‘The world spins, I’m part of it’

‘But I cannot make no sense of it…’

(this line, and the title, borrowed from Eddie Lundon and Gary Daly, from a song I have on a playlist I called ‘September Tunes’)

It’s true. I can’t. If there is sense to be found in most of what is happening around me right now, I’m sure as hell not seeing much evidence of intelligible reality. What I am feeling is lost – amongst the credulous, self-serving, soporific-imbibing portion of the population that saw/sees the current POTUS and Premier of Ontario as viable candidates for leadership. I don’t like feeling lost. It makes me angry.

I don’t think I’m alone in that since the world of social media is mostly vitriolic ranting these days. Some of it, to be sure, is justified. We need to rage against inequity in all its forms and the normalization of criminal behaviours and the spread of hatred. Most days it feels like demoralizing shouting into the void. Evidence piled upon evidence that we remain in the Age of the Selfie – encouraging the priority of the few – those who continue to control the narrative and the purse-strings – over the well-being of the rest of us.

This paradigm – and its trickle-down effect (strange how that works, when the economic theory named as such decidedly does not) – keeps the fires of society-wide narcissism burning as fiercely and destructively as the wildfires that are not, we are told, the result of climate change, yet continue to burn through California, B.C, Northern Ontario…

But this post is not, really, about how loathsomely inexplicable I find those who maintain their support of the jackasses-in-question – and I admit that our local jackass has been garnering the lion’s share of my focus lately. The ‘Murican jackass is a danger to us all, there is no doubt about that, but I can focus on only so much soft-headed tomfoolery and criminality posing as government policy-making without needing a good long lie-down. The DoFo ‘administration’ is poised to do irreparable damage to my city and my province and the 40% of the population that voted for him and his ilk are still buying the soundbites, petty proclamations, and bread-and-circus routine that are the only tools he can command in light of his complete lack of talent, insight, sincerity, and experience. He needs to be the focus of my complete opposition right now.

And it’s not about the horror I feel about the latest revelations regarding the cover-up of abuse in that anachronistic institution of equal parts illogical doctrine and outdated power structure OR the outrage against those that are spinning Apologetics that suggest fabrication and exaggeration, calling the evidence ‘myth’ – ‘fake news’, if you will – and saying that no institution has LESS of a problem with the sexual abuse of minors than the Catholic Church… I feel like I’m the embodiment of the rage emoji.

These things – serious, deleterious, and potentially-irrevocable as they may be – along with some others that are less-atrocious but annoying, nonetheless, have been causing me to react rather than act, lately. I could blame Twitter (and too much time spent watching that feed certainly is somewhat responsible), but the reality is that having so many things coming at me at once is contributing to a bone-deep anomie that has been hard to shake.

This time of year is always reflective for me. I can’t avoid the back-to-school/new beginnings ideation that comes with the winding down of August. I’m sure it’s partly to due with the timing of my birthday (the start of my own, personal New Year), but, despite having not set foot in a classroom in 8 years, I still feel the pull of the new start that defined my life for so many years. That 8 years thing is also interesting. 8 years ago was a milestone birthday, and, on a lovely celebratory getaway with one of my sisters, I spent a lot of time assessing my life as it was and contemplating next steps. The upshot of all that evaluation was a full-on change in career, along with some other life-altering decisions that are still rippling back at me now.

Cycles and such. 8 strikes me as less-symbolic a number than, say, 7 or 3, but I’m sure that some numerologists out there attach a divine importance to 2X4. Regardless, here I am again. Change. Decisions. New directions. I’m starting a new job – on yet another career path – right after the long weekend. I’m excited and hopeful and feeling that the challenges will be good for me. I’ve been stagnating for too long. And I’m thinking, in general, about all those things that aren’t working. Some of the things requiring assessment are the same as they were 8 years ago. I can be a slow-learner, at times. This is not always the most pleasant of exercises, but, if it helps me shift from reacting to acting in my life, it will be well-worth the self-examination.

Change can be hard. I think my Virgo-nature (or, if you don’t believe in horoscopes – full disclosure, I don’t – my tendency to stubbornness) makes change even more difficult. But, if I’ve learned anything about myself over the past decade or so, I can roll with punches. I don’t like it, but I do it. Change and chaos – that foundational element of human understanding of the world – are inextricably linked. I think that’s why we struggle with it so much.

Chaos gets a bad rep. I lost my own little personification of chaos – my Tiamat – back in June, and I did not enjoy coming to terms with that change at all (Canaanite kittens are helping with that, though). I know, because of all those years studying the stuff, that chaos is necessary. Without its latent presence there exists nothing but stasis. Too much is problematic, of course, but we need that trickle of unsettled alteration to drive progress and our work towards better things.

I think change is most difficult when we are in a situation of instability that permits chaos to seem on the ascendent. As the Mesopotamians told us over-and-over, the balance needs to be maintained. For that to happen we need to have clear standards of order. Right now? We do not. Those systems to which we cling for stability – our governments, religious systems, social organizations – they’re the very things creating the anomie and imbalance.

So what do we do when we isolate ourselves – behind phones and screens and pseudonyms – and our social structures fail to support our ideals and expectations?

Order and chaos is an important foundational dichotomy – more effective and representative of human nature than its later interpretation as good/evil. Not all dichotomies are bad. Some are, though. Good/evil is not useful at all. The narratives that one drives are ALL problematic, as I see things. And even worse than that one is us/them. I hate us/them. Us/them is creating far too many narratives in our dysfunctional governance and social-interactions.

We’ve lost all sense of the importance of caring about one another. Community is a concept that seems archaic – unless it is insular and exclusionary. Then we’re okay with it. We are so self-consumed that the thought of providing support to those who need it most is displaced by the selfish (and ridiculously unsustainable) desire for cheaper gas and beer. Relationships – created and dissolved online – are as disposable as the lives of people seeking sanctuary from war-torn places (despite the fact that we are culpable for the origins of those wars). The dynamic has shifted – rapidly and unfortunately. And if we do not feel supported by those around us, the waves of chaos are hard to navigate.

The feeling of disconnection is, if I’m honest, at the heart of my current self-search. Dissatisfaction is often isolating. One feels like one can only complain so much – before becoming burdensome or dismissed or just plain boring.

This week I was part of an example of the opposite of disconnection, though. And it has taken my reflection in a different direction in a matter of days.

I was privileged to grow up in a village in the heart of the country’s largest city. Decidedly (at the time) middle class, it was a wonderful environment – generally speaking. We had multiple parents looking out for us, close friendships that persisted from JK through high school and beyond, and a sense of safety that permitted us to run loose in adventures that rarely ended in injury or other harm. I will refrain from discussion of the sprained ankle and broken arm, both of which I blame on one guy in particular.

That guy grew up around the corner from me. We were in the same class every year from K-8, shared multiple classes in high school AND spent summers together at camp – as campers and on staff. He is a featured player in a ridiculous number of my best memories. And some of the worst ones, too. Maybe not quite a brother, but certainly more than a friend – in spite of the aforementioned injuries. To be fair, I was present for some pretty serious ones that he sustained, as well.

He moved to California a couple of decades ago, so we haven’t seen all that much of each other in the last while. One morning this week I woke up to an email from him. He’s been up at his folks’ cottage on Georgian Bay and came across three boxes of stuff marked ‘do not throw out’. Photos, letters, year books. I was on the receiving end of much of that discovered bounty three days running this week.

He’s not on social media – can’t say as I blame him when it’s as much a burden as a benefit lately – and he was hesitant about how/if to share some of the things he was finding. I made the decision for him – and posted two class photos from our primary school days. I added to the initial two as he forwarded more. That thread now has 163 comments and has spawned early plans for a reunion in September.

