Archive for April, 2006

Why Science Is Better Than Religion

Sunday, April 23rd, 2006

It has long been fashionable for smart people from liberal arts backgrounds (like my own) to equate science and religion. Such people are fond of saying things like, “Science is a religion, too,” “Science and religion are equally valid; they’re just two different ways of looking at the world,” and “Scientists don’t like to admit that they are, in their own way, just as irrational as religious people.” This attitude seems to come from a well-meaning resistance to the idea that some ways of looking at the world might have more value than others – an idea which may seem, though it is not, to be close to the idea that some races of people are better than others.
This line of thinking is hogwash. And it’s on my mind because tonight — at a lovely going-away party in Brooklyn Heights held by, and for, Mischa Frusztajer — a very smart person for whom I have tremendous respect made such a statement. (I won’t identify him, except to say that he is a very good guy and has read many more books than I have, including some in German, and that his name is Roger Berkowitz, and that he has written a very smart book called The Gift of Science: Leibniz and the Modern Legal Tradition.”) Roger said something to the effect of ‘Science and religion are essentially the same, because both start from unprovable assumptions. Scientists start from the assumption that the world may be rationally understood. That is an assumption, as Leibniz pointed out, that must be made; there is no ‘proving’ such a thing.”

Here is what I would have said, if I’d had a few more of my wits about me: “Actually, there is an enormous difference between saying, ‘Here is what I understand about the world, and if you follow these steps, you can test my statement for yourself, and see if I’m right,’ and saying, ‘Here is what I know to be true, because someone I never met wrote it in a book more than a thousand years ago. And by the way, it’s impossible for anyone to test these claims, ever. Still, if you don’t accept my interpretation of this ancient book, I will expect you to burn in Hell, and may even have to persecute and possibly kill you to make sure you get there soon.”

Science and religion are not the same. Science is a self-correcting method of learning about the world. Good scientists make no claims that cannot be tested by others. The same cannot be said of good clergy.

Even if one grants that both scientists and the religious begin with at least one untested assumption — the scientists, that the world may be comprehended; the religious, that God or a god or gods and/or goddesses communicated His or Her or Their desires to some people a long time ago, and expected the rest of us to believe and follow those people’s written accounts — look at what happens after those initial assumptions. Scientists test something, measure the results, continue to test it from various angles, and invite others to join them in those tests, to see what else may be learned. (By now, moreover, it should be obvious that the assumption that the world, if studied, may be rationally understood, has in fact been demonstrated. If it had not, people would never have reached the moon, to cite an obvious example; nor would we have conquered polio, nor have invented the computers on which words like this are written and read.)

The religious, on the other hand, do not test their writings over and over, nor do they invite others to do such testing. Instead of testing they insist, often violently, on the primacy of their particular writings over competing versions.

I can’t believe I have to explain this, but here goes: Insisting is not the same as testing. Insisting requires persuasion and power — sometimes the full weight of the state. Testing requires honesty and precision.
Imagine that your car breaks down in a strange town, and two men approach you to offer their help. One of them offers to study your car, and test various possibilities until he finds the source of the problem. The other insists that God has told his ancestors why cars break down, and that you’d better believe him, or your car will never run again. To which man will you listen?

If you’re smart, you’ll listen to the one who’s willing to actually study the car and test a number of possibilities. If you’re not as smart, you’ll listen to the one who sounds most confident or scares you the most, regardless of what he may know about cars.
And that, my friends, is why science is better than religion: It’s smarter, it’s humbler, and it doesn’t need to enforce its conclusions with a sword.

A Memory of Reading

Sunday, April 23rd, 2006

A recent piece in the British press described a conversation among writers about their idea of the perfect evening. I think it was Christopher Hitchens who said that his involved being alone in a warm room, in a comfortable chair, with a new book by the (very) late P.G. Wodehouse.

That probably wasn’t what the questioner had in mind. The obvious answers for most men would involve a great meal and some company, whether of good friends or a beautiful woman or two.

Maybe that’s why the answer stands out for me. It’s not one I would not have thought to make. And yet some of my happiest memories involve reading alone.

One such came up on Wednesday’s warm evening, as I sat with my girlfriend Amy Farranto and our friend Win Clevenger on the rooftop of Bar 13 after the lovely book party Nomi Prins hosted for Anthony Arnove’s “Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal”. Win mentioned the Rod Stewart song “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”, and my neurons immediately took me back to a scene that probably took place on December 31st, 1979.

I was sitting on the green couch in our house on 1017 Highland Park Road in Schenectady, New York. “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” was playing on Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year. Following it closely was Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.” I was eleven and a half years old.

My mom and dad were getting dressed up to go out. My dad smelled of cologne, my mom of perfume. When I told her how pretty she looked, she seemed embarrassed, but pleased. A babysitter would be coming soon to watch us; we weren’t old enough to join the adults for their fun.
I was reading a science-fiction story called “Apple,” part of an anthology I had gotten from the library called “Zoo 2000.” The story was set in the future, after an atomic war had wiped out millions and caused a number of strange mutations. In this particular town, radiation had made an apple grow until it loomed over the town like a mountain. The men of the town made their living by mining its flesh. The story’s protagonist, an exterminator, had just arrived at the town’s request. He had been called in because a giant moth was killing the miners – wrapping them in a gauzy web. The atmosphere of the story was fantastic, as he walked through the appley tunnels and approached the rotting area where the moth made her home.

