The Toxicity of Linear Time

A subject that has increasingly preoccupied me in recent years is time. This isn’t just because I’m getting older; or, rather, my aging probably is a major factor–but only because I begin to understand more of what’s happening around me, not because my own hour-glass is running short of sand.

I perceive, for instance, that people become less concerned about their moral duty as they become more convinced in the relentless linearity of time. Today is soon yesterday. You’re not the same person now as you were ten years ago (as cliché thinking would have it), and ten years from now you’ll be yet another being. Promises therefore fall by the wayside quite naturally–for how can a butterfly be held responsible for the commitments of a caterpillar? And you are supposed to grow wings, aren’t you? Isn’t that a good thing–to change and grow, to “evolve” in your thinking? You’re caught in a circle if you’re not moving in a line; but as long as you keep moving forward, there’s a chance that you’re also moving upward…

And so on, and so on. I’ve come to find these truisms very tiring. They’re excuses for so much duplicity, cowardice, and slovenly thinking that I’m near to declaring them void of any truth at all. That wouldn’t be fair, of course; but the “morally evolved” person, even when he sees that his perspective of yesterday was short-sighted, continues to stand by promises made yesterday upon which others depend–or else he accepts the penalty for not doing so without complaint. How many people of that sort do you see around you right now?

The linear/progressive view of time, by the way, hasn’t always been around. In fact, it’s a very recent arrival, characterizing none of human pre-history and perhaps one tenth of our recorded history. A far more natural perspective (to judge from its statistical dominance) has been that of conforming oneself to the values and examples of one’s ancestors. An ethos collects from the practices of several centuries; it has been refined by the process of trial and error and has withstood the “test of time”. Why should we assume that we can break with precedent and suffer no consequences? On the contrary, only a fool ignores the directions of those who have preceded him down the road of life.

For much of the Christian era, we of the West have adopted a fusion of the two views. We were no longer looking back over our collective shoulder at the Heroic Age, but forward, rather, to the end of earthly time and the fulfillment of our identity in a loving, purposeful god. We struggled to put the Old Man behind us and live in the New Man; yet that New Man was ascending to complete a circle whose first movements were embedded in our basic nature, not “boldly going where no man has gone before” in an indefinitely extending exploration of the physical universe.

Science has thrust us upon this Star Trek trajectory wherein change may either have little sense or may, indeed, end in disaster, since it is no longer magnetized to a transcending, metaphysical objective. We morph into multi-sexual beings who no longer reproduce: that’s “progress”. We fuse with robots to reduce our susceptibility to disease and prolong our material presence: that, too, is “progress”. We introduce our hybrid selves into solar systems far from our own but not endowed with any property that will prove more salutary to the soul than was Planet Earth; and that will be styled progress, as well… but I wonder if it might not be eternal Hell by any other name?

Linear time can become a toxic drug. We would do well not to pay too little attention to ourselves today as we await the new-and-improved beings we imagine ourselves becoming tomorrow.

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My Charitable Org Signs Off

(Below is the approximate text of the notice that I intend to send out for the final edition of an online journal that began seventeen years ago.)

The final issue of Praesidium has now been published. After seventeen years of struggle, the journal has failed, and more generally my vision for the Center for Literate Values has evaporated into pixie dust. The reasons for the collapse are detailed in my opening article for 17.4, and many have to do with my personal ineptitude as a Webmaster; but the ultimate and decisive reason is that our society is significantly, perhaps terminally post-literate, and that no amount of expertise could have salvaged the project. As I view the contemporary landscape, I see staggering evidence of a people that has taken progressive leave of reality.

Item: The Commanders in Chief who presided over the first sixteen years of the new millennium (almost precisely overlapping the lifespan of the Center) did nothing whatever to secure the nation’s power grid, thus neglecting their primary constitutional duty as they went merrily courting new venues of patronage and popularity. Their gross incompetence (and, in my mind, criminal negligence) is surely a prime reason why we cannot face down North Korea, any one of whose satellites drifting over our air space could be the platform for launching an Electro-Magnetic Pulse that would leave as many as ninety percent of us dead within a year.

Item: In the face of such crisis, our elected representatives continue to escalate our levels of debt to the point that national suicide of an economic variety is virtually inevitable.

Item: In the face of these accumulating crises, the base of one major party nominated a wooden sociopath to run for the nation’s highest office—a person constantly forced to imitate the reactions of her trusted entourage in the absence of any natural human affections and whose tone-deafness to the anguish and danger incurred by her fellows is directly implicated in the deaths of some under her authority. Meanwhile, the base of the other major party attempted to out-under-perform this selection by elevating a man who never reads and whose vocabulary consists only of hyperbolic clichés, his lifetime of exploiting legal loopholes and greasing the pumps of local political machines taken—incredibly—as proof of his “outsider” bona fides. As one after another of his bombastic promises crumples under the pressures of hard fact, we are now treated to the unsavory spectacle of these same boosters trying to fashion their Stump King into Charlemagne with feats of imagination reminiscent of children shaping castles out of clouds.

