Greed is a terrible sickness

The Thinker by Rodin

In the 1987 movie Wall Street, the corporate raider Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) informed us that greed is good. His character fit in well with the Reagan years, because this was essentially the mantra of Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party. If anything since then the Republican Party has become even more extreme on the issue. Not only is greed good, but also by implication being poor is bad and a personal failure. Poor people are just not trying hard enough, which they view as something of a crime.

According to Merriam-Webster, greed is “a selfish and excessive desire for more of something (such as money) than is needed”. “Than is needed” is of course somewhat relative. However, if you have or take more in the way of resources than you need almost by definition someone else gets less than they might otherwise have. Since Reagan was elected, the only constant is that more of our wealth has gone to the richest while the income for the rest of us has at best stayed the same but has generally declined.

It’s clear to me that greed is a terrible sickness, and not something that should be celebrated. It sure appears that those who are truly greedy are never satisfied. They always want more. Since they believe greed is good, they look on greediness as a kind of religion. Witness our president and most of his cabinet of very wealthy people and who seem to have no scruples. Government is for pillaging, which is why last year they gave themselves a tax cut and threw a few scraps out to the rest of us. Their reputed rationale was that tax cuts would pay for themselves, something that has never proven true. I don’t for a minute believe that they believe it. What they do believe is that if you have power then you should use it to enrich yourself, so they did, worsening income inequality and greatly adding to our national debt to line their pockets now.

Greed is bad and should be treated as a mental illness. A truly greedy person should be seeing psychologists to figure out what is the matter with them. There is something very wrong with our president, who clearly subscribes to the religion of greed. To see how greed perturbs someone, look at our EPA secretary Scott Pruitt. The “greed is good” mantra has him so captivated that he has no problem turning the EPA into the Environmental Destruction Agency. Entitlement is assumed. He has a round-the-clock staff of thirty to protect him, flies first class everywhere and built a soundproof booth in his office.

Being wealthy does not necessarily mean that you are greedy. Berkshire Hathaway head Warren Buffet seems to be one of these types: a billionaire many times over who otherwise lives modestly. To be greedy you need to flaunt it and be consumed by the need to become ever richer, and not always through entirely fair means. At its core, greed denies reality. It suggests for example that you will never die because it’s hard to actually spend and enjoy all the money you accumulate. I suspect Warren Buffet enjoys investing because he finds it personally interesting.

Then there are people like the Koch Brothers who are consumed by greed, so much so that they have no problem if their industries create their profits by foisting their pollution costs on the rest of us. That’s how much greed has perturbed their thinking. It’s not like there is another planet nearby that eight billion of us can go and populate. They either can’t see this reality or more likely simply don’t care. These people are very sick people indeed.

For much of my life, I pursued wealth. I wasn’t a fanatic about it but I wanted to be comfortable, particularly in retirement. It was a long and arduous struggle that I eventually achieved. To me, it meant feeling confident that I could maintain my standard of living until I died, that I would never go hungry or be impoverished again and that I no longer had to work to survive. It’s true that much of my wealth is dependent upon a well-earned federal pension, and I still don’t entirely trust that the oligarchy won’t take it away at some point to feed their insatiable greed. But I feel confident enough about it that I don’t worry about it anymore. In any event, I have a comfortable portfolio and plenty of cash assets set aside to handle future expenses. We have no mortgage payment nipping at our heels every month anymore, no college expenses to juggle and little in the way of electricity bills with the solar panels on our roof.

It’s reached the point where our relative wealth feels sort of surreal. What I don’t feel at all is the need to obsessively acquire more wealth. I feel no particular pull to buy a fancy car, for example. I take no particular pleasure in driving and see it as a chore. In January we took a 19-day vacation, 16 days of it on a cruise ship. It was nice but I don’t particularly feel the need for a more lavish vacation or more days dining on gourmet food in Holland America’s dining room. My needs and wants are pretty much satisfied. My financial anxieties are calmed. At my stage of life, people like me should simply enjoy life.

Today the things that give me the most satisfaction are the most prosaic: daily “constitutionals” around my community, doing the crossword puzzle in the paper, having a cat nearby that I can reach out and pet and having a spouse who I love and who loves me. And yet despite the ups and downs in the stock market, our portfolio keeps increasing. To the extent I still work through teaching and consulting (both very part time) it’s for enjoyment and to spread my knowledge to those who might benefit from it. This income is mostly saved, but occasionally it buys some nice stuff. We are planning a New York City trip next and hope to see some popular Broadway shows.