As he said, in an email when I told him what I did (easier to apologize than ask permission, and all that) “If it gives 1 person (or a bunch of people) an ‘excuse’ to reach out and connect with old friend/s… long lost friend/s… a brief escape to happier & NO RESPONSIBILITY times… then we’ve done a good thing”.

He also said “I am occasionally asked ‘what’s the toughest thing about leaving’ and the real answer (which I never give) has a lot to do with amazing roots and foundation of growing up in XXX in that era… unlocked doors, friends in every direction 2-4 blocks away, no social media/electronics etc… buddies & buddyettes who loved spending time together in person doing things, looking out for one another, covering for each other etc. Maybe it’s where I am, but have spoken to my older bro about this too… just don’t see kids having the same ‘code’ as we did… certainly weren’t angels- Jesus, far from it… but we were good kids, good morals, good sense of right & wrong and looking out for one another…”

His assessment might be a tad more idyllic in retrospect than it was in reality, but he’s not far off. Right/wrong is another of those dichotomies that serves a purpose. The response to the pictures demonstrates how lucky we were – and how we all seem to know that. We were, then, part of a community, and we remain, now, connected because of that community.

Another old friend posted on the thread: “It’s weird, I was driving home with my son the other day and we took a detour through XXX so I could show him my old schools, houses we lived in, etc. Was feeling nostalgic already, then I got home and went on Facebook to find all this.”

Perhaps it’s that time of year for everyone. I know I needed that reminder, in a week in which I lost the last of the ‘old folks’ who helped raise me, and as I contemplate changing up some personal relationships that sit in a stasis that is disallowing change and growth and/or just plain hurting my heart.

The world does, for the moment, continue to spin, and I am – we all are – part of it. The only way to balance the chaos of the world is to establish – or re-establish – those connections and communities that lead to stabilizing order. We need to remember that we all have to have look out for one another. There is no them, there is only us. Maintaining our connections is work – but it is worthwhile work.

Thanks for the perspective, JAS. Maybe brother is the right word.

 

 

Time and Place

 

Context.

In my years teaching undergrads about ancient religions, history and literature, I spent a good amount of time talking about the relativity of origins of belief, doctrine and social norms. When I was, myself, an undergrad and then grad student, one of my beloved mentors, Kaz, had a distinctive way of using the German term Sitz im Leben as a way of emphasizing that we cannot- CAN. NOT.- begin to read or understand a text- let alone try to do anything as tricky as interpret the thing- without a thorough knowledge of the time/place/situation in life in which it was produced.

Context.

I’m starting to think we’ve completely lost this vital awareness. Assuming that we, as a connected grouping of human beings, ever really realized its importance.

What the Hell, people? Come on. We are rapidly ceasing to act in ways that demonstrate the beautiful and limitless potentiality of humanity. We are focusing so much on the divisiveness that keeps us tied to a status quo- one that is nostalgic-yet-fictional, at best, and deliberately-and-maliciously-constructed, at worst. And one that benefits the veryvery small proportion of our population that wields the political and/or economic power and doesn’t do much for the rest of us.

Petty* clerks who refuse to do their jobs (a job to which she was elected) because of a narrow, context-less, rote, and erroneous reading of a series of social controls written for a Bronze Age civilization?!?!?!

As much as I’d love to say that that particular episode of willful idiocy is symptomatic of a seeming US-wide epidemic of willful idiocy (Don’t get me started on her biggest supporter, that Huckabee guy…), the reality is that those that live in Canadian glass houses should not be tossing rocks around the joint. As much as it pains me to say that.

I have to admit that I do submit to certain form of Canadian-born schadenfreude at those times when the apparently-de facto pig-ignorance that is employed, permitted and/or supported by certain portions of the American population becomes overwhelming in its ridiculousness. Increasingly, though, doing so comes uncomfortably close to pots and kettles exchanging insults across the International Boundary.

Back-to-school week here in the Centre of the Universe north of the 49th parallel (Toronto, for those non-residents who deny our awesomeness) has brought back an issue to the media spotlight after a summer hiatus (even irrational and deluded Ontarians head to the cottage, apparently). For the first time since 1998, our provincial government, after years of consultations, has updated our public school health curriculum- including what we, as a society, have to teach, in our public schools, about sex and sexuality.

Since Ontario is clearly run by a secular, elected, governmental body, non-Ontarians might find the outcry over the institution of this curriculum somewhat bemusing. Even I did a fair bit of resigned head-shaking and minimizing of the ‘protests’ that took place before the last school year ended. I had my own opinions about those who might nay-say imparting undisputed facts and realities to our children. Some of those opinions were less-than-flattering, to be sure (there’s one in the paragraph above, in fact).

I keep trying to hope that we have put aside our reliance on adherence to Bronze Age, (Ancient) Near Eastern values and cultural mores that jibe not-at-all with those of Canada, in 2015.

That small spar is fast-disappearing.

The ‘debate’ rages. And not just about this (non)issue, but about too many other things of import that have portions of our population running back to their fairy tales and to the strictures that were put in place to maintain social controls over populations from long ago and far away.

As I’ve said before, I don’t like debate. Debate, by definition, polarizes– and suggests that someone will ‘win’. Which, of course, means that there will always be a loser. And it also means that there is no opportunity for respectful discussion- a dialectic, if you will.

This drawing of lines and taunting of the ‘other side’ has reached proportions of absurdity to such an extent that I find myself beginning to lean ever-more frequently toward the dark side of those who greet differences of opinion with juvenile name-calling and instant-and-absolute dismissal. I’m starting to ‘get’ the approach of some of those New Atheist-types who refuse to so much as acknowledge any way but their own, particular highway.

After decades of learning and teaching about different approaches to the way we humans create reality and culture and society, I’m getting a wee bit too much up on my own high horse of opinions about what we need to codify as our societal- and legal- values.

Holding onto my meliorism has been harder and harder. What’s meliorism when it’s at home, you ask? At its most basic, meliorism is a concept that allows for the fact that the world can be made better through human effort. It’s tied up with the pragmatism proposed by peeps like William James and co. It’s kind of central to my way of looking at things.

Except… That foundation has become shaky, lately. Trust and belief in my fellow human beings isn’t especially strong at the moment. I’m having a whole lot of trouble accessing any level of respect for whole lot of people who are making a whole lot of noise, lately.

Then this morning I saw an opinion piece in our local Star.

Timely as all get-out, IMHO.

Respect. It’s severely lacking in our discourse these days. And, contrary to the assertions of certain talking heads, respect is not some hackneyed, airy-fairy, super-left-leaning-liberal, nebulous concept that posits that everyone is, in some way, ‘right’.

I’m ashamed I needed that reminder.

None of this is to say that I’m faltering in my firm stance that we need to work toward complete civil, legal and societal secularization. I hold the truth of that necessity to be self-evident.

People don’t seem to get that there’s a distinct difference between working for social justice for all people and being ‘politically correct’. Yes, everyone is entitled to their opinion- regardless of how backward-thinking and based in tenuous, misinterpreted, anachronistic apologetics such thinking might be. But no one is entitled to expect such opinions to interfere with the larger, overriding and instructional societal rules and standards that guide us in living together as equitably and respectfully as is possible for a country/province/county/city of humans from different places and with different levels of education and different ways of looking at the world.

We are, thankfully, not a theocracy. Nor, for that matter, is the US- although it’s getting harder and harder to remember that little fact. We are not governed by laws that discriminate based upon things like race, gender or sexuality. Not anymore. These over-arching laws aren’t perfect- not by a long-shot they aren’t. But they are demonstrative of forward momentum- the correct direction- away from past distinctions that were established- and supported- by distressingly out-of-context ideologies and institutions.

