The Word: The Dark Side Of The Force

This blog post was written for the online magazine Sci Phi Journal.

Like so many of my generation – which I still prefer to call the Children of the Eighties – Star Wars was a great part of my introduction to science-fiction. I grew up adoring it, practically worshiping it. Surely nothing could be so good as Star Wars. And in a sense, I was right: Star Wars became a movie so iconic that, while it could be imitated, it could not be directly borrowed from. After Star Wars, who would dare to use lightsabers (or forceblades, or laser swords) seriously? After Star Wars, who could possibly consider using any power that would correspond to The Force?

Of course, besides the fact that it would be a shameless rip-off, there are other reasons why no one but George Lucas would use a concept like The Force. It was so ill-defined that it could defensibly do just about anything. It was the ultimate deus ex machina, and only the fact that the writers had the sense to use it somewhat sparingly saved the movies at all from their most defining feature.

But the two worst things about Star Wars’ portrayal of The Force are ones that I rarely hear discussed. Firstly, it was a great example of that cardinal sin of storytelling: Telling, Not Showing. While it certainly makes sense for Luke’s use of the Force to be limited in the first Star Wars movie, it certainly doesn’t make much sense for Obi-Wan not to show him what the Force can do, any more than it makes sense for Obi-Wan and Darth Vader to fail to use the Force during their combat. (Yes, I realize that the primary reason for this was because Lucas himself had obviously not figured out what he wanted the Force to be capable of, yet. In which case, it’s bad worldbuilding). Secondly, it missed a great opportunity to build characters with the depth necessary to address truly hard questions about the nature of power and its ability to corrupt.

Strangely enough, this is one of the few things that the prequels do just a little bit better than the original trilogy does. In Attack of the Clones, we get a clear glimpse of what it can mean to turn to the Dark Side of the Force and why that might be attractive. In trying to save his mother, Anakin Skywalker lashes out in anger and slaughters the Sand People, down to the women and children. He shows no mercy in doing so, and he regrets it later. In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda warns Luke that “once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny,” but we never see that in Luke. Instead, he is told to take it on faith that the Light Side of the Force will be better served if he abandons his friends to Darth Vader, which he understandably resists.

Luke is never seriously tempted to join the Dark Side. To question the Light Side, yes. But he is never really shown to have any desire to seize the Force for any evil purpose, as Anakin did. And the Dark Side’s mastery of Anakin Skywalker begins with a tactic that is familiar to many terrorist organizations and criminal gangs: the new initiate is required to kill. Ideally he is required to kill a non-combatant in the name of the group’s ideals. This tactic works for two reasons: firstly, it puts the initiate on the wrong side of the law. He cannot go back without facing serious penalties. Secondly, and far more seriously, the initiate can never turn his back on the group without admitting to himself that he is a murderer. The only way to defend himself from that is to profess that the murder was really a virtuous act. And this, if true, can only lead to more “virtuous acts.” More murder. More terror.

Another excellent portrayal of the Dark Side’s power was that done by Kevin J. Anderson with his character Kyp Durron, who comes to be able to use the Force directly through surges of fear and anger to free himself from captivity. Unguided by any master, he discovers that fear, anger and aggression make him powerful, and underline the truth of Yoda’s claim that the Dark Side is “quicker, easier, more seductive.” And of course, it is, because it always has been.

The Force is on one hand a tame god. It obeys the will of the user. But on the other hand, it is a metaphor for that most challenging of theological concepts: free will. And like any person who discovers that his or her anger and fear can be fashioned into a weapon to bend and manipulate others, the temptation to continue using it becomes a sword sharp as a lightsaber, unsafe to hold from any angle. If you stop using it, those you threaten will be encouraged to strike back (most likely for the same reasons you struck them in the first place). And even if they do not, you will be left to face the guilt and will be forced to confess that your actions were wrong from the outset. Far easier, then to find any excuse to keep using the dark power, always for the noblest of goals. But any Star Wars fan – and far more sadly, any history student – knows where that leads. It leads to killing children to save the thing you love, and then passing it off as a difference in “point of view.” To, in the words of a better character, Aral Vorkosigan, do terrible things in the present to avoid false terrors in the future. We do not have to be Jedi to be tempted by the Dark Side. It is in all of us.

Dallas and Wichita: This Is The Post You Are Looking For

This was not the blog post I was going to write today, but Steven Barnes asked me to write something up about what I saw and experienced, so here it goes.

I don’t often say that I am proud to live and work in Wichita, Kansas. I grew up here, and have lived most of my adult life here, as well. It isn’t and never will be a tourist destination. But yesterday, I was proud of my city.

Black Lives Matter, in the form of a local group called IGYB (I Got Your Back) had planned to hold a protest here on Sunday. Rather than oppose it or warn people, our new Chief of Police, Gordon Ramsay (really!) spoke with IGYB and decided to hold a public cookout for any and all who wanted to come and play and talk and eat together. I have to credit my wife for our participation: I would never have seen that the event existed without her.

At first, when Mr. Barnes asked me to write this essay, I was unsure of what I was going to say. I wasn’t able to really join in the discussion or listen to the speakers. By the time people were speaking, my children, who are seven, five, and three, were up past their bedtime and were starting to melt down. I would have done nothing by staying except frustrate them (and doubtless the people around us). Nothing earth-shattering happened, either in general or to me and my family. I didn’t make a new friend, sadly. I’m not the kind of person that easily begins conversations with people I don’t know. And I didn’t say or hear anything life-changing. I didn’t have a conversation that opened my or anyone else’s eyes.

But as the conversation on Steven’s Facebook page grew, I could see how much people wanted to know about this event, and how very, very basic the questions were. So this is what I saw:

I saw my White and my Black neighbors there. I’d say that the races were pretty evenly present. Maybe about 45/45 Black/White and 10% Other.

I saw dozens, if not scores of Wichita Police officers (and Kansas Highway Patrolmen, and Firemen and EMTs) mixing in with the community, smiling, and glad to be there. I saw them speaking with people with Black Lives Matter shirts on. I saw both groups speaking with men who looked like bikers. Everyone was greeting one another. No one looked afraid.

