Two Suggestions for a Better World (Don’t Hold Your Breath)

First, the NFL. (I hate football, by the way, and have never been a consumer of the NFL’s product.) Certain conscientious players will don black armbands prior to the raising of the flag. The anthem completed, they will remove the signs of mourning and go on about their business. When a svelte female sticks a microphone in their face after the game (funny how women seem so eager to assert their presence in the most brutal of all our sports), they will explain that they wish to honor their nation–but also to grieve publicly the loss of well over a million defenseless babies annually to abortion. (“They are fetuses,” snarks Answers.com if you use the “b” word.)

Then let’s see how the NFL reacts. Care to place a bet?

Now for health care. The abortionist’s comeback is always, “Well, you don’t care what happens to the fetus after it becomes a child…” which is correct, in a way–because it’s Mom and Dad who are supposed to care about the “fetus” both before and after it “becomes a child”, and too often neither cares at either time. Implicit in the comeback, you see, is the assumption that Mom will give her new baby one hell of a life. She already has six or eight other babies, and she hasn’t bothered to care for any of them. (Needless to say, Dad–or the dads–is/are nowhere in sight.) We, on the other hand, are supposed to care–meaning that we’re expected to keep ponying up tax dollars to buy every new child food, clothing, health care, and education. Mom doesn’t even trouble herself to look for a job: her job is to have babies and collect monthly checks for them. If one of the dads should decide to marry Mom, and if he should have a job other than sharing in the baby-bonanza, he chooses to keep the kids on Medicaid rather than buy into the group policy offered at work. So we continue paying…

If my wife and I had been able to keep more of our own money over the years, we could have adopted one or more children. We wanted to… but the process is costly and lengthy. Women are either aborting their unwanted babies (excuse me: fetuses) or else consigning them to Grandma and collecting Uncle Sam’s check. So… yeah, maybe some of us begin not to care much for this situation.

Here’s my suggestion: how about a box on the income tax return that you could check and then designate X dollars for the health care of babies born to parents illegally resident in the US, legally resident but unmarried and unwilling to practice birth control, or married and gainfully employed but unwilling to take the insurance offered at work? If “caring” in such circumstances appeals to you, then you can donate however many thousands you wish. Nancy Pellosi could easily manage six figures a year out of the millions she has garnered from marginally legal but patently unethical insider trading.

As I say… don’t hold your breath.

Finally, a stray thought: why is it that evidence of brilliance in our far-distant ancestors can only be explained by hypothesizing visits from extraterrestrials, yet the current generation is styled the most brilliant ever because its young use smartphones–the assumption being that all of them could assemble the circuitry or write the code for the software? Can any of them even average his grades without using the Math Ap or logging onto Blackboard? But, hey… we don’t build campfires, and we have nice teeth!

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Columbus and Hitler: Nothing in Common

I have read bloggers and editorialists complaining for years about our children being taught that the New World was an Eden invaded by white racist males… and I always took it with a grain of salt.  Maybe that happens in the schools of Chicago and Oakland and Seattle—surely not here in my back yard!

I was wrong.  My eighteen-year-old freshmen are fully persuaded that Columbus was a slaver and genocidist who anticipated Adolf Hitler.  I wonder if I might dare to point out a few disparities off the cuff?

Columbus didn’t play the demagogue, stirring the masses up against a defenseless minority in their midst.  He traveled a very long way at great personal risk and blundered into a situation whose parameters he was wholly incapable of measuring beforehand (or even, for the most part, after the fact).

Hitler vigorously encouraged the development of advanced weapons possessing unheard-of lethality, such as the V1 and V2 rockets and the ME 262 jet fighter.  It is possible that his team of scientists even succeeded in producing a small thermonuclear blast experimentally before the success of the Manhattan Project.  Columbus was attempting to pioneer a lucrative trade route.  He hadn’t the slightest notion of bacteriological warfare, of course; and to hold him personally responsible for spreading smallpox and other diseases unknown to the New World is as preposterous as blaming the sun for skin cancer.

