News and Reflections

I’ve developed some new health problems of late. One is hellacious gas that makes me swell so big that it’s obvious, another is pain in my groin, and the third is pain in my left jaw. I had a CT-scan last week to see what the groin pain is about; I’m taking two drugs for the gas (they’re not helping much); and Kirk (my internist) suggested a fatter tooth guard (I’ve slept with a tooth guard for thirty years) for the jaw pain.

I’ve also gotten to where I go out in the backyard in my underwear. It’s usually for only a moment to take out the trash or empty the compost, but sometimes it’s for a little longer. The people in the house behind me live higher up, and they have a home office in their windowed back porch, so they can clearly see me. I just figure that, hell, I’m as covered-up as people would be at the beach if the beach in Oregon wasn’t so cold.

Another thing I do is to walk around naked indoors with the blinds raised. Peggy doesn’t like this, so she’ll come along and close them. It
’s not that I’m an exhibitionist, it’s that I don’t care. The thought that I live in a society that watches movies with gratuitous nudity (nearly always on the part of young females), but objects to neighbors in their underwear or naked in their own houses is something I’m unwilling to honor.
Peggy took a trip to the coast with two friends last week, and one of them came back with food poisoning. The diarrhea got so bad that her husband had to go to the store and buy her some diapers. I laughed to think that he never dreamed he would have to do something like that when they were young and he mistook her for a goddess. I also knew that he was mad about her going on the trip (because of the expense), so I hoped he was kind to her while she was sick.

I’m better than most at observing people closely enough to know what they need. A common example would be that if Peggy and I are in the kitchen, and she washes her hands, I’ll hand her a towel, so she won’t have to get one off the hanger at the end of the counter. Peggy doesn’t watch me like I watch her, and it sometimes hurts my feelings that she doesn’t know I need help when it seems so obvious. I think to myself, how can she not know? The reason, of course, is that she isn’t paying attention, but how is it that I pay attention, and she doesn’t? I know she loves me, but I also know that she’s often oblivious to my needs, and I can’t put the two together.

The Lane County Fair is in progress, and I live across the street from the fairgrounds. I have a double driveway, and people need a place to park, so I sometimes flag them down and tell them to park in my driveway. Yesterday, about 3:00 in the afternoon, I did this in my pajamas because I saw someone who was trying to fit his car into too small a space and who was old enough that I wanted to spare him and his wife a long walk.

Other kinds of charity I engage in are that I give money to street musicians as long as they’re not so bad that they hurt my ears, but I’ve yet to give a penny to a panhandler. Peggy has strong feelings against giving money to beggars, so she was surprised when I started giving money to street musicians. “They’re at least trying to earn it,” I said, “and it is only a dollar.” I also help people when I happen upon someone who needs help, and I give money to various charities—Public Broadcasting, Sierra Club, Freedom from Religion Foundation, American Civil Liberties Union, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, all but the first of which are considered dangerous by conservatives. I only give a little more than what will pay for membership, but I tell myself that I will make up for it when I’m dead. They’ll need the money as much then as they do now.

A month ago, Peggy and I were visiting Mt. Angel Monastery when we met a traveling homeless man with a husky. He wanted the monks to let him camp in their woods, but they said no, but that if he would go back into town, the nuns at the convent might have a place for him. It being unusually hot that day, Peggy and I did something that was extraordinary for us, we took him and the dog into town to the convent and left him in the care of a gruff but hopefully caring nun. He could tell that we weren’t completely happy about helping him, so he said that he would be okay with walking, but I said that it wasn’t him we were helping, it was his dog because his dog was suffering in the heat. Indeed, if he hadn’t had that husky, he would have been on his own.

I find in the music of Taizé a feeling deeper than words and a place where doctrine is irrelevant. Tears roll down my cheeks. I find it hard to even walk, and I’m in a daze when I try. It’s as if the key has been found to some lock within myself, yet I’m not a believer, and even Taizé is powerless to make me a believer. Still, Taizé represents to me what religion should be, that is a source of peace, beauty, and inclusion. I trust that the people who wrote it and are performing it are reaching out their arms to me rather than consigning me to hell. If all Christians were open-hearted this way, non-Christians might even respect them
Many atheists regard religion as a weakness at best and a mental illness at worst, and this leads them to reject religious art and music. For years, I was this way, and I still won’t purchase the “gospel” music that I grew up with, although I’m moved by some of it. My reason for avoiding it is that it contains too many statements about blood, belief, and heaven for me to relax into it. Also, I know that the people who I went to church with as a child would want to exclude me from enjoying it just as they exclude me from their churches, so I’m content to leave their music and their churches to them. 

I shared the video link with my Christian friend, Robert (Rhymes with Plague), and since the words of the first selection mean grant us peace, he asked who it was that I thought would grant me peace. I often feel that believers are trying to convince me that I’m not a real atheist. I wish they were right, but I’m as real as it gets regarding non-belief in the supernatural because I can’t look at the misery that pervades our world and see God in it. Still, when it comes to what is in my heart, I can’t completely let go of religion either because if it’s not true, then what’s the point? This world alone simply isn’t enough for me because it contains so much sorrow and because every life ends in death. Even the good I experience is like a dessert that I only get to taste before its taken away (I refer mostly to my relationship with Peggy). 

P.S. If you’re open to being consumed by this music, you need to lie down and be still, but I have no thought that my atheist readers will be open to it. I just think they’ll feel sorry for me because I love it.

Peggy is also an atheist, and last week when we were hiking atop Indian Ridge and enjoying the view of mountains from Hood to Thielsen (about 250 miles), I asked her if she had rather live with the sadness of knowing that we will be soon separated by death, or would she prefer to believe in something that she now considers a myth. She said she had rather believe. I’ve always thought that the desire to believe was indicative of weakness, but issues of strength versus weakness become less important as one’s need (if not one’s desperation) increases. I can hardly condemn a person for believing that which I too would believe if I could.

