Sunday, May 17, 2009

On God and Ants

It's been an incredibly stressful weekend, at the end of a stressful week. Quite suddenly, I realized I haven't had anything to eat since lunch yesterday. I've simply forgotten. Outside of Mountain Dew and a handful of chips while I graded a stack of papers and tried to listen to the Celtics-Magic game, I've accidentally pulled off a nearly forty-hour fast. So, maybe that's what's got me thinking about theological questions, and my own religious insecurities. Maybe it's just hunger, or maybe it's the long human tradition of fasting to center one's self, which I've twisted into the post-modern accidental corn-syrup and caffeine variety. Who knows?

Regardless, I've been contemplating my... well, my loss of faith, frankly. Over the last year, perhaps the last couple, I've been going through a slow process of disillusionment, doubt, and emotional disconnect from God and all things Christian. After the years of the Bush administration, where I watched my faith used as a motivation or a pretext for a few hundred thousand acts I find abominable, and bending myself into contortions of all kinds to separate my own faith from that of every other Christian who disagreed with me on any particular day for any particular reason, I found myself drained of any emotional response to religious questions. They still served as interesting thought experiments: as dry, logical puzzles wherein the goal was to reason from interesting but unprovable tenets toward the political positions I wanted to reach in the first place. God became about as important as Sudoku, and, just as my interest in Sudoku waned, I could feel that the fad of the curious-about-God-game was running out of steam.

Kierkegaard, if I remember correctly, held that if a person could lose their faith, they never had a real faith to begin with, i.e. if someone had truly known God they would lose the ability to deny His existence. Calvin, on the other hand, would probably have felt that if a person lost their faith they had always been predestined to do so by God, which seems particularly cruel to me. Why would God make a person believe in Him, then make him do otherwise? Calvin held that all kinds of actions were outward expressions of our predestination, from our ethical behavior to our ability to make lots of money, so I would assume he would include verbal expressions of faith in those outward signs. But we know that some people claim to believe at one point in their lives, then claim not to later on. So, is God making an outward expression of a person's damnation by turning them away in this life through expressions of doubt? Is God so cruel? I'm no Calvinist, but I thought I was very much in line with Kierkegaard's view of the faith experience. I used to be damned sure I knew God, and that I'd felt real moments of connection with Him at points in my life, reaffirming all kinds of theological, cultural, political, and even aesthetic beliefs which really had nothing to do with those specific experiences. I used to be certain God connected with me, and, in retrospect, those moments calcified so many other assumptions which were unrelated. God reached down and said, "I'm here," and all I chose to hear was, "Everything you believe can stay the same." Now I realize that the God who reaffirms my beliefs isn't real. That doesn't mean I don't believe in God, but I don't believe in the one I wanted to believe in back then. So, does that mean Kierkegaard is right? Did I never have real faith to begin with, because I chose to believe in a god of veiled convenience, or did I have a real connection to a real God, and I simply dressed Him up to make Him more bearable?

As you can see, what little faith I had was undirected and tenuous. You might say, as it hung by a thread I wondered if the thread was there, which didn't really bode well for the faith hanging on the other end. I wanted to hold onto Jesus, just Jesus... or really, just abstract and distant truth derived from Jesus' teachings or about His place in the geography of Christian theology, but I wasn't sure I believed in believing anymore. At least not in any complete way. I made assertions about religious things, and continuously re-evaluated those claims. That was my faith. As such, I didn't know if I believed in maintaining it, because the claims themselves did not dictate that it required maintenance.

