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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."

by John MacBeath Watkins

A couple weeks ago, Andrew Sullivan asked what I think is a very good question: Should you judge a book by its author?

The book in question is Ender's Game, in which a child is manipulated into performing an act of genocide, because the adults can't figure out how to do it.

Ender is a character who has defined his author's career. Orson Scott Card has written books that are not about Ender, but they don't usually sell as well. But Ender's adventures speak to readers, as he is manipulated into committing a great wrong and must struggle with it.

I read the novella years ago, (it later became a novel with a series of sequels) and found there were no characters in it I wished to spend my reading time with. I do not count myself as a fan. But it's a powerful book, and an important one.

Sullivan's objection to Card is that Card believes homosexual behavior should be illegal. Here's the statement from Card, circa 1990, that he quotes:

Laws against homosexual behavior should remain on the books, not to be indiscriminately enforced against anyone who happens to be caught violating them, but to be used when necessary to send a clear message that those who flagrantly violate society’s regulation of sexual behavior cannot be permitted to remain as acceptable, equal citizens within that society.
  Sullivan is, of course, gay. And he quotes Card's current view:
With the recent Supreme Court ruling, the gay marriage issue becomes moot. The Full Faith and Credit clause of the Constitution will, sooner or later, give legal force in every state to any marriage contract recognized by any other state. Now it will be interesting to see whether the victorious proponents of gay marriage will show tolerance toward those who disagreed with them when the issue was still in dispute.
Which, of course, does not mean that he now thinks homosexuality is okay. There's a move afoot to boycott the film, soon to be released,  of Ender's Game, because of Card's past views on homosexuality and what are assumed to be his current views.

Card has focused much of his career on writing about an abused child, and a recent novella, Hamlet's Father, is a reworking of Hamlet in which the eponymous father is a gay child molester.The portrayal of him in this book brings back to the forefront Card's past attitudes toward homosexuals.

One of my favorite bloggers, Doctor Science over at Obsidian Wings, has this take on the controversy:

The story is not in any developed way about homosexuality, it is about child abuse. In that respect, it's very much like the rest of OSC's fiction, which focuses on the figure of an abused child with a consistency I can only call compulsive.

So (IMHO, IMHO, it's all just A Theory Which Is Mine) OSC wrote it wrong because he's unable to look clearly at the pictures he himself paints. A basic rule of fiction writing is "Show, Don't Tell" -- and what OSC *shows* is the traditional, patriarchal family as a nightmare of abuse, while what he *tells* is that these are the only "real families" worthy of respect.
 She goes on to speculate about why Card's muse, in her view, is an abused child. I don't know if she's right, but I do know that people who write insightfully about  terrible things must somehow have gained insight into terrible things. When Dostoyevsky wrote The Gambler, he was racing against a deadline that, if he missed it, would have resulted in losing all of his rights to his past work, and this happened because of gambling debts. Joseph Conrad's greatest book, Heart of Darkness, bears some resemblance to a journey he took into Africa that ruined his health and forced him to retire as a sea captain and become a writer.

I doubt I would have liked Dostoyevsky. He was, by all accounts, not an easy man to get along with. But he wrote some of the most insightful things I've read. Crime and Punishment dealt with the superman ideal long before Nietzsche popularized it, for example, and should be required reading for anyone enamored of Ayn Rand.

Great authors are not trying to be your friend. They are trying to change your mind, by which I don't merely mean convince you of something. They are trying to change the way you see the world.

I've read and enjoyed many books that did not do this. Most of what I read does not do this. But occasionally, I read something like Heart of Darkness, and I feel different after I've read it. The complex prism of my point of view has been changed, and things will look differently to me. And because I see the world differently, I will write the story of my life differently from then on.

And sometimes, the main character has a tragic flaw. We're used to that. We know we don't have to like Humbert Humbert to think Lolita is a significant book.

So why do we expect to like the author any better? Whatever compels Card to write, again and again, about children who are faced with great wrongs, manipulated and abused by adults, is not likely to be something attractive.

There are famous authors I suspect I'd like. Henry Fielding, who was a reforming magistrate and wrote amusingly about human foibles, seems like someone far easier to get along with than Dostoyevsky, but there is no question in my mind about who's the greater author.

You can read Ezra Pound's Cantos without becoming a fascist, even though he became a fascist. You can like T.S. Eliot's work without condoning his treatment of his mentally ill wife, the unhappy marriage to whom he said gave him the state of mind reflected in The Waste Land.

