Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Faith and Fanaticism

Doc Searls Web Log brings to our attention a piece by Arthur C. Clarke in Forbes titled "The View from 2500 A.D." in which the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey writes as though looking back at our time from a few centuries hence:

One outcome of this--the greatest psychological survey in the whole of history--was to demonstrate conclusively that the chief danger to civilization was not merely religious extremism but religions themselves.. Billions of words of pious garbage spoken by statesmen, clerics and politicians down the ages were either hypocritical nonsense or, if sincere, the babbling of lunatics.
Commenting about this on Doc's blog, James Robertson asserts:

"...the problem is less religion than it is fanaticism. Secular fanatics - fascists and communists, for instance - have killed far more efficiently than the religious fanatics have..."

Doc concurs, as do I -- and as history confirms.

But a fanatic is defined as somebody who has extreme and sometimes irrational beliefs, especially in religion or politics. And that would make just about any believer in any major religion something of a fanatic, because the fundamental precepts of religious faith are hardly "rational." God wrote a book? God gives a hoot about what women wear? Jesus in a cracker? But I have to agree with the sentiment in Clarke's piece, which reflects something Sam Harris wrote in The End of Faith:

"(T)heology is now little more than a branch of human ignorance. Indeed, it is ignorance with wings."
With any luck people will one day wake up about that.

Back to Mr. Robertson's assertion, though: It seems to me that religious extremism is enabled by -- to quote Harris again...

"the larger set of cultural and intellectual accommodations we have made to faith itself. Religious moderates are, in large part, responsible for the religious conflicts in our world, because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed."
It's dangerous for religious moderates to stand back in a politically correct posture and say, "Well, now, I don't believe what you believe but it's perfectly okay by me for you to believe whatever nonsense it is you want to believe so long as you don't hurt anybody."

"What's wrong with that?" you ask. Well, what's wrong is the implication that religious beliefs are and should remain beyond rational criticism. And that leads to the persistence of clearly antiquated and objectively discredited practices -- to the detriment of individuals and whole cultures. This brand of religious tolerance justifies the lazy habit we have of accepting patently absurd ideas "on faith" -- rather than questioning the things we think we know. ("It ain't what you don't know that hurts you; it's what you do know that just ain't so.") To cite Harris again,

"While religious faith is one species of human ignorance that will not admit of even the possibility of correction, it is still sheltered from criticism in every corner of our culture."

To practice the seemingly noble custom of religious tolerance is to enable fanaticism. To admit faith to the arena of human discourse, on equal standing with reason, is to ensure the continuation of discord, hostility and, ultimately, violence. Where do you draw the lines of the "don't hurt anybody" boundary? The suicide bomber fervently believes his martyrdom and murder are for the greater good; it says so right there in the holy book that God wrote. But we can't tell him that some of what's in that book is a lot of hooey, because that would be intolerant.

Tolerance seems, on the surface of it, to be a fine idea. And I sure don't want you to think I believe we ought to go to war to make people come to their senses. But I go along with Sam Harris in thinking we ought not give "faith" a free pass, and with Arthur C. Clarke in the conclusion that religions themselves may be the chief danger to civilization.

In Clarke's fictional account, civilization came to its senses. But I don't have much faith that it ever will.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Light Bulb

Everything is too difficult these days.

I had some work done on my car a couple weeks ago and they told me that one of the four brake lights was burned out so they removed it but did not have a replacement in stock as they don't see a lot of cars like mine. Carlos gave me the burned out bulb so I could see it was burned out and said, "Well, Bob, bring 'er on back down here tomorrow or the next day and we'll stick a new one in there for ya. No charge."

So I went back a couple days later in my other car to get the brakes on that one fixed because they were making an awful noise. And after they fixed the brakes and I paid them 787 dollars for that, I figured I could just take the new bulb home and stick it in the other car myself, so I said, "Say, Carlos, I seem to recall you owe me a bulb for my other car." And Carlos said, "Well, Bob, you got me dead to rights there, ol' buddy, but we kinda forgot to get a new one for ya. Now what number was that ol' burnt-out bulb we took out of 'er the other day? "

So I said, "I don't exactly know, Carlos, 'cause I left the bulb at home." And Carlos said, "Well, Bob, when you get home you just give us a call and give me the number and I'll get a new one and you can come on back down and we'll put 'er in there for ya."

