What I wish Trump would have said about Charlottesville

In case you’ve not been paying attention lately (mind, not paying attention is one of the better strategies to happily surviving one’s tenure on this mortal coil), there was a bit of trouble in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend (specifically Saturday, August 12).

A rag-tag band of what is collectively called the ‘alt-right’, or sometimes ‘white nationalists or supremacists’ (comprised of a myriad of subgroups, including the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis and Skinheads and others) gathered to protest the City of Charlottesville’s s planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee.   The group’s protest was legally-permitted.  Charlottesville had originally granted the permit for the protest/rally, but had later withdrawn it, claiming that the park where the protest was planned was too small to accommodate so many people.  Which prompted a federal lawsuit by the group, assisted in the matter by the American Civil Liberties Union.   The white supremacists won the suit, the judge in the case questioning the City’s claim as to the capacity of the venue—other events with far more people than anticipated in this instance had been held in the park in the past.

So, the protest went on as planned.  But it didn’t.  The alt-right protesters, dressed in all sorts of quasi-military garb, some carrying torches, seemingly all openly chanting and braying their disgusting creed for anyone to see and hear, were met by club-wielding, masked and helmeted protesters from what have been referred to as alt-left—people who belong to antifa (an anti-fascist organization) and BLM (Black Lives Matter), and others simply there to protest the protest.  The counter protesters did not have a permit.

In the ensuing melee, a troubled young man who was driving among the mayhem, his car surrounded by the counter protesters, came completely unhinged and barreled his car into the crowd, killing one and injuring many others.  From what we know about the young man (mainly from his Facebook page and his mother and a former teacher), he was an alt-right sympathizer, probably of the neo-Nazi persuasion who had a history of mental illness, dating back at least as far as his preteen years when he abused his mother.

When President Trump initially remarked on the matter that there was bad on both sides without initially condemning the views of the alt-right, the press corps wolves were quick to strike, basically equating a refusal to condemn with sympathy for neo-Nazi/KKK/white supremacist views.  So, Trump then specifically condemned the alt-right as repugnant, but without retracting his earlier statement.  The wolves wanted more.  It seems they wanted Trump to say that the counter protesters were freedom fighters, or something to that effect.  Instead Trump reiterated his observation that there was plenty of bad on both sides.  The wolves have been ripping and tearing at his flesh ever since.

Here’s what I wish he’d have said—in a speech, not via Twitter:

First let me say to the American people that I find the idea of white supremacy, or black supremacy, or Jewish supremacy, or Latino supremacy, or Catholic supremacy or Muslim supremacy—in short, any idea of any sort of supremacy based on contrived and fallacious racial and ethnic and cultural distinctions repugnant, both personally, and to the ideals that made and make this country great.  I believe that we are all Americans; that no one group of Americans is better than any other; that the only way this great experiment in liberal democracy can work is if we collectively acknowledge that our differences are less important than the American values that bind us.

That said, what I believe doesn’t matter.  What matters is the laws and rules we have promulgated to govern us, many of which embody my beliefs, or arise from same place as mine, but necessarily not all.  Most importantly among these laws is the founding contract between our government and its citizens, the US Constitution.  It says that you don’t have to believe like me; that you can believe whatever you wish to believe.  So long as your belief does nothing to impair my liberties, you are free to believe what you will, even going so far as to demonstrate in the public squares and spaces, pronouncing your beliefs to others, fearing nothing more than the disapprobation, and perhaps ridicule, of your fellow citizens.  Your beliefs, no matter cockeyed or silly I or others think them to be, are not cause for me, and especially not for the government of the people I represent, to brutally and violently attempt their suppression.  Or to stand by when others attempt to do that which the Constitution prohibits.  We can ridicule.  We can offer better alternative beliefs.  But we can’t try to beat the beliefs out of others who don’t believe like us.  That’s what the First Amendment to the set of agreements to which we are bound as Americans says. 

You don’t even have to believe in the First Amendment.  You can believe that others should be forcibly silenced.  But you can’t act on those beliefs except through ordinary political discourse.  The awesome power of this nation’s government stands ready to quell either the violent expression of belief, or its violent suppression.

It was a sad day for America in Charlottesville Saturday.  Nobody there and involved with what happened has clean hands.  Not the protesters marching against removing Robert E Lee’s statue.  Not the counter protesters looking for a fight.  Nor, especially, the City of Charlottesville, who stood by and watched it all happen. 

Nothing justifies what that troubled young man did in ploughing his car through a crowd of defenseless pedestrians.  Just as nothing justified the killing of five Dallas and two Baton Rouge police officers in the midst of protests that took place last year.  And in neither case should the actions of murderous criminals be used to smear the character of whole organizations and the individuals within them.  There is a difference between marching in protest, even when a protest march turns ugly, and willfully murdering people. 

Regarding the putative reason for the protest march and counter protests, I don’t believe it is wise to try to erase history, even when that history carries painful reminders of the country’s past sins, or perhaps, especially when that history carries painful reminders of the country’s past sins.  We can’t apply today’s ethical standards when pondering past events.  We can understand what happened only by understanding the context of the times in which it took place.  Instead of removing existing statues and monuments, I think we need more statues and monuments, ones that will help put context to what happened, so that we might better understand why these statues and monuments were erected in the first place. 

But I believe it is for local communities to decide what to do.  The Constitution supports me on this.  It is silent regarding the display of secular statues and monuments by state and local governments, and where it is silent on an issue, it explicitly provides that the power remains with state and local governments.  That’s where I think it belongs.

In closing, allow me to point out that the American people are expert at turning tragedy into triumph.  Our Constitution stands as a testament to the progress we’ve made.  The tragedy of religious and political persecution was turned into the triumph of the First Amendment protecting both.  The tragedy of slavery was turned into the triumph of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, abolishing slavery and granting former slaves the right to vote.  The tragedy of barring the franchise to women was turned into the triumph of the 19th Amendment. 

Upon my election as President I swore to protect and defend the Constitution of these United States from all enemies foreign and domestic.  And that’s exactly what I intend to do, including not least, its First Amendment.  Thank-you for your time. God Bless you and God Bless America.

Then walk away.  Leave the reporters to report on what you just said.  No off-the-cuff answers to reporter’s questions.  No Twittering.  Nothing.  Just leave and say no more.  Until the next such tragedy.  At which time, you reiterate what you just said.  There were no winners in Charlottesville.  Don’t let yourself be among its losers.  That’s about all you can hope for in this radically-polarized era.

 

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Mythbusting on the Fourth

July 4, 2017

Ah, the Fourth of July.  For the part of the country that suffers harsh winters, summertime is a joyful time, and the Fourth is its apex.  For my part of the country, the part that doesn’t suffer so much in the winter but where summer provides the test of human endurance, summertime is not so joyful.  And the Fourth isn’t much of a mid-summer demarcation line for us in the Deep South.  It’s not the time when summer reaches its peak and starts to fade.  Summer is just getting cranked up by the Fourth.  There’s still a good three months of misery left, maybe a bit less or more, depending on the whims of the mad gods mixing the warm Gulf of Mexico air with the cold Arctic air.  Sometimes we get a cold front (i.e., daytime temperatures that don’t break 90) by late August.  Sometimes we don’t see tolerable weather until late October (last year).

