Thursday, December 16, 2010

Field Day

Christians In Karachi Comes Under Attack From Islamists: "KARACHI, PAKISTAN (ANS) — Local Pakistani Christians and the family of a Christian youth are facing potential death threats and the terrorization of “dire consequences” following the elopement and marriage of a Christian young man who has converted to Islam and his young Muslim bride.

- Sent using Google Toolbar"

So. Converting to Islam doesn't matter. No one even notices it. Religion, race, language--just markers of group affiliation, where that is totally arbitrary.

In elementary school we were divided up, arbitrarily, into blue and gold teams on Field Day. But immediately we hated our opponents and were ready to die for our teammates.

Religion just doesn't matter.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Why Can't Christianity Be More Like Yoga?

Hindu Group Stirs Debate in Fight for Soul of Yoga - "- Sent using Google Toolbar"

[A] group of Indian-Americans has ignited a surprisingly fierce debate in the gentle world of yoga by mounting a campaign to acquaint Westerners with the faith that it says underlies every single yoga style followed in gyms, ashrams and spas: Hinduism. The campaign, labeled “Take Back Yoga,” does not ask yoga devotees to become Hindu, or instructors to teach more about Hinduism. The small but increasingly influential group behind it, the Hindu American Foundation, suggests only that people become more aware of yoga’s debt to the faith’s ancient traditions.
Almost everyone I know does yoga. Some are interested in the 'philosophy' behind it; most are just looking for stretching exercises to improve flexibility and general health. Some are devoted, most are casual, and no one thinks that they're under any obligation either to go the whole hog on yoga rather than participate casually, or that they ought to buy the 'philosophy' attached to the practice. Some do; some don't.

Most who do their yoga on the beach or at (my gym) Women's Fitness World may may be shocked to discover that yoga has its roots in Hinduism. People take yoga on their own terms. They buy what they like. They don't think of it as a religion, or as a component of a religion.

Why shouldn't we treat Christianity that way? Most people in fact do: they treat Christianity casually, cherry-pick and buy what they like. The general consensus is that this is a very bad thing, but why?

There is, of course, the Creed. But there are all sorts of doctrines associated with yoga--about chakras, vedas and that kind of thing. Some believe, many think their might be something to it but don't pay much attention, some are just there for the exercise and dismiss it completely. No one is bothered. There are also some Christian enthusiasts who are gung-ho for every article of the Catechism and make strenuous efforts to walk the walk. But there are also many who think their might be something to it but don't pay much attention and some who are just Evensong concert-goers. Why is it ok to be a casual, skeptial yoga practitioner but not a casual, skeptical Christian.

Flap your mouths, waffle around, bluster and blow: there is no answer, no reason why should be somehow wrong, and vicious, to treat Christianity casually, to be a skeptical Christian, and to buy what one likes.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Medicare, Death Panels and the New Elitism

Does Obamacare really cut Medicare Benefits to Senior Citizens? - Rick Ungar - The Policy Page - Forbes: "- Sent using Google Toolbar"

I still remember the books I was supposed to read for discussion during Freshman Orientation Week when I was an undergraduate. Being diligent, I actually read them. One was The Invisible Man, a novel about racism, by Ralph Ellison, and the other was René Dubos' The Torch of Life.

Since I was only 17 at the time, and largely illiterate, I may have gotten it wrong but the message of The Torch of Life was scary. The idea seemed to be that we should acquiesce to mutability rather than fighting it. We should not selfishly cling to our own privilege, and to our own lives once we were no longer fit, but pass the Torch of Life onto our successors and die with dignity. It was the same message that we women got about our relationships. We should not "cling": of our men tired of us we should be good sports and let go, passing the Torch to the next girl.

This was the New Elitism. It was a repudiation of the Old Elitism of money, social status and power, in favor of the Older Elitism of youth, beauty, strength and likability. When we were no longer young, beautiful and healthy, we were supposed to die with dignity to avoid burdening those who were fit; when we were not likable or liked we were supposed to accept rejection with good grace and bless our men as they moved on to the next chick. Clinging--to relationships, or to life, was selfish.

Of course the privileged were allowed to be selfish. Guys were allowed to trade off chicks when they tired of us. And when we became old, ugly, ill and unlikeable, our relatives, or the state, were allowed to euthanize us because we were unsightly, inconvenient and expensive. The inferior were expected to sacrifice themselves, and sacrifice themselves cheerfully, for the sake of the superior--for the sake of the fit. That was Nature's Way, and being enlightened secularists, we were supposed to conform to the requirements of Nature.

So it isn't hard to see why the lower class stinking shit oppose "ObamaCare." They see it as the Torch of Life mandate. The elderly will sacrifice their Medicare to provide benefits for the young and beautiful, for the pretty children and the productive young. "You've had your innings, Granny. Time to suicide out so that we can spend the money on your betters. And if you don't go voluntarily, the Death Panel will make that decision."

