Archive for the 'Religion' Category

David Foster Wallace on worshipping

September 24, 2008

I’ve only read writer David Foster Wallace around the edges, mostly in newspaper articles and book extracts, but the tributes published in the wake of his recent suicide, at age 46, have made me want to hear more. The Wall Street Journal has published a version of a Kenyon College commencement speech he gave in 2005 that is really mind-bending in its simple power. In it, he decries what he calls “default-setting” thinking, in which we place ourselves at the center of the universe and therefore at odds with just about everyone and everything else:

[I]f you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars — compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship…

Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. [Emphasis mine.]

If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings.

We’re now harvesting the grapes of wrath for a decade or more of worshipping money and power on an unprecedented level, and the entire nation is in danger of being “eaten alive” by it. And the saviors who are coming forward sound suspiciously like the charlatans who got us in this mess in the first place.

Wallace knows, or knew. He knew that, in light of such huge forces over which we have so little influence, we have only our personal freedom to exercise:

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

That “infinite thing” we have lost may be our very selves, or our futures, or our children’s futures.

Update: Wallace’s family talks about his last days.


Jihadist humor

April 22, 2008

Forgive me, but this just appealed to my warped sense of humor this morning:

Ask the Jihadist

(Be sure to check out the illustration and notice where he’s blogging from.)

Men Who Explain Things: A “fundamental” issue?

April 22, 2008

I was so impressed with this article from the LATimes that I read it twice, not that I would likely pick up any of Rebecca Solnit’s books for a quick read, but because of the universality of what she was describing.

While she and a friend were at an upscale dinner party, some jerk began to expound on her lack of knowledge on a topic, only to be told that the book he was citing to silence her was HERS.

Men explain things to me, and to other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Some men. Every woman knows what I mean. It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.

This syndrome is something nearly every woman faces every day, within herself too, a belief in her superfluity, an invitation to silence, one from which a fairly nice career as a writer (with a lot of research and facts correctly deployed) has not entirely freed me. After all, there was a moment there when I was willing to believe Mr. Very Important and his overweening confidence over my more shaky certainty.

I don’t know about “every woman,” but I certainly have found myself cut off in mid-sentence and sometimes silenced by some macho moron’s need to be superior. (And it’s only afterward, in my office or my car or my house, licking my wounds, that I come up with the perfect thing to say.)

Having public standing as a writer of history has helped me stand my ground, [says Solnit] but few women get that boost, and billions of women are out there on this 6-billion-person planet being told that they are not reliable witnesses to their own lives, that the truth is not their property, now or ever.

The battle with Men Who Explain Things has trampled many women — of my generation, of the up-and-coming generation we need so badly, here and in Pakistan and Bolivia and Java, not to mention the countless women who came before me and were not allowed into the laboratory, or the library, or the conversation, or the revolution, or even the category called human.

While I’ll admit that I’ve had this experience with a few Women Who Explain Things, the majority of the perpetrators have been men. I even remember one embarrassing exchange with a particularly smug guy in a Sunday School class! (Pious Men Who Explain Things are in a sanctimonious class of their own.)

I’ve become better at speaking up over the years, but I still find the whole thing distasteful. I don’t have to be right all the time, but I DO have to be taken seriously, to be included in the conversation. Most women tend to look for common ground in a discussion, I find, while too many men look for ways to win, to have the last word. Why is that? Testosterone? Conditioning? Bringing the sports field into the board room?

Maybe this is making me itchy all over because, for the past week, I’ve been watching those sad FLDS women from the compound in Texas, with their upswept hair and pioneer dresses and soft, soft voices. They outnumber the men in the compound by more than two to one, but I’ll wager they have been the victims of Men Who Explain Things their entire lives.

(Update. Someone takes a swing at Solnit.)

Chaucer and PC

February 14, 2008

images-12.jpegThis is hilarious — but it’s probably for English majors only. Via.

Mitt—and the Mormons—the morning after

February 8, 2008

images-2.jpegNow that the initial news over Mitt Romney throwing in the towel has been absorbed by the media far and wide, a lot of news copy and bloggage is picking over the relationship between his candidacy and his faith. Libby Copeland of the Washington Post in “Did Mormons Get a Bounce from Mitt?” thinks Romney may have been a little too perfect for the American public:

Romney seemed so Mormon, so squeaky clean, so Pollyanna-ish, even. (Remember when he went to Michigan and said he could bring those lost jobs back?) Romney’s seeming normalcy isn’t the norm anymore. Maybe we understand better those who’ve strayed or failed and recovered — or, for that matter, those who aren’t fabulously successful and can’t put tens of millions into their own campaigns. Maybe we relate to the family lives of other candidates, candidates who have been divorced, who have blended families, whose children don’t all campaign with them (and may not even like them). Sure, they’re messier, but messy is authentic.

Peggy Fletcher Stack of the Salt Lake Tribune today concentrated on the “weirdness factor” that dogged Mitt and the Mormons during the last several months:

…Romney’s failed campaign revealed what many Americans really think about Mormons. It forced Latter-day Saints to acknowledge that they don’t just belong to another American denomination.

“We have to live with the fact that a lot of people think our beliefs are strange,” said LDS historian Richard Bushman, the professor emeritus at Columbia University who helped explain Mormonism to a skeptical public. “Mormons have never had so much exposure as we have in the last year, so much genuine curiosity on the part of high-level media. I don’t think we’ll ever be the same.”

If it has been tough for many Latter-day Saints to see themselves as others do, it has been equally hard to face the country’s continued bigotry, said others.

And it may not bode well for the future, says Stack. “The anti-Mormon whispering campaigns in the Bible Belt may also have permanently derailed the growing political alliance between Mormons and evangelicals,” she predicts. Read the rest of this entry »

Shaking hands with history

February 1, 2008

I once heard Oprah Winfrey tell the story of seeing the Supremes for the first time on the Ed Sullivan Show on CBS. This was in the Sixties when about the only black people on television seemed to be athletes, dancers and Diahann Carroll on the carefully scripted “Julia.” As soon as they spotted Diana Ross, Oprah and her friends and family all immediately called each other and said — well, I’m not going to say what they said, because it sounds racist coming from anyone but her. Suffice it to say it was a big deal then to see black people on national television.

Things have changed, and isn’t it wonderful? (Two words: Denzel Washington.) Black people are a major part of every level of the entertainment industry, and have made great strides everywhere else. Okay, I’m not naive. I know things aren’t perfect, and that there are still acres of acrimony and discrimination, but things are better. (Two words: Condoleeza Rice. Or Colin Powell. Or Barack Obama.) I remember as a child seeing pictures of segregated water fountains and benches in the South, and I realize much of this change has happened during my lifetime. I was utterly thrilled several years ago when I got to shake hands with Rosa Parks. I felt like I was touching history.

Mormons are a lot like Oprah was. Mormons on television! Donny and Marie! Gladys Knight! Ken Jennings! The Mormon Tabernacle Choir! Larry King’s wife, Shawn! Harry Reid! Carmen Rasmussen! Glenn Beck! Larry King and Mike Wallace interviewing President Gordon B. Hinckley! We were accepted, we were loved, we were admired. We were finally breaking into the mainstream.

Or so we thought. Two words: Mitt Romney. As the Deseret News posted, an op-ed piece by Barry Cleveland in the Carni (Ill.) Times that was picked by a variety of blogs pretty well sums it up: Read the rest of this entry »