The Past is Ruination and the Future Is Brighter Than We Can See

American politics is all too often defined by the past.

“We need to go back to American freedom! That idea that you can do what you please and I can too, without Big Brother getting his nose in there!” (This one is usually offered in response to policies that make it so that people can’t do what they please to other people. The fact that the latter would undoubtedly prefer to not have those things done doesn’t seem to enter into the discussion).

“We need to go back to traditional values!”

The great irony, of course, is that America has always been defined by optimism. There was always a sense that we would lead the world into a future beyond compare and beyond the imagination of the present.

There’s a lot of reasons people are scared and want to go back to an idealized past, which they’ve seen in movies and TV shows so they know it must have existed! (Never mind that the idea of people being dissatisfied with American life and embracing amoral escapes is as old as The Great Gatsby, Rebel Without a Cause, and Philip Marlowe). The fact that people’s wages have been stagnating for so long in a country that values material wealth and forward career progress stings deeply. Surely, the 1950s must have been better! (And they were… if you were white, and male, and straight). People are scared that their children are moving back in and unable to find a job. We face a complicated world where we’re no longer as assured of our safety or the inevitability of our success. We feel that maybe this isn’t a world where hard work is all that matters.

Usually, leftists chime in at this point to destroy the mythology. America slaughtered the Native Americans, so as problematic as our foreign policy is today, at least it’s not genocidal. Our free speech rights really only formed in the 1960s: Prior, laws like the Alien and Sedition Acts truly did regulate controversial speech, and Presidential candidates like Eugene Debs could be jailed for speaking out against a war! We had slavery and Jim Crow. For women, the ability to get divorced from an abusive husband, get a job of their own and have independence and their own dreams of contributing to society, all really only began in the late 1960s or 1970s. For LGBTQ people, the closet was all there was for so long. Native American people could only have the reality of their genocide even acknowledged, let alone mourned, for a few generations back at most.

We also point out that things like drugs and gangs have been a fixture of American life.

And this is all fair. But can’t we see why this is just destroying the one retreat that people have? If the future sucks, then the past sucking means we have no place to run. History will smash us between the cymbals of inevitability and obsolescence. Can’t we see why so many well-meaning people might be willing to listen to the little worm in the apple that says, “The 1950s was great, so what if black people were treated like second-class citizens? They really deserved it anyways”. Can’t we see why so many people would find it easier to listen to a racist, classist, sexist, homophobic narrative?

So what should we say instead?

There is no going back.

And there shouldn’t be.

Our future can be as bright as we can imagine.

Our future can have technologies we can’t even dream of. We can actually have real equality and real empowerment for workers. People can be more tolerant, more open-minded.

Christians can believe a final judgment is coming. Atheists can look forward to a world where religion has to play along with everyone else.

The reason why we can’t want to go back isn’t just because the past was flawed in ways we struggle to recognize. It’s because the past is ruination. It’s gone.

The values of the past, whether they were good or bad, don’t work for the new future we face. Whether we yearn for the anarchists and Marxists and a time when socialist parties existed in America, or the Christian hegemony of the past that hedged against scary things like gay marriage and drugs and gangs,  those days are gone, and they should be.

The technological and social changes that we’re facing as a world are not going to be solved by the tools of the past. The threat of a pandemic will require new tools. The threat of global warming will require new innovations. Looking to the past will only allow the future to ambush us without warning.

We keep parroting King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but with typical American obtuseness, we missed the point entirely, left and right.

He was looking forward to a future. That future has not arrived. If he were alive today, I am sure he would say that his table of brotherhood (and sisterhood) would include North Koreans, Muslims, and Russians.  He would remind us that the freedom of every person is bound together, so that as long as there are those abroad who are not free, none of us truly are. He would remind us to not “wallow in the valley of despair”.

The past could never have had liberation for everyone. Only today is it even in theory possible that everyone, straight and gay, male and female, black and white, indigenous and immigrant, First World or Third, can be free.

Psychology and politics are intertwined in ways that remain endlessly ironic. When a patient focuses on the past when things were better, a psychologist must help them move forward through the hurt. As a nation, as a world, we have to move away from a past we remember into a future that we cannot know. It is terrifying. It is walking into oblivion and blackness. It is a species-wide leap of faith.

So, whenever you think of saying, “What happened to freedom in America?” or “What happened to the pioneer spirit?”, remember this: They disappeared. And it’s up to us to make sure they are replaced by something better.

Our species can no longer afford nostalgia.


Additional Thoughts on Theodicy

After my recent article about Jehovah’s Witnesses, I found myself imagining a debate with actual Witnesses, out of my shame at not having engaged with those who brought me this wonderfully juvenile little pamphlet in the hope of bringing them a broader way of engaging with their faith.

