Sunday, January 28, 2007
A Good Kid

I got a disheartening piece of news yesterday. I was at the Co-op, babysitting some ambitious young filmmakers shooting a scene (which is to say, a few guys with expensive toys making a derivative, uninteresting-looking pastiche of Tarantino by way of David Lynch -- that's what it looked like to me, anyway, but then, I'm bitter), when a friend who was acting in the scene came in to chat. He mentioned a local friend, D., whom I met years ago when he was a sweet-natured 17-year-old kid who needed a ride home. His home was reasonably on the way to my house, so I gave him a lift -- the first of many. His habit of bumming rides was sometimes irritating, but he was a good kid and I liked him so I didn't really mind.

When I met him he was disarmingly innocent in many ways -- he'd had a difficult growing-up, and seemed very disconnected from the black youth culture he would otherwise have blended into. He was awkward and a little unsure of himself, but coming to Midtown always seemed good for him; he made friends easily here. He moved into the local hippie commune a couple of years ago, started questioning his sexuality, and was obviously enjoying his life, which was good to see.

But he also started drinking and experimenting with drugs. Which, yes, is totally normal and not a bad thing necessarily. But there's a stupid-but-innocent way to use drugs, and a stupid-and-dangerous way. (There are also, I believe, some very sane and sensible ways to use them, but I think you have to be a bit older and more experienced for any of them to apply.) And it became apparent fairly soon that D. was doing more of the latter than the former. It's a difficult thing to quantify -- what's the difference between a 20-year-old doing some simple social binge drinking (as he's practically expected to do) and a 20-year-old who's losing control? Do I have enough faith in my ability to tell the difference to warrant concern on my part? Do I even presume to have an opinion? I've spent enough time around destructive alcohol and drug use to know that I can usually trust my gut. Sure, lots of 20-year-olds love to get smashed; but do all 20-year-olds jump on ANY pitiful excuse to do it? And yeah, 20-year-olds get really, really high just to kill and afternoon; but what happens when you realize you never see a person sober anymore? What does it mean when he loses weight and looks really good, and then keep losing until he just looks gaunt? He says everything is fine, he's just having fun... but that statement in itself is so predictable it's become a cliche. I don't know if I trust my judgement on the matter, but I'm certain that I don't trust his.

Since turning 21 and moving to Chicago last year, this friend told me, D. has changed a lot. Most of his local friends were angry at him for one thing or another by the time he left; he doesn't have much of a support system under him. He's got a job at an upscale sex shop, which he loves, so that's okay. But apparently he's doing a shitload of drugs. He makes unreasonable demands on his remaining friends, borrows money too frequently, and gets angry and surly. I expect the sweet-natured kid I knew is still in there, but it sounds like there's someone else taking over, and I don't know if I'd want to know that person for long.

Anyway, the point is, I've worried about D. for a while. He's a young black guy in a big city, carrying illegal substances around with him and using them in a way that doesn't seem quite right, even if I can't explain how. There's a lot there for someone to worry about. But he's a grown man now, and responsible for his own actions. I'm not his mommy, I wouldn't care to be, and couldn't do anything to change his situation even if I wanted to.

But I can't help feeling like I'm looking at a good person drifting around the periphery of a black vortex. I don't want to watch him go down, but I don't know what I could do to help him.

I hope he's okay.

PS: It's taken me forever to get this thing posted -- Blogger's acting stupid, which it does far too often. Speaking of which, at some point in the near future I'm probably going to have to switch over to "new" blogger, which I'm dreading. Every time they "improve" their system they end up fucking something up, usually in the general direction of making everything a lot more complicated than it needs to be.

Yes, I should switch to WordPress. No, that's not likely to actually happen.

