Thursday, December 25, 2008

Caller on the Line: a short play

A short theatre piece. I saw it produced in late 2007 and was surprised at how well it worked. It was also published here.

Cast of Characters

Stan: an executive

Mom: Stan’s mother

Sarah: a secretary, offstage


Stan’s office.


The present.

SETTING: An office with a desk.

AT RISE: STAN sits at the desk, working on a laptop computer. He drinks amber liquid from a liquor glass. A telephone sits on one corner of the desk. It rings. STAN presses a button on the phone.

Mister Garland.

Yeah, Sarah.
I have your mother on line one.

(Stan does not respond.)

Mister Garland?

Yeah. I’m here.

Should I go ahead and take a message?

(STAN pauses, then sighs.)

No. Go ahead, put her through.

(STAN presses phone button.)

STAN (awkwardly)
Yeah, Ma. Hey!

(A spotlight illuminates MOM, stage left. She is sitting in an armchair with a phone in her lap.)

Your father’s circling the drain.

(STAN yawns and leans back.)

Do what, now?

Your father. He’s circling the drain. Pulling the dirt in over him. Giving up the ghost. You know?

Are you trying to say he’s dying?

MOM (sarcastically)
You always were my brightest boy, Stanny.

Yeah, so what’s the old bastard’s problem this time? Ebola? Black plague? Alien anal probe? What?

He’s in the hospital.

So he’s graduated from daily doctor visits to inpatient mode? Way to go, Dad!

He’s decided to starve himself to death. Just decided it was a good idea, you know?
(long pause)
Stanny? You still there?

STAN (stunned, quiet)
Yeah, Ma. Yeah. I’m here.
(long pause; laughs awkwardly)
Well, you have to give him credit. It’s original. The old man thinks he’s Gandhi, or what?

Have you been drinking, Stanny?

No, Ma. No. I’m good. Just real tired is all.

OK. Because you sound like you’ve been drinking, and it’s only two in the afternoon, is why I’m asking.

STAN (a bit peeved)
I’m clean and sober, Ma. Cross my heart and hope to die. OK?

OK, that’s good. But like I was saying about your father, it’s like he’s set his mind to it, you know? I mean, it’s not like there’s anything wrong with him.
He just decided to go ahead and starve himself to death. Just like that.

Yeah, OK. So why are you of all people breaking a sweat over it?

I’m not. I just always seem to wind up getting stuck playing messenger boy between your dear old father and you kids every time he does one of his little psychodramas. Why the hell is that, Stanny?

STAN (chuckles)
Simple, Ma. You’re the only one that’ll still take his calls. The rest of us got call screening.

MOM (after awkward pause)
Do you think you should give him a call, Stanny?

STAN (evasively)
No. What for?

I don’t know. Sort out any unfinished business? Try and penetrate that thick skull of his? Tell him to stop being so melodramatic? Whatever?
(long pause)
Do you think maybe you should call him? Are you there, Stan?


No, you’re not there? Could’ve fooled me.

No, I don’t think I should call him.

Ah. OK.
(awkward pause)
I mean I’m not saying you should or anything, I’m the last person who’d say any of you should give your father the time of day, you know? I just figured, you know, because of how everything went, and how it all ended up, that –-

Like I said. I don’t think I should call him.

Why not?

STAN (after long pause)
Because I don’t think I should call him, that’s all. It’s not complicated. Look, Ma. We both know that as soon as the old man realizes his little drama routine isn’t going to make him the center of attention, he’ll get bored with the whole thing and get back to drinking his Scotch and smoking his smokes and flashing that million-dollar smile.

I don’t think so. No, I don’t think so this time. I really do believe he means to do it. He seems, I can’t explain it exactly, it’s almost like he’s relieved somehow, like he’s okay with it.

Come on, Ma. You can’t possibly think he’s serious.

Stanny, you know how his mind works, if anybody does. I sure as hell never did. Took me a long time to figure that one out, let me tell you. It’s like this. Your father’s going to starve himself to death because he doesn’t have an audience anymore. It’s like your father’s not even there when there’s no people around.
(long pause)
Looking back, I really do think it’s always been that way. Always. If he walks into an empty room, it’s like it’s still empty.
You there, Stanny?

STAN (quietly)
Yeah, Ma.

What? I can’t even hear you, Stanny.

Yeah, Ma. I’m still here.
And like I said, I don’t think I should call him, that’s all.

Listen, I’m telling you, Stanny, you need to be the one to call him. It needs to be you. You need to call your father up and you need to tell him it’s wrong. Tell him it’s selfish and melodramatic, and tell him it’s just wrong! He’ll listen to you. If the idiot ever listened to anybody, he listened to you.

STAN (quietly)
I can’t do that to him, Ma.

God damn these phones! Are you sure you don’t have me on speaker? What did you say?

STAN (louder)
I said, I can’t do that to him, Ma.

What? Do what ‘to’ him? What are you talking about?

He decided, Ma. I’m not going to take that away from him. He decided. He did. I’m not going to help him be weak again, now that he’s finally decided. I won’t do that to him.

What the hell do you mean? You are making no sense to me, Stanny.
You are drunk, aren’t you?

STAN (quiet, bitter)
Not yet, I’m not.

No, I didn’t get any of that. Can you hear me? Stupid phones. Hello?

STAN (almost to himself)
Judge, jury, and executioner. I can’t tell him he’s wrong to be any of those things.

Look, Stanny, you’re talking insane, you know what I mean? What the hell is this ‘I can’t tell him he’s wrong’ crap? What is that supposed to mean? Yes, you can! You sure can tell him, and you’re going to, you’re going to call him and tell him not to do this. Tell him he’s wrong to do this, God damn it!

STAN (after long pause)
I can’t, Ma. I can’t. (Long pause) Because he’s not wrong, Ma. He’s never been less wrong about
anything in his whole sorry-ass life. Leave it be, Ma. Leave him be. He needs to do this, and he’s right to do this. He’s been waiting most of his life to do this. Just waiting around trying to work up the guts to finally do it and get it over with. The best thing we can do is leave him alone to do this one thing right. Please, Ma.