As a pantheist, I don’t have to worry about the ideas of theodicy that other theists might have to. I believe that there is an intelligence to the universe that is awaiting us awakening, developing into broader beings, conquering our primitive instincts. It can’t aid us and wouldn’t even if it could, because we must grow on our own.

But a proper theist who believes in a God that can miraculously intervene, that actively judges human affairs, has some serious problems.

First, let’s consider the idea of science and Christianity.

Those Christians who want to believe not just in the literal truth of the Bible but an incredibly ignorant literal read run headlong into plate tectonics, evolution, tree rings, DNA evidence, etc. that indicates that their astronomy, history, geology and biology are just laughably wrong.

Okay, so God just basically planted all this disparate evidence, from radiological evidence to tree rings, to mislead people. Fine.

But why do human beings bother asking questions about the cosmos in the first place?

It’s not just that He made us that way. That alone is pretty bad. He made us to be curious, inquisitive, to want to ask questions. Isn’t it pretty unfair to do that then ask us to ignore that curiosity?

But no. It’s that if you’re not curious, you die.

Humanity being curious and scientifically-oriented let us develop tools to survive. It lets us see when there are liars, con artists and frauds. It lets us figure out when we might be being poisoned.

Plenty of religious leaders throughout history used religion to wage wars, to enrich themselves personally, to shore up their own power. Even if Christians can’t admit that some Christian leaders did so, certainly they can recognize that pagan leaders did.

So God made a dangerous world where our curiosity and intellect was how we survived and protected our families… Then he makes a series of illusions to mislead us, acting like Descartes’ demon, and then gives us the answer only in a book that also happens to justify slavery.

Why would someone worship a God like that? What could possibly justify all of the two-faced and deceptive behavior?

But it gets worse when we think about the idea of war.

Okay, so human beings need free will, right? We need to be able to grow, to make choices for ourselves. God lets us make choices and then punishes us if we make bad ones. That’s actually pretty fair. And one can even argue that God gave people a set of precepts to live by… Well, after millennia, He gave several different ones over time, finally clarifying the whole thing by sending His Son… Well, maybe he actually clarified it to some Arab prophet… But, okay, whatever, somewhere there’s a set of rules now.

But God didn’t just make it so we could wage war. He made it so that we wanted to. He made it so that we have aggressive, violent urges. He made it so that we fear each other, and so that we can be whipped up into a frenzy.

Moreover, the Biblical Yahweh proved that it was willing to give people choices then punish them with miracles for making bad ones. Moses warned the Pharaoh over and over again, and the Pharaoh was punished for enslaving the Hebrews. (Of course, Yahweh didn’t stop slavery at any other time in Egypt’s history, but hey).

So in World War II, or Rwanda, or when Americans were killing Native Americans, why didn’t Yahweh send floods and poxes?

Here’s a subtler point, and it goes beyond war. Free will means that one is able to make choices. In a limited universe, free will gives you latitude to decide amongst competing options which are inherently finite. Fine.

What would be the threat to free will if God, or an angel, appeared and warned a person each time they were going to do something morally reprehensible?

That wouldn’t threaten free will. It’d be providing every person with the chance of hearing a divine argument for a better and more conscious position. They would still be perfectly capable of proceeding forward.

See, the idea of Yahweh as limited, as being like other gods in the region with a finite extent to His powers (even if it’s greater than the other gods), which I believe is implicit in the Old Testament, that doesn’t run you into any contradictions. And if you’re a pantheist, you face no problem either. Spinoza and Einstein could accept a God that did not do these things on account of accepting a God that did nothing aside from be everything.

But when you try to take an interventionist God who has proven both willing and able to perform miracles, then graft on the ability to perform those miracles any time and at any place, the “free will” argument no longer cuts it.

Hell, even that whole idea, “Worship me or be sent to hell”, sort of loses steam after millennia where there haven’t been whole nations stricken with the death of the first born child or unexplained bolts of lightning. Surely it wouldn’t hurt the whole faith idea to have God show up on occasion in some unambiguous way, aside from the Bible. After all, in Revelations we see that even as divine punishment rains down that the wicked still scorn God!

Now, the idea that there’s some plan that this is all building to, some better world that could exist as a result of all of this sacrifice and God is with all of the heavy-heartedness in the world waiting (in a timeless sense) for that drama to work itself out for the happy ending is sort of a response to these limitations. Sort of. (But an omnipotent God should be able to create any universe, and Leibniz’s ideas don’t work here because It would be able to create universes we can’t imagine or think of as consistent, and could even full well create an inconsistent universe and keep adjusting it as needed).

See, that’s why I think that the Jehovah’s Witnesses had such facile answers to the idea of war’s ending. To really think about anything but the endgame would sort of ruin the whole enterprise.

Again, my goal is not to bully or pick on Christians or Muslims or anyone else. My hope is for us to think really deeply about tragedies, and always think that our free will means we can do something about it.

