Archive for the ‘Sociology’ Category

The Thinker

The real price of discrimination

Today’s Martin Luther King holiday actually has me reflecting on Martin Luther King. That’s in part due to the annual news stories about the holiday and snippets of his most famous speeches that always show up on social media on the holiday. Most churches reinforce his legacy, as mine did yesterday. The bloody march he led to Montgomery, Alabama, which began at a bridge in Selma, Alabama (it happened fifty years ago this March) killed some and injured many more innocent people who were simply demanding that blacks be treated equally.

One of those killed was a Unitarian Universalist minister, and that’s important to me because I am a UU. The Reverend Jim Reeb was one of many UU ministers who hustled down to Selma to join the march to Montgomery. White men with clubs attacked him and others on the march. He likely died because he could not get to a hospital in time, as he could only be transported in a black ambulance (which also got a flat tire en route), even though he was white. Also among the UU ministers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma was the UU minister Reverend John Wells, then of the Mount Vernon, Virginia UU church. He married my wife and I thirty years ago. He spoke proudly of his participation in the march when we met with him for some pre-nuptial planning.

2014 sobered many of us up who were beginning to believe we lived in a post racial society. After all we had elected a black president not once, but twice. Things are certainly better racially than they were fifty years ago in Selma. Yet if we have come a long way to end racism, it’s now undeniable that we still have a long way yet to go. Quite obviously though it’s not just racism that divides us. Martin Luther King spent most of his ministry trying to bring about racial justice, but he was certainly aware that injustice had many aspects. Racial injustice was easy to see and impossible to ignore. Dr. King also helped open the door to expose other forms of discrimination. While I feel aghast at how much work remains to create a racially just society, I can also feel satisfaction in how far we’ve come in other areas. Later this year it is likely that the U.S. Supreme Court will make same sex marriage a right. Fifty years ago homosexuals were barely acknowledged. This is tremendous progress.

There may be a reason that homophobia receded so quickly. Whereas skin color is impossible to ignore, someone’s sexual preference is impossible to know unless it is disclosed. It might be inferred but it’s hard to say with certainty. Whereas many whites may know few blacks intimately, most of us have a gay sibling, cousin, aunt or uncle in the family (and maybe several). This has the effect of forcing us to confront our prejudices. It is easier for us to identify with others when they are close to us. I think this principally explains the stunning advancement of marriage and parental rights for gays and lesbians. As gays and lesbians gain rights and broad acceptance in society, it is becoming easier for other queers to gain acceptance too. The brave new oppressed social group these days seems to be the transgender community. It’s not hard to predict that this community, which already has rights in some localities, will gain full equality relatively quickly as well as specific legal protections. Many of us have now encountered an openly transgender person in the workplace and they no longer seem scary. I have known three.

We don’t think of whites looking down on fellow whites, but in truth whites do this all the time. The whites that populate most of Appalachia, particularly the lower class whites, are targets of discrimination and ridicule too. Terms like “white trash” should be just as offensive as “nigger”. This is an area I need to work on, as I have lampooned Walmart shoppers in a few posts, although it’s not just whites that shop at Walmart. Sites like peopleofwalmart.com and whitetrashrepairs.com cater to those who like to look down at what we perceive as the faults or eccentricities of lower class whites, but really just those with lower incomes in general or that strike us as intensely peculiar.

The unspoken animus is that while we can afford our lifestyle, they cannot and therefore there must be something wrong with them. In truth, what is “wrong” with them is mostly our refusal to help them raise their economic status. These people are actually much stronger and resilient than those of us further up the economic ladder, they just don’t have the resources to ascend the ladder. If the rest of us were forced to live on a quarter of our income, we would not fare nearly as well, although we like to think we could. More about this is a subsequent post, perhaps.

There are many other ways we overtly or covertly discriminate, but they generally have “ism” in common. Most upper class whites are fine having blacks as neighbors providing they adopt our values, maintain their houses real well and don’t raise any problem children. Racism and ethnic discrimination usually amounts to classism. We gain perceived social status roughly based on our income, which we then parade in the quality of our neighborhoods, the skinniness of our trophy wives and the costs and brands of our cars.

The Irish are as white as any group of Caucasians from Europe, but they were ruthlessly discriminated and ghetto-ized when they came to America, as were many other white ethnic groups. They were not so much melted down as grudgingly accepted into the culture if they could find a golden ticket to the middle class. After a while someone’s ethnicity did not matter, but class still did. Sexism is going through something similar. One of our most glaring “isms” doesn’t quite have a word yet. I call it attractiveness discrimination. There is no question that attractive people in general have privileges and opportunities disproportionate to those perceived to be less attractive. Those judged to be plain or ugly are frequently victims of discrimination: in employment, in insurability, in wages and in many other ways. We project onto attractive people qualities they may or may not have, and sometimes discriminate against attractive people as well by assuming they can do things they cannot simply because they are attractive.

I don’t know how we fully rid ourselves of these biases and discriminatory tendencies. It is an ugly side to our species. Dogs to not appear to be classists by nature, so in that sense they are superior to us. What matters is only how they are treated, and sometimes not even that. What is hard to measure is the true cost of all this multilevel, multi-variable discrimination. Whatever the true cost is, it must be catastrophically high. When I read stories like Republicans in Congress trying to cut food stamp benefits or trying to take Medicaid away from the working poor, at best I wince and at worst I cry. To make people whose lives are already so miserable even more miserable seems like a crime worthy of being sent to hell’s lowest level. Our world is so miserable and the misery seems likely to only increase. Yet the classism within us makes the situation exponentially worse. It denies so many of us the ability to achieve their potential. Imagine what our country could be if everyone could live up to their potential. Imagine how enriched society would be.

This is the true cost of discrimination. Those of us who discriminate may do so overtly or covertly, but when we do it we stick the dagger not only into those we discriminate against, but also into ourselves. We empty ourselves of the values we need to have a loving and caring community.

On this Martin Luther King holiday, this is part of his message that so often overlooked that I am pondering. It leaves me feeling melancholy and fighting despair.

 
The Thinker

Free speech has limits

If freedom is not free then last week’s terrorist incidents in Paris by Islamic terrorists proves that free speech is not free either.

In the unlikely event you were away from the news the last week, sixteen people including four French Jews and one Muslim policeman were murdered by Islamic terrorists in two incidents in and around Paris. The resulting shock and outcry has predictably led to more security in France. It also caused an impressive rally yesterday that brought about one and a half million protesters into the streets of Paris. The protesters shouted that they would not be intimidated by these incidents.