Stan, listen. Please. You have to save him. Stan?
(long pause)
Did I lose you?

STAN (quietly)
I am saving him, Ma.

I can’t hear you, damn it. I told you a long time ago that these new high-tech phones aren’t worth a damn.

Yeah, Ma, look. I got calls stacked up like crazy here, and I’m five minutes late for a pretty important meeting. I really do have to get off this phone and get to work.

Stanny –-

Love you, Ma. Look, I got to go. I’ll call you later in the month, I think your birthday is coming up soon, I’ll call you then, you know?

MOM (quietly)
It was four weeks ago.

STAN (laughs awkwardly)
Ah, yeah. Damn it. You know me, I’m an airhead about that stuff. I’ll swing by the mall
and get you something nice for your birthday on the way home tonight.

Get your secretary to swing by, you mean.

Ma, look, they’re all standing right outside my office and I’m holding up all these people, so I have to go like right now. Bye, love you.

(STAN pushes the button to hang up. Spotlight over Mom immediately fades to black. Stan sits at his desk, staring, for a long time. STAN presses button on phone.)

Sarah? What’s my calendar look like for the rest of the day?

You have the weekly download meeting in fifteen minutes, then the Mid-Atlantic forecast briefing from four to five-thirty.

Cancel them all, will you?

SARAH (after long pause)
Sure. No problem. Is everything okay?
(long pause)
Mister Garland?

Yeah, I’m good. Couldn’t be better. I’m just thinking I’ll take off early today. You’ll take care of all that for me, right?

Of course. I’ve got you covered. You take it easy for the rest of the day, okay?

STAN (small smile)
Yeah. I will.

(Stan packs laptop in briefcase, drains his drink and exits SL.)



Friday, December 12, 2008

Collapse Into Silence: Pirsig, Tao and the 'Parmenides'

Originally published at

American mystic and writer Robert M. Pirsig struggled mightily with the question of
how to interrogate the Unspeakable within the mental constraints of Western logical discourse. This struggle took him on an internal journey far from his Midwest, mid-century home, eventually pushing him into the unknown country of mental illness and involuntary commitment. I believe that what Pirsig was pursuing was not an empty Nothing, a no-thing. It was a full, even overfull Nothing, for which he struggled in vain to find a name and a vocabulary. I have taken to calling it the ‘over-full Nothing’ and will continue to use that term here to indicate when we are speaking of Nothing as an ontological term. Pirsig would come to believe that the closest approach to what he was trying to articulate could be found in the Tao, and indeed the Tao’s mapping to the characteristics of this ‘over-full Nothing’ was quite close. However, he failed to latch onto the full significance of something he noted in passing: the striking similarities between his thought and the system of the important Pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides. We will look in detail at the most influential deployment of the Parmenidean ‘over-full Nothing’, in Plato’s infamously obscure dialogue The Parmenides. Plato’s attempt to wrap it in logical discourse runs aground for the same reason that Pirsig’s attempt to do so ran aground 2500 years later. Both of their attempts to encapsulate the ‘over-full Nothing’ within language and logic eventually collapse into silence in the face of that of which nothing can be said.

American Mystic

There was a man once, who went insane trying to wrap the Unspeakable within the syntax of Western logical discourse. He lived in the seemingly mundane circumstances of Midwestern America, but his thoughts were off in another place, another time. Speaking of himself in the third person in his stunning work Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he tells us that he ‘did not try to use his brilliance for general illumination. He sought one specific distant target and aimed for it and hit it. And that was all.’ As we shall see, the target that he aimed for and hit is what I am calling the ‘over-full Nothing’. A man possessed of (and eventually possessed by) a brilliant and incisive mind, Pirsig spent several years as a teacher of Rhetoric in Montana and Chicago. It was during this time that his mind took what many of his colleagues would come to think of as a somewhat ‘peculiar’ turn. Pirsig stumbles across something that he knows is real, but that all of his logical and rhetorical gifts are unable to encapsulate. Forced to try and at least make an effort at formulating a discourse for describing his findings, Pirsig adopted the mundane and inadequate word ‘Quality’, but he makes it to clear that, within his evolving system, the word is simply a placeholder for something that is full, erupting, but without any logical attributes. He attempts to capture the essence of this ‘over-full Nothing’ in the following formulation:

‘Quality is not a thing. It is an event … It is the event at which the subject becomes aware of the object…Quality is the event at which awareness of both subjects and objects is made possible …. This means that Quality is not just the result of a collision of subject and object. The very existence of subject and object themselves is deduced from the Quality event. The Quality event is the cause of the subjects and objects.’

In short, Pirsig’s Quality ‘is the parent, the source of all subjects and objects.’ To Pirsig this ‘quality event' was ‘the continuing stimulus to create the world in which we live. All of it. Every last bit of it … He felt momentary fright and was about to strike out the words ‘All of it. Every last bit of it’. Madness there. I think he saw it.’ As this passage suggests, Pirsig understood that he had just stepped outside the logical mythos that is ingrained into the very intellectual DNA of Western civilization, our gift from the Greeks. He was faced with ‘something’ that could not be denied and yet could not be described. Almost in despair, he found a place to anchor his sanity when he came across another attempted description of the ‘over-full Nothing’, this one found in the 2,400-year-old Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu. Listen as the Chinese sage wrestles with his own attempt to describe the indescribable, from within the somewhat more flexible bounds of a non-Western discourse:

Looked at but cannot be seen … listened to but cannot be heard …grasped at but cannot be touched. These three elude all our inquiries and hence blend and become one.Not by its rising is there light. Not by its sinking is there darkness.
Unceasing, continuous It cannot be defined And reverts again into the realm of Nothingness That is why it is called the form of the formless The image of nothingness That is why it is called elusive Meet it and you do not see its face.

Note this description (or, what is the same thing, this non-description), and compare it to what we will discover later when we look at Parmenides’ own efforts to articulate his own encounter with the ‘over-full Nothing’.