It is becoming increasingly necessary to remind ourselves just where and when we are. Not where and when we think we are- or wish we were. If you are committed to retaining adherence to the strictures and social norms that were dictated by things like the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Scriptures, the Qur’an, or the standardized version of Manifest Destiny-driven North American history that many of us grew up learning, you must needs seriously sit down and actually learn something about the times and places in which those things were codified. Seriously.

If you do, and still think things were better back then, I’ve got a time machine for sale, cheap (it’s a DeLorean, so it’s a bit dated retro, but still functional).

Knowledge of history does more than help prevent its repetition. Knowledge of history illuminates our awareness that there were no ‘good old days’. Not compared with the situations in life that the majority of us can claim here in North America now.

Again, things aren’t perfect- or even great- for too many of us. Relative economic stability and lack of equitable opportunities remain elusive for too many people in countries that command unprecedented access to resources such as food and shelter (and even many of those numbered among our most vulnerable can still claim more than, when compared with too many others elsewhere on this big blue marble of ours. Exhibit A: the current global refugee crisis. But more on that another day…).

Human progression and evolution may experience periods of reactionary reversion now and again (I cite the fact that that Trump buffoon has anyone taking him seriously as a contender for leadership as proof of that), but our drive to dispel ignorance as we seek understanding and justice for all trumps (pun totally intended) the backsliders every single time. Every. Single. Time.

The past should not, CANNOT, govern us. We can must learn valuable lessons from the wisdom that came before our time, certainly, but we are not beholden to the limited thinking of people who had significantly less information and leisure for reflection with which to work than we have achieved- and continue to achieve- as a human race. We can hear and respect the values and knowledge of people from places that seem far-flung (even as communication causes the world to shrink), but those values that we have instituted, through our agreed-upon system of governance, will always take precedence. In 2015. In Canada.

We can stand around (or go for a troll on the internet) calling others ‘immoral’ and ‘blasphemous‘ and ‘against god(s)’ and ‘idiotic’ (I’m guilty of that one) and ‘stupid’ (okay, that one too, sometimes) or we can keep to the forward momentum that promotes the values of “mutual tolerance (although I’ve noted my concerns with that term, previously) and respect for each other’s dignity and humanity”, as Edward Keenan so wisely stated in his editorial.

Our time and place demands that we do so. We know so much more than we did 4500 or 2000 or 1400 years ago. We are ever-evolving and better than we were even a century ago. Although I’d personally prefer that they didn’t, those who wish to hold onto the ideas that came out of those bygone times and places are welcome to do so. “Diversity of practices and beliefs… (and a) social and legal framework of mutual respect… (are enforced) through government institutions that acknowledge our differences, and insist that we respect each other despite them.”

Those ideas are out of place and time, though. And, as such, need be weighed reasonably and evidentially against our current societal values.

I think that’s a pretty fair summation of forward thinking. Secular forward thinking. We’re not there yet, but we’re on a solid heading. It’s hard to remember that, sometimes. But it’s true.

As a (nameless, female) character in that Big Book O’Stories found out, there is never value to be found in looking backward– to a time or place- with longing.

To do so is risk her fate. And pillars of salt are eventually worn down by unstoppable forces like waves and winds of progress.

Don’t look back
A new day is breakin’
It’s been too long since I felt this way
I don’t mind where I get taken
The road is callin’
Today is the day

I can see
It took so long to realize
I’m much too strong
Not to compromise
Now I see what I am is holding me down
I’ll turn it around

I finally see the dawn arrivin’
I see beyond the road I’m drivin’
Far away and left behind

It’s a new horizon and I’m awakin’ now
Oh I see myself in a brand new way
The sun is shinin’
the clouds are breakin’
‘Cause I can’t lose now, there’s no game to play

I can tell
There’s no more time left to criticize
I’ve seen what I could not recognize
Everything in my life was leading me on
but I can be strong

I finally see the dawn arrivin’
I see beyond the road I’m drivin’
Far away and left behind**

*I use the term ‘petty’ in this case not as a descriptor of her duties as a representative of the county, but because her so-called reasoning behind her unwillingness to do her job are ‘of little importance and trivial’. Contextually-speaking.

**I hesitated using anything remotely Boston-related after the trouncing their hometown team gave MY hometown team last night (sheesh guys. What was THAT?!?!), but the song just sort of lent itself to the topic…

‘I Won’t Back Down’

 

70 years ago yesterday, Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by the Soviets. We now mark the date as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

An important thing to remember, indeed. All of us. In all the nations of the world.

Indifference, antisemitism, silence. Fear of, contempt for, lack of understanding the ‘other’. These are among the things that enabled Auschwitz -and the other concentration and extermination camps that were at the heart of the Final Solution that the Nazis saw as the response to the Jewish Question.

Contrary to what too many of us might like to think, the Jewish Question was an ongoing subject of discussion in much of Europe from as early as 1750.

You read that correctly. 1750.

It was first used, according to Holocaust scholar Lucy Dawidowicz, as “a neutral expression for the negative attitude toward the apparent and persistent singularity of the Jews as a people against the background of the rising political nationalisms.” (from the Wikipedia) Essentially, the nations of Europe were trying to suss out the specific status of Jews as minority micro-communities in the the social order of the nation-states of Europe. The question arose and developed under the influence of such things as the Age of Enlightenment and the French Revolution.

In discussing how integration of these differing cultures might work, a fair bit of time was spent on a back-and-forth debate about whether or not religious belief had any role to play in secular societies- and therefore whether or not Jews should be required to relinquish their religious beliefs in order to attain full citizenship.

Then, from the 1860’s onward, the ‘question’, in many places, took on increasingly antisemitic tendencies that reached their peak in Hitler’s Nazi Germany. Their Final Solution was enacted through persecutions, the revocation of citizenship under the Nuremberg Laws and then the state-mandated internment and murder of Jews in the concentration and extermination camps like Auschwitz-Birkenau.

But. At its origin, the Jewish Question began a discussion of assimilation versus separation in increasingly multicultural societies (however colonial and Xian-centric those societies may have been at the time).

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

The ‘melting pot’ or the ‘cultural mosaic’? How should we shape a community in which people from different cultural backgrounds, with different religious beliefs, seek to live together under laws and standards that might govern us all?

Here in Canada, we’ve opted for the latter- as a matter of government policy. Does it work? Imperfectly- like most other governments policies. Is is better than the assimilation of the melting pot that countries like the US favour?

Given that neither we nor the US can boast a completely harmonious relationship with all of our constituent parts, I think the jury is still out. The question lies at the heart of what happened a couple of weeks ago in Paris. The social anomie experienced by immigrant populations can lead to radicalization- and we are seeing examples of this in any number of places- local and not-so-local.  Do we accept and embrace the cultural differences, or do we demand full assimilation?

Can we even expect assimilation- when we’re dealing with something as closely and deeply held as religious belief and practice?

This is one of the sociological questions being discussed in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo– specifically as it pertains to France and their claims of secularization. And it’s happening closer to home…

A clear, current and North American example of how religion can interfere with the smooth running of secular societies? They are in the process of choosing a jury for the trial of the accused in the Boston Marathon bombings- and running into issues with RCs in the jurist pool who might have an issue with the death penalty. In Boston. A town that has a pretty substantial RC population.

My bottom line: Belief does not trump law. It CANNOT. Not in a democratic society in which the laws were arrived at through evidence-based discussion and the application of policies that are meant to ensure the maintenance of just and equitable social order. A social order that allows that laws can be challenged- and changed- as required when we have new and better information. Like when we realize that gender equality is, in fact, a thing. Or that a superficial thing like ‘race’ means not a whit in terms of the freedoms or rights of all us members of the human race.

I’ve said before that I’m a little concerned about my past inclination to just accept that others believe different stuff from what I believe- that I know that I see the world differently than many others do- and that I’ve always been ‘okay’ with that. My perspective comes out of specific set of contextual criteria- that differ from the contextual criteria of the next person.