Either song – the “Sexy” song or the Heart of Glass – can take me right back into that story. Their cool detachment and their synthesizers lend them a science-fiction feel.

I’m sure none of the artists involved in those songs could imagine an 11-year-old boy in upstate New York associating their songs with a story about an enormous apple and a murderous moth. Similarly, the author of that story could not have imagined it being called to mind more than 20 years later – well after the year 2000 – by the mention of a song by Rod Stewart.

But that’s how their works live in my brain.

I’d love to hear your own happy, or just intense, reading memories. Send them to bilbo68 (at) .

Picking on Psychics

Wednesday, April 12th, 2006

I like almost everything the NYT’s Dan Barry writes. He’s got a real way with words, and a feeling for the people he writes about. Except today.

In today’s column(Times Select; sub. req.) he writes about a psychic named Yolana, an older woman who once made a pretty good living predicting the future and now faces an uncertain retirement. To ‘balance’ the column, Barry talks with the managing editor of The Skeptical Inquirer, who asks, “Why don’t Yolana, John Edward, Sylvia Browne — why don’t all the psychics — summon their powers and find Osama bin Laden?”

The question seems reasonable. And this is what respectable newspapers do: They use reason to make fun of psychics. This reassures their readers, who feel smarter for being in on the joke.
But on April 1st, just 11 days earlier, Barry wrote about two other older women who face an uncertain retirement: nuns whose church was being closed as part of a broader ‘realignment.’ (Times Select; sub. req.)

This time, Barry didn’t interview the managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer about the faith of those nuns. If he had, after all, that managing editor might have asked, “What good is the faith of those nuns, if it can’t save their church from closing? And while we’re at it, why can’t the Pope find Osama bin Laden?”

May you forget your first book

Monday, April 10th, 2006

I love the Literacy Site, and all the sites associated with it. Simply by clicking on the button in the middle of the page, and those of its sister sites (which are tabbed at the top: The Hunger Site, the Breast Cancer Site, the Rainforest site, the Child Health site, and the Animal Rescue site), broadband users can
* provide a cup of food to a hungry person,
* help fund a mammogram,
* preserve 11.4 square feet of endangered rainforest,
* help fund basic health care for kids,
* help provide reading material to kids, and
* help animals in distress,

all in less than a minute, from the comfort of their own chairs. The Hunger Site launched during the dot-com boom, and busted when everything else did. But now it’s back, along with the peers described above, and it’s simply the most ingenious use of advertising dollars I know.

It’s great. But today, when I got to the Literacy Site, I cringed. Appropriating the old ‘You always remember your first _____’ motif (kiss, lover, car, etc.), someone at the Literacy Site wrote, “You always remember your first book.”

Actually, if parents are doing their jobs, their kids should have no idea what their first book was. They should have encountered it when they were too young to form serial memories, and it should have been followed by countless others, so that the first one faded into the dim past. Of course, that’s not how it always is for kids – but it’s how it ought to be.
So please remember to click on the Literacy Site each day, to ensure that kids get enough books, early enough, so they have no chance of remembering them.

Love Beats Fear

Wednesday, April 5th, 2006

Originally published by The Guy Code on January 25, 2001.

The nuns at Catholic school were kind enough to teach us a number of things we could do, and a few things we had to do, to avoid going to Hell.

Receiving the sacraments – holy communion, confirmation and so on – helped. But it was mandatory to go to mass each Sunday and each Holy Day of Obligation – i.e., the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary on Dec. 8, the Feast of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven on Aug. 15, Christmas and a few others. The sisters taught us that missing even one of these services without a really good excuse put a black mark on our souls that would outweigh any good deeds we might have done.

Unless we went to confession and received a priest’s absolution for missing a particular mass, the stain of that sin would pull us straight down to Hell when we died. There we would be tortured for all eternity, even as we retained the awareness that we would never see our saved loved ones, or our loving Creator, again.

Because touching a woman below the belt counts as a mortal sin unless she’s your wife, we had to confess each of those acts, too. I sometimes wonder if certain sins were declared “mortal” simply to make confession more interesting.

Reinforcing authority

In any event, it was certainly no coincidence that the moral teachings of the Church focused on activities that reinforced the Church’s authority. You had to go to mass, on average, more than once a week; had to confess mortal sins to an accredited priest; had to receive the sacraments, including that of marriage, within the Church’s walls; and so on – all to avoid burning eternally. In addition, you could earn a bonus by doing extra church-related activity – going to Mass on the first Friday of each month for nine consecutive months, for example, or attending special sessions of the rosary.

What strikes me about all this, now, is how little any of it has to do with love. Yet, according to Jesus, upon whose words and deeds the Church was purportedly built, the greatest commandment is to love God, and the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. (He never listed a ‘third-most-important commandment.’)

