21 March 2010
07 March 2010
01 March 2010
24 February 2010
08 February 2010
While I was watching the Super Bowl with some friends last night, I heard one friend remark something to the effect of “OK, enough testosterone already!” She was commenting on what she perceived to be the pervasive nature of violent or combative images throughout the evening – and not merely the sight of very large, very athletic men hitting each other as hard as they could on the playing field. She was speaking more about the commercials, and the ceremonial flyover of fighter jets, and the sideline antics. My initial response to her was essentially, “But we're an inherently violent society, what do you expect?”
Upon further reflection, of course, I find my words to have been inaccurate. It's not so much our society that's inherently violent; rather, it seems that violence is inherent in our species, and not just ours. Alfred, Lord Tennyson famously noted that nature is “red in tooth and claw”, and proponents of evolution later used the phrase to describe the describe the behavior of members of a species struggling to prevail in the “survival of the fittest”. Over time evolutionary theory has itself evolved, and now many scientists support a theory popularized by Richard Dawkins (in his book The Selfish Gene) known as the gene-centered theory. In brief, this theory holds that natural selection operates not merely on the macro level of individual members of a species, but on the micro genetic level whereby genes themselves are engaged in a competition of differential survival.
That's perhaps more of an aside than necessary. The main point I'm trying to make is that throughout the history of our species, those individuals with the genetic makeup that allows them to succeed in situations of direct competition (and often violent competition) over and against other individuals of our species or other species have been the individuals most likely to reproduce and have their genes continue on for generations. Conversely, those individuals who did not succeed in (violently) competitive situations did not have the opportunity to pass along their genes to the next generation (or have the opportunity to see the sun rise the next day, for that matter). A quick note: It's not only our species that has this history. If you've ever seen video of some of our closest evolutionary cousins, chimpanzees, committing infanticide against members of other unrelated chimpanzee clans, you'll have had a chilling reminder of this.
So that's how we got to where we are today: The genes that encourage success in violent competition are the ones that have had the most success in reproducing themselves and finding expression in members of our species (i.e., people). At the same time, however, religion and other elements of society have had some success in delimiting the acceptable boundaries of violence. Thus, we consider murder to be wrong, as opposed to other instances of injuring or killing another human being that much of society considers acceptable such as self-defense or defense of others. On a societal level, that notion of self-defense can manifest itself in police or military members using deadly force in ways that are generally acceptable to the vast majority of society. And for other people who are highly skilled at violent competition, there are outlets such as football. Yes, I know I'm painting with some broad strokes here.
Along with the evolutionary theories of competition and differential survival, some theorists propose ideas that fall under the broad heading of epigenetics. One line of thought in epigenetics (literally, over genetics) is that societies can influence which adaptations are rewarded by influencing which members of a species are allowed to prosper and reproduce, which could in turn effect the genetic makeup of the population. In essence, the environment winds up influencing heredity. [It's at this point that I look to my mates who are experts in evolutionary psychology and philosophy of science to step in and correct where necessary my descriptions of all of these theories in my last few paragraphs!]
In the same book, Dawkins coined the term meme (rhyming with gene) as something that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.” Now, there are books and articles galore about the concept of memes, and I won't even attempt to scratch the surface of those here. Suffice it to say that subsequent meme theorists have posited the notion that religions, political doctrines, and other systems of ideological thought are memetic in nature, being memeplexes or clusters of memes.
One problem with memeplexes is that they don't necessarily have to benefit genes in order to replicate and spread. However, it intuitively makes sense that if a particular memeplex is such that its replication will eventually wipe out all members of a species that carry it, it will eventually fall by the wayside. Here's where I'm going to take a bit of a leap. Is it possible that we as a species, or as individual members of our species, have now reached the point in our evolutionary history that we can consciously effect changes in our evolutionary future? Can we begin to choose memeplexes that will be for “the greater good”, benefiting more members of our species – and for that matter, other species as well and even the planet as a whole? Many religions and other philosophical systems contain memeplexes that call on their members to act with compassion toward others, to love one's neighbors, and to live in peace. Can we really embrace those in the fact of our genetic impulses toward violent competition? Can we consciously become more inherently loving and peaceful creatures? And by doing so, can we thus begin to consciously effect our own evolution as a species? I'm not yet convinced of the answers to those questions, but I think they are vital if we are to have any future as a species or a planet.
