Monday, November 19, 2007

On Choice and Empowerment

A person can only take so much of the existential angst that one encounters from reading blogs relating to Mormonism. If anything ever showed that Kierkegaard’s concept of anxiety was a valid theory, it surely must have been demonstrated by the anxiety that Mormonism brings and its accompanying dizziness. This anxiety is a direct result of the freedom to choose that Mormons believe that they have been given from God. It is a power so great that even God himself cannot interfere with it. Even those who leave the Mormon church itself are forever influenced (tainted?) by this idea of choice and freedom. Dr. Viktor E. Frankl called choice of attitude the last of the human freedoms. Regardless of what others try to do to take away our freedoms and our dignity, we always have the power to choose how to respond to the taking away. Short of killing us, no one can completely take away our freedom to choose. But for all of our power to choose, how are we to know that we made the right choice? That we made the best choice? And this is the desire to know and the uncertainty that leads to angst. Despite the advances of science and technology, we don’t know what the future holds. If there has been any failure of the scientific method, it is that it only allows for predictions of the future and not knowledge of the future.

I have to admit that I am confused at the use of the word ‘empowerment’ that I encounter in my readings, as though someone is withholding the power to choose. If we have the freedom to choose, what does the word ‘empowerment’ mean? What does it signify? I submit that it is a meaningless buzzword. It is a subterfuge, an artifice and a ruse. People use it to give the illusion of benefice. If I say that I am empowered, what I am saying? Someone has to grant the power or authority to me so that I am empowered. If I accept the empowerment, does it not mean that the person or group who granted it to me had the power in the first place? But how does another person or group give me the power to choose if I already have that power?

Friday, November 2, 2007

On Truth and Conspiracy Theories of Ignorance

Recently, I’ve been reading Karl Popper’s “Conjectures and Refutations”. I’ve read a couple of his books before and like the other ones, this one is written clearly and concisely. An interesting point that he raises makes me realize that for all the back and forth that occurs, Mormons and ex-Mormons are cut from the same silk. They may disagree about the truthfulness of the church, but they do fall prey to what Popper describes as the “truth is manifest” doctrine. The idea states that when a person encounters the truth, it is manifestly true, that is to say, any person who encounters the truth, by virtue of their humanity, is able to tell that they have encountered the truth. Popper terms this an optimistic epistemology. And it’s easy to see how it influences both Mormons and ex-Mormons.

Mormons believe that when one hears the gospel, that person recognizes the truth and joins. Ex-Mormons believe that when someone encounters the arguments against the truthfulness of the church, they can’t help but admit that the church is not true. Nothing strange here.

But the strangeness comes out when people don’t respond in the way you would expect them to when faced with the manifest truth. In order to explain this dissonance, people invent conspiracy theories. This idea is especially prevalent among ex-Mormons, who I gather don’t seem to realize that a lot of their ideas are conspiracy theories, with little basis in fact or logic. Take Lyndon Lambert, an excommunicant, who informs us of his particular conspiracy theory on the Book of Mormon. The original quote can be found here.

12. Did you at one time believe in the literal historicity of events and characters in the Bible and Book of Mormon? What are your feelings on those subjects now? Yes, I totally believed. Now I think that people that still believe in the historicity of the book fall into one of three categories:

a. They have not examined the evidence.

b. They are incapable, intellectually, to grasp the conclusivity of the evidence. It is truly overwhelming.

c. They cannot be objective while examining the evidence. Ironically, it is a combination of fear and false pride (and perhaps mind control) that blocks the neural receptors and prevents normal objective evaluation of the data.

Everyone of these categories is a conspiracy theory of ignorance:

1) They haven’t examined the evidence. Because the evidence is manifestly true, anyone who did so, unless they fell into the latter two categories, would be convinced by the ‘conclusivity of the evidence’

2) People believe because they are idiots. Only an idiot could see all the evidence and not know that it is manifestly true;

3) They are falling prey to their emotions and ominous rumblings of mind control. (Plus, Mr. Lamborn's theory of emotions blocking neural receptors preventing objective evaluation is novel. He seems to know an awful lot about neurobiology, even though he's an aeronautical engineer, when the links between emotions and the brain are still the subject of intense debate and study. I wonder which scientific studies he is relying on that allow him to so confidently state why Mormons can't see the manifest truth?)