The primary attack occurred at the offices of the satire magazine Charlie Hebdo. Three terrorists with automatic weapons quickly killed twelve people and wounded many others. Many of those killed were cartoonists that drew what most reasonable people would call patently offensive cartoons, far beyond what is depicted even in edgy publications here in the United States. In fact their offices had been attacked years ago for publishing cartoons that depicted the prophet Mohammad. Four Jews were also killed in a subsequent attack at a kosher market near Paris on Friday.

Free speech is only possible in a culture where its underlying population is civilized enough to not take violent action when the hear or read what they perceive as grossly offensive and/or blasphemous speech. No such society actually exists, which means that incidents like these are bound to happen from time to time. They are more likely when terrorist organizations and states proliferate and their ideology gains traction within free societies. French citizens were of course outraged but no one was particularly surprised. The only real question was why something of this magnitude had not happened earlier in France.

Perhaps you have heard of this saying: if you are playing with fire, expect to get burned now and then. Charlie Hebdo had already played with fire and had gotten burned and it continued to pay with fire. It indiscriminately and most would say offensively satirizes people and groups from all sides of the political spectrum. Creating outrage was how it makes money. It is a profitable niche. It was also what they felt called to do.

Unsurprisingly I don’t get the violent reaction by Islamic extremists to what they perceive as the blasphemy of making cartoon depictions of Mohammed. In reality, even free speech is not entirely free of consequence, certainly not here the United States and in particular not France, which has very un-free and discriminatory laws that target Muslims in particular, such as requiring Muslim women not to wear their head scarves. The cartoon of a Muslim (it was not clear to me that it was supposed to be Mohammad) that seems to have triggered this attack was offensive to me (and I am not a Muslim) because it belittled and stereotyped a religion by depicting it as wildly different than what it actually is, in general. It would be like a cartoon that portrayed the pope as a child molester or the president as a cannibal. At best it was in very bad taste. It really spoke much more about the Charlie Hebdo than it did about Islam. While Charlie Hebdo tends to be nondiscriminatory in its satire, most of its work tends to be stuff that the vast majority of people at least here in the United States would consider beyond the pale. If it had an equivalent in the United States, most people would not want it on their coffee table. They would not want to be known as someone who read Charlie Hebdo. For the same reason most people would not leave out books of hardcore pornography on their coffee table either.

So freedom of the press is not in practice entirely free of consequence. Those who dare to go too far outside the mainstream are likely to find they will pay a price from time to time. And no government can guarantee that this freedom can be expressed without injury. Risk and freedom go hand in hand. You cannot have one without the other. Unsurprisingly most publishers are somewhere in the middle, and seem to understand that it’s okay to express their opinions but that there are practical limits that if you transgress them then you could pay a price. So we mostly stick to moderation. The New York Times, for example, decided not to publish the offending Charlie Hebdo cartoon. While it had the right to do so, it made a sensible decision that the cost of this right was not worth the possible results of doing so. In some sense then the terrorists won, but the New York Times really made a judgment that was as sound from a business perspective as it was sound as an exercise in common sense. People with common sense will exercise reasonable self-censorship for the sake of overall societal harmony.

Of course there are places, like the Islamic State or areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban where freedom does not exist. Those who live there live in tyrannies. And this is evil because it is also not our nature to spend our life wholly muzzled from honest expression. It’s clear to me that those who perpetrated these crimes would have all of us live in such a state, where only behavior they believe to be sanctioned by God and the Quran would be allowed.

They are hardly alone. Here in the United States there are Dominionists that would turn us into a Christian state. If they had their way the United States would look a lot like the Islamic State, just with a cross as its symbol. There would be a state religion, divorce would not be allowed and homosexuality would be criminalized again. Many of us are pulled toward ideologies that will brook no dissent, perhaps for the feeling of comfort that such certainty brings. For these people, pluralism itself is an enemy and feels threatening. They find comfort and safety only when all people, either willingly or by force, do as they believe is required. Occasionally, as in Paris last week, an irresistible force will meet an immovable object. When this happens it proves to me that absolute free speech is an illusion. In reality, self-censorship is a practical way we maintain a broad general freedom of speech. We should not chase the illusion that all speech should be tolerated or permitted without consequence. It never has been and never will be.

Instead, we should work to create and maintain societies that promote general tolerance and moderation. Those that step too far out of this natural comfort zone don’t necessarily deserve what they get, but reality is likely to provide it anyhow, as happened in Paris last week. There is a natural Darwinism at work among these people. Transgressions outside this natural zone of reasonable taste should be rare, if they occur at all.

What goes around comes around, and unfortunately it came to Charlie Hebdo and Paris last week. My comments certainly are not meant to justify the terrorism that occurred but simply to point out that it can be anticipated in cases like these because the speech is so extreme.

We had best learn to live with it because we cannot really change it.

 
The Thinker

Craigslist casual encounter weirdness: January 2015 edition

It’s a new year, but I doubt much has changed at my local Craigslist casual encounter section. Scanning the first page of today’s ads I count:

  • 54 men looking for women
  • 27 men looking for men
  • 3 men looking for a couple
  • 4 men looking for a transgender
  • 1 woman looking for a man
  • 2 women looking for a woman
  • 2 couples looking for a woman
  • 1 couple looking for another couple
  • 1 transgender looking for man

I also count at least 216 web hits for my Craigslist posts in December, not great but traffic was slow in December, so this represents a bit over 13% of traffic, which is about normal. Women first today:

