THOUGHTS ON STEPHEN JAY GOULD’S CONCEPT OF “NOMA”

Stephen Jay Gould said that science and religion are “non overlapping magisteria (NOMA),” two things that are completely separate from each other. Here is his definition of the term, from the Wikipedia article about it:

“Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings, and values—subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve.”

Richard Dawkins disagreed, saying that religion constantly inserts itself into the scientific world, and that if there were scientific proof of claims made by religion, religious authorities would quickly adopt more scientific principles, rather than opposing science, which they tend to do when it brings into question the validity of religious claims.

I agree with Dawkins, sort of. I agree that religion often attempts to hinder science — stem cell research, for example — but I am not sure I agree completely. Claims made by religions are by definition unprovable. It is scientifically impossible to prove that God or any other deity exists.

It is, don’t get mad at me for saying so. But at the same time, belief in God (or any deity or set of deities) is an actual thing many people around the world possess. The effect this belief has on them and their environment is quite tangible. Some effects of religious belief are positive, and some are negative. Some effects are constructive, many others are quite destructive.

Dawkins tends to focus entirely on the destructive effects. And to be sure, there are plenty of those to focus on. But I disagree with Dawkins on his assertion that all religion must be eliminated. I think Gould would probably agree with me there. Here’s another Gould quote:

“Religion is too important to too many people for any dismissal or denigration of the comfort still sought by many folks from theology. I may, for example, privately suspect that papal insistence on divine infusion of the soul represents a sop to our fears, a device for maintaining a belief in human superiority within an evolutionary world offering no privileged position to any creature. But I also know that souls represent a subject outside the magisterium of science. My world cannot prove or disprove such a notion, and the concept of souls cannot threaten or impact my domain. Moreover, while I cannot personally accept the Catholic view of souls, I surely honor the metaphorical value of such a concept both for grounding moral discussion and for expressing what we most value about human potentiality: our decency, care, and all the ethical and intellectual struggles that the evolution of consciousness imposed upon us.”

Dawkins might say that Gould’s statement

“…the concept of souls cannot threaten or impact my domain.”

isn’t strictly correct, for religious authorities, whose very authority is given by things like a “concept of souls” have used that authority to hinder scientific progress time and time again.

So anyways, on that end of the concept, I suppose I have mixed feelings. Both sides make valid points.

But what about the other side of NOMA?

“Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings, and values—subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve.”

I have to say I fully agree with Gould here. With regard to “values,” each religion has a set of values its followers adhere to. “Values” and “value judgments” are what produce the real-world effects of religion. The good stuff as well as the bad stuff.

That is not — is *not* — to say that one has to follow a religion to have “values” or to be “moral.” It’s a pretty common misconception among religious people that atheists are amoral. This simply is not — is *not* — true.

But at the same time, can “science” prescribe morality? Or is one’s own sense of morality, if one is an atheist, derived from a sense of compassion (or lack thereof) with her or his fellow humans?

Prominent atheist writer Sam Harris, for example, has written extensively about the real world atrocities committed in the name of Islam. And to be sure, he has a point: killing for an ideology is horrible.

But with the same keyboard (presumably) Harris uses to denounce Jihadis for killing because of an ideology, Harris also writes about the inevitability of “collateral damage” with regard to drone strikes and other such Western anti-terrorism strategies. It’s unfortunate, Harris argues, that innocent bystanders get killed when drones blow up this or that terrorist, but it’s necessary to get the terrorists.

The difference between a Jihadi and a drone pilot, Harris says, is intent. A Jihadi wants to kill innocent people and does so on purpose, a drone pilot wants to kill terrorists but accidentally kills innocent bystanders.

And there’s something to be said for that argument, but in both cases, innocent people get killed. And given that “collateral damage” is considered more or less inevitable — it’s avoided whenever possible, to be sure — doesn’t that sort of muddy up the whole “intent” argument?

Harris’ “intent” argument is based in his own moral sense. But what is that “moral sense,” and where did it come from?

From science?

Harris and Dawkins and others argue that the morality of religion springs from fear of divine punishment, and since it’s impossible to scientifically prove God or any other deity exists — again, don’t get mad at me for saying that, it’s true — then morality that arises from fear of divine punishment is an inferior sort of morality than the morality of atheists like themselves.

I disagree. I think Harris’ attitude toward “collateral damage” and whatnot springs from the same place that religious morality springs from: self-interest.

Religious people believe it’s in their best interest to please the deity they worship. They are therefore following their own self-interest by doing things they believe will please that deity.

Harris believes it’s in his own best interest that all the Jihadis get killed, even if that means some non-Jihadis get killed in the process. He was following what he believed to be his own self-interest when he wrote about “collateral damage.”

Friedrich Nietzsche once said,

“Fear is the mother of all morality.”

Do you agree with him? I fear — no pun intended — that I do.

But back to NOMA: can science prescribe morality?

A better question: *Should* science attempt to prescribe morality?

Personally I don’t see any way science could prescribe morality without degenerating into something less than “science.” Science infused with moral value judgments ceases to be objective, I mean. And the naturalistic fallacy — the way things are is the best way they could be, and anyone who tries to change things is wrong — has also been used by religious authorities over the years to justify horrible things, like slavery, subjugation of women, etc. etc. etc.

What do you think?

 

SELECTIVE OUTRAGE FROM THE RIGHT (AS IF THIS WERE A NEW THING)

Something I find hilarious about support for those militia guys in Oregon…actually a couple things:

1. The people who they are allegedly “protesting” on behalf of — the Hammonds, who were convicted of arson — have said they don’t want to be associated with the protest,

and

2. Many if not most of the people who support the Oregon “protesters” also supported the Keystone XL pipeline. Why is that hilarious? Because the main complaint towards the government with regard to the Oregon “protesters” is that the government allegedly took land from farmers. These “protesters” are standing up to an evil regime that takes hard-earned land away from upstanding Americans, and so on and so forth.

Many supporters of Keystone XL were apparently blissfully unaware that many people lost their homes because of Keystone XL. And many more would have lost their homes if it had been completed.

Where was the uproar on the right about that? Where were the armed militia men, bravely storming into public buildings, looking for a game of shoot-em-up? Where were the endless idiotic memes? Where was the outrage over hardworking Americans being relocated to make room for an oil pipeline to Canada?

It didn’t exist. It never happened.

Nobody on the right gave a shit.

I dunno. I find that sort of thing hilarious.

“HI THERE” – A LITTLE ABOUT THE AUTHOR OF THIS BLOG HERE

Allow me to introduce myself:

My name is Michael Nathan Walker. I am the only son of my mother and my biological father, whose identities you don’t need to know.

I have a half-brother who I consider to be my full brother. I always have and I always will. He is genuinely one of the very best people I have ever had the privilege of knowing. We grew up together, and he is my brother.

I have another half-brother and half-sister. I met them a few times when they were little kids. I haven’t seen either of them in a long time; as far as I know they are both doing well.

I was named “Michael” because that is my biological father’s middle name.

I was named “Nathan” because that is my maternal grandfather’s middle name.

Between you, me, and the wall, I think the fact that “MNW” has a certain amount of visual appeal (flip “MNW” over and it says “MNW”) may have played a part in how I was named. My mother is an artist, though she has a day job and would not consider herself to be an “artist.”

(Between you, me, and the wall, considering oneself to be an “artist” almost always ensures that one will never produce anything that could rightly be considered “art.” But that’s only my opinion.)

My last name is “Walker” because that was my biological father’s last name. Such is custom where I live.

I never really knew the man; from all accounts he was a decent fellow.

Which, given the fact that I consider myself to be a fairly decent fellow, I suppose I consider those accounts justified.

He is dead.

To quote one of my favorite authors, who is also dead:

“So it goes.”

I had an older half-sister – I forget her birthdate – who was killed when I was a teenager. She was a real estate agent, and very involved in her church.

A man she knew from church came to her office, wanting to be shown a property in a secluded area. My older half-sister took this man to see the property.

At some point, this man attempted to rape my older half-sister. She resisted.

I barely knew her – I only met her a few times – but I attribute her resistance to…well…something genetic, I guess.

I mean, for all intents and purposes, I, Michael Nathan Walker, am a pacifist, and while I have a certain amount of, how shall I say, appreciation for the whole “turn the other cheek” thing…if and when you slap me, and if and when I turn the other cheek in anticipation of another slap, well…no intimidation intended, but you had better protect yourself.

All I know about the case – “the case,” lol – is what I have been told, and what I have read online.

She resisted, she fought this cretin off. So I was told.

Somehow or other he put her in the trunk of a car.

I do not know if this was his car or her car. I think it was the car they both rode in, when they were going to look at the property in the remote area that this fellow from my older half-sister’s church told her he wanted to look at.

She was a real estate agent, you should remember.

She also wrote various things for her church’s weekly bulletin. Poems, inspirational stuff, et cetera.

She did this anonymously.

