Perspective: Nowhere in Sight

(I wrote the following last weekend, before Harvey made landfall.  Now our most publicized preoccupations seem more idiotic than ever.)

Let’s get really ticked off about Confederate statues and monuments that have sat collecting bird droppings for well over a century! That’s an important issue: everybody pile on–show your true colors or forever be branded a racist bastard! Never mind that many of the works were created with real artistry and add to their ambiance (I mean, by being stone or bronze); never mind that most people nowadays actually take zero leisurely walks per year across the town square or the capitol grounds; never mind that almost no one today could tell a Confederate colonel’s uniform from that of one of Her Majesty’s fusiliers without the nameplate on the plinth, or that we could easily cover up any distinctive marking on the jacket and then replace the plate with, “unknown soldier of the nineteenth century”.

The statues are a huge problem–much bigger than, say, the piddling inconvenience that most recent high school graduates believe the nineteenth century to be the 1900’s, or that most cannot place the Civil War in the correct century, anyway; or that an immense majority is unaware of the role African Muslims and Yankee slave ships played in human trafficking, or that certain Northern states allowed legal ownership of slaves–and that Lincoln grandfathered in their privilege when he drafted the Emancipation Proclamation. Stop muddying the issue! It’s clear racism! Statue… racism! It’s that simple!

And let’s start getting serious about Climate Change now that Texans are being punished by the Weather God for collectively deriding the notion! Let’s save the planet while we still can! Never mind that climate is not weather, and that weather patterns of about half a century are required to propose any hypothesis about climate–and that the atmosphere is only about .04% carbon dioxide, or that plants love the stuff and need it to breathe out oxygen for us, or that the same highly centralized government upon which we want to confer the clean-up duties has been covertly fooling around for two decades with the strategic manipulation of weather systems. It’s the capitalist private sector that’s responsible for poisoning us–shut up about the satellite photos of yellow smog over major Chinese cities! And I know nobody wants to hear about how the Soviets were planning to warm up the climate in the early Sixties by channeling the Humboldt Current far up into the Arctic.

We could actually be applying all the money and brainpower that’s researching Climate Change to figuring out how the super-volcano under Yellowstone Park might be diffused before its next eruption, likely to envelope the planet in a nuclear winter that could quite possibly exterminate all terrestrial life. But no, you’re right: those waters inching their way up beaches along Chesapeake Bay are much, much more worrisome.

And we’ve got to do something about people using gender-specific pronouns! EMP… EMSchmee! What does that stand for, anyway? Who cares? Everybody knows the talk about the power grid going down is just a bunch of claptrap meant to distract us from exploring our gender identity! Ninety percent of Americans won’t really die in a year if Kim Jong Un explodes one of his raggedy-ass little nukes in our stratosphere (or if the sun has one of its overdue major flare-ups). Haven’t you seen all those windmills out west? We’ve got that covered. Now, let’s get back to important things. What’s on your restroom door?

I want my society and my nation to survive… but what concerns me more every week is that, in a Darwinian sense, we seem unworthy of survival. Why should so many idiots be allowed to occupy so much of the planet’s limited space?

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Denver: Infernal Paradise

My trip to Colorado already seems a distant memory. I thought I could probably write about it for weeks on end… but did it ever even happen? I keep drifting through my “new old” life saying to myself, “Two weeks ago, we were at the foot of Saint Mary’s Glacier—my son, my wife, and I…”—and the next day, “Two weeks ago, I was watching my boy’s shoulders merge with the night as he left us in the parking lot to return to his apartment….” I hate how life slips away like that, at least the good parts. The bad parts just don’t want to go away.

But I feel that I have to attempt some kind of wrap-up, some general verdict on what I saw. It would be this. Denver, like so many of our other major cities, is too “wide open”. I realize that that’s an attraction for young people, especially those who have grown up in small cities and towns. The situation has been repeated so often that it has become a rhythm characteristic of our national life: the young leave the farm for the city lights, jobs flourish in the city because so many people are pouring in, the cost of living also shoots up because the demand for everything has skyrocketed, public amenities are strained and local taxes soar through the ceiling, crimes related to vice and violent invasion surge because so much loot is lying about and so few neighbors know each other, the streets grow unbelievably congested… it’s a bonanza for some, and a descent into Hell for others. And here I’m talking about any large American city.

