Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Nameless God

We are all concerned about the violent reaction of Islamic communities when westerners attempt to draw the likeness of Mohammad: the riots attending the Jyllands-Posten cartoons in Denmark, the massacre at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, and now the backfired assault on the cartoon event in Garland, Texas. Evidently, fundamentalist Muslims completely lose their temper and their sense of proportion when the prophet is criticized or even depicted.

I can find much to like in Islam. It calls upon its practitioners to remember that human desire, will, and ingenuity are not the final arbiter in any situation. It leads them to a life of daily prayer and introspection. It invokes abstinence from alcohol and drunkenness. It promotes hospitality as a guest’s right rather than a gift, and requires its followers to treat generously those who are less fortunate. Islam leads people toward a mindful, disciplined life. It has turned both nomadic desert dwellers and African-American prison inmates away from lives of chaos and violence, toward lives of restraint and consideration. For this, the religion is to be praised.

I can also find much to despise in Islam, particularly its treatment of women, nonbelievers, and anyone the religion and its followers define as deviant. I’m also not in favor of sanctioned cleverness, like the taqquiya or dispensation to lie about one’s faith and perform otherwise blasphemous acts when one fears persecution, and kitman or paying lip-service to a powerful non-Islamic authority—again, for fear of persecution—while preserving mental reservations. Personal honesty is an important dimension of character, and a religion that fails to promote and require honesty from its practitioners loses ground in my estimation.

But the one injunction of Islam that seems to be karmically neutral is forbidding depictions of Allah and the Prophet. I think it’s a shame that this single prohibition—which is more of a cultural meme than a religious requirement—has become such a focus of ridicule and dissent in the West.

Delicacy about naming and depicting your deity as well as other religious figures seems to be a Semitic trait, because Arabs and the followers of Islam share it with the Jews. I think this goes back to the fundamentals of monotheism. When your god is the one true, supreme God, you don’t have to give it a name, particular attributes, a personal backstory, and a recognizable likeness. Where many gods compete for rule, you may get Baal, Dagon, Zeus, or Odin to distinguish the chief god from other, lesser immortals in the pantheon as well as other, equally powerful gods in the neighborhood. But if yours is the supreme God, accept no substitutes, then he, she, or it doesn’t need a name—or even gender—to identify or differentiate what or whom you mean. Just “God” or “All High” will do.1 Or your supreme being may even remain unnamed. The Jewish God is sometimes referred to as the Nameless, or identified as “Tetragrammaton” (in Greek) for the four letters, YHWH, which are a rendition of the Hebrew consonants in the words “I am”—following the introduction that Moses received from God on the mountain: “I am that I am.”

Similarly, trying to depict God with a face or characteristics would seem too personal and limiting. Go into a Jewish home or synagogue, and you don’t find pictures of God as a human image—even though we humans were supposedly created in His image. Neither will you find portraits of Abraham, Isaac, Moses or other figures from the Old Testament. Instead, you find symbols—the six-pointed star, the menorah—and inscriptions. This appears to be a cultural thing. If Christianity had remained a Jewish sect, we would not have had images of the crucified Jesus and the Madonna and Child, or statues of the saints. It was only when Christianity met the Greco-Roman world and its taste for statuary and mosaics, and for putting names and faces to its pantheon of gods, that the Christian churches adopted such imagery.

So in Islam, “Allah” in Arabic means just “God,” the one God, and is a cognate of the Hebrew “Elohim,” meaning “god.” Allah doesn’t need any more of a name or a face to be supreme. And it’s impertinent to try to depict Allah or his prophet Muhammad. In part, this is related to the Quran’s prohibition on idolatry. In part, it is a cultural distaste for creating images of any sentient being, whether human or animal. And so mosques are decorated with leaves or geometric patterns rather than faces.

Certainly, in this country, we have the right to free speech. And the First Amendment which defines that right also officially separates the state from the practice of any particular religion and, by extension, from any involvement in religion at all. So individual Americans and their freely accepted associations are granted the right to say, write, draw, carve, or otherwise depict anything they want, particularly with regards to religious feelings and testaments.

But having a right is not the same as having an obligation to exercise it. License to speak or act should not be the only condition or principle controlling our behavior.2

So I find it sad that, instead of criticizing Islamic traditions like the burkha and dhimmitude, which are karmically suspect, many people in the West pay much more attention to the prohibition on religious imagery. I think this is because, rather than simply noting a difference in philosophy or practice, raising an objection, or specifying a criticism, here the westerner can perform the religiously proscribed act, can do it publicly, and can thereby cause fundamentalist Muslims to exhibit anger, outrage, and incensed violence. This is perpetrating an offense with the sole purpose of getting a predictable political reaction.

While I believe strongly in the right of free speech as inalienable to the human condition,3 I also believe more strongly in other rules and injunctions on human behavior.

One would be old-fashioned courtesy. For example, a gentleman does not mock another man’s religion. One may disagree with it. One may reject its worldview and its premises. One may deplore its moral code and its effects on society. One may refuse to participate in its required actions or prohibitions. But mocking is not helpful, as it neither instructs nor offers the adherent a better way. Mocking is intended to divide people and create distrust and anger. It is not a nice response.