Her husband was either a pastor or the son of a pastor. I don’t remember for sure.

I shook her husband’s hand at her funeral. That was the first and only time I met him.

She looked like Elaine from Seinfeld.

If you can believe it.

I remember being at a cafeteria (I forget the name of the place) in Pecanland Mall when I was probably fourteen or so. I had been going there fairly regularly since I was much younger, being that Pecanland Mall is only about an hour and a half away from where I grew up, and being that my maternal grandmother (whose husband’s middle name is “Nathan”) liked to buy her grandchildren things…well, I had been there a few times.

One time I made my mom cry at this mall. I called her a “cheapskate” because she wouldn’t give me any more quarters to play Mortal Kombat II.

I was quoting somebody from some movie I had seen.

And this is the sort of thing that makes me realize that I am probably much more like the fellow whose middle name was “Michael” – remember, he is dead – than I will ever fully understand.

But this one time, I was maybe fourteen, I, my mom, my maternal grandma, my brother, and I were sitting in the buffet-style cafeteria in Pecanland Mall. We had already gone down the line, picked up whatever plates of food we wanted to eat, my grandmother had already paid the cashier at the end of the buffet line, and we all (all four of us) had finished our meals.

We were sitting there in a booth – my brother and I on one side, our mom and grandmother on the other – when almost out of nowhere my older half-sister appeared. She was there with some fellow, who may or may not have been the fellow whose hand I shook at her funeral less than a decade later – and she said hello to my mom and grandma, and I sat there like a dunce unsure of what I was supposed to say, and I and my younger brother agreed that she looked a lot like Elaine from Seinfeld.

We joked about that, off and on, for a good long while.

I remember when I was really little, like less than five, I spent Christmas with the fellow whose middle name is “Michael.”

My mom was wearing a brown robe when she answered the door, and I had gotten a plastic bowling set that morning from Santa – or my mom and stepdad, whichever you prefer.

I got in this fellow’s car, and I remember it wasn’t running very well. I remember us backing up in the driveway at my mom and stepdad’s house, then turning left

I don’t remember the ride to Monroe, LA, or thereabouts.

I do remember sitting in this sorry excuse for a car, out in front of my older half-sister’s mother’s house, while the fellow whose middle name was “Michael” went to the door.

I remember looking at a fish tank, or an “aquarium” or whatever you want to call it, that was sitting in the kitchen window of my older half-sister’s house.

I remember that she got into the front passenger seat of our father’s sorry excuse for a car, and I remember that she talked to him quite a lot.

All I remember from that trip, other than what I have related, is that I got a toy version of a B-Wing spacecraft from Star Wars – the one that roughly resembles a Christian cross – and that the fellow whose middle name is now my first name was deep into some sort of fairly heated conversation with another fellow when I tried to show it to him.

I and my brother played with that toy for years afterward. Even after the fold-out wings quit folding out.

Even after they broke off entirely.

My older half-sister resisted her would-be assailant.

Or so the police report went.

And he stuffed her into the trunk of whichever car they had been riding in previously, on their trip to the property in the remote location.

And my older half-sister – the one who looked like Elaine from Seinfeld, who wrote inspirational things for her church bulletin anonymously, who – she kicked or otherwise forced the trunk open, and the car was doing about 35 mph down the road, and

and she jumped out, and when she did her head hit the pavement, and when her head hit the pavement

Long story short she died.

And I never really knew her, like on a personal level. And I shook her husband’s hand at her funeral.

Do you want to know more about me?

 

Super!

 

Politically, I am what most pundits and assorted talking heads would call a “leftist.” I don’t resent this at all, but rather than limit myself to whatever idiotic conception you may or may not have of “leftist” is, I will continue to tell you about myself:

I don’t think anyone should be prevented from doing anything that doesn’t harm others. In this sense, I am somewhat of a “libertarian.”

But I find it incredibly hypocritical when people invoke “libertarianism” as an excuse for human rights violations.

Specifically, like when corporations resist regulations that protect workers in the name of “libertarianism.”

As long as your actions are not harming anyone else, I personally do not give a crap what you do.

I believe you – whoever you are – have the right to do whatever the hell you want to do. I believe that sort of freedom should extend to every other human being (and every other sentient animal) on our planet.

I sincerely do. I support your right to be weird. I hope you fly your freak flag every day you remain alive…as long as doing so doesn’t harm anyone else.

In that sense, I am a “libertarian.” But that’s as far as my “libertarianism” goes.

I do not support people who pay scant wages to their employees.

I do not support people who run multimillion-dollar businesses who refuse to pay taxes.

I do not support the hijacking of “libertarianism” by persons who wish to restrict the freedoms of others.

So, yeah.

 

Is anybody still reading?

 

If so, thanks.

 

I will (maybe) continue this later.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Don’t hold your breath, tho, plz)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(SRSLY, you needs O2. Breeth it)

TIT FOR TAT — A LOOK AT “FARNHAM’S FREEHOLD” BY ROBERT A. HEINLEIN

For my second entry under the “Books” category, I will be reviewing a somewhat infamous sci-fi novel: “Farnham’s Freehold” by Robert A. Heinlein.

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I actually don’t know if “infamous” is the right word, but suffice it to say that this particular novel has stirred up a bit of controversy over the years, at least among people who know who Robert A. Heinlein is.

I personally only became introduced to the man’s writing a few years ago, when I read perhaps his most famous novel, “Starship Troopers.”

I read “Starship Troopers” some years after first seeing Paul Verhoeven‘s film adaptation of it. And to be honest, the film didn’t impress me all that much, at least not the first time I saw it. But subsequent viewings, done on lazy afternoons out of boredom, made me find that I had been in error in dismissing the film so quickly. (I don’t care much for the sequels, by the way.)

A significant part of the story of that film (and the novel) has to do with a slightly modified conception of the word “citizen.” In the film (and the novel; the novel goes into more depth on this issue), one cannot be a “citizen” unless one is in the military. That isn’t to say that non-military people are subjugated, really: the main difference between a “citizen” and everyone else is that “citizens” are allowed to vote. Non-military people, people who aren’t “citizens,” can’t vote.

The novel explains that the rationale behind this is that if one has willingly joined the military – and “willingly” is important; no one is forced to join – one has put his or her own life at risk for the benefit of all humanity. Therefore one has shown that one’s decisions are not based upon selfish whims, but rather on what constitutes the greater good.

To be sure, in our world, this concept seems, to say the least, strange. But in the world of “Starship Troopers,” humanity is no longer divided into countries, at least not in the same way we are divided today. All of humanity is working together to fight off threats from other worlds.

And yes, this idea of “citizens” consisting entirely of military personnel is a little bit, well, “out there.” And I may delve into this issue at some point in the future here on my blog, but not today. I merely wanted to mention it to give an example of the sort of thing Heinlein speculated about.

Heinlein was known as one of the “Big Three” of “hard sci-fi,” along with Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. Glance at the linked article for a better description of the term “hard sci-fi” if you are not familiar with the term, but it basically refers to sci-fi that is (at least mostly) based in actual science. To be sure, notions such as time travel and parallel universes and unproven things like that creep their way into “hard sci-fi” (including “Farnham’s Freehold”), but these things are always dealt with in such a way that reflects current scientific theories about these things.

I honestly don’t remember which of the other two of the Big Three said it – it was possibly both of them; for all the vast scientific knowledge and vivid imagination Clarke and Asimov possessed, they were refreshingly humble in their approach to writing, as was Heinlein – but at least one of them (Clarke or Asimov) referred to Heinlein as the true “master” of science fiction.

And though I have only read two of his novels, I have to say that if he isn’t a “master” of the genre, I don’t think there has ever been one.

In addition to keeping the “science” part of his sci-fi scientific, Heinlein also speculated quite compellingly about the effects his imagined advances in science would have upon society, and also how society itself might evolve over the millennia. And sometimes these speculations seem quite strange; nonetheless Heinlein presents them in such a way that they make complete sense, within the context of the stories themselves.

But enough blathering; on with the review:

“Farnham’s Freehold” begins in 1960s America, at the home of one Hugh Farnham. Hugh has an adult son named Duke, an adult daughter named Karen, an alcoholic wife named Grace, and an African-American “houseboy” named Joe. In addition, Karen’s friend from college, Barbara, is over for a visit.

You may have done a bit of a double-take at the word “houseboy.” And rightfully so. Joe, at the beginning of the novel, is essentially a live-in housekeeper.

And yes, the term “houseboy” may be construed as offensive. Joe is, after all, an adult.

But one must remember that this novel was first published in 1964. At that time, the Civil Rights Movement was going on. Back then, for a white family to have a black “houseboy” was not at all uncommon. Nor was it uncommon for a white family to treat their “houseboy” (and/or whatever the female equivalent of that distasteful term is) as if they were “beneath” them.

I am not saying that was “right.” Far from it. It was wrong, and it was shameful.

But it happened.

