The only way to win the War on Terror is to quit fighting it

Manchester, England and the Ariana Grande concert.  May 22, 2017.  It’s another day and another terrorist bombing—an observation not only Westerners could make, but also the peoples whose countries (Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, etc.) are de facto occupied by the West.  For them, practically every day brings another bombing. That the West’s terrorist bombings are delivered via aircraft, sometimes remotely piloted, sometimes not, and the Middle Easterner’s are delivered in person, by one willing to die for the privilege, would, to a disinterested observer—to someone with a God’s eye perspective—be a distinction without a difference.  The only remarkable difference would be how much more effective at killing the West’s methods seem relative to the Middle Easterner’s.   The West kills thousands without suffering a casualty.  The Middle Easterners kill dozens and generally die for the privilege.  There is little doubt, of course, that ultimately the West will lose this clash of civilizations.  If only because its massive firepower acts more as an inspiration than a deterrent.  For every so-called “terrorist” it kills, it inspires legions more to the fight.  Else the West would have won long ago.  As was again demonstrated in Manchester, the West hasn’t yet won.

This culture clash—East to West; Occidental to Oriental; Christianity to Islam, etc.—has a long history: The sweep of Islam across North Africa, Mesopotamia and the Levant shortly after its founding in the seventh century after Christ’s birth and two hundred years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.  The Crusades during the Middle Ages.  The Islamic Ottoman Empire that ended the Christian Byzantine Empire in the 15th century. the Ottoman Empire’s subsequent collapse in the modern age leading to short spans of European hegemony (chiefly British and French) during the twentieth century.  But the most recent iteration of the conflict began at a readily recognizable point—the first Gulf War, when the US used the holiest of Islam’s land, Saudi Arabia, as a staging ground to attack Iraq.  The American infidels launched a massive blood-letting, killing perhaps a hundred thousand Iraqis to its loss of less than two hundred (and fifty of those by accident).  And Iraq had never attacked the US or posed any sort of threat to the US whatsoever.  Iraq was in fact a sworn ally of the US in its power struggle with Iran.

Might the West avert its defeat?  Perhaps, if it better understands that this iteration of the conflict is just a relentless cycle of vengeance.  And the West started it, with the Iraq War.  But thankfully, all three Abrahamic religions confessed of the combatants have quite a bit to say about vengeance.

Islam incorporates much of the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew and Christian Bible) into the Qur’an, much of it verbatim, including parts of the admonition in Exodus, “If there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” (Chapter 21:23-25).   The corollary verse in the Qur’an reads, “And We ordained for them therein a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth…” Qur’an 5:45.

In Matthew, Christ answered the retributive justice of Exodus saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’  But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person.  If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (5:38-39).

Hardliners—people who believe steadfastly in retributive justice—are said to be Old Testament types, the kind who ignore Christ’s “turn the other cheek” teaching to exact their revenge.  But when politicians proclaim, like Trump has, that they believe in ‘an eye for an eye’ justice, they misunderstand the point of the passage in Exodus, which was not intended to justify vengeance, but to limit it.

It is only an eye for an eye.  Vengeance for an eye is limited to an eye.  Vengeance for one murder is one life, not a whole village or country.

Christ takes the idea of limiting the impulse to vengeance a step further, admonishing people to simply turn the other cheek.  But so, too, does the Qur’an.  The previously-quoted eye for an eye verse in the Qur’an continues: “But whoever gives [up his right as] charity, it is an expiation for him.”

And Christ wasn’t so radical a departure from the Old Testament as many believe.  Leviticus Chapter 19, verse 18 states, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.  I am the Lord.” (which verse also constitutes the first formulation of what Christ would proclaim as the Second Great Commandment, commonly called the Golden Rule).  In Proverbs Chapter 24, verses 28 and 29, “Do not testify against your neighbor without cause, or use your lips to deceive.  Do not say, “I’ll do to him as he’s done to me.  I’ll pay that man back for what he did.””  And in Lamentations Chapter 3, verses 27-31, “It is good for a man to…offer his cheek to one who would strike him, and let him be filled with disgrace.  For men are not cast off by the Lord forever.”

The bottom line?  All three Abrahamic religions teach mercy with justice, Islam perhaps more than the others, offering expiation of sins as the reward for charitably dropping the impulse to vengeance.

What is only implied by the stance of each great theological heritage is the reality that there is great power in forgiveness.  Holding a grudge is to serve a cruel master, allowing one’s enemies to control one’s thoughts and actions.

The takeaway for the clash of civilizations?  The West could win, or at least keep from losing, if only it would quit fighting.  If only it ended the cycle of vengeance by packing up its drones and its special ops forces and its regular military forces and going home, it would deprive the nefarious death cults, al Qaeda and ISIS, of their only means of garnering support.

When Ronald Reagan was President, he allowed the US to get tangentially, almost accidentally, involved in a civil war in Lebanon, as part of a multi-national peacekeeping force (which as always, was mostly uni-national, i.e., American). When our presence was met with a truck bomb at a Marine Corps barracks that killed more Americans than would later die in the First Gulf War, he did the only noble and proper thing for a military commander to do when troops are in harm’s way yet lack an identifiable, militarily-achievable, objective.  He ordered the troops to stand down.  To come home.  To let Lebanon solve its own problems.  We didn’t have a dog in the hunt, and he knew it.  Our actions and presence only served to exacerbate the internal strife in the region, and we paid dearly for it.

This cycle of vengeance started with the First Gulf War.  Which led directly to the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, followed by the 1998 attacks on US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya on the anniversary of the day US troops first arrived in Saudi Arabia, which was followed by the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, ultimately leading to the second attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.  So long as the US and its Western allies had troops present in the Middle East, particularly in the country hosting Islam’s holiest sites, the impetus for revenge continued.  After 9-11, the West did exactly the opposite of what it should have done.  Rather than evacuating the area, the West, led by the US, expanded its presence, prosecuting two wars against countries that had heretofore been allies (Hussein’s Iraq and the Taliban’s Afghanistan).  So the cycle of vengeance intensified, and continues to intensify every day.  We make new enemies with every bomb we drop.  The porousness of Western borders and openness of its societies makes it nigh well impossible to prevent Middle Easterners from returning the favor.

Barack Obama almost got rein of the American military adventurists who have promoted Middle Eastern interventionism since the end of the Cold War.  He drastically reduced troop numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan, for a time.  But reductions aren’t the same as abandonment.  Any level of American/Western troop presence is now a provocation in the cycle of violence.  Reducing, but not removing, the forces probably exacerbated the problem rather than helped in solving it.  So long as we have troops over there, we’ll be less safe over here.  The only way to win this war is to quit fighting it.

Book Review: “Job” of the Hebrew Bible/Christian Old Testament; author and date unknown

But what about Job?  That’s what I’d hear in my head anytime I listened to a preacher extolling the virtues of God—his grace, his goodness, his power, his presence.  What about Job?  Never, in all my reading, study, worship, etc., did I get a satisfactory answer.

The story recounted in Job is fairly straightforward.  After ranging over the earth for a spell, Satan swings by to see God in his heaven, sort of like a gangbanger going to see his granny on a Sunday afternoon.  God asks him where he’s been.  Satan’s like, “Dude, I been roaming all over the earth, going back and forth, leaving misery and mayhem everywhere in my wake.”

God replies that he couldn’t have messed with Job, his loyal and faithful servant.  “There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil” (1:8).

Satan calls bullshit.  “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has?” (1:9).  Just see what happens if you take it all away.  He’ll “curse you to your face.” (1:11).

God says go ahead, “…everything he has in your hands, but don’t lay a finger on him.” (1:12).

So Satan leaves and in quick succession kills Job’s oxen, donkeys, servants, sheep, more servants, camels, still more servants, and all of his sons and daughters.

And God was right.  All Job did was tear his robes and shave his head—a common practice among the bereaved back then—and fell to the ground in worship, saying:

Naked I came from my mother’s womb,

                And naked I will depart. 

The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;

                May the name of the Lord be praised. (1:21)

 

Never did Job sin by charging God with wrongdoing.

 

Thus ends the first chapter, which would be a nice story with a nice ending, had the storytellers left it at that.  People hearing it might have wondered at who this God is that plays games with people’s lives in order to win bets with Satan, but hey, they wouldn’t have personally known Job, and were probably not so rich as Job had been, so might have just figured, tough luck for Job.  But the story didn’t end there.

 

Satan returns to see the Lord after spending another while “roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it.” (2:2)

 

God taunts Satan with the results of the bet.  Satan doubles down, replying, “A man will give all he has for his own life.  But stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face.” (2:4,5)

 

God agrees, saying Satan can do anything with Job he wishes, but must spare him his life.

 

Satan afflicts Job with painful sores all over his body, which Job scrapes with a piece of broken pottery while sitting among the ashes.

 

Satan leaves Job’s wife alive and well, exhibiting a keen understanding of the marital relationship, at least from the male’s point of view.  He had to have known Job’s wife would help him with his plan, and she does, chiding Job, “Are you still holding on to your integrity?  Curse God and die!” (2:9).

 

(The notes in the “Life Application Study Bible”, NIV, explain that God may have allowed Job’s wife to live in order to add to his torment.  I’m not kidding.  I quote, from the note on Chapter 2, verse 9, “Why was Job’s wife spared when the rest of his family was killed?  It is possible that her very presence caused Job even more suffering through her chiding or sorrow over all they had lost.”  I can imagine Job looking heavenward after his wife tells him to ‘Curse God and die’ and saying under his breath, “Really, God?  You take everything but her?  Wow.  Just wow.  You must really hate me.”)

 

Nowhere do God or Satan discuss how Job’s wife might feel at the loss of her children, and of her husband’s livelihood.  She only surfaces in the tale to chide Job, a bit like Eve only makes an appearance in a tale from earlier times for the purpose of tempting Adam.

 

Job replies to her chiding, “You are talking like a foolish woman.  Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?” (2:10)

 

In all this, he never sinned in what he said.

 

Thus ends the second chapter.  But, I have to ask—might Job have cursed God in his heart?  Nobody knows another person’s heart.  Sometimes, we don’t even know our own hearts.  God knows a person’s heart, but this tale is not written from God’s perspective.  It is in third person, God being one of the many who appear.  But it is keen that they observed that “Job did not sin in what he said,” and not that Job did not sin at all.  The ancients were often wiser, by many measures, than we are.  I bet they knew that they could only tell by one’s actions what might be one’s thoughts.  We moderns, instead, often pretend to mind-reading.

 

The action of the story is basically complete after the first two chapters, except at the end when Job gets all his stuff back, including a bunch more children.  The rest of this longest book in the Bible is consumed with Shakespearean soliloquys (ostensibly dialogues, but nobody gets to talk that long and with that many fantastic metaphors in anything approaching a real dialogue) by either Job, his “friends” who claim that he’s being punished for some hidden sin and needs to confess, or by a young man, Elihu, who rebukes the three friends for blaming the victim by explaining that we cannot possibly understand all that God allows.

 

Eventually, God himself gets involved in the dialogue, speaking directly to Job from a storm, laying out in intricate detail a litany of things God does and knows that are beyond the power of Job and man.  Curiously enough, along the way of laying out his majestic power and presence and knowledge, God speaks of himself in third-person, like a megalomaniacal rap star (Kanye?) might.  Finally, God rebukes Job’s friends for believing the worst about him, and makes them go to Job and ask his forgiveness, requiring they offer to Job a sacrifice of seven bulls and seven rams as atonement for their sins.  God promises to accept Job’s prayers for his friends, in a sense deputizing Job as God’s intermediary over them.  Once Job prays for his friends, God makes him more prosperous than he’d been before God let Satan destroy him.

 

Job is a difficult read, particularly Chapters 3 through 41.  All of the action takes place in the first two chapters and Chapter 42, the last.  I could not read the soliloquy/dialogues of Chapters 3-41 in Spanish as I initially tried.  Often enough, I could only barely make out the meanings of the quite outlandish similes and metaphors and analogies in my native English, without hope when it came to Spanish (sin esperanza con espanol). 

 

So, what about Job?

 

If the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) were a club someone was trying to convince you to join (and not, in the main, a fact of birth), and you heard everything of God’s greatness—his grace and magnanimity; his all-encompassing power, presence and knowledge; the special love he carries in his heart for the beings created in his own image—and then you were told the story of Job, what would you think?

 

Would you think, like I did, who is this God that plays games with people’s lives so that he can win bets with Satan?  And wait a minute, who is this Satan character, who seems to mock this all-powerful God and get away with it?  Why doesn’t God just eliminate the scourge of Satan from the face of the earth?  Is he not as all-powerful as he claims?  Or, worse, is he malevolent, actively afflicting his creation with evil?  Why?  Why did he do this to Job?  And for the Christians and Muslims, why was it seemingly all about material good fortune?  Why, if this story is to tell us something of the nature of this God, did it all turn on whether Job was healthy and successful?  What happened to concern over Job’s soul, except to test his allegiance to God through depriving him of material things which can not be loved without the fear of losing, a love that St. Augustine said was like death?  Isn’t the promise of God that there is something infinite and eternal to be gained through worshiping him to which all the riches and beauty and status on earth can’t compare?

 

And if you think those thoughts (as I did), you are well on your way to understanding God.  Which is to say, to understanding that God is inexplicable.  No finite being, such as is man, will ever be capable of truly and completely understanding the infinitude that is God.  The relationship of mankind to God should ever and always be one of humble obeisance.  We can but try to understand how what we see as evil, God sees as good.  It is not in our nature to ever fully succeed.  Naked we came into the world and naked we shall leave it.  Along the way, thank God for it all, because it all arises from a wisdom, power and presence we can’t begin to understand, and thereby should never question.

 

I wish the story would have ended differently, with Job dying a penniless, lonely man (although berated and chided by his wife to the bitter end—there’s no lonely like marital lonely).  Because that’s sometimes all the earthly reward that faithfulness to God yields.   Better “to store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6: 20-21).  I wish, in other words, that Job had died penniless, but at the same time, rich.

 

Book Review:  The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (Chalmers Johnson, 2004)

When I noticed this book on the shelf at my local library, I didn’t want to read it.  Because I knew immediately what it was about from the title, and I didn’t want to confront the ignorance, naivete, and frankly, stupidity, through which I’d lived my life until roughly 2009, when the edifice of lies upon which my being had depended fell down all around me (this book only concerned one—my beliefs about the innate goodness of America, that collapsed much earlier than 2009).  I didn’t want to be reminded of those things.  But I knew I must.  So I got the book and read it.  And for me, the sorrows of empire were not only collective sorrows, but individual.

