Friday, December 26, 2008

Hitchens vs. Hedges

A couple of years ago, I read Christopher Hitchens' "God Is Not Great" at a time when I was particularly receptive to it--a time when the word and concept of religion seemed to have been co-opted by people possessed of such an astounding cynicism, that they thought nothing of mobilizing the homophobia of a minority of their constituents in order to give power to their monetary greed.

I didn't find the book to be perfect (I wrote a too-long post in it), but I did find it to be stimulating. On the upside, I thought that Hitchens obliterated the idea that the Bible (or any religious text) is the word of God, that it is a literal document, that it is an instruction manual, even that it is a valuable historical document. What stuck with me long after I had both listened to the audiobook and read the hard copy was Hitchens' comment that in the evolution of humans, "religion represents the childhood of our species."

I had previously seen religion as one can see any sharp object: an instrument that can be used to kill, or to cut the ropes that bind. Equal parts good and bad. Like humans themselves, capable of almost infinite good or infinite evil. By the end, that view seemed naive. However, Hitchens never did convince me that religion was causal, rather than correlative, as it relates to the Crusades, Islamist terrorism or any number of atrocities committed in its name. After all, "in the name of" implies a marketing tactic, not a root cause. He also seemed to miss the point that for many (I would hope a majority) of religious people, the underlying reason for their practice is not to justify their hatred, but to express their reverence, hope and gratitude.

So about two weeks ago, I'm trolling the audiobook aisles at the Highland Park Library and notice something called, "I Don't Believe in Atheists" by Chris Hedges. I grab it, thinking that it's time to hear the religious rebuttal to Hitchens (the sleeve made it clear that Mr. Hedges is highly critical of what he dubs the New Atheists: Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, among others).

I expected an unreasoned defense of blind belief from a devoutly religious, probably Christian, American male. What I got was something completely unexpected, surprisingly enlightening, intellectually refreshing and devastatingly depressing.

Hedges starts by refusing to fall into the polar trap of "religion" vs. "reason." That's not the issue to him at all. The real issue is whether or not you believe in human perfectibility, or what he would call Utopianism, in any form. In short, this is the belief that through anything--religion, science, reason, etc.--human beings can escape their natures and advance morally. Hedges does not believe in Utopianism. In fact, he compelling describes Utopianism as the toxic element behind the largest movements of evil in human history. In plain language, if you think you're right and they're wrong, and the world will only be better if you win and they lose, then they have to be killed so everyone else can advance.

On these grounds, he is equally critical of religious fundamentalism and New Atheism. He sees them as the same thing, pointing to Sam Harris' call for a preemptive nuclear strike on the Muslim world and Hitchens' staunch support of the war in Iraq. (Hedges lived in Muslim countries for years as a New York Times reporter, and convincingly exposes New Atheist ignorance on a complex religion with more than 1 billion followers.)

But while Hedges' argument is liberating on many fronts, it is also suffocatingly confining. He not only doesn't buy into human perfectibility (not a hard point to make), but staunchly refuses to believe in any form of collective human moral advancement. He might be called a New Human Naturist. He presents an image of human existence that strikes me as a morphing of the bound man of Western literature with the Narcissist of Greek mythology. We believe in our superiority even as we unwittingly commit specicide, destroying ourselves, our neighbors, and the environment we depend on for survival. We think God will save us. He won't. We think technology will save us. It won't. There's no point in removing religion, or science, or whatever you think is the barrier to improving our condition, because it can't be improved. Time is not linear. We are not on a path. We are trapped in a circular state, waiting for a Godot that will never come.

Hedges, like Hitchens, is ultimately stimulating but not (fittingly) perfect. His primary strength is in exposing the New Atheists as guilty of the same intellectual fascism that they condemn. A secondary strength lies in his nod to art and literature for their expression of the human condition. A third, related strength is his call to view the Christian Bible based on the etymology of the word "bible" ("small stories")--as a literary anthology not to be taken literally, not to be seen as a rigid instruction manual, not even to be seen as a coherent and purposeful compilation, but as stories that offer insight into the human condition. His weaknesses lie in not adequately developing his conflation of religion and art, and in his stating that we can't advance morally, yet still seeming to proscribe some kind of preferred path--which strikes me as self-contradicting (what's the point in seeking intellectual or spiritual advancement if it has no bearing on moral advancement?)

I appreciate both of these thinkers a great deal. In the end, they offer an exercise in discovering what you view as intellectually void or valid. For Hitchens, any belief in religion requires a shutting off of inquiry, which is destructive. For Hedges, any belief based on nothing but science and reason also requires a shutting off of inquiry, which results in a different kind of ignorance, also destructive. These two men, and their views of life, are fascinating because each sees the other as intellectually lazy, and both are right, and both are wrong.

Read them both, and draw your own conclusions.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

My Son Is Not Normal

My son is five and a half, and his three favorite things in the world are sports, geography and drawing. These three elements can only converge in one possible way: logos. So this morning (apparently tired of drawing existing sports logos based in something called "reality"), he decided to start making up his own teams and their logos. As with most things, the exercise started with a Realist vibe and evolved quickly into Expressionism. Or Abstraction. Or Post-Modernism. Or something.

See below.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Best. Ad. Ever.

I have no idea what the connection is with the company at the end, but in this case, I just don't care.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Most Addictive Substance On Earth

Scholars throughout the centuries have debated which is the most addictive substance known to man. Or, at least they've done so for the purpose of me starting this post using a somewhat erudite tone.

