Sunday, December 27, 2015
Many out there in the blogosphere would be astonished to see me writing this review. In some circles, after all, I’m now known mainly as an incorrigible homophobe and “bigot” (see post and comments here). My gay friends, familiar with my writing and thinking, are amused by the shrill labels I get online. Myself I’m less amused, but hardly surprised. The young American left, with its current LGBT fetish, with its discovery of “microaggressions” and “safe spaces”, has gone completely off the rails. Everyone who isn’t a nitwit can see what’s happening. And they are disgusted.
Yes, America is becoming a nation of ill-educated extremist morons. Both left and right are dumbing down at the speed of, well, at the speed of the Internet.
But here I’m going to write this review of a very gay novel, a supremely gay novel, because it’s also a damn good novel. And honestly, I’ve nothing against gays. My choice of academic study, back in the 1980s and 90s, was determined by two gay writers: Arthur Rimbaud and Max Jacob. It was also during those years of study that I set out on the road that later led to my conversion to Catholicism. Go figure.
The novel in question, The Mystery Religions of Gladovia, is by Bradley Winterton. An expat in Asia like myself, Winterton has worked over the years as a book and classical music reviewer in Taiwan and elsewhere. He’s reviewed my own books (for example here and here) and for a decade now I’ve been prodding him to take up literary writing. He’s finally done it.
But one shouldn’t think I’m writing this review to return Bradley any favors or claim some credit for the genesis of his book. No, I’m writing it because The Mystery Religions of Gladovia, out just a few months ago, is an impressive piece of work.
It’s the tale of two gay British men and their respective social circles, first in Europe, then later in a fictional South American nation named Gladovia. Matthew, who starts the narrative as a love-smitten teen in an English boys’ school, and “Lily” (an ironic nickname) who starts as a brutal young headmaster at the same school, switch off narrating their respective journeys to Gladovia, a developing nation of citizens with a lust for life and parkfuls of eager and silky-skinned young men. Winterton’s cast of characters comes to include European and other expats, as well as a variety of ethnicities of locals, many of whom follow a pagan mystery religion which makes an appearance early in the novel in the form of a Sybil, and which later comes to play a major role in Matthew and Lily’s awakening.
The book’s opening chapters established a sense in me that Winterton is here strategically compressing historical time. Although according to chronology the narrative begins somewhere in the 1990s, there’s a timelessness in Winterton’s early pages, evoking an English school environment that seems not so much 1990s as simply 20th century. Older readers might be reminded of Another Country and the other handful of boys’ school films to come out of Britain since. And it works. Without sinking into cliche, Winterton balances this background against his main opening theme: the pain of falling in love for the first time as a gay youth.
It is through the love-smitten schoolboy Matthew’s eyes that we get our first glimpse of the school’s brutal headmaster Lily, and learn something about his deftness with the cane. Matthew, showering with the other boys, glimpses the bright welts on the bottom of one of his schoolmates who’d recently been punished by Lily. He begins to suspect the world around him is not what it seems.
There will be many more sexually charged showers, and many more welts too. One reviewer in Asia has called Winterton’s novel a gay Fifty Shades of Gray. Though I consider the comparison an insult to the serious writerly craft of Gladovia, it’s true that BDSM is one of the main themes.
Becoming an adult, Matthew goes off to life in Holland. We also soon learn in great detail how Lily, deeply closeted in his school community, must take junkets to Europe to satisfy his desire. Winterton’s prose, whether on nature and geography or on the customs of gay men in different locales, is always smooth and fast, light of touch and precise.
In fact it’s this masterful style, along with the writer’s knack for suspense and structure, that is among this novel’s main pleasures. At the risk of turning off some American readers, I really should point out: Winterton is a thoroughly British writer, continuing a long tradition of literary prose. There’s absolutely nothing of Hemingway here. Winterton’s classic style is part of what establishes the feeling of timelessness in this book. What’s compelling about it, to me at least, is that it almost never sinks to stuffiness or the excessive wordiness of many of the classics. The writer has pulled off a great balancing act in this respect: his writing echoes the classic without the baggage that burdens many classics for 21st century readers.
Some might see a flaw in the fact that Matthew’s and Lily’s narrative voices aren’t distinct enough. I find some distinction, but not as much as might be necessary to give these two men markedly different voices. Still, it’s only the younger man, Matthew, who is eventually narrating sexual encounters bout for bout. These narrations occasionally edge on the pornographic without quite stepping over the line. Gladovia is an erotic novel, but not what often passes for “erotic fiction”.
Much of the book concerns the rules of the hunt: the nearly daily routine of Gladovian men and the book’s assorted foreigners in the capital city’s gay pickup spot, a spacious wooded park called the Royal Gardens. For the heterosexual reader, like myself, the dynamics of this routine reveals much about a certain sort of gay life. As do the two narrators’ musings on what it is that sets gay men apart from straight society--musings that often dwell on their marginality and oppression, but also on the advantages of being gay.
As for oppression, I neglected to mention that Headmaster Lily only ended up in Gladovia because he was forced to flee England. He’d been caught in a sting operation trying to engage in sex in a public restroom and given a citation to appear in court. Knowing that his career was henceforth ruined, regardless of how the case was judged, Lily contemplates suicide, but then decides to acquire a fake passport, drain his bank account, and flee Britain. It turns out to be the smartest thing he’d ever done.
Indeed Gladovia is something of a gaytopia, and both Lily and Matthew begin to lead the lives of erotic variety and adventure they were, as the book implies, created for. I won’t go into how the Gladovian religion relates to this, but will only say that the pilgrimage and ritual that occupy book’s latter pages are stunningly narrated, while the doctrinal end, the supposed mystery that the hierophant gives the seekers, is not all that impressive. At least not to me. But then I’m Catholic.
How does this book look through the lens of my Catholicism? At various times the characters engage in thoughts on the Church that are embarrassingly shallow. Lily, having seated himself in a Gladovian church during Mass, muses that Western science has basically disproven Christianity: “Science has long ago consigned all this talk of miracles and blood sacrifices to the rubbish heap.” The idea that the universe had a creator or that something of this creator can be known from the Bible? It’s all been disproven by science.
