02 February 2007

Get Your Ass to the Altar

It gives me a thrill to piss off right-wingers. I aspire to do it each and every day. I try to imagine what they look and act like when they read our leftist tracts. First, they get all red-faced and angry. Then they start thinking about all those liberals they despise--Dirty Hippies, feminists, the French, homosexuals, the Clintons, atheists, and all those flag-burning, unpatriotic Commies who won't allow them to list the Ten Commandments on the backs of cereal boxes. And then, you know what, I think they start crying just a bit--maybe a low whimper. They sob when they reflect upon how things used to be (although we all know things were never actually that way). And when I imagine all this, I smile--hoping I have contributed in some small way to their general unhappiness.

The right-wingers are all in a panic now concerning marriage and its possible demise as an institution. An article last week reported that fewer than 50% of women are now married. More and more of them are living on their own. The neanderthals really came out of their caves for this one. How could this be--if women are living alone, well, this could signify the rapture. What next?

If you have read the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, you are familiar with konservative kolumnist Katherine Kersten. She was particularly livid about these marriage statistics. One of the most disturbing aspects of Kersten's response was that she focused on the evidence, the data used in the original New York Times article. Now read that last sentence again: konservative kolumnist Kersten questioning the validity of evidence. These are the same people who claimed, several years ago, to have found a link between abortion and breast cancer--even though no fucking evidence ever existed for that connection. But they never really cared about the evidence did they? These are people who still refuse to believe the 99.97% of all scientists who have said that global warming is a serious problem. Any yes, these people also believed Terri Schiavo was alive and kicking because Bill Frist saw some pink in her cheeks on a video recording. It's damned difficult to listen to arguments about weak evidence coming from people who want to take science out of our schools and replace it with intelligent design.

Shouldn't we all be happy that women no longer must depend on men. I see this as a positive development. Maybe women won't have to remain in abusive relationships any longer. Maybe women can select their own careers, raise children on their own, and make independent economic decisions. I haven't written anything yet that sounds like the rapture. Oh, but what about the poor men in this new world order--maybe they are no longer necessary. They don't appear to be needed economically......and maybe they are not even necessary for THAT anymore (must be 18 to see this link). Men are simply limp shells of what they used to be: providers, hunters, protectors, and breadwinners. Now they are just impotent NASCAR fans with low-paying jobs and little to contribute.

Seriously, here is where konservative kolumnist Kersten really misses the point. She and her fundamentalist brethren are always suggesting that single and poor women are better off economically when they are married. But is that because of marriage itself.....or is it because of the economic disadvantages that the American capitalist system has forced upon poor and single women? I think the latter. Why not a
higher minimum wage for some of these women in low-income jobs? How about guaranteed health insurance.....and child care.....more family leave benefits....and some education loans and job training? How about free contraception for teens and young women instead of lectures and hassles? Maybe some of these benefits would allow single women even more independence.

Oh, but then fewer of them would be rushing to the altar. Face it, konservative kolumnist Kersten and her ilk care little about poor women, single women, or women's issues in general. What they care about is forcing some abstract notion of family values upon the rest of society. But it's clear that their values are worn-out, pseudo-Victorian, fundamentalist snake oil. If Kersten and others wish to help single and/or poor women, they will start looking at unfair economic policies and the evils of unfettered capitalism. And they would quit attempting to foist their tired and hypocritical morals on the rest of us.

dew (and I thank L.P. for contributing ideas via our discussions)

01 February 2007

Book Review: Letter to a Christian Nation, submitted by Doctor J

Another fine book review by Doctor J. And I like his advice that, "you must buy this book. You must read it. Then read it again. Then give it away to someone who needs to read it...and ask them to do the same." If you are stimulated by this book and the topic--pick up The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins--also a current best-seller.

In this short book—91 pages—author Sam Harris explains to American Christians that he does not accept their religious belief because of its lack of intellectual rigor. That is, he has no faith in religion because it cannot be touched, tested and verified. More importantly, Harris (above) warns of the danger Christianity poses to our society and the world. Of course there are many kinds of Christians—dozens of denominations and myriad levels of intensity and fundamentalism. Letter to a Christian Nation (Knopf, 2006) invites everyone, Christian and otherwise, to read and talk about their ideas in the spirit of open and learned discourse. Herein lies the rub. There are Christians who won't read this work because they are forbidden to engage in open and learned discourse, much less have ideas. These are the most dogmatic creationists, those who believe the world was created only six thousand years ago and look forward to the time when it will be gloriously destroyed as a prelude to their Man-God's return to save all true believers and damn the rest to eternal suffering. These people won't read this book due to the fear instilled in them by those who claim to speak for their god—a vengeful Father-God who prohibits any opening of eyes and minds to any interpretation of reality other than its own. The rest of the Christians, and those of us in other categories—the more reasonable, the less frightened, the less hateful, the more open-minded ones—will read it, fortunately, and will consider its straightforward ideas regarding religion, belief, and reality. And when we have done so it is our charge to find a way to keep the fundamentalists from taking over this country and destroying it in the name of their god.

