Six Impossible Things

Solipsism, as a philosophy, has its attractions.  The idea behind it is that since all we can truly know is our self, the self is the only being that really exists.  This outlook is expressed in tragicomic form in Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions.  Written in Vonnegut’s characteristic style, there’s confusion and continuity, and almost a mockery of the gullibility of readers.  Kilgore Trout, a penurious science fiction writer, wrote a novel where one character was human amid a planet of robots programmed to act like people.  Dwayne Hoover comes to believe this is true and acts on it, with several other characters ending up in the hospital.  The story ends with the narrator realizing, I think, that he’s the only real human being because he made up this entire novel.

As someone who generally works alone, and whose lifestyle includes early rising and early sleeping, solipsism suggests itself from time to time.  Writers tend to spend quite a bit of time in their own heads, either reading or expressing their own thoughts via their craft.  Anyone who’s been a victim of a solipsist (and we all have) knows that such a viewpoint is wrong, but it does address one of consciousness’ deepest fears—how do we know what others know or experience?  We keep secrets.  We hide our weaknesses and insecurities.  We show others, most of the time, only what we want them to see.  Addressing the individualism of the late sixties and early seventies, Vonnegut takes to task a society that still promotes prejudice and wages war.

Vonnegut experienced war and it’s clear that it haunted him for the remainder of his life.  He tried, and often succeeded, in finding some hilarity in life, but it always seems to stop short with a slap of cruelty.  I’ve been reading quite a few of Vonnegut’s novels over the past few years.  He’s a writer that mixes profundity with frivolousness in such an easy way that it’s beguiling.  Breakfast of Champions is, despite being an easy read, a difficult book.  Quickly finished with its goofy doodles and swift pace, it leaves you feeling as if you’ve been poisoned with an idea, somehow.  Or maybe it’s just me.  For this year’s reading challenge I’ve selected two more of Vonnegut’s novels, but I haven’t decided which ones yet.  I think about asking others, but then I remember that if he’s right in this one, there’s really nobody else to ask.

Made of Clay

golemInvestigating a new field, at least on an academic level, involves a little disorientation. Part of this derives from the fact that academics didn’t use to write about monsters. Another part of it, however, is that those who do such writing have been doing so while my attention was elsewhere. It’s not easy to learn dead languages reasonably well. I didn’t pay much mind to the golem, being as it is, a “modern” monster. Probably responding to early modern pogroms, the golem was considered a defender of persecuted Jews. He was, however, a mindless defender. Made of animated clay, the golem was brought to life by magic and could only be killed in the same kind. Maya Barzilai has written a masterful account of how this monster relates to war. Golem: Modern Wars and Their Monsters explores how modern golem stories (and there are many) tend to relate to situations of conflict.

I had read about the golem before, and had trouble locating many academic resources on the creature. Barzilai demonstrates how much there is to ponder. It seemed, prior to reading her book, that the golem was mostly obscure, but it turns out that many writers, artists, and filmmakers have appropriated the clay giant over the years. Those who trace the history of comic books suggest that Superman was originally a kind of golem figure. I hadn’t realized that the golem had his own short-lived comic book series. When a people are persecuted repeatedly, having a secret weapon may not seem a bad thing. But the golem is difficult to control. It rampages. It can kill the innocent. Barzilai raises the question of whether a people with an unstoppable weapon are ever justified in using violence.

That question hangs pregnantly over the present day. The rich white men that run this country feel that they’ve been oppressed. Not willing to admit that it’s morally reprehensible to treat women as objects (they’re “hosts,” we’re told), blacks as inferiors, or hispanics as illegal, they bluster away about family values that aren’t consistent with anything other than threatening those who are “different” into submission. And yes, the Jews are among those these white men scorn. I wonder where the golems have gone. It could be that, like those of us self-identified as pacifists, that those who know how to make golems simply can’t justify violence. Barzilai didn’t intend for this in her book, I’m sure. Still, each new era brings new perspectives to these monsters made of clay.

