Posts Tagged ‘TEA Party’

NEWSPAPER OP/ED FROM THE REV: “The Problem is Us”

Wednesday, July 4th, 2012

(This opinion piece of mine appeared in The Las Cruces Sun News on Monday, July 2, 2012)

The conventional wisdom is that we are a politically divided nation, with “both sides” moving further apart, ever more determined to not give an inch, leaving the moderate “middle” a virtual no-mans land where even angels fear to tread.

What can we do about it?  I have at least one idea, and it has nothing to do with the leadership in Washington, D.C., or the political party you belong to.  It does, however, have everything to do with you and me, and it is this:

Lighten up.

I’m not asking you to change your party or your stripes or your deeply-held beliefs — I’m just begging you to take a step back from the vein-bulging rage and indignation.

Don’t want to?  Great.  Then kiss your beloved country goodbye and get ready for our next Civil War.  Won’t that be fun!

Here’s my own story of the simple (though challenging) act I am asking of my fellow citizens:  I didn’t vote for George W. Bush for President, but once he was elected, I hoped (for our nation’s sake) that he would “succeed”.  But soon I came to feel that he was heavily favoring a large (but not majority) population that shared (unlike me) his cultural, political, and religious views.  He led us into a war that I felt was questionable, at best, and reckless at worst.  I came to view him as a terrible human being.  I believed he was an idiot and the puppet of a neo-conservative conspiracy to force America into the role of an imperial power.  I demonized him, and I got angry.  I hated the man.

So when Dan Rather came forward with “evidence” of President Bush’s “draft dodging” I was ready — no, happy — to believe it.

But then there came a moment when I realized that my anger and my hatred had now become part of the problem of America.  My blind, political rage was really just a counterproductive indulgence.  Whatever George Bush’s faults as our President, he was just a man, not that much better or worse than any other.  So when I learned that the “smoking gun” that Dan Rather had shown to America was not legitimate, I stopped believing that President Bush was guilty of that particular act.  I let it go.

I’ve come to understand that those we entrust with our governance can only accomplish as much as we allow them to.  So when the citizenry is as mad and dug in as we currently are, the fallible human beings that we have elected are forced to dance to the tune our angry fiddles are playing.

So the problem that we have to solve will not be fixed by sending ever more extreme (or “pure”) elected officials to the state house or Washington D.C.  The folks we have there now are already deadlocked like two fighting dogs afraid to loosen the grip of their jaws on each other’s necks, while the rest of us languish, the economy staggers, and real people suffer as history keeps on marching, marching, happy to pass us by.

No.  The only problem we can solve is right here in our own hearts.  Only then will our most intelligent and reasonable run for office.

I pick on the TEA Party.  But, then, I have actually taken the time to get to know them and to find out what they think, believe, and feel passionately about (many of my liberal friends think me crazy for even attempting this).  And I’ve learned something important from these talks with my fellow citizens:  1) They feel deeply about what they believe, (I do not for a moment doubt their sincerity, even if I disagree with their conclusions), and; 2) No matter how hard we tried to find common ground in our conversations, I realized that there will always remain an unbridgeable gap between my view of America and theirs.

And there you have the one, historic problem of America that will not go away (even with a Civil War): there are large swaths of our population that will never agree (have they ever?).  So what do we do?  Kill each other?  Attempt to shut each other out of access to government?  That’s what we’re trying to do right now (and you can see how well it is working as China and India are busily working to displace America as the world leader in technology, education and innovation).

As much as we love to de-humanize our political leadership, smearing them as fascists, socialists or crooks, these people in our capitals are the contents of our own hearts and minds projected on a big screen.  Which means that the bad movie we are watching is not the corruption of our nation, or our government: it is the corruption of our own reason by irrational outrage and inflamed imagination.  And the only cure for that will have to come when one person at a time takes a tiny step back and recognizes that the politicians and liberals and conservatives that we are so angry at are our fellow citizens and human beings who we should treat as we would want to be treated.  Maybe then our politicians will have the freedom to do their work of making the political compromises that have served our nation so well throughout our history — the kind of compromises that show respect for the beliefs, hopes and aspirations of all of our citizens.  Even the ones we don’t agree with.

If we can do this — if you and I can do this — then there will always be hope for this nation that we all share.

Bob Diven

SERMON: “The Still-Naked Emperor” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

I think one of the things that bugs me not just about religion, but also about the spectrum of irrational beliefs that people can hold, is that they mask the true fragility of all of life and culture.

I believe that this insistence on finding often fallacious outside (eternal, rock solid, unchanging) reference points for morality, ethics and human behavior (as well as industrial and political policy) present a sort of foundational challenge to the prospect of our long term survival as a species.

Everything we humans measure is measured relative to something else -- in this example our place in evolution.

It is the most basic truism of measurement: everything we humans measure is measured relative to something else, from the original royal “foot” to our modern “light years”.  But somehow, when it comes to human morality we violently resist the notion that our measurements are at all “relative”.  No.  “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it” sort of sums up the absolutist stance.  But even when one claims to have found a true North Star of morality in God, adjustments are always made in the actual application of that morality.

We all know and understand this on a civic level (this is why we have jury trials where context and intention influence the findings of guilt or innocence).  But we also understand it on a personal level: nearly everything we do that affects other people is done with an awareness of the potential social cost or benefit — to us.