Nowhere in Jesus’ words will you find a commandment to attend mass, or even to pray in public. Nowhere does Jesus command his followers to tell a priest each time they touch a woman, or themselves, below the belt. Nowhere does he list the sacraments that have come to seem so necessary – all requiring the assistance of a priest. Nowhere does he speak of the importance of the Pope, or of wearing elaborate vestments or of building elaborate churches or of making chalices of sculpted gold.

Moreover, while the nuns used a lot of words to tell us about the love our God felt for us, it was hard for some of us to feel the “love” of a God who was ready to roast us forever just because we didn’t feel like going to a particular mass. Rather than love, the God they described was worthy of our terror.

No nunsence

I don’t blame the nuns, by the way. One of my aunts was a nun, and many of the nuns I’ve known were and are kind individuals. They taught me a great deal that was valuable. I’m focusing on the harsher aspects of the system into which most of them had been born. It was all they knew, and they had sworn to uphold it. They cared enough about us to want to keep us out of Hell, and that’s a kindness. From their perspective, instilling a fear of Hell was even more important than teaching us to be wary of cars.

Eventually the fear and authority of the Church stopped making sense to me, and I began to move away from it all, looking over my shoulder every so often as I went. Since leaving the Church I’ve made some progress, I think, in learning to love my neighbor. I haven’t learned as much about how to love God, in part I think because the original model I received was so frightening that I often prefer not to think about Him at all. I just have to hope that the nuns don’t turn out to be right. Time will tell.

One thing I’ve learned outside the Church’s embrace is that the priorities Jesus actually listed – be kind to others, visit the sick, forgive those who have hurt you – is the wisdom that is central to most other religions, too.

In our era, empirical evidence has come along to support that wisdom. As it turns out, many of the people who have had near-death experiences come back in full agreement with those values. Over and over, they talk about the importance of love.

That’s nice, isn’t it?

I’ve spoken with five or six people who have had near-death experiences, and have read thousands of accounts. I have yet to find a single one that mentions the Pope. I’m still looking for a reference to missing mass, or sensual touching, or mortal sin of any form. If I find one, I’ll let you know.

God wants love, not fear

Meanwhile, I’m relieved to see the happy evidence pile up. One hellfire-and-brimstone preacher who had such an experience actually went back to the pulpit and apologized for misleading his flock. “God wants us to love,” he told them, “not to fear.”

Again and again, such people talk of the importance of not harming others or yourself – and, while avoiding such harm, learning to love.

These lessons first went public in Dr. Raymond Moody’s “Life After Life.” Subsequent research by psychology professor Kenneth Ring, Evelyn Elsaesser Valarino and others has reinforced Moody’s findings, as you can read in “Lessons From the Light: What We Can Learn From the Near-Death Experience,” among many other reputable sources.

The evidence indicates that when people die, the questions of how well they had loved, and how much they had learned, matter far more than the name of their religion.

So maybe we ought to work on those things, instead of scaring each other.

The Un-Godfather

Wednesday, April 5th, 2006

Originally published by The Guy Code on October 16, 2000. Story’s doing great; she just turned five. I saw her just a few weeks ago. She’s a gem.

Hey, congratulate me – I’m a godfather! You can think of this column as me buying you a cigar. If I could see you, I’d ask you to shake my hand. Then I’d blabber to you, in a disjointed, excited way, about an infant you don’t know and I haven’t seen.

If you were polite and had a minute, you’d hang in there, pretending to listen, and try to find some way that any of this relates to you.

Best of luck. I’ll try to help, of course. I want to be polite, too.

My friends Diane and Rick had a baby on Monday, October 9. A little blond-haired girl, seven pounds and change. What do you think of that? Pretty good, huh?

Sure, I know – babies are born every day. They all look the same to you, and the ones who know them all insist this one’s different.

Really, what’s different is how the ones who know the baby now think of themselves. Older people who had been feeling tired, out of touch with the times, on the way out, can now see themselves instead as grandparents, aunts and uncles. People with a job to do for the baby – people who now have a stake in the future. It revitalizes them. They can’t stop smiling, and talking about the source of their joy is a way for them to keep the good feeling going.

That’s how I feel. I’d love it if you’d let me dwell on it for a moment.

Diane and Rick named their baby Story Frances. Nice name, don’t you think? Diane has a master’s in English literature, and as a journalist, she’s forever chasing stories. Now there’s a Story she’ll never stop telling.

Rick’s been looking forward to the birth in his own way. A week ago, he showed me the pager he was carrying. “When I get the call,” he said, “if I’m at work, I’m going to tell my co-workers, ‘Hey – I have to run. My old friend’s coming to visit.’”

As it turned out, he was at home when his wife’s contractions began to increase; there was no need to page.

Rick’s a big fan of the Beatles. It pleased him to learn that John Lennon was born exactly 60 years before Story was.

But enough about them. Let’s talk about me. I’m the godfather, after all. Yeah, just like Marlon Brando. (Yeah, that’s a good impression you’re doing right now. Very nice – thanks for the effort on that.)

Well, it’s a tricky situation, really, because of the religious leanings of Story’s parents.

Who put the God in Godfather?

