About the Name of this blog

This blog's title refers to a Dani fable recounted by Robert Gardner. The Dani live in the highlands of New Guinea, and at the the time he studied them, they lived in one of the only remaining areas in the world un-colonized by Europeans.

The Dani, who Gardner identifies only as a "Mountain People," in the film "The Dead Birds," have a myth that states there was once a great race between a bird and a snake to determine the lives of human beings. The question that would be decided in this race was, "Should men shed their skins and live forever like snakes, or die like birds?" According to the mythology, the bird won the race, and therefore man must die.

In the spirit of ethnographic analysis, this blog will examine myth, society, culture and architecture, and hopefully examine issues that make us human. As with any ethnography, some of the analysis may be uncomfortable to read, some of it may challenge your preconceptions about the world, but hopefully, all of it will enlighten and inform.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Thinking About Architecture


Our thought processes are enframed by our language and our language literally controls not only how we can think about things, but literally what we CAN think about at all. 

Infants are like animals, they think in images, not words.  Mother, father, food, toy, all are cognitively described by pictures or moving images; there is no verbal component.  Animals never cease thinking this way, nor, according to Temple Grandin, do autistic people, which is why they have so much difficulty in communicating.  But normal humans begin to swap out image based thought for linguistic thought around the age of three, which, interestingly enough is the point where solid memories begin to form.  (I can remember things before the age of three, because I am very strange, but those pre-verbal memories are a series of disconnected dreamlike images that make very little sense on anything more than an emotional level.)

But as we develop, we can only think about things that we have words to describe.  We know this from studying other cultures.  Cultures who have no word for the color purple cannot differentiate it from blue or red, depending on the mixture, with a red hue falling in the red category and a blue based purple being termed blue.  At best they might call it a shade of blue or red, but would not even consider it to be a different color.  The same goes for American men, who for the most part could not even begin to differentiate eggshell from bone.  The average American woman probably could, because they spend far more time learning color terminology.  An artist or designer probably could identify thousands of different colors that only varied by minute differences, because they spend years learning the words for them.

Because language enframes cognition, if you control the language, you control the thought.  George Orwell used this to maximum effect in the novel "1984," where, to stamp out crimethink, the Inner Party of Oceania developed Newspeak.  Their rationale was that if you had no words to describe a concept, you could not even think about it; if the word freedom does not exist, how do you know you are a slave?

This is a very powerful concept, but it goes deeper than that.  Not only does language enframe thought, it affects attitudes and culture.  I've discussed this before, where using the word entitlements to describe welfare and Social Security increases negative feelings towards them because of the very connotation of the word "entitlement."

But it is the cultural connection that I want to explore here.  I have been talking with some of my foreign born students about architecture, and in those conversations, I have realized how much learning about architecture in English is enframing the process.

In talking with a former thesis student from Saudi Arabia, he mentioned that he was unable to discuss architecture in Arabic, and to be able to talk about it, he had to switch to English.  This linguistic shift altered his cognitive patterns, he literally can not contemplate architecture in his native tongue.

How does this affect design?  Consider the fact that language is one of the primary markers of culture.  The entire value system of a society is delineated by the language.  Arabic is a far more sacred language than English, which, in Eliade's definition is more profane.  Arabic weaves Allah (God) and Islamic belief into everyday speech in a way that English does not (or at least hasn't for a very long time; how often do you hear someone say goodbye with the term "Go with God?")

Therefore, when you enframe architectural thought into English, you are re-casting that thought into a very Western mold.  Very significant aspects of identity get lost in translation, in fact, they cease to exist.  There is a profound cognitive shift.

In our conversations, he was talking about how the architecture of the Middle East is increasingly being stuffed into Western drag, and the hallmarks of Saudi Arabian architectural identity are being lost.  We determined that a large part of it was because a significant number of Saudi architects were being trained in the West.  And further, the ones being trained in Saudi Arabia are either being taught in English (as he is planning to do when he becomes a professor) or the very concepts of design that are taught in the West are not being passed on, because they lack the language to do so.

