Friday, October 21, 2011

A Progressive Manifesto - Vol. 1

I'm trying something new. Please let me know if you like this format! This political digest may take over most of my blog from now on.

A Progressive Manifesto – Vol. 1

In This Volume: George Lakoff suggests a positive vision for the Occupy Wall Street movement. The LA Times ponders how the brutality of natural selection may be a bad match to underpin any sort of caring society. David Sirota has another great reason why there’s too much money in politics. David Frum makes Jon Huntsman look like conservative orthodoxy, but appears to have Stockholm Syndrome. Who knew—austerity is a disaster and the elites are for it? OWS considers firmly rejecting potential political allies – they should go ahead and do it if they want to fail as a movement.

Andrew Cuomo defends the 1%, ruins the legacy of his father. The rise of Herman Cain illustrates the nihilism of the modern conservative movement. Laurence Lessig at Daily Kos debunks conservative ‘class warfare’ rhetoric for all time…FOR ALL TIME! Robert Reich, as usual, provides some needed clarity and encouragement for progressive fellows. Occupy Wall Street considers more demands than Dr. Evil in Austin Powers or Dr. No in the original James Bond. And finally, The New Republic realizes that Occupy Wall Street is ultimately successful because, unlike the Democratic Party, it has a spine.

Lakoff: How Occupy Wall Street’s Moral Vision Can Beat the Disastrous Conservative Worldview – “The alternative view of democracy is progressive: Democracy starts with citizens caring about one another and acting responsibly on that sense of care, taking responsibility both for oneself and for one’s family, community, country, people in general, and the planet. The role of government is to protect and empower all citizens equally”

Paying a price for Darwinism in the marketplace – “But success in Darwinian terms typically depends heavily on relative performance, and attempts to occupy scarce slots atop any hierarchy inevitably provoke wasteful, mutually offsetting arms races. It's an important point, since the modern conservative's case for minimal government rests on the presumption that competition always promotes society's welfare. But our best understanding of how competition actually functions, as Darwin's work makes clear, supports no such presumption.”

David Sirota: W. enters my wife’s schoolboard race – “When the same elites who fund federal elections start pouring unfathomable sums of money into our community’s school board races, it robs us of the last promise of democracy: the hope that while wealth and power dictate federal and state policy, every person can still have a small impact on his or her own local community.”

David Frum: My Party Is Wrong On The Most Urgent Issue Of The Day…But I’m Sticking With It Anyway – “The pattern is this: Behind each professed rationale, offered as an objective statement of fact, there is one sort of conservative presumption and/or agenda item which is the real reason for Frum’s continued allegiance.”

The Very Serious Austerians – “I hope this piece is widely read among the Villagers, particularly among the journalists. I suspect that the vast majority of them simply think that deficit fever is some sort of received wisdom and haven't ever thought to put the pieces together before. This piece spells it out for them…Austerity vs Prosperity is the essence of the fight right now and it's finally being engaged. No thanks to the political class.”

Sophisticated Strategery – “I'm not a big fan of Ronald Reagan, but I thought he was very politically canny for saying "I don't endorse anyone, they endorse me." That's how the OWS should see it too. It's fine if those sympathetic to either political party endorse their agenda --- and it doesn't mean they endorse the political party in return. In a process like OWS, you can only be co-opted if you want to be co-opted.”

Religious Services – “Just in case anyone disputes the idea that protecting the wealthy is a religious commitment of certain politicians, think again. This man just compared a principled opposition to the death penalty to opposing taxes for the wealthiest among us. Is Cuomo a lapsed Catholic who's taken up Randian philosophy? She thought taxing the rich was immoral too.”

The Cain Conundrum – “Bipartisanship as we have known it is dead. It is not coming back…The issues that separate the country are much more fundamental than simple race resentment and minor disagreements over tax and spending policy, issues that could be resolved by a greater effort to listen to and understand the other side. The divide is profound and existential.”

Who is waging class warfare? – “Those striving for some measure of social and economic justice mean to hurt no one. Creating some balance in the income gap and the distribution of wealth will not cause anyone to go hungry or homeless or to lack adequate health care. Those using every possible means to deny some measure of social and economic justice are hurting people. They are deliberately and unconscionably perpetuating the causes of immeasurable unnecessary suffering. So who is waging class warfare?”

Robert Reich: The Rise of the Regressive Right and the Reawakening of America
– “Progressives believe in openness, equal opportunity, and tolerance. Progressives assume we're all in it together: We all benefit from public investments in schools and health care and infrastructure. And we all do better with strong safety nets, reasonable constraints on Wall Street and big business, and a truly progressive tax system. Progressives worry when the rich and privileged become powerful enough to undermine democracy.”

Occupy Protesters’ One Demand: A New New Deal—Well, Maybe – “Even if neither the blueprint nor the New New Deal goes anywhere with the larger crowd, they could still help Occupy Wall Street figure out what it wants to be. In many respects, they represent two idealistic extremes: a fairly concrete set of national policy proposals, and a looser, more localized set of goals. The ultimate consensus at Zuccotti Park may end up somewhere in the middle.”

Why A Majority of Americans Are Getting Behind Occupy Wall Street – “So what’s driving it? Broadly speaking, it’s the belief that inequality of wealth and power is out of control and is undermining the welfare and future of the “other 99 percent.” This is a powerful idea and liberals should welcome it, since it happens to be true and accords with much of what liberals have been arguing for decades. And liberals should welcome OWS’ popularization of the idea even more because, on their own, they’ve had shockingly little success making economic inequality a fighting issue.”

Friday, September 30, 2011

Links From the Wilderness: 9/30/11

Greetings! I am starting a new blog series called "Links from the Wilderness". Occasionally, I will post links to political stories and columns that intrigue or infuriate me, along with my best snark. Enjoy!

Barack Obama really does not know how to be President. He doesn’t know how to lead. He’s doomed. What the hell is he thinking? America’s “gone soft”? That’ll go over about as well as Phil Gramm’s “we’re in a mental recession” comment did in 2008.

The political paralysis of seemingly every government in the world right now is beyond staggering to me.

What a hunk! That Rick Perry! And people say conservatism isn’t an anti-intellectual philosophy. Perry will “teach” ‘em.