The mythology of the Fourth doesn’t stir my soul.  It might have, a bit, when I was younger and naïve, but now I know that most of what I was taught about American history was just dogma intended to mythologize a glorious past to bind and propel us forward in the present.  Tales of origins—be it of families, tribes, nations, empires, secular and religious organizations, whatever—are always at least partly mythological.  They take a kernel of truth (usually) and build a majestic edifice of glory and goodness (usually).  The Jews’ myth of mankind’s origins starts with a glorious beginning—the creation of the world and man by God—that is then spoiled by man’s inability to resist sin.  Neither God nor man inspire admiration in the Genesis story.  God inspires awe at his power and fear at his arbitrary and capricious nature.  Adam and Eve inspire self-loathing more than anything.  But then the point of the story is not to glorify man, but to humble him relative to God.

Origins myths act as shibboleths—indicia of belonging.  Do you believe George Washington was so honest until he couldn’t even lie to his father about cutting down a cherry tree?  Have you internalized the notion that the founding fathers believed all men were created equal as they proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence?  Then you can join the pantheon of patriots who call themselves real Americans.  Of course, there is utterly no evidence of Washington’s having cut down a cherry tree and honestly telling his father about it, and a mountain of evidence that Washington was a practiced politician who knew exactly when to lie and how much in creating for himself a myth of unassailable integrity.  And taking what the founding fathers did over what they said, their admonition that all men are created equal very obviously applied to only men (i.e., ‘men’ was not used in the context to signify mankind) of European descent who owned property.  Everyone else was not so equal, especially slaves and women, but also poor whites.  That we revise history to fit what we believe today—I’ve read one commentator who claimed that the founding fathers meant their proclamation as an ideal that might one day be achieved even as none of them ever took action to see its manifestation in their time—is precisely the stuff of mythmaking.

My own natal family does its share of origins mythologizing.  On what would have been the fiftieth anniversary of my mother’s marriage to my dad (she died five years ago), dad sent me a text saying how special the day that he married ‘us’ was, wondering whether I remembered it.  I was four and a half at the time.  I told him I didn’t, that my memories centered on how things gradually changed after their marriage, particularly how I was no longer treated like a pariah solely for not having a vagina (my single mom and older sister ran an oppressive, male-hating matriarchy for the first four and a half years of my life which comprised essentially my whole world—I never knew my real father, or even who he was).  I told him that to me, their marriage represented the freedom to be a little boy—to learn to swim and ride a bike and be free of my older sister’s domineering influence.  I told him that I figured the actions he took to usurp the power of the matriarchy had little to do with me, but that I was an incidental beneficiary, and for that I would be forever grateful.  That was not what he wanted to hear.  That did not square with the origins myth he’s trying to concoct before he descends to the grave, and I knew it, but then, what I said about my feelings were true.  You may not get the dates and events exactly right when conjuring memories (e.g., I could never remember exactly how old I was when they got married—was I five or four?), but you always get the feelings right.  He hasn’t contacted me since.  I am again a pariah because remembering only happiness is a shibboleth, a requirement for belonging, to the familial organization he’s trying to embellish and fortify for his eternal rest.

Do you believe that America never fights wars of choice, that it only fights to defend itself and bring freedom and democracy to benighted peoples and lands?  Then you might make a patriot.  Of course, you’ll have to ignore pretty much every war except the War of 1812 to believe such nonsense.  The Indian wars and genocide?   Definitely a choice—either compelled initially as a get-rich-quick scheme (the Virginia Colony) or a desire to create what amounted to a North American caliphate, but Christian, more puritanically devoted to Calvinistic teachings and the worship of God (the Plymouth Bay colony).  The Revolution (which wasn’t a revolution at all, but a war to determine who should get rich off America’s bounty)?  It was a choice, and one that a great many colonists, particularly South Carolinians, did not support.  The Civil War?  Lincoln did not have to fight to preserve the Union.  He could have let it splinter along slavery lines.  It was a choice to force the States of the Confederacy back into the fold.  The Mexican-American War?  Just a ho hum military adventure directed at expanding the territory (which it did—bringing Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, California, Utah and Nevada into American possession).  Ditto the Spanish-American War.  And there was absolutely no reason for jumping into the fray in Europe in 1917 except that we just couldn’t bear not to get our licks in.  We’ve always loved a good fight.  World War Two?  Japan attacked the US fleet docked at a US protectorate.  We had to fight back.  But we didn’t have to go as far as we did.  The Cold War?  Contrived nonsense intended to keep the Military-Industrial Complex humming along, and the world bristling with our weaponry.  Contrary to popular imagination, we started the Cold War with our belligerence towards the Soviet Union after World War Two.  They felt threatened, so tried to match our belligerence with armaments, which we used to justify even greater belligerence and more arms.  And today, Afghanistan and Iraq?  Very obviously wars of choice.  We didn’t have to invade Afghanistan to get Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.  And we never had a good reason to invade Iraq—not the first time just after the Cold War, or the second time, after 9-11.

By now, we’ve been fighting so long until we haven’t any idea what peace might look like.  We don’t feel existentially fulfilled without which we aren’t killing people and destroying things somewhere.  The lame ISIS conflict likely won’t be enough to keep us happily engaged building munitions and employing them.  Look for us to find a new war somewhere.  Maybe North Korea.  Maybe the South China Sea.  Who knows, maybe even Russia.  Either way, it seems about time to go find a war to fight so we can bring peace and democracy to benighted peoples somewhere.

I loathe firecrackers.  Both for what they stand for—bombs bursting and all that—and because I hate loud noises that sound like gunfire and bombs.  I heard plenty of gunfire during my time in the service and it was always something that represented danger—even while at the firing range.  And I saw numerous bombs bursting in the air during the first Iraq War as Saddam rained scud missiles down everywhere but wherever they were aimed.  So, that part of the Fourth I actively avoid, which was hard in the neighborhood where we used to live, as the fireworks show each fourth could be seen from our front yard.

Since I don’t believe in much of anything that the Fourth of July stands for, what do I believe?  I believe that the people of this country are generally good.  I believe that our way of life, and the freedom we have to face life on our own terms is generally a good thing.  I believe that the land itself is beautiful.  And I am grateful that I have the freedom to worship God as I please, or not at all (something which people couldn’t do until well after the ratification of the Constitution, when the 14th Amendment applied the Bill of Rights to State actions).  So, I’m not a nattering nabob of negativism.  But I’m also not a Panglossian optimist.  I’m a realist.  Some things are good in the here and now and others need a little work.  I don’t think it’s necessary to contrive fictional tales in order to acknowledge as much.

Happy Fourth!

 

 

Book Review: “Salvation on Sand Mountain:  Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia” by Dennis Covington (1995)

I used to want to be a writer.  I used to think I had a few poignant tales to tell.  Then I read this book after stumbling upon it in the Birmingham Public Library.  I needn’t bother.  My tales have been told.  And much better than I could ever have dreamed of telling them.  Dennis Covington wrote my book for me.

No, I’ve not any experience with snake handling.  I’ve been vaguely aware what seems my whole life long that there were people who seemed to believe that handling a poisonous snake without being bitten was evidence that the Holy Spirit had descended upon them.  I’ve never had much interest in snakes at all (or the Holy Spirit, for that matter), except to avoid them.  Dennis Covington loved snakes as a boy, going on snake-hunting expeditions with his pals, so was naturally drawn to the snake handlers of Southern Appalachia after reporting on a trial of one for attempted murder that he’d covered for the New York Times.

