Against the Wall

A lot of discussion yesterday and today about the ‘wall.’ As I’ve argued before, it’s a non-actionable idea, that’s really meant as a larger statement about immigration. A statement rooted in the notion that its easier to demolish something rather than build it, and that largely says: “rather than discuss the root of an issue, let’s spend billions of dollars creating a surface fix that actually makes the problem worse, that will have to inevitably be fixed by the next administration.” Or, in other words, the mantra of Trump’s Presidency (*see abortion, education, healthcare, Chicago gun violence, etc.), and perhaps the new foundation of the Republican Party.

Furthermore, whether or not the US government decides to, in essence, extort the Mexican government into paying for all or some of this nonsense by threatening them with sanctions, etc., and in further essence sinking our own economy whilst destroying Mexico’s (cause that won’t lead to further immigration issues), is still to be seen.

For practical reasons, then, here’s some fun discussions about the logistics of this whole thing, for anyone interested, from experts who aren’t me.

Here’s a practical description of what building the wall might require and actually cost from an engineer who works with concrete construction:

Here’s some lively and slightly humorous takes on the whole thing in convenient youtube formats:

 

Now, there’s likely to be a decent political discussion here about how something like a wall might fix certain issues pertaining to immigration, such as, hey it seems to work for our pal Israel (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israeli_West_Bank_barrier), or, hey, who cares if people can just climb over it, or tunnel underneath it, or go around it, or simply blow it up (which the cartels would NEVER do), it might just work. Or, you know, maybe instead of just putting up a giant metaphor we could invest that useful money into benefitting, further training, supporting, and boosting practical relations between our border agencies, like the border patrol, who might have some expert opinions on the matter.

I mean, giant metaphors are great, sure. But, anyone who’s ever done any DIY project knows that not only do construction costs tend to always go beyond budgets, the real hard work comes after the fun of demolition. It’s just too bad the construction we’ve chosen to do is metaphorical, rather than practical.

 

Fight or Flight

Donald Trump is my President.

Last Friday, we went to Burlington, Vermont.

As we entered City Hall Park we found ourselves standing (rather accidentally) amongst a growing crowd of individuals. They began to gather around the steps of City Hall. Three young women started speaking through a megaphone.

We quickly realized we had found ourselves within an anti-Trump rally.

People took turns speaking to the crowd. They varied in age and gender, and their messages, though about the same topic, were diverse.

People held up signs, pieces of cardboard with pithy statements in black marker.

Some women chanted, “pussy grabs back!”

When a young woman began her story with the declaration, “Trump is not my President,” the crowd cheered.

After that, most of the stories began the same way.

While we stood there, listening, I began to think about what I would say.

Of course, there’s no way I’d climb the steps and share. It’s not in my nature. Rather listen than participate.

And after all, we had discovered this peaceful gathering by accident. We were there to buy a sandwich.

But I couldn’t shake the thought. The crowd had succeeded in forcing my curiosity, and not just in empathizing with their fear and worry and anger. They got me thinking about what my story would be.

Whatever it might be, I know one thing is for sure.

I’d begin with the declaration: “Donald Trump is my President.”

No, I did not vote for the man.

I never had any intention to. Nor would I had, even if his central aim was to forgive all student debt (I didn’t support Jill Stein, either).

Donald Trump is an abhorrent, sexual assaulting, racist, misogynistic, asshole.

He is the epitome of contemporary evil.

A demagogue. A hate-filled child. An insecure, chauvinist, elitist, piece of human shit.

Donald Trump is my President.

One thing I love about America is the democratic process. The peaceful transition of power. The fact that we have checks and balances. We have a constitution. We have freedom. We welcome all colors and creeds. We disagree, and find value in our differences. We support one another, and fight for each other, because we are all congregants of the same civil religion.

Last Tuesday we held a free and peaceful election and the American people (via the Electoral College) elected a new President. Regardless of who that person is, or what they stand for, the democratic process worked. It did what it did.

