Thursday, February 23, 2012

An Open Letter to Public Servants

Dear Representatives,

Thank you for all of your good intentions.  I mean that sincerely.  Most of you, I think, are just trying to do what is best for everyone (constituents first of course, and you cannot really help but pay more attention to the loudest constituents, i.e. the richest and/or the most obnoxious).  I understand enough about your position to know that it is not an easy one.  I want to do what I can to make it easier.  So here goes.

First off, know that I do not really consider you my representatives.  A real representative is someone I engage to present my point of view (like a lawyer I hire to represent me in court or a business associate who represents my interests to a third party).  The vast majority of you, including those in whose district(s) I reside, do not do that.  And let's be honest: with some 300 million people in this country, how could you?  It would not be responsible to let the concerns of a single constituent override those of his fellows (who number in the thousands or millions, depending on what level of the government hierarchy you occupy).  We like to pretend that every individual has political power as an intrinsic right, but the truth is that he doesn't (and hasn't for a pretty long time: our country started its life as a republic, not a democracy, and the people with the most power here have always been the lucky few who were wealthy and/or well-placed).

So now that we have done away with the fiction that you really care what I have to say, I am going to go ahead and offer some thoughts anyway.  I won't be surprised if you ignore them entirely.  But it will make me feel better to get them off my chest, and maybe some of you will take a human interest in the candid ideas of a random constituent.

I have a few quaint ideas about the way government should be.  On a good day (in my ideal world), you guys keep us from waking up murdered in our beds (or raped or robbed).  On a really good day, you do nothing (because no one is being attacked: this doesn't mean that you sit at your desks twiddling your thumbs; you get a life outside of government, and a good day gives you time to pursue it uninterrupted, doing something that is actually useful).  You don't run hospitals (or give out medication).  You don't run schools (or give out education).  You don't fight wars unless they are inevitable (e.g. Mexican tanks just crossed the border with Texas).  You don't even (necessarily) keep the roads going (though if you want the job, maybe we could let you have it, provided that you do it as well as or better than your competition).  You are there (particularly at the federal level) as a last resort, when all other systems break down.  You are not the front line.  No one depends on you unless they have nowhere else to turn (I do mean nowhere), and when they do turn to you, at last, they want you to keep them from being killed (or raped or robbed): they don't expect you to give them easy money (whether through tax breaks or sinecure "jobs" or unemployment benefits or Ponzi schemes disguised as healthcare or bailouts of bankrupt industries whose time of profitability has passed: these are all fundamentally the same thing--you rob Peter to pay Paul and then flash a badge so that we know better than to resent the theft).

I recognize that my pipe dream is not universally popular, and I am willing to concede that it may never be practically feasible (at least not as I have written it here).  But you need all the alternative governmental models you can get at this point, considering how you are running your current gig into the ground.  As matters stand, none of you seems to understand what it means to do good business (or in other words, provide real public service).  I can forgive this, since it seems many of our businessmen (particularly those who cross paths most with you) are similarly handicapped.  Let me clue you in: you need to generate income, and the income you generate should exceed or at least equal your outflow.  I think you already know this.  Unfortunately, your understanding never moves beyond the abstract balance sheet to the concrete realities that that sheet represents.  You think that as long as the numbers on the sheet line up (no matter how sloppily), everything is hunky-dory.  So you come up with some really creative mathematics--so sloppy that they don't even fool you all the time--and back them up with this really cool thing called the Federal Reserve that lets you conjure money out of thin air.  The only problem is that eventually, that money has to buy stuff in the real world.  It has to stand for something.  Right now, it stands for labor and the fruits of labor (commodities like food, clothing, shelter).  You give me money, and I work for you (on the understanding that the money you give me can be exchanged for the fruit of someone's labor).  You seem to labor under the illusion that all economic woes are a matter of your ability to create and mobilize money, forgetting that money is only useful insofar as it represents other things that are really useful.  Let me give you a little reality check.

