The Enemy I See

Yesterday, my husband pulled out one of my favorite albums from youth, Bob Dylan’s Slow Train. Like Dylan, sometimes I feel so “low down and disgusted” because I don’t know what’s happening to people around me. It’s rather incredible how many things have changed both internally and externally since I was sixteen, but it may not be so incredible how many things have remained the same. When I first heard Dylan’s line “The enemy I see wears the cloak of decency” I knew intimately what he meant. Young people tend to; that’s why they rebel against decency. They understand that there’s too often hypocrisy hiding underneath, and if not hypocrisy, then complacency. Decent people may not say one thing and do the opposite, but they are too often content to do nothing at all.

And, honestly, although I try to be a neutral party until I can make a rational judgement, I know it’s foolish to trust people according to their outer appearance or their nice words. So I, like many others, pit my desire for neutrality against my essential lack of trust. What will people do when they get down to the nitty-gritty — not what will they philosophically or theoretically do, or have the intention of doing — but what will they actually do? Right action begins with right thoughts, of course, but right thoughts don’t always translate into right action. And then, there are those odd people who dwell on anger and even hatred and who do what is right in the moment without right thoughts because of a deeper encoded layer of honor.

What I’m trying to say is this: talk is cheap, even when it springs from devout contemplation of rightness in the conscious mind.

This post was originally inspired by the odd convergence of one of my favorite Dylan songs and an article a friend posted on Facebook: I Don’t Know What to Do With Good White People. This friend admonished others to just read it [presumably in spite of the title]; that the article is good right up to the end. So I did. It’s a classic nonfiction memoir, in which the author writes from her experience and the experience of family members and reflects on her current reality. The title gives a good hint at what the article is primarily about: the unknown intentions of people who appear to be “good”.

It would be a simple thing for many of us white people to have a negative reaction to the author’s words. In fact, I could see the reactionary tone in some of the comments. White people can’t win either way! Or, conversely, the gag-inducing humble (sorry, but it does make me gag when people pretend to grovel): How can we be better white people? My takeaway was a little different, however. I came away thinking about Dylan’s song and how “the enemy I see is cloaked in decency.” It’s not that white people can’t win for trying; it’s that our mainstream society is blanketed in decency and proper progressive talk points. And who can say what is lying underneath it? There are no clear dividing lines in decent neighborhoods filled with decent people.

Dylan, in his song, was acting out the part of the visionary, or the seer who can peer through the cloak of deception. But that isn’t a role we all play because it isn’t an easy one. It takes precious time, which most of us don’t have a lot of, and a willingness to face the truth, no matter how ugly.

There is probably more to be said, but I don’t know that I can today. I think I should let this rest until tomorrow at the earliest. There are parts of the recent debacles of justice that really bother me. And they have everything to do with the cloak of decency.

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Systemic Theology

I’m no fan of systematic theology. It’s all about man and his truth and his a priori and a posteriori assumptions. It colors the way people interpret scripture, the nature of God, etc. Often, man will paint himself into a corner with his doctrines (doctrines here defined as teachings) that spring from his larger system of theology (theology here defined as a broader study of God from which doctrines are derived).

For example, just the other day I was reading about the theology of the Salvation Army. Due to their theology, the founders rejected the doctrine of the sacraments because they felt these rituals distracted from the doctrine of grace. Therefore, to this day they don’t perform baptisms or serve the Lord’s communion. But they do consider it okay, however, to conduct marriage ceremonies because they don’t consider marriage to be a sacrament. So they’ve gone from taking Jesus’ ordained practices and eschewing them because they are distractions, to making justifications for conducting a ceremony that might be perceived as a sacrament (marriage IS a sacrament to Catholics). Talk about a strange biblical corner to paint oneself into!

In the last two days — for unknown reasons — I’ve been presented with three different systematic* theologies of Christ. One is the orthodox Christian position that Jesus is both Messiah and God; otherwise known as one part of the Godhead or trinity. Another perspective states that while Jesus is the fulfillment of the promised Messiah, he isn’t God. The third perspective presented to me was the Jewish one: Jesus could not have been the promised Messiah. All of these conclusions are based off different systems of theology applied to Torah or New Testament passages. Ironically, the second and third are quite similar in that Jewish people, who are still looking for the promised Messiah, don’t believe the Messiah will be both God and man, and certainly not one-third of a trinity. The concept of the trinity is anathema to a people who are unwaveringly monotheistic.

I called this post “Systemic Theology” because, well, the word systemic is related to the word systematic. They are both words having to do with systems, obviously. But systemic is a word that carries the connotation of something being spread throughout an entire system. When we speak of systemic illnesses, we are speaking of illnesses that have infected the body system-wide (e.g. through multiple organs or even the entire body). This is what systematic theology does to us; it infects our entire thought processes when we consider God or our holy texts.