I don't believe it. My mother-in-law, at 96, in a retirement home in the UK, has been offered cosmetic surgery on the NHS to correct her drooping eyelids. Still, it isn't hard to see why people are nervous.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Why the Rage will Never End

Op-Ed Columnist - The Rage Won’t End on Election Day - "- Sent using Google Toolbar"

The lower classes--the rednecks and white ethnics--are angry because they're locked out of the good life by gross economic inequality and lack of opportunity. So they turn their anger against the liberal elite--people who live that good life--by voting against progressive policies that would diminish economic inequality and provide opportunities for them. So they lock in the very economic inequality and lack of opportunity that keeps them down and get increasingly angry.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Culture Wars: The Paradox of Choice

Maximizers strive for the very best; satisficers settle for good enough. Economist Herbert Simon, who introduced the distinction, noted that the surest way to maximize well-being, was to satisfice, since the difference between best and good enough was usually not enough to offset the costs of search.

Maximizing however is a success strategy when it comes to socio-economic achievement: maximizers strive to get into the best schools and get the best jobs; they work hard and shop until they drop to assemble the perfect wardrobe and ideal suite of household furnishings. They are, therefore, disproportionately represented amongst the elite.

But maximizing has its downside. Faced with a bewildering range of choices, maximizers waste time and effort on search or become paralyzed by indecision. This is the ‘Paradox of Choice’: the more options maximizers have, the worse off they are.

Privileged Maximizers recognize the Paradox of Choice and seek out mechanisms for restricting their options. They strive to simplify their lives and shop from the pricey Hammacher Schlemmer Catalogue, which offers only products that Hammacher Schlemmer deems ‘the best’ of their kind.

Working class Americans aren’t troubled by the Paradox of Choice because they have few options. Their jobs provide little autonomy. And, economically strapped, they are spared the worry of choosing from amongst an endless range of consumer products. Frustrated, cramped and constrained, they jealously guard the few minor freedoms they enjoy.

Within American political discourse, the Right’s leitmotif is individual freedom. The Left plays a variant on this theme, suggesting that there is a trade-off between freedom and security, between the Right’s rugged individualism and the its own communitarian project, aimed at promoting the common good through cooperation rather than competition.

To privileged Maximizers, caught in an accelerating rat race and overwhelmed by consumer choices, the Left’s communitarian program is soothing. To working class Americans it feels stifling: they ache for more options, including the chance to compete in the rat race. They believe the Left is out to create a nanny-state, and hear its communitarian message as the voice of the schoolmarm: prohibiting rough play, forcing them to share, sliming them with smarmy pieties and stifling them with rules and regulations.

But the welfare state working class conservatives fear is precisely what expands citizens’ options and underwrites their freedom. State universities and student grants provide young Americans with a wider range of opportunities for education and training then most could otherwise afford. Government anti-discrimination regulations expand job options for women and minorities. Social safety nets guarantee that no one will be trapped with their back to the wall and no room to maneuver—forced to beg.

Being for the most part privileged maximizers, liberals don’t get it. They don’t understand what it’s like to have too few choices. They don’t understand what it’s like to spend the better part of their waking hours doing repetitive tasks under close supervision or to be poor. So they don’t understand why working class Americans are so desperate for freedom that they are taken in by the rhetoric of the Right.

But the Right does not deliver. And now that liberal upper middle class maximizers are suffering the consequences of conservative misrule, and are increasingly squeezed as their options diminish, maybe they are beginning to understand

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Theological Trade-Offs

Just a note to myself for further development.

When it comes to the analysis of religious claims there is a trade-off between content and credibility, universality and practical import. Theological stakeholders want to make the case that religious claims are believable--in particular, that they can and should be believed with a high degree of conviction. They also have a vested interest in establishing that these claims are of universal interest and that they are of serious practical import for the lives of individuals and the social good.

If however they are interpreted in the traditional way, as metaphysical claims about the supernatural, then they do not have these desiderata. All metaphysical claims are controversial: there are good arguments for for a variety of different positions and smart people on every which side. That's philosophy--like history, argument without end. So no one with any sense will hold any metaphysical belief with any high degree of conviction. If religious claims are to be held with the highest degree of conviction then they can't be interpreted as metaphysical claims.

So the strategy of revisionary theologians in the teeth of legitimate skepticism is to reinterpret religious claims so that they can be more readily believed. So, as we were told 40 years ago, "I believe in God" really means "I am committed to an agapistic way of life" or "I affirm Being as gracious." I have no idea what the latter affirmation comes to, but it doesn't seem to commit one to anything controversial--or in fact to anything at all. As for commitment to an agapistic way of life, I suppose this means that I believe that we should try to be nice. I guess I can buy that. In either case, "I believe in God" has been detoxified in the interests of greater credibility, so that religious belief can be taken on by more people and with greater conviction. Indeed, I believe with the highest degree of conviction that people should be nice rather than nasty.