This loss of identity, though, goes beyond style, into the realms of essence.  There is something essential (essence) being lost, because the cognition is occurring in an alien language.  Copying style is only part of the story.  For example, Soviet architects drew heavily on the International Style of Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus, but there is still an essential difference between Western Modernism and Soviet architecture.  The Soviet architects learned their craft in Russian, and specifically in Soviet Russian.  Their value system was made manifest in their architecture.  The further back in time you go, the more apparent these differences are, where you get even regional variations, that could be tied to dialectical differences.

To further explore this concept, I spoke with two of my current thesis students, who come from Iceland.  They told me that when they were back home at Christmas, when they would talk to Icelandic architects, they would have to fall back on English words for about fifty percent of their conversations.  They did not have words in Icelandic to describe the ideas they were discussing.  Interestingly, until recently, there were no architectural programs in Iceland, and even now they only offer a Bachelors, and no Masters degrees.  Therefore, almost all of their architects are trained in either Europe or America.

And consequently, just like Saudi Arabia, their architectural identity is vanishing, to be replaced with architecture that is alien to their country.  This is an even more interesting case, because Iceland is a European country, with far more in common with both the Continental countries and America than the Saudi's have.

And yet, they feel like their architectural identity is diminishing.  Except for vernacular architecture, there is no Icelandic style.  This is in contrast to Europe, where, for example, there are noticeable differences between English and German deconstructivism, countries that have large portions of their architectural communities trained domestically.

Language enframes thought; thought enframes design; design creates the built environment.  When you design in another language, the architecture lacks cultural identity, or more precisely, has an alien identity.  Unwittingly, today's architects are beginning to achieve Le Corbusier's dream of Universal Architecture.

There is a growing blandness in architecture today.  You can travel anywhere in the world and see much the same sort of architecture.  I think part of this sameness is the result of language.  If we thought about architecture in the language of the country it was being built in, the architecture would be enframed in the culture and value system of its place.

And I think we would value it more.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Am I a Soon to Have?


What we have here is a failure to understand basic economic principles.

In his response to the President's State of the Union Address, Governor Mitch Daniels claimed that this is not a nation of haves and have-nots, but a nation of haves and soon to haves.

Huh???  Excuse me?

Did I get this wrong, did he suddenly avow communism, because it certainly sounds like he just did. 

Let me explain.  If everyone had a at least a million dollars, no one would be rich.  The people who only had a million dollars would be poverty stricken.  The reason is that the economy would normalize to a million dollars being poor; inflation would run rampant until the prices leveled out to a new plateau.  Your grandparents probably can tell you that they remember a loaf of bread costing a nickel, and that's because they only made a few thousand dollars a year.  In fact they probably made in a year what the average person now makes every month.

Prices will always rise until a point of equilibrium is met.  The market will determine how much things cost, and it will always set prices based on general income.  Now if everyone had a million dollars, there would be a short grace period where everyone could feel rich, but that would only last a few weeks, maybe even only a few days, possibly only a few hours.  The reason: every one would immediately raise their prices.

The only way you could prevent that from happening: price controls, absolute rigid price controls, government mandated maximum prices, government intervening to set the prices.  Sounds pretty communistic.

But that is not the only way his statement is communist.

It echoes the statement, each to each according to need, the Marxist motto.  (On a side note, it also echoes "A chicken in every pot," Hoover's slogan, and we know how that ended.)  Why does it echo Marxism?  Because Marx advocated a classless society as one of the hallmarks of his economic theory.  What Daniels seems to be advocating is that everyone will be rich, which actually means no one will be rich, because there will only be one economic class, which brings us back to Marxism.

How do you enforce a single class society?  Redistribution of wealth.  Wait a minute, isn't that what they are accusing democrats of tying to do?  I guess two can play that game.