Only Midway

Unlike some employers, my current one sees the wisdom in arriving early for a major conference. The American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature is meeting in San Diego this year, and for those of us in the New York area, it’s about as long a flight as you can have in the lower 48. Having arrived in good time, and not knowing much to do in San Diego (I don’t know of any famous writers from this area whose childhood homes I might haunt), I ended up walking to the USS Midway. I’ve never been on an aircraft carrier before, and, on the eve of a religion conference, it was a strangely moving experience. Maybe it was the recognition that I was standing on a floating city on which many people had died in various wars. Perhaps it was the fact that this was a massive piece of machinery designed for its destructive potential. Or it might have been the sheer determination that appeared in every placard: this was a cause we had to win.

No doubt, the Second World War was a just cause. The force of destruction had to stop and the aircraft carriers that enabled the war effort were a huge feature in the “Pacific theater.” Staring at these massive jets, the finest technology of their day, I knew that our greatest efforts had been poured into violence. These were not mere deterrents. Yes, people had died here, but those launched from these decks also killed. War makes claims that way. As I pondered these sobering thoughts, I came to the chapel. Obviously I had to see. An eerie recording of “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” came over the speakers as I walked in. Yes, those on a warship are in peril on the sea. If they are successful, others will have died.

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A little further along the corridor (or is it “hatchway”?), I came upon the chaplain’s room, along with my first Bibles of the trip. (I knew they would be here.) A mannequin of the chaplain, cookie in one hand, Bible in the other, sat, apparently, preparing a sermon. What does one say to those going to war? God is on our side, obviously. But what more? The Bible does not forbid warfare. It was a way of life in the centuries during which it was composed. We like to think we may have advanced since then. But as I prepared to exit back onto deck in the warm California air, I passed a display of aircraft carriers past and present. More sophisticated, more deadly weapons continue to be built. And in this day of nones, I wonder who their chaplain might be.

Keeping Time

Did you remember to set your clock back? Depending on where you are (and this presumes there are any people reading this at all) it might have been a mistake. When I worked with Routledge, we had weekly trans-Atlantic meetings via conference calls. I remember the general confusion of what time it was where, and how that effected meeting times. The UK sets its clocks back at a different time then many states do this side of the ocean. As much as it is nice to have an extra hour of sleep (next weekend for most Americans, this morning for the British Isles) it really never seems worth the disruption on the other end of “standard time.” In the spring it will take several weeks to adjust to disrupted sleep patterns after long winter naps—for those who are able to sleep in, in any case. I’ve long thought it is time to do away with this practice: if daylight savings time is a good idea, why don’t we just keep it that way all year around? Greenwich Mean Time, however, could never admit to being wrong.

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I was always told daylight savings time was because of concerns for children walking to school in the dark. An article in The Guardian, however, gives the real reason. It was war. During the First World War (which impacted so many aspects of life that we’re still sorting them all out), Germany implemented daylight savings time to conserve fuel to support the war effort. Squeezing a few more minutes of daylight from a slumbering public meant more resources for the engines of destruction. Other nations soon followed and when we turn our clocks ahead in the spring and yawn wicked yawns all day at work and stumble about for lack of sleep, we wonder if that extra hour’s snooze in the fall was really worth it. Because of my commute, I rise early. If everyone awoke around 4 a.m., daylight savings time would quickly become moot. It does nothing to help. I already catch the bus in the dark and arrive home after dark, as I will until well into spring. It is a holiday with no meaning.

Religions have been, historically, the clock keepers of humanity. Our hours were regulated for prayer, our weeks divided up for a day of worship or rest, our years punctured by holy days. All of this was done for the sake of religion. In our secular world, there would be no reason beyond the recognition that people are more productive when they can rest to give them one day off in a week. Seven days corresponds to no natural division of time, unless you consider a quarter of the moon’s phases for 28-day months to be significant. Religions have been our time-keepers. Daylight savings time, however, was the child of war. This week our UK colleagues will be well rested and content. Next weekend the US will join them. But the second horseman of the apocalypse has sanctioned this unholy day, and when the spring rolls around, he will exact his toll. We’d better rest up in the meanwhile, and I, for one, say let’s banish the horseman all together.

