Banning ‘Blasphemy’

Well that whole thing about ruminating on my own reactions to things and thinking about the epidemic impulse to leap to the defensive didn’t last all that long… I’m angry. So angry. So yes, this is reactionary post. It isn’t a defense, though. Nothing here to defend.

You can’t control the world, cole. Have to keep telling myself that today. As the existential reflection goes on and on…

I love language. I love languages– I’ve learned a fair number of them- some out of necessity, given the path my studies have taken, but some simply for the appreciation of the inherent music of the words and for what those words and phrases and colloquialisms can tell us about the underlying culture in which the language evolved.

Certain words are more fun than others. This one, for example. Interestingly, the stuff I wrote about while talking about that word, in particular, kinda echoes some of the things I feel like I need to talk about now.

Some words, admittedly, become loaded with negative associations or misused to a degree that leaves the original meaning lost in the dust of history. Cult is one. That’s a whole other post, though (seriously, it’s in the Drafts folder as I write this).

Others have become so offensive to progressive and rational views of the world that we have removed them from polite conversation- if not the actual lexicon itself.

I’d like to suggest another.

Blasphemy.

I’m not talking, here, about its colloquial, secular usage- ‘irreverence’– especially since I, myself, do tend to use it hyperbolically when (jokingly) defending something that I like against a dissenting opinion. Example? Call the Monkees a ‘manufactured, talentless band.’ THAT’ll get an exclamation of blasphemy! thrown backatcha. (While they were, certainly, ‘manufactured’, they were/are hardly talentless. Read this if you want some more of that particular defense).

The original meaning of the word is tied up, inextricably, with religion and belief.  From the Greek, the word means ‘impious’, or ‘to speak evil of’- which, given my disdain of the ‘E-word’- unless it is being used hyperbolically and illustratively (as in, ‘that Justin Bieber? He’s just evil.’)- is the most uncomfortable of the uncomfortable meanings. The sense of the original Greek root implies ‘injury through speech or utterance’. Which calls to mind sticks and stones and the like… but I’ll come back to that in a minute…

From its earliest usage it was employed almost exclusively to describe lack of reverence for one deity or another. An expression of disdain for those things that were considered ‘sacred’ and ‘inviolate’. Back in the bad old days, when there was no such thing as the separation of religion and state anywhere, laws were put on the books to deal with those who violated the inviolate- through words or actions. Laws. That are still active in too many parts of the world.

Including the Alsace-Moselle region, in France.

Last year, in fact, a group of French Muslims remembered the existence of the law (a hold-over from the annexation of the region by Germany, and the retention of that little piece of nonsense once it was returned to French control) and sued Charlie Hebdo under the statute. Previous to the 2014 suit, the law was last invoked in 1918.  1918.

The 2014 case was thrown out of court, not, as one would hope, because of its implied reversion to archaic anti-secular ideals, but because the law only protects against blasphemy to Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism (that the latter was included, surprised me a little, TBH). So any perceived insult to Islam wasn’t covered by this blip in common sense. And common law. Legal statutes against blasphemy have not existed elsewhere in France since the Revolution (that started in 1789, for those who mightn’t know their history).

No regression of ideology here. That isn’t the least bit anachronistic. Surely not a indicator of a devolution of human rationalism and progressiveness.

That ^^^ was sarcasm. Which, like satire, is an expression of derision for the ridiculous. According to the Wikipedia, satire is a genre of literature and art  “in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government or society itself, into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be humorous, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon and as a tool to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society.”

The emphasis in that there definition is mine. ‘Constructive social criticism’. I’m all about the constructive social criticism.

I’ve stayed away from the news groups today- partly because I’ve had too much else to do, but mainly because I know that this horrible event is going to be used as another example of the ‘evil’ of ‘the Other’- and will provide further evidence (as if such was needed) that institutionalized religion is an archaic concept that has no role in progressive societies. That its only role is one of divisiveness, when what we have to be focusing on is our shared humanity.

And, of course, there will be all kinds of articles and comments and ignorance passed around in the www that will focus on Islamic extremist ideology and assertions that ‘we’ are ‘above’ this sort of thing. Which, certainly, speaks to this horrific example, but misses the larger point.