All these rich people could simply enjoy their wealth if they wanted to, rather than suffer from the psychosis that they must ruthlessly acquire more of it through pretty much any means available. A lot of our spare income now is given away to charitable causes. I feel not just a need but also a natural desire to share our wealth. I try to put it toward causes that I believe are productive uses. It goes to places like the Nature Conservancy, so it can buy up natural space for future generations. It goes to Planned Parenthood, so women in particular can make choices over their own bodies and get health care services at affordable prices. It goes to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, so fewer of the people I see holding cardboard signs at intersections have to go hungry. It goes to a local spouse abuse shelter, so mostly women can have a softer landing after from suffering domestic abuse. And increasingly a lot of it goes to arguably non-charitable causes: campaigns of people who seem to be sincere progressives who will work to reduce misery and straighten out the major problems with our politics most of which were caused by the greed is good falsehood.

For the truly greedy, to quote Mr. T., “I pity the fools”. They might want to read some Charles Dickens, particularly A Christmas Carol. Whether overtly or innocently, what they are doing to our planet and the rest of us is intensively evil.

Scared to death

The Thinker by Rodin

Did you see the video of Donald Trump’s hair (or more accurately his lack of it)? It looks like on February 6th Trump had a really bad hair day. The camera caught these moments when he was ascending into Air Force One. Trump of course goes through great length to hide his thinning hair. While only his hairstylist knows some of his secrets (and I’m not sure he has one), it looks like he’s getting by by letting his sideburns grow to great lengths and sweeping them back.

Frankly it looks stupid. It’s rumored that Trump has had scalp reduction surgery, presumably to pull back and make the most what he has left of his hair. It’s obviously dyed and lacquered with something to make it thicker than it is. It’s also obvious that Trump wears dentures. No one has quite that perfect teeth. But when you are 71 all you can do is make the best of what you’ve got or in Trump’s case, fake it … bigly. Trump wants to pretend he’s much younger than he is and full of vigor, but if anything he looks older than his age.

Since two posts ago I turned 61. I’m doing relatively well hair-wise, at least compared to my younger brother. But like Trump I have a lot less of it on the top of my head and what’s left is a lot thinner as well. My former hairstylist assured me I would always have a full head of hair, but I doubt it. In the sun it’s pretty obvious it’s going. Like it or not I too am aging. And while like Trump I don’t particularly want to look older than my age and would prefer to look younger than my age, I don’t intend to fake it.

Still, Trump and I share one undeniable fact: were both aging and it’s only going to get worse. I have no illusions that I’m handsome enough to attract some younger babe. Unlike a lot of the men in the news these days I’m not in the mood to try. I like the woman I married 32 years ago, faults and all. She loves me. If I were to hitch up with some younger babe I’d never really believe she loves me anyhow.

I can’t read Melania Trump but I really doubt she loves her husband. She now has more reason not to love him if these Stormy Daniels rumors are true. Even if not true, she surely knew she was marrying a man with issues and infidelities. My guess is Melania knew poverty as a child, or enough discomfort that she wanted to be kept warm and in opulence for the rest of her life. At least she got that with Trump. If he dumped her like he did with his other wives there would be a fat alimony and a big bonus: not having to endure her husband anymore.

Aside from 46 chromosomes, humans share one important thing: we are all destined to die. One way to measure a person is to see how they respond to this knowledge. I try not to think about it too much but I live in a strange family. My daughter says she is not death-phobic. She’s converting my wife who is spending her time on YouTube watching the Ask the Mortician channel, and enjoying it. For the last few years my main way with dealing with death is to live robustly. Make every day count and stay engaged. For me life is about living. Death will take care of itself, since it is inescapable.

I do get this much from listening to my wife and daughter: many of us are trained to fear death. It’s not like this in all cultures, Japan for instance. But here in the west we are in the death-denying business. Some take it to crazy lengths, and Donald Trump must be near the top of the list. Trump’s reputed recent physical was crazy. He’s 239 pounds, and was probably holding helium balloons while he was weighed. He also inflated his height to 6’3” so he can technically claim not to be obese. His doctor, the White House physician, said he was in fabulous health. But the doctor was clearly lying. You don’t need to be a doctor to see it for yourself. Trump looks terrible, gets no exercise of note, requires statins to keep his cholesterol in check and has a diet that consists of a lot of McDonalds takeout food.

Many religions teach us there is an afterlife which if true is a good reason to not be worried about death. The problem is that most of us in our hearts don’t believe it. We can’t acknowledge to ourselves that we don’t believe it and that feeds a lot of anxiety, anxiety that seems to grow worse as we age. Trump is denying his mortality bigly. So did my mom when she was dying. Her faith was pretty useless to her. She was scared out of her mind.

Only two aunts (one of them in a mental hospital) stand between me and everyone in the generation before me related to me dead. Both my parents are gone, my father most recently two years ago on my birthday. The one aunt who is still of sound mine is taking lots of supplements, is carefully watching her nutrition and is getting lots of exercise. She is the youngest of twelve. All the rest are gone. She reports it’s sad and scary to see all those you loved die. What are left are mostly children and grandchildren if you are lucky to have them. She’s got the children, but both her husband and daughter are dead and died just weeks apart in misery. Of the three boys, two are married and none produced heirs.

