Contra Progress: We have made the modern world, but the modern world is not made for us


IMG_0039The United States is a place full of oddities and contradictions, much like the rest of the world. Our greatest contradictions exist within the workplace. We leave a house that we hope to sell (in order to move into a bigger one), drive in traffic that we hate onto the way to a job that we deplore, take orders from a boss we despise, and spend 7-8 hours (on average) in a building we’re working to eventually escape, only to fight that same hated traffic on the way home. By the time we get home we’re drained, we have no creativity or energy left, and what’s worse is we must wake up and repeat the process all over. Our only respite is the weekends, but even then we must fight crowds and face the reality that the eternal return of the same shall stare us down beginning Sunday night into Monday morning.

The angst of modern man is quite different from his ancestors. Existential angst has always been a part of human existence, the crisis of realizing that we exist, but truly understanding why we exist is at the core of many philosophical discussions. It is a question that spans across both Eastern and Western philosophies; both Socrates and Buddha, both Christianity and Taoism, and everything in between attempt to explain the crisis of existence. Even into the 1960s when hippies weren’t tripping off LSD, they were questioning why we’re here. These hippies eventually became the yuppies; the counter-culture warriors of the 60s became the consumerist capitalists of the 80s. Today, the question of “Why am I here” is answered in a myriad of commercials: “To produce and consume.”

Whereas the term “progressive” is commonly used to refer to someone who is liberal or even socialist, the greatest irony is that modern capitalism is truly progressive. Imagine a CEO coming out tomorrow and saying, “Our corporation has made a huge profit this year. We really don’t need a bigger profit at this point, so we’re going to give any extra profit to our workers.” That, of course, isn’t really progressive because it limits the growth of the company. Modern capitalism wants a world where satisfaction and contentment are dirty words, not signs of maturity. Some might say that this is really consumerism, to which I’d say that consumerism is a logical conclusion of capitalism.

We’re stuck in wage jobs where our entire existence depends not on our work or creativity, but on the effective management of the company for which we work (in previous ages this was called slavery, just of a higher degree than non-wage slavery). “If you work hard enough, you can make it.” I’m sure many people who were laid off or “downsized” work incredibly hard; but their labor was owned by another, and their owner mismanaged the fruits of the labor. If you want that new car, that new TV, that new boat, that new house, that new whatever, then you need to keep working. But ultimately, what are we working for? All these things will gather dust and eventually gain nothing. They are not wrong to have, but to pursue, to make them your goal in life? To seek a new model in a few years? We’re told our purpose in life is to consume, to consume things we don’t need, to consume things that will lose value within our own lifetimes; and if we reflect on that, even for a millisecond, when we think of how many hours of work we put into buying a new TV, we can’t help but feel the angst and disgust.

In pursuing progress in all things financial, we’ve stopped asking why we were created. But such a cessation of questioning is only harmful and has created nasty side effects. Just 100 years ago the majority of Americans lived in small towns where they were no more than a few minutes walk from the world as it was. While we might not have had an answer as to why we existed, we could at least walk within a natural environment and, even without knowledge, feel at home. Today, because we’ve stopped asking why we are here we have lost our connection with our first home. The sounds of nature, of birds chirping, of the wind rustling the leaves of a tree, of the beautiful silence of a forest during a winter snow are often interrupted or drowned out by bustling cars, honking horns, or the “progress” of construction. The incessant clamor of the modern world was born out of the silencing of the big questions.

How odd that modern man has moved his home away from nature when he is only home when closer to nature. In seeking to master the world, we have become slaves to our progress; in seeking to move our homes into the modern era, we have become homeless. We’ve struggled to create a fantastic world, a utopia, only to discover that it is so fantastic and so utopian that we don’t belong to our own creation. We have no frame of reference for our existence and so we stumble forward, blindly into a dark abyss, until we hit the age of 45 and go, “What the hell is all of this for?” To which the car salesmen sells us the new sports car, we leave our family for someone new, everyone chalks it up to a midlife crisis, and we still lead empty and mundane lives, just filled with new stuff.

Marriages aren’t falling apart because we’ve lost religion or because “the gays” can get married. Adultery doesn’t occur because we live in a post-sexual revolution world. Family values haven’t decreased because of Democrats (or Republicans). Society isn’t falling apart because of some liberal or conservative conspiracy theory. Rather, we’ve created a world that isn’t suited for humans and all we see are merely the conclusions of such a world. Just like our bodies will die when placed into an environment not conducive for bodies, so too will our souls die in an environment not conducive to the soul. Our modern world, the one that places our existence on our ability to produce and consume, one that seeks to work us and work us until our company can progress in its profits, is a world that is not only unfavorable to souls, but in many instances kills the soul.