I listened to a young Black singer while we ate. He had a good voice. I regret I got caught up in my children and didn’t find out his name.

I had a brief discussion with an officer who seemed optimistic about the way the city was headed, and he’d been on the force since 1988, when I was entering high school.

I saw my children jumping through bounce-houses with my Black neighbors’ children, with huge smiles on their faces.

I watched my children enthralled by a couple of eight-week old puppies that were being carried by a pair of Black men who were a little older than I am. They let the puppies down on the ground to play with my enthralled kids. I thanked them for their time.

As we left, I heard a speaker. I don’t know who he was and I don’t know exactly what he was saying, but he was saying it to a crowd of all ages and races, several hundred strong, who were giving him their undivided attention. And he called on them to become more active in their community, and to be involved in the political process. He had faith in our democracy, and our people, that we would be able to come together and to do what is right.

And this morning I saw photos posted by a young Jewish officer holding Black children and dancing with them. Ten years ago, that young man was sitting in my history classroom. And I was proud of him, and grateful to have had the privilege of seeing him grow into his dream of serving our community, and doing it well.

And today I am remembering Dallas, and how easily Wichita and Dallas might have changed places. Because right before the terrible act of violence that seared Dallas across our minds, they, like we, had come together — White, Black, Police, and Civilian — to talk to each other, confident that they could make peace.

Today, because of the leadership of our police chief and our Black community leaders, I have new faith that we here in America can make peace with one another. No people on God’s Earth ever had a better chance.  Things are really and truly getting better in our nation, despite the terrible things that some choose to do. I am a history teacher, and I can tell you that this is not usually the way that things go. When a nation has a history of conquest and enslavement, it’s much more common to see increased separation leading to violence, oppression and revenge. And all those things are still with us, yes. But the pain that we are now going through is in may ways because our expectations of ourselves and of others are rising. I can tell you from living in them that many other countries do not go through this pain — but it is not because they are less oppressive than we. It is because prejudice and concepts of race superiority are so entrenched that they are not even questioned.

I know there are those who will think that I only say such things as a justification for maintaining a status quo. I do not. I say it because I see the good that began in Dallas swallowed up and lost in the horror of its ending. And I know that while Mr. Barnes had no need to ask me or anyone else about the terror in Dallas, he needed me to show him the good in Wichita. If we do not believe that good is possible, then how will we ever invest our fortunes in it, much less pledge our lives and our sacred honors?

The last thing I said at the cookout was to exchange greetings with a Black family that I don’t know. I think it was probably a father, his children, and his mother. We said hello, and the older woman said, “God bless you.” Yes, ma’am. May His blessing be upon us all. And I hope to see you again, at another cookout. There’s talk there may be more of them. I do hope so. If we can, we’ll be there.

 

Adult Themes. Not Safe For Anyone.

I am indebted to Steven Barnes, author of Dream Park, Lion’s Blood, and countless other wonderful novels for the genesis of this post. On social media, he discusses the concept of adulthood in detail.

I have come to believe that in our society, we are gravely confused about adulthood, and what adulthood means. Sometimes, I wonder what our civilization has come to when the most frequent context for the word “adult” is as an adjective describing entertainment with explicitly sexual themes.

It’s no wonder our society is obsessed with sex, and who is having it with whom, and who has the right to have it under what circumstances. Clearly, we have made the ability to copulate into a significant proof that we are worthy of an honor, and that honor is the privilege of being considered by our fellow adults to be reliable and responsible self-supporting beings. This is amazingly sad when you consider that this activity can be carried out by beings that literally have no brains. Yet for all this, there is a more sinister connotation to the use of the word “adult” in the context of entertainment.

We’ve turned “adult” into a word that means that you are free and unrestricted. That no one can stop you from consuming whatever you want. And the most disturbing thing about this definition of “adulthood” is not that it’s new or strange, but that it is old and depressingly familiar. It’s the definition that we all learned as children, when we resented our parents’ constant direction. They were the ones who stayed up late, watched anything they wanted, chose the food we all ate, liked it all, set boundaries and cut off fun. Our definition of “adult” is the child’s definition, and that says far too much about the culture we have settled for.

So what’s the right definition? Steven Barnes has defined adulthood as (to the best of my memory) the ability to provide physically for yourself and another human being. There’s a lot to like about that definition. It’s practical, relatively easy to measure, and about as unbiased as anything I can think of. But although that is an excellent beginning, I think adulthood is something more than this, too. I think it has to be more. I’ve seen too many so-called adults who were certainly competent providers tear up their spouses, their kids, their co-workers, and their subordinates without ever losing their ability to make a living and support another person. And on a certain level, that’s just, because despite those faults, those people made themselves valuable to others in ways that couldn’t be ignored. But I saw my grandmother and grandfather, who passed the above test (in many ways, with flying colors) turn their marriage into a little annex of hell because of their childishness. And that childishness was a real and dangerous thing because it endangered their son’s ability to repeat their success. It certainly robbed him of many opportunities to learn from their strengths. Further, their childishness endangered their grandchildren’s ability to grow into real adults because of the pain they inflicted.

But now let me tell you about my father. He didn’t come out of that situation unscathed, but I’ll tell you this: he sure as hell took the opportunity to learn from his parents’ weaknesses. The older I get, the more I appreciate that my father took a bad situation, a situation that many people would have used as an excuse to be weak, looked at it, and said, “I will not follow this.” I don’t think I ever heard him put the whole lesson into words. He said things like: “You do what you have to.” He said things like, “We’re family, and this is what we do for each other.” But if I had to put it into words, I would say, that adulthood is the ability to accept pain in your life without sacrificing others to avoid it.