See, usually it’s Catholic families that request godparents. A godparent’s job is to nurture the child’s faith, particularly in the event that anything happens to the parents. At the infant’s baptism, the godparents answer the priest’s questions on behalf of the baby. The questions are fairly straightforward, such as, “Do you renounce Satan and all his works?” (The correct answer is “You betcha, Padre.”)

Thing is, Diane and Rick were never Catholic. Diane grew up as a Latter-Day Saint. Rick was raised as a Jew. Neither religion embraces the concept of “godfather.”

But it goes further than that. I doubt it would shock their relatives to learn that neither Diane nor Rick is particularly, um, observant. Technically, they’re atheists – although Diane has shown some recent interest in astrology. So you might want to call me the ungodfather. Or the godlessfather.

That works for me. I grew up Catholic, so I have experience with godparents, but I’m not sure I’d qualify anymore to be a godfather under those guidelines. Priests encourage Catholic couples to choose godparents who accept the authority of the Pope; they’re sticklers that way.

So, as the formerly Catholic godfather of the offspring of an unbelieving Mormon and a nonpracticing Jew, what’s my role?

Glad you asked. I was afraid I’d lost you for a minute.

I’m not sure, myself. But I have a pretty good idea of what I might do.

In a memoir called “Between Heaven and Earth,” the Jungian therapist Robert Johnson recalls the influences of various ‘unofficial godparents’ in his life. For Johnson, a godparent is one who guides a child’s inner life. Parents order the external life – when to go to sleep, go to school, do chores, and so on. While they’re busy with that, a godparent can talk to the child about the deeper questions.

That sounds pretty good to me.

But wish me luck.

What I Got, When I Gave Up Homphobia

Wednesday, April 5th, 2006

Originally published by The Guy Code on September 18, 2000.

I’ve been thinking about this issue of homophobia, lately, from a purely selfish point of view. I haven’t been trying to defend political correctness, or to change society by instituting liberal policies. I just found myself wondering how my own life might have been different, if I had kept it closed to gays and lesbians.

I used to keep it solidly closed. I called people “faggot” for years, even after I knew what it meant. (As a young boy, I’d thought it meant only “a bundle of sticks” – a mistake that left me very confused when, after I used it to describe a fellow student, a teacher kicked me into a wall. Later that day, my mom told me that the word meant more than I had thought. I kept using it – we all did – but I was more careful after that.)

As a freshman in high school, I inspired a friend of mine to help me tease an effeminate classmate. We bullied him, scared him, made fun of the way he said the letter ‘s.’ The whole nine yards. We did not regret it, afterward; we laughed about it. That we had tormented someone together made us closer friends. Probably we felt safer as friends, now that we had warded off the demon of homosexuality. Maybe that’s why soldiers and male athletes tend to show more homophobia than others: Doing so enables them to become closer.

In some ways it would have been natural for me to continue behaving that way. The Catholic schools I attended were not hotbeds of tolerance. Nuns and monks taught us that homosexuality was a grave sin. Who was I to say I knew better? And if God hated gays, then maybe I was doing them a favor by teasing them – maybe my nastiness would show them the error of their ways, and they would come back to the straight side before it was too late. I don’t mean to exaggerate my hostility; I was never in a situation that approached the brutality with which Matthew Shepherd and others were treated. But I certainly was not very nice.

(By the way, that idea – saving someone by hurting them – is not as absurd as it may sound to someone who has not grown up under a religious cloud. If you are taught that no punishment meted out by humans could ever approach the tortures of the damned, then it can feel like an act of kindness to try to scare the hell out of people by using tactics that an atheist would consider cruel.)

In addition to the religious worries, I had to worry about pleasing my parents. My father worried that a friend of mine who had an earring and long hair might be queer. The fact that he wasn’t – the fact that the pretty girls in our class liked him more than they liked me – did not undo the lesson that a queer friend was not the right kind to have.

Get over it!

At some point I got over it. By and by, the evidence accumulated that what I had been taught was just so much bullshit. And now, here are some obvious and tangible ways that my life today would be different if I had believed the B.S.:

* I would be paying a lot more rent and living in a crappy apartment. My broker, who is gay, appreciates my friendship, as I appreciate his. When a better apartment than the one I had first rented from him became available, he let me know about it before a single ad had run. Had we not been friends, I would never have known that such an apartment existed as the one that is now my home.

* I would never have had a chocolate martini, or seen the original “Dracula,” with musical accompaniment by Philip Glass.

* One of my oldest friends would not have told me the truth about himself. As a result, our friendship would have undoubtedly deteriorated in a way that would have confused me; I would never have learned why he was no longer comfortable with me. I would probably have said ‘Oh, well, friendships die, c’est la vie’ – or the equivalent to ‘c’est la vie’ in a language that sounds more masculine than French. ‘Asi es la vida,’ probably.

* I would never have become friends with a woman I know whose parents both left each other for same-sex lovers when she was a child. Again, I would not have known why we were not friends; it just would have seemed to work out that way.

* A very good friend of mine would not have been there for me a few years back, as a listening ear and an erudite sounding board, as I went through a time that was emotionally very painful. His compassionate guidance showed me that there might be meaning in my suffering; without his guidance, the trip would have been much lonelier.