What was it that Boehner said awhile back? “A stronger government is a weaker American people!” Objection: a weaker government is a sicker American people.

Many Republicans generally don’t believe in protecting the weakest and most vulnerable among us, but they do believe in protecting them from the right to vote.

If I believe in anything in this vast, indifferent Universe…I believe that this headline speaks for itself.

Michael Kinsley and Eugene Robinson.

Answer? No. This is disgusting: not Christie’s girth, but the gall of these “reporters” for making Christie’s weight an issue. Kinsley and Robinson show their ugliness by rolling around in the muck in this story.,-but-not-for-thee?via=blog_1

Charles Koch thought Social Security and Medicare were good enough for Friedrich Hayek, but apparently it’s not good enough for us.

Paul Krugman’s still tired of trying to reason with you people.

The Affordable Care Act: the law nobody knows about. :(

Income inequality tears at the fabric of universities. But who is surprised? Universities exist to serve an elite Establishment, not to teach people how to think and live for themselves, or even to “educate” people.

Let them eat cake! (Let them drink champagne!)

That's all for today, folks! Come back next time for another installment of "Links From the Wilderness". This progressive is outta here.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

one hundred trillion synapse man

"one hundred trillion synapse man"

better faster stronger

this structure will endure

but not as it has endured

as I have never stood still

this repository contains

experiences and protein sequences

fit for a life, fit for a deluge

of stimuli and images

I am a vessel

there is no flesh and blood

there is no hair and sweat

there is only an impeccable order

descending through the generations

descending through matter in the limbs of my body

minute insights concealed in my membranes

subtly spawned genetically or environmentally

these handed-down tendencies essentially

compose a parade of uncertain moments

passing insubstantially

judge me by my activity

coursing through my neurons

the chemicals concocting my pride

the pathways diverting my anger

a streaming tide of unknown reaction

flowing without pause

expanding the caverns beneath the surface of my thoughts

I may not have a direction

I have a cause and I have a reason

dismember my love

find the anxiety which provokes it

you will notice the tension

your birthright and mine

there is a crack and a schism

never relinquish that

that is life itself

- Alex Abbott

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Problem of "Capital T" Truth

I'm not good at making complicated things simple to explain. Rather, I'm much better at making simple things complicated to explain. Perhaps this is why I'm arguably a better poet than a philosopher, or a better philosopher than a poet. As I have so far failed to explain, this post may be somewhat confusing -- but if you could bear with me for a few moments, I promise that it will make sense!

In the Gospels of the Bible, Pontius Pilate asked an eternal question to Jesus: "What is truth?" This is the very question I am confronting today.

A professor of mine once asserted that all philosophical and religious discussions are like the artwork of the sculptor Alexander Calder. I realize you may not be familiar with this artist, so here's an example or two of his work -- which I hope you will examine closely, for within the nature of his art lies a key point about the nature of truth.

To claim that something is true is an action of the human observer, requiring the use of the human mind and the use of communication. In this way, the act of defining truth depends on the person who gives you their own definition of truth. Every truth claim depends on a variety of assumptions and preexisting beliefs. In an Alexander Calder sculpture, each piece in the sculpture is connected to the piece before it - each piece of the artwork is dependent on the other pieces which it rests upon. So, truth is like a sculpture which contains an entire chain of pieces -- with all of the pieces depending on the piece attached to them to maintain their form.

Because the human interpretation of truth depends upon other conditions, it is difficult to state with certainty what is true. This problem may seem obvious, but the problem has quite a few ramifications for ideas in philosophy and religion which may not be so obvious at first.

In the past, when I attended a discussion group with a friend of mine and his pastor, I gained the opportunity to hear their perspectives on Christianity. Both of them are evangelical Christians, and while they don't speak for all evangelical Christians, they do seem to represent some widespread views. When we were discussing the resurrection of Jesus, the pastor kept pressing me as to why I did not accept the truth of Jesus's resurrection.

The truth? I do accept the truth of Jesus's one sense. I accept that the story is relevant, that the story has positive and inspiring qualities, that the story helps people live a better life. I do not believe the account of the resurrection of Jesus is literally true. That I do not literally accept the resurrection story of Jesus bothered my friend's pastor to no small end. The pastor kept trying and trying to goad me to accept the absolute, literal truth of this event, for which I believe there is no definitive evidence.

And then...I start to wonder why I want evidence for the story of the resurrection of Jesus. When I was talking to my girlfriend (who is a more liberal Christian) about my conversations with my evangelical friend, she asked me why I wanted evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. She stumped me.

After talking for far too long (to avoid my consternation), I realized that I didn't really need any evidence for the resurrection of a sense. I told my girlfriend that I asked for evidence of Jesus's resurrection because my friend and his pastor sought to convince me of the "Capital T" Truth of the resurrection. What's the difference between "Capital T" Truth and other truth? "Capital T" Truth is empirical, requires evidence, and is absolute and rational. There are other truths which are symbolic, mystical, and full of mystery...full of, faith.

I'm not against mystery. As Carl Sagan said, when I contemplate that I am a conscious being, living in a Universe so vast and so sparsely populated (as far as we can tell) with beings like us, beings that are self-aware, I feel an ecstasy and a sense of wonder akin to religious feelings. I do not deny these feelings, as so many religious people I know may assume - as I am asked how I can witness the beauty of our world and not believe there is something more there. On the contrary, I do feel that there is something more there, but I don't call that something "God". What tickles me, though, is whether these feelings are really truth? And why should I believe certain feelings and not others?

Why should I follow one religious path or another? Why should I put one label on my feelings of awe and mystery and not another label? On the basis of feeling, most of the world's religions appear roughly indistinguishable to me - not equivalent, but indistinguishable. I'm not naive enough to paper over the vast differences between religious traditions. What bothers me is how I am supposed to know which one is for me, if any of them are for me - and do I trust my feelings enough to leave them in charge of my choice?

My evangelical friends try to tell me that their god is the author of "Capital T" Truth, that his son Jesus died for my sins - and that there is "Capital T" Truth-friendly evidence which can demonstrate this to my satisfaction - or so they claim. Really, to believe their claim I have to first accept the validity of the Gospel writings, and the letters of Paul, and the Old Testament, and...eventually, it just turns out to be another Alexander Calder special. There are so many claims I have to accept before I can accept the last claim I've heard that I can never sufficiently unravel the truth.