Of course this is nonsense. Science can only be said to have “disproven” Christian revelation if one reads biblical texts as if they’d been written as science treatises. Of course they were not; Winterton knows they were not; he has in fact very positively reviewed one of my own books which included an essay where I lay out the stakes of this widespread modern misconception of what biblical writers were up to.
I wouldn’t carp on this except that, once having dissed Christianity as a religion consigned to the dustbin of history by science, Winterton finishes his book by presenting the supposed power and truth of a different religion, the pagan religion of the Gladovians, which, somehow, amazingly, retains its mythic truth regardless of what science might have to say. In fact Winterton’s characters do not hold the ritualized paganism and nature worship of the Gladovians to the same standard they hold Christianity. The exotic foreign religion is powerful and deep, whereas Western religion is outdated nonsense. It’s a classic double standard, in the well-worn mode of Western romanticization of the foreign other. For after all, any empiricist of the dumb New Atheist sort could easily look at the Gladovian rites and priestly teachings and answer flatly: “All of this is mumming and nonsense. Science shows that all these actions and supposedly profound words are nothing but primitive mumbo jumbo.”
I don’t think pagan religions or Christianity (or any of the world’s religions for that matter) are mumming and nonsense. Rather, religion and its myths and rites is one of the key matrixes from which existential truths may reach us. Myths are not, as many modern people understand the term, stories that are lies. Rather they are stories that give narrative form to our deepest human sense of what we might be here for. This is true whether one believes in miracles or not.
But perhaps my presentation of Winterton’s approach to Christianity vs. paganism is a bit too schematic. He might argue, reasonably, that his characters’ response to religion is not so clearly polarized as I imply. Further that he never intended Lily to be a spokesperson for his own thinking on Christianity and how it relates to the paganism that finally plays such an important role in the book.
I could write more on Winterton’s suspenseful scenes of sexual servitude and mastery, the interesting struggle in some of the characters between love and pure physical pleasure (the hunt), but I will not. I haven’t read much gay writing to which I could compare this book, and as for my experience of BDSM literature, it’s largely limited to Sade’s work and Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs--i.e., I know the writers that gave us our words sadism and masochism, but not much of the later literature.
The SM theme is first brought in via Matthew, whose experience of being caned sets him into near transports. It’s deepened through the introduction of an Italian devotee of the BDSM cult. This latter character gets to narrate a handful of the books pages, his English a bit too heavily peppered with Italian phrases to be quite convincing. The novelist should have cut down this tic a bit. The SM theme culminates in a group scene involving Matthew, Lily, the Italian fellow and one other, the drama enhanced by the fact that Lily, the ex-headmaster, doesn’t know Matthew had once been a student under his tutelage.
What do Lily and Matthew’s lives in Gladovia tell us about the meaning of life itself? This is not an idle question, since ultimate meanings are often explicitly on the characters’ minds. In the view of both these men, the goal of life is the pursuit of beauty, youth and sexual pleasure. My question here would be: Doesn’t a steady diet of erotic adventure make one jaded? I would certainly guess so.
Winterton himself is a highly educated aesthete and bon vivant and is doing his best here to present both the pluses and disappointments of such a life. As a Catholic, I think beauty, youth and pleasure play crucial roles in human experience. But a life given entirely over to their pursuit is not exactly what I’d call a good life. And we are created, in my view, not to pursue fuck after fuck, but to pursue the good life, in other words: virtue. Virtue might include beauty (many great artists have been examples of virtue through their contributions to humanity) but it usually is not just that. In our contemporary world, with its mayhem and war and grinding poverty, with the machinery of capitalism run amok across the planet, virtue should also include engagement: activism, struggle against the dehumanization wrought by the system, acts of selfless love for concrete people in their trials and suffering. I’m afraid sex as presented in this novel risks being merely a form of self-centered consumption, which is bound to happen if sex is understood mainly as fulfillment of an itch. And if self-fulfillment is seen as getting as much sex and as much variety of sex as one can get.
If I decided to write this review, regardless of my thinking on the “consumer” ethics that drives so many of its chapters, it’s because Winterton’s book is so well written. It is not, after all, just a trashy romp through fuck after fuck. Rather, it seems to be an honest presentation of the struggles, moral and otherwise, of pursuing such a life. And yes, there’s no small sacrifice in writing a serious novel.
Near the end of Gladovia Matthew returns to England, heads to the idyllic Lake District made so famous by Wordsworth, and begins to feel lonely when a message arrives that someone is coming to visit him. Matthew isn’t quite sure who sent the message. I had my own ideas about who it would turn out to be, but was wrong. I won’t be a spoiler and reveal who it is. In any case, the book’s ending is a happy one, though a bit too happy I’d say. As in highly improbable.
But because I was wrong on my guess as to Matthew’s mystery visitor, I had to face the fact that one of the key utterances of the Gladovian hierophant would never be revealed in the book’s pages. Thus an additional shade of meaning is added to the mystery in Winterton’s title.
Is this the writer copping out, keeping the fateful words secret because, quite simply, he couldn’t compose them? Perhaps. It would be no small feat to write these words.
It sometimes happens that a novel appears, gets a few scattered notices in the press, then disappears. Were Winterton’s novel to be read by the right readers, get written up in the right places, I think it would be a hit. It could even make the author some money, which is rare for books that aren’t hyped by publishers. Gladovia was a pleasure to read, even for me, and I’m a bigoted homophobe. And a Neanderthal. And not a writer, but just a troll.
But I’ll spare you my thinking on gay politics these recent years and the authoritarian excesses of the LGBT movement. And on how they and I get along. For background you might go here if curious.
The Mystery Religions of Gladovia is now only available as an ebook. I think this is unfortunate, that a print version should be made available. But perhaps one is in the works, or will be soon.
Sunday, December 20, 2015
with “mainstream” Democrats.
I’ve voted Democrat in every election I could since becoming an adult--now thirty-plus years worth of Democratic votes. Still, I will not be voting for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. As an American Catholic on the democratic left, it is clear to me Hillary will not work for the things I believe in, and will in fact work for many things I don’t.
