Taking My Marbles

Cheaters, we were told as children, never prosper. It turns out that this chestnut never grew into a tree. Cheaters become Republican congressional leaders instead. What’s bugging me today is gerrymandering. The idea that you can change the rules even as the game’s in play is, well, cheating. We all learned how that felt when we were kids with our marbles, or cards, or pick-up-sticks. Nobody liked to be called a cheater. Now it seems to be the best path to the White House. And the standard-issue Republicans are fine with it. Me, I dream of a country where the people are free and fair. Where the rules that were established centuries before you were born can’t be changed because some lout with a lot of money says he feels the right way about unborn babies. A land where reason is real.

The idea that you can redraw boundaries to consolidate your power is even more insidious than the Electoral College. That’s a game that long ago lost its purpose, but the GOP won’t let it go because it always favors them. Problem is there will never be neutral turf again. Who didn’t have the experience as a kid of playing with someone whose luck had run out and then having them pout, “I’m taking my marbles and going home”? Who hasn’t been on the other end of that scenario? I certainly have. Sometimes it takes years to play out before things start to seem fair again. The point is, most of us grow up and most of us know the rule of law is a good thing.

The rule of law, however, has completely broken down in these Untied States. Any law can be jerry-rigged. All it takes is a mogul with a lot of money and underlings panting for handouts. Plain and simple selfishness. An American classic. There was a time, in living memory, when Watergate would sink a President. Now highly public extra-marital affairs are fine. Bill Clinton was impeached for a, well, I know the rules so I won’t say. Giving secrets to the Russians? A mere trifle. Top government posts for your family? Of course, go ahead. Using high government office to enrich you personally by gerrymandering which countries you’ll exclude from these hallowed shores? What’s wrong with that? Every step of the way the GOP wallows its filthy, cheating face in the dirt. And it wants to change the rules so it can stay this way for all time. Me, well, at least I can still dream, even if I lose all my marbles in this crooked game. It’s the American way.

Law of Rule

Anyone who believes in the rule of law has never been on a broken down NYC commuter bus. There’s a rare kind of tension among the early morning commuter crowd. To put this in context I should say that I awake at 4 a.m. to catch the first us through town, five days a week. I’m usually somewhere between four and six on the passenger count, but if lots of people need to be in New York before sun-up, I may be as far down as 10. I select my seat with care. I tend to sit two seats behind the driver. I prefer the right-hand side of the bus, but there’s a regular who sits there and, I’m given to understand, she’s been doing this for over a decade. So I sit left. It’s never a good portent when I end up having to go four or more rows back. You see, the buses usually unload in a fairly orderly way, the front rows get out first, and each row takes its turn. Since too early is never early enough to be at work, I sit near the front because in the back you can lose precious minutes waiting for those who are sleeping to rouse themselves enough to find their feet and stumble off. If it sounds like I’m overthinking this, it’s because I’ve been awake since before four and how you start your day sets the tone. Where’d I put my coffee? Arriving at the office frantic and sweating isn’t the best way to impress anyone.

There’s a kind of comfort at being at the end of the line of service. Of course, the commute home means you’re on the bus longer than people who can afford to live closer to the City. First on, last off. Although I easily fall prey to motion sickness, I have taught myself to read on the bus. An hour in and two hours out are goodly amounts of time to really get into a book. I hate to waste time.


You can smell a bus breaking down. I always hope the driver doesn’t catch a whiff, because s/he’ll call the control center and lawyers will dictate that the bus be stopped. By definition, you’ll be late to work that day. So when I smelled something burning, I hoped I was the only one. Luck has never been my strong suit. The driver pulled over and announced, in a soft voice, that we’d have to wait for the next bus. That means I could’ve slept in for ten more minutes.

The next bus is an “express”—that is local compared to my bus. The driver said, “Just stay in your seats, and I’ll call you.” Of course, people started to get off to form a line, despite the captain’s words. In a universal display of self-importance, those who just got on immediately hurry to get off first. They’ll be first in line to get seats on the next bus. Those who obey the driver are penalized. When it became clear that I could hear crickets chirping on the bus, I decided to put away my book and join the line. After quite a wait, the local came. That would get us to the City in time for work tomorrow. Several minutes later the express came. Those at the back of the line behind me hurried over. By the time I’d gotten there, still trying to honor the most ancient of queuing honor codes—the line—all the seats were taken. Those in the front of the line, now the back, headed over to take first place again, since they had expected the rescue bus to pull in front of our smoking wreck instead of behind, where it did. They weren’t shy about elbowing their unrighteous way to the front when the next bus came. I’d been on the abandoned bus since before 6 a.m. I made the third bus. The guy in my row on the adopted bus tried hard not to make room for a new passenger next to him. I was headed to New York where, I know, all the rules are off.

Tolerance, Princeton Style

Princeton is an idealistic kind of town. A seat of great wealth, the town is dominated by the university and yet it manages to retain a sense of genteel quaintness that so often accompanies the aura of financial security. Even with my distrust of money, I love to wander its streets and imagine what the world could be like. My ideal world has bookstores, and so I always stop at the Labyrinth, the current incarnation of the university bookstore in town. Last time I was there I found an overstock sale copy of Ian Buruma’s Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents. Well, both the price and the topic were right, so I read it this week. Buruma is actually a scholar of democracy, human rights, and journalism, not religion. One of the key identifiers of religion is that there is no central, unifying topic that ties all religions together, and therefore scholars of many disciplines have much to say about it. Buruma offers three chapters illustrating the way that religions interact with society, often violently. He then tenders suggestions for how this violence might be curbed.