So, while I encourage a discussion of religious principles, and would like to see the West challenge the adherents of Islam over their treatment of women, nonbelievers, and those who are different, I am saddened and disgusted that people focus on the one aspect of Islam that should really be no one’s business but the practitioner’s—the signs of respect one shows to one’s own god.

1. Similarly, we humans need names to differentiate one from another, so that we may identify and call upon Bill or Bob or Frank, Mary or Martha or Susan. But if there were only one human being on the planet among a host of other articulate species, they would call this person simply “the human.”

2. However, since the Sixties, a cultural meme has grown up in some circles in America that mandates any right-thinking person to speak out against any perceived or observed act of wrongdoing or injustice. This has become the obligation to “speak truth to power,” no matter how rude or hurtful or inconvenient that speech might be. This stems from the notional obligation to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”—which in too many cases has degenerated into simply being rude and critical of people you don’t like. To me, this signifies a loss of tolerance and grace.

3. See Rights and Their Suppression from May 24, 2015.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Rights and Their Suppression

A poster that has been going the rounds on Facebook shows Mark Twain and a quote from his Notebook (Harper & Brothers, 1935): “Not a single right is indestructible: a new might can at any time abolish it, hence, man possesses not a single permanent right.”

Although I value highly the wit and wisdom of Twain, probably right up there with Lincoln’s, in this case I believe he is wrong. Not that people in power cannot suppress any human right. But that, even when a right is suppressed, it still exists. And the rights pertaining to human freedoms are inalienable—which means they are “incapable of being alienated, surrendered, or transferred.”1

A living human being has organic autonomy. He or she may be morally and socially bound into a collective organization such as a family, congregation, corporation, or nation. Yet the person still exists as a separate, fully functioning unit. That is, a human being may be part of a group, as the thumb is part of the hand and joined to the fingers. But the human being can always exercise independent, sui generis authority, judgment, and freedom of action—as the thumb or fingers cannot.

Among the rights that cannot be alienated from, surrendered by, or transferred to an extant human being are freedom of thought, speech, and action. Those are the basic rights of an autonomous organism. To them I would add the right to self-interest, self-defense, and self-determination. Even as a slave, where expression or pursuit of these rights is suppressed, they still exist and adhere to a person’s role as a separate, functioning organism.2 Control of our own minds and bodies is built into the system and cannot be successfully excised or dominated from the outside.

Freedom of Thought. Governments and other dominant groups, such as religions, political parties, and marketing organizations, would like to suppress individual thoughts and judgments, and they have been trying to do so for a long time. The ancient Chinese had a term for it, stemming from Confucius: “rectification of names.” After a palace coup or a revolution, the new government would set about this task, which included developing and setting in place the proper designations of things in the web of relationships which creates meaning, a community, and the proper behavior to ensure social harmony. In sociology speak, this is setting the norms, or creating the “new normal,” for a disrupted society.

The first task of every new government is to gain control of the schools and what they teach. The first task of every religion is to set the terms for gaining favor with the deity and rendering salvation for the individual. The first task of every marketing department is to find what the customer values, deep down, below the level of words and opinions, and to make the product resonate at that deeper level. And so we are led to believe that orange juice is not about citrus pulp but about glowing health.

Such programs can work for a while. And it helps if the new names and their relationships, the civic teachings, the religious precepts, and the promoted products are benign, functional, non-invasive, and non-exclusive. A relationship of love and openness, a teaching of duty, a precept of basic morality, and a product that works and promotes human happiness will last the longest. But a program to challenge and change human nature for political, religious, or mercantile ends will eventually fail. Ask the Soviets, ask the Khmer Rouge, and one day ask the Islamic State.

One of the smartest comments I ever heard3 was: “People ain’t stupid.” That’s a testament to the eyes, ears, and thinking processes of the average human being. Or, as Lincoln said, you can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time … you know the rest. If your policies and teachings and your new world organizing principles are hurtful, unworkable, deluded, bad-hearted, or just plain wrong, eventually people as individuals and then as groups will see through them.

We all of us are born with a sense of self-preservation, a sense of proportion, and a sense of equity and fairness. Some of us had mothers and fathers that passed down family and communal wisdom. Some had to learn about the mechanics of fair play and justice the hard way, through experience. But all of us carry in our heads a picture of the way the world should work. If the politicians, priests, and hucksters are pushing a solution, path to salvation, or product that doesn’t skew with that picture, we will recognize it. Maybe not at first, but eventually, and hopefully before we die of the mistake.

Freedom of Speech. Most of us think in words and phrases, sometimes in complete sentences. A thought that affects us powerfully wants articulation. A though that affects us but which we cannot put into words frustrates us. Of course, I’m speaking as a writer here, for whom precise and organized thinking is a goal. But I believe that most people, if they’ve been taught a language, articulate in their minds and are motivated to express a thought if it’s meaningful. The urge to testify, to attest, to witness, and to speak the truth is strong in the human brain.