We humans know from long centuries of experience that we need rules to keep ourselves and society functioning smoothly, and yet we all bend — or break — the rules in a multitude of different ways.  When done to extremes, these infractions are punished by the civil authorities (our elected tribal leaders).  But in our day-to-day lives there is a truth that many are loathe to recognize:  though we may want to believe in an absolute standard of right and wrong that exists outside of our physical world, we are yet ever thankful that we get away with cutting the moral corners that we do dozens of times a day.

Our religions, then, have as part of their appeal the absolute impossibility of the faithful application of their moral dictates to our lives: no one can live up to the law (be it civic or divine).  And so we find ourselves in constant rebellion against that which we ourselves most desire.  In short, we insist on a God we can never completely obey.

For we all wobble across those lines — even the most righteous (for they, too, pick and choose which precepts of their God-given religion are the most important).  It’s human nature.

Why is this?  We know why we want God to be there: to lend our lives a sense of purpose and transcendent meaning.  So why the impossible-to-obey-rules?  Perhaps this makes God “better” than us in a way that re-enforces his “other” status (but conveniently in a form that is able to “look the other way” when we need him to!)  But what about the rules themselves?

Well, one of the problems with rules and laws is that they can reach a point of diminishing returns, where their capacity to influence behavior starts to weaken.  There are never enough cops (or angels, apparently) to enforce them, so it is left up to us to sort of collectively decide which rules matter the most.  (This is most clearly seen in popular mass media, where public outrage over this crime or that criminal ebbs and flows, even as the attention of the public moves on from one favorite outrage to the next.  If enough people are angry, a law can suddenly be applied with the full vigor of civil force.  If enough people cease to care that much, then laws just as much “on the books” are easily ignored.  It happens all the time).

And yet we persist in supporting the myth of a divine law that is immune to a collective human relativism.  There is no such thing.  We humans are the ones who make — and break — the rules.

We humans seem to be natural utopians.  This can be hard to spot as it can take almost any ideological form.  And so those of us that believe in the social value of a strong central government can easily fall into the trap of passing ever more laws to feel like we’re doing something (altering human behavior) that we’re actually not .  While libertarians and anarchists have their own utopian vision built from the extremely silly view that no laws are better than too many.

There is, lurking in between these views, perhaps some sort of “zone of effectiveness”, or “sweet spot” to aim for.

What most upsets society is unfairness.  Not so much because we care a great deal for others as we don’t want our own societal sacrifice to be greater than anyone else’s.  This is where the reality of the power of perception becomes critical.  (Members of the TEA Party, for example, are convinced that they are paying far higher taxes than they actually are and that their “hard earned money” is going straight into the pockets of lazy minorities).

We are quick to criticize those who govern us for paying too much attention to the polls (or “political” reality) when in truth they are making the same kinds of calculations that you or I make in our own daily actions, albeit on a much larger scale.  Make no mistake: there are things citizens simply won’t stand for.  This is not cynicism — this is reality.  (Adding God to the mix, or putting up the Bible’s ten commandments in every courthouse just sort of muddies up the waters without adding much of use).

For unlike God, we humans have to balance out justice and mercy in the real world of our day to day interactions with each other in a way that maintains some semblance of personal integrity while also seeing to our own personal comfort and safety.  The fact that we (generally) selfish humans care for each other as much as we do is one of the saving graces of our species.

Maybe it’s best not to question the myth of morality’s divine origin.  Perhaps we’re better off to let that sleeping dog lie.  But somehow I don’t think society will unravel once we see this divine “Emperor” naked, because he was never the one making us behave in the first place.  And maybe — once we realize that — we will begin to see civil society as the delicate and vulnerable phenomena that it is, and treat it with a good deal more care and kindness than we currently do, and thereby finally take full responsibility for our malleable human morality.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “What’s Missing?” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, April 24th, 2011

Global climate change.  Obesity epidemic.  Financial crisis.

What do these three things have in common?  They are all things that are happening to us.  How are they different?  They are all things we may not have much control over, in the end.

"EARTHSICLE", street painting by Bob Diven.

I say that because in most discussions of issue like these, the one thing glaringly absent is a perspective from evolution.  An article last year in the Economist noted that most economists accept evolution, but they act as if it stops at our necks, meaning that they continue to base their predictions on a (mostly mythical) notion of the human being as “rational actor”, ignoring the inherent bent toward the irrational that is a natural part of our mammalian brain.

And so, as I’m reading “Fast Food Nation” (next week’s review) — despite the clear recognition that humans like fast and cheap food, and that other humans really really like to make a lot of money from natural human urges for fat, sugar and salt — there is no discussion of the evolutionary basis for the human behavior that is the basis for this matrix of need and greed that is not only compromising our individual health, but accelerating the demise of the dwindling working middle class in America.

Business people know human weakness.  They count on it for maximum profit.  So a cartoon aimed at children is colorful, loud, and changing all the time.  Never mind that a steady diet of such super-stimuli makes for a more poorly-developed human being, such a trained human-monkey will be a good consumer, and that is the profit-seeker’s true bottom line.

“The business of America is business” is a phrase I have heard.  And there is clearly a truth in there, especially as expressed through the current conservative wing of our culture.  For whatever their protestations of the decline of “family values” and “culture”, there is reserved a special, almost religious reverence for human financial success that seems to blind them to the incremental increase in long-term human misery that the exaggerated success of an individual can foster in the larger population.

I might have to become a socialist if this keeps up.  And it will.  For as long as we continue to ignore the lessons of evolution, the further down the road toward fostering our own extinction as a viable species we will go.

Part of the problem may be that we just don’t live all that long, and “history” will always win out, like the huge corporation that can afford to string along the individual plaintiff with endless legal wrangling supported by well-paid corporate attorneys.