Anyway, if anything gets buggered around here, blame blogger.
2:16 PM ::
Amy :: permalink

Thursday, January 25, 2007
How Amway Changed My Thinking

I have to tell you about what I did last weekend. I got an email the week before asking if I'd take a quick job as a camera operator, 20 hours over three days shooting "motivational speakers" at the convention center. I jumped at it, even though the wage being offered was considerably below the norm -- it's more than I've seen in a while, and as I'd never actually done the job before (not that I told them that) I figured it wasn't that unfair. (Yes, I know I tend to undervalue my work.) I started Friday night, shot all day Saturday (as in, twelve hours sitting at the camera, not counting five hours of downtime), and finished Sunday afternoon. And the time I spent there now counts among the most surreal experiences of my life.

The job was at a conference-type event, running one of two cameras that fed to a pair of huge screens on either side of the stage. Once the event began, it didn't take me long to twig that the phrase "motivational speakers" had been a red herring. The style was certainly in keeping with a motivational speaker (they literally did play a few bars of "Simply the Best" ala David Brent, along with a lot of other music that I have a hard time believing they actually licensed), but there seemed to be a lot of strange, in-group jargon and weird references to "the business" and "the system" and peculiar products I'd never heard of before. It wasn't really my job to analyze the content of the presentations, of course -- I was just there to follow the talking heads with my lens -- but the job quickly became boring and it's not like I could just unplug my higher thought processes.

I had them pegged before the night was over: this wasn't a presentation of motivational speakers (except in the coarsest sense of the word); it was a convention of participants in a huge pyramid scheme. Okay, maybe not technically a pyramid scheme -- they did have a few actual products, even if they didn't spend much time talking about them -- but in every sense that matters, it was Ponzi down to the last sucker. I hesitate to name the company in question, and you probably wouldn't recognize the name anyway -- but trust me, you've heard of them.

I found myself in the strange position of being probably one of the only people in the room who didn't walk in already emotionally and intellectually invested in what was being sold. The rest of the production crew were, I think, independent of the organization (though it's worth noting that the producer dodged telling me the real nature of the event), but they seemed dead to all of it -- they didn't listen and didn't care. And doubtless if I had to cover these events on a monthly basis, I'd quickly become numb to the bullshit, too; but then, I can't imagine actually living much of my working life at this job. After one weekend, I was ready to turn my back on the relatively high wage (though a fraction of the going rate for the job I was doing) just to escape the presence of this bereft worldview.

Anyway, here's how it went: there were "products", apparently mostly energy drinks, protein-fortified "power pudding" (that's my new favorite phrase -- is there anything in the world that sounds inherently less powerful than pudding?), and enormously-overpriced vitamins that you probably just piss away within an hour anyway. But there was surprisingly little emphasis on the products -- the general assumption seemed to be that the people in attendance were beyond pushing actual physical goods on their friends and relatives. No, these people were selling something else entirely -- they were selling selling. Their mission was to bring new "members" into the organization, each one bringing with them a few new sales and hopefully many more new members down the line; everyone "upline" gets a cut of everything everyone "downline" does. The people at the very top, obviously, can get very, very rich. The people at the bottom -- which is to say, pretty much the other 99% -- don't.

But it's still hugely important to those top few that as many of these peons as possible remain in the business; they're the only product any of them produce. So the point of the convention was to shore up the mass's will and hope of success. They screened long slideshows of the top-earners' luxury homes on huge estates, numerous cars, snapshots from their continual jaunts around the world, accompanied by boasts of how few hours per week they actually spend doing the theoretical work, how much better it is than their old jobs as bankers/realtors/teachers/nurses/whatever, and how easy it all comes. All of this while double-fisting can after can of the company's energy drink in every conceivable flavor.

The most frequent speaker -- he spoke no less than four times over the weekend -- was an Australian midget* who told stories so ridiculously tragic that Dickens would've been embarrassed at their mawkish melodrama: the saintly old woman infected with AIDS by her philandering husband; the noble homeless man infected with AIDS who went on to save gang members; the little son of a raging drunk who shat his pants rather than leave the spot where his violent, abusive father told him to stand; who watched his mother beaten to a pulp and was threatened with the same; who was later unjustly beaten himself for the alleged theft an inconsequential item, "... and if you haven't guessed yet, that little boy was ME!" No human being has ever told more stupid jokes about women liking shoes than this man. And not only was he the arch-salesman of the conference, he was also (how predictable) the official preacher. "God loves America best in all the world," he said. "Jesus wants you to be rich; Jesus was rich himself -- you think a poor man needs an treasurer?" "You have to change your mindset! Change your thinking!" For an hour at a time, over and over again.