Being a middle child I am likely to see some of my older siblings die before me and they will experience my absence from their lives when I die. That too is part of aging and dying, at least in a large family (I have seven siblings), if you live long enough. In some ways it is better to die sooner so you don’t have to go through that crap.

With six decades to ponder death though I’ve realized a few things. Death does not scare me. I don’t want to die by having my head chopped off with an axe or from a gunshot wound but that’s a logical fear to a particularly horrible way of dying. Having watched two parents die though death is no longer a mystery. It’s natural and it’s a consequence of living. I should no more be afraid of being dead than I should be scared that there was no me before I was conceived.

I am afraid of dying a miserable death like my mother endured. I can and will take sensible precautions to avoid those kinds of death. The major cause of her death was Progressive Supranuclear Palsy. I am taking COQ-10 to make it less likely that this will kill me, although it might. Parkinson’s runs in her family. My father died primarily of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Basically his lungs died before the rest of him. I have a physical in two weeks and on my agenda is to ask my physician how I can avoid COPD. (Obviously I don’t smoke, and neither did my father. This is often where it begins.)

Something’s going to get me though and it will get Donald Trump too. You play the game, you do your best to stack the odds in your favor so you can at least optimally enjoy what time you have left, but a certain amount is left to fate. COPD is not a bad way to go if you have to go. My father was able to stay at home until nearly the very end.

So perhaps watching Ask the Mortician is not a bad idea. Maybe we have such phobias about death because we don’t want to confront our mortality. And yet there is nothing more natural than death. We will all experience dying but I suspect even in dying there is some living there. We will all find out in time if we can get suppress our fear of dying enough to enjoy living. That’s how I intend to go.

I don’t know how Donald Trump will go when his time comes, but I am confident he will fight it, lose like all of us do and maybe for the first time in his life feel humbled by forces outside of his control.

Some questions for pro-lifers

The Thinker by Rodin

I do have some friends that are pro-life. There’s nothing wrong with that and certainly in principle since the opposite of pro-life is pro-death, well who really wants to be that?

Pro-life though generally has a more specific meaning, at least here in the United States. It means that you are against abortion, generally at any stage of a pregnancy for any reason and want law to criminalize abortions. Some though do make exceptions in the case of rape and incest.

The most common reason for being pro-life is: since only God gives life then only God should be able to take it away. And the fetus is defenseless and can’t speak for itself, but if it had a voice would say, “I want to live!” So in the minds of pro-lifers for a human to take away a life that hasn’t gone to term means you are murdering a human being, even if the “human being” is just an inert blastocyst consisting of a couple of dozen cells. Murder is a crime and in the eyes of most Christians and Jews a sin, presumably because it violates the 6th commandment: Thou Shalt Not Kill.

Naturally I have some questions for pro-lifers. Feel free to leave comments with your answers. My suspicion is that most pro-lifers simply don’t think through these questions. First, their ministers tell it is so that’s good enough for them. Second, if they parse these questions of mine it will probably set up cognitive dissonance. Most of us deal with cognitive dissonance by not thinking about it. So I don’t expect much if any response from pro-lifers as these questions simply won’t be read. But just in case, please satisfy my curiosity.

  • If you believe that only God can create life, are you saying the mother and father had no part in creating life, and that it’s only coincidence that sexual intercourse (or artificial insemination) is involved? In other words, that all conceptions are essentially virgin births and that God has somehow magically combined the DNA of the mother and father?
  • If there is a miscarriage, is God complicit in the murder of the fetus?
  • If so, is God a murderer? Or is this some sort of mysterious love beyond our grasp?
  • If God is a murderer, doesn’t that make God in some part also evil, and thus not worthy of worship?
  • If God does not cause miscarriages, then whose fault is it? Are the parents at fault, maybe for not going to the obstetrician enough? Is the mother to blame because ultimately it is her body?
  • If it’s the parents’ fault that a miscarriage occurred, should they be charged with murder or face other criminal charges? If so, what is appropriate? Presumably the death penalty it out.
  • If a miscarriage is neither God’s nor the parents’ fault, does this mean that some actions are essentially nondeterministic and no one’s fault?
  • Should the government take all necessary actions for every pregnancy to go to term? Should this include providing free neonatal vitamins and prenatal care if necessary?
  • At what stage if any do you stop becoming pro-life? For example, if an adult commits murder, are you okay with their execution at the hands of the state?
  • If so why can only God take away life before birth, but it’s okay in some cases for man to take away life after birth? (I’m guessing there are quotes in the Bible that would justify this, but they seem to conflict with the 6th Commandment. If so how do you resolve the conflict?)
  • If only God can take away life, are we under an obligation to extend every human life as long as humanly possible? Should we forbid voluntary euthanasia, assisted suicide and hospice care in favor of all measures to extend life as long as possible, no matter how much pain and suffering this may cause to the dying person? Where do you draw the line and why?
  • Should we care about a child not yet brought to term more than a human being already born? If so, why? If not, can I also assume that you are in favor of any taxation necessary to ensure that all people live as long as possible? If not, please explain.
  • If we should ensure that all people live as long as possible, should we also do everything to ensure they live as health and misery-free lives as possible? If not, why not?
  • Are diseases caused by sin?
  • If diseases are not caused by sin, why does God allow them to exist, as they tend to cause misery and shorten lives?
  • If you allow for abortion in the case of rape or incest but are otherwise pro-life, why do you make these exceptions? Did not God want these lives to happen?
  • Do you think the use of contraception is a sin? Why or why not? Please explain.
  • Do you acknowledge that overpopulation is straining our ecosystem?
  • If so and trends continue is there any point at which society must control the population to ensure the survival of the species?
  • If not and our ecosystem breaks down due to excessive human population and climate change, leading to the extinction of our species and massive misery and death, are you okay with this? Why?