It doesn’t seem to cross his mind that the truth isn’t as apparent as he thinks it is and that the evidence isn’t quite as cut and dried.

A lot of ex-Mormons talk about the how the church conceals the evidence or forces the members not to view it. Why do they think this? Because a lot of people aren’t leaving the church, at least, not in the numbers the ex-Mormons would expect if the members had access to the same information that they had. So they have to invent a conspiracy theory to explain their (wrong) idea that the falseness of the truth is manifest. The answer: the church is concealing the information from its members or warning them against using the Internet to look for it. Why would the church do this? Obviously, because its truth claims are manifestly false, anyone with access to it would leave the church. The conspiracy theorists take it a step further. They say, "The GAs talk about Internet pornography now, but it’s only a matter of time until they start decrying other things on the Internet." (Regardless of the fact that the church has consistently spoke out against pornography for years and years prior to the advent of the Internet). But this is hardly true. Anyone with a computer has access to any information, no matter how unfriendly to the church, and the church has no way to monitor it. The church can excommunicate the speaker, but they can’t silence her and they can't deafen the hearer.

My point is this: Let's look for the truth and not rely on conspiracy theories to explain cognitive dissonance. It's been said that people could go to heaven if they used only half of the energy they use to go to hell. Maybe if people spent more time trying to understand the truth and less time inventing fanciful conspiracy theories, humankind might actually progress.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

On Mormon Men

Mormon men are downtrodden. In General Conference, they are typically labeled as pornography-consuming, abusive slobs who need to do a lot better if they want to curry God’s favor. Women never get this from male General Authorities, and when they are encouraged to do things different or better by a female General Authority, they start getting existential angst over what it means to be a Mormon woman and a feminist. Mormon men aren’t given the option to do the same. I’d like to see a male General Authority get up and tell women to repent of their nagging and getting angry over things that their husband had no way of knowing a priori that it was hurtful.

I wish that the Church would stress the choices and opportunities available to men, that they don’t have to be tied down to a wife and family, that they can accomplish their goals with money left over in the bank every month. Instead of regaling them with tales of supposed joy over the ability to bless and baptize their own children and watch them grow up, it should present the whole picture and present male role models who have succeeded in business and the arts without the unnecessary baggage of a family.

When will men get their fair place in the Mormon church? One day middle-aged single Mormon men will not be viewed with suspicion by their fellow church-goers as someone inferior for their self-imposed marital status (as men in the church are culturally empowered to be the proposers of marriage, after all). One day Mormon men will be viewed as more important than just a glorified income producer. One day they'll be seen as more than a bunch of potential house-movers. I’m sure it’s only time before the Mormon church moves past its misandric past and moves towards a new, enlightened future.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

On the Effects of Reform

I remember a newspaper article that came out when Pope Benedict was chosen as Pope and the writer of the article was talking to his friend who happened to be a lapsed Catholic. The friend said that the Catholic Church should have voted in a more liberal Pope. When the writer asked his friend if he would go back to church if a more liberal Pope had been chosen, the friend replied no. The writer asked the friend why exactly the Catholic Church should have chosen a liberal Pope if it made no difference to lapsed members such as himself. It raises an interesting question. If the Church were to change certain aspects (e.g. ordaining women, ‘faithful’ history, etc.), how many ex-members would come back? If none, what difference would any reform make?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

On Religion and Community

Here’s an interesting article that I recently read. It’s an older article, written about thirty years ago that really encapsulates the feeling that we as Christians feel when confronted with information that may not necessarily comport to our previously-held beliefs. The part that really stuck out in my opinion is the following quote:

“One thing that brought me back to the church was asking simply: What are the alternatives to the church? Where are the communities that sanction the pursuit of meaning and truth as a legitimate enterprise? that have material and personal resources to assist in this search? that provide regular occasions for confession of failures? that renew and inspire? that provide a setting where children are nurtured? where family members can be buried? where births can be celebrated? where social issues can be debated? There are a number of institutions that deal with one or several of these questions, but historically the church has demonstrated its ability to energize all of these activities.”

Perhaps sometimes when we get embroiled in historical and theological debates, we miss aspects of our religion that are authentic, inspiring and good. Instead of sending forty thousand monks up in arms about an inch or two of cowl, maybe we should focus on the aspects of our culture and beliefs that bind us more tightly together and develop our community. Can there be any wrong in that?