Hitler’s imperialism started at home and worked outward.  His aggressions were fully planned and systematic.  Columbus—and indeed, the later conquistadors (who admittedly were no choir boys)–scarcely knew what part of the planet they were on.  Their numbers were few, their technology not so very superior to bows and arrows, their situation entirely cut off from the restraining cultural forces of Europe, their diet uneven, their health fever-ridden, their morale inclined to the paranoia of castaways.  Many of them behaved badly, perhaps most of them; but they weren’t being wined, dined, and sycophantically placated like the German chancellor.

For the record, too, the Aztecs and the Maya practiced human sacrifice on a vast scale, some of it indescribably brutal.  Hitler’s victims hadn’t been piling up the hearts of young virgins, ripped from childish ribs as they were still beating, for hundreds of years.  Frankly, a “civilization” that tolerates such things, and even considers them holy acts, richly deserves to go defunct.

We always get history wrong, though we may make a much more sincere effort to understand than one sees in American public schools today.  We weren’t there: we can’t know exactly how it was.  What bothers me more about the attitude of my freshmen than their wealth of misinformation is the ease with which they self-righteously condescend to their elders and to the past.  Where is their “life experience”?  Why do they so readily sit in judgment upon centuries of human struggle?  Why do they offer so few traces of humility?  Who has made them this way?

Of course, the answer is “we who are their parents”.  These children haven’t been well raised. The true deficit in their education—far greater than a diet of “fake news” (from which we all suffer)—is the mature adult’s reluctance to pass snap judgments on complex situations.  They will judge us harshly, too, I suppose—these smartphone whiz kids; and we, at least, will deserve it.

But what will their own children say of them for buying up solar panels that left a clear trail of cancer villages behind in Third World nations?  How will their own children judge them for creating and bequeathing a world so electronically artificial that its inhabitants forgot basic manners and couldn’t forge ordinary friendships?  What will those of the next generation who aren’t aborted say about this one for ignoring an Aztec-level slaughter of innocents—not to appease wrathful gods, but to indulge in carnal pleasures without incurring inconvenience?

You see, my dears, you also can be made to resemble Cortez and Pizarro.

Is a Five-Year-Old’s Tantrum Protected by Free Speech?

I’m getting a little tired of hearing about free speech this week from people who can barely talk. If a pre-schooler crawls up to the American flag and wipes his nose on it, you sit him down in time-out. If an adult does it, you call him a champion of free speech.

Glenn Beck seems to think that reverence for a flag is akin to goose-stepping nationalism—a position not devoid of merit, but very odd in a man who also styles Confederate secession a pure and simple act of treason. (The fine art of “becking” could be a subject for another day: you achieve it by savaging convictions or figures associated with your ideology yet unattractive to you for purely personal reasons, thereby showing your broad-mindedness to the far political polarity.) I’m not going to say that athletes who take a knee as the flag is raised are vile traitors. After all, I myself have refused to mouth the Pledge of Allegiance ever since I discovered that defrocked Baptist minister and rabid socialist Francis Bellamy composed it in 1892 to program school children into believing that individual states had no rights. Yet I still stand for the Pledge. I do so because I realize that others around me don’t know what I know, and that their act is thus intended to show devotion to constitutional government rather than rejection of self-determination. In the same way, I would be appropriately quiet if a group of Jews or Muslims among whom I might find myself were to engage in a quick prayer that made little sense to me. It’s a question of manners. Why go out of your way to make others feel awkward?

Exhibitionists do precisely this: it is their definitive characteristic. They don’t care if you notice them with admiration or contempt, as long as you notice them. They need to occupy center-stage.

And here’s why I cannot accept “knee-taking” as anything more than the attention-grabbing gesture of an obnoxious brat. Expressions without any verbalization—without actual speech or even the few words of a placard or bumper-sticker—rely heavily upon context to be interpreted. I might wish to fly the Confederate battle flag in my front yard to advertise my support of the Tenth Amendment… but, no, that would be a terrible idea, because so many KKK types have decided to commandeer the flag as a condensed advertisement of their claim to be superior humans by virtue of their DNA. Did you know that the word “swastika” is used in Sanskrit Vedic texts to convey a certain meditative posture? Yet neither you nor I would hoist a swastika to ask the household not to disturb us during our meditation time.

