The World Until Yesterday – What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?

July 27, 2014

imagesJared Diamond authored Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse, tackling big questions of the human story. His latest is The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? Is this yet another argument bashing civilization as really all a Big Mistake?

I’ve reviewed two such: Steve Taylor’s The Fall, and Peter Heinegg’s Crazy Culture: The Sins of Civilization. It’s an all too common trope, that humanity has lost its way, and did “fall” from an Eden of virtue, harmony, and purity; seeing us now on an evil path, doomed to deserved punishment via wrecking the planet.

But Diamond is saying no such thing. His subtitle question is sincerely posed. images-1Without suggesting we should forswear civilization and revive the stone age, he does think we’ve lost some valuable things. And that’s unarguable. All of life is trade-offs. We did give up a lot in creating civilization. In fact, for most of history that trade-off has probably been unfavorable; while inventing agriculture was perhaps necessary for survival, it did reduce quality of life, and only in very recent times have we finally achieved the payoff in human welfare. Only now are most of us truly better off than in the stone age. It’s ironic that only now do so many people question the trade-off.

Diamond compares “traditional” and modern societies in numerous aspects, and is pretty even-handed, refusing to romanticize primitive peoples. This comes from knowledge: he spent much of his scientific career among the pre-modern inhabitants of inner New Guinea.

images-3We must realize that, in the big picture, our transition to modernity has been incredibly swift, and we’re still working things out. For example, as Diamond explains, we evolved to cope with a feast-or-famine existence, which becomes a problem in our all-feast environment, causing obesity, hypertension, diabetes, etc. So we are actually less healthy than cavemen. Yet their average lifespan was around thirty.

One topic is war, central to critiques of modernity. That indictment says that only with civilization did we invent war; before then, in the virtuous pre-lapsarian Eden, people lived in harmony not only with nature but with each other; war was, at most, ritualized and basically non-lethal combat, certainly nothing like the bloody destructiveness of civilizational warfare. All nonsense, Diamond firmly concludes from the evidence (as did Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature – Why Violence Has Declined). images-2Warfare in primitive societies has been far the more frequent and deadly (per capita). While it’s true that civilization’s “intrusion” can cause a transient spike in such violence, people then settle down, and living in civilized, organized states is a great dampener of violence, both within and among societies.

Yet the “fall from Eden” belief remains tenaciously persistent. Why? Diamond actually addresses that very question, and suggests a number of answers, all of them academic. But, oddly, he doesn’t mention what seems to me the obvious, overriding reason: self-hating cynicism toward one’s own society. For many, it flatters their moral vanity to see themselves as superior insightful beings among benighted fools and knaves. Hence the idea that civilization merely aggravates a basic human propensity for violence and bad behaviors of every sort.

Unknown-1Fundamental to that stance is viewing modern life as a rat’s nest of pathologies (see again my review of The Fall), with the resulting bottom line being that for all its supposed advancements, benefits, and creature comforts, modernity actually leaves us less happy than our primitive ancestors. And if that’s so, what good is civilization anyway? What have we gotten for all we’ve given up?

Well – if you have that mindset, it’s no surprise you’re unhappy. Seeing everything around you as a travesty is not conducive to good cheer. And it isn’t a posture of realism. Despite how such cynics may fancy themselves, their viewpoint acts as a reality-distortion device, just as powerful as, say, a religious faith. Neither enables one to see reality. It’s exemplified by the dogged (and wholly wrong) insistence that modern societies are more violent than primitive ones.

Most people, however, don’t think about such things one way or the other, just taking for granted that things are the way they are today, and never pondering how they might be (and were in the past, and in some places continue being) vastly different.

But I’m acutely conscious of what it took to get us where we are today, and what that means for our quality of life. With total commitment to realism and objectivity, I try to see what is rather than what I want to see. I don’t forget the trade-offs, all the things we’ve sacrificed for what we’ve achieved, as Jared Diamond explicates well in his book. But for me, in my own life, that trade-off is tremendously positive. I am continuously and profoundly mindful and thankful for modernity’s blessings – blessings unavailable in “The World Until Yesterday.”

images-4The foregoing recalls what Barry Schwartz called the “adaptation effect” in his book The Paradox of Choice.  People whose circumstances improve soon adapt to the “new normal” as merely how things are and should be; since what they’ve got is merely what they now expect, they don’t feel happier. Humanity as a whole suffers from this adaptation effect in regard to civilization’s benefits. If more people shared my mindset of not taking it all for granted, we’d be happier.