Then, yesterday, (perhaps 10 hours into my fast, so take any conclusions with that grain of salt) I had a truly religious moment. Now, I want to be clear. I hate the term "religion". I think it's too all-encompassing and not nearly descriptive enough. It's better than "Spirituality" when spoken by some dead-behind-the-eyes celebrity, but only by inches. What is a religious experience, after all? The rites of a given faith are certainly religious experiences. But then, so is the reading of scripture, or time spent in prayer. Solitary moments of communion with God are religious experiences, as are corporate ones. If someone tells us we have God on our side and we all head off to kill people in some distant land full of heathens, isn't that a religious experience? Everything a believer does could be described as a religious experience, and yet, so much of what they do is identical to the behavior of a non-believer that the term isn't helpful without a lot of clarification. And yet, I choose the term carefully here. I had a religious experience. That's all. Not necessarily a spiritual one. I'm still not even sure about my questions of the spirit yet. The experience certainly wasn't formalized in any way; nothing about this would be found in any Presbyterian Book of Order. But it was religious in a way that embraces my dislike of the term, that even subverts that and shows the word's usefulness. I didn't like the word because two guys could be sitting on the bus, reading the same newspaper, both not only doing the same thing but even thinking about the same things, and then the religious man allows thoughts about the divine to color his perspective on the article he's reading. In that moment, he feels something, something which cannot be proven to be God in any scientific way, but which he recognizes as distinct from his thoughts about God. Who can say what the atheist sitting next to him would make of this feeling? Who can even take some measurement and know if the atheist feels it at all? And yet, the experience for the man of faith has shifted from a intellectual exercise to one that is... different. And maybe that's as specific and articulate as I can be, but my experience was a religious one in just that way.

My bathroom has been overrun by ants. They are tiny, and from a distance they elicit a revulsion I can only assume to be genetic. However, when I looked at one very closely, I realized they are kind of endearing. They go about their work much as I do, filled with a sense of purpose which satisfies them. I don't understand it completely. They're getting food and water to stay alive. I understand that much. They follow chemical paths left by little scouts. They greet one another and pass chemical messages. I understand these things on one level, and yet I don't really relate. But then, I go through my little life getting food and water to stay alive; I call that work. My particular work as a teacher fills me with a sense of fulfillment beyond the paycheck (ha ha, teacher's paycheck), but then, perhaps walking down that chemical path convinces the ant that he is doing something good and noble as well. I interact with my friends, my students, my colleagues, my family in ways that both bring me great joy and make my life functional. Do the ants pass their chemical versions of clever jokes, bank card pin numbers, "I love you"s, and exasperated sighs? Why should I have such clear beliefs about the nature and character of God, and why should I demand of myself such strong conviction about His every characteristic, when I have such a superficial understanding of the thousands of little buggers eating the cat food in my bathroom and drinking from the bit of water I left in the glass after brushing my teeth?

These are thoughts about God. Someone who does not believe in God could ask these same questions, either about themselves or about me, and come up with the same unsatisfying lack of conclusions. But then the experience changed to one an atheist couldn't share. And here's the thing: I don't know that God was involved. It could be a manifestation of a mania. I can't deny that. If there is no God, I experienced a momentary delusion in which I felt an emotional reaction to something I could not sense with any of my five sense. In other words, if there is no God then I am not only crazy, but the least creative crazy person in the world, who experiences an imaginary friend but is too lazy to attribute any characteristics to that delusion beyond an accompanying sense of peace and joy.

But afterward, I felt, and have continued to feel, a huge sense of relief. And I know why. I had come to believe that my faith experience would, for the rest of my life, exist only in the intellect, with no emotional component, and I'd even begun to resign myself to that. I am pleased to report that I am still capable of feeling something related to God, and maybe even feeling a connection to God Himself. Somehow that feels like I've hit bottom, and am now on the up-and-up.

None of this probably makes a lick of sense to anyone in the world, and publishing something so convoluted should make me feel ashamed. And yet, this seems proper, like a birth announcement without real information about gender and height and weight and the number of fingers and toes. Hey, everybody! I've finally had a feeling! Pass the cigars.

Now let's just hope it doesn't go away when I go grab a bite to eat.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Jesse Ventura is Correct?

I could never do the math on Jesse "The Body" Ventura. Did he say one smart thing for every dumb thing? Two to one? One to two? But in this clip he fares very well, by my count. His opinions and my verdicts:

1. George Bush is the worst president in his lifetime.

2. Guantanamo is our own Hanoi Hilton.

3. People involved in torture should be prosecuted.

4. Waterboarding doesn't yield good intelligence (or Dick Cheney carried out the Sharon Tate murders).
Check (or check)

5. Legalizing Marijuana is equivalent to ending prohibition in terms of reducing crime.
Check (and I don't even smoke pot or wear hemp, though I'd like my books published on hemp paper)

6. Al Franken should win the Minnesota senate seat and the feds shouldn't weigh in because states should make that choice.