People with the “new might” that Mark Twain refers to may make it uncomfortable or dangerous to speak out. They may set watchers to listen at doors and keyholes, on energized microphones and telecommunications circuits, and at public and even private meetings. They may collect names and plan retribution. All of this may discourage the exercise of free speech, but until they invade the brain and cut the nerves that connect to the vocal cords for speaking one’s opinions, and to the fingers for writing them, the essence of freedom of speech still exists. Ask the Soviets in their battle against samizdat, ask the Chinese in their war against Google and ultimately the internet as a whole, and one day ask the fanatical Islamic clerics about the power of Western books and ideas.

People can be remarkably brave, and the need to speak truth as we understand it is strong.

Freedom of Action. In the same way that our brains are hard-wired to speak, so they are connected directly to our muscles for action. Some actions are natural and instinctive, like pulling your hand away from a hot stove or pushing your child out of the path of danger. Some actions require premeditation and decision, like the choice of a career or other life interests. Most of these more complex actions require energy, training, attention, and dedication. In return they will give your life meaning and, ultimately, determine how you will react at the moment of your death.

Those same people with “new might” may make it difficult for an individual to act. A slave faces strong disincentives to do other than as the master commands. The man in chains or locked in a cell may be unable to do all that he might wish. But either one will have the choice to die rather than live such a truncated life, and he or she may eventually find the means and take the opportunity to rebel, to escape, to battle free. And once free, full exercise of the right is restored.

Being born onto this Earth is a test of courage and of will. The need to act to defend ourselves and our families, our societies, our beliefs, or even just our own mulish stubbornness is built into human nature. Each of us is the inheritor of genes from a line of fighters, of survivors, of brave people. The ones who were without will and the courage to act, who were inclined to give up, curl up, and die in place—they have already succumbed to our more active and determined ancestors.4

Freedom of Self-Determination. Part of being human is to have knowledge of and an opinion about oneself. It may be faulty knowledge and a false opinion, but it still occupies the mind. We each of us plan our lives, make provision for the future, and actively store up grain, money, credit, and favors knowing that tomorrow may not be as good as today—or may indeed be better.

Those people with “new might” may offer us circumscribed lives, limited paths, and curtailed opportunities. But that does not remove the individual’s right to want something different, to plan his or her future actions, and to dream of things not as they are but as they might be. To remove this faculty from human beings and from their society as a whole, the government or other superior force would have to employ doctors or prison wardens to sever, in the brain of every living individual, the prefrontal cortex. That is the center where imagination and decision meet to coordinate the human mind’s capacity for projection and planning. The lobotomy, popular in the mid-20th century as a treatment for animated and anxious sufferers of severe mental illness, created tame and docile people, because they had no intentions or expectations. It robbed them of their future to make their present more palatable and manageable.

To be human is to want, to desire, to look forward, to look out, to think and plan and strive. To not do these things is to be asleep, or drugged, or brain damaged.

These basic freedoms of thought, speech, action, and self-determination are derived from the nature of our being. They are inconvenient to those people for whom a society of opinionated, outspoken, active individuals with their own sense of self-worth and dreams of the future is itself inconvenient. They are an obstacle for those who want to create a different world and a different kind of human being. They can be suppressed by might, by daily and conscientious application of inhibitions and meddlesome interference, and by dedicated action on a broad scale to eradicate and reshape societal beliefs, values, and relationships. But they cannot be unmade. They are, indeed, permanent.

1. According to my Merriam-Webster Unabridged online dictionary, which is a useful tool to have open on the desktop while writing.

2. As opposed to, for example, the right of freedom of thought for a person in a coma; freedom of speech for a person with neural damage to Broca’s or Wernicke’s areas of the brain; or freedom of action for a quadriplegic or for one member of a conjoined pair of twins. In these cases, the rights may exist in theory, as a grant of society to the individual, but they cannot be exercised.

3. Spoken by David Cohen, an old-time newspaperman and private guru in PG&E’s News Bureau, who wrote the daily media digest for the company’s executives. Thank you, Davey!

4. Sitting in a meeting during my last job at the biotech company and hearing a politely worded but contentious discussion among the other people there, I had an epiphany: I was in a roomful of killers, because however well behaved and softly spoken their disagreements might be now, these people carried the genes of those who, fifty thousand years ago—and probably a lot more recently than that—were winning their fights with muscles, teeth, fists, and rocks. The cowards either didn’t breed or couldn’t protect their offspring.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The New Criticism and the Politics of Identity

I studied English literature at Penn State University in the late 1960s. My classmates and I were the inheritors of a type of literary analysis called “the New Criticism.”1 What the “old criticism” might have been and how this new approach remedied its failures was something about which the generation that preceded mine must have wrangled. By the time I was in the classroom, the New Criticism was the method taught, sometimes overtly but more often by example. It was accepted as the way you studied literature.