To anyone paying attention, certain unavoidable truths have hit home in recent years. As follows: Mainstream Democrats never actually fight on issues that might put them into conflict with Wall Street or the corporate boardrooms. Obama, on whom so many hopes were pinned, including my own, was a depressing enough example of this. I’ve had enough of it.
Since the Bill Clinton administration, Americans have lived in a one-party state. At present, the only substantive differences between our Democrats and Republicans, the only times they dare stand strongly for different things, are when the outcomes don't matter to the corporate elites now pushing our country, and our planet, into the ground.
Thus Democrats can be for Planned Parenthood, Republicans against it, because at the end of the day the 1% doesn't care if you're a mother of two or have had three abortions. The 1% don’t care because it doesn’t affect their bottom line. Likewise with gay marriage. Wall Street can continue its smoke-and-mirror games with our economy regardless of how marriage is redefined.
If you’ve been watching, like me, you’ll have noticed that these sex and reproduction issues are the only ones where mainstream Democrats actually take a strong stand, or indeed any stand.
Frankie Boyle in the Guardian put it perfectly. Assuming the Democrats will nominate Hillary:
The reality of what [Americans are] voting on in this election is something nobody dare express. They’re voting on the exact speed of the drift toward a future of armies run by corporations corralling permanently traveling communities of cooks, cleaners and sex workers, as they underbid each other outside the entrances to gated communities to ensure they’re the ones let inside to service the fortunate.By playing out sex and reproduction issues, Democrats somehow manage to bill themselves as "progressive", as “securing our future”. The American public, now childishly enamored of anything related to sexual rights, takes the bait. The public falls for what I’ve previously called the Progressive Corporate Agenda.
Meanwhile Republicans play the other side of this same small spectrum of issues, and get away with portraying themselves as "conservative" or "standing for tradition".
Looked at through the lens of left and right political theory, our Democrats aren't "left" or "progressive" in any meaningful sense and our Republicans aren't "conservative" or "traditional". They both abet the continued corporate takeover of our democracy and they're both big government parties, each handing out the bulk of their welfare checks to Wall Street and the corporations that funded the elaborate spectacles (called campaigns) that landed them in office. It’s a bait-and-shift scam, and those who continue to call it "democracy" can only do so because they refuse to step back and look at the big picture.
And so we've finally come to live, as I’ve said, under one ruling party, with the difference that our ruling party, unlike China’s, dresses up in two different colored jerseys so as to play out the same rigged game every few years. It’s bread and circuses, now without the bread.
Hillary Clinton is in my mind a circus candidate. Of course “everyone should like her”, as she said in the last debate. Everyone likes circuses, no?
I for one will no longer give the Democratic Party a pass on its fake leftism. I'm Catholic, politically on the left, an old school left, and hardly enthusiastic about the party’s current obsessive priorities. In years past, regardless of my differences on certain issues, I've stood with the Democrats because real democracy and social justice matter to me. As a Catholic, I’ve been able to put Democrats' mistaken support for abortion aside because I counted on the party to bring substantive progress in other areas: protection of jobs, sane conduct of war and peace, solid public education, a fairer playing field. Our current president’s performance (the ever-expanding surveillance state, the TPP, now this) has brought a turning point in my thinking. No more mainstream Democrats for me. No. For me, it's Bernie or nothing.
Come what may, I will not be voting for Hillary Clinton. I am on the left, she is a right-wing, pro-corporate candidate who can be counted on to stand up for abortion, an ever-growing LGBT dogmatism, the corporate elite, and precious little else. There’s nothing in it for me, as I support neither abortion so-called “rights”, nor the growing arrogance of gay activists’ witch hunts against any who dissent from their ever more stringent orthodoxies. (BTW: Though I’d always stood on the side of gay and lesbian rights, going back to the 1980s, I believe America’s new “marriage equality” agenda needs to provide space and dignity for those in dissent. Rather than reasonable constitutional legal protections, however, people of faith now face ostracism, crippling legal suits, the destruction of careers. This is wrong; it is un-American. Marriage is not a reality that has been “decided” by the Supreme Court, which has no mandate to decide any such thing. No, marriage at present is contested. As a committed pluralist, I believe both sides in this contest deserve space to live in conformity with their beliefs. That is not however what is happening, by any stretch of the imagination. Whether law suits, ruined careers, attacks directed at religious charities and schools--it is all due to a new gaythoritarianism that grows more arrogant with each passing season. My earlier support for the LGBT movement has waned to near zero. Bullied, they have become bullies. To tell LGBT activists to their faces that they have no right to dictate the whole culture’s marriage beliefs, education policy, etc.--this is not “homophobia”, it is merely life in a pluralistic culture.)
I am on the left, in the way that Pope Francis, the leader of my Church, is on the left. I see the West’s real challenges in the growing economic inequality we face, the reckless militarism, the corporate-sponsored destruction of the planet. Hillary has precisely nothing to offer on any of these fronts. Her record speaks for itself. She and her corporate masters do not deserve the support of any committed person on the left. If Bernie Sanders does not win the nomination, I will write in his name come election time. I’ve pledged to do so, and will keep my pledge.
Unless Democratic candidates will fight for our collapsing middle and working class, they deserve to lose. The 2016 election is an opportunity to send a strong message to the Democratic establishment: we Americans are not requesting that our elected officials work for us; we are demanding it.
American democracy is almost dead. If Sanders is not finally in this race, we will be faced with just another contest between two members of a currently regnant Corporate Party. That’s no longer good enough.
And yes, even if the GOP nominates Trump, even if they nominate Kim Jong-un, I will stick to my pledge. That, after all, is the meaning of pledge. Hillary Clinton will not get this American's vote.
Monday, December 7, 2015
To forestall any misunderstandings I ought to begin by acknowledging that I fully respect Richard Dawkins’ right to speak his mind. That such a mind has spoken, and at such length, can only be seen as a boon to the scientific community. With Dawkins, after all, we finally have incontrovertible proof that zombies can speak.