That inclination- which I share(d) with a whole lot of people who call themselves ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’- has been permitted to run amok. Pandering to the lesser freedoms is messing with our larger ones.

We need to use our larger freedoms to speak up when people are violating- or re-writing- the higher laws of the land in favour of laws that respond directly to interpretations of this or that ‘sacred’ scripture.

Lawrence Krauss, groovy Canadian science-dude and vocal atheist, wrote a little bit o’ something about the Charlie Hebdo massacre. While I disagree with his point that Judaism and Xianity- unlike Islam- have ‘had the time’ to look at their sacred scriptures and develop a ‘thicker skin’ when it comes to criticism and questions regarding who really wrote the things and to what purpose (if he were correct, there wouldn’t be nearly as many biblical apologists about- and I’m not even speaking about the literalists…), I very much agree with his point about hate speech involving people, not ideas.

He says: “No idea should be sacred in the modern world. Instead, in order for us to progress as a species, every claim, every idea should be subject to debate, intelligent discussion, and, when necessary, ridicule.” 

And:

“The biggest threat to the peaceful and sustainable progress of human civilization in the 21st century, with challenges ranging from global climate change, to energy and water shortages, and the oppression of women throughout the world, is a refusal to accept the empirical evidence of reality as a basis for action. Those who feel they know the truth in advance, and therefore cannot even listen to alternative arguments, are not just part of the problem, they are the problem.

This is the reason that religion is, in my opinion, on the whole a negative force in the world. In spite of the charity and empathy it may generate among many, because it asserts as true notions that clearly are incompatible with the evidence of reality, it inevitably engenders actions that are irrational. These range from the innocuous to the deadly.”

I had a very different post in mind when I started this one last evening. I have a growing number of bits and pieces in the drafts folder that need attention if they are ever to see the light of day.

Trying for a lightening of subjects, my eye was drawn to the whole Sam Smith/Tom Petty exchange of royalties sitch. You know I love Tom. And Jeff Lynne, who was his writing partner on the solo album that included ‘I Won’t Back Down’.

The Sam Smith thing is really just another example of our human tendency towards repetition of theme/recurrence of concepts.

I hadn’t really heard of Sam (full disclosure- last week a colleague attended his local show and raved about his performance. I had to admit to not having first clue who he was. Finding out that he was ripping off Tom didn’t much ingratiate him to me, tbh). When I read the article I was a little defensive of Tom (and Jeff) even before I listened to the song that ‘borrowed’ from them.

Evidently, it’s something that happens to Tom a lot.

I’m not surprised, really. He has written some pretty awesome tunes (alone, with the Heartbreakers and with super-cool dudes like Jeff). Which is all the more reason to grant credit where it’s due.

Once I listened to the songs back-to-back, I heard the resemblance, and I appreciate the amicability with which the issue was apparently resolved. Still, the original, as is often the case, is by far the better song.

I admit that I’m biased. And that the video features 50% of the Beatles and that Jeff Lynne-guy. So it’s kind of like comparing apples and oranges. No new kid is going to be able to compete with the chops of those who were present for the original ditty (although Ringo didn’t really play on the track- he’s nothing but eye-candy, assuming you can call Ringo ‘eye candy’…).

Well, I won’t back down
No, I won’t back down
You can stand me up at the gates of hell
But I won’t back down

No, I’ll stand my ground, won’t be turned around
And I’ll keep this world from draggin’ me down
Gonna stand my ground and I won’t back down

(I won’t back down)
Hey baby, there ain’t no easy way out
(I won’t back down)
Hey, I will stand my ground and I won’t back down

Well, I know what’s right, I got just one life
In a world that keeps on pushin’ me around
But I’ll stand my ground and I won’t back down

The song was politicized following 9/11- as it became a rallying call about standing up in the face of terrorism.

Interesting that it’s popped back into our popular attention at this particular moment in time…

The things I took away from watching the Memorial from Auschwitz yesterday? That the prison- and what happened there- remain as a scar on our shared humanity. The past is always present- and it often isn’t pretty. Yet humanity endures- even in the face of extermination and ideologically-driven hatred and horror. That hate can never be permitted to win. Ideas that suborn hatred and violence cannot be allowed to flourish.

There ain’t no easy way out of this quagmire of culture clashing. We’ve been talking about it for almost 300 years. THREE HUNDRED. But it’s a conversation we need to continue. We need to prevent comparable ‘solutions’ from seeing the light of day.

Vilifying the ‘other’- based on things like religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, physical ability- this is never going to be acceptable. Not with the empirical evidence of reality we can access. All ideas- and laws- must be subjected to rigorous examination, and we must remain accountable for the responsibilities that come with participation in the societies we create.

We have the scars- ever-present and always remembered- from the last time the world failed to stop an idea based in hatred.

We must revisit that lesson- and re-learn it, as required- as we reexamine the realities of multicultural and globalized communities.

We got just one life.

Stand your ground for what is right.

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.

Angels and Demons

As sometimes happens, when a story attracts the attention of a nation (believe me, I’m not delusional enough to think that our little ‘local’ problem with a national radio host is making much of a ripple elsewhere in the world- that would involve far more Cansplaining than is warranted), it serves as the catalyst for a whole lot of discussion about things outside of the primary issue.

That has certainly been the case this week. There is just so much about this thing in the press. There are reasons for this- he IS a well-known figure in our particular cultural microcosm, and an accomplished broadcaster to boot. But setting him aside completely, a dialogue has been started that shines light on the fact that the greater, by far, percentage of women who are sexually assaulted never report the crimes.

In Canada.

Where we have freedoms and opportunities and equality that can’t even be imagined too many places elsewhere in the world.

I’ve read a fair number of the articles and opinions being published about the situation- and they are myriad (journos have been staggered by these accusations leveled at ‘one of their own’)- because they are contributing to necessary dialogue about such issues. And, when well-presented, they are educating us about the reality that this imbalance of power yet exists and permeates our culture.

So it’s a personal issue for me. It speaks to my own experience and the experience of others I know and love.

There have also been a number of discussions about the narcissism that also permeates out culture (something that I find deeply disturbing and have written about before)- and projections that pathological Narcissistic Personality Disorder is at the heart of this situation. Impossible to tell- from a distance, and without legitimate professional assessment- but, once again, it is bringing discussions of mental illness into the forefront of our awareness.

There’s another personal element at play here too- my deep and abiding love of the CBC and the continuing assertion that it is an important institution. Anything that shakes that place to its core is going to get me talking.

The best thing I read this week on that topic (one of the best things I read all week, full stop) came from Michael Enright, another old favourite of mine. He addresses both of the issues with which I have a personal investment- violence against women and the integrity- moral and journalistic- of the CBC. Voices like his are the reason we need to fight to maintain our national broadcaster.

But I’m also interested for purely academic reasons. I talk a whole lot here about my issues with the separation into black and white- sourced in outdated Bronze Age concepts of ‘good’ and ‘evil’- as defined by social codes for behaviour that are, often, not remotely culturally or morally relevant in the 21st century.

(There are exceptions, of course. The one about not murdering other people? THAT one should certainly be upheld. The ones based in common sense and true morality? Those I don’t have a problem with. It’s the ones that were designed solely for the purpose of keeping a particular tribal organization of people specifically tribally organized… a lot of those need to be left in the annals of history, where they belong).

I hate this dichotomization. Good/Evil. Us/Them. It’s all about division when we NEED to be talking about union.

One of the week’s articles referenced this, in passing. But it’s a point that I think needs a little more emphasis.

Although I approached the topic differently and named it with other names, yesterday’s post was, in part, about the ‘Halo Effect’ that Dan Gardner talks about. We love the guy, he’s great at his job, and, as such, he can’t possibly be guilty.