Commenting on tensions of Islamic growth in a nominally Christian Europe, Buruma notes that one of the Enlightenment core values is a belief in universals. If truth is truth it is universal. This, he notes, often conflicts with religions since most religions also tend to make universal, often exclusive, claims. Here is precisely where human culture is brought to its knees by religion. Due to their revealed nature, western religions cannot be challenged on any rational grounds. This is as true of Mormonism as it is of Judaism. If God said it, and there is no empirical proof, people have no choice but to obey. Problem is, God can’t make up “his” mind about the final word on the subject. New religions sprout constantly, growing into inevitable conflict with their neighbors. Not to mention those who have reasoned their way out of religion.

What is the limit of religious tolerance? As Buruma notes, tolerance necessarily includes tolerating intolerance. Some religions are constrained to be intolerant of others, and how do we allow them to be part of our little tea party? (The metaphor is intentional. Think about it.) Buruma suggests, as many have, that the rule of law should settle the situation. People must learn to separate civil law from religion. But can it be done? I have serious doubts. I’ve heard this suggested before, by minds far greater than mine. Having grown up as a religious kid, however, I know that rule of law has its limits. It stops once God opens the door to direct revelation, whether to people today or thousands of years ago. Religion is not bound by the rule of law. It is its own highest authority. Many, many people throughout the world believe that. Moses, Jesus, Mohammad, all are noted to have had clashes with civil authorities of one sort or another during their lifetimes. The pattern is set. So even here in Princeton, with an engaging, thoughtful book in my greedy little hands, surrounded by great wealth, I realize just how idealistic all of it can be.

Buying Salvation

October is upon us. The telltale signs are all there: trees just starting to turn, gray skies that hide an intangible menace, a coolness in the air, and Halloween stores sprouting like mushrooms. Halloween is a holiday with incredible sales appeal, I suspect, because people are still, at some level, very afraid. We evolved into who we are from a long history of being prey as well as predators. Fear governs many of our interactions in social settings, although we prefer to call it more abstract names such as “rule of law” or “peer pressure.” Deep down, we are afraid. Halloween allows us to wear that fear on our sleeves. And it isn’t just the Celts who made this confession; Día de los Muertos developed independently, giving us a different flavor of the same emotion. Savvy marketers know that where a human concern lies, there will be the purse-strings also.

Commercialization of religion—the fancy word is “commodification”—is as close to American religious experience as you can get. We live in a religious marketplace. Various religious groups offer their wares, sometimes obviously, sometimes subtly. Often the underlying motivation is fear—fear of displeasing deity, fear of eternal torment, fear of reincarnation. We are afraid and we don’t know what to do, so we try to buy our way out of it. Other times the Madison Avenue approach works. Consider the Crystal Cathedral, or even the great medieval cathedrals of Europe. These are tourist destinations, architectural marvels that draw us in. The message is still pretty much the same: the deity will get you unless you give back. How better to show respect (that is fear) than erecting a massive, complex, and very expensive edifice to the angry God?

It is simplistic to suggest that religion boils down to fear, but when all the water evaporates, fear is certainly evident among the residue. Next to the overtly commercial holiday of Christmas the most money can be coaxed out of Americans at Halloween. Or consider the appeal of horror movies. Love them or hate them, they will draw in big money at the box office. In a society that sublimates fear and tells its citizens that unimpeded growth is attainable, Halloween is the most parsimonious holiday. Perhaps the most honest, too. A full month before the creepy sight of naked trees and chill breezes that sound like screams whistling through their bare branches, the stores begin to appear. When Halloween is over they will be dormant for eleven months of the year, but like the undead they are never really gone. Only sleeping.

A parable.

Tale of Two Anarchies

While snowbound over the weekend, I reread William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. I recalled a profound sense of awe from when I read it the first time in college, when students are invincible and optimistic. The second reading was still rewarding, but the message seemed darker, more true-to-life. Children on an isolated island devising their own schemes of democracy cannot repress the deep urge for self-advancement. When it comes to working together for the common good or promoting one’s own will, the latter wins out and seeks to destroy all dissenters. Anarchy becomes their natural state.

A few weekends ago I finally got around to watching V for Vendetta, the Wachowski Brothers’ dim and hopeful dystopia where individual conviction wears away at a conformity that benefits the privileged class. Recasting Guy Fawkes as a hero, albeit a tragic one, is a bold move in the post 9/11 world. The anarchy here leads to a rule by consent, the oppressed rising up as one to say “no more.” Even V is dead so there is no one to lead.

Better together?

Anarchy is a frightening prospect. Most people feel more comfort in the rule of law. One time I joined a discussion my brother-in-law was having with some friends on the rule of law. They were suggesting that if rule of law could be brought to bear on the Middle East then the seemingly continual crisis there might terminate. I disagreed from the far end of the table, not close enough to hear the whole conversation. My rationale is that the utter conviction of religion trumps the rule of law. Rule of law assumes all are equal, but religion in a monotheistic theater always assumes only one is right, and therefore superior. All others must submit. Problem is, many monotheistic religions feel the same way. We see it in the extreme power structure of the Religious Right in this country. Who is willing to say maybe the rule of law is superior to the rule of God? Watching the graceful anarchy of V, and reading the disturbing anarchy of Lord of the Flies, sometimes even the most stalwart free-thinker wishes everyone would bow to the rule of law.