Of course we already knew, starting mid-1980s, that zombies could tie a tie. But the added proof Dawkins has provided of linguistic competence raises the zombie debate to a whole new level. And many other zombies--as demonstrated by “lively” discussions now splattered over the Internet--are themselves entering the lists in greater and greater numbers.
Though recent studies correlate high-functioning autism with atheism, in the case of the New Atheists I think the diagnosis isn’t apt. No, with this latter crowd it seems clear we are dealing with full-on zombism.
Whether Dawkins and other newly vocal zombies are what is called philosophical zombies or whether they are rather the traditional flesh-eating zombies is not a question I can determine here. Personally I incline toward the theory that finds in them elements of both. In any case, it is not the type of zombie that concerns me, but rather their sudden ascent to language.
What does it mean?
Whatever the answer may prove, my current interests lie more in what these zombies actually say when they do speak. Or when they write. Because Dawkins has also proven that zombies can write human-like prose.
From the start, when they first began talking back in 2004, I noticed that New Atheist zombies were liable to toss out all manner of interesting material, if only we paid them closer attention. It’s this, the oddness of their pronouncements, that’s kept me following them and their “work”. That they self-identify as atheists is secondary for me. Because in their pronouncements, it’s not so much the atheist element that stands out, but the zombie element. Non-zombie atheists, which may be found anywhere, and which have been around for centuries, are not nearly as avid in their sheer flippancy. Others have remarked on this too; with Dawkins and his fellows there’s a certain zombie panache that’s difficult to pin down.
For instance, Dawkins last year opined that we in the non-zombie community would do well if we aborted infants with Down syndrome. The remark was worthy of note for a number of reasons. First, it demonstrated a nascent zombie “desire” to play some kind of directive role in our societies. Why? Second, that zombies would presume to give us advice on normal human affairs is interesting in itself, almost as if my electric range were to start telling me how it wants the French toast made.
But I don’t want to be misunderstood here. Regardless of the politically lame and often horrific things Dawkins and other New Atheist zombies say, I believe we must continue to respect their right to say on. Further (because many have already started to think along these lines) even if we did have prenatal tests that could determine a child would be born with a mind like Richard Dawkins’, I would not be among those in favor of aborting it. Why not? Well, for one, the tests might be inaccurate. It’s happened before. And the possibility of error more or less ties our hands, ethically speaking. Myself, I would rather let a hundred babbling zombies live than abort one healthy baby by mistake.
Perhaps my position will be seen as extreme.
To what degree a person suffering from Dawkins syndrome is in fact an actual person like the rest of us is still hotly debated, but again, I think we should err on the cautious side. Zombies do have rights. Though I grant that their work does tangible harm to our larger culture, their innate idiocy has so far managed to undermine the influence they might otherwise have. In other words, we might as well let them talk on as much as they like since their own speech clearly proves their inhumanity to anyone with ears to hear. Rather than outright censorship, I think it sufficient for now if we simply keep an eye on them, all the while adamantly resisting their crazed efforts to change us.
Some fear we are on the brink of a Zombie Apocalypse. I think such fear is premature. Given the limited number of actual zombies out there, added to the aforesaid stupidity of their discourse, I highly doubt an apocalypse is imminent. Most people, so far, are smart enough not to be swayed by the shabby rhetoric these zombies deploy. Let us hope this continues.
There are so many sad questions raised by this zombie syndrome. Why it broke out so suddenly and with such virulence in the first decade of this century no one knows. We still don’t really understand the etiology of New Atheist zombism. More research is needed. Preventive medicine is, as usual, the best medicine. Once we’ve got a clearer understanding of what is turning these men (it is mostly men) into zombies, we can begin work to decrease incidence of zombism in future generations.
A careful study of the early years of the most prominent New Atheist zombies might provide helpful clues. With Dawkins himself, some have speculated that an accident at the time of birth or in youth may be to blame. Did perinatal asphyxia perhaps shut down the parts of his brain capable of spiritual intelligence? Or did he maybe, as a child, drink a bottle of laundry detergent, thinking it was soda?
Dawkins and Sam Harris are very possibly walking/talking evidence of the need for better child-proof packaging. It’s a tragedy really, for everyone. On the one hand, the whole English-speaking world suffers from their drooly teachings, their frantic construction of straw men; on the other, they themselves suffer through their utter inability to comprehend the human minds around them.
I often wonder what it’s like to live inside such brains, where all the neural activity is located in the mechanical and calculative sectors.
Oh, and the moneymaking sectors. The “Dawkins Circle”, after all, which Dawkins launched himself, is certainly proof that zombies can make a quick buck. Just look at the cult-like hierarchy of the organization, carefully designed to lure others who have drunk laundry detergent. Then consider the price exacted from sycophants each time they try to move up a level.
How does one become a member of this new religion?
Consider: For $1,000 a year you enter the first level, what is called the “Reason Circle”, which allows you discounts on cult merchandise and the chance to meet “personalities” from the Richard Dawkins foundation; but not Dawkins himself.
For $2,500 a year, the price of joining the “Science Circle”, you get a chance to actually attend an event where the Alpha Zombie will speak; but you won’t necessarily meet him.
Then come the “Darwin Circle” at $5,000 a year and the “Fifth Horseman Circle” at $10,000 a year. Those who have attained to the Fifth Horseman Circle will get to sit at a table with . . . Richard Dawkins Foundation Executive Director Robyn Blumner.
In fact if you want to get close enough to the center of this Zombie Circle Jerk to actually kiss the Ring of Reason, you’ll have to come up with a staggering $100,000 a year. That’s the entrance fee for what is called “The Magic of Reality Circle”, which I take to be the very rectal center of the organization. For your $100,000 cheque, you’ll get a private breakfast or lunch with Dawkins himself.
But don’t ask about dinner. Dinner is a different price scale entirely.
This is all as ingenious as it is zombiesque. Can one imagine non-zombie scientists like Charles Darwin or Albert Einstein creating such an organization? Or any of the prominent Western scientists who are also Christians?
