11/25/2005

God: conspiracy or coincidence?

I've just been reading an article in December's Atlantic Monthly, entitled, "Is God an Accident?" It's really more on the evolutionary psychology front, and the answer, according to the author, Paul Bloom, is yes. God is an accident of evolution, but belief in God and, particularly, in the promise of an afterlife, is now basically hardwired.

The evolutionary psychology aspect of it has to do with survival, of course. Bloom writes: "religion thrives because groups that have it outgrow and outlast those that do not." It gives the group cohesion, like a fraternity, he argues. And I would agree this is a central function of religion that we can see at play easily enough in today's culture and politics. It's a kind of tribalism.

But the main argument here centers on biology, and it is a fascinating one. Citing studies of infants and autistic kids, Bloom and his cohorts assert that "a distinction between the physical and the psychological is fundamental to human thought.... Understanding of the physical world and understanding of the social world can be seen as akin to two distinct computers in a baby's brain, running separate programs and performing separate tasks.... Babies have two systems that work in a cold-bloodedly rational way to help them anticipate and understand—and, when they get older, to manipulate—physical and social entities. In other words, both these systems are biological adaptations that give human beings a badly needed head start in dealing with objects and people. But these systems go awry in two important ways that are the foundations of religion. First, we perceive the world of objects as essentially separate from the world of minds, making it possible for us to envision soulless bodies and bodiless souls. This helps explain why we believe in gods and an afterlife. Second, our system of social understanding overshoots, inferring goals and desires where none exist. This makes us animists and creationists."

The long and short of it is: "[T]he universal themes of religion are not learned. They emerge as accidental by-products of our mental systems. They are part of human nature."

Just an observation.

This time of year all the newspapers and magazines start running these statistics, like "Seventy-nine percent of Americans believe that, as the Bible says, Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, without a human father, according to a new NEWSWEEK poll."

"In the NEWSWEEK poll, 93 percent of Americans say they believe Jesus Christ actually lived and 82 percent believe Jesus Christ was God or the Son of God. Fifty-two percent of all those polled believe, as the Bible proclaims, that Jesus will return to earth someday; 21 percent do not believe it. Fifteen percent believe Jesus will return in their lifetime; 47 percent do not, the poll shows."

And so on. I'm sorry, but I don't trust these polls, and even if they are accurate, I think for a lot of people belief in God can be explained in terms of Pascal's wager. It's always a better "bet" to believe in God, because what's to be gained from believing in God is always greater than the expected value from non-belief.

The evolutionary psychologists' argument makes sense here. The gut seems to say "there must be a god." But when you start thinking about an afterlife and all that--I mean, really, if you just sit down and think about it for, like, ten minutes, it's like, nah, no way. I mean, check out this vision of Heaven quoted in the Atlantic piece:

"Heaven is dynamic. It's bursting with excitement and action. It's the ultimate playground, created purely for our enjoyment, by someone who knows what enjoyment means, because He invented it. It's Disney World, Hawaii, Paris, Rome, and New York all rolled up into one. And it's forever! Heaven truly is the vacation that never ends."

Yikes. That perfectly ghastly picture is from some perhaps wee bit cynical book called A Travel Guide to Heaven. But, really, that's how a lot of people who apparently don't think a lot think about it. I mean, "in two Newsweek Polls about the existence of heaven and hell, majorities of Americans [like 3/4 of us] believe heaven is an actual place and how you live your life on earth determines if you'll get there. And you'll eat well while in heaven: 47 percent say there will be plenty of good food to eat. And 77 percent say there won't be favoritism for the especially holy."

I don't want to mock anybody's beliefs here, but it's hard not to. I used to know this very WASPy guy, lily white, who, every winter insisted that come summer he would get black as a Moor. He really believed it, too. You'd see him at the height of summer, and he'd always look just as white as ever. I was always like, "rrowwrr, savage tan, dude!" You know, people believe what they believe. Most the time it's no skin off my arse. But when it comes to religion, people get all pushy all the sudden.

I grew up with a very reasonable amount of religion in my life. It wasn't Jesus this and Jesus that all night and day, and What Would Jesus Do? Pepsi or Coke? Jordache or Lee? McDonald's or Wendy's? Would Jesus smoke another bowl? Would Jesus spit or swallow? You know, for us, back in Speedway, Indiana in the seventies, Jesus was not some persnickety micromanager, always checking up to make sure you weren't slouching off during office hours. That shit started in the eighties when corporate was cool. I mean, Jesus isn't even likable anymore. If Falwell's Jesus came back, can you imagine? What a prick. It'd be, "do this and do that, and don't do this and don't do that! And we've got CCTV so we can see what you're doing and not doing at all times! And we're monitoring your emails! And I'm the boss! And my daddy owns this company! And don't you forget it!" And all those brown nosers from the 700 Club would be toadying up to him. "Wouldst thou liketh some coffee, Lord? Nutrasweet? Cremora, Lord? May I send that fax for thou, oh Lord, and then annointeth thy head with spikenard?" Nauseating.