To deny that, to reject it, is an affront to that process.

Merely arguing that the man elected is not my President, because I didn’t vote for him, is the opposite of a democracy. And while it might be cathartic, it’s mere denial.

Best to accept it.

Not blindly, of course.

Not quietly.

The other thing I love about America is my right to free speech.

My right to speak my mind when I feel the circumstance requires it.

Sure, salute the rank, not the man. But sometimes, you need to admonish the man, in order to protect the rank.

This, as much as the election last week, is democracy in action.

Why are People Mourning?

Over the weekend I thought about my story, and how I might write it, and I realized that perhaps my story is not the point. Or, at least, maybe it shouldn’t just be about me.

Sure, stories have a central character, but it’s those who surround that character that make it a story. As we know, a narrative can’t just be one sided.

My story, then, should begin with a question I’ve seen asked less with an inflection of curiosity, and more as a statement of reproach: why are people mourning?

This is often followed by an argument in support of one’s opinion that ‘mourning’ is an odd reaction. Something like, “the world didn’t end,” or “it’s not that big of a deal.”

Some have even adopted the sort of tone we’d expect from an adolescent: “Get over it, you lost.”

Regardless of the judgment in these follow-up statements, there’s a puzzlement there.

A curiosity from one perspective about how, or why, the opposition is acting so strangely. After all, this is good for us, isn’t it? America will be great again. Finally.

There’s a lack of empathy here.

And let’s be fair, it’s a similar lack of empathy as the declaration “Trump is not my President.”

Opinions have two sides, usually. An alterity, as the French might call it. A mirrored reflection of myself that helps me come to define who I am.

But good alterity needs empathy to succeed.

Without empathy we aren’t human.

Without empathy we can accomplish great horror.

We can fly planes into buildings, or be complicit in genocide.

Empathy is what gives us compassion. It makes us fair and loving people. It’s what drives us to comfort someone else’s crying child.

And it’s what I’ve seen missing the last few days.

Mostly from one side.

So allow me this divagation of sorts, with the caveat that I do indeed empathize with those who voted for Donald Trump. I’ll get to that later.

Besides, this is my story, and all stories need a narrator.

And, as we know, narrator’s tend to have their own opinions, even if they’re made up.

Laziness

Watching the election results was difficult.

Waking up the next day was difficult.

Going to the library at Dartmouth, working, avoiding the internet.

Difficult.

The people I know who are in mourning feel this way because the man we elected President is a representation of irresponsibility. Of bullying. Of racist profiling. Of raising the fears and hatred and anger of ignorant Americans toward an entire religion.

He is lazy.

He represents the normalization of sexual assault. Of empty threats. Of arrogance, built on the sand of insecurity.

The man we have elected President will set us back socially a hundred years.

He is lazy.

Lazy is a curious word.

Here’s what I mean: tolerance takes work. It’s difficult. Understanding someone else, and acknowledging them their right to express themselves, even when that expression might upset or offend me, isn’t easy.

Being a straight Christian and seeing a gay couple is difficult.

Growing up in a white, middle-class community, and seeing aspects of black culture is difficult.

Being lazy is seeing these things and hating them. Being lazy is never changing your mind. Being lazy is not empathizing.

Being lazy is the instinct to start a fight, rather than listen to the other side.

Being lazy is the opposite of being the bigger man.

We elected an individual who isn’t just lazy, he promotes laziness. He inspires it in others.

His central issues were lazy.

How, we might ask, does one actually stop an entire religion from entering the country?

It’s an asinine question.

Think about what’s required, simply in the context of international travel:

  • Do we close all international airports?
  • Do we require international airlines to put a litmus test on their websites for people buying tickets?
  • Do we click a special button that only non-Muslims can see when we purchase a ticket?
  • Do we have to somehow prove we’re not Muslims?
  • What if we’ve read or are familiar with Muslim texts? Where’s Joseph McCarthy? He had this whole thing figured out.