Every speaker came with a sales pitch: buy my books, they're only $50 each. Buy my lecture series on CD or DVD, $450 for 5 discs -- but for you $375, what a bargain. Subscribe to my newsletter, and buy my pamphlets - $7 for three. Pay $4 per minute to talk with me on the phone, pay $1000 admission to the next function, pay $2500 per day to come spend time with me personally. Don't you see that it's an investment in your success? The only way you'll ever be as rich as me, and have the cars and the yachts and the 400-acre ranch and never have to work or make or do anything ever again, is to spend as much money as you possibly can on these endless, useless piles of crap. I've got a table set up outside.

But it's even cleverer than that. By telling their aspirants that the only way to ensure success is to spend every available moment listening to organization-backed motivational CDs, they create an army of cheerful drones who maintain their own brainwashing inbetween encounters with their leaders. There's no room for questions because they keep the sales patter running through their minds whenever they have free time, at the expense of independent thought or creeping doubt. The business, they're told by disembodied voices day after day, will make you rich, make you thin, make you younger-looking, save your marriage, free you from stress and worry, and with very little effort on your part (they literally made these claims, I swear.) All you have to do is exactly what we tell you to do, and you can't go wrong. The one thing you must not do, though, is think about it -- you'll only fuck it up, we've already done all the thinking for you. The overwhelming concept imparted over the weekend was simple: don't think, just do what we say. And we're telling you to buy our crap, and then to sell it to others.

I mean really, no wonder they're the rich ones.

And then there was the last night's keynote speaker. This was a man who was not at the very tip of the pyramid -- he doesn't own the corporation; those people were never even mentioned during the entire three days -- but as its biggest-grossing salesman ever, he resides very near the apex. If you've watched King of the Hill, picture Hank's father. This man was the spitting image: short, possibly shinless, puckered face, nasal drawl, hobbling across the stage spouting self-important inanities; the only difference was that this man had a white beard and appeared to enjoy dressing up as a viscount. His arrival on stage was treated by the audience with the reverence given to the beloved lord of the manor; people ran towards the stage to take snapshots of the great man and his haggard, over-made-up wife. Successful "leaders" were universally treated as personal heroes by this crowd, not simply as people who'd gotten rich at the expense of others. But they're all Christians, obviously.

For an hour this man disjointedly lectured to the attendees about how people who criticized Wal-Mart were "jackasses" who never built a business themselves -- obviously nobody without a few million in the bank could formulate an opinion worth listening to -- and how Jesus saved him and made him a rich man who could afford to buy his wife three Jaguars and two Mercedes. He was a man who wore a 5-carat diamond on one hand and a 10-carat diamond on the other. The fact that he had hundreds of millions of dollars made him a better human being than those who didn't, smarter and more noble than the teeming masses outside the gate. "I've got three doctor's degrees," he said, "they give 'em to me just for comin' and speakin' at these colleges" ... as if they were proof of his intellect, but barely worth wiping his ass with. I'd have given anything to know what colleges invited him to speak; I'd be surprised if at least two of those three "doctor's degrees" didn't say "Oral Roberts University" and "Liberty University" in fancy script. He was, in short, the vilest human being I've ever seen in person.

