Friday, October 2, 2015

The Banality of our Responses to Evil

I've read that there are some who feel that Hannah Arendt, in referring to "the banality of evil" in her book regarding Eichmann in Israel, fiddled somewhat with the facts and the record to better support the accuracy of that neat little phrase describing what took place in Nazi Germany.  It wouldn't be the first time someone has altered facts to support a theory, or arrived at a theory and found facts, or something less than factual, to support it.

Arendt's taste in men may certainly be questioned in light of her fondness for her morally and physically repulsive seducer, Heidegger.  But what I've read of her work seems to me to indicate she was sensible and insightful in various other respects, so I reserve judgment on her claim about evil specifically as it relates to what took place in the twelve years the Nazis ruled Germany and wrecked havoc on Europe and its non-Germanic peoples.  I think, though, that evil need not be banal and often is not banal.  What seems clearly banal is our response to it here in God's favorite country.

The statements we're hearing from the media and the politicians and pundits who beset us regarding the deaths and injuries in Oregon due to the shootings at a community college yesterday are examples of this banality.  What is being said is determined by the political stance of the person/entity making the statement, and is easily inferred once that stance is known.  The stance is already known, of course, in many cases.  There are calls for more gun laws.  There are calls for more guns.  There are calls for more people carrying more guns.  There are claims current laws are not being enforced.  There are claims that no existing laws would have prevented the violence, and that no other laws will, or that other laws which would succeed in preventing gun violence cannot be adopted as they would violate the Second Amendment. 

I've made it clear already in this place that I think those in charge of the NRA (not necessarily all those who are members of it) are mere shills for the gun manufacturing industry, and so are interested primarily if not solely in the selling of all guns which are manufactured by that industry.   I've also made it clear I feel that those who believe the Second Amendment establishes an absolute right to bear arms of any kind are foolish if not deluded, and that those who think the government is plotting to take away their firearms are clearly deluded.

I've also noted I think those who feel that if teachers and other "regular" people carry guns (i.e. not merely police and other law enforcement offices) they will be able to protect themselves and others indulge in a fantasy.  Trained law enforcement personnel have problems with accurately shooting firearms.  Untrained people involved in a tense and frightful situation like a firefight will more likely be a danger to anyone near them than to a determined shooter. 

As well rely on Elmer Fudd coming to the rescue.

But I don't want to dwell on these arguments.  Instead, I write regarding the numbingly stupid, futile, ordinary, predictable nature of the debate which takes place after one of these sadly frequent events.  Fox News, which always may be relied on to say something silly, seems to be characterizing this event as part of the "War Against Christianity" it keeps maintaining is taking place.  Indeed, what else would it say under the circumstances?  Certainly nothing which is not superficial and not good for a headline.

Some pathetic, deranged, perhaps narcissistic loser/loner has firearms and uses them against others and away we go, off on the merry-go-round of rhetoric.  Though all those involved in the posturing which takes place are banal in their response, one can at least sympathize with those who seek an answer, who want some king of substantive response to be made.  Those who say such things just happen, or sell more guns, however, are despicable in their complacency and presumption.

I'm now a gun owner.  I have a shotgun, with which I try to blow flying clay discs out of the air.  It's a pastime requiring a certain skill, and which I enjoy.  I don't feel that in owning a shotgun I'm exercising some sacred right, however.  I find the thought of using my shotgun to defend myself from a tyrannical government laughable.  My ownership of a firearm has not imbued me with the desire that all should own one, or the belief that they should not be regulated.  Why should it?

Tired rhetoric is no effective response to evil, but it's the only response we seem to have to evil of this kind.  What does it say about our country when murder and massacre are grounds only for more of the same posturing?

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Things that are Caesar's

Dr. Ben Carson is one of the candidates for what seems to me to be the increasingly undesirable office of President of our Glorious Republic.  It is at least being sought by undesirables if it is not undesirable in itself.  In any event, Dr. Carson is at the center of the most current tempest in the teapot of our politics, which is largely devoted to expressions of outrage against one thing or another.

He has given the various pundits, media types and politicians who infest our country yet another opportunity to pontificate while on their way to their respective troughs, this time with respect to his comment that a Muslim should not be President.  The Presidency is a position which arguably should not be held by anyone who seeks to be President, their sanity or their motivations being prima facie suspect.  But declaring that a believer in a particular religion should not be President is of course problematic, or would be were in not for the fact that the particular religion in question is unpopular.

The good doctor has stumbled about while enlarging upon his statements, to the extent that he begins to appear incoherent.  However, one of the things he has said seems to make a great deal of sense, to me at least.  And that is, to paraphrase him, that someone whose religion conflicts with the Constitution should not be President.  He has also made (in explanation of his comment specifically against a Muslim President) some encouraging statements against theocracy; not only Islamic theocracy but Christian theocracy.