Writers of fiction are almost by definition unreliable narrators of their own lives. As John Updike put it, "Fiction is part confession, part lie."

And, like any unreliable narrator, the author's lies may be the author's misconceptions, or the lies the author tells him or her self.

I don't know why Card holds the views he seems to. The guess Doctor Science made might be right or wrong. Whatever his reason for writing about abused and manipulated children, he does so with power; it seems to be a world he knows. I do not ask how that knowledge was won, though if he finds he can tell us, I'll be interested. Card is not a politician whose views on gay marriage or gay rights is pivotal to his role in society, he is a writer with insights into things that are dark and disturbing.

The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Meerkat's wishbone rig works really well

by John MacBeath Watkins

Well, I've been out with the new wishbone rig, and I think it's just right for the boat. She seems faster with this rig than either of the others, and I can change gears as the wind increases or drops very easily, so though it's powerful in light winds, it's not too powerful in stronger winds.

The mast is a little too bendy, which causes the sail to develop some creases when I'm sailing in anything but the lightest winds, but the sail seems to drive the boat really well anyway, and the soft mast helps depower the rig as the wind increases. So far, I've been sailing the boat from inside the boat.

Of course, thing thing about depowering is, the boat is exceptionally fast in light air, but when it blows a bit, and I depower in proportion, she becomes a bit more ordinary in performance.  She's not going past hull speed in any case.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Summer reading, mystery and history

by Jamie Lutton

The summer is more than half over, and I have not done a 'summer reading' column. Murder mysteries are often the book of choice for vacation reading, so here is a few of my favorite mysteries set in the past, with the history books that relate to them. 
 " Murder mysteries" were invented as a genre over a hundred and fifty years ago, when Edgar Allen Poe, with his short story The Purloined Letter This story does not even have a murder in it, but a stolen letter hid in plain sight, that only Poe's detective can find.   The pattern is set though; the police are frustrated and at a loss, and the outside expert, the detective is called in.  
The Murder in the Rue Morgue is another story of Poe's that defined this new genre, adding murder of the crime of choice for solving. Poe's mysteries are now so old that they can be read as 'antiques', with part of their charm their age and their setting, the 1850's when they were written. His writing is still vital and direct; he was hugely influential in the development of the mystery, the horror story, and popular poetry. 
I  enjoy reading mysteries set in the medieval world (or earlier) - when the author does her homework, and the book  reads true.  Books that have characters who speak in a modern slang, or have behaviors that does not fit the period, are too annoying for me to finish.   There is a lot of junk and careless writing out there.  A lot of popular titles by well known authors  seem to not have been researched at all. .
For example, I opened up a copy of Clive Cussler's Treasure, and after spotting an obvious error in the first few pages of his his "Ancient Rome" prologue, I could not read any further.  (if you can spot the error I found there,  come by my shop and tell me what it is. Or, I will show it to you).
As a bookseller, I tend to steer people to mystery titles that have been around for a long time, as best sellers take a while to show up on my shelves anyway. I  also reasoned that if an author is still being read 10, 20 or 70 years after it was written, her  books has stood the test of time. 
So, here is a short list of a few  historical mystery authors and series worth trying, that I have read myself. 
C. J. Samson:  The Dissolution.  2004 This is my second favorite in this list..  This is the first book in a series of mysteries set in England in the 1530's, when Henry Vlll had just dissolved the English Catholic Church, and seized and emptied the monasteries: It follows the adventures of Matthew Shardlake, an agent of the feared Thomas Cromwell as he investigates murder, embezzlement, and treason in rural England.    I liked the grim realism of this series, the author has gotten a lot of small details about the time down very well, and the plot is very good.
I recommend these books to fans of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, and Bringing Up The Bodies  and Wolf Hall by Hilliary Mantel.  I have not read the last two yet, they are not 'mysteries' per se, but they have both won  the Man Booker Award. 
