Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Definitive Expression: What's To Fear?

Lately, I'm beginning to sense in myself a literary weasel at the helm of my compositions. So many things I observe or comment on "seem" this way or "appear" that way. Seldom do I articulate the preciseness—or definitiveness—of ideas, unless of course they accommodate my prejudices.

What's wrong with taking a stand? Why my aversion to certainty? I suppose some might see it as being in keeping with my flexibility in moral matters, i.e., being more of a consequentialist and not an absolutist. Or could it be that I don't like confrontation and this is my way of avoiding it? Either way, I am of the mind that the sharing of ideas doesn't lend itself to certainty. Certainty conveys a subtle message to one's audience that you are not open to criticism and have answers for everything always at the ready. I am more likely to say to someone who might tell me the world is flat that his understanding of things is somewhat skewed. Somewhat skewed? Why wouldn't I just say, "You are dead wrong, sir. Don't you know the world is round?"

Precisely because I fear losing this person's engagement. That's why. Inflexibility increases the risk of sounding unreasonable—of indeed, being unreasonable—and possibly ruining an otherwise healthy debate. Being convinced of the correctness or truthfulness of one's own ideas is precisely when flexibility is needed most. We must dare to invite challenge to that which we believe ourselves to be most certain about.

Having been raised in a black and white world where nuance was a rare commodity has left me yearning for all of the wonderful shades gray that enrich us the most. I admit my goal is to find the common ground, to strike a balance, grasp the subtle, and amicably coexist with my ideological adversaries, not assault them with overconfidence and arrogant certitude.

Maybe I am a weasel after all.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Sharing the Blame

If there's one thing I've learned from years of group and individual counseling, it is the need to accept responsibility for our own behaviours (at least to the extent that some serious patholgy has not left us incompetent). That which we delve into so painstakingly in our sessions ideally serves to explain why we feel and behave the way we do, not offer excuses for misbehaviour. The question I'd like to pose is: Do these explanations offer mitigation - in moral terms - to any measurable degree?

Philosophically speaking, the presence of love seems to be the ingredient most necessary in order for people to be motivated to do good things. Conversely, the absence of love appears to accommodate evil behavior. Putting aside for a moment the undeniable complexity of why some people do evil things, one cannot underestimate the influence we all have on each other in our everyday encounters. By not being - or giving - the best of our nature to our fellow man at every turn, we all share a small part in each other's transgressions. By failing to give each other love, show compassion, or promote justice, we potentiate the seed of evil present within each of us.

Nowhere is this idea more clearly demonstrated as when we examine the root causes of crime. In study after study, researchers reaffirm the link between the existence of inequity in society and its propensity to facilitate criminal behaviour. While this link may not rise to the level of excuse, its effect on an individual's culpability is nonetheless mitigating. In other words, the first place any of us should look when searching for answers to the pervasiveness of evil and crime - is in the mirror.

Sharing the blame. Sometimes it's the right thing to do.

Elevating Evil: An Empty 'Doctrine'

One thing I never quite understood about the Catholic Church was its handling of the subject of evil. It was made very clear to me during my childhood indoctrination that good and evil - God and the devil - were locked in an epic battle for the hearts, minds, and souls of everyone for all time.

The practical effect of this teaching was the elevation of evil to a status comparable to that of good. In the mind of the Catholic believer, the devil was as much to be feared as God was to be worshiped. For all intents and purposes, the devil was every bit as powerful as God, commanding an army just as mighty. They were co-equals in the power structure of the universe.

To my way of thinking, this concept was simply insane! It was a little too much like devil worship. Even in my younger days, while I was still grappling with this nonsense, my take on the devil was that he was much more of a non-life form, an entity void of substance, more like death than anything else. Not some living, breathing, intelligent creature obsessed with commandeering people's souls. For me, evil was not some devil creature's doing, but rather man's doing, and it usually flourished where the influence of love could not be found.

It was not even beyond my parents to constantly remind their own children of the reality of evil whenever we strayed. It was more important that we be made to understand the magnitude and immorality of our offenses whenever we did something wrong than it was to be made to simply understand that we all make mistakes growing up and to learn from them.

Believing that evil doesn't exist is, of course, the great trap of many religious people. They set it out like rat bait waiting for us godless heathens of the world to bite, figuring if we do we'll be devoured by our own deviant philosophy. Well, if it will make some of them feel any better: Of course there is evil in the world. I simply choose not to glorify or worship it, and instead prefer to emphasize the power goodness and love have over the grand negativities of evil.