I remember the moment when I distinctly realized that all I’d believed about the United States was a lie.  I was peering over a sand berm about ten kilometers from the no-man’s land in the desert where the ill-defined borders of Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia meet.  In the pre-dawn darkness I awaited the day’s first light along with the rest of my company of Army helicopter maintenance techs.  Army engineers had bulldozed the berm around our little compound—maybe an acre or so—in the middle of the desert, one of many along a compacted-sand road they’d also constructed.  We were required every morning to be up before dawn and in position along the berm, ready to fend off an attack—a bit of fighting the last war, as the Viet Cong had often attacked at first light.  An attack was hardly likely.  The surrounding desert offered nothing in the way of cover and concealment.  And as we later realized, American soldiers were far more likely to die by accident than by enemy attack in the first Gulf War.  But the dawn patrol was just a means of teaching us diligence, and frankly, of fucking with us because we were not infantry or armor soldiers who might have to engage the enemy directly (turns out, the infantry and armor guys didn’t have much enemy engagement either, but we didn’t know that would be the case at the time).

As I lay there under the cold, moonless, late-January sky, looking eastward for a hint of sunrise, I could just make out Iraqi Army positions on the Saudi/Kuwait border.  And I could see how their positions periodically, almost methodically, seemed to light up with a silent flash.  I was at first a bit flummoxed about what I was seeing, until I noticed a line of stars in the sky overhead of the flashes winking out in synchronicity with the flashes on the ground.  Straining to help my mind make sense of what my eyes were taking in, I finally made out the four entrails of smoke billowing from behind the planes, which were probably flying at something like 30,000 feet.  It was B-52’s, carpet bombing the Iraqi front lines.   And that’s when I knew that America was one big, fat lie.

Some of what I realized that day on the berm:  America is not great because America is good.  America is great (and by ‘great’ I mean in wealth and power—it is not great in any moral sense) because America has no scruples in its relentless, voracious quest for power and riches.  There is nothing it won’t do to achieve its ends.  America does not shun empire but actively seeks it.  America is not peace-loving, only fighting when it must to defend itself; America is war-mongering, seeking out new enemies as quickly as old ones are vanquished.  In short, I realized then, laying on the berm, watching my comrades in arms slaughter thousands of human beings—the descendants of the very human beings who had planted the seeds of civilization whose ultimate harvest included such awful killing machines as B-52’s—that everything I had ever believed about my country was an utter and complete lie.

In my youth and young adulthood, I had swallowed all the patriotic garbage the warmongers had used to sell the Cold War to a reluctant public.  I had internalized the idea that the only reason America did the harsh things it did in fighting the Cold War was because failure would have meant communistic slavery and oppression at best, the end of mankind at worst.  So once the Cold War was won—during my time in service—I was elated.  We could finally go back to being the humble, peace-loving peoples we’d always been.  We could finally beat our swords into plowshares.  I could hang up my uniform, hopefully for the balance of my life.

That fantasy lasted less than a year, until the American Empire’s war machine found a demand for what it supplied.  Iraq invaded Kuwait, after asking whether we’d object.  “No”, we said, “go ahead”, luring them into giving us a pretense for war, for by then the Empire’s war machine was getting antsy about from where its next boondoggle of profits might come.  Iraq, bless their Mesopotamian hearts, rose to the bait.

There were many advantages to fighting Iraq in the Arabian desert over the tiny, oil-rich fief of Kuwait.  A war with Iraq would be like a live-fire field training exercise.  All the high-tech tanks and armored personnel carriers and helicopters and ships and airplanes purchased to defend against a Soviet threat that somehow never materialized would be put on display to shock and awe the world, a display that would only be possible in desert terrain.  (Another lesson of Vietnam—big firepower and technological wizardry doesn’t count for so much in a jungle.) The generals would finally get to play with all the new toys the public’s tax dollars purchased for them.   Fighting Iraq would give us a foothold in the oil-rich Middle East where we hadn’t one before, and of all commodities, there is none more than oil that is the lifeblood of our economy.  Going to war against Iraq would go a long way towards dispelling the notion that just because the Cold War was over, the military industrial complex could stand down a bit.  And allowing a cobbled-together coalition that included some Arab states to get involved made it look as if we were just one of a broad coalition—that we were only helping the world along to do what it wanted to do.  The Iraq war was an American Empire public relations coup.  (Or, at least it was to the American Empire’s war machine.  I believe those poor saps on the receiving end of the B-52 carpet of bombs rolling over them considered the whole affair rather less appealing.)

The Iraq War did all those things and more.  It washed away the vestiges of Vietnam regret.  It proved the superiority of American firepower.  It shocked and awed the American public watching on their couches back home, and presumably of those watching the world over.  It made the world safe for American military interventionism again.  The American Empire, after briefly being delayed by its own profound stupidity in Vietnam, could continue along its march to whatever would one day be its ultimate limits.

Those were the immediate benefits.  The long-term benefits included stirring up a hatred in the Middle East so virulent that its citizens would prove routinely willing to sacrifice their lives just to strike back at the Empire, providing a ready-made enemy such that the Empire’s war machine could rest easy.  The profits would continue flowing.  We could declare war on a tactic, not an enemy, and keep the gun factories humming.

That fighting Iraq meant the American legions would never leave Iraq was not a bug, it was a feature (as Johnson repeatedly points out—wherever the military goes, even for a moment, it tends to stay).  Going back to Iraq with an invasion force a bit over a decade later was practically foreordained by whatever mad god controls the march of empire.   The same was true of invading Afghanistan on the pretext that it harbored the 9-11 terrorists.  The US will never leave Afghanistan until it is forced to leave Afghanistan.  We are now 27 years into the occupation of Iraq, only about 15 into Afghanistan.  But ask Okinawa how long we might be there.  We’ve occupied Okinawa since before Japan’s surrender in World War Two and haven’t any plans for departure.  Ever.

The ‘militarism’ of Johnson’s title refers to the growing presence domestically and internationally of US troops.  As of the publishing of the book, there were over 700 overseas military bases—some very large (in Germany and Japan, e.g.) and some very small (in the Balkans), and a bit more than that in the US.  But almost nowhere do we go that we leave voluntarily.  These bases represent over 250,000 deployed troops of an active-duty military of over two million.

In fact, about the only place from which we’ve been expelled is also a place where the American Empire got its legitimate start outside of the continent.   The US military was kicked out of the Philippines in the eighties after Ferdinand Marcos, a US ally, was deposed for fecklessness in all aspects of governance except stealing money.  It was the Spanish-American War of 1898, in which the Philippines was one prize of many (Cuba, Puerto Rico, etc.), that really got the empire-building ball rolling.  Up to that war, we’d restricted our expansionism to the North American continent and seemed content for a time to leave it at that (the Civil War, concluded in 1865 probably being the anomaly that explains the pause).   A generation later, the march of empire resumed, and except for a post-Vietnam lull, has continued apace ever since.

The ‘secrecy’ in the title reflects that the government, particularly that part of it that comes under the rubric of defense-related, classifies virtually everything it does as secret to keep its citizens from knowing what it does, not because the information might give some advantage to a foreign or domestic enemy (by ‘domestic enemy’ I mean from the government’s perspective, i.e., anyone who questions its motives or actions; ‘foreign enemy’ is basically everyone else).  Maybe if the information were freely available, the outrage of the citizenry would provide an advantage to a foreign or domestic enemy, so that the secrecy actually is justified.  At least from the perspective of the Empire’s war machine.   The bottom line is that the government doesn’t want you to know what it’s up to, and conjuring enemies that can justify its secrecy is a tried and true means to that end.  Johnson cites numerous instances—stuff I either knew of or suspected before.  It really is the case that you can’t be too cynical regarding what the government keeps secret and why.  No tin-foil hat required to correctly imagine that the government, particularly in its defense-related functions—is a vast criminal conspiracy.  Because it is.  Every last time a light is shined on the government’s actions (e.g., 1974 and revelations about the CIA spying on Americans), the cockroaches are found scurrying everywhere.

The ‘end of the Republic’ in the title is a historical analogue, referring to Julius Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon to march on Rome to take full control of Rome’s government as Emperor.  Although Caesar was ultimately assassinated by the Roman Senate acting practically in concert for his having usurped their power, the Republic was nonetheless forever finished.  Augustus came next and made nice with the Senate whilst rendering them a formality, something like the British Crown today.  Johnson claims that the Office of the President, whoever occupies it, is becoming simply an Emperor.   Obama’s drone war, killing American citizens at his whim, as their judge, jury and executioner, had yet to appear, but the long march to something of an imperial presidency of the sort Johnson imagines was certainly underway at the time of his writing.

People are frantic today that with Trump becoming President the horror of a truly imperial presidency will be realized.  Contrary to Johnson, I would claim that the person of the President is immaterial.  The Empire’s war machine—military contractors and suppliers and high-ranking officers–determines what the President will do, not the other way ‘round, as is provided by the Constitution.   There is an Empire, but its power is not concentrated in any particular President, but in the Executive Branch, particularly in the Department of Defense.  The Empire’s war machine is bigger, and more inevitable, than any particular president.  Its power reaches into the Congressional and Judicial Branches.  Congressmen are whores for defense spending in their districts, which comprise the vast majority of the discretionary spending budget, and the Judiciary is loath to be found soft regarding the Empire’s amorphous enemy and amorphous war.  Allowing the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus is just one of many outrages the judiciary has seen fit to approve in the War on Terror.  It must be remembered that judges are politicians too, and will wrap their rulings in the flag anytime they think doing so will serve their political purposes.

This was a depressing book to read.  All it did was confirm what I had long ago concluded.   And long ago, I had concluded that the primary purpose of the American government was to keep the American Empire reliably growing.  As I don’t care for any country expanding its Empire, I want nothing to do with the American Empire’s impulse to continual expansion.  Except for the necessity to pay taxes, I long ago resolved that I would have as little to do with it as possible.  I got out of the Army as soon as I returned from the Gulf War, and never looked back.  I could leave for another country, but there’s nowhere to go that the long arm of the Empire doesn’t reach (which is actually its point).  So, I stay, and live like an ascetic Christian, in the Empire, but not of it.

Empire is not necessarily an evil thing.  It can bring peace and aid in development.  Johnson points out that neither of those is the point of the American Empire.  The point of the American Empire is to make the world safe for investment bankers and international capitalists such that they might exploit people and land wherever they please, with a corollary point being that it needs to incite conflict such that its defense industry can continue to reap huge profits.  There is really nothing good, except from the perspective of international capitalists, investment bankers and warmongers (sometimes all three-in-one, like the Trinity—General Electric comes to mind), about the American Empire.  But those three are the real power behind the throne.  There is no imperial presidency because there needn’t be—the triumvirate has power well in hand.  In fact, it would take a truly imperial presidency doing what Caesar attempted—usurping the corrupt powers of the Republic—to bring the imperial triumvirate to heel.  In the meantime, even President Obama couldn’t stall the march of the American Empire.  Even Obama couldn’t substantially reduce America’s armaments or military.  Even Obama couldn’t get us out of Iraq or Afghanistan or close Guantanamo, and he’s probably as close to an imperial President as we’re likely to see for a while.   The Republicans and Democrats pretend to substantive differences in governance, putting on political theater that serves to divert the Empire’s citizenry, while the Empire relentlessly marches along.

My main problem with the American Empire is its deceit and hubris.  The American Empire pretends to an ideology of advancing political and economic freedom, and thereby economic growth, wherever it expands.  Its pretensions yield an idealized expectation among conquered, or ‘influenced’ peoples, that, like the Navy commercial says of itself, that the Empire is a force for good.  Yes, good for international capitalists, investment bankers and warmongers.  For everyone else, not necessarily.  The triumvirate only does what is advantageous to the triumvirate (e.g., no Rwandan genocide intervention), which is very often at odds with the native populations it conquers or over which it asserts power.  The CIA could not have cared less about the Iranian people when it installed its lackey, the Shah, to ensure America’s interest in Iran’s oil fields would not be disturbed.  While that one didn’t work out so well for the Empire (but then, Persia was always a thorn in the side of Rome), it perfectly illustrates the deceit with which the American Empire’s expansionary impulses are justified.

But truthfully, the greatest deceit is in the Empire’s insistence that it is not an empire.  Americans don’t fancy themselves as imperial conquerors, and so far, they have been bamboozled into believing the nonsense that I used to believe, that America fights reluctantly, and only to protect the Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic.  That is the Empire’s Big Lie, one told to itself and to others, to justify and obfuscate its relentless expansion.  I realize there is no way to stop the Empire’s relentless advance, neither from within nor, for now, from without.  But I would like to see before I die a general acceptance of the reality that America is, and perhaps always has been, an imperial beast, gobbling up peoples and territories relentlessly and voraciously.  Such a thing is doubtful.  It’s part of the Empire’s cynical hubris that it can tell such lies to itself and others and expect everyone to fall credulously in line.

As Johnson says in closing:

At this late date, however, it is difficult to imagine how Congress, much like the Roman senate in the last days of the Republic, could be brought back to life and cleansed of its endemic corruption.  Failing such a reform, Nemesis, the god of retribution and vengeance, the punisher of pride and hubris, waits impatiently for her meeting with us. 

In sum, I utterly loath pretty much everything the American government stands for internationally.  This book did nothing but confirm in copious detail why my loathing is justified.  But like Candide, I have chosen to ignore that portion of American life so far as I am able.  Instead, I choose to tend my garden.  The hell with the American Empire.  And please, don’t thank me for my service.  I regret that I ever served the indefensibly corrupt Leviathan that is the American Empire’s war machine.

 

Book Review: Hinduism–Past and Present by Axel Michaels (published in Germany 1998; US in 2004)

Reading Huston Smith’s The World Religions piqued in me an interest in Hinduism, particularly the bits about there being more than one path to God, all of which are of equal validity (as they all lead to God, which is the ultimate destination to which we all are striving).  The notion of exclusivity is something I’ve always loathed in Christianity, for two reasons.

First, Christian exclusivity makes no logical sense.  If the only way to God is through Christ, what of all the people who lived before Christ, or of those who lived after his birth, death and resurrection, and died without ever knowing of him?  Did God really mean to condemn them all to hell—to eternal separation from Him?  No God worthy of the name would so arbitrarily exclude so many people from his grace.

Second, I don’t like how Christianity’s exclusive path to salvation is used for social demarcation, creating an ‘in’ group of believers versus an ‘out’ group of non-believers.  Seeking God is perhaps the most universal of human attributes, as necessary to life as food and air.  And just as there is no exclusive means of acquiring the calories to live, there is no exclusive path to God.  Claiming exclusivity is an act of selfishness, a perversion of the seeking-God impulse to the service of another near-universal human attribute–the socio-political impulse to power.  I wish Christ had never said that the only path to the Father is through the Son.  Its context is too easy for today’s Christians, almost of whom are not of Jewish heritage, to forget.   I think he intended by his proclamation to mean that seeking God did not require prostration to the Jewish Temple–to the Pharisees (except him) who included or excluded people from God according to their legalistic whims.  Jesus was speaking to Jews, espousing a new, more-expansive means to individual salvation.  I think he meant to include, rather than exclude, other ways of seeking God than just those specifically allowed and arbitrated by the Temple Judaism of his day.