In Denver, this paradoxically “infernal paradise” phenomenon has been magnified by the legalization of marijuana. People have transplanted themselves to Colorado for no better reason than that here they may smoke their weed unmolested. The streets grow even more congested, the apartment complexes even more prolific, and the taxes even more onerous. The catastrophic failure of state economies to the west (California, Oregon, and increasingly Washington) has also generated a flood of “white-collar refugees” who want respite from ruthless taxation yet have not divested themselves of the political opinions that created the mess they left behind. In fact, I find Denver to harbor an unusually high density of contradictions rooted in “pampered white professional” fantasies.

Just consider. Denverites want the traffic, the pollution, and the unsightly and cheaply constructed apartment complexes to go away, yet they declare their burg a sanctuary city.

They view themselves proudly as defenders of the natural environment, yet they pour into the Rockies whenever they have a few hours of free time with bikes attached to vehicles and smother Mother Nature beneath their collective human mass.

They cheerfully accept being designated as health nuts and surrender substantial chunks of their paychecks at upscale grocery stores that grossly overcharge for cashew butter and bison steak; yet their appetite for kinky sex, socially lubricative beverages, and—yes—the inhaled smoke of certain incinerated leaves rivals any city’s anywhere in the country.

Half the population seems to possess racing bikes or mountain bikes, complete with skimpy biking clothes that cling like duct tape, streamlined water bottles, saddlebags of trail mix, etc.; yet the city sprawls too much for anyone to bike to work, and it’s so overrun with traffic that no one could actually get much exercise waiting for all the lights to change while biking a few dozen blocks.

Denver has no sense, over all. Like its horde of young residents, it hasn’t thought anything through. It likes to flash images of what it wants others to think about it and wants to think about itself; but these surfaces can no more resist profound realities than a grand vista can soften the threat of the daily afternoon thunderstorms that rage down from the mountains.

I have to believe that the pockets of surviving Denverites from generations back are no happier than long-time residents of Austin, Santa Fe, or Phoenix. You sometimes see evidence of a few of them: a pasture where horses graze boxed in by humming highways. How they afford the tax on their property is more than I can answer. Perhaps they’re holding out for someone to offer them a million bucks per acre… but at some point, you have to sell up and move on.

And then the sharks gather, like the faceless conglomerate that owns my son’s former apartment complex and tried to stick him with a $3,000 bill for undocumented damages months after his departure. That was my final impression of Denver this trip. Know what? You can have it.

Colorado, Where the Sublime Becomes an Amusement Park

A connoisseur of words and ideas would not say that the Rocky Mountains are beautiful; they are (in that useful but forgotten term of the eighteenth century) sublime. Beauty attaches to things that manifest an intricate, mysteriously harmonized order; sublimity belongs to things too vast to be appreciated by the human eye. The Milky Way, an ocean that fills the horizon, a cloudbanks whose muscular swells obscure each other as they obliterate the sky… these are natural objects that (according to yesteryear’s philosophers) cause a person to understand his puniness and to cringe in awe before the majesty of cosmic forces. Sublime sights may well reveal a dominating order to the theoretical analyst in his laboratory—but merely mortal eyes cannot behold them directly and grasp their logic from so shrunken, ant-like a perspective.

That’s an important idea to hold in reserve if you want to follow along as I try to explain how I feel about Denverites. I’m completely willing to grant that they appreciate natural beauty… but I don’t think they begin to understand sublimity. You treat a sublime object with trepidation and respect: you don’t go dance on it or throw a party beneath it.

My son led my wife and me up to Saint Mary’s Glacier during our brief visit. Having just come from a city about 500 feet above sea level, I think we two old folks acquitted ourselves well on the trek up to 11,000 feet. The climb was the more challenging in that the only way up was through a dry wash strewn with stones of every size from pebble to boulder. But a still greater challenge, we found, was the steady stream of local hikers who poured past us on their way both up and down. There were more than hundreds. Late that Saturday morning, as we began the ascent, I would place the figure at a couple of thousand up and down the two-mile arroyo. It wasn’t as bad as waiting to reach the ticket window of a Colorado Rockies game… but it was worse than negotiating the aisles of a typical grocery store on a typical weekday.