  • She’s planning to visit us in late January and is looking for a couple to play with during the day at her hotel. She really wants to try a woman, which will be a first time for her. Her boyfriend is coming too but plans to be at meetings, but he may be available to watch. I would certainly find an excuse to get out of a meeting to watch these fireworks.
  • There must be more gay men in the Dulles Technology Corridor than I thought. This one has evidence that he is largely endowed, or at least exceeds in the girth department. This 48-year-old man is particular: he only wants Asian men. Here’s a 47-year-old guy that is not as particular about ethnicity but wants college-aged men instead. My spidey senses think he may in fact be the previous poster. Finally, here’s a 44-year-old man who simply wants a mutual jack off. That at least is reasonably safe. Men, if you are going to indulge in one of these dubious adventures, I say go with the last guy.
  • Guys, if you are into giving oral sex to a 31-year-old Asian woman, it’s best to get a room and act quickly. Unfortunately, that’s all you are going to get to do. She lives in Burke.
  • There seems to be a New Year’s contest for the largest gangbang. This 28-year-old woman wants ten military guys and she promises that no orifice will be barred. This 32-year-old woman wants thirty men, and you don’t have to be military, but you do need to be college aged. No cost she says, but I have to think getting rid of chlamydia or worse won’t come free. This is certainly a memorable albeit profoundly stupid way to “break in” the New Year!
  • She is looking for a she but she has a gatekeeper: he, i.e. her black boyfriend and of course he gets to watch and is the one you will actually be corresponding with. There are many intimate pictures of she, some primarily of interest to gynecologists.
  • There are a lot of men into seeing other men screw their wives. Among these there seem to be men who are trying to talk their wives into doing this, but they seem reluctant or particular. Anyhow, this 40-year-old man from Alexandria is searching for a guy who will patiently seduce his wife, but it has to happen “organically”. He claims they have done this before. Don’t take the bait, guys. It’s unlikely to work and I suspect his real motive is to prove adultery, so he can dump her. And if you are as muscled as the guy he is looking for, you can find much quicker success at your local watering hole.
  • At last: genuinely safe sex on Craigslist. Alas, it’s not you (a guy) that will be having sex, but this couple will with each other. You just get to watch them perform. They prefer 25 and younger. No mention of whether there is an entrance charge for this show.
  • Attention Prince William County police: here’s a guy in Gainesville that wants to be caught by a cop while his girlfriend is giving him a blowjob in a public place. Instead of arresting them though you are supposed to drop your pants and get one from her to stay out of jail. You have to wonder what kind of girl would hang around with such a sick “boyfriend”. I hope the cops there have some integrity or aren’t paying attention to Craigslist. Not a cop? Not to worry. You can pretend to be a cop, but have to look the part.
  • Here’s a 27-year-old guy willing to pay for the privilege of having carnal knowledge of an older woman. Here’s another man who wants to worship (be degraded by) a black woman. Here’s an older man looking for a sugar baby, but you must be young, thin, fit and submissive to earn your allowance. And here’s a generous older man who thinks it’s not sex if he has an orgasm all over your face.
  • If you are a lesbian but also into 50 Shades of Grey, this 33-year-old dominant woman with a prominent sexual part below her waist is willing to take charge of you. I don’t get the Shades of Grey thing, as she should be way too young to have any grey.
  • Here is one very desperate “kinky bareback crossdresser” looking for men at Sterling – Dulles – Ashburn. He seems to post one of these a day, and this is just a sample. I think I posted about him before because you can do almost anything to him but you must arrive freshly showered. Go figure.

More in February.

 
The Thinker

The rationality of altruism

It’s Christmas time so this being America of course there are going to be people who will object to it. One such person is Peter Schwartz. On December 19 he wrote an op-ed published in The Washington Post. Schwartz was bemoaning the whole charity thing as something evil. If only we could celebrate rational self-interest instead, he opines. Being a distinguished fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute, of course that’s what Peter would prefer to do:

A “season of trading” would make better sense than a “season of giving.” The central principles could be summarized as: Give when it’s in your interest to do so. Give because someone deserves it, not simply because he or she needs it. Don’t sacrifice yourself for others, and don’t ask others to sacrifice for you.

I don’t like to repeat myself too much about Ms. Rand, since I have written about Objectivism a couple of times, here and here among likely other posts. The good news is that Mr. Schwartz does appreciate the holiday season in his own way. Schwartz writes:

I love to see the twinkling lights adorning our houses and streets, the delightfully inventive displays in store windows, the Santas greeting enthusiastic children. I wholeheartedly join in when yuletide songs are being sung. I’m happy to attend parties that evoke the holiday spirit.

Ain’t that sweet of him. But rather than celebrate the virtue of selflessness during the holidays, which Schwartz considers a flaw, he would rather celebrate a “season of trading”. So, of course, did Wall Street this week, which is celebrating rational self-interest by having the DJIA pass 18,000. From Schwartz’s perspective, that’s the true meaning of the holidays.

I guess Schwartz and I have different criteria for rational self-interest. I would think using his criteria that there would be no rational reason to donate blood. It will almost certainly go to someone you don’t know. Worse, you won’t get paid anything more than some cookies for donating a pint of your precious bodily fluids. Should I need some surgery I could perhaps pay some people to donate their blood. That would be in our mutual self-interest. Given enough lead-time I could even donate my own blood and have it thawed out for the date of surgery.

This hypothetically perfect system would break down though if I had some sort of major accident where I was wheeled into an emergency room unconscious. My life would literally hang on the charity of others. It’s for these sorts of reasons that I happily donated blood. I’d still be donating today had the standards not been tightened. In 2002 I was told they detected Human T-cell lymphotropic virus (both I and II) antibodies in my blood. I most likely got it from my mother during breastfeeding since I don’t use illegal intravenous drugs and am not known for sleeping around, but it now disqualifies me from giving blood. But if everyone practiced rational self-interest the way Schwartz does, there would be a lot of unnecessarily dead people.

Today being Christmas somewhere nearby, probably in Reston Virginia, an eight year old boy has opened his presents. Among them will be a soccer ball and a little toy helicopter, which came with alkaline batteries that I inserted into the box (they were not supplied). I will never meet the boy but I do know that he would not be getting these presents that he had asked for had I not signed up for the Secret Santa program at my church. I was out about $50 for these presents, and since I am on a fixed income this was certainly not in my rational self-interest. But crazily, I did it anyhow, did so gladly and plan to do so again in future years, as I have done in many previous years too.

I do it in part because having some poor child be more miserable on Christmas of all days strikes me as cruel. While I am no distinguished fellow of the lofty Ayn Rand Institute, it strikes me that cruelty is a concept Objectivists simply don’t get. To get cruelty, you first have to understand empathy, and if you are incapable of empathy unless it affects your rational self-interest, then it must be something of a hypothetical concept. It must not be something that millions of people experience on a daily basis and which causes them great pain and suffering. It’s either that or you do get it but just don’t care, which to my mind is much worse.

It was perhaps in the rational self-interest of my many teachers to teach me skills that made me successful. After all, they earned a salary. But it was not in any of my teachers’ self interest to go the extra mile with me, to impart their love of learning or to help me persevere in my studies when I wanted to give up. Yet it was particularly these teachers that imparted true learning because they connected the outside world with the person I am on the inside. They personalized and tailored learning so that I could succeed. I am inexpressibly grateful to these teachers for helping me succeed. I simply could not have done it by myself.

In real life of course that’s how people succeed. It is based not on just how hard they work or how creative they happen to be but on how well others have communicated the learning and the relational human skills that allowed them to succeed. There is a reason it is harder for those from poor families to work their way into the middle class or genuine prosperity. It is because they exist in environments that overall are not nurturing. Parenthood is the ultimate experience in altruism. An altruistic parent spends a good part of twenty years or more and substantial amount of their treasure to help someone succeed. No one has a child to live off his or her earnings.