So how did Amway change my thinking? Well, it made me glad to have a functionally rational mind, and it made me scared and a little grossed-out by what some people consider a good use of their lives. It helped me realize that on some level this society -- in which I actively participate -- is itself a vast pyramid scheme, in which everyone is promised wealth that can't be sustained. Eventually, somewhere down the line, someone -- you, or me, or a poor brown person in Indonesia -- is going to have to do the actual work, make the actual products, be the one who gets fucked for the financial benefit of someone else; and that there will always be many more people getting fucked than will ever be "successful." But just as the faux viscount isn't actually a better person than broke little me, I must always remember that if I manage to make a life for myself in which I don't spend my days in a plastics factory in Asia, it's not because I'm a better or more worthy human being, or more blessed by god. It made me realize how badly some people want to be led, how deeply they'll invest in other people's ideals, how much effort and thought they'll expend trying to avoid effort and thought. It made me wonder what even the "successful" people did with their lives after they'd won their purported freedom -- they made nothing, produced nothing, created nothing, contributed nothing; they only consumed and sold the idea of consumption. It made me a little ashamed of a culture in which that seemed to be, for many, the highest aspiration they could imagine.

But mostly it made me feel better about being poor. It's a pain in the ass, but at least I'm not like those assholes.

PS: More here. See, it's just like I said.

* Okay, a little short dude.
10:17 PM ::
Amy :: permalink

Saturday, January 20, 2007
Love Letter

This one's going to be nauseatingly sentimental -- turn away if you're squeamish.

Ten years ago today, I got an odd little note via email from some guy I'd never heard of before. Some months prior, I'd posted my email address on a web directory for other reasons entirely(this was in the naive days of the early internet, before the spammers had begun practicing their dark art in earnest) and had off-handedly listed "New Zealand" as an interest, only for the sake of filling in the blank. I was genuinely interested in New Zealand, of course -- I'd had an epiphany some while earlier after having accidentally rented The Piano and Meet the Feebles, initially unaware of any geographical connection between them, and after further research had become enthralled by this tiny island country at the end of the world that made bizarre, beautiful films. But when I typed the words into that text field, I wasn't actually looking for anything.

Anyway, I got this email, saying (I'm sure he can reproduce the exact wording if I get this wrong), "hello, I'm a New Zealander, what do you want to know?" I was on a break from Christmas vacation cleaning crew duty at college, so I didn't answer right away -- in fact, I think I actually mulled it over for a couple of days before I sent any reply. I mean, the guy might have been a psycho killer, right? And then when I finally wrote back, I have absolutely no idea what I said. But the point is, I did reply, and then he replied, and then I replied, and he replied... and that was ten years ago, and we haven't stopped replying yet (though some of us are generally more timely than others... ahem.) That email was hands-down the absolute all-time best email I ever got, ever.

Since then, my Christopher has become my most beloved, most trusted friend. He's filled any number of different roles in my life -- he's been the object of my innocent crushes, my surrogate big brother, my wise counsel, my sympathetic listener, my unwavering supporter, a frequent recipient of long, meandering, half-realized philosophies, and he's always one of the first people to know when something interesting happens to me. He's heard about my various romantic encounters in excrutiating detail. He's heard all of my schemes and plans -- both those I've realized and those which failed -- often before anyone else even knew I was up to something. He's filled in for other people who were absent during big events -- advising me on new loves, consoling me over broken hearts, congratulating me on triumphs, encouraging me to attempt the hard things, and just generally being on my side. In many ways, he became the steady, reliable, benevolent male presence I never had in my life. He put up with me when I was an insufferable 21-year-old, and and he puts up with me now that I'm an insufferable 31-year-old.

But here's the funny thing: I've never actually, y'know, met him. I've never gotten to put my arms around him and kiss his cheek and tell him how happy I am to have him around. I've never gotten to sit down with him and tell him (awkwardly, trying to be cool) how much he means to me. I've seen his face, and he's seen mine, but I've never actually seen him.

I know, that's kind of weird. This is what technology hath wrought.

But you know what? I don't care. Anything that brings Christopher into my life is worth any amount of existential strangeness. In some ways, I think it's even been better this way -- we've never been within half a globe of each other, but we can also never really move away. We're never in proximity, but we're also never out of reach. Friends who are tied to a certain place and time have a tendency, more often than not, to fade away once you've moved on; it's hard work to translate an in-person relationship to the remoteness of long distances. But Chris and I have both crossed oceans and formed new identities and established new lives, with no discernable interruptions in our friendship: after everything that's happened, we're still tight.

