Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Chosen People

It has occured to me lately that many of my personal heroes are Jewish. Of course, my heroes also include Christians, atheists, and even a Muslim. Still, it seems as though the Jews have had a disproportionate influence on me. Now, I realize that they control the media and the international banking cartels that are set on controlling the world, (in case you're stupid, I'm being sarcastic) but I can't imagine what my world would be like if all the Jews had disappeared before I was born.

For starters, there's Stan Lee. Even people who aren't fans of comic books have heard of him. He's often cited as the "creator" of many comic book superheroes like Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, Daredevil, Thor (not the Norse deity, of course), etc. That's not entirely true, as he was the writer and his co-creators (most notably Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby - another Jew!) drew the comics and created the visual designs. To say that Stan "The Man" Lee has had an impact on my life is an understatement. Obviously, I'm a fan of comics, and my all-time favorite hero is Spider-Man.

I was even lucky enough to meet Stan on a couple of occasions (comic book conventions, to be exact). He was a real friendly guy, and he signed a couple of comics for me - a couple of comics that I will absolutely never part with, of course. Even though Stan's stories were written for a different era, and even for a younger audience than the average comic book fan of today, much of it still holds up. I reread the early run on The Amazing Spider-Man not that long ago, and the stories are fantastic. One of the reasons why Spider-Man 2 was such a great film was that it borrowed heavily from many of Stan's stories. (And likewise, one of the reasons why Spider-Man 3 sucked was because it borrowed more heavily from much later works by other writers.)

Next up, there's Steven Spielberg. Now, the guy can be a bit of a hack at times, but there's no denying that some of the best films of all time have been made by him. Even when he's not on his game, his movies are still at least interesting (like AI: Artificial Intelligence) or just plain old entertaining (like War of the Worlds). Okay, Hook just plain sucked, but the man did make three of the best action/adventure films of all time with the Indiana Jones series. Shoot, those movies pretty much redifined what an action movie is, and even recent films ape that style. Of course, who didn't cry when they first saw ET? All right, I was a little kid, but if you were a little kid and you didn't cry at that one, that was the sign that you were the anti-Christ. Oh yeah, there's also this little film called Jaws and apparently he did something called Schindler's List which inspired a really funny episode of Seinfeld. (Jerry Seinfeld - also Jewish, and another favorite entertainer of mine).

More recently, there's Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. I wrote a whole blog on his show, but suffice it to say that it's one of the few things in the world that makes me feel as though I'm not crazy. I've actually been a fan of his for some time, even back when he did that show on MTV called something like You Wrote It; You Watch It. He's a funny man, and a pretty smart one at that. His interview on Crossfire proves both.

I'm sure that I could go on, but my Jewish overlords have told me that's enough praise of them for now. (Again, joking.)

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Hair apparent

My hair has been somewhat of a problem lately. It can't quite seem to make up its mind as to whether it wants me to be bald or not.

My dad is bald, but it's a different kind of bald. He started losing his hair in the back of his head, and by the time he was my age, he had a pronounced bald spot. Now, he just has the hair in the back and on the side, and there are a few wisps in the front.

Mine seems to be going in the pattern that many of the males on my mom's side of the family have. Basically, it's really thin in the front. Not a definite bald spot - just really thin. What's ironic is that it becomes more noticable as my hair gets longer. I mean, it's still obviously thinner than the hair on the rest of my head right after a haircut, but just not quite so much.

The thing is, when I look at myself (or see pictures) from certain angles, it looks like I just have some thin hair. From other angles, I look like I'm pretty bald.

So, I'm tired of it, and I finally did what I've been meaning to do for some time now. I shaved it all off. Screw this. I'm going to embrace it. Kirsti took the electric shaver and went to town on me. I basically look like I just went to boot camp.

I've been putting it off for a long time now. Mainly I was afraid that I'd look even worse. You never really know the shape of your head until you see it with a buzz cut (or completely bald, I suppose.) I worried that maybe I had some kind of pointy part, or secret tattoo that identified me as the beast from the Book of Revelation. Turns out, it's pretty even all around.

So, no more going to the barber. No more combing my hair. (Think of all the time I'll save! I imagine by the time I'm dead, it'll add up to at least an hour!) There will still be shampoo, I suppose - but the bottle I have should last me until I'm an octogenarian.

Hey, it was either that or a combover.

Rating the Hamlets

In my movie collection, if you go to the "H" section, you'll find Hamlet, Hamlet, Hamlet and a movie called Hamlet. That's right, four versions of Shakespeare's play. I know that there are much more, but the ones that I'm familiar with are Laurence Olivier's, Franco Zeffirelli's (starring Mel Gibson), Kenneth Branagh's, and Michael Almereyda's (starring Ethan Hawke). Which one is the best? Which is the worst? Here's what I think, from worst to the best.

Worst - Almereyda's Hamlet (2000)

This was an easy pick, as there isn't much good to say about it. In this version, the prince is transported to modern times, and instead of the country of Denmark, it's the Denmark corporation. Instead of hiding behind the curtain (arras), Polonius puts a microphone on his daughter. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are a couple of fratboy-type party guys. You get the idea. No, that's not what's wrong with the film.

I actually like all of those ideas. The problem is the execution and Ethan Hawke. While there are some cool visual moments, and cool ideas, it all simply doesn't come together. Hawke just can't hold the movie together, as he plays the tragic hero as a one-note character. Hamlet, of all of Shakespeare's characters, is probably the least one-note, having a variety of moods and feelings. Hawke has him stuck as the emo boy from Act I, scene 2 and never climbs out of it.

I once made the mistake of letting my class of seniors choose a version of Hamlet to watch when we were all done reading the play. They chose this one, and it was universally hated. Oftentimes, students will say, "nobody liked it" and they're pretty much just speaking for themselves and maybe a couple of friends. This time, it was absolutely true. Even the kids (or maybe even especially the kids) who really loved the play hated this movie. I can't recall a single student having anything positive to say about it. While I don't think that it's completely without merits, it's basically a stinker.

Not so bad - Olivier's Hamlet (1948)

Wait...what? Olivier's not the top choice! Blasphemy! Yeah, well, I don't like this one that much. Mainly because it's in black and white and black and white movies are boring. Nah, just kidding. Some of my favorite films are in black and white - really! This one is actually pretty good, even though perhaps just a bit dated. Olivier's performance is good and definitely more nuanced than Hawke's. Still, it just doesn't quite hit the right note with me.

It might have something to do with the opening line about how it's a story of a man who "can't make up his mind." Well, that's not really what Hamlet's problem is. At least, that's not the best way to explain it. He makes up his mind, he's just never certain enough about the situation to finally act upon it.

Also, I don't like what the movie cuts out. There's no Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Now, with a play like Hamlet, you simply have to cut out around half of what Shakespeare wrote (unless you're Kenneth Branagh - more on him later). Still, cutting the two of them out feels like blasphemy to me. That's more of a subjective thing though. Overall, it's a good film, but I wouldn't recommend it to a young audience. Die hard Shakespeare fans only for this one.

Pretty good - Zeffirelli's Hamlet (1990)

I genuinely like this one quite a bit. The one thing that it really has going for it is the fact that it's probably the most accessible version. It's also the first one that I saw, and I remember being able to follow the story pretty well, despite the fact that I had never read it. Watching the documentaries on the DVD reveals that's exactly what they were going for, and I'd definitely say mission accomplished on that one.

Every now and then, I feel like I'm watching Martin Riggs (his character in the Lethal Weapon films) as Hamlet (like when he does this weird groan when he gets pissed off at his mom). Still, I think that Gibson does an admirable job. He definitely seems to be treating the role with the seriousness that it deserves, and he pretty much pulls it off. One thing's for sure, his performance doesn't suffer from what Hawke's does. This is a Hamlet with a variety of emotions and moods - from moping to playful, loving to dangerous. There are a lot of genuinely brilliant moments in the film - especially the swordfight at the end.

