, neither of which is particularly well understood. In an era when we’ve not so much ceased to ask these questions as sublimated them into various fictional realms, a book like Phantasmagoria is especially important. The reaction against materialistic reductionism is strong, if not empirically provable. We still flock to theaters to watch zombies on the screen, precisely because we too have become soulless. Romanticism had a place for Gothic sensibilities as well.

Along the way Warner makes a particularly apt observation that politics and entertainment have become difficult to distinguish. Thinking over the number of entertainers who’ve become policy makers, this is a particularly disturbing thought. We trust the media and it gives us entertainment. Most college professors make so little money as to be jokes when it comes to running a political campaign. Where your treasure is, as the saying goes. Media, in all the forms explored, has failed to capture the soul. The chapter on Revelation (the book) is truly spectacular, coming, as it does, in the section on film. It is the embracing of the chimera of the end of the world pieced together from various myths and nightmares that our political leaders find, in many cases, far too compelling. Someone like Warner might be a much better leader to trust, even if she is a scholar.

Oil City Millionaires

Oil City Junior High School. Ninth grade. As a kid who grew up politically naive, Mr. Baker’s words felt like the Gospel. “People will never elect a president against their own economic interests,” he once said. Then came the Reagan years with “trickle down” bs, and, let’s be honest, the working class has been hurting ever since. Reading the political headlines, I’m frankly distressed that politicians no longer have any clear idea what working class life is like. Online I see working-class friends following, zombie-like, the richest man to ever run for President, daily proving Mr. Baker wrong. I’m not naive enough to think that most career politicians of either party know what it’s like to struggle for a living, but I have seen time and time again the Democratic Party trying to stretch out safety nets for those who receive no trickle down hand-outs. I do know what it is to struggle, and I do know that getting an education does not equate to getting a job. I also know that no Republican since Eisenhower has tried to be fair to the working class.

I grew up just outside Oil City, Pennsylvania. It was a town founded by potential millionaires because petroleum had been discovered in the region. Many get-rich-quick schemers settled these pleasant hills and valleys, but the oil pools were as shallow as a politician’s sympathy, and some of the towns in the region became ghost towns. The Oil City I knew was working class families, trying to get by; many grasping religion when politics never ceased to disappoint. We were children of Damocles. Somehow the message has morphed from when I was a child paying attention in school. The issue is now, “I’m not well off, but I sure as heck don’t want the government helping those worse off than me!” Trickle down indeed. To me it seems obvious why the wealthy skew “pro-life”—their schemes cannot succeed without a constant stream of desperate workers. Keep those kids coming!

Because as a child I read all the time, I knew there was a life outside Oil City. Paying my own way through college with crippling debts, I managed to get out and earn an advanced degree overseas, just to be fired by a Republican who thought my advocacy for fair treatment had no place in a seminary. Yes, I’ve felt the barbed lash of unemployment. I spent years wondering what might become of my small family as trickle-downs began defying gravity and wormed their way back up to the wealthy. I’ve never owned a house; none has ever trickled down to my income level. Those Oil City millionaires never gave me any handouts. But Oil City did give me an education. I learned to see through those who say they are protecting me and my future. The only thing they are protecting is securely tucked into their back pockets. I’ve seen their ads castigating Jimmy Carter, a president who is actually out there building houses for the poor. I’ve heard them blaming Obama for not filling in a trench that took Bush the Less eight years to dig. I say let’s just let trickle-down fill that hole. I’m sure the Oil City millionaires will be glad to kick in a greenback or two; after all no one ever votes against their own economic self-interest.

Trickle down.

Two Ways

In my own attempt at balance, I turned from reading about the world of literary possibilities to a book on the inevitability of the scientific method. Robert Park’s Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud is an enjoyable jaunt through the distressing world of pseudo-science. The reader quickly discovers, however, that Park shares in the same scientific orthodoxy as Richard Dawkins (and many others) that claims since science works it is obviously the only way of demystifying our world. I admit that when I read of our government spending billions of dollars on projects put forward because our elected leaders know less about science than I do as a specialist in religion, I grow quite upset. More money than most of us will ever earn in a lifetime has been poured into projects that defy laws such as First and Second Thermodynamics. I learned those laws in Junior High physics and have never attempted to violate them. Even when scientists explain to elected officials in congressional hearings why these proposals simply can’t work, the pork barrels, once opened, are difficult to close.