Hugh Farnham, the protagonist and patriarch in the story, is not a racist. He treats Joe – who is incidentally mentioned to be in accounting school – the way he treats everyone else. As an equal.

This is not the case for his wife Grace or his son Duke. These two are, to put it bluntly, bigots. They use racial epithets to describe Joe when he isn’t around. Hugh discourages them from doing so, which only makes them angry at him.

Which is typical bigot behavior.

And I think I have given a short peek at where the controversy lies in this novel. It has been called “racist” by many reviewers.

And I have to say, well, I disagree.

The notion that to illustrate racism in a text is to somehow make the text “racist” is…well, I suppose it’s a matter of opinion. In my opinion, if you want to discredit something like racism – as I posit Heinlein was at least attempting to do in this text – well, you have to illustrate what that something is. You have to show examples of it, I mean. And he does that quite well, I think.

But moving on with the plot, Hugh, Duke, Karen, and Barbara sit down to play contract bridge in the kitchen. Grace is passed out, and Joe has gone to bed. Suddenly, an emergency broadcast comes over the airwaves: the USA is under a nuclear assault.

Hugh is fully prepared for this eventuality. As a matter of fact, Duke has just been making fun of Hugh for building a nuclear bomb/fallout shelter under the house, one that is fully stocked with water, food, and supplies.

At any rate, when the emergency broadcast comes over the airwaves, everyone goes down to the shelter. Joe makes a last minute rescue of the family cat, then the shelter is sealed.

Not long after the shelter is sealed, Hugh declares that he is in charge, that he has made extensive plans for rationing food and supplies, and that anyone who has a problem with that can leave the shelter post-haste. Duke, in a somewhat typical “I’m a grown man, dad, you can’t tell me what to do” scene, tells Hugh he does not agree with this arrangement.

Hugh instructs Joe – the “houseboy” – to shoot Duke, if he refuses to comply. Joe, Hugh says, did not make fun of him when he (Hugh) was planning and building the shelter, Joe helped extensively with the construction and planning of the shelter, and Joe was now, for all intents and purposes, the second in command.

Of course, in later scenes – Duke submits to Hugh’s authority and Joe does not shoot him – Duke expresses resentment toward Joe, and his resentment often has an ugly bigoted tinge to it. As do other comments made about Joe.

But Hugh always steps up to Joe’s defense. Hugh does not treat Joe any differently – any worse or any better – than anyone else in his family. And he considers Joe to be part of his family.

At any rate, once everyone is in the shelter, the nukes hit. And they cause damage inside the shelter. It is assumed by everyone that the bombs hit pretty close to where the shelter is buried.

I don’t want to give too much away about the rest of the novel, at least spoiler-wise, but I have to give some things away, things that contributed to the controversy this novel generated.

But first, I would like to mention another sci-fi novel – although this other one crosses out of “hard sci-fi” and into “fantasy,” especially in its sequels – Frank Herbert‘s 1965 masterpiece “Dune.” If one glances at the pic provided at the top of this post, one can see my copy of “Dune” on the bookshelf behind me. I put it there on purpose.

At any rate, if you are familiar at all with the “Dune” series, you know that the government in “Dune” consists of a set of feudal lords, and that the mythology of the series borrows quite heavily from Islamic traditions, or at least Islamic nomenclature. “Houses” in “Dune” strongly resemble “Houses” in the Middle East, as do various customs and things like that in the novel and its sequels.

I do not know if Heinlein read any of “Dune” before he wrote and published “Farhnam’s Freehold” – parts of “Dune” had been serialized in late 1963 and early 1964, prior to its 1965 publication as a finished novel – but without revealing exactly how they got there, Hugh Farnham and his family end up in a “house” that also borrows quite heavily from Islamic traditions.

There is a supreme leader of the house, and a system of servants under him who cannot question his authority. The “law” is based on something similar to the Koran – which Hugh has read, being the amateur scholar that he is – the inhabitants speak “Language,” which is noted to be similar to Arabic, and there are many many slaves in the house, divided by sex. The term “harem rules” is mentioned several times. Men in the house are either “studs” or “tempered servants.” “Tempered,” as you can probably intuit without me explicitly saying so, means “neutered.” While this part may or may not have any root in any sort of Islamic custom, this next part certainly does:

The majority of women are known simply as “sluts,” or else “bedwarmers.”

This is where the main controversy surrounding the novel begins. And yes, yes, a thousand times yes, what I have written about is offensive. It’s horrible. It’s inhuman.

But is it impossible?

Has nothing like this ever happened before?

Does this sort of thing not happen today, in certain parts of the world?

(Are you familiar with the word “concubine”?)

But I suppose the main complaint about this novel is not that, believe it or not. And again, our Hugh does not approve of this situation. He finds it abhorrent. He has a “bedwarmer,” one who I believe is fourteen years old – yes, “ugh, ugh, ugh, ugh” – but he doesn’t do anything sexual with her.

And again, this is not the main point that is brought up against this novel, believe it or not. The main point brought up against it is that the people in charge – the “Chosen” – are all dark-skinned. The slaves are white.

The situation at the beginning of the novel – an upper-middle class white family with a black “houseboy” – is turned upon its head. At the end of the novel, the “houseboy,” by virtue of the color of his skin, is considered to be “Chosen,” and he gets all the privileges the other Chosen get.

Considering the disgusting misogynistic Islamic royalty-type setup of this situation, maybe it is racist, to a degree. Because for certain, other historical monarchies also once practiced sickening things like what happen in this weird future Islamofascist sci-fi scenario. Dark-skinned people are not the only ones who have perpetrated this sort of nonsense, historically speaking, and for it to be such a major plot issue…maybe it is a tad “racist.” But I don’t know; the setup of the house makes for some interesting plot points, points I will leave it up to you to find out about, should you choose to read the novel yourself.

But moving on, Hugh and Barbara – to remind, Barbara is Hugh’s daughter’s friend from college; for another spoiler, the six people at the beginning think they are the only people left in the world for a good part of the novel – become husband and wife at one point. And she gives birth to twins.

They – Hugh, Barbara, and their babies – make it out of the situation, eventually. Joe – who is the source of the “tit for tat” quoted in the title of this post – finds that he likes being the beneficiary of racial privilege. At first Hugh is shocked by this, but then realizes that he, too, despite his not being a bigot of any sort – or a misogynist, or any such thing – decides that he can’t really blame Joe for staying there.

Grace and Duke stay. They are, essentially, pets.

***

Reading back over this summary, I can see how this novel could be construed as wildly offensive, on a number of levels.

But I would like to remind everyone that it’s fiction. As in “not true.” As in “what if?”

At any rate, Hugh Farnham is not a bigot. Or a misogynist. And neither was Robert A. Heinlein – at least not from what I can tell of my limited reading of his work – and neither am I.

But all things considered, this novel was a good read. I enjoyed it, and I would recommend it to any fan of science fiction.

Thank you for reading my review of it.

***

And I have let about 36 hours go by, between when I wrote the above review and now. I reread my review of the novel in question, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to post that on my blog.

I am not a racist. I am not a misogynist.

And here I need to make a grammatical point:

“Racist” can be used as a noun, or as an adjective. I think you have to make “misogynist” into “misogynistic” for it to be an adjective, and what I am about to write applies to “misogynist/misogynistic” as well, but for simplicity’s sake, I am just going to focus on the word “racist.”

As a noun, “racist” means, basically, someone who adheres to the philosophy that one race is superior or inferior to another.

Example:

“Person A thinks that his skin color makes him superior to people of a different skin color. Person A is a racist.”

As an adjective, “racist” means, basically, expressing the philosophy that one race is superior or inferior to another.

Example:

Person A: “Everybody of my skin color is better than everybody of your skin color, Person B.”

Person B: “That’s racist, Person A. That statement you just made is racist.”

Many people like to make the argument that “people are racist, statements (and books, and any number of things) aren’t.”

And strictly speaking, that simply isn’t true. It is true that “Farnham’s Freehold” is not a racist. It is not a person who adheres to the philosophy that one race is superior or inferior to another race.

But, is it true that “Farnham’s Freehold” is a racist novel? Does this novel express the philosophy that one race is superior or inferior to another race?

I don’t really think so. I don’t personally perceive it as such. But does that mean that nobody in the world is entitled to disagree with me? Hardly.

I maintain that it was Heinlein’s intent to denounce racism with this novel. And from my point of view, I would say that he did a decent job of it.

But if you disagree, can I objectively say that you are wrong?

No, I cannot. Heinlein’s approach to racism in this novel was informed by his position in the society of 1960s America. He was a successful white dude*. And so was his protagonist, Hugh Farnham. As Joe (the African-American “houseboy”) mentions, Hugh never had the experience of riding a bus through Alabama as a “[n-word].”

And neither did Heinlein. Does Heinlein’s being a successful white dude mean he can’t be against racism? No! But, at the same time, he may or may not inadvertently have written things that could rightfully be described as “racist” by other people. Including other successful white dudes.