Your creative math and Federal Reserve don't make more people (just more money to be spread out among however many people already exist).  Your creative math and Federal Reserve do not create opportunities for profitable labor that don't already exist.  This is an important thing to notice.  Money only represents opportunities that already exist: if I was stranded on a desert island with no resources at all except for an infinite supply of money, I would die (unless I could jerry-rig some kind of paper-mache boat, using the money as a commodity rather than as money).  Thus, your creative math and Federal Reserve don't make more commodities (just more money to be paid for whatever commodities someone else has already created or will create in future).  Every time you make more money out of thin air, as you continue to do in an effort to support the illusion that our country is really rich, you are promising the world that taxpayers like me are going to give them more and more profitable labor: at some point in the increasingly near future, assuming present trends hold, you will have sold me and my kids into perpetual bondage to service your runaway debt (we will be building pyramids while you "supervise" at a convenient distance, ensconced in your ivory tower).  I don't appreciate this (to put it mildly).

A word about economic stimulus, which you often invoke to make complaints like mine go away.  The idea that spending money makes things better is ridiculous, just about as ridiculous as the idea that demand drives supply (if this were true, Haiti would be rich and Switzerland would be broke: please stop listening to idiots like Paul Krugman and read some history or at least some real economists, like Jean Baptiste-Say).  Paying billions of dollars to save bad businesses does not do anyone any good in the long-term: the idiots will just run the ship aground on the same rock.  Read some history (again).  Humpty Dumpty never learns, and you will never be smart enough to put him together again (no matter how many horses and men you have).  Really useful "stimulus" is about learning to do for oneself and others in fundamental ways.  A good builder will never be homeless, as long as there are natural resources and tools available; a good secretary is useless outside of the office.  And yet, your economic plan seems to be for everyone to go to secretary school (on loans you generate from thin air), to work as little as possible for a large salary (necessary to pay the loans), and to retire early on a hefty pension (just like public servants in Greece: how's that working for them, by the way?  Is burning Athens to the ground just their way of providing necessary opportunities for future growth, i.e. the latest economic stimulus?).  What a load of bullshit.  

As I understand the situation, you are technically bankrupt right now: the only reason you haven't gone the way of Lehman Brothers or Greece is that people have this faith that you will revive.  They could be right: you might still turn things around.  But current trends say that you will not.  What are you doing now?  Well, you just gave your employees a nice bonus (which my kids will be happy to pay for when the time comes, I'm sure).  You remain committed to your role as world bully (oops, I meant to say policeman), despite the waste of resources (not to mention the acrimony) that this causes at home and abroad.  (Anything for the greater good, right?  Is that how you plan to deal with the debt crisis ultimately, by holding a gun to somebody's head?  Just remember that even Don Corleone doesn't always get what he wants: the fact that I would love to offer Newt Gingrich a mansion on the moon doesn't mean that I am able to deliver.)  And you are now fighting furiously amongst yourselves to determine some very important issues like, "Should we spend the money we don't have on contraceptives or Bibles?  Should we let gay people call their unions marriages or not?  Should we bail out this stupid business or that one?"  Seriously?  It's amazing how passionate you are about this stuff.  Great show.  One would almost think that these decisions really mattered, that they were something more than re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic (I am stealing this metaphor from Mark Steyn, I think, but I thought of it well before he came out in print with it).  No matter who you are, you have to get your own crap together before you try to clean up everybody else's.  And yours isn't remotely together.  It's scattered all over, and it smells terrible.  Please, stop quibbling about nonsense and just balance the budget already, before nature has her way with you, and you become the next Greece.  As much as part of me would like to see you held really accountable (for once), I don't want that for you (at least not as long as my kids represent part of your economic assets).

One last word, and then I'm through.  The worst thing about your position is that you cannot win the way you want to.  You cannot please everybody.  You have to piss somebody off.  I understand that.  If it comes down to it, I am willing to be the guy you throw under the bus (what choice do I have, honestly?).  But what I am not willing to do is listen quietly to any more stupid lies.  There is nothing I or anyone else can do to guarantee that I have life, liberty, or happiness.  You can pass laws all day.  You can print money till the dollar is worthless.  Until you aren't broke, none of your promises mean anything to me.  Until you stand for something other than the party line ("this is what we all say around here to get elected"), I don't care who you are, and I will not be voting for you (I'm one of those "apathetic" voters who fail to turn out when the election is to decide whether we are to be raped by an ass or an elephant: it amounts to the same thing).  Until you are willing to put some skin in the game (e.g. take a principled stand and then stick to it even when your career dies as a result), I do not respect you (though I will certainly obey the law to the utmost of my ability; I respect human values, including those that conduce to peaceful life in society).  You do not have to agree with me to earn my respect.  You do not have to cater to me, trying to buy me with non-existent benefits or the illusion of impossible growth.  You just have to tell me the truth, and stand by it.  Stop pretending like we're all going to be OK no matter how bad things are.  Stop pretending like you have all the answers.  Stop pretending that the answer is handing out more money to your friends (as opposed to the other guy's friends, as though it matters whether you steal to support gays or Catholics, rich or poor: the bottom line is that more thieves always means fewer really useful craftsmen).  Just stop.