Because are we? Really?

Most of our Western ideas about blasphemy come from that Big Book O’ Myths that I so love to talk about (and that so many others love to cite- out of context and never having read the thing in its entirety). In fact, most Xian theology places blasphemy as the most sinniest of all sins. Worse than things like murder. The NT calls it the eternal sin (Mark 3.29).

The most common punishment for violating the inviolable? For busting this specific Big Ten Rule? For taking names in vain and all that sort of thing?

Stoning.

Before anyone starts tossing stones on this side of the Atlantic (or over there in the UK and the rest of Europe for that matter), I think we’d all better be taking a good look at our own glass houses. There are charges of ‘blasphemy’ from religious groups in North America All. The. Time. And before the stones start flying even faster, we need to check our own cultural/religious perspective and acknowledge that we are experiencing a crisis of reason and secularism ’round these parts, too.

Although laws against blasphemy are prohibited under the language contained in the Constitution of the USofA, some States retain statutes that uphold the possibility of prosecution for blaspheming. You think we’re not culpable of resorting to supporting the ridiculous? Throw on FoxNews of an evening and then tell me another one.

So. It should be obvious. Secularism is the only solution that makes anything like sense. We may not be able to affect that level of change on a worldwide scale- at least not yet- but we can certainly bring it into being hereabouts. It’s going to cause a whole lot of pushback- from a whole lot of people (many of whom were likely first to hop on the anti-extremism bus while screaming about freedoms this morning)- who misunderstand the term and equate it with atheism (which is becoming, increasingly, a BAD thing to be labelled. In my experience, lately, anyway).

As Jacques Berlinerblau emphasized in his 2012 HuffPost article, and despite assertions from the religious right to the contrary, Secularism is Not AtheismAtheism is about (anti-)metaphysical discussions of the non-existence of god(s). Secularism, on the other hand, doesn’t even address the existence or non-existence of god(s). It is about politics- specifically the tension between and suspicions about “any entanglement between government and religion.” ANY entanglement.

While Prof. Berlinerblau reminds us that there is flexibility to be found in the designation ‘secularism’, I maintain that complete separation is the route we need to be taking- for our own societal benefits and to better-position ourselves as an example to the rest of the world. We have to stop making belief/nonbelief in a supernatural entity (or a bunch of them) the focus. Of ANYthing- let alone things like governance and ethics and education. It isn’t something that matters. Not really. It shouldn’t drive the ways in which we make decisions that impact all of humanity.

The way I see it, we NEED to push for full-on secularization “the transformation of a society from close identification with religious values and institutions toward nonreligious (or irreligious) values and secular institutions. The secularization thesis refers to the belief that as societies progress, particularly through modernization and rationalization, religion loses its authority in all aspects of social life and governance… Secularization refers to the historical process in which religion loses social and cultural significance. As a result of secularization the role of religion in modern societies becomes restricted. In secularized societies faith lacks cultural authority, religious organizations have little social power.” (again, from the Wikipedia)

Believe in sky gods or earth goddesses or pasta monsters if you must – just keep all of it the hell out of journalism, our schools, public institutions and politics. If religious belief marks an extremity of unreason (and I’d argue that it does- Salman Rushdie agrees with me, evidently), then blasphemy, as a concept, has no place in rational conversation.

Especially when you realize, as Brandon Withrow outlined in another HuffPost article, that blasphemy laws are not about religion. They are about power, and rather than safeguarding religion (as the claim would have it), such laws quash the marginalized voice(s) (religious and non-religious). Which, as we saw today, is the grasping, desperate and cowardly recourse taken, all too often, by those who have their beliefs challenged.

Which seems to justify- rather than dispute- the reality that those beliefs should be continually challenged.

If they can’t withstand such scrutiny, they have no place in evolved, modern society.

Freedom of speech is something that is required for societies to function as anything other than totalitarian states. As such, people who choose (since the freedom to choose is another much-lauded hallmark of democratic societies) to take our collective mythologies at face value have every right to chat about them as they will. Of course, personally, I’d prefer that we talk about something sourced in THIS world, but that freedom has to allow for others to talk about things with which I may not always agree.