The other possibility is that there will be more than one class, but I guess that there will have to be a rotation set up: you get to be rich this month, but next month you have to go back to being a soon to have.  Then you wait your turn, in August of 2013 you go back to being a have for six weeks, and the wheel turns round. 

Actually it sounds kind of nice, everyone gets to be rich on a schedule. While you're not rich, you can dream of all the fun you'll have when you are.  It's kind of like a money vacation or a money cruise.  You spend all of your time dreaming about that period when you're rich, which will make your time being poor bearable.

And since there would have to be some central authority to work out the turns, and make sure that the haves turn in their stuff to the soon to haves, you'll need a pretty big government.  And a communist one at that, since the government will need to control all of the assets to make this work.

So Mitch Daniels is a communist advocating the largest bureaucracy the world has ever seen.

At least, I wish that's what his statement was about, because that  would be really funny.

The truth is much less funny.  It is the worst sort of political rhetoric and pandering; he is playing on the American Dream in a very vicious and cynical way.  He is pulling the "If you vote Republican, we'll make sure that you get rich."  It is no different than the Nigerian who just needs access to your band account to deposit thousands of dollars.

He is playing on Americans' desires and beliefs, when there is no possibility of every delivering on the promises.  There will never be a country of haves and soon to haves, because for a soon to have to become a have, one of the haves must become a have not.  There is a limited pool of openings at the top.

But he is playing off the idea that there are unlimited openings up there, and everyone can become a VIP, and all you have to do to make sure that you become one is to vote the right way.  He is buying votes with dreams of unicorns and rainbows.

The reality is, not everyone will be rich, there will always be poor people, unless we go communist or discover some new economic theory that allows for universal wealth without devaluing it.  I would love that to happen, but under the current system, it is impossible.

And Mitch Daniels is just playing with our hopes, only to crush them in the future.

And that is the worst sort of viciousness.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Against the Fall of Night


I just read an article detailing a conversation between Steve Jobs and President Obama.  At an technologies industry dinner last year, the President opened the floor for questions and Steve Jobs began asking him a question.  The President then asked Jobs "what would it take to make iPhones in the United States?  Why can't that work come home?"

Jobs' reply, "Those jobs aren't coming back."

The MegaCorps have no interest any more in investing in America.  Apple used to make all of its products in the United States, now it makes almost nothing here.  And Apple is not alone, this is being repeated in company after company, industry after industry.  All of them are moving their manufacturing to other countries.

Morris Berman, author of Dark Ages America describes this process as: at the end of empire, the moneyed interests rape all of the money out of the system to take it to where they think the next empire will be.

Those jobs, that capital, is never coming back.

I have blogged in the past about how greed will destroy capitalism, and eventually it will, unfortunately, the path to its death will be strewn with millions of bodies of those it discarded and crushed in it's death throws.  Before succumbing, Capitalism, in its current greed driven form, will wreck entire nations.  I should point out, this is not a rant in support of communism or socialism, as those are also failed models.  The seven deadlies will always bring economic systems down.

No, what I would like to look at is what this flight of industry means.  There are a few different scenarios that are possible.

First, we continue to outsource our misery.  This is what we are doing now.  In America, we have demanded things like living wages, an end to sweat shops, workplace safety and clean air and water.  These are things that most Americans believe are necessary for a civilized and enlightened society, most American, that is, except the captains of industry.  The people who run the companies see these things for what they are, unacceptable infringements on profit margins.

Every minimum wage law, every pollution regulation, every safety policy cuts into the money that they can make.  To most people, that is a decent trade off, but not to the Masters of the Universe.  As Stephen Bainbridge said,  " The social obligation of business is to sustainably maximize long-term profits for shareholders. Nothing more. Nothing less."  Anything that cuts into profit margins is unacceptable.

Therefore, in this view of corporate responsibility, the responsible action is to move the company to a place where pesky things like human dignity do not interfere with profits.