If memory serves—and I might be missing some of the nuances these fifty-odd years later—the essence of the New Criticism was and is “Read the text.” Treat the book—or the poem, play, song, or script—as a “found object.” What matters, what counts in your analysis is what you can read on the page and what it says to you, right there, in print, on the page. The New Criticism ruled out of bounds—or to be treated only anecdotally and not as part of the analysis—the author’s stature, life history, and political persuasions. Also out of bounds was the literary tradition or style in which the author wrote, whether the 19th-century Metaphysical, Romantic, Gothic, or Transcendentalist movements, and its associated canons and quirks. For today, the demarcations would be genre: Romance, Mystery, Science Fiction, or Fantasy. Yet the method remains the same. Don’t compare the text. Read it.

Explicitly out of bounds are the author’s stated intentions for the work. If the author has to write a foreword or introduction to tell the reader what to expect, his or her skills become suspect. All such preemptive preparation falls under the heading of special pleading. As a general principle, the author, having produced the work, must then let it go. It must go out into the world and stand on its own, because the work itself is all that the reader, once deep into the pages and engrossed in the story, will be able to receive.

And indeed, the author is not necessarily the expert on what he or she has produced. For example, sometimes after writing a passage I will go back, read it afresh, and only then discover that some object or action or comment from a character symbolizes, foreshadows, reinforces, or expands on something elsewhere in the book. I didn’t plan on this, but it’s there for the reader to perceive and appreciate. An author generally can’t create and plant such connections ahead of time—they’re something that just bubbles up from the subconscious mind and its involvement with the story.2

And so what exactly is the goal of this “close reading” of the text? Simply to establish its quality. Not whether the book adheres to the author’s principles or politics, or represents his or her best work, or fits well into its claimed literary tradition or genre. Quite simply, does it exhibit quality?

That’s a funny concept, “quality.” Of course, it’s the goal of every writer: to write a good book. Some of us measure quality in terms of sales: if enough people buy the book and recommend it to their friends, it must be good, right? And then along comes a literary phenomenon like Love Story or Fifty Shades of Grey, and all of us English majors are shaking our heads over the notion that commercial success equals quality. But often enough commercially successful novels do possess quality, as a close reading of many bestsellers from past years will show. And we’ve also seen that all the hype in the world can’t make a lackluster effort fly off the shelves. The readers generally know what’s good. At least, they know what works for them.

Robert Pirsig thrashes out the concept of quality fairly completely in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which was first published shortly after I graduated from the university. In the end, he arrives at quality in terms of the ancient Greek concept of arête, which means simply “excellence on its own terms” and sometimes “moral virtue.” Achilles had excellence because he was a ferocious and unmatched warrior. Hector had excellence because he represented the ideal of love of family, city, and country, or civic virtue. But Pirsig’s argument is kind of circular, isn’t it? “Quality” equals “excellence.” You can get that from a thesaurus.

In my experience of business, most recently in the biotech industry and our grappling with the principles of Six Sigma,3 I discovered a new concept of quality: “fitness for purpose.” An instrument has quality if it performs its detection functions accurately, quickly, efficiently, or according to some other specification valued by the user. Similarly, a car has quality if it drives well, transports the desired number of passengers and/or cargo, operates reliably, gets good gas mileage, pleases the eye and other senses, or meets some other specification valued by the buyer.

We can apply this concept directly to literature. It’s a good book—or poem, play, song, or script—if it delivers on its promise and pleases the reader. From there, you can begin to fill in the blanks. Is the language—in terms of vocabulary, sentence structure, required level of external experience—appropriate to the intended audience? Are the characters appealing, intriguing, or complex enough to keep the reader emotionally involved? Does the story structure reveal enough information, give it fast enough, but still keep certain key facts hidden, and yet provide enough clues, all to keep the reader intellectually involved? Does the subject matter make the book and whatever new insights or truths the author has to impart make the reading worth the reader’s time and effort? Does the story resolve itself in a way that leaves the reader’s imagination, sense of right and wrong, expectations, and emotions satisfied?

You might take the position that all of these questions must be answered from within the framework of the author’s intentions. Therefore, the New Criticism fails, because we must ask the author about the audience for which he or she wrote the book and what he or she wanted to achieve with it. But I would insist that’s not the case.

Every book—or poem, play, song, or script—exists in the real world and falls into the reader’s hand, whether by choice or chance. Sometimes, the book is just sitting there on the shelf as the reader passes by, and he or she becomes intrigued with the title, cover art, or blurb. The reader picks it up and samples the first page, or a page from somewhere in the middle. The book either catches the reader’s attention, or it doesn’t. Perhaps the reader at age twelve picks up The Odyssey because it has a title that suggests an adventure or the cover depicts a helmeted warrior with spear and shield. She starts reading and discovers that, first, it’s non-rhyming, unmetered poetry; second, it’s about people and places she doesn’t know or care about; and third, nowhere in the first ten pages does she see an adventure begin to form or meet that helmeted warrior. Does this mean it’s a bad book? Of course not. In the hands of a reader with the right expectations, adequate external experience—such as a previous interest in Greek myth and history—and appropriate vocabulary, it’s an excellent book.