I’m not quite sure how this book and the snake-handling trial that spawned it slipped by me back in the early to mid-90’s, except that around the time the trial was going on, I was getting married and shipping off to war, and when the book came out, I had just graduated law school, and with a wife and young child in tow, was finally making it back to Alabama to start my professional life.  I had little time for such curiosities.  And the internet had barely begun its ubiquitous inculcation into everyday life.  You had to try to keep up with news so bizarre it was noteworthy.  And the details of the trial were definitely that—a snake-handling preacher was accused of getting drunk and forcing his wife at gunpoint to put her hand into a cage full of rattlesnakes in an attempt to kill her.  She did, three times, but the snakes didn’t bite.  Maybe it was the Holy Spirit working in her.  He got 99 to life.

But the snake-handling, and the fascination with snakes, is about the only point of departure between me and Covington.  The book is a memoir, along with a tale of snake handling, and it turned out Covington had lived partly my life, and partly my Dad’s.  Covington grew up in East Lake, in Birmingham, Alabama.  Same as my Dad (who adopted me at age four when he married my mother).  He went to Woodlawn High School, same as Dad, and started out wanting to be a preacher, same as Dad, attending with him the same Methodist church growing up.  Covington veered off before reaching college, and instead of going to Asbury College in Wilmore Kentucky, went to the University of Virginia, and later to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, to become a writer.  Dad veered off the priestly path at Asbury, deciding he could do well while doing good, and became a doctor.

Then, when Covington was bored teaching writing at the local university back in his home town (UAB), he decided to wrangle some press credentials and head down to El Salvador to report on the civil war raging at the time.  That’s when he started living my life.  I served about ten months, in two five-month stretches, flying helicopters in support of the Salvadoran government in their fight against the FMLN, the Soviet Communist-backed rebel group.  Then Covington became enamored with the Sand Mountain area of Alabama, the place where my wife’s family came from.  It is Sand Mountain’s less-geographically-extensive (but higher in altitude) sister ridgeline, Lookout Mountain, where the wife and I own some land and are building a farmhouse.  The people up that way refer to all of it simply as “the Mountain”.  Snake handling churches can be found on both ridgelines, but Covington found his on Sand Mountain, hence the title.

It’s all a part of Southern Appalachia, though.  The two ridgelines aren’t ridgelines at all, but are part of the Appalachian Plateau that extends down into Northeast and Central Alabama, as far south as St. Clair County and as far east as Winston.  The plateau would be mostly flat, something like the land around the Grand Canyon in Arizona and Utah, except, like there, for erosion.   The two ridges are what’s left of the plateau after what is known as Will’s Creek carved a ten mile or more gully between them.

After seeing his daughter take so readily to the singing and preaching in one of the snake-handling services he attended, Covington just knew that it must be touching some visceral something within her, awakening some long-dormant aspect of her nature, so he set about to follow his lineage to see if he was related to anyone on the Mountain.  And of course he found that he was.  Most all the folks working the steel mills in Birmingham had dribbled down the spine of the Appalachians to find work.  Sand Mountain finally peters out as an identifiable geologic feature a few miles northeast of Birmingham, depositing its effluvia on the lush Jones Valley plain.  I’m sure I’ve got similar people in my lineage, but can’t know for sure, at least not on my paternal side, as Mom never told me before she died who my real dad was.  But when I look in the mirror at my red hair and blue eyes, I see an Appalachian soul.  Will’s Creek is named after the first white settler to the area, a red-headed, half-breed Cherokee Indian.  Legend has it that my real dad was a half-breed Cherokee Indian.  The first time I went to the Mountain with my wife, before I knew any of this, it felt like going home to a place I’d never been before.

Covington had read Albion’s Seed before getting involved in the snake handling culture, and recognized the traits of the borderlands Scotch-Irish people in his own blood and in that of the handlers.  The Scots and Irish migrated from the Borderlands region between England and Scotland, or from the Scottish Highlands, or from the Scotch colony in Ireland (called Scotch-Irish in America), starting in the early days of the American Republic, and gathering speed into the late 18th and early to mid-19th century.  They usually arrived in Philadelphia or Boston or New York, and them that didn’t stay moved on to Appalachia, i.e., the borderlands/no-man’s-land region of the fledgling country.  Eventually into Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, and finally, Alabama.  The Borderlands people who settled Southern Appalachia were tough bitten, clannish, combative, suspicious of authority and outsiders (often one and the same back home, given their residence in the hinterlands, far away from the power centers), emotional, and with a near mystical spirituality.  It doesn’t take much imagination to see Albion’s characterization expressed in the people, particularly the snake handling people, of the Mountain.

Everything was so familiar to me in Salvation on Sand Mountain that I looked up Covington on the internet (he’s a writing professor at Texas Tech University now), and sent him an email, thanking him for his beautiful, brilliant telling of ‘our’ story.  Lo and behold, I got a phone call later that evening from none other than the author himself.  I figured he might respond with an email, or perhaps nothing—it’s sometimes dangerous responding to unsolicited ‘fan’ mail.  We had a rollicking good conversation.  He knew my dad—one of the ‘Asbury boys’ he talked about in the book (but not mentioning him by name), who had been something of a hero to him (Dad is six years older than Covington, and six years is a big difference in age when young).  It turned out that we had been in El Salvador at the same time—his last trip was in the latter half of 1989, and I was there all that summer and into the fall.  There was so much to talk about, it was a struggle to get off the phone by a reasonable hour.  I told him of my place up on Lookout Mountain. He half-jokingly asked if I had a couple of acres I could split off and sell him.  I said I did.  He promised to look me up when he was back in town.  I promised to do the same if I ever made it out to Lubbock.

I can’t be objective about this book.  It was too close to my own life.  But I can say, objectively, that the writing is brilliant.  The story-telling supreme.  Just like you’d imagine one of those Borderlands people, who have always had a literary flair, might have told it, around an evening fire in some backwoods cabin.  Thank-you, Dennis.

 

A bit of American Religious History

It’s been three weeks now.  The rain won’t let up.  The foundation trenches for the house I’m building look like mud-filled moats.  I can’t get any work done.  So I’m reduced to this, pontificating on religion, even as I’ve always considered religion as something like political ideology—a poor perspective from which to observe and understand we curious hairless apes.

I don’t know quite why I’ve been lately drawn to investigating religion.  Maybe I’m getting old and subconsciously scared of where I might go when this gig is up.  My agnostic grandfather got religion along about his late eighties, and for what I figure was exactly that reason.  But I’m only fifty-four, and while a few health issues have developed over the years, I’m not figuring the end is nigh (though, one never knows—I don’t want God to think I’m presumptuous or anything).

Maybe I’m interested because my son is starting seminary in the fall and I want to know something of what he will be learning.  He’s followed the millennial trend and moved back home with us to pursue his godly studies.  I’ve nicknamed him “the monk.”  But that’s just being optimistic.  I know he’d never enter a monastery.  And I doubt he’ll even get a job after seminary.  That’s why we spent a hundred grand on his education: so we could have a live-in man servant.  Except, having been coddled all his life at home until now, he’s a lousy servant with a snarky attitude.  He seems incapable of seeing the contradiction between the piety he seeks to exude and the piety of a servant’s heart he refuses.