I don’ t know what the “solution” is to any of this.  I’d like to believe that education would take us a long way.  And I’m afraid that the best tool at hand is the blunt one of centralized government which force the fast-food industry, for example, to sell food that is more nutrition than addictive chemical triggers, and settle for less obscene cash profits by providing their workers a decent wage and more satisfying working conditions.  That all seems very “socialist” to me.  But, really, can we honestly say that our current “system” is giving us the life we want, the society we want?

Un-restrained capitalism is un-restrained, short-term human self-interest on steroids.  It is the bully who sucks all the syrup from the bottom of your snow cone, and hands you back the flavorless cup of ice.

Humans are inherently self-interested.  This is why we have created civil institutions upon which we can call when we are threatened by other humans in our community (such as a robber or firebug).  But we humans also came to realize, at some point in our evolution, that there is a zone of cooperation created by groups of humans who are willing to put off the immediate gratification of their needs in order to assure (as much as it is possible) the longer-term satisfaction of those needs on a more predictable basis.  This is why we have currency with an agreed-upon value, so that some of us can pursue a trade that does not involve growing our daily bread, or hunting our daily wild boar.

But there are always those among us who see an opportunity too hard to resist, and work to bend the system to their advantage.  A certain amount of this we accept, in a tribal sense.  But when the abuse becomes onerous, we rebel.

But how can we rebel when we are no longer living in a tribal band, or a small community where we have the collective power to shun or shame or punish?

In our larger, national community, we have a federal government in place to fulfill that role.  But it seems we have reached a point where that government (though never perfect  and always subject to distortion) has become the target of the conservative members of our tribe.  Why?  Because it threatens to keep from us the regular flow of the things we have become addicted to: gas, fast food and god.  We want it to “get out of the way” so that we can smoke, eat and drink our way to an early grave, like lab rats who can drink all the sugar water they want.  And if other humans want to make millions and ruin the environment in order to keep us supplied, God bless their initiative!

We are a messy collection of personalities, we humans.  And the plain truth of the matter is that we act like we know how to manage our communities even though we’ve never had to manage communities on the scale of that which we now face.  We carry in our hearts a mythology of a more tribal, simpler time.  The TEA Party thinks we can all go back to living in an 1880’s prairie town with a Town Marshall, a school m’arm, and a white clapboard church at the end of Main Street.

Even that tribal urge is better understood (in fact, only properly understood) through the viewpoint of evolution, which recognizes just how much of our developmental past occurred before the invention of the cell phone.  Yet suddenly here we are, with bodies evolved over many millennia to grab all of the all-too-rare salt, sugar or fat we can lay our hands on, with brains selected for to notice the novel (the snake moving in the grass, the wolf jumping from the brush), ill-prepared for the unprecedented level of over-stimulation and industrially-refined diet of our daily modern lives (see my review of Super Stimuli on this blog).

Yet we lack the clear-eyed humility that an understanding of our evolutionary past can bestow, placing our hope, instead, on a religious-crack-high version of humility that places us, in fact, at the center of a universe run by a God very much like ourselves.  Good luck to us with that one.

Who can say what our chances are of shaping a “better” society out of the one we currently have.  History is mixed on this point, but as an indicator it points toward the negative outcomes.  It would, I think, be a shame if our species had come this far, through so much, only to eat, extract and pollute ourselves into extinction.  (We wouldn’t be the first to do so, only the most advanced).

Yet I live in hope sufficient to keep me talking about these things, and thinking about them.  And if enough of us do that, we might be able to change things.  And if we do that, at least we can face the meteorite that might take us out with a certain justifiable pride in our accomplishments as a species, instead of seeing it as a welcome end to just one more blight upon the planet.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON “Confessions of an Evolution Nerd” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, March 27th, 2011

It may not surprise you to know that I’m always sticking my evolutionary nose into other people’s world-views whenever opportunity allows.  Just in the time between typing the title of this sermon and writing the first sentence, I was interrupted by an acquaintance to chat about this and that, and by the end we were talking about the popular perception that the apocalypse is upon us (as evidenced by the ever-popular sign of earthquakes, or “superbugs’ — to cite the two examples in our conversation), to which I gave (in quick succession) the three following factoids: 1) Viruses evolve faster than we humans do (as clear evidence of evolution and also to show that the idea of disease as a directed judgement from God is absurd); 2) That the human body is more than half bacteria (by cellular weight — oh, and I threw in that we probably began as bacteria), and: 3) That we live on a cooling planet (my blanket answer to our constant surprise at earthquakes).

Yes, I'm an Evolution nerd.

Now, really, who but an evolution nerd would squeeze that much annoying science into a friendly conversation?

As if I needed more proof of my evolution nerd status, I took a series of on-line ethics surveys that were being conducted by two university psychologists, and one of those surveys asked a series of questions that were designed to show where one stood on the “conservative/liberal” political spectrum.  I was surprised to see that I was actually a bit on the conservative side compared to most of my fellow self-identifying liberals in all areas but one:  when it came to Evolution versus Creationism, I was way to the left of even the lefties.

I can’t help but be reminded of my Evangelical years when I get the feeling that I am barking like a voice in the wilderness about a subject that very few people consider relevant to their lives.  Of course I think it’s relevant because it makes so much about life make sense.  And so I have the fervor of a convert, which is about the most annoying thing there is on the planet (think of a friend that has just recently quit drinking or smoking — for a while their turn-around is the ONLY subject on their mind, and the source of a certain focused zeal).

