Tag Archives: The Washington Post

Implied of Course

The American terrorist attack in Charlottesville over the weekend should have us all frightened. Despite declarations of “it couldn’t happen here,” fascism is an adaptive disease that finds its way to new hosts quite readily. The atmosphere coming out of Washington only promotes contagion. Trump’s response—bad behavior all around, no one party to blame—left the supreme white commander open to criticism. The appropriately named “White” House spokespersons responded with an implied “Of course that includes white supremacists,” according to the Washington Post report. That’s an awful lot of weight for an adverb to bear. The past six months have given many of us reason to doubt it’s true at all. “Of course” 45 loves all Americans. Or at least their cash.

Of course, I could be making a lot out of an implied deflection. A national leader should not hesitate to point the blame squarely at any supremacist group. Listen closely: no group is superior to another. Anyone’s background, examined closely enough, is likely to turn up a character or two who would be suspect. Trump’s election gave a new boldness to fascist groups—this is the way America’s going, isn’t it? Republican leaders, full of squees and shivers, refuse to say anything negative about a man whose thumbs can’t even reach the humility emoji. Hate crimes are wrong. They used to be illegal. What has happened to leadership? It’s more than just the CFO, wait, I mean Commander in Chief, who’s implicated here. It’s an entire political party that won’t stand up against injustice. What ever happened to “truth, justice, and the American way,” Clark? There’s never a phone booth nearby when you need one.

Back when I worked at Nashotah House, we had a conflicted environment. One of my colleagues told me something that has stayed with me ever since: “silence implies consent.” If you don’t condemn evil, you are complicit with it. We all need to stand up and say racism isn’t just an opinion—it is evil. Human rights are more than just civil rights. All people have the right to be treated fairly. Someone who hates others enough to climb into a car, start the ignition, and accelerate toward a group of pedestrians is guilty of premeditation. A president who won’t say as much is tacitly saying it might just be okay. Of course, it might just be that he’s too self-absorbed to get the thumbs going on the words we’ll never read: “I’m sorry.” Of course I’d be glad to be proven wrong.

Water Bears

Since we should all be busy planning on alternatives to planet earth, my mind has turned to tardigrades. Known as “water bears” these very simple animals are amazingly complex. Don’t go looking for them in your drinking water, however. They’re microscopic. So why am I thinking about tardigrades at a time like this? Because they’re one of the few organisms that scientists believe could actually survive the destruction of the planet. Who knows? They might even be able to survive in Washington, DC. Maybe that’s why they’re in The Washington Post.

You have to look closely to see one.

Able to cling to life at the cusp of absolute zero, in conditions with no oxygen, and at doses of radiation that would leave the human race—among most other species—fried, these micro-organisms are truly remarkable. No wonder scientists are playing with thought-experiments as to how to wipe them out. Hey, scientists are only human after all. Don’t worry—nobody’s really trying to kill these little guys off. The question behind Ben Guarino’s story seems to be what makes these tiny creatures so amazingly resilient. It raises an issue that I often ponder. The will to survive. Evolution is, according to standard theory, without purpose. Natural selection works in a “logical” way: the most successful organism survives long enough to breed and its traits become standard options in the next generation. Nobody needs to want anything (except to mate) and chance takes care of the rest. But that doesn’t explain the will to survive. The “eye of the tiger,” if you will. I’m sure this wasn’t what the Washington Post was intending to trigger, but doesn’t it seem strange that even “non-conscious” micro-organisms “want” to survive?

The desire to exist is dangerous territory. It has a whiff of the divine about it. One of the characteristics of life, if my high school biology isn’t completely outdated, is the ability to reproduce. What it didn’t address, for fear of teenage snickers, I’m sure, is the desire to reproduce. Why does life insist on its own continuation? Is it truly just an eons’ long succession of one-night stands that results in creatures capable of even asking that question? Or is there something more to it? Tardigrades have segmented bodies, legs, and claws. All at less than 40,000 cells per individual. They lack a neocortex (which doesn’t necessarily disqualify an individual from being president). They can’t answer the questions we put to them. As individuals they are remarkably easy to kill. As a species, however, their resilience carries the answers to some very deep questions. If only we had the will to ask them.

Brick in the Wall

Kids. You never know what’ll come out of their mouths. Not bounded by logic or the rules of physics, they come up with some of the most truly creative ideas that grace our species. The growing up process usually includes filters that separate the real from the imaginary. But not always. In a recent statement, Donald Trump said that his proposed wall between Mexico and the United States should be invisible. His concern, according to a Washington Post story by Christopher Ingraham, is that catapults could be used to launch drugs over the wall. Somebody could get hit in the head. (It sounds like somebody has been already.) So the wall should be see-through. This wall, which the majority of Americans don’t want, and which will have to be deconstructed at great expense after his presidency (such as it is), will be a technological marvel. It’ll even have solar panels, added by old king coal himself.