Indeed, Pirsig eventually came to suspect that the Greeks may have had a hand in muddying the waters regarding the permissibility of discussing his ‘Quality’, simply by virtue of the fact that the Greeks constructed a mode of discourse that made such discussion structurally impossible. Pirsig realized that the Greeks had loaded the deck right from the get-go: ‘The world of underlying form is an unusual object of discussion because it is actually a mode of discussion itself. You discuss things in terms of their immediate appearance or you discuss them in terms of their underlying form, and when you try and discuss these modes of discussion you get involved in what could be called a platform problem. You have no other platform from which to discuss them other than the modes themselves.’ This importance of Pirsig’s insight into this limiting function of Western logical discourse will become obvious when we get to Parmenides.

We have evidence that Pirsig actually was close to realizing that Parmenides had more to teach him – certainly as a cautionary lesson – than did Lao Tzu, but it appears that Pirsig didn’t really give Parmenides enough attention and never really grasped Parmenides’ critical importance for his project. Here is all that Pirsig was able to get out of Parmenides:

‘Parmenides made it clear for the first time that the Immortal Principle, the One, Truth, God, is separate from appearance and from opinion, and the importance of this separation and its effect upon subsequent history cannot be overstated. It's here that the classic mind, for the first time, took leave of its romantic origins and said, ‘The Good and the True are not necessarily the same,’ and goes its separate way.’ Pirsig spent an enormous amount of time puzzling over this separation, musing about the pre-Socratics: ‘Ancient Greece – strange that for them Quality should be everything while today is sounds strange to even say that Quality is real. What unseen changes could have taken place?’

He was so close to finding a Western kindred spirit here, but he didn’t even know it. There is nothing in his writings or any of his public statements subsequent to the surprising success of Zen to suggest he ever suspected how close he had come to a precursor. He concluded that ‘further study there was unlikely to uncover anything concerning an apparently mystic term.’ How wrong he was. He blew right past it. All he had to hang on to, at the end, was his belief that ‘the mythos that says the forms of this world are real but the Quality [‘over-full Nothing’] of this world is unreal is insane…’ He apparently never expected that if he had scratched harder at the pre-Socratics, he would have found that one of the most significant of them was saying essentially the same thing.

And what became of Pirsig, as his pursuit of the ‘over-full Nothing’ tapered out into a collapse into philosophical silence, then eventually into a literal silence? ‘Destroyed by an order of the court, enforced by the transmission of high-voltage alternating current through the lobes of his brain…in a process known technologically as ‘Annihilation ECS’.’ I believe that a large part of what drove him insane was living with the knowledge of ‘the unbelievable magnitude of what man, when he gained power to understand and rule the world in terms of dialectical truths, had lost.’

We now need to look at one of the first struggles between this dialectical truth and the ‘over-full Nothing’.

Plato Fights for His Life
A battle took place shortly before the birth of Plato, a battle on the nature of ‘what is’. The protagonists in this battle exchanged broadsides that read like the pronouncements of sun-addled Zen Masters. Heraclitus makes oracular pronouncements that induce perplexity and challenge us to make sense of them. Parmenides and his followers argue, or seem to, in a long, strung-out series of what seem to the naïve eye to be logical propositions.

Parmenides insists, obscurely, that one must choose between the way of ‘It Is’ and the way of ‘It Is Not’. We are literally incapable of conceiving of something as ‘not’, so our ‘over-full Nothing’ ‘is’ by default, and perhaps in its essence as well.

If one cannot think ‘Is Not’, then one will need to accept the ‘over-full Nothing’ that is ‘reality’ as containing no change, no generation or destruction, no difference, no imperfection. Why? Because – and this is key for Parmenides -- it is ‘full of what is’. For our purposes, the attack on Parmenides found in Plato’s immortal dialogue The Parmenides demands much more attention. It is a strange dialogue, unlike any other that Plato wrote. It comes at the end of his vaunted ‘middle period’, and indeed after the travail of wrestling with the issues in The Parmenides, Plato apparently steps away from writing for several years.
The Parmenides is the only dialogue in which Socrates is unequivocally beaten. Pimp-slapped, not to put too fine a point on it. Also important for us to understand is that, in this dialogue, Plato is defending himself. More, he is defending the cornerstone of his entire philosophy: the theory of Forms. Without the theory of Forms, Plato’s ethical and political philosophies collapse for lack of a structure to prop them up – and the followers of Parmenides, the clever Zeno, deploys a set of arguments that leave the theory of Forms in pieces on the floor. In this part of the dialogue, Zeno demonstrates, with a light touch and a flair for the absurd, that logic cannot be trusted because it is insufficient to encapsulate his master Parmenides’ Being, the One, the ‘over-full Nothing’. Zeno, and then Parmenides, use dialectic to tie Socrates up in precisely the sort of logical knots Socrates would inflict on so many interlocutors later in his career.

I do not propose to drill down into the part of the dialogue in which Parmenides slices and dices the Forms; suffice it to say that most scholars agree that Parmenides lands several blows, most of them serious, on the Forms. As we will see, Plato’s goal in the rest of the dialogue is so say, in effect, ‘OK, my beloved Forms may be discredited, but look at the sort of incoherent Parmenidean madness you’ll have to contend with if you give up the Forms! If we want to remain rational beings, the Forms are all we have to work with!’ He uses the rest of the dialogue to demonstrate the logical absurdity of Parmenides and his followers. As we shall see, this is not difficult to do, since the Parmenidean system stands outside of dialectical discourse.

After verbally overpowering young Socrates, Parmenides is invited to expound on his own ideas. Of course, he is asked to do so using dialectic. As Pirsig noted, this was a clever trap on Plato’s part: ‘How the hell do you ever justify, in terms of reason, a refusal to define something? Definitions are the foundation of reason. You can’t reason without them.’ Which is precisely the problem we run into in the second half of the dialogue. We are treated to 20 pages of an absurdist, Bizarro-World imitation of Socratic dialectic,

as Parmenides is shown forcing the ‘over-full Nothing’ onto the Procrustean bed of dialectic. Plato is being mean-spirited and vengeful here, as could be expected from a man who is quite literally fighting for his philosophical life. Plato’s goal is to make Parmenides look absurd, but what he winds up doing, unintentionally, is making dialectic and logic look absurd as a technique for encapsulating the ‘over-full Nothing’.