Of course one of the reasons I’m so ready to leap to the defense of rational thought is that we humans seem naturally predisposed to jump to the most irrational conclusions when faced with natural disaster (in particular).  We are pattern-seekers, and will find one whether or not a pattern actually exists.  Hence the Facebook posting from an evangelical friend:

“Sept 11th (NY) Jan 11th (Haiti) and March 11th (Japan).Luke 21:10-11Then jesus said his disciples: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.There will be great earthquakes’,famines and pestilences in various places,and fearful events and great signs from heaven. ‘Jesus says for behold I come quickly,’ * so ask yourself ARE YOU READY?* repost this.”

I also watched a video that displayed the “beauty of mathematics” (as a sign of God’s order) that assigned a numeric value to every letter in the alphabet, then took a series of phrases and “added” up the numbers, ending with “The love of God” adding up to 101% (the popular figure for the optimum human effort).  I couldn’t help but think, however that “The love of Dog” would also equal 101% by that test.

These are highly typical examples of what the human mind finds irresistible.  But is there really any harm in such nonsense?  Who knows.  Clearly I think it’s better to believe more in fact than in fantasy, but maybe that’s just because I’ve become such an evolution nerd.  Or maybe I feel like such an evolution nerd because I am surrounded by so much non-rational nonsense.

When I made a decision last year to start writing op/ed pieces for my local newspaper, my motivation was to counter the rising popularity of the TEA Party movement with a dose of rationality.  I decided that I had a sort of duty to at least be a “speed bump” to slow, if not stop, them.  Now, I have sympathies with the feelings of the TEA Party regarding certain things, but what I mostly saw was the panoply of hair-brained beliefs that were being swept along with their political agenda (the “Birthing” controversy, for example).  But in all of my engagements with that group, I came out feeling like I had charged valiantly against an impenetrable fortress of motivated ignorance.

There is clearly more to this sort of thing than the difficulties of countering a popular political movement (to take the TEA Party example).  Underlying it all is the problem of the ways in which our evolved primate brains work, and the fact that most of the operators of those brains have no frigging idea that they are operating under any sort of mammalian limitations to cognition (for more on that, see “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind” reviewed on this blog).  But there I am again: proselytizing, preaching, evangelizing about my “version” of the truth, like a true nerd.

I am like every other human in that I have a sense of self so inflated as to believe that I can, on some level, achieve a workable knowledge of the “truth”.  On the other hand, I have enough of an awareness of the limitations of that self that I know that the best I’m going to get is a “workable” knowledge.  One thing about living in the age we do is that we cannot help but know that we are surrounded by a record of human knowledge such that no single human mind can hope to contain it, not matter how much study or time is given the pursuit.  And our collective knowledge increases incredibly every day with each new invention or discovery, so that our own store of knowledge can be seen as a mirror of the universe that is still speeding up some 13.6 billions years after it began.

Damn, I did it again.  I had to get that “age of the universe” thing in there, didn’t I?

Well, I told you at the outset what I was.  Now I’ve just gone and proved it.  Next thing you know I’ll be going door to door, asking folks if I could share a little literature about Charles Darwin…

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, August 1st, 2010

I read this week (in “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human” by Richard Wrangham — reviewed above) that humans are the only primates where husbands share food with their wives (and vice versa).  All other primates keep it to themselves (though the women will share food with their immediate kin).  It has, apparently, been a constant in human hunter-gatherer tribes that our evolved sexual division of labor has women gathering fruits, nuts, tubers, etc. all day, while the men hunt.  The foods that the women gather tend to be the ones that require (often elaborate) preparation, but it is that preparation and the tending of the cooking fire that frees the men to spend as much time as they need to acquiring meat (or, in a few tribal cultures, to sit on their asses).  When the men bring home meat, it is shared by the successful hunter (or hunters) with the rest of the village, with hunter and his family get the better parts (or, we could say, the “profit”).  No other primates do this.  Everywhere else it’s “every monkey for him or herself”.  Cooking and cooked food has become so intimately entwined with our physical and social evolution that in many tribes, the sharing of food by a woman with a man is equivalent to agreeing to marry him.

To me this underlines, once more, the pervasiveness of our social natures.  Wrangham’s book goes into great detail about the interactions of cooking and human culture, making a convincing claim that it was cooking that (in large part) made us “human”.  Other researchers have of late been focusing on the subtle (but monumentally important) differences between our sociability and that of other primates.  Human children, much more than even our closest primate relatives, our compelled to instruct other children, taking pains to correct anything out of line with what they, themselves, have been taught by adults.  It may be a sort of “(cooked) chicken and (hard boiled) egg” question as to whether our innate sociability made us good and willing cooks or whether the practice of cooking made us social in our peculiarly human way.  Regardless, here we are, dicing, chopping, cooking, social animals living in large, complex, modern societies.

It’s interesting to me how our society at large is, in many ways, an extension of our tribal selves at work.  In most economies, we re-enact the ethic of the village hunter bringing in his kill — where he shares a portion of the meat with the rest of the tribe, but is able to keep the best parts for himself and his family — with our modern tax structure.  For isn’t this what taxes are all about: we share what we “bring in” with the community, while allowing the successful to make a profit?  It turns out this ethic has been part of our culture for hundreds of thousands of years.