Anyway, I didn't really think about mortality much through my twenties. Most people don't. I mean, occasionally there's some Harold and Maude type character out there, but most people cruise through their twenties still pretty much believing they're invincible and, frankly, immortal. And I did, too. But I had a very dark period a few years ago, and had nothing better to do than think about death all the time. Since early childhood my interests had run toward the morbid and the grotesque, but now the morbidity took center stage. I was living in a medieval village in Eastern Europe at the time, and working in an underground bunker. It seemed appropriate. I got so freaked out about dying someday that I threw out all my porn. I didn’t want them to find me dead in my flat with all this porn everywhere. It was clearly an existential crisis of thitherto unimaginable proportions.

But it wasn't Dostoyevsky or Nietzsche or Kafka, or some other giant of existentialism who set me off, it was, of all people, C.S. Lewis.

I’d read Mere Christianity on the train from the capital, and started mulling it over. Lewis is fairly unequivocal about a couple of points, one of which is this issue of eternal life. But when I actually sat down and thought about it, it didn't make a lick of sense. Not a lick. I don’t suppose it has to in the end. I mean, God works in mysterious ways, as they say, but as scary as it is to contemplate ceasing to exist (of course, once one ceases to exist I'm guessing the fear subsides pretty quick-like), the prospect of never ceasing to exist is even harder on the head. I mean, try to get your mind around that one. Give yourself a brain hemorrhage.

We get lots of practice for eternal sleep, but what could prepare us for eternal life? Life itself is defined by the persistance of desire and the certainty of death. Who would want to deal with that forever? Even in nature, there’s no correlate for this idea of everlasting stasis. What in nature, which is always moving, always morphing, is there to relate this strange concept to? Where would we even get the idea that such a thing could be true, much less desirable?

Well, embarrassingly enough, it obviously comes straight from childhood. There’s a time in childhood, I think, when every kid’s thinking, I wish things would stay just the way they are right now forever and ever and ever. I remember several times in my formative years when I thought, well, now I’m perfect. I’m young and hung, and full of spunk! I don’t ever want to change. But then you change, and you realize that it’s all for the best, even if things are always getting worse. Because it'll soon be over. And hey, that’s the course of Nature.

Struggling to find a correlate in nature to the concept of eternal life is only one problem. I suppose if I could at least see the point of living forever I would be willing to accept the concept on faith. I mean, there are a lot of things I know nothing about and couldn’t possibly understand in this lifetime that I readily enough accept, because it’s advantageous to do so. I don’t have a tough time accepting the concept of divinity, of God, for that matter, mostly because of this nettlesome issue of a first cause. I mean, they say everything that is was once packed into the space of a sugar cube. But why should there have been anything at all, much less a sugar cube? And where was this sugar cube in the first place?

That’s when God comes in handy. When you start asking questions. God is the sum total of all unanswerable questions. Even if, say, pi, is practically impossible to conceive of, isn’t it nice to know that we have a little symbol to make it theoretically conceivable? Because our minds are made (God knows why) for asking questions the answers to which are, even when known, totally incomprehensible, we risk flinging ourselves headlong into madness by asking them. God makes the practically incomprehensible theoretically conceivable.

So Lewis says Christianity demands that we accept the literal truth of eternal life. He provides a clue as to how we are to do it with his explanation of God’s reality. Apparently, it was God and the sugar cube before time began. Still God stands outside of time. When we become like God, or gods in our own right, which is the opportunity God is offering us, according to Lewis, we, too, presumably, will stand outside of time. And this, I gather, is what is meant by eternal life. Life without end, because life without end is life outside of time. But is this really all that comforting? I mean, don’t the majority of Christians have this warm, fuzzy picture of a big family picnic in the sky? But how much potato salad can you eat? How many times can you listen to Aunt Bernice tell that story about seeing Hugh Jackman outside the Ritz-Carlton when she visited New York in the summer of '03? And I guarantee you're gonna get sick and tired of Uncle Jack (even in Heaven everyone calls him "Uncle Jerk") drinking his highballs, and scratching his low balls, smoking his Kools, belching and popping out his teeth. FOREVER. Even the harpist--you'd want to throttle her after the twelve millionth rendition of "How Great Thou Art," wouldn't you?

Anyway, the more I thought about it the more horrified I became and the more comfort I sought. I decided to go back and read the Gospels. See what wisdom I could glean from them about these vexing questions. Matthew, Mark, and Luke sure know how to grab the reader and draw him into the narrative. Matthew, for instance, opens with an Old Testament-style chapter relating who begat whom, starting with Abraham. Sixteen verses later we’re all the way down to Jacob, son of Matthan, who begat Joseph, husband of Mary, and you’re asking yourself, who the hell cares who begat Joseph? I mean, what the hell does Joseph have to do with it? And anyway, even if he had a role in the birth of Christ, which would kind of defeat the whole purpose, isn’t Judaism matrilineal?

Mark is no less gripping. He’s got the right idea, starting off with John the Baptist, who is indisputably one of the most compelling figures in the Bible, but then he’s off on a wild tangent, and most of the time you’ve no idea really what the hell he’s banging on about. For all the excitement what he’s relating in the first few verses should elicit, the tone of the narrative is so ho-hum, you’d think there was nothing at all out of the ordinary about any of it. Three lousy verses about Christ’s forty days in the wilderness. After Christ is baptized by John, “there came a voice from heaven, saying, thou art my beloved son in whom I am well pleased. And immediately the spirit driveth him into the wilderness. And he was there in the wilderness for forty days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him. And yadda yadda yadda. And after that he worked some miracles, the details aren’t really interesting, he walked on the water, and so on. And then the bastards crucified him. But he got the last laugh. The end.” Mark, baby! Don’t beat us over the head with it! We want to be seduced!

