Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Tip of the Spear

I’ve tiptoed around god all my life. I was baptized by my great-grandfather, an Episcopal minister, and confirmed at age 12 (although I’m still not sure what that means). I was even an acolyte (altar boy) for a time. I was good at lighting candles but a klutz at helping the preacher with communion. 

All that time, from as long as I remember thinking about it, I didn't believe in god. I don't know why. I just didn't. The concept seemed too unlikely. I was hyper-rational. I didn't believe in burning bushes, parting seas or virgin births. I didn't even want to. Those notions struck me as perilously close to tossing virgins into volcanoes (and what is it about virgins, anyway?).

I’ve since learned that I am not as smart as I think I am, certainly not as smart as I thought I was then. There are many things I thought incredible that turned out to be true. I had a crabbed and provincial world view when I was young. I’ve unlearned a lot of my ignorance, and learned that I still have a lot to learn. But I still don't believe in god. My emerging intellectual humility has not led me to embrace a concept just because so many others do. Indeed, it has urged me in the opposite direction. There is little wisdom in crowds.

I didn’t know my great-grandfather, the minister, but I knew his son well. He was brilliant and kind, and because I admired him and saw that he felt strongly the faith of his father, I thought there must be something worthy about it. I think he knew I was a non-believer, but he never said anything to me. He did not judge me, or at least he didn’t let me see that he did. For my part, I accepted his faith without question. It was his private affair and a source of great comfort to him. Why should I object?

That was what I used to think, that religion was a private matter that was good for those who believed and not bad for the rest of us. I’ve come to believe, however, that it was not my atheism that was the product of youthful ignorance but my charity toward religion. My grandfather was a gentle and compassionate man. It's hard to imagine him taking up arms to defend his faith. His homeland, sure. His family, certainly. His god, unlikely. He was an historian. He knew better that to believe in crusades.

But god has become the tip of the spear again. I thought that was over and done with. I thought that was relegated to the ignorance and superstition of the Dark Ages. Well, either we are still ignorant and superstitious, or religion has a hold on us of some kind that makes us act like that when under its influence. It’s easy to denounce beheadings of Christians by the Islamic State as a primitive religious practice, but although more barbaric they are no less zealous than the political attacks in America in the name of god: The crusade against reproductive rights for women. The crusade against gay rights. The crusade against the science of evolution. To name a just a few.

God is the tip of the spear and we, like children who shouldn't be playing with sharp objects, are hurting ourselves with it. What's more, we’re demanding from everyone, even non-believers, tithes (in the form of taxes) to make more spears. Why should an organization get a tax break because it believes in god? Why shouldn't I get one because I believe in humans? We need to get god off our currency, out of our pledges to our nation, away from our ceremonies swearing in presidents, legislators and judges. We need to quit invoking his blessing on our country (yes, I’m talking to you, Barack), with its implication that we are more deserving of that grace.

We should be asking for the blessing of one another. We should be acting in the name of humans, not god. We are the ones who have to live together, the ones who enjoy the benefits of our generosity toward one another and who suffer the pain of our crimes against each other. We need to act in our own right, on our own behalf, not as children doing what god commands. He doesn’t even live here. As a non-resident, he couldn’t get elected to office. Not even as dog-catcher. Why do we want him telling us what to do? 

If you want to be with your god, visit him in private, the way my grandfather did? He helped others as he believed his god wished. He sought and received personal solace from him. But he did not wear him as a badge of honor or superiority. He did not judge others by their faith in him. He judged them by their actions on this earth among men and women.

When his son and wife died, not many years apart, my grandfather had stained glass windows made for his church in their memory. One said “Safe on the Other Shore.” He believed in this life and in the hereafter. He did what he could to make this one better for all he met. As to the other, he worked out his own personal accommodation of his faith to the laws of physics and organic chemistry. 

Maybe my grandfather and his father before him believed in god because their creator wired them thus. Maybe they believed because the community bond of those with similar religious convictions is strong and strong communities are evolutionarily adaptive. Except to theologians and philosophers (and lately evolutionary and cognitive scientists), it hardly matters. The fact is, most of us believe in some god. And therein lies the danger. Faith is faith, after all. If you have faith that the other guy is an infidel and deserves killing, or at least scorn, you have it. It’s as hard to talk you out of it as it is to talk you out of the faith that spawned it.

There’s just not room in humanity for faith in the unworthiness of others. There’s not room in humanity for intolerance based on what we think our god wants. How do we even know that? Did we hear him tell us? If so, maybe those of us with that heightened auditory perception ought to drop in on the psychopharmacologist before we hurt someone.

Monday, August 25, 2014

My College Essay

I remember when all my children got into college. For the first three, I heard about it after the fact. I was a master of the universe, working all the time. I was happy for them, and not surprised. Of course they were going to good schools. I went to their high-school graduations. I may have taken one of them to move into the college dorm, maybe two. I don't remember. Pitiful, huh?

