Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorial Day, 2007

Imagine you're in a community shelter during a blizzard that has been forecast to last a week. There's a good number of people there, but plenty of food, water, and blankets. But then, after a day, the toilet is backing up. Something is terribly wrong with the septic line. Someone has to go out and find the problem, and, if he or she is lucky, get caught in a literal shit storm to prevent both the ugliness and health risks that will occur if the faulty plumbing isn't fixed. And remember, this is during a blizzard... it not a matter of "if something goes wrong you could die". You could do everything right, and die, just from bad luck.

It's a dirty, nasty and dangerous job, one that no one would really want, but it's one that many a person will take if it's necessary, especially if it's necessary to protect others.

That's how I view the members of our military. The people who've volunteered to walk into a shit storm, knowing it might kill them, if that's what it takes to protect us.

It's not glamorous, and though there've been people trying to glorify it, it's not glorious. It's hard, nasty work.

The people who do this deserve our gratitude. They deserve what glory we can give them, insofar as you can call expressions of our gratitude "glory".

Today is one of the days we set aside to commemorate their duty, and their sacrifice.

It's also a day for reflection.

How would you feel if you found out some snickering child (perhaps a 'child' who is over the age of majority) intentionally caused the clog in the plumbing, so someone had to perform that unpleasant task. Or, what if it turned out that there wasn't actually a clog in the first place, but someone still had to go out there to try to fix it.

It's one thing to send a man to do a nasty, dangerous job when it has to be done, when there's no other choice. It's another to send him out when there is a choice.

It's even worse when the kind of man who does that kind of job is the kind who will not complain, who will not question the job. The kind of men who can do that kind of thing, well, if they question and complain, they aren't the kinds who are best at getting the job done.

And it's even worse when it's not a pipe filled with crap that needs to be fixed, but is instead a matter of using violence to hurt people... hopefully, minimal violence, and hopefully, against the right people, but still people getting hurt and killed.

Again: if there's no other choice, that's one thing. If there's a choice, well, that's another.

And there was a choice.

George W. Bush was in charge of the government; he was the "decider", the "commander guy". The government knew that Saddam Hussein was a toothless tiger, and no threat to the United States. Whether Bush looked for that information or not, he had access to it, and was, in fact, responsible for knowing it.

The government knew that the war in Iraq would look, well, pretty much the way it does now, with violence and insurgency and terrorists using Iraq as a place to launch attacks against Iraqis and our military forces. Whether Bush knew that or not, he could have known it, and was, in fact, responsible for knowing it.

George W. Bush talks a good show. He will put on his sad face and talk about how terrible war is, and how much he understands and appreciates the sacrifices of our soldiers. He'll say it, and his people will parrot it, and people will insist it's true, and if you question it, well, folks might call you unpatriotic or insist that you just hate Bush... as if it's irrational to be angry with a man who has put our soldiers into such a nasty situation for this long, without having any idea how to bring them back home.

President Bush talks a good show, but it's all just a show.

For me, well, today I think of the horrors of war, and the horrors of humanity, where we haven't outgrown thoughts that war is glorious and wonderful and a "useful tool for foreign policy" rather than "our best attempts to create hell on earth". And I'll say a prayer for all people in harms way, and hope they see their way through the danger. I'll give thanks to all who've put themselves in harms way to protect others, and honor their sacrifice.

And I'll hope that someday, someday soon, people see a man like Bush for what he really is... the cause of the type of suffering that we're supposed to remember, and forswear, on days like today.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The ultimate futility of hell and vengeance

With Jerry Falwell dead, there are people speculating about whether he was right about heaven and hell and, if so, whether he's passed muster, or not.

I think it's silly to speculate. You see, there's two possibilities: hell is punishment, or hell is a state of separation that causes suffering (at least of the form "why didn't I make better choices in life?")

Well the idea that vengeance is useful is an idea based on human limitations. If someone has hurt us, vengeance doesn't repair that harm. It might make that person less willing to cause harm to us or another in the future ("I don't want that to happen again!") or make others less willing to do the same thing ("Look what happened to that other person! I'm not risking that!"), but both of those possibilities vanish in the face of God... at least, God as he is defined by the vast majority of Christians.

In the afterlife, God is supreme. There is no need to make anyone afraid of doing something wrong. That we can even speculate that God can imprison people anywhere (including hell) for all eternity suggests that vengeance would be pointless. More importantly, God is said to be good, but if that means "able to watch as someone is tortured for all eternity, when that torture yields no benefit", we've lost any sensible meaning of the word "good".

If there is a hell, it can't be God pointlessly punishing people for all eternity, unless we redefine God to be a really nasty piece of work. And it's pretty stupid to think that such a nasty piece of work is going to be mollified if you say that you accept the sacrifice of his son as payment for your sins.

