The Morality of Power — Part 2

[Author's Note: I'm a little edgy about posting this. I wanted to get another part of it up right away, but the completed essay is still evolving in my head, and I kinda feel like I'm going out on a limb with this part of it.]

……………………………………..

Here in the days of my youth, I’m sitting at the controls of a bulldozer. I’m at a heavy equipment operator’s school in East Texas. In the weeks I’ve been here, I’ve operated a motor grader, a backhoe, and a number of big diesel trucks.

The trucker mythos would have you believe that there’s something special about trucking. But … no. Sure, the first time you climb up into one is a bit of a thrill. But once you get one of these monsters out on the road in rush hour traffic, and as one zippy little subcompact after another cuts you off before you can shift into even the third of your dozen or so gears, you’re one white-knuckled inch away from murder.

By contrast, a motor grader is much more demanding in terms of skill, and a backhoe is a bit more fun.

But a bulldozer? As George Takei would say, “Oh, myyyy.”

“Give me a place to stand, and I will move the world,” said Archimedes, more or less, and he was righter than he knew. Only it’s not a place to stand, it’s a place to sit, and it’s the driver’s seat of a big diesel Caterpillar bulldozer.

Belching black smoke and roaring like a lion on steroids, the huge yellow engine behind you develops power of such intensity that it can only be housed in a steel body so massive it looks like it might laugh at a nuclear blast. Trundling its bulky tonnage over the ground at a deafening two or three miles an hour, the beast has power to spare for casually shoving foot-thick tree trunks out of your way.

The seat of a bulldozer is a golden throne of seductive power. In lives measured by the subtle accomplishments of getting through yet another day at the office, or fostering your kids through one more tiny milestone of growing up, or doing yet another load of laundry, running a dozer is WAY different. A farmer might work for months to cajole a field of corn to produce, an animal trainer might labor carefully for years to produce a well-trained dog or horse, but a dozer operator essentially walks up to Papa Nature [*], grabs him by the balls and throat, and growls “Listen, shithead, this is how it’s going to go.”

Sitting up there, you realize that in one hot afternoon you could turn a field’s worth of heavy East Texas thicket into naked black topsoil, ready for blading into a farm or a ready-made pasture. With an extra hour’s work, you could scrape out the deep bowl that would put you one good rainstorm away from a pond for your cattle or catfish.

And despite your heartfelt chops as an environmentalist, you WANT to.

Power!

The most seductive part of it is that anybody can do it. All you need is the machine, that bright yellow Place of Power, a massive steel throne that can turn the confusion and inconvenience of heavy forest into a clear, sunny pastoral landscape, achingly ready for a sprinkling of grass seeds that will bring fat brangus cows with their baby calves, or sleek quarter horses lazing in the sun, or even those legions of benign destroyers, the rich, fatuous golfers.

Travel anywhere in the United States, and you will witness this kind of power. A million times over, you will see the signs of it – but you’ll actually see it in action fairly often too. Motor graders work on new sections of highway, excavating machines create deep holes from which skyscrapers germinate and grow, mindless robotic backhoe arms cut ditches through marshy areas and drain off their water, turning “useless” wetlands into housing tracts. And bulldozers push down trees: An endless queue of forest giants falls and dies to the yellow power of bulldozers.

It goes on all around you most of your life, and for all the notice and anguish it causes, it might as well be invisible. The hurricane of power that rides on a bulldozer blade blasts forests out of the way for us, and we trail in its comfortable wake sowing cities.

……………………………………………

[ * Chalk up “Papa Nature” to artistic license. Using “Mother” Nature was going to require the use of the b-word, and I knew I’d catch hell for it.]

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SMilestones

Whew. Lots of stuff going on.

The house where I live, with my beautiful little red and gray foxes, is being sold, and I have to move. I’ve loved living here, and this was the last home of my bestest-ever friend Tito the Mighty Hunter, so I’m sad about it. On the other hand, I expect to be in a better place in regard to bill-paying, so that’s a plus.

I got a new writing project in the works, and I’m excited about that.

And I also might be blogging at a new site in the near future, and may downsize contributions here. I haven’t been real prolific here over the past year due to other obligations, but as I told the mentor at the new site, I would dearly love to get back into mainstream atheist blogging. And I think I have something real to contribute to the atheist conversation, so I’m excited about the possibility of getting back onto the larger stage.

But first, I’m going on a hike tomorrow with a friend from work. And I’ll get to see waterfalls!