(I can’t help but think about the TEA Party when considering this, and I end up seeing them more as “selfish monkey” than “sharing human”.  I expect there have always been those that resented the idea of sharing any of their kill with others.  Maybe Joe thought he was the better hunter, and he shouldn’t be feeding Fred’s family when Fred can’t seem to spear a wild boar to save his life.  These are the same tensions we feel today, only with the TEA Party folks I’ve spoken to, they’ve replaced Fred the lousy hunter with the imagined “welfare mom” who is sitting at home with her 12 bastards getting fat off of Joe’s boar meat).

That’s the interesting thing about an evolutionary view of life — it offers perspective on our behavior.  I remember that one of the early assertions of evolutionary psychology was that men were designed (indeed, destined) to plant their seed in as many willing wombs as possible.  This was taken to mean that men could not be reasonably expected to be monogamous.  I think that now, however, we are gradually becoming more sophisticated and nuanced in the conclusions we draw from our evolutionary past on our current psychology (humans in general, it turns out, are wired for novelty-seeking behavior).

Take the sexual division of labor that seems to have been brought about by cooking: women entering into binding social contracts with men, with their part of the bargain including gathering plant calories, preparing them, tending the fire and having it all ready for when the man brings home the meat to drop in the pot.  In return, men share their meat and their protection, and societies develop to support the union (and to shame and punish those that violate both the sanctity and smooth running of the contract).

Of course, we now live in a society where the average woman is not in need of a protector, and we can all get our meat from the grocery store.  Therefore, just as cooked food freed us from the tedious hours of chewing raw food to get the calories we needed to live, modern life frees us to explore our social contracts in new ways.  The upheaval of the “Women’s Movement” was, in some ways, a refutation of our socially evolved contracts that limited women’s opportunities.  However it also involved a denial of the deep nature of our evolved sexual roles.  I think we’ve come to a point where we can now be honest with ourselves, and acknowledge the ancient impulses that drive us as men and as women, and make our choices taking those evolutionary imprints into account.

Is evolution, then, destiny?  Because my ancestors brought home the meat does that mean a women should have dinner ready for me when I get home?  Of course not.  For the other truth of biology is that each of us is a unique genetic mix and a distinct personality.  One of the great things about living in the times we live in, is that a woman who is a born warrior (for example) can choose a life path that allows her to be what she is uniquely suited to be, just as a woman who feels drawn to her ancient role of keeper of the home fire can find her satisfaction in that role.  The roles for men have expanded as well, moving (a bit) beyond the handful of rigid archetypes that used to dominate.  This, to me, is a new level of social evolution made possible by modern society.

The resistance to change is with us, as well.  (Though it is almost always rooted in fear and myth, as if there was a point in our history – be it the Garden of Eden or America in the 1950’s – where we were better off, or closer to the “ideal”).  I expect there were a few ancient early humans who feared fire, and thought that cooking that hunk of meat was going against the will of the gods.  So they sat there pounding their raw meat on a rock to soften it up a bit, then chewed it for hours while smelling the wonderful aromas of their neighbor’s cooking fires, watching as that neighbor’s children grew up faster, fatter and stronger.

The allure of cooked food is like the allure of culture: nearly irresistible.  And why shouldn’t it be?  Cooking and culture have brought those of us in modernized countries incredible personal freedom and opportunity, health and comfort.  The overly religious and the overly angry conservative types are bothered by the powerful draw comfort and pleasure have upon us, as if giving in to such siren songs will mark a return to our animalistic, sinful past.  When, in truth, we are merely making the next steps on the paths we have trod out of the trees that have brought us from ancient ape to modern human, the very same impulses and creativity that made us the clever, social barbecuing and sharing people that we are today.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: ‘The CRAZY IDEA” by the not-so-reverend bob.

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

I’m compelled on (a regular basis) to run reality checks on my perceptions of things.  Today that involved tuning my truck radio to the AM dial, and listening to Rush Limbaugh.  I know people that listen to Rush.  It is because I know these people (some of whom I consider friends and human beings I’d want on my side in a bar fight) that I have a desire to understand what they are finding in Rush.  I listened long enough to get the idea that Obama’s true agenda is to ruin in four years the America that we and our forefathers took two hundred years to build.  Rush said that we can’t look at what’s going on now in the “normal” way that we’ve always evaluated politics.  This is something different, something unprecedented.  Rush’s opening comment was a rhetorical question: “Let me get this straight: we can’t identify the illegal aliens in this country, but we can require everyone to buy health insurance?” (adding the tag that “If you don’t, Reid and Pelosi will track you down and throw you in jail” — a fiction as there is no criminal penalty for non-compliance with the Health Care Reform Act).  Every Limbaugh sentence was seasoned with dramatic pauses, heavy sighs, and every vocal cue that Rush was wearing himself out trying to point out this web of conspiracies to true Americans and thereby single-handedly save this great nation.

It got me thinking.  In an odd moment of understanding, I realized that the “conservatives” (as represented by Rush and the TEA Party members) are actually the more utopian of the two idealogical camps we describe with the popular duality of “liberal” versus “conservative”.  The conservatives are deeply convinced that — left to their own devices — the rich and the powerful will act in the best interest of “the common good”.  The real problem is government, and too much of it.

I’ve come to think that if “liberals” are guilty of overestimating the rationality and moral potential of our species, the “conservatives” are equally guilty of underestimating our potential for selfish behavior and general mayhem.  Liberalism sees governance as a means of protecting as many of us as possible from the rapacious behavior of the (inevitable) dangerous few.  In a sense this is a blend of optimism with pragmatism.  The TEA Party view seems to be a mix of disparate elements in search of a synthesis: they want to abolish government and yet abhor anarchy;  they call any government involvement in healthcare “socialist”, yet find no inner conflict in utilizing veterans TRICARE, or Social Security and Medicare.

