Saturday, March 27, 2010

Debtor's Prison

'He forgets nothing but he forgives everything' – in that case, he will be doubly hated, for he makes doubly ashamed – with his memory and his magnanimity.

- Nietzsche

From Age of Propaganda, by Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson:

Forgiveness of guilt and compliance were recently investigated in an experiment conducted by Brad Kelln and John Ellard. In their research, college students were led to believe that they had mishandled some scientific equipment and thereby ruined the experimenter's study...But here is the interesting twist. One group of students was forgiven their supposed misdeed. They were told by the experimenter: "Don't worry about it. That's OK."

What would you do in such a situation? Often the act of forgiveness is seen as "wiping the slate clean" - the transgressor is absolved of guilt and the person offering forgiveness is perceived as a friend. However, that is not what Kelln and Ellard found. In fact, they found that just the opposite occurred. The offer of forgiveness served as a double whammy; first they felt guilty about damaging the equipment and then they were offered no means of making it up to the researcher. The only way to make restitution and to show that they were "good" people was to comply with the experimenter's request to do more work. And that they did, offering to do almost twice the work as the other students in the research. But all of these guilty feelings had a cost. When the students were forgiven their transgressions, they came to dislike the experimenter - the person who had absolved them of their crime. Apparently, people do not like people to whom they feel beholden.

This also calls to mind Jonathan Sacks' comment about how "nobody will ever forgive the Jews for the Holocaust."

If it is a deeply ingrained part of human nature to resent people to whom you owe something, I think it's interesting to contemplate what this means with regards to Christianity and its overweening emphasis on the need to be forgiven for your transgressions by someone who's perfect. In fact, I wonder if Jesus is who Nietzsche had in mind with that aphorism.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Bonfire of the Strawmen

This is one of the stupidest fucking things I have ever read. Take it from the top:

Atheists like to think of themselves as free thinkers whose take on the world is more intelligent than that of those who are religious. Often they hold up sketchy studies as proof that their skepticism of a higher power has somehow made them smarter than the paranoid idiots who believe there might be something beyond themselves.

And religious people love to quote Psalm 14 as if they thought of it themselves, the fool hath said in his heart there is no God, neener neener. We're all big fat meanies, so what?

"Often" we hold up sketchy studies. As soon as I saw this, I knew what she was referring to, so let's scroll down a bit and...yep. That is indeed what she's talking about:

Yet just a few weeks ago when Professor Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics announced research showing those identified as atheists had higher IQs, atheists smugly held up the data as proof positive that people not confined by the dogmatic structure of a religion are best able to soar intellectually. Never mind that the differences in IQ were too small to draw sweeping conclusions.

Given that she started off this essay making broad, unsupported claims about what atheists supposedly think, I must say that I'm even a little more suspicious now that she doesn't name or link to any of these atheists crowing about this study, because one of the most famous ones I know of had this to say about it:

Show me the error bars on those measurements. Show me the reliability of IQ as a measure of actual, you know, intelligence. Show me that a 6 point IQ difference matters at all in your interactions with other people, even if it were real. And then to claim that these differences are not only heritable, but evolutionarily significant…jebus, people, you can just glance at it and see that it is complete crap.
And then look at the source: Satoshi Kanazawa, the Fenimore Cooper of Sociobiology, the professional fantasist of Psychology Today. He's like the poster boy for the stupidity and groundlessness of freakishly fact-free evolutionary psychology. Just ignore anything with Kanazawa's name on it.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement. So unless Ms. Emling can cite someone more influential than a commenter on a blog somewhere or the voices at the bottom of a bottle, I'm going to have to conclude that even if these arrogant atheists in love with their I.Q. tests didn't exist, she would invent them.