Waiting for divine justice has kept us from making the genuine article on our own.


Jehovah’s Witnesses and Facile “Truths”

Faith is no excuse for banality.

I received a Jehovah’s Witness pamphlet a few months ago. You can check out the text at the Jehovah’s Witness site.


Let me begin by clearing up some misconceptions. I don’t dislike Jehovah’s Witnesses as a group. As a Buddhist, I do believe in the proscription against proselytizing. I don’t think it’s fair to try to convert someone else in the vast majority of instances: In many cases, someone embraced what we had to say not because they had intelligently reviewed all of the answers but because they were desperate enough to jump at the first answer stated by someone who cared. Still, I am not against the idea of sharing our faith door-to-door. If you believe in something, why shouldn’t’ you share it? How is it fair for any of us to demand the silence of anyone else? I speak out against silence constantly. How can I possibly consistently deny them their chance to speak?

I also think that the Jehovah’s Witnesses have several quite valid points about Christian exegesis. While there’s some positions that they have about the Bible that I think are batty, a lot of their points are well-taken. (Again, this is said as a Buddhist with no personal stake in these theological questions, merely scholarly ones).

But when someone comes along and tells you they have the answer, you better hold them to a goddamn high standard.

Not even science claims to have the answer. Einsteinian relativity is a way of looking at the world, a model with very good empirical support. Evolution has many components to it, and scientists still debate the minutiae (not the core of the model, but questions like how often speciation occurs, how much evolution may be bounded by other factors, etc.) Many fields of science have an answer to phenomena.

In sociology, when we look at a single variable or a single model, we’re happy if it explains 20% of the variation in another variable. That’s practically a sociological home run.

Yet religious people are so often convinced not only that they have an answer, a way of looking at the world that may have some value, but the only perspective.

Anyone who says that had better back it up. And the arguments in this pamphlet are facile. They are barely even coherent answers when taken as one possible aspect of the equation, let alone the whole thing.

Before I go into beating up on silliness, Let me repeat an analogy I often use. If I get sick, is it because a virus or a bacterium got into my system and replicated? Might it be because I didn’t wash my hands, or wasn’t careful enough about exposing myself to people? Maybe it was because I had a bad diet, or drank alcohol, or had some other comorbidity like asthma? Maybe it was because it was an opportunistic infection? In fact, the answer could well be “Yes, all of those things were part of it”.

When someone says, “A square is a polygon with four sides”, they’re accurate, but not completely so. If they say, “A square has equilateral sides”, they’re again accurate but still not completely so. Someone has to say, “A square is a polygon with four equilateral sides with right angles that is a special case of a rhombus”. Only when they include every part of the reality are they accurate. But in real life, there’s never just one or two or three causal factors at play. The entire universe prior to any one event had some interplay. So if you want to describe even something as apparently simple as you reading this article, you have to go back to the absolute beginning of the universe.

When people like Wittgenstein and Russell tried to find an absolute foundation for logic and math, they failed. It’s just too complicated.

So how can someone have found the answer? Well, they didn’t.

The pamphlet opens with this gem: “Where would you look for answers to these questions? If you went to libraries or bookstores, you might find thousands of books claiming to provide the answers. Often, though, one book contradicts another. Others seem valid at the moment but soon become outdated and are revised or replaced.”

But anyone who is honest would have to admit that there is no special reason that the Bible is different, that it “contains reliable answers”. That’s an article of faith, not reason. In fact, the Bible is very outdated, including renditions of history, science, astronomy and cosmology that we now know to be at best simplistic and at worst utterly wrong. The Hebrew scholars were fantastically devoted and honest at rendering their holy text, but they didn’t have the benefit of millennia of intellectual work.

Okay, fine, that’s too easy to point out. So let’s say that the Bible truly is a special book. It really does contain answers that are true across all space and time.

What does the Bible have to say about how you should prepare zucchini?

Fly an airplane?

Do open heart surgery?

I know, I know, those aren’t spiritual questions. But when you’re on a plane that’s about to crash, what would you rather have: A philosophically uncertain appeal that you’ll go to heaven upon your death, or a manual for how to fly the damn thing? “The truth” that matters to you is contextual.

Even the six questions that the pamphlet asks, “Does God really care about us? Will war and suffering ever end? What happens to us when we die? Is there any hope for the dead? How can I pray and be heard by God? How can I find happiness in life?” aren’t answered exhaustively by the Bible. The idea that sociology, psychology, biology, political science, etc. can’t help answer some of these questions is just absurd.

So, let’s take these, one by one.

First of all, in response to the idea that God may not care about us, they offer this evidence: “God never causes what is wicked. ‘Far be it from the true God to act wickedly, and the Almighty to act unjustly!’ (Job 34:10)”.