The technical term for this, by the way, is "Externalizing Costs."  We gain cheaper goods by outsourcing the environmental and human damages to another country.  Every time you buy an item from Wall-Mart that is made in China, you have externalized these costs.

This scenario does not have a happy ending for either our country or the places we move our industry to.

In the United States, it means fewer and fewer jobs, especially in the low education, high wage sectors of manufacturing.  An assembly line worker typically does not need a college education, but they make a very comfortable, middle class wage.  They can buy a house, go on vacation, have nice things and even send their own children to college.  Without industry, we move even more to a two class society of highly educated elites and poorly educated service workers.  (And one only needs to look at France circa 1780 or Russia circa 1915 to see how this ends, its not pretty.)

But this also does not have a happy ending for the countries we outsource to either.  As those countries get richer, and consequently, more educated, the workers there will begin to rise up as American workers did in the late 1800's and early 1900's.  They will begin to demand change as well.  But the captains of industry did not make the same mistake they made in the United States.

Here, we are a democracy.  (I know, we are technically a Republic, but everyone has a say in how the country is run)  If the corporations are grinding us underfoot, we have the recourse of the ballot box.  Now the corporate masters are locating in totalitarian countries, where it does not matter how much the people scream, they will just massacre the protesters and bring in new workers.  Never doubt that they will depopulate entire cities to try to suppress rebellion.  (And trust me, they will not allow the Arab Spring to spread, efforts to shut down social media are already underway across the planet.  SOPA anyone?)  The MegaCorps will prop up, and even put into place, ruthless dictators who will bow to those corporations. 

This scenario ends with a devastated America and a totalitarian ruled Third World.

The second scenario is almost as bad, especially for America.  We will normalize the value of a dollar to that of the Rupee.  In other words, we will drastically reduce the value of the dollar relative to other currencies.  In India, most people live on a few hundred dollars a year, much like Americans in the early 1900's.  We think, in our little bubble, that that means that they all live in poverty.  It is true that they do not have our standard of living, but with that amount of money, they have a comfortable life.  Again, much the same as an American's life in 1910.

I went to India a few years ago, and felt like a Rockefeller because I had a few hundred dollars in my pocket; I could afford to buy almost anything I wanted.  The reason for this was the exchange rate.  My dollar was worth 45 Rupees, and a Rupee was worth slightly more than 2 cents.  But to an Indian, a Rupee had a similar amount of purchasing power as a dollar here.  I would buy a cup of coffee for 2 Rupees, which is like a $2.00 cup of coffee at Starbucks.

Profit is made on the exchange rate.  Industry can pay an Indian worker 40,000 Rupees a year, but that amounts to only $800.00 US Dollars.  The Indian worker can live as comfortably in India on that as an American could live on $40,000.00 a year (provided they don't want to travel outside of India) and the American company can save $39,200.00 on salary costs.

If we want to bring industry back to the United States, we would need to reduce the value of the dollar to approximately 2% of its current value.  You can imagine the havoc that would wreak on both the American and Global markets.  Industry would return, at the cost of a devastated global economy.  This scenario also works in the opposite direction as well, that the Rupee could rise in value to be equal to the U.S. Dollar.  This would have the same effect, just from the other end.

Unfortunately, if America fades as an empire, which it already is doing, this scenario will be extremely likely, especially given that our currency is not backed by anything more than "the full faith and credit of the United States."  If we were on the Gold or Silver Standard, this couldn't happen, because our currency would be pegged to something of real value, as opposed to an agreed upon worth.  (I'm not going all Ron Paul here, but he does have a point, even if it is completely unfeasible at this time.)

The final scenario is the most optimistic, but it requires all Americans to join together and take control of our destiny.

Buy American, and only buy American.

If people rise up and demand American goods, and refuse to purchase products made outside of the country, we will cut into the profits of the MegaCorps and they will notice it.