Peter Watson: The Age of Atheists: How We Live Without God

July 24, 2014

UnknownThe other day I presented a review, at the Albany Public Library, of Peter Watson’s book, The Age Of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God. For the full text of the talk, click here. And here is the concluding bit (slightly edited):

So how does one live without God? This book doesn’t give a single answer. But I will give you my humanist summation.

First of all, to read this book, you might think we’re obsessed over the meaning of life. But what life is mostly about is going to the store, washing the dishes, working at your job, gossiping about the foibles of other people, and so forth. God or no-God doesn’t enter into any of that. I believe the true meaning of life is in what we actually spend most of it doing. And you can live it just fine without ever pondering some deeper meaning.images

Watson quotes Dawkins: “do any of us really tie our life’s hopes to the ultimate fate of the cosmos anyway?” And I’ll add a line from Viktor Frankl, who wrote Man’s Search For Meaning: “What matters is not the meaning of life in general, but the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”

And there is no deeper meaning; there is no transcendent aspect to existence; no cosmic purpose. Only the purposes that we as individuals choose.

In doing so, we must ask ourselves: What really matters? Now, you can come up with a lot of answers, but they all finally boil down to one thing: the feelings experienced by beings capable of feeling. Nothing can ultimately matter except insofar as it affects such feelings. You might say, for example, that the health of the planet matters. But why so, if there were no feeling beings affected? Without them, even the existence of the universe wouldn’t matter. Who would it matter to?

images-1So here is our purpose in life: more positive feelings and less negative ones; more pleasure and satisfaction, less pain and suffering. In your own life, and then in other lives. In my own life, my primary source of it is my marriage to my wonderful wife Therese, but there is much more besides. Get it wherever you can: in love, food, sex, wonder, sunshine, music, laughter, ideas, friendship, play, excitement, beauty; or collecting coins; or matchbook covers. And even in library talks. Squeeze the fruit dry.

True, life is limited. But that makes it all the more precious. What being dead will be like is hard to grasp, but I prefer to ponder over what being alive is like. And I don’t take it for granted; there was no cosmic necessity that I should exist at all; I consider it a supreme gift.

We live in hope and striving for a better world, a more inclusive community, with more liberty and justice, more happiness and less pain. Unknown-1We recognize that we human beings are all in the same boat, all of us facing a life that is often challenging, always finite, and struggling to make of it the best we can.

That gives us all the meaning and purpose we need.

 

Ukraine Plane Shame

July 21, 2014

UnknownThe world knows perfectly well who did it. All talk of investigation and forensic evidence just  muddles moral clarity.  This isn’t a criminal trial requiring proof “beyond a reasonable doubt.” And what’s to doubt anyway? Who else could conceivably have done this but the Russian-instigated insurgents with Russian-supplied high tech weapons? That missile wasn’t something you pick up at Walmart. The perps were recorded preening about it on the phone. And if it’s a bum rap, why would they tamper with the evidence?

Russia’s slimy statements only deepen its shame. But more, lying so blatantly and transparently bespeaks not just a habitual liar, but a compulsive liar. Russia is one sick puppy. (That it nevertheless inspires such patriotic fervor is mindless.)

imagesWhy would the Ukrainian Russophiles shoot down a Malaysian airliner? Not from rational calculation. They are drunk on military testosterone (and probably literally drunk too, my wife notes). Russia’s giving missiles to such swaggering jackasses was like putting a gun in the hands of an infant. (Unless it was Russian personnel themselves who launched the missile.)

We’re told “there’s no military solution” – by people who always say that, no matter what the situation. In my last post I wrote that the “war never solves anything” bunch is wrong, that sometimes war is the answer. It is in Ukraine. There is a military solution.