Life is pain. Life is joy, too, but that joy comes with a lot of pain. I can’t count the number of people I know who unhesitatingly, and sometimes with vindictive glee, will throw friends and family members in the path of pain so that they can avoid it. Or so that they can have pleasure. That’s why people have affairs. It’s why people neglect and abuse the children they are supposed to be turning into adults. And while many, possibly most of us, avoid the huge wounds that tear a relationship apart in one blow, most of us habitually indulge in the repeated violations of trust that stretch these bonds to the breaking point over years. Because we want what we want. We want it now. We’re too tired to do one more thing for those we say we love.

Of course, we all have our limits, and there’s such a thing as needing to love and nurture yourself, too. Adulthood is the ability to distinguish between the desires of your heart and the desires of your stomach. Adulthood is the ability to say no to what you want in favor of what you absolutely have to have. And if you can’t tell the difference, then you will never be more than half yourself, the other half eaten up by petty desires.

But I am dismayed when I see how many people seem completely unable to say “no” to themselves, and are trapped in the desire of the moment as if it is their life’s goal. I am grateful beyond measure that my father taught me how to say that word. And I am well aware that I don’t say it enough; I’m not as good at it as he was. And no, he wasn’t perfect either. But he’s better at it than I ever have been. Maybe I haven’t been close enough to the consequences of a marriage that completely breaks down to appreciate it. If that’s so, then there aren’t words to express my gratitude.

Today, I look out at my nation, and I see clamoring hordes of children, crying out that they are adults, but at the same time, clamoring just as loudly for an authority to give them what they want, rather than resolve to make it for themselves or do without. And when they are challenged on this, they cry even louder that they have rights (usually by virtue of existing) but no power to do what they want. These are not the cries of adults. These are the cries of frustrated children. And the thing about frustrated children is, that they usually do get what they need, but they find that it is not what they want. The adults hear their cries and treat them as children.

If we will not be adults, then the adults will come for us, and they will put us in the place we have asked for.

Space Trek: Into Derpness (A Fisking)

I actually had something profound to say this week, but what with a number of things, I was not able to get my thoughts into any coherent order by my self-imposed and oft-violated deadline of Blog Wednesday. Then, suddenly, a golden opportunity for a fisking was bestowed upon me. I’ve never done one of these before, so I thought I’d start with an easy one: A Guardian post that is either clever parody or mind-bogglingly stupid. I’ll let you take your pick. Rules for the fisking: The fisked article is in italics, and my responses are in bold.

What if the mega-rich just want rocket ships to escape the Earth they destroy?

Jess Zimmerman 

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is the latest tech billionaire to invest his money in spaceships: on Tuesday, he debuted his space travel company Blue Origin’s newest rocket. Now, those who want to cruise the galaxy can choose between the sleek new rocket and the stubbier model Bezos announced in April – or they can opt to ride with Tesla founder Elon Musk on a SpaceX ship, or hop on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

Well, yes, if by “cruise the galaxy” you mean “achieve Low Earth Orbit,” and in the case of Virgin Galactic, fail to do even that. This is not a promising beginning for any article that wishes to be taken seriously about the possibility of people destroying planets, if you can’t tell the difference between orbital craft, sub-orbital craft, and galactic cruisers.

At this rate, would-be space travelers will be able to choose their favorite tech company, find its richest guy and buy a ticket on his craft of choice. Why does everyone who achieves economic dominance over the planet immediately turn around and try to get off it?

Everyone? Three companies is “everyone?” This whole quantitative reasoning thing is a challenge for you, isn’t it? A better question would be, “What’s got you so obsessed with people who are reinvesting money into companies that are advancing our engineering knowledge and employing clever people?” Somehow, I’m guessing (re: The Ominous Title) we’re going to find out that this isn’t okay with you for various reasons.

The “boys and their toys” explanation is the obvious one – once you’ve bought all the cars and boats and planes you want, why not buy a rocket? (We don’t have a “girls and their toys” ethos yet because the cards are stacked against women getting to this level of obscene wealth, but I suspect a lot of us would want to buy rocketships, too.)

What? GIRLS wanting to buy rockets? I’m shocked. I thought that womyn were far too responsible and caring to want to go to space with “boys and their toys” since that’s how you dismiss the whole enterprise (no pun intended). But, I’ll give credit for some honesty. I really like women who think rockets are awesome.

Space is inherently cool, and even if it weren’t, space is inherently other – which matters a lot to the man who has everything terrestrial. By the same token, someone who already has a watch that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars can buy a watch that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars but comes from space.

Okay, I have to agree with you on that one: those watches are damned stupid. On the other hand you just compared someone who is spending millions of dollars to develop the capability to launch spacecraft with someone spending several hundred thousand to own a toy. Is it possible that these men are more interested in capability than they are with ownership? Or is it possible that you really don’t understand the difference between the two? (HINT: That says a lot more about you than it does them).

Of course, uber-wealthy tech entrepreneurs aren’t just buying rockets for their personal amusement. They’re founding or investing in space travel – they want to get you off-planet, too. Well, not you-you, but someone like you with much, much, much more money.

Well, um yes. The development of new vehicles has always, ALWAYS been for the rich to do. What’s that? You don’t believe me? Okay, you are free to prove me wrong. Go out into the wilderness — any wilderness you choose — and make me a vehicle used by poor people today. Like a passenger train. No? A city bus, then. Still no? Well how about a bicycle. Can’t be hard, peasants in developing nations use them. No? Okay, how about a dugout canoe. People in STONE AGE tribes use them.
(pause)
Well, of course you’ll need an axe. Get to making one.
(pause)
You would need metal for that. Or stone, it’s all over the place.
(pause)
I know you don’t know how. That’s the point.
No vehicle to carry humans has ever been developed cheaply, unless it was already being done by an advanced society and the vehicle was a variant on an existing design. You have to pay for the R&D, the failures, and the sucky prototypes, and all that costs money, so it gets done by the relatively rich, i.e. the people well-fed enough and with enough disposable time and energy to make tools, break tools, make more tools, and go on living.

And that’s where the vogue for billionaire space travel magnates gets a little weird –and maybe even sinister. It’s already very true that money expands your world; the person with the funds to have a car is less restricted in her movements than the person without one, and the person with a huge plane and the money to fly it is less restricted still.

