Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happy Birthday, Charles

Yesterday was Darwin’s 199th birthday, and I missed it. I hope people are paying closer attention and he gets his due next year when we celebrate his 200th. The man is a reminder that the human race isn’t so bad, if we put our mind to things.

I remember a conversation with a born-again once. Bush had just told some reporter that Jesus was his favorite political philosopher. “Jesus wasn’t a philosopher,” I said, launching into another of my many dead-ended conversational gambits over religion. “OK, Mr. Smarty Pants, then who is a great philosopher!”

Wow. Guess she got me there. If Jesus isn’t a great philosopher, I guess there aren’t any.

I thought I had something. Talk about whether Jesus was or should be “a personal Savior” as opposed, say, to an imaginary friend (which sums up our two takes on Jesus), had gotten us nowhere. I thought maybe here we might find something new and useful to chew on.

“Whatever you think of Jesus, the real historical Jesus as you know him from texts telling his story, or the one in your imagination,” I said, “there is a useful distinction to be made between moral leaders who tell you how you should behave and philosophers who wonder aloud about truth, beauty, goodness and the meaning of meaning.

“But if you have Jesus, you don’t need all those other ideas.”

That’ll teach me to nitpick.

Man, how many times have I ended up here, up against an ideology which enables people to reject clarity of thought as unnecessary. No reason to worry about what your categories are. They none of them matter as much as Jesus. No need to worry, once you’ve established them, what to put into them. Jesus will tell you what you need to know.

Categories do matter. It matters, for example, that we assign explanations to race that are more accurately attributable to class and to poverty. We have a problem with armed robberies in Berkeley and half the suspects are identified as black. In a town that is only 8% black, that fact gets attention. We register race before we register height or shades of color or cleanliness of fingernails or hairstyle or all sorts of ways of describing suspects, and end up with a race explanation when in fact the muggers don’t rob us because they are black but because they belong to a category of people who believe it’s a good idea to stick people up for money. Has nothing to do with being black when you consider 99% of black people don’t do it and all sorts of white people do.

True, there is a correlation between race and poverty and a lack of ownership in the values of civilized society, but it’s ignorance we should be rooting out, not blackness. Not black men, but men with holes in their hearts.

Let’s work on those categories. It’s inclination to terrorism, not Muslim identity. And not even Wahhabi identity. Literalism and closed-mindedness, not evangelical Christian identity. Everywhere you turn, we’re working with the wrong category markers.

Years ago I wanted to get into the Army Security Agency and had to answer a bunch of questions. One of those was, “Are you communist, fascist or homosexual?” I was in my young twenties at the time, less familiar with the ways of the world, but perhaps quicker at thinking on my feet, and I answered what I thought was the intent of that question rather than its literal content. I understood that to be, “Are you a bad man?” and said no. I have never fit anybody’s notion of fascist, and would never be seriously taken as a communist either. I tossed out any responsibility to fess up for the third. I resented the implication those three belong in the same category. Reminds me of that division of animals into “two legged animals, four legged animals, and animals that live in the king’s garden.”

Category errors have an even more evil twin, and that is the inclination to believe what we want to believe. Put false category together with false conviction and you’ve got some serious trouble.

196 years after the birth of Darwin, in 2005, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life took a poll and discovered fewer than half of the American people are persuaded Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is a valid explanation for how life on Planet Earth came about. That’s not quite as depressing, I suppose, as the fact that 20% believe the sun revolves around the Earth, but it’s close.

How did we get this stupid? How is it that we spend millions of dollars on places like the Creation Museum where people can pay $19.95 ($14.95 for seniors) to see saddles Adam’s kids made to wear when they rode around on dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden?

I know when groups of people follow somebody like Jim Jones off to Guyana it’s because they’re lonely and worn thin by the struggles of life. But is all our intellectual folly attributable to brutality?

Apparently we have spent $1500 per person so far on the war in Iraq. What a shame that money didn’t go into bullshit detectors instead. If they had, and if we had had them working when the neocons told us Al Qaeda was in Iraq with Saddam Hussein and God was guiding our president’s actions, we’d be in a better place today.

I’ve been reading about the failure of the Exodus movement to brainwash gay evangelicals into thinking Jesus wants them to go straight. Exodus provides therapy which includes denying one’s feminine side (fancy food and wine - bad) and fostering one’s masculine side (belching, scratching and farting - good), and praying your erections away.

I’m not kidding. Read Wayne Besen’s Anything But Straight if you’re having a low energy day and want to get riled up. Or Straight to Jesus, Tanya Erzen’s ethnography of the New Hope Center in San Rafael, California. It is like something out of Saturday Night Live or Monty Python. Besen stresses the ridiculous and the hypocritical aspects of the movement. Erzen comes at the victims more sympathetically, and makes you want to bake these poor fellows cookies, maybe rock them to sleep and convince them that tomorrow will be a better day. Both document ways we can use our minds to trash our bodies.

“Men are gay because their fathers were distant and their mothers overly nurturing.” Jesus Almighty, is this old chestnut still around? Doesn’t anybody read the papers? Does nobody look at Japan where men are far more distant and homosexuality is present in roughly the same percentage of the population? Does nobody ask why so many gay kids have loving relations with both parents? Why so many straight kids have lousy relationships with their fathers yet end up straight? Does nobody see that looking for negative causes for homosexuality depends on seeing it as a negative result? That if one categorized it as a positive result we’d be out there looking for evidence of a healthy upbringing? And finding about as much evidence? Does nobody see that single explanations for complex phenomena are inherently suspect?

Well, no! That’s the whole point. They don’t ask these questions because that would suggest they have a tad of familiarity with the scientific method – to say nothing of common sense. People reach these conclusions based on thin air assumptions, and jump straight from there into policy for making changes. Pull healthy teeth because they can’t distinguish them from rotten ones.

That conversation about Jesus, the political philosopher? It came on the heels of another in which I was informed that Einstein “accepted” God before he died. Never mind that Einstein’s idea of God would never satisfy a born-again Christian – the point is that little factoid (if that’s what it was), once generated, would help fill a little box labeled “Little Victories over Atheism.”

“Or was that Darwin who accepted Christ? I can’t remember.”

It had to be Einstein. Darwin, remember, is the Antichrist.

This is America. I don’t have to believe what you believe.

I got my rights.

Happy Birthday, Charles.

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