Monday, September 10, 2007

On Tal Bachman

Disclaimer: The following is an ad hominem attack on Tal Bachman. If you are Mr. Bachman, or one of his small number of ever dwindling fans, I suggest that you not read this post. I will try to be objective, but be forewarned; I do not have a lot of good things to say about this pretentious, washed-up has-been.

I don’t like Tal Bachman. I’ve read a lot of his posts, and if they are any reflection of who he really is, he must really be one pathetic son of a bitch. Am writing this because he left Mormondom? No, I can’t really say that I’m sad to see him go. Some of the nicest, coolest, warm-hearted, generous individuals I know have left the Mormon church and I have yet to launch a single ad hominem attack on them. In fact, we continue to be good friends regardless of varying religious choices. Membership in an organization is no arbiter when it comes to friendship. With that in mind, let me turn my attention to Mr. Bachman. His singular claim to fame is that he wrote and sang a hit song, “She’s So High.” As a one-hit wonder, he’s in the same category as the illustrious Right Said Fred, Vanilla Ice and Lou Bega (of Mambo No. 5 fame). I’m surprised he hasn’t starred on the Surreal Life yet. Maybe he’s holding out for a spot on Dancing with the ‘Stars’. Marie Osmond made it, why not him?

He has written a voluminous amount of material regarding his thoughts on Mormonism. I’m not sure if he intends to sound like a pretentious, holier-than-thou, pseudo-intellectual, but everything he writes is pretentious, holier-than-thou or pseudo-intellectual. Take a blog post he published a few months ago in May. He criticizes the Mormon conception of heaven and hell, but he makes himself sound like a self-satisfied jerk in the following quote (which can be found here)

“I think heaven isn't a place we go to after we die; I think it is a place we can live in everyday, if we are determined to, and perhaps, if we have a bit of luck. I think it is something we create and find here on earth...and right now. Heaven can be right now...

“I feel sad sometimes when I think of how long I lived always thinking of heaven as another place, and another time. I was too often blind to all the beauty right before me, because I was too often straining so hard to see something far, far off in the distance - which, it turns out, there is no reason to believe is even there, at least in the way I thought.

“I submit that true heaven isn't crazy stories, or distant stars, or strange names and strange clothes and strange spouses. I think it is something that we all have, within us, the power to create and experience, at least to some extent, right here and right now...”

Yeah, whatever, buddy. And with three paragraphs, he assigns those who don’t share his easy rockstar lifestyle to a hell worse than any that God proposed. What happens to those sorry souls, who, for whatever reason, don’t have ‘a bit of luck’? What happens to them? Mr. Bachman would consign them to misery and woe because they are not determined enough, I guess. Or chastise them for hoping for some kind of better existence in the next life? And what is the basis for Mr. Bachman’s faith in humankind? He claims there is no reason to believe in heaven. I agree, at least as far as objective evidence is concerned. But what evidence does he have the mankind can make a heaven here on earth? His own Shangri-La lifestyle, where his biggest complaints are that nobody in the record industry wants to hear his music? He wants to argue both sides of the fence. He has to have a reason for the distant heaven, but offers no reasons for the heaven ‘within’.

Other posts focus on his inability to talk to females in the past because of his worry about temptation. Obviously this is the Mormon church’s fault. The most common complaint I hear about this church is that it stultifies relationships between members of the opposite sex who happen to be married to other people. It would be completely illogical to assume that Mr. Bachman stultifies himself. Maybe someone should tell him that just because he feels ‘tempted’, it is highly unlikely that the person he is talking to feels the same way. When I talk to women at work or at school, I usually don’t get the impression that they are chomping at the bit to go to bed with me, regardless of how naturally charming I am. It must be a rockstar complex to think like that. Maybe Mr. Bachman should evaluate how he internalized the teachings of the Mormon church, rather than make unwarranted generalizations about the impact those teachings have on the general membership.