When we read Plato’s funhouse filter of Parmenides in the second half of the dialogue, we find ourselves confronting something that reads almost exactly like the Tao as Pirsig encountered it. Look at this, and tell me if you don’t agree with me that Parmenides’ worldview looks more and more Asian, not really ‘Western’ at all.
Plato has Parmenides telling us that the One ‘will have neither beginning, middle, nor end’, it ‘cannot be anywhere, either in itself or in another’, and let us make no mistake that ‘if one be the same with itself, it is not one with itself, and will therefore be one and also not one’.

On a couple of levels, this is a delightful farce. The very density and duration of this kind of gibberish (and it goes on like this for over twenty pages) is a big part of the comedic value. Plato is working hard to make Parmenides look completely absurd, and Parmenides is happy to oblige. On another level, one certainly unintended by Plato, Parmenides is having his way with Plato as well: his long, bizarre deployment of ‘dialectic’ in the service of explaining his ‘over-full Nothing’ serves the unexpected purpose of demonstrating that dialectic, logic itself, has surprising and damaging limitations.

Socrates’ new invention, the dialectic, breaks up against Parmenides’ extended koan, reducing the attempt to articulate Parmenides’ ideas to broad comedy. Parmenides is using dialectic as a cudgel to beat dialectic itself to a bloody pulp. To embarrass logic into silence, in effect.

On yet another level – and The Parmenides may well be the most multi-layered of Plato’s dialogues -- we are given a stunning demonstration of the fact that, in the face of the ‘over-full Nothing’, language itself begins to collapse. All that ‘is’ is not real. Anything you can describe is not real. The One, Being, the ‘over-full Nothing’ ‘is’. But not really, not in any sense we can imagine. It is unthinkable, unspeakable, and unknowable. Inside this singularity, nothing is preserved; it is a naked opening-upon.

We try and apply Plato’s beloved dialectic, his clever little parlor trick of categorizing and discriminating, and we find ourselves sinking, and fast. We see:
‘over-full Nothing’ is.

But we can’t even say ‘is’ in this context, because we could then also say ‘not-is’, and that not-is would be equally ‘true’. So we are reduced to being able to say:

‘over-full Nothing’.

But even that is too much discrete ‘content’, and dialectic sets itself up for a situation where all dialectic allows us to say is:


Singularity. No content. No thing. Dialectic has failed – miserably, one should note – to enable us to come to terms with the ‘over-full Nothing’. Beyond the rim of this singularity, logic has no place and dialectic will not stand. Plato knows this, which helps explain his fury at Parmenides. Plato understands that his theory of Forms has been skewered on his own dialectic, but he turns away from the Parmenidean alternative with the same shudder of instinctive revulsion with which the Greeks reacted to the concept of the Unbounded. Plato forces us to confront the brute fact that Parmenides’ ontology is logically absurd. Parmenides (who either reinvented or encountered the same ontological concepts that fed into the Tao), was not really Western at all, and was in fact trapped in the straitjacket of Western reason.
‘We’ve a real intellectual impasse. Our reason, which is supposed to make things more intelligible, seems to be making them less intelligible, and when reason thus defeats its own purposes something has to be changed in the structure of our reason itself.’ Reason has failed us, indeed language itself has failed us, and at the end of any attempt to penetrate the Parmenidean ontology, our discourse suffers a catastrophic collapse into silence.

Time Tunnel
Imagine with me a long temporal tube, a tunnel. In places it is poorly lit, but in other parts of it we see bright, cold, fluorescent lights. Occasionally, the tunnel pulls a sudden sideways turn or dead end, but for the most part it is as straight and as forthright as a mathematical proof. At one end of this tunnel sits Plato, shouting the good news of the birth of Reason into the tunnel’s maw. At the far end of this tunnel lurks Pirsig, gazing in horror at Reason’s death. Pirsig pursued the ghost of this dead Reason ‘because he wanted to wreak revenge on it, because he felt he himself was so shaped by it.’ After Pirsig, facts become fables again. Looking at Parmenides and Pirsig, do we not get the suspicion that the long reign of dialectic and logic was perhaps just an interlude?

The ‘over-full Nothing’ will always remain absurd and inarticulate within the confines of logical discourse. Parmenides didn’t make any serious attempt to wrap the ‘over-full Nothing’ in logical discourse, and Pirsig went mad trying. Perhaps the ‘over-full Nothing’ should be simply left alone.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Book Review: Prince of War

Prince of War: Billy Graham’s Crusade for a Wholly Christian Empire, by Cecil Bothwell, Asheville: Brave Ulysses Books, 2007, 213 pp. softcover

“Billy Graham represents a basic kind of patriotism in this country – an unquestioning, obeying patriotism, a loyalty to the authority of the President. Billy was always uncritical, unchallenging, unquestioning.” --- Bill Moyers

“I’m frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in A, B and C. Just who do they think they are? --- Barry Goldwater

A power-hungry moral coward. A vicious racist and Jew-baiter. A man with an almost uncanny ability to always be on the wrong side of history. A craven climber and groveller at the feet of power. An “unabashed nationalist and advocate for American empire.” If Cecil Bothwell is right – and he marshals a lot of evidence in support of his thesis – then “America’s most beloved pastor” is all these things, and more. Bothwell gives us the opportunity to see the other side of Billy Graham, the man who was seventh on a recent Gallup poll’s list of the most admired people of the 20th century. Graham is a man with a history, a man who must be called to account. Bothwell lays out his bill of particulars with subtlety and skill.