"Well, She Is Getting Old, Father"

Maybe I was slightly incorrigible in my youth. Strike that. I was downright incorrigible in my youth. On one memorable occasion, however, my incorrigibility actually served me quite well - a greater good, if you will.

After finishing eight years of Catholic elementary school, my parents insisted I attend a Catholic high school. I'd begun to display some disciplinary problems, so they must have figured continuing with a religious institution was the best hope for containing my penchant for misbehaving. Well, it was a nice thought.

At the time, my objection to attending a Catholic high school had less to do with any aversion to religion and more to do with athletics. As an aspiring young swimmer and diver, I wanted to attend a public school nearby simply because it had a swimming program and the Catholic school didn't. But my parents - my father in particular - were adamant about my remaining where they sent me.

After a year and a half of wearing a jacket and tie to school, group prayer twice a day, not being able to tend to my skills as a diver, and ever-escalating tensions between myself and school administrators, I decided it was time to do something. Figuring the honest and direct approach would have little chance of success, I resorted to what I knew best: obstinance and disrespect.

Mission Objective: Get myself kicked out of this school at any cost.

After a couple of days of skipping nearly every class in sight and saluting the dean of girls with my middle finger on several occasions, then came the pièce de résistance: the paper airplane in silent study hall. It was a large masterpiece crying out for some bold lettering on the side of the fuselage. So I gave it some: "FUCK YOU."

I thought I had better play it safe so I took the airplane home with me that day and threw it away, but that keen-eyed octogenarian Sister Elizabeth apparently saw it very clearly before I escaped the premises and she reported my hi jinx to the principal. First thing next morning I got called down to Father Frascadore's office. It was a free-for-all: Vice-principal, dean of boys, guidance counselor, dean of girls (must have been those fancy salutes), two janitors - you name it. All there ready to make certain this was an expulsion and not something I had engineered. Heaven forbid they should be outfoxed by a tenth-grade idiot.

"What happened yesterday in silent study, young man?" Father Frascadore asked.

"I don't know what you mean sir."

Then Father Frascadore thought he would throw me for a loop: "I'm talking about the 'fuck you' you wrote on the paper airplane you made."

"Whoa. I did not write that on any paper airplane."

"Oh you didn't, did you? Did you make a paper airplane?

"Yes, sir I did."

"Did you write on that airplane?"

"Yes, sir. I did"

"Did you write, 'fuck you' on that airplane?"

"No, sir. I didn't. I wrote USAF for United States Air Force."

"You mean to tell me Sister Elizabeth mistook 'USAF' for 'FUCK'?"

Momentary pause . . . leaning into my audience . . . and then, just above a whisper: "Well, she is getting old, Father."

Mission: Accomplished.

Everybody was happy. I was on my way to my new school that afternoon, and Father Frascadore and his minions got their wish: I was unceremoniously expelled, and in their eyes I wasn't allowed to leave with so much as a shred of dignity. Little did they know, they could keep their precious dignity. I only wanted out.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Giving Up Religious Profanity

One thing in life I enjoy just a little too much is swearing. No, my everyday conversations are not laced with profanities. What kind of example would that be to my daughter? But when my patience is seriously challenged, my sense of verbal decorum has been known to go right out the window.

I will confess, for a long time my favorite profanities were those of the religious type. This, no doubt, I owe to my religious, alcoholic, abusive father. (Sorry, Pop. You know I loved you anyway.) His favorite expression was "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!" The next time I am tempted to use that one, I think I'll change the names and see if that does it for me. "Josh, Marty, and Jake! What were you thinking?" Hmm. Not quite the same.

There's something psychologically soothing about invoking the name of God out of a sense of intense anger or total exasperation. It relieves inner tension like nothing else. One of the most popular religious profanities is, "Jesus Christ!" Interestingly, this is one expression I have been fairly successful at minimizing - thus, hopefully eliminating - from my sordid verbal repertoire.

The further away I get from a God-driven mindset, the more offensive I feel religious profanity is. I just don't think it's right to offend such sensibilities in people whether they are within ear shot of my outbursts or not. As for "God damn it" well, what's the point if you don't believe he exists? I want to be rid of God so completely in my life that I will try like hell not to even use his name when I swear.