I say so because this is not even a legitimate conflict – between clashing interests, each with at least some arguable right on its side, which could be negotiated. It isn’t that at all.

images-2I am extremely sensitive to people’s right to self-determination, and if there were any genuine glimmer of a desire to secede, I’d say let them. But, in fact, ethnic Russians are not even the majority in these regions. And moreover, it’s become clear that not even a majority of the ethnic Russians want Ukraine’s break-up. Referenda showing otherwise are bogus, votes ginned up at gunpoint. (The purported 97% vote in Crimea was 99% phony. I doubt a truly free and fair vote would have backed Russia’s annexation. Crimea was a crime.)

images-3So what is really going on now in Eastern Ukraine? Instigated, orchestrated, and lavishly equipped by Russia (with barely a fig-leaf of deniability), a bunch of misfit thugs has taken the opportunity to play war, holding the rest of the local population hostage. Warlords have emerged, carving out criminal fiefdoms. images-1Many Russian military types have leading roles in what The Economist calls a “tricksy” invasion. Russia’s true aim here is actually obscure. Don’t assume Putin is some mastermind playing some deep long game. He probably doesn’t really know what the fuck he’s doing, apart from just wanting to mess with Ukraine, and get attention paid.

So what should be done about these insurgents? Kill them. Ukraine has been left with no option but the military one. If there were genuine grievances at issue, I’d say negotiate, but there aren’t. This is just lawlessness. I’m not a bloodthirsty type, but these creeps have their hands covered with blood and will have brought their destruction upon themselves. Unknown-1“Leaders” like Borodai and Pushilin should be executed for treason and murder. (But they’ll slink off into Russia like Yanukovych.)

I only wonder whether Ukraine’s army has the stomach, the capabilities, and competence to do what’s needed. Its performance so far does not inspire confidence. This battle could be very destructive and bloody, and could serve to drive more locals to the rebel side. On the other hand, are they really willing to die for holy Russia?

If Putin does not soon pull the plug and abandon the rebels to their fate, then we should help Ukraine with all possible military assistance (no, not sending troops) to end this criminal nonsense as swiftly as possible.

The New Gaza War: What Is The Point?

July 19, 2014

I am no pacifist. Some say war never solves anything; I say it sometimes does; and there are things worth fighting for. But about this latest round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I say: what is the fucking point?

The logic of war is the pursuit of some strategic goal. But what strategic objectives are these combatants pursuing?

Unknown-1For Israel, ostensibly, it is to stop rocket attacks, and destroy infiltration tunnels. But past history shows bombing Gaza to rubble doesn’t stop such attacks. Especially when Hamas can disclaim responsibility for rogue elements supposedly acting on their own. (Just like Putin renounces invasion of Ukraine yet actually invades by subterfuge.*) And meantime, ravaging Gaza provides inhabitants with fresh grievances, to vent the only way they can: rockets.

Anyhow, while the rocket attacks are nasty, they are really pinpricks. They do little damage and hurt few people. A clear case of the cure worse than the disease. The “cure” is extremely costly, not only in money and lives (mostly Palestinian, but some Israeli — it will wind up exceeding the rocket death toll), but also costly in damage to Israel’s larger national interests. Because, again, it creates more Palestinian grievance; renders even more remote the prospect of ultimate peace; and feeds the narrative of Israel as an international villain.**

Morin, Miami Herald

“Hamas Loves the People of Gaza; they even gave us these free tee shirts!” (Morin, Miami Herald)

And what about Hamas? Hamas rejected a cease-fire, refusing to renounce rockets — as though they have some kind of right to shoot rockets at Israel. What do they hope to gain with rockets? As if they could make Israelis capitulate and give up their country. But Hamas is said to have a more limited objective, for Israel to relax its restrictions on Gazan commerce. Yet the rocket attacks make Israel more, not less, hostile toward Gaza; its response to rockets is not to offer sweeteners, but bombing. Maybe if there’s something Hamas really wants from Israel, the way to get it is with flowers, not rockets.