There are, indeed, racist statements made by white characters in the novel. And there are racist statements made by dark-skinned “Chosen” as well, in the imagined future where white people are their slaves. As I mentioned before, though, you can’t really denounce something like “racism” if you don’t show examples of it. And I would argue that’s what Heinlein was trying to do. Whether he succeeded is up to the reader.

I would argue that he succeeded. You may not agree.

At any rate, if you read this novel and are offended immensely by it, I would hope that your being offended would not cause you to label me as a “racist.” Or a “misogynist.”

I don’t consider myself to be either of those things, and I make a conscious effort not to express myself in such a way that may lead others to think I am one of those things.

But if I make a statement – or write a blog post – that makes you think I am a racist, or a misogynist, or any sort of thing like that that I do not consider myself to be, what matters more, objectively speaking:

My intentions behind my actions, which I consider to be anti-racist, anti-misogynist, anti-everything like that, or

Your perception of my actions?

My intentions matter more to me, of course, but don’t your perceptions matter more to you?

If I write something you construe to be racist, and you say “Hey, asshole, that’s racist,” does my saying “I didn’t mean to say something racist” mean that I didn’t say something racist?

No, it does not. Without intending to, in that situation, I would have made a racist statement. And I would have no right whatsoever to get angry at the person who perceived my statement as racist. The only rational course of action in that scenario, from my point of view, would be to say

“I am sorry I offended you. I didn’t mean to say anything racist, but now I know that what I said could be considered racist, so I will avoid saying that in the future.”

And if you are squirming in your seat, steam shooting out of your ears, with thoughts of “language police” and “political correctness gone mad” swirling through your brain, I am not requiring anyone else to follow my own personal approach to situations like this. I am merely telling you my approach. You are welcome to take it or leave it.

I follow that approach because it allows the lines of communication between me and that hypothetical person to remain open. I can continue to learn from that person through mutually respectful communication.

If I declare that they are crazy for calling me a racist (or whatever), I am cutting off the lines of communication.

And of course, if I don’t want to keep the lines of communication open between this hypothetical person and myself, I don’t have to. My perceptions of their behavior are as important to me as their perceptions of my behavior are to them.

Have I lost you? Have I circled back around to where I started, when I started writing this addendum to my review of a somewhat controversial sci-fi novel? Arguably.

But I would like to add one thing, then finish up:

My intentions, I would venture, are less important to you than your perception of me is to you. Am I incorrect?

I didn’t mean to come off as a racist or as a misogynist by giving this novel a positive review (despite all its abhorrent content), but if you feel I am a racist or a misogynist for doing so, how can I prove to you that my intentions were noble?

I can’t.

Thank you for reading.

*As an aside, please consider the inanity of this statement: “I think identity politics is a dumb concept.” Do you see what I mean? Every rationally thinking person in the world supports political ideas that support their own best interest, or at least what they perceive to be their own best interest. What they perceive as their own best interest is inexorably linked to their own personal identity. Therefore, everyone – yes, even you – is part of the phenomenon known as “identity politics.” You can point to special interest groups, which consist of people from this or that demographic, and scream “identity politics is the bane of society!” all you want, just be aware that when you do so, you are expressing your own “identity” in the political realm by doing so. So you may as well just keep that nonsense to yourself; there’s plenty of nonsense in the political realm already. (And yes, that last sentence is my own opinion, which hinges on my own “identity,” and so on and so forth.)

I AIN’T GOT MUCH TIME TO TALK, BUT

Hello, everbody, it’s me agin, Cousin Ronald. I just wanted to talk fer a minnit with you. I ain’t got long, seein as how I’m writin this on my lunch hour, and I got a big ol ham sammich waitin fer me that I got to eat, else I ain’t gonna be worth a dang all afternoon.

I want to share a little bit of wisdom I fount sevral years back, from a man name of Jimmy Swaggart. And I know, he done got in trouble fer messin around on his old lady years back, and librals and assorted Godless heathen types likes to point out thangs like that an persecute God-fearin’ Christian types, jes because they sinned in the past, them librals want to try and make like Jesus don’t fergive em.

Well, Jesus done fergive Jimmy Swaggart, and I have too. If you don’t fergive a man done got right with Jesus, well, I ain’t got much time fer you.

Jimmy Swaggart is a wise man, and a Godly man, but he ain’t nuthin but a man still, so he’s a gonna mess up from time to time. Like all of us does.

And anyways I’s wantin to share a bit of wisdom he writ sevral years ago, in a book whut he named “The United States, Israel & Islam.” It’s a right fine book, feller whut come to my church from down south Lousianna give it to me, one time here while back when he come and guest preached, when our reglar preacher was laid up sick with some kinda infection he pickt up on a Mission Trip to Tieland. I ain’t sure whut he had or how he got it, but I seen him up yonder at the farmacy, gettin some kind a medicine, and I swear that feller lookt like somebody done rung his bells with a steel toe boot, he was hunched over and limpin around so.

Probly some Muslim did it. Probly some terrorist mad cause our preacher was over yonder in Tieland, preachin the Gospel and tryin to rid that place of all the sinnin and vice over yonder. Our preacher talkt about all the Tie wimmen sellin thereself, and the Tie men dressin up like they’s wimmen and sellin thereself, and how perverts from round the hole world went to Tieland so’s to meet up with em and patrinize em.

And some Muslim didn’t like our preacher preachin aginst vice and sinnin, and so he kickt him right in the fambly jewls, and that’s how come he was hunched over limpin like he was, when I seent him at the farmacy that one time.

Lookt like it said “penicillin” on one of them bottles our preacher had, and all I can figure is that Muslim musta broke the skin and caused a infection. Them dang Muslims…they ain’t right. They just ain’t right.

But I don’t need to tell nobody that, they done seent whut happend over to Paris France the other day. They seent it. And some people (who shall remain nameless) tryed to tell me that them attacks was at least parshally do to whut America done did in the Mid East.

It wern’t no suprise to me, no sir. Them librals said the same thang years ago, said invadin Iraq was gonna cause more trouble in the Mid East, and they was wrong then and they is wrong now. Just cause we took apart the Iraq army and replaced em with civillians, and just cause them civillians turnt tail and run at the first sign a trouble, leavin there guns and equipmint on the ground, librals is tryin to say that ISIS is George W. Bush’s fault!

Can you beleive that? How they gone blame Bush, when Bush was the one whut sent the hole Iraq army packin? Just cause they come back a while later and stole the guns Bush give the new Iraq army? Just cause ISIS is led by former Iraq army guys?

Them librals is crazy! Crazy, I tell you! There ain’t but one reason fer ISIS, and that reason is ISLAM! There ain’t no other reason!

Tryin to blame Bush, just cause ISIS is shootin people with guns Bush left in Iraq with a buncha cowards whut turnt tail and run!

It ain’t Bush’s fault!

But hell, I could go on all day, and I ain’t got all day. I got more importint thangs to do than sit round playin on the compruter. For one, eat my ham sammich, which Muslims say I ain’t suppost to do.

I like ham! Take that, Muslims!

So anyways here’s them words of wisdom what Jimmy Swaggart wrote. My libral cousin – my libral DISTANT cousin – said this sounded a lot like some athiest fellow name of Sam Harris, but I don’t see how no athiest could be as smart as Jimmy Swaggart. And anyways who cares what a durn athiest thanks, anyway.

Here’s whut Jimmy Swaggart writ:

“That policy consists of the idea, grossly erroneous I might quickly add, that the religion of Islam is peaceable and righteous, and that it has been hijacked by a few fanatics. Nothing could be further from the Truth. As we have stated elsewhere in this Volume, the religion if Islam is based entirely upon the Koran. To be sure, the Koran advocates terrorism, and even the slaughter of untold millions if necessary to further the cause of this religion. While all Muslims aren’t murderers, still, all Muslims belong to a religion that strongly advocates wholesale murder, all in the name of Allah. As well, this wholesale murder includes mostly innocent victims.”

Jimmy Swaggart said that much more clearer than I coulda. He is a very inteligint man.

My distant cousin says if you take away all the Bible stuff Jimmy Swaggart says, Jimmy Swaggart sounds a lot like a durn heathen athiest.

Well, if that’s so, I ain’t gonna pay no tension to it. I don’t listen to nuthin no athiest says. And I don’t reckon no athiest pays no tension to what people like me says, neither.

Anyways I hope you all have a blessed day.

HONORING UNCLE JOHN, ON VETERANS DAY

I suppose that this post should, technically, be classified under a category called “History” or something, but seeing as how I almost have as many different categories here on my blog as I do blog posts, I will sneak in a little bit of my own personal philosophy (which, of course, consists mainly of philosophies I have borrowed from other people) and post it under “philosophy.” Sounds good to me.

Anyone who knows me at all knows that I am, whenever possible, anti-war. I do not attempt to deny this fact. I believe war should be a last resort, only after all diplomatic avenues have failed, only after economic sanctions have failed, only when there is no other viable option.

