Tuesday, November 22, 2011


An alligator is a moldy log with a serious attitude problem; it is an in-sink disposal on four legs.

Alligators were first created by breeding George Burns with a Plesiosaurus. That alligators love golf courses isn't just because of the ponds: it's a genetic inheritance from the father.

When alligators speak, they do so with George Burns' voice. But they speak only rarely.

In Florida I have personally seen alligators that can drive cars. They typically opt for vintage Cadillacs with Shriner emblems on the trunk. They drive slowly, almost like low-riders.

I once accosted one at a red light. He sat behind the wheel of his maroon Cadillac and had his window down. His baseball cap was a meager disguise.

"You're an alligator," I said.

He laughed and pulled out his huge set of false teeth to show me.

"Want a ride, kid?" he asked through gross gator gums.

"No fucking way," I replied with a smile. "But you have a good one."

"You too."

He slipped the teeth back in and the light turned green.

Mixed with acacia gum and inserted as a pessary, alligator dung is an effective contraceptive.

Certain alligators, those that abstain from mammal carrion, are allowed the possibility of becoming Angels when they die. I have talked with Floridians who have witnessed them "turning" just after death, rising up over the Everglades in a burst of beatific light, their long bodies still reptilian, their white Angel wings spread wide.


Monday, November 21, 2011

On Kenneth Bernard; Philip Roth

Only an American could write a story as small-minded and moronic as Kenneth Bernard's "Preparations". I found this short piece anthologized in Sudden Fiction International. Utterly vulgar in its pseudo-intellectualism, potty-brained in a jittery post-Puritan way, I wondered as I read along how Bernard was ever going to get his narrator out of the muck the piece begins in. But the tale only got worse and worse until, in a paroxysm of dumb cliche, the writer used his last words to label poor Anya a sweaty pig as she mutters "guttural sweet Russian" to the dying narrator. The supposedly profound musings that take up most of the body of this story make me want to wretch.

I know I haven't even explained the gist of this tale. It isn't worth doing. I post this here because it's only rarely that a writer's work makes me want to throw the book at the wall. Bernard, alas, is the 2011 winner in this category.

* * *

Only an American could have written the bleak and stoic masterpiece that is The Human Stain. A daring and brilliant book, difficult to put down, there is yet something deeply untrue in it, impossible, something that never ceases to irk one as one reads. I think it's this: All Roth's characters are believable as people--all, that is, except for his protagonist Coleman Silk. Though he's built up biographically, step by step, one finally doesn't really believe Silk is possible. He's a character too mythically American to be quite real. Silk's Americanism, if we might call it that, finally makes him a monster--which may very well be the essence of Roth's art here: to have proven that the American myth of the self-made man, if pushed to its limit, becomes either hollow or monstrous. Or: To the extent we are truly individuals, we can only be examples of a foolish hubris.

I read The Human Stain with few preconceptions, as I don't know Roth's poetics. I haven't been moved to read much of Roth, so I've little background telling me what he might intend. This is probably a good thing: I can read this relatively late book without reading it as either an installment in an ongoing literary project, or as part of a developing lifelong thesis on America.

I will continue with American Pastoral and The Plot Against America.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Polar Bear

O polar bear, how you have fallen! On a barren shore, all slush and mud, you bellow your rage at an empty sea.

Your ancestors were sleek white Hunters, their ears could trace a seal's heartbeat through the ice.

Your ancestors, o polar bear!

Their angry bones peek from melting drifts; they frown at your ragged fur.

Like a bathroom mat too tattered to wash, we'll toss you out with the old newspapers, o Once-Great Hunter!

The seals rejoice at your demise, for they are in the San Diego Zoo.

Who will clean your yellowed fur? Your pristine coat has ring around the collar; it's clear you've been scrounging in the dump again.

Don't you know the science is dodgy? Do you even know what dodgy means?

Your world melts slowly like a bar of Ivory soap; your pups are born hermaphrodite.

You'll have to be sharper than that if you want to make it in this Economy.

You lanky hungered dog, I see your ribcage!

Have you no shame? To show yourself in Public like that?

The Discovery cameras are rolling! Hide behind that outhouse, Bear!

"Drill, baby, drill!" the shiny faces cry as you begin to eat your kind.

"The science is dodgy," they say. "The science is dodgy." What's to be done?

Don't turn cannibal yet, o Hunter, for I have a Plan.

We gather up those who say it's so; we gather their Ringleaders first.

We give them placards to their liking: "Global Warming = Liberal Hoax!" "Save the SUV!" "God Hates Tree-Huggers!"--real red-blooded American placards, not the kind those OWS commies wave.

We send them on a special "protest cruise" straight to your muddy shore. They'll take their complaints right to you, o Bear!

Rush and O'Reilly and Sarah and Glenn, with a clutch of their blubbery friends. We'll give them bullhorns and necklaces of sausage links.

Listen to them as long as you like. I think you'll know what to do.

Would you like Tony Hayward along? Cheney? Would you care for Champagne, compliments of Goldman Sachs, execs of which will soon be sent your way?

They have their gripes too, you know.

When you've had your fill of their arguments and whatever else, o Hunter--when, in short, there's some flesh on your scrawny limbs--then we will get down to Business for real.

Then we'll do something about your melting world.

2007 photo of a starving polar bear, by Heiko Wittenborn.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Polo Shirts are Ugly

Anyone who sees me day to day can attest to the fact that I don't know much about fashion. I'm pretty indifferent when it comes to choosing clothes, usually opting for black jeans, black shoes, and a black teeshirt with a shirt over it in some color approaching, well, black. But even given my limited interest in fashion, there are some things I can see clearly. And here's one of them: Polo shirts are ugly.

Why in hell, I wonder, would anyone ever wear a polo shirt?

If you're a woman, a polo shirt will just make you look ditsy and dull. It doesn't matter what color you choose or what you match it with. A polo shirt, even in bright yellow, makes you look boring and boxy and half-informed. So why would you ever buy such a thing? Beats me.

And if you're a man? Here things are even clearer. At the very best, a polo shirt will make you look like a nerd. Don't believe me? Take any given nerd and look in his closet. Half his shirt wardrobe will be polo shirts or your money back guaranteed.

Think about it. When a Hollywood director has to portray a geeky suburbanite or some loser trying to pick up a woman in a bar, he will almost always put the actor in a polo shirt. Why is that? Simple. It's because guys like this, in real life, usually wear polo shirts. Directors know this, and audiences know it too. (Well, at least those not in polo shirts know it.)

So do you really want to look like a geeky suburbanite? No? Then why would you ever put on a polo shirt?

If a polo shirt doesn't make you look like a nerd, it will almost certainly make you look like a total dick. This is the other kind of guy who wears polo shirts. He wears them because he wants people to know he's in a yacht club or a has a pricey membership in a golf club. He either wants people to know this or to think it. Truth is maybe the guy isn't in either sort of club. Maybe he can't afford the membership. But does it really matter? Guys who join pricey golf clubs and guys who dream of joining pricey golf clubs both have pretty much the same personality. They are dicks.

If you are a man who often wears polo shirts but still aren't convinced they make you look like a dick, there's one way you can be sure: wear your polo shirt with the collar up. This will cinch the deal. Other than wearing a Nazi uniform, there's really no better way, through mere clothing alone, to make most people who see you immediately want to break your nose. A man in a polo shirt with the collar up is screaming out "I AM A TOTAL DICK" to anyone who sees him.

Still doubt that polo shirts are all that bad? Then try a little experiment. Take the first very cool person that comes to mind and try to find a photo of him online wearing a polo shirt. Go ahead. I'll give you a few minutes.

. . . .

So you're back. You say you did try the experiment and you did find photos of a cool person in a polo shirt. Well, that's because you probably chose someone like Pierce Brosnan. Obviously there's something seriously defective in your notion of cool. Maybe you have more general problems you to work on before you even bother thinking about your wardrobe. Maybe there are more fundamental issues that to be addressed.

Okay, I know, I know. You googled "Obama" and found pictures of him in a polo shirt. But did you find any such pictures from before he got in the White House? You didn't, did you? That's because something happened to Obama, something kind of mysterious. Not only has he started wearing polo shirts, he's done all sorts . . . . But I don't want to get into it here. The point is: the Obama example doesn't count. Because sometimes people who aren't fundamentally dicks, who aren't dickheads in essence, can end up doing seriously dick-like things. Or maybe it's that they change slowly, or not so slowly, from being cool into being, well, total dicks. Hard to say.

Barack Obama, Sell-Out in Chief.

Back to my main point. And it's this: There's good reason guys like Tiger Woods almost only wear polo shirts. There are two good reasons in fact:
Number 1: guys like Tiger Woods play golf.

Number 2: guys like Tiger Woods are arrogant dicks.
For me these two reasons tend to fold into one and the same reason. But this is ultimately a deep philosophical truth about golf that is too complex and abstruse for me to get into here. I'll leave it for another time. Let me just, for the record, add two more reasons Tiger Woods deserves to wear polo shirts: 1) the name "Tiger" is the most dickish name I've ever heard; 2) Tiger Woods has terrible taste in women.