There is in me a pull toward finding connections with my fellow citizens.  I look for a common reference point — something we agree on.  Once established, both parties know their starting point and can get their bearings.  But each time I try to approach the inner workings of my upset conservative fellow-citizens I run into obstacles I cannot readily surmount.  Although I am able to enter into many of the feelings of those who fear domination by an aggressive government (I am an American, after all — it’s in our character to be wary), I am blocked by a boulder-field of odd and irrational beliefs that inhibit my progress toward meaningful, rational connection.

I think it’s safe to say that a high percentage of the TEA Party folks are “god fearing”, and being such, are already exhibiting an increased capacity to believe in things for which there is no more evidence than another’s word on the matter.  How can I find common ground with someone who really believes, deep in their heart, that our sitting President is not an American citizen (despite proof to the contrary), or that he is bent on destroying our economy instead of trying to fix it?  The imagined conspiracies fly so fast and so thick that it is, literally, dizzying.

There must be a certain thing about our minds that is draws us to notions of vast conspiracies.  As a friend pointed out to me, such beliefs engender a feeling of powerlessness (as in the forces arrayed against one are far too great to be overcome, so there is no point in actually trying to engage “it”).  I keep thinking of the “Baloney Detection Kit” video from Michael Shermer of Skeptic Magazine, where one of the ten testing points is the question: “Does this fit in with what I know about how the world works?”  From time to time I get a letter from the left hinting at vast conspiracies on the right, and a little sensor in my head jumps to life and says “wait a minute — this sounds pretty conspiratorial to me”.  My response, in such cases, is to not take it seriously unless (and until) I get corroborating evidence (and the evidence had better be good for such a large claim).  I’ve learned to ferret out the 5 or 10 percent that is truth and disregard the soaring, rickety edifice of conspiracy that is inevitably built upon an original thin sliver of truth.  I’m calling people on this sort of stuff all the time.  It’s maddening, because I’m just one voice giving one friend shit for some piece of internet crap that they forwarded to their entire e-mailing list without taking two minutes to see if it was bogus or not.

Once again, I think we overestimate our abilities as humans.  The more I try to keep up with science and politics and world events, the more feeble my brain seems.  Rush Limbaugh seems to think we are all super humans being held in check by Liberal-Secular-Humanist-Socialist force fields.  Every mis-step (or perceived mis-step) or lack of immediate overwhelming result from any administration initiative is held up like the severed head of a martyr by some demagogue or another.

One thing about holding a naturalistic, Darwinian view of life is that I take humans being for what we actually are: not what the Bible tells me we are, or the mystics say we are capable of.  My brand of magical thinking is to carry the rosy hope that I have the potential power to bring insights to people in a way that will make them leave aside some of their irrationality and thereby be of more practical help in the heavy lifting of managing the global and local societies we live in.  Embedded in that hope is a belief that humans are capable of becoming ever more rational the more educated they become.  Clearly, there is evidence to the contrary.  Recent survey’s show that a high percentage of the TEA Party membership is college educated.  Which makes it all the more baffling that they believe in so much crazy stuff.

But perhaps I’m unfair to pick on one self-selecting group of politically-motivated people, except insofar as they are perfectly representative of any other group of humans that are drawn together by a particular orthodoxy of irrational ideas.  This seems to be a perfectly common pattern in our species: otherwise rational people who function smoothly in their work and family lives retain for themselves one corner of their thinking for a completely loony idea: the CIA killed Kennedy; the Twin Towers was an inside job; Pterosaurs still live in a remote lake area in Africa; Noah’s Ark rests on a mountain side in Turkey;  President Obama is a Kenyan agent bent on destroying the Constitution.

It is this propensity of the human mind that has me running my reality checks — as a sort of a self-diagnostic — looking for mental “spam” or the virus of a bad idea.  Of course the power of a CRAZY IDEA is that it can never be completely disproved (and of course Science is not in the business of obliterating ideas, only showing where the weight of evidence points us — which is enough for a reasonable person).  The CRAZY IDEA demands that it be not just shown to be unlikely, but proven to be completely impossible.  This is where the CRAZY IDEA’S brilliance and durability lies.  This is why so many people can still deny the evidence for Evolution and Natural Selection with questions that Darwin answered fully over 150 years ago.

This phenomenon of belief is wonderfully skewered by Bertrand Russell’s famous Celestial Teapot analogy:

“If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.”

Of course Russell here is famously going after the idea of God, but leave off that final sentence about ancient texts and you could be talking about the 10 to 20 requests a week to the Hawaii Health Department for President Obama’s (previously verified to the satisfaction of all reasonable people) birth certificate.  Of course, I could be wrong.  Obama could be a Venusian cyborg, perfectly designed to appeal to our human need for a political savior.  Now that would be a CRAZY IDEA.  But somewhere, sometime, I could just about guarantee you, there is a human brain that would (or does) believe it.  How would you or I talk to such a person?

I have no idea.  I don’t speak Venusian.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Holy Scriptures” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, May 2nd, 2010

The last few weeks have seen me stepping into the debate about the TEA Party:  Who they are, what they are, and what we should think about them.   Although this has been mostly a political issue to me (and therefore I’ve written about it only in the newspaper until now, posting those pieces as separate “Quickies” on the boblog), there are aspects of this movement that overlap with the subject area of the not-so-reverend bob.  Namely the issue of irrational belief.