Disarmament

Maybe it’s just where I cast my attention, but debates over belief or unbelief seem to be everywhere these days. The word “militant” is used to describe belief (or lack of belief) systems with a worrying stridency. We want to prove what we believe, with violence, if necessary. So in anticipation of 9/11 Nick Cohen wrote a piece in the Guardian entitled “The phantom menace of militant atheism“. He points out, rightly enough, that you seldom hear of militant atheists being suspected of acts of terrorism. When a bomb goes off, we look for the religion behind it. For each pyromanic a religion can boast, it has a larger number of pacifists, in most cases. As Cohen points out, atheists aren’t blameless—Stalin and Mao remind us of that—but in today’s world of free agent religious ordinance missionaries we seldom, if ever, hear that the atheists have been plotting and planting explosives. In that Cohen is surely right. Humanists (to generalize) tend to hold humanity up, not blow it up.

By Creator:Tadeusz Cyprian (cyfrowe.mnw.art.pl) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Creator:Tadeusz Cyprian (cyfrowe.mnw.art.pl) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There is, however, a strange disconnect that Cohen, and countless others, point(s) out—atheists (and I would broaden this to humanists) are considered immoral. As if the concept of deity were somehow a mark of moral maturity. Of as if a specific belief system were the default for humanity and the rejection of it somehow a willful attempt at evil. Humanists, however, have been around for a long time. We tend to overlook that fact because they weren’t busy plotting to destroy others. Being raised in a religious environment, I didn’t even realize that long before I was born quiet, ethical, good people had come to think that religion was a delusion. Sure, some humanists have weird peccadilloes, but as the headlines remind us, so do the religious. The problem comes in when militants are the measuring rod. “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again,” a pacifist once said.

At the root of all this blustering is the unrelenting urge to convert. Those who are truly convinced they’ve found the right way—believing or un—want others to see it their way. Problem is, others want the same thing, the other way around. Apart from Cohen’s observations, I would note that we never hear of tolerant believers or unbelievers attacking anyone. Physically or verbally. The mantra of live and let live applies up to the point that a belief system mandates harm and then the old contradictions begin to resurrect themselves. Some belief systems are, by dint of their very premises, immoral. The majority, however, are just fine. If the zeal for conversion can be kept under control. I can envision a world where evangelical atheists could exist side-by-side with those who believe and don’t believe at the same time. And they might even meet together peacefully if only we would leave the militancy at home.

The Price of Flags

As a child, Memorial Day signaled the start of summer. Most of the time it announced that the obligations of school were nearly over and that was sufficient cause to celebrate. It was not until well into adulthood that I realized the holiday commemorated those who’d died in the armed services. I’d noticed the flags in cemeteries, of course, and we often visited the graves of civilian ancestors buried close enough to reach. The message did not penetrate my head, however, that all of those little flags should be telling me something. I grew up not knowing my father, but I did know he was a veteran. When all his children gathered for a (mostly) impromptu picnic yesterday, for the first time in well over thirty years, I realized how much of a mystery he was to me. At his funeral the flag on his coffin was presented to my older brother as part of military tradition, although he had died in peacetime, and pretty much isolated from all his progeny. It is a somber thought even now, although it was eleven years ago.

I have been a pacifist since my youngest days. Sure, I played with toy guns and G. I. Joe, but that was the culture of kids growing up during the Vietnam War. Only vaguely did we realize the actual horrors that were happening daily thousands of miles away. In my mind there was no reason to go to war. In Sunday School we were taught to settle our differences nicely, even if it meant that you had to be cheated or take less for yourself. This always seemed the central tenet of Christianity to me, and I wondered why the most conservative of Christian presidents seemed the most hawkish, the most ready to sacrifice the fathers, sons, brothers, and now mothers, sisters, and daughters of others for so little. The number of flags even in that little country graveyard where my grandparents were buried haunt me.