If we accept the fact that God is real and that randomness isn’t, then we also accept that there is objective truth. From that, we also presume that there is a system of truth that is one-hundred percent correct. Despite that assumption, it would be foolish to presume that the entire system — the whole of the nature of God — is accessible to man. When it comes to questions of the divinity of the Messiah, or even of the less weighty questions on the nature of the sacraments, we are asking after the nature of God. And answering it with terms such as “trinity” is unhelpful at best and pernicious at worst. Most people are so infected by their own chosen theological teachings that they can’t perceive them as frail attempts at understanding the nature of an infinite God. They also infect the way others perceive us (e.g. Trinity and Eternal Torment are equated with Christianity, even though neither term is found in Christian Scripture). But that’s, perhaps, another article.

*edited to avoid confusion

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A Maverick For Today: I’ll Call Him Pedro

This was going to be a post on the classic Science Maverick, which I was thinking about because I have a friend who fits the bill. He has an inability and/or a general refusal to follow the usual path. I met him when I decided to get a mechanical engineering degree, before I halted abruptly in order to determine how I was going to do it without going into further debt and adding to the already bloated education bubble. As I’m — if not a Science Maverick — a general maverick, we hit it off. Then, of course, my husband and his wife are also rather maverick and out-of-the-ordinary, so evenings with the four of us are interesting to say the least.

As he made an attempt to remain in his engineering program, his soul seemed to unravel at the rote work, the pat accepted answers, and the suppression of creativity caused by jumping through hoops. Recently, he ditched the degree in order to do what he prefers to do: engineer things. While others learn what the accepted answers are, he finds his own answers through inventions. If you study history, which I enjoy doing, you’ll find a number of men in past ages who fit this archetype. I use the term archetype loosely because many of these mavericks are misfits, but I suspect even the misfit is an archetype found in the human population.

The maverick isn’t always right because he’s a maverick. He isn’t a prophet because he doesn’t belong. Rather, he has the potential to become a prophet or at least do something great because he isn’t willing to capitulate to group think. Group think is a problem in any human society. Mavericks may be completely delusional, thereby falling error to another human failing — that is, the one involving not being able to escape the limits or distortions of our own minds — but at least they do not readily accept the mass delusions of the society around them.

Because I was thinking about the subject, I did a quick search on science mavericks. In the process, I landed on this article: Persecuted Prophets and Maligned Mavericks: The Galileo Gambit. Apparently, the “Galileo Gambit” is a snarky shibboleth, much like Godwin’s Law, to send the Idiot Alert to those who are aware of what the term means. It is used for scientists whose ideas aren’t accepted and who, therefore, feel persecuted by the science mainstream. So they compare themselves to Galileo. This article makes the astonishing point that Galileo was persecuted by religious fanatics! Gasp! The science mainstream would never ostracize or persecute anybody who disagrees with them as long as there is supporting evidence because they aren’t like religious fanatics! (Sorry, but religious fanatics must always walk with exclamation points).

Whoever wrote the article doesn’t seem to have a grasp on history. See, Galileo lived in a religious-political state. That is, the state used religion as a method of control. The article goes on a big yawn fest about how science is all about evidence (well, yeah, it’s supposed to be) and that no self-respecting mainstream science community will ostracize mavericks who have evidence to back them up. That has been minimally true in the past and is still minimally true. It’s the ideal of science. But it doesn’t seem to take into account that scientists are human beings with emotions, egos, delusions, and a propensity for group think; they aren’t, whatever the case, machines processing evidence. And it also doesn’t seem to take into account that the same kind of control Galileo’s government lorded over him is still being used by political states today. Astonishingly, those states which aren’t religious-political states might just as easily use science as its method of control, if that is what society’s collective ego is invested in.

This post has now crossed my mental 500-words-or-fewer parameter. Let me conclude with one last tidbit. On the side of the website is a graph-meme depicting that 97% of climate scientists agree with AGW and that 3% do not. Above the meme, are the words The debate is over. This, of course, made me laugh. Would the debate be over if the percentage of disagreeable scientists rose to 4%? Or maybe the percentages are just arbitrary. Right, I know, the author of the site would say, “The evidence isn’t arbitrary!” Well, great. In the future, he/she might want to consider that science isn’t a democracy in which conclusions are based off what the majority believes.

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This mini autobiography brought to you by me.

I have arrived at an important conclusion. No, it has nothing to do with the fact that I’ve posted a new blog post every day this week after having let my blog go silent. I didn’t come to any conclusions about that. I’ve been blogging for years and found it sad that I constantly write essays in my head but am willing to let my blog die for a lack of time. I waste SO much time writing essays in the head that one wonders why I call myself a fiction author.

About being a fiction author — yeah, that’s what this post had to do with. I’ve come to an important conclusion about how I approach writing. This conclusion may be of no help to anybody else because other authors no doubt approach storytelling differently than I do. But it might be helpful if your brain is a convoluted underground labyrinth as mine is.