The American flag, at this point in our history, represents to the vast majority of us the idea that we remain united in our support of certain humane values, whatever our specific differences. In this context, refusing to rise for the anthem, turning one’s back on a flag-raising, fixing one’s hat firmly aloft while stuffing one’s hands in one’s pockets, and other such displays would be interpreted by 99.9 percent of the native adult population as overt contempt for those core values. The contemptuous should not be stoned or driven from the crowd. (One of our core values is that no one may be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.) Their message, though, is clear: they’re giving the bird to the notion of a transcending endorsement of principle, declaring instead that some specific circumstance or other has exploded the principle’s credibility. They’re “saying” as much in semaphore, though they may say something else in speech or print after the fact. I can’t torch an emblem in public and then claim later that I wanted to show my warmth of feeling for what the emblem represents. Nobody would interpret my behavior that way, and I would be a) insane if I truly expected otherwise, or b) a slippery hypocrite if I argued otherwise.

Childish brats, I suppose, don’t fully qualify either for insanity or hypocrisy. And since five-year-olds can’t write, you can hardly expect them to pen an op-ed; or since their vocabulary consists of about five hundred words, you can hardly expect them to go public about legal or social dysfunction and enunciate a plan to address it. Even so, a child who was truly upset about an environmental condition would throw a fit intended to highlight the condition rather than himself. He wouldn’t wait for a very public, very solemn moment and then roll on the ground screaming.

What we have here is a crisis of boys raised without fathers. They passed their juvenile years acting out so that some adult might notice them and impose limits upon their lives… which never happened. Now, apparently, they’re going to spend the next two decades of their biological manhood playing the same game.

 

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.

One Last Plunge into the Ivory Sewer

For the umpteenth—but final—time, I begin September by asking myself why I ever became a teacher. I know the answer well enough. “We’ve been over this a thousand times,” I say to my pining soul. “You’ve always loved to read, write, and speculate, and you got academic awards in your youth for doing those things well. When you were in college, you kept retreating to areas where you’d found success. Then, when it came time at last to find a job, you were fit for nothing else but pedagogy and pettifoggery. A journalist? We tried that major: they sneer at good writing—takes up too much space. A lawyer? Never! Arguing for pay that the kettle is blacker than the pot hardly qualifies as seeking truth. A government position—living high and wide on taxpayer dollars for shuffling papers? And besides, by the time you came along, white males weren’t exactly receiving serious consideration for hire.”
And so I became a teacher. To be honest, I’ve always enjoyed my interactions with students (well, almost always, to be really honest)… but nobody ever told me how very secondary that was to the job. First and foremost, flatter and fawn upon your bosses. Do their bidding with a smile. Laugh at their jokes, fight for their ideas in committee, and clap vigorously from the first row when they deliver public speeches.

On a related matter, be the boss’s “pet”. Make yourself highly visible. Stay on campus from dawn till dusk, even though serious grading, lesson-planning, reading, and reflection can only be done at home. Don’t even attempt thoughtful work at the office: it will impede your being seen. Make frequent trips up and down the corridors of power as if you were on urgent missions—but always detain a passing dean or VP to remark how brilliant you think the new curriculum revision is.

Go to conferences in Chicago, Phoenix, San Francisco, Boston… and maybe London or Madrid. Soak up coffee and doughnuts like a Hoover for junk food, and get yourself on the program with some five-page paper about Aphra Benn’s lost diaries that you cooked up from a note in a previous paper about Aphra Benn’s perhaps having kept a diary. There’s nothing you can say or hear at these gatherings that couldn’t have been (and isn’t being) disseminated over the Internet without the cost of airfare and hotel—but you need to be seen.

So how did I get myself into something so antithetical to my nature that the fanfare of the new school year quite literally makes me faintly nauseous? I know, I know… but that thousand-times-recycled answer is really no answer at all. The truth is a failure of character: I was too cowardly to fling myself into something for which I had no apparent aptitude or no previous training—architecture, agriculture, marketing—in order to escape from Hell. And so I have spent almost forty years—pretty much my entire adult life—drifting through Limbo, neither saved nor damned: a psychic zero.

No more. This is the last year. Whatever I have left of life will not be passed in this egotistical, futile maelstrom.

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?