Speaking of "hell." There's another swear word that can be said to have religious origins. Hell, after all, being that place where believers say God will send us heathens and infidels to spend eternity after we die. I am very fond of, "What the hell did you do that for?" and, "I sure hope you know what the hell you're doing." And let's not forget the tried-and-true, ever-popular, "Go to hell!" These are going to prove very difficult to give up.

I'm proud of myself for trying not to use religious profanities. I think it's the right thing to do and even shows a little maturity. There is one word, however, - not particularly religious in nature - that may prove the most difficult to give up in my quest to swear less frequently: the "F" word. The "F" word and its many variations still provide the greatest amount of release and satisfaction when I've lost all control. "God damn it!" is nice in a pinch, but "What the fuck are you talking about?" relieves my boiling psyche better than any "Jesus H. Christ!" or "God damn it!" ever could.

Just writing about profanities seems to calm that edge in my nerves, sort of like feeding an addiction. Maybe there's a twelve-step program just for pithy little foul mouths like me. If there is, I might be just who they're looking for.

Catholicism and Sex: The Ugly First Message

Christopher Hitchens has used the word "toxic" to describe the teachings of many Christian faiths regarding sex. My own experience as a Catholic "indoctronee" tells me this is not far off the mark.

While there is plenty of room for disagreement with the Church's teachings regarding the nature and purpose of sex, birth control, abortion, homosexuality, masturbation, etc., these teachings are not what necessarily offend me most. As I recall the earliest days of my subjugation to Catholic education, one firmly-planted idea stands out more than most: the notion that Jesus, both God and the son of God at the same time, was conceived by, and born of, a woman who, the whole time, remained a virgin.

In the second grade, of course, I didn't understand what a virgin was. It wasn't until I reached adolescence that this concept jelled in my mind and I began to question why virginity was a prerequisite for the birth of man's saviour. The message I was receiving was not even subtle: sexual intercourse would have tarnished Mary, the mother of Jesus, and her image, as well as offended God himself. Why was it necessary for the Holy Spirit to be the vehicle for this non-corporeal impregnation?

To my mind, this doctrine of the virgin birth had the distinct effect of sullying the whole concept of sex, and in so doing implanted in my psyche the idea that sex is a bad thing. After all, if we were to aspire to be Christ-like, or God-like, then certainly we should not engage in anything that either of them would look so disdainfully upon. This was plainly an ugly first message about sex.

It took a while before an understanding of the normalcy of sex replaced the "toxic" notions instilled in me as a young person. I eventually learned that when sex is seen as the basic, instinctual human need that it is and not as a vehicle for sin and evil, it assumes a much healthier role in the development of mind and body.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Spirituality: A Personal Definition

Most of us would likely agree there are two major aspects of our being where we should aspire to be in good health: body and mind. A third, some would say, is just as real and important: spirit. The spirit seems to be the most difficult to quantify. For some time I have been struggling to construct a personal, working definition of "spirituality" that satisfies my need to adopt a convention others can readily relate to. I'm making some progress - I think.

First off, my burgeoning naturalist instincts notwithstanding, I do tend toward the notion that we do, indeed, possess a spiritual - or more precisely, a non-physical - persona, if only in the narrowest of interpretations. My personal spirituality assumes no association with the religious or supernatural. This may be problematic for some because of their strongly-held belief that spirituality is necessarily born of a supreme being. To me this is simply the expression of an idea flowing from one's personal belief system - or religious faith - and not something more universal.

Brain researchers have suggested we possess a natural affinity for the ethereal - or spiritual. (NPR, On Point: "The Science of Spirituality") This may explain why man has created for himself all manner of gods and supreme beings throughout history. Combining this with man's innate tendency to socialize also may explain how organized religions came into being. That is to say, religion seems to provide an efficient vehicle for the expression of our natural inclinations toward both spirituality and socialization.

In much the same way the totality of experience derived from the five senses - sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell - provide us with a sixth sense, so too does the totality of experience derived from our non-physical wherewithal, including thought, intellect, intuition, and the complete range of our emotions, provide us with our spiritual essence. In each case, the totality of assets considered creates a virtual entity greater than the sum of its parts.