Theological revisionists are also concerned to make the case that religion is of universal interest and great significance. Neither of these things are true of metaphysics--which is of no interest to most people and has no practical import whatsoever. Strange as it seems to me, metaphysics, my specialty area, just doesn't interest most people. It doesn't even interest most philosophers. And one reason why it doesn't interest most people is that it is completely inconsequential. In particular, it doesn't deliver the goods many people expect out of philosophy: answers to questions about how to live the Good Life, profound truths about the human condition, edification and a variety of other things that I find boring or unintelligible but which seem to interest a great many people.

So, in the interests of making religion universally interesting and significant, theological revisionists reinterpret it as some hybrid of ethics, psychology and existentialist "philosophy."

But why bother--unless of course you're a priest whose livelihood and self-importance depends on it. Why not just admit: religious belief is very, very controversial. No reasonable person can believe in God with a high degree of conviction--the best we can do is guess and hope. And why not admit that religion, like metaphysics, is just not of universal, or even wide, interest. It's a special taste, like the taste I have for metaphysics. Some people, like me, just plain enjoy religion: we have fun with the metaphysics (in my case identity puzzles concerning the Trinity doctrine especially), enjoy liturgy and religious art, and are interested in mysticism. Most people however find all this a bore and, in the absence of social pressure, cannot be expected to bother with religion. So let's just say that there's no reason to imagine that everyone should be religious any more than there is to think that everyone should collect stamps or enjoy recreational math puzzles or knit.

This of course suggests that religion is an inconsequential hobby, that people can get on perfectly well without it. And that I believe is the case.

So let's admit it. Instead of reinterpreting religion so that the salt loses its savor, revising and minimizing so that it's no more than a self-help program or do-good project, let us admit that religion, that is metaphysics/liturgy/mysticism is a specialty item that only interests a minority of people and that religious claims, like all metaphysical propositions, are both controversial and inconsequential.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Class Warfare

God and Politics, Together Again - "Mr. Obama, who once looked as if he might be able to end the nation’s ideological polarization, has instead become engulfed in it, just like his two predecessors, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Let us get real: this is class warfare between us, the urban-coastal upper middle class and the proles. Pundits, who belong to the urban-coastal upper middle class don't dare admit that because it would commit them to the Ultimate Heresy: to the recognition that in class warfare it's the working class who are the bad guys. It would mean that the victims, the oppressed, those who are less well off are responsible for culture wars and most of our social problems. It would be Blaming the Victim.

Evangelical Christianity is only a symbol. Ecumenism, Obama's cadre of vaguely evangelical spiricual advisors and his condescending appeals to us "People of Faith" don't make any difference. Any one us can smell his atheism and his condescension.

The problem is obvious: we have a working class that's doing badly and they're angry. There's a growing gap between the rich and poor. And increasingly, white proletarians who imagined themselves "middle class" are being forced to recognize that they are not. The solution is also obvious: narrow that gap. The problem is that it's those very proles who block programs that would narrow that gap and create both more equality and more opportunity for them.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Mr. Rauf: Build That Mosque!

Islamic Center Imam: Fight Could Shape Future Of Muslims In America:

The imam leading plans for an Islamic center near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York said the fight is over more than 'a piece of real estate' and could shape the future of Muslim relations in America. The dispute 'has expanded beyond a piece of real estate and expanded to Islam in America and what it means for America,' Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf told a group Tuesday

I've been trying to get hold of what's behind the deja vu I've had since the controversy about the lower Manhattan Islamic Center started swirling around the internet--why I found the notion that Muslims were ok so long as there weren't too many and they weren't too visible, that they should reveal their sources of funding for building projects, that they were suspect familiar. Now I remember--vaguely because it was long ago: so long ago that I can't find confirmation on the internet.

Long ago in Wayne, New Jersey the local boosters decided to do a project for one of the patriotic holidays--I don't remember if it was Memorial Day, Fourth of July, or something completely different. Each of community organization--Lions, Elks and Moose, Chamber of Commerce, churches and synagogue--was to take on one of the heroes of the Revolutionary War and represent him in some grand civic event. The organizations drew lots to determine who their hero would be.

One of the heroes in the pot was Benedict Arnold. Even though his name was the very word for "traitor" most Americans who had been put through the extensive and boring American History program mandated in New Jersey schools at the time knew that he had originally been a patriot and had fought bravely in the Revolutionary War, being wounded in the leg, before his perfidious English wife persuaded him to turn Tory. So Benedict Arnold was something of a joker in the pack. Everyone naturally was hoping to draw George Washington or Patrick Henry. If the Elks or the Moose had drawn Benedict Arnold there would have been guffaws at their having gotten the booby prize, but they would have done a good job explaining that Arnold wasn't always a bad guy.

But it was the local synagogue that drew Benedict Arnold. Immediately the organizers announced that Arnold's inclusion was a mistake and apologized. Everyone was flustered and embarrassed, especially when some sociologist, or maybe journalist, publicized what had happened and explained that Wayne was a "gray area of anti-semitism." A little while earlier, he noted, a local politician had convinced voters that his opponent would likely raise taxes since he was Jewish and, since it was known that Jews were keen on education he would probably hike up taxes to improve the local schools.