The first leitmotif in Graham’s life story is his obsessive scrounging after power. From the very beginning, he has sought access to the corridors of power with an almost touching desperation. Graham was the first evangelist to conduct a religious service on the steps of the Capitol building, and the first to conduct a full-blown crusade inside the walls of the Pentagon. But Graham has always known that the real center of power in America was the White House, and has proven to be a “constant suppliant seeking presidential attention.” The more intelligent and responsible presidents (Truman, Kennedy, Carter) kept Graham at arm’s length, while other, lesser men utilized Graham for whatever they could gain from the association.

Truman apparently despised Graham from the get-go, describing him to a close friend as “one of those counterfeits I was telling you about,” the sort of man who is only interested in “getting his name in the paper.” But in a bit of pure luck, Graham suddenly found himself being groomed as the darling of the Hearst media empire, which built up the persona of the “simple preacher” and turned him loose to rage against godless Communism to crowds of up to 350,000 rapt believers. Graham was becoming an influential player in the toxic politics of 1950s America – and he was learning to love it.

Graham’s increasingly high profile brought him to the attention of Senator Joseph McCarthy, eventually “becoming one of his most loyal and enduring allies.” Documents reveal that Graham was eager to out-do McCarthy in his rabid commitment to exposing “the pinks, the lavenders, and the reds who have sought refuge between the wings of the American eagle.” As McCarthy ratcheted up the rhetoric with his demand that suspected Communists be stripped of their Fifth Amendment protections, Graham was right there with him, proclaiming, “Let’s do it!” Never one to hitch his wagon to a single star, Graham was simultaneously voicing his strident support for “the red-scare tactics of Senator Lyndon Johnson and a young congressman named Richard Milhouse Nixon.” Give the man credit: he had a knack for spotting talent early on and currying favor with the people who would run the country for the rest of the century, and beyond.

While Graham’s most infamous association was of course with Nixon, he nevertheless racked up a pretty good track record with subsequent tenants at the White House. It is a tribute to Jimmy Carter’s canny instincts that he wanted nothing to do with the man and kept him out of the White House during his term, but most of Carter’s successors warmly embraced Graham and his values. He wooed Reagan and George H.W. Bush with great success. He had somewhat less success with Bill Clinton, but he was there to give solace to Hillary Clinton (whose religious associations in Washington were uniformly “conservative and fundamentalist”) during the Lewinsky scandal.

I was continually amazed at Graham’s ability to insinuate himself into the centers of power, given some of his more unsavory views. For if Bothwell is to be believed, Graham is a life-long racist and the worst sort of bigot. It is tempting to fall back on the old, old alibi and say that Graham was a “product of his environment.” As a very young many, Graham fell under the influence of “holy roller Mordecai Ham,” a man notorious as “one of his era’s most gaudy and livid anti-Semites,” a man who fulminated against “apostate Jewry and the wicked Jews who killed Jesus.” While it was not unusual for a youngster coming of age in the Jim Crow south to be bombarded with this sort of vicious rhetoric, it is notable that Graham never shook off these baleful influences. We would hear echoes of Mordecai Ham’s rants in Graham’s infamous “off the record” conversation in the Oval Office with Richard Nixon.

This conversation, which was captured on one of the legendary White House tapes, was not the momentary lapse or attempt to curry favor, as the Graham apologists attempted to claim. On the contrary, the conversation lasted an hour and a half, had rarely strayed from the denunciation of the Jews, and had sometimes been led by Graham. “The Bible says there are Satanic Jews, and that’s where our problem arises,” Graham pontificates at one point, to mumbled agreement by Nixon. Amazingly, twenty additional minutes of this conversation had been redacted before being released to the Watergate committee. What could possibly have been in those redacted twenty minutes that was worse than what wound up being released? Many years later, when the tape was released to public shock and dismay, Graham would do what he has always done when confronted with evidence of his own failings: he would claim that his clear, unambiguous words simply did not reflect his actual views. Inevitably, whenever Graham used this alibi, the big implication remained discreetly unspoken: Graham was either a liar or a moral coward.

Another aspect of Graham’s history is his unequivocal record of racism. Like many from the South (and not a few from the North), Graham inherited a significant bigotry against African-Americans. When a friend suggested to the young Graham that they stop off and get a haircut at a “colored barbershop” where a haircut could be gotten cheap, Graham declared, “Long as there’s a white barbershop in Charlotte, I’ll never have my hair cut at a nigger barbershop! Never!” Many people inherit this sort of vicious thinking, and many people eventually grow up to shed such primitive, mean-spirited attitudes. I kept looking for some point in Graham’s history where he had grown beyond this sort of thinking, but I kept coming up empty handed. The public record demonstrates that Graham was always on the wrong side on the racial issue. Always.

Over the years, there have been a number of attempts to portray Graham as being on the “progressive” side of the civil rights struggle that began in earnest in the 1950s. In fact, as Bothwell documents at length, this “progressive” history has been manufactured out of whole cloth. This is a man who, as late as the 1960s, was holding “separate but equal” crusades for black audiences. Graham would claim, “It wasn’t his decision but that of the organization.” And whenever segregationists would slam him for showing even an inkling of a progressive idea, he would immediately backpedal, claiming he was only there to preach the Bible, not to “enter into any local issues.” While the whole world was watching the battle for human rights in Selma, Graham was vacationing on the beach in Hawaii. Indeed, Graham was notable by his absence from every decisive moment in the civil rights struggle. When M.L. King was gunned down, Graham pointedly failed to attend the funeral, an event attended by over 200,000 people. On those rare occasions when Graham would even acknowledge that something called “the civil rights struggle” was taking place, he would limit his pronouncements to cautioning others to “put on the brakes a bit,” opining that “only when Christ comes again will all the little white children of Abraham walk hand in hand with little black children.” He seemed genuinely puzzled by the unwillingness of black Americans to wait for the Second Coming to claim their rights as human beings.