Then one of two things will happen: either they will accept a reduced profit rate in order to make any profit at all; or other companies will rise up to meet the demand, and they will make things here because there is a market for them.

For too long we have been victims to the market, without realizing that there is no market without us.  We do have some control over the economy; we are not at the mercy of the Masters of the Universe.  We can turn the free market against the people who's only obligation is to line their own pockets. 

The Law of Supply and Demand states that when there is a demand, there will have to be a supply to fill that demand.  If we demand only American goods, then the Market will have to supply them, one way or another.

This path requires courage, and a willingness to forgo cheap goods, but if we all stand firm, and do not waver, we will succeed.

And this success has further ramifications.  Without the need to protect cheap labor, the MegaCorps will have no incentive to continue to prop up totalitarian regimes, other countries will see that you can have a thriving economy and still have human rights and a clean environment, and the corporations will learn, with great power comes great responsibility.

This is the only way to hold back the fall of night.  Let us not go gently. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Tales of Future Imperfect


Nostradamus did not foretell the future; he was a prophet not a seer.  These two terms have become conflated in most of the Western World, and now we habitually refer to a prophet as someone who knows what will happen in the future.  Being a prophet is only tangentially, and occasionally, related to predicting the future.

A prophet is a person who reveals Truth, a seer makes predictions.  I should note here that Muslims still use the term correctly, Mohammad and Jesus were prophets of the Abrahamic faiths; they revealed Truth about God.  Nostradamus is described as a prophet, yet people ascribe to him the ability to tell the future.  But if he could actually forecast future events, why are his predictions so vague and obscure?

I know, he did it to prevent the Inquisition from imprisoning him.  Or he did it so that only certain people would be able to interpret it.  (Interestingly enough, only the people with books to sell.)  Or maybe he was just a temporal cock tease.

I want to take a moment to deconstruct these arguments before I talk about what I think he actually did. 

If he was so concerned about the Inquisition, why did he engage in herbology and astrology, both questionable activities in the eyes of an orthodox priesthood? If he was trying to be circumspect, he wasn't very good at it.  He published the Centuries in his lifetime, and told the future of the Medici children for Queen Catherine and foretold the fate of Henri II.  Not particularly advisable for someone who wanted to remain below the radar of the Church.  Obviously he wasn't trying to hide from the Inquisition.

If he was trying to make certain that only certain people could understand what he was saying, I think that would be truly evil, and given his other works and descriptions of his personality, that sort of evil would be out of character for him.  Why is it evil?  Suppose you know something horrible is going to happen, but you only let a few people know rather broadcasting that information to a wide audience.  If people die in an event that foreknowledge might have prevented, then the blood is on the hands of the person who kept it secret.

On a side note, never trust Nostradamus' translators; almost every one of them translates with an agenda, and makes sure that the prophecy says what they want it to say.  I have read the Centuries in the original French, and trust me, they do not say what the translators make them say.  There are obvious efforts to make them fit actual events and make it seem like they were stunning bits of prediction.

Finally, maybe he was just a tease.  Maybe what he wrote was complete B.S. and he knew it, but this also seems out of character for the man.

Ascribing magic powers to Nostradamus completely belittles what I think was the man's true brilliance.  Remember, prophecy is the revelation of Truth and that is what he did in the Centuries.  He wasn't directly predicting the future; you can find the future in his writings, but you find it because it is a revelation, not a prediction.

His prophecy, his truth, lies in the fact that he created what amount to Jungian Archetypes of history.  He revealed patterns in broad stokes.  He identified events and circumstances that would lead to those events and created poetry to enframe those patterns.  His foretelling of the future only works because of the cyclical nature of time.

If A happens the B is likely to follow. 

When you look at Nostradamus through this filter, you see the true brilliance of the man.

What evidence do I have of this?  As a physician, Nostradamus would be skilled in observing patterns of both illnesses and treatments.  He would have possessed a rudimentary understanding of Scientific Methods.  (Rudimentary only because Science in his day was still in it's infancy, and only beginning to separate from Alchemy and other mysticism.)