Not every book is for everybody. But by reading sympathetically—and working purely from the text—the literary analyst can determine what kind of book the author was striving for and whether or not it fulfills its premise and its promise. Having established the intended age or reading level from the book’s vocabulary and use of language, and the story’s meaning from its treatment of the subject matter, we can begin to dissect the book’s structure and level of reveal, its use of dialogue and development of character, and its story arc and movement toward resolution. We can then see if all these elements work well, or if they leave the intended reader dissatisfied.

In recent years, the method of the New Criticism has come under attack. No one names or targets it directly, but it’s clear that many people want to ignore it, downplay it, and push it aside. People with a political agenda want to take over the literary world and its marketplace just as they want to dominate other aspects of life and culture.

In a political sphere where a person’s ethnos, experience, personal story, and opinions are considered most vitally important—what has come to be called the “politics of identity”—we lose sight of the fact that we are all basically human beings with a common human nature. In this environment, many people believe that a person from one particular background only cares about stories written from within that background and shared experience. That is, to use a nonjudgmental euphemism, Greeks will only care about stories concerning other Greeks and their culture. And in a world where everyone is trying so hard to sell their own books, Greek authors have become the sole inheritors, arbiters, and representatives of Greek culture and experience. It’s not just that non-Greek authors can’t adequately express the Greek viewpoint and ideals. They can, of course, but they probably have to work harder at it, be more sympathetic to it, and perhaps bring insights that a natural Greek might not develop on his or her own—just as a fish can’t tell you much about the nature of water. But more to the point, this political value says it’s insulting and morally wrong if a non-Greek even tries to tell a Greek story.

I find that viewpoint to be a prelude to tragedy. It says we are not all human beings together, that we can’t understand each other, and that Greek and non-Greek will remain mutually unintelligible for all time. That teaching is a closing in and shutting off rather than an opening outward.

Another element of the new politics aims to limit the appropriate sphere of literature. Once, while I was sitting on a panel at a science fiction convention in Portland, Oregon, an older man in the audience thundered to the room at large, “What other basis for stories is there but class war, gender war, and race war?” In other words, stories that don’t serve a Progressive, Marxist, revolutionary purpose are pointless and shouldn’t be published. I don’t think I can live inside a world that small.

Let’s see: love and how to share it; expectations and how to deal with them in a disappointing world; the act of discovery and how to proceed with its consequences—to name just a few themes worth communicating. These are issues with which every human being must grapple. And the story of that grappling is internal, personal, and works outward from the viewpoint of an established character. The political themes of class war, gender war, race war are external and social. To be sure, the literary world has a place for socially based stories and examination of the individual’s place in his or her society. But such stories are not the whole field.

Worse, an exclusive focus on these themes would make the reader intentionally colorblind—in the original meaning of that word: able to perceive in only certain colors or shades. For example, if you believe that class war, gender war, race war are the only basis for a good story, what do you make of Shakespeare’s Hamlet? Is it a play about a youth fighting corruption in the 16th-century Danish state? Not entirely. Is it about the male oppression of Gertrude and Ophelia? Not exactly. Is it about the oppression of Yorick as holder of a disrespected occupation—the court jester—and possibly as a dwarf? That would be pushing it. Hamlet is about power and powerlessness, but it’s far more personal than that. Those political and gender themes are hardly grace notes to the story. The attraction of the Hamlet story lies not in them, but in the young man’s moral dilemma, his choices, how he deals with them, and how that story resolves itself.

The New Criticism does not care if an author is Greek—or African, Asian, female, rich, poor, or abused as a child. This method of analysis discards the author’s experience and politics as metadata, peripheral, and extraneous. Instead, does the book work as a whole? Does it satisfy its intended purpose? To begin with, can you perceive that purpose—not from what the author says, but from what he or she has put on the page? And then, is the book faithful to what it is and where the story goes? Does the book have meaning for the reader? Does it satisfy a reader who has little, some, or great experience with the subject matter? Does the story resolve itself in a way that feels morally and emotionally right?

And the only way to answer these questions is to read the text itself.

1. I’ve addressed the New Criticism peripherally several times before, specifically: Art and Mystery from August 12, 2012; Separating Ego from Work from September 25, 2011; and The Value of a Liberal Arts Education from February 6, 2011.

2. See Working With the Subconscious from September 30, 2012.

3. See The Zen of the Machine from May 4, 2014.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Business Over Government

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of business enterprises and tend to trust business people at most levels—from the mom and pop at their grocery store to the CEO of an industry-leading corporation—over most elected and non-elected functionaries at most levels of government.

This is not to say that I hate government and loathe public servants. They have their place. I understand that a regulated marketplace and managed environment usually produce better outcomes and endure longer than uncontrolled chaos, and that stable laws and their enforcement promote peace and civilization among people. Still, my career has been and my heart abides with the commercial side of things.1

I also know that we are all human beings with complex reasoning. People don’t become smarter or more cautious if they choose to work in government rather than on behalf of an industry or product. People don’t become more venal or selfish if they want to make software or shoes, or sell automobiles or insurance, instead of writing and enforcing rules and regulations. We choose our path—business or government—from a matrix of causes. The business person is not just a greedy bastard who wants to grab the money. Many people, if not most, go into business because they want to produce something that will enrich lives and make people happy or better off. They choose business because there they will be free to make the products they like in the way they think best. Similarly, most people in government choose that path because they want to write good laws, see justice done, and make people happy and better off. They want to be close to the core of things and have a vision of how to make their society function more effectively.