John Q. Public

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Pilgrim's Prayer

Paulo Coelho. The Pilgrimage: A Contemporary Quest for Ancient Wisdom. Trans. Alan R. Clarke. New York: HarperCollins, 1998. ISBN: 006251279X.

Coelho's book tells the story of a fictional pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela (a journey which I really want to complete for myself one day in real time: I have already lived in several cities along the Camino for extended periods of time, working as an LDS missionary, and Spain will always be a part of me).  The chapter on "personal vices" includes a prayer by the pilgrim guide (Petrus), which really speaks to me.  I will quote it here (pp. 150-154):
Pity us, O Lord, for we are pilgrims on the road to Compostela, and our being here may be a vice. In your infinite pity, help us never to turn our knowledge against ourselves.

(1)  Have pity on those who pity themselves and who see themselves as good people treated unfairly by life--who feel that they do not deserve what has happened to them. Such people will never be able to fight the good fight. And pity those who are cruel to themselves and who see only evil in their own actions, feeling that they are to blame for the injustice in the world. Because neither of these kinds of people know thy law that says, 'But the very hairs of your head are numbered.'

(2) Have pity on those who command and those who serve during long hours of work, and who sacrifice themselves in exchange merely for a Sunday off, only to find that there is nowhere to go, and everything is closed. But also have pity on those who sanctify their efforts, and who are able to go beyond the bounds of their own madness, winding up indebted, or nailed to the cross by their very brothers. Because neither of these kinds of people know thy law that says, 'Be ye therefore as wise as serpents and as harmless as the doves.'

(3) Have pity on those who may conquer the world but never join the good fight within themselves. But pity also those who have won the good fight within themselves, and now find themselves in the streets and the bars of life because they are unable to conquer the world. Because neither of these kinds of people know thy law that says, 'He who heeds my words will I liken to a wise man who built his house on rock.'

(4) Have pity on those who are fearful of taking up a pen, or a paintbrush, or an instrument, or a tool because they are afraid that someone has already done so much better than they could, and who feel themselves to be unworthy to enter the marvelous mansion of art. But have even more pity on those who, having taken up the pen, or the paintbrush, or the instrument, or the tool, have turned inspiration into a paltry thing, and yet feel themselves to be better than others. Neither of these kinds of people know thy law that says, 'For there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, nor hidden that will not be known.'

(5) Pity those who eat and drink and sate themselves, but are unhappy and alone in their satiety. But pity even more those who fast, and who censure and prohibit, and who thereby see themselves as saints, preaching your name in the streets. For neither of these types of people know thy law that says, 'If I bear witness of myself, my witness is not true.'

(6) Pity those who fear death, and are unaware of the many kingdoms through which they have already passed, and the many deaths that they have already suffered, and who are unhappy because they think that one day their world will end. But have even more pity for those who already know their many deaths, and today think of themselves as immortal. Neither of these kinds of people know thy law that says, 'Except that one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.'

(7) Have pity on those who bind themselves with the silken ties of love, and think of themselves as masters of others, and who feel envy, and poison themselves, and who torture themselves because they cannot see that love and all things change like the wind. But pity even more those who die of their fear of loving and who reject love in the name of a greater love that they know not. Neither of these kinds of people know thy law that says, 'Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst.'

(8) Pity those who reduce the cosmos to an explanation, God to a magic potion, and humanity to beings with basic needs that must be satisfied, because they never hear the music of the spheres. But have even more pity on those who have blind faith, and who in their laboratories transform mercury into gold, and who are surrounded by their books about the secrets of the Tarot and the power of the pyramids. Neither of these kinds of people know thy law that says, 'Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.'