The first book I wrote was a literary novel heavily influenced by the likes of Willa Cather. It was universally bad. As in, there was nothing redeeming in it, except for the main characters I developed (they were redeemable), and the helpful practice at writing dialogue it gave me. But every book I wrote in my twenties after that was a mystery novel. Mystery novels allowed me to remain firmly entrenched in my ego: the plots had to be original; they had to be twisting and turning and difficult and supremely intelligent. I never edited any of them because none of them met my expectations and trying to force them to made me feel like I was being strangled.

I tried writing comedy for a while, but it seems my sense of bleak irony combined with Eeyore-like goofiness didn’t resonate with very many people. So I put those novels aside, which is sad as one of them starred a fez-wearing accordion player from Texas named Hans Garcia. Then I wrote Anna and the Dragon. It was different. There was no attempt at a labyrinthine plot. I wrote it very quickly; it was primal, an archetypal soul journey. That’s why I went ahead and edited it and published it myself (after several years of marketing it to agents and getting nowhere).

Because the novel fit in the metaphysical category, speculative fiction opened its doors in my mind as being a plausible outlet for my writing. So I wrote, again in very quick, primal* bursts, a monkey tonne of short stories that could be categorized as spec fic (31 of those stories I published in The Jaybird’s Nest and other stories). Eventually, I decided I had to write a pure sci fi novel. But my ego entered in again. I DID write a “pure” sci fi novel last summer. But I told myself it had to be hard sci fi with everything carefully researched, as well contain many complex plot threads. Editing it? Hell. I’m strangling myself again. And for what? I’ll never create a magnum opus this way, even though that is always my background intent.

The upshot is this: I’m going to strip my latest novel of its hard elements and numerous and complex plot threads and just write a passable novel in the vein of work that resonates with my soul, that is, philosophical sci fi by authors such as Ray Bradbury or Phillip K. Dick. Otherwise, I’m going to give up this gig, as I have other things I want/need to do with my life.

*by primal, I mean what exists in the subconscious that often doesn’t get past the ego gatekeeper

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Montaigne Is Rolling In His Grave

I’ve written before about how the modern age has corrupted Montaigne’s idea of what an essay or essai was. He certainly didn’t write the five-paragraph variety, in which the “scholar” is expected to develop a thesis and then argue for said thesis in several points in subsequent paragraphs, eventually ending in a pat conclusion. These days, the memoir more closely resembles what Mongaigne had in mind, which was to record one’s thoughts and ideas and learning, while reflecting on the world around. Although many of Montaigne’s essays were self-focused, they were observations on the state of mankind.

I have always loved memoirs because of the examination of self and the world. Memoirs are set apart from essays fashioned after Plato’s dialectic method, as the authors are willing to invest emotion and/or spirituality in the work. That is, all faculties of man work together to produce the kind of reflection that ought to be present in the genre.

At some point in the last ten years, however, memoirs took on a nasty character of frankness that verged on narcissism. There’s a point at which self-examination becomes navel-gazing; when frankness about the human condition is dished out without appropriate reflection. And also, to be frank, many of these “frank” authors got caught lying about their amazing true stories. So now I’m hesitant to read memoirs at all due to the infiltration of liars, which is a direct effect of a lack of integrity in the publishing industry, as publishers don’t want to bother fact-checking before cranking out the new sensational “true life” story.

Julie Powell and her ilk spelled the death sentence of the genre for me. I could go back and read the autobiographical works of Julia Child and discover what I loved about memoirs and/or biographical works that also contain reflection on the world. But the modern day memoirists lost me as an audience. I have too little time and too little money to spend on reading the nauseating life philosophies of narcissists and hedonists.

To be fair, it isn’t simply hedonism. It’s as I said in a prior paragraph. It’s hedonism without reflection. It’s diving into one’s own reflection and drowning in it and never coming back up for air or to see the expanse of sky above. Oscar Wilde was a hedonist who was biting in his examination of self and the world, which eventually inspired him to write The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Oscar Wilde wasn’t a memoirist really, but a satirist. Perhaps a better example of a hedonist with self-examination can be found in my old favorite author James Boswell. As he was a pre-Victorian writer, he didn’t shy away from writing about masturbation and visiting prostitutes in his reflective journals. But he tempered these revelations (which were perhaps not meant to be revelations to the world, anyway, as they were his personal meditative journals) with an honest look at the sin condition of man. He was always doing what he didn’t want to do and then suffering the internal and external effects of it.

Now, of course, with Lena Dunham, we’ve hit an all-time low in the realm of frankness. She is, frankly, a liar, dragging her own sister and other people down with her. If I harbored any hopes for my old favored genre, those hopes have sunk. On the other hand, once the bottom has been excavated in Narcissist’s pool, it’s quite possible there’s no where else to go. Either the genre drowns itself and dies, or it rises to the top again.

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