But even apart from this political kerfuffle, it was the Benedict Arnold incident that showed up the anti-semitism, such as it was. No one doubted that the Elk and Moose, the Presbyterians, Lutherans and Dutch Reformed were real Americans. If any of them had drawn Benedict Arnold it would have been a good joke: now one would have been embarrassed or apologized because it would never have occurred to anyone that there was any question about their status as loyal Americans. The embarrassment and apologies when the Jewish group got Benedict Arnold showed that Jews were suspect in a way that these other groups weren't: they couldn't get away with Benedict Arnold because they had to be very careful to prove that they weren't traitors. They weren't quite completely real Americans.

This is the way that Muslims are now being treated. The controversy over the lower Manhattan Islamic Center is that revealing Benedict Arnold moment. Muslims have to prove themselves.

I'd bet that nowadays if the local synagogue had drawn Benedict Arnold there would have been guffaws at their getting the booby prize and no one would have thought any further about it. But I'd bet also that if the local mosque got Benedict Arnold there would have been embarrassment, abundant apologies and national coverage.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Ban the Burqa!

Veiled Threats? - Opinionator Blog - "that the faculty with which people search for life’s ultimate meaning — frequently called “conscience” ─ is a very important part of people, closely related to their dignity. And we add one further premise, which we might call the vulnerability premise: this faculty can be seriously damaged by bad worldly conditions. It can be stopped from becoming active, and it can even be violated or damaged within. (The first sort of damage, which the 17th-century American philosopher Roger Williams compared to imprisonment, happens when people are prevented from outward observances required by their beliefs. The second sort, which Williams called “soul rape,” occurs when people are forced to affirm convictions that they may not hold, or to give assent to orthodoxies they don’t support.)

How important are "conscience" and "dignity"? They aren't. They're luxury items for rich sentimentalists that don't have anything real to worry about. Questions about "life's ultimate meaning," to the extent that they're intelligible, are of no interest to the vast majority of the human race--nor, arguably, should they be.

Maybe we value these high-falutin' items because of our historical memory of the Church "built on the blood of martyrs." More likely we value them because we're too rich and comfortable for our own good. We evolved to do hard, physical work and deal with adversity. If we don't do strenuous manual labor, we need to exercise instead. If we're materially well-off, without real worries, we conjure up concerns about conscience, dignity, and life's ultimate meaning. And instead of viewing rich hobbiests who are concerned about this bullshit as the silly asses they are, we valorize them.

As the the burqa, conscience, dignity and religious commitment are not what is at issue. In Western countries Muslim costume is a symbol of non-assimilation. In addition to marking wearers as ethnically diverse it makes ethnicity more salient and so sets back the interests of others who prefer to assimilate.

We have a narrative, of ethnically diverse individuals, pressed by the dominant culture to assimilate who would prefer to retain their ethnic identities. In fact the real story is one of ethnically identified individuals who are not allowed in to the dominant culture--not only by hard racism which excludes them outright but by the new soft racism that promotes ethnic diversity and demands that they identify with ancestral cultures.

There is an irreconcilable conflict of interests between a cultural-preservationist minority, which wants to retain ethnic distinctiveness, and an assimilationist majority. The wearing of distinctive costume and other markers of ethnic identity looks prima facie like a purely self-regarding practice, that has no serious consequences for anyone but those who choose to engage in it. But it isn't. It makes ethnicity more salient and so affects all members of the ethnic group, including those who want to assimilate.

Friday, July 09, 2010

The Religion of Privilege

New Age Religion and Western Culture

[A]ll forms of New Age Holism have in common a rejection of dualism and reductionism...It may be noted that the rejection of dualism, in all its forms, is directed principally against dominant forms of Christianity, while the rejection of reductionism is directed specifically against modern scientific rationalism. Thus New Age holism emerges as a reaction to established Christianity, on the one hand, and to rationalistic ideologies, on the other...[T]he New Age movement is indeed a heir of the 'counterculture' of the 1960s...

In 1976, the sociologist Robert N. Bellah speculated about the future. Concentrating on American culture, he perceived three possible options: a 'liberal' scenario according to which society 'would continue as in the past to devote itself to the accumulation of wealth and power...a 'neo-fundamentalist scenario according to which a complete breakdown of society would be followed by a 'relapse into traditional authoritarianism,' most probably dominated by Right-wing protestantism; and an unlikely but perhaps not impossible 'revolutionary' scenario according to which the alternative movement would succeed in renewing society and actually bring in a new age...The New Age has not arrived, but the alternative movement increasingly shows symptoms of being annexed by liberal utilitarian culture...It may be legitimately doubted whether a New Age movement which has become increasingly subservient to the laws of the marketplace is likely to provide a viable alternative to a culture of liberal utilitarianism.

Why on earth should we want an alternative to a culture of liberal utilitarianism?

Ironically, in spite of the popular notion that this liberal utilitarianism, wrapped up with the quest for wealth and power, is hierarchical and inegalitarian, it is the New Age alternative that is elitist.