We give to those who have less because it complements our better nature. We all succeed on the backs of others and their willingness to carry us, at least for a time. This happens not from rational self-interest, but from exercising the unseen muscle called caring and empathy and their many dimensions. These include caring not just for family but for all, even those we cannot help directly. I believe that doing so is entirely rational: we end up with a world less hurtful, more vibrant, more whole, more human, more just and more enriching than if we only looked out for Number One. Jesus taught us this (and he was one of many) more than two thousand years ago.

It’s a lesson though that won’t seem to take in the minds of those like Peter Schwartz, and that puts a sad note for me on this Christmas morning.

 
The Thinker

Craigslist casual encounter weirdness: December 2014 edition

It’s that time of the month for me to survey the underbelly of Craigslist, at least here in Northern Virginia where I live. It’s the first Friday of the month and based on my previous experience it’s also likely to be a great day to find the weirdest morsels of entertainment from the Craigslist community, courtesy of my regional casual encounters section. With a weekend ahead of them, there are people aplenty on Craigslist who believe that their odd or kinky sex will be served to them their way, and multiple times before they go to work on Monday.

I had at least 215 page views on my Craigslist posts during November. These numbers have gone down in general. They used to be in the upper 200s or low 300s but at least I did marginally better than in October. Some statistics on who’s posting from the first page of posts this evening:

  • 33 men are looking for women
  • 45 men are looking for men
  • 3 men are looking for couples
  • 1 man is looking for a group of men
  • 1 man is looking for a transgender
  • 11 women are looking for men
  • 6 women are looking for women
  • 4 women are looking for couples
  • 7 couples are looking for men
  • 1 couple is looking for another couple
  • 4 couples are looking for women
  • 3 transgender people are looking for men

Time to jump into the cesspool in my latex suit, lest I catch something:

  • She’s 26, chubby and has a lot of “desi” experience. I have no idea what this is about but apparently it has something to do with prostate rubbing. Perhaps she is a proctologist in training. Not sure why there is a picture of a half bald guy with his head between a woman’s legs but perhaps that is because I just don’t understand the whole desi thing yet. Does this have anything to do with Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball?
  • Here are two ads from the same 38-year-old Reston man, as evidenced by having the same cock picture in both ads. In this ad he’s looking for a slut who puts out and is hoping she will put out with him and a group of guys, although he apparently doesn’t know any guys into this. In his other ad he’s trying to take care of that problem by advertising for a guy to jerk off with, but not because he’s gay, but because he’s looking to partner up so he can be part of his fantasy tag team. I guess it’s best to cover all bases. He says he’s single but since you must host, I’m betting he’s married.
  • There’s 420-friendly and then there’s this 26-year-old woman from Manassas looking for another woman who is brave enough to openly post a picture of herself in panties smoking from her bong. She’s apparently done this before because she is hoping Noel is out there and will reply.
  • Guys looking for other guys on Craigslist are nothing new. But a guy into guys with a foot fetish is strange. Even stranger is that this short 28-year-old guy from Dumfries wants you to step on him and presumably doing it with boots and cleats is fine. Oh, and he’s in a hurry. It’s got to be tonight! I hope 911 is on his speed dial.
  • Ladies: pregnant and horny? You are in luck because this 30-year-old dude wants something different and apparently he hasn’t bagged a pregnant woman before. What could be his real motivation? My guess since he claims to be disease free, is to have unprotected sex without worrying about any pregnancy consequences.
  • Ladies, if you are picky and will only settle for young, handsome and well endowed then this 26-year-old man can provide plenty of evidence that he has what you are looking for.
  • She’s 22, lives near Dulles and is looking for another woman. She wants her right now and she’s on her period.
  • The abbreviations and acronyms in Craigslist can sometimes be over the top, like this: “29 yo chub blk dl bttm looking for big blk dl top”. More of the same in the ad itself. I can’t quite parse all of it but at least I know he’s looking for another man. What’s with his weird black panties?
  • Here’s a 53-year-old man looking for a daughter and he’s got a very explicit scenario he’s thinking about. Since he is looking for a long-term relationship with his “daughter”, apparently making her pregnant is not out of the question and maybe something he is hoping for. Let’s hope any potential daughter has more brains and a lower hormone level than he does. Good news, dad. I think I found a candidate daughter for you.
  • Sex, drugs, a transgender woman and prostitution all in one ad from this newly unemployed 26-year-old “woman”. “She” apparently is planning multiple conquests tonight, probably because her bank account is low. If you are going to catch a deadly disease, $20 is a pretty cheap and possibly a happy way to start on your journey to hell.
  • He’s 18 years old and is home from trade school in Vermont and wants you (a woman) to take care of his virginity problem.
  • Women, if you are into urinating or squirting in a man’s mouth, this 29-year-old man wants to hear from you. He’s apparently advertised before but has gotten no responses. What’s wrong with Craigslist women?
  • It’s nice to know that at least some African American women are into us 50 year plus men. I won’t be responding but if you meet her age qualification and live near Lorton you might want to see if she actually replies.
  • This cuckolding stuff really gets deep. This 30-year-old cuckold couple from Reston (woman is dominant, naturally) is looking for another woman as a “cuckquean”. It’s hard to parse this post but I think this woman gets to act a lot like her submissive husband when the sex is over.

That’s all folks … until 2015.

 
The Thinker

Black Friday protest at Walmart

Remember this post? Well, probably not. Anyhow, in it I promised to try to eke revenge against the retailers of the world for the shabby way I was treated when I was a retail worker (1978 to 1980) for the now defunct Montgomery Ward Corporation which today is even worse. Now that I am retired, lack of time was no longer an excuse, so I made a note on my calendar to attend a Black Friday protest at my local Walmart (Sterling, Virginia in my case) to protest their appallingly low wages and working conditions.

Signing up was easy. I was already a member of Making Change at Walmart, the site to go if you are not a Walmart employee but want to support their cause. I get regular emails from them and have even made a couple of contributions to their strike fund over the years. I was urged to find a Walmart Black Friday protest near me, so I simply filled in the web form and marked the date and time on my calendar. For several years now, the Our Walmart campaign has targeted Black Friday for protests because it is the busiest shopping day of the year. This year a record 1600 store protests was planned.

Thus far my protesting had been confined to mass events on the national mall. This kind of protest would be a lot different. The number of protestors was likely to be small and Walmart would doubtlessly be on the lookout for us. Protest rules were pretty murky, but seemed worth whatever minor risk it entailed. This is after all Walmart: the nation’s largest, nastiest and stingiest employer. Every year they find new ways to screw their “associates”. Among their egregious tactics over the last year were requirements to buy their own uniforms, canceling health insurance for certain part time employees (doubtless few could afford it in any event), cutting the hours of workers (leading to predictably long lines at cash registers and empty shelves) and erratic schedules. All this for an average wage of $8.80 an hour and where you might get an extra dime per hour the next time your performance was reviewed.