02 February 2010
Yes, I'm going to use the Grammys, and specifically Lady Gaga's performance with Sir Elton John, as a jumping-off point for this page of musings. For those of you who missed it, here are three separate links to various videos of the performance; I'm sure there are copyright issues with these being available on the web so they'll probably be taken down at some point, but I don't think you'll get in too much trouble just by surfing over to YouTube (disclaimer: that's not to be construed as legal advice). And another disclaimer – I'm only a casual fan of Gaga's, so if you're reading this as a serious devotee and I get something wrong, please be gentle in your excoriations.
Whether or not you just watched the video, here are the relevant points. At one point in the performance an emcee-type character decries Gaga as a monster, probably referencing her album The Fame Monster (thus the title of this post). She's thrown into a fiery pit, but re-emerges below seated at a dual-keyboard piano opposite Sir Elton (one musician whose outfits, in his heyday, could keep up with hers). She strikes a monster-esque pose (was she referencing Thriller?) and shouts “Take my picture, Hollywood! I want to be a star!” The top of the piano is covered with outstretched arms reaching upwards. I wasn't sure what to make of the arms at first, but as the show continued I was struck by how many performers either interacted with the fans in mosh pits in prominent view, or walked out to an adjacent stage in the midst of (and above) the middle of the audience, or both. Then I understood the arms on the piano (maybe) – they were like the outstretched arms of the fans, reaching up in idolizing adoration to touch the musical stars. So, by her flamboyant outfits and over-the-top references, Gaga was parodying the quest for fame and adoration that so many celebrities seem to pursue.
Why are we so obsessed with fame? Why do we idolize celebrities? Think on this: They don't call the show American Pop Star, they call it American Idol. What is it about fame and celebrity that people seem to love, and at the same time hate? I think it's simply a matter of wanting to be known, and the fear comes from the fear of being known too thoroughly. As Gaga herself said about one of her songs, Beautiful Dirty Rich, “On one level it is about wooing the paparazzi and wanting fame. But, it’s not to be taken completely seriously. It’s about everyone’s obsession with that idea. But, it’s also about wanting a guy to love you and the struggle of whether you can have success or love or both.”
To know me is to love me? That may be what we want, but it's also what we fear. We all long to be known, to have our voices heard, to somehow stand out in the crowd of infinitely multiplying media outlets and ways of broadcasting ourselves (some poor fools even go so far as to write a blog) and dehumanizing work and traffic jams and an ever-shrinking, ever-flattening world that seems to spin faster every day. Yet we're also afraid of being known, at least being known too well, because we assume (consciously or unconsciously) that if someone really got to know us, the good and the bad, there's no way they'd want to have anything to do with us, let alone love us. That's also why the symbols of fame at the Grammys were mosh pits and outstretched arms reaching up to musical celebrities up above. They're up there and we're down here, and we idolize them up there with their fame and their celebrity, even though we can't really ever touch them.
I think this also applies to our worship of the divine. For millennia humans tended to worship a God on high, a God who was distant and unknowable and unreachable, no matter how much we stretched out our arms to try to touch heaven. There were some exceptions along the way – in the Christian tradition these exceptions were the medieval mystics like Hildegard or Julian – but they were definitely exceptions to the rule. In the last century or so of Christianity there's been a new trend. Particularly in evangelical Christian circles nowadays, it's very popular to claim Jesus as one's “personal Savior”, the implication being that one enjoys not just some distantly worshipful relationship with God, but that on some deep level there's an intimately personal connection between the believer and the divine. I'll leave to others to judge the theological soundness of either of these approaches; for now, I'm only interested in this longing to know and be known, and to be loved and accepted through and in spite of that being known.