I’m making it sound like there’s no logic to any of this. But there is. I wrote here recently, when the latest round started with teenager murders, that such provocations are intended as provocations. To create more victims, to provoke the other side into greater hatred and still further provocations, to stoke the conflict. By people who are intoxicated by the conflict (mostly religiously inspired) and don’t want it resolved.

Palestinians fetishize and sacralize “resistance.” Resistance is their raison d’etre. God forbid the object of resistance should cease to be. Ostensibly they resist Israeli oppression. In truth they resist actually living normal lives. The cartoon is exactly right: Hamas’s war aim is to make “martyrs” of as many of their own people as possible.

Israel is no better. It too acts as though it prefers having the conflict to solving it. As if this can continue forever. Of course it cannot. The situation is already becoming untenable. And Israel has no end game.

UnknownThere’s an old Laurel and Hardy bit. The pair drive up to a man’s house and get into an argument with him. In anger, he breaks something on their car. So Hardy calmly marches up to the house and breaks something. Tit for tat, and soon the man is methodically destroying the car while the duo are engaged in methodically destroying his house.

That’s Israel and the Palestinians.

* Putin and Russia, who cynically supplied the weapon, must be held responsible for the downing of the Malaysian plane, killing 298. This is not a “tragedy” — it’s a crime.

images** However, regarding all the moves to ostracize and boycott Israel – what are these people thinking? That Israel is, like, the worst evildoer in the world? Are they totally ignorant, or blind? How about China, with its repression of Tibet, and locking up democracy advocates like Liu Xiaobo? Where’s the boycott of China? Or, for that matter, Syria? Not even Syria! Only Israel.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Female Genital Mutilation and Islam (WARNING: Graphic content)

July 15, 2014

UnknownAyaan Hirsi Ali’s beautiful and inspiring memoir is titled Infidel. Born in Somalia, she escaped to the Netherlands from an arranged marriage; became a member of parliament; worked with Theo Van Gogh on a film critical of Islam; he was murdered by a Muslim fanatic; and she wound up in America, at a think tank. Along the way she freed herself from religion.

Hirsi Ali had lived in Kenya and Saudi Arabia as well as Somalia, her father usually absent on revolutionary organizing. As a young woman she tried to be the perfect Muslim. But the Koran’s fulsome verbiage about Allah’s justness jarred with how unjustly she saw women treated.

This is heart-rendingly portrayed in the unhappy saga of Hirsi Ali’s mother. But she was almost fortunate to have an absent husband, because domestic tyranny and wife beating is the norm to which Muslim men are acculturated. The picture contrasted harshly with my own loving marriage.

Unknown-1The twisted Muslim mentality about male-female relations is epitomized by the cover-up fetish. Hirsi Ali’s culture insisted that glimpsing female skin or hair* would make men crazy – so she was astonished that in the West, bare limbs hardly rate a glance, and men don’t lose it even on beaches with practically naked women. images-1To my eyes such scenery provides a pleasurable frisson but nothing more, thus it’s wholly innocent. In Muslim societies there is no innocence; the men seem unhinged by the very concept of feminine sexuality.

Female genital mutilation is widely practiced, mainly in Muslim Africa and the Middle East. It’s been done to an estimated 125 million women. Muslim immigrants bring it to their new countries. It was endemic in Hirsi Ali’s Somalia. “Circumcision” is a euphemism; it’s in no way analogous to the procedure for males, which normally has notable benefits and no real downsides. For girls it is an atrocity of sexual mutilation.images-2

I first learned of it long ago from a big New York Times feature, which puzzled me because it gave no clue why this is done. In fact, it’s to curb infidelity by preventing females from enjoying sex.

Muslims are obsessed with female “purity” and in genital mutilation this goes to an extreme. Not even virginity is enough; an uncut girl is not considered pure. (“Pure from what?” a Western friend once asked Hirsi Ali, unsettling her.)

Use your imagination

Use your imagination

Infidel graphically describes Hirsi Ali’s own mutilation at age eight: cutting out the clitoris and labia, usually without preparation or anaesthetic – obviously exceedingly painful and traumatic. The wound is sewn up, so scar tissue forms to largely close the vaginal opening.** Lifelong pain and complications are common. The death rate is significant.