This definition of spirituality may have trouble surviving my humanist - or naturalist - mindset. For now, I am resigned to the evolving nature of defining my spirituality. Hopefully, what I end up with will at least offer a point of reference accessible enough to encourage engaging discourse with others drawn to the same task. Such engagement would, no doubt be - spiritually - rewarding.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

"Mystic Shoreline"

Mystic Shoreline
by Alycia Cooney

The shoreline
The sea air
On the beach
With no cares

No worries, no stress
All my troubles laid to rest
Everything drifts away
Leaving me feeling safe

Watch the boat in the harbor
See the people in the shop
Life just seems to stop

The shoreline
The sea air
Just sitting here

A place of peace
To spend the day
Away from the city
Oh how I want to stay

No tall buildings to block
A perfect view
Of the ocean
So beautiful and blue

Clear day, clear mind
Relaxation is easy to find
Here on the Mystic shoreline


My daughter Alycia wrote this poem while tending to her senior-year English assignment to compose a memoir. This was one of my favorite entries.

Golf, Brotherhood, and Politics

A few days ago I played a round of golf with my brother Eugene. Great guy. Fun to be around. Lawyer by trade. But I must say I was not quite prepared for some of what transpired that day.

After playing a couple of holes engaged in simple small talk, I mentioned to my brother that I was becoming a loyal reader of The Nation magazine. I conceded that it was basically a liberal rag—or progressive to be more accurate. At that point it was "ignition sequence on" for Eugene. I knew he had a basically conservative approach to life and politics. What I didn't know was that his particular brand of conservatism made William Buckley look like Phil Donahue!

My brother told me of a great book he was reading by so-and-so, a regular contributor to National Review. Right away, up went my antenna—and with good reason. (The writer turned out to be Jonah Goldberg.) Eugene went on to tell me how this brilliant writer explains in his book that liberalism and progressivism have their roots in fascism! I kid you not. Fascism! I nearly threw my golf clubs on the ground in front of my brother and said to him, "You know. We're having a great day here. But you just went over the line!" Instead, I bit my tongue, labored in preparation for my next shot and—clank—into the trees it went.

A few holes later, the topic turned to the economy. I made the observation that unfettered markets and unchecked capitalism didn't appear to have answers for the permanent ills of unemployment and poverty. Gene's response was a real beaut. "Hey, 5.6% unemployment is nothing. There will always be a number of people in transition. Did you know in many socialist countries in Europe where they claim virtually no unemployment, they are excluding (all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons from government statistics) and that the real unemployment rate is over 20%? As for poverty: It's not that big a problem in the Unites States. It's much worse throughout the rest of the world." I kid you not. I labored in preparation for my next shot—and whiff! I actually missed the ball altogether!

Three holes later. The topic: health care. I told Gene of an interesting program I'd heard on NPR titled, "The Doctor Can't See You Now." It examined the issues of people not being able to find primary care physicians and the uninsured. Gene was quick to lend me his analysis: "Look. Of the 47 million people in this country who don't have health insurance, 63% are between the ages of 18 and 33, and they simply choose not to buy health insurance because they figure they are young and healthy and don't need it." I kid you not! Kaboing! My next shot - right into the water! At this point I didn't know what was upsetting me more, my errant golf shots or my brother's spot-on impression of Rush Limbaugh.

Then came the clincher: "Did you know in New York City they are teaching fourth graders how to have anal intercourse?" Kwank! My next shot nearly hit another golfer right in the head, and he was behind us!

I shot a 107 that day. Eugene, an 82. Could it be that maybe he just says all this stuff to get me riled up and make me play bad golf? Does he really want to win that badly? He did take me for $20. Hmm. I don't know. If the scores were reversed, something tells me I still would have gotten the very same litany of liberal-bashing inanities from him. But you know what. It didn't matter. Why? Because we were playing golf. And on the golf course, all is forgiven in war and politics—especially when you're playing with your brother.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Pat Buchanan: Tolerable Critic?

Old habits die hard, and one habit I started about fifteen years ago was despising Patrick Buchanan, conservative author, commentator, and former presidential candidate. It's easy to understand how someone as left-leaning as myself could find Pat Buchanan difficult to stomach. He has that effect on us queasy liberal types.

Pat Buchanan had been around for quite a while, serving as an aide to then candidate and president Richard Nixon back in the '60s, but I didn't really come to know of him until he began hosting CNN's Crossfire years later. The presentation Crossfire offered was, of course, that of diametrically opposed political commentators - liberal versus conservative - doing nightly battle over the hot-button topics of the day. Michael Kinsley was the co-host from the left who made the biggest impression on me.