For a reader who wants to know more about the 1530's,  I recommend the history book A World Lit Only By Fire by William Manchester. He is not an expert on the history of this period, and this book has some jarring errors in it; the main one is condensing and abbreviating some of the philosophy and struggles of the time. But I have not read a better short biography of Martin Luther than the one in this book, which turns on the many triumphs - and ironies -  of his life and works. Manchester knows how to tell a story, and make his characters come to life.                            
Another mystery about the English past is the once well known The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. This is my favorite of all of them.  This book, written over 70 years ago, may even be a distant ancestor of Dan Brown's Di Vinci Code, as it also involves a modern detective solving an ancient mystery.  No shadowy agents of the Vatican in this one, only real historical documents, from the real world, examined in turn to try to prove - disprove the who really murdered two young medieval princes  this book is tightly and elegantly written, and is often sited as the 'mystery to give someone who does not like mysteries'  In 1965, a decade after it was written years after it was written, this book was voted by the New York Times one of the three best mysteries ever written    The popularity of this mystery spawned the Richard the Third Society. which still exists and is active today.   Just recently, King Richard lll body was found underneath a parking lot in England; his skeleton bore marks that showed he was a hunchback in real life - a point that Daughter of Time's author Josephine Tey thought was 'made up'. 
Other medieval mystery writers are the prolific Ellis Peters, whose mysteries are set in the 12th century England, whose hero Brother Cadfael has over a dozen titles. A good history of this time is Amy Kelly's Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings. The better written - but not as well known mysteries of Candice Robb have a one-eyed Welsh archer as a hero; these take place in the 1360's. To read a good history book of the 1360's A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman, a well regarded history of this time of Black Death, two Popes, and endless wars. 
Other good novels set in the medieval world are the Sharon Kay Penman novels,set in and around the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine,  The prolific Dorthoy Dunnett, who has a new book out on the best seller list, but has been writing medieval novels for over 30 years. Phillippa Gregory's books are wildly popular; such as her breakout book, the Tudor novel The Other Boleyn Girl.  she sets her books from he 1530's to the 1600's.  Her heroes - mostly women -  tend to act like modern people, and the books are not challenging - but as a bookseller I am just glad to see people reading historical fiction (and I try not to be a snob). I dimly hope that someday they will want to read the real history of the Tudor period. Henry Vlll court was more violent and bizarre than any fiction.   
There are dozens of other  authors writing novels set from the 11th century to the 17th; with varying levels of research done.It is a popular genre right now.
If you pick up a book set in the past; read it with a critical eye; and see if you can spot the mistakes the author makes - or what she gets right. This might be a goal of reading groups; take the book read that week apart for plausibility and historical accuracy, if they are set in the past.   
Go ahead and make notes in the margins when you see mistakes....if it is your copy, and not the libraries. 
I got interested in medieval history because of an excellent and renowned military history book called The Face of Battle by John Keegan,  It compares three famous battles, Waterloo at  the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the Somme in World War l, and Agincourt, the medieval battle made famous by Shakespeare's play Henry V.   
This  play, which with a little effort (or by watching a film adaption)  can be easily read and understood, and has beautiful writing, with amazing, beautiful prologues and speeches by the king Henry.. It does, however,  have an important  mystery attached to it; why is a major scene in the play always cut,  when it is performed on stage, or filmed? In the last 400 years, audiences have changed; moderns can't stand  seeing a English hero like Henry V. ordering what was seen even then a war crime, the killing of French prisoners. The original version is discussed in The Face of Battle, with the background of the real Agincourt by John Keegan. In these days of endless wars in the Middle East, the full version should be better known. When I read this this book back to back with Henry V  I was 21, and they got me started on my medieval history - and medieval mystery - reading habit. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