So after ten years, I just want to tell Chris again how much I love him, and how much he means to me. I really believe that I would not be who I am, and would not have half as happy a life, if he hadn't sent that brief, random note to a stranger back in 1996. And all I want is to hopefully do the same for him, as far as I'm able.

(And I hope reading this makes him cry like a little girl. ;) )
6:21 PM ::
Amy :: permalink

Saturday, January 13, 2007

My body seems to be in open rebellion. A couple of days ago, while engaged in my normal activities, I felt a bit of thickness in my head that felt very much like an incipient cold. There's one going around, and it seemed like I might be due since it's been well over a year since I last came down with anything. So I went home and got comfortable in the hopes of heading the cold off at the pass -- one day of rest at the beginning, I hoped, might forestall a week of misery.

I woke up yesterday morning with a clear head and no sign of sickness. "Hooray!" I thought to myself, "now I can go out and get a whole lot done!" Then I jumped out of bed, and my back whispered ominously, "think again." I could barely stand up straight for some new, unfamiliar, clutching pain in my lower back. Sitting down was almost as bad. Bending over was the worst. So I spent the whole day yesterday with my back locked in full-on spasm. At least, that's what I'm interpreting it as; I've never actually had this happen before. All I know is, it hurts, a lot. I guess I threw my back out with all that... rest.

It's not much better today (though the pain seems to have migrated a few inches toward my head), so once again I'm going to spend as much of the day as possible in repose with my books in the hope that if I give my back a break now, it won't ruin my whole week.

I am bored utterly out of my skull. So, naturally, I've started thinking about things.

I've been spending a lot of time lately thinking about the future of my medium -- not only film, but documentary film specifically. In my more pessimistic moments, I'm tempted by the thought that cinema is nearing the end of its evolution -- which on some level is silly, since art as a process is never finished, it just undergoes occasional phase shifts into new forms. On the other hand, cinema is increasingly extending and evolving into gaming and interactive forms, to which it bears as close a relationship as it does to photography. Gaming obviously lends itself naturally to fiction and fantasy; can it also be bent to serve nonfiction? Is it possible to create a documentary game? Assuming it is, would anyone be remotely interested? Could the interests of documentary be served by interactivity (or as well, but differently) as they are by film? What would the standards of documentary be in a form where almost nothing is taken directly from reality? Or is that question borne only of my own limited preconceptions?

None of it has any real bearing on anything, at least not for the time being. I'm just perplexed by the fact that I can't easily imagine any way in which my favorite cinematic form could be easily adapted to an intriguing new medium; is it possible that nonfiction forms will be left behind as the province of obsolete technologies? Will it be abandoned to photographers and authors and filmmakers while younger generations turn their attention to artificial worlds? (More pointedly, will they even make a distinction between reality and artificiality?) But then, surely a good story still transcends the limitations of any medium?

My favorite documentary subjects are stories in which ordinariness is revealed as epic, allegorical, even transcendental. I'm drawn not so much to amazing tales as I am to the beauty of the mundane, the small lives that turn out to be profound when re-examined by different standards. It is, for me (as always) a case of being so taken by my amazement at what really is that there seems to be little reason to lean on fiction. Interactive forms clearly possess some powerful tools -- but how would you go about redirecting those tools towards transforming someone's perception of reality?

I get stuck on these kinds of thoughts, but I never seem to reach any conclusions. I have this comforting fantasy that one day all of the fragments of ideas I've collected over the years will suddenly integrate themselves into one staggering realization, the big creative insight I've been working towards my whole life. If I have one big intellectual gift/liability, it's the willingness to allow things to remain unresolved -- I pick up a shiny new idea and make note of it, give it some thought, and then put it aside for the day I understand what to do with it. I've got a whole metaphorical junk drawer full of these things saved up now, I'm constantly looking for more, and I still have no idea what to do with any of them. What my great aunt Mary Louisa did with trinkets and baubles, I do with ideas -- I horde them.