But this is obviously a rhetorical dodge, not a real argument. You can’t just have your text say, “God is good”, to prove God is good. It’s a circular argument. Maybe God directly never acts wickedly or unjustly, but that doesn’t prove that It cares about you. Plenty of people who are plenty righteous don’t care about some random individual they don’t know. And while God does know people, maybe God is just operating at a higher level. Do you care about an individual ant?

The fact that God seems to callously allow us to suffer requires something better than this argument.

They then go on to argue that, “Our Father in the heavens, let…your kingdom come. Let your will take place, as in heaven, also upon earth.” But Jesus teaching us to pray isn’t a guarantee that any prayer will be fulfilled. The fact that I can ask you for something and you will literally get the message doesn’t mean you’ll reply. In fact, a lot of people pray for things that they don’t get.

They finally cap this off with, “God cares so deeply about us that he has gone to great lengths to make the fulfillment of his purpose a certainty”. But this is, again, handwaving the problem aside. The fact that He has a purpose doesn’t make that purpose very helpful for someone suffering. Why is it okay that justice will take thousands of years to fulfill (putting aside that the idea of justice in the Bible is pretty creepy and awful)?

There are answers to these questions that one can provide, either by having an idea of God that isn’t omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent or by actually handling the issue head-on. But these aren’t answers. They’re not even the best Biblical responses.

As for war’s ending, they claim that “[God] will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore. The former things [including today’s injustices and sufferings] have passed away (Revelation 21:3,4)”. Now, to their credit, the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not view Hell as fiery torment but just as oblivion. But the fact that even Jacob and Job are going to go to oblivion is pretty remarkable. What kind of God wouldn’t save everyone from oblivion? Moreover, while they cite some aspects of the Bible to suit their needs, the idea that Sheol or Hell is just nothingness doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. Why have a word and an idea for it?

Anyways, the point here is that the Jehovah’s Witnesses point only to the end of days, basically. Great. Can we stop war before then?

They don’t even include the little tidbit that a pretty classic Christian answer to the idea of endless peace is that it’s impossible due to original sin and Man’s corrupt nature. That’s a pretty big omission, isn’t it?

I think we can stop war, or at least come pretty damn close. I believe that based off of my view of human history, psychology and biology.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t even want to try to answer that question. This is the answer to the question of war. But it’s a useless one for the vast majority of people that will ever live.

The third question, “What happens to us when we die?”, doesn’t even bother to find any kind of support from near-death experiences, even though some of them do support the Christian narrative. The Jehovah’s Witnesses view Hell as basically just being dead. Basically, since Jesus only grants everlasting life to his followers, and since Hell would still be a form of everlasting life, that’s somewhat logical…

Except for Matthew 25:46, where he says “Then they will go away to eternal punishment”. It’s dishonest to interpret that as just being “death”. Punishment implies something active. Matthew 13:50 further clarifies: “and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”. Again, it’s just not honestly possible to view that as being some kind of weird description of garden-variety oblivion.

Revelation 21:8 clearly states, “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars–their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death”. Again, the fact that anyone would view this as justice is creepy. But the Jehovah’s Witnesses just want to ignore the passages they don’t like. Remember: Revelations 21:3-4 was cited above by them! They’re ignoring passages in the same book!

Mark 9:43 also states that “It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out”.

So the idea that the sinner and the unbeliever will burn in fire isn’t a modern misconception. It’s right there in the text.

I say all of this not because I believe a lick of it (I do not believe there is any Hell besides the prison of an unjust mind trapped without meaning and love), but because they’re not being honest about fully representing even the one source that they use. Why would you trust anyone who can’t even cite one book’s relevant passages fully? Why would you trust a book that includes some really complex arguments that are at best hard to reconcile and at worst outright contradictory?

Finally, there’s the most noxious answer that they give: About happiness.

They begin by pointing out, correctly, that fame, money and beauty aren’t real solutions to the problem of unhappiness. That’s fair enough, except that these things can sometimes grant happiness, even if only in the short term.

They then argue, again I think with a lot of support, that “Jesus identified the key to happiness when he said: ‘Happy are those conscious of their spiritual need’” (Matthew 5:3).

Okay, and?

How do I get there?

They claim, “True happiness can be found only if we take steps to fill our greatest need—our hunger for spiritual truth about God and his purpose for us. That truth is found in the Bible. Knowing that truth can help us to discern what is really important and what is not. Allowing Bible truth to guide our decisions and actions leads to a more meaningful life.”

Great. Except there’s plenty of miserable Christians. There’s plenty of devout people who go to church and can recite the dogma who are angry and confused.

So… That’s not the whole goddamn secret, is it?

What about marriage? What about altruism? What about a good and rewarding job? What about seeking meaning in philosophy? What about discovering new and amazing things in the world?