Peggy is in awe of the fact that I can stop-up a toilet instantly because, if not for the toilet paper, she couldn’t stop one up in a week. She doesn’t exactly envy me my talent, but this doesn’t prevent me from grunting, pointing, and curling my biceps if I drop a major bomb while she’s around. In June, we spent the night at Oregon Garden, and I stopped their toilet up just as we were leaving our room. There was no plunger, and I was too embarrassed to leave the problem to them, so I unstopped it with my hand.

One of our schnauzers would eat used dental floss, and it would  make his shit come out like a rosary. This would absolutely scare the dickens out of him, so Peggy would have to take the end of the floss and pull. There are some jobs that I am happy to leave to her, especially in public where I try to look the other way and pretend I’m alone.

If I wrote more personal posts like this, more people would like my blog. It’s not that I don’t know how to please people, but that I write about what occurs to me and in the way that it occurs to me. I lost two long-term face-to-face friends (and, therefore, a surrogate granddaughter) recently because of a post (, and that was very hard for me and even harder for Peggy, but I couldn’t apologize because here is where I am who I am, and people can either like it or not. Maybe this makes me sound hard, but my goal is to present to my readers the best gift that I can give, by which I mean the gift of myself at my core. If they reject that, they’re rejecting me, and there is really nothing I can do but to let them go.

Benevolent Inquisitors?

My hero, George Carlin*
“Politically correct: conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated.” Merriam Webster

Now, who could oppose that? Moi! Tooth and nail! Hammer and fist! Feather and pillow! But why? What could have made me so depraved? I
’ll tell you.

To begin with, freedom of speech is guaranteed by the U.S. Bill of Rights. To whit: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” After 200-plus years, PC has discovered that the founding fathers couldn’t tell their asses from a hole in the ground, making it necessary for us to do precisely what they forbade.

PCers seek to accomplish legally what terrorists attempt to do with bullets, that is to silence anyone who disagrees with them, although PC is more dangerous because when the law opposes freedom, dissidents are without appeal. It
’s also true that the methods of terrorists are counter-productive, except among true-believers and PCers anyway. When cartoonists and filmmakers are murdered, PC maintains that they brought it upon themselves.

Until PC can make its values into law (as, they’re fond of saying,
has already been done in the rest of the civilized world), they’re stuck with extralegal intimidation to whip people into line. Peggy’s former employer (Peace Health, no less) not only fired people for non-PC remarks, it encouraged employees to rat on one another for saying the wrong thing in private conversation, both at and away from work.

PC would seem to offer something to everyone since all of us are treated badly by someone for some reason. The young are considered naive by the old, and the old are patronized as doddery by the young. City people regard country people as hicks, and country people joke about city people being squirrelly. Depending upon the person I’m with, I’m considered inferior for reasons of age, accent, gender, atheism, race, rurality, nationality, slowness to speak, and various unpopular values. PC promises a world in which I would never again be consigned to a box of inferiority, but since they themselves
consign me to one, I have no confidence in their honesty or their benevolence. 

My opinion of the politically correct is no better than theirs of me. I consider them humorless, shallow, and no more kind and inclusive than the Gestapo. People who live by a narrow set of rules and seek to use intimidation to force those rules upon others can only bring misery into the world. It’s not the apathetic who terrorize people; it’s the idealists.

Force cannot create virtue. Repress sexuality and you get perversion; demand honesty, and the result is evasiveness; force niceness, and you encourage bitterness combined with cunning.

Since college students are its major proponents, PC is likely to become increasingly dominant. Chris Rock expressed his reason for no longer performing at colleges this way: “…they’re way too conservative.... Not in their political views — not like they’re voting Republican — but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody. Kids raised on a culture of “We’re not going to keep score in the game because we don’t want anybody to lose.” Or just ignoring race to a fault. You can’t say “the black kid over there.” No, it’s “the guy with the red shoes.” Now, students are recording lectures so that they can pick them apart for signs of microaggression.

I have long voted Democratic because Republicans only seem interested in the freedom of corporations and evangelicals, but now that most Democrats support laws against
hate speech, I’m left without a viable option.

By presenting its values as kind and inclusive and everyone elses as fearful and hateful, PC allows no middle ground and no room for open examination or well-intentioned disagreement (even the term politically-correct sets it against being politically-wrong).

Another hero, George Orwell
It dismisses and marginalizes by mislabeling. If you oppose illegal immigration, you’re a racist. If you oppose gay marriage for any reason, you’re a homophobe. If you oppose abortion, you’re either a paternalistic male or a female victim of male paternalism. If you refer to yourself as your pet’s owner, you’re a speciest. And god forbid that you call anyone a mailman or a waitress, because PC isn’t a matter of the heart but of the vocabulary, no matter that its vocabulary is narrow, euphemistic, patronizing, ever-changing, glaringly inaccurate, and dismissive of diversity. For instance, the term Negro was changed to black; black became African-American; and now African-American is giving way to person of color; all while the word white lingers on. Could it not be that this inability to get it right where Negro Americans are concerned arises from a discomfort with blackness, and could it not be that the whole PC phenomenon comes from a wish to deny one’s bigotry?

PC is another name for liberal-speak and while much of the country remains conservative, liberal-speak has become compulsory in the winning of elections and in the keeping of home and job. Conservative leaders might vehemently oppose many liberal positions, but they don’t dare refute liberal vocabulary.