What I found in Hinduism is that Smith had greatly simplified the Hindu catechism to make things accessible to people without much understanding of what Hinduism was, or how it arose, or particularly, of how it was practiced (the latter Smith admitted wasn’t his purpose—he was intent on conveying the core beliefs and rituals for all the religions he covered, which meant explicating the founder’s ideology for all the religions except Hinduism, Judaism and animism, which haven’t any founder).  Hinduism is anything but amenable to simplicity.

Michaels acknowledges as much in the first paragraph of his first chapter:

As a matter of fact, Hinduism is not a homogenous religion at all, but is rather a potpourri of religions, doctrines and attitudes toward life, rites and cults, moral and social norms.  For every claim, the reader should be aware “that the opposite could, more or less justifiably, be asserted.”  Thus images chosen to represent Hinduism are similar:  an impenetrable jungle, an all-absorbent sponge, a net ensnaring everything, an upside-down banyan tree with countless roots growing from the branches to the earth.

I prefer to imagine Hinduism as a variegated patch of briars and brambles that because of the tropical climate knows only continual growth, each extant tendril of Hindu belief having its roots firmly in Indian soil, seeking its place in the sun through continual twisting and turning and weaving through a thicket of like-kind and foreign-species competitors.   Understanding Hinduism requires following each tendril in the thicket down its vine to its origins in the earth, paying careful attention along the way to follow the path of other tendrils that branched from the vine and to note the paths of contiguous vines.  Completing that, perhaps not possible in a human lifetime, then the individual vines and tendrils would need be reconstituted to show how they all relate one to the other, and what their attributes amount to in aggregate.  In short, Hinduism is a complicated mess.   Or, it is for the Western mind, that so desperately seeks to glean order from chaos; to conquer, or at least contain, through categorization.

Michaels asserts that what bedevils the Western, monotheistic mind so is that Hinduism hasn’t one founder, or one religion, or one holy book, or one doctrine, or one religious symbol (his italics).  Polytheistic Hinduism is just as valid as monotheistic Hinduism.  The religion is practiced in four different ways (elucidated by Smith in World Religions)—ritualistically, spiritually, devotionally and heroically–with no particular method favored over another (except, obviously, by its devotees).

As Michaels puts it, “One might almost say that religious postmodernism is realized in India:  Anything goes.”

Note that he didn’t say “in Hinduism”, rather, “In India”.  And for good reason.  There are roughly a billion Hindus worldwide.  Almost all of them are Indian or Nepalese or Bangladeshi.  In other words, Hindu sprouted from the soil, like the brambles of my example, on the Indian subcontinent, along with the peoples of the continent.  It grew as they grew.  It is a geographically-localized phenomenon, like the lemurs of Madagascar, or the song of the Australian Aborigines, except that it did not enjoy complete isolation along its way to subcontinental proliferation.  Michaels could have named his book something along the lines of “Indian Culture: Past and Present” and given quite as accurate a description of its contents as the title he chose.

Michaels searches for some cohesive force that binds the many-faceted practices, gods, rituals and beliefs of Hinduism into one holistic religion.  He seeks to explain how Hinduism has managed to survive the onslaught of Islam, Christianity, Judaism and even Buddhism (which was founded in India, and garnered state-sanction for a time—Emperor Ashoka of the third century BC converted and adopted Buddhism as the state religion–before moving over the Himalayas to East and Southeast Asia, leaving a mostly-undisturbed Hinduism in its wake).

Michaels identifies this uniting force as the identificatory habitus.  I’m still a bit squishy, like I am about Hinduism itself, on what he means.  He claims the habitus is not focused on the traditional attributes of the Hindu religion and culture, like caste or ritual, but is on the extended family, that “as a descent group has been much more resistant to modern influences than the norms of hierarchy and purity.”  By ‘descent’, he doesn’t mean only “biological or natural origin” (but is there a difference between the two, or is this just an academician being verbose, as many are wont to be?).  He also means fictive origin, based on “soteriological identifications or substitutions that have to do with salvation.” (Soteriological means having to do with salvation, so this too seems unnecessarily verbose in its redundancy).  Michael’s identificatory habitus seems at first glance to be splitting academic hairs—a quest to say something original–to stand out as someone more than just another in a long line of German Indologists.  I never quite got what he meant by the phrase, but I am not a German Indologist, the apparent target audience for the book.  Still, I was left pondering if the phrase really operates to extend understanding among Indologists, or just operates to extend Mr. Michaels’ career.

Putting aside all the academic jargon and jingoism, the question that this identificatory habitus attempts to answer is what binds Hinduism—what makes it one?  How can its multiplicities be made singular such that the concept “Hindu” might be understood?  Is there a unifying catechism obscured by the panoply of beliefs, gods and rituals?  Do Hindus agree on the two fundamental questions religion tries to answer—where we come from and where we are going? I say that there is no way to know.  Go back to my example of the patch of briars and brambles.  The thicket of tangled, twisting vines make knowing or understanding the cohesive force binding them (or lack thereof) quite difficult to ascertain.  But maybe the obscurity that the chaos of the thicket provides is the cohesive (and protective) force.  Maybe Hinduism has been immune to monotheistic and Buddhist onslaught all these many years because there is no way to cut it out at the roots, because the tangled mess of its vines so adequately conceals them.  The identificatory habitus may simply be that there are no identifications and no habits with which to conclusively explain Hinduism’s survival and proliferation.  Maybe, like the roots, the answer is in the dirt from which it springs, and nothing more can or should be said about it.

But Michaels mainly disregards the dirt—the environment in which they arose.  The subcontinent is one of the cradles of civilization, but one that arose in a tropical/subtropical environment that had not the discipline of winter to cull from the thicket of beliefs and practices those that were only marginally viable.  Living creatures, and Hindu’s tendrils, had only to survive the variations in precipitation that came with the equatorial monsoon climate to which they were subject.  The temperate West had to develop beliefs and rituals to overcompensate during its verdant summers for the bitter, deadly cold of its winters.  The thicket of its beliefs was annually culled by the crucible of its winters.

As Michaels says, “India, it seems, really is different.”  But how?  To explain biological phenomenon, one must first understand the environments in which they arose.  And yes, mankind’s god-seeking ways are biological phenomena.  No self-respecting mammalian biologist would try to explain a giraffe without explaining the trees on the African savannah its long neck is adapted to reach.  India is different because so too is the subcontinent.  Unique cultural and religious practices arise to solve the same survival and existential questions all mankind faces, but they do so in the context of their particular environments, which ironically sounds a good deal like identificatory habitus, if the words are taken at face value.

Imagine trying to explain the physical differences between a fat, squat, pale Inuit and a tall, lean, dark East African without considering environmental factors.  It can’t be done.  Neither could differences in their cultures, of which religion is always a part, be explained without accounting for the vast differences in the environments in which each arose.

But environmental, i.e., climatic, factors are verboten among academics trying to tease out the nature of human nature.  Among human cultural biologists—e.g., sociologists and economists and historians– it is not permissible to cite environmental influences as giving rise to cultural attributes; the environment can’t be determinative, so it must be ignored.  But that unique thicket of briars and brambles that is Hinduism could not have grown in the arid deserts of Southwest Asia that produced Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  That rocky, barren island kingdom of Great Britain had two hundred and more years to assimilate and syncretize Hinduism but it and Hinduism remain largely unaffected by the contact.

Hinduism is a creature of the time and space in which it gained purchase and grew.  It may well be that so much has happened during its long history on the subcontinent that gaining a full understanding is impossible, but that doesn’t mean the religion/culture doesn’t reflect the logic of the environment in which it arose.  It’s tragic, in a way, that we humans so hubristically consider ourselves something above and apart from the vicissitudes of the environments in which we exist that we fail at the one task that we so desperately seek to accomplish—to understand who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.  Perhaps we see that no other animals are capable of such questions, so we conclude that we must not be like them.  But we are wrong.

Michaels relates three anecdotes showing how Indian culture is different:  1) Upon seeing the massive Volkswagen car factory in Wolfsburg, the response of an Indian visitor was, “I think that car factories are the same the world over.”; 2) India has won almost no medals in Olympic competition, explained by an Indian friend stating, “For us, it doesn’t count if someone is the best or not!”; 3) A Nepali, when questioned whether he was Hindu or Buddhist, answered, “Yes.”  Indeed, attitudes such as these only make sense, as Michaels asserts, in the context of a familial-based descent.  Think of the reunion of an extended American family, one of those few that still exist after the hundred-year campaign of federal and state governments to supplant the family as the primary social organization (the only I personally know of are black families in the South—their status as a subordinate caste seeming to provide the necessary cohesion).  No matter how successful any individual member becomes, he/she still is just a brother, sister, uncle, aunt, nephew, cousin, grandparent.  In the main, secular success doesn’t change status within the family, at least not for those few hours the family periodically gathers to meet.  If the family had never been supplanted by the state—apparently the case in the Indian subcontinent—there would be no impulse to marvel at the productive capacities of state-sanctioned capitalists, or the athletic exploits of individuals that bring glory to the nation.  And there would be room to explore alternative faiths, because the religion of one’s birth would always be one’s religion.  An Indian Hindu may become a Christian or Buddhist, but he will ever and always be Hindu.

Which brings up the question—who exactly is Hindu?  Michaels explains that the British census takers considered anyone who wasn’t expressly Muslim or Christian as Hindu, which probably yields an underestimation, because Hindus can also be those things.  The Wikipedia entry counts about a billion worldwide, the vast majority being in India and Nepal.  Is it possible to convert to Hinduism?  Can a Hindu convert to another religion?  There is some controversy, but it seems implausible.  Can one convert to another family from the one in which they are born?   Although in the West it is pretended, through the marriage and adoption regime, that families are temporary, voluntary associations, such is not the case in India among Hindus.  One is born to a family whose origins and social and eternal significance is carefully managed through the rituals and beliefs of…Hinduism. A Western hippie may come under the spell of some Indian guru, internalizing and accepting into his heart the (a?) Hindu way of life and thinking, but he will never really be Hindu because he wasn’t born to it.

I would say Michaels is a quite competent Indologist, and thereby expositor of Hinduism, but I’ve really nothing through which I might compare him.  Hinduism reflects what can only be an encyclopedic knowledge of Hinduism’s history, beliefs, rituals and practices.  At only 344 pages (excluding notes), it packs a whole lot of knowledge into quite a small package.  The book is reasonably well-written.  Michaels won’t win any prizes for his prose, but he wrote the book in German.  Everything loses a bit in translation.  Except towards the end, where he gets bogged down explaining Hindu salvation theology, the book should be accessible to most non-academicians, though Michaels’ academic style of prose might be off-putting to some (as it was to me at times).

A book about Hinduism is necessarily also a book about Indian culture, and more than anything, that’s what Hindusm felt like while reading it.  Thus far, everything I know of India has been provided by Western observers.  It might be useful to see what an Indian would observe of their culture and religion.  But it might be hard for one tangled in that thicket of briars and brambles to gain an objective perspective.  I’m reminded of David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech, This is Water, in which an old fish asks two young fish as they’re swimming by, “How’s the water?”  One of the young fishes looks to the other bewildered, saying, “What the hell is water?”  An Indian asked to explain his religion whilst immersed in it might well answer, “What the hell is Hinduism?”

Climate Change Science and David Hume’s Skepticism

The Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) destroyed philosophy with logic.  His skepticism has not been, and I believe never will be, adequately answered.  Were he alive today, I believe he could do the same with climate science, and through the same mechanism.

Hume unassailably pointed out that we can never know with absolute certainty what causes the effects we observe.  All we know for sure is that we can’t know for sure.  ‘A’ may always precede ‘B’ in our observations, but that does not mean A causes B, and even if there seems to be a causal relationship, we can’t assume the relationship will always hold.  The future often looks like the past, but there is no cosmic reason that it must.  (Incidentally, neuroscience has discovered that in some instances our minds will make us perceive that A precedes B even when it doesn’t, if our minds have–subconsciously, of course–concluded that A preceding B is the best way of presenting reality to our consciousness such that our body might better survive and prosper.)

Just because every instance of hitting a billiard ball with a cue ball causes movement in a predictable direction and velocity does not mean that we can, with100% certainty, expect that the next strike of the ball will do the same.  Gravity could be suspended.  The arrow of time could reverse.  Any number of assumptions we make about the world as it is (light speed, gravitational forces, molecular forces, etc.)—and particularly the assumption undergirding all others—that things will stay as they are–might change to destroy our causative analysis.  In the end, all we have are correlations.  A billiard ball is hit by a cue ball with a force sufficient to overcome friction such that it moves.  The billiard ball doesn’t move without which it is hit.  We never see effect B without also seeing cause A.  Yet still, we’ve done nothing but describe a conjunction, and one that could fall apart at any moment, if our underlying premise—that the future should look like the past—fails.

But skepticism so cosmically radicalized is of no use to us in trying to figure out the world.  We must assume that effects have discernible causes—that the future will in fact look something like the past; that the same rules that prevailed in the past will apply in the future–or the whole enterprise of discerning the nature of reality fails.  To live in the world, we must suspend disbelief.   Yet even when we dispense with the cosmic level of skepticism, there is the simple correlative problem:  Just because two things appear together does not mean that the two have a causative relationship.   Snow melts in spring, which is followed quickly thereon by trees budding leaves.  Did the snow melting cause the trees to bud?  No, the same phenomenon that caused the snow to melt—the change of seasons—caused the trees to bud.

Imagine the fun Hume would have with climate science.  The basic theory, as I understand things, is that atmospheric temperatures on the surface of the earth (the troposphere) are increasing due to mankind’s activity; particularly, that the burning of fossil fuels is causing carbon dioxide in the troposphere to increase, which is in turn, due to the greenhouse effect, causing the troposphere to warm.

How much of the science is certain, even disregarding Hume’s skepticism?  First, is the troposphere actually getting warmer?  That’s not as easy an assertion to make as it first appears.  Take out a globe and spin it a few times.  Turn it upside down, so you can see the Southern Hemisphere better, and spin it some more.  What is the most prevalent feature?  Oceans.  Over 2/3rds of the earth’s surface is covered with them.  How many temperature reading stations, i.e., mainly ships, do we have/have we had/ on the oceans?  How many do we have now relative to two hundred years ago—or, roughly the beginning point for measurements that are interpreted to show the earth’s surface is getting warmer?  Likewise, on land, how many of our measurements are taken in and around big cities with automobiles and factories and electrical devices all generating massive amounts of heat in densely-populated areas?  Wouldn’t it be surprising to find that cities were not warmer today than they were two centuries ago, before all of mankind’s heat-generating mechanical devices found concentrated usage in them?  To make a valid comparison, we must have comparable temperature readings, in the coverage, in the sensitivity of the instruments taking the measurements, and in the conditions under which the measurements are made.  To make a valid comparison, we must hold constant every other variable except temperature.  Have we?