An example of this understanding of patterns can be found in the fact that he was possibly one of the first doctors to understand the linkage between cleanliness and illness.  Many modern mystics like to claim that he discovered that link by looking into the future and seeing modern sanitation.   I think it is far more likely that the man was just brilliant and had an insight into a primary cause of disease, brought on by keen observation.  (And I would like to note how tired I am of people claiming that since our ancestors did not have modern technology that they couldn't do anything and had to rely on aliens or magic to accomplish their achievements.)

Nostradamus discovered patterns, and figured out how those patterns are interdependent.  He then enframed the patterns in the only way he could in the 16th century; he cloaked them in mysticism.  And today, we completely miss the point, we can't see beyond the mystical enframement. 

And the problem is made far worse when that magical enframement is dumped on a group of people who have not got the means to understand the Truth underlying the prophecy.  It feeds the ideas of living in the end times, it feeds the sense of doom, it feeds horror.

Prophecy works because people, whether or not they are conscious of it, make the prophecy come true.  Science fiction is prophetic because it plants ideas into peoples' heads, not because it actually foretells the future.  People make the future based on science fiction.  For example, the flip phone would never have existed except for the communicator in Star Trek.

And that turns Nostradamus into a nightmare for the future.  His prophecies are often dark and violent because human nature, especially in his time, is very dark and violent.  And people who devoutly believe in his prophecies guide human events down that path.  Nostradamus' prophecies tell the future simply because we make the future fit into what he wrote. 

Prophecy doesn't predict the future, prophecy creates the future.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

What Do You Think Will Happen?


The publisher for the Atlanta Jewish Times recently wrote an op-ed suggesting that, for its own national security, Israel should consider assassinating President Obama. (Click here for a link to the original document.  Please follow the link to show that I am not quoting out of context.)

In the article he recommended:

"Give the go ahead for U.S. based Mossad agents to take out a president deemed unfriendly to Israel in order for the current vice president to take his place and forcibly dictate that the United States policy include its helping the Jewish state obliterate its enemies."

If it wasn't clear in that statement, a few sentences later he states:

"Order a hit on a president in order to preserve Israel's existence. Think about it. If I have thought of this Tom Clancy-type scenario, don't you think that this almost unfathomable idea has been discussed in Israel's most inner circles?"

In other words, he is calling on the Israeli secret police to instigate regime change in America.  He is also, as an American citizen, calling on a foreign country to dictate policy to the United States.

 I do believe that both of these action rise to the level of treason. 

And unfortunately, since it is Obama that he is suggesting assassinating he will never be punished.  I also do not doubt that any publisher that said that about Bush would currently have a lifetime suite at the Gitmo Hilton.  (On a similar note, a Kansas Republican Assembly member sent the President a note hoping that "His days would be few in number."  That is from Psalm 109:8, which continues "may his children be orphans and his wife a widow.  I should note that he did not include the second verse of the Psalm, but anyone who knows the Bible pretty well will likely know the other part.)

However, this article is not about either the treasonous actions of a publisher of a small newspaper, not is it about how, for the first time in American history, it seems to be almost heroic to call for the assassination of our own president.

No, this article is about blowback.

Blowback is the unintended violent consequences of a given military or covert operation without a discernable direct cause.  (Thank you Wikipedia for the definition)

The chickens of American foreign policy are coming home to roost.  How many leaders of other countries has the United States removed?  I would like to say that this is a problem of the new millennium, that Bush started this policy of regime change, because if he had, it might possible to repudiate the policy and change course.