Where does all of this speculation leave me? It leaves me where I started, asking "what is truth?", just as Pilate must have asked all those years ago. I still do not accept any one religion as my own, because I am fine with my secular morality and secular mystery. If someone wants to convince me to join another religion, they'll have to wait. I have my own feelings and my own mind to sort through first. I'm going to try to discern the truth as well as I can, and if religion seems to hinder that search for truth, then I will proceed without it. I'm not convinced that any religion has the "Capital T" Truth, and if I don't need that kind of truth, then I'm not convinced that I need religion, either. Why put a label on something that belongs to all of us?

I've stuck with one kind of faith or another plenty of times, but I can't say that it's the world's only truth, and I'm not even sure that it's true at all. It's just what I have...or don't have. Faith is like life: it will find a way to thrive even in the darkest, harshest, or most obscure places. You can call it all sorts of things depending on where you find it, but it's really the same thing. Despite all the superficial differences and confusing trappings, truth (based on faith) is the same everywhere - it just appears in a surprising number of ways. It's not relative, either - it's just really complicated and hopelessly messy. There may be greater and lesser truths, more closely or loosely matching your assumptions, even if there's no one "Capital T" Truth - and some assumptions are so monumental and so broad that, in practice, they are almost the same thing as what we would call "objectivity".

As I said at the beginning, I have a knack for making the simple to be hard, and the hard to be simple. For those who are wondering what the most direct point of this may be, I say this: because truth can only be assessed according to your own perspective, it is the duty of every person to investigate what is true. If each individual pursues truth as well as he or she can, we may never have the "Capital T" Truth many of us seek, but we will have more truth than we have ever had before, and that truth will set us free -- as Jesus could have said to Pilate.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Simplicity Followed By Awe

"Things used to be simple. There was one universe, and our galaxy was one among billions within it."

This is the first sentence from Marcelo Gleiser's column on NPR entitled "Multiverse Metaphysics".

If only things were simple! To understand that our planet lies in a solar system situated in a galaxy with more solar systems alone than we can imagine, and then - that there are billions of galaxies in our this so simple after all? I think about the controversies surrounding Galileo and Kepler in their day, wondering what scientific discoveries will ascend from heresy to simplicity in the next 500 years?

I think about Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" TV series. I think about his wonder and fascination toward the magnificent intricacies of nature. A realization strikes me - awe is far more important than simplicity. I must resist simplicity.

A few days ago, I posted a column by Adam Frank of NPR on Facebook explaining how poetry can reconcile science and the sacred. Frank's column argues powerfully that science is a direct route to experiencing the sacred. This sacred awe is vitally important for the vitality of human life.

Because of its essential role in creating meaning for our lives, awe is fundamental to our shared humanity. To feel awe can be more important than understanding. Further, awe undermines understanding - to engage in awe is to admit a lack of understanding and to admit new possibilities amidst a mysterious unknown. One of my friends on Facebook, after I posted Frank's article on science and the sacred, complimented me for recognizing - as a non-religious person - that science and the sacred are compatible.

I have struggled to respond to that compliment, because I cannot accept it wholeheartedly. While I agree with my friend that science and the sacred are compatible, I do not agree that science and religion are necessarily compatible. There is a stark difference between the religion of awe and mystery, and the religion of simplicity and understanding. I believe that the first kind of religion is entirely compatible with science, but that the second kind of religion hopelessly distorts and undermines science.

To be fair, I also believe that the nonreligious can abuse excessive certainty - that a fundamentalist confidence in one's own understanding is just as dangerous to science as religious dogma. Any kind of strict adherence to simplicity annihilates both true science and true spirituality.

All too often, organized religion asserts a monopoly on fact and truth - while it asserts that there is only one way to live - and asserts that the course of existence is pre-determined and set by divine law. Science asserts, by searching for answers, that the world is unknown to it - while evolutionary theory demonstrates compellingly that life is a flowing and diverse tide, responding in different ways to a diversity of pressures and dangers - and asserts that existence can change rapidly and has done so constantly throughout its history.

There is no ducking the differences between science and organized religion, which have developed as organized religion has denounced and opposed science. I believe that it is far better to confront those differences than it is to leave them unaddressed in silence. However, confrontation does not have to become arrogance - the best confrontation occurs in humility, when people confront what they do not or perhaps cannot know, and a find a way to live within that mystery. Both true science and true spirituality actively confront that void and derive meaning from that mystery.

Where organized religion and dogmatic rationalism insist on muting mystery, disparaging differences, and attacking ambiguity, I must walk another path. I must seek other answers. I leave the road of simplicity to travel the road of awe.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

E Pluribus Unum

E Pluribus Unum - Out of many, one. The first national motto of the United States.

I am currently reading Howard Zinn's book "A People's History of the United States", as well as James W. Loewen's book "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong". Reading these two books has reinforced my understanding that every person, without regard for tradition, ethnicity, or class, wants opportunity: an opportunity to thrive as an individual, an opportunity to serve as a member of a welcoming community, and an opportunity to fulfill his or her potential as a human being.

These two books have also showed me once again that American history is a tale of how some people were able to seize opportunities for themselves, how some were denied opportunities, and how some people resisted oppression and prejudice to create new opportunities which had never been imagined before. American history is the legacy of overlapping identities - a process called syncretism, described in Loewen's book as "blending elements of two different cultures to create something new" (Lies, 102).

Syncretism, in its power to combine different cultures and traditions into a greater and more vibrant whole, represents the finest qualities of America. Autonomy. Individualism. The power to decide for yourself. Democracy is the same process of deciding among new choices and options which syncretism uses to create new cultures -- so is capitalism. American encounters with new ideas, and our resulting new creations, give birth to ever sharper and more inclusive societies and economies. Pluralism is the lifeblood of America.

America's mass society is controversial, and there are many public voices who wish to soften or silence it. Traditionalists, the precursor to today's social conservatives, argued that people in a more diverse and less tightly rooted society are more isolated and alienated. These arguments are the start of the movement which complains that traditional values are declining, and unfairly labels those Americans - perceived as foreign and unpatriotic - as lesser citizens, and less worthy of participating equally in America's democratic and economic life.