Biology, sociology, psychology, and a ton of disciplines help us try to characterize happiness. Plenty of philosophers worked within Christianity, as do many psychologists today. Kierkegaard discussed the path from Don Juan to Socrates to the faithful man. There are ways of being a Christian and seeing greater meaning. There are ways of using the Bible as a beginning to meaning, not an end.

I won’t address tons of other fallacies found in this pamphlet, like the argument from popularity when they say that millions have found happiness as a result of their specific Bible interpretation, which even if true wouldn’t prove that the façade was meaningful. An honest person would admit that there were plenty of happy worshipers of Zeus, Thor and Marduk. A person eating a pork chop may think that that’s the best cut of meat, but how can they be sure it’s the best until they eat a steak? Just because someone says that they’re happy as a result of these programs doesn’t mean that they are, especially in the long-term.

I’m not trying to pick on Christianity or Jehovah’s Witnesses here. My point is that these ideas are really, really important.

Whether or not we can end war, racism, sexism, economic exploitation, violence, rape, ecological devastation, homophobia, terrorism and political instability is a real question. Anyone who actually cares about human beings will want as many ways to guarantee that we can as possible.

Whether or not we can achieve happiness in this lifetime is a question that every person struggles with. Even those of us who are happy want to insure that we maintain that happiness, and that that happiness is meaningful and rich.

Christians have every right to come to the table and offer their position as to why they believe there are answers to these questions. But they better be ready to admit that they’re only offering part of the answer, part of the truths that can be helpful.

Just like no good photographer owns only one lens for all occasions, so too can we as a human species not tolerate only having one theoretical lens to try to look through.

Every religious leader that is not encouraging the followers of their faith to think as deeply, broadly and humanly as possible is failing humanity. This pamphlet says that the Jehovah’s Witnesses would rather have obedient followers than people capable of discovering real truths. It’s cynical at its core.

Humanity deserves better.


Little Truths Matter: Conventions and Absolutes

Philosophy is hard.

Oh, sure, it’s easy to sit back and talk about, “What if it was, like, the Matrix, man, and we were just brains in jars?” It can be fun and it can make us think in new ways. Plenty of armchair philosophizing done in bars by people past their third beer has been quite entertaining.

But really finding truths that actually help us live life, that is so difficult that a lot of people want to pretend to do it instead.

And that’s what I’m talking about today, in fact. “Truth”.

On one level, if I point to the workbench I am writing this article on and say “This workbench is made of particle board and has a black lamp on it”, that’s a pretty unambiguously true statement. No one is likely to quibble too much with it.

But on another level, I actually just offered a statement that is fraught with peril. Nagarjuna, Socrates, the Buddha, Heraclitus, and innumerable other thinkers all considered the difficult question (in various forms) of “Where does one object end and another begins? At what point does a lake become a pond?”

Heraclitus, for example, said that “You never step in the same river twice”. We imagine a “river” as being this permanent thing. But the water that flows in the river is not the same water from every second. In practice, rivers ebb and flow. Their banks rise and fall. They carve out and change the environment. In fact, rivers can even change entirely: We have an entirely incredibly complex system keeping the Mississippi River flowing the same way, and a Christian Science Monitor article by William Sargent in 2011 suggested that it may actually be worth it to let the river change course, even though that would mean that multiple towns would have to be flooded and New Orleans and Baton Rouge would no longer have rivers for trade, because it might also rebuild marsh defenses against storms. The fact that a river is not this permanent thing but this phenomenon constantly being made and remade each second actually has huge implications for our life.

Similarly, Plato (through the voice of Socrates) pointed out that, say, we can talk about this abstract idea of a “triangle” having three sides even though there is in fact no such object. Oh, sure, we can draw an abstraction in two dimensions of such an object, and we might even be able to get the lines we draw so straight that it is close enough as to make no odds. But that right triangle that we draw is just as much a triangle as the isosceles triangle someone else draws. There’s actually an infinite array of possible examples of triangles, and squares.

At what point is an object made of wood (or metal or stone or any other material) that has some number of supports a chair as opposed to a table?

My favorite example: At what point does “my computer” end? Let’s say I have a USB mouse plugged into it. Is that part of the computer? What about if I remove a graphics card and replace it with another one? Is it still the same computer? What if I unplug it from the wall and remove the battery? It doesn’t work, but is it still my computer?

Again, this seems like quibbling, but it actually has implications for our lives. Programmers try to make it so that a program recognizes an entity as “a computer”, but sometimes you change enough of the operating system or enough of the components and it thinks that it isn’t any more. Digital rights management techniques for video games and other software that try to give you a certain number of “installs” often run afoul of this problem: Someone removes a graphics card and suddenly one of those precious times in their life that they can install the software they paid for goes away.