I think most of my invection comes from the colossal waste of time it was to read what he had written and the colossal waste of time writing this post represents. I don’t usually like (or write) ad hominem attacks, but when someone practically begs for it, can I be anything but obliging?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

On Irony

Alanis Morrisette’s song “Ironic” from her album “Jagged Little Pill” is ironic in that every situation mentioned is not the least bit ironic, at least not in the way the term is used by prescriptivists. Irony can be properly defined as discrepancy between the expected result and actual results. Having read lots of blogs of current and former Mormons, one thing (well, several things, but this post is labeled “On Irony” after all) caught my attention. A lot of former Mormons state ad naseum that the reason they left the Mormon church was their perceived incongruity between the teachings of the church and the ‘empirical evidence.’ That’s all fine and dandy with me. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I believe that religion boils down to pure choice and that any post hoc rationalization of that choice is inherently unjustifiable whether you stay or go. The emphasis on science and empiricism is remarkable because rather than reject the teachings they find unjustified, they embark on a path that is different from what one would suspect. For instance, several former Mormons brag about their inhibitions and ability to drink alcohol, coffee and tea. They also loudly proclaim that their lives are much better now they don’t spend Sunday stuck in a three-hour block meeting. The irony is this: scientific studies show that religious groups that abstain from tobacco, alcohol, coffee, tea and illegal drugs tend to have longer life spans than those who don’t abstain from those substances. A lot of people would assume that observant Mormons have, on average, the longest life spans in the United States. They would be completely wrong, however. In actuality, that title belongs to the Seventh Day Adventists, who in addition to forsaking the aforesaid substances, also do not consume meat. As far as church-going is concerned, there are scientific studies that suggest that regularly going to church can increase your life span. The irony of all this, therefore, is why would people who claim to swayed by scientific arguments jettison the beliefs that appear to be scientifically justified?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

On Chocolat by Joanne Harris

I hate this book. Sure, it's not the worst novel of all time, but I'm not sure what other people like about it. Joanne Harris trots out every stereotypical archetype known to English literature. Witch with heart of gold (Vianne). Check. Hardworking, misunderstood handsome vagabond (Roux). Check. Evil father-figure (Father Reynaud). Check. Abusive husband (Mr. Musgrave). Check. Abused wife (Mrs. Musgrave). Check. Free-spirited old lady (Armande). Check. Bigoted, materialistic daughter (Caroline). Check. There's nothing wrong with using archetypes, but she could have at least tried to make them somewhat more deep and substantial.

Plus, there is no suspense in the plot whatsoever. Is Vianne going to triumph in the end? Of course she is. Anybody who reads the first fifteen pages knows that. So why does Ms. Harris make us read an additional 290 pages when we already know how it's going to end? There is no suspense and I had no real interest in what happened next.

For the life of me, I'm not sure why this book garnered so much praise. If you want to read about chocolate and feel hungry, I suggest a desert cookbook instead of this predictable tripe.

Monday, July 16, 2007

On Protesting Dick Cheney

In April, there was a big to-do at BYU about Dick Cheney being the Commencement speaker. Nothing could be a bigger waste of time than protesting against Dick Cheney for the following reasons:

a) He's a vice-president
b) Nobody really cares what he does or says
c) Protesting a domestic politician is so 1960s
d) Did I mention that he is a vice president?

I suspect that the real reason for the protest was for BYU students to show that they can rebel against the university establishment. I guess that when you live in Provo, Utah, you just don't have much else to do or think about.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

On the Three Nephites

I’ve often wondered why urban legends flourish the way they do. I think it’s because the stories play upon some of our deepest fears and desires. One of the most popular urban legends among Mormons relate to the Three Nephites. Mormons believe that the Three Nephites are three disciples that asked Jesus if they could stay on Earth until his Second Coming. Needless to say, many rumors and legends have sprung up regarding the whereabouts and the doings of these three individuals. By far, the best anecdote that I have ever heard about the Three Nephites comes from a friend of mine back home. While serving his mission in France, he had risen to the level of district leader. One morning, the sister missionaries in his district came to meeting late. They excitedly told the district that one of the sister missionaries had gotten a flat tire and two gentlemen who were distinctly 'Lamanite'-looking came from out of nowhere and helped her to fix the flat tire. After being helped, the two men apparently vanished. One of the sister missionaries got it into her mind that they had been helped by the Three Nephites. My friend summed up her story perfectly however. “Sister Smith, you’re saying that you got a flat tire and that the Three Nephites came and fixed it for you, except that there were only two of them and they were Lamanites?”