Item: Young people populating supposed institutions of higher learning are expensively protesting the free speech of those who might make them rethink their rigid programming, noisily insisting that they receive the fetal protections which they scorn to extend to genuine fetuses, and aggressively insulting everyone in whose casual utterances they can ferret out the unintended tinder of a faint slight.

Item: Descendants of slaves (but which of us is not one such, if only we knew our entire pre-history?) are defacing public property that may or may not commemorate men who actually owned slaves a century and a half ago, all on behalf of a political ideology that aspires to mire them—and the rest of us—in cradle-to-grave dependency.

Item: Among college students, probably a ninety percent majority (in my personal experience) is convinced to a pitch of quasi-cultic fervor that manmade climate change imminently threatens the survival of terrestrial life. An essential tenet of the cult is that only big government can save us, this despite the distinct possibility that the world’s most affluent governing elites have been playing at the manipulation of global weather systems for strategic purposes since the late twentieth century—a highly risky set of exercises about which our young bright things know absolutely nothing, but which might in fact be responsible for major damage to the natural weather cycle.

Item: University programs in the liberal arts continue at an accelerating rate to ascribe all the miseries implicit in the human condition to a) maleness and b) white racism. We have surpassed the kindergartner’s “Billy made me do it” defense, inasmuch as the charges now grow savagely vindictive and their consequences increasingly punitive. The Western literary canon, along the way, has become hopelessly shattered and scattered, its contents lost to the next generation and the entire spiritual discipline of speculating within reasonably objective boundaries forgotten for the duration.

Item: Meanwhile, the Christian Church (including all of its denominations) has likewise slipped its moorings and gone adrift. The notion of tolerance was once understood as an acknowledgment that we are all impeded from realizing our identity in God by subjugation to various circumstantial factors: wealth, praise, fleshly pleasures, fear of physical pain or privation, and all the rest. Now those very chains are accepted from the pulpit as defining us (a specific race, an anomalous sexual preference, an eating disorder), and the utopian’s blueprint for the perfect society—built according to the aspirations of an elite few—is an overlay forced upon every Gospel passage. We are no longer kept from our true self in God by worldly interference; immersion in the world, rather, is the only path to this new god (who is at least as manmade as “climate change”).

So the Center for Literate Values failed. Of course it did. How do you make an omelet out of mud?

Martyrdom… or Blasphemy?

This is my farewell to Eusebius. I’ve now finished the Loeb edition of his Ecclesiastical History that was in my possession… and my sanity, which has taken so many hits in recent years, might not have remained intact if I’d had another twenty pages to go.

I had intended to type out a few paragraphs of my author’s pious bellyaching over the Montanist (or “Thracian”) bid to steal the A Team’s thunder by churning out its own prophets and chatterers-in-tongues. I find that I lack the spiritual stamina, however, to complete that scholarly exercise: I already feel a fit of psychic vomiting dangerously near.

The early church, you see, appears to have been riddled with such controversies as these even as a roomful of pre-schoolers bristles with fights over who gets first dibs on the Silly Putty. “My speakers-in-tongues did it before yours, and they’re not possessed by putrid diabolical vapors carrying noxious lies and blasphemous filth!” One would have hoped for more, especially at a time when those who professed the faith might truly be arrested, tortured, and brutally executed. Usually such treatment separates the wheat from the chaff. In this era, it seems to have brought the slag to the top.

For rival cells of Christians were competing even over who had the most martyrs and whose martyrs suffered the most hideously: if the printing press had been around, I’m sure we would have seen Martyr Bubblegum Cards with stats for number of hours on the rack and number of lions in the arena. Most of Eusebius’s evidence for this wrangling appears in Book 5; earlier books (some of which I mentioned in previous posts) portray the “faithful” vying to see who can starve himself the most, survive with the least sleep, and abstain from all forms of sex with the greatest fervor. (Some of these cultists went so far as to castrate themselves, though I do not recall any reference to them in Eusebius.)

One of the difficulties of getting old is the volume of disillusionment which you must absorb as you acquire a modicum of wisdom. I had always pictured the early church as illumined by genuinely devoted souls still close to the source of their spiritual ignition. Now I find it a miracle that the later church was able a) to survive the miasma of cultic fanaticism that immediately descended upon the faith, and b) to crystallize eventually into an uplifting belief system. Eusebius’s translator Kirsopp Lake appends a note to one of the final pages about how a glancing mention of Aristotle and the Platonists points the way to certain influences upon that crystallization. Of course, the mention in the Greek text was a sneer, charging the classically instructed with rank heresy.