* I would not have gotten such good advice about avoiding law school, as a lesbian friend of mine gave me during a frank discussion about how to figure out what you really want in life and why.

* I would have missed out on hours of laughter. One example that jumps to mind is watching the John Waters movie “Polyester” at a party thrown by a gay friend. Again, I would never have known that the party existed, had we not become friends.

* I would never have known a man named Francisco, who died of AIDS some years back as I visited him each week over a period of months. Knowing him deepened my life in ways that are hard now to measure; concretely, knowing him meant that my brother and I could stay with his family, in a small town in Mexico, years after his death; we saw life there better than we could have done as tourists.

* I would not have felt the admiration for Bill Clinton that I felt during the 1992 campaign. When a young woman asked him about gays in the military, he said, “We need all Americans, working together.” My admiration for that strong statement stands, no matter how disappointed I was by his lies during the Lewinsky investigation.

* I would have missed out on knowing what it was like to have a man hit on me at a gay bar.

Why would that be a loss? Here’s why: I have hit on a number of women, and I will probably hit on many more before I’m done. I have tended to see this experience from my perspective only, so that the awkwardness of my target’s response has often felt personal.

To get hit on by a strong man in whom you have no interest is not the same as being hit on by a woman. The difference in physical strength increases one’s need to remain polite while trying to convince him to let you be. I suddenly appreciated, in a new way, the gyrations some women have gone through in order to reject me without causing me to lose face.

I also saw that it was often not personal: My rejection of this man had nothing to do with his face, or his approach, or his level of physical fitness, or his soul, or his clothes. It was simply that he wasn’t my type, because my type is female.

* I would have missed out on simple, cordial relations with nurses and patients in the psych hospital where I once worked and at the magazine where I now work. There are many people in our lives whose smile is important to us even though we will never become close friends. The ability to comfortably greet someone, in the course of your day, without having to feel anxiety about that person’s “lifestyle choice,” should not be minimized.

* I would have missed out on a funny, external affirmation of my heterosexuality. Not long after meeting me, one friend said, “I could tell you were straight because you were so comfortable with me. If you were, on the fence, shall we say, my presence would probably have made you agitated.”

In short, the increasing comfort I have felt with gays and lesbians has improved and deepened my life in a way that is no longer possible even to measure. I cannot imagine how my life would look now without these friendships. It would certainly be narrower, and would certainly be lonelier.

Fewer of my friends would be my friends – and this extends to straight friends, too, because most people in my social circle find homophobia, like racism, rather off-putting.

As well they should.

A few years ago, I tracked down the boy I had tormented as a high-school freshman. I called him at his home in Montana, where he lives as an artist. We talked for a little while, and I told him how sorry I was for what my friend and I had done to him. I wrote him a letter afterward, underlining what I had said awkwardly on the phone. He sent me a postcard, saying that he appreciated my efforts to make things better. It was also clear that he remembered my cruelty quite well; I was unable to comfort myself by telling myself that it had been no big deal.

It had been a big deal, and I’m only glad I didn’t create too many others before I knew better.

We Could Start by Apologizing, and Go From There

Wednesday, April 5th, 2006

Originally published by The Guy Code on September 3, 2000.

Now that the Republican Party sees inclusiveness as a valid goal, perhaps American society is ready to consider something for which it’s never seemed quite ready: paying reparations for slavery.

Decades after the U.S. had wrongfully detained Japanese-Americans in World War II concentration camps because of their ancestry, the victims got money, and an apology, for their trouble. More recently, the government of Germany and companies like Siemens have agreed to pay billions of dollars to Jews whose labor they exploited during the Holocaust.

Genuine monetary damages are going to people for actions that are 50 years old. Why not 150?

Does it seem too far back? Does it seem as though it would be too complicated, since we are talking about compensating descendants rather than direct victims? Does it sound like a task that would simply be too massive, bureaucratic and unpleasant?

Maybe so. Slavery itself was certainly massive, bureaucratic and unpleasant, from its beginnings here in Jamestown in 1619 on until the end of the Civil War in 1865 finally put a stop to it. Two hundred and forty-six years of owning and controlling human beings, in a manner sanctioned and enforced by U.S. law.

I think we can all be clear on one thing: Stopping the commission of a crime is not the same as making restitution. If someone takes away your wallet, and then your watch, it is not enough for them to simply stop stealing. At some point, before you can easily look them in the eye, they have to look like they regret what they did, and they have to give your stuff back.

The U.S. can never give back what its people took from Africa. The people of the U.S. can never restore to the descendants of slaves what was ripped away from them all those years ago — we can never return them to their homelands and families and restore their heritage and cultural traditions, let alone return to them their freedom and dignity. But we can certainly say we’re sorry, and we can certainly do better than we have done in making reparations.

The country grew on slave labor

The U.S. economy benefited a great deal from the cheap, forced labor of slaves. If you doubt that, take another look at how hard the states that fostered slavery fought to hold on to that “right.”