When one man's writing helped make a revolution

by Jamie Lutton

Revolution has been in the air of the world for the last few decades. The Iranian people threw out the Shah in the late 1970's, the Berlin Wall fell in the late 1980's, and in the last few years, the Middle East has seen one government after another topple in the Arab Spring.

Revoluion is on everyone's mind, as we watch other countries struggle -- and sometimes fail -- to replace old fascist governments with better ones.

But very few histories of our successful revolution have been written for the American people. The American Revolution of 237 years ago, 1775-1782 is usually presented as something inevitable, with men in white wigs, our Founding Fathers, debating quietly, while clever soldiers led by George Washington shoot behind trees at Redcoats marching in line. 
The real story is a lot more exciting than that.   And by real story, I mean the documents and the politics behind getting a bunch of apolitical colonists to  decide to rule themselves. Why did we not end up like Canada? It was mostly because of one man, Thomas Paine. 

And he was an Englishman, a recent immigrant to the colonies, who, armed with a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin, got a job as a printer. He was middle aged, in an era when people died young.  He had been ruined financially, blacklisted in his occupation...but a good storyteller, and a lover of truth and justice.  
He had approached Ben Franklin for a letter to get a job in the colonies, as he had been ruined when he tried to politically organize the tax collectors.  He had corresponded with Franklin about designs for iron bridges...and Franklin got him a job with a printer in Boston in 1774. 
Thomas Paine first thought he wanted to teach at a girls school, as he was in favor of women's education..but the printing job was what he chose.  After writing some anti-slavery pamphlets, and a few other things, in the January 10,  1776, he wrote and published Common Sense, with the encouragement of friends.
At the time this pamphlet was written, the colonists were angry with Parliament, for passing tax laws without allowing them representation in Parliament, and other complaints.. Most colonists, however, thought of themselves as loyal servants of King George lll, but they did not like and were disgusted with the English Parliament. 
Thomas Paine's Common Sense so persuaded and inflamed the readers, that enough of them rejected the King, and wanted independence from the Crown. 
This slim pamphlet was pirated and copied over and over and over, and read all up and down the colonies.  Today, if read, it makes little sense unless you know the cases of the day, so I recommend the excellent book 46 Pages by Scot Liell, published a decade ago.
This short book walks you thought the two years of Thomas Paine's life before, during, and after he wrote Common Sense, with an outline of the rest of his life, and his other writings.   
After I read this book, I realized I had been had.  I had taken probably a year of American History in High School, and the life and writings of Thomas Paine were little touched on.  I understood though, after reading 46 Pages why.  Thomas Paine was ahead of his time.    
Raised as a Quaker, but not a practicing one,  he was a feminist, favoring full rights for women.  He was appalled by  warfare,  because he could see that it helped no one but elites.  He was a early abolitionist, and wrote extensively about the evils of slavery.  And he made John Adams, later our second president, jealous because Common Sense galvanized the people when Adams's own writings did not.   
Common Sense was written in a open clear fashion with simple analogies, so that people with limited education could follow the arguments put forth. And it was a brilliant document.    But it can't be read on its own.  Too much time has passed to follow his writing easily, the language has changed a bit, and the complaints and arguments are antiquated.

I recommend 46 Pages  as one of the best history books I have ever read. I recommend it to readers who think they hate history.  Thomas Paine has been written out of our textbooks, and you should get to know him.  This book makes my list of the best 25 history books of the last 100 years. I would recommend it to immigrants new to this country,  so that they could meet an immigrant from England who helped create this country.  Historians generally believe that if it had not been for this 46 page pamphlet, for Common Sense, the American Revolution would not have happened.
And there is more of his writings to read after that, such as The American Crisis, which was written to raise the spirits of the American soldiers, outnumbered and starving:

"These are the times that try men's souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like Hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated"
Paine moved to France, and was active in the promoting and defending the French Revolution, though he spoke no French, writing The Rights of Man in response to Edmund Burke's attacks on the revolt, He later repudiating the violence of the Terror, and was nearly killed himself.   When he later wrote The Age of Reason, which attacked Christianity, he was repudiated by his friends, and died in poverty. He had outlived his time.
The American Revolution as it is taught in the American school-system, tends to be rather dull. This is obviously done  to avoid exciting young students into any sort of revolutionary fervor  themselves, or to think such a thing could happen again. Teachers and textbook writers are not fools, they look at recent human history and note that Revolution has been in the air...Just think of the influence of Karl Marx to understand this. 
But - take the chance. For fans of Howard Zinn's history books,  or for those who think that history is dull, read about Thomas Paine, a middle aged man who had a second chance at life. A successful pamphleteer, theorist, revolutionary and inventor, who helped create the United States of America. 

And Paine kept writing great works, such as The American Crisis, which was written to raise the spirits of the American soldiers, outnumbered and starving:  His later adventures, such as his later fleeing England on a moment's notice (he had gone home to try to overthrow the King!) and his involvement in the early French Revolution make excellent reading.  His other writings - The Rights of Man...and the Age of Reason, aught to be annotated the way Common Sense was. Sadly, Scott Liell has died. 

Another great historian should take on this task. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Zimmerman: A dark and labyrinthine dream

by John MacBeath Watkins

What does the acquittal of George Zimmerman mean?

I can't say I'm surprised by the outcome. It's really as simple as this:

In theory, the laws about killing people apply regardless of your race. In practice, if you're black and shoot a white person, "stand your ground" laws decrease the chance you'll be found justified in killing someone, and if you're white and shoot a black, they increase the already high chance you'll be found justified.

Stand your ground laws change the bar for use of deadly force. In the 30 states that don't have them, you are required to retreat, and in general to try to avoid killing the person you're in conflict with before you can justify the use of deadly force. In the 20 that do have such laws, you can stand there with your shootin' iron, dare him to attack you, and shoot the bastard. If there are no other witnesses, it's your word against no one's that he attacked you.