Curious minds, well at least this mind wants to know.

The roots of terrorism

The Thinker by Rodin

Ever get this strange feeling of déjà vu? Last Friday’s horrific terrorist events in Paris are being called France’s 9/11. Last I checked there were 129 mostly French citizens murdered in six separate but obviously well coordinated terrorist incidents in Paris, and more than three hundred wounded. I don’t think it’s coincidental that these incidents occurred on a Friday the Thirteenth. The date may not have the same unlucky connotation in France that it has here in the United States, but ISIS (which admitted to sponsoring the acts) and al Qaeda know the power of marketing and symbolism. Anything that they can do to make such events more memorable will be done, and tying events like this to memorable dates is one.

Shortly after 9/11 here in the United States, our military did the expected things. We sent our air force into Afghanistan. In our case it worked reasonably well, at least at first, because we destroyed the Taliban government there that hosted al Qaeda. We installed our own more secular and western government in its place; a form of government that was not natural to the region and which unsurprisingly caused a strong insurgency.

Fourteen years later al Qaeda is a diminished presence in Afghanistan, but Afghanistan is hardly stable, secular or particularly democratic. The Taliban are resurgent and it looks like more civil war is ahead there; in fact it has already begun. Our leadership took being caught with its pants down as a sign that America had to be proactive to address these threats, so we unwisely toppled Saddam Hussein. The state of ISIS, such as it is, is a direct result of that unwise action. Indirectly, the U.S. has contributed to last Friday’s events.

The French government of course quickly decided that their own 9/11 could not go unanswered, so it sent its considerable air force to bomb targets in Syria controlled by ISIS in coordination with our own. This was done to presumably degrade and destroy ISIS that just last week President Obama unwisely asserted was contained. ISIS proudly admitted that it had planned and coordinated these attacks. It was done for the same reason that Osama bin Laden planned and coordinated 9/11. His goal was not so much to destroy the United States, as it was to use the U.S. as a proxy to further his cause. And it worked amazingly well for him, actually better than he imagined as our invasion of Iraq introduced anarchy that eventually allowed ISIS to rise.

Presumably France won’t go the extra mile the way the United States did in Iraq, but it does not have our vast military resources anyhow. Presumably its leadership is a bit clearer-headed than ours was after 9/11 and realizes these military strikes are more to satisfy their citizens’ cry for a counterpunch rather than to meaningful affect a particular outcome.

Fires remain fires only as long as they have a combination of fuel and oxygen. Understood in this context, ISIS’s actions were predictable. The neophyte state is rather amorphous but it certainly needs energy to continue. The oxygen comes from more people committed to their ideology, and the fuel comes from its funders. ISIS exists in a resource poor part of the Middle East, so most of its money actually comes from outside the state, i.e. those with money that support its radical version of Sunni Islam. To get the money it needs to continue to demonstrate it has power and can draw recruits. So going for soft targets like innocent civilians in Paris is logical. It’s relatively easy to demonstrate that it can execute power over a free society like France. Such acts will inspire many and it will impress its creditors. It allows the state to continue because its military has been significantly degraded by allied airstrikes and by the many forces engaged on the ground in the region.

Fourteen years after 9/11 it’s obvious from these incidents that if there were easy ways to contain terrorism they would have worked by now. In fact, if there were hard ways of containing terrorism, they would have shown affect by now as well. Invading Iraq and trying to stand up a secular government there is a hard thing to do. Actually there has been a lot of progress, but it’s mostly unseen. While intelligence within ISIS is poor, our intelligence capability has improved remarkably during this time. It’s just not enough in a free society to stop periodic incidents like these, although many do get deterred and prevented. A state cannot know everything and call itself free.

It’s possible that with time ISIS will be degraded and destroyed as President Obama hopes. However, even if this victory happens, it doesn’t solve the problem. Ideology in general is the real problem. If ISIS goes and the dynamics of radical Islam are not addressed as well, it will simply spring up elsewhere in other forms in the Middle East. Wiping out ISIS in other words is merely winning a battle. The real war is to change hearts and minds.