Monday, July 9, 2007

Against Acronym Mormonism

Talk about disillusionment. I think that I am disillusioned with the disillusioned. I thought that at last, I might have found a group of people with an open mind who really want to discuss the important issues. I found to my dismay that this is simply not the case. Consequently, it is hard to take anyone seriously who refers to themselves using an acronym or a prefix. This post deals with what I term “acronym Mormonism” (hardly surprising considering the title of this post). There is a subset within the Mormon Church who labels themselves NOMs or Cultural Mormons or “Cultural Hall” Mormons (What the hell is a Cultural Hall anyways? Is it supposed to be akin to a Cultural Center?). These people claim to disbelieve traditional Mormon doctrine and claims, yet, for one reason or another, desire to remain socially connected to the Mormon Church (or its members) on their own terms. There is a group of people who have left the Mormon Church and consider themselves “Ex-Mormon” or “Post-Mormon”. The distinction between NOMs, TBM (“True Believing Mormons”) and the “Posties”, of course, are absolutely meaningless. This is because all of their beliefs are completely fundamentally irrational and therefore any distinction between them is meaningless.

Let’s start with assumptions. First, in order to qualify as a NOM, apparently you have to prefer the scientific method as the means for ascertaining truth to other methods of ascertaining. (All of this assumes, of course, that the ‘truth’ exists and that it can be ascertained. Although that is important topic and worthy of discussion, I’m won’t deal with it here.) NOMs consider ‘objective’ evidence as superior to “subjective” evidence. I find it rather odd that a person would consider a religious experience as a lesser basis for believing in a religion than empirical evidence. Religion is built on the strength of the absurd. Belief in kinetic molecular theory is unlikely to prompt people to radically alter their lives (although it may have a radical impact on a person’s life). Belief in a personal God who is intimately involved in your daily life can have that effect. I also find the fetish that NOMs have with history odd. I don’t believe there is anything even remotely approaching “objective” history for the simple reason that history cannot be verified. We can look at what people in the time period have written and we can use inductive reasoning to establish theories on motivations and meaning, but unlike a field such as chemistry or physics, we ourselves cannot reproduce what happened and experience first hand what happened. We are totally dependent on our sources with all of their biases and shortcomings. The NOM and Postie argument that the Mormon Church is stifling ‘true’ history is ridiculous. I agree that the Church may prefer ‘faithful’ history to New Mormon History, but then again, I’m sure that a lot of private organizations would prefer an interpretation of events that favors them. (Does that make an organization manipulative, evil, and censorious or is it merely a rational self-interested organization? Does an organization have an obligation to lay out both sides of a controversy? If so, what is the basis for this ethical standard and what are its implications?) To believe any history (or inductive argument), you must make a leap of faith. With a nod to Giambattista Vico, history is nothing more than the interpretation of human events and language. The interpretation you choose to interpret implies a choice.

This, of course, fails to take into the real leaning of NOMs and Posties. The preference for the objective over the subjective is really code for preference for the naturalistic over the supernatural. But this reliance on the naturalistic is misplaced. Nobody believes in a religion because it has been empirically verified to him. A religion that demanded such would be devoid of the mystical and the spiritual. Even with hard evidence that every single claim of the Mormon Church was true would not lead to an increase in converts. People believe in religions based upon their own mystical or spiritual experiences, not uncontroverted scientific evidence.

The second objection would be that although religious experiences exist, empirical evidence to the contrary should invalidate those experiences or at least lead one to be suspect as to the nature of those religious experiences. This is a difficult argument to refute. The difficulty of second objection, however, is that is assigns religious experience or passion a lower significance in religion without justification. Why exactly is empirical “objective” evidence preferable to “subjective” personal experiences?

These arguments are in no way exhaustive, but they do represent my views that all belief or knowledge implies a choice, a choice, which when fully investigated, is not based on reason, but on passion.

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Phone Nazi

I thought I would be a little less polemic today and share something that happened to me five or six years ago.

During my junior year at University, one of the clubs that I belonged to decided that it would hold a dance with an international theme. They eventually settled on calling the event “Springtime in Paris.” As the theme for the dance was to be Parisian in nature, it was decided amongst a group of my friends that prior to going to the dance, we would patronize a local French restaurant, renowned for its expensive food and debonair clientele. I was working as a concierge at the Palliser Hotel, one of the most upscale hotels in the city and had one of my co-workers call in the reservation, so that it would appear to the French restaurant that my friends and I were clients of some import. As the time drew near, it appeared as though the evening would go off without a hitch.