Humans are not meant for the busy life. We’re not meant for 8 hour work days, five days a week (and that’s if you’re lucky; more and more we’re working a clocked 56 hours a week, not to mention the emails and calls at home). We’re not meant to sit in traffic driving metallic cows herded from one area to another. We’re not meant to be “producers” or “consumers,” at least not as our primary function. We’re not meant to remain busy, busy to the point that we lose who we are or worse, never discover what we could be. We’re not meant to look for the next big useless thing and then slave away so we can pay for that big useless thing. We’re not meant to be cut off from nature, not to the degree in which we’re separated, for ultimately we are still a part of nature. We’re not meant to live in isolation amidst our crowded cities. We’re not meant for the modern world.

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Christian “Atheism”


Five-Cent Synthesis

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I have developed the habit of reading four to five books at a time, plus dipping into another dozen in between, which may or may not prove very edifying. This, I admit, is a symptom of intellectual intemperance; however I also admit that I am ambivalent about seeking a cure. One I have just begun is Faith and Unbeliefby the English theologian Stephen Bullivant; as a former atheist turned Catholic theologian with a doctorate from Oxford, he appears to have an expansive grasp on both orientations towards reality.

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Of Mad Men and Discredited Russian Philosophers: The Angst of Donald Draper


***DISCLAIMER: Massive Spoilers! But that should be obvious, right?***

 

Wikipedia

Wikipedia

Imagine a decade ago that I came to you and said I had an idea for a show. That idea would be to follow the lives of people who work in the office, in advertising, in the 1960s. You’d ask what happened, and I’d say, “Nothing. Nothing happens. They just live.” Would you green light the show? Probably not, but someone at AMC did and called it Mad Men, and the rest is history. Or at least soon to be history as the show comes to its conclusion.

For nigh on a decade (in show years; and kind of in real years) we’ve witnessed Donald Draper and the rest of the crew grow, develop, and collapse. All the while the question to the casual viewer is, “So when will something happen?” We thought that something was when Pete burst forth with the revelation that Donald Draper is actually Dick Whitman, to which Bernie Cooper gave a “Meh” response. The something was actually nothing. So goes the pattern of the show: Something major occurs, we think this is the *it* we’ve waited for, and it’s met with “meh.”

Yet, there’s an inescapable feeling that indeed something has happened, we just don’t know what that something is. After all, we’ve watched Don Draper live a “man’s dream,” of being successful, of marrying a woman half his age (who’s a french model), of drinking while on the job, and living a life with few consequences. But Don seems unhappy and unfulfilled. He fought to get his job back, only to continue to seek after other things. Don is never happy, nor is anyone else on the show. No one ever reaches the mountain and feels satisfaction, contentment is always a few elusive feet away, and for this we think something might have happened. Indeed, something has happened and continues to happen within the story of Mad Men: The battle for Don Draper’s soul.

No, this is not a Jesus Juke. This is not where I turn around and, much like the irate husband in this past week’s episode, tell Don Draper to find Jesus because “He can do some good things.” Rather, the battle for Don’s soul is fought on the existential level. One could say that the thing happening is the fight and struggle for Don Draper’s existence, for his identity, for his happiness. See, Don Draper isn’t really Don Draper, rather he’s two men. He’s Dick Whitman and Donald Draper. Rather than Draper being a cover so that Whitman could escape the horrors of Korea, Draper is also an entirely other personality.

Whitman is a carefree individual, not quite a hippie, not quite a beatnik, not quite an existentialist. But there’s no doubt that he loves life and desires freedom. In the very first episode of the first season we’re actually introduced to both Donald Draper and Dick Whitman. We see the businessman (Draper), the patriarch of the ideal family of four, living in the suburbs. In the darker elements we see a man living for himself, the ideal objectivist who uses anything and everything for his happiness. We also meet, albeit briefly, with Dick Whitman (though we don’t know his name), in having an affair with a bohemian-style woman, someone who seems incommensurable to the businessman. As the season and show progress the divide between the two personalities grows wider as the two fight for supremacy.  Continue reading

Eugenics in the Modern Age: A Lesson We’ve Yet to Learn


DSC02059The State of North Carolina passed an incredibly inadequate law to compensate victims of its eugenics program. It’s incredibly inadequate in that it only offers $20,000 to the victims of the forced sterilization and not all victims qualify. Everything about this is disgusting; that it’s kept mostly out of the news, certainly not studied in history, the victims get next to nothing in terms of actual compensation, and not all the victims are compensated. Considering that the Eugenics Board of North Carolina existed until 1977 and the laws allowing for eugenic sterilization weren’t repealed until 2003, added with the fact that we’ve ignored these facts, only forces us to lose any moral standing as a nation.