One might suggest, in Graham’s defense, “that was then, this is now.” Sadly, he does not appear to have grown over the years. As late as 1991, Graham was a member of the whites-only Biltmore Country Club. When called on this by local activists, Graham’s spokesman trotted out the old standby: Graham “didn’t have time to involve himself in local issues.” And in 1993, Graham publicly asked the rhetorical question, “Is AIDS a judgment of God?” His answer: “I could not say for sure, but I think so.” Needless to say, Graham’s remarks brought down a torrent of outrage, in the face of which Graham promptly did what he always did: “I remember saying it, and I immediately regretted it and almost went back and clarified the statement.” He “almost” went back and clarified the statement. Almost. Graham’s entire life, it would seem, is one long chain of moments of truth in which he “almost” did the right thing.

As an elder statesman whose mental and rhetorical powers are rapidly fading, Graham did not play his usual role as panderer to the powerful in the George W. Bush administration. While one should be grateful for this small mercy, Graham’s son Franklin delivered the inaugural sermon at Bush’s 2000 inauguration, and went on to become a close Bush confidant. And so the torch was passed, and so the disease was propagated. Billy Graham’s uniquely intolerant form of fundamentalist rhetoric, centered on the twin messages of fear and hate, continue to worm their way deep into the fabric of American discourse. It is to Bothwell’s enormous credit that he forces the reader to confront Billy Graham raw, unfiltered, as he really is. To the droves of Graham apologists and “clarifiers,” Bothwell offers a simple challenge: “Perhaps we should pay heed to what Graham has actually said.”

Monday, December 1, 2008

Chemical Bags and Dinner on the Grounds

What does atheism have to offer human beings in place of the rich, warm, familial cultural milieu that religious people have? I’ve recently found myself thinking about this question a lot, and there is a definite problem here if the secularist community is honest in its desire to bring more people into the secular fold. Secularists seem not to understand that the religious community is not exclusively about belief in the middle-eastern sky god. In fact, I’d say in my experience here in the American South, that is sometimes almost incidental. It’s an entire social structure: you have a communal celebratory meal at church ("dinner on the grounds"), you see friends and extended-family members at church, you pursue your hobbies at church, you perform your good works and your charitable efforts at church. Heck, a lot of people even get involved in church because it’s a (relatively) safe place to meet potential romantic partners! So it’s an entire social structure, something religions have provided as far back as we can see. And what do secularists offer as an alternative? “You’re just a walking bag of chemicals, evolved to do certain hard-wired things you can’t control. You have no ‘spiritual connection’ to any of the other walking bags of chemicals you encounter. You are truly ‘an island’, you’re on your own, everything is about the naked selfish will-to-live. Oh, and did we mention? When you die, your brain is extinguished and your body rots, and buh-bye, no more you!” I happen to believe that all those statements are 100% true, but I have to acknowledge the obvious fact that secularists have a bit of, shall we say, a “public relations problem” if this is all they bring to the table as an alternative to what the religious bring to the table. Would most people rather relax and lean back into the warm communal embrace of “dinner on the grounds,” or would they rather ponder the existential meaninglessness of an absurd world? Humans beings seem to have an innate need for community, celebration, and purpose, and until the secular community can address those human needs, it will remain what it is now: small, marginalized, and incapable of influencing events on any level.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Look Back at the Great Books

My mother was one of those one million Americans that bought the Great
Books (and let me tell you, she had to do without a lot to scrape
together the $$$). I wouldn't have survived my high school years
without them; they were my friends. It's a sad commentary on the
postmodern dumbing-down of America (the entire West, for that matter)
that no one can talk about the Great Books without putting those
infuriating "air quotes" around the word "Great". The fact is, they
are great, and they'll be great long after "Desperate Housewives" and
Eminem (see below) have stopped being the kind of sad, degrading
memories that makes you feel just a little bit soiled knowing that you
ever devoted a single brain cell to thinking about them. Kant, Hume,
Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, and even that annoying and consistently
wrong Athenian elitist named Plato, whose Great Books volume still has
a place of honor on my bookshelf, where I take it down every year or
two to write yet another screed attacking yet another aspect of
Plato's wrong-wrong-wronnnnnnggggggg thought. (my personal feeling
about Plato is this: if Plato doesn't infuriate you to the point where
you stand up and kick furniture, then you really haven't understood
him ...).

The problem with the internet is that it is so bloody
indiscriminate. A young person online has no way of knowing that an
online version of Plato's Phaedrus is better for him/her to read and
learn from than an online screed from some tinfoil-hat wearer going on
about missiles taking down Flight 800. The idea that the internet puts
everything out there, and the person reading it has to apply his/her
discriminatory powers to culling the wheat from the chaff, dodges one
crucial question: where the hell are young people supposed to have
learned these "discriminatory powers"? The Great Books project did
something that's considered "rude" and "elitist" in this low, degraded
post-Western age. It dared to say: "look, kid, it's like this. Here
are the Great Books of Western Civilization. We probably missed a few,
but these are pretty much the best of the best. They've stood the test
of time -- in some cases, millenia of time. So just take our word for
it, and get reading!" I wish we as a civilization still had the courage and
faith in the best parts of our shared heritage to be willing to
dictate to our young people like that. These days we're more concerned
with pumping up their all-important "self-esteem." Twenty years from
now, I believe our young people will hate us for betraying them that

Saturday, November 22, 2008

An obscure internet radio station led me to American symphonic composer Gloria Coates, creator of some of the most relentlessly bleak music I've ever experienced. On the page for one of her symphonies I saw a "listmania" item on the left side of the page. This is a user-produced feature of Amazon, sort of "If you like this, you're gonna love the items on my list!" It was the title of the list that got the hook in me and kept gnawing away at me for the next several months.


This glib and self-consciously ironic collection of words seemed to carry the freight of more meaning than their creator could have ever intended. Nietzsche claimed that we need chaos in our soul to give birth to a dancing star. I believe we need bleakness in our soul to give birth to a dancing god. Most people don't need the experience of bleakness; most people couldn't stand the raw, uncut experience of bleakness, and do everything they can to keep it at bay -- through booze and drugs, through frenetic social activity, and of course through that most popular defense mechanism, regular visits to their local houses of worship.