So I started to drive home and got about half a block and the brakes were making an awful noise even more awful than the noise they were making before. Plus the brake pedal went all the way to the floor before the car would even think about stopping. This did not seem quite right.

So I turned around and drove back to the car place and when I drove in Carlos said, "Whoa!, Bob that don't sound right! I think you got a problem with them brakes we fixed." And I said, "You know, Carlos, I thought the same thing myself."

So Carlos had the boys check 'er out and, sure enough, they kinda forgot to do a thing or two when they fixed the brakes earlier that day, so Carlos said, "Well, Bob, just have a seat in there in the waiting room with the big fuzzy TV and the artificial coffee machine and watch Fox News and have a cup of artificial coffee on us while we make 'er right for ya."

So after half an hour or so of "Fair and Balanced" Carlos came into the waiting room and said, "Well, Bob, she's all done now and sorry about the trouble. And there's no more to pay than the 787 dollars you already paid." And I think he thought I was supposed to think he was being pretty generous about that.

So I got on home late for supper and I found the old bulb on the dresser under the cat and I called up the shop and this voice said, "Well, now, we're closed up and won't be open until tomorrow morning so give us a call back then."

Next morning I put the old bulb in the pocket of my old jeans and went to work and when I got there I picked up the phone and dialed up my old buddy Carlos and when he answered I said, "Howdy, Carlos, this is Bob and I got that bulb here to give you the number." And he said, "Bob? Well, now, what Bob is that and what bulb are you talking about?"

So I told him the story just like I told you and he said, "Oh, yeah. Bob. I remember now. So what was the number on that bulb and I'll order one up for ya." And I reached down into the pocket of my jeans. Now there is a reason I don't often wear those jeans even though they are my favorite pair and that has to do with the fact that there is a little hole in the pocket of those jeans that small things, say the size of a brake light bulb, can slip through and never be seen again except by some guy walking down the street who says, "Well, now, lookit this, what have we here? Why it seems to be a burnt-out bulb of some kind."

So I said to Carlos, "You know Carlos, there seems to be a little complication here and I guess I don't really have that bulb any more." And Carlos said, "Well, Bob, you can just pull out one of the other bulbs and read the number off of it and it'll be the same number."

But I did not have that car with me at the office, of course, so I said, " I'll get back to you on that tomorrow or so, Carlos." And Carlos said, "Good enough, Bob. We are here to serve you."

So when I got home I went down in the garage and I took another brake light bulb out of the car and went back upstairs and called up Carlos and he happened to be there and he said, "Well, Bob, I'll order up that bulb and you can come on down here tomorrow afternoon and we'll put 'er in there for ya."

Now it was kind of complicated to get that bulb out of the car the way they make those things these days, so I figured I'd just let the boys down at the shop put both those bulbs back in there, the one that was burned out and the good one that had supplied the number.

So the next day I drove the car with both missing brake light bulbs to the office and I left work early and went over to the shop and Carlos wasn't there. So I said to one of Carlos's boys, "Hello there. I'm Bob and Carlos said he ordered a bulb for my car and you boys would put it in there for me, but I don't see Carlos around here this afternoon."

And one of Carlos's boys, the tall one with the beard and the deep voice, said, "Well, now sir, you are right on the money on that one; Carlos is not here and I don't know nothin' about this bulb you are talkin' about and from the looks of that car we don't normally have those bulbs and we would have to order it up for ya." So I said, "But you see Carlos said he already ordered up a bulb so it must be around here someplace."

And as he was just about to shake his head another one of Carlos's boys who was busy wiping the grease off his hands with a dirty red rag said, "You know I think the man is right because I heard Carlos say he got that bulb and he put it in the office on his desk in there in case this man come back to get the bulb put in."

And a third one of Carlos's boys joined the circle of us standing around a grease spot there in the middle of the shop and he said, "That's right. That bulb is in Carlos's office because I seen it in there myself just after lunch."

And the first one made kind of a humming sound and thought about that while he took a pack of smokes out of his shirt pocket and put one in his mouth. And after he lit it up and took a suck of his smoke he said, "Well now that's a good thing." And then he coughed a bit before he went on, "but the bad thing is, you see, Carlos's office is all locked up now and he won't be back until Tuesday, you see, because he is off fishing until then."