The best - Branagh's Hamlet (1996)

What's not great about this film? Branagh decided to film every single flippin' line of the play, and he managed to create the hands-down best version of them all. While it's certainly a task to sit through all four hours at once, in many ways it goes by the quickest. It's also the one that I show to my students (in little, bit-sized pieces - basically reviewing what we had read the previous day). The sheer fact that this version includes Fortinbras (the prince of Norway who doesn't suffer from being indecisive like Hamlet is) is enough to make me happy, but there's so much more.

First of all, Branagh plays the character as multi-layered as an actor should. Still, there are other actors who really shine in this one. Kate Winslet creates more sympathy for Ophelia than any other version that I know. Derek Jacobi's King Claudius is a complex villain who seems to realize that he's dug his own grave. Billy Crystal seems as though he was born to play the Gravedigger. And, how about that Charlton Heston fella? He plays the main actor in the group of performers that visit Elsinore Castle. When he rails on about the damned dirty apes and how they destroyed the Statue of Liberty...oh, wait, wrong film. Seriously though, Heston is fantastic as the "Player King," especially in the scene where he's so moved by what he's saying that he bursts into tears.

I have a fellow English teacher who doesn't like this version, and she cites the ending and Fortinbras' dramatic entrance as the main reason why. Personally, I love the way it ends. Another reason why this is such an amazing accomplishment isn't so much that they manage to not cut a single line from the play, but Branagh understands that he's creating a movie and not just filming a play. They're different art forms, and the entrance of Fortinbras creates the catharsis that the movie needs.

So, while Branagh's version is my favorite, I'd probably recommend the Zeffirelli/Gibson one to the casual Shakespeare fan. The other two are for the big-time Shakespeare fan. And yes, they do exist, and not all of them are English teachers! (We're not a powerful enough of a lobby to get so many versions of this play made!)

Friday, April 25, 2008

True love? Not really. But yeah, kinda.

All this talk about booklearnin' and whatnot has got me thinking about Shakespeare. Considering that my Blogspot blog is entitled "Comics, Beer, and Shakespeare," I figured that maybe I'd write a little bit about ol' Bill W's works. As I mentioned in a previous entry, it's hard to write about him without saying things that have already been said ad nauseum, and it's hard not to sound like a pretentious ass. I'm going to risk it though. I don't know if this will be a series of entries, but I'm going to start off with some thoughts on Romeo and Juliet and my personal experience with that particular play. If the occasion strikes me, I might also write about Julius Caesar, The Merchant of Venice, Macbeth, and Hamlet. Those aren't the only ones that I know, they're just the ones that I know enough about to have something to say about them. (In other words, I've taught them. I really like Othello, but I've only read it once, and that was some time ago. Same could be said for Richard III, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Much Ado About Nothing.)

I'm starting with Romeo and Juliet because that's the first work of Shakespeare (must...resist...temptation...to...call...him..."The Bard") that I was exposed to. It was in Mr. Byson's freshman English class, and I remember enjoying it tremendously. I'll be honest - I probably didn't understand it very well, but Mr. Byson was a good teacher, and he explained it so I could get enough to appreciate it. There was something about the language that appealed to me. I once had a French roommate who said that I had a "love for the (English) language". That's probably true, and it's probably a qualification for being an English teacher. So obviously, the verbal gymnastics of Shakespeare was right up my ally.

Of course, I took it as a love story - or the ultimate love story, as so many people think of it. After all, how many songs in popular music have made allusions to the two of them? The two young lovers are practically synonymous with true love. So, that's the way I took it. After all, they were willing to DIE for their love! Can't get more romantic than that.

Now, when I went about rereading it when I started teaching, I had been greatly influenced by conversations that I've had with friends who were teachers. Also, with age came a great deal of cynicism. I no longer saw it as a story of true love, but as a (like my friend Nolan puts it) "cautionary tale." They're clearly foolish and not mature enough to properly consider the weight of their actions and the promises that they make. After all, the play starts with Romeo whining about how a girl named Rosaline has no interest in him, since she's going to become a nun. He acts like he can never possibly fall in love again, and his whole world is over. However, BAM! as soon as he sees Juliet, all of that changes.

When you're an adult, you can remember being like that. How often did my attentions go from one girl to another when I was a teenager? A friend of mine from high school was surprised to learn that I had a crush on her - she shouldn't have been, I probably had a crush on nearly every attractive girl that I spoke with at one time or another.

But is that Shakespeare's point? Is he trying to make fun of his young lovers? I don't think so, and my view has changed quite a bit over just the past few years. One of the things that Shakespeare is famous for, and why he appeals to people who study psychology, is that he understands human nature. You ARE supposed to feel for the two characters. Their love IS real. However, it's real young love. He's not trying to create two characters with a relationship built on mature love. After all, if they were mature, you wouldn't believe any of their actions! Part of the reason why they wind up killing themselves is because of their passion that comes with youth and seriously declines (for good and bad) with age. (And this is why the 1930s movie version of the play sucks - both of the actors are in their 30s! Who would believe that somebody that old would be so impulsive! It takes an incomplete frontal lobe to think that banishment from Verona is worse than a death sentence!)

Another thing that I didn't notice until I taught it for a few years is just how totally senseless, and therefore even more tragic, their deaths are. At the party scene, where Juliet's hot-headed cousin Tybalt is ready to kill Romeo, her father, Old Capulet, tells Tybalt to chill out. For one thing, he doesn't want a blood bath at his party. What's even sadder in context though is that he talks about how he's heard only good things about Romeo, and he considers the young guy to be a decent gentleman. The thing is, the feud is perpetuated by the young - as the older patriarchs only get violent when rioting has broken out. The old men are pretty much ready to call it all quits right from the start. Had Juliet only told her father of her love to Romeo, Capulet probably would have been glad to hear the news! Yet, youngsters rarely see more than what's right in front of them, so they continued to keep it a secret.

All this reminds me of why I love this play so much (as well as his others). They're eternally rewarding. I imagine that there will be things that I'll discover ten years from now that I'm just not insightful enough to get right now! (Who knows, maybe the whole point of the play is that the second servant is a Christ figure! Ummm...okay, probably not that.)

So is it about true love? Yes, it is, just a particular kind is all. I do wish that so many songs would stop referencing it though. True love or not, you really don't want to wind up like them.

Best Romeo and Juliet allusion? Millhouse, on The Simpsons, lamenting the fact that his girlfriend has had to move away from him, "We were just like Romeo and Juliet but it ended in tragedy!"

Hey, Romeo, aren't you a little old for this shit?

Monday, April 21, 2008

Who's to blame?

People often wonder what's going on in this country as far as education goes. Why are so many kids getting left behind? It must be the teachers, right? Sure. Case closed, problem solved. Nah, it's not that easy. While there are probably more than a good share of incompetent teachers out there, they're only one part of the equation.

What are the other parts then? Well, there's administration, funding (not just the amount but how it's being spent), content standards, the parents and...here's a shocker: the students! After all, if a student is eager to learn, but the teacher doesn't do a good job, then little learning will take place. Likewise, if a teacher is eager and able to teach, but the student isn't willing to learn, then little learning will take place.

Now, I'm not going to judge my own teaching. I'll let others do that for me, but I'm pretty confident that I do a decent job. I have lots of areas for improvement, but I have witnessed some genuine learning taking place with some of my students. What I would like to address are the students and the role that they play.

I have three freshmen classes. The class averages were 67%, 76%, and 85% (approximately). The one with the 85% average is my pre-honors class, a class that pretty much all of those students signed up for because they wanted to try something a little bit more rigorous. It's pretty similar to my regular class, as this is my first year teaching it, and I'm still working out the curriculum a bit, but they've certainly done a lot more writing. Also, class discussions are more productive, and you don't see heads immediately going down on the desk as soon as we start to read.