We still have members of the armed forces over seas. The military budget of one of the most prosperous nations on the planet is astronomical. We can now kill with drones so that we don’t even have to see the carnage we create. When did the lives of young adults become small change? I know it’s idealistic of me, and probably terribly naive, but I still can’t make sense of our cultural perception of how cheap human life can be. Maybe I’m just a little overly sentimental about a father I never really knew. But looking over my siblings, I see that he produced some nice, generous, and peace-loving children over half a century ago. And while we have our picnics and enjoy a rare day off of work or school, thousands of silent flags will be flapping in cemeteries all across this country reminding us that better ways exist to resolve our differences. If only we could take a holiday from war and violence we might see fewer flags and even more holidays.

Photo credit: Remember.

Photo credit: Remember.

Fateful Dreams

Popular historians love a good coincidence. I suppose it is a way of reading order into a chaotic world where many events, in the final analysis, just don’t make sense. Perhaps academic historians shy away from coincidental events—after all, they contain a whiff of the improbable about them, and academics can admit no greater force driving our efforts toward a civil existence. The rest of us, however, like to note them. This week contains the anniversaries of a couple of significant landmarks of United States history, and they may somehow be related. November 19 marked the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address while November 22 is the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The events, a century and three days apart, stand for transitions in American society, and the implications of both still linger on as unfairness and fear continue to haunt our hopes for a future where all might indeed be considered created equal—and not just all men, but all people—and where optimism might edge out cynicism in the political world.

486px-Abraham_Lincoln_November_1863Of course, both Lincoln and Kennedy died at the hands of assassins. America has never been terribly comfortable with dreamers. The century that separated the Gettysburg Address from Kennedy’s tragic death was not enough time to swing the ship of state around to bring about a world of dreams. Unfortunately, war also defined both presidencies. The dream of a world at peace has been more difficult to attain than a human desire for such a world would seem to merit. If we all (or most) want a world at peace, why can’t we bring it about? Unfortunately, it seems that a basic sense of justice is lacking.

500px-John_F._Kennedy,_White_House_color_photo_portraitPerhaps it is a coincidence that many of the world’s religions stress the concept of a just society. By far the majority of the world population associates itself with one form of religious belief or another. Not all religions get along, however. Many of the conflicts that have erupted into wars have had a basis in differing religions. Power is easily seized from dreamers, religious or not. Watching modern elections is a terribly sobering event. We don’t advertise what we might accomplish, but rather what is so wrong with the other guy so that we win by a paltry default. Victory for whom? And why consider it a victory? A friend once suggested that Christians should start out as bishops and eventually be promoted to the level of laity. I thought it was a brilliant idea that could be applied to politics as well. Think of it: elected officials as servants of the people. Of course, by coincidence, I am a hopeless dreamer.

Danger de Nuit

I am on a boat—maybe it’s the Titanic. Far from land. For some reason, vaguely unclear, the ship is sinking. There’s panic—people are running and flailing, trying to save themselves. I’m frozen with terror as the icy water encroaches. I can’t swim. I prepare to die. So goes a nightmare I had several times in association with a former place of employment. Nashotah House felt traumatic to me with forced liturgies and daily reminders of my inferior status. The terror of the nightmares was very real, and the day I was fired did nothing to improve them. As a child I was plagued with phobias and frequently experienced horrific nightmares. They still come once in a while, but since I’ve left the employment of the church, they have become, gradually, less frequent. Nightmares are just dreams gone bad, and I’ve always been a dreamer.

Last month Time ran a story on nightmares. The subject of nightmares has now caught the attention of the military because of cases of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. When the military decides to show its humane side, it doesn’t fear backing it with big bucks. Soldiers confess to frequent nightmares after witnessing the atrocities of war. (One psychologist said that many at Nashotah House seemed to be suffering from a similar phenomenon.) Theorists now suggest that nightmares might lead to mental illness, and sleep deprivation, as we all know, can lead to bad judgment. Not a good thing on the battlefield. Or behind the wheel of a car. Or, in a recent real-life nightmare, while flying a jet.