My current thing is quantum physics; it is, to say the least, some tricky shit. And obviously I'm only dabbling, trying to get a better grasp on the core ideas, which is hard since I've resigned myself to the fact that my post-simian brain just isn't designed to cope easily with some of these concepts (it rejects nonlocality completely -- but I reassure myself with the thought that Einstein never got it, either. I think this is an instance where hallucinogens might have some very practical applications.) But that in itself is an interesting thought -- to play with holding an idea in your mind which has been proven true but which conflicts with everything you "know." It's kind of fun to try to wrap your brain around something it can't ever completely understand in the accustomed way.

And I've been thinking that I'd like to have another go at math at some point. I never got as far with it in school as I'd have liked -- I did okay through the beginning of high school, but then it all fell apart. I ended up in a truly backwards algebra II class in Arkansas, and subsequently I ended up taking trigonometry at three different high schools. Every class was at a different point when I joined; I asked my teachers for help, but each of them, realizing they'd basically have to start over from the beginning, wished me good luck and sent me away. I never did understand what was going on. Add to that the pressures of the enormous chaos I was coping with at home, and math was always going to be the first thing to give way. Calculus was doubtless within my abilities, but given that I was now essentially two years behind, I didn't have the foundation to do the work. And without calculus, doing meaningful work in college was out of the question. So mathematics and I parted company just when things were about to get genuinely interesting.

So I understand the idea that mathematics can be creative and beautiful, but I've never had a chance to see and understand that beauty for myself. And I think I'd like to, and I think I can do a lot of the work on my own (especially now that MIT is, for all intents and purposes, teaching higher mathematics online for free.) I'm fascinated by the thought that creativity and reason aren't mutually exclusive after all -- I've grown so tired of the assumption that art must always be accompanied by irrational thinking and some amount of woo-woo. Reason and rational thought are also major aspects of human experience, and as such, must also be appropriate subject matter for art, right?

I was annoyed beyond belief last year by a class about "creativity" into which I was drafted as a friend of the teacher (though I ended up not having to take it, to my relief.) The content of the class was heavily focused on the ideas presented in What the Bleep Do We Know? and The Power of Now. (In case a certain friend of mine, who loves The Power of Now, is reading this -- I'm sorry, I know how much it means to you, but I don't think I've ever read a steamier pile of bunk in my life.) I just found the whole idea so insulting, not only to my intelligence, but to the concept of art itself -- that willful misunderstanding of reality was somehow "better" for art than was a disciplined examination of the same reality. There's room for subjectivity and fantasy in art, of course; but to deny reality even on an intellectual level? It seems like a recipe for alienation, and sure-fire method to divorce art from anything like real life -- which in turn means a divorce from relevance and meaning.

Like I said -- I have this comforting idea that one day all of these bits of ideas will merge into one key insight. But today I'm just playing with random thoughts.

Sweet Jesus, I'm bored.
1:12 PM ::
Amy :: permalink

Wednesday, January 10, 2007
The Atheism Thing

I've been working on this post in my mind for several months now, and it's still no more "finished" than my own thought processes. But since some people (Shaw) are pestering me for a post, and since atheism is "somewhat in vogue" now -- and it's rare that I manage to intersect with any "vogue", so I'm pretty excited about that -- I'm going to go ahead and slap it up while it's timely. Even if it is unfinished.

The great thing about having so many unbelievers coming out roughly concurrently is that we're getting an opportunity to get a lot of chatter going. There's a lot of idea-exchange happening, and the ground's very fertile for atheism right now. Following the ongoing commentary surrounding our new "vogue", there are a number of thoughts that I keep coming back to, ideas that I feel compelled to expand upon a little.

1) Religion lets you off the hook when things get too difficult.