In my other two classes, I have students who are barely even literate. There can be a number of factors here, some of which may beyond their control. Still, I notice that with many of the poor readers, the very concept of reading a book seems foreign to them. Every quarter they have to read a book of their own choosing, and they can pick anything in any genre that they want. Now, I have a lot of kids who aren't necessarily big readers, but they manage to find biographies of athletes to read (or something else that gets their attention.) However, a few of them read absolutely nothing, and when I ask them about what they're interested in, they don't even seem to have any interests at all. Where the heck do I go from there? Not only that, but some of these kids declare, almost proudly, "I hate reading." Wow.

This might sound ironic, but generally speaking, I don't enjoy reading novels myself. At least, I don't enjoy the process the first time I read it. I tend to gain my appreciation and love for great literature in the RE-reading and the teaching of it. I mean, I liked Of Mice and Men when I was in high school, but I never really gained an appreciation for what a wonderful book it is until I read it again. With every year, I manage to love that book even more. When I was in high school, I didn't really read a lot of books. I read comics though - by the truckload (still do). Still, I think that I would have been ashamed to say, "I hate reading" even if it were true.

My parents were never big novel readers, but they definitely were readers. I'd often see them with magazines and the newspaper. That's at least something, and in all honesty, I don't look down on people who don't read fiction. I personally think that it's just good to read - even better if you find a little variety. For me, the books I choose to read on my own tend to be nonfiction, and I get my fiction fix from the comics that I read. Hopefully, I'll be able to show my own children that there's something to this whole reading business. I think it's a pretty safe bet that the students I'm talking about have probably never seen their parents read anything.

This year, one of my freshmen has been failing all year. He barely turns in his work, and pretty much everything he turns in is below grade level. His skills are extremely low. Now, has the school system failed him? If so, then why did all of those kids who went to the same schools who are now in my pre-honors class manage to learn something?

Anyway, his father contacted me and wanted to set up a one-on-one meeting. Many teachers, myself included, find these meetings to be pointless. After all, what else can I say but, "He's failing because he doesn't do his work"? Meetings like this usually seem to be a way for the parent to feel better about himself/herself, so it can seem like he/she is trying to get to the heart of the problem. They want the teacher to solve all of their problems, and sometimes they even get into all sorts of personal troubles (like divorces and custody battles) that the teacher simply can't do anything about. Reluctantly, I agreed to meet him. We set up an appointment time, and guess what? He didn't show.

Gee, I wonder why his son can't seem to get his act together? A real mystery, that one. Perhaps this might sound callous, but I'm not going to bother returning any more of that guy's calls or agreeing to any more meetings. No doubt, I will get the blame for his son's poor performance. Oh well, I have kids who care to learn who I need to focus on.

Part of me wonders if I should have posted this, even though I didn't use any names. Then again, it's probably pretty safe to say that neither one of them would read this either.

Sunday, April 20, 2008


No blog today, but here's a little something that I found entertaining. It's a parody of the trailer for Ben Stein's Expelled.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The evils of atheism

I've written a few posts now on both Christianity and Islam where I basically state that the majority in both religions are too decent to follow all of the laws that their religions actually ask of them. After all, both of their holy books command all sorts of atrocities and absurdities that get conveniently ignored. However, all of those passages are in there, and those passages have been used to justify all sorts of malignant acts over the centuries.

But what about atheism? Many Christians point out the evils supposedly done in the name of atheism, and they point out Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, etc. (They also point out Hitler, but sorry, you don't get that one. I wouldn't call him a Christian either, but that's not because Christians have no basis in their scriptures to justify anti-Semitism. He was making up his own religion as he went along - a bit of a mix of Christianity and paganism, if anything.)

The thing is, I don't want to give a cop-out answer to this question. Many Christians have accused atheists like Dawkins, Hitchens, etc. of doing just that when they say that none of these tyrants did what they did in the name of atheism. While I don't think that they do, I will try to give my own answer to this question, as I really can't stand the cop-out answer.

To really look at this, we have to look at what atheism is - what it REALLY is, that is. Theists like to define it in their own way and on their own terms quite a lot. They say things like "atheists hate God" (which is absurd - that's like saying that we hate Superman - how can you hate something that you don't believe in?) Or they say things about how atheists worship themselves, because you have to worship something (don't ask me to make sense of that one.) So, what is atheism? If you just break it apart, with theism meaning the "belief in the existence of gods" and "a" as being a prefix that means "no", you're basically just stuck with "no belief in the existence of gods."

Pretty simple, isn't it? What else? Well, that's it! It doesn't cover whether you're a Marxist, Democrat, Republican, or Whig. It doesn't make a statement on what you think your moral obligations are - although it's clear that you don't think they come from Zeus though. Is there some holy book that you have to follow? Many theists would think that it would be Darwin's Origin of Species, but nope. You could be an atheist and not accept evolution (although it could be argued that you'd be even battier than the religious people who don't - at least they have an excuse!) Shoot, you could be an atheist and believe that the world is flat!

So that's all there is to it. What about the ideas of Stalin, etc? Well, I'm an atheist, and when I hear what he believed in, I don't exactly think, "Oh yeah, that guy totally had it right." I mean, I think that Marx had a point when he called religion the "opiate of the masses," but that doesn't mean that I'm a Marxist. If Charles Manson were to say that people should be sure to strap their babies in child-safety seats while driving, it wouldn't make it any less true. I have yet to meet an atheist who thinks that Stalin had a good thing going. I mean, there certainly could be some, but again the definition of atheism isn't "not believing in gods and thinking that Stalin is cool."

So why did those guys do what they did? Were they brought to it by atheism? I certainly don't see it that way. After all, it wasn't like atheism was all there was to their philosophies. It was just one small part of what they were pushing on their people. Plus, the cult of personality that was created by all of these guys resembles religion more than it does the freethought that's espoused by modern-day atheists like myself. I don't hang pictures of Richard Dawkins up on my wall, and I don't assume that everything he says is right. I'm a fan because I like what he says, whereas religion teaches you to be a fan first and like what's said second. Besides, if religion is the answer, then why did Stalin's religious upbringing not prevent him from committing the evils that he has done?

I'm really trying not to be disingenuous or employ any sort of doublethink here. However, I simply don't see how atheism in itself is to blame for those villains of history. Not only that, but when you listen to the atheists of today, they're not exactly saying the same sorts of things that those guys did. Nobody (that I know of) is calling for the tearing down of churches or a brainwashing program that forces people to convert (although some theists seem to think that teaching facts is akin to brainwashing). If atheism became a significant force in this country, I know that I'd be one of the first ones to protest the destruction of churches, temples, and mosques (especially the ones in Europe!) While I would certainly like more people to come to atheism, I don't think that it's the kind of thing that should be forced on anybody. I had to come to it myself through my own reasoning. Brainwashing ultimately changes nothing, as one philosophy can easily replace another one that way.

So, to sum up: atheism good, Stalin bad.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Respect the Pope

When the last Pope died, my wife's uncle told me that he was a "great man." I just kinda nodded my head.

Bill O'Reilly, while commenting on Bill Maher's criticisms of The Pope, said that Pope Benedict XVI deserved respect.


I mean, I suppose that I respect him for the fact that he's a fellow human being, but that's about as far as I can go with it. Here's a guy who perpetuates the idea that a human being can be infallible. He claims to be the emissary of an all-knowing, all-powerful being who cares more about people using birth control than he does about them getting AIDS.

Sure, he says some good stuff. He's against this war in Iraq. I'm with him on that. Then again, I'm sure that Louis Farrakhan says some stuff that I agree with, but I'm not exactly going to give THAT guy my respect either.

So, no, sorry, I don't respect him. I don't respect what he does and I don't respect what he stands for. He deserves the same rights as any other human being, but the line ends there for me. I take everything that he says the same way I'd take it from anybody else. If he says something that I find insults my intelligence, then I'm not going to feel bad about speaking out on it just because others view him as being divine.