Hirsi Ali says that “excision” doesn’t even actually keep girls from wanting sex. In her own case, reading novels – specially Harlequin romances! – revved up her hormones, and she fell in love and into a quickie quasi-legal marriage with a cousin. She lusted for him – but the wedding night was a grotesque disappointment.

What I never realized until reading her book is that for sex the man must tear through the scar tissue sealing the opening, and not only is this of course agony for the girl (it took her weeks to recover), it’s really hard work for him (often an extended process, even requiring a knife). imagesCan’t be much fun for men either. Maybe the frustration helps explain all the wife beating and other “Muslim rage.”

We constantly hear the words “sick society” applied to ours. While multiculturalists say one society’s practices aren’t better or worse, just different. And I’ve reviewed here a book that used “the Muslim question” as a pretext to focus on supposed “oppression” of women in America and the West.

Hirsi Ali is clear-sighted about what garbage that all is. It was a joy to read of her culture shock upon arrival in the West, which she’d been taught all her life to despise. While many Muslim immigrants do sustain that attitude, not Hirsi Ali.*** One of her first encounters was with a policeman – helpful, not predatory. Unknown-2That blew her mind. She grasped immediately that here is a society that works – far better, in enabling human happiness and flourishing, than any of the Muslim ones she’d known. Especially for women.

Hirsi Ali wanted to understand the root of this difference. She came to trace Muslim dysfunctionality to Islam itself – the very word means “submission,” denoting a master-slave relationship with God. A religion of fatalism. And assuredly not one of peace – the Koran incites a culture of sacralized violence. Genital mutilation fits right in, but Muslim societies are more violent in numerous other ways. Whereas the West had managed to confine its soldiers of faith to their barracks, Islam has not. Nor has there been a Muslim equivalent of the West’s Enlightenment. images-6“We had been hiding from reason for so long because we were incapable of facing the need to integrate it into our beliefs,” she writes. “And this was not working; it was leading to hideous pain and monstrous behavior.”

Our society, where men and women can relate to one another as free and equal human beings, is virtuous. A society that tyrannizes, brutalizes women – one that cuts out their genitals – is vile.

* BTW, I’ve read the Koran, and it merely tells women to dress modestly, that’s all.

** Hirsi Ali relates accompanying another Somali girl to a Dutch gynecologist who recoiled in horror at the sight.

*** Muslims were inundating the Netherlands, whose values of freedom and tolerance empowered those immigrants to undermine those very values. Defending those Western values against the multi-culti onslaught was what brought Hirsi Ali to prominence.

Mexico and India: Some Good News For a Change

July 12, 2014

imagesThe world is always full of bad news, but here’s something in line with this blog’s title.

Background: Mexico had a big revolution/civil war a century ago. When the dust settled, power was monopolized by the “Institutional Revolutionary Party” (PRI), whose rule was anything but revolutionary. Mexico stagnated with a closed rentier economy of crony capitalism, its big shots labelled “dinosaurs.”Unknown

The PRI’s chokehold was finally broken by the opposition PAN party winning the presidency in 2000. PAN’s program was right, but it was stymied not only by PRI holdovers but also a third left-wing party. So after two PAN presidencies, little had actually changed.

Peña Nieto

Peña Nieto

In 2012 the PRI recaptured the presidency with Enrique Peña Nieto. Bad news? To the contrary. No dinosaur he. The Peña administration’s tone was set at the start. Emblematic of Mexico’s dysfunction was a teacher’s union so politically entrenched that it controlled the whole school system. Unknown-1Its boss: Elba Esther Gordillo, a quintessential dinosaur. Peña had her arrested on charges of (flagrant) embezzlement and organized crime.

But he was just getting started.

Carlos Slim

Carlos Slim

Peña has moved boldly to reform, shake up, and open up Mexico’s politics, educational system, and economy, by promoting competition and curbing the kind of monopoly power that has so long hobbled the country. (His telecommunications stranglehold made Mexico’s Carlos Slim one of the world’s richest men.) A centerpiece of Peña’s agenda is to break what for generations has been a PRI sacred cow: exclusive government control of the energy sector.Unknown-2

Not all of Peña’s initiatives have yet been successfully pushed through, and inevitably, there have been stumbles and criticisms. And Mexico still has some very bad problems, notably horrendous gangster violence. But you can say this: Peña has changed the rules of the game, and shown what true visionary leadership looks like.  Now this is what I call progressive. (What a contrast to loudmouth lefty populists of the Chavez sort.)