Yes, it’s sad what can happen to otherwise normal humans when they fall under the spell of the Dawkins. Or at least it’s sad what can happen to those with money. Because look--the lower classes (even the middle classes!) are not meant to attain Reason in this particular pseudo-religion. Which leads one to ask--Why would anyone pay such money to sit by, and maybe, just maybe, talk with a zombie?
Myself I can talk with my coffee grinder any time for free. Like a zombie, my coffee grinder is entirely lacking in spiritual intelligence. So I don’t much see the need to spend my hard-earned money on the Dawkins model.
Again: How did we get to this point?
As a zombie is a human-like creature adept at simulating humans but lacking consciousness, so New Atheism is a religion-like phenomenon adept at simulating human meaning but lacking soul. New Atheism With the Dawkins Circle, Richard Dawkins is using a religion-like hierarchy to soak money, in sometimes substantial sums, from deluded admirers who want to say they sat next to him. Sure, founding his little cult demonstrates business acumen. But money is, here, largely a matter of the calculative. Dawkins’ success at this scam doesn’t do anything to controvert the sad reality of his zombie state: he and Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett with them, have brains in which all the eggs are in one basket. And the three of them together, along with a few frothy others, are swiftly on their way to becoming one Huge, Messy Omelet--an insipid, spreading, tasteless Omelet that those of us with human brains had best Keep a Close Watch On.
Of course a crucial part of this close watch will be the constant work of keeping these zombies and their repellent ideas away from Christian children. And Jewish children. And Muslim children. And Hindu children. The task is an especially difficult one because the young are so susceptible to the lure of virtual or mechanical things, as anyone knows who sees how quickly they take to video games. Consider that the relation zombie discourse holds to human language is similar to that which computer generated images hold to the real world. Further, New Atheist zombies understand that enticing our children into alignment with them is their surest route to dominating us. It is a perilous mix of factors. We must not let them succeed.
The arrogant and eggy certainties of the zombie mind must not be allowed to engulf our more flexible and receptive human minds--especially not our children’s minds: Christian children, Hindu children, Shinto children, Shia children.
As I’ve already mentioned Dawkins, Harris and Dennett, I should probably say something about Christopher Hitchens too, the so-called Second Horseman of the Arsepocalypse. Hitchens passed away three years ago. Though it’s still debated, I believe Hitchens was not in fact a zombie, though it’s true he exhibited increasing zombielike symptoms in later years. Hitchens himself attributed his esophageal cancer to a life of drinking and smoking, but I suspect a different culprit: the existential pressure wearing him down as the zombie part of his psyche struggled to push out the still human parts.
All of which raises the frightening question: Is zombism perhaps infectious? Did Hitchens maybe contract it from the wrong drinking buddies? God forbid. And yes, I mean the real God.
My basic point here is simple: If we let the New Atheist zombies speak on out of respect for the basic rights we still grant them, we must nonetheless be wise enough to take everything they say with a big grain of salt.
Like I do, when my refrigerator tries to tell me what juice to buy.
“Thanks for the advice, Siri,” I say, “but you can’t taste the juice, so why even get involved?”
And Siri says no more. Unlike New Atheists, she at least knows when she’s out of her league.
Which is why I prefer dealing with the simpler mechanical devices. They may say impertinent things now and then, but at least they’re not likely to go and start their own fake religion. I mean--Can you imagine a vacuum cleaner trying to tell us our place in the universe?
This and 42 other important public service announcements can be found in my new book Idiocy, Ltd.
Wednesday, October 14, 2015
That we were form’d . . . say’st thou?
. . . strange point and new!
Doctrine which we would know whence learnt: who saw
When this creation was? remember’st thou
Thy making, while the Maker gave thee being?
We know no time when we were not as now;
Know none before us, self-begot, self-rais’d.
--Satan in Paradise Lost, V, 853, 855–60
Though politically on the left, in recent years I’ve had to engage more in “culture war” issues, and my stance, being Catholic, is more aligned with the right. Thus America's neat polarization into a unified "liberal" camp and a unified "conservative" camp often puts me at cross-purposes. Given the odd and historically contingent way our camps are constituted, I can agree with neither side, which results in a political loneliness that prods me to think and argue at the level of philosophical differences. The arguments are necessary, because when such differences aren't plumbed, no actual communication takes place.
At least for myself this constant digging at the root brings some deeper perspective. During the Obama years especially, certain insights about what drives our American polarization have become almost second nature to me. My main frustration is that it's now nearly impossible to communicate these insights to liberal friends; the resultant feeling of separation, that I'm speaking a different language from nearly everyone, grows worse by the year.
How to get across what I see in our endless talking past each other--that’s the challenge. A challenge I fail time and again.
Writing on our liberal order back in the 1990s, Stanley Fish put his finger on the crux of what divides religious from secular Americans. He underlined just the kind of problems that nag me to no end every time I discuss the culture with friends, foes and that ever growing group: frenemies.
Fish, a literary critic and law professor, begins by contrasting the distinct ways of reasoning followed by Satan and Adam in Milton’s masterpiece Paradise Lost. This contrast is then taken as a lens through which to clarify our ongoing American scuffles. A fine lens it proves to be, and Fish’s article, appearing in the journal First Things, is compelling reading for anyone who wants to grasp some of the maddening paradoxes inherent in our “pluralist” culture.
Milton’s Satan, a self-conscious being unable to remember how he was created, concludes that he must have created himself or somehow arisen from his own being. As Fish rightly points out, Satan’s initial conclusion on this point colors all his subsequent reasoning: “The habit of identifying the limits of reality with the limits of his own horizons defines Satan--it makes him what he is and is everywhere on display.” To figure forth such a character, Milton had to be keenly aware of the stakes of seeing oneself as a self-made being. For Fish, and I would heartily agree, we Americans have largely lost such awareness.