Luke is the intellectual of the bunch. Or maybe he was a lawyer. He starts off with “Forasmuch”. NEXT! “Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, even as they deliver them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word; it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first…” and etc. You get the picture. The whole book of Luke is one long run-on sentence. Twenty-four whole chapters! Très avant-garde, Luke! Bravo!

No, it’s only St John who’s got the gift. Chapter One, verse one: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Any questions? Gives me chills all up and down my spine. If the rest of the Bible was like that people would actually read it, instead of using it to beat other people over the head with.

But I have to admit I was, frankly, a little disappointed over all. I guess I'd expected something else. Questions still nagging me, I went to visit my Socrates, an old man called Lajos, who, at the time, thought he had cancer and was preparing himself for death. (Turned out he was fine.) He said he was not afraid of death, but not so keen on the actual dying part, which is reasonable. Though a lot of people are afraid of death. And that's the thing, innit? My Socrates offered another piece of the puzzle. I mean, it's true, I’m afraid of death, despite the consolation offered us by the likes of Montaigne, who, in “To Philosophize is to Learn How to Die,” wrote:

"[A]lmost imperceptibly, Nature leads us by the hand down a gentle slope; little by little, step by step, she engulfs us in that pitiful state and breaks us in, so that we feel no jolt when youth dies in us, although in essence and in truth that is a harsher death than the total extinction of a languishing life as old age dies. For it is not so grievous a leap from wretched existence to non-existence as it is from a sweet existence in full bloom to one of travail and pain."

Hazlitt has some good advice for us, echoing Lucretius:

"Perhaps the best cure for the fear of death [he writes in “On the Fear of Death”] is to reflect that life has a beginning as well as an end. There was a time when we were not: this gives us no concern – why then should it trouble us that a time will come when we shall cease to be? …We do not consider the six thousand years of the world before we were born as so much lost time to us: we are perfectly indifferent about the matter."

But I don’t know, unless you’re a very enlightened Buddhist, your own irrefutable demise is the one thing you can’t imagine. If you turn Descarte’s clever declaration on its little head what are you left with? We simply cannot ourselves imagine what it is like not to be, for being is the main ingredient of a self. And while we can imagine a world in which we are not present, we cannot imagine it but from the perspective granted by being present somehow somewhere else.

Of course, every philosopher or religious thinker worth his salt has tackled the issue of death. It is The Big One, after all. Thomas Nagel, in his essay “Death” opens with “if death is the unequivocal and permanent end of our existence, the question arises whether it is a bad thing to die.” Personally, I think it’s a moot point, as good or bad, it must be done, but the essay raises some interesting issues, nonetheless. “If we are to make sense of the view that to die is bad,” he writes, “it must be on the ground that life is a good and death is the corresponding deprivation or loss, bad not because of any positive features but because of the desirability of what it removes.”

Nagel hits the nail on the head when he says, “Observed from without, human beings obviously have a natural lifespan and cannot live much longer than a hundred years. A man’s sense of his own experience, on the other hand, does not embody this idea of a natural limit. His existence defines for him an essentially open-ended possible future.”

This is why, Nagel contends, Lucretius’s observation, which is echoed by Hazlitt in the passage above, that no one bothers much about the eternity preceding his existence, and thus it’s irrational to bother about the eternity following his death, is itself not entirely rational. “The direction of time is crucial,” Nagel writes. “It is true that both the time before a man’s birth and the time after his death are times when he does not exist. But the time after his death is time of which his death deprives him.”

So C.S. Lewis imagines a God outside of Time (for surely if there is a First Cause, it is somewhere outside of time), and imagines mankind joining him. But what would such an existence be like? It would entail such a complete change of state that it would constitute a total break from human existence. We, our human lives and the consciousness of them, would be lost in this infinite view anyway. This is why belief in God doesn’t comfort me in the least on this count. It must be admitted that the fear of death, where death is defined as Nagel defines it in his essay—“the unequivocal and permanent end of our existence”—is precisely what draws people to Christianity, I think, but God will have to do better than promise me eternal life if he wants me to join his club. People are looking for the same assurances from Ramakrishna and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and the lot. But isn’t there some God out there with the balls to say, look, I’m sorry, I can’t change the fact that you’re gonna die, and when you die that’s the end of you, but I can make this short, brutish life a little brighter by doing x, y, and z? Maybe that’s what sex is. I mean, God could have made life short, brutish, and had us reproduce asexually. But he had mercy.

I suppose that’s the way evolutionary biology, which I still maintain is the true religion of our age, deals with the question of immortality. Like everything else, it’s in the genes. And yet, the very real issue is the persistence of the individual, the mystery of subjectivity, of individual consciousness. I think it only makes sense in the context of a bigger—a much bigger—a truly gigantic—picture, in which what looks to us like individual consciousness is actually no such thing. Still, I cannot deny the fact of my own existence, as much as I would sometimes like to. And whether I am part of a much larger organism in a more essential way than I can at this point imagine, there is still the basic problem of my own existence, my subjectivity, to consider.