PC substitutes name-calling for argument. PCers don
’t refer to those who disagree with them as mansplainers or whitesplainers in order to encourage intelligent discussion but to make it impossible. Accusations of fear and hatred against those who don’t use PC terminology accomplishes the same thing. If I say that Islam is a violent religion, I must surely be an Islamophobe (PC regards religion as benevolent without regard to its violence and bigotry). If I call someone an actress, I must surely be a misogynist, or if I refer to someone from China as an Oriental, I’m obviously a sinophobe and therefore an embarrassment to my friends and an object of derision to PCers.

PC not only penalizes people for holding the wrong values but for asking the wrong questions. Are there intellectual differences between women and men, and are black people better dancers? God forbid that one should wonder.

If you want to see what PC would look like if taken to its logical conclusion, read the following description by
self-described human rights activist and writer Tanya Cohen:
If people like Cohen succeed, the only people who will be fair game for criticism will be those who oppose PC. As she puts it, “Hate speech (i.e. political incorrectness) doesn
t just lead to violence, hate speech is violence.” Perhaps, you’ll be pleased to learn that, by her definition, you’re reading a blog that’s filled to the gills with hate speech and that it’s owner is proud of it.

*Carlin photo by GreyGeezer. There was a day when people like Carlin, Orwell, Thoreau, and Abbey were heroes to the young. Now that they’re pariahs, I fear for our future because if the young despise liberty, the camps will surely follow.

Reflections of a Rebel regarding flags and such

Howitzers at Bull Run  (I think artillery is beautiful)
In 1962 or ’63, I attached a small Confederate flag to the antenna of my family’s car. Thousands of people did the same, and mine made me feel united with my town, state, and region, for we saw ourselves as the victims of a second Northern invasion. White Southerners had been lumped into one basket and despised, ridiculed, and portrayed as stupid hicks, and the Confederate flag united us with virtuous ghosts and represented our attempt to hold our heads high by looking to our valorous past.

As I matured, I went from not thinking at all about the causes of the Civil War to wondering why the hell all those guys who were economically hurt by slavery were willing to die by the hundreds of thousands so rich men could own slaves. I no longer believe that they saw themselves as fighting for slavery but rather as fighting against an invasion by a part of the country that then, as now, looked down upon the South. Because I hold this view, I found Obama’s remarks on June 26, even more offensive than usual:

“Removing the flag from this state’s Capitol would not be an act of political correctness, it would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers, it would simply be an acknowledgement that the cause for which they fought, the cause of slavery, was wrong. By taking down that flag we express God’s grace.”

I deplore his over-simplification, and I deplore his claim that he and God think alike (the worst ad hominem attacks that I regularly hear from flag
detractors claim that both God and every decent human being can clearly see that  flag supporters are no better than Hitler). It’s also true that politically correct people never claim to be acting out of politically correct motives. Like Obama, they don’t say that their goal is to stomp their enemies. No, no, no, they say that they only want to promote kindness, decency, equality, acceptance, and inclusivity, all of which are words that bring a happy flutter to the heart and a joyful mist to the eye. How is it then that they are so quick to vilify, harass, and marginalize anyone who disagrees with them? I don’t write this as one who feels any great love and loyalty for the South. After all, I left the South in 1986 at age 37, and the militant conservatism, intolerance, and religiosity that caused me to leave have only gotten worse. Still…

I agree that the Confederate battle flag shouldn’t wave in front of state capitols, and I think it’s long past time that it should be removed from the Mississippi state flag, but now the drive is on to change street names, remove the statues of racist governors from statehouses, remove the Confederate flag from Confederate positions in national battlefields, and take the statues of Confederate soldiers from hundreds of courthouse squares all over the South. The man who owns the old Dukes of Hazzard (a childish TV show from the ‘70s) car has even announced plans to paint the U.S. flag over the Confederate flag on its roof (to be consistent, he  needs to change its name from the General Lee to the General Grant). The goal appears to be the erasure of every evidence that something called the Confederate States of America ever existed. Can anyone seriously believe that this push is being made by people whose only desire is to create a society that values all of its citizens, and that they have no interest in rewriting history, dishonoring the dead, and trampling upon the feelings of  Southerners who value their Civil War era heritage? 

The General Lee
I have consistently seen statements by Obama—and many other politicians who hold the public’s attention—as destructive rather than healing. I’ve also observed that politicians who were fine with the Confederate flag two months ago have suddenly had the revelation that vehemently opposing anything vaguely associated with the Confederacy is simply the right thing to do, the thing that God would have them do.

Our national response to tragedy is often focused upon scapegoating and symbolism rather than substance. For instance, instead of calling for an understanding of police racism, politicians and activists are content to vilify individual cops and sometimes whole departments. I think one reason for this lack of curiosity is that t
hey would anticipate being accused by the politically correct as trying to justify racism. It’s far safer to act as if the problem is caused by the willingness of individual cops to embrace evil for no reason whatsoever. That half of the cops in the Baltimore incident were black is simply ignored. Clearly, if a fact gets in the way of what one wants to believe—in this case that individual white racists are the problem—it’s easier to ignore the fact than to reconsider the conclusion. So it is with this push to abolish everything Confederate from public view, the implication being that 150 year old symbols of a complex war can be reduced to one issue, racism, and by getting rid of the symbols, we’ll be less racist.

Again, I’m not defending the war. It was an unjustified war in which more Americans died than in WWII
—although the population was far lessand for what? But it wasn’t slavery for which all those Southerners fought. Only 4.8% of white Southerners owned a single slave, and the other 95.2% suffered from having to compete with unpaid labor. This economic competition was not only caused by the presence of house servants and field hands, but to skilled laborers as well. Slavery hurt nearly everyone in the South, so Obama’s claim is either naive or disingenuous. It’s simply a politically correct rewriting of history by a man whom many people will believe simply because he’s president. As with other inflammatory remarks Obama has made, violence will come from this, but in this case, it won’t be directed at cops but at individuals who persist in displaying the flag.