And back to her earlier non-sequitur: like every atheist I've ever known, I have no problem accepting that there is "something beyond" myself. There's a helluva lotta "something" beyond myself, in fact! It's just that none of it is a personal, loving, anthropomorphic deity who cares about you and your petty wants and needs and your favorite sports teams, which is really the only kind of "God" anyone cares to believe in, or else Deism would have never died out. Methinks she's confusing - and probably not by accident - atheism and solipsism. In fact, I'm really beginning to doubt that she is operating in intellectual good faith here! But let's move on:

I'm no religious zealot, but I do like the idea of atheists being introduced to another perspective. After all, there are plenty of smart people who also are religious. And there also are plenty of highly acclaimed scientists - Francis Collins, to name just one - who have found faith after achieving great academic success and who are outspoken defenders of the compatibility of science and religion.

While you're at PZ's blog checking out the post I linked to, you can do a search for Francis Collins and see what he's already had to say about his "high acclaim". I'll just concentrate on what she apparently thinks is some counterintuitive insight, that atheists should spend time getting acquainted with what the other side thinks.

When it comes to my family and circle of close friends, I am the only one who calls myself an atheist. Some of them are devout Christians, and one in particular is one of the smartest and most inquisitive guys I know. Some are touchy-feely New Agers. Some would agree with most anything derogatory I'd say about religion but would still prefer some vague, amorphous label like "spiritual", or at least "agnostic", to outright atheism.

I'd bet that my experience is not unusual in the slightest. We live in a country that is anywhere from 80-90% Christian, depending on which polls you believe, and even those who shy away from the label "organized religion" hold to some inchoate belief in something sort of like God, even if they don't name it as such. There is almost no way for someone to become an atheist without having been exposed from childhood to religious concepts, beliefs, metaphors, and relatives determined to save your soul for your own good. Religion permeates pop culture as well as highbrow art. Atheists have had to fight an uphill battle for intellectual independence every step of the way while choosing their battles carefully. If we insulted and argued with every believer we know, we'd never get anything else done at all.

And yet, I'd also bet that the majority of believers don't personally know any atheists, and the ones they do know probably keep it to themselves for the reason I just mentioned. In modern times, atheists have had no choice in presidential elections but to vote for one Christian or another, but atheists are still the one group that a majority of voters would never consider voting for at all. We need to get over our preconceived stereotypes and assumptions? Get back to me when people stop imagining atheists as some freakish hybrid of Madalyn Murray O'Hair and Marilyn Manson who can't possibly be moral since they don't believe in divine reward and punishment.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

You Non-Conformists Are All Alike

The belief that the world as it ought to be is, really exists, is a belief of the unproductive who do not desire to create a world as it ought to be. They posit it as already available; they seek ways and means of reaching it. "Will to truth" as the impotence of the will to create.

- Nietzsche

I thought of that aphorism while reading this essay:

It's a trend today to disdain religion as repressive and affirm spirituality as transformational or liberating, but really, one can be a member of a religious institution and be spiritual, or be religious or spiritual without belonging to a church -- or both. There's a new trend of "do your own spiritual thing," forming one's own religion based on a kind of à la carte sampling of traditions and religions, from Buddhist sangha meditation to Christian prayer chanting to Hindu or Hebrew dietary codes. It's très hip to be a Jew-Bu (Jewish/Buddhist) or a yogi for Christ. One practicing Hindu I know often reminds me that "Jesus Christ and Buddha are both incarnations of Vishnu."

Another poll of Americans by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life late last year found that many people attend multiple religious services and hold spiritual, religious, and "New Age" beliefs all at the same time.

I wouldn't call it a new trend to treat the world's religious traditions as a Whitman's Sampler, given that I've read people exulting or lamenting about it for as long as I can remember. But leaving that aside, I'm always amused at how such a, well, consumerist mentality is held up as an expression of individuality. The religious buffet. The metaphysical shopping mall. Accessorize your inner lifestyle. Differentiate yourself with this year's new fashions.