In 1995 the United States endured the Oklahoma City Bombing, an act of domestic terrorism. This act was similar in size and scale to last Friday’s incidents in Paris. Its perpetrator Timothy McVeigh was not particularly religious, but he was dogmatic. He was deeply conservative in the sense that he was upset about changes happening in America. He believed that changes disenfranchised white people, and that these changes were being achieved through the federal government through what he perceived as its pro-liberal policies. At its root, McVeigh’s complaint was that he was against democracy when it did not favor his interests. He believed enlightened ones like him had the duty to change things through acts like terrorism when this happened.

Basically McVeigh was an authoritarian, something that resonates strongly with many Americans, most of who align with the Republican Party. Stripped of its religious façade, that’s what the War on Terrorism is really about: it’s a struggle between those powerfully pulled to an authoritarian framework versus those who believe government should be run democratically come what may. The roots of this conflict might very well be genetic, as there is convincing research that shows that liberals and conservatives are wired differently right down to their DNA. Conservatives believe in authoritarianism and feel in their bones that they must follow the leader like a sheep providing they can trust their leader and conversely to wholly distrust the leader when they don’t (hence their utter contempt for President Obama.) You can see this in Donald Trump’s appeal. Conversely, liberals are comfortable with ambiguity and want to empower all the people.

This conflict is probably not going to go away with ISIS or even al Qaeda. However, it’s clear that within the last hundred years or so liberals have been winning promoting a more secular, humane and tolerant world. Regardless of the rationalization that impels terrorists (God, Islam, racism, communism) the common threat is liberalism (i.e. progressive social change), which is manifested through secularism, representative democracy, freedom and tolerance for those unlike us. If more intolerance in France can be created then France begins to model ISIS in spirit. Islam is more likely to take hold in a country where the culture favors authoritarianism.

ISIS isn’t explicitly aware of this, but in this mindset requires intolerant and authoritarian governments. It fights for a world where government enforces its own radical brand of Islam worldwide, but this is a fight that can never be won. However, it can inadvertently be a proxy in a larger and more nebulous cause to put in power those whose DNA makes them comfortable with the leader-and-follower model, and that reviles tolerance and ambiguity.

France must do what is pragmatic to lessen the likelihood of future incidents. However if in response it discards its values of freedom, secularism and tolerance then whether ISIS thrives or dies does not really matter: the uber-cause of authoritarianism wins, and France loses.

Free speech has limits

The Thinker by Rodin

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 rationality of altruism

The Thinker by Rodin

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.

Our Wild, Wild Universe – Part Two

The Thinker by Rodin

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.

The path to genuine enlightenment

The Thinker by Rodin

Religious violence is hardly news. Religious violence, such as what is currently going on between Shi’ites and Sunnis in Iraq, should drive millions of people to atheism. No God worth worshipping could possibly approve of any violence in its name, let alone require us humans to use force and murder as a means of spreading the faith.

Religions though really aren’t so much about God as they are about people. Supposedly the purpose of religion is to draw us closer to God. What’s its real purpose? As best I can tell, its real purpose is the largely futile attempt to calm our restless and flawed human souls, something it does imperfectly at best. Sometimes it does succeed in bring some of us to a higher spiritual or moral plain, but overall its track record is pretty poor and its lessons don’t tend to stick permanently. If I had to pick a number, I’d say it works perhaps ten percent of the time, at least in inculcating permanent behavioral changes for the better. What typically happens is we may get better for a while, but then we revert to doing what we do best: being flawed human beings.

It’s worse than that because we all have certain imperfections and angsts, which means that we will be drawn toward religions that accentuate these issues within us. What a lot of us really crave is absolute certainty in an uncertain world, and most religions offer that. You just have to find the religion that most closely aligns with your imperfections and predispositions. But mostly, as I first pointed out a long time ago, we tend to be drawn to the religions we were born into, if any. If we are going to stay with a religion, it will be with one that has the comfort of familiarity and the sanction of our parents.

If you live in Iraq, it’s almost certain that you are a Muslim, but alas what kind of Muslim is what is far more important. Both Shi’ite and Sunni believe there is only one God: Allah. Great, you would think that would make religious life pretty simple. But instead they are arguing, and have been arguing and killing each other for more than a millennium and about something that really doesn’t matter. This is: when Mohammad died, did he intend for the religion to be dynastic (what the Shi’ites believe) or not (what the Sunnis believe). ISIS (The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) is busy killing Shi’ites in areas it has conquered, but really anyone, including Sunnis, that don’t or won’t tow the line on their extreme and puritanical version of Islam.

I’d accuse them of channeling George W. “You are either with us, or against us” Bush except of course both sects have been doing this far longer than our last president has been alive. It’s a cycle of violence that shows no sign of ever being extinguished. Neither side will ultimately prevail. As best I can tell, the only way to really kill this cycle of violence is for everyone Muslim to simply abandon the faith. That doesn’t seem likely.