Like many scientists, Park envisions a world where religion (same as superstition) is slowly losing its explanatory power and people will eventually have to admit that we are just acting out the role pre-determined by the laws of physics. We are fleshy machines, sometimes pretty flabby, but still machines. Ironically, when Park wants to express the seriousness of scientific review, he resorts to religious language. In explaining how peer review for scientific journals works, he notes that objectivity is a “sacred obligation.” Now, of course, one can argue that this is just a metaphor, language that non-scientists can understand. I wonder if it goes deeper than that. Reality, whether sought by scientists or religious believers, rests on the idea that there is only one truth. This, and not the incidental differences between theologies, is the reason for nearly all religious conflict and the “war on science.” There is, we are told in our Aristotelean world, only one possible Truth. Why?

Scientific theory, no less that superstitious theology, finds a unity of truth sensible and comforting. I wonder if the truth (and I use that word advisedly) is more complicated than that. No strict necessity exists for a single truth. (I am awake of Occam’s razor, but I don’t shave.) In fact, truth is a philosophical, not a scientific, concept. The problem is that societies tend to break down if they don’t share a view of the truth. There can be no doubt that science, done properly, works. The existence of the very internet where these virtual words reside is proof of that. That does not mean, however, that other truth can’t exist side-by-side, simultaneously with it. Scientists are duty-bound to declare a singular, physical universe because of the sacred trust of seeking the Truth. My bi-cameral mind just can’t see the necessity in that. But then again, I prefer a world with some mystery left in it. No thanks, I don’t shave.

Disputed Territory

Revisiting a childhood home can be a bittersweet experience. As my wife reflects on the first house she remembers going up for sale, we are glad that we spent the holidays there one last time a few months back. In my case sentiment is a little harder to find. The three residences I recall from a fractured childhood all bear the same distinction: they were torn down after we left. All that remains of my youth is three parking lots. Things are a lot more level now than they were back then. Whenever I visit the area, however, I still slow down the car and remember. Memory, whether singular or collective, makes a geographic location a sacred space. We rented when I was growing up, so those spaces that I think of as mine were occupied by others before and after us. (The razing did not take place immediately after we closed the door for the last time.) Whether those others—strangers to me—consider the place special I have no way of knowing.

Holy, holy, holy?

In other cases the sacral nature of a place is hallowed by tradition. Say “the Holy Land” and most people will know that you’re referring to what is now Israel/Palestine. I only traveled there once, but was privileged to stay for about six weeks. Working on an archaeological dig is a rite of passage for young biblical scholars (for such I was at the time), and weekends were spent visiting the places I’d read about since I could first remember. One of the most jarring aspects of the holiness was the evidence of violence. Cars burning by the roadside. Bombs going off in a post office in Jerusalem. Sounds of heavy artillery lobbing explosives through a blue sky during the sunny afternoon. A place so sacred as to be continually baptized in blood. Humans, human memory, are what make a place sacred.

All of this comes to mind with the political posturing of New Jersey governor Chris Christie visiting Israel. God knows New Jersey has enough problems of its own, but it is a relief not to have him hanging around for a while. Nevertheless, what has Trenton to do with Jerusalem? One thing the Middle East doesn’t need is one more bully. Pushing, shoving, crusading, shooting, and bombing haven’t worked for that elusive peace. What value can our dauntless leader add to this unholy mess? Maybe I’m just old fashioned, but I thought governors were supposed to take care of their own problems at home and leave international schmoozing until they got to the big offices. Maybe the race for a GOP nomination isn’t over yet. The most sacred space in this country is a white house that gets sold to the highest bidder every four years. At times there is more wisdom to be found in a parking lot.

