Burning books, instinctual acrimony

Apr 03 2011 Published by under Philosophy, Religion

I've been mulling two ideas over in the past couple of weeks while I try to dig myself out of a documentation hole at work. They're tied in a very interesting way. One is learned behavior. I've been thinking about the fondness with which I regard my childhood attending church, especially during the Easter season, the chaotic weather, the funerals and weddings, the strange way the air holds the smell of mold, of mud. It makes me think of shovels, graves, flowers, incense, of stained tile and old statues, suits and perfume and soft hugs, my family, particularly those long dead. This pleasantness is derived from memories that are as melancholy and terrifying as they are happy. It's a sloppy mess. It's inextricably tied in my mind to the church, to my Easters there, and despite the fact that I am no longer a practicing Catholic, I still have the desire, every season, to dress my best and stand among the other twice-a-year Catholics on Easter.

The other idea is our instinctual impulse to unconsciously act, usually to protect our body from harm. Yanking your hand from a hot stove is the classic example, but Sean Burnett snagging two out of three shots up the middle yesterday when the Nats beat the Braves is a far more interesting example. There's no way he can consciously process the act of catching that ball at that speed, but with a mixture of luck, training and instinct, he's able to make an incredible out and save the Nats from having a long, painful ninth.

Both of these elements are bolstered by the often unconscious absorption of sensory information. Our brain, categorically, does the work for us, making associations in the moment, which are, naturally, emphasized with repetition. I think the extent to which we are aware of these cognitive factors determines largely how we react to new ideas, new situations. I'm generalizing. Bear with me.

Terry Jones burned a Koran over the weekend. People across the world reacted. Some rioted, murdered innocent people. Our media pundits gave Jones the catbird seat, hoping to skewer the man with a holy pike misnamed Tolerance. Jones stuck to his weird justification of the act. Everyone thinks he's a real dick.

PZ Myers summed up the situation up pretty well when this nonsense first started in the fall:

So I'm looking at this recent episode with Terry Jones — a fellow I don't like at all, and I think he's a fanatical goofball — and I see that the serious problem here isn't Jones at all…it's all the lunatics who are insisting that burning the Koran is a major international catastrophe.

It's just a frackin' book, people.

I don't want to descend into the civility argument because it's irrelevant. Civility is a guise. Expect people to be uncivil and you'll be better off. Gregarious individuals know how to work through it. Most people don't know how, won't accept that knowing how is a prerequisite for true communication. The internet is a mean, intolerant place where people argue constantly. I think it's for the best.

We let ideas get the best of us, to define the core of our being. It's laziness. We let our training, our learned behavior unconsciously dictate our reactions. Our nerve endings as a society are sore and swollen, ready to lash out, to react, to epitomize our faction stereotypes in the name of Opposition.

The strangest thing of all is that the violent outrage stems from the physical act of defacing the Koran (or drawing cartoons), and not the knowledge that billions of people across the world do not respect the idea that the Koran is holy or deserves special protection. That's what really bothers me. The ideologically devout - and I want to stress here that I'm not just talking about religion - cognitively, verbally immolate ideas they dislike by the very act of accepting one ideology at the exclusion of all others. Every faith, every concept of reality is claimed by zealots to be the only one.

If that is true, I wonder what the difference is then, between burning the Koran and dismissing the Koran as untrue, considering it no more than a cultural product. Are acts like these reminders of the quintessential weakness of being a proponent of one particular ideological worldview? On one hand we want to say that people identify too deeply with ideas and not material reality, but then they only react to material acts of blasphemy and ignore the reality that the vast majority of the world thinks they're completely wrong.

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Fill that news cycle with paranoia

Mar 17 2011 Published by under Journalism

Wring your hands, America.

At first, the disaster coverage was somber, straightforward. The major news outlets broadcast raw video, fly-over footage of the humbling scale of the swell of seawater over communities and farmland, over cars, houses and fleeing citizens. Narrators were truly affected. You could hear it in their voice. There was this terrified awe in the scant words that could be found to describe one of the few events that can reduce all our industrial might to insignificance in a matter of hours.

Then, a few days later, the scurrying begins.

Inevitably. the media is trying to diversify the coverage of the disaster in Japan to fill the 24 hour news cycle. This is where it starts to get really bad.