Likewise, when we label people with the ‘Devil Effect’, we see nothing but evil. By removing the humanity– that admixture of nature and nurture that makes up each and every one of our personalities- we are saying that we are statically categorized. Once placed in a box there is no possibility of movement.

Which is ludicrous.

And worse, it feeds the sort of power-driven insanity that leads people in power to state that we needn’t be looking for the societal origins of anomie (or discontent and disconnection) that leads to us branding people as belonging on one-or-the-other side of a coin of extremes.

We need to change our language. I keep harping on this, I know. We have to remove apocalyptic thinking from our shared worldview (which is a discussion for another day) and we need to stop the dichotomizing. To do so, we need to examine the myths that created the language, and exorcize those that have no place in our current temporal, moral and communal reality.

I’ve never considered myself a vehement atheist (although I am a vehement humanist). I certainly don’t count myself among the screaming crowd of the New Atheists who deride and castigate those who are believers at every possible turn. I’m all about the ‘live and let live’. And I know- because I have spent my adult life studying the phenomenon- the importance of religion in human life and the reasons why we create and cling to gods.

But. I’m tired. Very tired.

Of playing devil’s advocate (although I will continue to Advocate for the Devil- that guy needs some serious PR) for those who hold to belief- especially (although not exclusively) unexamined belief- as a way to justify the unjustifiable and to maintain a status quo that should have been eradicated generations ago.

I am finding it harder and harder to comprehend educated, reasoning human beings who cling to myths that originated in such a different time and place that there can be no social comparison in the face of evidence that proves- unequivocally- that they are not history. That they are human-created stories that answered the questions that plagued the human experience. Even though we have, now, answered those questions in other, demonstrable and evidence-based, ways.

The events of the past two weeks- both the tragic and the (melo)dramatic- in my Home and Native Land can have extremely positive repercussions- if we choose to address them in the ways they should be addressed. With critical, in-credulous focus on the hearts of the matters at hand.

Without divisive rhetoric that polarizes the issue and hearkens back to an era of superstition and suspicion.

My Canadian-ness is an ever-present facet of my personality- both the nature and the nurture of it. I love Canada (although Scotland was pretty cool, too). My cultural identity is solidly Canadian (except the liking hockey part). We have had a lot with which to contend, over the past few weeks, and, for the most part, we have done so admirably and with the dignity and thoughtfulness with which we generally view the world.

This song has been running through my head today.

Although
I speak in tongues of men and angels
I’m just soundin’ brass and tinklin’ cymbals
Without love

Love suffers long, love is kind
Enduring all things, hopin’ all things
Love has no evil in mind

As a child, I spoke as a child
I thought and I understood as a child
But when I became a woman I put away childish things
And began to see through a glass darkly

Joni is another of our National Treasures. Interestingly, Jian’s interview with her was one of the best things I’ve ever seen on Q.

But it’s time to put away childish things- and childish ways of seeing the world as either this or that. ‘Halo Effect’ and ‘Devil Effect’. Angels and Demons. More than just a poorly-written (if bestselling) thriller. It’s a dangerous metaphor that keeps us locked in archaic mythological ways of viewing the world.

Please. Stop. Just stop.

Let something positive come out of all the events of the last weeks. We are talking- let’s keep those discussions from devolving and referencing outdated ideals of polarization sourced in stories- and values- of old.

P.S. I realized- after some additional reflection- that this post may make it seem as if I find no value at all in these myths of ours. This is, of course, not the case. I love our stories- I started this blog as a means of communicating my belief in the power of our myths. If you have spent any time here, you have to acknowledge the truth of that.

What has to cease is our insistence on clinging to them as anything other than metaphor and attempts to make sense of the world with the wisdom we had at the time they were created. There is wisdom to be found- but there is also much that is dangerous- in light of the strides we have made in understanding our universe with the tools we continue to develop. I’m terrified that we are slipping back into believing the ‘truth’ behind the tales and missing the underlying messages of humanity as we fight about the existence of one or another god- and the varied interpretations of what those gods allegedly had to tell us.

It might be a fine line- but it’s one that is clear in my understanding of the world.

Shattering Illusions

So ends the first week of the new school year and, as usual, it has me doing some thinking and reflecting as I try to put some thoughts and words together into something approaching a cohesive whole.

It’s also the first weekend of TIFF- so the city has exploded in celebration of the science of illusion-creation.

As the temperature soars (40 degrees when you factor in the humidity today) I’m doing my best to keep cool and carry on (amidst the insane crowds ’round my neck o’ the woods), so I’m thinking that the first part of the weekend will include watching the mini-series about the master of illusions that is hanging out on the PVR awaiting my gaze.

Happy weekend!

colemining

This time of year is always one of reflection for me.  I think it has to do with the whole ‘new beginnings’ thing that comes with the start of a new school year.  This is the fourth September that I won’t be heading back to the classroom- either as a student or a professor- after manymanyMANY years of it being the norm.

But I still find that the self-analysis and evaluation happens more at this time of year (and on Christmas Eve as well- pagan that I am) than at any other.

Heavy thoughts, sometimes, as the summer winds down and the last days of warm weather and relative quiet in the neighbourhood persist.

The other night I got to thinking about illusions- those we hold dear and those that we suddenly seem to discover either have been or are in desperate need of being shattered.  Not just quietly set…

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How DO you get rid of Pazuzu?

Well.

Hello again.

Recently, I’ve been on something of a hiatus/sabbatical/terrible-and-extended-period-of-complete-and-total-writer’s-block. It wasn’t planned, and it has been hard to get back into my regular cole-like round of thinking and writing about the world around me.

There are reasons for this. Some are practical- I write all day and, as a result, words have become sort of hard to access in my ‘leisure’ time; I’ve been fighting to ensure that insurance companies fulfill their contracted obligations and that lawyers are remaining on top of required procedures and such; I’ve been trying to catch up on some summer reading (too many books, not enough time); and (I have to admit) I’ve become a little hooked on Modern Family (HOW did I not watch that show before? Simple- and regretful- answer has to do with the fact that I was prejudiced against Al Bundy. BIG mistake. He’s great in this show. As are the rest of the cast and the talented writers who bring hilarious and touching family life to the small screen).

Others are existential. I’m having a bit of trouble with the current state of this here planet of ours, and I keep having moments that tempt me to surrender my Human Race Membership Card.

What the HELL is happening lately?

Fellow humans, you are CHEESING. ME. OFF. (slight tangent- why ‘cheesing’? Cheese is good. I like cheese. A lot).

There are too many fronts (and I use that word deliberately- what with warfare everywhere) on which we are refusing to act with the humanity I KNOW we can access. Choosing up sides- and responding atavistically out of emotional investment in the certainty that one perspective is the ONLY perspective worth entertaining.

Can I resign? Or opt out? For a time, anyway. At least until some semblance of rationale is restored?

Basically, I’ve been distracted. And neglectful. Maybe a little bit lazy. Living in Ignoresville– like the majority of us- rather than doing something about it all.

Shouting into the wind about these things is draining- and the complete lack of effect is dispiriting, to say the least.

But.  Excuses are just that.  Excuses.

So. In a world gone crazy, I’ve been doing my very best to re-engage as best I can. And doing so has meant resorting to my default impulse- gathering as much information from as many perspectives as possible and reflecting upon my response to the input of others.

I’m trying to get behind the headline ‘news’ and soundbite grand-standing to suss out origins and cause and effect and such-like-things. Among the things I’ve been tapping into most frequently are the myriad programs and documentaries that one can find on the CBC on any given day (at least until Harper’s Cons systematically destroy its greatness). Since it’s the summertime (according to the calendar at least- temperatures haven’t really been demonstrative of ‘summer’- here in my City by the Lake, anyway), CBC radio programs are rebroadcasting some really great shows- and many of them are linked by commonality of topical- and timely- theme.