The ever changing values of America are a strength of our society, and this change is not only compatible with America's political and economic values - this change is essential to preserving those values. A pluralistic and diverse society provides choices for individuals to accept or embrace, and this act of choice is a radical offering. It is a vast departure from previous political and economic arrangements of human history. In nations without these new encounters, confrontations, and choices - without syncretism and pluralism - capitalism becomes feudalism, and democracy becomes dictatorship. Every element of civic life becomes stagnant, and the rule of the public transforms into the rule of the elites. The ancient hierarchy which our Founding Fathers despised and risked their lives to oppose will be viciously restored once syncretism and pluralism are attacked and diminished.

The fight for democracy is the fight of the individual and the community against the hierarchy of the elites and those who would replace the rule of the many with the rule of the few. The greatest danger to a democracy is not that elites will directly deny the rights of the public - the greatest danger is that elites will indirectly deny the rights of the public in such a gradual fashion that no one will notice what has happened until it is too late to reverse the trend.

Elites indirectly rob the public of their ability to participate in democracy when corporations and the highest members of government erode the rule of law by ignoring what the laws say and acting outside the bounds of the law.

Elites rob the public of their rights when individuals cannot choose new alternatives. When there is inadequate funding for education at all levels, when there is rampant unemployment, when people are afraid to start their own businesses because they can't get health insurance, the energy and vitality of our country atrophies. When people have no other options, they will accept their position in society without question. This passive acceptance is poisonous to American greatness.

The consistent rule of law, the ability for all individuals to have equal opportunity to participate in the economy and in their government, and an acceptance of pluralism are all necessary to sustain a thriving democracy. When these three principles are no longer defended, and become degraded, democracy begins to decay.

However, there is nothing else that I can say which will show you what these principles look like in action, other than to give you the best example I have:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Me Lover's Pizza With Crazy Broad
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

A man of Lithuanian and Latvian descent loves Italian pizza from New York City! What could be a better example of syncretism and pluralism leading to American greatness? What could be more authentically American than this?!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Fighting Authority In the Name of Spirituality

Recently, I attended a talk by author Brian McLaren, a figure in the emergent Christianity movement. He was wondering why religion and spirituality can seem so distant from one another. Frankly, I am beginning to expect that religion and spirituality are destined to remain in conflict, when I think about the nature of the relationship between religion and authority.

I can't help but consider another recent religious encounter of mine. After I befriended an evangelical Christian classmate last semester in a political theory course through some friendly bickering about politics and religion, he insisted that I join him in a discussion group with his pastor. I may have to write a separate blog post or two about that evening later, but for now, what strikes me from the conversation is the pastor's declaration that "Christianity cannot be about morality". The pastor reasoned that since multiple religions not only allow, but encourage, their followers to lead what most people agree to be a moral life, that Christianity cannot primarily be meant to enforce morality.

Finally, I have been reading "A History of God" by Karen Armstrong, and as I told my girlfriend, the major lesson I have learned from Armstrong's book is that I must never again generalize about any religion. With that lesson in mind, I will say that Christianity is a diverse vehicle for many interests and ideas, not only about God, but about humanity. Because Christianity comes in so many forms, perhaps that alone makes it unlikely that spirituality could coexist peacefully with other values.

It is evident that religious teachings contain moral content - even if that content is difficult for its followers to decipher, or if it is difficult for people in the 21st century to decide how to apply the advice of prophets and poets from thousands of years ago. Yet, I tend to agree with my evangelical friend's pastor that in many ways, religion is not just about morality. Another important part of religion I wish to explore is religion's justifications and support for authority.

I do not have a hard time envisioning religion as a set of community standards and practices which can define the values and the identity of a community. Perhaps the process of trying to reach a better understanding of God/gods mirrors the process of individuals trying to reconcile their own interests with the interests of their communities.

When the religion of a community echoes the identity and the values of a culture, it is not surprising that the existence of people who do not embrace the dominant religion would feel threatening, and frighten a society. Perhaps, to those members of the dominant religion, the people rejecting the local religion are also rejecting the local culture, tradition, and identity. Perhaps, from their perspective, those unbelievers are literally destroying the social fabric itself, which provides their lives with meaning and purpose.

If you believe the Gospels, you will witness how the Jewish authorities of Jesus's day mistrusted Jesus and deeply felt that his actions were undermining and eroding the local culture. When Jesus overturned the tables at the synagogue, when Jesus spent time with tax collectors and women of unfavorable reputations, when Jesus associated himself with the despised officials of imperial Rome...when Jesus did all those things, he was acting against his culture and tradition, undermining not only the power of his culture, but the stability of its authorities.

If you believe the Qu'ran, you will witness how Muhammad (pbuh) was chased from Mecca to Medina. His insistence that there is only one God, instead of a multitude of gods, must have absolutely driven people mad with anger and resentment. Why would someone interfere so radically and wildly against society's most dear and sacred practices? Why would someone callously seek to destroy the elaborately devised system of religious tribute and tradition which had been so carefully maintained?

How can spirituality coexist peacefully with authority? Authority thrives when individuals do not question their relationships. Spirituality thrives when individuals question everything, in the name of greater awareness, understanding, and closeness to God or other forces. It is impossible to practice religious mysticism in a condition of blind and passive acceptance. Where is the mystery in the faith then? Where does the mystery go, when the Emperors and the kings and the Presidents tell you exactly what to believe?

No thanks. Because I refuse to accept the religious answers of a majority of my society, I will probably never win a political office, and many members of my culture will despise me and wonder how I could be a moral and loving person - but I will remain free to help create a new social fabric. I will remain free to help expand human cooperation, respect, and brotherhood, in any way that I choose - just as Jesus and Muhammad (pbuh) chose to do, at the risk of their possessions, their families, and their lives, so many years ago. As those prophets chose before me, I choose to exercise the authority of freedom and true spirituality.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Is Evolution Consistent with God's Love? (Part Two)

In my first post, I stated that I do not see a contradiction between the stories of creation in Genesis and evolution. However, I also said that the question of whether Christianity and evolution are compatible hinges on the question of love: if it is the Christian god which made the world through evolution, is that a loving god? Is a belief that the Christian god created the world through evolution compatible with the idea of God's love?