Unfortunately, this has been going on for the past fifty years.  Here is a partial list of the countries where we have removed a government in order to "forcibly dictate" their internal governance;  Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, Cambodia, Korea, the Philippines, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Granada, Panama, Nicaragua, Haiti, Somalia, the Congo, Bosnia, Kosovo.  We also unsuccessfully tried it in Cuba and Libya

This has been a long standing American policy, and because of that, it will be hard to change.  Already, there is much saber rattling among the Republicans for regime change in Iran, again.  That would be our second intervention in that country, third if you count our abandonment of the Shah, who we put in power after removing a somewhat socialist democratically elected government there.

But as long as we continue to march around the world, knocking off foreign leaders and replacing them, we stand a strong chance of other countries doing the same to us.  In the 1930's, a group of Fascist leaning Americans (including the father of Bush the first) planned on to staging a coup in this country and install Smedley Butler as the new "President."  There is still speculation as to the involvement of European Fascists in this plot.  The Businessman's Plot could happen again.  We have established the precedent.

Anytime that America opens the door to violations of law, it invites the rest of the world to follow along.  We have long been the shining example to other countries; the exhortation for them to listen to the angels of their better natures.  When we do so, we set the bar for creating a better world.  But when we fall to the seduction of the demons of our lesser nature, we greenlight the rest of the world to do so as well.  And given that the road to evil is wide and easy, we open the door to horror.

We also open the door for that horror to be brought home.

Waterboarding, the tortures at Abu Ghraib, urinating on dead bodies in Afghanistan, these actions have consequences.  When our soldiers commit atrocities, we open the door for our soldiers to be treated atrociously.  When we attack another country unprovoked, we invite unprovoked attack on our country.  When we remove democratically elected leaders because we don't like them, we face the possibility of our leaders being removed because some other country doesn't like them.

Every time America violates international law, we don't just lose a little bit of our prestige, we shift the behavior bar down.  We justify other people atrocities and, further, we make it almost impossible to condemn those actions without looking like hypocritical parents.

The hardest thing in the world is to rise above the evil around us, to say that, we are going to be better than that, that we are going to be the good example.  But we must.  That is not to say that we turn the other cheek, although, sometimes we must.  What I am saying is that, no matter what is done to us, me must respond with thoughtfulness, with care, and with an eye to how those actions will be perceived.

America, for good or bad, has always led by example.  We must ensure that that example is positive; that we show the world the right way to take action.  Whether we like it or not, we are the role model.  We need to do good things in the world, and behave in an ethical manner.

Otherwise, we will continue to suffer blowback, with increasingly tragic consequences.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Myth of Myth


In the modern vernacular, the word "myth" has developed a connotation of meaning false or untrue.  This is at odds with the original definition of the word which is:

            "a traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some being or hero or
            event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation,
            especially one that is concerned with deities or demigods and explains
            some practice, rite, or phenomenon of nature. "

To put it simply, a myth is a way to explain our relationship with each other, with the Gods or with the world.  It is a way to explain things that have no simple explanation.  It should also be noted that a myth can have a factual component.; it does not need to be demonstrably false to be a myth, in fact it can have a significant component of actual facts and still be a myth.  The Trojan War is a perfect example of this.

Why does the sun move across the sky?  Because Apollo rides across the heavens in his fiery chariot.  Why do we have winter?  Because that is when Persephone must return to the Underworld, which causes Demeter to grieve.  Where do we come from?  God created the heavens and the earth and the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.  And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.  And God said, Let there be Light; and there was Light.

In essence, a myth, far from being a falsehood, is a sort of meta-truth, a universal "truth" that is not dependant on fact, but addresses what could be termed a Jungian concept.  It is an aspect of the universal subconscious.   

And all of the religions of the world, from the earliest pre-history to the modern era, are no more and no less than myth.  Christianity is no less a myth than the religion of the ancient Greeks or Egyptians.  The Norse myths are no more mythic than the Buddhist. 

All religions are myths because all religions address the three relationships of myth: man to man; man to God(s); and man to world.  People today like to differentiate religion from myth, but in actuality, the Bible, the Torah and the Koran are all collections of myths.  Myth supports a religion, and defines it.  The myths are a vehicle for understanding "God."

