Thursday, September 11, 2008

Thru the Night with a Blight from Above

Even on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a cynic can’t help but be cynical. In fact, I can still remember my cynicism, glowing like a beacon of reality through my tears and fears on that surreal day itself.

As was everyone else in the country, my wife and I were glued to the television all day. We watched the towers fall, again and again and again. Frantically, we tried and tried to reach my sister on the phone; she worked just a short distance away from the World Trade Center. I attempted to call some good friends, who lived or worked only slightly further away. No luck there either.

So we watched TV. What else could we do? In the evening, briefly, the cameras left the devastation of lower New York City and the Pentagon, and focused on the steps of the Capitol, where U.S. Senators and Representatives had gathered together to show solidarity in the face of ... what? We didn’t know yet, although most of us suspected that Islamic extremists were the perpetrators. My wife and I had spent a lot of the day spouting off about the evils of religion. We had no evidence, of course, but we needed to rant about something.

Spokesmen for both major parties (Hastert for the Republicans, Daschle for the Democrats) tried to reassure Americans by promising that we’d identify and find those responsible for the heinous acts of that morning, and make them “pay the price.” As if reparations were possible.

Then, in a seemingly spontaneous act of unity, the congressional crowd began to sing “God Bless America.” I’m sure for most of the country it was a moving moment.

For me, though, a transplanted New Yorker, who had spent many, many hours working and playing in the buildings so recently destroyed, the song was a disgusting display. My wife and I looked at each other, and shook our heads in astonishment.

“Perfect solution,” she said. “Let’s ask Jesus for help. If they'd only known, they could have given him a buzz yesterday.”

“Yeah,” I added, “maybe next they’ll sing ‘If You Believe in Fairies, Then Clap Your Hands.’”

Then we both laughed at nothing funny, as I dialed the phone again.

27 comments:

Lynet said...

Music block at high school. I'm fifteen years old, and we studied the origins of World War Two just a few months back. My history teacher reckons the Japanese could have got away with it if they hadn't started off by attacking Pearl Harbour. "One thing about the Americans," he remarked shrewdly, "they hit back. They'll take an eye for an eye and no mistake."

So they tell me the World Trade Center has been hit. There's a television in a nearby classroom, normally used for showing videos, and we crowd in. I can barely see a thing. In the coming weeks, people will say things like "You've all seen those images, too many times." I never got a proper look at them. No TV at home because my mother doesn't approve.

I'm barely paying attention to my surroundings in any case. The Americans have been hit, and they're going to need to hit somebody. That's all I know. Nobody is going to need to 'claim responsibility'. The Americans will do everything in their power to find it out and broadcast the information all over the world. A powerful president -- an incredible president -- a president that ranked with the best America has ever had -- might have half a chance of stopping the whole country from going berserk, but the President of the United States of America is George W. Bush. Sweet reason help us all.

vjack said...

I wonder if there is any research out there examining the effects of introducing all the Jesus crap into the grieving process. It seems to me that it would be counterproductive by serving as a barrier to reality. Of course, there is also the matter of why Jesus would give a damn about helping people after he destroyed the towers. I'm waiting for the "If You Believe in Faries" song. I expect to hear it as McCain wins in November.

PhillyChief said...

Well the mistake of course is that we only put "God" in the pledge and on the money, have people invoke just "God" when swearing official oaths, and sing only "God" bless America. Clearly that's too vague. How can we get help from above when our prayers and pleading are aimed at just "God"? Who takes the call up there? Odin? Wakantanka? Hell, maybe Allah gets the message, and that little chorus on the steps of the Capitol he took as a big thanks and "MIssion Accomplished". They're going to have to start changing all of that to Jesus. It's the only answer that makes sense!

The Exterminator said...

Lynet:
Sweet reason help us all.
That sentence sums it all up succinctly. Unfortunately, both the politicians and the American public substitute -- at least in their minds -- "Jesus" for "reason." You may not have heard the news, but most folks think we're a Christian country.

vjack:
I don't think that McCain supporters will be attributing their success to fairies, because they won't want to be seen as pro-gay.