For these people, most of them young (since Denver is definitely a young person’s town), the jaunt was something like a weekly jog along an unusually scenic track. Believe it or not, a few even brought skis. They would continue their hike around the glacier’s lake and up to the top of its immobilized white blanket, then shoot down to its base. We saw a few actually doing so as we arrived (suffering from just a touch of altitude sickness) at the lake’s chilly but sunlit, placid waters. Others had galavanted all the way up to the highest ridges. I thought of the Lilliputians dancing and prancing on Gulliver’s recumbent form.

The whole thing seemed just a little bit insane to me. Do Colorado’s gorges not spill down torrents after sudden afternoon thunderstorms, as happens dangerously in the mountains of West Texas and New Mexico? Considering how quickly the weather changes in this area, I kept hearing a little voice repeat, “We can’t be here in mid-afternoon. Too risky.” Yet the trail of pilgrims showed signs only of thickening as we finally reemerged from the arroyo’s bottom and the sun increasingly ducked behind dark clouds. I recalled my feelings during last spring’s visit about seeing a huge open-air theater constructed directly beneath the titanic sandstone walls of Red Rocks—fissure-riddled cliffs that could release thousands of tons of rock at any moment. But, hey… marijuana is legal in Colorado. Chill out!

Among the young, supposedly educated demographic that claims to worship the environment and always votes for more state control of it, I’ve often been shocked at the absence of rudimentary scientific knowledge. The love affair that young Denverites have with their Rockies seems to me to be of a, “Hey, let’s play!” variety: somewhat infantile and disturbingly void of a healthy fear for nature’s raw power. I think of joggers in this same demographic who’ve gone running or hiking along Southwestern trails outside of LA or Phoenix and been attacked by mountain lions—sometimes fatally. More distance, please! If you really must live so close to this caged beast, then don’t lean up against the bars!

But the young citizens of Denver just keep right on hiking, biking, skiing, and sledding up or down any slope that looks fun to cuddle with. They certainly show no sign of suspecting that their sheer numbers are smothering the grand spectacle… and one can only hope that the gods of the mountains do not exact a terrible vengeance one day when they awaken.

The Decline and Fall of Christianity in Denver (II)

I’m going to have to parse my verbs and decline my pronouns very carefully here. The Denver minister at my son’s church whom I wrote about last is probably a fine human being; and when he proceeded in the second half of his sermon (having flailed himself and the rest of us for a “white guilt” over events in which we played no part) to an appeal for contributions to feed hungry Dominican children, his heart was certainly in the right place. Even on such solid terrain as this, however, one may still stumble.

Query: if charity does more for the giver’s soul than for the recipient’s, as the preacher rightly maintained… then do we need an inexhaustible supply of recipients to keep our souls moving in the proper direction? If we cannot find truly needy people, like the hungry children of the Dominican Republic, will we not proceed to create a “suffering class” to uplift? And is there not a risk that this class may in fact grow to have no realistic need?

For instance, is it healthy or spiritually improving to designate a certain race as disadvantaged so that we may shower its members with freebies and continually feel good about ourselves thereby? At some point, wouldn’t we really be showing more charity not to pass out free goodies… say, wide-screen TV’s and smartphones? Sure, our self-image prospers from the deal… but what about spiritual growth in the victims of our generosity?

Query: if the impoverished residents of a certain nation massively immigrate—legally and otherwise—to our shores in order to partake of our wealth, and if we throw open our doors to all comers (legal and illegal) in the spirit of charity, then are we not aiding and abetting the abusive government of their native land? Do we not deprive that land of the movers and shakers who might make it a better place, and even bolster its arrogant ruling elite by allowing expatriate workers to send their paychecks back home? Isn’t this a version of the Malthusian dilemma, where you feed a hundred thousand in this generation so that a million in the next may starve?

Query: if God sees that the charitable prosper, then is that prosperity of a material sort? Really? How many of this church’s young parishioners left the sanctuary actually believing that their gross income would rise if they “adopted” a Dominican child during the food drive? Material resources are not unlimited: shouldn’t the faithful, especially the naïve among them, be made to understand that the prosperity in question is unlikely to be monetary? (And in any case, wouldn’t they be motivated by the wrong objective if they gave under that illusion?) On a related matter, should a young person take a well-paying job so that he may dedicate more of his income to charity… or should he, rather, seek out a job of lesser salary that satisfies him more and brings him into a more productive spiritual contact with the human community? I’m sure the minister would endorse the latter option… but how many of his young congregants understood this?