Which brings me to my main point.  People today seem to view different religions with a bizarre patronizing attitude.  I began to address this in my blog post "The Case for Soft Polytheism."  They act like believers of other faiths are not really serious about their religion; as if the followers are just playing a game.  They view other religions as myth in the modern sense of the word, and they act like the followers of other faiths view their own religion as "just a collection of crazy stories."

Let me state this unequivocally, every genuinely religious person believes in their faith as strongly as you believe in yours.  The ancient Greeks were as devout in their worship of Zeus and the other Gods in their pantheon as a modern Christian is in their devotions to God and Jesus.  The Greek myths were every bit as important to an Athenian as the Bible is to a Baptist.

This devotion is not a game, it is the core of a person's being.  And yet, among many Christian circles, they act like it is a game, like other people's faith is somehow less central to their lives. 

To illustrate this, I will share a personal anecdote.  I am a Foundationist Pagan.  By this, I believe that there is Truth in all religions, and we must find the Truth that fulfills each of us as individuals, even if that Truth is found through disparate traditions.  My Truth draws from many sources, including the Abrahamic Traditions, Hinduism, and Celtic beliefs.  Spiritually, I am probably similar in my beliefs to Thomas Jefferson.

My faith is central to my being, and I consider myself to be a profoundly religious person.  I live my faith every day of my life, and it is the guide for all of my behaviors.  I rarely talk about that aspect of my personality, because one of the Truths that I believe is that religion is an extremely personal matter that should not be discussed, at least not in terms of professing your faith.

The last time I was in New York City, I visited a spiritualist.  I have a Houdini-like interest in them; I have never found one that did anything more than a cold reading, but I find them entertaining.  (I enjoy trying to figure out what clues I gave away to let them read me, it's a fun game)  Anyway, this particular psychic pegged me as a Pagan, not a surprising thing, given the pentagram around my neck.  (However this story is not about my debunking psychics.)  After my confirmation that, yes, I am a Pagan, she got a message from God that I needed to dedicate myself to Jesus. 

After I asserted that, perhaps I could, but not under that specific name, she said, no it must be Jesus.  She did not understand that my faith is not wash and wear, and can't easily be discarded.  In her absolute belief in her Truth, she discounted any option that people might have other Truths that are equally as valid and essential to their being as hers was to her.

This is the attitude that invades all proselytizing religions: the view that followers of other faiths are not really devout in their beliefs, and since their beliefs are obviously false, it should be easy for them to convert.  And this missionary position even cuts across sectarian boundaries.  Baptists and Catholics share the same Bible, the same God and the same basic belief structure.  They only differ on small points of faith.  And yet, each one sends missionaries to try to convert the other.  I know many Protestants who went on missions to Mexico.  (Really) Unless you follow the specific flavor of Christianity, you are as damned as a non-believer.

This attitude of "I can change their faith" is fed by the numerous politicians in America who do change their faiths like clothing.  The fact that many politicians convert to a new faith because that faith might shore up their constituency shows that they actually have no faith at all.  To them, religion is just another form of drag to dress up in to win votes.  Especially appalling are those who convert to more and more conservative faiths, just to prove how reactionary they are.  It is almost like you cannot be a Republican and a Methodist.  Similarly, there are those who think you cannot be a devout Catholic and a Democrat.  (And some Bishops even want to withhold communion from people who vote pro-Choice)

Faith is not something for show, it is not a flag to be waived to demonstrate some bizarre version of religious patriotism.  Faith is intensely personal.  It can change and evolve, but that change comes from personal growth and a deeper understanding of the world.  It does not change to suit a voting bloc, and it does not change to make someone else happy.  

No one has the right to ask someone else to change their beliefs, because if those beliefs are genuine, you are asking someone to give up a core piece of their identity. 

And nothing is more destructive to actual faith than that.