In conclusion-- Why in hell did you ever buy those polo shirts? And why don't you just make dishrags out of them like they deserve? I leave you with this:

Eric Mader

UPDATE 2016: "Popped collars"? No. I've finally realized the precise term for it. It hit me last week while listening to a guy in a cafe with collars up on his orange polo bragging about his business acumen:

Just click on image to share.
* * *

Check out my recent book Idiocy, Ltd. and begin the long, hard reckoning.

Monday, October 31, 2011


What is a bat if it is not a meat moth having a fit under the moon; if it is not a small furred contraption ever on the verge of going unhinged?

Indeed a bat is a haunted rubber toy dancing to a strobe light; it is Hecate's own hand-puppet.

Bats are defiantly stuck in the 80s goth scene. Their ears are physiologically incapable of registering names like Boyzone, Britney, Kanye. "Who?"

Bursting from the hollowed trunks of long-dead trees, bats are truly text messages sent from the cell phones of Hell.

Will the iPhone 12 be able to decipher these floppy hissing missives? The iPhone 20?

"Look forward 2 seeing u. Sooner than u think ;) Alison"

No, your Mother can never, neither your anxiety-disordered Aunt, nor can your sister Carrie when she found the severed gopher's head in her lunch box--none can shriek more piercingly than the smallest bat.

Was denkst du, Fledermausmann? Müssen wir noch Heidegger lesen?

As a teen I dreamed such dreams, and if only I had their courage now, I would fulfill them, trust me: A one-room museum displaying only the cleaned and mounted jaws of each known bat species, under each jaw a photo of the bat and a sonnet in its honor.

A bat is a mole suffering a manic episode. A mole is a depressed bat.

Bats hang while they sleep upside down. Bats sleep while they hang upside down. Bats hang upside down while they sleep. Sentence 3 is the best.

And you, Kay Thiesenhusen, where are you now?

Felipe stands next to a Bismarck flying fox, the largest bat species.

Saturday, October 29, 2011







Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Lion

The lion is the king of the beasts. Enough said.

Or almost. The fact is there really isn't much to lions beyond Sovereignty.

The lion, gruff and belching murderer, rests prone on the plain like a hand saw on a workbench. Presently the saw's teeth are not wrenching their way through the soft lengths of pine nearby, but at any moment they might. And that's the central fact about lions. What else is there?

Idle like our hand saw--i.e., when the lion isn't hungry--he will often become chatty. This is another fact about lions we might raise. Some animals find it the most annoying single thing about their sovereign.

"Hot day," the lion says to a zebra he's sauntered up to.

"Yup," the zebra says, his throat going tight.

Typically the lion will then start to complain about his "insane schedule," how some down-time would be nice but he just "can't manage it with all that's going on," how his wife is "driving him nuts for a vacation," etc., etc.--the point of all this being: "Hey, zebra, I know it's tough for you. But don't think just cuz I'm a lion that I've got it easy. Not at all! It's hard being a lion. It's hard work."

This spiel does have some validity--in a good mood the zebra will admit it--but the questions still nag: Why when you look at lions are they usually just resting on their bellies, digesting the latest kill, idly scanning the plain? Do their small bursts of activity every few days--can we say that these really count as work?

Years ago leafing through a faded Polish magazine in a small town library I came upon an illustration of two male lions in a beauty salon having their manes curled. I couldn't read the caption, but the image has ever since defined the creature for me.

Possessing unchallenged power, the lion has little to do but concern himself with Appearances. Yes, you will find that ninety percent of the lion's grotesquely swollen head--really too large for the rest of its body--is used to house a grossly outsized Ego. The lion is the vainest of animals, outdoing the peacock by miles.

But so what? What can be done about it? Lions themselves will tell you proudly how "necessary" they are for the health of the ecosystem. Convinced of their importance, their centrality even, wielding those jaws and claws besides, does anyone suspect the lion's going to give up sovereignty any time soon?

It's true the animals sometimes talk of Revolution--unseating the arrogant felines that have ruled them for too long. But wiser animals fear a revolution may not improve things: that in the power vacuum following the bloodbath the hyenas, one way or another, would take over.

Would hyenas perhaps be better than lions? The question is widely debated among animals keen on this sort of discussion. Most animals, however, faced with the uncertainty of what change would bring, opt for accepting lions as their overlords, for keeping things as they've always been. Some animals even claim the lions' sovereignty is somehow "natural".

Me, I wouldn't go that far.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


The squirrel: furry forest friend or pestiferous urban vermin? That's the topic of tonight's show where we let the viewer decide.

"Hopping his Merry Way across the sidewalk and onto the trunk of the lone Maple, I see my Friend the squirrel come to break the paved Drear of my city block. I breathe a whiff of emergent Nature."

"What sound is more frightful than the shrill chitter-chatter of the mad squirrel that dismembered the trash bag behind my Building? It dragged off a carcass of pizza crust that I watched disappear round the corner like my Hope.

"The center of Power is shifting and we do nothing to stop it."

Though it has long been known that squirrels spread Rabies to pets and children, it is only recently that researchers have proven the amazing ability of these rodents to spread Gossip.

Studies done by Hunt and Greimas at the University of Michigan (2010) suggest that an even minimally dense squirrel population can move an item of salacious Rumor across an urban space and into the suburbs even faster than traditional print Media.

The squirrel rests on its haunches, eating the Chestnut held in its forepaws. Its tail, curved into a stiff "S," stands to attention behind the upright silver body.

When the tasty tidbit concerned a prominent or fashionable young Woman, squirrels were found to spread the slander at a speed and efficiency approaching that of the Internet. This led Greimas to conclude in a Dec. 2011 interview in Zoological American that: "A squirrel is a suburban housewife trapped in a rodent's body."

Hunt, however, has disagreed with his this assessment, stating in a counter interview in Nature: "The soul of squirrels cannot be gendered or classed this way. A squirrel, in my view, is a small mammalian incarnation of the god Hermes. That is how we should treat them. Parkside libations, peanut butter, the works."

A squirrel is the pilonidal cyst of the animal kingdom; it is a compact yet motile furball of pent-up office park Rage.

Greimas: "Note the beady black eyes always on you, the twitching. You approach the tree from one side, it scutters round to the other. You go to the other side and it scutters back, the twitching tail all the while sending Messages in every direction, mean backstabbing bytes of Gossip."

Hunt: "In his role as psychopomp, Hermes led the dead to the Underworld, his caduceus held aloft and guiding them like the squirrel's tail. If only we could cleanse our eyes to see. If only we could read the divine chatter. The word hermeneutics, after all, comes from Hermes."

To move through life like a squirrel leaping branch to branch, Philosophy my tail keeping balance, my path developed by a fractal logic, out to the perimeter of one Oak, then working toward the center of Another. To accept each day with its acorns and near auto misses, ever aware of the boy with the Pellet Gun who lives down the lane.

Greimas: "My research points to one of the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors as most effective. I've especially shown good results using Sertraline, which can slow the gossip-mongering of these rodents significantly."

"C'mon, kids!" Buddy Squirrel exclaimed, waving the crowd to the platform. "C'mon! The Acorn Train is about to depart! It's time to go to NutterNutterLand!"

Hunt: "United with Thoth, he brought us the Corpus Hermeticum."

Greimas: "Within ten years, I predict prudent city councils will be earmarking funds to medicate their squirrel populations."

Whether Greimas or Hunt's approach will best help us appease the Wrath of these small tree-hugging mammals, whether they are friends or chattering foes, there is one thing I think we can all agree on here: Squirrels would be nowhere without their extravagant tails.

If Evolutionists point to the tail as having evolved to help the animal balance, we can point another important survival-enhancing aspect of the tail: It's the one thing that makes squirrels cute.

Only raze the fur from a squirrel's tail and you get a largish tree-climbing rat. How long would a neurotic, hygiene-obsessed species like ourselves have tolerated such a creature in our parks and school yards, chattering at our children and denying the Trinity? How long would this verbose vermin have survived?

Whether parkbench backbiters or avatars of Greco-Roman divinity, we'd have exterminated the lot of them back in the Fifties.

* * *

This and many other animal musings are collected in my new book Idiocy, Ltd.--dryest damn prose in the West.

Friday, October 7, 2011

詩 (要很大聲地唸)


Saturday, September 17, 2011

J.S. Porter and Jewishness

A new book by J.S. Porter is always something to celebrate. His Lightness and Soul, just out this month, does not disappoint. Full of surprises and keen insights, Porter's book takes on a difficult and long-debated subject: the literary character of Jewishness over the recent seventy-odd years. Subtitled Musings on Eight Jewish Writers, the book doesn't shy away from throwing very different figures into the ring: some of the chosen writers are avowedly Jewish, others deny their Jewishness, and one, as I will indicate below, can only be called Jewish in an oblique or ironic way.

If like me you've long cherished Jewish literature, this is a book you should read--for the sheer joy of it. Porter is one of our great expositors of the pleasures of reading. Like Alberto Manguel, considered in one chapter here, Porter teases out and explicates the multiple physical joys of book reading: the tactile attractions of the printed word; the magnetic draw that shelves of books or stacked volumes on a windowsill have for zealous readers. As in his Spirit Book Word (2001), he recounts his personal relationship with the books in question; this proves a particularly effective starting point for getting at what is singular in each writer he chooses. What we get as a result is eight in-depth readerly appreciations, eight critical portraits that give us what we, as readers, are really after: new insights into writers we already know; reasons to take up new writers we might not be familiar with.