And I understand the comfort to be had from hewing to some community standards or tradition, really I do, but still, when someone starts telling me about their "spirituality", why do they never surprise me with something resembling an original thought? Why do we get the same hoary old quotations from the same predictable authority figures? Why is there an unthinking assumption that any answer to the "big questions" has to be steeped in antiquity and passed down through the centuries to have any value? God is dead and you really are free to find your own way, people. There's no reason you can't come up with a thought or insight derived from your own experience just as profound and useful as anything Jesus or Buddha or Gandhi said. And just to keep you on your toes, let me immediately contradict myself by letting a literary authority figure like Emerson back me up on this point:

A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.

On previous episodes of "spiritual-not-religious", I talked about how I despise the word "spiritual" and all the metaphysical connotations it smuggles in with it, preferring terms like "reflective", "contemplative" or "philosophical". It occurs to me lately that those seem to suggest I trust my thinking rather than my feeling to get me right with the world (and meditation, for me, has nothing to do with "spirit"; it's a way of clarifying and streamlining my thinking.) Of course, both religion and spirituality are full of exhortations to not be led astray by the devious machinations of the intellect, to go with what feels right in your heart instead. But when you notice how often your heart is just telling you what you want to hear, how can anyone take this idea seriously?

Monday, March 22, 2010


If passage of this bill helps a single person anywhere, then it was worth passing in whatever form possible.

- Tom Tomorrow

I've heard intelligent people I respect make arguments both for and against this bill, and while I don't exactly find it encouraging that even many supporters are reduced to pinning their hopes on some future fixes that may never actually materialize while grumbling about how much the bill reeks at present, I'm at least willing to entertain the possibility that I might be missing some important perspective here.

For now, I'd just like to suggest that Tom may want to raise the bar a little higher than that, seeing as how almost any political action you could name, no matter how atrocious, has helped someone, somewhere, at some time. I think I can pretty well imagine what he would have made of some Bush administration flunky using this standard to justify the invasion of Iraq.

Cali Yuga

Is there a catchphrase from the Terminator movies that fits this? How about Predator? Kindergarten Cop? Twins?

More Californians disapprove of the job performance of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger than any governor in modern state history including Gray Davis, who was ousted by Schwarzenegger in a popular uprising, according to a Field Poll released today.
Seventy-one percent of California voters surveyed said they disapprove of Schwarzenegger's handling of the job, while 23 percent approve. The low ratings are shared across all demographics including party affiliation, region of the state, age and race or ethnicity.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Carpe Genitalia

Looking for something else in Andrew Solomon's atlas of depression, The Noonday Demon, I saw this passage:

(Claudius) Galen also shared Rufus' (of Ephesus) belief in the disastrous consequences of deficient sexual release. He treated one of his female patients, whose brain, he believed, was troubled by the noxious fumes of her rotting unreleased sexual fluids, "with a manual stimulation of the vagina and of the clitoris and the patient took much pleasure from this, much liquid came out, and she was cured."

Why, that sly old fox. That is so going to be my new pickup line. All I need now is a white coat. "Yes, it's imperative we treat those rotting fluids ASAP. No, really, ma'am, you can trust me on this. I'm a doctor."

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sometimes a Veggie Sausage Link Is Just a Veggie Sausage Link

Last year, I learned that being vegetarian had something to do with homosexuality. Now, I'm hearing that eating veggie protein sources - fake meats - is the equivalent of fucking latex women.

I don't know what everyone else's problem is, but I, for one, have never had the urge to conflate my sexual desires with my culinary preferences. Please, people, keep your bizarre projections to yourselves.

When Granfalloons Collide

And in any event, he has certainly discovered the dangers of publicly practicing theology without a license.

Isn't that awesome? Just take a moment and marvel at that statement. That's everyone's favorite religious concern troll, Amy Sullivan, lambasting Glenn Beck for not having been officially trained in the proper interpretation of metaphysical inanities (but I repeat myself) written about mythological or imaginary beings by con artists and lunatics for propaganda purposes.