This may sound alarmist, but Harris cites public opinion surveys that show 53% of Americans are literal creationists who believe the Earth to have been created from dust and divinity about six thousand years ago. Fifty-three percent of anything is a big number so, yes, these people already shape our society and institutions and they are not shy about their agenda to dominate it entirely. The creationist agenda includes (but is not limited to) the destruction of science education, to be replaced with so-called intelligent design; the destruction of a woman's right to control her own body by gutting, then strangling, and finally killing Roe v Wade; the display of religious icons in public places (such as the Christian Ten Commandments in public schools and government buildings) to indoctrinate and threaten society at large and—you may wish to sit down for this—to hasten the end of the physical world so their beloved Man-God can return, give them their well-deserved heavenly splendor for being such good followers, and perpetually punish everyone who doesn't agree with them.

Sure, this sounds crazy. There's a good reason for that, but here's the really alarming part. These people vote en masse. Scarier still, they get elected or appointed to office themselves (G.W. Bush and John Ashcroft come quickly to mind) and bring this apocalyptic wet dream to the job with them. Fundamentalist Christians WANT THE WORLD TO END. They dream of it, they pray for it, they live for it. And they base all their belief in this end as a desirable one on a literal interpretation of a book.

These fundamentalists, THE MAJORITY OF AMERICANS remember, believe a book written by dozens of authors over scores of years is the literal word of their god. You may have heard of it. It's called the Bible. This book, a collection of letters, sermons, essays, parables, warnings and more than a few quite unintelligible ramblings, has been edited and re-edited dozens of times, whole chapters banished and others added at intervals spanning centuries. It contradicts itself hundreds of times as a result. Yet we must live our lives according to its every word or we get no reward when the end we so desire arrives.

OK, says Harris, let's live by this book. God says, when one's child is "out of line" we must beat him with a rod (Proverbs 13:24, 20:30, and 23: 13-14). If he "talks back to us, we should kill him"(Exodus 21:15, Leviticus 20:9, Deuteronomy 21:18-21, Mark 7:9-13 and Matthew 15:4-7). Can any of us honestly say we would be alive today if our parents had followed these edicts? Add to this that "we must also stone people to death for heresy, adultery, homosexuality, working on the Sabbath, worshipping graven images…and a wide variety of other imaginary crimes." Which of us shall cast that first stone at the homosexual? The Christian political official who cheats on his spouse? The fundamentalist Wal-Mart employee who works on Sunday? The creationist schoolchild who pledges allegiance to the flag each day? What about the gay politician who leads the pledge of allegiance in a workplace on a Sunday campaign stop? Is there anyone more worthy of public execution? What about anyone who has ever masturbated? They are condemned to be killed by their communities as well. Let he who has not done that cast the first stone. Come on. I dare you. I thought so. Yet 53% of Americans profess to believe this and live their lives accordingly. Of course they tend to pick and choose which parts of the bible to follow literally. You can bet most don't kill their children even if it means their eternal damnation. You can also bet if you masturbate they'll cry out for yours.

That archaeology has proven the Sumerians discovered glue almost 7000 years ago—a thousand years before the Earth was created according to creationist belief—won’t dent the thought process of this majority, or their elected favorites. This is a profoundly disturbing reality. Stone-age technology and culture are well-documented on five continents. That's more than ten thousand years ago. Dinosaurs? The entire idea is either a secular, scientific, liberal humanist, Darwinist conspiracy or they were on the ark with two of everything else. And if you don't belief this you are denying god and banished from its heaven. Worse, you are delaying the great catastrophe that will bring the end to this universe and fucking up everyone else's rapture. Who do you think you are? Again, this is 53% of Americans. How does one rationally argue with another individual who is so deeply psychotic as to ignore verifiable reality because it denies his hopes of fire and brimstone hurled by a hateful god at people who disagree with them? How does one argue with a majority of his countrymen who are locked into this self- and other-destructive mentality?