The position that one should not be President if one cannot be faithful to the Constitution due to religious conviction is I think very defensible, and one which should apply in the case of any official charged with enforcing and implementing the law.  The fact a Muslim was referred to has given some the irresistible urge to make claims of prejudice, and others an equally irresistible urge to elaborate on their belief that Christianity, or perhaps the Judeo-Christian belief system, is superior to Islam. For me, the histrionics engaged in by such people in claiming bigotry or (their) superiority are characteristic of the lamentable state of our political discourse (and our intelligence), and distract from the very significant point at issue, which may even have been the point Dr. Carson intended to make.

Put simply, religious believers should not be allowed to hold office if their religious convictions render them incapable of complying with their duty to enforce and implement the law.  This may not be a position religious believers of any kind will be willing to accept, including some purported Christians, as we have seen.  No distinction should be made among the religious convictions involved.  If a religious conviction is such that those holding it believe themselves to be bound to flout secular law, they should not hold a position which requires them to comply with secular law.

This would not violate the prohibition against a "religious test" being used as a qualification for public office.  That is because the rule of law itself is in question.  Whether one is willing to comply with the law is not a "religious test"; it addresses whether one is willing to accept the rule of law.  The law is not, and should not be, religious law; should not be religious, in fact, though it may in some cases be consistent with religious beliefs.  In some cases it may not.

One of the more interesting statements to be found in the Bible is that of Jesus regarding rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and unto God that which is God's.  It's possible he may have simply been having a bit of fun at the expense of his questioner; it's a clever riposte, certainly.  But laws are essential to government.  They are peculiarly Caesar's in other words.  They may be draconian, but when reasonable they're our best hope of living free from the dictates of others.  There are few who are more eager to dictate to others than those who believe they have God's sanction to do so.

Those making the claim "freedom of religion" mandates the flouting of the law will, unless they are entirely stupid, eventually have to accept that this claim can be made equally by those who have religious beliefs which are radically different, which they would be unwilling to accept.  It will not do for them to claim that believers in certain religions must comply with the law while believers in the religion they believe need not do so.

This particular controversy should serve to make this clear even to those politicians and pundits of the meanest understanding.  But it's doubtful they'll take the time to address the issue thoughtfully.  Thought is not encouraged or rewarded in these dark times.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

"A Child of the Earth and the Starry Heavens"

The words of the title of this post are the words initiates of the Orphic mysteries were taught to say when asked to identify themselves in the afterlife.  It's a rather wonderful statement, I believe; a characterization to be proud of, poetic in nature.

The Orphic mysteries were what some might call a watered-down version of those of Dionysus; others might call them a far more reasonable version.  The worship of Dionysus could be rather excessive, best characterized by the maenads, the female followers or priestesses of the god who worked themselves into a frenzy while paying homage.  It apparently involved (so it's said), in some cases at least, tearing a poor animal to pieces and feasting on its raw flesh.  The unfortunate beast thus was treated as Dionysus was by the Titans.  The Orphic mysteries were much more subdued.

During the Roman period, the worship of Dionysus along with others, such as Magna Mater and Attis, Isis and Osiris, was fundamentally the worship of a god who died and was reborn, whose death and regeneration was for the salvation of humanity.  Initiates of these cults were spoken of as having been "born again."  If that is a somewhat familiar phrase, it should be.  The similarity between Christianity and the ancient pagan cults popular in the time Christianity was born and became popular itself is remarkable.  The extent to which Christianity is based on the ancient pagan mysteries would probably be even more stunning if the initiates of the pagan cults had been less faithful to their vows of secrecy and the early Church less successful in stamping them out.

But the Orphic identification has an additional significance, I think.  Not because it speaks of men and women as part earth and part heaven.  This view is something familiar to us through the dualism which has been fundamental to Western culture through the centuries; the distinction between body and soul.  Rather, because of the use of the word "and" in the formula, if it may be called such.  No distinction is made in this case.  We are, therefore, children of earth and the heavens, as we are children of a man and a woman. 

This isn't dualism in the traditional sense, at least as I interpret the phrase.  A child of earth and heaven doesn't necessarily have two aspects, one inferior or of less worth than another, e.g. a body which is unimportant and a soul which is all-important.  That's how we're conceived of by the Church and Plato before it.  It's a point of view which consigns the world and living in it to insignificance, if it doesn't result in a view of our lives as being fraught with evil or impurity.  It's a life-hating and world-hating perspective.

In my interpretation, the statement is one which acknowledges that the earth and the starry heavens are parts of a single whole, as are we.  There is no reference to or reliance on something or some being which transcends the universe (and is therefore unimaginable and inconceivable).  At the same time, though, there is an acknowledgment that the universe includes not "merely" us and the world as we know it, but may include much more that we have yet to encounter and will encounter someday, perhaps even after death; something among the "starry heavens."