Are there ways we as humans can do that with each other? Sometimes it's easier to imagine a divine being who fully knows, accepts, and loves us than to imagine that our neighbor, our colleague, our friend, or our spouse could do the same. One way to cultivate this kind of knowing-love is to model it. Referring back to my previous post on cynicism and the heart of the warrior, we need to be willing to be known in intimate ways. The being-known that is fame isn't intimate – it keeps its distance and is safe and protected, craving the adulation of outstretched arms but not being willing to risk revealing its true self. Once we quiet our own fears and set them aside, we can give others the space to let themselves be known by us. We can have to have the courage to listen rather than speak, to demonstrate to our friends (for starters) that we want to know them for who they are, and that we won't reject them once they reveal themselves to us.
A traditional Hindu greeting (that you might know from yoga classes) is “namaste”. Literally translated, this means “bowing to you/him/her”. The more symbolic meaning, and the meaning usually associated with it in more generic spiritual teachings, is something like “The divine in me acknowledges and adores the divine in you.” That's another way of getting to the same safe place. If I acknowledge that you embody a spark of the divine, and that I also do, then we share a common bond of the divine spirit (whatever you might choose to call it), and we each are of infinite worth. Then we can begin to break down the barriers that divide us, and without fear we can know even as we are known.
29 January 2010
Many have commented on Conan O'Brien's farewell speech on last Friday's Tonight Show (if you've been living on a desert island for the past month, NBC moved O'Brien out of his Tonight Show hosting gig to make room for Jay Leno to move back to the 11:30 p.m. slot). Despite having been treated rather shabbily (by most accounts) by NBC, O'Brien insisted on taking a very positive attitude toward the whole brouhaha. Here's the takeaway quote, transcribed by me as accurately as I could from the actual video:
All I ask of you is one thing, and I'm asking this particularly of young people who watch. Please do not be cynical. I hate cynicism - for the record, it's my least favorite quality and it doesn't lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen.
In playing with the thesaurus feature on my computer dictionary, I turned up these gems: Cynical = pessimistic, negative, world-weary, disillusioned, disenchanted, jaundiced, sardonic. That's a pretty good list. And who hasn't felt a bit pessimistic lately? Who isn't weary of the world? And when it comes to either politics or religion (let alone pop culture), who isn't disillusioned, disenchanted, or jaundiced?
When we look at the world, it's easy to be cynical. In fact, it often seems to be the safe route. Cynicism protects us from all the pain, hurt, and messiness out there. It's safe, and it's even considered a bit cool, to respond to what seems to threaten you with a hearty sardonic attitude. (FYI, I looked that word up too just to make sure I got it exactly right: Sardonic = grimly mocking or cynical.)
Here's the thing, though. Cynicism isn't big and tough and fearless. It's little and cowardly and fearful. By putting on the carapace of cynicism we think we're protecting ourselves from the world, when in fact what we're doing is shutting out life and people and all that actually matters in a misguided attempt at self-protection.
Some time ago I wrote about a teaching from the Buddhist tradition known as Shambhala. I thought it was somewhat recently that I had done so, but it was actually about four years ago, so I figure I can plagiarize myself a little bit. In Chogyam Trungpa's book The Sacred Path of the Warrior, he describes the essential part of the sacred warrior as being his or her heart. And what do you think is the essential characteristic of that heart? How must an ordinary heart be changed, transformed, to make it a warrior's heart? You might expect that it needs to be strong, or solid, or steadfast, or perhaps full of courage (insert your best Cowardly Lion impression here).
But no. What this Shambhala teaching says is that the essence of a warrior’s heart is that it is broken. Broken, soft and vulnerable. Only with a heart that is already broken, open wide, vulnerable, flexible, pliable, moveable, is a warrior able to go out and do battle in the world.
Lest my Christian readers dismiss this teaching as being suitable only for practitioners of other faiths, I'll go way back into my memory vault of contemporary Christian music for this little gem of a song by the late Keith Green, My Eyes Are Dry.
Oh, what can be done for an old heart like mine?
Soften it up with oil and wine.
The oil is you, your spirit of love.
Please wash me anew in the wine of your blood.