Same goes for that Dalai Lama. His opinions don't carry any more weight with me just because he's supposedly the reincarnation of some Buddhist master. (To be fair, I like more of what he has to say, but his being "holy" has nothing to do with it.)

I don't believe in giving human beings elevated status based solely on what certain people believe about them. If I were to go around saying that I was a reincarnated King Arthur, and I got a bunch of people to believe me, would that give my opinions on things any more weight? I would hope not.

Tom Jones, however, has my undying respect. The man can do no wrong.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Smokin' dope

Every now and then, my students (usually the seniors) will ask me if I've ever smoked pot before. Oftentimes, it's phrased in the following fashion, "C'mon, Mr. Johnson, you used to hella smoke weed when you were in high school, didn't you?"

I tell them that I didn't. In fact, I've never tried it. (I did live in the dorms at SF State for a semester though, and I've been to a lot of rock concerts, so I'm sure that I've had more than a few contact highs.) They usually don't believe me. I'm not sure what it is. They probably figure that any guy who tries to teach Hamlet while wearing a Spider-Man T-shirt must have done a lot of drugs in his day. I don't really spend a lot of time trying to convince them, as I really don't care if they believe me or not.

So why haven't I? Honestly, I don't think about it all that often. Shoot, this wasn't even going to be what I was going to blog on originally, but what I started wasn't moving me, and I figured that maybe I could say a thing or two on this.

Let's get it out of the way that I'm obviously not some sort of a religious nut. I'm also not a health freak. What reason could possibly exist then?

I just wasn't that interested. Shoot, maybe my parents put the fear of God into me when my older sister got caught smoking it when she was a kid. I doubt that though.

Anybody who knows me that I tend to automatically resist something if I get the feeling that people are doing it because everybody else is. Peer pressure really doesn't have an impact on me. In fact, if I say no at first, and then you start trying to convince me otherwise, I tend to get annoyed that you're not respecting my decision. If anything, it makes me pull back even further, and I start to not follow you out of spite. I'm not sure if this is necessarily a good quality of mine, but it certainly prevents me from doing a lot of stupid stuff. (Not that I don't think of stupid stuff to do independently of others.)

I also know that I was getting a bit tired of all the people my age who were acting like smoking pot somehow made them deep. I had a public speaking class and four kids did their persuasive speeches on why marijuana should be legalized. While I agree with the sentiment, you'd think that was the only thing these people even cared about. I remember one girl ending her speech with, "People who smoke pot are more creative." Umm...okay. Yeah, not being creative - that's a complaint that I get a lot.

So, there were plenty of opportunities, but I always passed. I didn't have any objections to my friends and roommates doing it. It just wasn't my thing. Kinda like macaroni salad. If you want to eat it, that's fine. Don't mind me if I just pass it along though, okay?

I even took a bit of ribbing from some friends due to the fact that I went to Amsterdam and didn't go to one of the hash bars. Honestly, this held absolutely no interest for me for a few reasons. One, my wife doesn't do it either. Two, we only had one full day to spend there. Three, it's not like there's nothing else to do in Amsterdam. I suppose that if I was going to stay there for a month, then maybe I'd try it. I honestly don't feel like I missed out on anything. Kirsti and I walked all around the city, and we spent several hours in the Reichsmuseum. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was gaining a real appreciation for art - Rembrandt in particular. This was definitely a life-changing experience for me, and I wouldn't have done it any other way. When we were done, it was more important to me to get something to eat and get some rest. (I also wasn't really interested in the Red Light District - sounds depressing, honestly.)

It's funny because I don't look down on people who smoke marijuana, but I've felt people looking down at ME because I don't. (Not often, but it's happened.) Where's the sense in that? That said, I hate the fact that my tax dollars are wasted on enforcing a ban on the stuff. I mean, why is it okay for me to drink and make beer, but somebody can't have a joint and grow their own? It's hypocritical, honestly - especially considering how alcohol is MUCH more damaging and destructive than pot will ever be. Yadda, yadda, yadda though - I'm starting to sound like one of those kids in my public speaking class.

The thing is, somebody owes me $20. That's right. When I was in high school, my neighbor bet me $10 that I wouldn't make it through high school without trying it. I also tend to remember everything (probably because I don't smoke pot) so I confronted him with this when I saw him again while I was in college. He doubled it to $20 and said that I wouldn't make it through college without trying it.

Jeff Blake, you owe me $20. Pay up or I'm kicking your ass.

Monday, April 14, 2008

More "Expelled," plus some global climate change

I hate to beat a dead horse here. Who am I kidding? It's what I live for.

Anyway, after making my post on Ben Stein's Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed yesterday, I spent a little bit of time checking out the link www.expelledexposed.com. I read various articles and reviews of the film, and I even checked out some online debates that were posted to various blogs and online forums.

Apparently, this crap is even worse than I expected. Many of the reviewers pointed out the fact that the show really doesn't even bother spending time giving the most basic definitions of evolution (you know, gradual changes over time gives way to new species) or intelligent design. That's probably a good idea, because evolution deniers tend to prefer knocking down strawmen to actually addressing the real issues. What's far more egregious about this movie is that it has Ben Stein visiting a holocaust memorial while drawing links between Darwin's theory and Nazism and Imperialism. I find the very notion to be offensive to the extreme. I'm sorry, but Darwin's theory and Hitler's idealogy have nothing to do with one another. Besides, it's not like Jews were treated with the utmost respect before Darwin came along. How can anybody swallow this shit?

Of course, if you check out the online debates, you keep hearing the same old arguments from the creationist/ID side. They point out that evolution is "just a theory." (So is gravity! Scientists don't mean the same thing when they say "theory" as you do!) They say that scientists are increasingly abandoning Darwin's ideas. (They aren't.) They even talk about the beginnings of life and the origins of the solar system. (Evolution has nothing to do with either.) Same old, same old.

Why use these styles of argument? Obviously, because they work. Why do they work though? Mainly it's because people are poorly informed on the real issue, so these things sound like good arguments to them. Most people aren't going to take the time to get informed, so we're going to keep hearing these same arguments again and again.

This brings me to global warming, or to be more accurate, global climate change. I haven't spent as much time reading about this as I have about evolution. Honestly, that stands to reason, as I always enjoyed my Biology classes whereas my Chemistry/Physical Science classes seemed like a bit of a chore. I did see Al Gore's movie though, and I've read some critiques of it and the notion that humans are affecting the climate in general.

I don't feel as confident with this one as I do with the whole evolution thing, but it seems to me that this might be a similar type of argument as the one about Intelligent Design. It seems like there are people who are doing honest science and then there are those who have an agenda. Oh, and the honest ones are saying that human activity is taking its toll.

I say this because I know for a fact that many of the critics use the same tactics as the ID proponents. In other words, they capitalize on the fact that most people are fairly ignorant about science and then create arguments that sound good to anybody who doesn't know what they're talking about. However, whenever I research these arguments further, I find out that they're bunk.

Allow me to be specific. One thing that the critics like to point out is that the Earth has always had highs and lows throughout its history. That's correct, but the facts show that we are warming at a rate much higher than ever seen before, and this corresponds with the amount of pollution that we're pumping into the air.

Another one is the whole thing about how supposedly the scientists were wrong before because there was a hysteria about "global cooling" in the '70s. I even had a student bring forth an article from that time when he did his speech saying that global warming was bunk. That sounded pretty convincing to me. That is, until I found out that article was pretty much all there was to the "hysteria." Not only that, but it wasn't even something from a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

Recently, somebody pointed out that the hottest years in the past century were in the 1930s. Yet again, my skepticism grew. However, when I asked one of the science teachers at my school about that, he was well aware of it and explained how that when we're looking at "global climate change" (a more accurate phrase than "global warming," he told me) we're looking at overall patterns that go back over a thousand years. Apparently, the data is out there in the form of tree rings and even monastic records.