The answer is no, it is not possible that we have held every other variable constant except temperature.  It is not possible that we have had the same coverage, the same sensitivity of measuring instruments and the same conditions under which the measurements are made the world over for the last two hundred years.

There is no way we can know for certain, or even know to within a reasonable measure of doubt, that the troposphere is warmer now than it was two hundred years ago.  If the troposphere were indicted for warming, there is no way it could be convicted of the crime, except circumstantially, and circumstantial evidence is not forensic, scientific evidence.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s anyways assume that we know the troposphere is warming.  Can we know it’s cause?  Even without invoking Hume’s skepticism, the answer is emphatically no.  Ascertaining causation requires the isolation of variables.  It requires holding all things constant other than the variable in question (carbon dioxide, for the climate change theory) to tease out correlations that might yield causative linkages.  But it is not possible to isolate climatic variables.  We have no way, for instance, of holding the sun’s radiation constant, or of even knowing its variations over the last two hundred years.  We can’t know how much of the heat that the earth itself generates reaches the surface.  We can know a bit about sunspots and volcanism, but knowing a bit is not knowing with any certainty.  We know the sun and the earth generate heat.  The sun’s heat, very obviously, arrives to the troposphere after traveling roughly 93 million miles through relatively empty space.  The earth’s heat bubbles to the surface in a myriad of ways.  Do we know how much heat was reaching the surface through oceanic vents two hundred years ago?  Not likely, as we weren’t even aware of them until the last half century.  Do we know today of cosmic aberrations that might have interfered with the sun’s radiation reaching the earth two hundred years ago?  93 million miles and two hundred years is a vast stretch of space and time to hold things otherwise constant.

Unable to hold all variables other than carbon dioxide constant, perhaps we could account for changes in the variables, but doing so would require knowing how other variables, like solar radiation and volcanism, have changed over the years, something that we simply do not know, nor have the capacity to find out.  Claims to the contrary are flights of speculative fancy.

So, even were we certain that the troposphere had warmed over the last two hundred years, there is no way, with any reasonable level of certainty, that we could possibly know why.  And that’s even without questioning our knowledge of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.  Do we really know, except for the recent past during which we have actively monitored carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, what the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were two hundred years ago?  When we didn’t even know what carbon dioxide was?  Greenland ice cores are nice, but a poor substitute for real-time measurements.

So, maybe Hume wouldn’t have so much fun.  His logic needn’t be carried to its skeptical conclusion to understand that climate change science is a tower of speculation built on a foundation of sand.  Nothing of this means that climate change theory is necessarily wrong.  It means that it is not certain.

But there’s another aspect of Hume’s genius that helps explain the phenomenon of climate change theory’s widespread acceptance.

Hume observed that “Reason is, and ought only be the slave of the passions.”  People have come to passionately believe, and not unreasonably, that mankind is wrecking the planet.  We pollute the rivers, oceans and atmosphere without a thought.  We clear the jungles of the wild to build concrete and steel and asphalt human jungles that we hubristically call civilization.  We scrape and bore and tunnel into to the earth to pull from it the vast energies of ancient suns stored there, releasing the energy in chemical reactions the world over, combining carbon with oxygen just as our bodies do, to heat and cool and power the activities of mankind.  Ninety-six million barrels of oil were burnt today, and will be burnt tomorrow, and every succeeding tomorrow as far as the eye can see.  Almost nine billion tons of coal were burnt last year.  And there’s no reason to think this year will be any different (Hume’s admonitions aside).

How is it possible that all this has no deleterious effect on the earth’s environment? How can this not be harmful from the perspective of the earth’s ability to support human, and other, life?  We see the destruction we have wrought and we passionately understand that this can’t go on forever, and so send our reasoning minds scurrying to find an answer, to pinpoint a deleterious effect that can be traced to some cause identifiable with our activity.  Global warming, or climate change as it is now known, fits the bill (if rather imperfectly, as human beings, and life in general, does better, to a point, in warmer environments than in cold—the return of the ice age would be a catastrophe of epic proportions).

People who are passionately concerned about where all this “progress” and “development” will ultimately lead set their enslaved reason to the task of figuring out why what their intuitive feelings are correct.  And climate change science provides it.  The theory that the earth is warming and mankind is causing the warming through his burning of fossil fuels sounds reasonable and logical, and that’s good enough.  It needn’t actually be reasonable and logical.  It needn’t actually adhere to the gold standard of science—that only falsifiable theories have the capacity to enhance our understanding of the world.

A theory needs to be falsifiable if it is to rise above mere speculation.  Being falsifiable means that data could prove the theory wrong.  While over a very long time period—much longer than the human life span at least—climate change theory might have its viability questioned (if, for example, by the beginning of the next millennium, the earth is entering a new ice age, even as we kept burning oil all the way through this one), it can’t ever be conclusively falsified, so it also can’t ever be conclusively proved.  There are simply too many variables of varying importance at play, and over too-long a time horizon.

Some theories that seem also to be unprovable by falsification are only superficially so.  The theory of evolution has a problem similar to climate change theory—the time horizons are too long to render a definitive proof (except in the case of single-celled organisms, which we can watch evolve in real time under microscopes).  But the time horizon is only a problem if we misunderstand the essence of the theory.  Evolution science says that life must come from life and be adaptable to the environment in which it finds itself, the mechanism for adaptability being natural selection.   If mankind were to witness God, or something, breathing a human into being from a block of clay, and one that had supernatural powers enabling it to exist without concern for its environment, the theory would then be falsified.  That hasn’t happened to date, so the theory is sound.  There is no commensurate (if in my example, ridiculous) event that could falsify climate change theory.

But the people who have become passionately devoted to climate change have their hearts in the right place.  We are befouling our planet.  We are, with our agriculture, our vehicles, our lifestyles, etc., altering the earth’s biota, and the earth’s ability to support life in the future, in irreversible ways.  We can’t keep doing this forever, or for even much longer.  So, I am loath to acknowledge the fallacies of climate change theory, if climate change theory is all we have to compel us to change our ways.  My heart is with the climate change crowd, but my head won’t follow.  It’s a problem I have, that my head is not such a good slave to my passions.  I was born with Hume’s skepticism, but even Hume knew better than to follow his skeptical head.  Had he tried, he would never have accomplished anything.  And maybe that trifling fact explains and justifies climate change theory better than anything else.

 

The Day I Found Out My Son Had Leukemia, The First Time*

(*What follows is the opening chapter of A Tale of Two Transplants, a memoir I wrote about the experience of raising a kid who suffered two bouts of leukemia. )

Chapter One—Dad’s Office

I was growing increasingly aggravated, trying to keep my four-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son entertained in a doctor’s waiting room.   We’d arrived about 9:00 am.  When it got past 10:30, about the time I start getting those mid-morning hunger pangs which added to the aggravation, I was really close to taking the kids and packing it in.  I figured I could go anywhere and get this kind of service.  But just before finally heading out the door to leave, they called us back and into the examination rooms.

The kid’s Pawpaw, my Dad, was their doctor.  He was a family physician, a generalist, even as family practice had succumbed to the medical profession’s fetish for making specialties from generalities, and had itself become a specialty.   I figured a doctor with a family practice was as good as any for the nonspecific sort of ordinary medical issues of childhood.  A pediatrician might have been better, but that’s just a generalist with a specialty in humans of a certain age, which to me didn’t make a lot of sense.  Human beings aren’t butterflies.  They only metamorphose metaphorically.  Their bodies don’t drastically change from pupae to caterpillar to butterfly as they mature.   They mainly just get bigger, at least until puberty, when the sex hormones make for some significant changes in function and form for select parts of the body.  But even then, there’s no metamorphosis.

I was adopted at the age of about four and a half by Pawpaw.  I have never known my real father.  My mother refused to even tell me who he was, but I wasn’t stupid.  I had heard the whispers behind my back, and saw the strained looks, and caught the thinly-veiled innuendos at family reunions.  I knew there was some sort of scandal associated with my birth, but about that, she refused to talk.  And as soon as I was old enough to be dangerous in my wonderings about such things, about age twelve or so, she cut off all contact with her natal family, and forbid us, my sisters and me, to contact them directly.  This infuriated me.  To my reckoning, no one had to the right to decide or not by their autocratic decree what would be my history.  Biology decides that sort of thing, no matter how desperately a newly-minted Southern matriarch of a doctor’s wife straight from the projects of inner-city Birmingham might wish to object.

When the wife decided to have children (and yes, that is how it went down—the wife decided she wanted children and I went along with it, without much thought, as I didn’t figure I really had much choice in the matter anyway, as I was in law school and she was working and planned to continue working and she was a strong, independent woman who would get pregnant with or without my acquiescence, so I told her I didn’t mind if she had kids, but that, you know, I didn’t have a job yet, so she was on her own in that regard), I decided to teach my mother a lesson about biology.  I moved the family back home after law school, dragging the kid, by now almost two, in tow.  I wanted to show my mother that nobody gets to choose their family.  Family is not just a whim of someone’s mind, but is genes knitted together unto eternity that not even a willful Southern matriarch can unravel.

For the one and only time in our marriage, the wife followed my lead, and came back to Alabama with me.  The wife was also from Alabama—we’d met in high school—so she had family there, too, so it wasn’t all that drastic a move.  She’d been living in Louisiana while I went to law school in Texas.  The move back to Alabama was the first time we’d lived together more or less permanently in the same town since we’d married right before I shipped off to the first Gulf War.

It was about the time of the visit to my dad’s office, about four years into the move, that I began realizing what a terrible mistake I’d made.  I had never had a good relationship with my family growing up.  I’d mainly ignored them and they me.  In the house in Birmingham where we had moved when I was a rising third-grader and where I spent the remainder of my childhood and youth, my bedroom was alone downstairs, and I mostly stayed there, and away from all the upstairs drama with my sisters.  I had an older sister, a product of Mom’s first marriage, the one which mysteriously fell apart just about the time I came along, and two younger sisters, Mom and Dad’s blood progeny.

But having moved back to Birmingham with a wife and kid, I was no longer so distant now, what with obligatory involvement (because of the kids) in family reunions, birthdays, etc.  I ruffled feathers by my insistence that I no longer be treated as some skeleton hidden safely from view in the basement.  I demanded that me and my family be included as equals among my siblings and their families, and they did not like it.   The relationship quickly grew contentious.  By the time of the visit to Dad’s office that day, I was realizing with increasing clarity that me and mine would never be truly welcome in the family.

The situation had taken an ugly turn the previous Thanksgiving, a few months before the visit to Dad’s office that early spring day, when Dad saw no harm in turning his driveway into a shooting gallery for high-powered deer rifles for the brother-in-law and his son, even as my kids, four and six at the time, were playing outside (Dad has forty acres of woods surrounding his house).  The kids came in holding their ears and screaming bloody murder after the first few shots, as no one had even considered that the blast of a 30.06 might hurt their ears, standing only a few feet away as they were, and hilariously enough, even as the shooters’ ears were fully protected.  Thinking things over later on, it occurred to me that the whole incident was intentionally staged to send a message, something of an intentional reveal of how they really felt about us.  So the embers of my anger were still smoldering when we went to visit Dad’s office that day, and were stoked to blazing by the hour and a half wait to get called back for the checkups.

It wasn’t like Dad was seeing the kids for free or anything.  We had excellent health insurance coverage, which he duly billed when he saw us, just like he would any other patient.  Maybe the other patients generally waited an hour and half past their appointment times.  I don’t know.  I just know it made me mad.  It would have angered me to be treated that way at any doctor’s office, but more so with Dad because these were his grandkids, at least according to the law, even as I was learning how much thicker was blood than water.  I felt he would never have treated my nephews, his natural grandchildren, like this.

The checkups seemed to go on forever.  The kids were already restless from the wait and were trying to take advantage that their grandfather was the boss, running up and down the halls.  I tried to rein them in, but it was mostly useless.  They knew my words bore little weight at Dad’s office.  Dad always did a blood count on the kids as part of the checkup.  I think it was because he wanted to bill the insurance company for the lab work, since he had a machine on site that could do the work.  I didn’t mind.  It was just a little finger prick for the kids, which they learned to tolerate fairly well.  But this time the nurses slowed my son down enough to get him to do another one.  And then they wanted more blood from him, so stuck him with a needle in the arm.  The kid was always pretty good about such things.  He never cried, but was getting a bit annoyed at the interruptions.  I was mostly oblivious as to what might be going on, not suspecting anything was awry because nothing seemed awry, and the nurse’s explanation that the machine was fouling up seemed plausible.

Then, finally, Dad asked me to come back into his office for a minute.  I came back and stood facing him across the corner of the desk from where he was standing, and asked what was up.  He looked official and business-like in his white lab coat with his name stitched across the left breast pocket.  I was taking a day off work to get the kids their checkups, and had on a pullover golf shirt, khaki shorts and running shoes. Dad looked down at the sheet of paper laying on the corner of the desk in front of me and said, “Do you see these numbers right here?”  His index finger pointed to the top line of numbers on the lab report.  I answered, “Yeah, what about ‘em?”  “They mean Andrew’s got leukemia.”

My knees buckled momentarily.  Growing up in a doctor’s house, I had learned at an early age about cancer, the mysterious disease where the body infects itself with its own rogue cells.  It was one of the dangers, along with German tanks and Russian nukes and, because of our time at Ft. Bragg in the early seventies, of deranged doctors murdering their families, that as an innocent little boy of six or seven, I had learned to fear.  For whatever reason, the most fearsome of all cancers from my reckoning, even back then, was leukemia, where the life-sustaining blood coursing through the arteries and veins becomes an angel of death.  How could this be, I remembered thinking, that your body would betray you so?  What a terrible thing, to carry your killer in your veins.

Just for a few numbers printed on a sheet of paper, my body flooded with adrenaline, sending a silent scream from my gut to my legs and haunches, to my chest and head and arms that I should fight or flee.  But there was no way to fight or flee.  So, like a mouse in the corner when the kitchen lights are turned on, I did the only thing left to me.  I froze.  I didn’t know what to say.  I didn’t even think to ask the obvious question, “Are you sure?”  Of course, he couldn’t have been sure on one measly blood count, or even on several, if they were all from the same lab equipment.  And there would need to be a careful biopsy to know for sure.  But I didn’t know that at the time and he was my Dad and the kid’s doctor, so I didn’t think to question him.  After what seemed an eternity of standing there in silence feeling naked and exposed for the world to see, all I could manage was a mumbled question about what we should do next.  He said he’d call in a referral to the local children’s hospital and get back with me when he found out the details.