After I had my fourth and fifth children (with Meg), I quit being a master of the universe and went into angsty zen mode. Maybe angsty with occasional moments of zen would be a fairer description. I became a writer. I was home all the time and much more involved in their lives (sorry about that, boys). By the time they were applying to college, they probably wished I would go back to a heavy travel schedule. I gave them lots of advice about preparing their college applications. They nodded angelically and did what they thought was best. I got to read their college essays at the same time the admissions committees did. Gulp! They did great, of course. By then they didn’t need me, at least not for that. I suppose that was kind of the point of all those early years.

You do suffer for your children. You would give any part of yourself for them, for their happiness. But ultimately you realize they are separate people, not extensions of you. You revel in their successes and feel the pain of their setbacks, but they are not your achievements, they are not your failures. You do what you can, but their lives are in their hands, not yours.

Now my latest child, which has been home-schooled and has an attractive font and format, is about to apply for acceptance. Writing and parenting are all about making choices: where will the children live (setting), who will be their friends (characters), what experiences will they have (plot). Unfortunately, as much as fiction writers like to say their books have a life of their own, a novel is not an anthropomorphic child that can insulate one from oneself. My novel is me; and as far as it goes, it is all of me. There are no SAT scores, GPAs, no extracurriculars. You read it and you like it or you don't. There is no explanation. No rationalization. No hardship overcome, no privilege misused. It is itself entirely.

So much has been written about writing, about putting oneself out there, about opening a vein and bleeding onto the page, it seems unlikely there is anything to add. As to fiction, the story is everything. No one has ever seen Homer's query letter. I doubt he had blurbs. We read the Odyssey and are transported, or not.

In my way of being self-conscious and oblivious at the same time, of reacting to emotions inside me that I am barely aware of, I was present at the birth and maturation of my story. But I am not god to it. Its creation myth must be teased out of my life. I have been there beside it for a long time, though, and now, as with my children, I will step back and let it make its way in the world.

Good luck, novel. I love you--or at least I like you a lot and am a little obsessed with you, which are two of the principal ingredients of love. Stay in touch.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Brutality in the Neighborhood

No one could remember a time when such terrible things happened. Or when so few seemed to care. Sure, there had been crimes before, but this was different. The murders happened all the time now. No one seemed able to stop them. Honestly, to people who lived elsewhere, it seemed like no one was trying.

I’m not talking about Ferguson, Missouri. Or Chicago's South Side. I'm talking about the United States Congress. In the quiet and sacred capitol, crimes of legislative brutality have become the norm. Like the victims of police brutality, the people harmed are the ones least able to protect themselves, hardworking citizens holding two or three jobs, others looking for work, wondering how they will feed their children.

No actual members of Congress have been harmed in this legislative mayhem. They still have bean soup and cornbread in the Senate Dining room, steam rooms and saunas in the House gym. And excellent healthcare plans. They are safe and prosperous.

In Ferguson, Missouri the people are up in arms over police brutality. They’ve taken to the streets. Angry words and bottles have been thrown. Even the Attorney General has gotten into the act. You have the feeling that something is going to be done, that some justice will be offered. You have the feeling that things will get better in Ferguson, even if only for a while.

But in the United States Congress, there is little cause for any such optimism. Republicans hope to capture a Senate majority this fall. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate Minority leader, vows that if they do they will work with the House, which will almost certainly continue to be controlled by Republicans, to pass legislation to scale back government and reverse or restrict President Obama's achievements like the Affordable Care Act and consumer financial protections. If the president vetoes their spiteful fantasy of small government to serve the few rather than the many, they say they will shut the whole thing down. You can't get smaller than that, literally or figuratively.

When an unarmed boy is shot by police in your neighborhood, it makes you mad. When it happens often enough, at the hands of what you perceive to be a racially prejudiced police force, it drives you to the barricades. It happened in Ferguson. It happened in Watts in 1965. Burn, baby, burn. 

But it doesn't seem to happen in response to the murder of legislation that would offer a helping hand to the poor and disadvantaged. It doesn't seem to happen in response to the mugging of education spending and infrastructure investments that provide the platform for equal opportunity. Why is that?

There are lots of reasons, I suppose: Congress seems remote and isolated, impossible to influence if you are an average citizen. Voting is not as cathartic as throwing bottles. No one person's vote matters anyway, right?

No. Not right.

Our vote is our molotov cocktail. We have to throw it. We have to try to light the fire. It’s our form of peaceful revolution. If we don't use it, we may blame Congress for being unresponsive to our needs, but in truth it is we who are not grappling with the problem. Ultimately, politicians do what they have to do to get elected. It's up to us to tell them what that is.

So if you don’t like what’s happening, or not happening, in Congress, don’t get cynical, get mad. Pick up your flag. Grab your friends. Join the crowd in the street. Vote.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

I Hope I Die Before I Get Wise

If I live long enough, I'm going to end up pretty discouraged. Not about myself, but about the human race. I was born into a bubble of optimism and egocentricity that has been deflating steadily ever since. When I was a boy, I didn't understand much about the world. Now I do. It has not been an altogether pleasant awakening. I bit from the apple of knowledge and realized I am naked.