Adam’s path, which is Milton’s own, is radically different. Adam, coming to awareness as a self-conscious being in a world governed by complex laws, and like Satan unable to remember his own creation, concludes that there must be a Creator. Adam’s goal as a conscious being is to know and connect with that Creator. His is a path, an epistemology, that the modern liberal mind can no longer so much as grasp in its implications. Fish:
I make the point [about Adam’s way] strongly because it is so alien to the modern liberal-enlightenment picture of cognitive activity in which the mind is conceived of as a calculating and assessing machine that is open to all thoughts and closed to none. In this [modern liberal] picture the mind is in an important sense not yet settled; and indeed settling, in the form of a fixed commitment to an idea or a value, is a sign of cognitive and moral infirmity. Milton’s view is exactly the reverse: In the absence of a fixed commitment--of a first premise that cannot be the object of thought because it is the enabling condition of thought--cognitive activity cannot get started.
Two philosophical points might be made about Adam and Satan’s distinct paths: first is that they begin with equally valid starting perceptions, equally rational reactions to the fact of self-consciousness in a universe; second is that they are both built entirely on initial gestures: for both Satan and Adam, the first step is a leap of faith, but it sets the course of all reasoning that is to follow.
Satan’s faith corresponds more closely to the secular liberal vision of human consciousness--that it arose from impersonal forces in a universe with no Creator. Adam’s faith corresponds to the religious perception: that there is a consciousness undergirding both ourselves and the universe.
But if both liberal and religious epistemology depend on an initial act of faith, and are thus similar in a way, the universes that come to be constructed on these different grounds will be radically different. What's more, those who hold to the path of Adam rather than the path of Satan will hold radically different elements of the universe as significant when it comes to constructing a system of values. And again this is a matter of the initial gesture. For both sides “evidence comes into view (or doesn’t) in the light of [that] first premise or ‘essential axiom’ that cannot itself be put to the test because the protocols of testing are established by its pre-assumed authority.” That is key: the authority in each case is a pre-assumed one. Once Satan’s initial assumption has been made as to his ultimate origin, his criteria for what will subsequently count as evidence in any given case is set. Likewise for Adam.
Fish’s point that these two approaches to truth are equally "faith-based" is no longer grasped in liberal culture. In my view, the widespread failure to grasp this basic epistemological insight is at the root of the endless miscommunication between secular and religious. For people of faith like myself, such miscommunication is often maddening, because, no matter how one tries to explain, the secular liberal sitting across the table just doesn't get it. But besides the fact of constantly talking past each other, there's another more menacing element in play. This widespread liberal inability to think to the depth of first premises results in a dangerous false assumption: namely, that their secular liberal viewpoint is somehow “neutral”.
I call it dangerous for various reasons. First, secular minds, unable to see the act of faith on which their worldview rests, are prone to assume that science and “reason” will always bring progress. Thus if we just let science and reason “run their natural course” (whatever that might mean) humanity will continue to grow more truly human. Amazingly, given the horrors of the 20th century, contemporary liberals still don’t see that this is little more than a shopworn 18th century ideology, a delusional misconstrual of the role of science. It seems their “postmodern” sophistication still hasn’t managed to unseat their deeper Enlightenment fundamentalism.
Second, secular liberals assume that those who argue against their conclusions are “scientifically illiterate”, an assumption that has led them to draw ideologically narrow borders around science itself. How so? Anxious that science is being offended against, they've upgraded its status to that of a "pure" and "universal" method, forgetting that it is in essence a philosophically grounded approach to acquiring only certain kinds of knowledge. Of course, when liberal thinkers accuse the religious of being scientifically illiterate, the accusation is sometimes true, but very often it is not. Educated religious people daily witness liberals tendentiously using scientific facts to draw ethical conclusions that don't necessarily follow from those facts. It's not the science that is at issue, but the way that science is used by liberals as a sort of exculpatory imprimatur.
The deep truth in all this is as follows: American liberals have become philosophically illiterate. Our secular liberals are people who can’t see that their own basic principles are not in fact grounded in the science they assume grounds everything. Their whole case rests on various leaps of faith no more rational or scientific than that of Adam in Milton's epic. Their worldview is a religion like other religions, except that they can't see that it is a religion. That they can't see its faith-based elements allows them to impose it with ever more authoritarian zeal. (In April, Yuval Levin argued persuasively that the liberal mainstream is in fact behaving as if it were the official national religion--and thus directly violating our Constitution's establishment clause.)
The danger this liberal blindness represents for a pluralistic culture is clear. If the faith of the secular liberal is that science and “open debate” will naturally lead to progress, what the smart religious observer sees is that this is not science, but merely scientism. And what Stanley Fish sees, and brilliantly underlines, is that the "open debate" the liberal order allows is usually rigged from the start.
But I've written too much here. I intended this post as an invitation to read Fish’s trenchant analysis. Aside from laying out the liberal hypocrisies I always have trouble getting my many frenemies to recognize, the article serves as a case study of how these hypocrisies affect even those who try to fight them. Indeed Fish shows that many who seek to defend religious insights still cannot think outside the box secular liberalism has put them in. As has been widely commented, the "liberal" vision, especially since the start of this new century, is growing ever more authoritarian in its basic gestures.
If you care, whether from a secular or religious point of view, about the deep gash running down the center of America, about why this gash never manages to heal, this article offers some solid answers.
Tuesday, October 13, 2015
I was sitting atop a cement traffic pylon near a busy intersection here in Taipei. It was just before class and I was smoking one of my mini-cigars before going in to teach. I had my umbrella leaning against the pylon--not a very good umbrella, the handle kept coming off and I needed to get a new one when I had the chance.
A well-dressed 60-something woman came by with her little caramel-colored dog on a pink leash. The dog was sniffing the base of the pylon and I was thinking: “This obasan is NOT going to let her dog piss on the pylon while I’m sitting on it.”
I was wrong of course. The dog started pissing, and the stream of piss was just missing my umbrella. I didn’t look at the woman, but kept my eye on the dog to let her know I saw how rude she was being.
And the dog, no more than a foot tall, just kept up its pissing. The piss flowed voluminously, almost amazing for such a small dog, until a broad puddle had formed just under me.
Then the woman went her way.
As I stood up to go, not a minute later, my leg hit the umbrella and it fell flat into the puddle. Oh, well. I decided just to leave it there.