So that leaves us with the possibility of a self-inflicted hell... if people have rejected God, when they die, they are unable to find heaven because they've already rejected it. C.S. Lewis considered this the only reasonable explanation for hell (or so I guess from having read much of his work), and even speculated about the possibility of people learning better in the afterlife, and learning to accept the good, and entering heaven.

It's very close to a heresy, known as the Universalist[1] heresy... eventually, all people will be saved (because if there's any chance to be saved, sooner or later, during the course of eternity, that chance will occur).

This kind of vision, with hell being a temporary (though perhaps extremely long lasting) situation that people inflict upon themselves, is one that fits with God as he is described. But that is, again, a heresy. The vast majority of Christians believe that hell is eternal, and salvation after death is impossible.

What kind of a loving being would set up a situation like that, where someone could suffer for all eternity? Even if it was their own fault, love means loving the person as they are and wanting them to grow and learn. Why would God make it impossible for them to grow after death, and stay stagnant for an eternity?

It simply doesn't make sense.

I know, there's someone out there about to say it's a mystery, that it's beyond human understanding, but I call bullshit.

It's clear, from human understanding, that vengeance is limited, and only potentially useful because of human limitations; it's usefulness vanishes when looking at a situation in which God has ultimate power. And no loving human could stand by while another one suffers for all eternity, so it's impossible to believe that God, who is supposed to be more loving than we are, could do the same thing, and could have created us with this as a possibility.

Jerry Falwell isn't burning in hell, not the hell he described. I do believe that he's suffered from some nasty surprises when he saw that the glory and love of God was far, far beyond his limited and hate-filled imagination.

[1] At least, this is what a Unitarian-Universalist website claimed... the other half of the name came from the Unitarian heresy, where people believed that Jesus was not God because there's only one (unit-) God. Of course, these days the Unitarians aren't necessarily followers of any of the Abrahamic traditions.)

A fine, upstanding Christian whose heart was full of love has died

In the past 24 hours, a good, solid Christian man, a man who lived, as best as he could, by the words of Jesus as spoken in the Gospels, has died.

A man who would not support a baseless war justified by scare tactics. A man who would not consider an illness a punishment from God. A man who would never dream of trying to link the actions of terrorists to pagans, gays, abortionists, feminists, the ACLU and the People for the American Way.

A man whose concern was spreading of God's love, a man who wanted to see that the hungry get fed, the homeless get sheltered, the sick get cared for, and justice be done throughout all of our society. A man who was an inspiration to all who knew him, and could see the love within him.

Oh, yeah. Jerry Falwell died, too.

The "good Christian man", well, there's a lot of Christians on this planet; it's a statistical certainty that one such person has died in the past 24 hours.

If life were fair, well, you know whose name I think should be praised.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Morality, part 2

A while back I was talking about the fundamentals of morality, of right and wrong. It's time to revisit that.

One of the rules I have is that right and wrong must be reasonable, which is to say, amenable to reason. If we can't think about what's right and wrong, there's not much point in trying to figure it out... by definition, reason won't give us any answers.

Really, it's easy to figure out the fundamentals. Hurting people is bad; making people happy is good.

Now, "happy" is a bit of a question-begging term; what is "happiness"? Is a child forced to play inside for an interminably long time (from the child's perspective!) after chasing a ball into the street "happy"? Yes; the child's learning a valuable, possibly lifesaving, lesson. Happiness isn't short term pleasure.

I define happiness as any state of being better than the alternative, and I expect a lot of people to throw up their hands in despair. "That could mean almost anything!" you might say, and that's true. It might well mean, literally, almost anything. But then, what makes people happy can vary wildly, right? So why wouldn't happiness be so broadly defined?

We should listen to what people say. You may not always know what's best for you, but you have more information about what's going on with you, how you think, and how you feel, than anyone else can. Sometimes, we'll have to use our judgment; a sucidal person thinks death is the only option to end suffering but experience has shown that this is nearly always wrong. In most cases, we should leave people be. People will make mistakes, but will learn from them. Learning from mistakes, learning how to live better, makes us happier.

So, encouraging happiness is good, hurting people is bad... but notice that I avoided the terms "right" and "wrong", and "moral" and "immoral". It's bad to hurt people, but sometimes it's unavoidable. If you have to break up with someone who is in love with you, that will hurt that person. It is still often the right thing to do; if the relationship is irreparably broken, letting it continue will probably cause you both more hurt than breaking things off. Similarly, if someone is trying to hurt or kill you, defending yourself, even with minimal force, might require hurting the other person.

Or, for a more complicated example, what about competition? If two people are trying to sell you something, you'll "hurt" one of them by buying from the other.