Modi

Modi

Similarly heartening was the recent smashing election victory by Narendra Modi in India. His BJP party won an outright parliamentary majority – seemingly impossible given India’s fractured politics with numerous regional and caste-based parties usually divvying up the spoils. The stale old Congress party was practically annihilated. This gives Modi a tremendous opportunity to remake India for the better. He’s been talking the right talk. Now let’s see the walk.

Social Safety Net Or Bed of Nails? It’s Costly Being Poor

July 9, 2014

images-2Being billed for room and board in jail might sound like a joke. It is not. In fact, it’s increasingly common in America, among cash-strapped local governments. Raising taxes is politically hard because taxpayers vote, organize, and donate to campaigns. It’s easier to extract cash from politically powerless people at the bottom of society.

That surely includes folks already ensnared in the criminal justice system, billing them not only for jail time, but all sorts of “user fees” for administrative processing. This often makes small fines for minor offenses balloon into money hemorrhages these usually poor victims can ill afford. UnknownMany simply cannot pay, so are hit with yet more fees and penalties for nonpayment, or even jailed – generating still further charges.

An article about all this in The Economist cited an Alabama case where a $200 misdemeanor fine metastasized into a 41-month $2100 ordeal, through a system that one judge labeled a “judicially sanctioned extortion racket.”

I used the word victims. Some “conservatives” would have little sympathy – after all, they’re lawbreakers. Those who’d say this cannot envision themselves in such a position, and have no idea what it’s like. Most of the minor infractions we’re talking about (often motor vehicle related) happen not because these are bad people but because it goes with the territory of being poor. Unknown-1When government compounds their plight of poverty by preying upon them,* they are indeed victims. This turns the whole idea of a “social safety net” upside down.

The foregoing is part of a broader phenomenon, highlighted by (bite my tongue) Barbara Ehrenreich. I generally loathe her bilious negativism, but here she actually has a point: it’s costly to be poor in America.

Just one example: financial services. Bounce one check, or miss one credit card payment, and you face a cascade of hefty charges making your already precarious financial situation even worse. Thus do banks and credit card companies frankly exploit the less affluent. If you’re too poor to have a bank account, that’s expensive as well, in money order and check cashing fees, etc. Payday loans might also be mentioned. I don’t agree with attacks on payday lenders; they provide a needed service and their charges reflect costs and risks without excessive profit. But all these kinds of things, and many more, do make being poor a costly proposition, and something of a self-perpetuating trap.

I have argued that out-of-control government spending presages economic ruin. Many “conservatives” respond with a war on the disadvantaged. It’s the wrong target. In fact they’re a small fraction of our population, and spending on them is a small fraction of the total. Unknown-2Far more goes on welfare for the rich. We shame ourselves with the latter while scrooging the disadvantaged.

I have also criticized the “progressive” inequality obsession as reflecting less compassion for the poor as envy for the rich. But I do think there isn’t enough compassion for the poor. We should help them not because that’s “social justice,” or wealth is criminal, but because helping them is humane. We are a very rich society and could afford what it takes – if only, again, we controlled giveaways to the better off.

This essay points to some things we could do. For example, if you hate payday lending, how about government offering low-income people small loans at cheaper rates? Though I’m not actually keen on complicated bureaucratic programs. I’d favor a more global “negative income tax” approach that simply puts more cash in poor people’s hands.

images-3But at least let’s stop taking it out of their hands by charging them for the privilege of being punished.

*Government also rips off the less affluent by pushing lottery ticket sales.

Hateful Jews

July 6, 2014

               The best lack all conviction, while the worst

               Are full of passionate intensity

                        — W. B. Yeats

images-1I almost titled this, “I Hate Those Jews.” That’s what I first thought – shocking myself – my own ancestry being Jewish – when I heard about the Palestinian boy apparently burned alive in “revenge” for three murdered Jewish teens.