I know, there's the Christian obsession with the blood metaphor again. Let's work with the oil and wine for now. These both act as lubricants, albeit wine's lubricating qualities are more metaphoric. Oil loosens things, makes them unstuck. Wine, well, wine can sometimes loosen the tongue a bit too much, perhaps, but in the right quantity and setting it can warm and loosen the heart. Having just watched Julie and Julia, I was struck once again by Julia Child's joie de vivre, her passion, and her fearlessness. When it came to flipping an omelette on national television, she told her viewers that they just needed to have the courage of their conviction in order to succeed. Of course, she memorably failed in that first omelette flip, but she continued on undaunted, piecing together the remnants of her half-cooked eggs in the pan and turning out what to any observer looked to be a very credible French-style omelette.
So there's a sampling of my spiritual teachers – Trungpa, Green, and Child. Funny enough, out of all of them Child probably lived the most exemplary life (personal struggles seem to be inherent in being a declared spiritual guru). But they all came back to the same idea. A courageous heart is an open heart, a vulnerable heart, one that embraces all it encounters, even those who would do it harm. To a cynical society it may seem a foolish way to live, but in truth it is the only way to actually be alive.
23 January 2010
Shifting back to culinary delights, dear readers, it's time for you to once again vicariously enjoy my gourmet adventures. We returned to Feast Restaurant in Atlanta for a dinner featuring (mostly) the wines of Joseph Swan, a small family-owned winery in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County. I say “mostly” because a couple of the offerings were from other nearby wineries, such as the reception wine, a Sonoma Vineyards Chardonnay. Having had this before, I found it consistent with my prior impressions - an unoaked chardonnay, with a little pineapple tartness to it, light, easy to drink, but a fairly short finish.
The first course was a salad of mesclun greens, diced golden beets, and goat cheese. Not just any goat cheese, mind you, but goat cheese in a fluffy ball, coated with (I'm guessing here) panko bread crumbs and ground nuts, and lightly fried. Thus began a theme for the evening, with its first incarnation being “How can you make cheese better? Fry it!” The wine was a Russian Hill Estates Chardonnay from the Gail Ann's Vineyard (named in honor of Warren Dutton's wife), 2005 if I'm not mistaken. At 14.7% ABV, I was surprised to not be overwhelmed by sweetness or oakiness. In fact, this wine had a beautifully restrained fruit flavor, with citrus and pears predominant.
The second course was an apple and cherry stuffed quail wrapped in pancetta with a brown butter sage sauce. Continuing the theme - “How do you make quail better? Wrap it in bacon!” One dining companion's comment was “OMG this is so good!” (OK, she didn't actually say “OMG” abbreviated, but you get the idea.) I agreed with that sentiment. The quail was perfectly prepared, the sauce was very rich, and the wine paired very well. Said wine was the first of our three Joseph Swan offerings, their 2007 Cuvée de Trois Pinot Noir (which, for those of you who care about ratings, earned a 93 point rating from Wine Spectator as well as their “Best Value Pinot Noir for 2009”). I should note that the name is currently outdated, as the winemaker Rod Berglund explained to us that he now uses four vineyard to source this wine rather than three, but they just didn't want the hassle of changing the name! This Pinot was a flavor assault up front (but in a good way!), with tastes of raspberries and cherries and hints of chocolate, minerality, and spice. This course was a perfect display of wine as food and of wine pairing with food.
Course #3 was pan seared ostrich with roasted root vegetables, caramelized onions, and a zinfandel sauce. The flavors were outstandingly rich and dense, as you can imagine. The only drawback was that the ostrich seemed a bit overcooked (as can happen easily with ostrich, and I suppose especially when one kitchen is trying to turn out 30+ covers simultaneously), and thus the texture was too chewy and tough. Despite this execution stumble, the pairing was solid – the wine was Joseph Swan's 2005 Zinfandel from the Mancini Ranch Vineyard. This Zinfandel had classic Zin characteristics of dark cherry and black pepper, but it was restrained and balanced, something that so few California Zinfandels achieve.