To talk about them. I don’t have to listen. I can choose to focus my energies elsewhere.

When violence and murder come to be seen as anything at all like an acceptable human response to the exposure of problems, contradictions or discrepancies in a worldview- religious or political- then that worldview isn’t worth supporting. And those actions cannot be condoned.

Full stop.

So… as much as I hate to blame words for the uses to which people might put them, and as counter-intuitive as it might be to talk about banning a word in light of the crime against free speech that occurred today, I feel like I have to advocate for the removal of this one from our secular lexicon. And, since we live- ostensibly and for now, at least- in a secular society, that means removing it from our day-to-day discourse- in the media, in entertainment, in literature and song.

It has become dangerous.

As a concept, it has no place in 2015. None.

For something to be blasphemous, all sides of the discussion have to agree, at the least, about the sacredness of that which is being discussed/questioned/maligned. Since it seems unlikely that we will arrive on common ground with that one, let’s do away with this whole blasphemy thing altogether, shall we?

Your god is someone else’s fairy tale. Get over it.

If your specific sacred cows can’t survive having the light of reason and evidence shined upon them, then shouldn’t they warrant further examination? Shouldn’t YOU be the one looking more deeply into the reasons why their support requires justification? If your ideas/beliefs can’t hold up under the pressure of some constructive social criticism, are they not something that deserves to be outed as irrelevant and/or replaceable?

As Withrow noted, protecting freedom of religion must also involve protecting freedom from religion. Somehow our dialogues about ‘tolerance’ have started to be more about fear of religious belief than respect for religious belief. And that fear isn’t focused on one particular worldview. As much as right wing talking heads might wish us to believe otherwise (Charlie Hebdo isn’t ‘anti-Islam’. It isn’t anti-anything- except perhaps anti-credulity and anti-unchecked-power-mongering. The magazine satirizes all kinds of things. Religious and otherwise. It is their mandate to do so). Withrow summed it up quite nicely: “If you want to change society for the better, and convince others of the power of your beliefs, or even rationality of the absence of them, do not hallow them through law. Demonstrate it by promoting civil conversation and show it by how you live and support your neighbors.”

Satire is among the oldest ways of committing sociology. It is a lens through which we can see problems, contradictions, and irrationality. It isn’t meant to offer up solutions, but to point out where the institution is failing. Satire is our collective wake up call. It can counterbalance the power- challenging leaders, dogma, doctrine and common practices- and calling these things to account. When used effectively, it can help to restore social equilibrium. It’s a vastly important form of communication. It’s also why so many people are going to miss The Colbert Report so much.

I’m not a satirist. It takes a special type of insight and analysis and talent to pull it off effectively. I’m an historian. And a writer. I can- and do, when possible- offer up solutions for the situations that the satirists bring to our attention. I can- and do- assert that we have to view religion as little more than an historical cautionary tale that may, in some ways, guide us as we reach for better answers- sourced in the availability of all the resources that this world of ours has to offer, and the capacity of our evolved human brains to search ever further for evidence-based solutions to those things we don’t yet understand. That its time of functional divisiveness is over.

The hashtag #jesuischarlie has been trending all day, as people express support for those freedoms associated with speech and expression. Whether or not you heard of the magazine before today, please take some time to think about the repercussions of the incomprehensible crime that took place in Paris this morning. And please be aware that attempts to silence criticism isn’t the province of any one religious faith or political ideology. Those with power- who would like to retain that power- do it as a matter of course.

Writers, musicians, artists, scientists and factivists (I told you I’d be using that word again) the world over face opposition- often at the institutional level- when their words or pictures or numbers or statistics or experimental results challenge the status quo. They are frequently silenced- although rarely as finally and heinously as happened in Paris.

Given the events of the day, there’s really only one dude who can sum up all this stuff. He was, appropriately, French. His work was considered blasphemous. He spent his life advocating things like freedom of expression and the separation of church and state. He was a satirical polemicist who critiqued the dogmas and institutions of his day (1694-1778).

François-Marie Arouet.

But you can call him Voltaire.

We need to keep on challenging those who seek to make us believe those absurdities. And commit the atrocities.

#jesuischarlie

I’m thinking really hard about what the truth of that means, for me. I hope, before you take ownership of the hashtag, and the responsibility that goes along with the claim, that you will do the same.