But in truth, if my son’s attending seminary piqued my interest in religion, it is more likely due to that ages-old father-son rivalry thing–not wanting him to get smarter than me—than to wanting to share in his education.  Biology ever and always explains everything.

Whatever the reasons, I wished I’d soon get over it.  Religion is a confused mess.  Especially Christianity in America.  It makes about as much sense to me as Hinduism in India (which had a 5,000-year-or-so head start on becoming a tangled mess of theological briars), yet, unlike Hinduism, I was born into Christianity and have lived it all of my life (but very perfunctorily, like most everybody else).  When I’ve been interested to do so, I’ve concentrated my investigations on the questions religion purports to answer—who we are, where we’ve come from and where we’re going—through what I see as less emotional and more rational lines of inquiry, namely science and philosophy.

Science tells me I’m a hairless ape with a ridiculously big brain (for my body’s size), riding a planet around a minor star in the Milky Way galaxy.  Science’s origins myth has the universe starting from nothing/something (it really doesn’t know, as its language—math—breaks down at the initial point) about 13-15 billion years ago (it probably gets the age right).  Science doesn’t know where the universe is ultimately leading and doesn’t care why (in a transcendental sense) it is heading there.  In other words, science doesn’t know any more than religion of where it is we came from and where it is we are going.  At least honest scientists admit as much.  An honest theologian can claim to know such things, including providing a contrived purpose for it all, and no one questions him on it.  A scientist can’t.

But science does know, for instance, that the earth is circling the sun, something which religion denied until about four hundred years ago (actually, ‘til only just recently in the Catholic church, but nobody has much paid any mind to what the Catholics thought about the matter since Copernicus and Galileo).  And it knows that the sun is one of trillions and trillions and trillions of stars in the universe.  And it is reasonably certain that life on earth got started about three and half billion years ago.  How it started, science can’t say.  Neither can religion, though it claims to know.

Philosophy does little in the way of answering the three questions, but shows how to think about them, so is helpful.  Religion more often than not discourages thinking.  Religion is tribal that way, caring more that everyone believe the same thing than that the thing believed has some basis in observable reality.

In fact, the religious impulse could be considered as one means of expressing a deeply-ingrained tribalism that aids tremendously in survival and propagation.  Since it really doesn’t matter on a day-to-day survival basis where we come from or where we are ultimately going or why, but survival often depends on close-knit bonds among the members of a survival cooperative (i.e., families, clans, tribes, nations, states, i.e., groups generally progressing in size through history), commonly-held religious belief provides a perfect cement for holding groups together and for identifying others that might impair prospects.  Religion provides a powerful demarcation line between those who are, as we say in the South, ‘wid ya’, and those who are ‘a’gin ya.’

My meandering religious inquiry led me to a couple of books found at my local library, Religion in America: A Short History (by Jon Butler, Grant Wacker and Randall Balmer, 2003) and The Evolution-Creation Struggle (by Michael Ruse, 2001).   Both are history books.  To understand anything–from theoretical physics to the importance of salt to civilization’s development–you must know something of its history.  It is possible to know a thing in a useful, exploitable way without understanding it.  The stream from a garden hose can be magnified in power by partially squeezing the hose end shut.  It doesn’t take knowing the Bernoulli’s Principle to exploit the knowledge that water accelerates out of a squeezed hose end, but it takes knowing the Principle, at least in a general sense, to understand what is going on.  Knowing and understanding are two separate things.  It takes knowledge to understand, but knowledge alone isn’t enough.

I had only sketchy knowledge of the history of mainstream religious practices and beliefs in America, so figured I best start there if I were to ever gain an understanding. To say the least, the history of religion in America is complicated.  Take just one example—the Puritans of New England.

The Puritans were a movement started in England in the late 16th century to reform (purify) the Church of England.  They claimed the Church of England was still too Catholic, though it had split from the Roman Church in the early 16th century during Henry the Eighth’s reign.  There were two flavors of Anglican Church reformers (Anglican Church=Church of England)—the Separatists, also known as Pilgrims, and the Reformers, known as Puritans.  As the appellations imply, the Separatists believed the Anglican Church beyond redemption, and that only by going their own way could they save their mortal souls.  The Reformists believed an ember of divinity yet smoldered that could be flared anew with a spark of reform.  It was a group of Separatist Pilgrims that sailed to North America’s shores in 1620, departing from Amsterdam after having already given up on England.  They established the first permanent English colony north of what would become the Mason-Dixon line in what is today known as Plymouth, Massachusetts.  (There was already established, but barely surviving, a colony in Virginia of a more entrepreneurial than theological flair.  The Virginia Colony was a get-rich-quick scheme that didn’t pan out so well at the first.  The Plymouth Colony was a get-to-heaven-quick scheme that worked quite well in its early years at shuffling a goodly number of its denizens off this mortal coil.)

Though being the first to establish a colony in what became Massachusetts, the Pilgrims were soon overwhelmed by the influx of Puritans, who established the Massachusetts Bay Colony, primarily in what became Salem and Boston.  The two groups had lesser differences than similarities, especially in the New World, arrayed as they were as representatives of the English culture against an unforgiving environment and a hostile indigenous population (the first Thanksgiving is the last time Indian relations were friendly), so the Pilgrim/Puritan split became fuzzy with time and today the two are often confused.

Both the Pilgrims and Puritans rode a long train of history to arrive in America.  They were a Calvinist sect (along with Scottish Presbyterians, and others) of Anglicans that arose in England after the Church of England split with the Roman Catholic Church in the 1530’s during the reign of Henry the Eighth.  John Calvin was a contemporary of Martin Luther and a prominent leader of the Protestant Reformation, the 15th and 16th century schism in Europe when the Protestant Reform movement split from the Roman Catholic Church (as opposed to when the Orthodox Church in the east split from Rome around the turn of the millennium).  The Reformation’s general starting point is considered Martin Luther’s pinning of his Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences to the church door in Wittenberg, Saxony in 1517.

The Roman Catholic Church, having enjoyed by the time of the Reformation a near thousand-year reign as the most powerful institution in Europe (since the fall of the Western Roman Empire around 500 ad), had grown corrupt and decadent, while the many ruling fiefs of Europe were slowly consolidating and gaining power.  Luther attacked perhaps the most corrupt and decadent of its practices, the Church’s selling of absolution for sin (the indulgences).

An outrage like indulgences could never have arisen in Christianity but for the Church having become the temple religion of the Roman Empire in the early 4th century ad, after Roman Emperor Constantine the Great came to believe that his vision of a cross before a battle propelled his army to victory.  In fits and starts, the religion replaced paganism, starting with Constantine’s declaration of its adoption in 312 ad.  And before adoption by the Empire as its official creed, Christianity would surely have died aborning upon Christ’s death (and resurrection) had Saul of Tarsus not himself experienced a conversion event as he traveled to Damascus to persecute Christians.  Christianity was a tiny Jewish sect before Paul’s conversion (a change of name coming with the conversion).  Paul opened the religion to converts from any who would believe, not just the Jews.

