I came to the altar in 1988 with a bucket filled with pebbles, one for each of the 9987 days I had lived since birth. It wasn’t a bucket anyone else could see; no orange five-galloner with Home Depot Homer. But the weight was there, every one of the nearly ten thousand days had left its tally and contributed a cumulative gravity.
Since then, slow and regular has proceeded a calendar of subtraction—one pebble taken out for every day lived since. And today I remove the last one: the bucket is empty for the first time since birth. Continue reading →
Our country suffers from a peculiar schizophrenia when it comes to the notion of equality. In idealistic moods we want to affirm it; in practice we often trounce it. We readily defer to the words of the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal,” but what this means exactly is not very clear. Is this some sort of inherent equality? Some invisible metaphysical dimension? Obviously the statement is not supported by empirical evidence. Or is this really an ethical principle—a guideline for how we should frame rights and duties—no special privileges based on class or wealth; no special access to the law? Men judged not by their wallet, ancestors or skin color, but by “the content of their character.” It’s that ‘judging’ business—equality erases differences; judging defines them.
Political equality is a concept with enough sentimental force to compel assent, and enough obscurity to guarantee controversy. The ideal was never articulated with all implications spelled out. Like a seed, it has required root and growth to take shape; and so the slow sequence of political awakenings in civil rights, universal suffrage, workers’ rights, child labor laws, environmental laws, etc. Justice means fair dealing. Equality is justice in practice.
And yet, a strong stripe of American character loves inequality; believes, in fact, that inequality is essential to the meaning of America. Continue reading →
What Henry David Thoreau Taught Me About Respecting Mythology
There is a pass between the San Bernardino Mountains on the north and the San Jacinto Mountains to the south where Highway 10 connects Riverside with Palm Desert. In this nowhere zone rests the tiny town of Cabazon, gateway to the desert, and the site for some very peculiar giants. As my biology-savvy wife often reminds me, life tends to spawn in transition zones. But she didn’t have in mind dinosaurs.
Roadside attractions attract, so we pulled off when we saw a giant white Apatosaurus and a Tyrannosaurus Rex. What exactly were these concrete dinosaurs doing in Cabazon? Was this an old dig site? Were fossilized dinosaur tracks preserved in mud somewhere? Walking up to the Apatosaurus we quickly discovered it is actually hollow—a reptilian Trojan horse housing a gift shop. We climbed the stairwell leg, and found ourselves in the belly of a well-lit space, stocked with rubber dinosaur models, toy plastic weaponry, posters, puzzles and trinkets. It didn’t take very long, however, glancing at the wall displays, to figure out what was really going on: this roadside stop is not the product of science, but of theology. The Cabazon dinosaur park, dubbed The World’s Biggest Dinosaurs Museum, is a “young earth” propaganda post, a science-seeming zone for pressing travelers with opinions about creationism and a 6,000 year-old earth. Continue reading →
I place myself in the same camp as philosophers who insist there is a “hard problem” to consciousness that is frequently skirted in discussions about artificial intelligence, as well as in film and fiction about robots and computers becoming conscious. This issue most recently got triggered in me by Tom Ashbrook’s discussion with Martine Rothblatt. See On Point, September 11, 2014.
Imitation is NOT identity. Suppose technology eventually had the ability to make a machine that duplicates me—the talk, walk, speech patterns, reflexes, quirks, emotional expressions—is that then ME? Hardly. It is a very sophisticated animated image. That is all. In principle, it is no more me than a photograph or video. This can be easily proven. Suppose my spouse took up with my clone and left me. If that thing were me, I should have no objection.
There is a deeper issue here: the language of science is the 3rd person—that is where things are observed, weighed, measured, and discoursed upon. But the mind is only viewed from the 1st person. I am the only witness to my experience; scientists are restricted to observations of my brain. Science has been attempting to reduce the WHO (1st person) to terms of a WHAT (3rd person) and make the former disappear. Science assumes that my experience must be a sort of epiphenomenon and illusion produced by neurons. Basically, the scientist says, “Your neurons are real, but you are not.” (Of course, he must accept that his experience of himself is as unreal as my experience of me.) Perhaps we do not come to terms with the “Taboo of Subjectivity” (see book by B. Alan Wallace) because we still fall under the shadow of a sort of atavistic Behaviorism that continues to push that mind is merely the sum of its observable expressions. This, because it is the only approach our method will sanction. In the meanwhile, we must endure absurd fantasies about ‘artificial consciousness’ from people like Rothblatt.
Peace, as many point out, is more than an absence of conflict. It must involve those positive forces of conscious harmony that promote justice, freedom, understanding, health and prosperity. Without a physically and psychologically secure basis to life, there is great likelihood for infection by fear, anxiety, envy and superstition, which become seeds of violence. (Mohandas Gandhi wrote that poverty is the worst form of violence.) As a culture, we only now seem to be awakening to the implication of these truths. Domestically and internationally, our practice toward violence has long been to ignore the roots and stalks of the plant until it flowers in crisis. Then we react, meeting violence with violence, while vowing with politically groomed self-righteousness to be tough on crime and terrorists. The results are costly and ineffective.
Enter The Peace Alliance, a citizen-based activist group that has been working quietly for years building support for a Department of Peace. This cabinet-level department in the U.S. Government would pull together the wisdom and resources of experts in conflict resolution and nonviolent communication, augmenting our current problem-solving modalities with skills that are effective at treating root causes of violence.
Experts in the study of violence are turning to an epidemiological model. Rather than stigmatizing and condemning violence where it erupts, we should pay more attention, as with disease, to the many factors that contribute to the incubation of violence. By addressing root causes we would not only more effectively reduce violence, we would also save human resources and money.
I found myself in the Midwest recently, at a summer family reunion. Uncles, aunts, cousins and their kids were spread throughout a large conference room—a former high school gym, and I found myself conversing with the wife of a farming cousin. Somehow we got onto the topic of equality.
“I think we do our children a disservice when we tell them everyone is the same, and there are no winners and losers,” she stated. I reckoned she was addressing what she suspected were my own West Coast liberal biases.
“That’s simply not realistic,” she went on, “and it does not prepare them for life. That spoils children, and makes them believe they are entitled to everything just for the asking. Kids need to learn that not everyone can win, and if you want to win you are going to have to fight for it.”
This comment bothered me. Partly it was her mistaken association of equality with rewards. Equality to me means level opportunity, and equal standing before the law. It is not a suppressing of excellence or achievement. But clearly she thought that equality could erase valuable distinctions, and erasing value seemed threatening. Continue reading →
There is this peculiar conversational idiom popular now for some years. Most often I find it occurs during business transactions, but it might just as often happen with a new personal acquaintance. It is simply this: somebody asks for your name in the past tense. Think about it. We have all experienced it, perhaps we are compelled to use the idiom ourselves. But my question is why? Why do we ask What WAS your name, rather than What IS your name? Continue reading →
We value very young children for their spontaneity, their unguarded self-expression. Whatever the activity, they’re all-in, free of self-consciousness—that outside standpoint that makes of self an object, wondering how one looks, how one is being judged. Yet growing-up means developing an ego, a self-image, and entering the social hall of mirrors where images are distorted, inverted and shot back, sometimes with horrifying effect. And this leads, naturally, to a curbing of impulse.
Second thought is the giving of thought to thought. It adds an extra layer, and therefore can clearly disguise and encumber. But is that all? Is self-consciousness necessarily nothing more than constriction?