With several weeks of notice, I wanted to see if I could convince any others to join me. Notes on Facebook did not turn up any nibbles, so I sent a note to Paul, chair of the social justice committee at my local Unitarian Universalist Church. He agreed to sponsor the protest for our church. I made sure announcements were posted in the church bulletin and hoped a few members of my congregation would join me. We have less than 200 members, so I kept my expectations modest. Fortunately for me, it got the attention of certain influential women at the church (a.k.a. the Knitting Circle, which my wife attends) who were also suitably outraged and started making protest signs. On protest day, eight of us with signs in hand were ready to protest.

However, our protest organizer weaseled out. Early on Black Friday morning we found an email from him in our inboxes. He claimed insomnia the night before and canceled the event, but he did encourage anyone that wanted to to come out and protest. We took him up on it.

I confess it was hard to get in the protesting spirit when the temperature was in the low thirties with gusty winds, but we were ready. We met in the church parking lot, collected our signs and drove out to the Sterling Virginia Walmart. As we moved toward the entrance we encountered an older couple from Illinois in town but with signs. We were it, apparently, but at least with ten protestors we got into the double digits.

Black Friday protest against Walmart's labor practices at Sterling, Virginia store

Black Friday protest against Walmart’s labor practices at Sterling, Virginia store

For 10 AM on a Black Friday, there weren’t many people going into or out of this Walmart. We stood silently outside the Walmart entrances, being careful not to impede pedestrian or vehicular traffic. Occasionally we got a toot of a horn or thumbs up, but mostly we stood and shivered. We had a feeling though that it would not be long before Walmart management noticed us. We were prescient. After about ten minutes, a Walmart security officer told us we were on private property and we could only protest on public property. He pointed us to a hill at the far back end of the parking lot. Dutifully we walked back there. This was not an ideal location, but it was convenient to incoming traffic so we stood there with our signs and waved them up and down as cars went by.

Apparently we were not far out enough. After fifteen minutes or so we found we were observed by officers in two cars from the Loudoun County sheriff’s office. Eventually an officer approached us with the Walmart store manager. We patiently explained we were directed here by their store security. But, no, we were still on private property we were told. Walmart owned all of it. Some sort of conglomerate of course typically owns shopping centers, so it is in theory all private property. It’s pretty clear that Walmart wanted us way out of the way, like outer Siberia if possible. The closest truly public property, we were politely informed, was a median strip on Nokes Boulevard, which led into the parking lot.

And so we shuffled out there with our protest signs, dodging aggressive traffic to do so. We got the occasional thumbs up and toot of a horn in support, but mostly Walmart had gotten us out of the way, which is probably the strategy it emulated at many other stores. Had we had more protesters, perhaps we would have been harder to dislodge. After about an hour we ended our protest and moved on.

Nonetheless we were in reasonably high spirits. Without professional organization, we didn’t know what to expect or what was legal, but Walmart’s response felt very scripted. The store manager was never angry with us, but after the event one of our crew took a few of our signs into the store, and tried to give them to the store manager. She was intercepted by an assistant manager, and told she was unwelcome in the store, and ordered to leave.

Making change at Walmart is hard, not so much for us outside protesters, but certainly for Walmart employees who join the Our Walmart movement. They frequently suffer illegal firings or reduced hours. They are much braver than we were. We were just testing the protest waters, but I think I know where I’ll be next Black Friday. And hopefully we’ll be better-organized next time, and our organizer won’t use the weasely excuse of insomnia for not showing up.

As a practical matter, real change is happening in two fronts. First, many states and communities have realized that since retailers won’t raise wages and the federal government won’t, they must. So cities like Seatac in Washington State have raised their minimum wage to $15 an hour. In Northern Virginia, $15 is a living wage, but just barely. Those Walmart workers earning $8.80 an hour or so at their Sterling store are probably working a couple of other part time jobs just to get by. They may very well be getting some government assistance, which means your taxes are subsidizing Walmart and other retailers scandalously low wages. More recently, the city of San Francisco passed a retail workers bill of rights. It requires employers to make up work schedules for their part time employees two weeks in advance, helping to give them some predictability to their schedules. This addresses the sad reality that part time work these days does not supplement other wages, but is what many workers try to live on.

Do not assume that minimum wage workers are mostly students living at home and thus it’s okay to pay the $7.25 an hour. The average age of a minimum wage worker is 35. These people are hustling simply to survive in poverty. They deserve a living wage and better working conditions and hopefully just one job so they get some downtime. It’s quite clear though that Walmart will continue to frustrate and obfuscate attempts at justice for their employees until the price becomes unbearable, i.e. it seriously affects their profits and sales. I will do my part to make it unbearable.

 
The Thinker

Craigslist casual encounter weirdness: November 2014 edition

It’s that time of the month for me to scour the Craigslist Northern Virginia casual encounters section. It’s easy to do. I don’t have to think about it too much, it brings in search traffic, and it rarely fails to be entertaining. You simply can’t make up some of these posts because often they are so bizarre that we regular people simply lack the imagination to think of some of these things. It’s also the Friday and thus the start of the weekend. You can almost feel libidos rising as great expectations get set for kinky casual encounters this weekend, virtually all of them to be dashed.

Some statistics. I’m just over 200 posts of Craigslist traffic this month. There are at least 204 hits that I can document but possibly more that I can’t. So I may have milked this trend for all I can get from it. Regardless, after I move next year I expect to drop this feature from the site. I’ve looked at Craigslist in Western Massachusetts where I’ll be living, and due to its lower population density there are far fewer of these sorts of posts, and they are far more pedestrian.