North Carolina isn’t alone either. In California, female inmates were sterilized up until 2010. Just last month a Republican candidate out in Arizona gave up campaigning because he advocate the forced sterilization of welfare recipients (specifically women).  Historically speaking, eugenics has never been anything more than a tool for people to promote their bigotries under the auspices of science. We’ve been told time and time again that eugenics isn’t a legitimate scientific study, that there’s no real science to eugenics, and yet here we stand in 2014 and social commentators and scientists continue to support it.

John Entine – director of the Genetic Literacy Project – is a strong advocate for the “New Eugenics,” believing that with modern science we’ll somehow make better decisions. As Paul Campos points out, there is seemingly popular sentiment that those in prison and on welfare ought to be sterilized (an opinion he finds repugnant). Some scientists counter that if we can conduct gene manipulation to eliminate harmful genetic structures, then why not? Of course, gene therapy – in which a person is not harmed or loses the ability to reproduce – isn’t really eugenics. If we developed a genetic therapy that could eliminate heart disease and that genetic therapy didn’t require the termination of selected individuals, or the non-breeding of selected individuals, then it’s not really eugenics. Even the afore-linked article makes the assumption that after WWII, eugenics fell by the wayside and out of popularity. As seen from the evidence, however, WWII simply changed how eugenics was conducted, but the popularity of eugenics didn’t wain even in the face of eugenic genocide.

The biggest mistake of Nazi Germany wasn’t just that it hated those it deemed less than socially acceptable, it’s that they treated those they deemed so as less-than-human. Hating Jews for the fact that they’re Jews is wrong in and of itself; hating anyone for arbitrary reasons is wrong. But that hate takes on a deeper evil when we allow ourselves to view those we hate as less-than-human. Hatred for a specific group of people is why traditionally oppressed groups of people in the United States have consistently faced subjugation to eugenic practices. We’re simply repeating the core component of the Holocaust; while the methods of enacting eugenics today are drastically different from Hitler’s Germany, the core philosophy – that some types of people just don’t deserve to pass on their genetic information – is alive and well. Thus, our disgust with what Hitler did isn’t necessarily over the idea of eugenics, but instead over how he handled it. Or, to put it another way, we’re not against the idea of eradicating certain groups of people, we just think Hitler was too broad in his selection and too zealous in his application, but there’s no real disagreement with his philosophy.

Of course, merely pointing to a similarity shared with Hitler doesn’t make that similarity necessarily wrong, but in this case the link should be obvious. Whenever we devalue human life because of its functionality or desired traits, a type of genocide or tyranny is inevitable. Who gets to decide what is and is not a desirable trait? A parent finds out their kid is at risk for having freckles, which they abhor and think it will only harm them in finding a good job. Thus, out of “compassion” they elect to terminate the child. What about the growing polarity within our political structure? What happens if an extreme right-wing ideology becomes the majority in a state or the nation? Then non-whites and the poor must again face the prospect of being selectively breeded out. What if an extreme left-wing ideology takes over? Should religious folks and prisoners who refuse to reform be equally worried?

The above examples are not “what ifs” or scare tactics, but rather looking at history and seeing that every single time eugenics rears its head, oppression persists. The problem is devaluing human life due to some trait or functionality, but the reality is that human life ought to be celebrated, flaws and all. Whenever we impose a judgement on the intrinsic aspects of a human life – such as lighter skin being more attractive or being athletic makes you better – we’re creating an arbitrary standard. There’s no real reason behind what we say other than our subjective feelings and thoughts. Even if our subjective views are embraced by the majority of people, they remain subjective. Even if 99 out of 100 people believe that blond hair is better than brown hair, there’s no real non-arbitrary reasoning behind that belief. Tomorrow, 99 out of 100 people could change their minds and support brown hair being better than blond hair.

Thus, eugenics is a failed science not only because it always leads to genocide, but because it ignores the fundamental fact of human existence, namely that life ought to be celebrated. While it’s important to fix actual genetic defects – such as heart disease or other deformities – such treatments ought not come at the expense of a human life. If we can improve upon a person’s life without harming the person, then so be it, but eugenics should never enter into the conversation.

Being an Atheist doesn’t make you an intellectual: On Horus and other silly things


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Many memes about Christ, specifically linking him to ancient myths such as Horus, is as close to The Walking Dead as we’ll get in this life; it’s a dead thought, empty, that keeps coming at you no matter how many facts you use to shoot it down, feasting on the weak and unprepared, and leaving the survivors confused as to how such a thing can continue to persist on this earth. Eventually it’s nothing more than an annoyance to be dealt with, causing the occasional panic among the hopeless and lazy, but posing no threat to those who know what to expect in such a world.