This is my main complaint against faith, and it's pervasive and far-reaching. Have you done something you're ashamed of? Don't worry -- just apologize to your god and you're no longer accountable; you're "forgiven." Even if you never make amends to the people you've hurt or try to repair the damage you've done, you're off clean. Furthermore, anyone who brings up your past misdeeds is being unfair; god doesn't hold you responsible, so they shouldn't either At the very least, don't let them make you feel bad or guilty about the stuff you've done but never bothered dealing with. There, isn't that easy and convenient?

It extends into larger issues, too. Can you not quite get your head around some tricky scientific, philosophical, or ethical issue, or perhaps just haven't tried very hard? Don't understand how the universe works, or how you could've come to exist? Don't waste your time thinking about it too hard: God did it.

Mankind? God did it. Crab nebula? God did it. Mozart's Requiem? God (indirectly) did it. Quantum physics? God had to have done it, nobody else even understands it. Does homosexuality make you feel kinda weird? Don't think about it, don't question your own sexuality or prejudices -- God's against it, and that's all that matters. God said it, you believe it, that settles it. It's so simple. I'm willing to posit that every believer indulges in it at some point, about one thing or another. If they accept evolution, they'll still fall back on "God did it" when they get sick, or when someone they love dies. If nothing else, they invoke it when thinking about their own belief: I feel something I can't understand or explain -- it must be God.

2) "Respect my religious beliefs" has become a code-word for "don't dare question me."

So you believe in something for which you have zero objective evidence -- fine. That's your prerogative. But what other category of irrational, unsupported opinion demands -- and is given -- respect and validation equal to that of well-supported opinions? What other category of irrational belief is granted tacit immunity from critical discussion? And yet otherwise open-minded people get completely puffed up at the vaguest hint that you find their religious beliefs absurd. This is one situation where I freely admit that liberals are very nearly worse than conservatives. The religious right just smiles with smug satisfaction that one day they'll be sitting on a cloud jerking off to your screams while your flesh melts away in the fires of hell; religious liberals, on the other hand, feel so personally, deeply betrayed by your disrespect that they vow to never, ever be your friends again. The invective coming from the left regarding atheism is no question more obnoxious than that coming from the right. Then again, maybe I've been damned to hell by so many conservative evangelicals that I just don't notice it anymore.

3) Moderate/progressive Christians think they shouldn't be lumped in with crazy fundies -- but they have a lot in common.

I do make this distinction between them: progressive Christians aren't actually dangerous. Arguing belief/nonbelief with a progressive Christian is an intellectual game, not a question of the fate of our culture and society. Watching a progressive Christian tie themselves in knots trying to defend their faith while not coming across all fundie-Jeebus-y can be particularly entertaining, but the well-being of the nation isn't at stake, so it lacks a certain immediacy. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, I regard as a genuinely dangerous faction -- maybe not quite this dangerous (though if this never happens, it won't be because there weren't plenty of willing, cross-waving would-be brownshirts voting for it), but dangerous in the sense that they're working against peace and progress. These are people who have not only rejected reason outright, but who are apparently hell-bent on forcing all the rest of us to live according to their delusional ignorance as well. So the progressive Christians can be regarded as allies against them, even if they're not really good for much in practical terms, and frequently seem to be angrier at unapologetic unbelievers than they are at the fundamentalists.

But the fact remains that both groups have one thing in common: they believe in a concept for which no evidence has ever been found, and on some level live their lives according to that belief. They may have widely differing ideas about how that concept should be defined and acted upon, but the fact remains: they both maintain some version of an imaginary friend. The problem arises when progressive Christians demand that their imaginary friend is vastly better than the fundamentalists' imaginary friend -- he's very a very sophisticated, nuanced, benevolent imaginary friend, you know -- and that therefore the basic idea of an imaginary friend deserves respect. It's okay to say that the fundamentalist imaginary friend is ugly or mean or violent, but to point out the more essential issue at hand -- that it's imaginary -- well that's just going too far.

4) No, that doesn't make atheism a religion, too.