7. Dick Cheney is a coward.

8. Colin Powell is a hero. Rush Limbaugh ain't.
Check and check

9. We should end the embargo on Cuba.

10. Surfing is a religion.
Okay, well...

11. The Miss California flap is a waste of time.

12. Marriage shouldn't even be a government issue, and government should only recognize civil unions.
Check and a big Amen!

13. Jesse Ventura is a poet.
Certainly not. Ouch.

14. If torture really worked we'd have Bin Laden.
Well, that doesn't necessarily follow...

15. Torture doesn't work.
No argument here.

Okay, so he's 13 for 15, counting the two-for-one. Not shabby. I'm still not sure I'd vote for the guy, but if we ever need a replacement for Joe Biden, Obama could do worse.


When is torture justified? Never.

Roger Cohen, in today's Washington Post, muses, "Yet I have to wonder whether what he [Cheney] is saying now is the truth -- i.e., torture works."

"works"? "works"? The ethical calculus here is completely screwed up. First of all, even if Cheney could prove the torture saved lives (a doubtful proposition), he can't know that the torture will not set a precedent that enemies may use it against our soldiers in the future, or know how many terrorists were ginned-up using accounts of torture, so the simple one-to-one math is impossible. Secondly, even if Cheney calculates that torture is worth it, part of that calculation must include jail time for the breaking of the law. If it was really worth it, and Cheney really believes that, he should be willing to do the time, or at least try to make his case to a jury rather than Bob Scheiffer. If he's not willing to go to jail, then he doesn't really think it was worth it.

Even if Cheney were principled enough to turn himself in for violations of US law and for war crimes, he'd still be wrong. Torture is never justified, even if it seems to work. I wonder if Cheney wants to start an international race to the bottom of the depths of our humanity because he knows he already has a head start.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

On Star Trek and Torture

I saw the new Star Trek on Thursday and loved it. I think this article short changes the movie a bit, taking it to task for a merely obligatory torture scene. In fact, I'd say any torture scene makes a political statement now; if the bad guys are torturing, the writer is saying something (Star Trek), and if the good guys are doing it (24), the writer is also making a statement. Star Trek only speaks out against torture by virtue of placing it in the arsenal of the bad guys and elevating the behavior of the good guy who resists. It's meager, but it's something. Still, when I came across this piece on an old episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I immediately remembered the episode which had a lot more to say about "enhanced interrogation techniques" than any fiction I've seen or read since (not counting re-readings of 1984). I recommend the piece, and a revisiting of the episode itself, if you have the time and means.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Pelosi and Torture

The Washington Post reports that a newly released memo indicates that Nancy Pelosi was briefed on the use of enhanced interrogation techniques in 2002. Now, some on the right and left will say this explains the Obama administration's hesitance to prosecute the writers of those memos. That may be the case. I hope, instead, it serves as an impetus to get the ball rolling on prosecutions for all the people responsible. After all, it's a win-win for the administration; it gets to uphold the principle that torture is unacceptable by holding those responsible accountable (something I've argued for before), it could show the country that this isn't a political witch-hunt but a principled stance, and it gets to remove Pelosi. Let's face it, she's a liability to the President and the party. Ignoring her heavy-handed mismanagement of Obama's first attempt at reaching across the aisle to bail out the financial system, she's from San Francisco. If she goes, the party could find leadership from somewhere that doesn't scream lefty-pinko-commie, while retaining the seat (it's more likely to go to a Green than a Republican, if I'm not mistaken). If she knew about the torture, she should go down because it's the right thing to do. If it's the right thing to do, that principle should cross party lines. Herbert Hoover said "Honor is not the exclusive property of any political party," and he was right, but dishonor isn't either, and torture shames us all. The fact that dealing with this dishonor is also politically expedient for the Obama administration is just icing on the cake.