Because of television footage and movies, it is relatively easy for Americans today to comprehend the carnage in Vietnam. Nor does anyone who has seen “Saving Private Ryan” have trouble imagining the losses this country suffered during the Second World War. But you’d have to multiply America’s casualties in Vietnam by ten to get an idea of what was lost in the War Between the States.

Now, it’s certainly simplistic to say that the war was fought to free the slaves. The North was never that altruistic. But it’s also simplistic to deny the centrality of slavery to that conflict. “States’ Rights,” to the South, meant the right to buy, sell and control human beings. Georgia did not suffer the burning of Atlanta simply because its people liked the look of confederate money.

Maybe because of the rivers of blood that were shed in that war, and the bad blood that still remains – take the recent fight over the flying of the confederate flag over South Carolina for example – the issue of making restitution to slaves and their descendants has never really gotten off the ground.

Maybe Americans would still prefer to believe that atrocities happen elsewhere.

To cure themselves of this, maybe all of America should visit the Schomburg Center in Harlem.

It’s a good deal smaller than the Holocaust Museum in Washington, and in some ways more difficult to take. But the message is similar: Here is the evidence of evil, made to seem ordinary by its frequency. Here is the evidence that an entire society went about its business while atrocities took place daily. Here is the evidence that people with bodies and brains no different from our own can do horrible things, and tolerate horrible things, without even breaking a sweat. It’s tough to look.

The Holocaust Museum in Washington confronts you with the horror of what humans have done – overseas. If you grew up anywhere but Europe, the revulsion and sorrow you feel are almost pure, in this sense: You feel no personal guilt. You feel little need to deny what you see, because you can tell yourself that your own people did not do this. The U.S. did not acquit itself admirably while the Holocaust was going on; her borders did not open to embrace those Jews who fled. But border policy is a governmental abstraction, one that removes us from the deeds; “visas were denied by the government” is easier on the conscience than “my own family allowed refugees to die.”

At the Holocaust Museum, we see that the Nazi deeds were not inspired by sudden passion. They were premeditated — imagined in advance – and methodically organized. The Nazis carried out their program over a period of years, with great efficiency. They devoted energy and money to extermination that could have helped their military hold off the Allied powers. They killed Jews young and old, day and night, in a way that came to seem ordinary. So ordinary that towns near the concentration camps went about their business, buying and selling and making love and raising children amid the ashes that rose up out of nearby chimneys.

It is the ordinariness of the Holocaust that takes our breath away – the piles of victims’ hair, the collections of childrens’ shoes. It is the organized nature of that horror that makes us feel that some organization must pay.

So, too, with slavery.

A fitting memorial

The Schomburg Center presents Americans with a different problem. Here are the leg irons and the shipping logs; here are the signs demanding the return of “gentle Negroes” who had suddenly stopped coming when they were called.

African slavery has had no “Schindler’s List,” even though the director of that movie tried twice to supply one (with “The Color Purple” and “Amistad”). The African-American community does not resound with cries of “Never again” – perhaps because slavery seems less likely to recur, in our industrial age, than genocide does. A lot of Americans watched “Roots,” and that was pretty good.

But few of us have seen the leg irons up close, have seen the way grown men were clamped together in the bottom of a dank boat, no porta-johns nearby, tied next to men and women from other tribes, carrying diseases against which they had built no immunity. Few have really tried to understand the impact of the Middle Passage on the only American immigrants who did not choose to come here. Or the life that ensued on these shores — generations upon generations of families torn apart, men whipped for trying to see the women they were not allowed to marry, children kept apart from too much learning.

Perhaps because few have seen the evidence of these things, Claremont Professor Elazar Barkan describes slavery in “The Guilt of Nations” as “the most glaring example of an undressed historical injustice in the United States.”

It’s time we addressed it, folks. It’s time we demanded more from the United States, the land that was not always of the free.

Copying Courage — Learning to Walk Like a Man

Wednesday, April 5th, 2006

Originally published by The Guy Code on August 6, 2000.

In “Captains Courageous,” Rudyard Kipling tells the story of a spoiled rich boy whose life is saved – not because he falls off a boat and doesn’t drown, but because the Gloucester fishing boat that picks him up also makes him a man.

When I was a semi-spoiled middle-class boy growing up in Schenectady, N.Y., my father wanted me to read this story. I think he figured it was the next best thing to having me fall into the hands of gruff fishermen. At that age – 12 to 16 – I tended to “talk back” a lot to authority figures with whom I disagreed, such as my dad. This did not please him; he also considered sending me to military school.

Given the two choices – read an adventure novel or go to military school – you might think I would crack the book. Sadly, I was as stubborn then as I am now. At the age of 12 or so I agreed to take a look at it. However, when, about four pages in, our hero turned green as the result of some strong tobacco, and fell overboard, the description seemed a little too vivid. The book had done for me what the tobacco had done for young Harvey. So I put it down, and never picked it up again.

Until a few days ago, that is. While visiting my mom’s house, I was hunting for reading material on the way to the can. Squirreled away among her Christian literature and vegetarian tomes I found an old paperback copy of “Captains Courageous.” Soon I had moved through the passage that had stopped me before, and – by now, well off the can – had started to see why my father had liked it.