Thus it went:  Christ to Paul to Constantine to the Fall of the Roman Empire to the Protestant Reformation to John Calvin to the Anglican/Catholic split to Puritans to Pilgrims to America.  That greatly simplifies things, obviously, but is still a long list of “but-for” causes of how things happened.

Even as Paul opened Christianity to the unwashed heathen Gentiles, fifteen hundred years later, John Calvin would use Paul’s writings to close it once again, decreeing that by dint of a few of Paul’s comments in Romans (Chapter 8: 28-30*), none could be saved by faith or works, but that God preordained the ‘elect’ for salvation.  With Calvin’s doctrine of Predestination—his greatest contribution to Christianity–salvation became a matter of God’s whim.  It’s a doctrine that makes sense only if you don’t think about it.  If there is no way to save one’s self from eternal damnation, then why bother at all with Christianity?  Why bother doing anything?  Curiously enough, all the Calvinists who adopted Predestination used it to compel piety and fealty and hard work among their faithful—such behavior providing evidence that one was a member of the elect—which led to the aphorism arising of the “Puritan Work Ethic”, which some social and economic philosophers (Max Weber, of note) have credited for the ascendancy of capitalism in the Industrial Age.

*And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the first born among many brothers.  And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

After only a few years in the New World, church membership among Puritans/Pilgrims dropped precipitously as a percent of the New England population.  Whereas in the 1640’s, church membership had been as high as 70 and 80 percent, it was half that by the 1670’s.  The Puritans, who became known as Congregationalists for their refusal to allow power in any but their individual congregations, were by and large the most powerful institution in New England at its initial settlement.  But they faded rapidly, as other sects arose, new settlers rejected the old ways, and members migrated elsewhere.

Their decline in membership is perhaps not randomly coincidental to the fact that the Congregationalists were the official church of New England, supported by Crown taxes, and later by State taxes, up until the 1830’s (the First Amendment prohibition against establishing a religion was inapplicable to the states until the passage of the 14th Amendment in the 1860’s).  In other words, the Puritans were the church and the state, all at once, for a very long time (over two hundred years), and England’s experience, along with the rest of Europe, even until today, is that once the church becomes an agency of the state, church interest and allegiance suffers.   All of which, taken together, gives the lie to the myth that America was at least partially founded so that people could worship whatever God they pleased, however they pleased, or none at all.  In Massachusetts, and many other states (notably, Virginia, with the Anglican Church), no matter what were your beliefs, you still had to support with taxes (and in some cases, attendance), the official church of the state.

There were many more twists and turns to the Puritan/Congregationalist story.  The Salem witch trials of the late 17th century, where at least nineteen “witches” were hanged, probably represents the nadir of the church’s response to the growing secularization of the population, and ironically, probably also nailed shut the door to sustained revival, though there were many attempts along the way.  The Congregationalists are now down to less than one-half of one percent of the American population, with three active sects; the United Church of Christ, the ultra-liberal wing of the denomination, with about a million members (they were one of the first to ordain gays, e.g., and presumably would happily nowadays ordain witches); the National Association of Congregational Churches, a more mainstream denomination with about 70,000 members, and the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference, an evangelical sect, with about 40,000 members.

And this is just a very sparse thumbnail sketch of just one Christian denomination that came to these shores from Europe.  There were dozens more, all of which enjoy as much or more in the way of a complicated history.  And then, there were the sects that arose indigenously from the verdant American landscape.  Take, for example, the Seventh-Day Adventists.

William Miller was a farmer in upstate New York who dropped his plow to take up preaching in Baptist congregations in the 1830’s.  Through careful study of biblical texts, particularly the numerical codes in Daniel, he concluded that Jesus Christ would return on March 21, 1943.  His views spread rapidly through his own publications and through the New York Herald.  Many thousands prepared for the day.  And were, of course, disappointed.  Miller said (paraphrasing), “Wait!  I got it wrong by a year or so.  Christ will come on October 22, 1844.”  When that date came and went with no returned Christ (what came to be known as the Great Disappointment, a desultory part of the period known as the Great Awakening, for its revival in religious, i.e., Christian, belief), Miller went back to farming.  The movement he started, however, carried on, though in greatly diminished numbers.  Ultimately it was taken up by Ellen G. White, a vision-possessed, passionate follower of Christ, who wrote extensively on subjects many and varied, and set the groundwork for the growth of the sect into a major denomination.

The Seventh Day Adventist Church was formally founded in Battle Creek, Michigan in 1863, with a membership of 3,500, who were drawn from many Christian denominations.  It adopted the Sabbatarian belief that worship should be on Saturday (specifically, sundown Friday to sundown Saturday), which had nothing to do with its premillennialism beliefs that Christ would return to start a thousand-year reign on Earth that Miller had sparked with his predictions.  Sabbatarianism became a cornerstone of its faith, so much so that it believes any who worship on Sunday are doomed to eternal damnation.  The Church dealt with the apparent error in Miller’s predictions by claiming they were fundamentally correct, because Christ did return, just not to earth.  He returned to a special sanctuary in heaven, from where He has been specially situated to conduct investigative justice in which He verifies eligibility for salvation.  The Church still believes in Christ’s imminent return to earth, but refuses now to put a date on it, saying that doing so would be contrary to a humble reading of the scriptures.

The Church requires immersion baptism as a condition of both church membership and of salvation.  Eschatologically, the Church believes that body, mind and spirit are one, and that there is no eternal soul.  After judgment, nonbelievers aren’t sent to hell, but the fact of their ever having existed is completely extinguished.

Somewhere in the scriptures (because the Church believes in the inerrancy of scripture), the Church discovered a requirement for vegetarianism, which helps explain the situ of its original headquarters in Battle Creek, Michigan, which is also the headquarters of J.K. Kellogg’s cereal company (Kellogg’s corn flakes).  J.K. Kellogg, was a Seventh-Day Adventist and a vegetarian.  Which dovetailed nicely with his ownership of a cereal he was hoping would supplant eggs and bacon for breakfast.  About 30-40 percent of Adventists are vegetarians.

From its founding, growth was slow but steady, until the twentieth century when it exploded.  With membership of around a million in the 1950’s, it ballooned to five million by the mid ‘80’s.  The Seventh Day Adventist Church is today often cited as the fastest growing, and most widespread, Protestant denomination, with over twenty million active worshipers filling pews each week in 202 of 230 countries recognized by the UN.  The bulk of the adherents are outside the US, which hosts only about a million of its faithful.

Its adherents are also among the longest-lived.  Owing perhaps to its rejection of nicotine and alcohol and caffeine (and maybe its vegetarianism, and maybe spending Friday nights in church rather than in debauchery, like I used to do), its members are reported, according to a study conducted by the National Institutes of Health, to live four to ten years longer than the average Californian (where reside the majority of US adherents).

The Seventh Day Adventists were a new faith for a new age in a new land.  And as quirky as many (myself included) might find their beliefs, their beliefs seem to be meeting what I see as religion’s highest purpose—making life better for the believers while not making things worse for others.  At the end of the day, it matters little whether one believes that Christ ‘returned’ to a heavenly sanctuary instead of to earth.  Or what day of the week God expects to be worshipped.  What matters is living well.  And the Adventists, perhaps because their unusual beliefs provide the inspiration, seem to be doing just that.