For myself, Porter's chapters on Leonard Cohen and Harold Bloom were especially enjoyable. I found echoes of my own readings as well as new assessments I hadn't considered (both Porter's own assessments and those of the many people he quotes: this writer is a great collector of critical remarks). Probably most worthwhile for me, however, was the chapter where Porter, strategically, put John Berger in conversation with Simone Weil. Berger, the ever down-to-earth British art critic, and Weil, the doggedly idealistic left-wing Neoplatonist (I'm aware how odd my characterization is) illuminate each other as they illuminate what a commitment to the underdog can mean in terms of life and literary practice. What was especially useful for me here was the new introduction to Berger, a writer I haven't read since university and one I will now spend some time getting to know.

The problematics of what is Jewish make for only part of the intellectual interest of this book. Given that Porter's concerns are mostly readerly, the question of how and why these writers are Jewish, though repeatedly addressed, must finally be answered by the reader--and answered on what are perhaps mainly literary or textual grounds. That there are no easy answers should be no surprise: What, after all, do figures like Harold Bloom and Simone Weil have in common beyond a certain amount of DNA going back to the ancient Near East? Weil probably would have found Bloom a bombastic aesthete. As for Bloom's assessment of Weil, I don't know what it is, but I'm sure it's pretty grim.

Does the Jewishness of these writers reside in a certain spiritual register, a certain half-tangible something inherited even against the grain of what may have been the writer's very secular family history? Or does it reside rather in a particular deep-seated respect for texts and debate--a tendency to take the written register as something nearly as important as the real world? As George Steiner wrote in My Unwritten Books (and as quoted by Porter in his first chapter):

The tablet, the scroll, the manuscript and the printed page become the homeland, the moveable feast of Judaism. Driven out of its native ground of orality, out of the sanctuary of direct address, the Jew has made of the written word his passport across centuries of displacement and exile.
Whatever the Jewishness at issue here, it probably can't reside in a religious identification. Of the eight writers considered, only Leonard Cohen claimed to be a practicing Jew, and even he was occasionally called upon to defend his Judaism against other Jews who didn't appreciate his Zen practice or the often Catholic symbolic register of his work. His words to these doubters, which Porter quotes, are magisterial:
Anyone who says
I'm not a Jew
is not a Jew
I'm very sorry
but this decision
is final
I use the word magisterial to characterize these lines. And it is apt. Who if not Leonard Cohen possessed majesty in his artistic struggle--in its brutal honesty, its questing up and down the scale of high and low, in its utterly authentic spiritual need?

Much of Porter's chapter on Cohen is dedicated to the novel Beautiful Losers. Porter brings out the scattered brilliance of this work: its annoying side and its undeniable genius; he quotes critics who were maddened by the book even as they sought to put a finger on its power. Here, one feels, is perhaps the closest Porter's book gets to defining Jewishness. Jewishness as a kind of openness that nonetheless answers back; a willing spiritual wrestling with the many perverse angels of the day-to-day. Clearly discernible in Cohen's work, is this not also the Jewishness that, in part, made for the greatness of the first books of the Bible? Is it not this willingness to admit in writing to what is unassimilable? To always portray the here and now along with the painful elements that don't fit? This, I believe, is a large part of what is "Jewish" in significant Jewish writing.

In considering John Berger's essay on Simone Weil, titled "A Girl Like Antigone," Porter gets at what may be an important element of Berger's style, and again approaches what I sense as the Jewishness that really underlies Porter's book. I will quote at length:
Near the close of [Berger's] meditation on Weil's short life of thirty-four years, he returns to her . . . apartment on Rue Auguste Comte where, when writing, she could see the rooftops of Paris. In a single sentence, he captures the unity of her conflicting tensions with the insertion of a conjunction: "She loved the view from the window, and she was deeply suspicious of its privilege." The word and holds the tension and reintegrates the splitting of love and shame. They belong together

On a previous occasion Berger made similar use of the and. I'm quoting from memory. He said once about a farmer in his French village that the man loved his pig and ate his pig. And joins, it honors; it doesn't resolve or excuse. You can love a pig and eat it. You can love a window and feel ashamed for having a privilege that many are denied. But is a different kind of conjunction. It qualifies, prioritizes. Berger prefers and; he prefers it stylistically and morally. (67-8)
In the blank space after these sentences, as I sat reading Porter's book on the Taipei subway on my way to work, I scribbled the words that came immediately to mind: "As does the Old Testament." Berger prefers the and; he prefers it stylistically and morally--as did the J writer and, to a degree, as did the redactors who wove the J text into Genesis, Exodus and so on. The and is one of the great stylistic supports of ancient Hebrew prose (and poetry).

Above I indicate that Porter's book treats of eight Jewish writers, but this isn't quite true. Included as well, as somehow "Jewish," is Edward Said, the great Palestinian activist and intellectual. Said himself, toward the end of his life, joked that he was perhaps the "last Jewish intellectual." The ways in which this may be apt underline the degree to which Jewishness, as viewed in a literary-intellectual light, may indeed be a particular comportment toward difference, an openness to debate: again, Jewishness as a stance similar to something I believe Leonard Cohen has in spades--the willingness to wrestle, and to do so in words, regardless of whose hip may get dislocated.

Check out J.S. Porter's Lightness and Soul at Amazon.com

Go to J.S. Porter's blog

Monday, September 12, 2011

Which Are Most Precious

And if you ask me which are the most precious things, will they really come into mind so that I may tell you? Or are they maybe too deep for me to name, much less grasp?

But already that you can ask what is precious to me--this is precious, no? this possibility of asking and waiting for an answer. And my hearing you ask and taking time to think how to answer--already these are a gift that is mysterious, hard to define.

Is language a gift or a trap? Is it to have this tool for understanding the world and myself, for constructing the world? Or is it to have been constructed myself, this "tool" that has already made me even as I begin to use it? "Eric," "you," "me," "mama," "no".

Is language, this precious gift, is it also this tool that is a system both flexible and stringent, open and learnable, and that is also a mystery, and a trap? Is it a tool, as I believe, that brings you closer to me, or is it rather one that puts you behind names? "Student," "teacher," "mine," "brother," "you".

And if you ask me about God, is sensing God's presence a gift or a delusion, I would say a gift, and to me precious. That God's presence can be sensed, and that God made himself known in Scripture--again in language, but language that brings one closer to Another; or separates, if one is not careful.

But can we really be careful in this way, careful so as to know when we bring closer and when we push away?

Also the mystery of the Bible that always challenges me: Which of its phrases are true, the voice of the Spirit, and which are those that are human writers trying to speak the voice and getting it wrong? But this mystery--isn't this also a gift? The mystery in all these things--is it not part of what is precious?

Also to have someone to love, and the gift of this love lasting many years: my wife. This is precious to me.

And the mystery of our connections to each other: all of us, all humans, family and others, coworkers and strangers; the mystery that we can communicate and sympathize with each other in language and other ways, even if only a glance. This is a great gift and still always a mystery.

That I can hear the voices of people around me: feel and hear the shape of their voices in different languages. Again: the mystery of the way these different languages have made the world (or trapped it?), in some ways the same world, in other ways different for each language and each person.

Also the gift of writing, that I can hear the voice and feel the shape of the world of others long dead, friends who died hundreds of years ago, friends who left me the gift of their texts, and I, also a friend, give them voice by reading them.

The gift of all my friends, many of whom are my students: watching them develop and try to make sense of the world. Watching them laugh and joke. This is a great gift: something precious.

Of course the gift of health and sustenance, not to be overlooked just because, through undeserved good fortune, I have had them. Many, through undeserved bad fortune, have not. May I learn to do more to help them.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Your English is Suck

September in Taipei. 

After teaching English here for fifteen years, I've gotten to see a handful of my students get into the best university in Taiwan (which is really quite hard) and another handful get into overseas universities and grad schools in England, the US or Canada. Of course this makes me feel good, especially seeing a kid I taught basic English doing grad work overseas. But there's another side to teaching them English. As English ability continues to spread here, I see my recent groups of students memorizing hip hop lyrics and movie tags. And I hear then using more pop English in their conversations.

I'm friends with a lot of them on Facebook. Following their conversations in comments, etc., is good for my Chinese, and sometimes they even break into English. This morning one of my teen students, a girl who doesn't study much, got into an argument with her schoolmate, a girl I don't know. After 20 lines back and forth in Chinese, getting angrier and angrier, they finally got so angry they broke into English:

A: You are shit!
B: You eat shit!
A: No I don't eat YOU. No way girl!
B: You are fucker than shit!
A: Huh? What is fucker than shit???
A: Your english is suck!!
B: You fuck suck shit! Fuck OFF then!!!
A: Learn english, bitch!

Maybe I could work this up into a TV ad for my English school. Voiceover: "Is your English fucker than shit? Well then. . ."

Friday, September 9, 2011


A rhino is anything but a dumb beast.