But let’s not.

Actually, the pieces of the evolutionary biological puzzle fit together pretty nicely. That’s the thing. In Evolutionary Biology there’s a place for everything and everything’s in its place. It’s very tidy. Everyone has a role to play, everyone has a function. Except homosexuals, of course. But probably they make sense somehow. Or at least sodomy isn’t such a stretch. I mean, it may not serve a quantifiable function, but it might be argued it’s just another, if extreme form of male-bonding, or establishing and reinforcing male hierarchies. Or maybe it’s an Everest thing. I mean, not everything has to be a big, hairy deal, even for Evolutionary Biologists. To be perfectly honest, in biological terms, I don’t think sodomy and fellatio are in any way significant. There’s no reason homosexual behavior has to have any kind of impact on the biological imperative to reproduce. It actually supplements this function quite nicely. It is a moral question, though, and a valid one. And it has to do with establishing what exactly constitutes the bond of friendship. But that’s another matter, entirely, isn’t it?

What I want to get at before the thread of my thought becomes absolutely frayed is the degree to which the belief systems that have risen to address our fear of death influence our actions in this life. It seems to me that’s The Thing. Did God give us sex as a small consolation, or was it a practical consideration, or merely a fluke? Well, we’ve got it now. The question is what to do with it. It provides us the only possibility of some kind of immortality, though maybe not the kind we’d have chosen for ourselves (I am inclined to believe that God was wiser in this, as in countless other things, than we are).

As for the consolation of an afterlife. Hazlitt gets it right when he says, “the love of life is an habitual attachment…we have an inveterate prejudice in favor of our immediate existence, such as it is.”

Hazlitt also writes: “We would all of us wish the present moment to last forever,” which seems to me the essence of it. If you take the long-view (and this is why I think so few do), I mean, looking backwards, you’ll be struck by how mistaken you were in the pleasure you took in yourself each fleeting moment. But because we are always essentially in that moving instant, we don’t think about it. We are perfectly happy, or if not happy, perfectly adjusted to what we are in that instant. This is why murderers can appear so detached during their trials. They are not, in fact, the same men who committed the act they are being judged for now. Now they are in the other’s shoes. Now they are the other, in a way.

Anyway, that’s what we want to last, that moving instant. Because who we are is forever changing. If we lived a million years can you imagine how distorted we would become, how perverted our senses, how lost in the maze of our thoughts? How bitter we would become at having to endure so long a life?

Swift gives us a picture of what eternal life might look like in Gulliver’s Travels. During Gulliver’s short stay in Luggnagg, he is told of the “Struldbruggs” or Immortals. Gulliver goes into raptures over the whole idea. His hosts explain that it’s not so great a thing as he thinks. For the Immortals do grow old. “The question therefore was not whether a man would choose to be always in the prime of youth, attended with prosperity and health, but how he would pass a perpetual life under all the usual disadvantages which old age brings along with it.”

"He said they commonly acted like mortals, till about thirty years old, after which by degrees they grew melancholy and dejected, increasing in both till they came to fourscore…. When they came to fourscore years, which is reckoned the extremity of living in this country, they had not only all the follies and infirmities of other old men, but many more which arose from the dreadful prospect of never dying. They were not only opinionative, peevish, covetous, morose, vain, talkative, but incapable of friendship, and dead to all natural affection, which never descended below their grand­ children. Envy and impotent desires are their prevailing passions. But those objects against which their envy seems principally directed, are the vices of the younger sort, and the deaths of the old. By reflecting on the former, they find them­selves cut off from all possibility of pleasure; and whenever they see a funeral, they lament and repine that others are gone to an harbour of rest, to which they themselves never can hope to arrive. They have no remembrance of anything but what they learned and observed in their youth and middle age, and even that is very imperfect. And for the truth or particulars of any fact, it is safer to depend on common traditions than upon their best recollections. The least miserable among them appear to be those who turn to dotage, and entirely lose their memories; these meet with more pity and assistance, because they want many bad qualities which abound in others.”

“Averice,” Swift concludes in true Swiftian style, “is the necessary consequent of old age.”

If you try to imagine the practical aspects of eternal life, as, say, C.S. Lewis encourages us to do in Mere Christianity, you’ll see immediately what a real hassle it is. Lewis asks us to think about how perverted a man’s character can become in the space of a mere four score, and then multiply that by a factor of, well, ∞.

“[E]very time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace, and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.”

And apparently, this process just goes on and on forever. Sounds like fun, eh?

Think about it.

11/22/2005

a season in hell vs. a year of magical thinking

I've just finished my course of antibiotics and am feeling a lot better, after about a week and a half dealing with tonsillitis. Once again, I've been advised to have a tensillectomy, and will arrange one as soon as I can get my insurance situation straightened out.

It's a gloomy day to emerge from a funk, let me tell you. I don't have any classes this week, either, so I'm really just sitting around with my thumb up my ass.

I have been reading George Steiner's In Bluebeard's Castle: Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture. Chapter 2: "A Season in Hell" is particularly thought-provoking, and struggles to address the question: "why kill the Jews?" He's not advocating killing them, of course, he's asking why Western Culture at its height attempted to. What did they represent that they had to be purged?