Night after night I found my political and social sensibilities being assaulted by Buchanan, this lunatic from the right. It wasn't long before I loved hating him. On issue after issue, I sensed little or no negotiation. He was a bull dog. But maybe that's what the producers of Crossfire had in mind.

When Buchanan made his deadly serious runs for the White House in 1992 and 1996, I remember being taken aback by his popularity. It unnerved me. Was this country actually at a time and place in history where the likes of Patrick J. Buchanan could ascend to the presidency? Was I that out of touch? Turns out the country decided Buchanan was a little much for its sensibilities as well, and he never really threatened for the Republican nomination seriously.

Buchanan's return to the air waves - not that he ever left them - brought with it what could be described as a suggestion of moderating rhetoric or nuance. No, he couldn't hide his indelible conservative stripes, and I'm offended as much today as I ever was when they surface, but attacking from the fringe just isn't his game anymore. He has morphed into a being with both subtle and complex insights to offer - something I never expected from him. Now, whenever I see and hear him on shows like MSNBC's Morning Joe, his offerings are much more palatable. He likes to put things into historical perspective, and his knowledge, as well as experience, make him well-suited for the task.

In an era of ever-polarizing influences in our political debates, Pat Buchanan, while remaining a staunchly conservative animal, these days gives us more than just fuel for the fire. If this keeps up, maybe I'll even buy one of his books. I said maybe.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Recalling a Brother's Suicide

In February of 1981 my older brother Stephen, at the tender age of 28, apparently felt he was out of options. A witness to the incident that claimed his life said to police, "I don't know what the guy was thinking. He darted right out in front of that car."

So ended the flickering of a bright, yet tortured, young light. The last several years of his life serving as one long suicide note. Steve's demons were many. Alcoholism, anger, depression, religious delusion, to name a few. As one who has benefited from the competent - and yes, loving - intervention of mental health professionals, I have learned that these so-called "demons" are manifestations of mental illness, pure and simple. Alcoholism is insidious; anger is ubiquitous; depression is horrible; but religious delusion is one symptom of illness that appears to simply confound most of those who venture into its path.

I can still conjure the image of Stephen proudly posing for a photograph under our blossoming apple tree, adorned with his bright red, eighth-grade graduation gown, hands clasped together in prayerful repose, fingers pointing skyward. A portrait of pure religious conformity. A veritable soldier for the army of Christ. No, this is not delusion. Not yet. This is, however, where the substance of his later delusions would find their origins. So obsessed was he with God, religion, and the supernatural, that when he eventually became ill, these very obsessions invaded his perceptions of reality. He often spoke to me of the time he was visited by God. As difficult as this is to disprove, I would suggest such a visit was unlikely. Yes, Steve claimed to have been paid such a visit, and it probably occurred during one of his many hallucinogenic voyages fueled by the drugs he experimented with in his youth.

There is a distinct difference between possessing a general belief there may be something beyond that which is observable and an obsessive belief in the truthfulness of an entire religious doctrine, the details of which fly directly in the face of all reason, logic and reality. This is my understanding of religious delusion. Unfortunately, for my brother, the brand of religiosity that was visited upon him by his Christian educators - and especially my parents - was without question a factor in his suicide. Stephen saw himself as totally undeserving of the only kind of redemption he was taught was valid: Christian redemption of the eternal human soul. Attempting to reconcile his imperfect, i.e., sinful, nature with the perfection he demanded of himself, proved a deadly undertaking. Harsh though this is, I perceive my brother's final act of desperation to be a direct consequence of the moral and religious overkill so egregiously thrust upon him by my mother and father. Totally forgiving them this transgression will no doubt take a very long time.

Steve eventually escaped the gnawing clutches of drug abuse. It even seemed to me that he was attempting to defect from the religious army that had conscripted him many years earlier. Reasoned thinking was on the horizon. But, when the "beginning of the free" took hold, and smatterings of a truly independent self began to emerge, the resulting inner conflict became too much to bear and he threw himself into the path of an oncoming car.

I often wondered if Steve was merely calling out for help; trying to reset the variables of his own perceptions by causing this "accident" which, had he survived intact, might have given him the respite he so desperately needed. A prolonged hospital stay. A brush with death. He might have emerged invigorated enough to actually assert his freedom from lifelong religious incarceration.

My guilt over never having found the keys to his emotional prison cell and aid him in his escape from irrationality has persisted these many years despite knowing in my heart I was a good brother to him. Could I have loved him any better? Could I have lent him just one more gesture of understanding? Would it have made a difference?