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The Morality of Power – Part 1

One of the standard bromides of the religious when they discuss atheism is the one about morality:

Morality comes from God. No atheist can be moral, because if you don’t believe in God, you can’t have love, compassion, or even respect for your fellow human beings. Because they think they’re going to die and just be dead, atheists believe nothing matters. Cut off from God and the promise of Heaven, they are therefore free to be rapists, murderers, child molesters, thieves and drug addicts, and their only motivation in life is to party and have fun at others’ expense.

Because you supposedly can’t have goodness without God, some people really seem to believe that the fondest wish of every atheist is to live a long, evil life, then fall dead to the floor while in the act of hurting one last innocent victim, hopefully crushing the life out of a hungry kitten on the way down.

One of the truly weird things about living in a specific cultural environment is how few people within it actually think about it. And I don’t mean think about it in depth, I mean think about it at all.

You grow up with your people and in your place, and you unconsciously assume that the things your people do, they do because it’s the best way to do them. It’s only after you leave and get the perspective of distance – and exposure to other cultures that do things very differently – that you begin to understand that your people do those things not because they’re best, but because they’re familiar. Because they’ve always done them that way, and because nobody’s really open to doing it any differently.

Even if someone tells you something different, until you see it for yourself you’re not really able to understand.

Which is why an atheist could argue in favor of non-theistic morality until he was so ancient his jaw creaked, and yet never get the more conservative Christians to understand a single one of the available arguments. They won’t listen, can’t hear, because the argument is outside the confines of their narrow cultural milieu.

So I’d like to make a different kind of argument here, a sort of “process argument” about morality. By “process argument,” I mean I want to explain a bit of moral reasoning, and by getting you to buy into it, show how the rules of goodness can be – and in fact constantly ARE – worked out by ordinary people. I show you the process, and if I do it well enough, you understand the argument that underlies it.

To do that, I want to talk about power.

—————————————————————————–

[I think this might be a 4-parter. More to come.]

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Facebook Short Takes

This new economy the GOP is helping create, where the rich get ever richer, and the rest of us slide back into essential servitude, I think of it as the Futile System. (more…)

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A Little Piece of Sky

You know how you can see something and maybe think it’s sort of cool, but then you look at it for a bit, think about it for a bit, and you realize it’s cooler than you ever imagined? So cool you want to drag people over to show them, to FORCE them to realize how wonderful it is?

Maybe everybody who’s ever been in love has felt it. But the kind of thing I’m thinking about is … ideas. Facts. Understandings. Things of the mind.

Take a look at this picture. Click on it in a minute or so and go to the original. Warning: It’s big — roughly 37 X 41 inches at 72 dpi — and will take a bit to load.

This is NASA’s APOD — Astronomy Picture of the Day — for August 12, 2011. The big beautiful spiral galaxy in the center of the pic is NGC 7331.

Discovered by William Herschel in 1784, it’s said to be quite a bit like our own Milky Way. It is roughly 50 million light years distant, which means the light we see is from 50 million years in the past. When the glow of those central stars started on its journey in our direction, the ancestors of whales still walked on land.

Okay, now go look at it. Be sure you click on the pic to enlarge it to full size. Center the image over the galactic core and zoom in on that. Cool, huh?

You know what I like best about it?

It makes me THINK things.

For instance: When I first saw it, I almost felt like a voyeur. From my elevated viewpoint, I was looking into someone else’s galaxy.

For instance: In the heart of this 100,000-light-year-wide galaxy, in the midst of that glowing central core, there’s a place where night is impossible. Where space never knows darkness. Jeez, come to think of it, every galaxy must be like that. Whoa.

For instance: That glow above and below the core — if some of that is stars, and if some of those stars have planets, even from 20,000 or more light years away, that beautiful monster of a galactic core is like a cosmic screen saver. It fills the sky, the visual equivalent of a deafening, head-filling roar. If you were on a planet circling one of those stars perched out there a ways, you’d see the galactic core in the daytime. It would outshine your home sun.

In fact, if the plane of your solar system paralleled the plane of your galaxy, there would be an entire hemisphere of your planet that would never know night.

I am an admitted doofus when it comes to science. If there was a college major in doofus, I’d hold a master’s degree.

And yet the image of this galaxy, and the few things I can figure out just from looking at it, frickin’ AWES  me. To think of the further cooler-than-cool facts and understandings about NGC 7331 that might sit in the mind of an actual astronomer, or astro-physicist, or galactologist — if there even is such a thing — just makes me want to laugh with delight.