You can’t talk about my computer without talking about the power flowing into it, from the electrical system in my house, which in turn means you have to talk about the power plant making that energy, which in turn means you have to talk about how that power plant was built. That means talking about construction contracts and regulations and zoning requirements and how coal was produced from fossils or uranium was found in the Earth or how waves work to generate electricity.

Carl Sagan communicated in his characteristically poignant way how utterly difficult it is to talk about the universe without talking about every single part of it when he said, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe”. Even something as simple as an apple pie had to be forged in the heart of a star. I repeat that quote constantly because it should be a mantra for people who love life.

All of these ideas are part of Buddhism. In Buddhist thought, we discuss “conventional” and “absolutetruth. People of a Taoist persuasion also have to deal with these ideas, as do physicists, post-modernist thinkers like Richard Rorty, and systems thinkers like Fritjof Capra. If you want to do good sociology, you find that there’s just no end to the number of variables that matter. Even if you just want to understand the psychology of one person, you may need to understand the psychology of every one of their family members going back generations, every one of their mentors, every one they ever loved.

Now, you might justly be thinking, “Okay, this is all navel-gazing crap. In the real world, I can probably live my life without worrying about the water in a river being the same. I can just jump in and swim”.

But this all also applies to ethics, to the tough judgment calls we always have to make.
In The Sopranos, there’s a wonderful sequence where Tony is faced with both closed-mindedness and philosophy that really makes your soul hurt. He first sees his pastor claim that dinosaurs coexisted with humanity. Tony loves dinosaurs and knows that this claim is absurd. Tony then discusses with another patient, a scientist, about boxing and tornadoes. After the people watching the boxing match say that life is a boxing fight where “we’re [all] alone in the ring”, the scientist points out, “It’s actually an illusion that those two boxers are separate entities”. The scientist then explains: “think of the two boxers as ocean waves or currents of air, two tornadoes, say. They appear to be two things, right? Two separate things. But they’re not. Tornadoes are just wind, the wind stirred up in different directions. The fact is, nothing is separate. Everything’s connected”.

The point of this scene is that it’s not just the tornadoes that are connected. It’s good and evil. We imagine two titanic tornadoes beating at each other, one good and one evil. But it’s all just wind. It’s all just interconnected phenomena. We are all connected. And the differences between us are ones of degrees.

The vast majority of people can agree that someone defending themselves with a firearm against an assailant in their own home is behaving reasonably, even if they unfortunately take a life.

What if the assailant is a fifteen year old kid who was going to run the moment a gun was pointed?  What if the assailant is a fifteen year old kid who has a bat and pretends he won’t run, but when push comes to shove, he will? What if it’s not on one’s own home, but on the street? What if the person in question is in a bar fight that he did not start and kills the other combatant? What if the person in question is in a bar fight that he did start, but did not immediately escalate to intense violence, and the other combatant does, and then he kills the other combatant?

Each one of these little degrees matters. Each one of them is an area where we find our bright lines fade, just like how a real bright line that we might put onto asphalt actually ends up being quite fuzzy when we look close even before the weathering effects of entropy make that line fade.

This interconnection between us is why we must forgive. It is why we must embrace an ethic where we do our best to never hurt, never take advantage of each other, never treat each other like empty objects or toys or means to an end. It’s why we can never allow ourselves to boil down another human being to one word like “monster” or “killer” or even “philosopher”. If we let ourselves think that the depth and breadth of any one person can be summed up in a single breath, that interconnection that we all have means the dominos fall and every one of us is lessened.

This whole article has been inspired with a repeated debate I’ve had with my Dad. My Dad is an incredibly intelligent man, and his love of both Buddhism and physics leads him to view the world in a very big and interconnected way.

In high school debate, we used to talk about “bright lines” that let a judge decide how to vote in a round. Dad pointed out today that “There are no bright lines, in debate or anywhere else”.
And he’s right.

But I’ve come to see, even as a Buddhist, that even with all of this worry about what constitutes truth and how abstract and arbitrary our conventions can be, that the truths we find all matter.
See, when we make a bright line like “I’m not ever going to do anything close to cheating on my wife”, we help preserve our soul. Maybe our wife could tolerate us kissing another person.

Maybe we could even potentially get away with having a very close and intimate friend of the sex we’re attracted to. But we will do our utmost, even as complicated as real life gets, to have lines we will not cross.

As we get closer to that line, we can still hurt the people we love. But at least we have limited how far we can go.

I have one belief that I have held through the greatest doubts I have experienced. It has been repeated again and again. It is this: Everything matters. Everything in this reality matters. Every feeling we have, every memory, every fleeting image of the past, every event, no matter how seemingly inconsequential. It all has moral heft and weight.

Now, if I’m thinking philosophically, I could quibble and prevaricate about all sorts of things like “What does it mean to ‘matter’? What about false memories: Should they be given the same standing as valid ones? What does it even mean, really, to say that a memory is ‘false’ or ‘valid’?”