Yes. Money is good. It expands your range of choices. Not sure why that’s sinister, unless you believe that richness is de facto suspect, which of course, you do.

The expansion of rich people’s travel horizons comes at a price for everyone, both rich and poor. With the exception of America’s weirdly-expensive Amtrak system, cost and luxury scale with fossil fuel consumption; travel that costs more and feels more indulgent is also travel that has a cataclysmic effect on the environment. The faster and further you can afford to travel, the greater your environmental footprint. And often, the people less able to travel are the ones left holding the toxic-chemical and pollution-filled bag.

Yes. The expansion of rich people’s travel horizons comes at a price for everyone, both rich and poor. AND IT BENEFITS EVERYONE, BOTH RICH AND POOR! I’m sorry, but there’s no way to get around this. Governments concerned with helping the poor didn’t invent trains. They didn’t invent buses. They didn’t invent cars. They did make those trains and buses run badly and they did make the cars unaffordable, but all of those things were invented and owned by rich, rich people, who wanted to make more money and found that transporting the poor (and their goods) did that quite efficiently. The poor generally liked this, and got cheaper and cheaper transportation.
And excuse me, but “cost and luxury scale with fossil fuel consumption?” I know you’re talking about leaving the planet, but have you ALREADY LEFT? How much fossil fuel do luxury yachts burn? Or are you talking about cheap, non-fossil fuel nuclear submarines? Or aircraft carriers? Oh, you don’t think those are fair comparisons? How about this: I didn’t buy a hybrid last time I went car shopping, because I calculated that gas would have to stay a steady $5.00/gallon for it to be worth the extra up-front costs.
The only reason that argument holds together long enough to be even vaguely deceptive is because people like you have made sure it stays that way by denying us the possibility of building cheap nuclear plants because too many people saw Godzilla and THEM! in the theaters in the fifties and got scared of THE RADIATIONS!
Still, it’s good there are socially conscious people like you who walk and bike everywhere you go.
I mean, I assume you don’t own a car, because that would make you, comparatively, a rich person leaving toxic-chemical and pollution-filled bags in the hands of the approximately 88% of the poor you seem so concerned with. And that link is to a leftist source, so I’m sure it’s reliable enough for you.
And I’m sure you’re not that kind of hypocrite.

Companies like Blue Origin are using money and resources to push outwards, to expand the worlds of their rich customers all the way into space.

Their money and their resources, yes, but all property is theft except mine, right?

But those same customers – and some of the owners – are making their terrestrial money in the classic capitalist terrestrial way: by working around any obstacle to profit, including environmental regulations and conservation efforts. Almost all industry is environmentally disastrous, after all; truly prioritizing earth-friendliness would destroy most companies.

Oh, I see! It’s INDUSTRY that’s the problem, because it’s all “environmentally disastrous.” Hey, you know what’s MORE environmentally disastrous? Trying to feed seven billion people without industry. We’d have to feed the world on organics then, baby, because no evil industrialists would be there to make the Bad Chemicals that kill insects and weeds. But of course, I’m missing your point. Your point is we shouldn’t have seven billion people at all! We should go back to when the human race WASN’T overpopulating the planet! Of course, we didn’t have birth control then, because there wasn’t any industry to create cheap, reliable condoms or hormonal birth control.
Oh, wait: we DID have reliable population controls.
They were called “infant mortality” and “death in childbirth.”

Some people with a great deal of money care more about the fate of the world than others, but they’re all willing to cut corners if it affects the bottom line. You can tell because they have a great deal of money; you can also tell because they’re willing to spend it on a ride in a spaceship.

Yeah, those colossally selfish jerks. It’s almost as bad as those selfish bastards driving their cars. Or spending their precious working hours using computers instead of growing food for the poor.

Which raises the question: are they just gearing up to wash their hands of the planet and leave the rest of us to clean up? By pushing outward while ignoring the problems it causes back on the home turf, are they effectively creating a galactic upper class that rests on the backs of the earthbound? Even if that’s not literally the plan, it may be the ultimate outcome.

Wow. You really just shoved the whole premise of your article into the last paragraph as an airy supposition, didn’t you? Did you get that idea off watching Elysium? Where would these rich people go? Do you expect them to build giant space habitats and leave us all here to rot (despite the fact that life in space is bad for you and uncomfortable on a number of levels that we haven’t begun to solve). Or do you expect them to go to Mars? (HINT: It’s NOT HABITABLE. “The Martian” is NOT A DOCUMENTARY.)
What kind of person leaps ahead to those kinds of implausible, and hence unproven (hell, except for her, unalleged!) generalities? This is like watching a spoiled rich girl addicted to soap operas who runs to her mother when she finds an ENVELOPE in DAD’S POCKET with a WOMAN’S HANDWRITING… which turns out to be a birthday card from his mother.

Oh, wait, I know what kind of person does that.
It’s the kind of person who confuses three with everyone and uses “galactic” to describe things in near-Earth orbit.

From Somewhere In Orbit The Galaxy

The Sacred Feelz: A Double-Edged Sword

Well, that was a long time since last I wrote, wasn’t it? I’m afraid that was the result of the school year starting again with more-than-the-usual bumps in the road. Here’s hoping this blog never has to take such a long hiatus again. That said, let’s get to it.

Mr. Spock, the beloved Vulcan whose human vessel died this past year, regarded emotions as the great failing of humankind. We, of course, think differently. Our feelings are what make us human. Throughout all of speculative fiction, we have told stories of the one who does not feel. They are the robots, the undead, the soulless. A character who does not feel is a sign of serious danger, for he or she is not entirely human. Mr. Spock and Mr. Data may be the only examples of unfeeling characters to earn our sympathy, and they do so by how they make us feel. Feelings are important.

On the other hand, anyone with the least experience in dealing with feelings knows the truth of Mr. Spock’s observation. We are often the victims of our own feelings. Feelings can be false. Most of the universe around us, though it can influence our feelings profoundly, has no more regard for how we feel than I do for the ants in my garden. In many areas of life, our feelings simply do not matter.