As science indicates more and more that life exists throughout the universe, and that life here may be the result of the transmission of the elements favorable to life to our planet from other places, the reference to being a child of the starry heavens may be even more appropriate than the followers of Orpheus knew.  Regardless, the phrase speaks to a form of religion or spirituality which is naturalistic, and a divinity which is immanent, also a part of the universe.

This seems to be the Stoic view, if Stoicism is as some claim a kind of religion, or a religious philosophy.  It seems to have been to such to Epictetus and even Seneca, though the "thoughts" of Marcus Aurelius are ambiguous in this respect.  Nevertheless, Stoicism generally at least in ancient times accepted the idea of Providence and a Divine Reason, present in the universe as a kind of matter.

There is a basis for a spirituality, a religion perhaps, which involves reverence for the universe and its creatures and is not dependent on a belief in something apart from the universe, i.e. apart from all we know and can know.  I think one religion, one God, may be considered more reasonable than another even if not subject to proof.  One that doesn't require acceptance of what cannot be experienced is prima facie more reasonable than one which does.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Thou Shalt Not Issue Certain Marriage Licenses

The recalcitrant Ms. Davis, arbiter of who may or may not be married in Rowan County, Kentucky, has this date been jailed, appropriately enough I think, for contempt of court.

As all know, she claims God Himself decrees that she refuse to follow the law.  This is, presumably, the same God who decreed she should be divorced from three previous husbands, leaving one to wonder why God, who apparently takes marriage so seriously that He will suffer it to take place only in certain cases, has no problem with it being entered into and then dissolved so frequently.  Serial marriage is it seems perfectly fine with the Deity, provided it is between a man or a woman.  This particular county clerk evidently has no problem with it either.

Now as far as I am concerned, Ms. Davis may divorce her current husband and his successors, if any, and this won't necessarily mean she is a bad person or even a sinner.  I don't mean to castigate her or others who claim that they may ignore or break the law whenever they think God wants them to as immoral.  But I do mean to say that she and they are seriously misguided and thoughtless, and that such a belief is potentially dangerous.

It's difficult to know where to begin in addressing this kind of belief.  It seems almost self-evident that if people are allowed to refuse to follow the law as it impacts others and the rights of others because of their religious beliefs, the rule of law doesn't exist.  I don't address laws which apply only to the rights of believers.  In that case, there may be some basis for asserting a First Amendment right.  But I don't think the First Amendment contemplates the religious limiting the rights of other persons by virtue of claimed religious beliefs.  Thus, I doubt any court will hold that someone whose religion mandates that, e.g., someone of a certain race, or disabled people, cannot marry need not issue marriage licenses.  Happily, we haven't reached that point (yet?).

I  think a religion the free exercise of which requires that legal rights be denied to others is a curious religion indeed.  I suspect that if this woman was Muslim, and maintained that she could not comply with her legal duties because of some Islamic belief, neither Mr. Huckabee nor Mr. Cruz nor anyone else would be claiming her rights were being violated.

But at this time I wish to focus on what I think is an issue which must be addressed before others when such claims as those made by Ms. Davis are made.  For such as me, an initial question is...why would God care who gets married according to the law?  Assuming it's God's law that certain people shouldn't get married, and God's law is superior to that of the law of humans, why does it matter if the law of the United States or any other nation allows them to marry?  The marriage would be valid only as far as the secular authority is concerned; it wouldn't be truly valid; what's valid is what God decides is valid.  So, the marriage licenses issued by the state would be bogus in the eyes of God, and God's eyes are the only eyes that matter.

Why would God decree that clerks shall not issue licenses which are clearly bogus?  None of those prohibited by God from being married would really be married in any case.  Even if God is the highly officious being contemplated by the Abrahamic religions, God isn't likely to be concerned regarding anything which is not the case.

It would seem that God, or those who believe that they stand in the shoes of God, as it were, should be concerned with marriage licenses only if they result in marriages God has prohibited.  If they don't, there should be no concern.

As there plainly is a concern, however, it would seem that God and those who claim to serve him in this respect believe that the marriage licenses in fact create a forbidden marriage.  That is problematic for the religious though, as that is to impute some kind of validity to secular marriage even if it is contrary to God's will.  In other words, the refusal to issue marriage licenses would arise from the belief that the licenses are valid regardless of the will of God.  I doubt that's a position anyone who would claim that gay marriage is forbidden by God would want to take.

Ms. Davis and others in similar governmental positions don't cause people to be married, they don't bless the marriages of people.  They merely issue licenses.  They process certain paperwork when certain fees are paid and certain requirements set by the law (not by them) are met.