Anyhow, bringing up the first page, I see:

  • 37 men looking for women
  • 43 men looking for men
  • 3 men looking for a couple
  • 1 man looking for multiple men
  • 3 men looking for transsexuals and cross dressers
  • 0 women looking for women
  • 5 women looking for men
  • 3 women looking for multiple men
  • 5 transsexuals or cross dressers looking for men

Onward:

  • Men, do you want to be some guy’s slave? This guy is taking applications. It sounds like he has one already and you would just be another one. You can be bi or straight, and given the latter I’m wondering why any heterosexual would apply. He’s looking for you to primarily do housework but you do get occasional opportunities to be tortured in his dungeon. What could be more fun? Well, just about anything. He must save a fortune by not hiring a maid service.
  • Some months back I mentioned a guy aroused by the Latino men in a local Home Depot. Not sure if this is the same guy (probably not as he is in Leesburg) but he’s going with a similar theme. He’s hot for Latino men and their crotches, except it’s Walmart Latino men that have him hyper salivating. I hope Walmart security there keep tabs on the men’s room and also keeps the Loudoun County police on speed dial, because he is into giving you oral sex in one of their men’s room stalls. However, he is open to doing it in a car as well. My guess is he’ll be easy to spot because he’ll be wandering around the Leesburg Walmart and licking his lips at anyone that might pass for a Latino guy.
  • She used to be a man, is done with her sex reassignment surgery and is now looking for a man to penetrate her. (Warning: explicit picture.) The good news for men into this kind of sex, as she says, is that you can’t make her pregnant, which if you think about it would be a trick on par with immaculate conception. Maybe womb and ovary transplants will be the next brave new frontier for these new women.
  • Ladies, do you like to watch a couple in heat? You can get as close as you want to this couple (38 and 40) in Alexandria. Maybe bringing a large magnifying glass is in order. Undressing is optional.
  • Here’s another man (see last month’s post), this time from Burke that is in his 20s who is looking to buy women’s used panties. But this one has a catch: it has to happen in person. He will compensate you for your trouble but it looks like he has more than used panties in mind. “I’m open minded, if you are too, maybe we can do a little bit more.”
  • A couple from Woodbridge would like to do a “soft swap” this weekend, maybe. They are both in their 50’s and want to meet for dinner first to see if there is chemistry. It sounds like this lab experiment will fizzle out from lack of combustible material.
  • Lots of “women” will advertise on Craigslist for men but are basically looking to sell their bodies. Their ads are quickly flagged, which is probably by there are so few postings from women. This 31-year-old man though at least is different: he is openly soliciting for women (two women at the same time) to fulfill his fantasy, and apparently he expects them to be whores, as he is willing to pay with “Benjamins”.
  • He’s a buff 21-year-old guy in boxers looking for a woman to screw. To improve the odds, he also posted an ad for a transsexual. The same photo and text are in both ads.
  • Twister was basically a game to allow underage girls and boys to get into each other’s intimate space. You are never too old to play the game however. Since you are an adult now, how about Naked Twister? This six-foot man from Alexandria is all set. I guess he is clueless on how totally lame this ad is, which on Craigslist says a lot.
  • Are you into playing with daddies? He is a daddy all right but at 67 he’s old enough to be a granddaddy and maybe even a great granddaddy. So are you into incest role-play with a grandfather? If so please respond to him. My guess is he is the least likely poster on Craigslist tonight to get a reply.
  • I like the occasional truth in advertising in a Craigslist post. This 32-year-old married guy from Reston says he nearing the end of his marriage and is “a bit of a hot mess”. What woman could possibly resist this offer?
  • This 21-year-old woman knows how to have a great time: get high as a kite sniffing coke and then get screwed by an over-endowed man. It’s unclear whether as host you get to provide her skiing package.
  • Attention autistic women like Temple Grandin: you too can take comfort from being kenneled. He wants a picture but it’s unclear whether it should include you with a dog collar in your mouth.
  • Craigslist ads for men looking for men in particular would make most sailors blush. Here’s a 29-year-old gay guy who simply wants another man to kiss and cuddle with. He’s looking for something truly bizarre: intimacy. If it weren’t for the venue, this ad would be sort of sweet and romantic.
  • A 28-year-old local woman wants to invite 8-10 men to bed, all at the same time. She is not into “lame campus stuff”. Strangely, here’s a 36-year-old woman looking for basically the same thing. I suspect this is the same poster. This is probably her as well. Someone(s) are definitely in heat! Maybe they should just go to this party.
  • Ladies: an Arlington man wants to suck your toes and nothing else, scout’s honor!
  • This post from a 26-year-old guy in Leesburg wins the most disgusting post of the month award. Don’t read it! You have been warned!
  • Can a Korean lady be a redneck? Men are invited to find out.

More in December.

 
The Thinker

Ten years later

One of the benefits of writing a blog that’s been around a really long time (this one started in December 2002) is that you occasionally get to go back and look at posts made a long time ago and compare it to where you are in the present. In July 2005 I tried imagining my life in 2015, then ten years in the future. I did it as part of a topic discussed by my covenant group. At the time, the exercise had me breaking out in a cold sweat. Then, at age 48, the idea of being 58 seemed pretty scary.

It’s not quite ten years later but it is more than nine years later. So it’s time to see how good a prognosticator I was back then.

  • I wanted to be in good health at age 58. I have subsequently learned that good health is relative. In some ways I was in worse health in 2005. I did not know I had sleep apnea back then, and even back then my sciatica was starting to make my life miserable. I’m surely no younger; in fact I am about a decade older. I take medications I never took then, but overall I am in less pain and healthier, much of it due to modern medicine. However, most of my chronic problems, like sciatica and sleep apnea, were problems that I had to figure out. No physician had diagnosed them. I had to persist and keep trying. So you can be in better health as you age, but you have to take ownership of your health and you must make it a priority. Don’t assume doctors can figure it all out for you. At best they see your problems through a gauzy curtain.
  • I wondered if I would be retired. The answer is yes; I retired in August. Back then retirement seemed very scary. How could I feel good about myself if I wasn’t doing something I felt was important to society? It turns out at least so far it’s not an issue. I am just as busy, if not more so, being retired and I have much less stress. Jobs can kill you particularly those jobs that come with lots of responsibility. A well-planned retirement where you keep engaged in stuff you like is a great blessing. I am fortunate to have started mine comfortably and long before most people do.
  • I thought if I were retired I might take up something like golf. I still have no desire to do so, in part because age has not made me more agile. But this is also because I did not expect to be so busy in retirement. That may change after we relocate. I still have goals to do more physical activity. So far in retirement that hasn’t been the case, but I have been actively fixing my house. I don’t sit in a chair as much and move around. As for golf, I’d prefer to take up mini-golf instead.
  • Would my Mr. Hyde come out? Would I do something perverted or weird like exposing myself on street corners? I’m not sure where this fear came from. The answer of course is no. In many ways the lower testosterone levels that come with age in men is a blessing. It makes it easier to stay rational and stay out of newspapers and jail cells.
  • I was worried about losing my youth. Well, you either lose it or you die. Given the alternative, losing your youth is pretty good. I didn’t have youth at 48 and I have less of it at 57. The funny thing about aging, at least for me, is you age so slowly that it doesn’t bother you very much. I still think I look pretty youthful, at least for my age. I realize it is part self-deception, or maybe even total self-deception, but as long as you think it’s true you can get through life more happily. I obviously am not attracting any younger babes, but I wasn’t at age 48 either.
  • I thought both my parents would be deceased. Thankfully, my father is still alive. My mother, however, died some months after I wrote the original post. My dad is 88. He might make it to 98. I know he wants to. Both of us aren’t counting on it. But life will go on, assuming I survive to 67, even with the passing of my father. Death is not so scary anymore; it is a path I am becoming familiar with.
  • I wondered if at 25 my daughter would be out of the house. The answer is (as of today) no. As of tomorrow: yes. The movers come tomorrow and we’ll be official empty nesters. More about that, probably, in a subsequent post.
  • I figured there was a good probability that some sort of calamity would affect me. This was in part due to witnessing 9/11 as I worked in Washington when it happened. No nuclear bombs have gone off unexpectedly near me. I may be unduly paranoid, but I still think Washington will suffer something like this in my lifetime. But experience with real life suggests I worry too much. Overall society works, just imperfectly much of the time. Bad stuff happens but a lot of good stuff that doesn’t make the press often does too. More good stuff than bad stuff must be happening, because we are still here, the money is still green and I am in a retirement zone.
  • I was worried I’d end up hating my job. That did not happen, but it did wear me out. I felt like a juggler with one too many balls in the air wondering how long it would be before I dropped one. Things changed, it got increasingly stressful and I realized I didn’t want to do it anymore. Today, I am glad I retired and happy that someone likely younger and more agile will pick up the work and probably do a better job than I did. I also realize I did quite a good job overall considering the minimal resources I was given.
  • I was worried about insolvency. It’s curious what happens when we worry about the things that bug us the most. I took a lot of steps to make sure it didn’t happen, and mitigated a lot of risk through various insurance policies, including an umbrella insurance policy. It also helped to move into my peak earning years. When my daughter got out of college, I could finally save gobs of money. I can’t see insolvency happening unless there is some widespread breakdown of society. And if it happens, we’ll do better than most.

