Monday, July 24, 2006

Buster Poindexter, Asimov, and Darwin

The New York Dolls, a seminal American punk band, never cease to surprise me. I was surprised to read they were making a comeback album after almost 30 years. I was surprised to read that their drummer became a Mormon (before dying an untimely death). I was surprised to learn that their lead singer recently played country-blues. Most of all I was surprised to recently learn that this same lead singer was Buster Poindexter in the 80s. Then the band suprised me again when I saw them on Conan the other night and they played a song critiquing the intelligent design movement (what was ironic about their advocacy of evolution is that as a band they don't look like they have evolved at all since their early days. Aged, but not evolved). Then I was surprised to find that the band doesn't even bother having a website.

I guess given the importance of origins to our culture, it shouldn't surprise me that even a punk band would take in interest in this debate. What intrigues me is that it seems that underlying any given person's belief is a desire to believe whatever it is they believe. I think it goes without saying that a vast majority of people who believe in intelligent design also want to believe in a God. Then you have your theistic evolutionists who want to believe in both in order to have peace of mind. But what of atheistic evolutionists? If the New York Dolls are any indication (and I am fully aware they may not be), their song "Dance Like a Monkey" (and corresponding video) is a full on embrace of an ethos of animal instinct over human reason.

Okay, but what about scientists or philosophers who are not members of punk bands? For many of them, Darwinism may be seen as a liberation from past ages of theistic tyranny, an escape from dogmatism (though they may be blind to the development of a new dogmatism). For others, it may hold the promise of progression: as a species we are always getting better. Others may just embrace the notion that they are in control of their own destiny.

For all these positives though, the evolutionist must find a way to overcome some of the troublesome aspects of believing that we are not only animals, but robotic slaves to our genes. In Total Truth, Nancy Pearcy explores two such people. She cites Richard Wright, author of The Moral Animal, who states that "our genes control us," but that we somehow rebel against our programming and "correct...the moral biases built into us by natural selection" (have you ever known a computer program that can correct flaws a programmer built into it?).

Meanwhile, in The Selfish Gene , Richard Dawkins says we are "robots" and "survival machines," yet we somehow have the "...power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators."

Many creationists have dismissed evolution as just another creation myth, and Dawkins seems to be playing right into their hands by also offering a modern (or perhaps postmodern) version of the Fall. Instead of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit as a sign of rebellion, he urges an embracing of a new morality in the face of the edicts of a Darwinian "god" (which now takes the form of a DNA helix). Sounds good in theory until you are once again confronted with the paradox of how we argue with our genes. For unlike the traditional personal God that gives freewill to humans, this god doesn't seem to leave much room for wiggle space.

In the realm of pop culture, I think you see this struggle manifested in the sci-fi genre. Many sci-fi creators such as Asimov and Roddenberry were atheist humanists. Presumably, they viewed humanity as genetic robots that still somehow had the power to locate something greater (or more diabolical) than their genetic programming would dictate. Now look at the sci-fi portrayals of robots (or non-emotive beings such as Spock). Almost all of them act contrary to what we would expect actual robots to act like. In almost all cases they take on a sentience, but they also seem to have some kind of moral agenda that comes with it. It's almost as if our minds weren't wired to accept both conscious sentience and the belief in predestined adherence to a prior program. It remains to be seen whether we are wired to accept the re-emergence of the New York Dolls.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Hometown Heroes

A little something different today. No pseudo-intellectual pretension. Today I'm going to cast my votes for Major League Baseball's "Hometown Heroes" program. Unlike their all-Century team promotion a few years ago, there is no timely reason for MLB to do this thing now, but it looks like a lot of fun. Each team has five nominees for "all-time hero." The criteria includes "leadership, character, and on-field performance." My personal criteria-- I will close my eyes and picture each team and see who I visualize in uniform. After doing that I will check my initial impression with the five nominees and settle on a final decision. Here we go:

Angels-- Wow, a tough one out of the shoot. I actually see Mike Scosia managing in the 2002 World Series. Forcing myself to visualize a player, I see Scott Spezio (on the strength of his World Series homer). Thinking of the old days, I actually see Brian Downing. Let's go to the nominees:

Jim Abbott, Don Baylor, Rod Carew, Chuck Finley, Tim Salmon

Abbott is angling for the inspirational vote, but I have negative impressions of him from his time as a Brewer. Actually, three of these five guys have Brewer baggage with Baylor and Carew one-time Milwaukee hitting coaches. Chuck Finley is inelgiable because he got beat up by Tawny Kitaen. That leaves Salmon.