Philly:
Now you've got me thinking what it would be like to have our money printed with the slogan "In Wakantanka we trust." Can you say it five times quickly?

John Evo said...

No need to give them ideas, Philly.

I can imagine that 4 years McCain/Palin and then 8 years of Palin and you just might get that.

Of course Ex will say "Obama is a committed Christian, so we may well get it either way".

Maybe he'd be right, too. But I'd prefer to take my chances - not that I'm likely to get my choice. Leave it to Democrats to be fighting for their lives 60 days before an election that follows 8 years of Bush! Ha! Hey, it's almost humorous.

PhillyChief said...

If we did that, we'd give away everything we had for shiny distractions and "strong medicine" which would leave us drunk and ignorant. Oh wait...

Sesquipedal said...

I sometimes find the blatant abrogation of secular ideology in our government both revolting and moronic, but in this case I think the hymn may have been invoked more as a show of solidarity/patriotism than a petition for divine asssistance. "God bless ____" does have a figurative meaning, after all, and whatever the intention of the song's author, I doubt all our legislators were reciting the Prayer to Saint Michael (basically an appeal for vindication).

I sometimes doubt the sincerity of most politicians' religious convictions, and suspect that it is merely a campaign ploy, for you definitely have to be a professed Christian to carry an election in this country. Odds are there are many more rational people on Capitol Hill than you may think. This is not to say there aren't overzealous bigots running the nation... there definitely are. But the darkness will never consume the light.

PhillyChief said...

"But the darkness will never consume the light."

So which is better, politicians sincerely invoking a divine protector or insincerely singing a tune they know the voters like to hear from their leaders? Is one darkness and one light, or are both dark, and if the latter, where'd the light go? (cue Elton John)

Sesquipedal said...

I don't condone disingenuity, but if someone is not passionate one way or the other, it is in their best interest to appease Christian constituents, as this represents perhaps the largest demographic in the U.S. It's just pragmatism. It may not be right, but I think nonetheless that some individuals may be more dedicated to public service than to imposing upon us an agenda of Christian dogma. I think as the conservative bias in our country subsides, the fire will be rekindled from the scarce embers of enlightenment, to continue the metaphor :).

My point about the song, moreover, is that it doesn't have to be about religion. It's rather an attempt, however feeble, to demonstrate to antagonists the indomitability of American resolve. It doesn't seem to me to have been an instance of asking the big JC to come down here and kick some ass for us. To sing a song doesn't mean to embrace all its implications fully and literally...

Sesquipedal said...

9/11 clearly produced a lot of powerful emotions, and it's better to have a really cheesy outlet than none at all.
And even while all this was occurring, the CIA was working at full steam, taking practical action to locate the individuals responsible. I won't comment on the prudence or ethicality of their methods, but it's not all kneel and worship... there were some proactive steps taken.

The Exterminator said...

Evo:
Obama is a committed Christian, so we may well get it either way. There: I said it. You were right.

Philly:
To answer your question: I think both invocations and silly love songs obscure the light.

Sesquipedal:
Well, I have no problem with Congress having sung a "patriotic" song. But really: "The Star-Spangled Banner" might have been far more uplifting under the circumstances. "... gave proof through the night that our flag was still there."

Instead, there was a knee-jerk appeal to superstition.

PhillyChief said...

"if someone is not passionate one way or the other, it is in their best interest to appease Christian constituents"

And here I thought they weren't there for their own interests nor to appease Christians, but rather to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic". In fact, appeasing Christians really flies in the face of that whole "support and defend the Constitution" thing, doesn't it?

"I think as the conservative bias in our country subsides, the fire will be rekindled from the scarce embers of enlightenment..."

And everybody will ride unicorns which fart butterflies and the world will be filled with love.