It stands impassive, always on flat ground, eyeing you like an elder who is too disappointed to speak.

A rhino is a natural gnostic, having been constructed by an amateur god who set out to make a dinosaur.

Knowing it has been welded together from the junk in a minor god's scrap yard, the rhino is under no illusions about mundane being.

Unlike the gazelle, fooled by its own lithe grace, the rhino knows it is trapped in matter.

This makes it resigned, and normally serene. But a rhino is also capable of sudden violence.

Placed low on the sides of its barge-shaped head, a rhino's beady eyes give it 290 degrees peripheral vision. This means it is subject to being annoyed by a wider range of things than you or I.

"I don't mind you hanging around here," those eyes say to anyone keen enough to read them, "but if you start making a nuisance of yourself, I will gore you with my horn and trample you under foot. Sorry."

A rhino is a creature that typically remains unimpressed.

It watches the cheetah's kill with disdain, almost as you would watch a young CEO showing off his Ferrari.

Rhinoceros with Salvador Dali. Photo by Phillippe Halsman.

This and 42 other important public service announcements in my new book Idiocy, Ltd.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


A giraffe is a slim character, chancery style, a lank loiterer always in the way.

Never trust a giraffe with your car keys.

A giraffe is a pillar of dust and dung, feigning gold; it is a broken bamboo rocker wrapped in faux fur; indeed a giraffe is a pair of crutches designed by Louis Vuitton. Overpriced, and far too long to fit under any armpits.

Giraffes are the supermodels of the Serengeti. Their diet of twigs and leaves gives them just enough energy to strut back and forth. If you expect more, bring cocaine.

Giraffes may look peaceful, graceful even, but the truth is they are bored stiff.

If a giraffe could speak, this is what it would say: "It's always the same game. The acacia tree grows taller to keep us from eating the leaves, then we grow a little taller to reach the leaves. Then the acacia tree grows a little taller again and so on. I see no end in sight. We're fed up with it. You got a light?"

Yes, giraffes would smoke if they could.

I'd love to watch a small herd of giraffes just smoking, ignoring the acacia trees as best they can, sunk in ersatz ennui.

Do not believe the Animal Planet cranks. The little knobs on their heads are NOT atavistic antennae from an age when giraffes rented themselves out as radio towers to enterprising Australopithecines.

Giraffes are the Floss-Picks of the Sun.

"I'm at Marcy's place and we're up in her bedroom on the second floor. And things are starting to heat up, you know? And I look and there's this giraffe head in the window watching. About two feet from the screen. Just standing there smoking and watching us. So I yell out, 'Hey, fuck off, you!'"
"Did it go away?"
"You bet it did. Caught the perv red-handed."
"Never mind."

The Chinese word for giraffe is "long-neck deer". The Chinese word for owl is "cat-headed eagle". The word for dolphin is "sea-swine". I'm not kidding you.

Giraffes have no end of trouble with escalators.

If they opened a Kentucky Fried Giraffe, four kids could gnaw on the same drumstick simultaneously.

If you interbred a giraffe and a banana, you'd get an oblong sofa pillow covered with soft fur of a dappled yellow and brown. It would probably be marketable.

This and 42 other important public service announcements can be found in my book Idiocy, Ltd.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

My Small Gripe with Gabriel Gudding; My Larger Gripe with Sam Harris


On a web page promoting his new book I see that Gabriel Gudding is listed as teaching ethics at Illinois State University. My recent interactions with Gudding make me wonder how such a match-up can possibly work out: Gudding and ethics. How can someone who believes so strongly in censorship be teaching ethics at an American university?

It's because of Gudding's "ethics" in online discussion that I write this. He shows a deep contempt for the basic rules of debate (rules based on the democratic tenet, taken for granted by most of us, that open debate is good in itself). Indifferent to such rules, Gudding's first reaction to ideas he disagrees with is to censor them: he will delete others' ideas from the debate and then, which is even more telling, he will try to erase the evidence of his censorship. I've seen him do this enough times now to be finally disgusted by it; a disgust in this case mixed with deep disappointment. Since I've taken Gudding's work seriously in the past, my disappointment makes the experience almost painful.

This post is titled "My Small Gripe with Gabriel Gudding". That's what I titled it when I first began keeping record of my debate with him. Now I don't feel the gripe can be called small. The following entries trace the development of a thoroughly failed conversation that, had it been conducted in good faith, could have proven worthwhile for all concerned. In some other world I suppose.

* * *

I know it's a small thing to be even typing about. Still I am quite disappointed.

I've long been an admirer of Gabriel Gudding's work, having taught it in my classes and written about it (esp. his 2007 Rhode Island Notebook). I share many of Gudding's notions of what our poetic writing should be now: his universalizing satire; his crackbrained playfulness; his hilarious portraiture of animals and the importance he accords them. Gudding's skill at mapping the borders of the speakable in our American idiom makes him one of our best currently working linguistic geographers.

In some things, however, I tread quite different ground from Gudding. In the matter, for instance, of religious belief. In terms of religion or "spirituality" or "spiritual practice" (terms Gudding may prefer, I don't know) Gabriel practices vipassana meditation, whereas I am a Christian. My Christianity has often been unorthodox, but certainly it is in the Christian tradition that I find the most compelling explanations of what we are to do here as humans.

I do not consider Gabriel Gudding a sub-par mind because he hasn't adopted Christianity; likewise I'd hope that those who practice vipassana wouldn't be dismissive of Christians. The thought is a challenging one for many of the politically correct, I suspect, but it's actually true that one can have worthwhile discussion with people who subscribe to something as unprogressive as Christianity.

I've been friends with Gudding on Facebook for a time, after first meeting via email. Things I post on Facebook are open for comment from friends, that's the idea after all, and I believe most people think of wall posts this way. Especially if one has a wide swath of friends, over 500 say, one should consider that wall posts are open to a range of comments.

Gabriel posted a youtube link featuring part of a talk by Sam Harris. Harris, a major figure in the "New Atheism" movement, has been arguing for years that the three Western monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, should be vigorously criticized and eventually hounded out of existence because they are demonstrably false and even dangerous in our modern world. It is important to note that Harris is not merely a critic of fundamentalism (I too am a strong critic of fundamentalism) but is against religious liberals and moderates too, whom he sees as people pretending to have faith. I've read Harris' major early work The End of Faith (2004) and many of his articles and interviews since. I know his arsenal of arguments and am not very impressed. I find him repetitive and reductive, and think his attack on religion in the name of science is misguided and arrogant. If you want to hear Harris giving some of his best soundbites--he almost always says the same things--you can do so here.

Gudding posted this same link under the title "Christianity, Judaism, Islam as Rationalization of Barbarity." It was mostly the dismissive title of the post that irked me. After I listened to Harris' remarks, which taught me nothing new, I posted the following:
Simone Weil, Erasmus, Desmond Tutu, Rumi, Theresa of Lisieux, Thomas Merton--a few prominent rationalists of barbarity.
Gabe replied to me:
Your irony notwithstanding, Eric, I think what you write is, on its face, correct: the people you mention are, in a very real way, each an apologist for a system of domination. My sense is Harris would say that what makes /some/ of the writings and ideas of the thinkers and activists you mention useful is not their theism in general but their moral perspicuity in particular. And that moral sense does not stem from religion. Harris answers this common objection within the first 90 seconds, or so, of the video.
Gudding's reply suggests that I don't quite understand Harris' position on the innateness of ethical impulses. But I do understand it; I just don't think it's significant in the current argument, given that aggressivity and selfishness can also be shown to exist in infants. Harris may point out that humans don't need religious systems to teach them empathy, that such empathy comes with being human. But so what? By the same token, selfishness and aggressivity also come with being human, so why, in this instance, imply that these latter traits are learned from the Bible or the Koran or organized religion, but empathy is not. It's a very clear case for both Gabe and Harris of wanting to have their logical cake and eat it too. I posted the following rejoinder:
Yes. Harris would have it that our moral sense is innate but that our depredations stem from our scriptures. It's a kind of Rousseauism almost. And here again, which is typical for him, Harris suggests that the reason people believe in one of the Western monotheisms is simply that they are looking for a list of rules to teach their children. This is incredibly reductive. The grounds of faith or belief are deeper and wider; they are other. I find Harris to be a windbag. He is a philosopher to the same degree that Pat Robertson is a saint.
Now Gudding could have continued our discussion by clarifying just how he understands Harris' logic (what is the relevance of invoking the innate in this context) or by taking up some other point on which he disagreed with me. But he didn't. Instead he just deleted my post. He removed my remarks from the page because, I suppose, he found them unworthy of the forum of discussion he had opened by posting Harris' speech to begin with. By quickly censoring my remarks, Gudding ensured that the page was left with my one initial comment followed by his correction of my "common objection" to Harris. Though presumably my subsequent points weren't worth debating, in any case Gudding thought they couldn't be allowed to stand as the last word. So he just censored them.

It's a little thing, I know, but still it has really disappointed me. Scrubbing one's blog or Facebook page of unwanted comments is something I associate with the likes of Sarah Palin, not a champion of the vagaries of voice like Gudding. I think it would be prissy (to use a word Gudding likes) to suggest that my remarks deserved to be deleted because they were somehow offensive. If I call Harris a "windbag," it's because I think this characterizes him perfectly. Complacency plus rhetorical skill equals windbag. Gabriel Gudding, a poet, should know the formula. And who is more complacent than Sam Harris?