Dessert was a whole poached pear with a Pinot Noir crème anglaise. It was served at room temperature, although I might have preferred it warmer. Nevertheless, the fruit was great and the sauce was amazing – my picture probably doesn't do it justice, but the dark puddles in the creamy sauce were the Pinot Noir reduction, which had the consistency of caramel. Theme again - “How do you make Pinot Noir better? Make Pinot Noir candy out of it!” OK, so that's stretching the theme, mostly because it would be hard to improve upon the 2006 Pinot Noir from Saralee's Vineyard (again for you rating-heads, a 91 point WS offering). This Pinot was a very pretty and elegant wine, with a pale rose color yet bursting with flavors of red berries and a nice perfume. I noted some cherry and chocolate as well, and was surprised at how full the flavors were for such a lightly colored wine.
In closing, the late Joe Swan (yes, there was a real Joseph Swan) is quoted on the Winery's website as saying “There are few more civilized pleasures in life than good company, good food, and good wine.” These are words we can all live by.
Blogger's Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I have received a small amount of compensation from this restaurant for consulting work, but not for this or any other review.
22 January 2010
In a 5-4 decision this week, the Supreme Court ruled that the government cannot prevent corporations from spending money on behalf of political candidates. This decision overturned two longstanding precedents, and will have an enormous impact on future elections. As President Obama described it, the decision was “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.” Supporters of the decision defended it on free speech grounds, asserting that the Justices rightly applied the protections of the First Amendment to corporations.
I find this decision frightening. Imagine, if you will, a candidate for high office (new or incumbent) who dares to suggest that a large corporation (or group of corporations) should pay a slightly higher tax. For example, a carbon tax on fossil fuel products in order to pay for remediation of global climate change, maybe a modest surtax like an additional 1% of profits. For a corporation like ExxonMobil, that would translate into a $450 million tax (based on 2008 figures). In order to save $450 million, wouldn't you imagine that ExxonMobil would be willing to spend tens of millions of dollars to defeat said candidate, perhaps even $100 million? Now combine ExxonMobil with the rest of Big Oil, and you can rapidly collect many hundreds of millions of dollars to defeat an environmentally-minded Presidential candidate. For comparison, candidate Obama spent about $740 million in the 2008 election cycle, while candidate McCain spent about $330 million. Thus, it's easy to see how one industry sector could equal the entire spending of a single candidate! Now combine Big Oil with Wall Street firms and health insurance and pharmaceutical companies, and the dollars could quickly climb into the billions.
There are two equations at work here that enter into the Supreme Court's calculus on behalf of corporate political spending: money = speech, and corporations = persons. I consider both of these equations to be erroneous and in serious need of rethinking. For now, however, I want to focus on the latter equation, the legal fiction of corporate personhood – that is, the notion that corporations are to be treated like “persons” under the law. This concept originally arose not as a benefit to corporations, but rather as a benefit to their creditors (or those who would seek to recover damages inflicted by the actions of a corporation). Before this concept existed, corporations could argue that since they were not “persons” under the law, they could not be subject to lawsuits, and furthermore, other legal protections guaranteed the limited liability of shareholders of corporations, meaning that they also could not be sued for actions of the corporation. In such a scenario, creditors could not seek legal relief for claims against corporations. Enter the corporate personhood fiction. If the courts treated corporations as persons under the law this dilemma is resolved, and individual people (“natural persons”) feel safe doing business with corporations, banks feel safe extending credit to corporations, and corporate businesses thrive.
Over time, however, this legal fiction of corporate personhood has expanded far beyond its original intent, such as in this week's Supreme Court case. What's more, the Court has completely flipped the original intent of holding corporations liable for their actions, and now appears more interested in protecting corporations rather than those who do business with them (i.e., “natural persons”). The evolution of this concept has been ongoing, and this isn't the first Court decision to move the concept further down what I consider to be a troubling path. It is, however, a major leap forward along that path, a truly “activist” decision by a group of Justices supposedly dedicated to a “non-activist” judicial philosophy. Where does that path lead, and what will America look like at the end of the road? Let's just say that if you think politicians are bought and paid for by corporate interests now, you ain't seen nothing yet.