And this again is a very truncated sketch of the history and development of but one Christian denomination, in this instance, an American original.   It is worth noting that even among the Millerites from whom the Seventh Day Adventist Church flowered, the Adventists weren’t the only denomination that the premillennialist farmer turned failed prophet seeded in the wild, fertile soil of American belief.  And the Adventists themselves have splintered into subgroups.  Not surprisingly, at least one Adventist sect is devoted to reforming the wayward mainline Adventists, calling itself the Seventh Day Adventist Reform Movement.  Birth, establishment, schism, reform, or reform and schism:  It seems an endless cycle among religious groups.

The Adventists believe in a literal interpretation of the creation story in Genesis, and as recently as 2014, their President, Dr. Ted Wilson, asserted that believing in evolution was incompatible with the Adventist faith.  God created the world in six literal days, and rested on the seventh (Sabbath) which is why we should rest, and worship on the Sabbath (but God didn’t have to spend his down time in worship, and worship seems, at least to me, a lot like work, including not least, dressing up nice and playing the status game with often ornery, or at least haughty, people—but maybe that’s just been my worship experience).  God created man perfect and in his image.  But man fell, whereby God redeemed him with the blood of His Son, Jesus Christ, leaving no room for the idea that man gradually evolved, or is evolving to a more perfect state of being, as the evolutionism movement claimed after the publication of Darwin’s On the Origins of Species in 1859.

The evolutionism movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was a derivative of the Progressive movement of that time, strains of which survive unto today.  Adherents believed in progress—that a general improvement in the human condition was possible through science—and that evolution yielded progress—from a lower plane of existence to one higher—with mankind at its apogee, yet still improving, so long as Darwin’s mechanisms be allowed to freely operate, or even better, if natural selection were helped along a bit.   It was this line of evolutionary progressivist thinking that yielded the happy field of eugenics in the early twentieth century, and forestalled the acceptance of evolution as a legitimate field of scientific inquiry until the latter half of the century.  Evolutionism proponents, if of any Christian faith at all, were generally postmillennialists, believing that it was mankind’s charge to perfect the world for a thousand years so that Christ could return.  The Adventists, like most other evangelicals, were premillennialists, believing that Christ would return and do the work of perfection for them, which would then commence his thousand-year reign, giving them little reason to worry about the evolution of mankind to a higher plane of existence, which they anyway felt was only possible through Christ’s saving grace.

The adherents of evolutionism and creationism have fought a long and fruitless struggle over the last century and a half as to which view of mankind’s origins and destination were correct.  In the meantime, evolution gained respectability as a scientific endeavor, and made great strides in understanding the nature of life on earth by the simple dint of viewing it as a process of continuous adaptation to an ever-changing (if tectonically slowly) environment.

What to make of all this?  Religion has been a pervasive part of the American experience, just as it has everywhere else.  It can be justifiably assumed that ever since mankind’s disproportionately large brain grew smart enough to realize the contingent nature of his existence, and to thereby question from where he and his society came and from where he and they might be going, religion arose to provide answers.  In that light, religion can be considered an evolutionary adaptation necessary for carrying around the existential weight of a big and powerful brain—itself the adaptation most responsible for mankind’s success—capable of asking such questions.  Our big and capable brains are all at once a help and a hindrance.  Religion ameliorates the hindrance by quelling the paralytic feeling that ensues when we become bogged down with existential questions having no immediate bearing on surviving and prospering in the here and now.

It seems to matter little what one believes about origins and destinations, just that one believes something.  My wife has a colleague, a devout Seventh Day Adventist, who is the manager of all her employer’s operations in the Southeast.  As an Adventist, he presumably believes that his ‘reports’ (HR lingo for people he manages), most of whom undoubtedly worship his same Christian God, but on Sunday, are destined for what passes for hell with the SDA (an erasure of one’s existence).  Do such beliefs make him a bad manager?  Not at all, so long as he compartmentalizes them appropriately.  He also presumably believes that the earth is roughly six thousand years old, with man arriving fully formed, created from its clay by the hand of God.  But none of that need impair the conduct of the manager’s daily work affairs.

All of which explains why so many and varied belief traditions can flourish at the same time.  Their content doesn’t matter.  What matters more is that they help in quelling existential angst such that life can carry on.   And since content doesn’t matter, the arguments over who’s particular worldview is correct can smolder and flare for centuries.

But I have thus far mostly ignored the social, tribal aspects of religion, which are at least as powerful a part of its phenomenon as its usefulness in quelling existential angst, and are far more deleterious to human affairs.  People in the US today often claim of Islam that it compels jihad, i.e., war and terror against infidels.  My response to that is always, ‘Yep, just like Christianity compelled the Crusades.’  But the truth is that neither compels any such thing, though both can be used as part of the social bonds that bind like to like (a biological imperative) and excludes others, such that killing seems acceptable.  It isn’t Judaism, Islam or Christianity that compels genocide, conquest and terror.  But faith often is a convenient demarcation line for determining who gets killed and who lives.  Religious belief or belonging is at least partially an expression of our impulse to form cooperative survival groups (clans, tribes, nations, etc.) primarily focused on protecting against other, similarly formed, cooperative survival groups.  Jews slaughter Pagans.  Muslims slaughter Jews. Christians slaughter each other (according to distinct readings of the Gospel), and slaughter Muslims, and Jews.  And Muslims slaughter Christians.  And all of them justify their killing by faith, and some (Jews and Muslims) can even do so through scripture.  Even as, among the faithful, such things are forbidden.

Along with the metaphysical and tribal foundation for religious belief and practice, there is the ethical.  Religion provides a guide for how believers are to treat one another in civilized society.  The Torah provided very detailed guidelines, ranging from the practical (how to manage female menstruation), to the esoteric (the materials and dimensions for the ark of the covenant) and ritualistic (how to celebrate holy days and observe the Sabbath).  Christ distilled all the laws and edicts of the Torah to the Golden Rule and the only commandment superior to it—loving God and only God.  Mohammed simply acknowledged Christ as a prophet and added that there is no God but God.

But the ethics of Abrahamic religion often extend only to co-believers and sometimes only within sects of believers.  During the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (starting on August 24, 1572 and lasting several weeks, until October 3), French Catholics (i.e., confessors of Christ) slaughtered their brethren French Huguenot Protestants (i.e., also confessors of Christ) by the thousands.  The Huguenots were French Calvinists, and Calvinism was a rival sect of Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation, which itself had split from Catholicism.  Treating one’s neighbor as one would wish to be treated, as all the major religions assert as an ethical guide, is profoundly reliant on how “neighbor” is defined.

The rituals and proscriptions that envelop the ethics of belief often make little sense to the casual observer (i.e., people like me).  Why would God care whether a man’s beard is trimmed or untrimmed or cleanly shaven, as various sects of each Abrahamic religion assert?  Or what a woman, or man, wear on their heads?  Christ turned water into wine, yet Adventists (and many other Christian sects) abstain from any sort of alcohol (or tobacco or caffeine) while also believing that God compels vegetarianism, which is nowhere to be found in the scriptures.  Puritans and many others abstained from joy (at least in their outward demeanor), which neither Christ nor his prophetic predecessors counseled.   Roughly 6/7ths of the world’s population happily and healthily dines on pork, but a billion or so Muslims and Jews reject it as unclean.