In many ways nightmares seem like minor annoyances—they don’t physically hurt anyone, and they end when you wake. Time probably wouldn’t have reported on them if it hadn’t been for the military angle. This seems a paradigmatic situation. A common problem goes ignored until it affects the military, then it is deemed worth research funded by tax-payers. I am well acquainted with nightmares. As a child they became part of my identity. I am heartened that serious research is considered worthy of federal money. It seems, however, that perhaps a better way to end battle-induced nightmares would be to stop the horrors of warfare. When war ends, some nightmares will cease. Of course, I’ve always been a dreamer.

Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?
-Poe

Fighting God

Quoting Orson Scott Card, P. W. Singer notes in Wired for War that two of humanity’s “primary occupations” are war and religion. These two aspects of life are simultaneously very distant while abutting each other. While analysts cite many causes of war, there is no agreement concerning why we seem to be constantly belligerent. As a species we are keenly aware of small differences, perhaps like ants, and use those minor points to excuse the exercise of violence. Yet we are also a profoundly religious species as well, believing in supernatural powers that sometimes deliver us from, sometimes into, war. The Bible, just by way of example, contains many accounts of war. Often they are undertaken at the behest of deity. Religion and war coexist a little too comfortably.

Although Singer’s purpose in this book is to analyze the impact of robotic technology on the practice of war, he also finds indications about the origins of war itself. In today’s affluent world, dominated by technology, we should expect that armed conflict would be on the decline. Instead, it would be difficult to find any historic era when unfair distribution of basic goods has been more pronounced. As Singer notes, social disruption today tends to begin in cities, places where those in squalor daily see the opulence of their neighbors’ lifestyles. Our culture awards the aggressive—those with bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger payrolls. To these we defer. At the same time, the vast majority have difficulty finding enough to survive, let alone thrive. Still, we offer tax breaks to those who don’t need them and remind the poorest of their social obligations. This is often done in the name of religion. God is the ultimate capitalist.

The sum result, it seems, is not to lessen human hopes for religious deliverance. The belief in fairness, biologists inform us, is deeply embedded in primate evolution. We believe in fairness, and when it is elusive we thrust it toward the heavens, trusting in divine justice. Millions have died awaiting that justice that isn’t forthcoming. Again, another quote from one of Singer’s sources, “Amid galaxies of shining technologies there is a struggle to redefine human meaning… Half the world is looking for God anew, and the other half is behaving as though no god exists” in the words of Ralph Peters. Although the reference here is to technology, it could just as easily be to money or war. It appears as though we have an actual trinity of casus belli that are inseparable: technology, money, and God.

Some of our earliest technology

Battle Bibles

“There are no atheists in foxholes,” so the old saying goes. No doubt, war is among the most stressful circumstances in which humans insinuate others (who goes to war happily and without reservation?). As a corollary, to keep soldiers comforted in hellish surroundings, it has at times been common to supply them with Bibles. In an exhibit I’ve not yet seen, the Museum of Biblical Arts in New York currently has a display of soldier’s Bibles. A poignant dissonance accompanies such a concept. In the newspaper story announcing it, the phrase that leapt out at me was “Bibles clothed in camouflage.” To be sure, the Bible contains many narratives of war, even demanding genocide in certain circumstances, but as a whole the most valued commodity appears to be peace. Too often, however, it is peace on our terms.

According to the article, Bible distribution began in the United States in the Civil War. Bibles were offered to belligerents on both sides. Naturally, taken into the viewpoint of the chosen ones, God is on the side of the reader. God is the ultimate conflicted deity. This is cold comfort to a soldier dying on the battlefield of all-too-human contention. In keeping with religious differences, over time Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish versions have been offered. Notes in these government-issued religious documents urge the soldier to find succor here. One need not read too deeply between the lines to find the message is the willingness to lay down one’s life.