But there is a difference between truth and falsehood. The fact that truth is complicated doesn’t make it so we can make anything up. It actually means we have to be very vigilant about the truths we find. The truths matter more, not less, because they’re so hard won.

The difference between a stream and a river may be arbitrary, but there is no presentation of reality that we can offer where jumping into a stream instantly lights you on fire. There is no presentation of reality that we can reasonably offer where the Nazi regime did not intentionally murder millions of human beings, no matter how much white supremacists might wish it so. The hard reality of the Holocaust, of the brutality of the treatment of Native Americans, of the harms that happen in our real world today because of sexual torture and trauma, of sex slavery and human trafficking… this hard reality exists, and no amount of talking about Bergson over a beer will make it go away.

I say all of this because we so often allow the ideas that we hear about, like the fact that the universe is overwhelmingly empty space or the idea that we could all be brains in jars, push us towards justifying our cynicism or apathy or inaction.

Marx stated erroneously that the purpose of philosophy had been to explain the world. In fact, virtually every philosopher also had plenty of ideas on how to change it. But Marx was right that the point of our philosophies that we embrace should be to change our world.

And no matter how hard it is for us to figure out what “change” means, what “the world is” and even what “better” would be, we have to puzzle through it with an open heart.

Or there may be none of us left to wonder about the water in a river.

foreign policy

Iran Agreement and Hypocrisy

Today, another step was made that may lead us away from destruction. And yet, the hypocrisy that we allow to run rampant may defeat the whole point.

The U.S. and Iran are apparently moving toward an agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear stockpiles. Phyllis Bennis states, “Both sides made major concessions, though it appears Iran’s are far greater. Tehran accepted that U.S. and EU sanctions will not be lifted until after the UN’s watchdog agency verifies that Iran has fully implemented its new nuclear obligations — which could be years down the line. It agreed to severe cuts in its nuclear infrastructure, including the reduction of its current 19,000 centrifuges for enriching uranium to just over 6,000”.

This is a good thing. No state should have nuclear weapons.

None. Including us.

You’ve probably heard a lot of coverage today. Ask yourself if these simple, largely uncontested facts were mentioned:

a) The United States maintains a massive stockpile of nuclear arms, decades after signing a treaty (the Non-Proliferation Treaty) that mandates proactive steps toward disarmament for all nuclear-armed signatories
b) Iran has a right under the NPT to pursue civilian nuclear power
c) Iran has been repeatedly threatened by the United States and Israel
d) Israel is nuclear-armed and the U.S. remains its ally

So, you now have a good measure of the hypocrisy of every American news channel, of Israeli and American politicians, and a measure of how little any of them care about basic honesty or about actually avoiding nuclear warfare. You also have a clear understanding of how rarely non-American perspectives get to be on the news in this country.

If Americans can’t even articulate the question as to why we deserve apocalypse-level stockpiles, let alone answer it… Why in God’s name should anyone take us seriously?

Our President stated in a press conference that this is a move toward a “less aggressive” Iran. Yes, now perhaps only one of the parties at that bargaining table will be so aggressive as to have invaded countries within the last fifteen years and overthrown their governments!

A Republican Senator, Isaakson, stated in an interview with NPR that Iran has dealt weapons in the region. (How horrible that any state would profit from the sale of weapons to dangerous powers. Surely, Halliburton has never done so. It surely isn’t American-made armaments that are tearing apart Mexico and empowering dictators and warlords, right?)

Unfortunately, no state will enforce sanctions on the United States. It’s up to us to get rid of our nukes.


Fourth of July, Hope and Obergefell v. Hodges

This is going to be a really special July 4th.

A lot of us are going to read some retrospectives and analyses of July 4th. We’ll be celebrating each other and our families as a nation, something that is positive. But a lot of us will also be repeating some really disastrous and destructive myths.

“The land of the free, the home of the brave”.

Except America was, even in theoretical terms, only “free” after maybe the 1960s and 1970s. Until then, it was “free” in the same way that a person covered up to their neck in ice is “unfrozen”: A tiny majority were free but the vast majority were not. And while Americans have often been brave, bravery in defense of country and ideology is pretty much a universal story of the human species. Our problem has rarely been bravery, it’s been the compassion to know when to be brave by staying our hand instead of swinging a sword or pulling a trigger.

“The most free country on the world”.

Even the Heritage Foundation, by their myopic and awful definition of freedom, doesn’t put America as the most free. Heck, they don’t put us in the top ten. And while they have some weird countries for “freedom” like Hong Kong and Singapore, because of their grotesquely distorted and viciously capitalistic idea of freedom that views the right of business to make money as exceeding, say, the right for people to express themselves, even the Heritage Foundation puts Canada, Australia, Switzerland, and Ireland as freer than us.