Astros-- I picture Nolan Ryan in that awful 80s uniform.

Nominees: Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Larry Dorker (as I used to call him), Nolan Ryan, Jimmy Wynn

Bags and Biggo are too joined at the hip to pick one over the other. Dorker has a terrible name, and I don't know who Jimmy Wynn is. So I'll go with my initial impression.

A's-- I see Jose Canseco. Given his situation, I doubt he was a nominee. Let's find out:

Dennis Eckersley, Lefty Grove, Rickey Henderson, Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson

No Canseco, no McGwire. (We'll see if McGwire is a Cards nominee a bit later). Hunter and Jackson are arguably more Yankees than A's. Henderson literally didn't know who his teammates were (when with the Mets he told John Olerud he had once played with another guy in Toronto who wore his helmet in the field. Olerud said "Yeah, that guy was me."). That combined with his poker game with Bobby Bonilla during the NLCS in 2000 disqualifies him from the leadership criteria. It's tough to compare Eck and Grove-- two different eras, one a reliever and one a starter. Eck gets the tie-breaker because he actually had a cool mullet.

Blue Jays-- I see Paul Molitor but block it out and see Joe Carter hitting the World Series winner in '93.

Nominees: Roberto Alomar, Joe Carter, Tony Fernandez, Pat Hentgen, Dave Stieb

Pat Hentgen may be one of the more underrated players of all-time (and Roy Halladay might prove to be as well), but that in itself disqualifies him from being an all-time hero. I think the Jays hero has to come from the World Series teams of '92 or '93, which narrows it down to Alomar and Carter, and I see Alomar as more of an Oriole, so I'll stick with my initial pick.

Braves-- Lots of great players but Hank Aaron clearly stands out.

Nominees: Hank Aaron, Chipper Jones, Phil Niekro, John Smoltz, Warren Spahn

Okay these nominees are ridiculous. This is supposed to encompass a franchise's entire history, so the Milwaukee Braves should be better represented. Eddie Matthews should be on instead of Jones, Lew Burdette should be one instead of that knuckleballer Niekro, and Greg Maddux should be on instead of Niekro or Smoltz. Obviously, Aaron wins here.

Brewers-- Duh.

Nominees: Cecil Cooper, Rollie Fingers, Jim Gantner, Paul Molitor, Robin Yount

I can't argue with the nominees. Molitor would have made it interesting if he had stuck around, but you've got to go with the guy with the statue.

Cardinals-- I see Ozzie Smith, but a second later I realize that I should be seeing Stan Musial.

Nominees: Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Stan Musial, Albert Pujols, Ozzie Smith

Wow, what a list. Even though he's only been around for about five years, I do think Pujols belongs, though you have to think that without steroids, he'd be out and McGwire would be in. With apologies to all of the others, I'll stick with Stan the Man.

Cubs-- You've got to go with the guy called Mr. Cub.

Nominees: Ernie Banks, Fergie Jenkins, Ryne Sandberg, Ron Santo, Billy Williams

O.K., forget Billy Goats. If you want to know why the Cubs never win the World Series compare this list with the Cardinals' list. For a franchise that has been around this long to have a list like this is inexcusable. I know there are Hall of Famers on this list, but still. Sosa is also conspiciously absent. I'll stick with my first impression and go with Banks.

Devil Rays-- Woo boy. This is the only major league franchise I have never watched on TV. I picture Rocco Baldelli, because I picture a "This Week in Baseball" segment in which his teammats pranked him by replacing his jersey with one that said "Rocco" on the back, a la Ichiro.

Nominees: Wade Boggs, Carl Crawford, Roberto Hernandez, Aubrey Huff, Fred McGriff

Boggs may be from Tampa, and he got his 3,000th hit as a D-Ray, but come on, you can't pick him. Ditto for McGriff, who used to watch Braves games in the D-Rays clubhouse whenever he could. I wouldn't know who Hernandez is if you wouldn't have told me about his first name, and I don't know much about Huff. I do know that Crawford is always among league leaders in stolen bases. Even though no one cares about stolen bases anymore, he wins by default.

Diamondbacks-- I see Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling holding co-World Series MVP awards in 2001.