(Although there’s some pretty fantastic new stuff, too. Anyone catch Jian chatting with Mr. Tom Petty a couple o’ weeks back? Jebus. THAT was a great interview. I might have to say more about that sometime in future- assuming I maintain this limited ability of stringing words together).

After listening to a diversity of shows, I’ve come to the conclusion that best summation of our current messes- at home and internationally- boils down to that old salt, most famously articulated by the poet/philosopher George Santayana.

Amen, Brother.

I’d go even further.  Those who refuse to take the time and effort to learn about the past don’t have clue one how to handle the present and future.

Among the most poignant commentaries that reinforce this analytic truth (as I assess such things) was an episode of The Current that featured and interview with Scott Anderson about his book Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East (which has now been bumped to the top of my summer reading list).

Synopsis? Anderson illustrates that since the period before WWI, the West just keeps on blundering into a region of the world about which we have zero understanding. The colonial ideal- as dictated and perpetuated by arrogance and drive for economic, political and religious power- set the groundwork for the percussive events that continue to ripple, violently, through the region and beyond.

On a connected theme, Ideas had a two-part documentary called ‘The Chosen’, talking about the concept and its origins in Bronze Age ideology and mythology, and how it has continued to shape belief and political motivations since.

It made me angry. Things like ‘Sense of Mission’ (that proselytizing to the ‘ignorant’ of other lands/cultures is not only acceptable, but MANDATED and supported by the ruling powers- religious AND political), the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ and ‘Manifest Destiny’ stem out of the variety of ways in which the biblical conceptualization of ‘Chosen-ness’ have been interpreted over the ages.

It supports our narratives of violent conquest. Things like Divine Providence and Blessed Partisanship. The imposed authority of the Pope and the secular governments (under things like the ‘Divine Right of Kings’) granted ‘authority’ over all non-Xian peoples.

Despite the fact that this Western-centric interpretation of the concept has been discussed and disputed for centuries- notably and quite wonderfully by the 17th century philosopher, Baruch/Benedict Spinoza, who maintained that the there was no such thing as ‘eternal’ Chosen-ness- it persists in our conceptualization of the ‘right order’ of things.

Spinoza’s idea of god was one that is abstract and impersonal- and therefore equally indifferent to all people, regardless of tribal/religious/political affiliation. To him, being the Chosen of this god was something that is experiential and socially constructed- and therefore subject to change outside of its originating historical/geographical/temporal context.

I like Spinoza’s thinking (he also wrote about good and evil as relative concepts. The dude had it going on).

Thematically linked, these two great programs speak to the origins of one of the acts of insanity that is happening right now. Just one. And it’s one about which I tend to speak with heightened awareness of the volatility of the subject matter.

Another, recent, episode of The Current spoke about the media-handling of the current conflict- and whether or not there are biases at play that make it impossible to develop a clear picture of what is actually happening. Everything about the situation leads to contention and accusations against those who hold differing opinions.

I won’t share mine. I don’t, as a rule, discuss the politics of this particular region. There is generally too much emotional investment at play- and that emotion is all-too-frequently sourced in something other than a complete understanding of the history of the region. I don’t claim to have anything like a complete understanding of the history of the region, but mine is certainly more comprehensive than most.

And I don’t see an end. I can’t see an end. Not when all sides (and there are far more than just two sides in this conflict) base their claims and perspectives in ideological constructs that have no place in a civilized, humanistic world.

None. At all.

I don’t often really look at the search terms that seemingly bring people to this page, but one sort of jumped out at me, recently, for a few reasons and raised some questions:
1) Why is someone looking to get rid of a Mesopotamian demon?
2) What, content-wise, in any of my posts, might lead a search engine to think that I am offering advice on how to get Pazuzu gone?
3) Who, other than students of Ancient Near Eastern mythology and/or super-fans of The Exorcist franchise even knows who Pazuzu might be?

Side note: I quite like Pazuzu- he’s a pretty groovy fictional personification of evil- pretty high up there in the pantheon of cool demons- and I’m not sure why he needs to be exorcised.

If, in this case, we look to Pazuzu- an Assyrian/Babylonian demon king- as an example of the metaphorical personification of things that humans found troubling at one point in time (to the Mesopotamians he embodied the southwestern wind that brought storms/locusts and drought/famine to the area), as the metaphorical personification of something I find troubling in this time (the imposition of outsider mores/values/beliefs without understanding of the indigenous order of things), I’m all for getting him exorcised the hell outta here.

But, like all things that stem from those worldviews that originate in the Ancient Near East, it’s never that cut-and-dried. The foundational dichotomy of the area wasn’t based in relative good and evil (as people like Spinoza describe it) but in order and chaos- and tools of chaos were often used to prevent the onslaught of MORE chaos.

In addition to being feared as the bringer of the foul southwest wind, Pazuzu was also invoked to combat the power of his rival goddess- Lamashtu. He is a force of chaos, but as the king among demons he is useful to humanity as a protector against other, different, evils.

Lesser of two evils, indeed. Although he was, in fact, the greater of a whole bunch of evils- as far as the pantheons of such superstitions organized these things.

So perhaps he- and all his ilk- do need exorcising, after all.

I keep thinking about one of my Mum’s favourite adages: Two wrongs don’t make a right.

Fighting wrong by doing wrong- and using the tools of ‘evil’- is never the right thing to do.

Something to keep in mind, regardless of which side of any particular conflict in which you might be ideologically and/or emotionally invested.

It’s the beginning of the August long weekend/Civic Holiday- ‘Simcoe Day’, here in TO.  The Caribbean Festival is in full swing, demonstrating, as it does every year, the strong multicultural community about which we can be proud- while we remind ourselves how fortunate we are to live in a place where ideological differences can, generally, be resolved without violence.

A little optimism- and music- is therefore in order.

(Especially if you’ve managed to stick with me all this way- I think the writer’s block might be gone.  Sheesh.)


U2.  A tune about different sides standing together, inspired by the Polish solidarity movement.

Under a blood-red sky
A crowd has gathered in black and white
Arms entwined, the chosen few
The newspaper says, says
Say it’s true, it’s true…
And we can break through
Though torn in two
We can be one.

I… I will begin again
I… I will begin again.

Apparently, the distinctive bassline of the classic tune came about as a result of Adam trying to suss out the chords to this song:

One man on a lonely platform, one case sitting by his side,

Two eyes staring cold and silent,

Shows fear as he turns to hide. We fade to grey.

In times of fear and uncertainty we have a tendency to slip into grey areas- that can lead to actions that reflect the darkness of our human nature and end up desensitizing us to the bombardment of bad news that is everywhere.  It becomes hard to find perspective and embrace the good stuff that continues to happen in spite of the terror and hatred that stem from adherence to ideologies that promote separation and ascendency of one side to the detriment and destruction of others.  Ideologies that are followed, blindly, without any awareness of origin or the political maneuvering that has kept them on our collective human radar.

That lack of awareness is causing anomie and existential separation and is crippling all us citizens of the world.

in the paper today
tales of war and of waste
but you turn right over to the T.V. page

Still:

Hey now, hey now
Don’t dream it’s over
Hey now, hey now
When the world comes in
They come, they come
To build a wall between us- We know they won’t win.

We’re all in this together.  Happy Long Weekend, Peeps!

… here again

Incredulous.  

One of my favourite words, and certainly something I appreciate in others.  Mainly because its opposite- credulous– just isn’t something I get.

At all.

I’ve talked about it before.  Most recently in recounting my reread of Dr. Sagan‘s The Demon Haunted World.

And one of my all time go-to books of profound influence is all about credulity.