I can’t help but think of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Earth is being destroyed—not by Trump in this scenario, but by aliens looking for whales that we’ve driven extinct (there’s the Trump part). The crew of the Enterprise, in a Klingon warship, have to transport humpback whales from the 1980s into the future. The problem is see-through aluminum does not yet exist. Scottie, posing as a professor from Edinburgh—back in the days when my alma mater bore some cachet—gives the formula to a San Francisco manufacturing firm in return for enough of the metal to make a holding tank for the aquatic mammals. They slingshot around the sun back to the future just in time to save earth from a catastrophe worthy of Trump Enterprises. Problem is, see through aluminum is fiction.

Photo credit: George Louis, Wikimedia Commons

In my daydreams I often picture this wall. My thoughts inevitably go to Berlin and shortsighted solutions. History (which most American presidents have made a point of studying) teaches that walls don’t work. The technology is ancient. As is the technology of how to get around, under, and over walls. In fact, basic career counseling will often use the wall as an exercise to get you thinking of ways to overcome obstacles in your path. Dealing with walls is one of the most time-honored of human pastimes. You see, walls were originally built to keep us safe especially from non-human threats. We didn’t want toothy big cats or cave bears wandering in during the night and making snacks of us. We built walls. Then we wondered what was going on over on the other side. Just now, it seems, that idea has begun to dawn on a man who might benefit from trying to understand The Voyage Home.

On Jordan’s Stormy Bank

All you have to do is spit in the cup. Well, you have to do it quite a few times, but that’s the basic idea. Then you send the contents to a religiously motivated lab and your genetic ancestry will be emailed back to you. (There will be a fee involved, of course.) Genetics, a science of which Darwin didn’t have the benefit, is capable of mapping out where various “races” originated and ended up. Enter the Bible. One of the most disputed groups among scholars of the ancient Near East is the Canaanites. There was, as far as we can tell, no “nation” called “Canaan.” No people called themselves “Canaanites” but the term was used by others to designate them. Yahweh had a vendetta against them and ordered them wiped out. And, according to parts of the Bible, the Israelites acquiesced. So where are the Canaanites?

Image credit: http://maps.bpl.org, via Wikipedia Commons

According to a Washington Post article by Ben Guarino, DNA sequencing has revealed that they’re still there. This should come as no surprise to most anthropologists. Racial purity is always partially a myth, since “race” is no barrier to love. Or at least lust. And genetic traits don’t lie. Tracing ancient DNA from “Canaanite” (I’m getting myself scared using all these scare quotes) burials, scientists have discovered the biblical nemesis still survives in abundance, especially in Lebanon. Interestingly, on a cultural level, there is no distinction between Israelite and Canaanite. They are virtually identical. This creates one of the many embarrassments for biblical scholars, since the differences should be more than just skin deep. As with so many cases of racial distinction, the reality is mostly imagination.

Literalists, of course, have been in a rear-guard position for well over a century now, so the news should cause minimal shock. The problem will be keeping them from finding new excuses to carry out an extinct mandate. Biblical scholars, that heathenish race, long ago capitulated with the enemy. You’d expect no less from those who would dare use reason when approaching Holy Writ. It’s the real-world application that’s a problem. What do you do when the biblical enemy is found, hiding in plain sight like a purloined Lebanon? The solution might be as old as the story itself. Darwin didn’t have genetics, but he did have the Bible. The issue in the nineteenth century was what to reject when worldviews clashed. The answer was to jettison the godless science. We can only hope that this time-honored technique will prevent future crusades fomented by scientific discovery.

Russian Watchtower

From time to time I’ve good-naturedly poked fun at the Watch Tower Society members who used to visit with some frequency. I don’t belittle anyone’s belief system, however. Believers of any faith are generally sincere and certainly entitled to follow the dictates of their own consciences and reasoning. Still, as John Cale sings, “nothing frightens me more, than religion at my door.” Some of us prefer to keep our religious preferences private, while musing publicly about the wider world of religious diversity. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have come to mind again because of an article in the New Jersey Star-Ledger my wife clipped out for me. According to Amanda Erickson, writing for the Washington Post, Russia has now classified the Witnesses as religious extremists. She points out the irony since the Watch Tower Society is officially a pacifist group, opposed to any violence. It’s difficult to radicalize a pacifist.

I’m not at home enough any more to be here when the Jehovah’s Witnesses stop by. I know they still come because I can see their tracts. There is a Witness who occasionally stands outside my gate at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York. He stands, patiently smiling, next to the entrance holding up the Watchtower while anxious commuters and day trippers give him nary a glance. He seems like a nice guy to me. Always neatly dressed. One day I noticed him commenting to a New Jersey Transit employee that a particular denizen of the Post Authority was acting oddly. He was right, and, as a daily user of that facility, I know it takes quite a lot to earn that kind of notice. Ports, after all, bring in many with diverse outlooks on life.