Of course it’s not just the Muslims that can’t get along with each other. Protestants and Catholics have been murdering each other for centuries. Even before Protestantism emerged, Christianity was rife with religious persecution. My particular religion is Unitarian Universalism. Early in Christian history, the Trinitarians ruthlessly persecuted the Unitarians. The Unitarians (very sensibly I believe) concluded that the notion of God in three parts (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) made no sense whatsoever, so they were killed or persecuted for their heresy. They eventually sought refuge in what is now Romania and Hungary. Within Protestantism, various denominations persecuted minority denominations. The Pilgrims that helped form the United States was but one of them.

The general problem is that humans don’t deal well with people that don’t conform to their beliefs. Of course it’s not just religious beliefs, but all sorts of arguably weird stuff like whether gays should get married or the limits of government that foment our intolerance. It seems we are born to factionalize, and leaders of our factions assume leadership because they have learned the art of persuading followers that their beliefs are the only correct ones.

Given all of this, why wouldn’t you want to be an atheist? Why wouldn’t an atheist go out and evangelize? Curiously, die-hard atheists imitate the tactics of die-hard theists. Mostly what you hear is, “God is total bunk, a fairy tale, just Santa Claus for adults” and they will argue endlessly why this is so with their scorn clear in their voices. They tend to lampoon the religious as intellectually flawed sheep.

Atheism has always struck me as just proselytizing of a different sort. What is the track record of atheism? Does it make for a better world? While the jury is out, we do have the example of the Soviet Union, which was basically an atheist state, not to mention communist China. Its leaders did a wretched job of managing the country or even making socialism work. So I am skeptical that if we were all atheists and that they were in charge that we would end religious violence. For atheism has all the hallmarks of a religion, including its dogmatic certainty, just without God at its center. I am convinced that if we were all atheists, we would find reasons to beat the heads of other atheists. We haven’t seen much of this yet probably because they have not evolved into a large enough force. I can see splits between dogma-driven atheists, who might forbid the teaching of religion, from humanistic atheists.

So the larger problem is not religion per se, but the dogmatic nature of our species in general. We find comfort in being with people like us, be it culturally, racially or spiritually, but it seems best to us when it is all of the above. And all this is because to make sense of our world we have to discern clear patterns, even where they don’t exist clearly and even where the differences really don’t mean anything. We actually worship the necessity of patterns that we can slavishly follow, not God. I contend that the crux of the differences between Sunni and Shi’ite are trivial. And yet century after century they keep killing each other because of their need for certainty and comfort. They seem ill equipped to expand their thoughts to the larger notion that we are all brothers.

So, to channel Bill Maher, I propose a New Rule: put kindness toward all ahead of your religious faith or lack thereof. Realize that our various faiths and beliefs, while often helpful and insightful to those who practice those faiths and beliefs, are not the most important aspect of their lives or of our lives. Our most critical virtues need to be kindness, openness and an understanding that we really all are one.

It’s hard to practice and obviously I am not a saint in this matter. It’s hard for even me to see that the divide between Democrats and Republicans is not as wide as I think. However, if I can practice open listening and tolerance, I am likely to be heard and acknowledged by the other side. And open hearts should open doors of communications and facilitate enlightenment in general. So I too must practice looking and emphasizing for those things that I have in common with people unlike me. I need to practice dialog with people like this, dialog that is respectful and healing.

This, I think, is the path to real enlightenment.

Instead of ideal, try real

The Thinker by Rodin

We humans are imperfect creatures. We all know this and can list our imperfections by simply examining our own mistakes and foibles. If we were perfect, we’d be God. It seems that many of us want to emulate God’s perfection. Maybe we spend a lot of our time in prayer, reading holy books and doing good works, seeking to be more like God.

With the exception of a handful of human beings like Jesus Christ, whose devotees believe was God in human form, none of us have achieved perfection. There are lots of reasons for this. First, we are born imperfect so it would be totally amazing if somehow through circumstance we never did anything imperfect in our lives, particularly when we are children and simply don’t know better. Second, what is perfect anyhow? Does this mean never missing an opportunity to help a little old lady cross the street? Or is doing it fifty percent of the time acceptable to emulate perfection? Perversely, perfection seems to be a lot like pornography: we can’t define it but somehow we think we know it when we see it. In reality, we tend to pick up from our elders and peers the criteria by which we measure perfection.

It strikes me though that if you are going to ceaselessly strive for perfection, you are doomed to fail. You are suffering the fate of Sisyphus, who as you may recall was doomed to push the same boulder up the mountain, always to have it fall back down the mountain due to the steepness of the mountain and his human limitations. So striving to be perfect seems ultimately pointless because there is no way that you will achieve it. Moreover it’s impossible to measure. Are you ten percent perfect? Fifty percent? Maybe you find out with death if Saint Peter let you through the heavenly gate.