I think that an important reason for the Civil War was the same as for most wars, namely, one side felt disrespected by the other. The American Revolution, for example, wasn’t only about taxes and representation, but about America’s perception that Britain regarded the colonists as yokels. Canada eventually won the same freedom we enjoy without a shot being fired, so I don’t see our war with Britain as reason for pride but an indication of impatience and failure. Every war we’ve had with the possible exception of WWII was just such a waste, so are we to rid ourselves of every reminder of those many wars? Of course not. This isn
’t about justice and consistency, this is an attack on the South, the white South, and white Southern politicians are jumping on the politically correct bandwagon right and left to save their careers.
When I heard that a woman was to be put on our paper currency, I hoped she would replace Andrew Jackson (a long ago American president). Not only was he a slaveholder, he was racist to the point of genocide. It was my Indian ancestors that he forced on that wintertime death-march from Georgia to Oklahoma, so rather than paying him the respect of keeping his picture on a $20 bill, I would like to tie his corpse to my bumper, and drag it through the streets. Such is my hatred of Andrew Jackson, but where does the desire to wreak revenge and sanitize history end?

All of those old white politicians—Lincoln included—were the enemies of black people, yellow people, and red people, if not for what they did, then for what they didn’t do, and I resent this singling-out of the South as the bastion of racism. It wasn’t moral superiority that kept slavery out of parts of the North (many people don
’t realize that some Northern states had slavery), it was the fact that slavery is much more practical in an agrarian economy, and  the North was industrial. Besides, those slave ships were often built in, and sailed from, Northern ports with Northern crews; and since the North’s own economy was based on low pay, child labor, no benefits, long work hours, unsafe and unhealthy conditions, and offered no options for social or economic betterment, many of its workers were only marginally better-off than slaves.
Property covenant

My house in Oregon was built in 1955, and the deed stipulated that it couldn’t be resold to a non-white (see item 8 at left). Most Oregon towns had sundown laws, which meant that a black person had to leave town before sunset. Oregon also had a Klan powerful enough to swing elections. Things were so bad here that the NAACP pronounced Portland (Oregon’s largest municipality) the most racist city on the West Coast. Everything it could do to keep black people out—and to persecute them when it could no longer do so—Oregon did, yet all of these liberal Oregonians by whom I’m surrounded look down upon the South as the home of virtuous but persecuted black people and ignorant rednecks who get up in the morning trying to figure out how to make the lives of minorities more miserable. It’s a self-congratulatory view based upon ignorance on the part of people who have no knowledge of modern-day life in the South and no knowledge of their own state’s recent history. They’re also blissfully unaware that the latest black migration is to the South rather away from it, and they read nothing into the fact that, to this day, few blacks live in the Northwest.

After MLK died, and Northern cities (by which I mean cities in states that stayed in the Union in 1861, a list that includes California, home to the Watt’s riots) started to see race rioting, Southerners cheered for the same reason that Palestinians cheered when the U.S. was attacked on 9/11. We had told one another that the Freedom Riders were hypocrites who found it easier to fix problems a thousand miles from home than to cure the ills in their own backyard, so we were glad when their chickens came home to roost. Likewise, I heard my classmates cheer when the Kennedys and King were killed, and while I was mortified (I wrote to Jackie Kennedy, and her response is below
), I knew that the reason they cheered had to do with enduring well over a century of contempt and ridicule. When I was a boy, the South still felt the scars of the Civil War and its aftermath, and it saw the Civil Rights movement as nothing more more than the latest episode of Northern harassment.

Letter from Mrs. Kennedy's office
A few years ago, word went around my atheist group that it had been scientifically proven that the more convincing the evidence against the beliefs of conservatives and evangelicals, the more tenaciously they cling to error. Supposedly, the same doesn’t apply to atheists and liberals whom, as we like to see ourselves, are open-minded and readily admit error. Yeah, right. To fight for something is to become invested in it. When the Civil War started, both sides believed that the first battle would be the last and that their side would be victorious. While picnickers looked on (picnickers who would be running for their lives when the bullets and cannonballs started coming toward them), 60,000 men fought and 5,000 of them were wounded or killed—along with a few civilians. Because they won, the Confederates made the hasty conclusion that their enemies were cowardly, and, because they lost, the Yankees decided they were going to have to take the rebel army a lot more seriously. Four years and 600,000 lives later, the South surrendered, defeated not by men but by a scarcity of resources. I was two when the last Confederate veteran died, and I am honored that our lives overlapped. 
Perhaps, I inherited—from my father if not my region—the willingness to stand firm despite social pressures. This can be either virtue or vice, but we all must choose between thinking for ourselves and letting others think for us, and the mere fact that millions of people jump on the same bandwagon at the same time, leads me suspect that they’re not thinking for themselves, and that they’re likely to go to destructive extremes. A friend told me yesterday of his respect for the South Carolina woman who climbed the flagpole and took down the Confederate flag. If she had stolen something he respected, I have every thought that he would be outraged, but since the theft was of someone else’s sacred symbol, her lawlessness was transmogrified into virtue. Such is the climate today regarding any and all reminders of the Confederacy images: get rid of them now, get rid of them all, and if people or laws are in your way, too bad for them.

Rather than seeing the Confederate flag as having any number of meanings to any number of people, and seeking a dialogue in which everyone is heard and everyone’s rights and feelings are considered, it’s far easier to follow Obama’s lead and dismiss all things Confederate as nothing more and nothing less than symbols of slavery. That way, you can immediately start tearing down flags, removing portraits, destroying monuments, repainting a car from an asinine ‘70s TV show, comparing white Southerners to Hitler, and marginalizing anyone whose holds competing values as well as anyone who counsels slowness and dialogue.