It's no accident that New Age preoccupations are largely restricted to the elite. The rejection of dualism and reductionism, and the mellow 'holism' of the New Age, are a luxuries only the elite can afford. For the rest of us Nature is not benign, and neither is the social world in which we live. Our lives are a fight--against the institutions that constrain us, the individuals in positions of power who impose their will on us, the elites (including New Age devotées) who are contemptuous of us, and Nature itself which thwarts us. The elite, the people whose lives are easy, can afford to be mellow: we can't. Nature is good to them: they can afford to kick back and enjoy. For us, life in the state of Nature is nasty, brutish and short: to get decent lives for ourselves we have to subdue Nature, which thwarts us at every turn.

The elite can afford to shop at Whole Foods. The elite in affluent countries can afford not to have their children vaccinated because they can count on herd immunity. Elite men can do their share of 'parenting' because their work schedules are within their control and because they aren't fagged out after a day of hard manual labor. Elite women can afford to breast feed, make their own baby food and use cloth diapers because they can hire non-elite nannys to do most of the grunt work. Elite couples can afford to garden, compost, and cook from scratch: they have the money and leisure.

Elitism though isn't only, or even primarily, a matter of wealth, power or class. It is a matter of social worth. Even before there were the social institutions that created wealth and class, there was the elitism of personal qualities: there was the elite of the young, strong, beautiful and socially competent. In the State of Nature, the elderly get shoved off to die on ice flows and ugly little toads like me are throwaways.

The whole purpose of the traditional moral rules that New Age elitists regard as irritating, irrational constraints is to promote the interests of the rest of us--the non-elite. These rules constrain people who are better off in order to provide more opportunities for those of us who are worse off. We are of course "dualists" because life for us is adversarial, trapped in bodies we hate, fighting against people who despise and thwart us. The dualistic message of Christianity is for us. It tells us that we are not our bodies and that the social circumstances that put us at a disadvantage are irrelevant: in Christ there is no Greek or Jew, male or female, slave or free.

The New Age sensibility is opposed to both "dualistic" Christianity and "reductionist" science. This should hardly surprising because they're two sides of the same coin. By embracing radical dualism and rejecting quasi-naturalistic deities, Christians made room for science--indeed, for reductionist science: for the mechanical universe. Pagans might conjecture that heavenly bodies were conscious beings, that the sun, moon and stars were gods, but not Christians. The Christian God was strictly transcendent--wholly incorporeal and not identified with the material world or any part of it. For all the trouble Galileo had with the Church, his theory wasn't a serious threat to Christianity and neither was Newton's. The idea that the sun, moon and stars were inert lumps of matter operating according to mechanical principles was one that Christianity could easily accommodate, in a way that astral religion could not, because it was outside of the realm of Christian theology.

Fortunately, Bellah's third alternative, the ''revolutionary' scenario according to which the alternative movement would succeed in renewing society and actually bring in a new age" will not come to pass. Like the 60's faux counterculture, New Age was instantly commercialized and will figure only as a package of status symbols for the elite, busily pursuing the neo-liberal dream of wealth and power.

But it will displace Christianity for the elite, and that's what bothers me: the end of intellectually acceptable religion bearing the great art of our culture. Christianity will shrink to the vulgar, stupid white trash religion of conservative evangelicals--no liturgy, no art. Meanwhile the minority of the elite who don't become completely secular will support this hodgepodge of superstition, sentimentality and bad taste--crystals and essential oils, New Age elevator muzak, middle-aged ladies treading labyrinths, and endless self-help products. Vulgar, ugly, boring, stupid slop.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

"A Healthy Lifestyle which I myself is practicing"

I grew up in the Philippines and did my residency in internal medicine in New York. I enjoy learning from people, and that's why I became a doctor; every patient has his or her own story to tell.
About my practice
I feel that healthy living and preventive care are the best ways to stay healthy, but I'm also here to help you when you are sick. I want to be your partner in health, and it helps me better care for you when you are taking good care of yourself.
How I thrive
I go to the gym at least three times a week. I like to go to the spa to revitalize my body and spirit. Going shopping helps release all the tension from work. I also play the piano and read books to unwind when I have some spare time.

There is nothing that gets fat people like me more irritated than when skinny people moralize about diet, exercise and healthy living. I suppose you have to expect it from doctors--it's their job. But this doctor fucked up.

I went to get two big ugly lumps on my head, which I'm told were "sebacious cysts," checked out and, since I was going to see a doctor, to ask for quit-smoking pills that a colleague recommended. The doctor took a look at my head and referred me to a surgeon but said she couldn't give me the quit-smoking pills unless I went through Kaiser's Healthy Living anti-smoking program. She then asked me if I'd like a mammogram, a pap smear and earwax removal, all of which I declined and gave me a lecture about my weight, including some advice (which was actually very good) about my exercise program and put me onto a very nice iPhone app, GymABC.