Overall, there was value in thinking about things that made me break out in a cold sweat back in 2005. Instead of fearing them, I was drawn to grapple with them. Fears and reflecting on them made me think through what is really important to me. In that sense, the exercise was valuable and it succeeded.

Life at 57 for me is quite sweet. Life at 58 I expect will be even sweeter.

 
The Thinker

Death by religion

Some years back I wrote about Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, and how I thought it was not only so much crap but dangerous and thoroughly discredited crap as well. It received some modest attention and still gets regular hits.

There are actually a lot of these addictive ideas that are killing us. Arguably capitalism is one of them but there are many others, including communism, fascism, socialism (in its pure form) and today’s topic: religion. Lots of people, mostly atheists, have been saying for a very long time that religion is harmful. They have lots of history to prove them right, as so many wars and so many millions of people have died because of religious conflicts.

Two related stories in Sunday’s Washington Post brought this home to me. One was the influx of foreign fighters into the conflict in Syria and Iraq, including hundreds of people here in America, to fight a religious war. Related to it was a disturbing article about Anjem Choudary, a Muslim cleric based in London who is a propagandist for the Islamic State. This “state” of course is busy overrunning much of Syria and Iraq not to mention beheading people and selling women into slavery. I zeroed in on this part:

Iraq and Syria, Anjem Choudary says confidently, are only the beginning. The Islamic State’s signature black flag will fly over 10 Downing Street, not to mention the White House. And it won’t happen peacefully, but only after a great battle that is now underway.

“We believe there will be complete domination of the world by Islam,” says the 47-year-old, calmly sipping tea and looking none the worse for having been swept up in a police raid just days earlier. “That may sound like some kind of James Bond movie — you know, Dr. No and world domination and all that. But we believe it.”

In other words, none of this peaceful persuasion that Islam is the true faith crap, but lots of war, death and mayhem to make sure we are all compelled to believe his version of the truth. Christians shouldn’t feel so smug, after numerous crusades not to mention the Spanish Inquisition in which we tried (and failed) to make the infidels (read: Muslims) believe our version of religious truth.

There is not a major religion out there, including Buddhism that has not killed to promote its values, despite doing so is arguably the greatest hypocrisy against their religion possible. All these centuries later, despite our vast knowledge and understanding of history, despite technology and the Internet, large numbers of us are utterly convinced that only their religion is correct. They are so vested in it that they will wreak literally holy mayhem to make sure their religion, and only their religion is the only one anyone is allowed to believe and practice.

It’s quite clear what people like Choudary would do to those of us unenlightened enough not to become Muslims: lop off our heads like they are doing to infidels in Iraq and Syria right now or, if a woman, sell her into slavery. This is, by the way, quite similar to what Columbus did to the natives of Hispaniola shortly after discovering America in 1492, and what Cortez and many other conquerors did to the unenlightened natives of South and Central America as well. Killing infidels with the sword often had the desired effect. The natives were soon proclaiming to believe in Jesus Christ while also working as slaves for their enlightened conquerors. Infidels are going to hell anyhow for refusing to be enlightened, so they might as well be dead, is what passed for their rationalization. Choudary doubtless agrees but worse is working to facilitate the transfer of fighters into Iraq and Syria to spread this sort of enlightenment.

It doesn’t seem to matter much what the form of religion is. They all seem to have this fatal flaw, which allows zero uncertainty to come between their religion and their actions. I believe this is because the human species is hardwired toward addiction to memes. And the religious meme is a powerful one: it promises us eternal paradise and the absence of all suffering, forever, in the glory of God if we just do precisely what some people say God wants us to do. People like Moner Mohammad Abusalha, a Florida native, who on May 25 became an American suicide bomber for the cause of Islam. He blew himself up in a Syrian café frequented by Syria soldiers. In his farewell video, Abusalha says:

“You think you are safe where you are in America,” he said, threatening his own country and a half-dozen others. “You are not safe.”

Doubtless he is enjoying paradise now with his 72 virgins. That should satisfy his sexual desires for a while. Or, much more likely, he is simply dead, another pawn cruelly used in a much larger game of pointless chess. Chess is a game and on some horrific level these religious crusades are games too. Games may be won, but winning them doesn’t really change anything. Thanks to conquerors like Cortez and the missionaries that followed him, South and Central America today is suitably enlightened, with Roman Catholicism dominating society there. But it is still as infected with evils as any other religiously “enlightened” state. If you need a recent example, try this one. Or this one.