I was at a dinner table with a young man from Bulgaria recently. He said it was rough there in the 1990s. I, showing I still have a lot to learn, asked why. He patiently and poignantly explained the descent into political and economic chaos after the dead hand of communism released its grip. Corruption, thuggery, oligarchy.

He was born in Bulgaria and lives there now, but he spent his teen years in Pittsburg when his mother came to the United States after the Wall fell to try to make a better life for her children. He said that in high-school in Pittsburg he was struck by how little was taught about the history and affairs of Europe and the rest of the world. I guess I come by my egocentricity naturally; apparently it’s a national trait.

It wasn't just the common struggle to find a new way of governing and a new way of organizing business that made things so difficult in the Bulgaria of his youth. Amid the new statelessness, ethnic and nationalistic hatreds dating back to the Ottoman Empire revived. Even today, he said, if you get a Bulgarian and a Macedonian together in a bar and get them drinking, there will be a fight.

As he was talking, I thought of the oligarchs in Russia, the bitter business and national rivalries in Asia, the sectarian wars in the Middle East, the tribal slaughters in Africa and Central America. Considering the durability of provincial antipathies, and the murders committed in their name, even the Tea Party begins to scare me.

I knew about the Cold War when I was a kid. During nuclear war drills, I ducked and covered under my desk with the rest of my grade-school classmates. But I didn't really feel it. I was in my little bubble. In many ways I still am. But it's getting harder and harder to be oblivious to the problems in the rest of the world. I read more about world affairs than I ever have, that's part of it, but the world is just smaller now. With the Internet and constant global reporting, it's like living in my small hometown when I was a boy, where I couldn't hide from scrutiny. Everyone seemed to know what mischief I was up to; now I know what mischief everyone else is up to.

Honestly, I think I liked it better the other way. I'm not sure I want to know as much as I do. The notion that as a species we are unlikely to kick the habit of petty brutality is depressing. I liked it better when I thought I, or at least we, could change the world. I won't say I’m wise yet. I'm a long way from it. I'm just not sure I want to know more.

* With apologies to Pete Townshend, who said that by old he meant rich, like the Queen Mother, who had his old Packard hearse towed because she didn’t like to see it on the street and inspired him to write "My Generation”.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Information Super Highway to Liberty

This is what my brother wrote to me this morning: “There is a difference between liberalism and leftism. The left likes to label itself as liberal, or even progressive, but it is not. It is a much more totalitarian mindset, and not particularly kind to its dissenters.”

I wonder if he might not be right.

David and I share a love of our dead father, golf and nostalgia, but we do not share political philosophies. As he put it himself: “I don't agree with the majority of your socio-political stances, and the role of government…But I will say this: there is a difference between liberalism and leftism.”

It was that last twist, the notion that the left and liberalism are different, that caught my attention. It reminded me of F.A. Hayek, the famous Austrian economist who, in the middle of totalitarianism’s worst hour, WWII, wrote The Road to Serfdom, in which he said that well-meaning but foolish socialists were, in entrusting so much to government planning and control, risking autocratic rule. Planners would want to plan, and as they tightened their planning processes and closed their ranks society would lose control of them. The totalitarian communism of the Soviet Union and China after Hayek published his book bore him out.

I’ve always thought that Hayek was writing about history, but I’ve learned from David and others that many believe he was writing about an eternal truth: central planning bureaucracies can’t—and mustn’t—be trusted. I say again: maybe they’re right.

There are so many big problems that look immune to any but governmental solutions—infrastructure, health care, poverty—that I tend to default to government as the remedy. My son Chris, who is a PhD candidate in Economics at Harvard, suggests I be skeptical of government intervention and welcome it only when no other solution is possible. Maybe he’s right too.

Chris and Meg and I were talking about my brother’s and Hayek’s views over breakfast and I asked Chris what viable alternatives to government action exist in the case of some of the important, large-scale roles it now plays. We talked about the spotty record to date of industry self-regulation, for instance, caused by obvious conflicts of interest. He suggested that our ability to get and share information more broadly in today’s high-tech world could make private regulation possible where it has not been before. Think Yelp instead of the FDA. That’s a gross exaggeration, but you get the idea.

Chris could be onto something revolutionary. We are on the cusp of a whole new world of data and data availability. As he put it: All of capitalism depends on market knowledge. I might add, as he suggested, that all effective and democratic government regulation depends on the same thing. Maybe information, and the means to quickly convey it, will be the bridge between those two great institutions: the free market and the government regulation that helps it behave, or at least not misbehave. It might also serve as a kind of vaccine against corruption in each.

Knowledge is power, the old saying goes. In Hayek’s time, few had it. Now many do. Might it not be possible, then, to achieve the lofty (Hayek said naive) aims of socialism using the power of capitalism yoked to broadly available data? And might it not be easier to trust both the government that Hayek feared and the capitalists that seem to have only their own interests at heart if we all had a clear idea of what each was doing? 

The libertarian in Hayek is in us all. The humanitarian in Marx in is in there too. Maybe now, aided by our new information technology, we can for the first time in history open up a real conversation between our competing instincts, one based on information rather than superstition, on understanding rather than fear.