Likewise, when someone goes into a church and murders nine people, it’s ever so easy to blame the problem on the fact that the shooter was a white, Southern, conservative male. This politically correct approach saves an enormous waste of intelligent thought and inquiry (saves it for what, I don
’t know), as well as the odious possibility of having to confront one’s own prejudices against people who are white, Southern, conservative, and male.

The Confederate flag is only evil in the minds of those who hate it, and assuming racism on the part of its supporters doesn’t eliminate racism, it only forces people into warring camps. A parallel is the tendency to assume racism on the part of every white cop who is involved in a violent interaction with a black person. Nothing is done to eliminate racism, but a lot is done to inflame silly people, to conflate
assumptions with facts regarding the motives of white cops, and to judge their behavior from a position of ignorance about police-work. Likewise, labeling mass murderers as evil, racist, fanatical, and so forth provides no insights into their behavior and no means by which to discourage others from following in their footsteps, but it sure saves having to think.

For the first time since the early ‘60s, I feel an allegiance to the Confederate flag. My reasons are as follows: part of me will forever remain a Southerner; I deeply resent the rewriting of history; and my sympathy is usually on the side of the marginalized, although I often take a contrarian view about whom is marginalized. I consider it grievously wrong to dishonor dead Southerners who died for what they believed was right. As with those who fight in America’s senseless wars today, the worst that can be said of them is that they were young, rash, ill-informed, had a surfeit of testosterone, and were tragically naive about the realities of war. These men dressed in gray were no more and no less evil than the soldiers in blue against whom they fought. To the extent that they had it in their hearts to do what was right, I honor them all.

Destroying every remembrance of those who lost a war is what people do when they want to gloat instead of unify. I interpret this drive to eliminate every evidence of the Confederacy as like a cancer that will spread as far as it’s permitted and without the least regard for those whom are harmed. It’s fascism just as much as the Klan is fascism. The damage done by political correctness isn’t so obvious as the damage done by the Klan, but its stated values are just as farcical. While the Klan pretends to promote Christianity, the politically correct pretend to promote inclusivity, but how accepted do you think millions of white Southerners are feeling right now? If you’re like many, you don’t care. You take a get out the way or get run over approach to making the world a better place, and I wouldn’t object to it nearly much so much if you didn’t claim to be working in the interest of kindness, tolerance, and inclusiveness, because that
’s a lie.

I never trust any defense of suffering that is unconcerned for those who are doing the suffering

Peggy didn’t at first see the little mammal step in front of our van, its mouth full of sword fern. As we examined its corpse, we realized that she (for it was a she) had been a rare animal known as a mountain beaver, a member of the oldest rodent species on earth, one whose humble ancestors witnessed the end of the mighty dinosaurs. In an instant, her bowels had been ripped from her body, her blood splattered on the ferns she had dropped in a final moment of panic. The excrement that lay atop her viscera suggested that she would have needed a bowel movement soon, and this plus the evidence of her nest-building, reminded me that she was more like us than not. Peggy was inconsolable, and I could but stand with my hand on her shoulder as she petted its broken body and apologized though her sobs.

We camped at 4,600 feet in a field of daisies from which the land fell away steeply on three sides. A snow-capped Cascade peak stood to our east, an unnamed mountain a mile to our south, and the Coast Range on the western horizon. Darkness found us enjoying stars, planets, and the faraway lights of Eugene. The next day, we walked through meadows filled with bear grass (see photo below), but thoughts of the mountain beaver were ever with us. Peggy spoke of it as a tragic accident; I as evidence that most of our choices are, at best, of doubtful morality. But what are we to do? I can easily argue that it’s unconscionable to kill animals for their fur, but to argue in favor of staying home so that I might avoid causing death on the road... 

When our schnauzer, Wendy, came out of the woods one day looking enormously pleased with herself, we soon realized that she had the still warm corpse of a baby rabbit in her mouth. It was a case of innocence killing innocence. I was eight when I killed my first animal—a robin—and I felt guilt rather than joy, so much so that I had my Granny cook the tiny bird for my supper so that its death wouldn’t have been in vain. When I was a teenager, my girlfriend and I often bought boxes of KFC and ate them under the post oaks at Brookhaven, Mississippi’s Exchange Club Park. By then, I had become almost as amoral as my schnauzer, a state that allowed me to enjoy that chicken with unblemished joy. 

I’ve swung back, but what am I to do? Even vegans must kill, but the harm they cause goes well beyond that. Truly, our species  paints the earth with blood, and there is no way out. Someone said that if I care so much about saving the lives of “animals,” I had best kill myself. No, I thought, I had best kill you and a hundred others like you who don’t give a shit about anyone’s misery but their own. Better yet, I should kill the CEOs of companies that profit from death. (I would not have you take this as a serious proposal because to murder in the name of a reverence for life would be no less absurd than to murder in the name of a loving God.)

This same critic complained that people like myself think we’re better than everyone else, but my thoughts are more complicated than that. First, while a great many people bring more misery into the world, they still manage to live in greater consistence with their values, while I regularly act in opposition to mine. Second, while I consider my values in this regard to be more rational and compassionate than his, I don’t assume that they make me an all-around better person. Third, I renounce the arrogance of exalting our species—or our group within our species—as being at the forefront of virtue, so I try to avoid it. Do I succeed every time and in every way? No, but I’m aware that to fail is to alienate, and to alienate is to harden people, and to harden people is to make the problem worse.

What I can
t do is the one thing that my critic demanded, which was to agree that the killing of animals is morally acceptable for him because he can do it with a good conscience. This honor diversity approach to ethics removes ethics from a foundation of  bedrock and places it upon a foundation of wind. Could there be anything more absurd than an ethic toward other creatures that doesnt take their welfare into account no matter how inconvenient doing so might be for us? Such a human-centric value system sees other creatures as little better than inanimate objects.

