Thursday, September 24, 2009

Saying and doing

Yeats said it very well -- "How do you tell the dancer from the dance?" In a more sociologically oriented direction, how do you separate what someone says from what he or she does? Does the fact that a preacher consorts with hookers invalidate his sermons on purity? Does a musician's pathological behavior make his/her music bad? Can a politician advocate reform if he or she is corrupt?
Early thinkers, the Romans, held that a good man couldn't make an evil speech, and an evil man couldn't make a noble speech. We know that isn't true, but what about the ideas in a speech or in a creed, or in a whole movement. For instance, if one looks at the tenets of National Socialism, one finds that they are, by and large, good things: honor, hard work, good health, care for the citizen, love of country. In the abstract, I note.
The goals of liberals are noble goals. The goals of conservatives are noble goals. Hell, the goals of Communism are noble goals.
The problem is that people make a hierarchy of goals, such that some noble goals have to be discarded in order to reach other, presume ably more noble goals. The protection of the country is more noble and more important than personal privacy, so the government listens in on us. In England even now, there are cameras on the streets that can track a person across town. Cameras take photos of people who run red lights, because public safety is more important than privacy. And so on.
All of which bothers me. There's always been a clash of rights, of course. And sometimes it's been worse than it is now (Lincoln suspended habeus corpus, I've been told).
I've been wondering if there is any one noble thing that tops them all. If there is one goal, one desire, one tenet of faith that always trumps everything else.
And I think I've found it. It's the desire for justice. This is more important than anything, more important than religion, than political party, than national pride, that personal safety.
I want justice. I want it for everybody and everything. In all times and all places. Except for me, of course. I want mercy for me.

Friday, September 18, 2009

On Death and Dying

Nobody wants to die. Well, that's not quite true. After all, lots of people take their own lives. I can't get into the mind of a suicide, but I wonder if it's simply that they want out of whatever situation they are in. They don't seek death, per se, but escape. And people who are in great pain seek death sometimes (but only sometimes).
On the whole, though, we resist death. But why? There seems to be a paradox here. If death is the way of life, why fight it? After all, we have to make room for the next generation, and someone has to feed the worms.
This paradox is most evident in religious thought. I was listening to bluegrass this morning (always makes me think on death and dying). The singer was singing about his mom and dad who were rejoicing around the throne of God. The chorus, however, went, "I'll live my life in sorrow, now that mommy and daddy are dead."
And of course Shakespeare weighed in on it. In a dialogue in, I think, The Merchant of Venice, the fool talks to one of the characters whose brother has died. The dialogue goes something like this (fuzzy quote alert):
"I think your brother is in Hell."
"I know my brother is in Heaven, fool."
"The more fool you, to grieve for your brother's being in Heaven."
If you don't believe in God or an afterlife, not wanting to die is understandable. After all, as W. E. Henley said, after life "looms the horror of the shade." Non-existence is almost too dreadful to be contemplated.
Yet, neither religious nor non-religious thought really makes any sense. Either we go to an eternal reward with angels and gold streets or we simply go out, like a light turned off. No big deal either way.
So why do thoughts of death consume us so?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Belief, the lack thereof

Kind of a depressing subject today. I've been listening to bluegrass music all morning, which means I've heard a lot about the happy hereafter, where there is no pain or sorrow. Now, that's a comforting thing, if you believe it. People who believe in the hereafter generally tend to be happier and more contented with their lives.
And who can blame them? If you believe that after your life there is nothing, that would tend to make you a little down, since all you can say is, "Soldier on anyway." The problem is that there is no way to switch. A non-believer can't just decide, "From today on, I'll be a believer." The path to non-belief is a stony one, filled with intense examinations and hard decisions. I really think that anyone who is a non-believer would sincerely rather be a believer. But it's not to be. All that would happen would be the old prayer, "I believe Lord; help thou my unbelief."