The basic ideas of morality can't be summed up in easy-to-follow rules. Most moral decisions are pretty simple, but life is frequently complicated, and you rarely have all of the information that's needed to make a good decison. All you can do is look around and see who is hurt, and how much, and why, and see who is helped, how much, and why, and make the best decision you can.

Some of the rules will fall into your lap; don't steal, don't rape, don't murder, etc., are gimmes.

To get into more complicated situations, we need the two situations I referenced in my last post on morality as teasers: drunk driving and peanut butter sandwiches.

For many years, drunk driving wasn't considered a big deal. Drunk drivers didn't want to hurt anyone, and, you know, they were drunk. By definition, they weren't as aware of the consequences of their actions as they would be if sober. More importantly, in most drunk driving incidents, no one gets hurt.

Ah, but in too many circumstances, someone does get hurt. Even today, when drunk driving is considered a serious crime, thousands of people are killed each year as a result of drunk driving.

It should be obvious that drunk driving is wrong, not because every drunk driver hurts someone on every single attempt... drunk driving simply increases the risk that someone gets hurt to an unacceptable level... and the benefit (getting a drunk person home) is simply too small to justify this level of risk.

It is not enough to "not hurt people". It's wrong to do so much as put people at risk of harm, even if that harm doesn't actually come to pass. This has even more applicability today. I remember living in Ohio when George Voinovich was governor. He insisted that the trash burning power plant was probably safe, and that the danger of dioxin(!!) wasn't perfectly established, scientifically. Well, given the amount of dioxin being put out by that plant, it was right to shut it down. It doesn't matter that we couldn't provide proof positive that someone was being hurt; the risk was too high. Similar arguments can be made about global warming... at least, they can be made by those who aren't pounding straw men all day over the issue. No, we haven't proven, beyond any doubt, that man-made changes to the atmosphere are causing sufficient global warming, but we have enough evidence that it's wrong to fail to act. If we don't act to curb greenhouse emissions, our children and grandchildren will think of us as the people who got plastered and got behind the wheel of an SUV to do a little hot-rodding. Even if we're wrong about global warming, it would be incredibly reckless to ignore the issue.

So, it's bad to hurt people, and it's bad to put other people at needless risk of harm.

But there's more, and that's where the peanut butter sandwiches come in.

Imagine, if you will, a kindly member of the neighborhood; I always think of a woman like my grandmother, but you can imagine whoever you will. This is a person who loves children, and loves to have them over. If a child is hungry, this person is always glad to fix a peanut butter sandwich as a snack. And, to cover all bases, let's pretend they're organically grown, fair-trade peanuts, and wholesome, whole-grain bread from wheat grown locally, and that all of the neighborhood's parents have given this person permission to do so.

This is a good thing to do. It's still a good thing to do when, by accident, a child with a life-threatening peanut allergy is given such a sandwich. Our hypothetical kindly person didn't know about the allergy, and can't be faulted for an act of kindness.

What matters is what happens next. How does our kindly neighbor react?

It's not enough to claim "well, I had good intentions, it's not my fault if the kid got sick!" No, if your actions have caused something bad to happen, you have to do what you reasonably can to fix it. And, just as important, you have to investigate what went wrong, to try to fix it.

Only the most destructive of fools keeps blundering around at random, causing damage over and over, and never learning from the mistakes that have been made. There are jokes about George W. Bush that I'm biting back right now, but we saw a recent-ish example of that. Colin Powell referred to the "Pottery Barn rule" of "you break it, you bought it". Well, that's not true in Pottery Barn, but it's a sound moral principle. If you've caused problems, you should try to put those problems right. And, even if you had the best of intentions, it doesn't excuse you from putting things right, or for learning from your mistakes.

You need to keep your eyes open, you need to see what happens as a result of your actions, and you need to adjust your actions accordingly.

Try to make people happy; try to avoid hurting people, unless there's no other choice. Don't even put people at needless risk of being hurt, and watch what you're doing and make adjustments, because good intentions aren't enough.

It's not as simple as someone trying to give you a list of rules, be it the laws in our country, or the laws in the bible, but it's a path to a strong morality, based in love, and concerned more with doing right than with following the rules.

Monday, May 07, 2007

What we need is not what they say

Since the shootings at Virginia Tech, there have been two groups of people who've been completely obnoxious about the shootings.

I'll talk about the gun folks later. Right now, what upsets me most are the people who are claiming that it is a lack of "God" in the schools and in the culture that is causing these kinds of things. Apparently, these people believe that if teachers and principals can't lead children in prayers, kids can't recognize that shooting people is wrong.