As I gathered the kids and headed out the door it seemed like I was floating outside myself, watching my movements in slow motion replay, checking that I was fluid and deliberate and effective in my actions.  And I could sense the company of other observers.  I could feel the eyes of everyone in the office upon me.  News like that travels fast in a doctor’s office, reverberating like a shock wave after a bomb explodes, and especially so if it is about the doctor’s own grandson.  I felt barely able to put one foot in front of the other, but I couldn’t let on to the kids that I knew anything.  I couldn’t let them know how afraid I was.  I couldn’t let them see my state of shock.  I put on my sunglasses inside, so no one could see my eyes, which, though not yet filling up with tears, would surely have revealed my anguished shock to anyone who cared to look.

Across the highway from Dad’s office was a newly-built MacDonald’s, complete with a play area.  While all McDonald’s are good, so far as parents of young children are concerned (if they are honest with themselves), this one was especially so, because of its location.  After its construction, the kids understood that anytime we went to Pawpaw’s office we would stop at McDonald’s afterwards as a reward if they were good, (but that was just a bluff which they probably saw through—I’d have been punishing myself for their misbehavior if I had denied them a trip to McDonald’s), and not through the drive thru, but inside in the restaurant, so they could play between bites of mysteriously-formed bits of what the restaurant claimed was chicken.

I figured I had to keep to the routine or they’d be suspicious, so that’s what we did.  We got our meals and sat down to eat.  Andrew normally got the chicken nugget Happy Meal and Eliza the hamburger Happy Meal.  They ate a few bites and begged to go play.  I let them.  Once I saw they were fully engaged on the slides and in the ball pit, I slipped away to the bathroom for a quick pity party.  There was thankfully no one in the restroom when I arrived.  I stood in front of the mirror and started bawling, and let it carry on for a good half-minute or so.  There is something cathartic about tears.  I know guys aren’t supposed to cry, but even as manly as I generally try to be, about some things, there is no avoiding it.  This was one of those things.  Aside from being hard to believe, it seemed so unfair that an innocent little kid might die before ever really getting the chance to live.

For Christ’s sake, he’d just learned to ride a bike.  Parents can’t help recalling what things were like for them at whatever age their kids are.  I was the happiest kid in the world at my son’s age.  I, too, had just learned to ride a bike, and spent every afternoon flying my little red bike all over Ft. Bragg, North Carolina.  I had just started school and learned to read, thereby discovering whole other worlds of adventure and imagination between the covers of the books I voraciously consumed.  I was so happy that I had to dream up things to fear (Nazi tanks, etc., previously mentioned that I learned about mostly through GI Joe comic books), though I didn’t get the connection between happiness and fear at the time.  Like my parents didn’t know it about me, I didn’t know what Andrew’s fears were.  He’d had a few bad dreams on occasion, mimicking his dad it seemed, but never anything specific he would tell, except for a gripping fear of death, which he thought of as nothingness, and which, truth be told, is always the sum of all fears.  Maybe the nonspecific fear we all seem to carry with us, and in my and Andrew’s case, from a very early age, is just the flip side of realizing that we will one day die.

Andrew had already had something of a tough time of it physically by the time of his diagnosis, having suffered mysteriously recurring fevers that lasted for days into weeks, where his only symptom save the fever was massively swollen lymph nodes on his neck.  The first time the fever struck was the Christmas after his sister was born in September.  He was a little over two and a half years old at the time, so fat that he looked like a Cabbage Patch kid, and the swollen lymph nodes made him look like a Cabbage Patch Frankenstein.  We later not-so-affectionately dubbed that episode the Twelve Days of Christmas Hell because it took about twelve days for the fever and swelling to finally subside; in the meantime, I had to sleep in the den on one couch while he slept on the other, so I could wake up and give him acetaminophen or ibuprofen, alternately every two hours, to keep his fever down.    The fevers would arrive at stressful periods—holidays, birthdays, etc., and fade away after a couple of weeks, only to reemerge, but less acutely, a few weeks later.  Each fever event usually had three acts stretching across two or three months.  We never figured out what caused them.  But as they apparently involved some sort of immune system glitch, there’s little doubt they had something to do with the subsequent development of leukemia.  Leukemia is a disease of the white blood cells, i.e., the immune system, and there was definitely something not quite right with his.  During one of his episodes, they had done that once-common childhood procedure, and pulled his tonsils, which are a part of the lymphatic system, which is sort of the information highway for the immune system.  To no discernible effect.  He kept right on getting the fevers.

I carried the burden of the diagnosis alone for about two hours.  It was a soul-crushingly lonely time.  But keeping to the routine so as not to upset the kids meant there was no time to slip away for a few minutes and make a phone call to the wife.  Nobody but her had my same interest in the knowledge.  Not even Andrew, innocent of such things, would have cared as much as we.  Certainly not my sisters and their families.  Not even the grandparents (one of whom already knew).  These kids and their problems were our burden to bear.  They were our project.  And half the project was in grave danger.  It was a crushing burden to bear alone, this dreadful knowledge, filling my belly with a queasy emptiness to match the abyss of despair in my heart.  But I needed some uninterrupted, private time with the wife, preferably in person, if not, over the phone, if I were to relieve the burden a bit by sharing it.  And I couldn’t get that so long as we were out and the kids were with me.

I finally got them home and called in a favor from my youngest sister—she lived just about a mile or so from my house and was off that day—and got her to keep them while I got in the car to drive out to the wife’s office.  But the wife called me as I was heading her way, returning an earlier call I had placed from the house.  I told her it was about the kids’ checkups.  That Andrew wasn’t well was all I could choke out before needing to pause.  Then, “It’s leukemia.”  The wife is not an overly emotional woman.  Up to that time, I don’t think I had ever seen her cry, and she didn’t bawl this time, but I could tell she was sniffling and wiping away tears as I described what little I knew as best I could.  We ended the conversation with her packing up to leave work and me turning around to go back home.   She said her leaving wouldn’t matter today, there was hardly anyone there anyway because of the holiday.  “What holiday?” I asked.  It was mid-April and I couldn’t remember any bank holidays for that month.

“For Good Friday.” She said.  Then I remembered—that was why I took off to get the kids their checkups–there wouldn’t be much happening because it was Good Friday, which had become something of a quasi-official holiday over the years as Hispanics (who are generally Catholic and keep the holiday) had increasingly emigrated to the Central Alabama area.  I looked at the calendar when I got home.  I’ve never been superstitious.  So naturally, aside from being Good Friday, it was Friday the 13th, 2001, a rare instance of superstition correlating with real life (according to superstition, bad things generally happen on Friday; Friday the 13th is especially bad so far as Friday’s go, and a really bad thing happened on Good Friday—they crucified the Christ—which only later did theologians recognize was actually good).  I still don’t believe in silly superstitions.  But at least I understand a little better why some people do.  It would really have been nice to blame all this on the triply-witched date that it occurred.

 

 

 

 

The Day I Bought the Farm*

(*I mean literally, of course.  Nobody who buys the farm figuratively is still around to write about it.)

It was 2008, nine years ago almost to the day. The week the wife and daughter were gone on a school trip to D.C., I took the opportunity to head up to the ‘Mountain’ as the locals know it. But the Mountain isn’t that.  It’s not a mountain, not in the common vernacular of a stand-alone area of elevated land, nor in the more scientific sense of land scrunched or piled upward by tectonic or volcanic forces.   According to geologists, what the locals call “the Mountain” is really two plateaus intersected by a steeply-sided valley through which flows Will’s Creek, all part of the Cumberland Plateau which sweeps down in a southwest arc from Chattanooga to Winston and Walker County in Alabama.  The ridgelines, or technically anticline plateaus, Sand Mountain and Lookout Mountain, are extensions of the Appalachians, running roughly parallel from Chattanooga for over a hundred miles deep into the heart of Alabama.  What the locals call the Mountain is, roughly speaking, the area where the two plateaus reach their apex in Northeast Alabama in Dekalb County.

The plateaus are tall enough to be called mountains—not the Mountain perhaps, but mountains–around Henagar, Mentone, Fyffe, Rainsville, Sylvania, Ft. Payne, etc., in Dekalb County, where the plateaus are roughly 1500 feet above sea level and about half of that above the valley floor, before slowly petering out as they approach Gadsden and Birmingham.  On a topographic map (see linked PDF) the ridges look like waves lapping at some ancient shore, which is actually what they’d be seen doing, if viewed through some vastly sped-up time-lapse photography taken of the last hundred million years or so of the area. Because that’s what they are—waves of rock and sandstone and clay rippling along the edges of the Appalachians.  More than foothills, they are the flotsam of the Appalachians’ epic and ancient clash with the sea.

Stick a spade into the dirt of either Sand or Lookout Mountain and you’ll see how Sand Mountain got its name.  The mountain dirt, embedded throughout with sandstone rock of varying sizes, is sandy, the color and texture of Atlantic Coast beaches–both because the plateaus once were seabed, and because it is the same sand Atlantic Coast beaches are made of.  It varies in depth from a few feet to being completely worn to the nub, with the harder of the sandstone bedrock poking through the soil, a common feature among on the flattened tops of the ridgelines, but rare in the furrowed-out valley between them.  Lookout Mountain got its name from a promontory near Chattanooga from which seven, or ten, or some ridiculous number of states are reputedly visible on a clear day.  All along the route up I-59 from Birmingham to Chattanooga roof barns and billboards exhort travelers to “See Lookout Mountain”, when in fact, once clearing the interstate mountain pass a few miles northeast of Gadsden, all it takes to see Lookout Mountain is to glance out the passenger-side windows.  There it is, though not as high in elevation as the promontory at its Chattanooga end for which the ridgeline/plateau is named.

I got interested in buying the farm because I had some money I’d set aside in a retirement account that was making absolutely nothing once the financial crisis, starting in late 2007, pushed interest rates to near zero.  Not only that, but my law practice was practically dormant.  I had been a real estate lawyer for the previous twelve years—all through the boom.  I’d made what I figured was a killing, but knew, even in the midst of it, that it wouldn’t last—nothing goes up forever—so never splurged, never changed the family’s rather modest lifestyle.  We got the beach vacation once a year and that was about it.  We continued driving the cars until the wheels fell off.   We stayed in our cozy 3/2, seventy-year-old dump in a leafy Birmingham suburb.  I paid our debt to zero.  (After which, I wondered, what was the point, really, of working anymore?)

The farm was intended as an investment and an insurance policy.  A couple of months earlier, the wife and I had stayed in a little cottage on some farm land in the area—the couple we rented from had two cabins they rented out to people who wanted to get away from the city.  Close by was the Desoto State Park, which had good hiking trails.  Further away, south and east of the area, was the Little River Canyon, a great place for a picnic or sunbathing, or on warm days, swimming.  North of the area was Mentone, an upscale, but tiny, tourist spot that I had learned about several years earlier when a partner in a law firm where I clerked in Louisiana sent his daughter to a girl’s camp there during the summer.  I remember thinking how odd it seemed—to send a kid from Louisiana to summer camp in Alabama.  I guess Alabama’s mountains, puny as they are, are like the Rockies to a flatlander from Louisianan.

The fledgling tourist aspect of the area where we rented the cabins made buying some land in the vicinity a potentially good investment.  But if the land were farmable, it could as well be an insurance policy against financial Armageddon if things got too bad.  We could always grow our own food.

Why Northeast Alabama?  The wife’s parents were from there—Fyffe and Sylvania, to be exact, so I knew a bit about the area, and loved it.  I remember interviewing for a job in Birmingham while I was in law school.  I was talking to one of the lawyers of the very large firm who, of course, lived in Mountain Brook (the fanciest of all the ringlet cities surrounding Birmingham).  I asked where he was from.  He said Ft. Payne.  I blurted out, “Why in the world would you trade Ft. Payne for Birmingham?”  I could not fathom why anyone who lived on the Mountain would ever want to leave it, at least not for somewhere else in Alabama.  From what I’d seen of the Mountain, it was the best Alabama had to offer.  I, of course, didn’t get the job (thankfully—I wouldn’t have lasted a year at a stuffy downtown law firm.  I know because I tried it once, after having been on my own for some time, and was rehanging my shingle as a solo within six months.  I just don’t like hanging out with lawyers.  I just don’t.  Never did and never will.)

For some reason, the Mountain seemed like home.  Something about the place I couldn’t put my finger on.  Long after my first exposure to the Mountain, a raucous Christmas reunion to the wife’s maternal grandmother’s home (the wife’s mother had six siblings), I learned that Will’s Creek and Will’s Valley (and Will’s Town, where Ft. Payne is now located), were named after a prominent half-breed, red-headed, Cherokee Indian who first settled it.  I am a (not so prominent) quarter-breed, red-headed Cherokee Indian.  Or, at least, I am if what my mother (allegedly) claimed of my paternity is true.

My mother’s first husband, known to me only as “Kid Cobra”, for the strike of his rapid-firing fists during his short-lived semi-professional boxing career, was purportedly a half-breed Cherokee, his mother being purebred, if there is such a thing.  I never met the guy and don’t even know if he’s really my dad.  All I’ve been told (mostly from my aunts and uncles telling me what my mother claimed, but never directly from my mother—she would never speak of my paternity and severely berated me if I ever asked about it) is that the half-breed was married to my mother, they had a child together (my older sister) and that about the same time I came along a year and a half later, they split up.  So, I might be a red-headed Cherokee.  Or, maybe not.  Who even knows if Kid Cobra was a half-breed himself, never mind whether he was my dad?   But the knowledge that the area was first settled by a redheaded half-breed Indian burnished my romantic idealizations of the place.  Going up there, I felt like Nehemiah, returning from exile to a place I’d never been before.

So, I drove around the general vicinity of the cabins where we had stayed, looking for a fuzzy something in a piece of land, a bit like a confused do-it-yourselfer in the hardware store, not quite sure what it would look like when I found it.  I was driving along Desoto Parkway (simply, “the “Parkway” to the locals, the road that ultimately slices through the State Park) when I came upon East Howell Drive and noticed a sign proclaiming land for sale—25 acres.  I thought 25 acres sounded perfect.  I turned and drove up Howell a quarter-mile or so and found the follow-on sign posted at the property entrance.  I slowed and stopped along the road at the property and walked through the rustic, overgrown remnants of a barb-wire fence gate.  From the road, the property opened onto a terraced hay field about eight acres wide and two acres deep, then flattened to a plateau of underbrush about an acre deep running the width of the property, after which it fell off to a wooded area down to a creek.  It was utterly beautiful.  I knew I had found what I was looking for the minute I saw it.  It touched something primordial in my soul.

Later on, after I’d bought the property, I stumbled across a passage while reading David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed (1989), a book about the various British cultures who settled the United States, that perfectly described the place.  In the section about the borderlands people, the hard-bitten people living on the Scottish/English border who settled in Appalachia upon arriving in America, Fischer quoted Samual Kercheval’s description of what such people sought in a homestead:

The greater number of farms in [Appalachia] bear a striking resemblance to an amphitheater.  The buildings occupy a low situation, and the tops of the surrounding hills are the boundaries of the tracts to which the family mansion belongs.  Our forefathers were fond of this description, because, as they said, they are attended with this convenience, “that everything comes to the house down the hill.”