This seems to be the pattern. I hear something that gets me skeptical, then I get my answers pretty readily. Seems to me that those who are adamant about denying the human impact on climate change are satisfied with those arguments and just leave it at that. Not only that, but there are also a bunch of other tired arguments that they keep repeating. Often, it seems like all they can do is attack Al Gore. Who gives a crap about Al Gore? He made a movie about it. He didn't make up the idea!

Shoot, I remember reading about this in Carl Sagan's book, Billions and Billions. That came out more than ten years ago. It's been some time, but he was able to explain the process in some detail that even a layperson could understand.

Another thing is that this seems to be another thing where the vast majority of scientists are saying one thing, but there are a few dissident voices out there (oftentimes with ties to oil companies) who are saying something else. One thing I know about science is that scientists publish their work in peer-reviewed journals. In other words, scientists are practically eager to point out the flaws in the work of their peers! It's what makes the scientific process so amazing - there are no sacred cows, and if you're going to assert something, then dammit, you're going to have your colleagues letting you know if you screwed it up!

I'm 99% certain that the Intelligent Design proponents are in the wrong. (I think it's bad to ever be 100% certain of anything - only crazy people and religious fundamentalists are 100% certain of anything.) How about the critics of global warming? I'm about 85% certain that they're full of crap.

Maybe you might know some arguments that I haven't heard. I'm willing to hear them, but realize that I'm going to follow up on them.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Just how open do you want your mind to be?

A friend of mine recently sent me a link for a new movie that's coming out (but I wouldn't hold your breath waiting for it to get to a theater close to you) called Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. I had heard of it before, and I had even considered blogging about it. It wasn't until I spent a little more time on the official site that I felt moved to write something.

The movie is about Intelligent Design, and it takes a decidedly pro-ID stance. Its title comes from the fact that supposedly some scientists have lost their jobs and their standing in academia for positing the idea of an intelligent creator. Apparently, "Big Science" is trying to squash critical thinking while ignoring the proof for an all-powerful designer who created the universe.

Yawn! Aren't we done with this yet? Apparently, there's one more Japanese soldier out there in the Pacific who still thinks that World War II isn't over and the Japanese might still win.

The thing is, I like to think of myself as being open-minded. I like to hear both sides of the argument before making up my mind. That's why I haven't blogged on global warming yet. Mainly, it seems to me like the people who are saying that humankind is having an effect on climate change are the ones with science on their side. Still, I haven't read enough of the opposition to feel as though it's safe for me to comment. When it comes to Intelligent Design though, that's another matter. I know quite a bit about it and what its arguments are. I also realize that the very premise of it is unscientific, and I've yet to hear an argument as to how it IS scientific. But what about this movie? Might it have that hidden bit of evidence that has eluded me all this time?

Perhaps, but even if somebody lent me a copy of the DVD, I don't think I'd waste my time with it. I'll assume that the makers of the movie had some say in the trailers, and the trailers are enough to tell me that it's the usual bullshit. One of the trailers has the narrator, Ben Stein, in a classroom asking an increasingly frustrated teacher what started life. The teacher can't answer the question, and then Ben Stein suggests that an intelligent designer started it all. This gets him kicked out of the class.

Oh, ID proponents, you certainly are a bunch of fuckin' martyrs, aren't you?

Another trailer has him talking about how he believes that there's an intelligent designer, as the universe couldn't have happened by accident.

Yawn, yet again. It's the same old, tired arguments. Nobody's saying that everything is an accident, and nobody's saying that it's "random." Richard Dawkins even points out in his book how natural selection is as far from random as a thing can get. Why argue the actual point though when you can make one up and argue that?

The thing is, I've stated before that I have no problem with a philosophy where one looks at the universe and feels as though there must be some intelligent force behind it all. The problem is, your interpretation of what's going on around you does not constitute a scientific theory. What's beginning to happen though, as people like Ben Stein keep pressing this issue, is that I'm starting to amend my feelings about this as well. It's an awfully selective way of looking at things, isn't it? I mean, what about all the black holes in the universe? What about the fact that most of this planet is unihabitable? What's up with all these completely useless planets and empty space? Why are there comets that threaten to completely smash out all life as we know it? Why the Sam Hill do I have nipples? They do nothing for me! NOTHING!

People who believe in a god need to know what the strenghts of their position is, which means that they need to stay out of the arena of science. If it's true that people lost their jobs for extolling ID, then that's actually a good thing. If somebody wanted to talk about pink unicorns as science, he or she should also get canned. If they're going to continue to push their not-so-hidden religious agenda where it doesn't belong, then they're not going to like the results. After all, you have people like Richard Dawkins who are more than willing to look at the probability of God from a scientific perspective. Trust me, it doesn't look good for God when you do that. Just back away and leave that one alone, okay?

This documentary also seems to be making the typical argument of trying to disprove evolution, mainly by using all sorts of arguments from ignorance and well, let's call it what it is: LYING about it. But let's say that they're right. Let's say that there's no evidence, or very little evidence, for evolution. That's ridiculous and ignorant of the facts, but I'm willing to give them that for the sake of argument. That STILL doesn't mean that ID is science!

Lastly, I'd like to point out, while realizing that it has little to do with the veracity of their claims, that having Ben Stein narrate a documentary is arguably the worst idea ever. I mean, wasn't the whole joke in Ferris Bueller's Day Off that he had the most boring speaking voice imaginable? Sure, he was laying it on thick for the movie, but he's not exactly the most dynamic orator around.

So, if you see the movie and there's some evidence that shows how ID is actually science, without relying on the usual debunked debunkings of Darwin, let me know. Otherwise, I'm not going to bother with it.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Wherefore The Simpsons?

Here's something that some people won't like to hear: dumb people don't like The Simpsons.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that you're dumb if you don't like the show. I'm not even really saying that all smart people do like it. It's just that in my experience, usually when I meet somebody who I generally think of as being dumb, chances are good that they don't like the show. What's usually funny about this is that they themselves refer to the show as being "dumb." Why should this be?

Before attempting to answer this, I should attempt to get out of the way that when I speak of the show, I'm mainly talking about the first eight or ten seasons. They're on season 205 or something like that now, so don't go watching the new episodes hoping for the greatness of which I speak. There are some decent ones here and there, but it's been sagging for a few years now. The movie was pretty good though, so that might be worth your while.

I don't think that I'm being to egotistical when I say that I'm a reasonably intelligent person. Not that doing well in school is the deciding factor, but it's safe to say that if you do well in school that you're not a total useless dumbass. I also would like to think that the very nature of my job speaks to a certain level of intelligence. I would also imagine that I have generally good grammar (with the occasional typo) on these blogs would say something as well. That said, The Simpsons is my favorite show. When I think of the people I know who also love the show, they're all educated, intelligent people as well. I haven't done any kind of scientific study of this, but usually when I meet somebody who I think is really smart, I almost always feel free to make an allusion to the show, knowing that he or she will probably pick up on it.

I realize that there are some people out there who don't really watch it who are finding this hard to believe. They think that it's all lowbrow "eat my shorts, man" humor. Basically, some of you might be figuring that it's all a bunch of sight gags and gross-out humor. Now, the show certainly does all of these things. However, what makes it brilliant is that it operates on several levels at once. Take, for instance, the following exchange between Homer and Lisa shortly after the town rallied to have an anti-bear patrol:

Homer: Well, there's not a bear in sight. The Bear Patrol is sure doing its job.
Lisa: That's specious reasoning, Dad.
Homer: Thank you, sweetie.
Lisa: Dad, what if I were to tell you that this rock keeps away tigers.
Homer: Uh-huh, and how does it work?
Lisa: It doesn't work. It's just a stupid rock.
Homer: I see.
Lisa: But you don't see any tigers around, do you?
Homer: Lisa, I'd like to buy your rock.