Steve's death taught me many things. Among them to always be on the alert for despair in my fellow man; not to make excuses for poor behaviour either in myself or in others, but to search for that which explains. By doing so, another remarkable human virtue - forgiveness - suddenly appears within reach of our grasp.

Your life, your suffering, your death, were not in vain, dear brother. You reminded us all just how precariously perched we sometimes are upon the tree limb of life. I believe you would have made a great ally in my quest for enlightenment.

Monday, July 7, 2008

No Alphabet Soup Required

BA, BS, APRN, LMFT, JD, MD, Ph.D. What do they all really mean? Ostensibly, all of these letters after one's name - most of them capital letters - indicate that this person has achieved a minimally prescribed amount of formal education in a given discipline. Some letters authenticate one's license to engage in the commercial practice of certain disciplines. These letters also recognize a very important convention in our society, a convention that suggests fundamental standards of competence and proficiency. In addition, all of this "alphabet soup" is an attestation of the many value judgments we make regarding education. Within any given theatre of debate, we place a greater value on the words and ideas of those in possession of this alphabet soup than we do those without it.

Among the more concrete benefits of advanced education is the perfection of the skills and tools developed in the pursuit of one's education including the ability to perform research and communicate effectively and efficiently. For many among the educated elite, the goal is simple: the dissemination of one's own ideas no matter how inane the premises for these ideas may be.

There's one more thing all of this alphabet soup does, and it's quite possibly one of the most powerful: It confers upon those who possess it the apparent right to take themselves seriously. What more does anyone need to command a mere modicum of respect for their efforts? Not much, I submit.

Ironically, the vast majority of what I would describe as incomprehensible nonsense comes not from other HSDs (high school dropouts) like myself, but rather from those who have acquired a virtual smorgasbord of alphabet soup. They wear their credentials like badges on a boy scout uniform - plain for all to see. And yet their baseless propositions, agendas and prejudices cannot conceal themselves. It is to these people I say, "Your education means nothing." But, to the many honestly educated and humble aspirants to the truth I say, "Thank you for your moderation, your wisdom, and your intellectual selflessness. You I can learn from."

A Brief 'Trek' Through Moral Absolutism

The virtual pantheism of Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the Star Trek brand, offers a wellspring of opportunities to dissect his many creative offspring. My personal favorite is Star Trek, The Next Generation - the award-winning sci-fi television series that many have suggested merely serves as a vehicle for his secular, humanist, and atheist predilections.

One early episode of this series, "Justice" (episode #7), examines a subject that believers and non-believers almost universally disagree about: the notion of moral absolutism. It's fair to say that most religious conservatives subscribe to the idea that humanity needs moral absolutes to guide itself, and that God is the appropriate source of this perfect morality. Whereas the secular among us tend to decry moral absolutes as usually dysfunctional. When an absolutist points to the Fifth Commandment, Thou shalt not kill, many would quickly point out that killing is often performed in what most would agree is a righteous context - as in a war to defeat an evil opponent. In this example, absolutism fails; moral relativism - or consequentialism, to be more precise, succeeds.

In "Justice" the precocious young Wesley is sentenced to death for the apparently harmless offense of walking through the forbidden garden to retrieve a ball. The native Edo claim that their crime-free, totally peaceful society has flourished precisely because of strict, or absolute, adherence to the laws of its protector, God (who is actually just a very advanced civilization orbiting the Edo's planet in a spaceship above).

After Captain Picard decides to defy the Edo and remove Wesley from the planet, his next challenge is to convince the governing entity of the mysterious "god-vessel" that clinging to its absolutist philosophy and destroying the Enterprise would be unjust. After an impassioned plea employing pure reason, the Enterprise and its crew are allowed to go free. Here Roddenberry clearly states his objections to an absolutist approach to morality, and in so doing promotes moral consequentialism as the better choice.

Reasonable minds can no doubt differ about which brand of morality offers what is best for humanity. I just happened to enjoy how this one creative mind offered his examination of those very options.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Nothing Short of Brainwashing

My personal emancipation from religion-induced neurosis has been a long time in coming. That it has taken me until the age of 50 to expel the worst effects of my childhood indoctrination is not a testament to my gullibility as a child, but rather is a testament to the ferocity of the religious inculcation I endured in my early life.