Nominees: Jay Bell, Luis Gonzalez, Randy Johnson, Todd Stottlemyer, Matt Williams

Big Unit.

Dodgers-- Jackie Robinson

Nominees: Roy Campanella, Sandy Koufax, Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider

Tough break for Koufax, who would win with most other teams, but Robinson is the greatest hero in the history of baseball, much less the Dodgers.

Giants-- I see Dusty Baker's kid almost getting run over. Then I see Willie Mays.

Nominees: Barry Bonds, Juan Marichal, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Mel Ott

It'll be interesting to see how Bonds fairs in the voting, but my money is on his godfather.

Indians-- I see Jose Mesa pitching in 1995 with fan John Adams beating that drum in the bleachers.

Nominees: Earl Averill, Larry Doby, Bob Feller, Nap Lajoie, Tris Speaker

You've got to love a team that lists guys who played from 1929-41, 47-59, 36-56, 1896-1916, and 1907-28, respectively. At least nobody has any unfair advantage by virtue of being fresh in fan's memory. It's a tough call for me between Doby and Feller. I'll go with Doby as the first black player in the AL, he is one of baseball's all-time unsung heroes.

Marines-- I see Ken Griffey Jr. running into a wall.

Nominees: Jay Buhner, Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Jamie Moyer, Ichiro Suzuki

I used to love Edgar Martinez and always made sure he was on my fantasy team, but that is only because I love the name Edgar. I'll stick with Griffey.

Marlins-- I see Livan Hernandez and Eric Gregg in '97. I'll resist making jokes about how Gregg should be the Marlins hometown hero out of respect for the recently departed.

Nominees: Josh Beckett, Luis Castillo, Jeff Conine, Robb Nen, Dontrelle Willis

Maybe if Willis didn't pitch so horribly in the WBC I'd be sympathetic to him. Jeff Conine, despite not doing anything terribly noteworthy, was once named Mr. Marlin because he played in the franchises first 1000 games or something. That has to count for something.

Mets-- I see Gooden and Strawberry, but I know I should be seeing Tom Seaver.

Nominees: John Franco, Tug McGraw, Mike Piazza, Tom Seaver, Darryl Strawberry

Franco gets extra credit for being a true hometown hero and wearing a New York Sanitation Department shirt, but he loses credit for alleged Mob ties. Seaver.

Nationals-- I don't see any Nationals, so I switch to trying to visualize Expos. I don't visualize any Expos.

Nominees: Gary Carter, Livan Hernandez, Brian Schneider, Rusty Staub, Jose Vidro

Ouch. Screw it; I'm writing in Hubie Brooks.

Orioles-- I see Ripken's victory lap in '95.

Nominees: Eddie Murray, Jim Palmer, Cal Ripken Jr., Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson

Here is another list befitting a long time franchise. The O's haven't won a ton of championships, but this shows why they are more respectable than the Cubs. I'll stick with Ripken.

Padres-- I see Tony Gwynn Sr.

Nominees: Brian Giles, Tony Gwynn, Trevor Hoffman, Randy Jones, Dave Winfield

Who the heck is Randy Jones and who let Brian Giles on this list? I guess when one of your all-time sluggers (Ken Caminitti) and your all-time wins leader (Eric Show) died of drug overdoses you don't put them on the list. I feel like Benito Cerrano (Santiago to others) would be on the list if not for his steroid issues. It's a moot point though, I guess because Gwynn wins easily. I just wish they would have put "Sr." next to his name on the ballot.

-- I see Mike Schmidt.

Nominees: Richie Ashburn, Steve Carlton, Chuck Klein, Robin Roberts, Mike Schmidt

This is another franchise that should have a better list considering how long they've been around. I'll stick with Schmidt. He gets an extra bonus for not getting mad when a radio host at my former station accidentally called him "Mike (expletive)" during a live interview.

Pirates-- I think even without the recent All-Star game tribute I'd see Roberto Clemente.

Nominees: Roberto Clemente, Ralph Kiner, Bill Mazeroski, Willie Stargel, Honus Wagner

A great list, but like Jackie Robinson, Clemente's heroism transcends baseball so he's an easy choice

Rangers-- I swear I'm not making this up. I see Steve Buchele. Then I see Nolan Ryan.