Garfield minus Garfield

Tonight, listening to a podcast of NPR's "Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me", I enjoyed Peter Segal's joke about how the recession has become so hard on the comic strip industry that Garfield is considering actually being funny. Well, Peter can take heart; even if Garfield can't pull it off, the strip can be made funny by simply removing the annoying, smug, fat cat from it. I was exposed to this wonderful site by a former student (thanks, Grahame!) and highly recommend it to everyone: Garfield minus Garfield

garfield minus garfield - Share on Ovi

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Some Very Hard Candy

I just saw the movie Hard Candy. It's an indie film based on a merely clever gimmick that rises well beyond it. I won't say what it's about, but I will say that at every point in the film it's not quite what you think, and (and this may be the highest praise I can give it) that feeling does not dissipate once the movie is over. My immediate reaction was negative. Three minutes later I started to really like it. Five minutes after that I was still contemplating what it meant. That has most Hollywood celluloid drivel beat by a mile.

hard_candy_poster - Share on Ovi

Monday, May 04, 2009

Bravo, Dan Froomkin!

Dan Froomkin, in his piece "Krauthammer's Asterisks", takes on Charles Krauthammer, his colleague at the Washington Post and a grade A hole. After Krauthammer argues that torture is "impermissible evil" that should only be undertaken in two circumstances (when we think we need to, and when we feel like it), Froomkin takes his claims apart one at a time and shows Krauthammer for what he really is: a sociopath apologist for torture. Thanks Mr. Froomkin!

Sunday, May 03, 2009

We Need Accountability for Torture

Back in January, I encouraged everyone to read Tom Junod's piece from Esquire, "What the Hell Just Happened? A Look Back at the Last Eight Years". In it, he called us all to take our share of the blame for the Bush torture policies. Now, in Slate, Jacob Weisberg uses our collective guilt as a rationale for not going after criminal prosecutions of the people responsible. In his piece "All the President's Accomplices: How the country acquiesced to Bush's torture policy" he essentially argues that because we all knew the gist of what was going on, and because we allowed it (and even re-elected the people doing it), there's no point in going after the people who wrote the memos, gave the orders, or carried out the torture. After all, we would be going after more than 51% of the population, right? Instead, he says we should have a South African style truth and reconciliation commission and move on.

I completely disagree.

This is a representative democracy, not a direct one. We elect people to enact the popular will, but we also choose people who should know when to stop in those cases where the majority of people are simply wrong. The day of 9/11 I was teaching at a high school. One of the kids in the class said, "We should just nuke Baghdad." I was appalled. I convinced him that killing millions of innocent people when we didn't even know who was responsible was simply wrong. Then, when I tried to share how horrified I was by the student's reaction with another teacher, she basically agreed with him. Now we know that there were no Iraqis responsible for 9/11, but what if this teacher and this student had been expressing the popular will? Would we have caused the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis because we were reacting out of ignorance and fear?

Oh, wait, we did that.

I understand that a full blown prosecution could create a myriad of problems. It will tie up the Obama administration in accusations of partisan recrimination, and they will lose some political capital necessary to do good work. It will redirect the national focus from more pressing issues. It could create paralysis for future legal and political actors who are afraid of recriminations from future administrations. All of these are real fears. They can be minimized in some ways. The President can separate himself as much as possible from an independent prosecutor. The trials could be held slowly, deliberately, and with as little flashiness as possible, to bore the hell out of the American public so that they keep their attention focused on more immediate concerns. And as for paralyzing future leaders, that moment's hesitation might not be a bad thing at all. Reagrdless, these concerns are outweighed, at least in my mind, but a much greater danger that would come from inaction on the issue of torture.

If we don't hold anyone accountable, we will have created a nightmarish precedence: the ultimate Nuremberg defense for the most vile, evil politicians of the future. They will be able to say, in coming times of crisis, that the people were scared and wanted them to ignore any legal and moral boundary in order to be made to feel safe, so they did what they thought was right. They will look back into history and say, "Look what people have gotten away with in the past. Why should we be held to a different standard?" In fact, Weisberg does this same thing for them. He brings up examples of what he calls "American history's hall of shame," including "the Alien and Sedition Acts, Japanese internment during World War II, and the excesses of the McCarthy era." What do those have in common? Not only were they shameful, but no one was held accountable. In the American hall of shame, each shiny brass placard reads, "The perpetrators got off scott-free."

Whatever the negative consequences of criminal prosecutions for those responsible for illegal torture of detainees may be, they are outweighed by the power said prosecutions would hold in preventing future illegal and immoral acts in times of crisis. This time it's torture. The next time it could be a nuclear bomb dropped on Baghdad.