Why would a dumb person not find this funny? First of all, they'd have a hard time with the word "specious." More than that though, it takes a certain understanding of logic and logical fallacies to understand the flaw in Homer's thinking. Even moreso, it's easy to recognize this sort of flawed logic in everyday conversation. I mean, isn't this basically the same reasoning that a lot of Bush supporters use for continuing to support him? I'll give you a hint: yes, it's the same.

I think that dumb people feel threatened by the show. It uses a lot of big words. It makes references to history, art, and literature that an ignorant person wouldn't get. Dumb people don't like being reminded that they're dumb.

I'll tell you something else, it's a hell of a lot better than Family Guy. At the very least, it will stand the test of time much better. I have to admit, Family Guy has had me cracking up before, but the standard criticism that it gets it pretty much true: the jokes are interchangeable and have little or nothing to do with the narrative drive of the story. Family Guy is a series of gags, whereas The Simpsons actually has some genuine human pathos in it. Not only that, but the characters on The Simpsons are more well-defined than the characters on most TV shows and pretty much any romantic comedy that's coming out today.

On a more personal, subjective note, one of the things that I, and my friends, like so much about the show is that there's definitely a lot to relate to for those of us with a slightly skewed perspective on the world. For instance, there was an episode with a throwaway gag where Homer started eating a huge hero sandwich that was several feet long. He was determined to finish it, even though it was taking several days and it was too big to put the leftovers in the fridge. Even when it started to turn, and some mushrooms even started to grow off the bread, he was still determined to finish it. Eventually, upon his wife's urging (and prompting from food poisoning), he threw it in the trash, only to take it back out again. Of course, I've never done anything like this before, but I definitely have an obsessive/compulsive side to my personality. Ask my wife - once I start a project, I don't want to stop. Obviously, Homer's situation with the sandwich is over-the-top, but it tells a certain truth.

An example that two of my friends, who are slightly self-loathing, relate to is the one where Homer feels bad about himself and eats flour right out of the bag. Marge asks him why he isn't eating his sugar, like usual. Homer's response: "I don't deserve sugar." Heh...that makes me smile too. I guess I have a bit of self-loathing in me as well - at least, enough to get that.

So, if you don't like the show, it doesn't necessarily mean that you're dumb. Be careful though. You just might be.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Wherefore Shakespeare?

My first exposure to the works of William Shakespeare (aren't you glad that I didn't refer to him as "The Bard"? That's so pretentious.) was when I was a freshman in high school. I had a great English teacher named Mr. Byson, and we read Romeo and Juliet. We read it out loud in class, and I remember reading the part of Romeo when he shouts, "I am fortune's fool!" after killing Tybalt. Mr. Byson made me drop to my knees and shout it up to the sky. Great stuff. I remember enjoying it quite a bit. While I certainly couldn't understand every word that was uttered, Mr. Byson did a great job of explaining what was going on. I picked up on what a good story it was, and there was something about the language that attracted me. I didn't quite get it, but it was intriguing - it was over-the-top and had a certain rhythm to it that I found fascinating.

My next experience was with Macbeth my sophomore year. I remember when we were in the middle of it, a couple of kids in my class were complaining how "boring" it was. I remembered liking it, but in high school you don't exactly feel like being the guy to rise up and defend Shakespeare. Besides, I didn't quite have the words to express exactly what it was that I liked so much. I do remember, however, really liking the part where Banquo's ghost comes in the dining room and Macbeth freaks out. I'm the kind of person who gets haunted by a guilty conscience, so I completely related to it on that level. I also remember discussing it with my dad. He was never much of a Shakespeare fan himself, but I was talking about the character and his motivations (I don't think I used that word, but that's ultimately what it was about). It really started to hit me then what the appeal was - or at least, one of the appeals - there was so much going on with his characters that you could discuss them endlessly - and this was a rather one-sided discussion!

As the years past, I read A Midsummer Night's Dream my senior year, and Hamlet in college. I was also exposed to Much Ado About Nothing with Kenneth Branagh's film. At SF State, I took a Shakespeare class where we read Measure for Measure, Henry IV, part I, The Merchant of Venice, and a few others. I always enjoyed everything that the Bard...umm...I mean, Shakespeare wrote.

Of course, now I've become much more familiar with his works since I'm an English teacher. I've taught Romeo and Juliet (using the copy that I had when I was in high school - complete with the notes that Mr. Byson told me to write down), Julius Caesar, The Merchant of Venice, Macbeth, and Hamlet. It has always been my favorite thing to teach, especially Hamlet. All of his works are endlessly rewarding, and I find something new in them every time I teach it. I've also had some very long, in-depth conversations about the characters with friends, coworkers, and even at the comic book store (which wouldn't be a surprise to anybody who actually reads comics - comics fans are usually quite literate).

Recently, I heard a colleague tell me of a conversation that she had with a certain administrator. This administrator believes that it's not worth teaching Shakespeare to the masses, mainly because when she was in high school, she didn't "get it."


Where do I even begin with this? Is that really a reason to not teach something? Because some students find it difficult and aren't able to appreciate it? What about all of the kids who do appreciate it and find a lifelong love for it? Should they suffer because some kids struggle with it?

You might be thinking that's easy for me to say, after all, I was one of the kids who liked it. Well, I didn't really "get" Chemistry, but I'd be a drooling moron to suggest that kids shouldn't have to learn it because of that. I didn't get Pre-Calculus either, not to mention P.E. I guess my lack of comprehension for these subjects should lower the bar for everybody else, huh?

Now, you might make the argument that Shakespeare isn't for everybody, so maybe some kids can learn it while other kids can opt not to. Well, we're no longer able to have classes that are "A" and "B" and remedial classes anymore. So, all of the kids are lumped into one class, except for the Honors classes (which have to accept any kid who applies - go figure).

Here's the thing though, I've seen kids who probably would have been in the "B" classes years ago when they could do that who have really gotten into Shakespeare. I had one student, who was the bane of many an English teacher (not me, I liked him quite a bit) get so excited about Hamlet that he was shouting at the TV during the swordfight at the end. It was amazing to see how much he had emotionally invested in it - and it ranks as one of the highlights of my teaching career.

Now, do you really NEED Shakespeare though? Personally, I wouldn't be willing to be the guy to rob him of this experience, but this kid is probably not using "To be or not to be" in his career of choice. So what? I don't use algrebra, but I'm glad that I took it. After all, math exercises areas of the brain that you use for daily tasks. As for Shakespeare, if you can decipher what he's saying, you can comprehend pretty much anything. (Except maybe Chaucer - what the hell's up with THAT guy? Middle English my ass! Just kidding, but I'm not enough of a fan of Geoffrey Chaucer to write a blog on him).

Is Shakespeare important for any other reason then? How about the fact that there is no single author who has had a greater impact on the English language than him? Not only that, but he has introduced more words and phrases into the language than the King James Bible. Not even Snoop Dog can make such a claim. Let's not forget the fact that allusions to Shakespeare's works are everywhere. Shoot, a Julius Caesar reference was made during the case for gay marriage recently in the California Supreme Court. I believe it was, from one of the gay marriage proponents, "I came to praise marriage, not to bury it." (A twistaround of "I came to bury Caesar, not to praise him.") The judge responded that he was expecting the Shakespeare reference to be, "What's in a name?"

Do we really want to live in a world where the arts (including literature, naturally) are seen as not important? I believe that every subject has its place (except for "The Films of David Hasselhoff"). Most of them teach kids how to function in the world, but literature in general, and Shakespeare in particular, deals with the questions of what it means to be a human being. Of course, some people are never going to get it, but that doesn't mean that they get to ruin it for the rest of us.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Religions of Peace

A popular topic ever since 9/11 is whether or not Islam is a religion of peace. Personally, I think that the answer to this one is pretty easy. No, it isn't. Mohammed was a warrior. The religion was spread by the sword. There are plenty of passages in the Koran that can easily be used by modern believers to justify their hatred and violence. You can make the argument more complex - but why? That's all I need to know. If it was a religion of peace, it wouldn't have all that stuff and it wouldn't have such a violent history (and present, even).