Nominees: Rusty Greer, Ivan Rodriguez, Nolan Ryan, Jim Sundburg, Mark Texeira

Jim Sundburg? You might as well put Steve Buchele on the list. Too bad the Angels didn't put Nolan Ryan on their list; I could see him winning with three teams.

Red Sox-- Ted Williams

Nominees: Roger Clemens, Jim Rice, Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski (I cut and pasted that one), Cy Young.

Cy Young is a guy who everyone knows, but how many people know what teams he played for? I vaguely thought he was on the Philadelphia A's. Turns out he was on the Cleveland Spiders, St. Louis Perfectos, St. Louis Cardinals, Boston Americans, Boston Pilgrims, Boston Red Sox, and Cleveland Naps. The choice remains Ted Williams.

Reds-- Pete Rose

Nominees: Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, Frank Robinson, Pete Rose

Nice of the Reds to put Rose on the ballot, but I have to change my initial pick and go with Bench. Rose has the on-field performance down, but lacks in the other two categories.

Rockies-- Larry Walker

Nominees: Dante Bichette, Vinny Castilla, Andres Galarraga, Todd Helton, Larry Walker

Helton would be a solid pick, but I'll stick with Walker

Royals-- George Brett

Nominees: George Brett, Amos Otis, Bret Saberhagen, Mike Sweeney, Frank White

I'll stick with Brett

Tigers-- Alan Trammell (though I probably should see Ty Cobb).

Nominees: Ty Cobb, Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, Al Kaline, Alan Trammell

Cobb was a great player, but obviously no hero. I'll stick with Trammell, though I'm probably guilty of generational bias over Greenberg and Kaline.

Twins-- Kirby Puckett

Nominees: Rod Carew, Kent Hrbek, Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, Kirby Puckett

Puckett over Killebrew because he was part of two World Series teams. Big Train Johnson should be on this list, but they discriminated against Senators.

White Sox- Ozzie Guillen, then Carlton Fisk

Nominees: Luke Appling, Harold Baines, Nellie Fox, Minnie Minoso, Frank Thomas

Yuck. I'm writing in Guillen.

Yankees: Too much overload.

Nominees: Yogi Berra, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth

Jeez, the hardest for last. Berra is an obvious to be eliminated. I consider Ruth the greatest ever (he had more homers than some teams had when he played), but he had character issues. Mantle might have had more homers than Ruth if he stayed healthy, but ditto on the character issues. Gehrig had an impeccable character and had one of the greatest speeches in American history and was also a pretty good player. DiMaggio was a cultural icon and also a great player, though he had a bit of a dark side. I think I'll go with Gehrig because he best exemplified heroism.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

My Back Pages

It has long annoyed me that whenever the topic of age arises in even casual conversation, it is always contextualized and evaluated. No one would think to discuss race, class, or even gender in the same way in which people casually discuss the social implications of one another's respective age. Of course, in order to avoid the serious implications of such conversations, these discussions are usually crouched in irony and humor, albeit usually banal humor. Come to think of it, it's not the contextualization or evaluation that annoys me. It's having to hear people uncreatively moan about how old they are, no matter how old they actually are. Even a young Bob Dylan wasn't immune from thinking of himself as old, though he was able to express his thoughts more creatively than the average person. Check out the nostalgiac longings of a 22-year-old Dylan in this 1963 song.

The problem with perceiving one's own age is that our subjectivity is skewed. We grow up for many years being told we are young. Therefore, the slightest hint that the status quo has shifted results in an unconscious conflict within our psyche, and of course, Freud tells us that unconscious conflicts are worked out in part through jokes. That seems to me to be a reasonable explanation for the banal jocularity surrounding this subject.

Our culture likes to divide experience into binaries. Following that line of thought, we are likely to tell ourself that any given person must be either "young" or "old." The question is in determining when that threshold is crossed. I theorize that whenever we are old enough to ask ourself this question (even unconsciously) we are likely to believe ourself to be in the secondary category.

Unfortunately, this doesn't work out neatly for many of us. The reason we are still in conflict and simply don't accept being "old," is that collective cultural memory is usually older than our biological age. For example, when Paul McCartney recently turned 64, the media made a big deal about it. The collective assumption was that everybody knew the significance of this event. However, anyone 38 or under (which represents a huge cross section of humanity) wasn't in existence when Macca first discussed in song the possibility of being 64. Thirty-eight is generally considered to be a fairly advanced age, yet anyone that age or younger was being given the implicit message that they are young. A cultural event that still resonates today occurred before their birth. (Of course, one of the prevailing themes of the media coverage regarding McCartney's birthday was the shifting implications of being 64, which again shows that one's age can be more theoretical than objective).