Today, it's likely that most non-Jews don't give the Holocaust all that much thought. It's viewed by and large as an instance of genocide, alongside countless other genocides. Genocide, it is granted, is wrong. The Holocaust was, too. And that's about as far as they go. But Steiner argues convincingly that the Holocaust was, and remains, unique, because of the earth-shaking role Judaism--particularly the Jews' "invention" of monotheism--played in forming the very foundation of Western Culture.

Steiner speaks of "the singularity, the brain-hammering strangeness, of the monotheistic idea...[which] tore up the human psyche by its most ancient roots. The break has never really knit." Part of the problem, according to Steiner, is the impossibility of a single deity. "How many human beings have ever been capable, could ever be capable of, housing in themselves an inconceivable omnipresence?" (I'll have to admit, I have run into a few who certainly thought they could, or worse, that they themselves were an "inconceivable omnipresense". Let me tell you, inconceivable omnipresences make for very bad dinner dates.)

He goes on: "the Mosaic God has been from the outset, even when passionately invoked, an immeasurable Absence.... It hammers at human consciousness, demanding that it transcend itself." And this is really what got peoples' goats about the Hebrew God. Very demanding. They built up "resentment against the unattainable ideal of the one God. By killing the Jews, Western culture would eradicate those who had 'invented' God." Elsewhere, to bolster this point, he quotes Hitler: "conscience is a Jewish invention."

So, essentially, Steiner's argument is that "the Jew became, as it were, the 'bad conscience' of Western history. In him the abandonments of spiritual and moral perfection, the hypocrisies of an established, mundane religiosity, the absenses of a disappointed, potentially vengeful God, were kept alive and visible."

"The Holocaust," he says, "is a reflex, the more complete for being long-inhibited, of natural sensory consciousness, of instinctual polytheistic and animist needs."

Not the most uplifting stuff, but there it is.

I've also been following the news of Joan Didion's last book, as I am sure it will be, entitled the Year of Magical Thinking. Last week it won the National Book Award. I haven't read it, but I read a lengthy excerpt from it in--it was either The New Yorker or the Times Sunday Magazine. And I was struck by how, despite the heaps of praise it has received, it was utterly banal.

Now, I have long been a fan of Didion. Not a rabid fan, but I have always admired her prose style, and she is a writer of some insight. Not profound, but intelligent, if a little too intellectual at times. I can also relate to people feeling sorry for someone who's lost her life's companion, and the writing community, or whatever you want to call--the publishing conglommerate--rallying around one of its own.

The problem here is really two-fold. First, she has chosen the wrong medium for her topic, in addition to choosing a topic that it is difficult to say anything about that is not utterly banal. It seems self-aggrandizing to write a book about something everyone must go through at some point, and it argues special insight. When my dad was dying I searched in vain for someone or something who could tell me what we were all going through. The fact is, no one could, and no one can. Like physical pain, grief and loss are so intensely personal, so subjective, there is really no way to communicate them without trivializing them.

So that's one thing. Didion struggles admirably for some communicable insight into what is precisely an incommunicable experience. You may pity her, and even grieve with her (and if you have lost someone close to you, you will recognize in her grief something of your own, certainly), but what there is to admire is really the failure of her effort here.

The second problem is the insularity of Didion's world. Quite frankly, she acts and writes as if the Manhatten high life she and her husband were a part of exempted them from the mudane tragedies of life. That the death of her husband was such a revelation to her is truly pitiable. It argues on the one hand for an abiding and all-consuming love between them, but on the other for a kind of blindness to the condition attached to all love. To be blindsided by death at Didion's age is--I don't know what to call it, really.

In a way it's appalling, but it's also typical for the times we live in, where we dare not ackowledge the finality of death, and where a bourgeois culture of entitlement has otherwise reasonably intelligent people suspecting they may, in fact, be exempt from mortality, too. But like Rilke’s Chamberlain Brigge, we all know, intuitively, whether or not we speak of it, that “you have your death inside you as a fruit has its core.”

The stoics counsel us to think about death every day, and it's a good idea, I think. Keeps you from forgetting that regardless of how we feel about it (I'm of Edna St. Vincent Millay's opinion: "I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death; I am not on his payroll"... "Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave/Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;/Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave./I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.") death is real, and imminent.

Didion’s cry is really the cry of Job—the one character in the book that bears his name who does not suffer anything but loss. The Book of Job is for those who are left behind. And the message is clear: we must go on. Perservere. (Our time, too, will come.) In the end Job has a new family to replace the old one he lost. His understanding—that life is for the living—is rewarded with new life, for the living.

What sounds like a plea for justice in Job, or in Didion’s book, for that matter, is really the cry of isolation. Because there is no injustice in death. It is, finally, the only real justice there is. But for the living, admittedly, it's hard. It is the loss of one’s world, a world Life seems to offer up freely in the beginning, but takes back piece by piece, until there is nothing left of it. When there is no one left, alone, we become strangers even to ourselves.

We may sublimate the awesome mystery of our deaths in clinical talk, but medical science will never master the individual death, only poetry has that power, and poetry, as distinct from jibes and jingles is, more and more, precisely what we lack.

11/21/2005

Dick Cheney needs a fucking enema.