A paranoid, rambling cult leader offering a grab bag of fear, platitudes, non-sequiturs and arguments from authority to his illiterate audience, preaching the value of mindless belief while denigrating intellectual effort, muttering darkly about apocalyptic doomsday scenarios and retribution for all his enemies...I'd say Glenn understands this Jesus fellow pretty well, actually.


I just can't get all that worked up about the Texas Board of Education replacing Thomas Jefferson with John Calvin. Bit of a fait accompli, wouldn't you say? Or, wait -- to use a more folksy phrase since this is Texas we're talking about, ain't this a tad like closing the barn door after the hoss done long skedaddled? For years, I've told anyone who would listen, and many who wouldn't, that Calvin should be considered one of the Founding Fathers for the influence he's had on what it means to be an American. I mean, really -- a France-loving polymath, a cosmopolitan intellectual on the one hand, and a grim religious lunatic on the other. Which one do you see grinning back at you from American society today?

And while I'm on about Great Ideas of Mine That No One Ever Listens To, I reiterate that the simple solution to any of the myriad problems bequeathed to us by the Lone Star State is to sell the fucking thing back to Mexico. We never have to worry about any more shitkicking Texans in the White House again, and they get to enjoy being the racial minority in their new country. And if they think they've got it bad now with the socialist tyranny that is the Obama administration, let them try rebelling against the drug cartels for their independence.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Gordon's Poetry Corner

I heard a Gordon Lightfoot song the other day.

Now, I have nothing at all against the guy. I grew up hearing a lot of his songs on the radio, and I even like some of them. In fact, I was a little surprised by how many of them I can remember when I stop to think about it. And when it comes to music in general, I listen to a lot of songwriters whose lyrics are eccentric at best and impenetrable at worst. It's all good, it all has its place. But Gordon's lyrics...well, they just seem to fall between the benches for me. Rather than writing straightforward lyrics to go with his straightforward folk-pop, he tries to be poetic, but it almost seems he tries too hard, and it ends up just being goofy. Or maybe it would be fine if he just went for total free-associative, abstract imagery and let the listener make it about whatever s/he wants.

So I've selected some samples of his "best" work for analysis here. First, to whet your appetite, there's this couplet/koan from "Sundown":

Sometimes I think it's a shame
When I get feelin' better when I'm feelin' no pain

How do you "get feelin' better" when you weren't feeling bad to begin with? And even if you go from, say, the simple absence of pain to a more positive state, like euphoria, why is that a shame? He doesn't explain. Counterintuitive to say the least.

Then there's a bunch of good lines from "Race Among the Ruins":

When you wake up to the promise
Of your dream world comin' true
With one less friend to call on
Was it someone that I knew?

It's not clear why the person being addressed here has apparently lost a friend. Doesn't seem to fit with the previous image of their "dream world coming true", either. In my dream world, I'd like to have all my friends there too. And asking if he knew the person just seems awkward. If he knows this person lost a friend, wouldn't he probably know who it was already? Plus, the previous three lines seemed to be leading to some sort of conclusion -- you expect that "when" to lead to a "then", but you're left with this out-of-place question concluding the verse. Jarring.

Away you will go sailin'
In a race among the ruins
If you plan to face tomorrow
Do it soon

So...there's some sort of sailing race among ruins? What kind of ruins are partially submerged in a body of water? I'm hard-pressed to think of any off the top of my head. And wouldn't that be a pretty stupid and dangerous place to be racing boats?

And yeah, I imagine you would have to face tomorrow soon. 'Cause it'll be here soon, you know. Like, tomorrow. Less than twenty-four hours away. Better get on that, I guess.