It’s all such a confused mess.  I don’t know what to make of it.  I’ve spent a lifetime trying to gain an understanding of we curious hairless apes, particularly those of my native land.  Viewing our activities through a religious prism seems to obfuscate more than clarify.  Religion feels like more of an effect than a cause. It feels like more of a spandrel* in the social architecture, than a foundation to it.

Fortunately, God has finally parted the clouds in my corner of his universe and let the sun shine through.  Time to put all this aside for now, and tend to things more real.  I’ve got some mud to dig out of those trenches.

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*A spandrel is the triangular space formed between an arch and the ceiling or beam it is supporting.  It was originally (early during the Roman era) considered the superfluous byproduct of a building’s architecture, but was gradually used as a place to carve decorations, enhancing the utility of the architecture through enhancing its beauty.  The Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould used the spandrels of San Marcos (a Venetian basilica) as a metaphor for things in biology that aren’t adaptive, but are the superfluous result of adaptive processes that nonetheless aid in survival and propagation, which is how I’m using it here.  Religion, particularly organized religion, seems to me to be the ultimate spandrel.

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One of the spandrels of the Basilica of San Marcos in Venice,By Maria Schnitzmeier – Detail of Image:DSCF0077.JPG, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1454444

A few days in Alabama’s Appalachians

May 28, 2017

Drought is a relative term.  A drought for lush, humid, subtropical Alabama would be a deluge out West.  Alabama averages about 55 inches of rain per year.  The worst Alabama drought of my recollection, back in 2007, we still had 30 inches of rain, about the same as the rainy Puget Sound region of Washington state averages each year.

Last year it quit raining in early August, and rainfall didn’t resume until November.  It was the driest stretch I’ve ever seen—2007 still had sporadic rainfall, even during its longest, hottest spell in the summertime.  For about three months, the sky was dry.  And hot.  September set a record for number of days above ninety degrees—as I recall, all of them.  But still, the rainfall total for the whole year was about average.  Fall (colloquially, September through November) is the driest period anyway, it was just extra dry last year.  Rainfall returned to a more normal pattern around the end of November and on through the winter.

Then came May.  Last Saturday, May 20, 2017, Montgomery got over 8 inches in a day; on the same day, Birmingham got about two and a half inches.  Everywhere got some rain.  Most got too much.

The “Farm”, some unimproved property I own on Lookout Mountain in Dekalb County—the far northeastern section of the state—got its share.  Once the rain finally departed on about Tuesday, I waited a couple of days, until Thursday, and trekked up there to see what things looked like.  I needed to check on the wife’s garden, and on the foundation trenches I’d just finished digging for the house I was building.

The wife decided she needed a hobby, so took up gardening.  Good for her that her hobby came with a hubby helper.  I had always planted a vegetable garden when the kids were small (to give them an idea of where food came from), when we lived in the suburbs with a yard for them to play in.  The wife would only rarely serve the vegetables I grew, preferring the store-bought variety.  Now at harvest time (i.e., when I pick “her” garden that I’ve weeded, watered, fertilized, etc., all season) she will no doubt take great pride in finding delicious ways to prepare and eat the food she’s grown.  And rave over how tasty are the results.  And share it all on Facebook!  What better, hipper thing is there nowadays than claiming to grow your own food?

The vegetable garden sits astride a gravel road I had put in for the farmhouse I finally got started building last year.  After two weeks of more or less solid rain, the plants weren’t doing so well.  They’d none of them grown, and most were a bit yellowed from the lack of sun.  It takes both rain and sun, and in the right proportion, to make a garden grow.  Too many cloudy, rainy days is as bad as too many scorching hot and dry days.  Maybe if the rains let up the plants will have a chance to flourish.

The trenches I’d dug for the foundation were filled to overflowing.  They are two feet wide and range in depth from about a foot and half to two feet and were pretty close to completely full of water.  My foundation looked a bit like a moat.  I could have dug out the interior and made a shallow pond.  Maybe if I ditch the house idea that’s what I’ll do.  Here’s the moat, that might one day be a foundation.IMG_0383

I had to go see what the Little River looked like after so much rain.  At the Little River Falls, which is now part of the Little River National Monument–a federal government protectorate–the water was so high the falls were quite short.  Water was gushing over the falls so much and so fast that the collecting pond below the falls couldn’t drain fast enough to keep up.  It wasn’t hard to imagine that in a flood of biblical proportions, the falls, about thirty feet high normally and maybe half as high that day, would completely disappear, becoming just another cataract on the river.  The drought-busted falls:

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The water rushing over the falls seemed harried, almost angry, for having to jostle and shove and push in such volume over the boulders and through the crevasses along its way to the sea.   It had the character of a hustling, bustling city street at the evening rush hour, all its little droplets rushing to relieve their terrible burden of gravity.

During the drought, the water was languid and carefree, drifting lazily along to the precipice of the falls until patiently dropping off the ledge as if resigned to its fate, not caring a whit of where and how far it was heading.  Though gravity had the same hold on it as it had on the raging torrent, the water just didn’t much seem to care.  It was a Rastafarian river then.

The Little River Canyon through which the Little River flows has a geological history somewhat resembling the Grand Canyon.  It was cut through an uplifted alpine plateau—the Appalachians being the pertinent mountain range that formed the plateau for the Little River; the Rocky Mountains for the Colorado River that carved the Grand Canyon.  The Little River is a bit different in that the surrounding plateau appears to be a ridgeline (Lookout Mountain) for its sides having washed away in the regular deluge that is subtropical Alabama weather (most of the time), making it seem like an uplifted ridgeline, which it isn’t.

If I were an Aristotelean philosopher, but from Alabama, I would probably have determined that the earth’s elements consisted of only two—water and gravity—instead of the Philosopher’s four: earth, air, water and fire.  Though, given the propensity of tornadoes in Alabama, I might have had to include wind, or at least acknowledge it as a force.  Dekalb County, with a population of about sixty thousand, lost over thirty souls in the April 2011 tornadic outbreak that took about the same number in Jefferson County, which has a population ten times as much.  All that, but the power of the battling air masses that causes tornadoes pales in comparison to the power of water and gravity, even as air is the medium through which the water is stocked with its erosive gravitational potential and delivered to the earth.

The next day I traveled a couple of miles north of the Farm to Desoto State Park for a hike along the West Fork of the Little River, the main tributary feeding the Little River.  Its water droplets were just as angrily harried as those further downstream.  Gravity and water, coconspirator gods, were vividly on display, shaping the world as it suits them.  The water dashed headlong, a cohesively bound train of droplets overcoming all frictional pretenses to plunge ever downward in a mad rush to dissipate the gravity infused by the sun.