Nothing irritates me more than watching the faithful desperately trying to turn atheism into a religion so they can battle it on their own terms. Atheism does promote a view of the world that will hopefully eventually explain our origins and the nature of the universe in which we live; it has this in common with religion. And that makes perfect sense, in my opinion, because religion and science both owe their existence to the same basic human impulse to understand their world. Religion was absolutely the best available structure for human understanding during the long millenia before we began to get a firm grasp on reason -- it never worked, but it's not like we had many better options.

But now we do. Now we can explore ourselves and our world and gradually build a new story of our existence based on evidence and disciplined exploration and examination. Science is an evolution of human understanding beyond the limitations of religion; we no longer have to be satisfied with a god to fill in the gaps in our knowledge. Which obviously doesn't mean that we're done working yet -- the gaps are still there, and probably not much smaller, really, than they were when we began. But as those gaps continue to shrink, so, hopefully, will our need for myths to satisfy our curiosity. We can replace supplications to god with thought and experimentation -- we can move from a passive state to a more active one. And there, I think, is where the key difference lies.

5) Unbelief doesn't mean giving up your soul.

At least it doesn't unless you're still thinking about the world according to religious structures. Ecstasy, awe, transcendental peace and joy -- these experience are all shared by unbelievers, too. You know that strange feeling you get when you look at the stars for a long time? I feel that too. But I no longer call it "god." That doesn't mean I know what it is, any more than I know where my consciousness comes from in the first place. But just because I don't understand doesn't mean I automatically assign responsibility to god (see #1).

6) Faith often seems to come hand-in-hand with a persecution complex.

Contrary to the interpretations of atheist thought presented by some believers, arguing against, even disapproving of widespread religious faith is NOT the same as advocating that all religious people be sent to re-education camps. I want you to consider the rationality of your beliefs to the point that you stop assuming that everyone shares them and/or you stop trying to push them on those of us who don't and demanding special dispensation for them. In my black little heart I hope that the religious eventually become as self-conscious about their beliefs as they would about making regular use of phone psychics. But that's not the same thing as a blanket call for the destruction of all living religious people. A little perspective, please.

7) I don't actually think that the end of religion would make everything better.

It's not that being done with religion will end war or violence or intolerance. But without religion, those who engage in any of the above would be forced to be more honest about their motives: hatred, fear, greed, lust for power, and all those other ugly impulses that drive human beings to abuse each other. Religion didn't start the Iraq War, but would so many Americans have supported it if their religious fear and fervor hadn't been invoked? Would the ongoing civil war there be so threatening over the long term if it was merely tribe vs. tribe, as opposed to sect vs. sect? Would we ever have gone in the first place if the real reason for the war -- strategic greed -- been the only available justification? Would people still be trying to justify the restriction of rights for homosexuals without religion, and if they did, on what other basis could they possibly do it? Would we still be fighting for stem-cell research without religion? Doubtless some people would still hate Arabs and gays, and would still prefer blastocysts to suffering adults even without religious justification. But would the majority of us spend even a moment considering whether their opinions mattered if we didn't have this idea of religious privilege hanging over our society?

So no, I don't believe that religion causes all of humanity's problems, but I do think it hugely exacerbates them. People will always be horrible to each other, God or no God. But they'll do so communally and on an otherwise unimaginable scale if they're convinced God is watching in approval.
8:41 PM ::
Amy :: permalink

Grudgingly Obligingly

"still waiting for that FIRST POST for 2007" -- Shaw

Don't rush me -- some of us aren't content just slapping up a YouTube video and calling it a blog post, y'know.

But, fine. You want a blog post? Here it comes:

It's 2007. Bill Hicks is still dead, and Vanilla Ice is back on television. I'm not feeling optimistic.

PS: I plan to go see Pan's Labyrinth as soon as I have $7 to spare. If anybody in Memphis ever bothers to show it, I mean.

PPS: Actually, I have a rather involved post in the works, but it's not done yet. My quantity may be in decline, but I'm determined to make up for it in quality. Except when serial YouTube posters push me into posting before I'm damn well good and ready.
12:33 PM ::
Amy :: permalink