The passage describes the property perfectly.  The terraced hills are the amphitheater seats, while the plateau is the stage, with a backdrop of woods that ultimately fall to a creek.  Are genes expressed through culture or are they shaped by it?  I don’t know.  All I know is that when I saw the property I felt it down in my marrow—this was the place to which I would return from my exile in the city of my birth.

I called the number listed on the sign.  The owner told me it was already sold, but that the guy he sold it to was having trouble with financing.  I told him I had cash.  I asked him what he wanted for it.  He’d put a price on the sign, but I knew that was just the point at which negotiations started.  He gave me a price about $15,000 less than what was on the sign.  I asked could he go lower, but he must have sensed the eagerness in my tone.  He said no, that was it.  I said, “Sold”.  I told him I’d draw up the paperwork formalizing the deal and we could meet a couple of days later to get everything in writing.  He said he was fine just signing a deed.  That’s the way they do things up on the Mountain.  I insisted on the formalities–I was, after all, a real estate lawyer.  No agreement to sell real estate is valid without which it is in writing.

My stomach was churning when I called D.C. to tell the wife.  I wanted her onboard, but I knew that even if she wasn’t, I’d do it anyway, and dreaded the confrontation that might follow.  It was the first time since getting married that I’d been determined to follow my own way, regardless of her approval.   The experience felt dangerously exhilarating, like Francis Macomber must have felt as the buffalo charged in Hemingway’s The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, just before his wife shot and killed him.  Thankfully, the wife had no objections.  Maybe she sensed that objection would have been futile.  Maybe she didn’t know her way around a Mannlicher.

The seller signed the deed about a month later and I handed over the cash.

IMG_20160928_070255513_HDR (2)

(Sunrise on a late autumn day, looking up the terraced hillside towards at what would be the ‘seats’ of the amphitheater.  The gravel road bed, barely visible to the right of the picture, had just been installed, along with water and power.  The white hose that snakes left to right in the picture services a camper I’ve put on the property to live in while I build a farmhouse, at roughly the spot where I’m standing as I’m taking the picture.)

Book Review: “Esther” of the Hebrew Bible and Christian Old Testament, Author unknown

I’ve been slowly, very slowly, reading the Bible, in Spanish, in an attempt to learn some Spanish and learn some Bible.  I read about a chapter per day, and read each chapter for three or four days in a row, until I feel I’ve mastered all the Spanish words and grammar being used.  For the books in the Bible with which I was already familiar (e.g., Genesis, Exodus, Matthew, etc.), I was able to guess at words and grammar and concepts such that I could sometimes read the Spanish without referring to the English translation (which runs alongside the Spanish in the Bible I’m using).

Not for Esther.  I’d never read it before, and from the start, I had no idea where it might lead.  As the story unfolded, the problem got worse.  Esther was so implausible; it made so little sense, that I as I read, the more incredulous I got.  The story has all the elements of great fiction—power, romance, tragedy and triumph—but too much of it is too unbelievable to work as fiction.  Fiction has at least to be plausibly true to work.  Esther has pretentions of being historical.  It uses a real Persian King (though misidentified, according to biblical scholars) as one of its main characters.  Yet there is no archaeological evidence of its occurrence (Xerxes and his court, who is thought to actually be Artaxerxes I, a Persian King of the early fifth century BC, is the setting and one of the story’s main characters).

I grew up and live in the South, in Central Alabama, the Buckle of the Bible Belt.  It is virtually impossible to find anyone here who tries to understand the Bible in context, let alone tolerates criticizing it.  More often, people claim the Bible came straight from the mouth of God, pretending there were no intervening humans who may have erred a bit in the transliteration of God’s words.   It is sacrilege to even suggest that maybe some of the Bible’s human transcriptionists allowed their own agendas to guide their pens as much as they did God’s.

Nobody knows for sure who wrote Esther.  Some think Mordecai, which would make sense.  Because Mordecai comes off looking very, if implausibly, good, while everyone else but Vashti (Xerxes’ first Queen) looks a bit craven.  Even Esther, Mordecai’s adopted daughter, doesn’t seem, when reading between the lines, as much a heroine as the titular book makes her out to be.

By the time I was halfway through the book, my bullshit meter was incessantly pinging.  I started imagining how the book might look to someone not so credulous as I, something I do when I feel my skepticism reaching a boil.  And the people I turn to in my head for testing credulity is old black men in the South.  When something smells fishy, I always imagine what old black men in the South might think.  Because there’s none wiser in American culture than an old black man from the South; none better at sniffing out a lie.  Their wisdom arises from a lifetime of being lied to and marginalized.  As they by and large aren’t allowed to participate in mainstream culture, they have nothing to gain from accepting its lies.  It makes them bullshit bloodhounds.

In the 2016 film, Fences, about post-WWII urban black culture in Pittsburgh, Troy is a middle-aged black man (old enough to be wise) who has a family and a job for the city collecting garbage.  He and his buddy, Jim, meet nearly every day after work in Troy’s back yard to do what friends do—drink, talk about life, gossip, try to figure out the world, etc.  I loved the movie, particularly Troy and Jim’s backyard sessions.  It reminded me of growing up in Alabama, and later, of my days in the Army, when old black men (older than me, at least) would sit around chewing the fat and dispensing the accumulated wisdom of their years.  So, instead of offering a formal review of Esther, I decided to let Troy and Jim review it for me, to see whether the tale would pass the old-black-man smell test.  I know the movie wasn’t set in the South, but I felt it captured what I had seen in my upbringing and travels of the wisdom of old black men in generally.

Keep in mind that I’m not black and may get their speech wrong.  I have used the movie, and my general experience, as a template for the vernacular.  I don’t mean to offend blacks or anyone else with the vernacular I use.  I mean instead to celebrate the wisdom that can only arise from a lifetime on the margins, of looking at things with a clear eye because there aint no reason not to.

Their views I don’t apologize for, because I’m making them up.   And yes, my idea that two old black men would be discussing the Book of Esther in the backyard over a bottle of gin is utterly implausible.  It is even more implausible to imagine they’d spend much time criticizing anything in the Bible, leaving all that biblical stuff to the preacher, like most folks do.  But then, so too is the tale told in Esther implausible.  By a long shot, more implausible than the suspension of disbelief that my little adaptation requires.

I’ve written it like a screenplay.  Hope you enjoy.

The Book of Esther, as Told by Troy to Jim

(The scene opens with Troy sauntering down the back steps of the shotgun house in the lower middle-class black neighborhood in 1950’s Pittsburgh where he lives with his wife and son.  He has an unopened pint of cheap gin in his hand.  His best buddy, Jim, who lives just down the street, comes by nearly every evening after work to hang out for a while before he goes home to supper with his wife.  Jim is waiting on Troy when he gets there.  The backyard is tiny, with a half-built fence around it, and some fence-building supplies laying around.  An alley runs along its back side.  A massive oak tree consumes one of the back corners of the yard.  Hanging from a limb of the tree is a baseball tied with a string.  Leaning against the fence is a Louisville Slugger.)

Jim:  Niggah, what took you so long?  I been done and waiting on your sorry ass for near abouts an hour.

(Note: the characters used the ‘n-word’ in the film, repeatedly, and so will I, in mimicking the dialogue.)

Troy:  Niggah, you don’t want to know what took me so long.

(Troy breaks the seal on the pint and pours a splash of gin on the ground—to appease Death–before turning up the bottle and handing it to Jim, who takes a swig, then hands it back.)

Troy:  You know that big ol’ Jew-boy Joseph who throws garbage on my truck?  He ‘as so hung over he had to ride in the cab all day.  I throwed his trash for him and drove while he’s slumped against the door looking green.  He tol’ me his people had a festival yesterday, Purim, he said it was.

Jim:  ‘Dem Jews…they have a festival for everything.  What’s this un for?  To celebrate having festivals?

Troy:  Niggah, that’s what you don’ wanna know.  W’iles ol’ Joe was up there riding in the cab with me, he tol’ me ‘bout Purim, or tried to, but he ‘as still so drunk it came out like the garbage I’s a throwing for him.  Said Purim’s from the Book of Esther. Said they read the whole book out loud yesterday.  I reckon that’s befo’ he got drunk.

Jim:  I done heard of Esther.  Preacher done preached all about her in the pulpit last month.  Esther’s a Jewish princess or something. Saved her people.  Womenfolk liked the sermon.  It didn’t much move me, but then I don’t think it was meant to.  I ain’t never heard of Purim, though.  Give me some of that (pointing to the bottle).

Troy:  You wouldn’t believe the tale if I tol’ you.

Jim:  Try me.

Troy:  Now ol’ Joe, he weren’t much help.  All’s I got from him was a few mumbles about some dudes named Xerxes and Mordecai and Haman, and about how him and all his Jewish buddies read Esther last night, then he sorta drifted off.  So I fished my Bible out of the glove box…

Jim:  Hold it right there, niggah…you telling me you keep a Bible in the glove box…of the garbage truck?

Troy:  Sho’ I do.  What, you think can’t nobody but some crackerjack preacher looking for a dime in the plate read the scriptures?  I read it all the time.  Just never Esther.  I’m a Old Testament niggah, no doubt, but I don’t get much past Exodus.  If you a black man in America, you gotta be reading Exodus.

Jim: (enunciated slowly and clearly) Troy Maxson, The Garbage Truck Preacher Man!  Who’d ‘ve thunk it?

Troy:  Just shut up for a minute, niggah, and listen.

Jim: Go on, Mr. Garbage Truck Preacher Man.

(Troy takes up the bat leaning against the half-finished fence and starts swinging at the ball dangling from the tree branch, imitating in slow motion the wind-up of a home run hitter.)

Troy:  Ok.  So here’s how it goes.  There’s this King of Persia, Xerxes.  Dude gives a party in Susa, the capital city of his kingdom, for all the kingdom’s big wigs.  It lasts 180 days.  Half a fucking year, niggah!  And at the end of it all, he gives a seven-day banquet for all the people, big wigs and everybody else, who live there.  Everybody drinks what they want and as much as they want.  It was a seven-day drunk to get over the 180-day hangover.

Jim:  Better than the hangovers from this cheap gin, I bet.

Troy:  No doubt.  Now his Queen, Vashti, holds her own dinner party for all the women.  But the King gets drunk and decides he wants to show her off to his friends, so orders her to appear at his party.

Now, let’s stop there for a minute—you think Rose’d come to me like a lap dog just ‘cause I got drunk and wanted to parade her around like a piece of meat?

Jim:  Hell, no!  Rose might come, but she’d be carrying a frying pan.

Troy:  Exactly.  Vashti didn’t like the idea any more than Rose would.  She said no.  And nobody tells the King no, not even the Queen.

Jim:  What the King do then?

Troy:  Xerxes got together with his lawyers and judges and asked them what to do.

Jim:  Nah, you shitting me?  He’s got to call his lawyers to figure out how to handle his wife?

Troy:  Yep, and they told him that if he don’t punish Vashti the women of the kingdom would think they could get away with anything.  So they told him to banish her from his presence, and to find a new queen.

Jim:  Damn!  Just like that.  I tell you what, niggah, ain’t none of our wives woulda put up with that.  They wouldn’t allow it.  They’d make that king, and every man in the kingdom, so miserable until he’d beg to take his queen back.  He’d give her half his kingdom if he had to.

Troy:  Yeah, funny you say that.  ‘Cause that’s what the King promised his next queen, just for her to tell him what she wanted.

Jim:  Who was the next queen…hold on…was that Esther?

Troy:  You musta been listening in church.  Esther was the adopted daughter of a guy in the King’s court, a fella named Mordecai the Jew, who was actually her cousin.

Jim:  Mordecai the Jew?

Troy:  That’s what they called him.  Maybe I should start calling Joe, “Joseph the Jew”.

Jim:  Maybe not.  You just got that driving job.  You don’t want to risk nothing.  I bet Joe’s got more friends in high places than you got.

Troy:  One’s more than zero, right? If he’s got that many, he’s got me beat.  Anyway, when Esther was picked to join the King’s harem, Mordecai the Jew told her to not let on she was Jewish.

Jim:  How could they not know?  You just said Mordecai worked for the King and Esther was Mordecai’s daughter, right?

Troy:  Yep.  I didn’t buy it either.  The Lord works in mysterious ways.  ‘Specially when he put this book in the Bible.

Jim:  Well, what happened next?

Troy: Mordecai heard of a plot against the King by a couple of the King’s eunuchs.

Jim:  Slow down.  What the hell is a eunuch?

Troy:  A guy who works for the King who ain’t packing a punch no more.  They did ‘em like bulls back then—the King didn’t want no other bulls messing in his pasture so before he’d let ‘em work for him, he’d make ‘em into steers.

Jim:  Whoa!  I think I don’t want to be anyone’s eunuch.  Where in the hell did you learn all this mess, Troy?

Troy:  Niggah, there’s mo than just baseball and driving a garbage truck that I’s good at.  So, Mordecai told Esther what was going down.  And Esther told the King, giving Mordecai the credit.  They hanged those two eunuchs from the rafters.  But then it gets interesting.

Jim:  Alright…go ahead.

Troy:  Then this niggah, Haman, who was an Agagite, a group the Jews hate going way back, got hisself named second-in-command to the King.  Haman gets the King to order all his officials to kneel down and honor him.  But Mordecai won’t do it.  Told them he was a Jew and wouldn’t kneel for anyone.

Jim:  So, I guess the cat’s fo’ sure out of the bag now.  And that niggah’s going down.

Troy:  Yep.  Haman’s pissed.  He decides he’ll get the King to order all the Jews in the kingdom killed.  He ain’t happy with just having Mordecai killed.  He wants them all dead.   That’s where Purim comes in.  Haman sets the date for the killing by purim, or casting lots, what we niggahs call shooting craps.  And then gets the King to sign the order.  He promised the King 10,000 talents of silver for the privilege, kind a like if some rich Nazi offered Hitler a battleship for the Holocaust.

Jim:  And Mordecai, what’d he do?

Troy:  What you’d do, and your daughter’s the Queen?

Jim:   Get my daughter to speak to the King?

Troy:  That’s right.  And that’s what he did.  But she didn’t want to, not at first.  She was scared.  The King hadn’t called for her, if you know what I mean, for over thirty days.  And he had a rule that anyone who just showed up, without the King calling for them, was due to die, unless he pardoned them.  She eventually agreed to it, but first had all the Jews in the Kingdom go three days without eating and drinking to support her.

Jim:  What the hell good does that do?

Troy:  Niggah, I don’t know.  Jews fast as much as they festival.  I reckon it’s just what they do.  After the three days of fasting, she went to the King.

Jim:  Maybe she put on some weight since making Queen.