Besides being innately curious, the mind if a child is particularly malleable, thus susceptible to the impulses of those charged with their upbringing. And when those impulses are offered to satisfy the caregivers rather than the child, the results can be horrific. The late and very wise Dr. Benjamin Spock had one thing right for sure: young children should be raised as individuals and not be driven to conformity as subjects of ritual discipline. This methodology clearly suggests that a child's uniqueness be allowed to flourish even at the expense of parents' preferences - or prejudices.

Which brings me to suggest that children have the right to be raised free from the imposition of ideologies that legitimately only an informed adult can aspire to - chief among them, religion. This may appear to fly directly in the face of parents' so-called right to bring up children in the religion of their choice. If such a right exists, I question its legitimacy.

To remedy this collision of ideas would likely take at least as long as organized religions have been systematically brainwashing children with their beliefs - from hundreds to thousands of years. But I say, "On with the task!" And, is "brainwashing" the correct description of this process that results in the inevitable transformation from innocent infant to religious automaton? If we agree that the purpose of brainwashing is to compel its subject to relinquish his will to behave autonomously and to replicate the mindset of the authority figure in question, then this term is most certainly appropriate.

The introduction of simple, easy-to-comprehend, life-affirming values should be all that parents are allowed to instill in their children. From these, a firm foundation for more complex and morally pertinent values can easily be constructed. In other words, the nonsense that is religious dogma has no authentic role in cultivating either the mind or morals of a young child. The differences between right and wrong are readily discerned by accessing more universally accepted paradigms and without anointing religious parents or educators as arbiters of truth and morality.

Amnesty as Reparations?

According to the research and advocacy group The Sentencing Project, one in eight African American males in their twenties is in jail or prison on any given day, and three-fourths of all those in prison for drug offenses are people of color.

To suggest that America's "war on drugs" is largely responsible for the apparent racial imbalance in our prisons is merely stating the obvious. This skewed effect on minority communities can be seen as coincidental only from an unenlightened perspective. But beyond the usual remedies, some even innovative - such as new policies in Iowa, Wisconsin and Connecticut requiring Racial Impact Statements of new sentencing laws - there lies an even more creative tool to make amends for the gross discrimination that has long existed in our judicial system.

A legitimate legal framework for outright amnesty should be one of the options available to the overwhelming majority of offenders whose crimes were non-violent and involved drugs. While some states are now looking inward to explain racial disparity in sentencing by recognizing social and economic injustice as the underlying cause of so much crime, it comes a little too late for so many of the presently incarcerated. Changes such as allowing the retroactive enforcement of new federal sentencing guidelines for certain drug offenses are a step in the right direction. Laws such as these have the effect of illegitimizing previous laws under which many were sentenced thus facilitating genuine reform without giving rise to any potential for anarchy.

Finally, connecting the dots from economic and social injustice to despair and crime is essential if society is to recognize its own complicity in forging this link. For we are the offenders as well. Why? Because - through our complacency - we tolerate injustice.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Understanding the Coulter Culture

What is it about Ann Coulter? By her own admission, the things she says and does are calculated to provoke the most infuriating response possible. Which begs the question: Is she in the business of providing astute political commentary or pissing people off?

It occurs to me that Ms. Coulter rarely achieves the former and, in all likelihood, regularly achieves the latter. This is not to say she is not one of the best at what she does. It’s just that people can’t quite seem to agree on exactly what it is that she does do. Despite this conundrum, she remains all too predictable, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Larry King is the master of the softball interview, but at least we know that going in.

For pure entertainment value, Ann Coulter has few equals. With exquisitely good looks and a diabolically sardonic wit to match, she presents a formidable presence, to say the least. But this presence, including all the taunting cloaked as sublime articulation, is so painfully manicured it all appears to be little more than a “shtick.” I’m not sure even she believes most of the immoderate rhetoric (to put it politely) that comes out of her own mouth. With Ms. Coulter, controversy and self promotion are the objective, not changing the hearts and minds of us lost liberal souls. She is keenly aware that the more extreme her vitriol the more entrenched her ideological opponents become. Of all the tools she possesses, the fine art of persuasion clearly eludes her.

Listening to Ann Coulter reminds me of professional wrestling. Is it real, or is it fake? That depends. What it purports to be, human gladiators intent on maiming one another, is so fake it doesn’t pass the laugh test. What it really is, entertainment on a stick, is as real as it gets. So it goes with Ms. Coulter. As she ostensibly promotes the virtues of conservatism, she compels us to dismiss her as an observer of the political landscape precisely because she is doing it all for show (not to mention book promotion).