“Moss grows fat… but that’s not how it used to be”- Part 2

Part 1 featured a whole bunch of disclaimers.  Here’s another:

1) I am not opposed to religion.  I have spent more years than I care to admit to studying the religions of the world.  I know that they hold value for those who subscribe to them and I very much understand how they can offer a framework that provides stability in the face of the unstable and hope in situations of hopelessness.

Emotionally, I understand the comfort in having something like that as a foundation to life.  The fact that I don’t have the luxury of belief and comfort has not made me angry, or bitter, or lacking in something fundamentally human.   People are going to believe as they wish, and, provided that it does not interfere in any way with the rights and freedoms of their fellow human beings or our progression and evolution as we seek to further understand our universe, I say (cautiously), knock yourselves out.

Intellectually, I cannot believe in external, supernatural manifestations of good and evil.  That those two extremes exist in the world is an indicator of their presence within us.  We humans have an incredible capacity for beautiful acts of good and terrible depths of evil.  And, unfortunately, those impulses- standing alone or as a mix of the two (evil is frequently done with the best of intentions)- cause us to do terrible things in the name of belief.

When that happens, we have to root out the causes of such actions and work as a society to prevent them from happening again.

Janet Reitman’s Rolling Stone article attempts to do just that.

It is a first step- highlighting some of the challenges faced by immigrant families in a new, multicultural environment, separated from extended family and history and ‘the known’ and left to figure things out without enough community resources to facilitate their transition between cultures.

(My good friend, Farah, has done great work in this field.  Her perspective, experiences and huge store of knowledge on this subject is invaluable.)

Through her interviews, Reitman illustrates the ways in which people can hide their disconnection from the larger community, while seeming to be involved and engaged with those around them.  It shows that someone who appears well-adjusted can lose that sense of belonging when stability is threatened or removed completely.  And that people, when left without that stability, can be influenced by organizations or ideologies that, at base, are all about the search for power through destructive means.

I do have some issues with the article.  Primarily the fact that Reitman labels the subject of her article a ‘monster’.

Words have a great deal of impact and affect our reactions on a very basic level.  Rather than calling the accused to account for his actions, denying the humanity of the person in fact becomes a way of excusing the actions.  Monsters are monstrous because they are MONSTERS.

When people do horrible things there are reasons- however insignificant or incomprehensible or inexcusable.  There ARE reasons.  And getting to the source of those reasons can help us prevent future actions that may result from the same conditions.  Making perpetrators into monsters also abrogates our collective responsibility for the conditions that can lead to heinous acts.

Externalizing evil- making destructive thoughts/actions all about the Other– whether supernatural in origin or sourced in a different culture/religion/worldview suggests that there is nothing we can do about it.

(I’ve begun to examine the origins of this propensity to excuse ourselves from our tendencies toward doing evil hereherehere and here).

Of course there is something we can do about it.  We are pretty awesome at solving problems when we put our collective minds and resources together.

This blog is supposed to emphasize the best of humanity.

Sometimes we have to look at the worst- and figure our where it came from- so that those impulses to act against our fellow humans in such heinous ways can be eradicated.  This requires that we examine the causes of social anomie- including the reasons why a young man, seemingly well-adjusted and from a ‘nice neighbourhood,’ could do something like he did.

Taking one magazine to task for publishing an investigative story suggests that we should be holding our journalists to some standard of sensitivity and morality- one that takes feelings into account- and yet the media has become an hysterical free-for-all of opinion and sensationalism rather than a measured and well-researched exploration of facts, origins, conditions and resulting outcomes.  Post-9/11, media outlets and satirical commentators were silenced for doing what they do- delving into the story behind the obvious extremity and inhumaity of the act.

Although not always the case, there are generally complex issues at play- involving religion, society, myth, culture.

Our illustrious PM, in a turnabout of his expressed opinion that we should not ‘commit sociology’ (I ranted about that here), has changed his tune about searching for causality in a different circumstance.   The causes of one tragedy, but not the other, are, apparently, worth discovering.