Troy:  Yeah, don’t they all? (Troy grins, and they both chuckle.)

Jim:  So, did the King kill her?

Troy:  Nah, that niggah not only didn’t kill her, he offered her anything she wanted, up to half his kingdom, like you said before.  That dude was crazy.  But she wouldn’t tell him what she wanted right off.  She invited him and Haman to dinner that night.

Jim:  So, the wife invites the husband to dinner after not getting killed for going to see him, but skips on taking up his offer for half the kingdom?  Niggah, it ain’t just the King who’s crazy.  That whole family’s crazy.  It’s crazier than yours.

Troy:  Watch out now.  I’m the one with the bat.

Anyway, at the end of the dinner, while they drinking wine, she still won’t tell him what she wants, even after he offers her half the kingdom again.  She invites him and Haman to come back the next evening for another dinner.  But the King can’t sleep that night, so he pulls out the records of his kingdom, and happens to read about Mordecai saving his life when those two steers were gonna kill him.  By the next day, he’d made up his mind to honor Mordecai, and asked Haman what he should do to honor someone.  Haman thinks the King is talking about him, and tells the King he ought give him a royal robe and horse and crest and have him paraded around the city by the highest official.  And you ain’t gonna believe this shit–the King orders Haman to do it for Mordecai.

Jim:  Don’t the King know he had just told Haman to go ahead and kill all the Jews and Mordecai with them?

Troy:  What’d we say?  That niggah ain’t just crazy.  He be a fool, too.  He don’t know what he’s a doing.  So then, they go to dinner at the Queen’s again.  And the Queen finally tells the King what she wants…not the half of the kingdom he offered, but for him to spare her people, the Jews, from his order to kill them all.  The King gets mad, acting like it was the first he’d heard of it.  When he finds out it’s Haman who’s behind it, he storms out to the garden to cool off.  Then comes back in to find Haman all over the Queen.  Haman’s begging the Queen for his life, but you know how it looks—like Haman was calling for Esther.  He orders Haman executed, and hangs him from the same tower that Haman had built for hanging Mordecai.  And gives all Haman’s stuff to Esther because he’d been an enemy to the Jews.

Jim:  He did what?  He gave Haman’s stuff to Esther?  But she’s the queen.  Aint that like giving the stuff to himself?

Troy:  Man, I don’t know.  But I know from my time in the slammer that even murderer’s stuff, if they have any, goes to their kids.  And Haman had a passel of ‘em.  The King is really messing with things to give Aman’s stuff to Esther.

Jim:  Why didn’t she just take half the kingdom?  She coulda saved all the Jews and had half the kingdom, to boot?

Troy:  That’s another on I can’t figure.  Like I said, the Lord’s work is really mysterious here.  Even though the Lord’s name ain’t mentioned one single time in the whole book.

Jim:  So, is Purim because of this Haman niggah hanging and his stuff going to Esther?

Troy:  No, no, no.  Not yet.  It gets even weirder.  After giving all Haman’s stuff to Esther, the King tells her he can’t withdraw his order to kill all the Jews.  Said that it had already been sealed and delivered.

Jim:  Say what?  The purim day ain’t come yet, has it?  When can’t a King change his mind?  ‘Specially this niggah.  ‘Specially afore the order’s been executed?

Troy:  Niggah, your guess is as good as mine.  Instead of withdrawing his order, the King issues a new one that lets the Jews defend themselves from the earlier order.

Jim:  Say what? you mean they couldn’t have before?

Troy:  Man, you’d think they would have, no matter whether they had permission.  But then, they let Hitler march them off to the gas chambers, so I don’t know.

Jim:  Say the King really can’t withdraw his own order.  Why not just issue another order saying whoever tries to follow the first order will be killed?

Troy:  That’s sort of what happens.  When the purim day comes, the Jews are ready, and have the King and his nobles behind them.  Ain’t no Jews got killed.  No.  Not at all.  They were the ones doing the killing—in two days, starting with the purim day, they killed over 75,000 in the kingdom, including all the ten sons of Haman.  They killed those dudes, and then hanged them.  I reckon so as to make sure they’s really dead.

Jim:  So that explains Purim?

Troy: That’s right.  When Mordecai won the showdown with Haman, he became the Kingdom bigshot, second only to the King.  He ordered the Jews celebrate the days…it was the thirteenth and fourteenth of some month on the Hebrew calendar…with feasting and gift-giving…and from ol’ Joe’s look today, plenty of drinking.

Jim:  Gimme that bottle.  (Takes a swig).  You know what, niggah?  I don’t buy this bullshit at all.  This thing smells like a cover up.  I bet Haman never even asked the King to order the Jews killed.  The King acted like he’d never heard of it when Esther told him.  How do we know the whole story aint just a cover for Mordecai wanting Haman’s job?

Troy:  You better not let the preacher hear you talk like that.

Jim:  That niggah aint never done nuthin’ fo’ me.

Troy:  Not fo’ this niggah neither.  Hand back that bottle.  (Jim hands it back to him).  You ain’t hardly left me a drop.

But you right.  Esther weren’t like anything else I ever read in the Bible.  I think the only part that don’t stink is when the King’s first Queen…what’s her name…Vashti…tells the King to kiss off.  I could see Rose telling me that.  The rest of it?  Sounds like some fairy tale one of them mob lawyer’s ‘d tell to a jury when his guy kills a rival mob boss.

Jim:  True.

Troy:  And that’s why I’s late running the truck today.

(Troy takes a full cut at the baseball, sending it swinging around the tree limb like the winning whack in a game of tetherball.)

Troy:  I smell Rose cooking up something good.  Your ol’ lady cooking tonight or you want to eat here?

Jim:  Nah, I better head home.

Troy: Next time you come to hear the Garbage Truck Preacher Man, you bring the gin.

 

 

 

Book Review:   “The World’s Religions” by Huston Smith, 1958

 

I didn’t buy this book.  My wife bought this book.  She doesn’t generally buy books like this, tending more to ‘bubble-gum’ books (her words), stuff like murder mysteries and chick lit.  This isn’t that.  It is possibly the most profound book I have ever read.

The wife bought the book because she was tired of the people in our Sunday school class (a Southern Baptist congregation) talking the ordinary white Protestant smack about Islam—that it’s a religion of jihad, that Mohammed was more a soldier than a prophet, that its adherents believe all infidels must die, etc.—and wanted to find out something of what Islam was really about.  So, she just read the initial chapter and then the part about Islam.  She thought of the book as something of a condensed encyclopedia of religions (about 400 pages), turning straight to the religion she was interested in.

I told the wife when she bought the book that I’d want to read it when she was done.  One day I saw it lying on the side table, again, where we don’t leave our books anymore because I built a gargantuan built-in bookshelf in which to put them, an agreed-upon edict that the wife routinely ignores.  The day was slow.  I think a weekend.  I flipped the book open when I picked it up to put it in the bookshelf and read a sentence in the section on Buddhism.   Then another.  And another.  I was mesmerized.   It wasn’t just what Smith was saying, but how he was saying it.  I expected a dry, academic delivery—what one might expect of an encyclopedia-like book—but instead got a voice with a clarity, verve, cadence and compassion that I’d only ever seen in a writer occasionally, and never with non-fiction writers.  I knew at once that Smith was a master storyteller.  And I knew enough of Buddhism to know, in just those first few sentences, that he knew the heroes of his story intimately.

I wouldn’t use the book like an encyclopedia.  It was a work of literature and had to be properly read, start to finish.  Like the songs on record albums used to be arranged in a certain manner to elicit the feeling the artist aimed to induce, Smith no doubt had a reason for the order in which he presented each religion.  I wanted the full experience.  I flipped to the beginning and started reading anew.

There is such sweet sorrow in finding a great book.  Following the initial euphoria upon reading a few pages comes the dreadful knowledge that like a blossoming rose, the beauty can’t last.  Each turning page is a petal browning and dropping from the flower.  I would never say of a great book that “I couldn’t put it down”.  Because with great books, I put them down incessantly, taking them in as small a dose as I can manage, to put off the parting for so long as I can.  This is a great book.  I read it slowly and haltingly, savoring each page.

Smith writes of each religion as if he were a believer, a proselyte even, accentuating the positive, life-affirming aspects of each faith, while only acknowledging the negative aspects.  He spends very little time discussing anything of the particular (and often peculiar) beliefs and practices of today that arose from each tradition, instead focusing on the central message of the founder.  He doesn’t, for example, explain much of what Buddhists do and believe today, but focuses on what Buddha did and believed in his lifetime, and how the religion arose from that.  Same for Christ, Mohammed, Confucius, Lao Tzu, et cetera.  As the founders were remarkable people who lived extraordinary lives, placing the emphasis on them necessarily accentuates the positive.  Christ was a brilliant and profound Jewish prophet, if nothing else, who lived what could only be characterized as an exemplary life, who would likely have been canonized by the Jews as a major prophet (as he was by Islam) had his teachings not begun a radical new sect of Judaism that spread like wildfire.

Because every religion that survives must necessarily be founded on the highest ideals–on the most sacrosanct idea of what is good and how to live a good life–by the time I finished each section, I was ready to convert.  Or, almost.  I already fancied myself something of a Buddhist Christian, if the supernatural stuff of Christ is disregarded (no, I don’t pipe up and say as much in my Sunday school class—I prefer peace, at home and socially, over piety), so, no conversion was necessary for either of those, but I will say that I’ve never seen either faith so eloquently and lovingly described.

Of the remaining faiths, I already knew a little, mainly as tangential to extensive studies in philosophy the last decade or so, but learned a lot.  Of all that I learned, I liked best the idea in Hinduism that there are many ways to God.   I may well adopt that as part of my catechism.  How could it be otherwise that there are many ways to God?  I get that even asking the question is sideways criticism of Christianity and Islam at least, perhaps others.  But how can either faith, or any faith, claim it is the only way to God?  What did the world do before Mohammed? Or Christ?  What of all the people who even today haven’t learned of Mohammed or Christ? Are they all condemned to eternal damnation for having committed the mortal sin of living in relative isolation and obscurity, or in places where the religion hasn’t spread?

In my Christian upbringing, there was no question that the only way to God was through Christ.  It didn’t make sense for me then and doesn’t make sense now.  Christ, who didn’t exist before 2000 years ago, can’t be the only way.  It was one of the reasons I rejected Christianity.   But mostly, I rejected Christianity, as it was practiced, not generally as Jesus taught, because the dogma was intellectually suffocating.  No matter the question, the answer was always Christ.   Going to church meant leaving the intellect at home.  Or, maybe in the car in the church parking lot.  Notwithstanding I still attend church,I gave up on organized religion, or perhaps I should say, organized Christianity, as a place to go for answers long ago.

But I have a quite well-developed personal catechism of beliefs.  There’s the Buddhist Christian thing, plus Spinozism, which is perhaps redundant to Buddhism, plus Stoicism/Epicureanism/Cynicism, and now a dash of Hinduism for its ecumenical bent.    No, I’m not trying to hedge my bets in case one or the other traditions proves to have an exclusive claim to spiritual truth.  I’m just trying to make sense of it all.  Smith’s book helped marvelously.

St. Augustine admonished potential adherents (to Christianity) that to understand, you must first believe, something which Smith seems to have taken to heart, and for more than just Christianity.  His biographical sketch revealed something of the reason he understood the world’s religions so well.  Except for Judaism, Smith, at various turns in his life, had believed them all.  He was raised Christian, the son of Christian missionaries in China (and considering Christianity’s Jewish roots, I’d give him that one, too, though he doesn’t claim it).  Shortly after leaving his peasant village in China to arrive in the United States for college, he began exploring other religious faiths, both through his formal studies at school, and informally, through something of what appeared to be a life-long quest to embrace and experience each major faith tradition.   At least part of why he can so capably explain the values of each religion as if they were his own, is because, well, they have been his own.

Smith celebrates mankind’s god-seeking nature as universal and universally capable of distilling truth and wisdom.  He is profoundly sanguine, a bit smug even, that this god-seeking is mankind’s fullest expression of the unique attributes that have elevated him from the simple, material, instinctive existence of the animals.  He apparently assumes without question that mankind has the capacity to exist on a higher spiritual plane than all other creatures.  I rather prefer to think of mankind as an animal foremost, but one whose uniquely capable mental capacity has allowed him to imagine the heavens and the cosmos and what his place might be in it, all while remaining firmly rooted in the soil of the earth and the biological impulses that animate all of life.  In fact, I believe mankind’s incessant god-seeking arises from his biological impulses, not in contravention of them.

But who can argue with Smith’s celebration of mankind’s god-seeking ways?  From either perspective, there can be no doubt that man is a god-seeking creature. I celebrate the god-seeking as a means, unique to mankind so far as we know, of achieving the ends–survival and propagation–for which all creatures exist.  Smith celebrates the god-seeking as evidence that we are something more than flesh and bones, that we have been imbued with spirit, with an essence that exists with and apart from our material being.

A theme repeated throughout the book is the idea, promulgated by various religious traditions, that the universe exists to serve, protect, nurture, etc., mankind.  By my reckoning, through years of both indifferent and impassioned observation, this view requires belief surpassing all understanding.  Instead, I believe the universe, and God, which to my particular theology are the same, is quite indifferent to mankind, except as mankind is an affectation of God.  That little part of the universe that is me is not indifferent to me, but the rest of it pretty much is, except perhaps for some of the people, and they aren’t caring in the way that is imagined a transcendent God might be caring.  Some of my fellow affectations of God are helpful, some are harmful and some are a little of both.  The trick is figuring out which ones are which.

Though I quibble with some of what I could glean of Smith’s personal views and values, let me reiterate, this is a great book.  It is a humbling marvel of erudition, eloquence and encyclopedic knowledge to behold.  I really haven’t any business reviewing it.  My reviewing Smith’s book is like a murder mystery hack reviewing Shakespeare.  Instead, allow me to leave you with a snippet of Smith’s writing, here in closing, as to what religious (wisdom) traditions have done for us:

Things are more integrated than they seem, they are better than they seem, and they are more mysterious than they seem; something like this emerges as the highest common denominator of the wisdom tradition’s reports.  When we add to this the baseline they establish for ethical behavior and their account of human virtues, one wonders if a wiser platform for life has been conceived.  At the center of the religious life is a particular kind of joy, the prospect of a happy ending that blossoms from necessarily painful beginnings, the promise of human difficulties embraced and overcome.  We have only hints of this joy in our daily life.  When it arrives we do not know whether our happiness is the rarest or the commonest thing on earth; for in all earthly things we find it, give it, and receive it, but cannot hold on to it.  When those intimations are ours it seems in no way strange to be so happy, but in retrospect we wonder how such gold of Eden could have been ours.   The human opportunity, the religions tell us, is to transform our flashes of insight into abiding light. 