This double-truth has the potential to lead us to a very dangerous and destructive double-standard, which I see playing out every day, and it has its roots in simple selfishness. It begins with a truth: we say, “My friends and I are people, entitled to human dignity, and our feelings are sacred.”

Then in the next breath we turn and say, “The feelings of our enemies are nothing but outraged posturing to cover up their shame at being found out as hypocrites and liars. Their feelings are beneath contempt and do not matter.”

I would hope that it is obvious that such a course can never make us the sort of people we should desire to be. Besides the hypocrisy, it is wrong on at least two levels. Firstly, of course, it neatly removes the responsibility for anyone’s feelings out of our hands. Under this system, when we feel badly, it is because of the actions of our enemies. When our enemies feel badly, on the other hand, it is because of their own actions. Our culpability vanishes, and we imagine ourselves free.

This is a profound mistake, one many people make: it confuses power with privilege. Power is the ability to control the reactions of yourself and others. Privilege is the ability to demand that people react appropriately to you. The confusion arises because the two often go hand in hand: If you do not respect my privileges, I have the power to see that you regret it. But they are not the same. Power protects. Privilege is what is protected. Privilege is inherently fragile; power is inherently strong.

Secondly, therefore, the approach of valuing our own feelings while devaluing others is exactly the opposite of being a rational and loving person. We have only the ability to interrogate our own feelings, and determine whether they are honest or dishonest. We have almost no power to interrogate the feelings of others (except insofar as they may express feelings contrary to provable fact, i.e. I just feel that 2+2 = 5) and none at all to determine their power to resist them. Therefore, if we are the rational and loving people we wish to be, we ought to question our own feelings mercilessly in order to change and order them. At the same time, we ought to do what we can to respect the feelings of others. Only in this way can they ever grow to respect ours. This is hard work, and work at which I am not especially skilled. It is nevertheless, true.

From Somewhere In Orbit

A Christian Case For The Legality Of Gay Marriage

So much has been said on the subject of the recent Supreme Court ruling that it is nearly asinine even to mention that much has been said. And yet, in all that has been said about love, and all that has been said about justice, and all that has been said about fairness and all that has been said about hatred and bigotry and hypocrisy and force, I have yet to hear anyone address an issue that, in my opinion, the Church must acknowledge. That issue is whether or not we, the Church of Christ, are obligated to be honest to the world about what we want out of our government.

Despite some of the histrionics that I have seen from scaremongers on the extreme left, most of the Christians that I know and fellowship with do not want a theocracy in America. I have lived in enough places in this nation and spoken with enough Christians that I can say with assurance that most Christians do not want this. They do want their faith, and the right to practice it protected, and like all people, they get scared (despite the Lord’s command that they should not) and overreact. But the vast majority of them don’t really want a Church State.

I am going to speak, then, to those in the Church who agree with this principle. If we really do agree that Church and State should be separate, and that the State should have nothing to do with the Church, it is difficult for me to understand why the Church should consider it relevant what definition the State places on “marriage.” “Marriage” to the State denotes a legal arrangement that allows for special privileges between the married parties, most of which have to do with parental and property rights. What do we have to do with what the State says, unless it directly challenges our rights to be the Church of Christ?

I submit that it is dishonest of the Church of Christ to both want and not want the State to do our bidding. If we wish to seize the power of the State to make laws (which I think would be a grave mistake) then we should at least be honest enough to proclaim that this is what we want, and work openly for the establishment of a theocracy, which would make laws along Christian principles. I trust that such laws would include making divorce and the remarriage of the divorced illegal as well. But I have not seen the part of the Church that campaigns against the legalization of gay marriage waging a campaign against laws that recognize these other practices of marriage. All of them are practices which the State permits and Christ condemns.

The Muslim faith does, under certain conditions, permit and encourage its adherents to lie to unbelievers in a practice known as taqiyyah. Some Muslims have interpreted this to justify any lie to a non-Muslim. Others stress that taqiyyah only allows Muslims to lie about their Muslim identity to escape torture and death at the hands of persecutors. This is a difference between the Muslim faith and the Christian faith. As Christians, we are charged in the strongest terms to openly avow our faith in Christ when asked. We cannot be honest with God if we are dishonest with the world.

Thus, when we as Americans take offices that require us to execute the laws of the State, and consider ourselves as citizens whose rights are protected by the State (not, please note, granted by the State), we are obligated to make and interpret the laws of the State in a spirit of honesty. And I cannot see how, honestly, we can deny the State the right to define legal marriage as long as we assent to the State’s right to grant changes in married couples’ right to hold property and raise children. If we deny it this right, then we are essentially lying. We are trying to make the State into the Church. I see nothing Biblical in this. It would be just the same as if I, in my capacity as an employee of a private business, took money from my employer and then used my time and effort to preach the Word of God. That would not glorify God. That would be fraud, and sin.

If we assent that a secular State is good, and that we, as the Church of Christ can partake of it, then we must assent to the State the right to make its laws, and its right to, within those laws, enforce them. Otherwise, we are committing fraud, and this we cannot expect the Lord to honor. Note that this applies to Christians regardless of whether you believe that the Bible teaches that homosexual acts are sinful.

If the Church is not honest about its contracts and its obligations as a citizenry, it is not really being the Church. It is being a den of liars and fraudsters. This cannot be a good witness. This cannot glorify God.

RANT: How To Tell A Feature From A Bug

I am sure all my readers are familiar with the phrase: “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.”

As noted in the title, this is going to be a rant, and mostly, it’s a rant directed at those who cannot tell human features, which will be with us as long as we are recognizably this species, and bugs, which can be fixed and eliminated by human effort. For those of you who have figured the difference, you can tune out now. For those of you who haven’t I’m about to stomp all over your sacred cows, and if that hurts, you can take this as my invitation to enter the big scary portal marked ALL HOPE ABANDON.

Here’s your first clue: if you are upset about a problem that confronts humanity (or a large part of it), and you feel the problem you are trying to solve is so huge that it can only be solved by everyone pulling together and putting their attention on THAT problem, then it is a feature of the human condition, not a bug.