"My point about the song, moreover, is that it doesn't have to be about religion. It's rather an attempt, however feeble, to demonstrate to antagonists the indomitability of American resolve"

Don't we have a National Anthem?

"To sing a song doesn't mean to embrace all its implications fully and literally..."

Then why not sing something more popular like
What you gon' do with all that junk?
All that junk inside your trunk?
I'ma get, get, get, get, you drunk,
Get you love drunk off my hump.

"9/11 clearly produced a lot of powerful emotions, and it's better to have a really cheesy outlet than none at all."

Ah yes, the something is always better than nothing rationale, regardless of how terrible that something may be. Yeah, that one always works.

As for the rest, just more silliness, imo. A lot of faith and condoning/rationalizing 'ends justify the means' thinking. Great stuff there. As the great philosopher Bugs Bunny said, "eeeeh, go peddle your papers".

the chaplain said...

We moved to the suburbs of Washington, DC three months before 9/11. I didn't have a job at the time, so I was glued to the TV all day. When my kids got home from school, they joined me. We were stunned. I still can't bear to look at videos from that day. I can handle still images, but not the videos.

My husband was busy coordinating disaster relief services at the Pentagon, so he didn't come home for several days. I sent a backpack with a few changes of clothes to his office and he slept, a couple of hours at a time, on a sofa in a lounge there.

Sean the Blogonaut F.C.D. said...

I was driving to work, hadn't watched TV the night before or that morning. Turned on the radio and thought - well fuck me things are going to change. And change they did.

If Bush had kept his eye on the ball if he had done what America always does and paid huge sums of money for people to catch Osama , if he had not been called by god to invade Iraq things might have been different.

Osama and Co played us all for fools.

The Exterminator said...

Sesquipedal:
"To sing a song doesn't mean to embrace all its implications fully and literally..."
Yes it does, when it's sung by congress in response to bombings that shocked the entire country. If they just wanted to be a glee club, they could have thrown on their tuxedos and tap shoes, rented a hall, and sung "Puttin' on the Ritz."

Philly:
And everybody will ride unicorns which fart butterflies and the world will be filled with love.
Don't forget: They'll sing "Kumbaya," too.

chappy:
Question: As a practicing Christian at the time, how did you feel when Congress sang "God Bless America"? Did you and your husband wonder why Jesus hadn't blessed the country a few hours earlier in the day?

Sean:
Osama and Co played us all for fools.
You no doubt meant to say Osama and Bush and Co .... There's more than one way to play people for fools. Osama did it quickly, with a burst of physical violence. Bush has done it slowly but lingeringly, with spurts of intellectual and political violence. When those building came down, they took reason and the Constitution with them.

the chaplain said...

Ex:

I thought the outpouring of Christian expression that followed 9/11 was a wonderful thing. I thought it was great when the Yankees sang "God Bless America" instead of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" at the 7th inning stretch (does anyone know if they're still doing that? I know they did it for several years). I hoped that what I saw as increased religious awareness and sensitivity would lead to a spiritual renewal across the USA. I didn't want the kind of fanatical, conservative ideals that Falwell, Robertson, et al, preached, as I was already pretty liberal theologically by 9/11. Still, I hoped people would find solace in God and comfort in Christian communities.

As for why Jesus hadn't blessed us better that morning, I just figured that "shit happens" notwithstanding that it's never God's will for shit to happen.

If you think that belief was lame, get this: I also believed that God mourned with us. After all, we, the Christians, were right and the Muslims murderers were wrong. They obviously were not acting according to God's will, because my loving God would never have condoned terrorism.

Idiotic. Deluded. Embarrassing.

Sean the Blogonaut F.C.D. said...

EX,

I was icludinf bush in the Co. bit:) I think the greatest enemy of Democracy is the current American administration.

I was listening to Jimmy Carter (I think) who was involved in assessing democracies around the world for the UN. He admitted that America would not meet the criteria they employed to judge a country as democratic. Very telling

Sesquipedal said...