But when the police decide whether to file charges, when the prosecutor decides whether to go forward with the case, and when the judge or jury decides whether the killing was justified, human judgments come into play.

And where there's human judgment, there's human frailty.

I don't know whether Zimmerman, who was armed and followed Martin, confronted him, but that seems likely. I don't know if he grabbed him by the shoulder, but if he did, it's quite possible Martin thought he was about to be mugged.

But when it comes to connecting the dots, a judge or jury must decide what scenario lines up with the evidence. Had Martin, armed with a gun, followed Zimmerman and shot him, I suspect the scenario suggested above, where Martin grabbed Zimmerman's shoulder and Zimmerman thought he was about to be mugged, would occur more naturally in most Floridians' minds, for that matter, in most Americans' minds.

Of course, Martin can't testify, he's dead. And Zimmerman is the only one who knows what happened. The jury had to decide what happened based on his testimony, scanty forensic evidence, and witness testimony that could not even say with certainty which man was which in the fight that occurred before the shooting.

They made a judgment that was in keeping with most judgments where white shoots black. Would they have made the same judgment if the roles had been reversed? That seems statistically unlikely.

Zimmerman got his gun back after the trial. Perhaps he's wearing it today. After all, he was acquitted, so the law supposes there is no reason he should not carry a gun.

Perhaps Dickens can help us out with that question. Over to you, Mr. Bumble: "If the law supposes that, then the law is a ass, a idiot!"

Whatever the result of his trial, Zimmerman has shown himself not to be a responsible gun owner. In my opinion, he followed his vigilante fantasy into the dark and shot a man. We all write the stories of our lives, and he was writing a cop thriller. It didn't turn out that he was a hero, but he did get to exercise the  kind of power that goes with that fantasy, the power of life and death.

It's a fantasy of the ultimate power, a fantasy that is best kept between the pages of a comic book. It's part of the reason police departments give psychological tests to people who, like Zimmerman, want to be cops.

 It seems Zimmerman didn't get that far when he applied to be a police officer with the Prince William County Police Department, because of his credit history  Apparently, cops with money problems are corruptible, in the experience of that police department.

His wife, Shellie, is facing charges of perjury at a bail hearing for claiming the couple had little money to pay bail. She didn't mention the large amount the couple had raised on-line. It appears the couple used some of the money to pay bills. Who knows, maybe she'll be acquitted, too.

I congratulate the Prince William County Police Department for their personnel policies. Citizens have a right to policemen who are honest and accept responsibility.

But the real problem with Zimmerman seems to me a uniquely human one. I think he wanted his life to follow a script, to be the story of a righteous man smiting the sinners. No other creature on earth lives in such a fantasy. Only humans, living out their stories, have such dark and labyrinthine dreams.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Christopher Hitchens and the missed opportunity

by Jamie Lutton
Christopher Hitchens wrote God is Not Great, a blistering attack on the belief in and the worship of God. It was published in  2007, and has been a steady seller ever since.  I read it a few years ago and thought it was ok, but not great... This book missed a wonderful opportunity to teach a some important intellectual history that has been suppressed, i.e. the long honorable history of atheism, deism, and agnosticism or -free thought. .
Free-thought has always been associated with philosophers and scientists. In more than one age, a scientist or philosopher has been executed for alleged atheism.  One of the reasons Socrates was executed in 399 B.C., was that he accused  of teaching 'impiety, or not believing in the gods of the state*(Wikipedia),  to the young men of Athens. 
Giordano Bruno, the astronomer, in his book, "Infinity, the Universe and the World"  proposed that the Earth was not the center of the universe, and that the lights in the sky were stars, with planets circling them, with life on it like ours. For this he was imprisoned in chains for 8 years by the Inquisition, , then when he would not recant, he was tortured and burned at the stake. Atheism was implied by Brueno's teachings or at least a God and universe very different than that revealed by the Bible.  This was too much for the Catholic Church of the late 16th century, threatening their authority, so they had him murdered.
There is no mention of the martyrdom of Socrates or Giordano Bruno in  God is not Great :  And their were many, many other martyrs for free-thought, like Thomas Akinhead, the last man executed in England for saying there was no God, was executed in 1697.
Atheism/free thought  has always been the idea that dares not speak it's name    .
The 19th century American gadfly and Republican speechwriter Robert Ingersoll is a famous free-thinker.   He was a ardent and fiery Republican orator of the  post Civil War era, (when the Republican Party stood for Lincoln's ideas instead of Strom Thumond's) with great charisma and wit. He was a great recruiter into free-thought all of his life, pointing out the religious hypocrisies of his age..
We have forgotten the struggles over slavery of the mid-19th century, ; where there was a huge fraction of the US population that was God-fearing, church going, but held slaves and defend slavery, and denied the humanity of the slaves in the name of God. 
This is what reading the bible literally was associated with in the 19th; with the antebellum South, the chains of slavery and entrenched thinking. Mark Twain points that out in his novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when the child hero notices that the Southern adults around him, church-going, God fearing, supported the enslavement and the mistreatment of blacks.
The Bible was used to defend slavery, because there is slavery in it,  forgetting the beginning of Exodus where there is a strong anti-slavery passages about the hideous suffering in bondage of the Jews in Egypt.