Of course I don’t hate all Jews. Only those Jews so twisted by religious fanaticism that they could do such a thing. And unfortunately Israel has too many like that.

What kind of Bible do they believe in, that sanctions such horror? images(Oh, right; the Bible is full of such atrocities, commanded by their God.)

Here’s why I put the word “revenge” in quotes. It’s associated with “retribution” which has nasty atavistic connotations; though as I’ve explained, the concept of retribution is actually morally justifiable. It means punishing someone for a wrong he’s done. But that Palestinian boy wronged no one. To torture and murder him for crimes committed by others is sick barbarism.

But, actually, it’s worse than that; even worse than the mere sadistic murder of an innocent child. Because this was not just a crime of indiscriminate vengeance. UnknownIt was a totally cynical act, calculated to stoke communal hatred. The same was probably true of the preceding murder of the three Jews. It’s been going on for decades: fanatics using violence to make their own side hateful to the other, to make peace and reconciliation impossible.

There’s a larger lesson, also seen playing out in Iraq. Pacifism is very nice, but violence is very efficacious. In the Israeli-Palestinian situation, again and again, the worst people, willing to use the greatest violence, get their way; so too in Iraq; and of course in Syria, and Egypt, and other places. This reality of the human situation will persist so as long as people have bones that break and flesh that tears (or burns).

What is the answer for it? Obviously not pacifism, which merely hands the world over to the worst, the most violent. Instead, such evil must be opposed, and opposed with all necessary force. And we must be willing to make the judgment of evil.

Yes, such judgments are fallible. Yes, that’s black-and-white talk, and reality is often grey. But our human responsibility requires us to make, and act upon, such judgments, to the best of our ability, to prove Yeats wrong.

Unknown-1That’s what we did on D-Day; and in 1776; whose anniversaries were recently marked. I too long for a world where such sacrifices aren’t necessary. But wishing won’t make it so. Some things are worth fighting for.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

July 3, 2014

A book group can expose one to hidden treasures and unforeseen pleasures. Here’s a great example.

images-1Harold, 65, recently retired, lives with longtime wife Maureen in a small English town. One day comes a letter from Queenie, an old co-worker friend whom he hasn’t seen in twenty years. In hospice dying of cancer, she’s saying goodbye.

Harold pens a short reply and goes out to mail it. But something makes him pass mailbox after mailbox. Stopping for a bite at a garage, he tells the girl there about Queenie; she relates how powerful her faith was when her aunt had cancer. This inspires nonreligious Harold* to continue his walk – to the hospice in Berwick, 500 miles distant – suddenly convinced that that will keep Queenie alive.images

Thus begins Rachel Joyce’s novel, seemingly light and quirky, quasi-comic even. It’s hard to take seriously at first. But, wow, this becomes a profoundly compelling tale.

Harold and Queenie were never lovers. But they do share a secret; and Harold owes her, more than he even realizes.

When he phones Maureen to announce his plan, she responds matter-of-factly, without demur. This might have seemed weird, except that the two had lived for twenty years in a state of deep freeze, interaction kept minimal. (I could relate, having experienced something similar, for a time, with a girl I lived with.)

The marriage’s black hole had to do with their son, David. Harold hadn’t been the greatest dad, though not the worst by far. Maureen blames him for what went wrong. Iconically remembered is an ancient beach episode wherein Harold dithered about diving to David’s rescue until a lifeguard intervened. Maureen fails to consider that she didn’t dive in either.

images-4They haven’t seen David in decades. Harold doesn’t speak to him. Maureen does; indeed, they have quite normal phone conversations. That normality actually seemed bizarre, in the circumstances; until the more startling truth, revealed near the end, explains all. (I won’t spill it here.)

I recently reviewed another book group selection, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, about a woman not wholly prepared for a big hike, and of course Harold is preposterously unprepared for his, having walked out in “yachting shoes.” Things go downhill fast, and the reader wonders how this can possibly continue. But an angel (in human form) fortuitously appears and gets Harold reasonably fixed up to reboot his pilgrimage (though still in yachting shoes).images-2

The novel grows more broadly comic, yet at the same time rather darker, when Harold’s story becomes a media sensation and he attracts a motley gaggle of fellow “pilgrims” he could do without. He agonizes over extricating himself but is stopped by a sense of responsibility toward them. Eventually, they leave him behind.