The road to love is littered
By the bones of other ones
Who by the magic of the moment
Were mysteriously undone
You try to understand it
But you never seem to find
Any kind of freedom
Comin' clean is just another state of mind

Sigh. He seemed to be doing so well there for a minute. The first four lines seem mostly cohesive, but what does finding freedom have to do with trying to understand the mysteries of the bone-littered road to love? And what does he mean by "coming clean"? Getting off drugs, or just simply being honest? I would imagine the latter, but it still doesn't seem to fit with the rough theme that had been developing. I'm beginning to suspect he's getting to the last line of a verse and just throwing something out there to complete the rhyme whether it makes sense or not. I swear, more pop music has been ruined by the perceived need to force rhymes...but I digress.

So take the best of all that's left
You know this cannot last
Even though your mother was your maker
From her apron strings you pass

What can't last? And whatever it is, why is it contingent upon your mother being your maker? Why is that "even though" in there? Okay, wait, maybe the first two lines go together, and the next two are off on their own. Is this an "all things must pass" reference? That would be cool, I guess...but still, what an odd construction just to express the thought, "Everything changes."

Just think about the fool
Who by his virtue can be found
In a most unusual situation
Playin' jester to the clown

Okay, I'm lost. I have no idea why I'm supposed to be thinking about the fool, who he is, or what the jester and clown are doing here. Let's just move on to the last song for consideration. From "The Watchman's Gone":

If I give you a rose, buddy
Would you please bury it in the fields?
I seen a rose
Watchin' it all fold out

This is what I'm talking about! This one just cracks me up. I picture a guy in a bar handing another guy a rose (let's hope he's not a homophobic angry drunk) and asking him to go bury it in a field. Wouldn't the likely response be something like, "What the fuck, man? Just throw it in the trash if you don't want it, or shove it up your ass! I don't want your fuckin' flowers!" Maybe this is supposed to symbolize the loss of something precious, but bringing the other guy into the scene just makes it hilarious. You should have buried that rose yourself, Gordon.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Villains on Necessity, Fools by Heavenly Compulsion

Gordon Haber:

And aside from the hocus-pocus of it, I can’t stand how astrology, like so many other occult practices, always leads inward. To the ego. It’s a way of pretending to discuss something outside of the self while talking about the self. It’s what they specialize in here in Los Angeles—world-views that operate like a U-shaped telescope.

Argh, I'm envious! Why didn't I think to put it that succinctly before?

I liked the part about Scorpios being "notoriously grumpy upon awakening." (I'm not.) It reminded me of my former neighbor, a well-meaning woman who told me that February was a bad month for us (she being born in November), and that Scorpios love irony. Unlike everyone else, I guess. But wait, she was right about that! I love the fact that people so fixated on their own egos, their own special, unique, individual personalities, nevertheless reach for such generic truisms to describe themselves.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Nothing but the Paint on the Face of Existence

AO: I talk to people about getting rid of hope and faith. And the strange effect of it is that it makes them more hopeful. I don’t deprive them of that if that’s what they need at that stage of their development. But personally, I’m not hopeful because I think hope is a kind of religion, and religions don’t work. If you’re hopeful you’re going to suffer disappointments, whether it’s politics or your personal life. You can care about things, you can want things to happen, you can work to make things happen without being hopeful. The way I guarantee not being too disappointed is to not put too much hope onto things.
Take this conversation between you and me, for example. Sure, I hope that we’ll get something out of it. I want something to come out of it because I don’t have a lot of energy these days and I’m careful about how I spend it. But if this interaction were a total waste, I wouldn’t be upset very much. All that said, sometimes I wish I could be more hopeful. Sometimes I miss that.
RJ: Why is that?
AO: Because hope is comfortable. Because sometimes the way I think makes me very lonely, a kind of intellectual loneliness.
- Abe Osheroff

Emphasis mine. I find it difficult to communicate that idea to people, though, wedded as they are to the notion that hope is balanced out by a resigned, weary fatalism. Not quite -- the flip side of hope is fear. Both are projections of our wishes onto the future, and the alternative to that is to just exist in the present, perceive what's there and act accordingly. It is true, though, that it can be lonely to think that way while surrounded by people who, to use Auden's phrase, "anticipate or remember but never are."