To be truly perfect, in some ways you must cease to be human. A truly perfect person would never feel lust, and certainly not act on it. Maybe it was possible to feel it when they were imperfect, but when they have evolved sufficiently somehow they never will again. Instead, you become serene, eternally smiling, a lot like the Dalai Lama. (I must be imperfect, because I think orange robes look, well, pretty hideous on just about anyone.) Even the Buddhists are having a hard time with the brotherly love thing, showing their imperfections and humanity. Witness news reports out of Burma. Buddhists, feeling encroached on by Muslims, have been rioting, killing and maiming Muslims. Buddha would certainly not approve and would doubtless be aghast. Buddhists though are human and are just as capable of foibles and hypocrisy as the rest of us. As I have noted many times, the vast majority of Christians in American simply are not.

In fact, to be a hypocrite is to be human. The root of hypocrisy is the contrast between your behavior as it actually is and the behavior you profess to emulate. You cannot possibly be a hypocrite if you reject the meme that you must be perfectly consistent in all aspects of your life. The best way not to be a hypocrite is simply to stop proclaiming that you have some superhuman ability to live up to your ideals. Admittedly, this can be hard.

Take infidelity, as an example. It’s an easy example because all but a handful of people into open marriages set the bar too high. Most of us go into marriage publicly promising to our spouse, not to mention to everyone at the wedding, that we will foreswear all others but our spouse for the rest of our lives. No sex from someone else ever, unless of course you divorce, or your spouse dies. You take this vow even if your spouse decides to stop having sex with you. Your only honorable option is to first get a divorce and while separated not even date anyone else. That’s right, you are forbidden from creating profile on match.com until the divorce decree is final, and even though you are busting your nuts to get laid and feel as emotionally empty as a homeless man who spent the last decade inhabiting the underside of an overpass. To address the whole honor and consistency thing, you can’t take any steps to address your misery. You are required to be more miserable.

How long the misery lasts depends on how long your state makes you wait for a divorce. At least in Nevada they got it right: make it easy to get married, and easy to get divorced. This way you can move on. So a hint to those looking to get married: use the left part of your brain and get married at a wedding chapel on the Las Vegas strip. That’s because the odds are that about even that you will get divorced, so why make yourself needlessly miserable in the future? So many of us though adopt the hypocritical approach. This means infidelity, either sexual or emotional but perhaps both. We choose it because it turns out we are human beings. We choose it because we realize, in retrospect, that despite the considered thought we (hopefully) gave to the whole fidelity thing before getting married, we find in actuality that we can’t handle it. Actually, it’s more complicated than that. Anyone can file for divorce. Most infidelity is probably a result of the societal pressure to appear to be faithful no matter what. As I document in my monthly reviews of the Craigslist Casual Encounters section, there is an overwhelming amount of hypocrisy in this one area alone.

I pick infidelity as a prominent example of foolishly chasing at best improbable ideals, but of course there are so many more. My former stepfather was a secret boozer, something I was not aware of until my mother in law passed away. No wonder he was so often slipping off to the garage for a smoke, and a likely a swig from his hooch. In retrospect, I would have preferred to see him drinking regularly in his recliner. Even the most passionate vegan is likely to work in a Chick-Fil-A sandwich once in a while. Pick the “vice”: smoking, booze, drugs, sex; we’re all likely to have at least one of these, at least occasionally, and we are doomed to succumb to some of them from time to time. If we didn’t have vices, we wouldn’t be human.

So why not then just accept our flawed nature and stop pretending that we among all the other imperfect humans out there will be a perfect creature? For if we do so we actually gain a virtue: the virtue of honesty. If you think about it, being real instead of ideal is akin to being a revolutionary. It may explain why so many of us are attracted to “bad” people and why, perhaps, we avidly read any story about a Kardashian sister. It may also explain why we are drawn like moths to a flame to any story in which hypocrisy is exposed. It makes us feel good to know there are others just like us that simply cannot live up to their professed ideals. No wonder that so many women want to date bad boys. Bad boys may be flawed, but at least they are real. Similarly perhaps that’s why many men are attracted to loose women. We can’t admit it to ourselves, but perhaps secretly we are sick of the Stepford wives around us. All that poise and makeup and hoity behavior strikes us, and usually is, hypocritical and dishonest. A loose woman may be dealing with major issues, but perhaps they give themselves the permission to enjoy sex the same way many of us indulge at our local Old Country Buffet.

How would your life be different if you gave yourself permission to be yourself? My suspicion is most of us would be a lot happier. One thing is for sure: we could no longer be accused of being a hypocrite. Moreover, all the energy that we invest in striving for perfection could be used in other ways, perhaps to just enjoy the life we got, which is already full of hassles and heartaches.

Having produced what I hope is an eloquent essay, let me keep myself out of hypocrisy. Some part of me would like to be real instead of ideal, but it’s too engrained in me. For many aspects of my life, I will always strive for the ideal, even if I know it is impossible. Call it a Catholic upbringing or whatever, but it’s not something I can wholly stop. I do hope though that as I age and my attractiveness level recedes, I will hear nature’s call (which many seniors do) to stop living a good part of my life this way, and simply be my authentic self. Maybe I will be seen as a bit cranky, maybe I’ll come across as a bit inconsistent, but at least I will be real. And that sounds so much more comfortable.