I got into the Kaiser website and found the Healthy Living anti-smoking program. There was, it seemed, an online program and a corporeal version involving classes at Kaiser's Healthy Living facility--a program Kaiser maintains in a building near the Mira Mesa Landfill to accommodate health hobbiests. In order to deflect hypochondriacs and whiners from wasting the valuable time of doctors and nurses, Kaiser operates this program through which they can attend classes and support groups, poke around an extensive website, and work through pounds of glossy hardcopy materials that Kaiser sends through the mail.

I had been through the quit-smoking program several years ago, and had flunked. This program was not for the faint-hearted: it selected for truly desperate smokers who were prepared to pay for the program, sacrifice an evening every week to go to the facility near the city dump and be humiliated. We had to tell our Stories. One I remember was by a woman who'd been in a bad auto accident. Waking up after being unconscious for a day her first thought was, "Where are my cigarettes?" She managed to bribe someone to get her a pack and, bandaged up like a mummy, in a wheel chair with an IV in her arm, was able to wheel herself out to a fire escape where she could smoke. We all understood. On the meeting before Quit Day we had to write farewell notes to our cigarettes. The success rate for the program, we were told, was 51% and that was better than any other quit smoking program available. We believed it. And 49% of us, including me, failed.

I wanted those pills. So I sent through the website, ordered the glossy Materials and got to work. I took a test, like ones I'd taken innumerable times before to determine when and why I smoked. Did I smoke in the morning? Yes. After meals? Yes. When I was happy? Yes. When I was stressed out? Yes. Did I sometimes find I was smoking 2 or more cigarettes at the same time? Often. When I scored the test, the result was the same as always: I smoked for every conceivable reason at every possible opportunity.

I managed to work my way through the website to get the packets of Materials and, after a couple of weeks, managed to get through to a living human being to apply for the Pills. Had I gone gotten the packets and filled them out? Yes! I'd gotten two packets loaded with glossy materials and forms to fill out and had diligently done all the tests! Well, she would apply to my doctor and see if I could get a prescription for the quit-smoking pills. My quit day was set for April 13. I would start taking the pills in advance and then, on the Day stick on a 21 mg nicotine patch and go from there.

The quit-smoking pills, as it turned out, were flat-out magic. I took them for 2 weeks, quit on April 13, kept on for another week and then was done with the pills. I haven't smoked since. Un-fucking-believable!

Encouraged, I emailed the doctor for to ask for weight-loss pills but she wouldn't go for this. Here is our uncensored and unedited correspondance:


Sent: 4/28/10 9:31 AM

To: Harriet E Baber

Subject: diet pills

Miss Baber,
I do not advocate diet pills, I would like my patients to observe a healthy lifestyle, eat right and exercise which I myself is practicing. What you can do is count your calories and make sure you do not eat more than 2500 calories a day which is recommended to a normal person. I would like to know your exercise regimen so I can make recommendations to promote weight loss. 
Unfortunately, we do not have any blood tests so I can recommend a certain diet for you. A thyroid abnormality can also cause weight gain or difficulty losing weight, this is determined by blood tests as well. If you would like me to do blood tests to determine a specific cause of your weight problem or so I can recommend a diet, please email me back. Have a good day.

From: Harriet E Baber
Sent: 4/28/10 12:46 PM
I AM observing a healthy lifestyle, eating right (and not much) and exercising--currently 4-5 days a week--aerobic + assorted weights, 30 - 45 minutes. At your recommendation I've cranked up the weights considerably--which I like a lot. I'm now also doing 20 minutes pretty vigorously on the elliptical trainer at the gym and have also gotten back into running outside. I'm also not eating anywhere close to 2500 calories a day, but I cannot lose weight. I've been counting calories and dieting since I was 10 and it just doesn't work. If I get a blood test, can I get pills?

From: Harriet E Baber
Sent: 4/29/10 3:06 PM
Can I set up to get this blood test? I'm certain that I have an abnormality that makes it impossible to lose weight and I don't care what kind of pills I get as long as they make it possible for me to lose weight.


Sent: 5/13/10 6:14 PM

To: Harriet E Baber

Subject: thyroid test

Miss Baber,
Your thyroid tests indicate that you have hypothyroidism (low production of active thyroid hormone) which may be responsible for your weight gain, the additional blood test is also abnormal, at this point, I feel that you need a specialist. I have sent an Endocrine referral for further evaluation and management of your hypothyroidism, plase call the Kaiser operator 619-528-6050 and ask for the endocrine appt line so you can schedule an appt. Have a good day.

From: Harriet E Baber
Sent: 5/13/10 6:42 PM
Told-ya-so :-). Thanks!

From: Harriet E Baber
Sent: 5/14/10 11:34 AM
Miss Baber,
Aren't you glad I asked you to do those blood tests instead of going for the diet pills? Have a good day.

For the record, I asked you for some real medical intervention--for medication, not puritanical moralizing--and for that test. And that, BTW, is of record in this email correspondence.
I've been taking these thyroid pills for 2 weeks now. I haven't felt this good in 10 years and I'm losing weight without even trying.