So good luck with your next guest spot on The O’Reilly Factor, Ms. Coulter. Or should I say—in the tradition of theater-goers—break a leg. Either way I’ll be watching the same way rubberneckers gawk at a highway inferno, unable to turn away from the resplendent carnage. After all, I am so easily entertained.

Barack Obama and Religion / Secularism

I recently told Jami, my loving wife, I had finally come to a decision on whom to vote for in the upcoming presidential election. “Who? Ralph Nader, again?” was her reply. Okay, my disillusionment has gotten the better of me the last three or four election cycles, and Nader has been ‘my man’ for quite some time. Yes, they were primarily protest votes. But what was my protest based upon? Oddly enough—religion.
Quite peculiarly, I am not even aware of Ralph Nader’s religious proclivities, and maybe that’s the point. All of the mainstream candidates had gone to great lengths to accommodate the religiously inclined by pandering to their interests, at least with their rhetoric. This election is no different. Or is it?
Barack Obama has given this atheist reason for hope and here’s why: The mere acceptance of non-believers into the arena of national dialog is no small feat. Not that long ago President George H. W. Bush perceived himself so immune from criticism on this subject that he openly questioned whether atheists and non-believers should be considered as citizens and patriots at all. Whereas, Barack Obama has clearly articulated the appropriateness of including non-believers in national discussions about faith and politics. That may not seem like much, but I’ll take small victories whenever and wherever I can.
Barack Obama is the first major party candidate in a long time to possess a political résumé that includes openly decrying the disproportionate influence of religious sects in our society. (In 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater confronted religious conservatives and warned them not to try to tell him how to vote on any legislation.) That is not to say Mr. Obama doesn’t succumb to talking out of both sides of his mouth on occasion. He has done his own fair share of religious pandering—no doubt for the sake of political survival. My deep-seated hunch is that he is keenly aware the road to a more secular society must be paved at a cautiously deliberate pace so as not to over agitate the tyrannical religious majority. This ocean of religiosity will need to be emptied one teaspoon at a time.
The religious right likely convulses when they hear Mr. Obama say even simple things like: “Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal rather than religion-specific values,” or “their proposals be subject to argument and amenable to reason,” a couple of things religious dogma doesn’t lend itself to.
So I can forgive Barack Obama’s pandering to the religiously inclined for the sake of political expediency, because my gut tells me he is merely working within the existing social framework to effect the change he ultimately desires: a more secular society where religion is not expelled from public life, but rather has its stranglehold on government institutions greatly diminished.

Dearest Mother

I thought I’d begin by sharing a letter I wrote to my mother—the composing of which was very cathartic.
Dearest Mother:
I wanted to share something with you while time was still on our side. In the past year or so, the improvement in my health has been so far-reaching it has allowed me to embark upon a quest for understanding and fulfillment so amazing I can only describe it as a renaissance. I must be honest. In metaphorical terms, I have just escaped from a burning building, clothing torn and singed, lungs filled with smoke, limbs battered and bruised from tumbling through the inferno. But most important, I have escaped.
My injuries have begun to heal. In time I may even forgive those who locked me in that house in the first place and willfully set it ablaze by indoctrinating its young inhabitants with their twisted religious dogma. These guardians rejected a most fundamental tenet of child rearing: teach children how to think—not what to think, and in the process, sacrificed their own progeny for the sake of self interest.
As I steadily proceed into a world governed by reason and skepticism, my nature remains tolerant of those who employ their antithesis. Not for a moment do I object to anyone’s right to believe as they choose; I only question the veracity of claims to possess knowledge about that which does not suffer rational examination well.
The beauty of faith is that it thrives in the absence of reason. Attempting to hijack the essence of reason for the purpose of authenticating one’s faith is both dishonest and unnecessary. Believing something to be true and knowing something to be true are quite distinguishable concepts.
To be honest, my love for you is such that I wish you could escape the irrational religious dragnet that has possessed you your entire life and join me and my new friends in celebrating humanity amidst the fertile ground of free thought. Given the unlikelihood of this eventuality, I ask you, in the alternative, to respect my desire to travel a different path from the one you laid out for me. And, rather than obsess about the fate of my so-called soul, take delight in my having found a measure of joy, challenge, and fulfillment in my new life.
Your loving son.