Investigating the process by which a young North American college student became a radicalized terrorist is perceived as somehow ‘glorifying’ the act and the actor, although both dangerous and short-sighted to an alarming degree, and is not viewed as being as important as punishing the perpetrator.

Investigating whether or not a terrible accident had its source in negligence or in the government-advocated cutting back of standards in operational procedures on the rails of our country?  THAT will be done, and ‘quickly’.

As I stated on my ‘About’ page, my studies of religion and humanity have taught me that sometimes we have to un-create our gods- or our closely-held ideologies- and create something better and more human. And humane.

Rolling Stone has always been associated with the liberal end of the politically ideological spectrum.  Interestingly, many of the retail corporations and celebrities that have loudly spoken out against the August cover article can be found at the opposite end of that spectrum.

Politicizing our reactions to tragic events is despicable, and is one of those things that we have to change.  It is one aspect of our political system(s), media, and society in general, that needs to be un-created and re-created in a way that takes into account something other than power/influence for its own sake.

Jann Wenner named his magazine after a 1950 Muddy Waters song.  The proverb (credited to Publilius Syrus in the 1st century BCE) that inspired that song “is often interpreted as referring to figurative nomads who avoid taking on responsibilities or cultivating or advancing their own knowledge, experience or culture” while “another interpretation equates moss to stagnation” (according to the Wikipedia).

Bob Dylan used the proverbial image as the basis for the extended piece of poetry that became his 1965 song Like A Rolling Stone.  It is a wonderfully complex song that explores the themes of resentment and revenge, as well as compassion, and the perceived freedom of being without ties:

When you ain’t got nothing you’ve got nothing to lose

You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to reveal

How does it feel?

To be on your own

With no direction home

Like a complete unknown

Like a Rolling Stone

Because everything is connected (and because that’s the way my mind works) it’s hard not to see the correspondence of themes in Dylan’s song and the human condition of loneliness and disconnection that can lead to social anomie.

Don McLean’s American Pie (one of my all time fave tunes) has a nostalgic yearning for an era in which things were not stagnant- the time before the Day the Music Died.  Although he is famously elusive about discussing the meaning behind the song, McLean is citing a point in time that is associated with perceived innocence, but also with change and progress.

For the “10 years we’ve been on our own… moss grows fat on a rolling stone, but that’s not how it used to be.”

That was 42 (!) years ago.

We have to keep rolling forward and let the moss of stagnation fall from us as we work together to solve the problems that lead people to the desperation and separation that can lead to acts of terror.  We should be ‘advancing our knowledge, experience and culture’ while refusing to be mired in the past or in created ideologies that prevent this progress.

That isn’t going to happen if we insist on silencing our writers for the sake of ‘sensibilities’ or due to the politically motivated obfuscation of invaluable research and social criticism.

How does it feel?

It’s an important question that needs to be answered.

“Moss grows fat… but that’s not how it used to be” – Part 1

Image result for stone moss stock

I wasn’t going to weigh in on this.

Because (and the list is nowhere near exhaustive):

1) This blog is supposed to be about myth and music and the good stuff that we have to teach each other- and how these things permeate and enrich our world cultures.

2) I’m not from Boston, so I can’t really comprehend the pain in the city and the rawness of the feelings of violation and horror stemming from the act of terror that occurred at an event as historical and important to its identity as the Marathon

3) I don’t personally know anyone whose life was forever altered by the (alleged) heinous actions of the accused and his brother (although I do empathize with the depth of their loss and with the continuing struggles they will face as a result of this act of terror)

N.B.- I use the qualifier ‘alleged’ only because the US justice system (in its holier-than-thou assertions about rights and freedoms) is very big on insisting upon the whole ‘innocent until proven guilty’ thing.  And, unless I missed it, there has been no trial as of yet that has resulted in a conviction for the crimes he is accused of committing.

4) I tend to agree that many (too many) journos are all about sensationalism and grabbing readers without any thought given to their subjects’ feelings or, as in this case, the feelings of the victims of the subject(s).

5) Our ‘celebrity culture’ does tend to celebrate BOTH the famous and the infamous- and the ignorant among us (who are, terrifyingly, legion) often have trouble discerning differences between the two designations.