11/19/2005

hoosiers

I have a crazy aunt. Everyone should have at least one. She's a housewife with nothing better to do with her time than pamper her dogs and bulk-forward to everyone in the family these irritating e-mails that get bulk-forwarded to her by other desperate housewives with nothing better to do than bulk-forward e-mails to each other. Most are of the chain-letter variety: in order to obtain good tidings you should forward the e-mails to at least seven others, and thus is the whole idiotic cycle perpetuated. Most people outgrow this by the fifth or sixth grade, but bored housewives have to have some way to let the world know they're out there, and I guess this is as good a way as any.

Lately, though, my aunt's forwarded e-mails have been getting a little radical. Now, what you should know about my aunt is that, firstly, I do love her dearly. She's an absolute riot. And, second: she very proudly considers herself a Democrat in a state (Indiana) where that's considered sedition. Now, people have all manner of reasons for considering themselves all manner of things, it's true. And, well, who can know the human heart? But when I get things like the following forwarded to my box with her enthusiastic endorsement, I have to ask myself what it means for her to think of herself as "progressive". Here's an e-mail, in its entirety, I received from her just last week...

---------------------------------------------

Subject: NEW PREAMBLE TO THE CONSTITUTION

This is probably the best e-mail I've seen in a long, long time. The following has been attributed to State Representative Mitchell Aye from GA. This guy should run for President one day...

"We the sensible people of the United States, in an attempt to help everyone get along, restore some semblance of justice, avoid more riots, keep our nation safe, promote positive behavior, and secure the blessings of debt-free liberty to ourselves and our great-great-great-grandchildren, hereby try one more time to ordain and establish some common sense guidelines for the terminally whiny, guilt ridden, delusional, and other liberal bed-wetters. We hold these truths to be self evident: that a whole lot of people are confused by the Bill of Rights and are so dim they require a Bill of NON-Rights."

ARTICLE I: You do not have the right to a new car, big screen TV, or any other form of wealth. More power to you if you can legally acquire them, but no one is guaranteeing anything.

ARTICLE II: You do not have the right to never be offended. This country is based on freedom, and that means freedom for everyone -- not just you! You may leave the room, turn the channel, express a different opinion, etc.; but the world is full of idiots, and probably always will be.

ARTICLE III: You do not have the right to be free from harm. If you stick a screwdriver in your eye, learn to be more careful, do not expect the tool manufacturer to make you and all your relatives independently wealthy.

ARTICLE IV: You do not have the right to free food and housing. Americans are the most charitable people to be found, and will gladly help anyone in need, but we are quickly growing weary of subsidizing generation after generation of professional couch potatoes who achieve nothing more than the creation of another generation of professional couch potatoes. (This one is my pet peeve...get an education and go to work....don't expect everyone else to take care of you!)

ARTICLE V: You do not have the right to free health care. That would be nice, but from the looks of public housing, we're just not interested in public health care.

ARTICLE VI: You do not have the right to physically harm other people. If you kidnap, rape, intentionally maim, or kill someone, don't be surprised if the rest of us want to see you fry in the electric chair.

ARTICLE VII: You do not have the right to the possessions of others. If you rob, cheat, or coerce away the goods or services of other citizens, don't be surprised if the rest of us get together and lock you away in a place where you still won't have the rightto a big screen color TV or a life of leisure.

ARTICLE VIII: You do not have the right to a job. All of us sure want you to have a job, and will gladly help you along in hard times, but we expect you to take advantage of the opportunities of education and vocational training laid before you to make yourselfuseful. (AMEN!)

ARTICLE IX: You do not have the right to happiness. Being an American means that you have the right to PURSUE happiness, which by the way, is a lot easier if you are unencumbered by an over abundance of idiotic laws created by those of you who were confused by the Bill of Rights.

ARTICLE X: This is an English speaking country. We don't care where you are from, English is our language. Learn it or go back to wherever you came from! (lastly....)

ARTICLE XI: You do not have the right to change our country's history or heritage. This country was founded on the belief in one true God. And yet, you are given the freedom to believe in any religion, any faith, or no faith at all; with no fear of persecution. The phrase IN GOD WE TRUST is part of our heritage and history, and if you are uncomfortable with it, TOUGH!!!!

If you agree, share this with a friend. No, you don't have to, and nothing tragic will befall you if you don't. I just think it's about time common sense is allowed to flourish. Sensible people of the UnitedStates speak out because if you do not, who will?

---------------------------------------------

I mean, if this is what passes for progress in the heartland, it's a lot worse than I thought. The thing that baffles me--it's the same thing that baffles me about the Right's monomania when it comes to abortion and gay rights (although I have to admit, a certain faction of the left is obsessed with these two particular issues as well, to the detriment of any viable nascent progressive movement there might be at this moment in America, but more about this later)--the thing that baffles me is, here are all these rich bitches in Indiana, and elsewhere, apparently, for whom these aren't in the least concrete or relevant issues.

At the very most, the issue of language (article X above) is a mild annoyance when it comes to communicating exactly how you want the help to clean the john, or getting your jelly donut at Dunkin' Donuts on your way to Bed Bath & Beyond. I mean, cut the immigrants a little slack here. You don't want to do the work yourself, don't want to pay someone a living wage to do it for you, so quit complaining.