This isn’t to say that we don’t have an exceptionally free country. If we rank in the top twenty by most indicators, that’s pretty damn good. And there are areas where America really is pretty much one of the leaders of the pack, like our rights for freedom of conscience and expression.

We can go down the line. We’ll tell ourselves comforting platitudes.

But this July 4th, I will be smiling in a way I haven’t before on this day.

I call America the first anarchist nation. And it really has been. I also call this a nation of superheroes. This is a nation where knights and Rangers are revered. No matter the problems with our cowboy mythos, the core is essentially correct: No one should be quiet in the face of evil and no one should stop trying to spread the ideals of a better world. Our tactics may be deeply wrong in America, but Americans by and large understand somewhere deep inside that fighting to make the world better is always noble.

Wikimedia Commons Image

What occurred to me in context of all of the reaction to the Obergefell v. Hodges is that there’s another part of America which is unique: We’re the nation of social experimentation. See, conservatives keep saying that this idea of gay marriage is totally new. And, yeah, it sort of is. It’s new globally. And that’s exactly why America should embrace it. Because we’re the country that has always been new and radical, even when we’ve tried to pretend to be stodgy.

We experimented with democracy in the modern era first. We can talk about tribal democracy and pre-Imperial Rome and Athens all we want, but America was new in a lot of ways. Our Founders had this incredibly audacious idea: That monarchy wasn’t necessary.

America wasn’t the first country to get rid of slavery, but even still, we did fight a war over that prospect. America wasn’t the first nation to extend the franchise to women either, but still, American feminists did create wonderful ideas.

The founding creed of America, the founding experiment, has always been greater than our ability to fulfill it. From 1776 to 1787 to 1868 to 1945, we as a country have been standing up for an ideal better than we could ever actually reach.

Homophobia, sexism, patriarchy, class inequality, vicious capitalism, racism, militarism, nationalism… These base urges to discriminate, control and divide have always plagued us. They have always stood in the way of our freedom. But even a man like Dr. King who had battled racism for his entire life knew, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’”.

On June 26, 2015, we made another step toward living out that creed.

We embraced this really new and radical idea that a lot of the rest of the world has as well: If we’re serious about marriage being about love, if we’re serious about marriage being a civil union that facilitates certain social obligations and abilities, then it better damn well be available to every minority. And that minority includes sexual minorities who challenged our very basic idea of what a marriage is.

That was a win for every one of us who had fought a homophobe, who had debated in person or online, who had called someone out for calling someone else a “fag”. It was a win for every one of us who started an LGBTQ Alliance club or joined one in high school. It was a win for every straight person who looked at homophobic bullying and burnt inside at the assholes who couldn’t just live and let live, and keep their mouth shut about things that weren’t their goddamn business.

This was a time for hope. And people embraced it.

Let’s be clear: Obergefell v. Hodges ranks up with Brown v. Board in the history of this country.

It was the end of one of the most important legal segregations between categories of people. Unlike Brown, Obergefell may not spread much beyond marriage. But it certainly might. Certainly, the decision has created a precedent for the idea that homosexuals are a category that requires protection.

It was a revolutionary decision. It changed America. And so we go into the July 4th weekend living in a country that is actually that much freer than it was this time last year.

Some people groused, “This is against God’s will!” or “This is allowing sin!” But see, America has always pushed through these crises of faith. See, in the past, people said things like, “Kings are the natural representatives of God and have a divine right to rule”. But America challenged that idea and we found out that the world didn’t end without kings. People said, “The children of Ham are blighted, and blacks and whites should not miscegenate”. And America grew out of that. Those of us who want to take one line in Leviticus and a few other scattered Bible passages out of context to deny love that is evidently on its face divine are going to be left behind in the past as America keeps growing.

Sadly, in this time where we deserve celebration as a nation, some of us want to claim that the end of a real inequality is a “distraction” from issues like… TPP.

Yes, the Trans-Pacific Partnership is by all indications a pretty awful agreement. It’s almost guaranteed to, like NAFTA and the Uruguay Round of GATT and a host of other free trade treaties and neo-liberal policies, widen the gap between poor and rich, threaten the ecology, harm women, harm workers, harm minorities…

But if we beat TPP (which unfortunately got fast track authorization), we still have to roll back NAFTA, and the bad provisions in GATT, and decades of “winner-take-all” politics.

And if TPP goes through, as bad as it will be, it’ll just be another phase in a long-term battle.

So let’s be clear: This is a time to celebrate, and for hope. We have to give ourselves the celebrations when we get them.

This July 4th, I hope that those of us lighting fireworks (for those of us who get to even with drought conditions in huge parts of the nation), grilling burgers and smoking ribs, boiling corn on the cob and watching action movie marathons, and even shopping for something we have needed for some time, will remember: We live in a nation that is more free.