The New Racisim

I'd like to take as my text for today's sermon an item from the newspaper. Columnist Maureen Dowd was fulminating on a fairly small incident. Seems a person had shouted at President Obama during a speech, "You lie." Dowd reports that she distinctly heard, "You lie, boy." That, she says is clear evidence of racism. It's not that she's basing her tirade on a non-existent subtext which she only, like dogs with whistles I guess, can hear (No, I'm not calling her a dog. Pay attention). It's that she heard a racist slur. Now, if her mind heard the "boy," it's still a little stretch to make it racist, unless -- here's the kicker -- she is inclined to view all comments as racist.
What I get from this is that Dowd, like many people, cannot view Obama as a person. They can only see him as an African-American. Which is racist, isn't it.
I admire President Obama, and I feel for him as he gets sucked into the reality show that is Presidential Politics. On the other hand, I think he has an extra layer of protection around him that former presidents haven't had, and that's the inclination of people like Dowd to view any criticism of him as racist. I've mentioned this before. I call it the Spike Lee defense (You dare criticize my movies you racist?)
It wouldn't be so bad if Dowd were writing for Mother Jones, National Review, or some other rag that has predictable content. It's that she gets coverage for her rants in national syndication. Envy alert here.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Book Revew Time

I'd like to make Mondays my book review day, but there are so many books and I'm so lazy that I have to do them when I can.
I'd like to recommend Christopher McGowan, The Dragon Seekers. It's a paperback, costs 17 bucks and is worth it. If you're cheap, you can probably find it in the library. My daughter bought it because of the jacket design but never read it, I found it, thought the jacket design was okay but not great, and found treasure inside.
There's a blurb on the jacket that reads, "How an Extraordinary Circle of Fossilists Discovered the Dinosaurs and Paved the Way for Darwin." I had known that the concept dinosaur was first formed in the early part of the 19th century, but I had not known the extent of the passions, egos, theories, and clashes with religion that went on in that time. At the beginning of the 19th century, Genesis ruled. The earth was 6,000 years old. Period. Scholarly interests in the earth sciences focused on the times before and after the flood (hence our wonderful word antediluvian).
This book details the persons, largely amateurs, who collected fossils and gradually built up a body of evidence that couldn't be denied. One of those was not an amateur, actually, but a professional bone hunter who collected and sold fossils for a living. This bone hunter worked under two heavy handicaps: low birth and the fact that she was a woman. As a result, she was frequently consulted, used as a source, and given no credit at all. Her name was Mary Anning, she was one of the most important figures in the development of paleontology as a science, and I bet you've never heard of her.
Another seminal figure, who's given less credit than he deserves is Charles Lyell, whose Principles of Geology is one of the most important books in the 19th century (Darwin took volume one with him on the Beagle). It may be that his influence was indirect, or that he was a geologist and not a fossil hunter, but he's one of the creators of modern science.
Readable, erudite, informing, a fascinating look at the development of a science.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Better and better

I have to make this point from time to time, even if it's only to reassure myself. Humans are making progress. Discernible, measurable progress, in all phases of life from life-span to education.
Go back a hundred years. The number one cause of death was influenza, closely followed by simple dehydration. People were old at 40. There's a story written in the 30's called "The Eighty Yard Run," about an old, washed-up man dreaming of the glory of his youth. He was 35. People lost their teeth early. If you graduated from high school, you were unusual. The number one employer of people was the farm, followed by domestic service.
I have a photo of my grandmother taken in the 30's. Her house is a one-room adobe shack with a dirt floor, no inside water, not inside toilet. She's already bent from carrying wood and hauling water. And these were not people who considered themselves poor. They were, but didn't consider themselves so. My grandfather had gone to college.
If you were a woman, your husband could beat you with impunity. If you were a child, your mother could whip you till your back was bloody. Your teacher could belt you with a paddle. If you were a citizen, you could be arrested and beaten. If you were African-American or (where I lived, Hispanic), you had almost no rights at all.
If you went to war, many of you died. The death toll from World War I and II is staggering. I believe the death toll for WWII is something around 18 million.
To be sure, we have our problems today. But what are they? Gangs. Yes, we hear a lot about gangs, but most of what I read in the local paper is gangbangers killing each other. Which is okay with me. We have drugs. To me that's just evolution in action. We have wars. How many have been killed in Afghanistan? Five thousand? About two months' highway death toll. We have cancer. A disease of older people. We have HIV and AIDS. Compared with the flu epidemic of 1913 (Was it?) it's nothing.
Naturally, we can do better. And we should do better. But in fact, we are doing better.