There is also that very pernicious strain of very perceptible racism in this that we saw bubble up in the "toxic stew" left by Katrina. Where blacks were "looting" while whites were "searching for food." I don't say that the blacks weren't looting, but then so were the whites. Here, in article I, who do you think they're talking about? What do the rich care who has a goddamn big screen TV or how they got it? The rich have too much time on their hands, obviously, if they're sitting around grousing about poor people having too much stuff.

There was a recent poll that's sort of relevant here, conducted by the Marguerite Casey Foundation that found that, as the AP reported, "Rich, Poor See Poverty Very Differently." Big fucking news flash there, eh? The discrepancy had to do with,what else but who's to blame, with the rich blaming the poor and the poor blaming the rich, or as Ms. Casey had it: "The poor largely believe they were dealt a bad hand while the rich are more apt to say poverty is from lack of effort."

Now, this wouldn't be such an obnoxious analysis on the part of the rich if it weren't for the fact that many of them have exhibited the same effortlessness in amassing wealth. I mean, take George Bush, for example. He is the poster boy for "lack of effort" and he's a multi-millionaire. Inherited wealth is pretty effortlessly acquired, as it happens. Which lends at least a wee bit of credence to the poors' suspicion that the cards are stacked against them.

Personally, if I were rich, I would rather the poor had TVs and whatever else they required to occupy their time than to have them bored and hanging out on the streets making a big ruckus, or (as in article VI) kidnapping, raping, intentionally maiming, or killing (usually babies or rich people), which, as we all know, is what the poor get up to when they don't have big screen TVs, or are not out stealing or looting them. I would also rather they were happy, despite what the most ungenerous of the above articles, article IX, says. I mean, there's nothing worse than an angry mob of poor people. Did we learn nothing from the French Revolution?! Sacre bleu!

I think that's the thing that gets me about this. I mean, how ungenerous it is. How humorless. How toxic. But this is really how a lot of people see the world. The poor are cheats and loafers, who want to steal your big screen TV.

The truth is, I'm a little disappointed. You'd think the rich would have better things to do with their time. I had always imagined lavish dinner parties with cornish hens, for some reason, and an ice sculpture as a centerpiece, and a harpist, and hot toddies all around. And, oh, the conversation! Wildean wits trading barbs while the ladies titter behind their fancy painted fans. Alas, maybe I was wrong about wealth all along. Maybe the rich are actually as greedy, grubbing, and gauche as the rest of us. Say it ain't so!

I'm actually not one to bang on about money. I will never be rich. I have reconciled myself to mooching off my rich friends. It works for me, and they don't seem to mind. I put out. No one's complaining, anyway. But I'm not the one who declared class war. And make no mistake, we're in the midst of a particularly nasty period of redistribution of wealth. I have nothing against self-made men and women, who come by it honestly. But that's not Bush & Co., or any of the rats in Congress, who, as one of the last of the old money patricians with some sense of civic duty, our own Ted Kennedy (say what you will), observed earlier today, have voted themselves seven raises totalling $28,000 a year in the eight years since the minimum wage was last raised. This was apropos of the defeat of his latest attempt to get the minimum wage raised to $6.25 an hour, a pitiful amount that doesn't even approach a living wage. Kennedy pointed out that a single parent with two children working a minimum wage earns $10,700 a year, $4,500 below the poverty line.

But I digress. What I'm really trying to understand is why those who are prospering are so angry and ungenerous towards those who aren't. Bugaboos like "free healthcare" that the right are always harping on about (article V), as if universal health coverage meant gulag-style clinics, shows a breath-taking lack of imagination. Even in nations with universal coverage, you can certainly pay more for a private clinic if the care in public clinics--or the wait, or whatever--doesn't suit you.

It boils down to people who apparently want strict and stringent social controls for the underclass. Shut up and do your jobs and don't complain--you have no right to happiness, after all. And yet, in the middle of this tract advocating unbridled meanness being circulated amongst America's desperate housewives, the writer of this shameful screed can assert, sans irony, that "Americans are the most charitable people to be found, and will gladly help anyone in need."

But it'll cost ya.

11/10/2005

I wrote about Bush & Co. yet again this week in the Metro. My columns are becoming boring and predictable just like him. I mean, of course, if all you write or talk about is boring, predictable people, you become one yourself, don’t you? The truth is, I haven’t written about local issues, even though we’ve just had this election, because they’re dicey, and I don’t have any solutions for even the simplest of problems. I haven’t written about issues like healthcare, because I don’t have a clue. I’ve said it before: I’m a one-trick pony. It’s all about hypocrisy for me. If I can’t point out the hypocrisy, I’m not interested. Yes, it’s juvenile. What can I do?

But when I wrote this last piece, about how the hacks in the GOP were blaming Clinton for WMDs, I just felt like I’d gone too far. I mean, I googled myself the other morning and someone had written: “Basically, Mennonno is this pissed off super liberal writer for the paper. He blames all of lifes problems on Bush.” Is that what I am? Is that what I do? I don’t think so. This was just an excerpt. I tried to click on the google link to get to the blog, but the link was defunct. The whole liberal, super-liberal label means nothing to me. People don’t know what they’re talking about when they use it.