Philly --
Sorry to play devil's advocate, but I try to embrace Rowe's ethic of friendly atheism as much as possible. For all my certitude in god's nonexistence, I recognize that I am as fallible as any theist, and nourish a healthy respect for other people's beliefs with the hope that they will reciprocate my goodwill... in the majority of instances, this has been the case. Arrogance is a pitfall to which both atheists and "God's elite" alike are susceptible, and I try not to commit the folly of judging a person's character on the basis of a belief which can neither be validated nor refuted. While religion has the potential to generate malice and violence, it also gives some individuals special incentive to act with compassion and grace. It may be argued that the evils of religion outweigh the benefits, but I believe this to be more a symptom of human impudence than of any defect in religion. Those people who use faith as a vessel of hate likely would be assholes anyway, as far as I'm concerned. Divine will is just one excuse of many they could have chosen. In the case of "God Bless America," I don't see harm being done, and if they are misguided, so what? Your skepticism brinks on hostility, and as Jimmy Carter once said, "Aggression unchecked is a contagious disease." Whether that aggression comes from theists or nontheists is irrelevant; in either case it is equally destructive.

As far as the plight of corrupt politicians is concerned, i think ALL human behavior is selfishly motivated. Fortuantely the weal of the people at large is in the best interest of us all, so in choosing Jesus to get the vote, their interest may actually be coterminous with the public interest. If they're not lying about faith, they're lying about their service record or blow jobs in airport bathrooms, and this is something that is not likely to change. But for all this, it does not mean we don't have astute minds here and there in the government. I hate that all this has to be relevant in elections anyway. I can't even remember the last time I heard policy discussed in a speech or debate.

The Exterminator said...

chappy:
Thanks for the insight into the response of at least some Christians. I agree that it was idiotic and deluded. And I know that for you, looking back as a deconvert, it's retroactively embarrassing. How come the educated Christian community isn't embarrassed about spouting that kind of crap? Surely, some of them must see the conflict between their concepts of "God's will" and "shit happens."

Sean:
Well, I think that America is, mostly, "democratic" -- in the mob-rule sense. The trouble is, we're losing our freedoms, which are not necessarily inseparably tied to democracy. Majorities can do nasty things to those they don't like, and justify those actions as "democratic" votes. Go peek in any schoolyard to see what I'm talking about.

Sequipedal:
Sorry to play devil's advocate, but I try to embrace Rowe's ethic of friendly atheism as much as possible. For all my certitude in god's nonexistence, I recognize that I am as fallible as any theist, and nourish a healthy respect for other people's beliefs with the hope that they will reciprocate my goodwill...
You know, I don't think you're playing devil's advocate at all. I think you actually believe that horseshit about "friendly atheism" and a "healthy respect for other people's beliefs."

In reality, atheism is neither friendly nor unfriendly. Friendliness is an attribute of people, not a worldview. Not believing in any gods doesn't affect my affability quotient in the least. I happen to be extremely gregarious, and make friends easily. But I'm most definitely not a "friendly atheist," because I'm unwilling to listen cheerily to idiocy, and I'm downright antagonistic toward people who want that kind of idiocy influencing the government, science, or education.

And as far as having respect for other people's beliefs, that's the most insincere and asinine concept, regardless of who mouths it. I, and most atheists I know, respect a person's right to have any ridiculous belief that he or she chooses. But why should I respect the belief itself, when it's stupid? Are you so eager to be accepted by theistic society that you're content to accept nonsense? How is that rational?

PhillyChief said...

Sesquipedal,

What I've objected to from you is your lack of reasoning in your statements, pie-eyed optimism and overall high degree of nonsense like embracing 'ends justify the means' thinking. Whether you do so in a friendly manner or as an asshole shouldn't bear any influence, and certainly doesn't with me. 2+2 doesn't = 5 just because you deliver the answer with a smile.