I picked up my date in the northwest part of the city and we proceeded to go to the Uptown district of town, where the restaurant was located. Even though it was nearing the end of March, it was still about -15ยบ Celcius and the coldest spring that I could ever remember. Luckily for my date and I, there was plenty of free parking available right behind the restaurant and within mere seconds of leaving the car, we were able to be inside of the warm, though somewhat austere, eating establishment.
We had arranged to meet at the restaurant at 8:00 PM, so it came as no surprise that we were the first people there, arriving at 8:05 PM. We removed our jackets and proceeded to our table, which had been prepared for eight people. The waiter took our drink order and we became the wait for the others, which at first did not seem so long, but as the minutes dragged by, seemed to be of epic proportions. Around 8:30 PM, wondering about the wisdom of dining with friends, my date and I proceeded to discuss what we should do. Was it possible that the others had gone to a different restaurant? Had some kind of accident occurred in which one of our friends was seriously injured and at the hospital? These unknowns caused us greater and greater discomfort, as well as the waiter who seemed insistent that we order. As the minutes ticked by, it seemed as though the only course to pursue would be to call Fraser, whose cell phone number both I and my date knew. I had neglected to bring my cell phone with me and my date did not even own a cell phone (or so she would have had me believe at least). Since the restaurant was not only fancy, it was also quite small and I felt a little embarrassed about asking the staff if I could borrow the phone to call my tardy friends. What would the other patrons of the restaurant think? Instead of asking to use the phone, my date and I decided that I would go to a nearby gas station and use the pay phone. As I expected this to only take a few minutes, I felt that I did not need my jacket. Jingling the 35 cents needed for my call, I embarked into the dark, cold night.

At every gas station in the whole world, there is a pay phone. I believe it is akin to some kind of physical law, like gravity or inertia. You can imagine my chagrin when I realized that the nearby gas station, unlike every other gas station in the world, had no pay phone. The night air was cold and I could see no other pay phone nearby. My options were severely limited as I felt the coldness creeping in around me, slowly draining my body of its precious heat.

A couple of doors down from the restaurant, I noticed a used bookstore that was still open. The Uptown area has a reputation for being somewhat hip, so I figured that the person working in the store would be either a) be a left-wing tree-hugger who would help me in my struggle against the Establishment and show it I didn't need to pay to use the phone and that it should be a service available to all at no cost, or b) be stoned out of their mind and biddable to any request I might have. A lack of alternatives prompted me to quickly enter the store.

Behind the counter stood a woman who looked to be in her mid-thirties or so. She was the quintessential used-bookstore clerk, dressed in drab clothing, with even drabber hair and eyes to match.

"Excuse me," I said. "I was looking for a pay phone, but I can't seem to find one. Would it be okay if I used your phone? I'll let you dial the number so you know I'm not calling long distance or anything."

She didn't hesitate to give this reply, as though people made similar requests all the time. "There's a pay phone across the street and down about a half block."

"Well," I said, using my most polite voice possible. Was this lady for real? Human skin would freeze in as little as thirty seconds outside in the cold weather. "It's a little cold outside and I'm not wearing my jacket. I don't think I could make it that far without getting really cold. It will only take a few seconds and I will be out of your hair."

"Okay," she said grudgingly, "What's the phone number?"

I gave her the phone number and after she had dialed it, she handed me the receiver. "Hey Fray," I said. "Where are you guys?" He told me the situation and promised me that he and the others would soon be at the restaurant. I finished by telling him that my date and I would be waiting for him at the restaurant.

As I hung up, the bookstore clerk asked, "Why didn't you just use the phone at the restaurant? I'm sure a fancy restaurant like that would let you use the phone."
"I know they would let me use the phone," I replied, "but I didn't want to look like an idiot in front of all the people there."

"That's really strange," she said. "I'm sure that the other people wouldn't really care."

"Look," I said, trying to extricate myself from the situation. "It's not important. I just needed to make a phone call and now I'm done."