(9) Pity those who see no one but themselves, and for whom others are a blurred and distant scenario as they pass through the streets in their limousines and lock themselves in their air-conditioned penthouse offices, as they suffer in silence the solitude of power. But pity even more those who will do anything for anybody, and are charitable, and seek to win out over evil only through love. For neither of these kinds of people know thy law that says, 'Let him who has no sword sell his garment and buy one.'

(10) Have pity, Lord, on we who seek out and dare to take up the sword that you have promised, and who are a saintly and sinful lot scattered throughout the world. Because we do not recognize even ourselves, and often think that we are dressed, but we are nude; we believe that we have committed a crime, when in reality we have saved someone's life. And do not forget in your pity for all of us that we hold the sword with the hand of an angel and the hand of a devil, and that they are both the same hand. Because we are all of the world, and we continue to be of the world, and we have need of thee. We will always be in need of thy law that says, 'When I sent you without money bag, knapsack, and sandals, you lacked nothing.'
These days I find myself often in a strange position: on the one hand, my religious friends see me as secular apostate; on the other hand, my secular friends recognize that I am still very deeply religious (if anything, my real religious faith, a faith in humanity that I have always had, has become stronger).  Intellectually, I am keenly aware now of the difference between history (what happened) and myth (what we say about what happened).  I am also very keenly aware that I cannot ignore my own myths and blithely follow someone else's (even if that person claims a divine revelation, popular support, or a Nobel Prize).  I see all people as human beings: most of us want good things, for ourselves and others, good things that we often fail to achieve.  Failure would not be such a problem if it came alone: more damaging is the illusion of success.  Some of us stumble upon happiness (historical fact), and promptly concoct some absurd story (myth) explaining (1) how we did it and (2) how you can do it too (often this involves paying the myth-maker).  There is nothing terribly wrong with this universal tendency (even down to paying for myths that won't always pan out), until we insist on ignoring the fact that we are just playing (pretending to understand things that have actually eluded us).  Life is a game--a deadly game: our existence is on the line all the time.  But it is still a game, a farce, a joke.  It is meant to be laughed at (after the tears: they have their place, and I would never deny that).  If we pretend that the game is serious (i.e. that it has regular rules that make some kind of continuous sense that we or someone smarter understands), we lose the chance to live for real.  We become focused on the myth more than the reality that it describes (but does not and cannot contain).  We avoid some small tragedies (facing the realities of unfairness and death), but at what cost?  What profiteth it a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?  I want to suffer my own life.  I don't want to lose my experiences.  I don't want the edge of my suffering dulled by long drafts of intoxicating myth lying to me, telling me that all is well, that the ruin I see around me is unreal, just a bad moment in kindergarten before an eternity in heaven (with mansions and virgins and gold and whatever else the fashionable prophet du jour promises).  The only thing worse than suffering terribly in life is failing to suffer what one actually suffers.  The only thing worse than being crucified myself is letting Jesus be crucified in my place.

There are few things we can actually do in life.  One of the most precious of these things, in my experience, is to be present in the moment, especially those moments that are emotionally charged (whether with joy or sorrow).  I cannot determine the circumstances of my birth or death, but (as it happens) I have some control over the dance that I execute between entrance and exit.  I can strike a heroic pose, embracing the truth that I find (whatever it is), or I can worry about what someone else thinks the whole time (and pass him all the panache of living my life: the risks, the fear, the elation, the sorrow, the anticipation).  I choose to live my life myself: ultimately, I think this will make me a better person, my associates better people, and the world a better place (no matter what happens: some of it is always going to be awful).

Monday, February 20, 2012

Incest and Homosexuality, Oh My!

I wrote this about incest and gay marriage and thought it might be worth hanging on to (if nothing else as a beginning of my attempt to articulate how I feel about public and private morality).

