Thursday, November 29, 2012

No, You Don't Suck

A Facebook friend of mine — a classmate throughout grade school and high school (one of many with whom I have reconnected through the magic of teh intertooooobz™ in recent years) — today posted a link to this website, not to promote it, but to cast a critical eye on its products: T-shirts (and hoodies and sweatshirts and wristbands... but as far as I can tell, not coffee mugs or tote bags) emblazoned with the words Without Jesus I Suck!

Reaaally, now...?!?

The comments to my friend's post seemed mostly to be reactions to the crassness and vulgarity of the phrase, and to its embedded potential for sexual innuendo, but one commenter cut through all that: Citing the doctrine of total depravity, he opined that the people wearing the shirt were mistaken; that even with Jesus, they still suck!

I beg to disagree. In fact, I utterly reject any notion that humans — with or without Jesus — suck.

I'm not a theologian, of course, and I make no pretense of understanding the technical details of argument between the differing versions of this doctrine. But notion that we are all inherently depraved... wicked, in fact... and inherently powerless to be anything else strike me as a sort of mass cultural psychopathology, regardless of who may think it's good theology. It is nothing less than a broadly shared self-loathing, and there's no way it can be the basis for humans living together in anything like harmony or justice.

Indeed, I think (though my wife believes I overplay this, and it's quite likely she's at least partly right) that this idea of the innate corruption of humanity... indeed of everything in what John Donne called out as the "dull sublunary" sphere of human existence...  lies subtly, almost invisibly, at the root of a large number of our social problems: It is, I think, part of why we undervalue, if not outright demonize, physical pleasure and behaviors that are focused on pleasure; it is part of why we celebrate toil and hardship and suffering, not only because of good things that toil and forbearance in the face of hardship and suffering can enable, but also for its sheer, punishing difficulty; it is, more importantly, part of how ostensibly loving, compassionate, godfearing people can so easily discount others' suffering in the public sphere.

A world populated by people who believe we, by our very nature, do not deserve pleasure and do deserve pain and hardship and punishment will, not entirely surprisingly, be a world full of pleasure dulled by shame, in which unnecessary hardships are viewed, perversely, as just.

And that sucks.

Myself, I have a different view. There are plenty of individuals, of course, who could fairly be said to "suck," based on their personal behavior... but humanity as a whole? By its inherent nature? No, I'm sorry: I hold not with Augustine or Luther, but with Shakespeare. I said the link that spurred these thoughts was posted by an old high school classmate, and I recall the quote I placed in my senior class yearbook, from Hamlet (though admittedly I first encountered it in Hair):
What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals....
 I believe human life is not innately depraved, but innately valuable and noble. I believe that the founders placed the pursuit of happiness aside, and equal to, life and liberty for a reason. I believe that happiness itself is the purpose of life, and that we should pursue it — including physical pleasure — without shame or regret. I believe that toil and suffering are noble only to the extent that they enable noble ends; they are never noble in their own right, nor does any human inherently deserve to suffer... nor should any of us be complacent (never mind satisfied) in the face of others' unnecessary toil and suffering. I believe, as William Faulkner asserted in accepting the Nobel Prize, that humankind will "not merely endure: [we] will prevail."

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Blast From the (Holiday) Past

I know many people will think this perverse, but I love holiday shopping. Normally I hate struggling with crowds, but once Thanksgiving has come and gone and the Christmas season is properly begun, I love getting out in the stores and malls, mingling with the happy throngs. Charlie Brown and Snoopy can whinge all they want about commericalism; I just adore the sounds and sights and smells and joggled elbows of the winter retail rush.

But this weekend, I didn't have to go to the mall to get my blast of holiday nostalgia: It was waiting for me at the local CVS:

It's the DiscoveryKids Color Me Rocketship, and it took me straight back to my childhood, when I had, courtesy of the ads in the back of my comic books (or maybe it was Boys' Life?), first a cardboard spaceship and then a cardboard submarine!

These cool — and huge — toys provided a lot of under-the-tree impact on Christmas morning for very little money (even in late-60s dollars), and were incredibly cool to play in. Not the most durable of toys, but they didn't require any batteries, and any toy you wear out through happy play beats the ones that break down on Christmas morning, or eat batteries like Pez, or never really work at all. Just the right amount cooler and fancier than an empty refrigerator carton, these corrugated ships of dreams presented the same blank imaginative canvas.

I hadn't thought about my childhood fantasy transports for years, but stumbling upon the drugstore Space Shuttle brought it all back. The new version is improved in some ways: The tab-and-slot construction is undoubtedly safer than the sharp-edged rivets of the 60s versions, and I don't recall the old interiors being as detailed and play-friendly as the new one. But maybe the best thing about the Color Me Rocketship is how powerfully it reminded me of my days as Buck Rogers and Captain Nemo in those back-of-the-comic-book marvels.