I recently listened to Ingram Marshall's "Three Penitential Visions," as bleak in its way as anything Coates ever composed. But after playing Marshall's piece through a couple of times, I realized something: Coates' bleak vision only got it half right. She captures the bleakness like no one else can, but she never understands that there's something beyond the bleakness. She stopped at the half way point; she turned coward at the critical moment. Ingram takes his bleak vision and turns it right on its head, transforming it into a joyous "Yes-saying" in the epilogue, Hidden Voice. This epilogue, the last three minutes of which can almost make me believe in god or gods, rises triumphantly as both the confirmation and refutation of the empty bleakness.

There are very few things more bleak than the unplugged acoustic torch songs of Tracey Thorne; her despair and yearning and hopeless need give us a vision so bleak that we are only left with one genuinely philosophical question: slice lengthwise, or across the wrist? But then her husband, Ben Watt, had one brilliant, unforgettable idea: take her hurt, bleeding songs and lay a demanding techno dance beat on top of it. Her songs of doomed love and tainted hurting became something that got into your head and your body, and told you that sure, the world and life and love and just being human was unimaginably bleak, but the backbeat wove it into something that not only told you what was on the other side of bleakness, it also told you what the cure was.

Which brings me to my point, finally. We find uplift and something resembling meaning not in despair, but on the other side of despair. I believe it's no coincidence that this important philosophical issue keeps finding its way back to music, because I believe we humans have some important unfinished business with music. Because, you see, we've forgotten what music is for. Music is what we get instead of God. Maybe it's our "consolation prize," in every sense of both those words.

On the other side of despair, beyond the bleak times and the bleak places inside us, waits a god who dances. A god promised by Nietzsche and so many others, and some may call him Dionysus and others may know him as Dancing Shiva and to some he is Pan and in the big continental sprawl of America he goes by the name of Kokopelli, but they are all the same and they all continue to hand down just one simple commandment:

Shut up and dance.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Crime of Indecision and the Crime of Indifference

"There are moments when everything becomes clear, when every action constitutes a commitment, when every choice has its price, when nothing is neutral anymore."

-- Albert Camus

During the most uncompromising and dangerous years in the 20th century, Camus threw down the gauntlet. There were people in France and around the world who wanted to sit on the fence, think about the best course of action, weigh their options, and hide behind the endless alibis for refusal to make a decision and then act on that decision. We all try so hard to hide, to wait out the crisis, hoping that events will move quickly and thus deprive us of the curse of choice, hoping that events will make the decision for us. It is human nature, it is an understandable cowardice. But still, it is cowardice.

Here is a parable for this moment and for all the moments in history when every choice has its price and nothing is neutral anymore:

The semi-mythical Athenian leader Solon made it a law that anyone who refused to take sides in a revolution would lose all civil rights. That way, people could not stand aside and hope trouble would pass them by while they waited to see which side would win.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Book Review: Piety and Politics

Figured I'd start things off with a review I wrote several months ago ...

Barry Lynn is angry. Furious, in fact. And the object of the man’s fury is the politicized, evangelical religious fanaticism that has seized control of America’s moral discourse. As a minister in the United Church of Christ and executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Lynn is an unlikely figure to be standing in the front ranks against the tide of militant Christianity that threatens the United States. Unlikely or not, Lynn seems to be hitting the right keys and pressing the right buttons: he has incurred the wrath of right-wingers like Jerry Falwell and Patrick Buchanan, and Lynn has the distinction of having once been described by Pat Robertson as “lower than a child molester.” If one can be known by one’s enemies, then I like the guy already.

Lynn does not waste any time, wading right into the middle of the battle almost from the first page. He takes an almost boyish delight in going toe-to-toe with the Religious Right on some of their favorite obsessions: public education, religious symbols, the church in politics, censorship and sexual politics. Lynn believes that the Religious Right has it all wrong, that their Bible-based worldview is an unacceptable basis for approaching the question of how America should be run. He demands that American politicians stop their pandering attempts to use the Bible to justify their actions and instead put their faith in the document that they are all sworn to defend: the U.S. Constitution. But Lynn is no wide-eyed naïf; he knows the history of his country, and he understand how tenuous the separation of Church and State is, especially now.

“When, in the history of the world, has a union of church and state ever been a good thing?” With these words, Lynn attempts to reason with the fundamentalists, posing a question that they are unwilling to consider and ill equipped to answer. Unlike the Religious Right, Lynn knows the true history of his country, and is able to describe religion’s long struggle to usurp America’s secular system of government. Those Americans who believe that the current spasm of fundamentalism is something new, or even exceptional, will perhaps take comfort from Lynn’s insightful analysis of the history of a fanaticism that has always been embedded in the fabric of American culture, and his explanation of how America has (so far) survived the ill effects of this fanaticism.

Quite simply, there was never a time when some form of struggle between secularism and fanaticism was not taking place. We must remember that the first colonists in New England came to the New World seeking religious freedom because their fanatical brand of religiosity was too radical for the Europe of the time. Mind you, we are talking about a Europe riddled with religious wars, a Europe where witches were burned along side heretics who dared to claim the Earth was not the center of the universe. And yet America’s “Puritan forefathers” were too radical to be tolerated in that environment. If we keep this thought at hand, we have no problem understanding the eruptions of bizarre religiosity that litter American history with almost monotonous regularity.

In the 19th century, “tensions over religion in public school rode so high ... that in 1844 a riot erupted after rumors circulated that schools were going to remove Protestant religious exercises.” An organization called the National Reform Association (the Moral Majority of its time) engaged in a protracted campaign to have an amendment to the Constitution declare that America was “a Christian nation,” and propagandized at the local level to write into law the idea that commerce and revelry should be curtailed on “The Lord’s Day” (an idea that continues to enjoy wide support throughout many areas of the U. S. to this day).