The upshot is that we are caught in a world in which age matters, but we don't know our age. It's a rough spot, so we work it out by making fun of the aging process.

As an aside, you may be wondering what would give rise to these ruminations in my mind. What caused me to think about my age? Was it my recent class reunion? Good guess but no. I caught the Arctic Monkeys performance on an SNL re-run last weekend. It wasn't that the band members had an average age of 18 that made me feel old, it was that during the performance they were obviously aping the Strokes (pardon the pun). Seeing a band that is a second generation derivitive of another band that didn't get big until after I was out of college...well, that just makes a fella feel old.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Modern Mythology

In 1833 Peter Gaskell (no need to google his name) called the developing manufacturing population a "Hercules in the cradle." In 1843 Cooke Taylor (ditto) said the power loom sprang into existence like "Minerva from the brain of Jupiter."

I'm not going to discuss the industrial revolution in this post, but I want to draw attention to the use of mythology that each individual used to make sense of their world. The knowledge of Greek/Roman mythological figures was part of the common currency of their day. It was assumed that every educated person would understand allusions to these figures.

Today, knowledge of this mythology is limited to a subculture of literary geeks. I suppose Hercules is a household name but the reference to Hercules in the cradle wouldn't mean anything to most people. Most people don't know how Minerva was. University of Louisville students may recognize the name "Minerva" as the electronic catalogue system of the library, as academia is the gods and goddesses' last bastion. Jupiter, of course, evokes images of a planet moreso than a thunder god.

Just as the Greek and Roman gods died a first death when they ceased to be worshipped, they are dying a second death as they become irrelevant to rhetoric. Personally, I don't think this is a bad thing. These mythological figures served their purpose, but aren't as relevant to today's discourse as a new group of icons.

To illustrate my point, allow me to invoke the 2004 controversy about Desperate Housewife Nicollette Sheridan's skit with Terrell Owens on Monday Night Football. (In case you forget about this earth-shaking event, here is the summary.) Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy criticized the skit for recapitulating a stereotype that white women are black men's "kryptonite."
Krypton is an element on the periodic table, but no one who heard Dungy's quote was confused into thinking he was referencing the actual element. Nor did Dungy feel that the use of the word "lotus" would better illustrate his point to a wider audience.

More in line with the 19th Century commentators cited above, in 2005 the Washington Post's David Ignatius said President Bush's new security advisor "seems to be studying for the role of Clark Kent, not Superman." He could have made roughly the same point by saying that he seemed to be more of a Patroclus than an Achilles, but nobody would have known what he was talking about (even though the article was written about a year after the movie Troy came out).

Superman Returns didn't break any box office records this summer, but Superman and not "Jack Sparrow" is the one who has more cultural capital. We will always need a common mythology to discuss ideas, and Superman and company fill the void left by the fall of Olympus.

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Non-Ecstatic Adventure

I went to a small Lutheran college with a charmingly eccentric library. Very rarely did it lack the books I wanted, and often I would run across books I wasn't particularly looking for but found interesting nonetheless. In the music section, there were a couple anti-rock books detailing how rock music was from the devil. One of them even had a handy list of rock star deaths, which was supposed to prove some kind of rock curse or something. While researching a freshman science paper, I ran across this book, and I didn't even get marked down for using it as a source. That's not to say all all the propagandist books espoused a conservative viewpoint, though. When I was a fifth-year senior I was doing research for a presentation in science class. My topic was simply "drugs." The "drugs" section of the library yielded a gem called The Ecstatic Adventure. This 1968 book urged people to turn on and tune in, if not drop out. It was a collection of essays by people who had experimented with psychadelic drugs, each detailing a positive experience.

Not surprisingly, David Crosby and Allen Ginsburg were contributors. Also not surprisingly, there was a section of the book written by people with religious backgrounds, many of them practicioners of New Ageism or Eastern Mysticism. What was surprising, though, is that tucked within this section were two chapters by what we might call today Evangelical Christians. A "distinguished teacher" of theology and a female protestant minister wrote chapters describing the positives of psychadelics from a Christian perspective. Even more surprising, both of them seemed to have otherwise orthodox theologies. A text of the book is actually online.