Constant, inviolable honesty; fearlessness in advocating the truth paired with humility about one’s shortcomings as an advocate; imperviousness to worldly threats and applause alike; inexhaustible generosity to the weak sheathed in ringing denunciations of those who encourage weakness for selfish profit… such are the qualities (among others) of the ideal Christian. That this paradigm, within a few generations, should have decayed into verbal warfare about whose followers had thrown themselves before more freight trains is depressing on a colossal scale.

And my “freight train” metaphor is less tropological than you might think; by the merest of coincidences, I also happened to hear—for the first time in my life—of the “circumcellions” this past week. This Heaven’s Gate of yesteryear would send its followers out with blunt clubs to attack Roman soldiers, the objective being to irritate armed men of war sufficiently to get oneself impaled on spears or swords and “exit this life in martyrdom”.

It’s worse than lunacy: it’s blasphemy, of the real variety. To transform a holy message into the pretext for a suicidal ego trip… how loathsome. Again I say, Don’t show me how many pieces your martyrs were torn into before they expired: show me how you yourself handle the dreariness of earning your bread every day, the challenge of resisting advancement offered on condition of duplicity, and the fearful task of providing a model to young children. Show me how you live, not how you die.

Like Don Quixote, I Am Who I Am

A few months ago, when word of an impending high school reunion reached me, I marveled that so many people would want to reassemble after so many years. What was to be gained from it all? I for one (I wrote in this very space) am not remotely the same person now as I was in the Mesozoic Era. Why would you get a bunch of strangers together in a room for the purpose of pretending that they know each other, or of wondering how they happen not to know each other any longer, or of imitating what they once were to play out some long-forgotten game, or of otherwise spending hours and hours in a really unwholesome caricature of nostalgia?

Well, the emails continue to come as the event draws nearer… and I’ve stumbled upon a new realization. For me, the problem isn’t that I’m no longer that boy of all those years ago; it’s that I am precisely that boy. I’ve never changed, and I never will. I rather doubt that any of us ever really, substantially changes. We learn to insulate ourselves better from the risks entailed by our temperament; we learn to impersonate better the manners of whatever group we decide upon joining; but as for deep change… in myself, at least, I just don’t see it.

I can remember feelings that I had far back in childhood—and it hits me that I feel things the same way today. I recall, as a boy of about seven or eight, looking out from a treehouse early on a sunlit Saturday morning… looking across the neighbor’s back yard, across an old highway and a railroad track, far into a field of waving wild grass and a distant forest’s line that quickly dissolved into blue sky; and I recall, more than anything, the pain of that moment. It was as if I understood just then that I longed for something unspeakably beautiful and uplifting, and that I either wasn’t going to find it in this world or wasn’t going to have the strength to reach it.

At seven years old, I got a glimpse of how difficult life would prove for someone of my chemistry—and I knew, somehow, that I wasn’t just looking at a field.

I didn’t understand my classmates that lifetime ago, and they didn’t understand me. I wouldn’t understand them now, either, and they wouldn’t understand me. I intend no reproach here, and certainly no condescension. I could say that it’s as much my fault as theirs, or more my fault… but there’s no fault at all involved, really. It’s how things are. I’m put in a daze by things that people seem to enjoy en masse: cheering sideline participation at a football game, tipsy merriment over a round of drinks, the camaraderie of risqué jokes and endless reminiscences. I’m visiting another planet at those times—and I’m not at all comfortable there.

I have no other explanation. Where most people find enjoyment, I’m just not at home.

My initial error about the reunion was to suppose that people would look at me now and see what I was then, almost half a century ago. The truth is that they would see exactly what they saw then, which was no more what I really was then than what I really am now—but that my appearance would be a fully accurate distortion, now as it was then, given the filter through which I would be viewed. And maybe I just don’t want to be reminded of how much I stick out. It isn’t particularly pleasant, though I make no apologies and will undertake no correction. I’m okay with how God made me. I’m just not going out of my way to gather evidence, for the umpteenth time, that the mold was a very odd one. I’ll pass.

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.

Burgess Owens, W.E.B. Dubois, and the Arrogant Do-Gooder

Burgess Owens is an American of African descent who distinguished himself as a professional football player in his youth and, more lately, has achieved prominence for resisting the statist plantation where black people are supposed to spend their lives. He’s an extraordinary man from an extraordinary family. I’ve often wondered how a people who suffered so much from the institution of slavery could deliver themselves so willingly to the patronizing clutches of a Big Government machine promising to do every little thing for them. Believe it or not, several of the old folks who had been born into slavery and were interviewed by WPA social workers in the Thirties recited the mantra, “Things were better in slavery days.” That is, if their owners were reasonably humane, they had housing, clothing, food, medicine… all the essentials provided for them by Master. (A lot of these interviews are available now as free Kindle downloads.)