I crossed the street and went into a little bakery to get something small to eat. I hadn’t had time for dinner. As I came out, there was the woman circling back with her dog. She looked at my umbrella lying in the piss, then looked round her a few times to see if I was still nearby, then reached down carefully to pick up the umbrella. She’d decided to take it!
Pulling a few sheets of tissue from her high-end, oversized purse, she began to wipe the piss off the umbrella. I watched her from the shade of the awning across the street. When she was done wiping off the piss, she continued on her way, heading home with her dog and my umbrella.
But she carried the umbrella by its handle. And the handle came off in her hand, the umbrella itself dropping to the ground.
Surprised, she glanced round her again, to see if anyone was watching, then looked down at the umbrella at her feet. Finally, in a gesture of frustration, she tossed the handle down next to it. She continued walking home.
Saturday, October 10, 2015
Even as a puppy her husky was averse to meat. It would beg for bits of salad at the dinner table. Her guests thought this amusing, but she warned them: “This isn’t something to laugh about.”
Later her husky would only eat grass. She hardly needed to mow the lawn.
She decided her husky wasn’t a husky, but a cow. Even two zoologists from the university agreed: “It’s a cow.” And the husky himself barked proudly: “Cow!”
Some pointed out this cow couldn’t produce milk, so it couldn’t be a cow. They pointed to the sleek gray fur, the pointy ears, the canine shape.
Then the Supreme Court weighed in: “It shall be called a cow.”
The husky was so happy at the news he barked all night for a week.
What's more, three of four academic studies have demonstrated he can in fact produce milk.
The community brings the dog salad upon salad. After months of this treatment, he’s gotten pickier. He demands romaine lettuce, only organic.
The kids in the geometry class I teach wondered why they weren’t allowed to draw four-sided triangles.
“Because a triangle has three sides,” I said. “That’s the meaning of the word triangle.”
“That’s just ideology talking,” Susan said.
By the next week they were all drawing rectangles and saying: “See? Triangle! Triangle!”
In the teacher’s lounge I talked to the principal about this odd class.
“You shouldn’t call them odd,” he said. “Four-sided figures also have a right to be triangles.”
I continued to teach the class my way, Euclid and all, doing my best to get them through the theorems, which wasn’t easy without triangles.
Some parents complained.
Then the Supreme Court weighed in: “A triangle is a three- or four-sided figure.”
I lost my job.
She’s a strict vegetarian who loves a good bratwurst. I pointed out to her--she was out grilling on the patio--that bratwursts were made from meat.
“It’s right there on the label,” I said. “Look!”
I should have kept my mouth shut. The threatening phone calls, the snubs from neighbors. Her vegan friends started picketing my place of work.
Five of my Facebook friends have unfriended me.
“Just ‘cuz you’re not vegetarian yourself doesn’t mean you have a right to hate them!” one messaged in explanation.
Friday, October 2, 2015
What can we learn from the American left’s apoplectic reaction to Pope Francis' meeting Kim Davis?
Perhaps nothing; the reaction is entirely predictable. By turns disillusioned, gasping in disbelief, screaming “I TOLD you so!”--the progressive left is now more or less united in writing off Francis as a loser and a bigot and not someone any respectable person could support.
As for those few liberals who still remain sympathetic to Francis--“even after he met with her”--Charles P. Pierce aptly caught their mood in Esquire:
This is, obviously, the dumbest thing this Pope ever has done. It undermines everything he accomplished on his visit here. It undermines his pastoral message, and it diminishes his stature by involving him in a petty American political dispute.
Pierce sees the meeting with Davis as the end of the Pope’s honeymoon with liberal America. Note his particularly obtuse suggestion that it is all so sad--because the Davis case, after all, is just “a petty American political dispute.”
There’s the rub right there, the crux of liberals' odd misreading of Francis. The assumption that gay marriage is “just, like, so obvious”; that of course a man as progressive as Francis must see this; that any individual, such as Davis, who’d risk legal repercussions for refusing to go along with the gay agenda is just being “petty”.
I myself don’t think Davis has conducted her conscientious objection very wisely. But I do think she counts as a conscientious objector. And from the Pope’s words during his visit it’s pretty clear (pace Pierce) he doesn’t consider struggles over religious liberty, or individuals with the guts to wage them, at all “petty”. In any case, I don't think the Davis meeting was or is important on the Pope's visit agenda. It is one short encounter among many.
Still, after the news hit, I stopped by at the “progressive left” DailyKos community to see which way the wind was blowing. As if I couldn't guess. It was the usual righteous fury one sees in that crowd whenever anyone disagrees with one of the Holy Gender Tenets.
The meeting with Davis proved that Francis was obviously, as one person put it, “just another misguided, anti-gay bigot who pretends to be loving and compassionate”. Another instructed as follows: “Add poison to an otherwise nutritious soup, and all of it is poisoned.” A third waxed poetic: “All I can say now is, hypocrisy, thy name is Francis!” And on it went.
Yes, there were some mentions of the good that Francis had done on climate change, but in general the mood was: Bigot. Hypocrite. Fool. Fake.
Francis’ radicalism on so many issues supposedly so dear to this American left would no longer influence the Kos majority. No, if you don't dance to the LGBT movement's every new tune, you don’t get a pass with this crowd.
I commented as follows:
Listen to you all. “I’ve no more use for this Pope." "This Pope is slimy." Etc., etc.
At present Pope Francis is probably the world's most consequent voice calling for serious action on global warming. He's a trenchant critic of unfettered capitalism and outspoken supporter of the dignity of workers and of unions--to the point that he sets the Fox crowd and the Limbaughs into shivers of rage.
But the fact that his thinking (as is very likely the case) doesn't line up with yours on same-sex marriage means you've all suddenly "no use" for his stance or voice.
"No use" for Francis' stance on climate change? For his stance on free-market madness? For his stance on militarism?
Again you show that sad old trait of yours. Any figure who doesn't check all the same boxes you've come to check in your own historically specific cultural setting, any person who doesn't see eye to eye with American progressive liberals on EVERYTHING, especially those things related to sex or gender, is necessarily "slimy" or of "no use".