I was reminded of this book recently when I read about a new Timothy Leary biography out. The review of the book mentioned Ralph Metzner, the editor of The Ecstatic Experience. I read that Metzner was actually still alive (which I guess isn't all that surprising, though I feel like he should be dead for some reason) and working for some radical think tank called "The Green Earth Foundation." I decided to e-mail the dude about the book. Here is what I wrote:

Hello Mr. Metzner,

I recently ran across your 1968 book "The Ecstatic Adventure." I was
particularly surprised to see contributions from Christian scholars such as
Walter H. Clark and Rev. Mary Hart. I can't imagine anyone in the Christian
community today advocating the use of psychadelics. Do you know if Clark
and Hart continued their exploration with psychadelics, and if they also
remained committed to Christianity? Did their comments engender controvery?
Do you know of any Christians today who advocate psychadelics?

Thanks for you time,

The part about recently running across the book was a blatant lie of course, but I didn't want to confuse the guy (not sure how many brain cells he has left at this point, after all). This is how he responded:

Azor Cigelski --
I don’t know if Walter Houston Clark and Mary Hart remained committed to Christianity — I do know they remained committed, in public, written venues, to the value of their psychedelic experiences in their lives.
I don’t know of any Christians today, or non-Christians, who “advocate psychedelics”.
I do know personally many admirers and followers of Christ’s teachings, who have used psychedelics and have found value and meaning in their experiences.
The above is probably not the answer you were expecting and hoping to hear.
Ralph Metzner

I'm sure this guy has spent his lifetime under attack by a mainstream establishment for his unconventional views, and has developed a shorthand to identify friends and enemies. Though my questions are completely neutral, he determined by my use of the word "advocate" that I was in the latter category, and chose to dismiss me with a patronizing last line. I decided to respond (with a less blatant patronization of my own):

Hi Mr. Metzner,

Thank you for your response.

I'm a bit mystified by your last sentence. I'm wondering what I said that
indicated to you that I had a particular hope or expectation from your
answer. I'm simply trying to satisfy my curiosity. I'm 28- years-old, and
for as long as I can remember I have perceived American society as rigidly
stratified by "culture wars." I'm fascinated by the possibility that there
was a time when the culture wasn't so rigidly stratified. Put in more
concrete terms, I wouldn't be at all be surprised to run across a book of
the same general tenor of "The Ecstatic Adventure" today, but I would be
surprised if contributors included Evangelical Christian ministers or
theologians. I'm wondering if in some small way, you can help me make sense
of why I was surprised to see these contributors in your book.

I fear that my use of the term "advocate" was off-putting and perhaps even
offensive to you. I realize in hindsight that it could be a loaded term. I
assure you when I used the term "advocate" I meant nothing more than a
willingness to share one's belief that the use of psychadelics could be
beneficial or valuable.

Thanks again,

His response:

Azor --
The sixties were a very different time than now.
There was nothing at all unusual about Christians, or the followers of any other religion, being interested in the mind-expanding possibilities of psychedelics.
I can’t help explain why you were surprised — that has to do with your expectations.
There are large numbers of books and articles written by religious scholars of various denominations, expounding the value of psychedelics, under certain circumstances.
You might look up the Council on Spiritual Practics ( for a look at that literature.

I send out occasional (once or twice a week) announcements (some to local Bay Area names) and socio-political-ecological commentaries to my e-mail list. If you are not on that list and would like to be, please send me an e-mail with your first and last name and “Add to mail list” in the subject line. Please indicate whether you reside (a) in the SF Bay Area; (b) North America – other; or (3) International – other.

If you are on the list, and would like not to be, send me an e-mail, with “Remove from mail list” in the subject line.

Yes, Ralph, the sixties were a different time than now, you patronizer. I believe that is what I said to you in my second e-mail, but perhaps the subtletly was lost on your drug-addled brain. And don't give me crap about personal expectations. You just said yourself that the sixties were a different time, so obviously there is something beyond personal expectations that led to my surprise. And now you want me to join your mailing list? Apparently my sucking up had at least one effect, as I seem to have got on your good side.

I'm probably being a bit too harsh on Ralph. I was asking him for a macro-cultural analysis, and he is way to far inside a specific subculture to see the big picture. It doesn't help that that particular subculture is a politically polarizing one, and the discourse surrounding it entagled in a web of political contexts. I was literally asking the impossible when I asked him to disentangle himself from that web. Of course, the irony is that he would probably say that his experiences with psychadelics allow him to see the big picture. In reality, such experiences not only seem to block his overall cultural perception, but in fragmenting him into a world in which all he comes into contact with are placed into a categorical framework (in this case "friend" or "enemy" to the cause), he has defeated the concept of "universal harmony" that he claims to espouse.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

A Vanishing American

I recently returned from a high school class reunion, in which many of my former classmates were curious to know what life was like in Kentucky. My response was that it wasn't terribly different from life in Wisconsin. There is obviously some cultural variation, but due to the twin influences of media and corporations I would have to guess that culture shock from geographical re-location in America today is less than ever before. It seems that the weather, still outside the provice of humanity's control for now, is the main factor when discussing differences between geographical areas.

In 1999, USA Today ran a series lamenting the "vanishing" of America, specifically the vanishing of local color and local identity. Curiously, one of the features the writer mentioned was a dearth of hitchhikers on American highways. When I first read this article seven years ago, beyond a vague awareness of a Kerouac-esque romanticism, I didn't quite understand how hitchiking correlated to the article's thesis.

After picking up a hitchhiker this week, the connection is a bit more clear to me. While driving from Louisville to Elizabethtown, I stopped for gas near a truck stop and saw a hitchhiker standing off to the side of the on-ramp. Having absolutely no commitments, I thought I'd stop and offer him a ride. I told him I wasn't going far, but he was extremely eager to take what I could offer (I found out later he had spent the night at the truck stop).

It didn't take me long to realize that I'd never met a person quite like this before. In many ways he was what I have been conditioned to expect of a rural southerner. He used the word "fixin'" unironically (in fact I don't think he's ever used a phrase or word ironically in his life). Overall, he struck me as completely guile-less, which explains why I believed his story, which would otherwise strain credulity. He claimed to have lived his entire life in rural Georgia, and had met and fell for a woman a couple years ago. Several months ago, she apparently persuaded him to move to Indianapolis, where her kids lived (He told me he was 56). He quit his job and sold his truck, found a job in Indy painting, and paid rent on an apartment while she lived off his income. Then she left Friday with the entirety of his weekly paycheck to "pay bills" and came back Sunday with bloodshot eyes and empty pockets. He asked her if she was on drugs (like two of her three adult children) and she both admitted to it and "cussed (him) out." He said he was a Christian and "didn't go for that stuff", so made the decision to return to Georgia, even though he didn't have money for a bus ticket. He called his old boss and asked for his old job back, and the boss said he would think about it.

By the time he told his story, we were almost to Elizabethtown. I asked him to take a look at the restaurant sign and pick out a place he'd like some lunch. He said he couldn't "read too good" and would just be happy wherever I would take him. I took him to a Denny's where they have illustrated menus and he was able to point to a plate he wanted. When the food came out I started to dig in, while he put me to shame by bowing his head and saying a prayer out-loud thanking God for the food and for my kindness.

He asked me what I did, and I told him I was a teacher. We found common ground by talking about young people and how they are often misunderstood. He dispensed some folk wisdom by talking about how people often don't take the time to listen to their kids. He then talked about how much he hated big cities: Indianapolis, Nashville, and Atlanta being the ones he had experience visiting. He disapproved of all the drunks he encountered in his visits to those places. "I ain't never been drunk but five times in my life," he said, "and after the last time I said never again." He showed me his photo album, which consisted largely of pictures of horses and vehicles. He spoke glowingly of his minister back home, who could really "move you with his words."

I've encountered poor and under-educated people before, but the way this guy was different to me is that he seemed more separated from the hegemonic American culture. When I tutored kids in inner city Milwaukee, they knew pop culture. I still remember playing "Sorry" with a fifth-grade girl who said someone was "making like Michael Jackson" when they would go backwards. Others were avid video gamers and pro wrestling fans. My new friend's entertainment that he spoke of was church and a general love for bluegrass, country, and gospel music.

During the course of the meal, the thought occurred to me that this man's culture was the type romanticized in the USA Today article, as well as countless media portrayals. Yet how many of us who yearn for a more authentic existence would trade places with this fellow? And if we are not willing to do so, should we feel guilty when he contribute either actively or tacitly in the further erosion of his cultural mileau?