The ancient Persians (and their modern-day Iranian ancestors) both feared and revered opium. Afghani scholars and dead rock stars cast their vote for that poppy paradise called heroin. Colombian harvesters lobby for cocaine, while their clever refiners abroad point to the superior addictive qualities of crack. Meanwhile, Wasillians cry for methamphetamine, while many other researchers put a spotlight on two of the only legal drugs in most societies: alcohol and cigarettes.

Balderdash, I say. You're all wrong.

Speaking as someone who has(n't) ingested all of these illegal substances, I say the answer is clear. For my money, the most addictive substance ever devised by humanity is Sesame Blues corn chips from the Garden of Eatin'.

Stop me when I'm lyin'.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Mirage

Some 17 years ago, while on a massive post-college roadtrip out West during the summer of 1991, my friends and I stopped in front of the Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. We would have to drive through Nevada that day, but we couldn't avoid stopping to do a little gambling--because we wanted to be able to say that we did.

I locked my wallet in the glove compartment and took in with me exactly one quarter.

Once inside, I turned down the three drinks placed under my nose within the first 10 minutes (not because I was a prude; I just didn't realize that they were free). I dropped my quarter into a slot machine and promptly won 50 cents. I inserted another quarter and won another 50 cents. Then I lost it all, taking comfort in the fact that "all" was 25 cents. I had rigged it that way, because something told me I might need to.

Fast forward to 2008. While we slide down the abyss into what might well become the worst economic meltdown in American history, I've come to a stark realization. We are not capitalists; we are gamblers. Our nation's capital should not be Washington, D.C.; it should be Las Vegas. The Capitol building itself should not be the immaculate Grecian building we all know; it should be The Mirage.

A liberal arts-level understanding (all that I am capable of) of the financial services practices and products that have contributed to our demise, such as "naked short selling" and "credit default swaps," reveals a common element: gambling. Suffice it to say, what our economy became over the last three decades was a blackjack table. The smart bad guys created products that allowed greedy bad guys to make money on assets they didn't actually own. The good guys were unknowingly complicit, also making money by seeing their IRAs and 401 (k)s rise at a steady clip.

We financed it all on the First Bank of China credit card, and then the casino said "enough."

But it's not just financial services that reveal our true nature. Our health care and insurance system is a gamble: We'd rather gamble that we can afford the insurance that gives us stellar health care than have less shiny facilities and open the doors of access more equitably. We gamble on borrowing money for the best education, assuming that law school, med school and that MBA will pay off relatively quickly. We have generally practiced what might be called "consumption without consequence" on nearly every front, and it's crumbling before our eyes.

The thing I remember about that summer trip better than the sunny depression of Las Vegas in the daytime was something just outside the city: the Hoover Dam. It's an apt metaphor if one replaces the image of the water on one side with stacks of bills representing our nation's gambling debts. The question is, now that the dam has broken, and we know that our gambles will no longer pay off, what do we do?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Notre Dame's Impending PR Nightmare

Much will soon be written by people with no connection to Notre Dame and whose opinion already lies along a spectrum from indifference to contempt. I'm writing this as a loyalist... someone who grew up two miles from the Dome, who received a top-notch education there and who criticizes out of love, not hate.

I can't believe you're about to keep Charlie Weis.

This decision is not only wrong on moral and professional grounds; it's a PR cataclysm in the making. Here's why:

- I was actually one of the alumni who was fine with the decision to fire Ty Willingham. Someone who knows the football program from birth knows when a coach is on the right or wrong track. Willingham received the first-season boost that nearly all new ND coaches get, and then the deterioration was obvious. His unfortunate lack of success at Washington vindicates that decision.

- Weis' track record, until this year, has been harder to decipher. He got the first-season boost in a big way, nearly beating a dominant USC program with Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush. The second season felt more or less the same, a no decision. The third season was an absolutely stupefying decline, but Weis' previous success--not only at ND, but everywhere he's been--as well as his highly rated recruiting classes-- allowed one to hope that the season was anomalous.

- This season proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Weis is no better a college football head coach than Willingham. He can't prepare. He can't motivate. He can't educate. He can't hire good assistants. All he can do is recruit, and recruiting means nothing if you can't bring out and build on the natural talents of your players.

- The decision to keep Weis, therefore, logically has to be motivated by one of two things: proof of institutional racism, or a purely financial decision due to an alleged buyout package that is as large as Weis' already-stapled stomach.

- I believe it's the latter. One could argue that this decision is actually justified by pointing out the horrors of the current economy, and how keeping Weis actually keeps more university money where it should be: getting great students, hiring great faculty, building great facilities.

- Balderdash. The PR nightmare that this decision will unleash will cost the university far more than Weis' buyout. If ND refuses to admit that it is driven by the latter motivation, it will be hopelessly vulnerable to accusations of the former. And those accusations will stick.

- This, I'm afraid, will do more to harm ND's reputation than anything else in its history. And an institution that genuinely does more right by the student-athlete than any other in its class will see most of that brand equity disintegrate before its very eyes.

- (The paranoid in me sees ND already laying the groundwork for this decision by saying that Weis' buyout will not affect its decision, as well as sending an email to students, faculty and staff encouraging them to look for ways to save money. This does not mitigate the decision to keep Weis; it merely puts the university in a box.)

- Please don't do it.