Come September, I will have lived for more days without a father than I lived with one. I’m late to reach that odd milestone; my younger sisters and brother reached their own such points years ago. My brother was only 11 when he lost his dad, which means that for him, “Captains Courageous” means nothing at all, while for me, it means something complicated. At 32, I’m still looking to see what manhood was for my father, and therefore what it ought to be for me.

Working on the fishing boat gave the formerly spoiled Harvey a sense that he belonged – a sense he had obtained nowhere else. His labor was needed there, and his improvements were noted. An only child, he had previously spent most of his life with his mother, an indulgent, anxious woman who suffered agonies of worry whenever her son so much as got his feet wet, and traveled from place to place in an effort to calm her nerves. His father stayed behind, too busy enlarging his piles of money to spend time with the boy.

For years Harvey had laughed at his mother’s excessive concern, but laughing at her had not made him a man. Although he didn’t know it, what he really needed was the approval of other men. And only hard work and skill could earn their respect.

Studying manhood

Here he is, after more than a month at sea:

Boylike, Harvey imitated all the men by turns, till he had combined Disko’s peculiar stoop at the wheel, Long Jack’s swinging overhand when the lines were hauled, Manuel’s round-shouldered but effective stroke in a dory, and Tom Platt’s generous “Ohio” stride across the deck.

” ’T is beautiful to see how he takes to ut,” said Long Jack, when Harvey was looking out by the windlass one thick noon. “I’ll lay my wage an’ share ‘t is more ‘n half play-actin’ to him, an’ he consates himself he’s a bowld mariner. Watch his little bit av a back now!”

“That’s the way we all begin,” said Tom Platt. “The boys they make believe all the time till they’ve cheated ‘emselves into bein’ men, an’ so till they die – pretendin’ an’ pretendin’.”

What a scene. We can smile at the way the rich boy has learned to imitate the men who are truly effective in his new world. Our smiles may widen when Long Jack the Irishman notes that after a few weeks at sea, Harvey already fancies himself a bold sailor.

But Kipling also wanted the male reader to smile at himself. The old reporter recognized your own predicament. Without meeting you, he knew that you had learned to follow the stances and expressions of your elders, who had picked them up from elders now gone.

Tom Platt is a comic figure in the book, constantly seeking to impress his shipmates with tales of his days on the “Ohio,” a warship he had served on years ago. As you read the book, you learn to tune out Platt’s speeches just as his mates do.

That’s why Platt’s wisdom here catches you off-guard: “The boys they make believe all the time till they’ve cheated ’emselves into bein’ men, an’ so till they die – pretendin’ an’ pretendin’.”

Was my dad always a man?

I saw my dad as a man who had always been a man. I had no idea what he had to go through to reach that point. Still don’t, really.

Part of being young is failing to appreciate that your elders, too, are faking it. As you get older, you start to see the cracks in their facades. Sometimes you may even hate them for their “phoniness.”

But you keep getting older; life teaches you about aging, whether you want to learn or not. By and by, you catch yourself pretending, too. And as you forgive yourself, so, one hopes, you forgive those who pretended before you.

On a ship, there are sing-alongs, and the food tastes good after a hard day’s work. Most of us lack those consolations, as we lack the feel of the salt air and the wiry frames we’d need to climb rigging day in and day out.

But we know what Harvey felt, as he swaggered around with stances copied from the older sailors. And we know what Tom Platt felt, too.

It turns out pretending’s not so bad, after all. It’s the only way up from being a boy.

The Thomas Jefferson I Wish I’d Never Met

Wednesday, April 5th, 2006

Originally published by The Guy Code, July 9, 2000.

Until July 3, I hadn’t realized that I had a relationship with Thomas Jefferson. I must have had one, though, because on that day I suddenly found myself wrestling with it.

Few of us discuss such relationships. I mean, sure, people talk about having a ‘relationship’ with Jesus, and about finding the Buddha in the road. By and large, though, the only people who describe their relationships with non-religious historical figures are those endearingly dotty biographers on PBS.

Yet each of us knows something of what they feel. When Walter Matthau died, for example, most of us felt something, even if it was only the regret that there would now be no one to temper the smarminess of Jack Lemmon.

But here’s a question I’d love to get some email on: What is your relationship to historical personages long dead?

For me and Thomas Jefferson, I not only learned I had the relationship with him on the day before Independence Day, but it forever changed.

I was strolling around Monticello, Jefferson’s Virginia home – a place I’d heard about for years. I knew I’d only be there for a few hours, and, as if I’d come home for a family reunion and didn’t know when I’d be there next, it seemed awfully important to settle things while I was there.

Nor was I the only one having this problem. Each of the three tour guides my mom and I encountered seemed to be wrestling with it, too, and you could see pensive looks on the faces of the other tourists.

Jefferson and slavery

As children we knew him as the author of the Declaration of Independence, the third president, and the champion of the farmer; he was easy to admire. As we’d gotten older, the picture had darkened: We learned that he’d owned slaves.

When I’d first heard talk about Jefferson’s slaves, I assumed he’d owned just a few. That wouldn’t have made it right, of course; it was a defensive reaction, an attempt to minimize the damage.