What kind of mature politics is that? It is cultural imperialism is what it is.
You think the Pope is being hypocritical?
The Pope's remark "Who am I to judge?" came at the end of the following statement spoken of a gay or lesbian person: "If someone is trying to live a holy life and seeking God, who am I to judge him?"
Why would progressives assume that the whole first part of that sentence was irrelevant to the Pope's meaning and why would they read into the last five words something like: "Though I'm the leader of the Catholic Church, I'm utterly against its teachings on sexual ethics."
It is very likely Pope Francis does not consider same-sex marriage to be marriage. It is very likely that when he refers to "attacks on the family", he is thinking in part of things like the Obergefell decision. (For the record, during his tenure in Argentina he did express support for something like civil unions for non-heterosexual couples. Which makes him more liberal than most in his church.)
So assuming that Francis does not acknowledge same-sex marriage, and recognizing the importance of religious liberty and the right of conscientious objection in his vision (how many of you, by the way, believe in conscientious objection? or perhaps you only believe in it when the objector agrees with you on all sex/gender/marriage-related issues?)--assuming this, why would it be hypocrisy on his part to meet with Kim Davis? Has she advocated jailing gays and lesbians? Has she picketed funerals with "God Hates Fags" signs? No, she has taken the one step of refusing to allow her name on licenses for same-sex marriages. As a purely negative action, a refusal to act, it's actually a pretty classic conscientious objection stance: "I won't bow to or sign my name to or perform such-and-such an action required by," etc., etc.
So I would think, in Francis' book, Davis' case would count as a valid instance conscientious objection. How not?
Yes, I also have some doubts that the story is legit. But if Francis did in fact meet with her, it wouldn't shock me--as it seems to have shocked so many of you. Is it because so many of you can't imagine there exist people who might agree with you on A, B, and C, but not on D? Is it because that's just too much of a stretch for your "progressive left" cultural imagination?
As myself a Catholic on the left, I admire Francis all the more for the way he screws up the expectations of both the American left and right. And it isn't any wonder. American left and right are both growing to be about equally bigoted and deranged.
I knew I’d mostly be attacked for this comment, and I was. After all: Who was I, “a Catholic”, to be calling anyone a bigot? How “ironic”. Etc.
But what does all this reveal about the current American left? I’d have to put it bluntly: They’re not so much left-wing in any traditional sense as they are obsessed with sexual identity politics. In my comment I mention the need to check “all” the boxes they do, A to Z. But of the boxes one must check to be heard in this crowd, that marked "LGBTQ, etc." is by far the most important. How has it come to this?
A pathological Gay Fundamentalism has taken over the American left. And of course, since we’re dealing here with a fundamentalism, it is no longer by any means enough to respect LGBT people or defend their rights. No, one must agree to recognize the validity of every new right they might demand. One must, first of all, acknowledge that "gay marriage" is an obvious right; that a household centered on a gay or lesbian couple is a perfectly healthy environment for raising children; and that those who refuse to recognize such marriages or the wisdom of gay parenting deserve to have their careers destroyed and be sued out of house and home. But in addition to walking and talking the new marriage orthodoxy, cobbled together just last Tuesday, one must also express delight in LGBT people’s vanguard role in other central social arenas. Because, don’t you know, it is LGBT people who are leading the charge to reform our schools, to police our speech, to correct our outmoded ideas of sex and gender. For who is it if not gays and lesbians who’ve taught us that great and eternal human truth, namely: Male and female sexuality have no inherent relation to male and female biology. Where have we learned this important truth if not from the our new authorities on sexuality, our LGBT brothers and sisters? Yes, thanks to gays and lesbians, now everyone can--and should!--bend any such supposed relations between biology and sexuality as much out of shape as possible. For only then will the "patriarchal ideology" that made these false relations be broken. Only then will one be free to be "oneself"! Which is . . . whatever one demands oneself to be.
Disagree with these fundamental truths and you are a “bigot”. And in this crowd, a bigot is the worst thing you can be.
On the left myself in many things, I cry bullshit to all this. I’m sickened by the cultural demagoguery that has hijacked our political life. These Gay Fundamentalists have been the main attraction for more than a decade now, and they think they own the place. They must be stopped, but with the youth almost entirely under their sway, and with the few sane adults in the room cowed into silence, how is this to be done?
The basic truths are clear. But is anything accomplished by simply stating basic truths in a culture that’s given up on the idea that the universe and humanity even have truth?
Trying to communicate with these people, one finally has the exasperated feeling one might get trying to explain to an especially dumb geometry class that they can’t draw four-sided triangles, even if they wanted to.
And so, yes: Boys will be boys and girls will be girls. That exceptions exist does not mean this paradigm is somehow wrong; it means only that these exceptions aren’t part of the norm to which the vast majority fit. And sorry, but that's just the definition of norm.
A just society gives space to and doesn’t persecute the exceptions. A sick society fetishizes the exceptions and uses them to destroy the norm. A sick society lets the exceptions remake the whole culture in their own image.
This is what is happening in our society now; our public spaces, our speech codes, our education system. Gay Pride has morphed into Gay Arrogance. The media and fashion industry cheer in perverse glee at the newness of it all, if only because “newness” is the very definition of media and fashion. And the American public, or at least those who take their cues from media and fashion, don’t want to feel left behind.
Thus a new Gay Fundamentalism is given carte blanche to impose its agenda on our schools, our legal system, all central institutions. Anyone who dares oppose this agenda will be fined, run out of business, jailed. The new gay commissars know what is right, they are watching, and woe to you if you don't bow to their wisdom.
We must have the courage to call out this fundamentalism. If we don't, it will not stop until it has ferreted out every pocket of sanity. You think things are ugly now? They will only get uglier. And so: We must dissent loudly and clearly. We must begin by calling this movement what it is--an illiberal gay fundamentalism, a gaythoritarianism that has abrogated to itself rights it doesn't have. We must use labels like these, and we must make them stick.
Anne Widdecombe got it precisely right in this 2012 speech: