Saturday, June 27, 2009

Moving Stuff Over

Just got done moving a bunch of stuff from my Facebook notes to my public blog.

Happiness is.... Pullman in the Rearview Mirror

A while back I saw a bumper sticker that said "Happiness is... Pullman in the rearview mirror" and it reminded me that even though nearly twenty years have gone by since I reached the end of my non-optional community arrest in this town, and the world has changed in a number of ways, some things really don't change at all. Back in 1996 I had finally had enough of this town, so I escaped to the West side. My reasons for leaving were numerous: not enough good jobs in this area, hadn't really ever spent any time in a place other than Pullman, all my friends from highschool had gone, all my friends from college were gone. In short, I wanted to go out and experience life, make a name for myself, and move beyond the limitations of this place.

It took several years for homesickness to set in. I'm not talking about the mild kind of homesickness that you get over time as you realize that familiar elements are missing from your life; you know, the kind that you can cure by taking a week to go back, surround yourself with those familiar elements, and then leave, happy that you have the freedom to get away. I'm talking about the kind of homesickness where you realize that even though you have a lot of nice things, a decent life, a career, a new car, a house, children and pets of your own, there are also certain things that just weren't the same - and not in a good way. It takes an hour to get anywhere because the traffic is so congested, it's always raining, except for when it's hot, and when it's hot the humidity makes it sweltering, and then there's the small matter that you have to drive quite a ways to escape urban sprawl.

Someone, and I don't remember who, once described Pullman as a forest in the middle of a wheat field, and I happily agree with them. It isn't exactly a full-on desert, but the summers are hot and dry, the winters require a certain amount of masochism to survive, and you can't help but be aware of the rebirth during the annual greening of the Palouse and then its inverse, when everything changes to shades of yellow and brown and the bite of cold creeps back into the air. During those last few years in Seattle, I really missed the Pullman summers, when the dirt was so dry that it became powder and you could smell the asphalt baking in the streets, and the distinct earthy smell of the rare rainstorm after weeks of being blasted by the heat. The sky was often cloudless and blue during the day and you could actually look up in the night sky and see stars rather than the dull light of the urban sprawl reflected in the ever-present clouds.

Then there's the culture. Many people claimed that Pullman is a cultural wasteland. In fact, Young Jean Lee, who graduated from Pullman in the 1990s (was she in our class?) is now a playwright and was featured in the New Yorker, where they discussed her play entitled "Pullman, WA" One passage reads:

I was surrounded by mermaids. I was lying on soft green grass and they
were standing on their flippers in a circle around me. I looked up and saw
a bright blue sky crisscrossed with rainbows that arched from one puffy
white cloud to another. As I sat up, the mermaids started hopping away
and I could see that the landscape around me was composed almost entirely
of chopped-up mermaid parts.

In interviews, she has said that her father brought the family over from Korea (she was only two at the time) and became an evangelistic preacher—right here in Pullman. She rebelled, became a playwright. “Pullman, WA” isn’t very reader-friendly, but it’s probably fun to perform. One reviewer calls it a performance piece. By willfully NOT being about Pullman, it’s really all about Pullman. It’s about a wasteland, teenage and otherwise.

Despite the perception of Pullman as a cultural wasteland, maybe there's something that people overlook. The community is largely educated, thanks to the presence of the university. Pullman has athletes, and writers, and music, and food, and beer, and nature. A fifteen minute walk from any place in town is all it takes to move beyond the boundary of the city and out into the countryside. Pullman has diversity, and tolerance. Pullman's highschool is not only rated one of the best in the nation, but it's also a place where people are given the tools they need to find their calling in life, and the wisdom that they will probably need to leave Pullman in order to be those things.

So here I am, two and a half years back in Pullman, finishing my degree, that one big project I should have finished more than a decade ago, and I'm looking at this place not in terms of its limitations and shortfalls, but in wonderment at how any of us could have possibly taken this place for granted. While I'm beginning to look once more towards the future, despite the worst economy I've ever seen in my life, I'm beginning to remember Seattle fondly, not quite homesick yet, but remembering the things that are there that are not here like friends, excellent radio to keep me company while I'm stuck in traffic, companies with high paying positions that don't involve teaching college, and the ability to go shopping for something and actually being able to find it. I don't know if Seattle is in my future; there are editing positions with both local universities here, and Pullman is a better place to raise my kids, but I'm not convinced Pullman is the place for me anymore either. For everything that it is, it's also small, and no matter their strengths, small places are limiting places.

Regardless of whether I stay or leave again, the one thing I'm doing differently this time is not allowing myself to take it for granted. The bumper sticker lies. Happiness isn't coming to or leaving a place; it's wanting to be at whatever place you are.

Atheism and You, or What is Christ to an Atheist?

Clearly the fact that I'm an atheist and that I'm writing this means that if you happen to be a member of any Christian denomination, chances are that we have a major fundamental disagreement about the nature of Jesus Christ. I think that there is a common mistake in thinking among Christians and atheists that this disagreement has to be a defining one between us, however. I don't believe that this has to be true. In fact, I would argue that while atheists do not believe that there was anything divine about Christ, he was one of the first widely popular humanists in world history.