So is it God's directive is we cannot issue marriage licenses to gays, regardless of the fact those licenses are not valid...are in fact invalid?  That would be to claim the processing of certain paperwork is in itself sinful, against one's religion.  God becomes in that case a kind of Divine Bureaucrat.

It's astonishing the extent to which certain of those who claim to believe in God and follow his laws manage to demean God when they do so.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The New Dark Ages

News of the destruction of the Temple of Balshamin in Palmyra by the foremost of today's barbarians, the merciless and self-righteously ignorant members of IS or whatever they may call themselves now (did someone tell them "Isis" is a pagan goddess?), and their murder of an elderly and respected archaeologist, leads me to wonder whether we regress, and why.

To be sure, we're not all barbarians, but it seems those of us who are increase.  And it seems, to me at least, that they do so because there is an active tendency in the here and now to close the mind, particularly those parts of it which may be used to think intelligently.  There is in fact an impulse not to think; to refrain from thinking.  There is a kind of fear of thinking (or so I think, being unafraid).

Unthinking adherence to a few simple rules has grown attractive to many of us.  It's particularly attractive when we bring ourselves to believe that those rules are the mandates of a peculiarly demanding God who rewards those who adhere to them and punishes--and expects us to punish, and will punish us if we don't--those who fail to do so.  Since adherence is unthinking, the rules are not questioned.  They are not to be questioned in any case, being God's rules.  Those who question will be punished, and should be punished.  Punishment was highly important in the Dark Ages, and is now on the edge of what may be the New Dark Ages.

As God was the catalyst of the Old Dark Ages, it appears God may serve the same purpose for the New.  I should refer to the concept of God, however; a particular concept and a particular God.  The mind closes when it accepts that there is only one truth, one path.  The God of the close-minded is an intolerant, exclusive, jealous God, even as the close-minded are intolerant, exclusive and jealous.  The truth having been established, there is no need to think; in fact, it's wrong to do so.  Thinking becomes something to be punished.

Now it seems that some are convinced that God decrees that remnants of our past be blown up.  Specifically, I suppose, relics of the past which predated the Prophet Mohammad, that portion of the past being of no significance.  But perhaps that isn't entirely the case.  Islam being an Abrahamic religion, it may be that part of the past is relevant, and may even be preserved.  Only all other parts of the past must be destroyed; in particular those parts that are representative of inappropriate religion.

Christians of course treated pagan temples in much the same way once Christianity became predominant in the Roman Empire, though they were denied the use of helpful explosives.  The closed mind is remorseless.

It's curious that our reaction to the close-minded is to close our minds, though.  It's natural to defend what we think is right, but it's unclear that in doing so we should accept other rules as being unquestionable.  That is what seems to be occurring.  Religious zealotry inspires religious zealotry, intolerance inspires intolerance, barbarity inspires barbarity.

Our Great Republic is a creature of the Enlightenment, created by men of the Enlightenment, yet in facing the barbarians of our time we seek out and employ simple, absolute rules and truths and cloak them with a divine mantle.  We fall back on unreason.  We also fear to think, and resort to unthinking adherence to the rules we find satisfying.  We fear and despise whatever is incompatible with our divinely inspired rules.

The fear of thinking in today's world is pervasive, and is remarkable because this fear is apparently being encouraged by some who are employed to educate us.  Reason and science are subject to attack not merely by the religious, the ignorant, the mystical, but by certain of those who pose as philosophers and educators.

So we see the Enlightenment disparaged, and even called evil or the source of evil in the world.  Or, at the least, we see reason and science criticized as being no more good, or true, than any other method or source of belief or basis for conduct.  Religious fanatics, other ignorant zealots and postmodernists are bedfellows in the 21st century; none of them believe in science or rational thought, all act to restrict them as best they can.

A friend relates that he has had discussions with certain Muslims who criticize us of the West because we value freedom more than we value virtue.  The idea that virtue is somehow disassociated from freedom, or that freedom requires the abandonment of virtue, would seem to me to be characteristic of the closed mind.  Freedom allows for choice, and there is no choice for the closed mind.  There's nothing to chose from, as there is no choice to be made.  All is clear and settled.  Thus does thinking stop. 

I suppose I could invoke Yeats, and speak of the best lacking all conviction and the worst being full of passionate intensity.   But  it's unclear just who the best are anymore.  There's more than one way to stop thinking.  The close-minded claim all that is true already known, and has been decreed.  Other minds claim that nothing true may be known, and one thing is no more or less true than another.  If we are to believe some of intellectual and philosophical bent, who and what is best cannot be determined in any case.  It depends, presumably, on what narrative or discourse one accepts, and narrative and discourse are just that and nothing more.  As for the worst, who is to say who or what is worse?

Did this kind of intellectual indifference, even futility, help foster the Old Dark Ages?  Will it help bring about the New?