The honor diversity approach to ethics rests upon how a given person feels about a behavior, rather than upon the impact of the behavior upon nonhuman (and oftentimes human) lives. Its so heavily focused upon an individual's feelings and desires, that my critic didnt even think to refer to the feelings and desires of the animals he kills. And why should he? If non-human animals have few if any inalienable rights, they might as well be inanimate, and why should anyone mourn for what amounts to a furry toaster on legs, except—as their detractors portray them—for those perennially angry women whose shrill voices beg for kindness to animals while caring not a wit for the problems of human children; and for their equally squeamish, tearful, bookish, and anemic male counterparts, whose failure to shed unnecessary blood proves that theyre not real men, for a real man isn’t content to simply shoot a deer, he must bathe in its blood, while snorting Jack Daniel’s, the "real man’s whiskey" from the Tennessee wilds, no less. It is the only initiation ceremony that most American boys will ever receive.

I am firmly in the camp of the critics. To repeat: our relationship to other animals is almost universally premised upon the belief that other animals have no significant rights, which means that the morality behind killing them hinges upon how a given person feels about killing them, and that no consideration need be given to the creatures that are being killed. My view is that some behaviors are always and everywhere shamefully and abominably wrong no matter how many people approve of them. For example, rape, slavery, gender and racial discrimination, the use of steel-jaw traps, female genital mutilation, the individual accumulation of unlimited wealth, killing in the name of God, over-breeding animals and destroying the excess, permitting the poor to die for a lack of healthcare, and the wearing of fur coats as a fashion statement. These things are all wrong all the time without exception.

While I don’t doubt that many people do many things with a perfectly good conscience, having a good conscience doesn’t make it okay to oppose dignity, freedom, and the right to live life as one thinks best. For a meat-eater to demand that a vegetarian say that killing animals is okay for those who think it’s okay is no different than for a Moslem to insist that, while mutilating the genitals of young women might be wrong in my culture, it’s okay in his, and he wants me to respect that. In the case of my meat-eating critic, I doubt that the cows he kills are interested in whether he kills them with a good conscience, and I
’ve yet to hear of a young girl who joyfully had her genitals mutilated so that her husband wouldn't have to worry about her having an affair.

Would I not be happier, though, if I was an up-with-people kind of guy and could go back to my KFC-in-the-park days? Yes, but what kind of person would wish to believe things that he honestly considers wrong? Here is how I see my species:

We are a singular species in that, except for those microorganisms that might evolve to the point that they threaten our existence, we rule the earth. So far, we have been able to survive all
that nature has thrown at us. I think that our degradation of the environment might change this, but it has been true so far.

We interpret dominance to imply superiority. Our attitude as a species is similar to the attitude of the U.S. as a country. In short, we could kill all of you foreigners. Sure, our culture and education is dropping ever deeper into the toilet, but, by god, we have more bombs than the rest of you put together. Hell, we could wipe the Middle East off the globe today if we wanted. Hence, we feel superior even though we keep losing wars. As we see it, we are God’s chosen nation, which is similar to how the human species regards non-human life. Because we have creative minds and opposable thumbs, we imagine that we are superior to every other life-form on earth. By exalting our gifts—both real and imagined—and deprecating the gifts of other species, we become as arrogant as a species as the U.S. is as a country.

Once we regard a species, a race, a gender, or an ethnic group as inferior, we can trample over their rights with a good conscience. I have a racist book—that I bought from a black preacher no less—entitled The Negro, a Beast or in the Image of God? The author’s answer could be found by looking at the many drawings of stooped, tuxedo-clad, ape-like black men with lechery in their eyes who were marrying refined, straight-standing, Aryan-looking white women. We take the same track with other species. We alone are in the image of God, therefore we can dispose of everything else without compassion. Too many unwanted dogs? Kill the mongrels even while breeding genetically inferior pedigrees. Bears and mountain lions forced to the outskirts of ever-expanding suburbs? Track them down and shoot them, or else tranquilize them and move them to the backside of the wilderness (which is pretty close to what white Americans once did to Indian Americans). 

By dismissing the worth of other people and species, we can bring untold misery into their lives with a clean conscience. March for civil rights in the morning and eat steak in the afternoon. Hear about justice and compassion in church, and go clothes-shopping for products made in sweatshops by yellow-skinned foreigners whom we regard as inferior to ourselves because they are yellow-skinned and work in sweatshops.

How is it that so few people make the connection between our unfair treatment of other species and our unfairness toward other humans? Life is life, and to imagine that our species, or our group within our species, is more worthy of life than all others is to  ignore facts that don’t serve our purpose. What I wish for us is that our eyes would open so we could see ourselves for what we are. What are we? We are the only species that can—or needs to—rationalize, and this enables us to live in a bubble of illusion that has grown so big as to threaten our existence. 

A major period of mass extinction is in progress, and the fact that we are to blame makes our imagined superiority absurd. We live by an un-falsifiable premise, namely that we are superior to all other species, no matter what we do. Just as Christians attribute goodness to God despite cancer, mosquitoes, malaria, Alzheimers, and the rape of children by clergymen; we attribute goodness to ourselves despite slavery, poverty, sex-trafficking, endless wars, denial of medical care, and preventable starvation. We imagine ourselves to be in the image of God, not because we are good, but because we want to surpass the criminally insane God of the Bible in terms of power, knowledge, and immortality. After we reach "his" exalted state, we can relegate him to the sort of second-rate comic book superhero that prepubescents discard at adolescence.

As for those strange-looking people who work in sweatshops, what is their dream but to come to America where they can be as exploitative as we are? We are not a good species; we are a species that has a largely unmet capacity to do good things. If we were a little more evolved, perhaps we could be a blessing to the earth, but as it is, we are a curse.