I wanted to admire Mr. Jefferson without reservation. I’d really liked the line President Kennedy had used in addressing a White House dining room full of Nobel laureates: “Never before has this room contained so much genius – at least since Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

Damn, that was a good line. I didn’t want to tarnish it.

Turns out, though, Jefferson didn’t own just a few slaves. At any given time, he and his family had owned more than a hundred. Slavery fueled the plantation that was Monticello.

And it was real slavery, not just foolin’-around-with-a-couple-of-well-dressed-and-well-treated-house-servants slavery. Dry, hot fields reverberating with slaves — such was the land of the man who gave us a line that was better than Kennedy’s, if not quite as witty: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

It was Jefferson who’d given words to an ideal that has become so much a part of America that royalty, a condition that still pervades the Old World and Africa and much of Asia, seems to us silly, even pathological.

To tour Monticello is to rub your face in the fact that the man who had asked us to fight for that ideal did not practice it himself — at least, not in the way that we understand it today.

To him, there may have been no real discrepancy, but learning that only made me feel worse.

Jefferson spelled out his views on slavery in “Notes on the State of Virginia.”

I could have learned of his beliefs before, but I didn’t. I never read “Notes on the State of Virginia,” in which Jefferson had claimed the mantle of science for his assertions that the races were biologically distinct, that the powers of reason and imagination were the province of whites alone, and that any mixing of white and black would produce a degradation.

I learned that from our first tour guide, a white woman. She recounted those words to a group that was largely white, but not quite white enough to keep a small tremor out of her voice.

Our group of roughly forty included four African-Americans, one of whom wore a T-shirt that said “Cornell Law School.” There was a family from India, and a few people who looked Japanese. Three Buddhist monks in orange robes inspired speculation about the Dalai Lama, who had spoken in Washington the day before.

Jefferson the writer was brilliant, but Jefferson the farmer never turned a profit. He could not let go of his slaves and hold his land, so he chose to cling to both. Even with the slaves, he fell deeply into debt; he died owing the equivalent, in today’s terms, of $2 million.

Not that he would have freed all of his slaves, even if the farm had been in the black. Our guide explained that Jefferson saw “piecemeal” freeing as dangerous, in that it could provoke other slaves to get ideas. And then there was the question of what to do with all those former slaves.

Because he was holding people against their will, Jefferson naturally encountered problems of discipline. Our guide described one for us: A slave hit another slave with a rock, breaking his skull. The guide left it to us to figure out what ought to be done, in order to make an example of the perpetrator and prevent a recurrence.

A white man in the group said quickly, “Hang him.”

“Well, you could hang him, I guess,” the guide said. “But what would be the problem with that?”

“You’d be damaging your property,” said the black man with the Cornell Law School T-shirt.

“That’s right,” she said, nodding. “And you wouldn’t want to do that. So he had to figure out something else to do. He was fairly benevolent, as slaveholders went; he didn’t want to use the whip. So instead he told his overseer to sell the man who had done that with the rock: ‘Sell him far away, and it will be for his family as if he was dead.’ So they sold him, and that slave’s family never saw him again; it was as if he was dead.”

The guide had to talk about Sally Hemings, so she did. Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife; they shared the same father, but because Sally’s mother was a slave, so was Sally. Mrs. Jefferson died after ten years of marriage. Thomas never remarried, so when things happened between T.J. and Sally, there was no wronged wife — only a slave woman who could not truly give consent, mixed up with a statesman who had written that it was wrong to mix.

“Interestingly,” said the guide, “since the DNA evidence came out to show that Jefferson was probably the father of Sally’s children, blacks have tended to have no problem accepting Jefferson, with all his flaws. Whites, on the other hand, have had a harder time with it.”

“So,” I thought. “So it’s because I’m a white guy. She’s saying that any trouble I’m having with Jefferson here today is because of the color of my skin, not the content of his character.”

* * *

Well, now, Thomas, you were a great man, and all, but I’m not so sure that the guide’s explanation cleared everything up.

As I walked around your little mountain and saw your lovely trees and objects of art, I sympathized with you. I imagined how hard it would have been for you to give up all that beauty just to free some people who probably seemed to be doing fairly well, for non-whites.

But I also imagined how hard it was for your slaves to see you, the big cheese, relaxing as they worked. Probably you told a few of them how much you loved Monticello – how it gladdened your heart to be home, away from the cares of statecraft. Probably they nodded at you, smiled for you, and doubted they would ever again see the relatives you had sold away.

I’d like to see the poll that tour guide took — the one that showed that it’s only whites who have an issue with you, Mr. Jefferson.

When it comes to brilliance, accomplishment, heart and influence, T.J., my inferiority to you is so great as to make me tremble. But I was created equal to you, so I guess I have a right to say my peace.

Although it sounds foolish to say it, my relationship with you is not what it was.

I realize, of course, that your relationship with me has not changed a whit: You didn’t know me then, and you don’t know me now.

So maybe I shouldn’t worry about it at all. And frankly, since I left your plantation, I pretty much haven’t. Pretty much.