It would be see again questioning spirit that flourished in 19th century humanism that existed along with that agnosticism, that looked for the good in humans, cherished education and learning, and sought the light. Nowadays, atheism has come back, but not the humanism.
There are more comical atheists. One of the wittier, more angry, funny little books that has ever crossed my desk was The Bible Unmasked by Joesph Lewis, first published in 1926 by The Freethought Press, and then on to many, many reprintings.

This book goes through the entire Old Testament, from one end to the other, examining each fable  for sexual and ethical immorality. The charming ink illustrations in the book, which show scantily dressed women, (sometimes nude women!), in vaguely Middle Eastern clothing, with (dressed) men in shocking but accurate vignettes from the story of Lot, Joesph and Potiphar's wife, Judah and Tamar, etc, etc.

The witty little book had been carefully researched, and was written in a non-academic style. It was aimed at an audience that would know the Bible well.. It prods the reader to examine the stories according to modern morality of 1926, and whether these stories, are 'fit for children'. The author clucks over the awful, terrible goings on of the Patriarchs in each book of the Bible, and their selfish, perverse and immoral behavior..

If it takes a 88 year old handbook from this 'dirty-minded' atheist to get you to read the Bible, pick up this book from online (it will run you about $12) and have a go; and read it with a King James Bible at hand.  Not to be missed by any atheist, agnostic,or free-thinking Christian who perhaps has never taken the time to read the Book cover to cover.

The Bible Unmasked a product of its time. . It used to be O.K. in this country to be an atheist, and to announce so loudly, just as it used to be O.K. to be a Leftist or a Socialist, or some other strain of humanist free-thinker. There were a lot more 'open' atheists in this country before we went to war against Hitler in the late 1930's.
Hitler's Aryan paganism gave Godlessness a bad name. And Stalin's was even worse; The Russians  proclaimed the Church in Russia to be the enemy of the state and reason, and tried to suppress worshiping God.

After, say, 1948, being an American atheist was pretty difficult to defend politically. Atheism began to be associated with Stalin and Communism, and was therefor Un-American.   . Being an freethinker openly could get you fired from your job or even blacklisted, Government workers, etc, drifted into silence, or went  to church again, keeping  their doubts to themselves.
In  the late 1950's and 1960's, when young people, discovering the East and Eastern religions, rediscovered free=thought as if they had invented it themselves. 
In the end God Is Not Great could have been a much better book. It could have been a book that led readers to deep history, and the memory of martyrs to intellectual freedom. Hitchens 'dumbed down' God Is Not Great. . 
Hitchen's book should not be the last word on the subject. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels

by John MacBeath Watkins

As recently as the Renaissance, it was nearly impossible to function in society without at least professing faith in God, and in fact, faith in the God of your society.

If we believe the theories of Julian Jaynes, there was a time when religion defined our behavior in a way that did not even allow most of us to be conscious of ourselves as individuals. In The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, he argued that what we now regard as normal human consciousness -- a sort of metaphorical place in our heads where we narrate our own lives -- did not exist when The Iliad was written, but is the dominant mode of the characters in The Odyssey.

He portrays a time when the gods spoke not only to prophets, but to everyone, telling them how to live their lives and how to interact with others, in a way that compelled action, much like the voices in a schizophrenic's head.

In one particular passage, he mentions a rare instance in The Iliad in which a character is astonished that his "life" was talking to him, as if telling himself something was a new experience, quite unlike all the things the gods had told him.

 It is a strange theory, and difficult to prove, but the basic idea that faith has played a vital place in ordering human society seems obvious. Jaynes argued that as the world changed, it became more necessary to be able to think for ourselves, which made it necessary, in turn, that we develop consciousness.

But even if he is right, we did not suddenly abandon religion when we developed consciousness. The forms of religion continued to order our lives, and even as individuals, we continued to believe in the gods or at least act as if we did.