In Umberto Eco’s incredible Foucault’s Pendulum, its narrator, Casaubon, after years of education and experience, opted to become credulous for a time.  As we meet the various nefarious characters- those involved in the conspiracy theories and elaborate tales of the survival of the Templars, the Rosicrucians and immortal characters like the Comte de Saint-Germain, we grow, along with Casaubon, in the realization that credulity is among the most dangerous of human vices.

Casaubon was named after the classical scholar Isaac Casaubon- the ‘most learned man of his time’ (1159-1614), who challenged the ‘common wisdom’ of the day with his research into texts and historical writings- but also referenced his son, Méric Casaubon, the author of (among other things) On Credulity and Incredulity in Things natural, civil and divine (1668).  In that work, as a man of his times, he argued (again, among other things) that witches must exist- since everyone believed in them.

Eco’s Casaubon is a melding of the father and the son- learned, yet willfully credulous.  Why not?  Everyone else seems to be.  He remains one of my favourite literary characters.

I first read this book when I was at something of a crossroads (those crossroads again…).  I had taken a year off from my undergrad while I attempted to figure out just what direction I wanted to be taking with my studies.  I had decided that journalism wasn’t for me, Medieval Studies was too limited in time-frame, English wasn’t interdisciplinary enough… What to do?

I remember sitting in a favourite tiny hole-in-the-wall in Ottawa (the Ozon Cafe on Charlotte at Rideau- LOVED that place- the chef would eventually become one of my dearest friends) and reading about the damage credulity can wreak if allowed to run unchecked, and thinking to myself that I’d reallyreally love to DO something about making sure that we become less credulous and more discriminating- in what we believe and why we believe it.

The ‘Diabolicals’- so named by the three literary co-conspirators Belbo, Diotallevi and Casaubon, with patronizing disdain- created flimsy connections between historical events to support their theories about the occult secrets of the world.  In creating their own conspiracy theory and contriving to have it fall into the hands of the Diabolicals, the creators let credulity overtake their lives and, ultimately, ended up either dead or deluded as a result of their imaginary/constructed Plan.

I can honestly and legitimately say that Umberto Eco- and Foucault’s Pendulum, specifically- was one of the driving forces that landed me in Religious Studies (there were others- Dad was reading all kinds of interesting things about de-institutionalizing religions that gave me some food for thought, and I’ve always been intrigued by our collective stories).  But the terrifying prospect, illustrated in Foucault’s Pendulum, of credulity run amok was too much for me to face.  I had to start learning about how and why people would choose to willingly and blindly follow the prescriptions/proscriptions of cultures that disappeared millennia ago.

Generally speaking, I am predisposed to trust people and the fact that sofreakinmany remain willing to be trapped and stunted by credulity is still- even after so very many years of studying and, at times, participating in experiential communities- inexplicable to me.  Generally speaking.

Of course, credulity isn’t something that it restricted to religion(s) and religious/spiritual belief(s).  The gullible/unwilling to do the research can be found in other spheres.  Ones just as influential and potentially dangerous.

Government conspiracy theorists are high up there on my list of people I really don’t want to engage in ‘conversation’ at the mo’.  I’m not suggesting that we should ever sit by, complacently, and let our leaders run roughshod over our democracy.  Never that.  We have responsibilities as citizens of democratic nations.

The primary duty is to actually get out there and participate in the process- by voting- after examining the issues and the response and proposed solutions in order to choose our best possible leaders.  So you voted and still don’t like the way things are going?  Get more involved- volunteer, start a grass-roots movement, write a blog post…

But believing that our elected governing bodies are ALL working- ceaselessly and with contemptuous greed- to deceive the voting public about everything?  C’mon now.

Communicating and articulating informed perceptions of our realities is the only way out of the quagmire of superstition and credulity in which we seem to be trapped.  Buying the line of chatter offered by a talking head that is likely on the payroll of an institution with a self-serving mandate ain’t gonna cut it, folks.

As humans we see connections between things- that’s one of the many ways in which we attempt to make sense of the inexplicable.  I do that.  A lot.  The back catalogue (such as it is) hereabouts demonstrates that little fact quite clearly.  We create meaning from the bits and pieces of things that surround us.

I get it.  I do.  But I don’t structure my life according to these perceived connections.

Just because a bunch of people (or Fox News) tell me that the POTUS wasn’t born in Hawaii doesn’t mean it’s true.   A few radical racist anti-semites tell us that the Holocaust never happened?  Not according to the historical and human experiential records we have available to us.

Millions of people are willing to accept that a book of stories and social strictures is the divinely dictated word of a deity?  I’m not one of them.  I did that homework, and drew different conclusions- based in evidential research that says something else.

Last weekend (last weekend?  Really?  It’s Friday again already?  Where is the summer going?) I took a road trip to our Nation’s Capital to help celebrate the wedding of one of my dearest friends in the world.  On the long drive, I let the Shuffle Daemon have its head and set the playlist.

This one came up as we drove:

I seem to be living my life in placeholders these days.  There just aren’t enough hours…

Matt Johnson.  I don’t throw the word genius around lightly, but this guy… Brilliance.  Embodied.  He will be revisited at some point.

For now…

Recorded between 1988 and 1989, Mind Bomb is an album heavy on the politics and religion- and the politics of religion.  That ^^^ little ditty is profound and prophetic in so very many ways- and the introduction (Are you ready Jesus?  Buddha?  Mohammad?), with its allusion to The Sweet’s Ballroom Blitz (a song about another sort of chaos) is just sososo clever.

 ‘The world is on its elbows and knees, it’s forgotten the message and worships the creeds…’

Yep.  Why?  Because ‘they’ tell us to do so.

Did you catch the news this week?  Have you seen what is blowing up, again, in the ‘Holy Land’?  And the political maneuvering that is happening as a result?

It’s past time to stop listening to ‘them’ in our credulous intellectual laziness.

 Informed rationality.  That’s what it has to be about.

Heavy thoughts for a beautiful Friday evening in my City on the Lake.    Going to shake off the week, and I’m thinking that, perhaps, I’ll let Matt’s reference lead me into my weekend- which will involve the usual chores and catch-up and some reading (and maybe even some writing) that I’ve been meaning to get at…

But for now…

‘My dreams are getting so strange, I’d like to tell you everything I see…’

Happy Friday!

Required Reading

Every once in awhile I find myself missing university teaching.  I miss the students- wide-eyed and eager to learn, and the colleagues with whom I shared common interests and background.  I miss the discussions we had, and the ideas that they would bring to the table that would enhance and develop my own perceptions of our world.

But one of the things I miss most is the opportunity I had- every four months or so- to create a syllabus outlining the assignments and readings for the course.  In doing so, I got to share some of my favourite stories and concepts with my audience- and they actually HAD to read them (at least if they hoped to pass the course, they did).

I miss it partly because I genuinely LOVE sharing the wonderful contributions that have been made in understanding our humanity with my fellow humans, but also because sometimes I reallyreally wish that I could MAKE some people do things I want them to do.  For their own good, of course.  For their good and for the good of us all.

There are some vital things out there to which we all NEED to be exposed.

I’ve spoken before about how much I love the reboot of Cosmos.  Dr. Tyson has done an incredible job of revivifying the message that Dr. Sagan left with us when he passed away almost 20 years ago.  Inspired by the show (there IS good stuff on t.v, now and again), I decided that it was past time for me to revisit Dr. Sagan a little more fully.

With a cottage weekend on the horizon (T-minus 2 days!), I picked up some books to accompany me as I sit on the dock, cocktail in hand, and fully and formally welcome back our Canadian cottage season.

And, because sometimes I’m not-so-good with the waiting, I have to admit that I cracked the books a little prematurely.