People make their own relationships: this is largely unavoidable, and it sometimes ends badly (as in really badly, not just badly from your overly inquisitive neighbor's point of view).  Our laws against incest don't really prevent it from happening (any more than our War on Drugs stops people from smoking crack).  Prohibition had a noble aim (get working men out of the bar and set them up providing for their families instead of beating them).  This noble aim did not prevent it from failing miserably: it took a bad situation (people are stupid) and made it worse (stupid people now get their stupid fix via gangsters who operate under the law, endangering innocent bystanders to keep the stupid stuff happening).  The real solution to these moral problems is not more severity, more scrutiny, more censorship, but less.  The less people care, the less likely they are to get involved in fights (which strike me as nature's worst means for solving problems).

As matters stand in the marriage business, we have a significant portion of the population (something like 10%) whose only "acceptable" outlet for sexual fulfillment is the equivalent of a nineteenth-century whorehouse.  I don't know how many gay Mormons you know.  They tend to escape notice.  It may surprise you to know that the vast majority of them are not at all interested in moving to San Francisco and hanging out in sleazy bars in the hopes of finding true love.  They value things like chastity, fidelity, decency, etc. (good old-fashioned virtues), and they want to settle down (and start families, not group orgies).  For natural reasons, most people (gays included) are not going to want to have sexual relations with their closest relatives; for natural reasons, a small group of people will diverge from this norm (they already do; beating them up, whether literally or figuratively, is not really going to stop them).  We don't go bananas every time a farm animal has sex.  If sheep can do it without destroying the world, why not humans?  What is the point of criminalizing behavior that is fundamentally harmless?  Lumping gay people with incestuous people and then combining both groups with sexual predators is just silly: the only way it makes sense is that they all make us "normal" folks say, "Yuck!"  But consenting adults who love each other (and manage their relationship such that they aren't having sex in public) are not really anything like predators (who often as not are heterosexual men: the difference between them and other folk is not in their sexual orientation per se, but in the violent way they choose to express it; for natural reasons, there will never be a society that embraces the sexual fetish that allows you to kidnap victims and murder them with impunity).

I think Prohibition was a well-intended idea that failed in practice.  I think allowing gay marriage would free a significant number of people to have better relationships (relationships more like the one I have with my wife).  I do not think that the slippery slope from allowing gay marriage to tolerating serial killers exists.  It is a figment of the imagination (an imagination that does not know human limits because it has never really thought about what makes us moral beings).  As for incest, I am personally not interested.  In the case of gay twins, at least we can be certain that no deformed offspring will result.  As long as no one is being raped or murdered or otherwise coerced against his will (I support restrictions on pedophilia, since kids are fundamentally vulnerable), I have no objection to people doing what they feel they need to do.  That does not mean that I "approve" whatever they do (I support my neighbor's right to heterosexual marriage even when I think him a cretin unworthy of reproduction: until he commits a really serious crime, I am not going to butt into his love life).  It does not mean that I want to watch.  It does not mean that I waste time teaching my kids how to have incestuous sex (or whatever).  People are wrong when they think that all supporters of gay marriage want to push it as some kind of public erotic display.  "Now we are going to learn how to have anal sex, kids!"  No.  The truth is that many of us care less about sex, not more.  The less focused I am on learning (and trying to "fix") all of your quirks, the easier it is for me to develop healthy relationships of my own, relationships in which I don't try to dictate how you think or who you are, relationships in which I have the freedom to hold and practice my own morality precisely because I give you the same freedom.  I value my personal religious freedom too much to risk losing it by trying to impose myself fruitlessly on others (who are not always going to be like me, just as I am not always going to be like them: the question is not who shall submit to whom, but how we are going to get along as equals).  From my standpoint, religious freedom is safeguarded best when I leave you as much alone as possible, allowing you the widest license feasible in terms of marriage, lifestyle, etc.  If I treat you with fascist disdain and attempt to over-rule your moral decisions of which I do not approve, then I forfeit my right to be indignant when you respond in kind.  The best decision for both of us is to walk away from the fight: you cannot win by fighting.  The most you can do is model in your own life the standards you find most compelling: if you are a really good model, you will inspire yourself and others (no matter what your sexual orientation).  To me, this is Christianity (or just plain old human decency).

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Epitaph on Religious Freedom and Contraception

I don't think the government belongs in the healthcare industry: ideally, the individual finds doctors willing to provide the unique services she requires (or desires). As long as you are not hiring your doctor to carry out mafia hits against other patients, it's none of the government's business (or the church's) what you buy from him (or her). No employer has the right to tell me how to spend my wages (unless I am using them to hire people to carry out hits against company people I don't like).