Sometimes this manifests itself in bizarre ways. Ava Litzelfelnerin, an 18th century Austrian woman, decided to kill herself, but suicide was a sin, so she wanted to kill herself in a way that would not send her immortal soul to hell. Her solution was to kill a child, confess her sin, and get the death penalty. This was apparently a not uncommon occurrence in her time and place.

This shows the difficulty of integrating the religious structure with the individual consciousness. In advanced industrial cultures, people have become decreasingly attached to churches, despite movements to attempt to make the link stronger, like the Evangelical movement.

The result, in some cases, is a materialistic atheism, but more often we seem to see a spiritual pluralism in which our lives are enriched by multiple sources of insight. We might learn empathy for those facing prejudice from reading about Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, or feel transcendence from reading the poetry of Rumi or from reading Ecclesiastes.  

The secular modern society is open not only to non-belief, but also to respect for many sources of belief.

But much of the world does not live in a secular society. We are witnessing a struggle between the secular society, in which religion is not coerced and apostates, atheists, and believers in other faiths are not punished, and a society dominated by religion.

At this writing, Mohamed Morsi, the elected leader of Egypt, has recently been deposed by a military coup. When he was elected, I thought Morsi had a chance to reform Egypt, provided he didn't try to make Islam dominate public life too much. Of course, it now seems that Morsi thought he was elected to become a tyrant, and to promote the interest of the Muslim Brotherhood above all other Egyptians. But why?

From Wikipedia:
The Brotherhood's stated goal is to instill the Qur'an and Sunnah as the "sole reference point for ...ordering the life of the Muslim family, individual, community ... and state." 
 In short, they wish to return to a time when religion was the driving force organizing society, and have no taste for spiritual pluralism. Morsi wanted to be a sort of angel, bringing Egypt to a state of faith and making the state synonymous with faith.

Well and good, for most of history this has worked for mankind, but can it continue to work?

Just as a rapidly changing world led, according to Jaynes, to the rise of our consciousness as individuals, it may be that a rapidly changing and increasingly integrated world is hard on traditional societies organized by religion. Morsi felt that as president of Egypt, he needed unlimited power in order to reorganize society into his vision of the Islamic state. This led to some of the largest protests ever organized, with estimates running as high as 14 million protestors.

Some, to be sure, also wanted to impose an Islamic order, but along stricter lines. Many were there because Morsi was inept in running the economy (or perhaps he was sabotaged.) But his effort to act as an elected tyrant was the dominant theme, and his need to do so was caused by the fact that Egypt is not the society it was in the Middle Kingdom. Things change rapidly, the minds of Egyptians are either enriched or infected by influences outside Egypt, depending on your point of view, and not everyone thinks on the same lines.

Not having everyone thinking on the same lines makes a society more adaptive, as those who get it right can show the rest the way. But that is anathema for the sort of traditional order Morsi advocated.

In a few centuries, if we survive all our experiments with nature, we will no doubt have a global culture. Adapting to that will require our existing cultures to be flexible, capable of accepting outside influences. It is pragmatism, not ideology, that is the downfall of men like Morsi. However much some people may yearn for a lost world where God gave each his place, in a rapidly-changing world we must construct our own lives, and that is more compatible with spiritual pluralism.

The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.


Tuesday, July 9, 2013

If other planets were as close to the earth as the moon, what would they look like?

by John MacBeath Watkins

The above is not a 1970s science fiction paperback cover, but a way of visualizing how Saturn would look if it were as close to the earth as the moon.

It was done by Ron Miller @ Black Cat Studios. I encourage you to go to his site and get an eye full. Miller has had an incredible career, including writing several novels..

The link to follow for the full show of planets in relation to the earth, follow this link.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Forgotten women: Helen and teacher