The next day, a Saturday, the wife and I took off to explore another Appalachian Mountain remnant, the rocky, craggy mountains and valleys of the Bankhead National Forest, and the jewel nestled within it, the Sipsey River National Wilderness Area.  The Forest and Wilderness Area are about seventy-five miles northeast of Birmingham, mostly in Winston County, which was the one county in Alabama that seceded from the state when the state seceded from the Union (mostly without effect, but still).  It’s not hard to see why.  There’s nothing economically useful about the land except the trees and the coal, and in the mountainous subtropical jungle terrain of the area, the economics of plantation agriculture did not apply to compel the use of slaves, so by and large there were none.  The first settlers in this eastern-most remnant of the Appalachians had to be hardy souls, capable of clearing a few acres here and there where yeoman farming and husbandry were feasible.  The agriculture wasn’t of a scale to require slaves, and it wasn’t slaves that were needed to exploit the coal and timber later.  It was steam shovels, and they hadn’t been invented by the time of the Civil War.  The land had much the same economy as did West Virginia, which for much the same reasons as Winston County seceded from Alabama, split off from Virginia during the Civil War to join the Union as its own state.  That the land would now be federally managed and protected speaks to its natural beauty, yes, but also to its impracticability for anything other than a nature preserve, especially now that most of the near-surface coal has been stripped away, and almost all the virgin forest has been cut.  Bankhead received its designation as a National Forest in 1918, so the forests and hills have had ample time to recover.  The Sipsey River, almost completely enclosed by the National Forest, was designated a Wilderness Area in 1975, long after the area had been mostly abandoned by industrial interests.

The Sipsey, with a fairly small drainage area, is more like a storm ditch than a proper river, at least so far as its water levels are concerned.  The levels increase rapidly during periods of heavy rain, but quickly recede, to barely a few trickling inches, afterwards.  The latter was its state during our visit.  We noticed a few optimistic souls at the Highway 33 bridge (where the Forest Service provides a parking lot and some picnic tables), launching canoes and kayaks for a float downstream, but imagined theirs wouldn’t be any lazy float.  More like a long portage interspersed with the occasional lazy downstream drift.

Hiking south from the bridge takes you to a wonderland like none other in Alabama.  On the left, about twenty to thirty feet below and beyond the trail, the River, about ten to fifteen feet wide, flows gently past, hardly any faster than a brisk walking pace.  On the right, limestone cliffs rise thirty to forty feet above the trail, keeping the water at flood stage moving downstream.  It could be said the trail traverses the flood plain of the River, which it does, but that would be misleading.  It is not a plain.  The trail traverses the flood valley, whose sides range from vertical, along the various limestone cliffs, to variably sloping along the path the trail takes.  The flood valley is about a hundred feet wide and forty or fifty feet deep.  What a marvelous sight it would be to see it filled with angry, churning flood waters.  So long as it could be viewed from a safe distance.  Here’s a view of one of the canyon walls:

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Several tributary streams have cut deep gorges in the sides of the flood valley, which in some cases the trail follows around to cross the stream at a higher point.  Inside these gorges is where the magical feeling of being someplace other than Alabama really hits.  Ferns hang from the cliffsides.  Towering Eastern Hemlock (found only in Bankhead and Dekalb County in Alabama), their dull-brown, deeply-fissured trunks as big as a dinner table, reach to the sky.  Deep green moss carpets the rocks and boulders anywhere the sun won’t shine, which on the flood valley floor beneath the canopy of trees and skyscraping cliffsides, is most everywhere.  It has the look and feel of New Zealand, or less exotically, of the Great Smokey Mountains, were the temperature increased by a few degrees.  I half-expected to encounter Frodo and Bilbo journeying to find the lost ring.  My pictures didn’t do it justice.  You just need to go see for yourself.

We had our lunch there, in one of God’s most magnificent cathedrals.  Is there any more powerful and poignant blessing He’s afforded us, than the opportunity to marvel at His majestic power and beauty in such a manner?  I mean that, and beer, of course.  Though I didn’t have any beer—hiking and drinking beer are not complementary activities.  But the water I drank tasted, in the premises, almost as good.

The rock cliffs and boulders strewn along the trail were patterned with pock marks and swirls that could only have been created by their having spent long stretches completely underwater.  The Appalachians were under a shallow sea many millions of years ago.  Was this evidence of their ancient history?  Or was it evidence that water in the flood valley itself had been much deeper at some point in the nearer past?  Or did the rocks get the characteristic swirls and pocks and exposed striations of aquatic submersion during the time before the river had scoured its channel so deep?   Probably the latter, as the relief in the area was caused more by erosion of the alpine Appalachian plateau and less by the uplift of the mountains themselves.  The Appalachian mountain range proper, though having a few of its peaks pushing up in northeast and central Alabama, mainly lies further northeast, starting around Chattanooga.  The mountains in Alabama are mostly the remnants of its eroded alpine plateau.  Water and gravity again, shaping the world under God’s watchful eye.

After hiking along the River and having our lunch, we drove a few miles to the Borden Creek trailhead for an afternoon hike.  Along the drive, we passed a rattlesnake coiled up alongside the road.  I drove past but had to turn around and get a picture.  By the time I got there, he/she was already halfway across the road.  No snake would ordinarily expose itself so dangerously as did this rattler.  Never mind the cars traveling past, there are predators overhead (hawks, mainly) and ground dwellers (coyotes, etc.) that might happen to spot it.  The only explanation for the behavior?  Love.  It’s rattlesnake mating season.  Wild animals act loopy, almost as loopy as human animals, when it comes time to procreate.  The only time a deer in the woods is dangerous to a human being is when the rut is on, late January and early February in Alabama.

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We decided on traveling north from the Borden Creek trailhead, along a trail that sort of bisected the area between Borden Creek and the main River.  It was a slog uphill for about a mile, through dense vegetation, often growing into the trail.  I regretted not having brought my machete.  Before our roughly five-mile hike was through, I must have picked a dozen ticks off my exposed legs. Ever heard the expression, “Jump on you as quick as a June tick?”  It’s April and May that ticks jump on you in Alabama—by June they’ve settled down a good bit–but the principle’s the same.  The wife didn’t get any on her legs, but then, she hasn’t any hair on her legs for them to cling to.  It’s utterly laughable that weekend triathletes/cyclists go to the trouble of shaving their legs for the minimal gain in performance it provides.  But for a hiker who wants to hike in shorts, i.e., the preferred attire in places like Alabama, shaving the legs would help tremendously as a tick deterrent, as the wife’s experience attests.  Though they couldn’t get her legs, upon our return, she found a couple that had latched on to her shoes and managed to climb inside her socks.

Insect spray (Deep Woods Off, etc.) seems to have no repellant effect on ticks whatsoever.  It does help with chiggers, and anywhere there are ticks, there also are chiggers.  So, I put the stuff on to keep the chiggers at bay, and count on vigilant observation to keep the ticks from gaining purchase and biting.  It takes a tick a long time to latch on and start sucking blood, so simply paying attention, and wearing light clothing so they can be seen, seems the best strategy.

Or, just staying off less-frequented trails.  For whatever reason, I rarely have a problem with ticks in campgrounds, or on heavily-traveled trails.  Perhaps because humans can so easily thwart their blood-sucking ways—our opposable thumbs being key—ticks keep to places that more accommodating mammals—the ones with fur and no opposable thumbs, like deer and squirrel and rabbit—frequent.

The drive home provided a familiar Alabama sight.  A huge Confederate flag fluttering in the breeze along Interstate 22 just east of Jasper.  I wondered, did any of the idiots flying that flag realize that in their part of Alabama most of the people like them opposed the South’s secession from the Union, so many that in the next county over, they actually voted to secede from the Confederacy?  The present rarely gets how ironically mocking it is of its past.

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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.