But I am also realistic. I know that some people go into business because a small enterprise, or an isolated department in a large one, is usually easier to manipulate and a better place out of which to run their scams than a large government bureaucracy with its built-in ranks of inspectors general and review boards. In this case, think of Bernard Madoff’s pyramid scheme or the wheeler-dealers at companies with ill-defined products and services like Enron and WorldCom. And I know that some people in government do want authority and the power to make other people jump through hoops with the full force of law behind them. Think of Lois Lerner and her minions at the IRS or Eliot Spitzer as Manhattan District Attorney.2

But what is true of both spheres is that, to enter them, then to survive, and eventually to rise, a person must make promises, enter agreements, keep his or her word, and offer fealty. You must promise the voters or the hiring manager that you will be good in the job. You must serve at the pleasure of someone above you and offer them service in return for continued employment, favor, and reward. And in most places, you must show your loyalty, at least to the organization if not directly to the person in charge. From the mom-and-pop grocery to the biggest corporation, from the town council to the federal government, you are dealing with human beings and their conflicted emotions, motives, and reasoning, as well as their own insecurities.

Given all this, why do I favor business over government? Basically, it’s a matter of scope and reach, and the opportunities for disaster.

Business people can only do so much damage through their actions. If they make poor choices or bad products, their first victims are usually their own prospects and those of the employees they hire and the shareholders who trust them with their investment. In a free market, where people are allowed to buy what they want and need based on their own judgment, it’s difficult to offer a bad deal or spin a bad product for long. Hype and market momentum will only carry you so far. Eventually wrong choices, shoddy workmanship, or bad practices will make themselves known and the corporation will lose money and perhaps even fail. Think of the Edsel, New Coke, or Star Wars Episode I as examples of notable market failures. Yes, a business run badly by people with no sense of foresight or honor can pollute the rivers and the atmosphere, disappoint and sometimes injure their unwary customers, and put their unknowing employees at risk of their careers and futures—but that’s where a well-regulated government free of corruption steps in to protect the environment, the innately foolish, and the innocent bystanders.3

On the other hand, elected government officials and the unelected agencies they appoint and staff through the Civil Service have the power and force of law behind them. The decisions they make are actively enforced—usually without consequence to themselves—and endure for years if not decades. Their wrong choices and feckless policies can mess up all of society. And without the automatic self-destruct of the marketplace to eliminate bad or ineffective programs, they can proceed unmolested practically forever.

If a business executive makes a mistake or miscalculation, generally the worst he or she can do is mess up a product line, inconvenience or anger customers, and lose business. If you disagree with a corporation’s ethics and practices, you can choose to boycott its products. If a business decision causes injury or costs lives, government agencies will be quick to establish blame and impose sanctions. And if a business loses money, it loses the faith of its bankers and creditors: stock price falls, bond rates rise, loans dry up.

That doesn’t work with a government and its laws. If a government department or cabinet secretary makes a mistake or miscalculation, the results can damage a whole sector of the economy or population, perhaps even cost lives. When a government program does financial or physical damage, it may take years for the results to be analyzed, cause and effect established, and corrections applied. Rarely, if ever, do the people responsible suffer personally for their mistakes. You cannot choose to opt out or boycott a bad law, agency requirement, or program. And suing for damages is problematic, because the government runs the court system. Also, the government agency usually has the edge in running its own oversight committees and accounting systems which, being staffed by imperfect human beings, can spin results and cover up failures for an unimaginably long time. And a modern democracy in normal circumstances turns over only the top layers of government, and then only at specified times through campaigns and elections. The middle layers, where most of the actual day-to-day decisions are made, continue in place for years and for whole careers. If a government program loses money, legislators generally vote it more: taxes go up, the government prints more money, inflation increases.

The extent of my concern goes even further. If you work for a business and disagree with its policies and directions, you can always quit. That move may take guts and planning; you may have to take a cut in pay or even “live on your hump” for a while. But you can usually find another job. The ability of the business to follow you out the door and persecute you is fairly limited, especially with a well-regulated and alert government to enforce fair labor practices. But if you work in the government sphere and disagree with its policies and practices, the bar is higher. You have fewer competing opportunities to work elsewhere in another branch or at a different level of government. And disgruntled former supervisors have the force of law and tradition to disrupt your life.

Similarly, if the business you work for gets upset with you or your performance, the best they can do is terminate you, and even then government agencies exist to help you fight against unfair discrimination. Your employer has to clear a pretty high bar to prosecute you for wrongdoing, and most businesses don’t want the bad publicity. If you work in government, your boss can pursue you with charges of malfeasance and corruption. A disgruntled agency can file complaints against you, put you in jail, or run you out of the country. In some cases, they can kill you.