That’s my problem with such churches: the impression they create upon those of minimal experience with real life. The stupefying music that I wrote of puts them in a daze before the first word is spoken from the pulpit; then they are exhorted to take a collectivist approach to racial issues, viewing themselves as guilty of a KKK rally just because their skin tone is light. How, in that frame of mind, are they expected to respond to an appeal to feed starving children? Hopefully, they will respond with great generosity; but my true question here is, what concept of charity are they acquiring? Might they not be embarking upon a life of “search and destroy” charity, where they desperately need to find “needy” people lest they despair of their soul’s health? Is this not the precise analogue of the white person who needs to find a person of color to hug so that he may feel the poison of racism drain from his being?

And does not all of this disjointed, impulsively emotional thinking play right into the designs of the centralized nanny state, where what you earn is not really yours, where certain groups designated as underprivileged have a right (backed by legal force) to your possessions, where the ruling elite advances from guaranteeing food for all to medicine—and then entertainment, and then happiness—for all, and where the national debt plunges into such a chasm that only those same elite cynics survive the eventual riots in the streets?

To see the Christian church devolve into the handmaiden of an irrational (and irreverent) secular utopia in this manner is terribly disappointing and worrisome. The young, particularly, are the lambs being led to the slaughter.

The Decline and Fall of Christianity in Denver (I)

I love my son, I love (in a different way) the Christian faith, and I appreciate the efforts of the minister at an upscale, buzzing non-denominational church in Denver to draw one closer to the other. But from what I witnessed during a recent visit, I have to wonder if that’s happening.

The media-manufactured national crisis in Charlottesville was on everyone’s mind, or at least on this particular minister’s mind; so he jettisoned most of his notes on Saturday night (he said) and decided to let the Lord guide his words on Sunday morning. Now, I confess to being somewhat skeptical of the “give it to God” approach when dissecting moral or spiritual issues before a large audience. God gave us a rational intelligence, and He has also embedded in our mature nature an understanding of the distinction between self and other. A lot of times, when you really want to burst out with something, you don’t do so because you know a) that you haven’t thought it through on its own merits, and b) that you may be indulging a self-centered sentiment without adequately weighing how it’s likely to strike others. Belting out an opinion after announcing that you’ve given God the rein of your tongue usually doesn’t end well, in my experience.

And the violence that erupted at the KKK demonstration in Charlottesville actually begs for careful analysis. I myself, as a Southerner, am highly annoyed that the KKK presumed to come anywhere near General Lee’s statue. Lee freed his own slaves before the war began and was not in favor of secession—but felt honor-bound to fight on behalf of his country when it was invaded. By the way, Virginia was that country: it was an independent state which had surrendered some small part of its sovereignty to a central government, mostly for reasons of defense and over such commercial necessities as a common currency. A majority of Southerners who resisted the Union invasion also held this view. The slaveholders among them were a not-insignificant minority—but only a very small minority of these possessed more than five slaves.

That’s a history lesson for another day—and my intent is certainly not to defend the institution of slavery (although I might add that Lincoln’s parents had owned slaves in Pennsylvania, and that his Emancipation Proclamation in fact declined to free slaves held in Northern states). My point here is just this: the situation was represented in the broadcast media as a simple case of American racism rearing its ugly head over the issue of demolishing Confederate statues wherever they might be found. Extremely suspicious circumstances about this particular incident soon emerged, as well: e.g., the presence of a strong Obama supporter as an agent provocateur among the KKK ranks and an inaction bordering on incitement displayed by the Charlottesville police. Evidently, people in high places knew that the whole thing could be exploited for political gain. I wonder what gave them that idea?

Well, sure enough, our amiable man of God allowed the Holy Spirit to spring right off his tongue without attempting to secure any further facts about the case. I sat through a tirade about the evils of racism that, frankly, I found both demeaning and self-aggrandizing for all of us present. It was if we were being lectured on the wickedness of swerving out of your lane to run over a little child. White racists may compose about .002% of American society (unless you’re an academic who has ingenious ways of measuring these things, such as whether or not you’ve had an affair with a person of color). Naturally, everybody present in our church condemned and deplored racism: hence the self-aggrandizement. We could congratulate ourselves and each other because we were not among the wicked.