6) Most of me recoils at the thought of doing ANYthing that might be construed as contributing to any sensationalizing- and the infamy- of someone who could do what he did.

7) The cover photo was a really really bad editorial choice.

But that doesn’t mean that the story shouldn’t be told.

Contrary to many of the criticisms that I’ve seen floating around out there, Rolling Stone is NOT ‘just’ a ‘music magazine.’  Since its founding in 1967, it has been known for its political reporting and commentary.  The likes of Hunter S. Thompson produced important political and social commentary for the magazine- that retains it relevance 35+ years later.

Sure, in the 80s and (especially) the 90s the focus shifted to one of more ‘general entertainment’ away from regions of controversy and stories of any great depth.

But it returned to relevance in recent years largely through the work of Michael Hastings (who died in a car accident a little over a month ago) and Matt Taibbi- young journos known and heralded for their hard-hitting exposés of the American military and fraudulent American banking activities, respectively.

Janet Reitman, the author of the article in question, wrote a story uncovering the workings of the Church of Scientology that was nominated for the National Magazine Award and provided the genesis of her book Inside Scientology.  I know from experience what a hard group of nuts those Scientologists can be to crack, and her examination of the cult is both comprehensive and riveting.

The recent products of these three fine journos alone should be demonstration enough that criticising Rolling Stone for publishing an article about something other than music/entertainment is misplaced and ludicrous on its face.   But the mandate of the magazine was never restricted to entertainment.  In its first edition, founder and chief editor Jann Wenner described Rolling Stone as “not just about the music, but about the things and attitudes that music embraces.”

If you are one of the incredibly kind readers who has been following my trains of thought over the past few months, you know that I have repeatedly emphasized that our myths and music are, and always have been, fundamentally connected to our societies and cultures and the main indicator of what it is to be human.  Our stories and songs talk about the things that need working out.  Counter-cultural movements have always used music as a means of illustrating inequity and calling for change.

The cover story of the August 1, 2013 Rolling Stone Magazine is very much in keeping with this awareness that myth, music, culture, history and contemporary events/issues/concerns are inextricably linked.

This post is not really meant to be a defence of the magazine.  As I said, I think that the cover photo panders to society’s repugnant need for sensationalism and voyeurism.  It is a magazine that is assumed- rightly or wrongly  to be mainly about music and rock stars, so using a photo that evokes Jim Morrison was both in poor taste and something that, in MHO, warrants some of the critical bombardment that’s out there at the moment.

Using that photo seriously smacks of sensationalism with the ultimate goal to do nothing more than sell magazines.  True journalistic integrity might suggest that the story could have been presented differently- in a way that better acknowledged the sensibilities of the victims and the city of Boston as a whole.

I won’t be buying the magazine, but they’ve hardly lost a customer.

Like most people I know, I rarely buy print magazines or newspapers these days.  I will read engaging and important articles off of interworld sites until the cows come home, and I even like heading to libraries and checking out the microfiche every now and again.

The last time I purchased a Rolling Stone this was the cover:

(okay, that’s a tad hyperbolic, but you get the idea).

Still I firmly believe that this story NEEDS to be told.

There are too many similar tales out there (like this one) and as a society we have to get to the bottom of where these impulses, these examples of radicalization and extremism are being created, nurtured and ultimately facilitated into actions.  Actions that are undeniably terrible and tragic and heartbreaking.  Actions that cannot be swept under rugs of ‘respectability.’

They should be investigated and presented with a clear application of respect and sensitivity.  Did Rolling Stone miss that mark somewhat?  Arguably, yes.  Is the magazine as reprehensible in its pandering to a particular audience and in its thoughtless quest for readers/ratings as other media outlets I could name?  I don’t think so.

Whether or not your personal views dictate that you should/shouldn’t give the article and the magazine any of your time, it has already accomplished something that the most responsible of news stories should do.  There is dialogue happening (even if some of it is admittedly hysterical and reactionary) and informed, well-reasoned discussion is always a good thing in a civilized society.

Next up:  The whys and wherefores regarding the need for the search of root causes (‘committing sociology’, if you will) and an examination the problems associated with ‘making’ monsters/externalizing ‘evil’. 

The former is something we MUST keep doing and the latter is something that HAS to stop…