Now of course nobody had a spare key for Carlos's office and I said that did not seem like a very smart way to run a business and they all agreed that, no, that wasn't a good idea but that was how Carlos wanted it: only one key and that one in Carlos's pocket.

So when Tuesday rolled around I drove the car with the two brake lights missing over to Carlos's shop and he said, "Well now, Bob, where you been? I got this brake light here for 'ya, so pull 'er right up into the bay here and we'll stick 'er in there for 'ya."

And I said, "Well, thank you Carlos I'm glad to hear that and I wonder if you got the time to stick in the other bulb I pulled out of there to check the number." And Carlos said he sure did and that would be no problem at all.

So as I asked him if he'd caught any fish I reached down into the pocket of my favorite old jeans.

And then I said to Carlos, "Well, now, Carlos, you wouldn't happen to have another one of those bulbs now would you? And Carlos said, "Well, no, just this one. But I could order one for 'ya."

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Big Betty

Eddie deRoos has been famous around here for a while because of his big chicken.

It sits in a nest out by the highway nodding its head and every minute or two it raises its left wing and wags it around. You can't miss it. A twenty foot tall chicken, wagging a wing, is not something you pass without taking notice, and that's the point. It was meant to advertise "The Coop" -- a joint that was known for its fried chicken, fries and home-brewed beer until it burned down last April.

The big hen is all that remains of the place and some folks think it's outlived whatever usefulness it once had. Many of those have always been less than fond of what they called "The Monster Chicken," or "The Big Duck," and agree with the local paper's original review of the thing, which was headlined: "DeRoos-ter lays an egg."

Others think the bird ought to be preserved and they've started a "Save the Chicken" foundation to raise the necessary funds and encourage the County to exercise imminent domain over the property on which the chicken sits, make the hen a landmark, and pay for its upkeep. DeRoos is ambivalent about the idea because he's moved on to other, bigger, things.

I ran into Eddie down at Martha's Koffee Kup the other day and when I slid into the booth across from him I asked what news he had about the chicken and the controversy surrounding it.

DeRoos is a tall, lanky man nearing fifty, with an angular face, bad teeth, and curly blond hair. His long eyelashes flutter over darting eyes, and you'd expect a kind of intensity about a man that looks like that. But Eddie speaks softly and moves like a fellow who has all the time in the world and no place special to go.

"Well, now, Bob," he said, "It sure does have folks up in arms, and I suppose that is one of the things that real art is supposed to do."

I reiterated to Eddie that I had always been fond of the thing and always made a point to take visitors for a drive down the highway so they could appreciate it, even if that meant going out of my way.

DeRoos wondered if "going out of my way" meant I never had any intention of treating my guests to dinner at The Coop, and I had to admit that was the case. "Well, Eddie, fried foods don't sit right with me, you know, and besides -- just between us -- I tried their beer once and found it to be a little bit anemic."

"See, that's the problem," said Eddie. "The whole idea was to get folks into the place to spend some money and use up some of the beer they made there. And from that perspective it was a colossal failure. Why in all my years as a commercial artist I never did have a failure of such proportions."

I held up a hand and caught Martha's eye to let her know I could use some coffee and she got the point right away. "And you, Mister deRoos? More coffee?" She poured me a cup, refilled his and asked if we needed anything else but we told her we were good.

"Actually, though, Bob," Eddie said as he poured the first of three packets of sweetener in his cup, "Maybe the problem wasn't with the big chicken but with the product."

"You think?" I said.

"See, some guy who was a big-time New York advertiser said once that nothing can kill a bad product faster than good advertising. Get everybody to try it by building up their expectations, and if the product don't deliver... Well, they run to the hills and you never see 'em again."

We agreed that the failure of The Coop was not the fault of the Big Chicken, and maybe the fire was the best thing that ever happened to the place.

"Yeah," said Eddie, "I guess it was a blessing in disguise. They didn't have to go belly-up. Blame the old water heater or wiring or whatever it was started that fire."

I asked Eddie if he'd decided to come down one way or the other on the "Save the Chicken" issue, and he replied that it still didn't much matter to him because his mind, these days, was elsewhere. And when I asked him just exactly where his mind was, he reached down under the table and brought up a rolled-up set of plans for his next work of commercial art.