A business that goes too far wrong sooner or later runs out of customers, resources, employees, and financing options—usually in that order. Eventually, the business has to close, and then the operators must answer publicly to their creditors in bankruptcy court. Government can conceal its mistakes, or print money endlessly or raise taxes to continue financing its mistakes. Eventually, one party will get booted out of office and another party will come in. In either situation, the bureaucracy that supports these elected and appointed officials, will sail serenely onward. They are the bulk of government. They don’t lose their jobs. They may have to pursue new policies and practices for a while under the new party in charge. But the power to tax and the impulse to govern remain intact.

The only way to stop a government gone wrong is when a mob, with torches and pitchforks, starts heaving bricks through windows. Then you are in a state of insurrection and ultimately revolution. This is like turning over the table and calling for a whole new game. But note that no revolution ever resulted in less government or no government at all. The board is never wiped clear. The new governors are usually worse than the old ones. And sometimes the players don’t even change places. Think of how many members of the tsarist secret police, the Okhrana, went right on working for the Soviet Cheka—or how many members of the Soviet KGB slid right into the FSB, the Russian Federal Security Service.

I favor business over government because running a business is riskier, its mistakes can do less damage, and its failures are usually small and contained. The commercial sphere is also more democratic, because anyone can build a stake, enter the game, and play as long as his or her wits and inspiration last. And when that run is done, it’s done. Government is a closed society that believes it can go on forever.

1. Even though my first job out of college was as junior editor at the Penn State Press, an arm of the government institution that was my alma mater. But there I saw a public function that acted just like a business. Their job was to publish scholarly books and produce enough of an income stream to support themselves so that they could publish even more books. Their first questions about accepting any manuscript were not “Whose interest does it serve?” or “Does it benefit the university?” but rather “Who will read this?” and “Does it fit into our established market niche?” (They also pointedly asked, “Is this a reworked doctoral thesis?”—because theses by their nature make narrow books with limited market appeal.) In that way, the university press was just like the commercial tradebook publisher where I landed next.

2. However, I’m also a believer in the theory that most people do not rise in their organization—whether it’s business or government—because they want personal power over other people. Most of us want the authority and freedom to do things the right way, in the manner that we see fit, and for which we are prepared to take responsibility. Most of us chafe at answering to the dictates and decisions of the people above us, rather than desiring dominion over the people below.

3. A badly run government agency—such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, when it nodded blindly over Bernie Madoff’s shenanigans—serves no public interest. And a manifestly corrupt agency serves only its own interest. Either is a leech on the industry it regulates, the people it pretends to protect, and the taxpayers who support it.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Gods and Angels

I’ve said before—too many times, by now, for me to go back in my blog archive and find references—that I’m an atheist. This is not because I hate religion, or religious people, or the thought of God watching over me. And not because I think I’m smarter than believers or see more deeply into the mechanism of the universe than they do.

Instead, I feel my lack of something. I lack the gene that grants one the mental apparatus to tune into whatever vibration, wavelength, or dimension from which the presence of an almighty spirit might speak or make him/her/itself known. I’ve never heard a whisper. As a very young person, when I was giving religion—in the form of the Presbyterian church—a chance to reach me, I tried to pray. I tried to pose questions and receive answers. But nothing I ever heard or sensed fell outside of what I know to be my imagination or the workings of my own subconscious mind—and I have a very active and productive subconscious.1

I also do have an amateur’s appreciation for the size and scale of the universe in which we live. We inhabit a bubble of spacetime filled with a hundred billion galaxies, each one composed of a hundred billion stars, and each star system enjoying a complexity approaching that of the humble star and planetary system we call home.2 I have a hard time believing that a single conscious mind could have created this cosmos in all its complexity—let alone what we now imagine to be all the multiverses that continually branch out of the probabilities surrounding each meaningful event occurring within one universe. Nor can I believe that such a mind manages it all on a day-to-day, minute-by-minute basis, so that it marks the fall of a single sparrow.3

At root then, I have a hard time believing in an all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful god who stands outside of space and time, yet who created the universe as a place inside space and time, manages it in detail, both large scale and small, and still cares about and guides the destiny of each and every sentient being within its sphere. For one thing, I don’t believe in superlatives, ultimates, and finalities, and an omnipotent god to rule over all this must have those attributes.

Infinity—whether in space, time, power, mass, density, or any other characteristic—does not exist anywhere in the universe. It is a product of the human mind and an extension of human mathematics. Infinity is a tent peg in the far distance beyond the highest number you can care to count, just as the concept of zero, nothingness, is a tent peg right under your feet, at the start of the range of positive numbers and negative numbers alike. Our mathematics also allows any whole number to be divided into an infinity of fractions. Our mathematics further allows us to add and multiply infinities—when the simple concept of “more than you can possibly count” just won’t do.