UnknownAnd now it gets truly dark. Does Harold reach Queenie? It no longer really matters, with Harold and Maureen both haunted by their fraught memories, their regrets, their demons. Maureen even begins to sense her own responsibility. At one point she actually travels to find Harold, and their strained conversation is heart-breaking. When Harold mildly suggests she join the trek, she cannot stifle her reflexive, acid “I think not.” Enroute home she ruefully chides herself for those words, and her inability to say the things she wishes she could.

But that isn’t the end.

This is such a deeply affecting, human book. Harold and Maureen are neither heroes nor duds, but Everyman and Everywoman. Sometimes life goes smoothly; sometimes not. Sometimes people sink under their troubles, but sometimes they rise up. Harold and Maureen are limited people; but sometimes we can transcend our limits. Sometimes love dies but sometimes rises up again.images-5

I think yes.

*Harold overlooks the girl’s not actually saying her aunt was helped.

I’m Going to Die

June 30, 2014

(A version of this appeared on the Albany Times-Union’s “Faith & Values” page, June 21)

America’s deaths are projected to rise (baby boomers being mortal) from 2.59 million in 2010 to 4.25 million in 2050. That could include you (or, worse, me). And while best-selling books claim to prove Heaven’s reality, even most believers aren’t eager to depart.

UnknownI heard a philosopher on the radio recently calling fear of death irrational. Human brains have no way to mentally model nonexistence; and he analogized one’s life to what’s between the covers of a book, saying that Long John Silver doesn’t fear what happens when Treasure Island reaches its final page.

“That makes no sense,” my wife remarked.

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius

I agreed. Philosophers going back to Marcus Aurelius and Lucretius (whom I’ve written about) have similarly struggled to persuade us – or, really, themselves – that death is nothing, basically because one won’t be around to experience being dead. But we understand what ending a life means. The radio philosopher’s analogy was silly because Long John Silver is a fictional construct with no consciousness.

Death is loss – complete and total. That one won’t suffer afterwards – as one grieves the loss of a dollar, or a beloved – may be a small comfort, but very small. Indeed, I think most of us would prefer if posthumousness could somehow be suffered. At least that would be something. Better than nothingness.

My cat, not knowing he’ll die, is unafraid.  Unknown-1My knowledge is both a blessing and a curse, but surely more of a blessing. Ignorance may be a sort of bliss, but I prefer an authentic life, grounded in reality. That includes the reality of death. Accepting this is  painful, yes, but it’s part of being alive in the fullest sense; looking life squarely in the eye.

Fear is healthy insofar as it alerts us to dangers and motivates preparation and avoidance. But while of course it makes sense to act to postpone death, in the end it comes, and fearing the inevitable is useless.  However, our thinking about mortality includes more than simple fear. While the radio philosopher was right at least that we can’t wrap our heads around the concept of nonexistence, what one does fully understand the loss of everything one values. That anticipatory regret is not at all irrational.

We must figure out how to live with it. Unknown-2And it does have one beneficial aspect, of putting other anxieties in perspective.  The same radio program also featured a man with acute stage fright, a folk singer. But why obsess about appearing in public (what’s the worst that could happen?) when Death is on your dance card? If you can live with that, no lesser fear should terrify you.

Moreover, its being limited makes life all the more precious. And I don’t allow knowing it will end subvert my pleasure in living it.  Rather than morbid contemplation of what being dead will be like, I prefer to focus instead on what being alive is like (that itself being enough of a puzzle, as I’ve written). images-2Rather than seeing death as a theft, I see my life as a gift. I don’t take my existence for granted; au contraire, there was no cosmic necessity for it, and I consider it almost miraculous.

To crave more of it may be natural, yet foolish if that corrodes what one does have. As Richard Dawkins has said, let go the impossible wish for another life, and live the one you’ve got.


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