But not so fast. Our preacher foresaw this response and chastened it. We white folks—and he emphasized that the congregation was overwhelmingly white, as if pointing out that we hadn’t cleaned our plates after dinner—couldn’t just murmur, “Well, I sure don’t condone racism.” No; the fact that others of our race did condone it sufficed to implicate us. We must therefore make a point of seeking out the dark-skinned in our midst today and making them especially welcome. (“Oh, I didn’t notice that you were dark in the dim lights… I mean… hey, can I give you a hug? Well, or maybe a handshake and a big hound-dog howdy… I mean, because you’re… you know. And I really, really love you because you’re that way. I mean, more than I would if you weren’t. I mean….” Awkward, awkward, awkward, awkward!)

A young Hispanic couple that had squeezed into the row ahead of ours exchanged wry smiles in the dusky twilight. I had been trying to keep my eyes off the woman, because (speaking of “squeezed”) she was damn good-looking and wasn’t exactly dressed in loose sack cloth. Did the obvious fact that the surrounding Caucasian girls weren’t giving her any competition mean that, no, I really wasn’t a racist? Or did it just mean that I was a sexist pig?

But seriously, Reverend… you’re wrong. You’re just plain, flat, dead wrong. I am not responsible for the sins of Nordic people, or blond people, or even dark Celtic people like myself. I am responsible for nobody’s acts but my own. There is such a moral reality as communal responsibility, which involves multiple individuals allowing a dominant opinion to deafen them to their duty; hence even this is truly a lapse of individual responsibility. There is no such spiritual reality as communal sin, however. And as for congratulating strangers after the service for having dark skin… I’ll pass. It may just be that they attended your church thinking they might find a place at last where “content of character”, in Dr. King’s words, mattered infinitely more than tincture of epidermis. The way to welcome people into God’s house is to draw their souls into the transcending peace of the All Good—not to target them for special handshakes because they are black, or disabled, or dressed in sarongs.

The former welcome is that of a spiritual bridge-builder: the latter is that of a social engineer determined to create a secular utopia.

Christianity in Denver: Musical Marijuana

Had to travel to Denver again last week. I have tried to like the place: most people love it. For me… no, I’m just not going to make it up to the Peak of Affection. I can’t even make it out of the Abysm of Antipathy.

Since I’ll likely be writing about this subject from various directions for a week or two before I can get it all out of my system, let me start with the progressive church in the heart of Lakewood that I attended last Sunday. My son was kind enough to invite his mother and me, so I did a fairly good job of bottling up my bile after the service. After all, I really wanted to see just what he was taking in every weekend.

The entry phase felt like a sporting event. Personnel in bright vests direct you to a certain portion of a huge parking lot. Then you make your way to a sprawling structure with virtually nothing in the form of exterior windows, art work, or signage. It resembles, rather, the economy-model gymnasium of a ritzy private school that, for all its wealthy patrons, has begun to bleed a little into the red after the class buildings are finished. And for all I know, that’s the actual story behind this unique sanctuary: a cast-off gymnasium. Even on the inside, it looks for all the world like a facility for basketball, volleyball, and the rest with a great wrap-around corridor where tickets and refreshments are sold.

No hoops in the inner sanctum, however. At this point, in fact, we might as well have been in some sort of bizarre (to me) night club. While I’m not a clubber, the near pitch-darkness in which thousands of fold-out seats were arranged around a central stage where performers moaned a cry-in-your-beer species of praise and love to Jesus as guitars twanged and drums thumped had to be drawn straight from Friday night on the strip. I stood with everyone else (of the two or three thousand, I would estimate) as three of these numbers were belted out interminably. A finger was stuck in my left ear most of the time to reduce the pain of 140-decibel sound waves. A casual onlooker might have thought that I was holding up my finger to give my life to the Lord, or something of the sort.

I’m already so long in this entry that I can tell I’m going to have to retain my comments about the main event (a.k.a. the sermon) for next time. So let me just say this about deafening, pulsating noise in a religious sanctuary. It is a physiological fact that a steady stream of stentorian sound waves plunges the mind into a kind of drunken stupor. Loud, throbbing music can be a drug. The tom-toms of certain rituals in tribal, pre-literate societies are a means of “elevating” participants into a higher state. Contemporary rabble-rousers can also gin up huge crowds into irrational behavior by packing them into tight spaces and then allowing cranked-up amplifiers to project their rhythmic shouts.