Some people mistake this position to mean that I am “anti-soldier” or that I “don’t support the troops.” Again, anyone who knows me at all should know that this interpretation of my position regarding war is utterly false.

I am anti-war because I support the troops. I don’t want to see American service men and women put in harm’s way unless there is no other option.

But this blog post is not being written so that I might brag about how “progressive” or “compassionate” or whatever that I think I am by virtue of my stance regarding war. I am here today to tell a story about a man – a veteran – who had a very positive influence on my life.

His name was John Dollar. He served in the U.S. Navy a few decades before I was ever born.

When I was a kid, from the time I was still in diapers until I was around 13, while my mom and stepdad were at work, I would stay with “Uncle John” and his wife, Kathryn, or as pretty much everyone called her, “Aunt Kat.”

Aunt Kat and Uncle John (both have now passed on) never had any children of their own. But they loved children, and they were both excellent role models (and play companions) for children. I would venture that nobody who grew up in my small community of Lawson, Arkansas since Aunt Kat and Uncle John settled here will deny this. They took my mom and uncle on trips when they were younger. They also took me and my brother on trips a few times. I have more fond memories of my time with them than I can even count.

But again, that’s not specifically what I am here to write about today. Although I suppose I should mention that in addition to being an excellent role model, playmate, confidante, and any number of such things, Aunt Kat was also an excellent cook.

And I do mean excellent. None of us kids who stayed with her ever went hungry. Never. And long after she was no longer able to keep kids, she continued to cook beans and cornbread, turnip greens, or stew, or her famous spaghetti – there has never been any better spaghetti made by anyone, anywhere – and give most of it away to people in the community. Toward the end of her life, she would stand over a hot stove all day, just to be able to spread a little happiness around the community, even though it was very difficult for her to get in and out of her car by this point. “Kat, you didn’t have to do that!” was said often by my mom (and I am sure by several other people), after Aunt Kat pulled up in our driveway and honked her horn, signaling that we should come out and get the food she had brought us, because it was very hard for her to get out of her car and bring it to us.

And we always expressed that she didn’t have to do that, but we were always glad that she did.

But going back to my childhood, I can remember clearly sitting at the dining table in the kitchen with my brother or any number of kids who stayed with the Dollars over the years, eating delicious, home-cooked meals. And I remember something else food-related that pertains to Uncle John specifically: Uncle John would not eat rice.

Not only would Uncle John not eat rice, Uncle John did not like to be in the same room where rice was being eaten or even cooked. He despised the stuff. As in truly and deeply hated it.

Yes, rice, those little white grains that go with pretty much everything and don’t have a whole lot of flavor by themselves. Uncle John hated rice. I am not exaggerating; the man would not sit in the same room with it. He would get up and go outside.

I didn’t really understand why that was until many years later. I had heard abbreviated versions of the story I am about to relate, but never the full version. Aunt Kat told it to me several years after Uncle John had already passed away.

Before I write anything at all about this story, I want to stress that I am not trying to rile anyone up about anything. What takes place in this story took place during wartime. Specifically when the United States and Japan were not on friendly terms like they are today.

I have been to Japan. I spent about a week there in 2007. I hope to be able to go there again someday. It is an incredibly interesting place, and one week is not nearly enough time to even begin appreciating the place.

So if anyone comes away from this blog post with a negative attitude about Japan, please understand that this was not my intention. I am merely relating a story that was told to me, a story that took place when the United States and Japan were not on friendly terms.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am not even sure what year this story occurred in, or precisely where it took place. I pressed Aunt Kat for details, but she didn’t remember exactly.

My guess is that this story took place some time around the end of World War II, most likely before the end but possibly a little after. I simply don’t know for sure.

I do know that Aunt Kat and Uncle John spent a decent amount of time living in the Philippines, while Uncle John was stationed there. But again, I don’t know exactly how long they were there, or what years they were there.

At any rate, here is the story Aunt Kat told me, with regard to why Uncle John could not stand to be in the same room as rice:

One day, while Uncle John was stationed “overseas” (I am assuming in the Philippines, but as I said, I don’t know for sure) he left the base, intending to see the sights, I suppose. Without realizing it, he wandered into enemy territory, the enemy at the time being Japan. He was captured by Japanese troops and taken to a prison work camp.

At the camp, Uncle John and many other captured soldiers were forced to work insanely long hours – as long as the sun was out, I think – and they were given very little to eat or drink.

All they were given each day, according to Aunt Kat, was a single cup of tea, and what I believe she called a “cord” of rice. She used some term like that I hadn’t heard before; at any rate they were only given a small bowl of rice to eat each day.

And it wasn’t simply the rice, in and of itself, that Uncle John refused to be around later in life. It was what the rice reminded him of.

And it wasn’t merely working out in the hot sun all day with very little food and drink. It was also being forced to do so at gunpoint. It was also watching other men starve to death, collapse from exhaustion, or be shot by guards.

Uncle John was at that camp for quite a while. When I knew him, he was a fairly stocky man – in decent physical shape, but stocky, sort of like I am now – probably around 180 to 200 pounds. I am guessing.

When he was finally released from the prison camp, he weighed around a hundred pounds, I was told.

I don’t know for sure how long he was there. But he was there long enough to see many more young men come in, many of whom he also saw die there.

Uncle John gave the new prisoners advice about things – how to avoid angering the guards, how to ration a single bowl of rice to make it last all day, things like that – but many of them wouldn’t listen. They would gobble all their rice up as soon as it was given to them, and would find themselves starving and without food later in the day, while Uncle John and others still had a bite or two left.

And, of course, many of them simply cracked under pressure, did something to anger a guard, and were shot.

And again, my writing this is to honor Uncle John, not to denigrate Japan or the Japanese people. If you don’t (or can’t) understand the distinction, I would ask that you stop reading before I continue. As acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa once said, in defense of his film “Rhapsody In August,” one that concerns the long-term psychological effects of the atomic bomb being dropped on Nagasaki, “Governments wage wars, not people.” I fully agree with him. If circumstances had been different, if their respective governments had not set them at odds with each other, the men holding the guns in the prison camp and the men being worked to death might have been friends. But I am digressing. At any rate, I am not trying to make anyone dislike Japan or its people, so please don’t assume I am. I am merely relating a bit of history, as it was told to me. Just as Kurosawa was relating a bit of history in his film “Rhapsody In August,” which incidentally is a fantastic film that anyone reading this should watch. It has been called a “propaganda” film by certain American critics; I find that accusation to be beyond absurd.

But moving on, in the prison camp, there was a large, open work area. The prisoners planted crops, or dug ditches, or tended various livestock, or did any number of physically exhausting activities. And let me remind you they were only given a single cup of tea to drink all day.

And let me also remind you that tea contains caffeine, which is a diuretic. Which means it makes you pee. Which means it dehydrates you.

In the middle of the work area was a water fountain. All day, as the prisoners worked in the blazing sun, the fountain spurted water into the air. The water fell into a pool around the fountain, splashing tantalizingly, then was recirculated through the fountain, up into the air, and so on, all day long.

The prisoners were strictly forbidden to drink from this fountain, or even to go anywhere near it. Uncle John saw men who simply could not resist – could not bear the psychological pressure any longer – drop their shovel or rake or whichever tool they had in hand and run toward the fountain.

Uncle John saw these men get shot. Uncle John saw their bodies being dragged away.

Uncle John tried to warn newcomers about things like this. Some listened. Some didn’t.

I had heard abbreviated versions of what I have written several times in my life, mostly from Aunt Kat, while Uncle John was still living. But one day, several years ago, after Uncle John had died, but still several years before Aunt Kat did, she told me the whole story again, along with one other anecdote, one that almost got Uncle John killed.

One of Uncle John’s friends in the camp tended chickens as part of his work load. One day, after they both had been there for quite a while, they devised a plan, one that almost worked, to have roasted chicken for dinner one night, instead of a bite or two of rice.

The friend who tended chickens managed to steal one without being noticed. He stuffed it under his clothing, killed it, and hid it in the outhouse the prisoners used.

Somehow, Uncle John, his friend, and a few other of the men in his bunkhouse (or whatever it was called) were also able to obtain matches, or at any rate some method of starting a fire.

This is a detail I have forgotten. I am kicking myself for not writing all this down nine years ago, when Aunt Kat told me the story.

Anyways, one by one, with the guards’ permission, Uncle John and his friends went to the outhouse. One by one, just a little at a time, they took turns cooking the chicken on the outhouse floor, careful to put the fire out and hide the chicken each time.

Someone from the bunkhouse was always keeping watch, in case a guard got wise to what they were doing. They had an agreed-upon signal, and if a guard started toward the outhouse, someone would give the signal.

Over the course of a night, Uncle John and the other men in on the scheme took their turns roasting the chicken, bit by bit.