15 January 2010
There's been a good deal of brouhaha over Brit Hume's comments about Tiger Woods on this week's Fox News Sunday program. The show included a discussion about Woods' comeback to professional golf in light of the recent revelations about his recurring inability to keep his driver in the bag when prudent (sorry, I had to get one jibe in there). Anyway, Hume made a statement that has struck many people as being out of line. Here's the quote (you can watch the whole segment here):
The extent to which he [Woods] can recover seems to me depends on his faith. He is said to be a Buddhist. I don't think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith. So, my message to Tiger would, Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.
The criticisms have been vociferous. Most have taken the form of “What gives him the right to say this?” “How can he claim to be a Christian?” and the like. When I first considered writing about this incident I had some of those initial reactions, but having thought about this further I've arrived at some self-surprising conclusions.
Bear with me. Let's take some of these criticisms head-on. First, “What gives him the right to say this?” Actually, this one's easy to answer. Recognize this language?
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press...
That would be the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Hume has the right to his free exercise of religion and his freedom of speech (a nice two-fer), and Fox News has the freedom of the press to broadcast it. One could question whether Fox News should be including this kind of proselytizing on a putative news commentary program, but that's really up to them. Don't like what Fox News has to say? Then turn the freakin' channel and get your news and commentary from The Daily Show! (Better yet, turn off the freakin' TV and go read a serious publication like The Economist.)
Then there's the criticism that questions Hume's Christian bona fides, i.e., “How can he say that Christianity has something to offer that Buddhism doesn't?” In fact, this is exactly what hundreds of millions of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians say each and every day, based on their theological understandings and interpretations. Basically, it goes like this:
God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life. Man is sinful and separated from God. Therefore, he cannot know and experience God's love and plan for his life. Jesus Christ is God's only provision for man's sin. Through Him you can know and experience God's love and plan for your life. We must individually receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; then we can know and experience God's love and plan for our lives.
If you recognize this language, then you and I ran in some of the same crowds in college. Regardless, if you actually believe this theology, then it's incumbent upon you to share this knowledge with as many people as you possibly can. Doing otherwise would be a grave disrespect of your fellow human being's eternal soul, and would be downright unloving.
I have absolutely no question about Hume's sincerity. I think he really does believe what he said, that Buddhism offers no chance for eternal forgiveness, and that for Woods to save his soul he needs to put his faith in Jesus Christ. Further, I believe that in America, Hume has every right to say that as often as he wants and in as many ways as he can.
Now, just because someone's sincere doesn't mean they're right. One can be sincere and also be sincerely mistaken, or sincerely deluded. Buddhism doesn't offer the kind of eternal slate-cleaning that Hume's Christianity does, but that's because Buddhism doesn't believe in a supreme deity who keeps an account of sins and punishes sinners (meaning, of course, all of us) with eternal damnation unless we accept the human blood sacrifice of an incarnated man-god who took on the wrath of said supreme deity (who happened to be his own father) in our stead. (Kind of makes the Campus Crusade language above sound better, doesn't it?) What Buddhism does believe is karma, the principle that causes have effects and that our actions have consequences. This belief makes individuals responsible for their own actions (and according to many interpretations, they are responsible for their actions in past lives as well). It precludes the necessity for divine forgiveness, but does not release a person from the need to find forgiveness in his or her own life and relationships.
In short, I find Hume's error not to be his sincerity of faith, but rather his ignorance of other faiths. He, like so many followers of faith traditions (not just Christians – if you want some really messed-up but dedicated people, let's start with Al Qaeda), is convinced that his way is the one true and right way, to the exclusion of all other possible ways. Many (but not all) people who hold this kind of faith have had little exposure to people of other faiths who display many of the same virtues extolled by one's own faith. This kind of exclusive faith-claim thinking leads to all kinds of bad outcomes (see, e.g., the Crusades, the Inquisition, 9/11, etc.), and it's this kind of thinking that enlightened people need to struggle against if we are to truly save the world.
Fortunately for Hume, there's always some crazier Christian out there to take the spotlight – enter Pat Robertson with his explanation of the tragic earthquake in Haiti:
Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, we will serve you if you'll get us free from the French. True story. And so, the devil said, okay it's a deal.
Wow. Brother Pat, you're an asshat.