Very little changed in the 20th century, except that the Religious Right became more sophisticated and clever as they struggled to infect the Constitution with the virus of religiosity. Lynn reminds us that the seemingly immutable slogans “one nation, under God” and “In God We Trust” are relatively recent innovations, driven by the decision in the 1950s to recruit God “in the battle against juvenile delinquency and communism.” The propaganda campaign to portray secularism as “some amoral, libertine perspective on life” also gained enormous traction in the second half of the 20th century, and not just among those who were obvious fringe cases. One cannot help but think of Joe Lieberman during the 2000 presidential campaign, making the truly alarming claim in his stump speech that “faith is necessary for good behavior.”

Lynn oscillates between sadness and ill-concealed amusement when he discusses the fact that, in the United States, “secularism is mandated by the government, but religion still pervades the culture with a strong and vibrant voice. In much of Europe, there is no government mandate of secularism, but the cultures are effectively secular.” This is no exaggeration: I have driven through much of Europe, from the Spanish border to Bavaria, and it is only in Italy that one sees even a faint echo of the old religious madness. For the most part, the old churches of Europe, from the grand cathedrals to the most humble village church, are now nothing more than museums. As Lynn observes, the churches of Europe “lack for only one thing: congregants.”

Lynn seems to recognize, at least implicitly, that America’s tribal and atavistic religiosity will never wither away the way it did in Europe. There is something unique about the tightening grip that religion has on America, something toxic and not a little bit mad. Yet even within this historical context, Lynn is forced to admit, “I’ve never seen the situation this bad.” The disease of religious fanaticism has mutated, growing ever more dangerous as it turns the tools of modernity against modernity itself in a struggle to undermine America’s secular foundations.

Lynn has no illusions about the nature and ambitions of America’s new crop of fundamentalists. “I’ve studies the tactics of these groups for more than thirty years. I know what they want. They want to run your life, mine, and everyone else’s as much as they possibly can.” While these Christian zealots always portray themselves as oppressed and marginalized, “members of the clergy walk the halls of Congress ... pressing their views and often being warmly received. You see them in the senators’ dining room. I’ve been there myself.” These influential members of the clergy – effectively, lobbyists for the Christian fundamentalist worldview – have admirable persistence and remarkable message discipline. Everything wrong in this country, without exception, can be laid at the feet of the godless and dubious plot by secularists and their lackeys to promulgate the separation of Church and State. Whether it is rampant immorality, plunging SAT scores, the epidemic of unwed motherhood, gay marriage, or the scourge of drugs in our urban ghettoes, all of it is the fault of the separation of Church and State. If only America could go back to those halcyon days when religion was the basis of every aspect of American life, all would be well.

This is a seductive message, perhaps because of its simplicity, perhaps because it appeals to the seemingly universal yearning for a Golden Age that never was. America’s Golden Age was brought to ruin when “that mean old Supreme Court, prodded by an atheist, intervened and threw prayer out” of the public schools. Within this context, an “activist judge” is “simply a judge who writes an opinion the Religious Right doesn’t like.” As a proudly “God-centered” Bush administration loaded the American judicial system with judges who held the “correct views,” the leaders of the fundamentalist movement, never noted for their timidity, shook off the last of their inhibitions and began to speak more openly about their grand vision of what a God-besotted American future would look like. Lynn cleverly allows fundamentalists such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson to reveal themselves – and betray themselves – with their own words. They really do make it almost too easy for Lynn to mock them and then dispose of them.

We are dealing, after all, with men who genuinely believe that “God punishes communities that displease him with hurricanes, floods, and meteors; who assert that demons control major U.S. cities and who think Harry Potter books lure children into practicing witchcraft.” As he offers us up a seemingly endless smorgasbord of choice tidbits from the mouthpieces of the Religious Right, Lynn gives us a feel for the deeply strange beliefs of America’s fundamentalists, an archaic, tribal view of the world that would seem more at home being articulated by some shaman crouched around a Neolithic campfire, or by a priest standing atop an Aztec sacrificial pyramid. The fact that this deeply uncivilized way of understanding the world finds millions of adherents in the world’s sole remaining superpower should do more than give us pause – it should scare the hell out of us.

What Lynn gives us along with his analysis of the thinking of the Religious Right is a deep and disturbing sense of how radically opposed to America’s freedoms these people really are. They want to control what all citizens do, and they are perfectly willing to enlist the government, the courts and law-enforcement if that is what it takes to rid themselves of the burden of a freedom that they are unwilling to embrace. Lynn, to his credit, continues to believe that the American people are too smart to stand for this, and that most Americans want a government that is free of religious dicta. Those of us who share his deep concern for the influence of the Religious Right in American life can only hope that he is right. I for one do not share his optimism.

Lynn tells us that “a get-along philosophy ... will increasingly prove disastrous” and that we will end up “whistling past the graveyard of our Bill of Rights and religious freedom if we take that road.” Yet, having said this, Lynn continues to preach restraint and an insistence on “sweet reason” as the best approach for dealing with the predations of the fundamentalists. Relating an anecdote about a televised confrontation with a member of the Religious Right, Lynn recalls that the host told him off-camera, “your side isn’t as passionate as his side.” Therein lies an enormous problem, and therein lies the reason that in America today, the Religious Right marches on, rampant though not (yet) completely triumphant. The forces of common sense and reason continue to lose ground to the forces of religious bigotry and intolerance. And in a country where every candidate for public office feels compelled to outdo the others with ever more over-the-top proclamations of personal religiosity, the problem is not going to go away when a new tenant moves into the White House.

While Lynn remains a strong proponent of a rational, even-handed approach, one occasionally gets an exciting sense of the rhetorical power that Lynn must deploy when he is in the pulpit and the spirit moves him. I found myself wishing for more of the sort of fire that Lynn displays when he shouts – and though they are only words on the page, I had no problem imaging him shouting them -- “I am weary of their gay bashing. I am weary of their crude attacks on nonbelievers. I am weary of their constant effort to sneak their bogus “creation science” into our schools. I am weary of their meddling in the most intimate areas of our private lives. I am weary of their attempts to politicize houses of worship. I am weary of all that they do.”

Preach on, Reverend.

Open for business

The blog for Stephen J. Gallagher, philosopher and playwright, is open for business.