Whether intended or not, this same effect must inevitably work upon the minds of masses crammed into a dark room where a rock band keeps orgasmically repeating variations of a verbal formula containing, “Jesus”, “love”, and “beautiful”. I wouldn’t begin to argue that no thrill, no poignant or passionate emotional surge, is drawn from many of the congregants by this method. No; the very thing that worries me is the thrill’s reality.

The Christian faith in churches like this has become a drug. One shows up on Sundays to get one’s “fix”. The rational mind gives ground, real-life concerns evaporate, the boundaries separating self from other vanish, and a psychedelic fantasy fuses the mass in a communion of emotional orgy.

Sorry… but this does NOT have the look of my God and my faith. And I’m not entirely sure that the effect is unintended, for the “message” that finally followed appeared to count upon a sort of indiscriminate group-think… but of that, more later.

Inexplicable Realities vs. Sensationalized Claptrap: TV Takes the Wrong Side Again

I was watching something on TV the other night (okay, okay: it was Ancient Aliens) that reviewed a really astonishing kind of psychic phenomenon… and then proceeded to handle it in a wholly whimsical, even childish manner. I believe the first time I was ever exposed to the idea that people can remember scenes and events from a life prior to their own was in Blackwood’s Magazine (praised be its memory), the oldest literary monthly of them all. I learned style and taste by combing through those pages, and I rue to this day the inevitable demise of “Maga” (which came, I think, in 1976).

Anyway, as I recall the story, it involved the case of an Australian who remembered a Scots castle down to the last detail. This young person was visiting the British Isles for the first time, and was staggered to find the very structures he had dreamed about, though in a somewhat dilapidated form. The author, who chanced to encounter this unique tourist, was enough of a local historian to realize that the recalled differences were indeed accurate images from earlier centuries. By the way, the piece was presented as entirely non-fictional.

The phenomenon was called a “racial memory” in that presentation, and the suggestion was made that memories may somehow be passed down through our DNA (since the Australian visitor was actually a descendant of the castle’s one-time inhabitants). The incidents highlighted on the TV show, in contrast, did not seem to involve cases of shared genetic material (or they may have, and the producers chose to suppress that “minor detail” in order to spin a more spectacular theory). Let it stand, for the sake of argument, that you or I might somehow be born with clear memories of the Battle of Waterloo even though we had no progenitors there. That’s a really fascinating condition that we cannot presently explain… but what in the world does it have to do with reincarnation?

The reincarnation of A in B would require B to recall every detail of A’s life, not just a castle or a battlefield; or if most memories have been washed away in the River Lethe, then why did any at all remain? Why, in fact, does a small handful of images covering a very brief period typically haunt the “receiver”?

And if this is the universal fate of all souls—to hop from a dying body into one just getting born—then what happens in generations that have more bodies than their predecessors did? Or fewer? Do some bodies not have any soul at all—or do some souls shuttle between a dozen bodies and earn overtime? Do excess souls chat quietly in a cosmic waiting room, hoping that abortion doesn’t catch on?

If you have a metaphysical belief in the reality of the soul, then each individual must have a single, unique soul. This is a moral necessity, if you also believe that the ultimate end of human life is to serve the cause of goodness. The murdering tyrant must answer for his atrocities in another dimension that won’t let him off scot-free, as likely happened in this world. The tyrant’s martyred victim who died protecting innocent children must also have his snapped thread caught up in the weave of a greater reality. If belief in an immortal soul is not subordinated to a conviction in the triumph of goodness, then it’s mere, pathetic paganism that ascribes understanding to cows and makes the life-extending favors of demons worth cultivating. Such debased belief is worse than none at all.

I often talk and write about Boy That Cried Wolf Syndrome. If you air out an idea in a context which ends up trivializing or infantilizing it, then no sensible person will ever hear the idea mentioned again without laughing it off. There’s a heck of a lot we don’t understand about ultimate reality; but thanks to the way popular culture keeps sensationalizing the troublesome corners that don’t fit under contemporary science’s umbrella, thoughtful people are not going to take a serious look at those corners for a very long time.