An attempt at further explanation as inspired by Philip and Linda

“Symbol Rock is on the divide between the McKenzie River and Fall Creek…It was used by the Indians for ceremonial vigils.” —from the 1,073 page compendium Oregon Geographic Names

Holy, sacred, numinous, immanent, spiritual, mystical, and transcendent, are words that few atheists use and that most hold in contempt because they are principally used to describe the supernatural. Because atheists deny the existence of the supernatural
—or anything else deserving of the word God—they regard such words as only descriptive of human experience, and, by refusing to use them, deny themselves the ability to express that experience, often holding that they are superior to it.

Just as oil and canvas are the vehicles of a Van Gogh painting rather than its essence, the essence of Symbol Rock is beyond
physics and chemistry. If I say that it is soaring, magnificent, breath-taking, and awe-inspiring, my words will be too tame, too generic, too low-flying. I prefer numinous, by which I mean that it GLOWS with a presence that rises immeasurably above my own in terms of beauty, grandeur, timelessness, and, sad to say, detachment. Sad, because I want Symbol Rock to care. I want Symbol Rock to need me, or to at least look forward to seeing me each year when the snows melt because then I might feel safe. But what am I to a 40-million year old basaltic intrusion (an intrusion is a subterranean body formed from magma and, where visible, later exposed by uplift or erosion)? Nothing, I should think, but I am comforted by my inability to know.

I recognize that my desire to believe that Symbol Rock cares about me is similar to my desire to have a dog reassure me that I
’m loveable and therefore worthy of survival. This is what people often seek from God. They imagine that if they pray enough, or help other people enough, or kill other people enough, God will love them and “…make all things work together for their good…” I too need a deity who cares, but I don’t have one. I do have Symbol Rock and its hundreds, if not thousands, of Cascade Mountain relatives. In most of the American states, any one of them would be a major tourist attraction, but because of Oregon’s abundant beauty and scant population, they are only visited by those few who are drawn to them in the same way that other people are drawn to cathedrals. I say, those few, but I’ve never seen anyone in such places. Once I rise higher than Oregon’s rivers, reservoirs, glacial lakes, volcanic lakes, and waterfalls, I seldom see or hear another person in the back country except on those unusual occasions when I visit the High Cascades. If there is heaven on earth, it exists in Oregon, but few people care enough to see it.
I would call Symbol Rock God, and I want my remains to rest upon it. But why God, why not Symbol Rock? Because only God seems adequate for it and for many other things—probably for all other things if my eyes were open to see it. If I were to think of it in lesser terms, I might as well call it Spot or Tippy. But isn
’t my species vastly superior to a mere rock by virtue of its intellect? Intellect is no more superior to Symbol Rock than a fart is to a typhoon. Intellect is but an evolutionary adaptation that’s inferior to many other adaptations, but Symbol Rock exists without fears, ends, or the possibility of loss. It represents Nirvana, a state in which there is no need for adaptation and no direction for evolution.

Even though we humans could use our intellects to grind Symbol Rock into gravel for our logging roads, this proves our deficiency rather than our supremacy. Like Bramha, Vishnu, and Shiva, Symbol Rock represents a universal power that creates, preserves, and destroys worlds. Like Jehovah, it represents the singular, the all-encompassing, the I AM THAT I AM. No less than the stars, it stands for pure being. Through it, I touch wonders beyond wonders, and I see my own fallenness, my own inability to rise above the low estate of being human. It tells me that the only way I can transcend myself is through death because this life is but a spark of temporal insignificance.

I often wonder if the American Indian blood that I inherited from my Granny makes a difference in how I see things. I just know I can be neither a good atheist nor a believer in the supernatural, yet to most people, there exists an obvious line between the two, and a person must stand on one side of that line or the other--or live in eternal doubt as an agnostic. I fit nowhere, but there is that within me which is like the pressure within a volcano, and I can no more deny its expression than I could plug Mt. St. Helens. It points to that which is greater than I, and while I can’t call it the supernatural, I must call it something.

On the love of Christ

Last week was awful and this week worse, what with being too nauseous to eat; too fatigued to be up; and too headachy to read, blog, or watch TV.  When I wasn’t actually asleep, I brooded over getting old, over the recent loss of a friendship (and my partial responsibility for its demise), and over my terror of the day that Peggy’s death or mine will separate us. I also grieved over the fact that my life has no “spiritual” dimension, at least none that includes people beyond this blog.

I was so sick that I went cold turkey on every drug that I dared, a state that lasted until yesterday when I finally felt well enough to do yard work. During my time in bed, Brewsky was acutely aware of my suffering but at a loss what to do, so he finally settled on walking into my room from time to time and staring at me. I did manage to read for a few minutes at a time from three books, one of which was Honest to God by Anglican Bishop John Robinson (1919-83), the cofounder of “secular theology,” which I think it would be fair to describe as follows:

“To believe in God as love means to believe that in pure personal relationship we encounter, not merely what ought to be, but what is, the deepest, veriest truth about the structure of reality. This, in face of all the evidence, is a tremendous act of faith. But it is not the feat of persuading oneself of the existence of a super-Being beyond this world endowed with personal qualities. Belief in God is the trust, the well-nigh incredible trust, that to give ourselves to the uttermost in love is not to be confounded but to be ‘accepted,’ that Love is the ground of our being, to which ultimately we ‘come home.’”

I would ask Bishop Robinson the same thing I would ask Christ: if you and your neighbor have an infected tooth, and you can only send one of you to the dentist, and you love your neighbor “as yourself,” who do you send? I question that I’ve ever known a Christian who struggled over such decisions. I’m sure some have—Simone Weil and Dorothy Day, perhaps, and maybe one or two of you—but for the most part, such decisions don’t revolve around whose needs should be met but rather what luxuries one can afford for oneself and one
’s family.