by Jamie Lutton
Women who were movers and shakers get written out of history. Some are just forgotten, some are overlooked, many are turned into cliches.  Helen Keller is one of the those women who were turned into a cliche, someone who  jokes are made about, as she was blind and deaf,  but 'somehow' famous. 
Her real story is generally forgotten. 
And, tragically the miracle wrought by her teacher, Anne Sullivan, has also been forgotten. What she accomplished with Helen Keller was once one of the marvels of the 19th and early 20th century. 
A few days ago I was watching  the second half of the Oscar winning  black and white film The Miracle Worker, made in 1962.  Anne Bancroft reprised her role in the Broadway play, and  Patty Duke played  Helen Keller. The film follows the first few months of Helen Keller's meeting Anne Sullivan, and  her struggle to teach Helen Keller sign language. Helen Keller had been stuck blind and deaf at age 19 months, from an infection, perhaps meningitis.   
Anne Sullivan, a young Irish-American teacher raised in a 19th century pest house, and  half blind herself, had to fight both Helen's strong resistance and her parents spoiling her to get through to her. 
Only when Helen connected the sign language letters  for water, spelled into her hand, with water itself, was there a break-through. I would recommend this film, first, before reading Helen Keller's autobiography My Life, which this film was based on. Helen Keller wrote this book while in college at Radcliffe in her early 20s, with Anne Sullivan at her side to translate the lectures; the first blind and deaf person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.  The book Helen and Teacher  by Joesph Lash is the book I read first, and this book covers her entire life, and all that she accomplished. 
One key aspect of her life is generally overlooked;  Helen Keller was an ardent advocate for civil rights for people with disabilities. She worked tirelessly for this cause, lecturing in America and Europe in speaking tours. She was a pacifist and radical  socialist, writing for the Industrial Workers of the World, otherwise known as the I.W.W., for several years. She was a suffragette (a woman who agitates for the right to vote and full civil rights). She advocated the right for women to use birth control, which then as now, is a 'controversial' subject. 
And she did all this, with Anne Sullivan by her side, as her interpreter, assistant and best friend till Anne's death in 1936.    She made many lifelong friends, including Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin and Alexander Graham Bell.   She trained herself to speak aloud, and learned how to 'hear', by putting her hands on peoples lips as they spoke, an amazing feat. She did not stop her work till shortly before her death at the age of 88. She also made many enemies with her political activity. Some were impressed by her many accomplishments, then would denigrate her as an idiot when they found out about her politics .  Her rebuttal to one such detractor  was devastating.
At that time the compliments he paid me were so generous that I blush to remember them. But now that I have come out for socialism he reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf and especially liable to error. I must have shrunk in intelligence during the years since I met him. ... Oh, ridiculous Brooklyn Eagle! Socially blind and deaf, it defends an intolerable system, a system that is the cause of much of the physical blindness and deafness which we are trying to prevent.
She lived a very long life, and was active till nearly the end; dying at in 1968 at the age of 88 
I have gotten  copies of Helen and Teacher in my bookshop for years now, and would hand it to people who wanted a good biography; their eyes would glaze over, even when I would entreat them to try it.   Her story, which so fascinated people of her time, seems to have been forgotten, with only a vague cliche remaining lurking about..   It is perhaps the fact that as long as she lived, Helen Keller was out in the world, refusing to let her disability define her.  But her story is not taught in the public schools, so the memory of her is fading away. This is a great pity.
When I read Helen and Teacher, as a teenager, I found her story to be personally inspiring because of Helen's cool wit, intelligence, and her tireless energy, I found her to be like few other women, seeing a world filled with great wrongs and injustice, and leaving it a far better place for not only people with disabilities, but for any person who, knowing her story, went out and overcame great personal obstacles. .  I would also recommend Helen Keller's Selected Writingswhich includes some of her poetry, and some of her anti-war writings.
Unfortunately, there is no complete collection of all of her writing; and some of the books she wrote have gone out of print. 
Joesph Lash is known for his excellent biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, which sells well, but this book, and this subject, has generally been forgotten.  I would like to see Hollywood, which is always searching old movies to rip off and remake, remake The Miracle Worker. The black and white version is very worth watching, though, for those who can handle a black and white film. and for those who are disinclined  to read long biographies.  The actress Patty Duke, who at age 15 in this role played a convincing 8 year old,  struggled in her own life with bipolar disorder, was an excellent choice to play Helen Keller as a child. The wild, sometimes violent; intelligent. crafty mind that Helen Keller had as a child is brilliantly portrayed in this film.   
The film and play ends just when Helen's life gets interesting, however, when the light of reason comes on in Helen's mind at age 8; when she makes the connection between sign language spelled in her hand, and what they meant.   And Anne Sullivan, the half-blind Irish-American teacher, who fought her way out of a horrifying poverty, growing up in a 'pest-house', should be remembered and honored as one of the greatest teachers of all time, of any age. People before her taught blind and deaf students to sign, but only Helen rose up, with her encouragement, became a world leader  for peace, justice and other  socialist causes. . 
It is said that behind every great man is a strong women, be it his mother or wife. At Helen Keller's side was her Teacher. Both women should be remembered. Helen and Teacher is  the one book to read to learn their full story.