One of them is The Demon-Haunted World- Science as a Candle in the Dark, Dr. Sagan’s penultimate work of wonder and genius.  His next-to-last published offering to the world of his eloquent view of the Cosmos and our humanity- and a warning that we haven’t managed to heed.

I read the book for the first time as a student, many years ago, but not as part of my course-dictated required readings.  As a student of the Scientific Study of Religion, I was interested in the interplay between what we have learned, through generations of scientific observation and experimentation in the natural world (both the provable and theoretical outcomes), and the stories of the supernatural that we have created and to which we continue to cling, in spite of lack of evidence and with an extremity of the beggaring of common sense.

The disconnect disturbed me then, as it does now (to an ever-growing degree).  I can no more understand today, even after more than a decade of researching how and why we construct religious beliefs and the institutions that support and further those beliefs, why people choose to remain willfully ignorant and in the thrall of superstition and fairy tales.

I understand that there is collected wisdom to be found in the stories- wisdom that stands the test of time, since it is human in origin.

Re-reading the book, I was struck- seemingly on each and every page- by how prescient Dr. Sagan truly was.  And not in any pseudo-scientific ‘psychic’ way.

On pages 25-26 he wrote (in 1995):

“The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations of pseudo-science and superstition, but especially a celebration of a kind of ignorance… The plain lesson is that study- not just of science, but of anything- are avoidable, even desirable.”

Jebus.

That particular quote- and the one that accompanies his picture up there ^^^^- are shaking me to my very core.

The guy, through his observation of the world that he loved, knew.  He knew, back then, that we are on a slippery slope to our own destruction- one that is being expedited by our stubborn unwillingness to think for ourselves and set aside the beliefs and willful ignorance that keep us yoked to the agendas of those in power- whether the powers are religious or secular.

We believe the fairy tales because doing so is easier than thinking for ourselves.  We have an entire world of wisdom and knowledge and evidential experience to tap into- with new discoveries being made daily- and yet we persist in holding onto Bronze-Age ideas regarding the structure of the world/universe in which we live.

Re-reading his words left me intellectually and emotionally exhausted with the inspiration they still provide.  But it also left me mad as Hell (there’s that word again).

As his synopsis of his life-long love affair with science and the natural world unfolds, he speaks about the need to continually educate ourselves and question and test our conclusions- the way scientists do as they seek to explain and understand our universe.  The continuous testing of hypotheses to shape an approach to the truth is required methodology in the sciences.

In religion?  Not so much (pages 34-35).

“Which leaders of the major faiths acknowledge that their beliefs might be incomplete or erroneous and establish institutes to uncover possible doctrinal deficiencies?  Beyond the test of everyday living, who is systematically testing the circumstances in which traditional religious teachings may not longer apply?  (It is certainly conceivable that doctrines and ethics that might have worked fairly well in patriarchal or patristic or medieval times might be thoroughly invalid in the very different world we inhabit today)… Scripture is said to be divinely inspired- a phrase with many meanings.  But what is it’s simply made up by fallible humans?  Miracles are attested, but what they’re instead some mix of charlantanry, unfamiliar states of consciousness, misapprehensions of natural phenomena, and mental illness?  No contemporary religion and no New Age belief seem to me to take sufficient account of the grandeur, magnificence, subtlety and intricacy of the Universe revealed by science.  The fact that so little of the findings of modern science is prefigured in Scripture to my mind casts further doubt on its divine inspiration.

But of course I might be wrong.”

That last line is so Sagan.  Always the scientist.  Always the awareness that his hypothesis might not prove accurate and therefore have to be consigned to the dust-heap of failed attempts at understanding.

The last chapter of the book resonates these days in ways that would be spooky- if he wasn’t who he was, and if I was inclined to believe in things that are ‘spooky’.  In ‘Real Patriots Ask Questions’ he outlines why it is our responsibility, as participants in democracy, to keep ourselves informed about the world in general and the actions of our elected leaders in particular.

Since our federal government, just today, made public their intention to proceed with a staggeringly ill-conceived decision that flies in the face of majority (and scientific) opinion and is demonstrative of their typical arrogance and self-preserving agenda, that chapter hit home pretty freakin hard.

Again with the wisdom (page 434):

“If we can’t think for ourselves, if we’re unwilling to question authority, then we’re just putty in the hands of those in power.  But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us.  In every country we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights.  With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit.  In the demon-haunted world we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.”

I powered through the book.  The impact of his observations and the articulation of our current issues in a work written almost 20 years ago left me feeling like I needed to finish it quickly.  Impending danger and dark foreboding, folks.  He started warning us about it decades ago.  And not only did we not listen, we are rushing headlong- willingly blind- into the idiocy that will bring about our destruction.

This weekend, on the dock, I will savour it again- more slowly this time- to appreciate the fullness of his thoughts and the beauty and power of his words.  It will be my required (re-)reading- in amongst the literary creativity of a couple of my favourite authors of fiction.

The finale of Cosmos, a couple of weeks ago, started with Dr. Tyson ‘in’ the Library of Alexandria.  My dream palace.  Seriously.  Of all the great human constructs that have been needlessly destroyed, THAT one hurts me most of all.

It was, as Neil noted, the storehouse of the wisdom of the Classical period.  The math, the science, the philosophy, the theology.  Our stories and our discoveries about the world we live in and the universe around us.

At that time such wisdom was available only to the elite, and so, when the mob came to destroy the Library and its wonders, there weren’t many to stand against the hoard.

Intelligence and critical thinking and rationality and engagement with the realities of our world are characteristics and attributes that are actively being discouraged in our popular media and by our leaders- those in the business world, in the arena of religious belief, and those we elect to political power.  We celebrate the pedestrian, the ‘common’, the ‘creators’ of amusing 140-character soundbites.  Credulity is not only acceptable, it’s laudable.

In 1996, Carl Sagan offered another example of his great and awesome voice crying out against the wilderness of ignorance and complete lack of healthy and needful skepticism.  He shouted, but not enough of us seemed to hear.

If we don’t start hitting the books and completing our assigned readings, we students of the world are going to fail this class.  Bigtime.  And that failure will lead us, inexorably, “back into superstition and darkness.”

And when that happens, who among us will stand against the mob?

And if the dam breaks open many years too soon, and if there is no room upon the hill

And if your head explodes with dark forebodings, too, I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon.

Brain damage, indeed.

PS- For a few days, come Friday morning, I will be shutting down the connectivity to all things technological in favour of my lakeside dock and the company of good friends.  Have a fantastic weekend, WPPeeps.  And if you’re looking for something to read… Just a suggestion.  A strong and pleading suggestion, but just a suggestion nonetheless. 

Much Ado About Nothing

So this topic has shown up in the news again. People are fighting it, people are agreeing with it… not enough else to be worried about, I guess.

Meanwhile, our municipal train wreck has finally derailed and upped stakes for rehab in Chicago. But not before we made The Daily Show, again.  And not before the damage may be irrevocable.

Still… hoping this latest is something that will permit change in my hometown.

Wishing you all a lovely weekend!

colemining

I don’t know about you, but I don’t really find this illustration particularly helpful in explaining why it’s SO FREAKIN COLD OUTSIDE.  And the typo is making me nuts, but I’m too chilly to search for another image.

Well there I was all hunkered down against the c-c-c-cold of the polar vortex- or whatever they’re calling it- getting ready to kill an evening watching some tv or something equally mindless.

Decided to check the WP Reader before turning off the laptop for the night and, what’s there?  A wee little goad by my friend OM- over there at Harsh Reality.

It’s one of the fun things he does- he gets conversations started.  I actually saw the linkabout the Baphomet statue earlier today.  I read the article, smiled a little and then forgot about it.

Jeepers.  People really don’t have larger concerns?

The constant negative back-and-forth between the atheist and…

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