In the stupid healthcare system we have right now--in which government privatizes gains (to the healthcare industry, especially the insurance mafia) and socializes losses (when your plan doesn't cover real needs and you don't have a cool million bucks lying around waiting to be spent on procedures or medicines much cheaper outside the US)--offering universal coverage of contraception is just a reasonable attempt to level the playing field for women (who should not have to get pregnant merely because someone gets inside them).

I am in the ironic position of agreeing with both sides here. I don't think our government's healthcare policy is worth anything (a bone for Republicans enraged at violations of religious freedom, please). I don't think women should have any problem accessing contraception (a bone for Democrats). I think the solution is for government to get out of healthcare: people will go to and/or create the services that they want. Liberals can fund hospitals that offer contraception (which is really cheap). Conservatives can get their care from dour nuns. The government can worry about other things, like the fact that it is technically bankrupt.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Freedom (and Religion)

From my perspective, freedom in the positive sense is fundamentally a privilege, not a right.  If I lose an arm or leg today, my freedom of movement will be impeded (regardless of laws: all the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put Humpty together again).  If I fall out with all my friends and lose my job, my freedom to live and work in relatively pleasant prosperity will be curtailed.  It is impossible to change this (by law or even by divine decree, unless we wake up tomorrow and the world is radically different from the way it is today and has been as far back as anyone can remember).

Freedom in the negative sense is something I would really like to offer as many people as possible, and I really hope that they reciprocate.  I do my best not to interfere with them, and all I ask is that they do everything they can to avoid interfering with me.  But I am under no illusion that I have some inviolable "right" to be left alone: if people really want to interfere with me, they can and they will.  My job is to make it not worth their while, giving them as little motive for interference as possible.


The more my religion depends on other people, the less freedom it offers (to me or to anyone else).  The more it is about dictating to others, the less it can be about empowering them (or me, unless my goal is to be a dictator).  The more it depends on some kind of official character to do its work, the less vitality (and freedom) it really has.

Religious Freedom

I do not claim religious exemption from taxes, at this time.  I don't object to grocers who sell wheat (even though I think it is bad food for human beings).  I try to avoid giving business to Monsanto by refusing to buy their products whenever possible: that is my kind of religious freedom at work.  But I recognize that a good bit of my money gets back to them in one form or another (some of it in the form of government farming subsidies, no doubt).  C'est la vie.  If I were really committed, I would support local farmers more rather than attacking Monsanto more.  Why waste time poking the bear with sticks?  Just don't need him.  Don't feed him.  Stay the hell away from him, and if you're lucky he will get old, sick, and tired -- and then one day he will fade away into obsolescence.

My advice to the Catholic church: stop feeding the bear.  If your employees are so far gone that you cannot let them near birth control without their snapping it up like candy, then you have already lost the battle for their minds (and souls).  You need to convince their hearts, and then you can give them absolute freedom without fearing that they will use it against the Catholic truth that you all stand for.  Governments can and will force people to do things.  But here, all they are forcing us to do is leave the door open to a choice, a choice that nobody has to make: who is forcing women to use birth control?  Nobody.  If they want it, your friendly federal government thinks that they should have it.  But they don't have to want it (and businesses don't have to supply it merely because someone gives them some money: they do this because they have faith in your friendly federal government, faith that they may not keep if that government cannot find a way to stabilize its currency).  Ignore the government; let it crash and burn (or right itself and walk away).  Don't waste time fighting with it.  The Confederate States of America already tried that: it ended badly (for everyone).

The essence of faith lies not in what choices you allow others, but in the choices you make yourself.  Do you choose to be a dictator, fighting force with force?  Do you choose to spend your life fighting?  Those who live by the sword often die by it.  Sometimes, in the process, they ruin the dream they are trying to defend.  The greatest faith needs no defense: it exists outside of rights and laws, relying only on God (or whatever is out there) for its justification, and expecting nothing from others.  Great martyrs are witnesses to truths that they cannot deny: they don't get mad when others cannot see their truths.  They don't force others to see.  They don't pass laws forcing people to pretend that they see.  They just tell us what they have seen, and then let the cards fall where they may (without bitching or expecting more than reality promises, which is usually nothing).  That is real faith.  That is real "leadership" (though I hate that word).  That is real freedom.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Epicurean Paradox

Here is one version of an insight (or cluster of insights) that really threw me as I examined my religious faith rationally.