The world is fallen. I have been informed of this state of affairs often, especially while attending church the first 18 years of my life, and I have heard this claim repeated many times in the sermons I have read and heard since that time. It's perhaps one of the three central claims of Christianity, besides God's creation and the resurrection of Jesus - one of a holy trinity of selling points for the faith.

It's also true. Earth is a mess. People are selfish, and take little care of anyone other than themselves. In fact, people are even catastrophically bad at protecting their own interests, over the long-term. Humans beings are usually short-sighted and indifferent to others at best, and cruel and vindictive to others at worst.

I do believe that Earth is fallen, that there is rampant evil in the world, and that the Genesis narratives are fully compatible with God creating us through evolution. So why am I not a Christian?

The biggest reason I can't accept both Christianity and evolution is that I don't agree that the Christian idea of redemption makes sense in a world created through evolution. In a world of chaos and evil, the idea of a loving God as a redeeming and uplifting force in human life has great appeal. However, I find that this message of redemption in Christianity is often undercut by other parts of Christian belief. By itself, it is hard to resist the allure of redemption - but paradoxically, what seems to be an excessive focus on human brokenness ruins the message of redemption for me.

I can't believe that a loving god created people broken, and then would blame people for their own brokenness, when their mistakes are many times the result of an evolutionary process which people claim God started. A God who created humanity through evolution created broken people. Perhaps the Garden of Eden story is an allegory, even more so than most orthodox Christians are willing to admit. Perhaps all the story is saying is that when humans rely on their own knowledge, they are broken, and need another force - like God - to redeem them. I find it hard to disagree with this message. It's simple, and true, and profound.

On the other hand, a lot of Christians go a long way to tell me that every "sinful" act of humanity is a choice, a direct choice to rebel against God. It's not just that humans cannot rely on themselves and need another force for redemption, but that humans have actively chosen to betray God, who created them perfectly, and is perfect himself. This, I cannot believe. I believe that humanity is broken at some fundamental level, and that there is a need for redemption. I cannot go the extra step and believe that human brokenness is directly the fault of humanity - if there is also a God which created people through evolution, a process which in its indifference leads to errors and a steep learning curve.

If the Christian god created humanity through evolution, then humans have been created in a way that would make "mistakes" - how could our brokenness be a choice? If evolution and Christianity are both true, then it feels like God chose for us to be broken, and then judges us for our brokenness. What kind of redemption is that?

Evolution is generally an indifferent process, with no goal of design. People forget the brutality of natural selection, and the seemingly arbitrary ways the human body (as well as all other living things) have been arranged. Evolution is not a perfect process, so how could I expect humans to be perfect? Could a god who created humans through an imperfect process expect humans to be perfect?

Do people choose to be selfish, and choose to do evil? Yes, and it is hard for me to disagree that people could be judged for those choices. But a loving god should redeem humanity because we are lost - and god helped us lose our way. If there is a God, this God must have a higher purpose for creating humans through evolution. Perhaps this process of errors and mistakes serves a divine purpose. Perhaps God wants us to experience what it's like to be wrong, what it's like to learn and grow. Learning requires mistakes. Maybe God didn't want us to be perfect. Of course, that explanation also rejects most of orthodox Christianity, but I'm not sure how else to reconcile a god who judges human for their actions - actions which happened to be set in motion by evolution, a process people claim was authored by God.

I cannot settle for the standard Christian explanation of God's judgment, God's love, and accept evolution, too. Although I am not a Christian for other additional reasons, if I am going to accept Christianity and evolution as compatible, I must accept a different view of God's intentions. If God intentionally used a process to create humanity that would leave people vulnerable to their worst impulses, then the traditional idea of a perfect God creating perfect humans who actively rebel against God to create sin makes no sense.

If God used evolution, as imperfect as it is, and the Christian god exists, then God must have a higher purpose for our mistakes, rather than simply judging us as if we were supposed to have the right answers all along. Since I am not a Christian, I may not be the best person to discern what that higher purpose may be. However, I have a guess. Perhaps there is a God, who wants us to learn from our mistakes and develop a morality which comes from an awareness of our dependence on others. If humanity had to learn about morality through a broken process, perhaps God is letting us experience this brokenness for a reason. I'm still not convinced that both evolution and Christianity are true, but it's far more plausible to me than the explanations I'm used to hearing.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

It's Not About You, Until It Is

Once again, David Brooks has written a column which has provoked me. In a way, David Brooks is an ideal antagonist for me, because he is the prophet of the conventional wisdom: he sums up popular opinion so well that I cannot resist challenging him, even though I disagree, and I give him credit for writing about topics that are challenging and difficult issues.

This week, Brooks writes about the troubles of recent college graduates. Since I am currently in college, this is a subject that, if it is not near and dear to me, is still at least terrifyingly relevant.

Examining the poor employment prospects for recent college graduates, Brooks laments that today's graduates have been "ill served by their elders". He also notes that the lives of these graduates have until now been "perversely structured", because these young people are part of "the most supervised generation" in history, yet they "will enter a world that is unprecedentedly wide open and unstructured".

I find it handy to understand that Brooks is writing about two major problems in this column. The first problem is that college graduates have been sent into a more open and less structured world with little preparation to handle such an environment.

Brooks's second major complaint is that college graduates are terribly mislead by the claims of "baby-boomer theology", which encourage graduates to "chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself". There is too much focus on the individual, Brooks declares: being an adult means making commitments and tying yourself down, not focusing on limitless possibilities.

Brooks states that while society "preaches the self as the center of a life", it is instead true that tasks are at the center of life, and that people are fulfilled by engaging tasks. He finally asserts that the purpose of life is not to find yourself, but to lose yourself.

I disagree with David Brooks not because I think he's necessarily wrong, but because I think his view is short-sighted and limited. I have two major objections.

First, I noted earlier that Brooks raises two major points in his column. Are they contradictory? Brooks said that the world is more open and unstructured than ever before. Does he support this trend? He doesn't say in this essay, but I have read enough David Brooks columns to assume that he does. Brooks is one of those conservatives who loves to talk about how innovation and free trade work together to create a better world. Somehow, Brooks scorns the idea of individuals focusing on new possibilities - when these individual choices are the engines which drive innovation in a free society.