Let me assure you, Mr. Bush does not loom so large in my personal universe. Mr. Bush is a gnat in my personal universe. I don’t think about him or dream about him, or whatever. When I sit down to write my little thing for the Metro, he does come to mind, mainly because he is representative of something, not as a thing in itself. He is for me, like he is for his supporters, a blank screen. The difference is that for his “admirers” they project their hopes and longings onto it. His detractors see only a blank screen.

What’s slightly maddening about Bush is not anything that has to do with Bush himself, but more with these poor sods who insist on projecting their hopes and longings onto such a small screen. He is not gracious or expansive, and it shows you how petty and devoid of real wonder these people must be that he represents their hopes and dreams. I mean, what mean, sad little hopes and dreams they must have, eh?

11/06/2005

The STINK

Stung by the Harriet Miers debacle, President Bush nominated - gasp - an actual judge, Samuel A. Alito, Jr., aka “Scalito,” for the highest court in the land. It’s as if he had searched for the one with the longest, densest record he could find, just to get back at those ungrateful legislators who had not appreciated how easy it was going to be to go through Ms. Miers’ seven shoeboxes of post-it notes and Hallmark cards. Scooter Libby pleaded defiantly not guilty while his evil master Darth Cheney appointed David Addington to replace him as his chief of staff. Addington, who reportedly authored the White House memo justifying the torture of terrorism suspects, is at least as deeply immersed in the scandal that forced Libby out as Libby is. Democrats grew some backbone, and, citing little-known Rule 21, shut down The Senate for a couple of hours Monday. Bill Frist threw a hissy fit and called Democrats un-American. Eventually the lights were turned back on, but only after Republicans agreed, very reluctantly, to allow further investigation into pre-war intelligence handling, and the decision to invade Iraq. The ubiquitous David Brooks blamed Clinton for W’s warped WMD intelligence, using the typical last ditch option of the right. Meanwhile, Michael “Brownie” Brown’s emails during Katrina were made public by The House panel investigating the government’s slow response to the storm, revealing a stupid, sophomoric sleazebag, improbably obsessed with his looks and wardrobe, appointed to head FEMA, a position the President obviously saw as a sinecure. The Senate approved drilling in the Arctic Wilderness. The provision was attached to a budget, also approved by the Senate, which penalized the poor, elderly and infirm, punishing them for acting up after Katrina. Take that, granny! At roughly the same time Congress was trimming the budget, Mr. Bush pledged 7+ Billion dollars to combat avian flu, although it was not entirely clear where the 7+ billion figure came from, or where the money itself would come from. According to the NY Times, “Under the administration's plan, states will have to pay 75 percent of the cost of [antiviral] drugs.” Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, was quoted as saying: "It almost seems… that [doses of antiviral drugs] will be allocated based upon a state's ability to pay. How are you going to ask Louisiana right now to come up with the money for that. Take Mississippi. They've been hit hard." I'm sure the President's working on that one. Maybe he'll appoint Brownie to oversee the process. [Note to Brownie: This time, roll up your sleeves, bro!] In one of his last appearances before Congress, the beloved Alan Greenspan, who retires in January after seven-hundred and fifty years as Fed chairman, wagged his finger and said he had concerns about inflation and the federal budget deficit. Oh, OK. Good to know. The Postal Rate Commission recommended approval of the United States Postal Service's request to raise the price of a first-class stamp to 39 cents from 37 cents, as part of a 5.4 percent overall rate increase, sometime early next year. The Postal Service has signaled that it will ask for another rate increase next year, one that is probably even larger than this year's. Rosa Parks, who died October 25th at 92, become the first woman whose body was laid out in state in the U.S. Capitol. Charles and Camilla came for a visit. No one seemed to mind. Voters in Denver approved legalizing small amounts of marijuana, although state law still makes possession illegal. In the Imploding Administration Department: PBS chief Ken Tomlinson, an avowed Bush operative, was forced to resign after questions about deliberate and systematic media bias arose, but never fear, he has left the CPB in the very able hands of underlings who share his vision of PBS as the mouthpiece of our much-beloved would-be totalitarian regime. The existence of secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe was discovered. The EU plans to investigate. Towards the end of the week, Mr. Bush attended The Summit of the Americas, a two-day, 34-nation gathering in Argentina, where he was greeted by tens of thousands of protesters, some of whom became violent. Oil-rich Venezuela’s nutty “new Castro,” Hugo Chavez warned: “if it occurs to U.S. imperialism, in its desperation, to invade Venezuela, a 100-years' war will begin!” Bush was called "human trash" by Argentinean football legend Diego Maradona. While the mayor of Mar del Plata, the city which hosted the summit, was slightly more generous, calling Bush: “The most disagreeable man on the planet.” The week’s best headline: from The Independent (London): “Bush rebuked by the hand of God.” Riots in Paris entered their second week, showing no signs of abating. President Jacques Chirac appealed for calm, and offered free weekend passes to EuroDisney to all rioters, if they would stop rioting, no questions asked. The US death toll in Iraq climbed to 2,047. A big offensive is underway near the Syrian border, guaranteeing more to come. Locally: Theo, Theo, Theo. Oh, and by the way, Astronomers announced they now have reason to believe that the center of galaxy is massive black hole. Have a nice day.