This, for instance — something known by astronomers: Like a top spinning inside another top, the arms of NGC 7331 rotate in one direction, the core rotates in the other. It even looks as if the core and the arms are aligned at a slight tilt to each other, as if the center top is running down and starting to list over onto its side, inside the outer top.

How is that even possible? I have no idea. But again, it makes me THINK things: Even in the frictionless dynamic of discrete stars whirling about a common center of gravity, between these two counter-rotating masses there must be a zone of unimaginable, star-ripping turbulence. Damn, that’s freaky-cool.

Faith: The opposite of thought

Okay, take a look at the galaxy again, only this time imagine that you’re one of those modern-day goddy people who doubt everything every scientist ever said.

What would you THINK when you saw this picture? At best something like “Oh, what a beautiful thing! God is indeed great, that he would gift us with this beautiful vision in space!”

The image — which, in the first place, you would have sort-of-stolen from science, otherwise you’d never see it, because it isn’t visible to the naked eye — would be nothing to you but a minor piece of art. A pretty bullseye in space, a whirl of lights worth looking at for about 2 minutes.

Would you be awed and inspired by the knowledge astronomers have about this galaxy? No.

Would you reach even my doofus conclusions and be awed by THAT? No.

In the face of this beautiful deep thing, you’d see … a picture. A “wonder” that wouldn’t make you wonder. A source of no answers, no further thoughts. Except maybe “If you can’t see this from Earth, why did God do it?” — and even that question you’d shy away from, because it would cause you the discomfort of doubt.

This is yet another reason I think religion is a bad thing. The modern version of “faith” stops you from wondering, stops you from THINKING about things you don’t know — even about things you DO know, come to think of it — and replaces it with a dull certainty, an awe-killing lack of the curiosity and unfolding delight that comes from wanting to know more than the currently known, to understand more than the accepted explanations.

Religion stops you from wanting to figure things out.

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Passport time?

The GOP’s first debate — or whatever it was that happened in Iowa — was last night. I joked on Facebook that it was basically:

Honk, honk! Whoop, whoop, whoop! Hey Moe! Why you! Boop! Ouch! Oh, a woise goi, eh? I oughta— Slap! Reebeebeebee!

More seriously, some of my FB friends wrote recently about leaving the U.S. if Republicans take back the White House. I’ve thought for a long time that this is the exact wrong approach. I wrote back:

__________

Michelle Bachmann in the White House? Rick Perry and Sarah Palin? Time to get that passport in order?

No. The word this time is: WE’RE STAYING.

If nothing else, we’re going to annoy the piss out of the Right Wingers, in a sort of ongoing guerrilla war of words, emails, letters-to-the-editor, speeches, votes, jokes, razzes, marches, corrections and reminders.

We’re going to make fart noises every time they praise Jesus in public.

We’re going to giggle and point and take pictures every time they show up at public events wearing guns.

Our protest signs are going to poke fun at their protest signs — except with more imagination, broader humor and better spelling and grammar.

We’re going to be right on the street with them — or in the newspaper, or on TV, or on the radio — and we’re going to flaunt our educations, our ethnicity, the colors of our skin, our gayness, our compassion, our determination.

If they wave flags, we’re going to wave them right back.  The spiritual/intellectual descendants of the founders are not the right wingers, but US. This country, this flag, this heritage, this moment, is OURS.

Hey, if we survived Bush — THEIR president — the stupidest human being ever to walk through the White House door …

We can do ANYTHING.

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Enlightenment II

Just realized something interesting:

I’ve long said that Christianity was and is a nightmare. But it’s a nightmare that was forced to pass through the Enlightenment, breaking its power to do violence to people. Christianity can (and does!) still lie and scare people, can (and does!) still abuse children in the shadows, but it can never again have a free hand to torture and kill.

Islam never had an Enlightenment. But this moment in history, THIS is Islam’s Enlightenment. Forced out into the light, Islam is learning that it can’t teach or tolerate violence.

200 years from now, 500, a thousand, this moment will be an important part of Islam’s history.

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American Blood: Why the Atheist Fight is Everybody’s Fight

I’m sure you’ve caught the controversy over the mangled-beam cross at the 9/11 memorial site, and the fact that atheists oppose the thing.

You’ve probably also caught the blowback, which includes online death threats to atheists by nice Christians.