In a world which depends on new ideas, in a world which depends on competition, isn't it a good idea to focus on limitless possibilities created through individual potential? When people pursue their own aims, isn't that what leads to discovery and growth? You can't have effective capitalism without people who follow their own course, at times. When everyone in a society accepts their role without question, that's a feudal hierarchy or an oligarchy or a dictatorship. That's not democracy, and it isn't a free market. A strong economy and a strong democracy both require some degree of individualism.

Second, does Brooks understand why baby boomers might spend so much time talking about individuality instead of just the passive acceptance of authority? Does he remember the struggles for civil rights? It is not a coincidence that the baby boomers who grew up during the 1960's and 1970's would promote greater individualism, after experiencing a period where society has suppressed the rights of minorities. How can a generation learn to blindly accept authority when that authority is oppressive? How can you teach a generation to simply lose your self when an overly restrictive society has already too often disregarded the selves of women, ethnic and racial minorities, and the poor?

There is a balance in life between the order of authority and the freedom of the people, and there is a balance between what is good for an individual and what is good for a community. The "baby boomer theology" may be a reaction to a distortion of that balance. Now, perhaps, the balance is distorted again - but let's understand why it is that way before we judge too harshly. Living in a society where everyone is told to "lose yourself" is just as bad as living in a society where everyone is told to "find yourself". If everyone surrenders to authority, there will be tyranny. If no one surrenders to authority, there will be anarchy. The most effective and enduring society will choose a middle ground.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

America's Exceptional Leadership

America is special. America is called to lead the world in liberty and freedom. America is not just special in the way that each country is special. No, America is even more than that. America is exceptional. America is special in a way that no other country in the world can assert.

From John Kennedy to Barack Obama, from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush, this belief in American exceptionalism is a central belief of the leaders of both political parties. The belief in American exceptionalism is unchallenged and unopposed in the United States. Disagreement with American exceptionalism is suppressed, mocked, and generally understood to belong only to the political fringes, to be found only on the outside edges of the relevant American political debates.

There is no possible way that I could oppose American exceptionalism. Listen to any politician heap praise upon it: what do you hear? You will hear praise for liberty, praise for freedom and openness, praise for competition and the free market of ideas, praise for pluralism and choice, praise for America's moral leadership, a leadership made possible only by the most free and most democratic society in the world.

American ideas are the best in the world. The American way of life is the best in the world. America is therefore, obviously, the best country in the world. What a disaster, what a tragedy it would be, if the world were not led by its best and strongest nation? The leaders and politicians in America can't stand to imagine that any other nation is superior to America, or that any other nation should lead the world besides America, or that any nation should exercise more influence and power than America.

There is simply no way I could oppose American exceptionalism, as it is depicted by American politicians. If American beliefs are so superior to others, and if America is only acting in the world to defend and spread those beliefs, then it would be foolish for me to oppose America standing up for those beliefs!

All is not what it seems. The theoretical American exceptionalism lavishly praised by politicians is a far different animal than the American exceptionalism actively practiced in reality. The American exceptionalism which now exists is the exceptionalism of economic strength, the exceptionalism of raw power and military might, and the exceptionalism of authority and ideology over law and responsibility. Current American exceptionalism is a creature of fantasy and propaganda.

America is not exceptional because it encourages liberty - it is exceptional because it can deny the liberty of others (imprisoning without trial, torturing, and ordering assassinations of American citizens without due process) and ignore the consequences. America is not exceptional because it encourages openness - it is exceptional because it dismisses and attacks those who disagree with its policy, while criticizing other nations who act in the same ways (mercilessly prosecuting whistleblowers who expose fraud and journalists who expose corruption). America is not exceptional because it encourages competition - America is exceptional because its economic policy is corrupt and narrows the path of prosperity (reducing equality of opportunity by rewarding the rich with tax cuts and slashing social safety nets). America is not exceptional because it encourages democracy - it is exceptional because it has supported dictators (such as Hosni Mubarak) who have suppressed democracy and persecuted those who protest against them.

However, I refuse to abandon American exceptionalism. If America wishes to be a leader in the world, to be a leader of freedom and liberty with a legitimate claim to moral guidance and direction - then Americans must demand that their government adopt and practice a new kind of American exceptionalism. America must not use its force and influence to merely gain power for its own interests, but must instead accomplish the things its politicians so forcefully endorse but do not pursue: greater liberty, greater freedom, greater choice, greater openness, and greater democracy, under the law, with true equality for all people.

America must be exceptional in its compassion, in its empathy, and in its forgiveness. America must be exceptional in its patience, in its purpose, and in its sacrifice. If America is fighting three wars to remain a great nation, let's be entirely sure what kind of greatness is worth the lives of our soldiers and the lives of innocent civilians in the countries where we fight. Isn't it a waste to destroy so many lives if all we are doing will only ensure that America remains a great economic power or a great military power? Isn't it a tragedy that so many lives have ended in the name of naked brute force and the almighty dollar alone?

There is no more exceptional sacrifice for a cause than the relinquishing of a human life. Perhaps Americans should remember that unrelenting fact before demanding further sacrifice of that highest kind for any cause which is less than fully exceptional.

For the good of the world, and for the good of its own people, especially for those sent to fight and die in our conflicts, America must be exceptional in its adherence to law, exceptional in its concern for the well-being of its own people and for the peoples of other nations, and exceptional in its undying commitment to the principles of freedom and liberty which have justified, but do not yet govern, American actions.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Doubt and Atheism as Faith

Comparisons between religion and atheism are typically more a matter of rhetoric than logic and a matter of emotion more than measured analysis. There is not a single assertion about religious or philosophical thought which will not offend someone. While I will do my best in this post to be fair and consistent, I am certain it will inevitably disturb. If that possibility is too much for you, please do not read what follows.

I am continually disappointed that people parade their own knowledge and their own experience as the pinnacle of absolute truth. I am thankfully not alone. There are both religious and non-religious people who agree with me that each person should express his or her own views in humility, taking caution to remember the limited perspective and knowledge of each human being.