I think these are important philosophical questions, but I fear that asking them in juxtaposition with this narrative serves to trivilize or minimize a real person's real experience. As we continued the conversation, I attempted to suppress my always present urge to extrapolate cultural hypotheses, and simply enjoy his company. I paid the tab and gave him a short ride to the I-65 on-ramp. I wished him luck and gave him my phone number in the event he didn't get a ride that day. I didn't hear from him that night, and I don't expect to ever again. When I drove past the on-ramp the next day there was no sign of him. In a more concrete sense than the USA Today article implied, he became for me a vanishing American.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Superman Returns but what about Nietzsche?

I've now seen two movies this year. As per my usual practice, both of them are comic book superhero movies. I don't know what is going on with film in general, but I nothing short of shocked by the latent conservative ideology both of these films have presented. I blogged a few weeks back about the conservatism I saw in X-Men 3, which was a departure from the essentially liberal ideology of the first two films in that franchise. It doesn't necessarily come as a big surprise that the third film had a departure, since the writing team and director of the first two X-Men films moved on to another project. What was that project? Two words: Superman Returns. And that just so happened to be the movie that I saw last week which espoused a shockingly conservative ideology.

The name "Superman" to philosophy geeks doesn't conjure up the image of a dude with a spit curl wearing underwear on the outside. Rather, it makes such people think of the writings of the 19th Century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who was famous for saying "God is dead" and espousing the concept of the ubermensch (German for "Superman"). To Nietzche, a humanist, mankind would one day solve their own problems by becoming transcendental beings of their own accord. They would not need to look to the skies for a savior. For Nietzsche, the era of messianic longing was past.

This was pretty much the philosophy of Lois Lane in "Superman Returns." Fairly early in the film, Lois tells Superman "The world doesn't need a savior. And neither do I." Harsh. Of course, in our lexicon, the word "savior" comes packed with a heavy context. It is hardly the type of word that one uses casually, since it evokes a strong religous association. The writers of "Superman Returns" didn't have Lois utter that word casually. There was an obvious intent behind the phrase.

Spoilers follow:

Predictably, by the end of the movie Lois has changed her mind about the need for a savior. She had previously won a Pulitzer for an article entitled "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman." Toward the end of the film, she sits down at her computer and starts writing an article called "Why the World Does Need Superman."

I don't think she is talking about the Nietzschian Superman. The Superman portrayed in this film is much less akin to a humanistic ubermensch than an outright messiah from the skies. Here are some almost blatant parallels between Christian iconography and the film's mis-en-scene.

1) The line about the "father becoming the son and the son becoming the father" echoes John 14:11
2) Jor-El's line about sending his "only son" to show them the "light" echoes John 3:16 and John 9:5
3) The scene with Lex and his cronies beating the crap out of Superman was straight out of Mel Gibson.
4) Superman's immersion in water with the Jor-El voice-over is a bit like Christ's baptism
5) When Superman falls to the Earth he has an almost distractingly blatant crucifixtion pose
6) Upon crashing to the Earth he ended up in a pit. The theater was completely quiet and I almost said out loud "He descended into Hell."
7) Lois plays a Mary Magdalane role by visiting the hospital room
8) The guards outside of his hospital room were like sentries, and they were oblivious to what a woman discovered-- an empty tomb.
9) The movie ended with Superman literally ascending to the heavens

Of course, objections about Superman's supposed divinity are raised by the paternity of Lois's kid. This Superman certainly has a human element, and works better as a Christ-figure than as Christ himself. Still, I'm intrigued by the picture of the future Superman being raised by an adopted human father while the actual father hovers above.

On another note, though this Superman is not Nietzsche's Superman, the ubermensch is very much alive and well in this film in the form of...Lex Luthor. Lex's first full scene with Kitty is incredibly telling. He sees himself as Prometheus, and convinces himself that he is as benevolent as Promotheus. In reality he is motivated by nothing more than an intense jealosy of a being more powerful than him. His megalomania makes little sense as a get-rich-quick scheme, but makes sense given his hubris. As he states, land is the one commodity not being made anymore. He wants to be God, and therefore the opportunity to make land and re-make the world in his image is irresistible. Yet instead of making Eden, Lex's creation is a desolate wasteland, not unlike some of the people who were arguably influenced by a Nietzchian worldview--real life Lex Luthors such as Adolf Hitler.