Uncle John told Aunt Kat that after the chicken began to almost get done, it was the best-smelling chicken he had ever smelled in his life, despite its close proximity to an open hole full of excrement and urine.

Unfortunately, Uncle John never got to taste that chicken, and neither did any of the other men. Just as the chicken was beginning to almost be edible, a guard noticed the smell, or maybe saw smoke. I think it was smoke.

At any rate, the guard noticed that something fishy was going on and started toward the outhouse. The man on watch saw him and gave the signal, and the man in the outhouse tossed the half-roasted chicken into the shit pit.

The guard found nothing out of the ordinary in the outhouse, and nobody was punished.

But nobody got to eat any chicken, either.

And Uncle John swore off rice the moment he was released from that prison camp. And as far as I know, he never touched another grain of rice as long as he lived.

He loved chicken, though.

Thank you for reading, and thank you for serving, if you happen to be a veteran.

I KNEW HIM, HORATIO…OR AT LEAST I WOULD HAVE LIKED TO — A GLANCE AT DAVID FOSTER WALLACE’S “INFINITE JEST”

For my first blog post under the “Books” heading (this heading will include both fiction and non-fiction), I will write a short, mostly impressionistic little article about one of my most favorite novels, David Foster Wallace‘s 1996 masterpiece, “Infinite Jest.”

Before I get going, I want to tell the reader what this blog post will not be. It will not be in any way “scholarly,” that is to say I will not apply any sort of literary filter to it. The impressions I will give will be my own, and as I am not preparing in any way for this blog post — and as my second reading of the novel in question was concluded almost a year ago — don’t expect any sort of deep insight from this post.

There are a great many essays available online which take a much more scholarly approach, such as this one, an essay which applies the philosophies of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Mikhail Bahktin to the text. I read this essay a while back, not long after I finished my second reading. A major theme of that essay has to do with how the characters in “Infinite Jest” are isolated from each other by the language they use to communicate: that is to say that while they are all (for the most part) speaking in English, their various slang terms and colloquialisms and dialects and grammatical structures and whatnot often hinder any sort of real communication between them. This same phenomenon happens in the real world: people often get into heated arguments over the meaning of this or that word or phrase. I myself have gotten into heated arguments over certain political or philosophical points — both in real life and online — with people who, as it turned out, saw the issue at hand more or less exactly the same way I did. I and my various argumentative adversaries merely used different words to express our opinions, and these words meant different things to me than they did to my (apparent) adversaries. It’s a relatively rare phenomenon — this phenomenon of arguing with someone only to find out you agreed with them from the very beginning — but it does indeed happen. At any rate, as expounded upon in the essay linked to above, “Infinite Jest” illustrates this sort of stunted communication quite well.

But that’s not what I am going to write about tonight. Nor am I going to speculate upon any one interpretation of the novel’s central plot line, like I did with my post about the movie “Donnie Darko.” Suffice it to say that there are various plot points in “Infinite Jest” that are left somewhat open to interpretation.

This practice of leaving loose ends untied, so to speak, was a hallmark of a lot of Wallace’s fiction, including his first novel “The Broom of the System” and many of his short stories. This practice worked to great effect (in my opinion) in stories such as “The Suffering Machine” and “John Billy,” but honestly can get a little bit frustrating, even for the most patient sort of reader.

Actually, it can get extremely frustrating. “Infinite Jest” made me want to call David Foster Wallace on the phone and scream obscenities at him, after I finished the last page of it.

Unfortunately, Wallace had been dead for a little over three years when I first read “Infinite Jest”. Wallace committed suicide in 2008.

Looking back at his fiction, I suppose Wallace’s felo de se is not especially, well, I hate to say it, but, well, not all that surprising. Suicide is a theme in a lot of Wallace’s fiction (including his unfinished third novel “The Pale King“), and “Infinite Jest” is no exception. Depression is also a recurring theme, as is addiction and substance abuse. Apocryphal tales of Wallace’s experiences with substance abuse abound online. You can look into them if you want to; to my knowledge Wallace never really talked about it much publicly.

Addiction is (arguably) the central theme of “Infinite Jest,” one that is (arguably) borne out through the structure of the novel itself. Throughout the novel’s 1079 pages, the reader is swept up to the heights of ecstasy and joy, flung into the gutter of hopelessness and despair, reluctantly pulled back into something close to normalcy — and then it’s over. And you sit there wondering what happened.

So the book sits there on your shelf, and most of the time you don’t think about it, but it’s always there.

And you just know, if you opened the book and read it again, it would be different this time.

You wouldn’t lose yourself to it again.

You wouldn’t obsess over this or that plot point, or scene, or character.

So you open it up and flip around.

And you start reading in the middle of some insanely long paragraph — just some random paragraph at some random point in the book — and after you read a line or two, you begin to remember what’s going on at this random point in the novel, and whose point of view you are peeking in on, and all the thousands of seemingly insignificant little details that add up to a level of scene and character development last seen in the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky begin pulling you back in —

And you close the book. And you put it back on the shelf.

You don’t have time to read this book again, you tell yourself.

You don’t have the strength.

It took quite a toll on you, emotionally, the first time you read it.

It made you laugh. It made you (almost) cry.

It made you want to throw up.

So you leave it on the shelf for a while.

And then you repeat the process above. Multiple times.

And so you decide to just suck it up and read the whole damn thing again. And so you do. And you’re still left scratching your head at the end. But the experience wasn’t as intense this time. So you put it back on the shelf, satisfied that you have gotten all you can out of it, satisfied with the quite visceral experience of reading this masterpiece of modern fiction…

…but almost a year later, you’re still thinking about it. You know it’s going to take you away from whatever you have going on in your life, you know it’s going to take up a lot of your time and energy…

…you know diving into this book again isn’t going to do you any good, not one damn bit…

…but you want to read it again.

And again.

And again.

Because it will be different, you tell yourself, this one last time.

At any rate, the book itself is quite addictive.

There are any number of web pages where you can read all sorts of spoilers and speculation about various unresolved plot points from the novel. This isn’t one of them. I do not want to ruin the experience of reading the novel yourself, should you choose to read it.

As a matter of fact, I feel like I have revealed far too much about the novel already. I knew nothing about the novel before I read it. A friend recommended it, I ordered myself a copy — from my local bookstore, not off of the internet —  and I began reading it. If you have read what I have written here, you know much more about the novel than I did when I read it, despite my not having revealed much of anything about the actual contents of the novel.

You’re not supposed to know what it’s about before you read it. The story begins in medias res, and from the very beginning, the reader is bombarded with terms and acronyms and various odd colloquialisms that may or may not have ever existed outside of the novel itself. Most of these terms are defined, directly or indirectly, as the novel progresses. Some are not. Some colloquialisms — as is mentioned in the essay linked to above — vary in definition and usage, depending on which character is using them.

Some characters are extremely erudite, some are barely literate. Most are somewhere in between. One finds oneself scouring dictionaries for words that don’t exist, words that have been mispronounced by whichever character happens to be using them.

“Infinite Jest” is definitely a challenge to read. But it’s a challenge worth meeting.

At any rate, I would love to discuss it with you some time.

(After you’ve read it, of course.)

BAN BIBLE THUMPING IN POLITICS (TRUST ME, THIS IS A GOOD IDEA)

(Note: I was unsure, again, whether to post this under “Politics” or “Philosophy.” I posted it under “Philosophy” because it attempts to get at the heart of what “freedom of religion” actually implies. Apologies to anyone who may be offended.  — MNW)

You know how here in the USA, we have “freedom of religion,” and how it says in the first amendment that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” and all?

I mean, people talk about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights all the time, then turn around and try to say this is a “Christian nation” and whatnot, when clearly it isn’t and was never intended to be.

Sure, the various denominations of Christianity make up the majority of the religious people in the USA. There’s no argument about that. But what many of these (I have to believe “well-meaning”) folks don’t realize is that by virtue of the establishment clause in the first amendment, that majority means precisely zilch in terms of how the law applies to citizens of the USA.

You can’t make a non-Christian be a Christian. You can’t force people who don’t share your religious beliefs to adhere to the tenets of your religion.

If you want to adhere to those tenets, great! Good for you! As long as your actions aren’t causing harm to anyone else or breaking any laws, by all means, adhere! Adhere to whichever tenets you want! It’s none of my or anyone else’s business what you do!

You say adhering to the tenets of your religion has had a positive effect on your life? Hey, that’s awesome! I am not being sarcastic at all, honestly, I am glad your life is better now than it was before.

You say you want others to benefit from your religion the way you did? Great! Tell them about it. Tell them how it changed your life for the better. Maybe they’ll follow your example. Maybe it will benefit them, too!

But here’s the thing…maybe it won’t. Maybe what worked for you won’t work for everyone. As a matter of fact, let me go ahead and break it to you: what worked for you is not — repeat: “is not” — going to work for everyone else.

You can suggest they follow your example, but you can’t force them to. And if you try to force them to, you are violating their freedom of religion.