Stuff and Nonsense

I don’t pretend to know much about politics. Beyond the required social studies classes through which I was channeled as a high school student and as an undergraduate I glimpsed the halls of power and they seemed pretty dirty to me. Not that studying religion was a much better choice, but then, enough Bible-dust in the eyes can obscure any vision. So I see some political pundits claiming that Santorum’s victories in the southern states demonstrate that his conservative platform resonates with the electorate. In their sense of surprise, I wonder why the elephant in the room is generally ignored. No matter how enlightened the modern political scientist may be, the fact is that Mormonism is held to be a “cult” by many evangelical churches. Religion specialists have long made the mistake of dismissing right-wing conservative Christian groups as an aberration, a mirage that will disappear when the coolness of evening settles the turbulent air over the pavement. The Republican primaries should shatter such illusions, but it won’t.

Just an ordinary guy, with his millions

While many of us have been trained to treat all religions as striving after the amorphous other, many others are raised to believe that Mormonism is a danger to society. Not that I agree, but I know from personal experience this is what they teach. I was raised on the tracts and texts that spelled it out in black-and-white claiming Mormonism to be a “cult.” The very word “cult” is eschewed by scholars of religion as a description for non-conventional theologies. As a term it is so 1980’s. Tell that to the electorate. The political pundits, it seems to me—and I may be wrong—underestimate how much people vote with their faith. Over the past twenty years, the Roman Catholic Church has demonstrated itself a champion of conservative causes. It has gone from pariah among the parishes to pontiff of the politicos. When evangelicals can’t stay in the race, it is difficult to distinguish Catholics from Pentecostals. Even scholars of religion should be scratching their heads.

The fact is we simply do not know enough about religion. Media treatment of the field is often dismissive or facile. Meanwhile, it is fueling the political engines that will lead to a showdown of worldviews in November. Maybe the Maya were correct after all. I don’t know much about politics. I’ve studied religion long enough to admit that I know little about it as well. I fear the experts with too many answers. If I turn out my pockets I find they are full of nothing but questions. (And lint.) Religion is what wins elections, yet our universities dismiss its study as juvenile and irrelevant. I read the headlines from the primaries—only a farce like this could make me miss Sarah Palin.

Theomockracy

“From Santorum to Graham, the ferociously religious are doing religion no favors at the moment, and it’s beginning to feel as though we may need to save faith from the extreme pronouncements of the faithful,” so writes Jon Meacham in this week’s issue of Time. Theocracy is a scary word. It didn’t work in ancient Israel, and it is difficult to believe that our society is morally more advanced than things were back then. I mean, they had Moses looking over their shoulders, and Amos, Isaiah, Micah, and Jeremiah to point out each misstep. We have Santorum, Bachmann, Palin, and Gingrich. This playing field would be an abattoir, and I have no doubts that the true prophets would be the only ones left standing should it come to blows. The odd thing is, the ancient Israelites, evolving into the Jewish faith, came to recognize that maybe they misunderstood some of what their stellar, if mythic, founders were saying. Rule by God is great in theory, but in practice it leaves a nation hungry.

It is difficult to assess the sincerity of modern day theocrats. We know that politicians are seldom literate or coherent enough to write their own speeches, and we know that they tell their would-be constituents what they want to hear. It shouldn’t surprise us that they belch forth juvenile pietism and call it God’s will, for we have taught them that elections are won that way. My real fear is that one of them might mean what they say. Could our nation actually survive even half a term with a true theocrat at the helm? W may have played that role, but there was a Cheney pulling the strings behind the curtain. Some guys like the God-talk, others prefer to shoot their friends in the faces. Either way it’s politics.

I take Meacham’s point. In all this posturing and pretending, the would-be theocrats are making a mockery of what the honestly religious take very seriously. If they want to get right with God there are conventional channels to do so. The White House is not one of them. They swear to uphold the ideals of the Constitution that, with considerable foresight, protects us from theocracy. The history they prefer, however, is revisionist and their constitution begins with “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Their use of the Bible offends those who take the document seriously. Theocracies have never worked in the entire history of the world. Those who ascribe to mythology as the basis for sound government should add Thor, Quetalcoatl, and Baal to their cabinet and pray for a miracle.