In an effort to begin this dialogue I could ask questions, as Harris does, of the Ten Commandments (universal to all religions in tone, Christians are the only ones to have these handed down in stone), of Christianity's views regarding morality and atheism (Hitler was a proud Christian and is, presumably, in heaven today. As an atheist, I have no chance to go, a rather comforting thought, really. Who wants to spend eternity with Hitler?) and, especially, of Christianity's assault on science, reason, and logic, i.e. evolution. But that may discourage you from buying this book.

And you must buy this book. And you must read it. Then read it again. Then give it away to someone who needs to read it (and everyone needs to read it) and ask them to do the same. Yes, it's that important. No other developed nation on earth, says Harris, believes in a literal interpretation of a religious text to the extent Americans do with their Christian Bible. "Our country," he writes, "now appears, as at no other time in her history, like a lumbering, bellicose, dim-witted giant. Anyone who cares about the fate of civilization would do well to recognize that the combination of great power and great stupidity is simply terrifying." Literal Christians are a numerical majority and as such constitute the single most dangerous threat to our nation and the world today. It is the duty of all rational, thinking people to understand that threat. This book is the primer for that education.

In my world you are, of course, free to believe Harris' arguments or not, just as you are free to believe in literal creationism. In a creationist's world you are not free to consider anything but the literal word, contradictory and inhumane and hateful as it is. But you do owe it to yourself and to all of us to look at both sides. Then decide which world you want to live in. One world is controlled by people who will buy any story on faith, follow any rule out of fear, pay any tithe, deny any reality, hate anyone their magic book and its un-seeable, untouchable, unknowable god tells them to. The other is a world where ideas are shared, considered, debated, verified or rejected by observation and analysis, and ultimately respected. One world denies reality, the other investigates it. One world seeks death, the other life. The choice is an easy one for rational people.

Christianity, like all religions, was invented between 8000 and 6000 years ago, after human beings had adopted agriculture as a social and economic system. A steadier food supply, more permanent dwellings, and a rhythmic work schedule allowed far more free time than was available to their hunter-gatherer ancestors and this free time was used, in part, to develop a psychological relationship with nature. Part of that process was the invention of gods. This occurred in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas all, more or less, about the same time. Man invented God about two thousand years before creationists believe that God invented Man. These are traceable, testable and verifiable facts.

Poor Jesus Christ. He comes along and has his name attached to a generally decent set of ideas, thousands of years in the making, adding his own charge to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Then, over the next 2000 years, small-minded, power-mad, hateful people take that long history and positive message and turn it into bullshit that serves only to divide as it begs destruction for all who disagree with it. It almost makes me wish I was wrong. It makes me wish he was actually coming back. I'd love to see the look on his face when he sees what these people have done, and are doing, in his name. But, of course, he's not coming back. Lucky for them.

30 January 2007

Reading Poetry by M.J. Workman

What a lovely essay by our fiction writer M.J. Workman. After digesting this post, I know many of you will be inspired to find some poetry to read. Or even better, to write something yourself and present it at a local open reading night. We all look forward to more poetry discussions from Mr. Workman.

The philosopher Nietzsche wrote a brilliant essay called “The Use and Abuse of History.” I haven’t read it in years. But I don’t have to—I can remember what he said about art and literature. Far too often, said Nietzsche (“for that was his name,” as a student of mine once said after mentioning Emerson in the first line of a paper) teachers and would-be shapers of thought inadvertently use art to kill art. They present Emerson or Shakespeare (for that was his name) or some other genius and proceed to demonstrate the “true” meaning of the poem or essay.

I can remember how mortifyingly dumb I felt in my first college English classes. I would read a poem, say, form an opinion of its meaning only to have the learned professor so explain the poem that I felt like a certified dunce. The subtext of the earnest teacher’s words were seared into my brain: the poet was a genius and I’m not. So get used to the idea that you had better never try to write poetry. Irony: of course the professor meant to be inspiring us to love literature and read it for the rest of our lives, the notion being that once we were taught the correct way to read one abstruse poem we would be able, on our loney, loney, to read and “understand” true art.

Now Nietzsche himself isn’t exactly hammock reading, to quote another one of my former students, but his point in “The Use and Abuse of History” is clear. By holding up masterpieces to untutored minds and deciphering them, the student is likely to walk away feeling like crap, knowing that poetry sucks, and that he or she could never create anything worthwhile, whether as a poet or composer or whatnot. So, don’t even think about it big boy. Have you considered dentistry? And it pays a lot more than poetry writing. So does plumbing.