"This, here, is the next big thing," he said, as I moved my coffee cup aside to make room for the plans. "This here is gonna make folks forget about the Big Chicken altogether, if I can get 'er built somehow. 'Cause this here is my opus maximus." He leaned across the table in my direction, "That's Latin for my "biggest work."

It was magnificent. I should say "she" was magnificent. She looked a bit like Wonder Woman but, instead of wearing red, white and blue in a patriotic motif she was dressed in khaki shorts and a t-shirt with a Shell Oil Company logo above her left breast. There was a baseball cap on her head and it featured an identical logo. The way she was drawn she seemed to be waving her right hand and in her left she held a placard reading "V-Power."

"My goodness," I said, "And what exactly is 'V-Power?'"

Eddie said he wasn't quite sure, but thought it had something to do with a kind of gasoline, and it didn't matter anyway because the whole Shell Oil Company thing was just an example of the possibilities for Big Betty.

"And you call her 'Big Betty' because why?"

"Well she's big, of course, forty-two feet tall, and the 'Betty' is just for the alliteration. 'Big Betty.' I think it has a kind of ring to it."

It did have a ring to it and it sounded a lot less comical than "Big Chicken." Yes, this was a serious work and I could see why deRoos considered it his opus maximus. "So," I asked, "Do you have a commission for this? Have you shown it to Shell?"

Eddie said, no, while it had been his original intention to approach the Shell Oil Company he had not been able to get in the door there nor at their advertising agency and he had pretty much decided on a different approach this time around. "She's gonna be for rent, like a standard billboard. See, I plan to build her and install her down the highway near where the Big Chicken is by the Christmas tree farm. I talked with Daryl about that already and he's good to go, for a piece of the business."

Daryl had been a schoolmate of Eddie and a few years ago he had inherited the family's nursery and turned it into a Christmas tree farm and, in the fall, a pumpkin patch. He had always been a promoter and was good at dreaming up ways of attracting attention to his various business ventures. Some pumpkin patches, for example, offered pony rides to kids, but Daryl did not think that was sufficiently imaginative. So he bought out a failing circus and moved the exotic animals to the nursery and offered the kiddies a chance to ride a camel or a llama or an elephant. Daryl was one of the prime movers behind the "Save the Chicken" organization, not because he was a connoisseur of chickens or commercial art but because he thought the attraction was good for business.

"See, Betty's clothes can come off and you can dress her up any way you want to." Eddie flipped the plans to the next page and there was Betty dressed up like a United Airlines flight attendant holding a plane ticket in her left hand.

When I nodded and said, "United..." Eddie turned the page and there she was outfitted like a FedEx delivery person holding up that company's familiar overnight envelope.

"Now, her right hand," Eddie explained, "that's always waving, nice and friendly. But you can put whatever you want in the left one. And, like I said, her clothes come off."

I told Eddie that was something I'd pay money to see, as Betty was quite the looker and very healthy around the chest.

"That's what I'm countin' on," said Eddie. "See, she's gonna attract a lot of attention when she's all decked out like a service station attendant or a FedEx gal or whatever." He noted that, while it wasn't apparent from the drawings, she also winked her right eye in a slow, seductive kind of way, "But the real publicity comes when we change her clothes."

Eddie figured every teevee station and newspaper would send a photographer out to grab a shot of Betty whenever she was getting changed. "Being as she is a perfect woman, anatomically speaking, I figure her tits are gonna be flashed on every teevee screen and splashed on the front page of every feature section whenever we strip her down and give her a new identity."

I thought about that for a moment and it did seem to be a likely scenario, but I had to ask, "Well, now, Eddie, if she is as you say 'anatomically perfect' there is another part of that anatomy that might not be too apropos for a family newspaper or the six o'clock news. So, might that work against you? Just a bit?"

Eddie grinned and, vigorously shaking his head, he flipped to the last page of his plans. There was Betty, standing as before but naked from the waist up. Her breasts were something to behold; perfectly formed and as pretty as a pair of three-foot diameter breasts could ever be. And in front of her, hiding whatever there was below her waist, was an enormous three-paneled Victorian dressing room screen decorated with pink cherubs and iris blossoms. Betty's feet could be seen below the screen and surrounding them, laying on the ground, was an enormous pair of bright red lace panties.

"You see, Bob," said Eddie, "Sometimes it's better to leave things to the imagination."

"Yes," I said as I finished my coffee and slid out of the booth, "The imagination is a wonderful thing."