What’s behind the Russian rage against the “extremist activities” of a peace-loving sect? I suspect the real problem has to do with the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses are so typically American. And, like the Mormons, a fairly successful New Religious Movement. Religions, it seems, do grow a bit stale with age. Once in a while, something new comes along and revitalizes old systems of belief. Russia, however, is not the Port Authority. There is a repression there that is the envy of New Jersey Transit and every other carrier, I’m sure. Right, United? If only people would conform. Wouldn’t we all be happier if everyone else just believed like us? I’m not sure that history concurs on that point. Perhaps the safest alternative is to remain private. You don’t, however, grow a religion that way. If Russia wishes to inherit these States, they’ll need to learn a bit about the joys of religious diversity. Pacifism is a risk you have to take.

Do unto Yourself

Selfishness goes by many names. One of the strangest is “Christianity.” I wouldn’t presume to define a religion, but some time back my wife sent me a story about the prosperity gospel. Written by Michael Horton, himself an evangelical, the pre-greatest inauguration of all time piece is called “Evangelicals should be deeply troubled by Donald Trump’s attempt to mainstream heresy.” Horton goes on to describe the belief system of the prosperity gospel that includes people becoming gods and the idea of positive thoughts drawing good things to you. Quite apart from completely ignoring most of what Jesus is recorded to have taught, the prosperity folk tend to think the Almighty wants them to be, of all things that most shallow, wealthy. “More for me” also goes by many names. The most common is “selfish.”

I grew up evangelical as well. One of the messages drilled into my malleable head was that Jesus taught putting other people before yourself. “Do unto others” was the least you could get away with and still call yourself “Christian.” Part of the disconnect here is that nobody has the authority to define a religion. Not even the Pope can say unilaterally what Christianity is. Protestants aren’t obligated to agree. And with prosperity gospelers with their enormous cash flow telling us that it’s God’s will, well, heresy looks mighty attractive. We’ve come to see the error of heresy, however. Nobody can claim their brand alone has the answer. It’s a theological anything goes. I suggest we go old school and call a cad a cad. Selfishness by any other name would smell as bad.

It’s poor taste to claim your own self-gain as a benefit to society. I, of all people, would handle my wealth properly so that nobody suffers. Except those I don’t like. Doth not Scripture saith, “ I have said, Ye are gods”? Yet earlier in the same Psalm come those easily ignored words, “Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy.” Missing are “build a wall across your southern border,” and “speak untruths when it is convenient to do so,” and “distrust those who speak a language not your own.” Oh what the Bible would say if only we could write it ourselves! But fear not, for we have many who believe the prosperity gospel. And they’ve already got the task well in hand. And their lexicon doesn’t even include the word “selfish,” so you need not worry about such uncomfortable thoughts. Get rich and all will be well.

Photo credit: Kriplozoik, Wikimedia Commons

Somewhere out There

If last month’s election taught us anything it’s that nobody really knows anything. For many years now I’ve been saying that the sign of an educated person is s/he admits how little s/he knows. Socrates may have beat me to that idea, but there are still people whose intellect appears so great that we should pay attention. To my mind, such as it is, Stephen Hawking is one of those people. I don’t understand his formulas, but some of the concepts I can grasp. So when Prof. Hawking says we have approximately 1000 years before we make our planet unfit for human life, I think we should take notice. In just a decade we’ve gone from a Wall-e White House to a Dumb and Dumber one, and old mother earth is due to take a beating. Hawking, according to a story in The Washington Post, advises us to look for another planet to colonize.

 Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Colonization seldom ends well. I wonder how the rest of the universe feels about us moving into the neighborhood. We dump our waste into anything pristine enough to carry it away so that people can make some of their number wealthy so that they can feel better about themselves. We can’t go one year without a war somewhere in our world and we kill one another just because we look different. We can’t even elect a president who’s smarter than any random undergraduate. Not exactly the kind of invasive species you want living next door. Any system can be gamed—capitalism most of all—and if it were up to me I’d prefer to have thoughtful neighbors. Perhaps the universe is politely saying to Dr. Hawking, “not in my backyard.”

What I find truly amazing here is that religion gave us the entitlement. Believing that the gods are like us, or that one deity made us in his white, male image, we’ve figured out this world’s ours to destroy. Just like entitled kids with too many toys. Daddy can always buy you another. So now we’re in the market for a new planet. One that’s not too hostile, but easily exploitable. A capitalist planet, but one that doesn’t mind a bit of help from former communists. You see, once we’ve figured out how to exploit another planet, there’ll be no stopping us. I have great admiration for Stephen Hawking. It’s just this time I think that we need to set our own house in order before we start inviting ourselves to somebody else’s home.