But the irony is only half complete. Virtually no one reads poetry for pleasure—it’s “hard work,” to quote our Commander in Chief—but millions of scribblers, usually girls under the age of 17, write stuff that rhymes. No one, apparently, has told them that no one today who knows a lick about poetry obsesses much over rhyming. What used to be dismissed by some as “blank verse” has carried the day, much to the chagrin of some old fogies who once taught, “lit tra chure.”

To help me make my case I summon to the witness box none other than Billy Collins, America’s poet laureate a few years back. He writes in his Introduction to his readers in his influential anthology of contemporary verse, “Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry” (2003).

“I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out.

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with a rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.”

There’s more, much more from the pen of the hugely talented and influential Mr. Collins. I promise to call on him for inspiration often and promise and to quote him and others in the future. So, for now (to borrow the late, great political commentator, Edward R. Murrow’s signature sign off) “Goodnight, and Good Luck.” M.J. Workman has other poets and some people you might not be accustomed to thinking of as poets up his sleeve whom he promises to discuss and quote in future columns. The Lord willing, as my mother would say.


29 January 2007

On Fighting the System

I have been planning to write a post on the antiwar movement (or lack thereof) for some time now. My friend, and frequent Books and Bait contributor, Enrico Salvatore (Ratso) Rizzo even sent me several recently published articles on the topic (here and here). And on this past Saturday, as you probably all know, there was huge antiwar march in Washington D.C.

As I reflected further on this topic, however, broader questions and themes kept creeping into my mind. For the most part, the past few decades have been discouraging for our side. The left has gained little and our constituents have not done well either. My thoughts began to focus on questions of what we should be doing things differently. And of more importance, what is our mission (the left) and what can we hope to achieve in this skewed political system of ours?

Forget the immediate issues for just a moment. American society is and has always been dominated by an entrenched elite. Generally speaking, that elite is wealthy, white, and male (the patriarchy); heterosexual and Christian. And these folks want to hold onto their power--don't forget this for one minute. Then there are those of us who wish to dramatically change and/or alter this corrupt American system. From Daniel Shays, to the abolitionists, to the women's suffrage movement, to the Black Panthers....."leftists" have been trying to challenge the elites for hundreds of years. But have we made any progress?

Fighting these powerful interests is a 24/7, lifetime job. Yet, as difficult as it seems, the elites must always know we are out there. If we weren't, what would happen? Take a Jimmy Stewart/It's a Wonderful Life view at what the country would look like without us. There would be wars being waged constantly (which is actually pretty close to reality). Would there be money for social programs, I really doubt those greedy elitist bastards would fork over anything for pregnant teens or the homeless if they didn't have to. Would they pay a decent wage or would they just go where the cheapest labor was located (isn't that Globalization)? A national religion? Wiretaps, free speech, police-state......? You get the point.

These people are extremely ruthless. And every time we seem to make some progress, they make adjustments--adapting to our small gains. They are also experts at using their minions in the media to spread their propaganda: patriotism, nationalism, god, religion, and all that classless society crap.

So where are we--and where did this rant begin? It's easy to get discouraged about the Iraq War, it's still going on and more troops are being dispatched. The antiwar movement has not been as strong as we might have hoped, The rich are getting richer, and the poor are gaining little. And the fundamentalist wackos in South Dakota are proposing yet another anti-choice law. But we have to keep at 'em, every single, solitary day. We have to stand toe-to-toe with the system and demonstrate that we aren't going to quit, because that's exactly what the elites want. They think they can wear us down--keep us holed up at our desks with new consumer goods to make us happy. And every time we let our guard down, they solidify their power just a little bit more.

Read, write, blog, bitch, scream, think revolutionary thoughts, protest, question authority, boycott products, volunteer at a homeless shelter, talk to friends, yell, attend meeting, join organizations, take to the streets, give money, listen, speak, ask questions, reflect on the powerless, and get damned angry about those who have held the power in this country for much too long. And when one of their mindless foot soldiers laughs and suggests that your protest, boycott, or letter to the editor doesn't matter--think otherwise. It does matter--it matters to them.

I don't expect the system to change too much in the next 40-50 years (that would be my lifetime I hope). But I plan to keep trying while also being a general pain-in-the-ass to the power structure and all of its supporters. Howard Zinn (pictured below) was once asked how he maintains his positive attitude when things seem to be so bad in this country for progressives. Zinn said, you lose, you lose, you lose, and then you win! And you keep doing that over and over. Their side holds the power, we don't. We have to work that much harder to get what we want.

Some Reading Material on "Fighting the System"

C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite
Saul Alinsky,
Rules for Radicals
Michael T. Klare, War Without End
Emma Goldman, Living My Life
Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival
anything by Howard Zinn or Jonathan Kozol