Jung on the Unconscious (God?)

Carl Jung. Civilization in Transition. Trans. R. F. C. Hull. 1970 (2nd edition).  Princeton University Press.  ISBN: 0691097623.

This interesting quote (pp. 358-359, paragraph 678) caught my attention as I was returning this book to the library:
The differentiated function [reason, guided thought] undoubtedly depends on man, on his diligence, patience, perseverance, his striving for power, and his native gifts. With the aid of these things he gets on in the world and "develops." From this he has learnt that development and progress depend on man's own endeavours, his will and ability.  But that is only one side of the picture. The other side shows man as he is and as he finds himself to be. Here he can alter nothing, because he is dependent on factors outside his control. Here he is not the doer, but a product that does not know how to change itself. He does not know how he came to be the unique individual that he is, and he has only the scantiest knowledge of himself. Until recently he even thought that his psyche consisted of what he knew of himself and was a product of the cerebral cortex. The discovery of unconscious psychic processes more than fifty years ago is still far from being common knowledge and its implications are still not recognized. Modern man still does not realize that he is entirely dependent on the cooperation of the unconscious, which can actually cut short the very next sentence he proposes to speak. He is unaware that he is continuously sustained by something, while all the time he regards himself exclusively as the doer. He depends on and is sustained by an entity he does not know, but of which he has intimations and 'occurred' to--or, as we can more fitly say, revealed themselves to--long-forgotten forbears in the grey dawn of history. Whence did they come? Obviously from the unconscious processes, from that so-called unconscious which still precedes consciousness in every new human life, as the mother precedes the child. The unconscious depicts itself in dreams and visions, as it always did, holding before us images which, unlike the fragmented functions of consciousness, emphasizes facts that relate to the unknown whole man, and only apparently to the function which interests us to the exclusion of all else. Although dreams usually speak the language of our particular specialism--canis panem somniat, piscator pisces--they refer to the whole, or at the very least to what man also is, namely the utterly dependent creature he finds himself to be.
Jung's unconscious here sounds very close to what many people seem to mean when they use the word God.  All of us are larger than we know, containing and embodying processes larger than ourselves that constitute us and enable the decisions we have to make: we are all conditioned and constrained by an alien unknown that is at once external and internal.  We cannot understand this constraining factor.  We can only listen to it, and react to it (well or badly).

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Liberals and Conservatives

Society exists as a tension between conservatives (who resist innovation to preserve the status quo) and liberals (who support innovation to improve the status quo). Ideally, liberals generate a bunch of neat ideas and conservatives shoot down the really dumb ones. In practice, however, people get stuck. When we get stuck, it is usually because too many of us are too conservative. (Liberals go bust really quickly when they go crazy, e.g. Joseph Smith.) What you have in the modern LDS church is a society mired in excessive conservatism. Even as we pay lip-service to liberal innovation ("personal revelation" starting with Joseph Smith in the Grove), in practice we are actively trying to inhibit change in all its forms (which amounts to deluding ourselves into thinking that it doesn't exist: if there is no change, then there is no dangerous innovation to be scared of, and the conservative majority of us can preserve the illusion that things are stable in God's kingdom of order).

There is nothing inherently great about change for its own sake, but (a big but) some change is always necessary to survive. In other words, conservatives are right to resist random change ("ooh! neo-conservatism is so cool! let's throw all of our social weight behind the Religious Right, conveniently forgetting that they have been trying to destroy us since the nineteenth century!"), but wrong to postpone it indefinitely: sometimes, you have to change. The problem with our current situation in the LDS church is that we are trying to live without noticing change. This means that we end up standing for nothing (since change is real), and falling for anything (jumping right into bed with the people who have been seeking to bring the Church down since its formation). Instead of using our brain power to come up with creative new ideas for taking Mormonism forward into the 21st century, we are using it to come up with creative re-interpretations that justify us to implacable enemies (many of whom no longer exist as a significant factor on the demographic landscape) and anchor us to moral positions that are at once un-Mormon and intellectually indefensible.