Having spent time now debating with TEA Party friends and strangers over the last few months, I can’t help but observe that each and every one of them seems to be a constitutional scholar.  What’s this all about?  Or why now, and all of a sudden?  They are (almost to a person) convinced that the current administration (and particularly President Obama — whom they deeply believe is a Socialist) is “shredding” the Constitution.  This they will tell you with great emotion.  (So much so that I looked up the Constitution to see what parts were being “shredded”, and the only one I could find was that the framers original intent was they we not keep a standing professional army).

Legitimate debates about the Constitution aside, I am gradually beginning to understand both my sympathies and antipathies toward this popular movement.  On one hand, I could almost bring myself to join in with a popular movement that would force substantial change to what seems to be a lobbying-money-soaked Congress and House.  But on the other, there is an undercurrent in the TEA Party movement that troubles me, and that is their irrational beliefs that are, I think, of a kind with their religious inclinations (as evidenced by both the very long opening prayer at the recent Tax Day Rally I attended and the music being played throughout that event).

It occurred to me that they are applying the same sense of divine inerrancy usually reserved for the Bible to the founding documents of our nation, making the mistake (as Jill Lepore points out in her current New Yorker article) of conflating a continuum of 18th century argument, debate and decision that stretched out over years to a handful of holy documents that TEA Partiers now wave like Bibles at a tent revival.  They are Constitutional “originalists”, in that they believe that all the answers we need to govern this behemoth of a nation are contained in the original documents as written by our founders.

As LePore puts it “The debate about sovereignty and liberty that took place between 1764 and 1791 contains an ocean of ideas.  You can fish almost anything out of it.”  (Which could explain why one of my TEA Party friends has been posting nothing but quotations from the “founding fathers” in his Facebook status updates for months!)

Is this beginning to feel familiar?  Every Fundamentalist believes that their particular Book is the Holy, inspired word of God, and that all the answers to every problem or question are contained therein, waiting only to be revealed to the prepared reader.  Of course the wonderful convenience of this is that “Scripture” is able to be interpreted in countless ways (has been, continues to be) depending on what one brings to the reading.  Officially (to take the Christian version), it is the Holy Spirit that reveals all truth to any seeking Christian, but in practice even that mechanism exhibits quite a stunning variability and plasticity (just look at how many “Christian” denominations there are).

But this, of course, is what makes any Holy Book work.  Otherwise, it would remain useless in any practical sense to a modern reader.  (The psychologist might suggest that we will find what we are looking for in there, even if what we are looking for is a correction or a rebuke).

So, to get back to the TEA Party folks: this same belief that all of the answers are “in there” (be it Bible or Constitution) — and all that we need to do to “get back to” our fundamentals is strip away all of man’s recent additions and perversions (to the Bible/Constitution) — adds up to an enormous emotional investment in a myth.  Myth, not populist anger, is the true lifeblood of the movement: the myth of “The America I grew up in” that makes Glenn Beck cry as he recalls a lost paradise from his memory (as a clever commentary on The Daily Show pointed out, Beck is recalling what the world looked like to him AS A CHILD, which is nearly always a simpler and safer world than the complex mess we get to know as actual ADULTS).  In another telling corollary, the familiar social framework of the preacher leading the congregation is intact, with Beck standing as only one of the favored revealers of what the founding fathers (read: God) intended when they wrote the Constitution (read: Scripture), with the flock parroting what they’ve heard from the “pulpit”.  (The irony is not lost on me that only a few years ago, Evangelicals shunned our secular religion based on the founding documents as being inferior to the true religion of the Bible’s revealed truth).

It is this deep investment in mythology that gives the TEA Party both it’s emotional heft (they will tear up over this at the drop of a three-cornered hat).  It is also that quality that has troubled me even as its identity has eluded me: the unholy blending of an irrational militancy with a whining plea of “I want my country back!”.

Well, who took their country away?  Is it really gone?  Or (and more to the point) did IT never exist in the first place.  The answer to that question, of course, is no.  Nostalgia is always about feeling, never really about time and place.  As children we are able to exist (if we’re fortunate) in a world made relatively safe and warm by complicated adults acting according to their social, nurturing natures.  Our own blossoming awareness of the world is limited to our family, our home and our neighborhood and school.  In this nation a lot of us had pretty damn pleasant middle-class childhoods in the forties, fifties and sixties.  I, like Beck et. al, can also recall halcyon days of my dad chasing me around the bases as my brothers and I played whiffle ball in the back yard of our small-town Illinois home; catching fireflies at night at my grandparents house; getting a grape Nehi from a big filling-station cooler after a Sunday drive in the country after church.  I cherish those memories (unsullied as they remain by the complications and conflicts I was blithely unaware of in my nation, my town, my own family).  Would I choose being five again to have them back?  No frigging way!

Doesn’t the Bible say “When I was a child, I thought as a child, I reasoned as a child.  But when I became a man (grownup) I put away all childish things”?

One thing I’ve learned from my hours with he TEA Party is that they’re not terrorists or even, really, an extreme fringe group.  The sentiments and views they express have been part of our national character from the beginning.  What I am seeing is that they’re not smart enough to realize what hogwash they are offering as solutions to complex problems.  They seem to ignore the sheer size of this nation and the fact that the whole of humankind has never been this populous or interconnected on this planet in our millions of years of history.  They think we can turn back a magical clock to a simplistic idea of a better time when neighbors watched out for each other, and we all knew when a stranger had come to town.  They really think we can resurrect the one-room schoolhouse.