People of many creeds and traditions have adopted and cultivated an active sense of doubt. While individuals often disagree on which things they doubt and which things they accept, there is a consensus that each person should doubt all opinions equally and persistently.

Some people who are not religious believe in doubt so strongly that they refuse to claim belief in any faith. Those who would undermine the supremacy of doubt as a value often reply that doubt itself is also a faith, as strong as any religion. This accusation begs the question of what constitutes a faith.

It is difficult to say with any certainty precisely what faith is, which is fitting, given the difficulty in providing any absolute definition of an individual faith, such as Christianity or Islam. I realize it is dangerous to claim that beliefs are a faith before I have discovered what makes something a faith. I must admit I already have assumptions about what makes a belief a faith.

For me, a faith begins as an idea. An idea is some sort of guess about the world, some kind of hunch. A belief is an idea that one accepts strongly, and I view faith as an even stronger form of belief. Doubt is definitely a belief, because it is a pervasive idea with an extremely high number of applications. I disagree, though, that doubt alone is a strong enough belief to be a faith.

When I was in a class called "Contemporary Political Thought" last semester, a friend of mine and I had a very similar argument. He claimed that "if you state that all truth is provisional, you have asserted an absolute truth, so you can't really say that everything is provisional because it self-contradicts". I responded by stating that if the idea that truth is provisional can itself be contradicted by evidence, then it is not an absolute claim. The test of absoluteness is not whether a belief claims that it applies universally, but whether it could be hypothetically overturned by evidence at some point and then no longer apply universally.

I believe that a faith is something that claims to apply universally, but cannot be demonstrated by evidence. A faith is a belief so strong that it cannot be falsified by evidence; it is beyond even contradiction or non-contradiction. No one can challenge it rationally. This distinction is why atheists will turn funny colors and foam at the mouth a little bit if you claim that atheism is a faith. Perhaps a very strong atheism is a faith - I agree that the non-existence of any supernatural or metaphysical presence cannot be falsified by evidence. However, a weaker atheism, which asserts that only as a condition of the lack of evidence for supernatural forces, that one should not accept supernatural forces, does seem entirely different from the concept of a faith, in that its conclusions are not so strong that they could never be challenged by direct evidence.

That so many religious people claim that "people of faith" are every bit as capable of doubt as non-religious people is fine. It's a valid claim. By definition, you can only doubt a belief that is falsifiable. I also believe, however, that it is worthy of debate whether a person should believe in something which no possible evidence can disprove. I do not have any problems with this sort of belief on principle, as long as its practitioners acknowledge that it is a belief beyond the bounds of rationality and non-rationality. When people use their religion to make scientific or historical claims, those claims entirely undermine the concept of faith. A religion underpinned by scientific or historical claims should not be recognized as a faith, but as an ideology.

And in practice, religious ideologies often use their untestable claims to support actions which damage and hurt peoples' lives, because the ideology claims absolute superiority for itself and does not act in humility, and does not recognize its own limited knowledge. Very strong atheism is one of these negative ideologies, and also harms people - I already accept this to be true. When people absolutely believe that religion is a negative force in the world, there is much good and positive benefit that is ignored.

It is important to state, however, that atheism and doubt are not necessarily a faith. If you wish to challenge atheism, please challenge it not with insults, but with a response to its claims. Just as it is not fair to insist that religion should be accepted unless it meets the standards of rationality, it is unfair to insist that atheism is necessarily a faith. By definition, it is true that faith is not necessarily about evidence, and that atheism is not necessarily a faith. When challenging an idea, one must first understand what the idea means, and then challenge the meaning of the idea as it is understood by those who accept it. Only once you have responded to the claims of an idea that it actually makes, should you pretend to have made a serious intellectual challenge!

Is there anything directly wrong with faith? Not necessarily. Sometimes, there are questions people have about meaning, about values, about things outside the boundaries of science, which are almost impossible to answer but demand an answer. Occasionally, there are questions which may never have one right answer that can be rationally confirmed. Perhaps some moral and ethical principles are a faith - but perhaps they are not a faith. Perhaps there is rational evidence available to ground our values and ethics. May we never know for sure? Certainly. That's why I'm not certain.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Is Evolution Consistent with God's Love? (Part One)

Both Christian fundamentalists and ardent atheist popularizers assert that evolution and religious faith are incompatible. Both forces assert that an individual cannot accept a full understanding of the theory of evolution by natural selection and accept the truth of Christianity.

When I was in high school, two friends of mine kept asking me how I reconciled evolution and God. I was a liberal Protestant, and they were vocal atheists. I swore up and down that their critiques unfairly represented my idea of God.

My friends would repeatedly ask me other things such as "how can you be a Christian if the Bible hates gay people?" or "how can you be friends with us if the Bible tells you not to mix with nonbelievers?". I kept telling my friends that the Christianity I affirmed was all about the love of God - with all other principles below it. The love of Jesus came to replace the focus of the Old Testament, which was solely on God's laws, instead of God's love.

I believed that loving people without regard for their sexuality expressed God's love. I believed that befriending people without regard for their religious ideas expressed God's love. I also believed that God used evolution to create the world, which He loves.

I still believe that an intelligent and perceptive reader of the Bible is under no obligation to accept that God could not have created the world through evolution. The stories in Genesis, properly understood, are literary narratives, not literal accounts. The interpretation of the creation stories Genesis has never prevented me from reconciling Christianity and evolution.

What has prevented me from reconciling Christianity and evolution is God's love, the same thing which allowed me to say I believed I could love people without regard for their sexuality or religion. I do believe that the Christian God could have created the world through evolution - I do not believe that a loving God could have. This is the biggest question for me on the subject of evolution and Christianity: is a Christian God, who creates our world through evolution, a loving God?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Racist. Sexist. Homophobes.

I love college. Part of why I love college is because I am fortunate enough to revel in new experiences, to hear new ideas and grasp their implications, and to discuss and expand my ideas with other people who have different backgrounds or values.

I am currently enrolled in a class called "The History of the Modern Conservative Movement". I decided to take this class because it was in my major, and also because I am an avowedly fierce liberal. I wanted to hear the "other team's" take. I wanted to better understand conservatives and their ideas.