What are the ethics of Facebook posts and the debates that ensue? I think they're clear in this case, and that Gudding did something shabby by erasing my remarks. But of course if one agrees with Harris that Christians and other monotheists are anathema in a modern society, then it becomes rather easier to justify censoring their contributions to any given debate. Just as, given how clearly things are laid out by Harris, it wouldn't necessarily be the worst thing to begin burning their scriptures, in hopes that finally these people will just go away and a New Age of Enlightened Scientific Spirituality may dawn.

Since I am a Christian, the assumption is that I disagree with Sam Harris' arguments because I don't understand them. And as for those who lack understanding, what they write in the public arena--isn't it better to simply make it disappear? Doing so is not so much a matter of censorship really as it is a matter of good editing. This is also part of Harris' attitude to religious discourse: the more clearly arrogant part. For him there is something uncouth about people who would cherish the traditions left us by the Bible. After all, many of the accounts in the Bible can be shown not to accord with science, so what other than stupidity could lead people to find in it the spiritual treasures they claim? Presumably Harris and his cohorts in the New Atheism movement think they could do better in the matter of writing texts worthy of humanity's worshipful attention. The arrogance of hoping to supplant the Abrahamic traditions with the skimpy models and metaphors and neurological maps Harris has to offer is almost embarrassing.

Richard Eskow at Huffington Post has done a good job of sizing up Harris' contribution. Particularly useful is the way Eskow uncovers one of Harris' most egregious vices: the man's knack for setting up straw men. In fact Harris has spent much of his ink over the past decade drawing caricatures of modern believers, then vigorously attacking these same inky figments of his own discourse. A pseudo-philosopher like Harris can make a public career from such intolerant, reductive stuff. Poets have more serious work to do.
* * *
As of 8/23:
Surely story is not the stuff of science. I'm not so sure. . . . If story is not the stuff of science yet is about how we get on with making our ever-changing livings, then science, not story, must change. --biologist Stuart Kauffman, Investigations
Since I've ranted as much as I have above, there's nothing for it but to make a complete record. When I noticed Gabe had deleted my post, I politely protested by posting the following: "Was going to add something to this discussion, but I see you've gone and deleted my most recent remarks, so why should I bother?" Gabe then deleted this complaint. I intended to leave it at that, not planning to further engage Gudding on the question of atheism. But another participant, John Poch, a poet and creative writing teacher like Gabe, began to post under the Harris link, and I followed their back and forth until finally I decided to add something more. My addition concerned what I saw as Gabe's too narrow notion of "story". Gabe, this time, left my remarks stand and replied to them, adding some links that might, he believed, better educate me. I didn't, however, find these links very educating. I think Gabe understands what I'm getting at in my last postings, but I don't think he comes close to agreeing with me that story is always already inclusive for humanity. Anyway, I post the whole discussion here for the record:

Eric Mader: Simone Weil, Erasmus, Desmond Tutu, Rumi, Theresa of Lisieux, Thomas Merton--a few prominent rationalists of barbarity.

Gabriel Gudding: Your irony notwithstanding, Eric, I think what you write is, on its face, correct: the people you mention are, in a very real way, each an apologist for a system of domination. My sense is Harris would say that what makes /some/ of the writings and ideas of the thinkers and activists you mention useful is not their theism in general but their moral perspicuity in particular. And that moral sense does not stem from religion. Harris answers this common objection within the first 90 seconds, or so, of the video.

Eric Mader: Yes. Harris would have it that our moral sense is innate but that our depredations stem from our scriptures. It's a kind of Rousseauism almost. And here again, which is typical for him, Harris suggests that the reason people believe in one of the Western monotheisms is simply that they are looking for a list of rules to teach their children. This is incredibly reductive. The grounds of faith or belief are deeper and wider; they are other. I find Harris to be a windbag. He is a philosopher to the same degree that Pat Robertson is a saint. [deleted by Gabe]

Eric Mader: Was going to add something to this discussion, but I see you've gone and deleted my most recent remarks, so why should I bother? [deleted by Gabe]

John Poch: Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot...here's your system of domination, Gabe.

Gabriel Gudding: Hi John. I don't see the point you are making. Is it that these four despots killed millions of people because they had at various points been adherents of Marx? And that this somehow has to do with the Abrahamic religions? If so, that is a non sequitur. The following link might save you some time. It's a list of common objections, in the vein you attempt, to atheism, along with their counter-arguments: [link: "Common Objections to Atheism and Counter-Apologetics" at wiki.ironchariots.org]

John Poch: You might admit what happens in societies that eschew religion, in the societies that were the most adamantly atheistic. I make no claims about Marx. I find it appalling that you could support argumentation linking Abrahamic religions to barbarity, but you would deny that atheism has anything to do with nearly 100 million people killed. Recently.

Gabriel Gudding: John, have you watched Harris's talk?

John Poch: I watched it. It's a very limited and skewed view of Western religions, especially Christianity. The fact that he says there is very little worth in the scriptures is ridiculous and incredible for a supposed learned person. I find much beauty in the scriptures, much love, forgiveness, and the greatest story ever told. Harris is an apologist for a system of domination whether he knows it or not. Recent history shows that if we take God out of society, it crumbles. Morals crumble. (Note the atheist leaders I mentioned above.) The most charitable nations aren't those atheist counties he mentions. They might have less high crime rates, but I don't think he proves this has anything to do with religion. And his first assumption is wrong, as the scriptures don't teach that morals are an escape from damnation.

John Poch: Don't give up on stories, Gabe. Some of them are based on a true story.

Gabriel Gudding: Absent evidence, those stories, John, are lies and fantasies. You can purport that the story you were told (versus some other religion's) is factual. That doesn't make you right. It just makes you ignorable. And foolish.

Eric Mader: "Absent evidence, those stories are lies and fantasies." Think about the line you're drawing here. I submit, Gabe, that the belief that you or I have rights, or that there is such a thing as rights, is grounded on a story--a long and very valuable story retold in the Enlightenment but one which itself has no "evidence" (in your sense) to ground it. To be honest about it, there isn't really reliable evidence to prove much beyond Descartes' Cogito--if that. The scientific method on which you and Sam Harris think we must depend is the working out of but one among many stories--a story that is very useful for some things and irrelevant to others. In terms of science as a ground for ethics, we have plenty of inspiring examples from the 20th century, to which John also referred, and which should make us think twice. Do you really believe the scientific method is your most valuable story genre? Your meditation practice is also grounded on a story, Gabe, a kind of narrative you've told yourself about how the mind or the self should be, and a kind of practice that puts this narrative into action. Being that this practice was communicated to you in language, there are necessarily parts of it grounded on metaphor rather than anything like evidence. And language being a deeply metaphorical phenomenon, we may even say all of it, all of your notion of how vipassana is valuable, is metaphorical. Thus to accuse Christians of believing in something that is "only a story" is a pretty paltry jibe. In my mind, it is paltry to the verge of being meaningless. There are many levels on which stories can be engaged, many different kinds of epistemology according to which they may be valued.

Gabriel Gudding: Hi Eric. Given what you write here, I find myself wondering if you really know about the meditation I practice, the nature of scientific method, or the state of current moral philosophy as it is informed by neuroscience, if you are suggesting that scientific method is just a story, one among many, or that vipassana is based on a story, that science can say nothing about values, or that scientists just tell each other stories. In terms of discursive models (as a metaphor of comparison), it might be more accurate to say that scientific method is a rigorous dialog, a disciplined conversation, that does not admit mere assertion, no matter how compelling or widely-adopted a story, if it does not accord with facts. In that very clear sense, no, it's not a story. // In terms of the 20th C: which army's belt buckles bore the inscription, "Gott Mit Uns"?; how many religious wars were fought?; and, prior to that, how many continents were not conquered in the name of a god? (answer: one). // As for your other assertion, that science can say nothing about morality, take 20 minutes and see if any of this makes sense to you: [link: Sam Harris: "Science Can Answer Moral Questions" video at ted.com]

Gabriel Gudding: Or (for the others reading this) this superb panel: [link: "The Great Debate Panel" at thesciencenetwork.org]

John Poch: A good book to read is Can Man Live Without God? by Ravi Zacharias.

Gabriel Gudding: Does it contain chapters on Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy? Or is it a part of a whole series on living without Magical Superbeings.