When analyzing antiquity, it's very hard to come up with solid facts about very many things. In those times, even though people were just as resourceful then as they are today, they didn't have the same compulsion to record things that we do today. Most people were illiterate and the people who could read and write weren't considered the intellectual elite. The literate were considered more along the lines of secretaries today, who transcribed the thoughts of the truly great thinkers. Now obviously this is a blanket statement, and there are some notable exceptions, like the Arab scholars who preserved many of the works of Greek knowledge recorded astronomical observations, but for the most part, speech was considered far more of an important medium than the written word. Now here we are, thousand of years later and we're left with a lot of incomplete and inaccurate records regarding the things that occurred in antiquity. That said, the modern day is very much derived from antiquity, so we cannot simply walk away from it and reject it as "not modern" or "not enlightened."

When we turn our attention to Jesus Christ, the first thing many of us look at is the fact that nothing was written down in a timely manner. The testaments within the bible were written decades after the death of Jesus. There are Roman documents from the time that discuss Jesus, so we can safely assume that Jesus actually did exist. Christians believe that the holy spirit worked through the various writers to convey to people the exact words of Jesus, thereby sidestepping the question of the accuracy of teachings that were decades old by the time they even started being recorded.

What we know is that the New Testament was compiled based on interviews with eye witnesses, and therein lies a problem. As has been scientifically concluded in recent years, memory is a fragile thing. Memories are easily altered and distorted based on perceptions, suggestions, and beliefs. That's why there have been numerous documented cases of crime victims identifying the wrong suspect after a crime. So, thirty years after the death of Christ, we can only believe that the words and deeds of Jesus were distorted a great deal, particularly by the people who followed him and believed in his message. For example, how would we know Martin Luther King Jr. in the modern day if there were no written or video accounts of the speeches he gave? I would argue that very few of his exact words would be preserved, although the essence of his message would be very much preserved.

I would also argue that in antiquity, people had a very real tendency of mixing the mundane with the supernatural. For example, in ancient Greece, people believed that the sun moved across the sky because it was pulled by the chariot of the god Helios. A prominent sect of Buddhists decided that Buddha was a god rather than a man despite the fact that this is a contradiction of one of the main tenets of the religion. Greek and Roman mythologies were full of stories of various figures being gods or the sons of gods and performing great deeds that would be outside of the realm of normal human beings. In fact, a religion without these elements would have a difficult time finding traction among ancient people. The fact is that there is really nothing new or exceptional about the Jesus story within the context of the ancient world.

So that's a summary of why it is both reasonable and logical to doubt the validity of the full mythology of Jesus that is embraced by the Christian religion. That said, even a non-believer like myself should objectively look at the message of Jesus and evaluate it on its own merits rather than simply discarding it. As I said earlier, even if the exact words of Martin Luther King Jr. were not recorded, the fundamental message would have been remembered and his teachings would probably still have a transformative effect upon society, even if it would take longer for it to spread by word of mouth. So who was Jesus?

Jesus was a religious reformer! His message was that the God of the Old Testament was too harsh to be accurate and that if there was a benign creator, what he really wanted was for people to live peacefully together and be faithful to God. The first part of his message is one of the core underpinnings of Western society while the second part is hardly unexpected given the fact that he was a religious figure. Again, comparing his to Martin Luther King Jr., we would not expect him to preach a message of racial equality and reform and not ground it in his Christian background. Jesus was the same. Once you discard the religious elements of Jesus' teachings, his core tenets were: the golden rule, loving your enemies, repentance and forgiveness, not judging others. In other words, Jesus wanted peace and coexistence. While I think that much of Jesus' actual words were lost, the core tenants were recorded intact, and that they were consistent with enlightened thought.

While atheism is the rejection of supernatural forces upon our lives, one of the things we need to do is come to some sort of realization of the synergies between our lack of belief and the belief systems of those who do believe. It would be wonderful if we could all just be human beings dealing with each other, and most of us believe that the ideal way of achieving this would be through the rejection of ancient outdated dogma upon modern society. Sine that isn't going to happen, we need to figure out a way of dealing with everyone else that doesn't necessarily categorize them as "the enemy" or "the other." It is true that Western civilization is largely based on the Renaissance, which was when people rejected the church's control over every facet of society while embracing the emphasis of reason of the Greeks, but there is a very humanistic moral underpinning that also exists within our civilization. We can come up with non-religious reasons for morality and there are certainly disagreements among many of us regarding what is and is not moral, but the bottom line is that as a culture, we tend to try to do what we consider good.