Luckily for us, most Muslims engage in a type of doublethink where they don't really pay a whole lot of attention to all that, as they're more interested in living their lives and raising their families - pretty much the same as everybody else. So, while Islam itself is not a religion of peace, there certainly a lot of Muslims who are peaceful and only seek to follow the more pacifistic aspects of it.

Can you see the "But" coming? Whenever I discuss this issue, I like to bring up the fact that Christianity isn't a religion of peace either. Of course, most Christians don't really want to hear that. One argument that I've heard is that Jesus brought a message of peace. Fair enough. Trouble is, that only covers four books of the New Testament. I suppose if that Christians only went by that, then we'd have something to work with (maybe - I can even argue this point though. If God demands a blood sacrifice to forgive our sins, that doesn't exactly sound very "peaceful" to me. Sounds pretty sadistic, actually). There's a whole bunch of the Bible left over, and if you look through the Old Testament especially, it's bloodier than the first half hour of Saving Private Ryan. Still, even when I pointed that out once, the response from a Christian was, "Yeah, but if you simply go by what Jesus said, it's a message of peace." Ummm...okay. Seems like a bit of a dodge to me - especially considering the fact that Jesus said that all the rest counts (see my last post for the quote).

The other argument is that it's unarguable that in the times we live in, Islam is more responsible for terrorism and acts of cruelty than Christianity is. I understand that, but it's a myopic way of looking at things. If you're going to ask the question as to whether either one of these religions is a religion of peace, then you have to look at the entire history of BOTH of them. I mean, the question is if they are religions of peace. It's not are they religions of peace at this moment in time. You don't get to pretend like these are two brand new religions that just sprang up out of nowhere to compete with one another. They both have long, complex histories with highs and lows.

I realize that Christians are tired of getting the Crusades pushed in their face whenever this comes up, but that's a big part of Christian history. Shoot, ever notice that it's a plural noun? There was more than one of them! Other favorites include the Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials. Pretty standard stuff, but did you know that one of the reasons why the early Christians were persecuted by the Romans was that they would light fires in order to bring about the end of the world? Ever met an Arian? (No, I'm not misspelling "aryan".) Of course not - that's because that brand of Christianity has been wiped out, and it's not because they were asked nicely to knock it off. If you're of Euopean descent, ever wonder why you didn't grow up believing in Odin, Zeus, Morrigan, or Svarog? It might have something to do with the fact that your ancestors converted - no doubt some of them at the point of a sword.

What about the Reformation - the fight to make sure that people were believing in the right brand of Christianity? Let's not forget Northern Ireland. There's also the Christian slaveholders and Christian White Supremacist groups (like the KKK). Don't give me the whole thing about how Christians helped bring about the end of slavery - they also perpetuated it. After all, there are a few Christians in the South, right?

The point is, Christianity has a bloody history. I've heard it asserted that if you add up the body count, Christianity actually takes the prize over Islam. (And the Muslim terrorists have the benefit of modern technology! I'm sure that there would be Christian martyrs lining up if they had airplanes and skyscrapers during The Crusades.) Personally, that sort of thing doesn't matter to me. The only point is that Christianity has a bloody history - no doubt about it. Not only that, but these violent Christians were able to use their holy book to justify their atrocities (especially slavery!) just like the Muslim terrorists use the Koran.

Luckily for us, the Christian world has advanced (with some hiccups here and there) over the centuries. I'm honestly not concerned about Christian terrorists, and if we're talking about comparing the two faiths and capacities for violence in the present day, there is no comparison. As an atheist though, I cast a weary eye towards those Christians who are so quick to condemn the Muslims for having a religion that's doesn't espouse peaceful values.

I know my history. I know what belief in Christianity is capable of becoming. I'm not worried about it, but that doesn't mean that I'm going to pretend like it all didn't happen.

Man - that's a lot of posts on religion lately, isn't it? I'll write about something trivial soon, I promise. Did you know that you're neighbor could be a Skrull? It's true!

Sunday, April 6, 2008

It's beneath you

In the penultimate book of The Odyssey, the hero Odysseus, with the aid of the goddess Athena, removes his disguise in front of the suitors. He had been gone for twenty years, and in the meantime, the suitors had courted his wife, eaten his food, and even plotted the death of his son, Telemachus. After killing the ringleader, the others plead with him to spare their lives.

Odysseus responds that not one of them will escape with their lives, and along with his son, a few faithful servants, and the goddess, he slaughters them all. It's a bloody sight. Melanthius, a goatherd who mocked the King (to be fair, the king was disguised as an old beggar - but any Ancient Greek will tell you that you're supposed to treat old beggars with hospitality) has his ears and nose chopped off. In addition, his genitals are removed and fed to the dogs.

As for the maids who slept around with the suitors and basically turned the palace into a brothel, they were forced to clean up all the blood. After that, they were taken outside and hung.

It's quite a thrilling story, and it's probably my favorite part of the poem. There's a certain part of me that can relate to wanting revenge when somebody's been disrespectful in my house. Of course, by today's standards, that reaction is just a tad extreme. If somebody behaved this way, they'd be thrown in jail. While you may have the right to shoot an intruder, you don't have the right to massacre a crowd because they've been rude in your house. Don't even get me started on the Melanthius thing.

Wouldn't it be crazy if somebody tried to hold up The Odyssey as the moral standard of how we should live our lives in the modern world? That would be totally insane, wouldn't it? Thrilling mythology? Yes! Moral compass? A big NO!

Yet in many Muslim countries, (Saudi Arabia, our "allies", for instance) law is based on the Koran. While not as old as The Odyssey, it is still quite old. It also doesn't really attempt to tell any kind of a story, so it lacks an entertainment factor (unless you really like hearing about how disbelievers are going to hell over and over again). However, it does stress values that may have been perfectly acceptable in another time that are very much out-of-step with modern times. The thing is, when Osama bin Laden quotes the Koran to justify his mass killings, he's not just making stuff up. It's all there. You can play the "out of context" game all you want, but in what context are things like that applicable to a modern society that's based on the rule of law (not to mention basic tolerance and decency)?

Supposedly, there are a lot of nice passages in the Koran as well - passages that ask for tolerance (but from what I understand, not so much for polytheists) and passages that demand that followers look after the poor. People point to passages like that when they (rightfully) argue that most of the world's Muslims are peaceful and do not engage in terrorism.

I don't buy it. I think that most Muslims are peaceful not because of their religion. I think that they're basically just too decent to actually follow some of the more odious commandments of their holy book. For some reason, they ignore the awful stuff and focus on the good. I imagine that many of them probably don't give it too much thought - mainly because thinking about it forces them to deal with the fact that what they supposedly believe is holy doesn't actually represent their values at all.

I find this very easy to believe because I know that it's the same thing with Christians. Many of them point to The Bible as their guide to morality, but most Christians would cringe if some of the laws of The Bible were suggested as being good rules for us to follow nowadays (like having to marry your rapist if you're a virgin). Of course, there are those Christians who assert that our laws are based on Biblical values. I'm not sure where the heck they're getting that from. The laws that we have that correspond with The Bible are laws that are basic human values that are pretty universal. (You know, the whole no killing thing.)

Of course, there are some Christians who argue that all of the cruelty comes from The Old Testament, and Jesus went about creating a new covenant that can be applied to a modern society. I have a few responses to that. First of all, then why do we have all those rules in the Old Testament at all? Why not cut them out and just leave in the stories? (You know, like how Lot offers his virgin daughters to the crowd so they can rape them. Apparently, the angels needed his protection. On second thought, let's get rid of that one too.) Also, which rules of those rules "no longer count"? It's not very clear, and from what Jesus says, all of them still count, "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew, Chapter 5). Seems like it all still counts, folks!