But nowhere do we find such immensity in the world around us. The speed of light is given as an absolute, a limit, a “they shall not pass,” and yet it remains finite, measurable, and comprehensible: 299,792,458 meters per second, or 186,282 miles per second. We casually speak of the density of a black hole—or the monoparticle out of which the mass of our whole universe exploded in the Big Bang—as being “infinite,” but that’s just sloppy thinking. The mass of the collapsed star, or our universe, is finite and calculable within certain limits, and so the mass of the singularity or the monoparticle can be understood as finite—always allowing for the amount of matter that was blown off as energy and lost to the system during the event of either stellar collapse or Big Bang. Similarly, the age and spatial dimensions of the universe itself are finite and ultimately calculable.4

Even at the level of quantum mechanics, which chops the stuff of matter and energy pretty fine, we do not expect—our mathematics do not imply—an infinite division, like the fractions we can pull out of a whole number. A long time after the Greeks declared atoms to be the smallest things in nature and indivisible, we learned they actually weren’t, because they are made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Then we learned that the protons and neutrons themselves were made of three quarks each in different flavors, and that quarks are only a few examples from a whole echelon of computed particles. We now suspect that those quarks and other particles are—at least according to one theory—bits of cosmic string that vibrate at different frequencies in a set of dimensions measured beyond the x, y, and z that we call normal space. We may eventually find levels below this. But nothing in our philosophy projects an infinite series of ever-tinier turtle backs supporting the smallest bits of matter.

So, I have trouble conceiving of, believing in, or acknowledging the existence of an all-powerful, all-seeing, all-knowing, infinite mind that stands outside space and time. A local god whom the ancient Hebrews worshipped and called “Yahweh”—or Tetragrammaton, standing for the “four letters” of his unspoken name—who held guardianship over a particular range of mountains and valleys in the Middle East and maintained an interest in and covenant with a particular group of people living there … perhaps. That was back when the Earth as such was all anyone knew of existence, and the stars were just pinpricks in the fabric of the sky. But one sole keeper who maintains interest in humans and all other living creatures on all the possible planets and takes responsibility for every star in the night sky … no.

This does not, however, mean that I am not prepared to learn about, believe in, and credit the existence of other intelligences, superior beings, or angels. However, by “angels” I do not mean those spiritual essences created by this all-knowing, etc. god as servants to bring messages to and render judgment upon earthly humans. I’m not talking about the seraphic agents of a higher power, but simply advanced individuals of whatever classification who may walk among us and display superior powers for any number of reasons. They may be from the future, or from another planet, or another dimension. They may be agents of a separate and currently secret society, or a sect of intergalactic do-gooders, or the keepers of a separate reality. Or they may be scientists sent here to study us who have tender hearts and who try to help out.

I have never seen an angel, an interdimensional being, an extraterrestrial, or a time traveler. But since they do not violate my distrust of infinities of knowledge, sight, and power, I am not naturally inclined to dismiss them. Such beings might arrive in metaphysical conveyances, cloak themselves in mysterious fashion, and use technologies and power sources that on this planet pass for miraculous and magical. I would actually expect them to do that. After all, Clarke’s Third Law states: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”5 And I know that our own science and understanding are not yet complete.

I am not a disbeliever in things I cannot see or touch or have not yet experienced. I know that the universe is big and unexpected, and much of what we understand about it has only come to light in the last hundred years or so 6 and is still subject to much revision. My comfort with this level of uncertainty—indeed, my faith that we will finally understand what’s going on—is that now and for perhaps the last 400 years7 those of us in the Western tradition have been learning about our world and our universe through observation and analysis, rather than through superstition and ritual.

1. See Working with the Subconscious from September 30, 2012.

2. All of this, of course, is accurate plus or minus a few orders of magnitude. No one has actually counted the galaxies or inventoried each one’s stars.

3. See Matthew 10:26-33. I understand that Matthew is telling people to have no fear, because the Father is watching over each of us and cares for each of us. I’m just saying it’s a task that passes my understanding.

4. Of course, measuring the width and breadth of the universe presents us with a problem, because to look far enough in any direction is also to see back in time. The edge of the universe is also, in our telescopes, its beginning. As Audrey Hepburn said in the movie Always, “Time is funny stuff. Space has its points, too.”

5. Arthur C. Clarke—perhaps best known for the book and screenplay of 2001: A Space Odyssey, among much other great science fiction—was likely a believer in angels or astronomical agents himself. His first two laws are: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right; when he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong” and “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.” Here was a man who could see beyond the limits of the everyday.

6. I’m taking this time reference from the fact that astronomer Edwin Hubble showed in 1923 that all the “spiral nebulae” we thought lay inside our own galaxy, the Milky Way, were actually other galaxies lying far outside it. That was a first step in putting the universe in perspective. Half a dozen years later he showed that those galaxies were moving away and the universe is expanding. Those are pretty big steps for the science of star study that goes back to Mesopotamia.

7. Here I’m talking about the Scientific Revolution and the work of 17th-century scientists like Copernicus and Kepler, Newton and Leibniz, Galileo and Van Leeuwenhoek, and a hundred others who began looking with their own eyes, seeing with their full intellect, experimenting using their best imagination, and recording and comparing the results for others to inspect.