Let me back up.

The greatest intellectual challenge to my faith ever (and currently) is found in a work of fiction by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Anyone familiar with theodicy or with his work knows where I’m pointing to; the conversation between Alexei and Ivan where Ivan names all the evils that have occurred without reason and Alexei is left without response. It paints a horrific picture of existence, one in where we commit the worst evils against each other, one where we have just cause to question if God is just, or even exists. Of course, Dostoevsky was a devout Christian and even based the character of Alexei off his friend Vladimir Solovyov. Yet, to me this poses a great challenge to my faith.

All that is to say that it’s okay to have challenges to the faith. It’s even okay to not believe. I have friends who are atheists (or agnostics) and have intellectually valid reasons for doubting the existence of God. They are challenging issues, ones without an easy answer, and worthy of inspection. There are others who realize that if God doesn’t exist we have quite a bit to account for (such as, since something exists, we need an ought for that something). They attempt to form epistemological theories, ethical theories, political theories, and so on sans God. While I think there are flaws, it’s a worthy attempt.

Sadly, what I described above does not seem to be the case for most self-acclaimed atheists out there. Most of them see a few youtube videos, see things on Facebook, read some stuff on Reddit, and if they’re really bold will read a book or two by Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins, and conclude from such extensive and scholarly study that God doesn’t exist. Oh, and if you do believe in God? Well you’re an idiot and stupid and have nothing worthy to say. Some “historian” says that Jesus didn’t exist and everyone concludes, “Well duh, of course he didn’t!” Never mind that there’s almost a complete consensus among historians of the time period that Jesus existed (they debate over the details), in this case expertise is dismissed for the words of…Michael Paulvokich. His book and main arguments are almost immediately dismissed by the majority of historians (from various religious beliefs or lack thereof), but it didn’t stop many “Reddit Atheists” from exerting how much smarter they are than Christians.

Let’s be honest, this new type of atheism isn’t so much about being an actual atheist as it is just about hating Christianity, or more, about feeling smarter than everyone else. I’m always perplexed that when I speak to people about philosophy, science, political theories, and so on, most people guess I’m an atheist. They either start to smile and go, “You’re an atheist, aren’t you? You’re really intelligent.” Or they frown and begin to witness to me (apparently Christians think people who are educated are atheists). It shocks people to learn that I’m not an atheist. It’s an outright scandal when I go further to say that I believe Jesus was born of a virgin, performed miracles, died, and rose from the grave. A lot of atheists I run into who discover this will just stop talking to me, saying that I’m not as smart as they thought I was. This new-found atheism is more about trying to say, “I’m smarter than you” than it is about discovering any actual truth.

Consider the following image I pulled from Facebook:  Continue reading

Lip Service Is All You Ever Get From Me…


(Disclaimer: Elvis Costello likely would not support this post, but this song has a handy title. It’s a gem from 1978.)

One hears these days, more and more, pronouncements along these lines:

Religion is ok and everything, you know, it’s good for when you have problems and that sort of thing. But not when it permeates the rest of your life.

What drives this tepid endorsement? Can one be too Christian for his own good? It is actually a rather odd statement, because it seems religion is particularly not good at solving problems, if that is construed as giving you what you want. This attitude, which amounts to lip service, would seem to be a cocktail mixed from several prevalent spirits: an underlying theme that religion causes evil, a fear of being a “fundamentalist”, the acceptance of moral relativism, and the idea that religion curtails the individual’s freedom and pursuit of happiness. Starting in reverse order… Continue reading

The Invisible and Otherness


It hardly is worth repeating that Socrates spent a lot of time in dialogue with others. However it is worth repeating that he spent much of his effort to point out the difference between appearances and reality. As Plato’s interlocutor, one suspects his distinction tends toward the vertical relationship between the forms/ideas and matter that the former eventually articulated. The excesses of that conception excepted, the distinction between what appears and what really is is a perennial one that drives our striving to understand and to live well.

Two themes I have come to notice in Christianity, no doubt belatedly, is the importance of the invisible and presence of otherness. By invisible I mean those realities and their aspects that are essentially beyond our sensible recognition. Are these real? By otherness, I mean the emphasis on that which is beyond our control, the objective nature of the world we live in. It is in light of these two themes that life as a Christian can come into and remain in focus; following the Way, the Truth, and the Life only makes sense when one recognizes there is reality beyond which our eyes can perceive, and the swollen pride that deceives one into subjugating that which cannot be subjugated must be bled (or iced, if you prefer). Continue reading