No religion, no matter how universal, will change the fundamental nature of man. It never has and never will. Choudary and Abusalha are ultimately playing the parts of fools, helping to feed chain reactions of generational war, death, trauma and suffering wholly at odds with the religion they proclaim will solve these problems. The religious meme – the notion that one size of religion can and must fit all – that has been proven over and over and over almost to the point where you can’t count anymore as fundamentally false and destructive. Religion in this incarnation is harmful to man, creates chaos and retards the enlightenment these people profess it will bring.

I speak as a cautiously religious man. My own religion, Unitarian Universalism, is creedless so perhaps we have earned an escape clause as a toxic religion. Still, my denomination is hardly free of its own very human evils. A previous minister of my church, for example, was sexually involved with a number of women in our congregation (while married), a scandal some thirty years in our past that still affects our behavior. But Unitarian Universalism at least does not proselytize. We don’t assume our religion is the only correct one. This will occasionally drive others nuts. It resulted in some deaths some years back in a congregation in Tennessee, and more recently a very disturbing takeover of a service in Louisiana by some local antiabortion nuts.

So here’s my new rules on religion and I hope it is a new meme we can spread:

  • I will not consider believing in any religion that assumes it has all the answers about the nature of God and how humans must behave
  • I will not consider believing in any religion that thinks has succeeded when everyone is believing in its version of truth
  • I will not consider believing in any religion that cannot peacefully co-exist with other different faiths
  • I will not consider believing in any religion that has at any time in its past caused religious warfare
  • I will actively do all I can to civilly and peacefully undermine any religion that promotes any of the above
  • I will encourage everyone, including you, who may belong to such a faith to leave it

Such faiths are not worthy of the God you claim to worship and are ultimately far more destructive than helpful. Reflect on it. Pray on it. God will tell you it’s true.

 

 
The Thinker

Our Wild, Wild Universe – Part Two

I don’t often write about the universe. It’s been ten years since I wrote about the physicist Brian Greene’s book The Fabric of the Universe. It seems that I cannot get enough of the story, at least when it can be brought down to the terms a layman like me can understand. Some months back Cosmos returned to television, a sort of sequel to the series of the same name hosted by the late astronomer Carl Sagan broadcast on public TV in 1980. This series is hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson and showed up, curiously enough, on the Fox Network, a network known more for its lowbrow entertainment than this nerdy stuff.

I’m catching up on the series now on Netflix. I find it compelling in a strange way, so compelling that I am putting aside other really compelling shows like House of Cards and Ken Burns’ documentary The Roosevelts to give it precedence. It tickles my curiosity and sense of wonder. The more you explore what we know about the universe, the more wondrous it becomes. deGrasse Tyson does a great job of conveying the immensity and the wonder of our universe. The series is aided by wondrous CGI as well, the sort that was simply unavailable when Carl Sagan hosted the series (although for the time his CGI was quite sophisticated). The combination of CGI, storytelling and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s infectious way of story telling makes it a very compelling series.

It brings out the natural pantheist in me. Natural pantheism is sort of a religion that simply expresses reverence for our universe the way it is. As you finish episodes of this version of Cosmos, you should feel the pull of natural pantheism too. Most of us who are religious tend to appreciate the faiths that we have been brought up in, in part perhaps because its message is much simpler to grasp than the amazing immensity and complexity of the cosmos, to the extent that we can understand it. Traditional religions also tend to concentrate on people and our needs, aspirations and questions. They are human centric. Studying the cosmos as it is, is not human centric at all except of course that we are self-aware creatures. We also have developed a scientific method that allows us to continually gain in understanding of the cosmos and our part in it.

deGrasse Tyson does a great job of explaining how we came to understand how the universe actually works. This too is a compelling story. In it certain scientists like Newton, Faraday and Einstein become something like secular saints, because they each solve great mysteries. In the process they reveal not just what is, but how the master clock works and sometimes how we can work it to our advantage. It’s a story of great detective work spanning thousands of years.

The series is spawning new thoughts within me, particularly in the area of evolution. It is clear to me that evolution does not exist merely here on Earth, but across the universe as well. The universe evolves too, creating more and more complex elements that make life possible. Is there life in the universe, aside from our planet, of course? Now the answer seems simple: yes. Life doubtless exists elsewhere, in many forms. In fact it probably permeates our galaxy and much of the evolved universe. This is because all the building blocks are there, particularly carbon and heat, which is hardly unique to the Earth. In addition, as deGrasse Tyson points out in Episode 11, it is probable that microbial life travels between planets and between solar systems, seeding life itself across the galaxy and the universe. It just happens so slowly and over so many millions of years it is hard for us to see.

To me it gets much simpler. The universe itself is a living creature. The universe does not necessarily think or breathe, attributes that we associate with life but at least to our understanding is something done very quickly. But it is clearly evolving and becoming more complex with time. It is unfolding and through nuclear processes and gravity it is creating the complex, like carbon molecules, from the simple: the collapse of hydrogen gases by gravity into stars and their subsequent explosion. And like all living things, the universe seems destined to die. Like our body though it does not all die at once. It will take billions of years to die as the forces of the big bang move objects further and further from each other. The universe will catch a bad case of pneumonia and then pass on. With the big bang so powerful that no contraction of the universe seems possible, its energy will dwindle out, much like a firework. Whatever happens after that takes us to realms beyond the known laws of physics.

So yes, the universe is alive and it is also a vast system. Systems by nature are complex entities, and the universe is complex almost beyond our fathoming. Systems imply rules and order and some understanding, which if you believe in God suggests your belief is not unfounded. Systems also are comprised of many pieces that interrelate with one another. Our universe interrelates with itself. Forces like the nuclear forces and gravity are the means that enforce an interrelationship. It also means that everything is connected to everything else. We sometimes suffer the illusion that we are alone. We may feel lonely, but we are never alone. We are always intimately connected with everything else simply because we are all a part of everything else.

It is individuality that is an illusion, although as deGrasse Tyson points out not only are we part of a universe so immense that few of us can understand it, there is also a universe within ourselves. Within a breath of air that we inhale, there are more atoms inhaled than there are stars in the universe. If there is a miracle, it is that we have evolved to self-awareness. We have a pretty good idea how it all fits together now, and our part in it.

With life must come death. On the universal level, our life is like the lifespan of a bacterium on a bar of soap: very short indeed. By nature we cannot maintain such complexity for that long and even if we could the universe will shift in ways that would kill us. It’s no wonder then that universe seems cold, heartless and unfathomable. We are destined to die, and die very quickly on a universal time scale. However, we remain part of the fabric of something far more immense and alive: the universe itself.

We are a part of something immensely grand and complex indeed, with our part to play. We have the privilege, thanks to shows like Cosmos, to understand our what it is and our part in it. And that is awe-inspiring and for this agnostic a fitting and satisfying part to play.

 

Switch to our mobile site