My professor, politically speaking, can match my liberal beliefs with his conservative beliefs, blow for blow. He doesn't usually advocate for his beliefs in class, but rather uses the lectures to deliver an understanding of events which the "conservative movement" would espouse.

I am extremely committed to understanding other people's beliefs. How so, you may ask? I agreed to take this class once a week from 8:10 PM to 10:40 PM at night. That's right - PM, not AM. Honestly, it's probably a good thing, because if I was more awake, it would be harder to restrain myself from vehement disagreement (just kidding, just kidding).

Several weeks ago, I was listening to our professor deliver his lecture, when he lamented that conservatives are constantly, unfairly portrayed and vilified by the media and by liberals as "racists, sexists, and homophobes".

Is this an unfair accusation? No, I believe it is an entirely fair charge. I find plenty of evidence to substantiate the accusations.

Please observe the virulent, entirely over-the-top outright hatred for President Obama. The demeaning, racially-charged nicknames. The implied foreignness and otherness expressed in the ridiculous campaign to assert that the President was born in Kenya, not in Hawaii.

Note the ludicrous statement by Senator Jon Kyl (R-what else?, AZ) that women could receive pap smears at Walgreen's, that 90% of what Planned Parenthood does is abortion, a blatantly false exaggeration, even if it was "not intended to be a factual statement" - which itself is a ludicrous assertion.

Even worse are the efforts of Republican Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana to end all public funding for Planned Parenthood in his state, an action which displays an outright contempt for women's health.

Bemoan the foul river of accusation and negative portrayal of homosexuals. The statement of a Tea Party leader that a condition for raising the debt ceiling should be the reinstitution of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the removal of woman from the military. Witness the absolutely stubborn and close-minded refusal by many people to recognize that you are a human being with the same fundamental rights, no matter what gender you are or who you love.

That's not all. Let's tackle some other "unfair accusations" conservatives have decried.

My professor also resented that conservatives have been labeled as "reactionaries".

Let's examine the mad-cap rush to screw the poor and the elderly and reward the rich, evidenced not only in the provisions of the Paul Ryan plan, but in Republican economic policy over the last 30 years. See the rampant hypocrisy in the fight over deficits: Republicans insist that the deficit is an immediate and overwhelming problem, but refuse to take any steps to raise revenue. An absolute refusal to raise taxes is as reactionary a stance as any in American politics; if that stance is not reactionary, then the word itself has lost all meaning.

Conservatives will stop being called racists, sexists, homophobes, and reactionaries only when they purge the elements of their coalition that are racist, sexist, homophobic, and reactionary! A mere whitewashing and meaningless rebranding of history (and language itself) may work in some isolated cases, but Americans will ultimately see through the charades, if President Obama and other liberals will quit relenting their positions, commitments, and promises.

I'm not only speaking as a liberal, but also I speak as an American. Our country cannot allow the whitewashing and implicit censorship of our political and historical records. We cannot allow our history to perish from the Earth, or our democracy shall soon follow it.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Poem Not Written

The Poem Not Written

I once tried to write a modern poem.

It was well struck –

Plucked like the string of a harp.

Dammit, that's one old object.

If you harp on my diction,

My words will metastasize.

A modern poem should mesmerize -

A quick hit to the gut,

An ephemeral sensation.

Ephemeral sounds old, too:

The humor is there

In the strangeness of our times,

That time’s very passage

Should fall behind the prevailing tides.

My words are lusty, light, and quick -

And it’s the style to speak before I think,

And style must go before I think.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Prism of all Beauty

I must warn you, that I am not the type for revelations. But who is? Have you ever met someone who’s had a revelation who was the type for it? Or heard of someone? Of course not – revelation in its very nature is entirely unexpected. Archimedes never expected to solve calculus problems in his bathtub, as I am sure his neighbors never rightly expected to see a naked Archimedes running wildly through the streets. And yet, I have had a minor revelation. I was sitting in my bed, thinking about the movie “Up”, and how it hit me so close to home, when I realized something important.

Humor is distance. It is the distance between pain and reconciliation - it is the path a beam of light travels from emptiness to solid form. Humor is a prism – you can see the light running through it and view at first-hand all the colors of human emotion. In that emotional distance, you can see everything: tears and sadness, regret, happiness, betrayal, excitement, anxiety, joy.

Humor is a way to cover up the void, or at least, to cover up what seems to be a void. But the secret to humor is that there really isn’t a void there, after all. I mean, it may seem that way once or twice, or maybe a few times, but when you keep checking, the void disappears. I’ll show you what I mean:

There’s a void, and it could be empty. And you would say, why is the void always empty? And I would say, why does it matter – look how quickly it fills again. The void just fills and refills, the finite running through the infinite, the light running through the prism and allowing its reflections to bounce off of all objects.

Or you would say, why do you suppose there is a void at all? Isn’t there always something filled, so how could it be empty? What kind of a fool would you have to be to believe in an empty space? That’s the joke, really – the joke is that it doesn’t actually matter whether there is an empty space or not. It really doesn’t matter whether there is a void or not, at the end of everything, mostly because it’s always being filled…whether it’s filled with love or compassion or sympathy or understanding or brotherhood…it doesn’t really matter what was there before, but only what is going into it.

And I suppose that’s why I am a humanist. I see light pouring in from all sides – although I must acknowledge I do not know what was here before. For me, it is a mystery – and it is enough to say that there is a void and that it is being filled up, like the beginning of a joke followed by a punchline, or despair followed by consolation. And I see all kinds of beautiful strains of light pouring into the world, beautiful stained glass revelations from every creed and tradition, overflowing with wisdom and compassion.

Before I was here, there was nothing to tell you what I am telling you. Now I am here. That is enough for me. I know my family and friends will ask me, how can you see the light in this world and not acknowledge its beauty? Please believe me, I do. It is beautiful, and ghastly, and haunting.

I can imagine it with some difficulty, as is usually fitting for these sorts of experiences. I begin to imagine that everything which has ever been imagined does not exist. Then it exists, and it is incredible, and stunning - and then I realize, too, that none of it may ever exist again. I don’t know where it comes from, and I don’t know where it’s going. All I know is that I am surrounded by this beautiful light and I want to fill this seemingly empty and desolate canvass with all of its gorgeous shades and pastels, to pass something surreal through that great void and create beauty again.