Owens doesn’t want any magnanimous patron making “life decisions” on his behalf. He feels the way I do about the government rushing in to look after me in my old age: bug off! I would give my life a thousand times to save my son… and my government expects me to rob him of his future because I was too stupid and shiftless to save for my last days?

I do wish Owens might have hooked up with a competent editor in writing Liberalism, or How to a Turn Good Men into Whiners, Weenies, and Wimps… but the editorial “corrections” made by publishing houses nowadays are worse than no editing at all. (I discovered that the hard way.) If you’ll pardon all the brackets and ellipsis points, however, here’s an extremely interesting passage from the end of ch. 9:

It is easy to conclude that for young DuBois, due to his liberal teaching and indoctrination at Harvard and [the] University of Berlin, … both evolution and eugenics had become core tenets of his belief system.  These tenets he would later apply to the “lesser evolved” masses of his race and the “crème de la crème” intellectuals, the Talented Tenth.  As documented by Broderick, DuBois, at 25 years old, would take stock in [sic] his future.  In his diary he would speculate [about] his place in the modern world.  His comments seem to allude to a perception of self as a potential Savior of his race.

“I am glad I am living, I rejoice as a strong man to run a race, and I am strong—is it egotism, … [this] assurance—or is it the silent call of the world spirit that makes me feel that I am royal and that beneath my scepter a world of kings shall bow?  The hot dark blood of that black forefather born king of men—is beating at my heart and I know that I am either a genius or a fool….  This I do know: be the truth what it may I will seek it on [the] pure assumption that it is worth seeking—and Heaven nor Hell, God not Devil shall turn me from my purpose till I die.”

The quoted phrases in the first paragraph were actually used by W.E.B. DuBois, founder of the NAACP. What this passage reveals with shocking clarity is the immense hubris of the man who was the self-appointed Moses (or Jesus) of his race, and who esteemed nine-tenths of his “tribe” too stupid to be capable of finding their own way. The same arrogant attitude is shared by every progressive “do-gooder” on the current scene. If only you could see what’s really in their hearts, the contempt in which they hold you and me… to them, we are mere children. And since we’re not children at all, we are “as if” children—which is to say, idiots.

Real Faith and Fake Faith

I lately ran across an Arthur C. Clarke short story titled “The Star”. I suppose if you can accept space travel to the far reaches of the universe as plausible, you can also accept that a Jesuit priest would participate in the mission—though the latter seems the more challenging proposition. Clarke had to put the narration in the priest’s mouth, no doubt, in order to make his indictment of religion flow from someone who once numbered among the most faithful. Our narrator has just discovered the pitiful remnants of a once thriving culture, parallel to Earth’s highest human civilizations in its art, social order, and sophistication. Its leaders had apparently deposited the essential works and creations of a long history—or some commemorative record of them—on a Pluto-like planet shortly before their solar system’s central star vaporized all traces of life. Now the Jesuit, no longer a believer, cannot imagine how any god worthy of the name would allow an entire higher life form to vanish into nothingness, and to no end whatever.

I’ve heard objections to faith like this all my life. What disturbs me most is that a person might harbor them who really is a priest or minister—for I can’t in good conscience accuse Clarke of manufacturing this character just to deliver his atheistic message more powerfully. There are truly “believers” of this caliber who refuse to accept that God would ever allow the U.S. to be irradiated by a hail of nuclear missiles—or even (let’s keep it all natural) that God would ever allow the Yellowstone caldera to revive and become a super-volcano, its next eruption exterminating much of central North America’s population. The same people are deeply challenged when someone they love happens to die of natural causes, leaving them no one to blame but God himself… whom, in “punishment”, they may declare not to exist.

We might as well have no faith at all if we believe that having it is somehow an assurance against material tragedy or disaster. An entire planet’s being wiped out in a supernova is really no different from an individual’s being suddenly snuffed out in his sleep by a stroke. Even though his life’s “great work”—a novel written, a bridge built, a new water-filtration system invented—is not wiped out along with him in the latter case, everything we do will eventually vanish from these present dimensions. The purpose is all in the trying: somehow or other, in my opinion, that’s the measure of our souls. We’re all on a desert island, if you will, where we will never be found. We can turn wild and rape and kill… or we can build houses and carve instruments and domesticate birds, though no trace of our activity will remain within a century.

Not on the island, at any rate: but if you have faith, then you view the island merely as a small portal to an infinitely vaster reality. It is through that entry, and not on this side of it, that things will make ultimate sense. And if you do not have faith… then see if you can swing the heaviest club and get everyone to kneel to you. Your bones will be bleached just as white as theirs in a few short years.

The really pitiful ones, I repeat, are those who think they have faith, yet make it completely dependent upon a ship’s arriving at the island tomorrow… or the next day.