I'm outraged by this Healthy Living puritanism. There are pills that make it easy to quit smoking, but Kaiser won't dispense them to smokers unless they're prepared to jump through the hoops. Smokers have to be punished. There are pills that make you feel great and lose weight, but Kaiser won't give you the test to see if you need them unless you demand it. I would bet that at least 80% of overweight people have a real medical problem, as I have, but Kaiser isn't going to buy that because the prevailing view is that overweight people are morally deficient--vegging out in front of the TV gorging on Doritos--and deserve to suffer.

Well, well, well the moral is clear: diet, exercise and healthy living are bullshit; pills work.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Death by Gentrification

Some Harlem Churches in Fight for Survival -

Ministers from churches across Harlem said they had yet to penetrate the walls of the high-price condominiums and the million-dollar refurbished brownstones that now dominate the neighborhood. Some, in truth, expressed little desire to do so. Others said they saw the gentrification of Harlem as an opportunity, but one as yet unrealized.

The gentry don't go to church. The New Atheists of course have an easy explanation: the gentry are too smart and educated to buy superstitious nonsense.

But the gentry buy all manner of other superstitious nonsense--food fetishes, conspiracy theories, alternative medicine and a variety doctrines that are not only empirically falsified but dangerous. It isn't, for example, the churchgoing masses who have for over a decade endangered their own children and the general public by refusing to have their kids vaccinated.

There is some good news: the doctor who invented the myth that MMR vaccine caused autism has now been defrocked--or whatever it is they do to doctors who misbehave in the most serious way. The story is remarkable:

In January, after the longest investigation in its history, the council found several instances of what it said was unprofessional conduct by Dr. Wakefield. It cited his taking blood samples for his study from children at his son’s birthday party; he paid each child £5, about $7.20 today, and joked about it later. It also noted that part of the costs of Dr. Wakefield’s research was paid by lawyers for parents seeking to sue vaccine makers for damages....The disciplinary tribunal’s action came after more than a decade of controversy over the links Dr. Wakefield and associates in Britain, as well as supporters among parents of some autistic children in Britain and the United States, have made between autism and a commonly used vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella. The suggestion of a link caused use of the vaccine in Britain and elsewhere in the world to plummet, a development that critics of Dr. Wakefield said contributed to a sharp rise in measles cases in countries where the vaccine was in use...

The council said he had shown “a callous disregard” for the suffering of children involved in his research. The ruling banning him from practicing medicine on Tuesday was a sequel to the January finding...In all, Dr. Wakefield was found guilty of more than 30 charges.

“The panel concluded,” Dr. Kumar said, “that it is the only sanction that is appropriate to protect patients and is in the wider public interest, including the maintenance of public trust and confidence in the profession.” He said the sanction was “proportionate to the serious and wide-ranging findings made against him...

Dr. Wakefield resigned in February from his position as a staff researcher at Thoughtful House, an alternative medicine clinic in Austin, Tex...A 2007 annual report for the clinic has a picture of Dr. Wakefield looking into microscope with a caption that reads: “Where would we be without Dr. Wakefield and your entire team? Thank you for your courageous efforts in swimming against the tide. Without you we would still be hearing, ‘There is nothing we can do.’ Because of you we know the hope is great and the progress is attainable.

It wasn't the huddled masses who followed (ex-)Dr. Wakefield or financed his operation.

There is, of course, fashionable nonsense and unfashionable nonsense--upscale nonsense and vulgar nonsense. What's interesting is how that gets sorted out. It isn't a matter of the degree of nonsensicalness. Wakefield's alternative medicine is as nonsensical as the doctrine that humans walked with dinosaurs--equally unscientific--but you can bet his clients wouldn't be caught dead espousing Young Earth Creationism. Feng Shui is dumber than most forms of theism but you can bet also that the yuppie housewives who have their homes redesigned for high chi, and hang crystals at crucial locations to bounce the energies around, wouldn't be caught dead in church.

Theological revisionism, reductionist programs intended to make Christianity acceptable to what used to be called Modern Secular Man, are a complete failure because the target audience is as grossly superstitious as a bunch of medieval Western European peasants or Hottentots.

So here's the grand question: how can the Church exploit the superstition and stupidity of the Upper Middle Class to win them back?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Are Democrats pulling back on faith outreach?

Are Democrats pulling back on faith outreach?: "If 2008 was the year Democrats finally got religion, will 2010 be the year the party loses it again?

This is the worry among some religious progressives, who worked to transform the image of Democrats from wary -- or even hostile -- toward religion to a party that hired faith consultants, advertised regularly on Christian radio and featured candidates, including Barack Obama, who spoke openly about their relationship with God...Some religious leaders and Republicans always viewed the Democratic appeal to churchgoers as little more than window dressing -- much the same way that many African American leaders and Democrats dismiss GOP efforts to reach out to minority voters.

Of course it's true. Most of the progressive policy-makers are polite upper middle class agnostics who are clueless about religion. No one they know is religious. The religious folk are those working class white ethnic and rednecks in fly-over country. But we've got to suck up to those dummies so we'll make conservative-evangelical noises.