These are not insincere people, and the valid points and criticisms they raise would be of much greater value were they not so easily lost in a willingness to embrace irrational belief.  This is another instance of where we each need to carry our own intellectual weight, for I am also regularly teased with tales of vast conspiracies of industry and government that I must weigh for their reasonableness no matter how neatly they are tailored to tickle my own political sensibilities.  (For a good antidote to this, check out Michael Shermer’s “Baloney Detection Kit”).

None of us should be the willing foot soldiers of demagogues.  We’ve spent billions of years evolving the brains we have.  It would be a shame not to use them now!

t.n.s.r. bob

QUICKIES: POLITICAL OPINION FROM THE REV: “Squeezed to the Left”

Friday, April 16th, 2010

(NOTE: This piece ran on the Opinion page of the Las Cruces Sun News on Monday, April 12, 2010, and led to the invitation from the president of the local TEA Party to attend their “Tax Day” rally at Young Park — SEE THE FOLLOWING POST FOR THE VIDEO REPORT)

“A man sometimes starts up a patriot, only by disseminating discontent, and propagating reports of secret influence, of dangerous counsels, of violated rights, and encroaching usurpation. This practice is no certain note of patriotism. To instigate the populace with rage beyond the provocation, is to suspend publick happiness, if not to destroy it. He is no lover of his country, that unnecessarily disturbs its peace. Few errours and few faults of government, can justify an appeal to the rabble; who ought not to judge of what they cannot understand, and whose opinions are not propagated by reason, but caught by contagion.” — Samuel Johnson.

As a youth I learned the story of General Israel Putnam.  Standing atop Bunker Hill he looked down upon the approaching Redcoats and shouted: “Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes!”  Apocryphal or true, this tale is deeply embedded in our collective American memory.  Much lesser known is the tale I ran across of the same General happening upon a gang of “patriots” about to tar and feather a “loyalist”. General Putnam ordered the crowd to desist.

Putnam’s granddaughter of several generations (my mother) is a registered Republican (and the daughter of an Illinois industrialist who despised Roosevelt).  My father grew up in the coal and steel country of western Pennsylvania during the depression.  A veteran of World War 2, he was a registered Democrat and held a more “liberal” view of life than my mother (whom I heard on more than one election day say: “Your father and I cancelled each other out”).  When I registered to vote (at 18), I marked “Democratic Party” only because the first admirable politician I could bring to mind (I was pretty sure) had been a Democrat.

Over the years, though, I voted for more than a few Republicans and Independents, always endeavoring to vote for the best-qualified person.  I thought of myself as a “moderate”.

But of late I’d been increasingly under the impression that I’d become more of a “Progressive” and had moved a fair bit to the “left”.  That is until I took an online survey conducted by five professors who study morality and ethics (http://www.yourmorals.org/).  Looking at how my views compared to other “liberals” (as well as to self-identifying “conservatives”) in a series of bar graphs, I was surprised to discover that I’m not a wild liberal after all: I’m a moderate!

So how did a (apparently) moderate centrist become convinced he was a Liberal?

Here’s how: The vocal far right (along with the T.E.A. Party and a large swath of American Evangelicals) have staked their unequivocal claim as sole representative of the true heart of America (their morals are “traditional”, their claims historic and their guidance divine): all contrary conceptions of America are conflated into a band so narrow as to allow no discernible distinction between a “liberal”, a “socialist”, a “progressive” or (most incredibly) a “nazi”.  There is no such thing as the “middle” many of us once occupied: they have declared (and, I think, sincerely believe) that they are IT.  They don’t think that they are on the fringes of anything, so sure are they of the rightness of their views.

Another ancestor of mine was an officer in the New Jersey Militia. One night a crowd of “patriots” burned his barn, slaughtered his cows and went after him.  He barely escaped while his wife and five children fled to Philadelphia.  Seething, he offered his services to the British Army (if he wasn’t a loyalist before, he certainly was now).  By the time the war was over, his wife and four of his children were dead.

The “minute men” and “tea party patriots” are enshrined in our National mythology.  Large numbers of the currently discontented among us identify themselves with these “citizen-soldiers” of our history with a depth of emotion that is perhaps not as irrational as I once believed: for among their ranks may indeed be the spiritual descendants of the angry mobs that torched first and asked questions later.

It was their own neighbors that the original “patriots” attacked, burned out and tarred.  Reason and restraint never have been traits associated with angry crowds and as the current assemblies increase in size and vitriolic output, the opportunity for excess and violence (from those at their fringe) grows.

What I see coming is a return to the days of Timothy McVeigh and his kind, when the darker side of our national character acted out the logical end of the ideology that the current T.E.A. Party is expressing, and blew up hundreds of fellow American men, women and children.

In the rush to pounce like claim-jumpers upon our shared historic monikers such as “militia”, “Tea Party” and “Patriot”, our social and political discourse is reduced to a playground game where the quickest to speak gets to choose sides: “We’ll be the real Americans, and you be the Redcoats”.  Well, I’m not a Redcoat, thank you very much.  I’m as American as they come.  And no self-titled “patriot’s” got the right to attack my country in the name of any patriotism that deserves to use that title.  Because violence against ones political opponents is not patriotism, it’s just the terror of a gang.  For yes, my friends, one can be both an American and a terrorist.  And one can be a liberal and an American.  The only thing one can’t be today, it seems, is an American moderate.

The REV is invited to a TEA Party rally (VIDEO)

Friday, April 16th, 2010

TEA Party Bob

The not-so-reverend bob visits the TEA Party Protest on "Tax Day".

The not-so-reverend bob visits the TEA Party Protest on "Tax Day".