Eric Mader: Have gone through most of your links and listened to the Harris spiel for TED and I'm still not much impressed. Harris, I think, is arguing more persuasively against cultural relativism than he is against me. / I think the notion of "story" I was getting at in my remarks of 8/18 is wider than your reply suggests. You offer the discursive model of dialogue as better suited to what science is. And so: a dialogue developed over time becomes what? A drama, or kind of story. Again, the reason the dialogue is engaged to begin with depends on its participants accepting a certain STORY as to its value or as to what it is they are engaging in. Which is not to say that I think the history of science is "just a story" like any other--say, similar in weight or structure to the story of Hansel and Gretel. No, I think it is obviously very weighty, and quite specific as to its "genre rules," if you will. But a story it is, nonetheless. It is a story about truth-finding believed in by its adherents: certainly rightly believed in when it is kept within its purview of verifying fact statements about things that can be tested by repeatable experiments. Often wrongly believed it when it is taken as the main provider of human (say: existential) truths. / And I'd also add: neither is the Christian story similar in weight or structure to Hansel and Gretel. Again, as with science, there's a difference of weight and "genre rules," and there's a huge difference in the truth value placed on the story by those who engage in it. / Given your enthusiasm for these somewhat blunt atheist apologetics (appropriate perhaps for arguing with fundamentalists or people with a weak sense of logic), you may consider the points raised below by Marcus Borg about "fact fundamentalism" to be worthless and just more proof of how we as a culture are (or should be) at "the end of faith." I myself don't agree with Borg about many things, but he's come part of the way toward explaining how we non-fundamentalist Christians understand the truth of the Bible. I review one of his books here. Borg speaks to some of the issues raised by Sam Harris-style discourse: Link: Marcus Borg and the Language of the Bible

Gabriel Gudding: Hi Eric. I wdn't say Harris is arguing against cultural relativism per se. The argument is against culturally prevalent disrespect for facts about well-being. The allies are anyone with respect for facts and evidence -- anyone who doesn't pretend to know things they don't know (life after death, invisible Magical Superbeings (Satan, Djinns, Devas, Archangels, River Spirits, Jehova, Wotan).

Gabriel Gudding: I suppose I should add, though I can't believe it really needs to be said, that if science is just "a dialogue developed over time... A drama, or kind of story," then I imagine successful surgeries, vaccinations, calculus, the cure for polio, sanitation, lightbulbs, dentistry, and the mindboggling intricacies of solid state physics that go into making your computer -- are also just stories. Attempting to reduce the host of hard-won, centuries-long projects housed under the umbrella of "science" -- projects that have saved and bettered countless lives -- to "a drama" (presumably so you can intellectually equate a favorite antiquated text about virgin birth, a magical savior hero and an apocalypse, with a world-wide and centuries-long effort to better ourselves) is ambitious. I imagine a lot of ambition is necessary to maintain these fantasies.

This was not however the last posting. Understandably disgusted by Gabe's suggestion that the Christian God and the Tooth Fairy were in the same intellectual category, John posted remarks to the effect that such sarcasm was "unbecoming" to Gudding, that the comparison was "ignorant," and that he would no longer debate such issues with him. Gabe, again donning his Sarah Palin garb (which perhaps looks good on him, I don't know) deleted John's remarks.

* * *
As of 10/10:

This week John Poch and I again debated Gabriel Gudding on the question of atheism, and again the results were so frustrating, our efforts were so unscrupulously manipulated by Gudding, that I've decided to play the Wikileaks card once more and post the whole dialogue here for the record.

Our debate started when Gudding posted a link to an interview with Harvard professor Steven Pinker about the latter's recent book Our Better Angels, and as part of the link called out to John Poch and I by name as two readers who may be interested to learn something from Pinker. If this was not an invitation to 1) read the link and interview, and 2) weigh in in the comments section, I don't know what such an invitation would look like. In short, John and I were directly invited to enter a discussion of the arguments Pinker raised. Once we did, however, Gudding did his best to make our points disappear by either deleting them or making it impossible for them to make any sense in context. As you will see. I post the whole discussion here:

GABRIEL GUDDING: Pinker interviewed about his book on the remarkable declines in violence since the rise of liberal democracies - gainsaying both neoconservative and theistic arguments, as well as some on the far left, as to how bloody modern nation states are. [link to Sam Harris' interview with Steven Pinker regarding Our Better Angels]

John Poch and Eric Mader might both find this interview interesting, and the above-mentioned talk at EDGE.org, as Pinker specifically addresses the repeated accusations from the christian right (which are variations of the supposition that the 20th century is remarkably violent because it is marked by atheism). Specifically this:

[quoted from Pinker:] First, the premise that Nazism and Communism were “atheist” ideologies makes sense only within a religiocentric worldview that divides political systems into those that are based on Judaeo-Christian ideology and those that are not. In fact, 20th-century totalitarian movements were no more defined by a rejection of Judaeo-Christianity than they were defined by a rejection of astrology, alchemy, Confucianism, Scientology, or any of hundreds of other belief systems. They were based on the ideas of Hitler and Marx, not David Hume and Bertrand Russell, and the horrors they inflicted are no more a vindication of Judeao-Christianity than they are of astrology or alchemy or Scientology.

Second, Nazism and Fascism were not atheistic in the first place. Hitler thought he was carrying out a divine plan. Nazism received extensive support from many German churches, and no opposition from the Vatican. Fascism happily coexisted with Catholicism in Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Croatia.

Third, according to the most recent compendium of history’s worst atrocities, Matthew White’s Great Big Book of Horrible Things (Norton, 2011), religions have been responsible for 13 of the 100 worst mass killings in history, resulting in 47 million deaths. Communism has been responsible for 6 mass killings and 67 million deaths. If defenders of religion want to crow, “We were only responsible for 47 million murders—Communism was worse!”, they are welcome to do so, but it is not an impressive argument.

Fourth, many religious massacres took place in centuries in which the world’s population was far smaller. Crusaders, for example, killed 1 million people in world of 400 million, for a genocide rate that exceeds that of the Nazi Holocaust. The death toll from the Thirty Years War was proportionally double that of World War I and in the range of World War II in Europe.

When it comes to the history of violence, the significant distinction is not one between theistic and atheistic regimes. It’s the one between regimes that were based on demonizing, utopian ideologies (including Marxism, Nazism, and militant religions) and secular liberal democracies that are based on the ideal of human rights. I present data from the political scientist Rudolph Rummel showing that democracies are vastly less murderous than alternatives forms of government.

ERIC MADER: Gabe: Yes, I mostly agree with Pinker here. The liberal democracies that developed out of the West's Judeo-Christian culture have proven far less prone to systematic bloodshed than the other modern political systems. Ultimately we can thank Christianity's highly developed concept of the individual for bringing us this political order, just as we can thank the West's hard-won distinction between church and state for keeping us free to choose what we will believe.

I remember John and I responded to your previous pro-atheist posts by pointing to an inconvenient truth: namely that it was precisely the atheistic political movements of the last century that committed the most horrendous atrocities. I think this truth still stands regardless of Steven Pinker's neat demographic arguments about percentages of world population slaughtered in the Crusades vs. the gulags or the Cultural Revolution. So I will reiterate: it was NOT political movements based in Judaism or Christianity that brought us the nightmares of modernity, but rather movements that found their legitimacy precisely in some version of "science". In the Soviet Union and China, it was the economic-historical "science" of Marxism (tweaked by Lenin in the one case and Mao in the other) that lent legitimacy. In Nazi Germany, it was a "science" of race and the relative strengths of the different races that did so. Both these movements championed "science" as a new and more reliable foundation for political order.

You may balk about Nazism in this regard. But the attempt to link Nazism to Christianity is, in the essentials, misguided. German Christians were certainly found in support of the movement, but it was also German Christians who offered the most principled resistance. There's a reason we don't see crosses paraded in the footage of Nazi marches and rallies. The swastika is not the cross: the Nazis were offering something sleekly modern and new: a neo-pagan Volk movement that sacralized the state and its leader, a movement that had "science" to back it up. I don't see Jesus as a significant element in this movement.

You imply in your remarks that when John and I offer these kind of arguments about the mayhem wreaked by atheism in modern history that we are presenting the arguments of "the Christian right". Well, John is not on the right, and I for one am solidly on the left. I understand, Gabe, why you'd like to round all us Christians up in the same corral--it's easier to dismiss us as morons then--but the truth is that it's not possible. American Christians cover a wide political and intellectual spectrum, and even many of those who ten years ago could predictably be put in the Republican camp are breaking ranks.

But back to the issue at hand: I submit that political powers that go to "science" to generate their ethical ground will most likely bring forth nightmares. We've seen it very clearly in the last hundred years. Sam Harris seems to me especially glib in this respect. The more I read or hear of him, the more I am convinced: Harris is a rhetorically gifted adult trapped in a teenage intellect. I wouldn't want to live in any modern state that grounded its ethical and legal norms on neuroscience.

[Infuriatingly, Gudding deleted this lengthy reply of mine, then posted the following, which he also soon deleted:]

GABRIEL GUDDING: Sorry, Eric, I ask that you reply to the content of the interview, rather than what you find ideologically incorrect about it, if you want to post about it here. Also, please avoid ad hominem attacks if you want to post about it here.