Responding to the subject on Facebook, a commenter named Janice D. blamed atheists for the whole thing:

“Yes, the Christians are feeling very threatened in today’s political climate [...] Their God IS being kicked out of everywhere in the name of political correctness.”

To which I say …

First, is somebody really defending the right of people to make death threats to those who disagree with them?

Second: IT’S NOT IN THE NAME OF POLITICAL CORRECTNESS.

It’s in the name of equal rights, and the constitutional principal of separation of church and state.

To the people being denied those equal rights, a response like Janice’s (definitely not hers alone, by the way) is as offensive and insensitive as all those white bystanders during the civil rights movement, who said stuff like “I just don’t get why these negroes are so angry. Why can’t they just get along?”

Yes, the Christians are feeling threatened. On the other hand, they STILL make up something like 85 percent of the people in the U.S. Every law passed in this country, every court judgment, goes through Christian hands. Every legislative body, from town councils up to Congress, is run almost 100 percent by professed Christians. You have to look VERY carefully at governmental bodies to find so much as a single Jew, much less a Shintoist, a Muslim, a Hindu … or an atheist.

Speaking of the civil rights movement, there’s something a lot of us probably never think of.

All that stuff the African-Americans did during the movement? You know, the marching, the demonstrating, the getting sprayed with fire hoses and attacked by dogs, the part where they suffered beatings and terror and murder?

THEY DIDN’T DO IT ONLY FOR THEMSELVES.

They did it for everybody. They did it so EVERYBODY could have civil rights. So EVERYBODY could be safer from beatings, and arrests, and lynchings, and being dragged out of their homes and burned to death by their neighbors just for being in some way different.

Black people paid that price so that every generation that came after could enjoy greater freedom and safety. But also, so that every generation could understand that being different – different from the majority – was okay.

In this sense, you can say that the civil rights movement was fought for the rights of black people AND for the rights of white people.

That’s the thing about equality: If you win it for yourself, you win it for everybody.

Civil rights was definitely about the RIGHT to be treated equally, but it was also about the RESPONSIBILITY of the people in power, the ones in the majority, to understand that nothing must get in they way of treating everyone equally.

Because, surprise, surprise, people aren’t “black” and “white,” or “them” and “us,” they’re just people. They’re the same.

Because of this second part, decades later, when the gay rights movement started, we saw the parallel to the civil rights movement and understood the point a lot faster: Gay people deserved equal rights.

Of course they did. Not because they were “gay.” Because they were PEOPLE.

The blood and determination of African-Americans had paid for that lesson.

In like fashion, the things the gay community did – in the face of the same death threats, the same beatings and arrests and blatant oppression (but nowhere near as purely evil as what happened to African-Americans, because things had changed) – they didn’t do it just for themselves. They did it for EVERYBODY.

They did it so that every future generation could be free to choose the nature of their personal relationships. They did it so that all the kids who would be born and, coming to discover that they were different, wouldn’t be thrown out of their homes and communities by the ignorance and hate of their parents and neighbors.

But again, they also did it so that all the others, all the non-gay people, could learn to understand this basic point of equality: When you’re defining humanity and apportioning rights, just as there is no dividing line between “black” and “white,” there is no dividing line between “gay” and “straight.”

Likewise, the women’s rights movement was and is about the rights of women … but it also was and is about the rights of men. What women did, they did for EVERYBODY.

Finally, in the matter of the current battle: Yes, the main point we atheists hope to impress upon people is that atheists deserve equal rights. Equal representation.

But the other point – again – is that EVERYBODY deserves equal rights, equal treatment. The powerful majority – whether it be white people, or straight people, or men, or Christians – does not have the right to treat others in a way that denies them life and liberty, equal access to the advantages and protections of citizenship.

So the things atheists are doing, they’re not doing it only for themselves.

We want EVERYBODY to have the right to think and live free. We want EVERYBODY to be able to use their own independent minds, and to speak their conclusions freely in public without death threats or social shunning. We want ALL children to have access to an education based on facts and reality, untainted by narrow sectarian views or mythology.

As we’ve seen in all these past battles – civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights –  the thing about equality is that it’s not something you can enjoy in exclusivity.

If you win equality, you win it for everybody.

 

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It’s been pointed out to me that ALL of the battles I reference here — fights involving race, gender and orientation — are ongoing. And yes, I absolutely agree.