And if they tell you, “Hey! I don’t care about your religion! I have my own religion!” or else “Hey! I don’t care about your religion! I think all religions are stupid!” then guess what?

They are exercising their own right to freedom of religion.
They are not violating your freedom of religion by refusing to participate in your religion. They are exercising their own rights!

But getting back to the point of this blog post — or, I suppose, finally getting around to the point of it — I would like to propose something that I think would be beneficial to the nation (and the world our nation is a part of) as a whole:

I would like to propose a new law. This law states that any politician — from a person running for city council to a Presidential candidate — will be disqualified from whichever political race she or he is running in, if she or he mentions her or his religious affiliation (or lack thereof) in the public sphere.

Hear me out! Don’t get mad at me just yet, I implore you!

I am not saying “all politicians should be prevented from going to the church/temple/mosque/whatever of their choice.” I am not saying that at all. Don’t put words in my mouth!

What I am saying is that if we truly have “freedom of religion” in this country, a person’s religious affiliation (or lack thereof) should have no bearing whatsoever on their prospects as a potential office holder.

It’s none of my business what religion you are. Why should I care what religion any political candidate is?

I shouldn’t care. And guess what? I don’t care! I do not give two rotten farts about what religion any political candidate is. I care about the things they want to do while in office. I care about whether those things will benefit my country and the world my country is a part of. I do not care what religion they are, and I do not care if they don’t have a religion at all.

To tell you the truth, the minute, nay, the second any politician starts talking about her or his religious beliefs (or lack thereof), I stop taking that politician seriously.

And no matter what religion you are or whether you’re an atheist or an agnostic or what, you should stop taking them seriously then, too.

How dare I say such a thing? Because the second a politician starts talking about how pious she or he is (or how they think religious people are bad, or whatever), that is when they begin pandering to you. They are not telling you the truth, they are trying to avoid telling you the truth.

I mentioned earlier that Christians make up a majority in the USA. The vast majority of politicians that brag about their own Christianity are Republicans.

If you look at the actual policies these Christian-pandering Republicans endorse, you will find that these policies only actually benefit one group of people: the very wealthy.

Tax cuts for wealthy people benefit wealthy people.

Cutting funding for education, welfare, food stamps, health services for the poor, health services for veterans — all things Republicans do consistently — all these things benefit wealthy people.

It lessens the tax burden on them, and it increases profits for private services they control. Government services ALWAYS cost more after they have been privatized. Always.

This does not benefit any group of people except for the very wealthy.

So why do so many poor and working-class people vote Republican?

Do I really need to point it out?

Are you going to get mad at me for pointing it out?

I suppose you’ll just have to get mad at me then. I apologize for upsetting you.

They vote Republican because they think Jesus wants them to. They vote Republican because very wealthy people who have no interest in anything other than being wealthy talk about how much they love Jesus and how much they love the Bible and God told them to do this and God told them to do that.

It’s horseshit! Every word of it! They are lying to you! They are pretending to share your sincerely-held religious beliefs so you will vote for them.

They take money out of your pocket, they take medicine out of your medicine cabinet, they take food off of your table, my fellow working-class Americans, and you keep voting them back into office!

Why?

Because someone told you this country is a “Christian nation.” It isn’t! It never was! And hopefully, it never will be.

Any time any religion gets hold of a government, terrible things happen. That was true at the time our country was being founded — that’s why we have the establishment clause — and it’s true today.

A religious government answers to no one. Why not? They believe their actions are sanctioned by God, or Allah, or Krishna, or Buddha, or whoever. People get oppressed, people get enslaved, people get slaughtered — and if you speak against the government, if you ask the government why this is happening,  you are committing blasphemy!

Trust me, we DO NOT want the USA to turn into that.

So, getting back to my point, we should pass a law banning all political candidates from mentioning their religious affiliation (or lack thereof) in the public sphere.

The same goes after they are elected. The second they mention one religion (or the lack of religion) as being better or worse than another religion (or the lack of religion), at least in the public sphere, they should be booted out of office.

“But wait!” I can hear you saying. “What about their freedom of speech?”

To that, I say that my freedom of religion, as a private citizen, supercedes their freedom of speech as a public figure.

If I am a member of a minority religion, let’s say, and President Nimrod starts telling people his majority religion is best, and my minority religion is bad, by virtue of the fact that he is President, he has lessened my ability to express my religious beliefs freely.

He has, in effect, endorsed a state religion.

I argue that any time any elected official speaks of their religious beliefs (or lack thereof) they are, in effect, endorsing a state religion.

Why do I keep saying “(or lack thereof)”, you might be asking?

Because while atheism is not a “religion,” if an elected official stands up and denigrates religion in the public sphere, she or he has violated the freedom of religion of her or his constituency, also. She or he has designated “atheism” as the official religious stance of her or his constituency, and that puts religious people at a disadvantage.

It’s none of my business what any politician or elected official does or does not believe. And frankly, I do not give two rotten farts what any of them do or don’t believe.

And neither should you.

Thank you for reading.

AN OCCURRENCE AT MIDDLESEX RIDGE SCHOOL — DECONSTRUCTING “DONNIE DARKO”

Fall is here, and I would like to offer a review/interpretation of one of my all-time favorite movies, one that takes place entirely in the fall.

Before I get started, I would like to mention that my Cousin Ronald will be back for more political commentary some time next week, but seeing as how he “ain’t just some lazy goodfornothing what sits in front of a durn computer all day,” and that he “acktuly has a famly and a job to keep up with,” it may be a little longer before he writes another “web blog” post. He wanted me to tell you all that he looked at your comments on my Facebook page, and he didn’t see what was so “gall durn funny” about anything he wrote, but then again he “wasn’t no damn Godless heathen libral,” so it wasn’t surprising that he didn’t know what “Godless heathen librals” would find funny. He told me to tell you he was praying for you all.

If anyone reading has any questions for Cousin Ronald, or would like to read his opinion on any given issue, inquiries can be made to his email address:

cousinronald72@gmail.com

He also wanted me to mention that that email address isn’t his real email address, it’s just the one he will use for “web blog” purposes, seeing as how he doesn’t want to be associated with anyone who is already associated with, well, me.

Moving on.

Since I have already written about 200 words concerning something other than the actual subject of this blog post, I will insert a header here, one that is identical to the title, using some basic html commands. I am new to this, so I need all the practice I can get. So anyways, to remind the reader of the subject:

AN OCCURRENCE AT MIDDLESEX RIDGE SCHOOL — DECONSTRUCTING “DONNIE DARKO”

For purposes of this blog post, I am assuming that the reader has seen the movie already. There will be multiple spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the movie, you might want to watch it before you read this. Or maybe not, I really can’t say. “Donnie Darko,” in my opinion, is a movie that can be watched and enjoyed multiple times.

It should be noted, however, that the version of the film I am reviewing is the original 2001 version, not the “Director’s Cut” that was released in 2004. The IMDB default image for the movie title is from the director’s cut, not the original. Here is the DVD cover of the version I personally own, which I procured for five bucks in a discount bin at my local Walmart a few years ago.

WIN_20151017_183140

And as the reader can tell, the webcam on my laptop is not what anyone would call high quality. That’s fine by me, as a matter of fact I cover my webcam with a square piece of a blue Post-It note 99% of the time anyways. But I am digressing.

I want to say first that I am only “deconstructing” this film in a fairly superficial sense. I intend to take certain elements of it apart and view them in relation to each other, but not in any sort of seriously academic sort of way.

So if some college student out there who happens to be a fan of “Donnie Darko” finds this blog post, I wouldn’t recommend that they use it as a source for any paper they intend to turn in for a grade. But who knows, maybe I will provide some insight or other that they failed to think of on their own.

Moving on.

I would like to explain the title of this post: it is a reference to a film I saw as a freshman in a film lecture class at the University of Arkansas many long years ago. The class was taught by Thomas Frentz, who I hope will not mind my mentioning his name here on my blog. His film lecture class was one of my all-time favorite classes during my six years as a student at the U of A, and I have a lot of respect for the man. However, if he wishes, like Cousin Ronald, to not have his good name sullied by association with the likes of me, I will remove it from this blog post.

What I want to express, however, is that his class had a profound effect on me as a movie-goer. After taking that class, I was no longer able to simply watch a movie passively. Every movie I saw following that class had to be taken apart and studied. And on the one hand, this approach to movie viewing has given me the ability to appreciate movies on a much deeper level than I ever had before.

But on the other hand, it made me much more critical of movies, in such a way that many wildly popular movies became simply painful for me to watch. I suppose that was a fair trade-off, but following that trade-off, I don’t think that I would be a very fun person to go to the movies with. And here I am digressing again.

The title of this blog post is a reference to a short film titled “Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge,” based on a short story by Ambrose Bierce.

In the film, a man — more specifically, a soldier of some sort — is about to be executed by being hanged from Owl Creek Bridge. He stands on the bridge, a noose around his neck, and he walks out on a plank. Another soldier is standing on the other end of the plank. The executioner soldier steps off of the plank, and the man falls.