ERIC MADER: I did reply to the content of the interview. Your judgment as to what is ideological does not provide a neutral ground for discussion. I'll very reluctantly remove my remarks about Sam Harris, since you consider them ad hominem, and repost my original reply, which you just deleted, as follows: [Here I reposted my comments, without the remarks on Harris]

JOHN POCH: Dear Gabe, It certainly doesn't take a Christian to look at the world and see that the governments who reject Jesus' most ardent principles are the ones who, by far, murdered the most people. If you think Jesus (the Prince of Peace) message in any way would "advocate" millions of murders, you haven't read His words. People certainly misinterpret words and facts, as you do in your argument against Jesus. You say "fascism happily coexisted with Catholicism". Happily? You believe that? The totalitarian movements you unwittingly defend are most certainly a rejection of Jesus' teachings and his life. Speaking of fairy tales...if you think people are evolving (better) morally, then you have based your thinking on a narrowly chosen set of data (SEE Pinker/Harris) based on one false assumption--religion is at fault for the bad stuff and science gets the credit for the good! But what should it matter to those who take science's natural selection as THE WAY? Honestly. I can't believe you are still in denial about what atheists did in the last century. You can pick whatever proportions you want, but atheism has a bloody and disgusting RECENT history. Hopefully Sam Harris can change that with his new brand of it. Christianity admits to a fallen world that is humanity's fault as a result of our bad choices. You could try to pin it on God, but if He doesn't exist, you end up with us Christians to blame. The truth is: it's our own fault. All of us. Of course, you have to keep up your wishful thinking that it's only the religious who are at fault. Yet we have a Redeemer who can wash it away. White as snow. Gabe, you get your ideas about religious people from Time Magazine or Atheist blogs or Daytime TV or some weird notion in your head. I will remind you of the Salvation Army's motto: "Doing the Most Good" as a parting thought. Atheists don't show up en masse to help those afflicted by natural disasters. Christians do. Come, let us reason, sayeth the Lord. --Isaiah

ASHLEY CAPPS (poet and Gabriel Gudding's wife): "It certainly doesn't take a Christian to look at the world and see that the governments who reject Jesus' most ardent principles are the ones who, by far, murdered the most people." But the point is that those "murderers of the most people" weren't acting as agents of atheism, or as explicit rejecters of Jesus, any more than they were acting as rejecters of aliens or rejecters of astrology--their atheism, where it was in fact atheism, was irrelevant to their agendas, and where they rejected mercy, kindness, fairness, and humanity, they were *not* rejecting "Jesus's most ardent principles"--compassion and goodness do not come from or belong to Jesus! So to point to despotic movements in which the leaders were not acting on explicitly religious ideas, and call those "atheist movements", and then compare the atrocities of your so-called "atheist, Jesus-rejecting" movements and the atrocities of Christians, in order to say, "atheists have done and do more harm than Christians" just seems like willful obfuscation, an incorrect conflation that produces false dichotomies.

ASHLEY CAPPS: "Atheists don't show up en masse to help those afflicted by natural disasters." ?? Really? How could you know this? No one would know, actually, because when atheists show up to help, they aren't out there advertising their goodwill as representative of some sort of divine virtue deriving from divine superpowers. They don't show up as ambassadors of atheism. But they do show up, and I would challenge anyone to prove that atheists don't show up en masse. Most of the atheists I know are active volunteers on behalf of the welfare of both humans and animals, and the daily disasters that beset them.

GABRIEL GUDDING: Thanks to both John and Eric for replying. I am fascinated by christian and other theological reactions to actual data, having seen what these delusions do to people. So, a response to Eric, leaving off John's reply for now. Eric, you say: "The liberal democracies...developed out of the West's Judeo-Christian culture that liberal democracies." My response: this is just factually wrong. Wikipedia link: origins of liberal democracy

JOHN POCH: Hi Ashley, I believe that compassion and goodness actually do come from and belong to Jesus, who is God and Creator, and from whom comes the world, good. I partly agree with you that the despotic movements did not act on explicitly religious ideas, as these movements and political institutions were devoid of true religion which has at its heart the idea of human life as sacred and are therefore much more open to perpetrating atrocities. But I wonder if it hasn't been shown that many believers have been and continue to be imprisoned, tortured, and murdered for their faith in communist countries.

GABRIEL GUDDING: Thank you, John, for your fascinating replies. Where Eric's response was mostly factually incorrect, you are claiming the universe was created by an omnipotent celestial hominid who is your personal protector -- an ape who has consigned billions of other apes to eternal suffering. Thank you for sharing these notions here.

GABRIEL GUDDING: From a co-founder of a liberal democracy who apparently didn't get Eric's memo about liberal democracies being Judeo-Christian: "And the day will come, when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as His Father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva, in the brain of Jupiter."

ERIC MADER: As for Jefferson's line about the virgin birth, I've quoted it myself when debating dominionist Christians who try to paint the Founders as Christian. Most of the Founders, I know, were deists, or in any event showed very little commitment to Christianity in its strict orthodox version.

And why would I, as a Christian, bring up this example of Jefferson's skepticism? For one, I do not like to see people making up American history to suit their religious or political position; secondly, I highly value separation of church and state. As a Christian, I know Christianity is best served by not becoming the official religion of a major power.

As for the place of Judeo-Christianity in the development of the modern West, I'm not thinking of Weber, as you suggest in your note. I will try to get something you may consider "factual data," but this is a matter of a more sweeping interpretation of historical movement and intellectual history. In any case, I believe you would acknowledge that dominant cultural orders often bring about resistance to them within which resistance there remain key elements of the order being resisted. A good example of this is the rise of fundamentalism (Christian, Jewish, Islamic) in response to modernity. Karen Armstrong demonstrated this dialectic very well in THE BATTLE FOR GOD.

In the case of Europe, culminating in the 18th century, the dominance of the churches, especially the Catholic Church, led to an intellectual resistance culminating in the Enlightenment, which resistance itself depended on an insistence on the value of individuals, of individual right and responsibility, that would have been unthinkable without the Christian cultural background/context of particular notions of the individual (the individual as precious, as responsible, as standing before God). Also essential for these Enlightenment thinkers was a concept of the state as something independent of religious authority. This had precedent in medieval practice, and again was buttressed in new ways by the Reformation. Crucially, the modern states were founded on the idea that different denominations had the right to co-exist within one political body. Again, all of this was a matter of complex developments within CHRISTIAN culture, developments that needed particular predominant concepts of "individual," "right," "domain," "soul," "God," to even have occurred. No liberal democracy would have arisen in either Islamic, Buddhist or Confucian political orders.

[Here Gabe did something rather odd. He went and deleted his first remarks on the Harris interview with Pinker--those remarks where he specifically called out to John and I as people who'd be interested in what Pinker has to say. I don't know why Gabe did this, but the affect it produces is pretty obvious. It changes the nature of the whole discussion. With his introductory remarks intact, John and I are responding in good faith to an intellectual challenge from Gudding. He wants to hear from us, and he gets to hear from us. Once Gudding's opening challenge is erased, however, the whole dynamic of the post changes. Now, to anyone who comes upon it, it will appear that Simple Gabe innocently posted a link to a new book by Steven Pinker when suddenly, wham, in came these two Christians who started attacking Gudding, or the book, or . . . well, it's hard to say-- Really, what are these two going on about? In short, by removing his own opening remarks, Gudding cuts the debate as a whole away from its context. Its context is erased. Also, there's a marked change in Gudding's tone in his reply to my remarks on the Enlightenment:]

Gabriel Gudding: Eric, it might be easier to read the book before refuting it. It just came out yesterday. Give yourself some time.

Eric Mader: Granted. But I don't think the issue at this point is so much Pinker's book itself, but more general questions of liberal democracy, Judeo-Christian culture, atheism, and how these relate to each other and especially how they relate to crimes against humanity in history. All of us in this discussion are educated enough to have positions on these questions without reading Pinker's book in specific. Harris' interview, in any case, is there to be read.

Gabriel Gudding: that's. what. the book. is about. in part. hey: maybe read the thing before getting all in a bunch that it doesn't accord w/ yr christian worldview. live a little.

John Poch: I find an unseemly sarcasm in this argument, so I'm bowing out. I haven't found this very fascinating, except for Eric's cogent and open discussion. Gabe, you could be a little more thoughtful and sensitive, as you wish Christians to be. I am happy to be part of a wonderful company: Dante, Milton, Hopkins, Smart, Wilbur, Heaney, Milosz. And yet, Larkin remains one of my favorite poets. He respected a desire: "a hunger in himself to be more serious." Your(and Ashley's) ridicule of my faith doesn't seem to come close to this but maybe it's just this awkward facebook forum. I have heard it said that one of the strategies of the new atheism is to shame the faithful by aligning them with base superstitions. I hope you do realize the problem with this. There are universities, entire libraries full of investigations and thoughtfulness about our faith, and billions who are believers, where no one treats the Easter Bunny or Spiderman this way. I ask for a little respect, even as I give science a great deal of respect. But maybe that is not possible with your worldview. I thank you for the challenge, though, as I do not worship blindly, and I hope to comport myself as the Apostle Peter suggests, "always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence". If I have been irreverent, I apologize, as I do have that wacky view that God creates each of us in His image.

[After which post, John noticed that Gudding had deleted his initial remarks.]

John Poch: I feel it necessary to delete all but the last of my posts here. Gabe has changed or eliminated the context of this debate by deleting his original post and other parts of it. I'm sure he meant nothing malicious by it, but it is quite unfair to the discussion.