If you think there is only one way to solve the problem, and anyone doing it any other way is, of necessity, making the problem worse by doing it their way and not yours, then it is a feature, and not a bug.

So let me just tell you this: I have damned well had it up to the limits of my tolerance, patience, and silence with people who spout a continuous line of bullshit about how the only reason they haven’t saved the human race yet is because all the rest of us are “complicit” in its evils. Which stripped down to plain English means that we aren’t as smart as or as good as they are, because they know everything and the only possible reason for disagreeing with them is that we don’t care. It means that they get to decide how to use our energy and time for the best good of all humanity, and if we don’t shut up and follow, then we are the bad guys.

I am damned tired of people like this, who will tell you that Dave Ramsey is really a horrible person because he tells people they can lift themselves out of debt and doesn’t acknowledge the “structural injustices” of the system. Or people like this who hate a beauty-pageant contestant because she dared suggest self-defense could be a good thing. Or people like this who can’t stand that a successful person will give ordinary folks tips on how to adjust themselves rather than “the system” for a more successful life.

I shouldn’t even have to say this, but here goes: if you want to change the system, go ahead. Give it your best shot. Change it. But changing systems takes years of effort, and it takes a kind of patience that is ready to accept years or decades of failure and work before the system ever gets changed. If you don’t have that (and most of us don’t) and you still want to get better, then your only option — the only option that will make life better for you, no matter what any “system” looks like — is to change yourself. And that’s what most people have to hope in. That’s the change most people can make on a scale that will give them strength.

So work to change the system. It’s great. The NAACP did. Teach men not to rape. It’s part of a good and effective approach to ending sexual violence. Work for good economic laws. I’ll help. But don’t piss and moan because good people are showing women how to beat the shit out of an attacker. Don’t whine that the poverty of the world isn’t fixed because everyone won’t get on your Marxist dream-train.

Any system that depends on changing everybody everywhere by the efforts of everybody everywhere ignores the simple and basic fact that everybody everywhere never agreed on what to order for lunch. Any system that promises victory “if we all just pull together” is the moral and practical equivalent of promising that we will defeat the enemy after the enemy all drops dead. It’s opening the locked chest with the key you find inside of it. If we had that power, we would already be gods.

But we’re not. We’re just humans. And one of the strengths of humanity is that we try lots of things to solve our problems. That is one of the ways we move forward. So if you are teaching that everyone not on board with your method to solve a problem is part of the problem because they see value in a different solution? I’ve got news for you: THEY are not part of the problem. Because the problem is YOU! You are the one trying to remove an essential strength from humanity and call it good.

And we don’t need your kind in our midst. We need you to grow up and love humanity the way it is, and the way it always will be.

Come back when you’re ready.

Things Fall Apart. The Center Cannot Hold These Rights

I have been reluctant to respond in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to declare marriage rights constitutional rights. I do not feel the need to retread ground that others, more intimately connected to these issues and the conflict surrounding these issues, have covered more adequately and better than I can. However there was one post that has stuck with me. Rachel Held Evans a popular Christian and political blogger, said on her Facebook page (6/27):

“Civil rights aren’t up to a vote. They aren’t up to public opinion. Civil rights are part of what it means to be an American citizen. Theological arguments around marriage set aside for another day, I simply cannot find a single compelling argument in support of denying civil rights to LGBT people that does not rely on an unhealthy marriage (sorry!) between church and state.”

I suppose Ms. Evans may have meant that civil rights are not up for an ordinary vote. If so, then what she said was a bit sloppy, but essentially correct. However, I suspect that what she meant was that Civil Rights are not up for a vote at all. Certainly it’s what was meant when Gay Rights activists in the seventies marched behind a banner reading “Human Rights Are Absolute,” quoting Jimmy Carter. His quote thus takes its place at the end of a long line of ideas that sound like wonderful affirmations of the human spirit until they are subject to five minutes’ thought.

Historically, of course, the idea that Civil Rights are not up for a vote is utter and complete nonsense. The very meaning of Civil Rights is “the rights you have as a citizen.” Do people really not understand the way this works? The Civil Rights we enjoy in the United States were created by a process of voting, from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitutional Convention, up through the Civil Rights Acts of 1964-68. All of those were done by voting. Some were prefigured in the English Bill of Rights of 1688, also passed by vote of Parliament.

To be sure, the Constitution itself declares that it is not the source, but rather the instrument, of the rights. The simple enumeration of these rights, declares the Ninth Amendment does not disparage the others retained by the states or the people. It points to a principle that the rights exist, but are merely codified by the Constitution, or the laws.

However, one of the very rights the Constitution protects, and explicitly enshrines, is the right to alter the Constitution itself, and that includes the Bill of Rights. Which of course, implicitly makes the claim that some rights are more absolute than others. The most important, in this case, would be the right to edit the codification of rights.

So when we say that human rights are absolute, do we mean they are morally absolute, and belong to us no matter what the State might say? Or do we mean that they are legally absolute: that we have a right to laws codifying and supporting our exercise of our human rights?

Historically, of course, we have meant the latter. This very process that we have seen last week meant the latter, except that the courts, rather than the vote direct, were the lever of choice. And when those Civil Rights have not been left up to (or enforceable by) the vote, both our American and British ancestors have fallen back on the other guarantor of Civil Rights: the sword. Which of course, is an even more dangerous precedent to build your human rights upon than the vote, although it is ultimately the same, because never, in the whole history of humanity, has there been an expression of popular will (or legal ruling) that did not ultimately depend on the possession and willingness to use force.

However, if the legal battle is merely over the power to express human rights that permanently exist and are, as Jimmy Carter said, absolute, then where do those absolutes come from? It certainly does not come from “science” or “nature.” A thorough study of science and nature will not lead to the least idea that “human rights” — certainly not rights to “life, liberty and happiness” — exist in nature or because of laws that can be derived.