As Ex already said, respecting another's beliefs is nonsense. Now I can respect your right to have your beliefs, express your beliefs and even act on your beliefs (with limitations), but respect your beliefs? Get out of here. How am I, as an atheist, supposed to respect someone's belief that a cracker magically becomes a god, and that equal rights depend upon what kind of plumbing you have in your pants and how you use it because your god said so? That's absurd, and if you do allegedly respect that in hopes that they'll respect your belief all of that is hogwash (and I'd like to hear how that could be possible), then you're insincere in both your own beliefs and in your so-called respect for theirs.

Ends don't justify means, despite how big your smile is.

the chaplain said...

How come the educated Christian community isn't embarrassed about spouting that kind of crap? Surely, some of them must see the conflict between their concepts of "God's will" and "shit happens."

This is explained by two doctrines, plus the power of indoctrination. Original Sin and Free Will are the two doctrines involved. As you know, Original Sin posits that humankind is entirely responsible for everything bad that has ever happened in the Cosmos. Yes, I know now that this belief is incredibly arrogant, but I think you'll agree that it reflects human egoism. (Theistic religions are strange blends of egoism and self-doubt - perhaps even self-loathing.)

As you also know, Free Will posits that God allows humans to choose their own courses in life, even when those courses conflict with what He knows is best for us and the universe. Humankind's right to act freely is one of the most important features of God's universe. He'll allow the rest of the Cosmos to be affected negatively for the sake of allowing humans to exercise their rights to choose. There's that human egoism again: we are the most important beings in the universe. Because God loves us so much and wants us to reciprocate His love freely, He allows us (and the universe) to suffer the consequences of our actions, regardless of how good or bad those actions and consequences are. I'm not saying this is a strong argument, I'm just noting that this is the argument.

Thus, humans beings are entirely to blame for the bad shit that happens to them and that they inflict on the world and each other. Sometimes, God may intervene and prevent disaster or ameliorate its effects, but many times He simply lets nature run its course. It makes Him sad when we do bad shit, but He really believes in the Free Will thing, so He has to tolerate the shit.

Why He chooses to act in some cases and not others is a mystery beyond human understanding. All of our questions about such matters will be answered when we get to Heaven.

How do even well-educated Christians swallow this stuff? Many of them are indoctrinated from earliest childhood. These are the beliefs with which they begin to interpret the world when they develop the capacity to reason. Some of them eventually question these background assumptions. Others don't.

A more interesting question for me is this: how do well-educated adults who were not indoctrinated as children come to accept this shit as adults? Why do they convert to any religion instead of seeing it for the bullshit it is? I've got my suspicions, but I'll leave them unstated for now.

The Exterminator said...

Philly:
You must not have read that Sesqui is only "playing devil's advocate," even though he or she is really saddened by having to do so. (That's how I interpret the "sorry" that opens the latest comment.) I think the devil could have found a much better representative, but that's only my opinion.

I disagree with you that any idiot has the right, with limitations, to act on idiotic beliefs. Actions should not be judged by the actors' beliefs or motives. (If they were, we'd be back in your "ends justify the means" land.) Everyone has the right to do whatever is not explicitly illegal. However, if the actions do break any laws, even so-called minor ones, he or she must take full responsibility for those actions, without having religion cloud the issue whatsoever.

Thus, if people pray for their child to be cured from a treatable disease, instead of taking her to the hospital, they're guilty of negligent homicide. If they force their kids to attend weekly meetings in which the youngster's self-esteem is broken by design, they're guilty of child abuse. If they bilk people with some vague promise of future "reward," they're guilty of fraud. If they come to my door repeatedly, despite my telling them to keep away, they're guilty of trespassing. If they write or speak derogatorily and to the detriment of others, without having truth to back up their claims, they're guilty of defamation.

What I'm saying is: The limitations on "acting on beliefs" are the same as they are for just plain old "acting." Theists should never be given a pass, even on minor infringements, just because they're fulfilling their alleged religious obligations. I know you didn't mean to say that. But we should be careful not to even imply that.

chappy:
I think your final paragraph raises an interesting question. You'll write a post about that, I hope.