I doubt there are any pictures of me in my submarine or spaceship, but teh intertoooobz has pictures of everything, and if it weren't for the fact that my backyard didn't have a fence, this could easily be me and my "Polaris Nuclear Sub," right down to the hair color (not to mention the Polaroid print).

Monday, November 19, 2012

Again, Krugman Has the Answer

Despite my excuses about not blogging much during the campaign (and especially the last 6 weeks or so of it), I was, of course, thinking about All the Things™; I just didn’t have time (or mental space) to write my thinkings down. What I did have time for, occasionally, was posting articles and columns to my Facebook timeline... and one of the people I most often shared that way was Paul Krugman, who often seemed to crystallize the things most on my own mind. Again, today, he's come to my philosophical aid.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about has been my growing frustration with the fact that it has become so common — right, left, or center — to discuss economic policy in terms, first and foremost, of what will work. This is, I think, a category error: Economic policy should serve the needs of society, and our society is not some sterile engineering project whose only purpose is to function well in a mechanical sense. Instead, society is a moral imperative: We join together to collectively guarantee each other’s rights, and for our mutual defense and support… including material support.

As such, the first goal of economic policy ought to be to help realize the moral imperative to which our very society is devoted… which is to say, the first goal of economic policy ought to be economic justice. The “engineering project” part — making things actually work — is crucial, of course, but it is secondary to, and in the service of, that first goal.

Too often, though, the “solutions” to our economic challenges offered, even by ostensibly progressive voices, have been entirely focused on making the numbers work, and not focused much at all on the human justice issues behind the numbers. You know, that “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” stuff? The part about “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”? Does it really honor those founding principles to slash our collective spending on the social support mechanisms for a minimally dignified, happy human life? To stop helping our neighbors who are poor or homeless or unemployed or sick or hungry? To force our parents and grandparents to stay on the job well into their allegedly golden years, and then force them to become part-time financial managers and insurance analysts once they are retired, in lieu of taking care of them in a secure, life-affirming way?

No, our first obligation is to craft a society that truly honors those founding principles, and that puts in place a sturdy floor to resist downward pressure on human dignity and material wellbeing. Only then should we begin to worry about how to pay for it. If we’re honest, and truly keep this moral imperative first among our priorities rather than venerating the individual success of those among us who are already the most fortunate, we will find that we really can afford it. As Paul Krugman reminds us, “economic justice and economic growth aren’t incompatible.” We seem to have forgotten that, Krugman notes, but he points out that…
America in the 1950s made the rich pay their fair share; it gave workers the power to bargain for decent wages and benefits; yet contrary to right-wing propaganda then and now, it prospered. And we can do that again.
I believe he’s right: We can do it again. I hope enough of us believe it to make it so.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

No Longer Waiting To Exhale

Logically, you'd'a thought somebody as breathlessly concerned with the outcome of our recent election as I am would have blogged quite a lot over the last few months... but in fact, I only managed a handful of posts. That's because I was actually working on the election, supporting, in concert with the Vernon Democratic Town Committee and the Quiet Corner Democrats, the campaigns of Congressman (now also Senator-Elect) Chris Murphy, Congressman Joe Courtney, Susan Eastwood for State Senate, and John Murphy and Claire Janowski for State Representative (not to mention collateral support for other state senate and representative campaigns).

And, of course, our essential president, Barack Obama.

Well, of course, now the election is over. Susan Eastwood and John Murphy ran great campaigns, of which I am proud and for which I am grateful, but couldn't overcome their long starting odds. Otherwise, though, it was a great Election Day for the Democratic candidates I supported, and for Connecticut, and, I am absolutely convinced, for the United States and the world.

"[T]he arc of the moral universe is long," Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, told the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967, "but it bends toward justice." I believe that with all my heart, and I believe we live in a time when the arc is bending ever more sharply. But I also believe progress can be thwarted... delayed... deferred... and I feared we were at risk for that in this election, as those who are on the wrong side of history recognized their last, best chance to turn back the tide.

Now, after not only Democratic but progressive candidates, and progressive ideas, won the people's approval across the country, I feel I can breathe again. The work is not done, of course; we can't simply rest on our laurels. But I have great hope for the years and decades to come.

And with that, maybe I'll have a renewed freedom to write out my random thoughts and bloviations here, and on my food blog as well, as opposed to just dashed off Facebook comments. I already have a few ideas in mind; watch this space.