When he falls, somehow, the noose slips from around his neck, and he falls into the creek below. He swims to the creekside, frantically, while shots are being fired at him from soldiers on the bridge. Somehow he manages to escape, but he does not stop running. The remainder of the short film consists almost entirely of him running. Towards the end, he sees a woman’s face — presumably that of his wife, girlfriend, or even possibly his mother — and he ends up very close to what the viewer can only guess is his home, a large house with (I believe) the woman standing out front, her arms open, ready to embrace him.

And just as it seems like he is about to embrace the woman — or maybe just as he embraces the woman; as I said I only saw the film once, and I think that was in spring of 1999 — the film abruptly cuts back to Owl Creek Bridge, where the man is shown hitting the end of the rope, which he never actually slipped free of. The majority of the film actually occurred entirely in the doomed man’s mind, in the second or so between when the executioner soldier stepped off the plank and the doomed man reached the end of the hangman’s rope.

In other words, the majority of the film was merely a frantic sort of waking dream that the doomed man was having at the instant of his death.

I am not certain if “Donnie Darko” director Richard Kelly was consciously paying homage to “…Owl Creek Bridge” with “Donnie Darko” — the DVD commentary track from the DVD pictured above suggests that he may not have been — nonetheless the two films are quite similar.

On the DVD commentary, Kelly points out several minor details that most viewers — even self-described “critical” viewers such as myself — might not notice, even after multiple viewings. For example, after Donnie wakes up on the side of the road at the beginning of the film and rides his bike home, the red car he passes

is the same car that runs over and kills Gretchen Ross near the end of the movie. This car belongs to Frank, who we find out at the party scene near the end, indirectly,

is dating Donnie’s older sister, Elizabeth.

Another detail that even a self-described “critical” moviegoer such as myself missed was that Donnie wrote a letter to Roberta Sparrow (a.k.a “Grandma Death”), and this is what caused her to be in the street just as Frank happened to be coming back from his beer run, just as Gretchen is lying in the middle of the road. If “Grandma Death” hadn’t been standing in the middle of the road as a result of her finally getting a letter — recall the scene from earlier in the movie where one of Donnie’s jackass friends says “somebody ought to write that bitch”? — Frank would not have swerved to miss her and accidentally run over Gretchen.

And Donnie wouldn’t have shot Frank in the face.

Of course, even a casual viewer could pick up on how Frank’s eye has been shot out when he appears in the theater earlier in the movie

or how when Donnie is taking his pills and Frank appears, Donnie is stabbing Frank in the same eye that is shot out later.

But there are things Richard Kelly mentions in the commentary, such as how Donnie has to bring an “artifact” to a certain point — I am not certain if this “artifact” is the jet engine

that detaches from the plane Donnie’s mom Rose and younger sister Sam are flying on, or if this “artifact” is Gretchen’s dead body — that suggest that maybe Kelly was actually promoting the whole “Philosophy of Time Travel” aspect of the movie as a real thing (at least within the movie itself) and not…well, I would rather not say just yet.

There’s also the matter of the weird “Abyss“-looking things that I can’t find a gif of. You know, like when Donnie, his dad, Dr. Fisher, and Dr. Fisher’s jackass bigot son Ronald are watching football, and Sam is skipping around following that weird watery-looking thing coming out of her chest, and then one of those things comes out of Donnie’s chest, and he follows it upstairs and finds the gun he ends up shooting Frank with? Remember that part?

“I hope they go for a safety.”

Really, Ronald. Shut up. Stop talking. Jackass.

But wait…my bad…it was Donnie’s other jackass bigot friend Sean who told Cherita to “go back to China.”

Donnie had shitty friends. No wonder he had emotional problems.

Anyways, what I am getting at is that there are a lot of things in the movie that simply don’t make a whole lot of sense, strictly speaking. And as the movie progresses, things get weirder and weirder.

The movie isn’t really all that weird at first, not counting, I guess, that the protagonist wakes up on the side of the road at the beginning,

but after Donnie takes his pills, which the viewer can only assume have something to do with his sonambulism, the movie gets stranger and stranger. He doesn’t see Frank until after he takes a pill for the first time, and after that, more and more weird things start happening.

It is my opinion that Donnie takes the pill, goes to bed, and begins dreaming. And the rest of the movie is a dream, not counting the very end where it shows Donnie’s family crying and firemen removing the jet engine from the house and whatnot.

“Sit next to the boy that you think is the cutest.” I mean, come on! Where does that sort of thing happen, outside of a teenage boy’s dream?

It’s also somewhat important that his mother pressured him to take the pill. She was no doubt acting in what she thought was the best interest of her son.

But what happened, at least in the original version of the film (in the director’s cut, the pills were revealed to be placebos), is that after feeling guilty for calling his mom a “bitch,” Donnie decided to take her suggestion and take the pills his psychiatrist Dr. Thurman had prescribed.

And that night he didn’t sleepwalk.

And that night, by some (probably physically impossible) freak accident, a jet engine falls from the sky and lands directly on Donnie, killing him.

The remainder of the movie is, essentially, a dream. But unlike “…Owl Creek Bridge,” it isn’t just the protagonist having the dream. Every character in the movie — or at least the ones shown waking up in the final sequence — is sharing the dream.

Isn’t that hilarious?

…but I might be all wet. At any rate, “Donnie Darko” is one of my all-time favorite movies.

S. Darko,” however, is terrible. Just awful.

Sorry, Sam.

Thank you for reading.

INTERDUCING COUSIN RONALD

Before I commence to writing here on this web blog, I would like to interduce myself. But I ain’t gone give you no real infermation, because Obummer ain’t gone put me in no database, for to say when I go before no death panel. I don’t do none of that Facebook mess neither, for percisely the same reason.

I was doing some looking into my family tree on the internet here, and I fount the name “Michael Nathan Walker” way on down the line. I asked Jeeves about that name and fount this here web blog. It ain’t much wrote here yet, but I have to say so far I am flat-out appalled to know this libral fella what writes here on this web blog is my cousin.

DISTANT cousin.

We is kin somehow or other through his daddy’s momma’s famly, and seeing as how both of them two are up in Heaven now, it ain’t gone hurt neither of em to be mentioned here. But I ain’t gone tell you my actual real name, because I got family I don’t want connected with this libral fella and his un-Godly ways.

But I wanted to set my libral cousin – excuse me, my libral DISTANT cousin – straight on a few things, and so I sent him a email I got from some guy come and preached at my sister’s church a while back, and what do you think he did? He turnt around and tried to tell me all the truth in that email was baloney.

And librals wonder why we good decent folk hates em so much!

I told him a very good friend of mine that don’t never lie about nothing had sent that to me, and I would be danged if I was gonna set there and let a dang slimy libral like him call my friend a liar, especially some libral writing on some uppity assed blog what ain’t even got no opposing views wrote on it.

So my distant cousin, being he’s lazy (like all librals) and don’t want to write on his own web blog, he suggested I share my views here when I felt like it, instead of sending him a bunch of emails he ain’t asked for and didn’t want to read.

Librals is scared of the truth, is what it is!

I told him I didn’t want my good name associated with no name like his, so he says if that was so well why not just pick a name and use it, cause don’t but a handful of people even look at this web blog no way. Write whatever I want to, he said, just put some made up name on it.

So you all can just call me Cousin Ronald. My name ain’t really Ronald or Ron or Ronnie or nothing like that, I just like the name Ronald a whole lot, being’s that’s the first name of the Great Communicater himself, Ronald Reagan.

He was a Prince among men, that man. He knew the only way everbody in this country was going to get right was to get Jesus. He said our kids ought to be praying in school ever day, and he said the Ten Commandments ought to be in ever goverment building.

The Great Communicater Ronald Reagan also said everbody ought to have guns, and any kind of guns they want, not just no pistols and hunting rifles and whatall but assalt rifles and as big a durn clip as they wanted to put on em.

Ronald Reagan was a leader. He wasn’t no actor up there acting like he was a leader. He was a leader.

And I done made my interduction so long I ain’t even got space to talk much about that abomination on TV the other night, that Democrap debate. I didn’t pay much attention to it no way.

That mess was so boring I didn’t know what to think. All them jokers talked about was “global warming” this and “economy policy” that. Didn’t nobody say much of nothing about Bengazzi, or how Socialist Sanders wants to give all my paychecks to a durn bunch of immigrants can’t even talk right.

You come to my country, you speak English! And you speak English good, to, else you ain’t suppose to be here!

And most important, didn’t none of em say nothing about Jesus. We got freedom of religion in this country, and if everbody don’t have the same religion as me, what kind of freedom is that?

Anyway I just wanted to interduce myself, and I did. I hope maybe I will bring in some decent reader ship to this web blog, instead of just a bunch of commie pinko librals.

You all have a blessed day.