Of course, Jesus told people how to pray - in their rooms with the door shut, so only God knew they were praying - so the whole idea that Christians should be pushing school prayer is pretty stupid. Jesus told his followers to do all their good acts quietly, not to seek praise from others.

I wonder what their excuse for ignoring that is? That society is so secular that they won't be praised for public piety? Come on now! Do you think Jesus was counseling his followers not to pray in public because prayer in public would impress the Romans? No, he was saying that they'd be seeking praise from their peers, from their fellow believers. The "Public School-led Prayer" folks, and people like Roy Moore, can pretend that they're not violating Jesus' teachings on the matters, but it's obvious that they are.

This also brings us to their other failing. They say that things like school shootings occur because "God" is not in the schools. Why? Because people who claim to believe in God can't do things like, oh, say, the Inquisition or the Crusades?

Yes, I know, dreadfully unfair to bring stuff like that up, but that's the point. Professing a belief in God isn't what makes a person unwilling to harm others. Love is what makes people unwilling to harm others.

Not a lot of love; just enough that you wouldn't stand idly by when someone gets hurt. Just a tiny bit of love, just an unwillingness to look away from pain that you can prevent. It's so tiny, you might even question whether you can call it love. That's what we need to prevent school shootings and the like.

An idea that everyone matters, that no one should suffer needlessly, that if you can help alleviate the suffering of another, without any real cost to yourself, you should.

This all comes back to an earlier essay I presented here, whether God makes rules, and it's moral to follow them, or if God is moral, and gives us rules that are in accordance with morality.

One of the reasons I like this idea is that, if God is good, then as we learn more about goodness, we learn more about God. And the same thing is true for love.

Jesus commanded his followers to love others. He healed the sick at every opportunity, he told people to take care of the poor, he said that come Judgment Day, it was the people who did good things for others who'd be found worthy.

If people really think that society is lacking enough exposure to Jesus, why don't they show what part of Jesus that they can, without violating any rules regarding separation of church and state? Why not show his love?

We don't need people pushing religion down other people's throats. We don't need a society that has empty mouthings of prayers and meaningless religious symbols. We need love. And if the loudest of the Christians pushed as hard to show love as they've been pushing for those symbols, we'd already have it.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Rap contains absolute filth!

I've been hearing a bunch about how terrible rap is, the filthy lyrics and horrible themes. I heard Ludacris being tagged as one of the problem rappers.

Now, I'm not fully conversant with all of his work. I grabbed a few of his tracks off of iTunes.

So, just at random, let me provide you with some of the despicable, hateful filth that he raps. This is an excerpt from "Runaway Love"

Little Nicole is only 10 years old
She's steady trying to figure why the world is so cold
Why she's not pretty and nobody seems to like her
Alcoholic step-dad always wanna strike her
Yells and abuses, leaves her with some bruises
Teachers ask questions she making up excuses
Bleeding on the inside, crying on the out
It's only one girl really knows what she about
Her name is lil Stacy and they become friends
Promise that they always be tight 'til the end
Until one day lil Stacy gets shot
A drive by bullet went stray up on her block
Now Nicole stuck up in the world on her own
Forced to think that hell is a place called home
Nothing else to do but get some clothes and pack
She says she's 'bout to run away and never come back.

You know, I keep hearing people yelp about rappers talking about bitches and hos and all kinds of other crap. So I pulled the top ten rap/hip hop tunes from iTunes. No mention of bitches or hos.

(Well... the word "ho" is used but if you don't know the difference between a "ho" and "lemme hear you say ho!" you shouldn't be listening to rap... or allowed near sharp objects. Okay, I'm kidding on that last bit, but only just.)

Are there some rappers who objectify women, who are nasty and hateful? I'm sure there are, but let's reword that: "are there some *people* who objectify women, who are nasty and hateful?" It's a better question... worry about the people, not the art form. (And if you try to claim rap isn't art, you just haven't listened to enough of it. You may not like it but you don't have to like it to make it art.)

Next time I hear someone say that rappers are nasty and hurtful, I'm going to ask them to name me some examples, of rappers and songs, and let me know if they know of other songs that show a different side. If they can't answer, and quickly, off of the top of their head, then I don't see any point to listening to them. Anyone can complain about isolated incidents; if you really care, you'll dig in and do some learning.

You'll know that, even if Ludacris is nasty in some songs, he tries to tug at the heartstrings too, and you'll know that Ice T's Cop Killer was a song of rage about police brutality, not a call for killing cops.

You'll know that rap is a wonderful and rich art form, and that rappers are people, and span the range of human artistry, from the kind to the nasty, from the empathic to the sociopathic.

And you wouldn't just make vague claims about terrible rap artists, for fear that other folks would assume you don't know what you're talking about.

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