PhillyChief said...

I assumed illegality and infringement upon other's rights was understood when I wrote "with limitations". Apparently I was wrong about that (what's that "assume" joke again?) so to be clear, that's what I meant.

However, you seem to be adding what you feel is wrong personally, beyond merely illegality and infringement upon other's rights. Surely people have the right to be wrong, no?

The Exterminator said...

Philly:
I don't think I referred to my personal feelings at all. Every act I mentioned would be illegal if it weren't done in the name of religion.

People do have the right to be wrong, and, as long as we're talking in oxymorons, the right to be left (behind), too. But they most definitely don't have the right to justify illegality in the name of religion.

I'm saying that we should be very careful not to appear to judge actions in the specific light of a person's beliefs. I think that's what your original phraseology seemed to imply. (I doubt you meant it that way, but it's how a religious nutball could read what you wrote.) Just as I'm for totally free speech, I'm totally against using motivation (as opposed to circumstances, which can be extenuating) as a criterion for judging a person's actions.

That's why I don't think we should make a distinction between "crime" and "hate crime." If I remember correctly, you agree with me about that.

PhillyChief said...

Well of course you wouldn't say something was just a personal feeling, but let's not go down that road of condemning things just because you don't like them again. ;)

I'm not sure where I or anyone here gave the impression that we were judging actions based on someone's beliefs (or whether they were smiling or not for that matter).

I don't see how you can ignore motivations when judging actions. Deaths and injuries from a riotous mass exit from a theater, for instance, seem more damning for the prick who yelled "fire!" as a joke or to incite a riot than the nearsighted fool who yelled "fire!" because he mistook the aisle light as a flame. Legally, you have manslaughter, negligent homicide, and 1st and 2nd degree murder. I think what separates them is motivation or intent, no?

My objection to the idea of hate crimes is not over motivation, but because it leads to labeling legal actions like objecting to a protected group through protest or the press illegal and it's an unnecessary addition to considering motivation. For instance, killing someone because you hate them should be enough. Why you hate them shouldn't matter.

The Exterminator said...

Philly:
Motivation is not the same as intent. Motivation is about "why." Intent is about whether or not an action is planned. Although intent is important in determining the degree of murder with which a person may be charged, motivation isn't.

It's a bad idea for any of us atheists to combine the word "actions" with the word "beliefs." I was critiquing the way you phrased your idea, which was poorly. In the legal sense, beliefs are irrelevant to actions, and shouldn't be coupled. Your sentence implies that they are relevant. I'm not willing to make that concession. Are you?

So, speaking as an editor, the way you wrote your idea opens the door to some idiot asking you to specifically state the limitations you would impose on his actions. And then of course, he'd follow with: Who chooses those limitations? You? Based on what? That wouldn't be relevant in any way to what you were saying, which was: While we respect a person's right to his or her beliefs, we don't have to respect the beliefs themselves. I'd add: ... or the believer.

The fire-in-the-theater example is bullshit. The original Holmes example includes the word "falsely," but makes no distinction between "fools" and "pricks." Police and/or the courts may decide not to press charges in certain instances, but the near-sighted "fool" is just as guilty of inciting a riot -- or not -- as the "prick." (By the way, those words reflect personal feelings on your part, not legal distinctions.) Of course, intent, if it could be proven, might provide a basis for bringing the "prick" to trial, while excusing the "fool," who was not knowingly yelling something false.

In any case, let's not quibble over your phraseology. I'd just urge you to be careful about distinguishing between everyday, neutral actions and religious ones. You can take my recommendation or not. But no one should be granted any license to perform actions specifically in the name of his or her religion. If the actions are legal, of course they're OK. If not, the person is guilty of breaking the law.

Think about the ramifications of the words you write. That's all I have to say on this subject.

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