Journalists begin the search for new ways to describe the situation. They start applying inane metaphors. The very real, very frightening struggle is put into fantastic terms. Japanese engineers are battling fire-breathing dragons and vicious sea monsters, the implication being that these figments are somehow aptly descriptive of a deadly encounter beyond the norm. More descriptive, perhaps, than the horror of the situation itself: the decimation of large coastal communities by earthquake and tsunami and now the potential of a meltdown caused by the latter, the fallout from which could be spread across thousands of kilometers. These workers have signed their lives away to attempt to avert this tertiary catastrophe and sacrifice their own health to preserve that of others, and somehow, this real act of heroic dedication becomes an appurtenance to a trite metaphor.

Largely, the focus has shifted from the aftermath in Japan to how it affects us, in this country. We're in a panic about the radiation invading the US with any potency. Anti-nuclear politicians take the cue to dust off the old soapbox and pump their fists in anger. The sanctioned paranoia drives us to care, to question our own safety. While watching Henry Waxman blather on insincerely about nuclear safety I imagined every nuclear engineer in the country scrambling to book a two week vacation while the politicians pitch a new tent in the ongoing self-serving moralistic circus of opportunity.

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Smithsonian backing censorship

Feb 03 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

The Washington Post and several other newspapers published articles this week on the recent backing of a Smithsonian official’s decision to pull a piece from an exhibition in the National Portrait Gallery when conservatives from Congress and the Catholic League freaked the fuck out (NYT):

The regents did not recommend that the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, G. Wayne Clough, step down, as some critics of the removal had called for since he decided to pull the video, called “A Fire in My Belly,” by David Wojnarowicz (pronounced voy-nah-ROH-vitch).

The four-minute video outraged the Catholic League and several members of Congress for its depiction of ants crawling on a crucifix, which they interpreted as sacrilegious and, in the words of Representative Eric Cantor, Republican of Virginia, “an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.”

The board of regents have created a "troubling precedent" as officials from the Hirshorn have openly stated. I don’t care how they have it worked out: this is plain and simple censorship and Clough should have lost his job, not been supported. Admit the error, can the administrator and move on.

But here we are, with board-backed censorship. They've stated that it was a mistake, but have fallen short of restoring the exhibition to its initial extent. Can the Smithsonian institution be fully trusted in the future? The public funding argument is a smokescreen. We pay into public funds for expert officials to make decisions about where it’s spent, not the Catholic League or even worse, Republican politicians. The percentage is irrelevant.

This is bigotry poorly masked by outrage over blasphemy. It’s difficult for me to grasp exactly what’s sacrilegious about ants crawling on a crucifix. Ants aren’t exactly notorious carrion animals like flies, not to the extent of being typical symbols of decay. Even so, if the crucifix was covered in carrion insects, Christ’s body was supposedly hanging and decaying in the hot sun for hours and then in the tomb for days. Catholics wept in cathartic ecstasy over the realism of The Passion of the Christ, but suddenly draw the line at the realism of the infection and consumption of decaying flesh?

Besides, the Bible seems to be cool with ants in general. From Proverbs:

Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest.*

But it’s not really about that, is it? It’s about homosexuality, really, the fact that the prejudicial ground conservatives have been inhabiting safely is slowly being eroded by recent legislation and the time to capitalize on permissible bigotry and the suppression of civil rights is being shortened. They’ll take what they can get, ride the religious sensitivity wagon for a bit to have the exhibit disrupted, only to turn around and whine about mosques at Ground Zero and the Liberal Support of Religions That Are Not Christianity.

So here’s the Smithsonian, encouraging this sort of behavior over such a trivial matter. The image isn’t even thematic; it’s a nuance, a brushstroke in a larger portrait. The Smithsonian seems to claim that a thoroughly presented explanation of the piece would have provided context and assuaged the anger. I doubt it. We’re talking about worldviews, and once you start pandering to one, you make exceptions across the board. Art isn’t strictly about sensitivity. Art is, and we react. As soon as we lose that distinction – the honesty – we lose everything valuable about it.

I grew up the DC area. We were at the Zoo or on the Mall at least once a month, so the Smithsonian Institution has played a big part in my education through the years. This debacle is disappointing, to say the least.