See, I know Jimmy Carter and his religious background, and I keep coming back to one inescapable source for that absolute. The same one that the Declaration of Independence referenced, right after its 18th-Century Enlightenment appeal to “Nature:”

“Nature’s God.”

The Enlightenment thinkers, the Founding Fathers among them, may have had a lot of problems with their philosophies of life. Unthinking racism, sexism, an acceptance of chattel slavery as the cost of doing business, and a blind trust in a “Nature” they barely understood (hence “natural” rights), but one error they didn’t fall into was believing that an absolute was not required.

The idea that human rights — much less Civil Rights — are not up for a vote presupposes that they are grounded in an absolute truth. This must be clearly understood, because if it is not, then the whole idea that they are in any way special is founded on a lie. Moreover it is founded on the worst kind of lie: the lie that knows it is a lie, and does not care that it is a lie. It is the treacherous lie of the mob to itself that says, “We have created our own absolute, which we know is not an absolute, but we will call it one anyway because it makes us feel better.” Like the treacherous spouse that swears “Until death do us part,” all the while knowing they can call the divorce lawyer if ever they are dissatisfied, rights founded on this lie have no permanence and deserve no respect. At best they are a sort of mass-mysticism of human passion, liable to turn on their present beneficiaries in the next crisis. If we do not see this, we are blind. We can hold to no rights.

If we wish to reclaim our sanity, and to claim our rights are based on an absolute authority, we must identify that authority and its claims. And then we must submit to it. And if there is one thing I see in our nation that frightens and disheartens me, one thing that all sides in our present political morass share, it is the utter unwillingness to submit. Submission is only for our foes to do to us. Which will lead us inevitably back to the Absolute of the Sword.

It is, of course, those who are winning legal support to express their rights that should be most aware of the danger here. They are the ones who were most recently that target of laws that favored others’ expressions of rights above their own. They will feel most keenly the fear that tempts them to use their new power to suppress their old foes. To take revenge. To silence and destroy them. And this is a very real and complex conflict: just how far do we dare press some rights at the expense of others? We have seen above that we cannot treat them as equally absolute. In our present law, the right to change our legal rights reigns supreme. This is perhaps wise, as it allows that we may have erred in the past. But we could make laws immutable, favoring other rights. Legally, anyway.

What right will be favored? The right to express our feelings? Or the right to the feelings themselves, enforced by the binding of expression? Choose carefully. And admit to your absolute. The hypocrisy you avert must be your own.

From Somewhere In Orbit

The Unbearable Heaviness of Being Grouped

In her excellent novel, Dawn, Octavia Butler shows us a small group of humans struggling to adapt after having been rescued from a nuclear war on Earth by an alien species called the Oankali. One of the aliens says that humans have two attributes that doomed us to destroy ourselves. We are intelligent, and we are hierarchical. The hierarchies we seek to establish are the cause of our violence, and intelligence used in service of this violence gives us the ability to destroy our species.

I would add a third quality, however, that Ms. Butler may have overlooked,* and this is our tendency to groupishness. In some ways, this can be a strength. One of my favorite characters in all of science-fiction, Ambassador Delenn of Babylon 5, said, “Wherever humans go, they form communities.” Yes. We form groups. We form them because they are fun. We form them because we learn from them. We form them because they are essential to realizing certain dreams. And we form them because they make us feel safe. We form them because they reassure us that we are righteous. That we are sane. That we are not trapped in the hell of loneliness.

We are born into certain groups, whether we like it or not. Physical gender. Levels of physical abilities. But the fact is that we humans will make up groups to sort people in any number of ways. Some are real. Some are imaginary. And it is this tendency of humans that truly makes me fear for our species.

It isn’t just that we place ourselves in these groups. It is not even just that we seek to exclude others from our own groups. It would, in some ways, be impossible to have groups that did not exclude. It is our desire to group other people, whether they are willing to be so grouped or not, and then to rank them in an hierarchy according to what groups they have been melded with.

We’ve all played the game: “If you are this, you can’t be that.” “If you are this, you must also be that.”
You cannot be a loyal American and a Muslim.
You must be a racist if you fly the Confederate flag.
You cannot be scientifically knowledgeable and a Republican.
You cannot be a pacifist and a patriot.

What else is the current debate over the Confederate flag about? It’s about the ability to put people in groups. The Confederate flag was originally flown over the desire to put people in groups. To have a symbol for the people who wanted to ensure that the white race would always be superior to the black race. To have a symbol for those who believed that the federal government had no authority to order the sovereign states to obey it.

For those who believed the former, but not the latter, there was no special symbol, but the American flag did well enough. After all, most white people in the 1860s were quite openly convinced of white superiority. As for those who currently believe the latter, but not the former, they have no symbol. They want to use that symbol because it is potent and rich with history. Their opponents are just as concerned with the potency of the symbol, and are determined to deny its use, because they fear that it secretly means a determination to subjugate and destroy them, just as it openly did 150 years ago.

The common thread here, as I see it, is that people want absolute freedom to group. Of themselves they wish to say, “I and I alone, determine what groups I join and what they mean to me, and only we, the People of the Group, may have an opinion on the worth of the Group and the ultimate meaning of the Group.” Of others, they wish to say, “I will determine your worthiness to be admitted to my group, and what other groups you belong to, whether you acknowledge your membership in that group or not. Whether you know those groups exist or not.”

Obviously, these freedoms cannot coexist. No two people can have that kind of power over themselves and over the other. At the core of this groupishness is a terrible fear that we may be left alone with no group, and a willingness to disrespect others’ agency to form groups, lest they expel us from our group, or tear our group apart. The more a group feels itself attacked, the tighter it hangs together, because a group is in many ways a spiritual home. A place where we can escape form loneliness and be understood by the Group. Threaten that, and you threaten something very close to family. People will kill for it. Some asshole just did, because he thought that members of the Group of Black Americans threatened his Group (what he called it in his mind, I neither know nor want to) by their insistence on being fully included in the Group of Americans. Now the Groups are on the march. Active. Angry. Defending their Groups from perceived attack and mobilizing to attack Groups they perceive as potential threats. Groups they perceive as the source of this asshole.