In my opinion, it would therefore be more productive for Atheists and Christians to work towards understanding and common goals based upon similarities in our ideologies rather than working towards hostility based on our differences. If what we want is consistent with the teachings of Jesus regarding human behavior towards one another then it would not be inappropriate to adopt Jesus Christ within our own context, which is that of an early humanist philosopher. It could even be appropriate for an atheist who identifies with the teachings of Jesus to consider himself a Christian atheist. It should likewise be possible and even useful to take the humanist, rational elements of other religions. Just as science places an emphasis on ancient scientists, many of whom were wrong but "onto something", one does not need to accept superstitious dogmatic beliefs in order to find the value of certain beliefs that emerged from antiquity.

Michael Jackson and Other Sacrifices to the Cult of Celebrity

I'm not going to sit here and claim to be a fan of Michael Jackson, unlike so many other people who have come out of the wookwork since yesterday to express their grief. I'll be honest with myself, and with you. I didn't like him. I admit that I liked Thriller when I was in Middle School, before I started to cultivate a more mature taste in music, but at some point I came to the realization that pop music was a lot like eating empty colories: pleasant for a short time, but ultimately not good for me. But I'm not interested in talking about my dislike for the man's music. Instead, I want to talk about my dislike for the American cult of celebrity.

If you were to talk to these people who are now flooding the stores to buy up all of Jackson's music, or sitting around on sidewalks in small groups singing 'Billie Jean,' how many of these people would have actually been excited about the man if you had talked to them a week ago? Over the last ten years or so, I've heard a lot more people use the terms 'has-been', 'pedophile', or 'wacko-Jacko' to describe him. In fact, what was the last single he released? I certainly don't know because I can only barely remember the last time I heard about him when the media wasn't busy ripping him to shreds.

Not that he didn't bring some of it upon himself. I honestly don't know if he was actually a pedophile or just a strange man who was using children to capture his own lost youth, but just about anyone will agree that inviting young boys to come sleep in your bed isn't a wise thing for an adult to do. Then there's the fact that he kept a zoo at his house, slept in a glass cage, chose odd names for his kids, and hid them behind veils. To say he was eccentric would be an understatement.

Regardless of his weirdness, who are all these people mourning him right now? Why didn't we ever hear people defending him or expressing appreciation during the last fifteen years of his life? And why are all of these television personalities exulting his greatness when a few days ago they were looking for any dirt they could find on him so that they could take it to the public? I'm not going to say that he'd still be alive if the media had just left him alone, but I will say that he had to have felt like he was under a lot of pressure and under appreciated towards the end. Another question - if all these people who are rushing out now to buy his back catalog had done so earlier, would he have been buried in debt?

The truth of the matter is that a good, happy, well adjusted celebrity is boring to the public, and the media leeches don't have a story unless they can tear someone down. So that's what they do. They tear people down, hold them up for public ridicule, harass them as they get out of cars and walk down the streets, and otherwise make it seem as though they're living in a fishbowl. I don't know about the rest of you, but I wouldn't want people following me around and catching every moment I spend away from my house on video to be played back for a bunch of celebrity obsessed morons.

And that brings me to the real culprit. Shows like TMZ wouldn't operate in such an exploitative manner if there wasn't a large audience for such things. People are obsessed with the lives of famous people for some reason. If the people weren't buying, the tabloids wouldn't be selling. Maybe without the constant media pressure there would be fewer celebrities doing themselves in with prescription pain killers. Or maybe some people are just naturally self destructive and they still would. The bottom line though, is that these are human beings, just like the rest of us. They act, or they sing, or they dance, or they just have all the money in the world. That's it. They're also prone to the same vices, weaknesses, and bad behavior as the rest of us. Is it fair to put someone on a pedestal and then intentionally knock it out from under them for all the world to watch?

Like I said, I'm not a fan of Michael Jackson. I didn't buy his records, I avoided watching coverage of him on TV, and I tried to keep my mind occupied with things that actually matter, like the war in Iraq or the unethical corporate decisions that led to the economic meltdown. Nevertheless, even I, someone who actively avoided Michale Jackson, couldn't escape knowledge about him because coverage of him was so utterly pervasive. I couldn't help but absorb everything about him every time I went to the grocery store or turned on the news.

The cult of celebrity allows us to make gods out of men by promoting them to the status of "cultural icon'. We hold them to impossible standards, and then we have to make a big deal out of it when they prove unable to hold with those standards. Once we've finished sacrificing their virtue, honor, and goodness in the eyes of the public, they themselves all too often offer themselves up as bloody sacrifices for the public, which then celebrates them as martyrs. One of the sad truths of our culture is that we rarely allow ourselves to truly appreciate any artist until they're dead.

We're are a society of mean spirited salacious idol worshiping hypocrites. The pressure that we exert continually drives our best and brightest to their early graves. Why do we bother crying over the deaths of people like Michael Jackson, Anna Nicole Smith, Heath Ledger, and so many others when it was our prying interest in their personal lives that compounded their existing problems? Shouldn't we be happy that they finally reached the final conclusion that we steered them towards? Hey America, don't you think that maybe it's time to turn off the TV and stop buying those rags by the checkout counter? Aren't we supposed to be the country that sets the ethical standards for the rest of the world?