The implacable face of politics

Gas Bubbles

Human brains display a strong preference for patterns. Looking out my office window at the repeating series of windows that make up much of Manhattan, there is a pleasing sense of symmetry. We seek meaning in patterns—this is likely what gave rise to the idea of prophecy; a pattern repeated in nature seems to bear divine significance. Now, I don’t claim to be the best analyst of patterns, but like all humans I look for them and try to make sense of them. With headlines declaring that gasoline prices are on the rise again, set to hit record highs in April, I think, like an elephant that doesn’t forget, over the past several election years and wonder if anyone else has noticed a pattern. When a GOP incumbent is in office, gas prices seem to go down in an election year. When a Democrat is in office, they tend to skyrocket in election years. This is not based on market analysis, but by the sharp pain in my backside that is caused by a starving wallet combined with repeated kicks by the petroleum industry.

Even as far back as high school I remember that alternative-energy cars were being designed. Keep in mind that this was over thirty years ago. When we asked why people couldn’t buy them, our teacher informed us that oil companies buy up patents for competing technologies. Television told us that such energy efficient cars were the stuff of science fiction. With Toyota often leading the way, we have seen, however, that electric-powered cars can perform on the highways as well as city streets. They don’t line the pockets so thickly for the big oil barons, so we’re lead to believe they’re wimpy and underperforming—not manly vehicles at all. To me it sounds like a lot of gas.

I’m not sure how America came to be under the ponderous thumb of the oil industry, but the finger-pointing and downright criminal activity of such companies as Enron and BP should be telling us something. It may be mere coincidence, but the past several Republican presidents have been very friendly with big oil. I remember when Clinton ran against Bush Senior that prices of gas dropped so low that a ten could fill the tank on our little Toyota. Here we are with a Dem in the House and prices are set to soar. Perhaps my cynicism is misplaced, but I don’t recall seeing many oil barons standing in the breadlines—not even after Enron imploded. No doubt we will be told it’s just the ebb and flow of the market, nothing more. No matter what the excuse may be, I have an idea which way the flow is going, and it has a pipeline from Americans’ bank accounts right into that internal combustion engine that is fueled by creatures long dead. Death and oil, by whatever means, go together.

Take me home, country roads

Witch Crazy

The self-destructive tendencies of human societies should be of major interest to those who study the mind. Why a highly evolved species would forego reason—or create an entire false logic—to give itself an excuse to mass-murder its own is among the greatest trials of theodicy. Can God be justified in such circumstances? With or without divine approval, God is nevertheless implicated. One of those homicidal events, the European witch craze of early modern history is a prime example. Anne Llewellyn Barstow’s Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts is a disturbing book on many levels. For a human being with any level of empathy, reading about the torturous destruction of at least 100,000 people—generally women—is hard going. We don’t want to be reminded that we were ever so naïve as to believe that women slept with the devil, flew through the air to meet with other witches, and were trying to bring down society. The “upright,” as Barstow makes very clear, feared for the church. Concern for the ways of God excused—demanded even—the death of the innocent. Many of the victims confessed, under torture, that the godly men had got it right.

Barstow contends that economic stresses and fear for the sanctity of the church, along with a generous dose of native misogyny, fueled this holocaust. She notes that it happened in the same society that would initiate another holocaust a mere three centuries later. But why women? Coming out of the medieval period, societies were strengthening centralized governments. Roles of power that belonged to women were highly individualized, and therefore considered threats. The healer, in absence of a medical profession, was often female, frequently a midwife. In days of high infant mortality, they were sometimes blamed for performing abortions, something men in power simply couldn’t accept. Barstow points out that population increases were stressing the economic production of the period. The newly minted Reformation advocated a very active devil in the world. Since the devil, like God, was a guy, well, women satisfied his lust.

The most disturbing aspect of reading this book for me, however, is the fact that our society has come to resemble that one once again. Strong centralized governments control what citizens do through fear—what else would compel us to allow Patriot Acts to pass? They target women as scapegoats—otherwise the issue of abortion would not command such male attention. Fear for the sanctity of God is repeatedly invoked. Sometimes these modern witches are persecuted on the basis of ethnic background as well as gender. And in both the witch hunter society and that of today an elite class has collected the wealth and sits back to let the remainder incinerate itself in the name of God. Witches don’t fly through the night to meet a fictional devil. The real threat to society is right here among us, but its not who the powerful want us to think it is. And it is very human.