Even if we forget all that (but why should we?) the New Testament is still horribly out of touch with the values of a modern society. Jesus sure doesn't seem very pro-family values when he says, "If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children,and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple" (Luke, Chapter 14). And I don't think you have to be a feminist to find the following objectionable: "Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence" (1 Timothy 2). I mean, is this much worse than what the fundamentalist Muslims have to say of their women? Seems to me that if we followed that law to the letter, our women here wouldn't have it much better than the ones in Saudi Arabia.

I've heard some Christians say that it's because of Christianity's dominance in this country that we have freedom, including the freedom to believe what we want. I've even heard it said that the reason why Jews have been successful here is because of that. I'm sorry, but that doesn't make a shit's worth of sense to me. After all, the Jews are made to blame for the death of Jesus (in John, anyway - it's "the crowd" and the church leaders in the earlier Gospels). How much anti-Semitism has spread over the years using The New Testament as its justification? I'd argue that it's our secular government that is to thank, and freedom has flourished in spite of the predominance of Christianity.

Why don't more Christians want these strict laws that come right out The Bible? For the same reasons why most Muslims don't want the strict laws from The Koran. They're too decent for that. The only problem is that they all feel the need to keep on asserting that these are good books - even though these books are completely beneath them. What also happens is pointless arguments about whose holy book is worse. Who cares? (A lot, I know, but that should be the reaction.)

I've heard Christians criticize Mohammed because he supposedly married a nine-year old girl (might be younger, I'm not sure.) I've read Muslim explanations for that, explaining that he married her, but he clearly did not have sex with her, which would make him a pedophile if he did. Personally, I don't care if Mohammed was a pedophile anymore than I care if Odysseus is a murderer.

Of course, if Christians take this tactic, where they point out that The Koran is a book from an ancient culture that should be prized as an historial artifact rather than a guide to life, they leave The Bible open up to the same criticism. The truth hurts, doesn't it?

I once used to think that we should choose our kings by having women who lived in lakes pass out swords to those who were worthy. Dennis set me straight when he said, "Listen, strange women lyin' in ponds distributin' swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony. " He's right. We shouldn't look to myths for how we rule ourselves today.

And if you don't get the reference, here is the corresponding scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Barker, Hitchens, Dawkins

I've read a few books on atheism over the years. The first one I read was Dan Barker's Losing Faith in Faith. Barker was an evangelical, born-again Christian preacher who slowly began to lose his faith. It's an interesting read because his loss of faith was rather gradual, and there was a time when he stopped believing but kept on preaching - he didn't know what else to do! Eventually, he couldn't keep living the lie, and he's been an outspoken atheist ever since. His book was fascinating because he really did a complete 180. He actually wrote some Christian songs that he continued to get royalties from after he had quit being a Christian.

The funny thing is, I remember seeing him on TV when I was a kid. He was on Oprah or Donahue or something like that. They had a number of people on from different faiths, and he was the guy to represent the lack of faith. It was the first time I had ever heard somebody talk about all the cruelties and inconsistencies in The Bible. I dismissed what he was saying at the time, but I never forgot it.

Anyway, when I read his book was around the time when I first started to admit my own lack of faith to myself. While I wasn't a preacher, there really was a long period of time when I didn't believe but wasn't quite ready to admit that I didn't believe. It's a difficult thing to explain unless you've experienced it yourself. Honestly, the only other moment in my life that I can compare it to is when I stopped believing in Santa Claus. I knew that he wasn't real for some time before I was willing to say it out loud.

Around that time, I also would frequent message boards on atheism and read articles on the subject with some regularity. I eventually grew bored with it though, as I was pretty much reading the same thing over and over again. As for the message boards, what good is it to keep reading stuff from people whom I agree with? (Although, it made me thankful that I live in a more open-minded part of the country - some atheists have to deal with quite a bit of grief over their lack of faith.)

Recently, there have been a lot of atheists in the news, and some of the best selling books have been on atheism. I believe that it's due to the fact that there probably are a lot more people out there who don't believe than people who are willing to admit it. At the very least, I think that there are a lot of people who have some pretty serious doubts about the notion of an all-powerful creator.

I wasn't too interested in reading these new books, because I figured that there wouldn't be much for me. A friend of mine lent me Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great a while back. I've seen Hitchens on TV before, and I think he's somebody who (forgive the ironic metaphor) preaches to the choir. He's a bit caustic, and he appears to have indulged in a cocktail or two before every interview that I see. Check him out on Hannity's Hour of Yellow Journalism - ahem - Hannity's America:

He does a pretty good job on that, especially considering that it's amazingly clear that one of his responses was partially edited out. (The response to the whole, "You're saying that energy created itself!") Still, I don't think that he's going to appeal to anybody who's not already having a serious crisis in faith.

What I did like about him is how he points out that it's one thing to say that there's a God, but it's another thing to claim that you know what this being wants. Also, he rightfully points out that you can get away with all sorts of evil so long as you have a religious title. And if you don't believe that, just read up on what's going on in the Catholic church! How many of these pedophiles got away with it because their followers couldn't believe that a priest would do such a thing? You'll never hear somebody say, "Oh, he couldn't be bad! He's an atheist!" (I hope that day never comes either.)

So, Hitchens book was a solid read, but it didn't offer too much new insight for me. I was looking forward to reading Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion though, and I picked up the paperback and devoured it within a few days.

Dawkins is a scientist and an unarguably intelligent man. In the following video, Dawkins is interviewing Ted "100% Heterosexual" Haggard. Haggard uses the usual strawman arguments against evolution and the scientific method, clearly demonstrating that he knows little about either. Dawkins is clearly dumbfounded at what he's saying. I don't really think that he handles himself spectacularly, but that's because he's clearly overwhelmed as to just how ignorant Haggard is. He's like an auto mechanic who's listening to a guy tell him that a little hamster on a wheel is what powers the motor.

It's also funny when Haggard is trying to tell Dawkins about what scientists say, and Dawkins flat-out tells him that he doesn't know any scientists who are saying that. Oh well - why argue with what's actually being said when you can make up something that's easy to knock down?

The God Delusion gave me a bit more to think about. Dawkins is quite unapologetic, and he even states that religious moderates indirectly encourage the fundamentalists. He also makes a pretty good point against agnosticism. What I found really interesting is his assertion that the question of whether there is a God or not IS a scientific question, and that the universe would be a very different sort of a place if there was one. It's definitely food for thought, and I haven't made up my mind yet about these things, but it's definitely enough to give any thinking person pause.

What I also like about him is that it's clear that he's a man who definitely has a sense of what an amazing place this universe is. He quotes Shakespeare, he makes references to art and literature. He's endlessly curious and amazed by life and all its forms. In short, he's not a bitter, cranky guy as many theists seem to think that atheists must be.

O'Reilly interviewed him when the hardcover was out. O'Reilly made an ass of himself, as usual and demonstrated his tenuous grasp on the facts (Hitler was not a "confirmed" atheist - sorry). He also completely dodged Dawkins point that while it's true that you can't prove that Jesus isn't real, you also can't prove that Zeus and Apollo aren't real.

It's too bad that he didn't give Dawkins more time to talk, as he has a pretty good answer to the whole, "I can't believe that everything just somehow got here!" argument for God. While that's completely understandable, it brings up a whole new set of problems when you then say, "therefore, some all-powerful, all-knowing creator made everything!" After all, where did this creator come from? Not to mention the old chestnut of, "Can God create a rock that's so heavy that even he can't lift it?" So, you basically answer one question with something that demands even more questions! After all, if God can be the alpha and omega, why can't the universe itself have always existed in some form or another?

Dawkins also has some pretty good answers to the typical questions that we atheists get. Here's my favorite, the answer to "What if you're wrong?"

Ultimately, if you're somebody who's undergoing a crisis of faith, and you feel bad that you might no longer believe what you were taught to believe, I recommend Dawkins' book. I also recommend it to all believers. You'll get a better sense of where we're coming from at the very least.