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School Persecutes Innocent Christians

After weeks of meeting behind closed doors to come up with a suitable scheme, debauched officials of the Desert Sands Unified School District viciously attacked the treasured freedom of speech of good Christians everywhere, when they chose to deliberately assault the Constitution-loving sensibilities of two perfectly innocent believers by denying them their right to place good American Bible verses in Desert Sands schools.

The utterly offended individuals, who had no idea that Bible verses and overt Christian messages aimed at the district’s school children might be frowned upon by non-Christians — such as heavy-browed Muslims, computer tech support immigrants with thick accents and saffron-discolored teeth, not to mention condom-wearing atheists — expressed their displeasure, rightfully, by suing the school district.

Ostensibly conceived as a fundraiser featuring memorial bricks intended to be placed at new buildings on Palm Desert High School’s campus, the mis-conceived effort was without doubt an attempt to deny full American rights to two good Christian women, the delicate flowers known in court filings as Lou Ann Hart and Sheryl Caronna.

“Christians should be allowed to express themselves on public school campuses just like everyone else,” said David Cortman, a lawyer for the Alliance Defense Fund, the conservative Christian organization which initiated the lawsuit for Hart and Caronna.

Cortman rightly noted “It is cowardly to shut down everyone’s participation in this program simply out of animosity toward Christian speech. There is absolutely nothing unconstitutional about a Bible verse on a brick when a school opens up a program for anyone to express a personal message. The school could simply have allowed the Bible verses, but instead, it chose to punish everyone.”

As the school had already accepted a brick inscribed with a quote by Mahatma Gandhi, a brown-skinned non-Christian known to be from India, there can be absolutely no doubt about the true purpose behind the whole scheme.

Though the school district was forced to cancel the entire fundraising effort, to return the $45,000 raised so far to every community group or individual who purchased a memorial brick, and to pay court costs out of sharply-limited school district funds for the tragically oppressed and completely shocked ladies, Christians everywhere, who have long been bent under the yoke of oppression by the roughly 15 percent of Americans who have a variety of misguided, AIDS-spreading non-Christian beliefs, celebrated.

Officials of Palm Desert High School, which is about 10 miles east of Palm Springs, California, declined to comment on the story, citing pending legal action and an untapped kegger in the board’s secret meeting room and lube-splashed hot tub grotto.

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A New Hope for America!

Submission.

No, really.

Governor Rick Perry of Texas — my home state, by the way, the formerly wild, proud, independent place I was born — has a sensational idea for fixing things.

There is hope for America. It lies in heaven, and we will find it on our knees.

He actually said that. The equivalent of  “On your knees, Americans! Surrender! Give up, let it go, turn over control to someone else.”

The sad fact is that a LOT of people, broken by religion, will really believe this is their last hope, and they need to do exactly that. They will hit their knees and be happy about it. Expecting that if they are obedient, submissive and obsequious enough, that someone else will fix everything for them.

America is in the midst of a historic crisis. We have been besieged by financial debt, terrorism, and a multitude of natural disasters. The youth of America are in grave peril economically, socially, and, most of all, morally. There are threats emerging within our nation and beyond our borders beyond our power to solve.

Gah. This is pure fear motivation, a predator’s bite aimed to hamstring the prey by shutting down whatever critical, rational faculty he still possesses, rendering him helpless for any response but trembling obedience.

Take special note of the “beyond our power to solve” phrase. Is this the voice of a leader encouraging his people to RISE UP? To meet whatever challenges we face? To tough it out, see it through, and keep on trying and working no matter what, because that’s the kind of people we Texans, we Americans, we humans, are?

Or is it the voice of a manipulative parasite who will do anything to keep power over his victims, and damn the long-term consequences?

Sorry, but I can’t resist a historical comparison: If Rick Perry had been the Prime Minister of Great Britain during World War II instead of Winston Churchill, who said, before Nazi Germany’s massive 1940 air attack, the Battle of Britain …

We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

… Post WWII history would be very different.

The registration page for the event features two check boxes:

I want to fast one day a week between now and August 6 and pray for The Response and our nation.

.

I want to set apart August 1 – 6 to spend a focused time of consecration in prayer and fasting for The Response and our nation. Please send me The Response’s daily prayer guide during those 7 days to help me prepare.

I’m curious about the “daily prayer guide,” so I checked that box. I expect I’ll be getting something in my in-box any day now.

………………………………

I wish Molly Ivins was still around. Ivins was the author and political commentator who found so much humor in Texas and national politics, and referred to the Texas governor as Rick “Goodhair” Perry. This would be meat and potatoes for her. We miss you, Molly.

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