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Snickering Past the Graveyard

Brendon is, of course, doing his usual shock jock/frat boy thing in the presentation, but I don't doubt that the underlying sentiment is sincere, as I've heard the same sort of thing from countless people before. We do love us the opportunity to sneer at substance abusers who just wouldn't listen in middle-school health class, don't we? Not so "cool" now, are you, stoner boy? Ah, we've come so far from the days when early church fathers like Tertullian and Augustine could openly talk about how one of the greatest pleasures awaiting the elect in heaven was being able to look over the ramparts and enjoy the spectacle of all the damned being tortured in hell.

I ask again: aren't we supposed to be living in a post-Christian world or something? When is Idiot America going to finally get the memo? This relentless drive to moralize about absolutely everything under the sun is so fucking tiresome, not to mention misguided. The majority of human activity simply has no moral significance at all. There are no prizes for effort being handed out at the finish line. No bonus points, no credits, no frequent flyer miles being accrued. The universe does not give a hop, skip and a fuck how you die, at what age, or in what circumstances. John Calvin's angry God is not going to be mollified if you make it to age 96, bedridden, full of guilt and regret for lost opportunities, and wearing a diaper. Precious few of us ever get to die with dignity intact, whether it comes by way of heroin in our veins, cheese and beef in our arteries, disease in our genes, or whether we just didn't properly stabilize the ladder before cleaning out the gutters. Given that, you might want to recognize that your main responsibility while alive is to your loved ones, not to a resentful, humorless vision of life as a trial of endurance.

Monday, March 08, 2010

All I Really Need to Know I Learned Sitting in Traffic

It's an old joke in the blogosphere about Thomas Friedman and the way he can always find a taxi driver in the course of his world travels who just happens to provide quote-worthy material that reads like, well, Thomas Friedman with a foreign accent.

But this, now:

As a result, one has produced a fuel cell that can turn natural gas or natural grass into electricity; the other has a technology that might make coal the cleanest, cheapest energy source by turning its carbon-dioxide emissions into bricks to build your next house.

Given that Matt Taibbi already noticed how he based a chapter in a book on a bumper sticker he saw, I strongly suspect that he saw one of those truckers with a "Gas, Grass, or Ass: Nobody Rides for Free!" sticker and took it as inspiration for this column. It disappoints me that he only chose to consider two of the possibilities, though.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

The Stars All Fell Into the Sea

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

Singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Mark Linkous has committed suicide, his publicist confirms to Rolling Stone.

I can't believe what an eerie coincidence this is. You probably know how it is when you discover some new artist with so much good material -- you spend a few days just wallowing in it, absorbing it all, noticing all the minutiae and details that only become apparent after repeated listenings. Then the glow fades a bit, and when you listen to them, you feel a little inured to their charms -- not much, but it doesn't have the same intensity as it originally did.

But every so often, whether it's due to the stars aligning just so, or the weather having some sort of effect on your subconscious, whatever the cyclical phenomenon, you get possessed by the urge to listen to them again with the same passionate intensity as when you first discovered them -- the romance is back in the relationship!

Well, that's what's so eerie and uncanny -- I had just been having one of those spells around the time he died. For a few days beforehand, I had been listening to them while working and at home. The day he died, I was checking their website to see when some new stuff might be coming out, since it had been four years since the last record. This morning, I had listened to them for a few hours straight while working, only to come home and see this news. That's what makes it such a visceral shock to me, to be riding high on that sort of artistic communion, only to have that cold water thrown in my face suddenly.

Obviously, that weary innocence in his music feels even more poignant in light of this. I guess it isn't hard to see how someone who felt like that could eventually be overwhelmed by the world, but just kind of hoped he'd manage to squeak by somehow and keep making music along the way. 

I always thought it was cool that he spent a little time living in my old hometown, where his family has roots. But those achingly beautiful songs, fragile as blown glass...I can't believe there won't be any more of them.

Thank you for everything, Mark.