In a world acutely aware of religious differences, the idea of supplying fighting forces with religious backing may seem questionable. Can there be sincerity in the message that Scripture of any description ought to comfort a person who has been placed in this unenviable position by human greed, powerlust, or self-aggrandizement? What reason have we for war any longer? If religion be true, why have we not matured by even a millisecond since Joshua invaded Canaan? Giving a soldier a camouflaged Bible is to place a Band-Aid on a gaping wound requiring many stitches. Far better to take the message of peace to heart and look for reasonable ways to solve our differences. Idealistic? Without doubt. But it might help to save the cost of distributing Bibles to those whose lives are seemingly less valued than those who begin armed conflicts in the first place.

There is no “holy” in war.

Foxhole Atheists

It’s Veterans Day and prayer makes the headlines. The old adage about no atheists in foxholes comes to mind as those who fought for the values we hold reminisce about the not-so-happy days before the 1950s when the last semblance of normalcy in American life apparently died. The New Jersey Star-Ledger quotes a World War II veteran who participated at the Battle of Normandy saying “I might have prayed more than I ever prayed before.” No atheists in foxholes. As a lifelong pacifist, I have always believed that war is a terrible waste. 3.5 billion years of evolution and the best we can come up with is to hurl supersonic lead slugs at each other over who gets what and who deserves more than who else. I don’t deny that veterans should be honored – my father was a veteran – but war should not.

A sad truth is that many wars, probably in the history of the modern world, most wars, have been fought for religious reasons. The idea that God demands certain things ultimately leads to fighting over what it is God wants. Both sides often claiming the silent deity is on their side. Millions of mere mortals have had to pay the price. Hey, can’t we just talk about this?

War may very well have evolutionary roots. Studies of chimpanzees suggest that homo sapiens are not the only overly aggressive primates. If we deny our cousins religion, however, only homo sapiens fight for mythological causes. One of the great ironies of life is that the most advanced technology trickles down to civilian life from military applications. If something is new, it must have a tactical use against the enemy. Once the enemy is subdued, we can share the wealth. I grew up hearing about “godless Communists.” I watched in dismay as Bush declared a new crusade. I shudder when I read that Iran is developing long-range missile facilities. God is the midst of all this. Veterans protected us from the human-level wars of a bygone era. In our own homemade Armageddon, however, our own technology will doubtless become the weapons in the hands of an angry God.

If God be for us...

War and Peace

A few weeks back a friend pointed me to a Facebook-style website someone in my high school graduating class had put together. In high school I was awkward, shy, and a little too obvious about my religious beliefs, so I was a bit timid to join. Nostalgia eventually got me in a headlock, just like in gym class, so I signed up. One of my classmates helped me to find one of the people who had a profound impact on my life. Although I never had him for a class, Mr. Milliken was my Creative Writing Club advisor, and a person I utterly respect and admire. I’m not normally a hero worshiper, but Mr. Milliken had been through more suffering than many men his age and had come out of it a sincere, caring, and thoughtful individual. When I found out that he had published a brief collection of his poetry about his time in Vietnam, I immediately ordered it.

Available from Lulu.com

War has always haunted me. Perhaps it was partially because of the tales Mr. Milliken sometimes told, or because of my macabre reading about the terrors of twentieth-century conflicts, but whatever the cause for my fear, it was real. War has been with humanity for as long as its more docile cousin, civilization. Being rational creatures, there seems to be no reason that we should not be able to reason ourselves out of armed conflict, but we don’t. Knowing that one of my most respected high school influences had nearly died in Vietnam chilled me. Reading his poetry, I shiver once again.

While justifying it on theological grounds, the Hebrew Bible takes a fatalistic view of war. Killing of enemies who stand in the way of god’s plan is sanctioned, commanded even. The victims, however, are humans just like the victors.

When I get caught up in the complex web of difficulties my own life has woven into, I find it easy to complain. Reading when they come with guns, however, reminds me that many have had it much worse and have come out as superior human beings. For those who are victims of war, we can only hope that forgiveness will somehow descend on those of us who have not yet put an end to it.