Gabriel Gudding: John, It's not sarcasm -- just a lack of respect for your superstition. Your faith demands respect it doesn't deserve. So there are many books: There are (and were, before they were burned by religious zealots) also libraries full of books on Zeus, Apollo, astrology, Hanuman, Mithras, Zoroaster, Islam, witches, dowsing, alchemy. They can't all be right. Yet you claim the one true religion (as do they all). And your god is an omnipotent celestial ape ("man" is created in god's image, so god is an ape). So the lack of respect stems from:

(1) Your narcissism. That you alone are right, of all those above. And your god is also a hominid who created everything. Crazy. Without any evidence.

(2) Your faith is brutal. Your ape god consigns billions of people to hell who don't believe as you.

(3) Where a supposition is made without evidence and respect for truth, it can be dismissed without evidence and respect for the non-truth. If you can provide proof of your celestial ape, produce it. But don't demand respect for something that is on its face ludicrous. It's adolescent.

After this last post by Gudding, all of John Poch's posts were deleted. I believe by John himself. I understand John's decision to remove himself from a debate that had seen such direct mockery of Christianity, and one that, finally, was being skewed by selective erasures.

But what is my own place in this tangle? And why have I posted all of this here? If I've done so, it is mainly, as indicated, for the record. Gudding himself has little respect for the record: he quickly airbrushes out opposing ideas the way a Stalinist photo editor would airbrush out figures purged from the politburo. I don't think this Soviet comparison is going too far either. Having read plenty on the New Atheism, I now suspect that both Gudding and his mentor Sam Harris would be more than willing to send religious people to re-education camps if they were ever given the power to do so.

The arguments in our debate are one thing; they can speak for themselves if viewed in sequence. But I want to ensure, finally, that I'm not misunderstood as to this issue of making a record of these arguments.

Gudding finds both John and I ridiculous because we are Christians. He finds it hard to treat religious people with any intellectual respect. Of course this is obnoxious to John and I, but I, for my part, would acknowledge that it is his right. Though the culture he grew up in as an American owes many of its key ethical strengths to its Christian roots, Gudding certainly has the right to think Christians are laughable. That's not my main issue with him. What has incensed me, and finally convinced me that he is a hypocrite, is his enthusiasm for censorship. I don't recognize his right to make statements disappear; I don't recognize his right to this particular instance of airbrushing. If I spend fifteen minutes of my time writing out ideas regarding a subject important to me, especially if I've been more or less invited to do so by someone who disagrees with me, that person will not get away with deleting any of my ideas from the discussion. If someone wants to make my faith and intellectual grounding look ridiculous, I invite him to try, but he will not then in addition make my answers to his provocation disappear.

And further: I refuse to acknowledge Gudding's right, having taken part in a dialogue, essentially an organic structure of discourse moving back and forth between participants, to erase even his own previous statements. He does not have the right to provoke debate, then remove his provocation so as to make those who responded to it look unduly aggressive. This to me is another key piece of the ethics of our interactions here on earth. Dialogue is to be respected as one of the foundational activities of humanity: it is one of our most essential modes of being in community. Gudding with his sub-standard philosophical abilities might not get this last idea, but his lack of philosophical rigor here is beside the point: he is responsible both for respecting others' right to speech, and for what he himself has said.

I will also argue that the fact our debate took place on Facebook, in the context of his "wall," does not change these basic ethical points. Gudding may want to argue that this was not a public debate because it happened in the context of a space shared only by his Facebook "friends". To me this context matters little, for two fundamental reasons: first, Gudding's friend list runs to over two-thousand people. Facebook dialogues in such a context are more or less public. Second, to the degree that one wants to argue this way (cordoning off social media and saying its ethics are less rigorous, more a matter of personal whim) one only impoverishes the public arena. It is one of the (perhaps ultimately unfortunate) facts of our public life that many of our significant debates will take place in the arena of one or another participant's Facebook "wall". A Facebook wall is rightly presided over by the person who opened it, but that does not mean this person then owns the discourse that occurs thereon. If the person posted an item to "Public," it is in effect just that: publicly debatable. I think this particular ethical aspect of Facebook walls is pretty clear to intelligent people, even people shallow enough to admire the likes of Sam Harris. A further comparison might put the issue in context. As follows: I would never consider taking a lengthy email correspondence and putting it online without all participants' agreement. To do so would be clearly wrong, as someone writing email to me may intend the content of the writing to be kept between ourselves. And so I would never do it. But was our debate on atheism here a private thing? It was not framed as such, nor conducted as such, because it wasn't such. There is no such thing as a private correspondence that simultaneously has thousands of potential viewers.

The obvious conclusion: Gudding abuses his Facebook controls to censor and manipulate what are in essence free discussions. We might expect a person with little understanding of our public life to debate this way, but when a teacher of ethics and poetry at an American university does it, it is good reason to call that person out as a hypocrite.


An excellent article on Sam Harris' philosophical grounding, or rather lack thereof, appeared in The Nation earlier this year.

Friday, August 12, 2011


July 2

我在台北已經十五年忙著寫英文 。 現在回到美國休息一個月 , 我可以練習一下用電腦寫中文 。 可是 . . . 很慢!寫這兩句已經開始頭痛 。

July 3

每次來到佛羅裡達州讓我覺得自己蠻瘦 。

July 4

我坐在我媽的花園抽著煙 , 看著 David Foster Wallace 寫的諷刺小說 The Broom of the System 。 這裡有點熱 , 但是我不能在客廳看書 , 因為我媽在看電視 (Casey Anthony trial) 。 花園裡四邊可以看到孌色龍 , 可是這些變色龍太懶惰 , 不變色 : 在淺綠色葉子 , 米色石頭 , 藍色的椅子上 , 牠們保持同一個顏色 : 半綠半棕色 。

July 5

我今天帶鄰居兩個孩子去看電影 。 他們想看"變形金剛", 可是票都賣光了 , 我們只能看戲院另一部電影"變性金剛" , 一部泰國片 。 孩子覺得很有趣 , 可是回家後他們的媽媽罵我半天 。

Quote of the day: "I wish you'd think about what you say instead of always just saying what you think."

July 6

我媽是個很保守的七十歲的基督徒。 雖然我自已是個比較開方的天主教徒 , 但是我們不常討論宗教的事 。 因為她好幾年有類濕性關節炎 , 媽身體很多關節 (手指 , 膝蓋 )是人造的 。 她走路十分鐘 , 要坐下什息 ; 所以我每年來拜訪她 , 我們最常的活動是看書和看 DVD 。 我們相處的蠻好 ; 只有政治的事我們不同宜 : 講到 Obama 她很快發脾氣 ; 她恨他。 然而 ,對我來說 , 是她支持的共和黨引起了美國現在的問題 。我想避免討論這個主題 , 可是沒辦法 , 她每兩天一定要罵我是笨蛋支持 Obama 。

July 8

我媽兩隻貓很喜歡我 。 牠們應該知道我對貓過敏 , 所以想取笑我一下 。我坐在沙發上看電視時 , 有一隻來咬我的腳趾 , 另一隻在沙發背上接近我用尾巴徐徐地打我的頭 。 過了十分鐘 , 我打噴嚏 。 我媽說 : "Aww, aren't they cute? They LIKE you."

July 21

前幾天我寫幾句有關我媽花園裡的變色龍 。 變色龍是每天可以看到的 。 但是我今天在公園看到一隻我沒着過的動物 : 我看到一隻孌色狼 。

Tuesday, August 2, 2011


There are idiots in every country in the world and idiots can be annoying or even dangerous.

Sometimes idiots even become presidents or national leaders. In that case, millions of people will suffer.

It is important to know how to recognize idiots and to know what kind of idiots they are, so that you can protect yourself and your loved ones from danger or many wasted hours.

But I don't really want to write about idiots here, what I want to write about is pandas. Pandas are not really bears, like most people think, but are actually cats pretending to be bears. They are large, stinking vegetarian cats posing as bears so as to appear special.

Pandas should be illegal. The only thing worse than a panda is a Kung-Fu panda. And the only thing worse than that is a Kung-Fu panda in 3-D.

How long are you going to let them fool you? They are going to eat through all the bamboo forests in the world and then they will start eating domestic livestock and children. There are videos to prove this.

That pandas are cats and not bears should be obvious to everyone by now. All you have to do is look in the encyclopedia.

Cats are actually not even mammals. What they are is reptiles that have evolved fur so as to appear to be mammals. Cats may seem cute when you look at them, but that is just an act. When humans are not looking, cats commit all manner of evil and unhygienic acts.

If you see wild dolphins in the ocean, you may want to swim near them, but this is not a good idea because wild dolphins might not like you and also sharks often follow dolphins because they feed on them.

If they think you are being a pain, wild dolphins can kill you by butting you with their heads. But even if the dolphins ignore you, the shark may interpret your swimming which is less graceful than the dolphins as the movements of a dolphin having a seizure, and the shark may then attack you because it thinks you are easy prey, which is just about right, you stupid New Age twit.

Some authorities believe that cats are actually trying to take over the universe.

Chameleons that have not encountered predators for a long time may become so lazy that they forget how to change color. Such chameleons are good for nothing and do not even deserve to be called chameleons.

We hold these truths to be self-evident.


This and 42 other important public service announcements can be found in my new book Idiocy, Ltd.