There were still enough of them during the last election to push Obama over the top. Obama, who is of course a polite middle class agnostic making religious noises to suck up to us religious folk. But the demographic is shrinking and it probably isn't cost effective to do any more sucking up at this point.

It's tough being a religious person in my demographic. I hate being being lumped with the evangelicals. I hate the assumption by the progressive policy-makers that people like me will be mollified by Obama's making nice to a piece of shit like Rick Warren or by support for church-run charities, which I oppose. I hate the fact that religious believers are now a minority special interest group, assumed to have a characteristic political agenda.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Interesting goes inversely to Important!

Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 years by John Philip Jenkins: "- Sent using Google Toolbar"

I've been reading this book by Philip Jenkins, who is quickly becoming my favorite church historian. According to Jenkins, the Church eventually lost half the world by persecuting the Monophysites and Nestorians who dominated the Christian heartland--Egypt, Syria and Asian areas that eventually fell to Islam.

Why, he asks, did the Chalcedonian faction that became "orthodox" beat up on fellow Christians who disagreed about fine points of theology? Because both orthodox and heterodox Christians, Monophysites and Nestorians as well as Chalcedonians, believed that getting the metaphysics right was important. They were convinced that God cared about people's theological views and that he would not only punish individuals with wrong-headed metaphysical commitments but punish whole nations, the just and unjust alike, with famines, earthquakes, plagues and other natural disasters for harboring heretics.

I suppose it was only natural. The Byzantines were interested in metaphysics: shopkeepers argued theology in the streets. And I suppose it's natural to imagine that what is interesting is important.

Waking up this morning though I was struck with the blinding insight that the opposite was the case: the more important something is, the less interesting. And conversely, the things that are most interesting are utterly trivial and inconsequential. The paradigm case in point is philosophy, in particular my specialty--metaphysics. Philosophy is of utterly no importance whatsoever. It is trivial, inconsequential and utterly useless but, for those like me who have the taste, wildly interesting. On the other hand those aspects of life that are of vital importance--money, health, "relationships," business, household maintenance and such--are utterly boring. These are the aspects of life that we want to have settled in some minimally satisfactory way so that we can avoid any further dealings with them.

There is the beginning of all wisdom! We'd have saved ourselves any amount of grief in the past if we'd just recognized that the very idea that God gives a damn whether we believe he exists or not--much less whether we get the Christology right--is simply ridiculous. Theology is interesting--therefore inconsequential.

And, arguably, we'd save ourselves much grief now if we just realized that dealing with the practical business of life is precisely what we should aim to avoid. We should aim to get it settled in a minimally satisfactory way so that we don't have to deal with it. We need enough money to be secure so that we don't have to deal with money. We want to be healthy enough so that we don't have to think about our bodies. We want to lock in secure relationships so that we can forget about relationships and get out of the people-pleasing business. "Working on relationships," worrying about diet and exercise, working harder than we have to to make more money than we need is what makes us miserable.

Now that's philosophy, i'n'it?

Friday, April 30, 2010

Spiritual, Not Religious

Survey: 72% of Millennials 'more spiritual than religious' - "- Sent using Google Toolbar"

Most young adults today don't pray, don't worship and don't read the Bible, a major survey by a Christian research firm shows. If the trends continue, "the Millennial generation will see churches closing as quickly as GM dealerships," says Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources. In the group's survey of 1,200 18- to 29-year-olds, 72% say they're "really more spiritual than religious."

So, secularism has finally hit the US. No surprise that--the only surprise is that it took so long, that the US was anomalous amongst affluent countries so long.

Before I saw the big picture I imagined that the problem was the way in which churches were screwing up, not giving people what they wanted. If only, I though, churches would do more elaborate, archaic, exotic services and advertise them aggressively, if only they maintained gurus in residence to run meditation sessions and teach mysticism, if only they'd stop preaching and moralizing and concentrate on running an aesthetic, historical costume drama people would flood in.

But I was dead wrong. Secularization is global and inevitable: religion only lingers amongst the poor--in the third world and amongst the lower classes in the US. And most disconcertingly, people don't want the magical mystery tour--the elaborate, exotic ceremonial, the historical costume drama, the romance. They don't want a window into another world that's more thrilling and intense than ordinary life, they don't want aesthetic experience or religious ecstasy--they don't want metaphysical thrills.

I lie in bed reading myself to sleep with Byzantine history. That's my fantasy: a world of the most elaborate ceremonial which religiousity pervaded everything: icons, processions, guilded, jewel-encrusted, brocated, over-the-top sensual high church--the world as grand opera. Why on earth don't people want this? Why are they satisfied with less? Why aren't they after that buzz?

Well, they aren't. And it happened so fast. I've lived through an historic epoch, through what is effectively the collapse of Christianity which has gone in one generation from the cultural norm to a peculiarity, the ideology of a proletarian minority fighting a rear-guard action to preserve a socially conservative way of life.

Still there are those counterfactuals. Would Christianity have collapsed so fast if churches hadn't effectively bought into the Enlightenment critique of metaphysics or, before that, the Reformation attack on folk religion?