The woman would not give it up. "So why didn't you just use their phone. You're spending a lot of money on their food. I'm sure they would have let you use the phone."

"Look lady," I said, finally losing patience, "I just needed to make a phone call and I did. I don't care what you think I could have done or what I should have done. I made my phone call and now I am going back to the restaurant." With that, I walked out of the bookstore, vowing never to return.

It was not until afterwards that it struck me that I felt like I had been a character in a Seinfeld episode. Up to that point I hadn't learned a lot in life, but I have since learned that trying to save face in front of one group of people may not be all that good, especially if it makes you look like an idiot.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

On Punditry and Culturalism

For whatever reason, I can never seem to find a radio station that suits me. Whenever I drive to or from work, I am continually flipping through the various stations. Since my taste in music is diverse, sometimes I forego listening to the music stations and I listen to talk show radio. I'm not sure why I subject myself to this as I find most of the talk show pundits to be obnoxious blowhards who pander to the lowest common denominator. You would think that always being right would wear off after a while, but with these guys, it doesn't. The worst offender has got to be Michael Savage of the Savage Nation. It goes beyond simple disagreement with what he says; I worry about the negative impact that his ideas have on the general public. His rantings can only be described as political pornography. I feel physically ill after listening to him.

I understand that ratings and the all-powerful dollar drive a lot of radio commentators' rhetoric, but do we really need such odious polemics every day? The sole purpose of these shows is to engender hate, not debate. I would not, however, classify these people as racist, sexist, or homophobic. Those labels have been so overused as to be completely meaningless today. These people are what I define as 'culturalists.' They have a disdain for any culture that is not a 'traditional' American culture and are antipathetic to any culture (i.e. European, Islamic, Hispanic, etc. and I use these terms very loosely) that does not fit to that mold. Dogmatism is born of provincialism and talk show radio commentators are provincials at their absolute worst. If you only look at the American experience and deem it the best, you are excluding a lot of good ideas and values that America does not currently possess.

Culturalism is bad for two reason. First, it is absolutely fallacious to argue that America is worse now (and getting worser by the day) then it was twenty, thirty, or fifty years ago. Just because it's different, doesn't mean it's worse. Who wants to go back to the crime and poverty of the 1930s, even if it means more bodies go to church on Sunday? Second, it ignores the great learning opportunities that are attendant to it. I don't believe in 'tolerance.' I believe that it is a morally-bankrupt word. It can (and has been) twisted to mean anything. However, I believe that divergent beliefs should be shared, not so much that people can arrogate themselves to how accepting they are, but because you can learn from what people do differently. I have lived in the United States for the past four years and I can see what is good and what is bad. I don't think that it is all good or all bad, but I think there are many things that should stay the same, yet at the same time be changed. Tolerance would imply that I could make no value judgments as to the differences between American culture and my own culture, but that I had to accept it as it was. We shouldn't be neutral to what we encounter, we should engage it, critically examine it and discard that which is of no value.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Meaninglessness Defined

This blog is dedicated to all those who have come to the realization that everything that they hold dear in life is, when they really think about it, is devoid of meaning in and of itself. In the grand scheme of things (and I use this phrase liberally…there is no grand scheme after all), everything that we believe is important is not so. For humankind, however, we attach the most significance to the most insignificant of things. Take the current immigration debate in the United States. Does it really matter whether we use the word "amnesty" or not in determining the future status of twelve million of our fellow human beings? Instead of talking about real people and their feelings and emotions, some would waste precious time and energy on debating what punishment is appropriate for 'illegals'. And the crime for which no amnesty should be granted? Working on the wrong side of an imaginary line. If only I had the power to punish my sisters when they crossed the imaginary line into my bedroom when I was a child. No mention is ever made of the fact that current worldwide immigration policy is nothing more than neofeudalism. No mention is ever made that all immigration laws are malum prohibitum and not malum in se. Assuming that there were no political states, could anyone rationally argue that moving from one part of the globe to another to work is somehow morally wrong?

But to strip away meaning, to look at the real issue and come to a decision takes courage. Although I disagree with many things that Sam Harris writes in his book "The End of Reason", I think that he was correct in his argument that no idea and no belief should be consider sacrosanct. With that idea in mind, I intend to examine the issues facing us today.

The title of this post is a misnomer. There is no definition of meaninglessness.