Bill Donohue and the Catholic League released a statement today. They aren't satisfied (surprise!), even though they supposedly got what they wanted:

Speaking of the artist who made the ants-on-the-crucifix video, the Smithsonian's John W. McCarter Jr. said, "I believe, in his mind, that [the video] was not sacrilegious." Did he stumble upon the diary of David Wojnarowicz? Has he been channeling him? McCarter also asks us to consider the possibility that the video "might have been very deeply religious?"

McCarter's subjectivism is unwarranted. We know some things about the artist, and what we know is that he branded the Catholic Church a "house of walking swastikas." So why is it so hard to connect the dots? Isn't it obvious the artist was a raging anti-Catholic bigot?

Donohue is saying that Catholics (more specifically, the Catholic League) are the only authority on the interpretation of their iconography and should be given the final say. That's not how a pluralistic society works. That's not how culture works. Ideas aren't pure. They aren't under special protections for certain groups. There is only subjectivism when it comes to religion and culture. It's not unwarranted; it's exclusive.

If a man like Wojnarowicz can insult Christians the way he did, knowing full well his sentiments on Catholicism, and he is still given the benefit of the doubt—even to the point of entertaining the fiction that his video is "very deeply religious"—then it is obvious what is going on.

If you don't want to see reinterpretations of your beliefs, of culture, then either look away or try to understand where they come from and maybe gain a new insight on how others perceive your traditions. Wojnarowicz went through a special hell in his lifetime and Christian bigotry, obviously, was a big part of his anger toward the Church. Homophobia isn't particular to Christianity, but Wojnarowicz was obviously most touched by those traditions. If he had experienced bigotry from the Muslim or Jewish communities and expressed it, I'm sure there would have been equivalent outrage. My opinion certainly wouldn't change. I don't know how the Smithsonian would have handled it.

Bigots complaining about bigotry. Clough and the board should think long and hard on how this was handled and make sure it doesn't happen again.

*It’s fun to quote the Bible out of context. Also, I like how this quote, when pasted into a Google search, returns headers like “What does the Bible say about money management?”

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Environmental framing again, a clarification

Aug 20 2010 Published by under [Biology&Environment], [Science in Society]

Matt Nisbet has a post up at Big Think referencing a brief interview with Peter Groffman regarding the recent open-access science communication issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. Both are worth a read. I was linked in the article (this post, a brief review of some of the content), and while I appreciate it, I do want to clarify and perhaps expand the gist of my post.

Nisbet’s post stated that I feared the “dumbing down” (his words, not mine, despite the quotation marks) of the science for public consumption. I think that certainly represents one of the concerns of framing critics, especially those in the scientific community. Personally, that’s not high on my list. I’m sure the ESA and associated scientists will be able to represent the science behind the problems and potential solutions plainly and efficiently.

The post I wrote was an attempt at expressing a general aversion for comprehensive marketing schemes and questioning, when it comes to the “humanities” portion of the plan, whether or not honesty – in worldview, philosophy or fiction – was important enough to preserve in its entirety. Some of the papers in the publication sounded like every business case, proposal and requirements doc I’ve ever read or written, which is fine, by the way; it’s typical. I’m sneering because documents like those are mostly industry fluff and setup language for the real meat, which can be boiled out rather easily and comprises a very small portion of the actual verbiage. We toss charts and graphs into technical documents to fill them out and give a visual for the sake of color or flow (or because it’s a standard) instead of representing an accurate depiction of process.

I’m being stubborn. Ultimately I think it’s sad and reflects poorly on us that people in positions of influence believe these kinds of campaigns are the key to reaching "the public," that only through demographical media saturation can we ever hope to teach science and instill environmental stewardship. Advertisers have to petition tribally to encourage us to buy; McDonald’s runs unique, culturally stereotypical commercials for WLITE 101.3, WURBAN 105.7 and WROCK 99.1 and it’s permissible to assume that the listeners to those stations are okay with being pigeonholed. I’m usually told something along the lines of “What do you expect?” or “You think this is new?” or “It’s just personal preference. I actually like that commercial,” and probably rightly so. It just doesn’t sit well with me.

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