Consider the price you are paying for trying to model ideal behavior. Consider being real instead of surreal. Maybe if you succeed you can channel your inner Dr. Martin Luther King: “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty I am free at last.”

Going to the dogs

The Thinker by Rodin

It was a brief moment today. I was driving to work through a residential neighborhood. As I often do on Tuesdays, I had to wend my way past the trash truck. I give these guys a brake and wait for them to say it’s okay to pass them. Today though the guys on the trash truck were oblivious to me. They were petting a dog.

One of the homeowners had her dog on a leash and was doing walkies along the sidewalk. This dog, like most dogs, is a friendly dog, as was evident by its wagging tail. I didn’t quite catch the breed, but it was smaller than most, and black. The guys hauling the trash, unsurprisingly I am sorry to say, were also black. There were two in the back and one in the cab. The two in the back normally gather trashcans from both sides of the street at once, and the guy in the cab drives.

Today though the crew had gone to the dogs, er, dog. Both of them had stopped the hauling and were petting the dog that was happily making their acquaintance and straining at his leash as if he wanted to sit on their nonexistent laps. The lady at the other end of the leash was laughing. The guys on the street were laughing as they petted the dog. The guy in the cab smiled through his side view mirror at the encounter. I pulled around them cautiously and made my way to work, smiling as well.

That one dog provided a lot of happiness. Moreover, like most dogs, this was a colorblind dog, both physically and metaphorically. Dogs, bless them, have no sense of social class. One friendly human is as good as another to them. Black face, white face, brown face, red face – it just doesn’t matter to them. All that matters is their sense of you and how you relate to them. Everyone in this encounter appeared to be a dog lover, at least for that moment. No one cared if a minute or two of productivity was lost. There was a friendly dog that wanted some attention and was glad to give some attention. At least until that encounter ended, social class simply did not matter. The dog had brought together people who would probably never talk to each other otherwise.

In the gospels we learn that Jesus was a man from Galilee, he was definitely human and that he was also a holy man who many believe was God in human form. Jesus of course spent some years in Galilee and Judea preaching about love and inclusiveness. It’s hard to know where Jesus was in the social class of Judea at the time. If he was truly a carpenter’s son, he could probably be considered middle class for those generally impoverished times. For a while he developed quite a following, at least according to the Gospels, but he also developed enemies. The priests in the temple did not like him because he was so different and because people called him a rabbi. The Romans put him to death. And it appears he drew the scorn of many because he hung out with losers like Mary Magdalene, a common prostitute in the eyes of many, as well as lepers, the homeless and general miscreants. Our understanding of Jesus is of course imperfect. We have only the legend of Jesus, as there is no scrap of evidence that he actually lived, and the original gospels have long ago returned to dust. But Jesus as he is depicted certainly believed in transcending class, and in universal love, and in recognizing our common humanity.

Jesus, in other words, was a man who had gone to the dogs. It would not have surprised me if his family had a dog. For if you have to learn about love and have no other guide, in most cases you can get it courtesy of the family or neighborhood mutt.

I am a cat person more than a dog person, simply because my wife introduced me to cats and I had no pets to speak of growing up except for a family parakeet. I have spent enough time though with dogs to know they are fundamentally different than cats. Cats are Republicans. They want to know what’s in it for them and it’s almost always me first. In general, they will only return affection when they first get some. They may rub at your heels for attention, but their attention tends to be fleeting. If you ignore them for a few weeks, you will probably lose any affection they had for you.

Dogs, on the other hand, are Democrats. Certainly not all dogs are friendly, and many will be affectionate only with their master. But once you have earned their trust, and it usually takes nothing more than a chew toy, snack or just a scritch of their heads, you are part of their tribe. It may be fleeting or it may be permanent. Dogs are all about finding joy in life and in getting in touch with the feelings of creatures around them. Class means nothing to them. Most of the time they will radiate love, particularly with their owner, but often with anyone in their locality. If you don’t look happy they will sense this and come over to you, and darn well try to make you happy. It’s their nature.

Christians are still waiting for the second coming of Christ. Many believe he will descend from heaven through the clouds, with his radiance pouring down across the earth. Then the saved will be saved and the damned will be damned. As for me, today’s encounter makes me think that Christ has already returned. In fact, he’s been here for a long time and you can find him nearby. Just seek out your family or neighborhood dog. Feel their love, feel their radiance, feel the cares of the world recede when you are with them or, as I saw today, see class barriers momentarily disappear. If you want to be more Christ-like, perhaps you could just imitate your mutt more. Be friendly, be open, be loving by nature and if you sense someone is hurting go over and say you want to help them feel better.

We should all go to the dogs.