I feel I have spent a lot of time saying little that is profound. What, after all, can I recommend, here? I don’t have much of an answer except “awareness.” Awareness that leads to love. When you see people passionately defending a group or a symbol that stands for something you hate, be aware that they are probably being honest in their claims that they are defending a love, and a home. Don’t assume they must be cherishing a hate because they know or dress like, or like the same symbol as THOSE PEOPLE. It’s true not everyone is honest. Some are monsters, I will grant, who lie about what groups they are part of and what those groups mean. Most are not. Be aware of what you are doing when you assign people to groups, and that you may be wrong. Be aware that if your Group is threatened, you may overreact. Ask yourself if that’s possible. Try to allow people the same freedom to form Groups and determine their meanings as you would want for yourself.

It’s the only lesson, or hope, that I can see.

*I say may. Steven Barnes, who certainly knew Ms. Butler better than I did (having been her student for only a week) says that Ms. Butler said that humans were hierarchical and tribal. I prefer “groupish” because it implies a more fluid construct than a tribe, which is usually something you are born into, or at least choose for the long term. However, I’m happy to give both Ms. Butler and Mr. Barnes credit for noting the really important parts of this phenomenon before I did.

Theology vs. The Memes #2: The Emperor’s New Quote

I have seen this meme passed around a whole lot by certain types of atheist whose primary source of comfort is how much smarter they are than Christians because they can face the truth. Allow me, therefore, in the name of truth, to point out the first little problem with it:

That’s right. Marcus Aurelius never said it in the first place. The whole meme is a lie. There’s a quote that it may be loosely based on, but we’ll review that at a more appropriate time. Still, I’m sure that there are those who will claim that, regardless of the source of the quote, it’s still a good message. So let’s examine the whole thing and see what parts stand up to any rational interpretation of “good.”

1) “If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by.”

First, does anyone else wonder what the original author meant by “devout?” The people who pass this around probably don’t because the first rule of Meme Club is that you DO NOT talk about what memes MEAN. Memes are self-congratulation masquerading as critical thought. They work by giving the reader the illusion of having had an insight. They are philosophical porn. So in the absence of any definition I’m, going to guess that “devout” means how much you sing, dance, pray, sacrifice and wear cheap T-shirts extolling your deity, because this is the behavior atheists enjoy mocking.

The funny part is that Jesus rather enjoyed mocking it, too: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding of the blood of the prophets… Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town.” (Matthew 23:29-31, 34). The fact is that even if Marcus Aurelius had said this, Jesus would have anticipated him by nearly a century. Jesus and the Jewish prophets agree wholeheartedly with the spirit of the quote. “He hath shown thee, O man, what is good; and what the LORD doth require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (Micah 6:8). Further, “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” (James 1:27).

What the atheists and the “spiritual-not-religious” folk are missing here is that we all fail miserably at doing these things. They fail to consider what it might mean to be judged by a just God “on the virtues you have lived by.” The whole reason for “devoutness” is an acknowledgement by us that we have indeed failed to practice these virtues, time and time again. God’s standards are higher than ours. They have to be. If God’s standards are not better than our own, He has no claim to be God at all. This is why Jesus said, “You give a tenth of your spices… But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” (Matthew 23:23-25). Devotion is part of the virtue God expects, and what a Christian must mean by “devout” is something more — not less and not other — than living virtuously.

On to part 2 of the “quote:”

2) “If there are gods but unjust, you should not want to worship them.” This is the easiest part of the quote to agree with. But the inherent assumption here is that you know exactly what justice is. Even among good people there are disagreements about this. In the real world, the circumstances in which we find ourselves can not only make living justly a good way to get yourself killed, it can make justice literally impossible. And sometimes, people can be conditioned to think that behavior that would horrify most of us is perfectly normal. Men in prison have a strict code: don’t bump into each other. Don’t pick up another man’s matches. Don’t sit in another man’s chair. “Justice” for these infractions, in that context, can mean a beating or stabbing.

Are we so sure we are different? Killing for honor is still considered justice in many parts of the world. But we call it unjust in my part. If we call God unjust… how are we certain we are right?

And now for the biggest and most subtle lie of all:

3) “If there are no gods: then you will be gone. But you will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.” Except that’s a lie.  The only true part is the first: “You will be gone.” From your perspective, the story ends here, if there are no gods. Now, your loved ones, they will live on. But you will not know it. They could all be put to death by torture the second you cease to breathe, and you would not care. You could not care. This is one of the greatest lies that atheist thought believes, that there is a state called having lived. That state does not exist in any meaningful fashion. Nonexistence is at the root of it. You will be gone. You will be as utterly gone as if you had never been. Nothing will matter, because you will not exist for it to matter TO. In that nonexistence, the greatest saints and sinners are equal to each other, because they are equal to nothing.
There are only two ways to get around this, and in my experience, most atheists will not do it: admit that morality is a complete and utter illusion, because there is no evidence anything aside from human preference for certain behaviors exist, or admit the existence of something resembling an afterlife (or at least an afterthought), which must be taken on faith.

I cannot live in a universe that is governed by the former admission. And I do not greatly care, for reasons that should be obvious by now, for anyone who impugns my reason or intellect for refusing so to live. Why should I care what that person thinks? By their own admission, they will shortly not exist, and their moral judgments are but present constructs of taste and fashion. I will shortly not exist, and will care for nothing.
This is why I will continue to live by faith. For only if there are gods, and they are just, is life possible. This is why I will raise my voice with Peter, saying, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68).

I will leave you with some actual words of Marcus Aurelius, who did know better than this. Ironically, this may be the quote on which the above drivel is based:

“But to go away from among men, if there are gods, is not a thing to be afraid of, for the gods will not involve thee in evil; but if indeed they do not exist, or if they have no concern about human affairs, what is it to me to live in a universe devoid of gods or devoid of Providence? But Gods there are, undoubtedly, and they regard human affairs; and have put it wholly in our power, that we should not fall into what is truly evil. “

I’m a lot closer to agreeing with that.