 

Get the book.  Read the book, but slowly.  Read a chapter a week to become, at turns, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a follower of Confucius, a Taoist, an Islamist, a Jew, a Christian, and finally, a Native American.  There is a certain awe that arises in taking in the grand sweep of mankind’s faith tradition to see the impressive truth, insights and wisdom gleaned from the harvest of sentient existence.  Smith describes the view we ordinarily get of life as from the back of a tapestry, “…a maze of knots and threads, which for the most part appear chaotic.” It is through religion, through god-seeking, that we try “…to infer from the maze on this side of the tapestry the pattern which, on its right side, gives meaning to the whole.”  For the reader of The World’s Religions seeking to better understand what man has been able to infer, Smith reveals the pattern the maze of knots and threads create on the right side of the tapestry.  And it is a majestic, breathtaking sight to behold; in no small measure, because of the literary talents and intellect of the one doing the revealing.

Poking around the attic on a lazy, rainy springtime Sunday

Sometimes a sprinkle of crazy is just the spice that makes the music nice

Austin City Limits aired a James Taylor concert last night.  While his lilting voice crooned the familiar hits and a few new songs I’d not heard before, I looked him up on Wikipedia for a quick look at his biography.  I realized that I’ve been enjoying his music for over a quarter century and, except that he was at one time married to Carly Simon, I knew really nothing of him personally.

Taylor graduated high school as a mental patient (the mental health institution had its own school) after suffering an episode of depression in his senior year of boarding school in Massachusetts so severe that he literally couldn’t get out of bed, sleeping for twenty hours a day.   Later in life, after having become a bona fide recording star and while he was dad to a couple of young children, he’d gotten addicted to heroin and was on a methadone maintenance program when he finally turned things around through a concert he played in Brazil to 300,000 adoring fans who knew every word of every song.

It occurred to me that mental illness often accompanies the spark of genius that yields great success, and particularly so in the music world.  Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse are just a few examples of musicians driven to succeed who succumbed to their mental demons once achieving it.  Without the demons, I doubt they’d have been nearly as successful.  That’s not to say the mental demons were the catalyst for their success, only that mental issues accompanied it.  It could be a correlation without causation.  It could be that the same something within them that drove them to succeed also afflicted them with mental issues.  James Taylor said he wouldn’t have been the same person without his issues.  I think he’s got things right.  Thank God for a little bit of crazy.  The world would be an utterly bland and boring place without a dollop, but not too much, of crazy.

But a little bit of crazy doesn’t foretell success.  People can be a bit off kilter and still not enjoy great success.  Like I told my wife while we enjoyed the show, I’m a little bit crazy, but without the balm of great success (like Taylor’s) to make putting up with it worthwhile.

How’s this capitalism thing working out?

Greed, sloth and gluttony:  The three deadly sins that fuel Western, particularly American, capitalism.  We believe ourselves to be alchemists, capable of turning the lead of human vice into the gold of social virtue.  So, more is never enough when it comes to money.  Barely is never too little when it comes to physical exertion.  And too much is never quite satiating when it comes to food.

How’s that working out for us?  Unrestrained greed has driven income inequality to levels not seen since the start of the Great Depression.  Labor-saving technologies kill more people for lack of exercise than pretty much everything else combined.  And our waistlines have never been bigger.  Appears the capitalist alchemists are about as good at turning vice into virtue as the medieval alchemists were at turning lead to gold.

Logic is not the life of life

Harvard Law recently ditched the requirement that prospective students take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT).  Harvard fancies itself the incubator of kings.  The previous two presidents before Trump had degrees, one from the business school (Bush), the other from the law school (Obama).   Harvard is so big and so powerful an institution, it could demand its applications be completed in purple crayon and the quantity and quality of its applicants would not suffer in the least.  Eliminating the LSAT is mostly a symbolic gesture for the law school.  And it doesn’t mean prospective applicants won’t anyway have to take the LSAT.  Nobody seriously contemplating law school applies only to Harvard, and for now, Harvard is alone among its peers (to which Harvard would object it has none) in eliminating the requirement.

The LSAT is hard.  It is not amenable to preparation, being more of an aptitude test than anything.  And the aptitude it is designed most to test is logic.  At least a couple of its sections are solely devoted to what would otherwise be considered logical brain teasers, where conditions are given for a specific set of circumstances and the student is required to determine which outcomes are possible given the parameters.  It happens that I have a quite capable logical cypher down there in the core processer of my brain somewhere.  I did well on the LSAT, scoring in the 93rd percentile.  But the law is not about logic.  My mind was a quite deficient legal mind.  I learned rather quickly in practice that I don’t think like a lawyer.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a Harvard Law alumnus, said it best, “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience”.  And by ‘experience’, he could have said politics, at least in so far as Supreme Court rulings are concerned (and, frankly, at all levels of the law—it’s always better to know the judge than to know the law).  For example, attempt to logically explain how Affirmative Action arose out of an act (the 1964 Civil Rights Act) that specifically prohibited it.  Indeed, the logical mind would explode, as mine nearly did in law school when reading the cases upholding Affirmative Action.  The ‘logic’ of the arguments in the cases are utterly impossible to follow.  The only hope for understanding is to know the politics of the judge writing the opinion.  In other words, just as Holmes said, experience, not logic, animates the rulings.  But here’s the kicker:  the opinion writers feel obligated to at least appear to be making decisions that logically apply the law as it’s written.  The mental gymnastics required to do so is often so convoluted, with words taking on an Alice in Wonderland quality, that it is utterly and fruitlessly exhausting to even try.  Just follow the politics.

Explaining that logic helps very little in understanding how the law determines outcomes does not indict any particular political impulse.  Just that logical minds would do well to find other lines of work than the law.

There was little logic to any of the several-days congressional grilling that Neil Gorsuch endured for suffering the misfortune of being Trump’s first nomination to the Supreme Court.  Except if he had slipped and said something outrageously true (e.g., “Affirmative Action is prohibited by the 1964 Civil Rights Act”), none of the Senator’s questions and none of Gorsuch’s answers matter. He can vote in whatever way he wants when he gets on the Court.

The grilling was a dog and pony show.  For the hearings, like the law that Gorsuch will be interpreting, it was a matter of understanding the politics.  Gorsuch’s legal abilities matter not a whit.  Nobody wants to know what he made on the LSAT.  They want to know how he leans politically.  Which is not all that hard to figure.  He’s a Republican.  He leans right.  But it’s his job as a nominee to pretend he’s apolitical.  As long as he can pull that off in front of Congress, he ought be able to disguise his political impulses in the legal justifications for his rulings, so in that sense, the hearings might have been useful for determining his qualification level.  But ascension to the Court means he won’t issue any rulings.  He’ll be just one out of nine, each with an equal vote, in the super legislature known as the Supreme Court.

 

Which Roman Emperor does Trump’s Presidency most recall?

My pick is Julian (or, as Christians like to refer to him, “Julian the Apostate”), who succeeded Constantine the Great (with a few years’ rule by Constantine’s sons in between).

According to legend, Constantine saw a cross in the sky before a major battle in 312 AD, the Battle of Milvian Bridge, which secured for him the Western Empire’s throne.  He saw the cross as a sign, and was converted then and there, telling his legions to paint crosses on their shields.  His army proved victorious, and he adopted Christianity for himself and as the favorite of the Empire.  He did not outlaw the pagan gods to which Rome had officially paid homage during its long history, but discouraged the continuation of ritual and sacrifices, and deprived paganism of resources by redirecting the Empire’s bounty to building the Christian church.

Contrary perhaps to today’s understanding that Rome relentlessly persecuted the tiny sect, Christianity in the Roman Empire had by the time of Constantine become a powerful social force, growing in a manner that we would today call “viral”.   It was spreading like wildfire.  And Christians refused, like those stiff-necked Jews from which the religion arose, to pay homage to Rome’s pagan gods, the main cause for their persecution.  What Constantine really saw in the sky that day nobody knows, but he certainly saw the writing on the wall—either coopt the religion or have the conflagration of Christianity sweep away Roman religious traditions in a socially destructive way.  So he coopted the religion, essentially making it the new temple religion for the Empire, supplanting the many gods of paganism for the one god (or three, if you are a Trinitarian) of Christianity. Constantine’s conversion, subsequent decree outlawing Christian persecution, and overt support of the church are thus less remarkable than it might otherwise seem.

Julian, who succeeded Constantine’s sons, revivified the ancient pagan religions, and while not specifically targeting Christians for persecution, eliminated the official favor that Christianity had enjoyed under Constantine.  He attempted to reform paganism whilst reinvigorating it.

His reforms were not to last.  As soon as he died, subsequent emperors continued what Constantine started, so that by 380 AD, Theodosius finally made it official, formally adopting Christianity as the temple religion of the Roman Empire.  All the pagan temples were closed and pagan worship forbidden.

I think Trump’s election represents a similar situation as that faced by Julian.  The Roman Empire had already reached the limits of its expansion and was declining by Julian’s ascension.  The people recalled a glorious past of unrivaled military might and unimaginable wealth that was slowly slipping from their grasp.  Barbarians were infiltrating the northern borders and along the Danube, while Persia was a constant menace in the east.  Julian was going to make Rome great again by retracing its steps, starting by dispensing with this absurd new religion and adopting a new and improved version of paganism.  Much as Trump plans to make America great again by retracing its steps, returning it to the place of its former glory by reasserting its dominant white culture.  But like paganism was corrupt and sclerotic and unable to salve the individual soul in the manner of Christianity, so America’s past is filled with xenophobia, racism, oppression and exploitation.  Christianity was an improvement over paganism, if for no other reason than one god (or three) is more efficiently worshiped than a seemingly endless multitude.  And for America, finally abiding the words of the Declaration through a pluralistic society is an improvement over a white male patriarchy.  Julian failed to turn back the arrow of history.  So too will Trump.

But it doesn’t matter in which political direction the American Empire goes.  Its decline is inevitable.  The Roman Empire was gasping at last straws by the time of Christianity’s formal adoption as its temple religion.  A leading Christian bishop of the late 4th and early 5th century grew dismayed that so many people were indeed blaming Christianity’s adoption for Alaric the Visigoth’s sack of Rome in 410 AD (a sentiment that Julian had undoubtedly exploited in the early 4th century) that he wrote an impassioned, encyclopedic defense of Christianity.  In City of God, Saint Augustine compared the fallen and corrupted city of man, as represented by Rome, with the pristine, eternal city of God, as represented by the kingdom of heaven in Christ.

America is lurching toward its inevitable fall.  It reached the apogee of its power in 1945; declined for three decades until the early eighties, then gradually recovered some of its lost hegemony with the end of the Cold War and the advent of globalization.  But it will never again be as powerful as it was at the end of the Second World War.  Whether it retraces its patriarchal, lily-white steps, or pushes forward with a progressive social agenda that Trump’s election at least temporarily thwarted, it still will decline.  No doubt there will be some American philosopher, when the barbarians are confronting the Empire on its every side, when Washington or New York finally falls, who will pen an impassioned, encyclopedic defense of the secular, progressive humanism that now seems the inevitable path.  It won’t be necessary, as secular, progressive humanism won’t have caused its fall.  It would have fallen anyway.  It didn’t take another half-century after Augustine’s death that the Western Roman Empire was finished for good.  But the City of God never faltered, never failed.

How to be a bad patient

It’s very simple.  Whatever is bad for your condition, do it.  Whatever might ameliorate your condition, refuse to do it.

Say, for instance, you’ve got ulcerative colitis, or collagenous colitis, or Crohn’s disease–in other words some sort of disease that causes an inflamed colon, often lumped together under the rubric of ‘irritable bowel syndrome’–what should you do to ensure you won’t recover?

First, if your condition causes you to have diarrhea shortly after eating and drinking, then don’t eat or drink.  You don’t need all those calories and nutrients found in food.  Your body doesn’t require replenishment of all those fluids it is losing to the toilet bowl.  You’ll be just fine if you quit eating and drinking.  Because very obviously it is the food that you eat that immediately causes your colon to spasm, notwithstanding the colon is over twenty feet or so of small intestine away from the stomach into which the food is initially delivered.  If B always follows A, then it is a simple matter to eliminate A to ensure you get no more B.  Never mind that food and water are essential to life.  You’ll get better by not eating or drinking.  Really, you will.

Second, when you do eat or drink, be sure to eat and drink things that are generally considered irritating to the bowels.  Eat Panera Bread Tomato Basil Soup for your first meal after a week-long hospital stay.  Drink lots of milk, especially chocolate milk.  Get plenty of fiber in your diet, because fiber is good for preventing constipation, and you have the opposite of constipation.  Don’t eat foods like hamburgers and steaks, rich in the iron and vitamin B12 that your irritated bowels are likely not absorbing well, because everyone knows that eating healthy means eating fewer hamburgers and steaks.  Don’t limit your amount of fresh, acidic vegetables like tomatoes and orange juice, because tomatoes and orange juice are good for you.  Everyone knows that.  You’ve read it on the internet.  Several times.  Even though nothing of what you read mentioned how people with your condition should eat.  Because you’ve never tried to ascertain what might or might not be good for someone with your condition.  You figure that what you don’t know can’t make you feel guilty for doing what you want to do instead of doing what you should.

Worry.  Be very worried, all the time, particularly over things you can’t control, like how bad it is to have to go to the bathroom every time you eat, so much so that it would become a self-fulfilling prophecy, except that you’ve decided to quit eating so you don’t have to deal with the indignity of making a mess in the bathroom.   Worry like this even while at the hospital, where you don’t have to clean the bathroom, and where you know you will get all the fluids you need through an IV.

Whatever you do, don’t try to calmly accept the reality of your condition.  Don’t let go and let God.  Abandon your faith, if ever you had any.  Don’t find ways to be thankful for your condition.  Don’t take time to be quiet and listen to God so that you might at least dimly understand that this is all a part of His plan somehow, so it must be good.  And by all means, don’t try to figure out what you might change to improve your condition.  Don’t ask God for strength to change what you can; for serenity to accept what you can’t, or wisdom to know the difference.

Blame it all on the doctors.  Don’t believe in God. Believe in medicine.  Never waiver in your steadfast belief that all it will take to cure you of this is some magic pill or procedure.  Keep diligently searching for the right magician, er, doctor, who can cure your affliction without the inconvenience of you changing your lifestyle or outlook one iota.  Because that’s the point of modern medicine, no?  To keep postponing the inevitable consequences of choices.  To quell existential angst by encouraging you to believe you may just well live forever.

Once the episode has passed, refuse to even inquire as to what lifestyle choices may have contributed to its onset.  Go back to living just as before.  It’s your right to be ignorant of your own physiological processes.  You’re a baby boomer.  Modern medicine has relieved you of that burden.  And you don’t owe the people around you, who catch you every time you fall, anything.  That’s what it means to be a member of the Entitled Generation.

Do all that, and you’ll be a very bad patient.  Or, my mother-in-law.