I’m not saying that Christians are bad people (many are surely better than I), but rather that they live by an unrealistic standard that appears to have come to them through social inheritance rather than personal commitment. It seems to me that they are obliged to twist themselves into pretzels to rationalize their way out of obeying admonitions that I consider as clear as they are appalling. Yet, I was in my early twenties before I had my first hint that other value systems even existed, a realization that came to me by way of Ayn Rand and Frederick Nietzsche. Whatever their flaws, they expressed what I had long known to be true about myself, namely that my love couldn’t be freely given but instead had to be earned through my faith in the goodness of my beloved, particularly as it related to his or her commitment to me.

When I think of what it must be like to love as Christ commanded, my thoughts invariably go to Peggy because she is the only person with whom I don’t count the cost. For some of the people I know, I might go so far as to give a kidney, but to her, I would give all of my organs and consider even that an act of supreme selfishness because such is my debt to her whom I love more than I love myself. I have even asked myself if there is any amount of torture that I wouldn’t endure on her behalf, but I really don’t know because how could I claim the strength to voluntarily endure for so much as an hour when I’ve known what it was like to count the seconds?

But while many no doubt love as deeply—and as limitedly—as I, how can any of us claim to love everyone with the all-surpassing love with which Christ was said to have loved us, and to which it is surely the duty of all Christians to aspire? I cannot imagine that such a thing is even possible, but if it is possible, it would surely be a case of intellectual assent rather than deepest emotion. It would involve saying, “I will do this (whatever this is) because I know I should,” instead of, “I will do this because every cell within me says that my supreme good lies in it, and that by doing it my existence will be justified.”

When I was a Freemason, I took a vow that I would risk my life to save a brother Mason if there was more than an even chance that I could save him without dying in the process. I don’t know how many Masons would go even that far, but if the Bible is right that, in his mind, Christ freely died a horrific death for people he didn’t even know, then his love for us must have been similar to my love for Peggy. If such a love for humanity as a whole is even possible, I would be surprised, but if I have ever actually known anyone who could even love most of his friends—much less people he didn’t know—that deeply, I would be astonished. I simply know that I could neither do it nor even want to do it, yet it is just such a love that has given my life meaning.

This isn’t to imply that my behavior toward Peggy is worthy of the value that I place upon her, it being, perhaps, easier to spend a moment dying for someone than a year living for her. Truly, if I—being, as I believe, no worse than others—can’t succeed in loving one person well, and this after 43-years of practice (I am far from being modest), I can well understand why a Christian would beat his or her chest while crying, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Though I am exceedingly rare among atheists for believing as I do, I agree with the
writer of Isaiah that,

“…we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.”

On being open-minded

Whether they’re liberals or conservatives, insecure people can’t tolerate profound differences, so their friends must do one of two things: agree with them or hide their disagreement. Such is the result of being members of a species that has evolved to find safety in tribalism.

I value no readers more than those who disagree with me while continuing to read my blog. The ones who go away mad sometimes complain that I’m judgmental. They list my failings (things about which they disagree), clueless  that every item on the list constitutes their own judgment. For instance, I’ve said that I hate nose-rings (I could give many such examples, but this is an easy one), which I grew up seeing on pigs. If I went to a new doctor, and he walked in with a nose ring, it would bother me. I would even hesitate to hire a roofer with a nose-ring, but I would hire him if he came well-recommended. Even so, I despise nose-rings, the moreso because they
’re so prominent that I can’t not see them

Some people would say that this makes me closed-minded, and that they don’t want to read the blog of such a bigot. I would say two things: I would never outlaw nose-rings even if I could, and if a doctor or a roofer who had one showed himself competent, I would still use his services. I would never make a nose-ring the sine qua non of anything, yet those who object to my hatred of nose-rings nonetheless dismiss my entire being as unworthy of their august friendship.

As for those who stop reading my blog because I hate nose-rings (again, this is just as example), I would simply ask: who’s being close-minded here? I hate nose-rings, but you hate people who hate nose-rings. So what’s the difference? Isn’t it ironic for a person to pride himself on being open-minded, only to close himself off to anyone he regards as close-minded? I think he should have a bumper sticker that reads, “I’m Closed-Minded Against the Closed-Minded.” What good does it do to boast of your open-mindedness only to reject those who disagree with you? It makes your open-mindedness into a feel-good position that is devoid of substance. It enables you to go to your ACLU meeting, your atheist organization, or your Unitarian Church, trash all manner of people, and come home reinforced in your opinion that you and your buddies are the crème de la crème, and that out there lie the ignorant, the stupid, the benighted, the accursed, the close-minded, the hoi polloi, and, worst of all, the Republicans. If you even believe in God, which you probably don’t, you can pray, “Thank you, Lord, for that thou hast made me open-minded, for my superiority over those who are close-minded is like noonday to the darkness of a cave.”

Here in liberal Eugene, it’s perfectly acceptable to heap scorn upon racists, loggers, ranchers, Catholics, conservatives, white Southerners, evangelicals, the poorly educated, and the grossly obese. While gloating over the hypocrisy of others, liberals are blind to their own hypocrisy. One wrote in response to my last post that he expected better of an atheist (that would be moi). Better of an atheist?! Does he see us as members of some rarefied elite? Fuck that! Atheists are no better than other people. Not one of us is pure. Not one of us has reason to boast of our goodness while rejecting others for their lack of goodness. I’ll tell you who is good, it’s the person who stops to help me when my car breaks down or I become sick on the sidewalk, and I don’t give a damn how he votes or what he thinks about the existence of God. Goodness exists in honesty, in helpfulness, and in being there for people and other animals. Aside from that, neither religion or politics makes the least difference. They’re side issues that have no more relevance than a whether one prefers candy or cookies.