Or, do we instigate this ‘extreme vetting’ he was talking about?

  • What does that demand?
  • Is it nothing more than just denying entry into the United States to an individual who ‘looks’ Muslim?
  • Who polices this?
  • Who oversees it?
  • Who pays for it?
  • Who trains these people to ‘sniff’ out the Muslims?
  • Can’t Muslim people simply pretend they aren’t Muslim?
  • Can’t they just lie?
  • Should we just ban all people from entering the country who might, according to some expert, look ‘suspiciously Muslim?’
  • What about American Muslims, born here, two to three generation Americans, what happens to them if they fly to another country and come back? Do they get a free pass?
  • But wait, what about those who’ve been radicalized in America?
  • Do we extend our extreme vetting beyond the borders?
  • Do we register them?
  • Make them carry a special ID card?

This is lazy thinking, beloved by the ignorant proud.

How about the next one:

  • How does one actually build a wall that separates the border between the US and Mexico?
  • Doesn’t that require a lot of material? Perhaps the same amount of material as every interstate in the entire United States combined?
  • Who builds it?
  • Do we hire laborers?
  • What do we do about Big Bend National Park? I’ve stood there. I’ve looked out across that desert. Only an idiot would think we could build a wall there. It’s a horrific desert. There’s nothing there. That’s why it’s so beautiful.
  • How do we get a foreign nation to pay for something they don’t want? Sanctions? Threats?
  • What about the Gulf of Mexico? Do we just ignore the fact that people who are fleeing from rape and murder probably don’t mind getting their clothes wet? What about boats? Do we reposition the Navy in the Gulf of Mexico? Who pays for that?
  • What about other borders? Do we build walls on the shorelines of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, etc.? What about California, and Oregon, and Washington? What if people fly to Canada and then come down? So, two walls?

When you actually think about them, these are dumb ideas.

They’re not actionable.

And even if they were, for the sake of argument, the larger question still persists: who pays for all this? These things cost money, especially the second one. And let’s be honest, no amount of ‘deal making’ will force a foreign nation, already choking on its own debt, to pay for a billion dollar wall with money they don’t have.

We will pay for it. Just like we’ve paid for everything else.

With taxes.

These are lazy ideas, but they’re accepted and loved by lazy people who don’t think beyond the sound bite.

And it’s these ideas that make us mourn for our country.

They make us sad because they represent a national narrative that promotes lazy, hateful thinking.

When we elect a President, or any political representative, we’ve made an agreement. We’ve hired someone. We’ve asked that person to represent us to the rest of our country. To the world.

Donald Trump now represents America.

His lazy ideas are now ours.

I did not vote for him, but my country hired him, and just like how an employee represents the company at which he works, Donald Trump is the American who represents the American people.

His discourse of racism, of hatred and fear, is what will shape the civil religion of his Presidency. And as a member of that religion, I must answer for him.

When he assaults a woman and brags about it, I have to answer for it.

When he makes a racist comment, he makes it on behalf of the American people.

When he supports killing the families of our enemies, or disregards the collateral damage of innocent people killed in the name of ‘bombing the shit out of them,’ I have to defend myself.

When he shows prejudice against an entire religion because his fear of terrorism blinds his ability to see the actions of insecure assholes, rather than an entire faith, I have to say that these are not my ideas, even though they are now American.

An endorsement by proxy.

We are in mourning because we realize that the American church sits before the pulpit of the priesthood of the Presidency.

We are in mourning because we value our political system as sacred. We are proud members of this congregation, willing to fight and die for the principles provided us by men of honor, endowed by their creator with the ability to construct a government for and by the people.

And now, as the mantle is passed from one President to the next, we watch as tolerance and empathy and rational thinking give way to laziness.

The American President is America’s greatest ambassador and we’ve elected a bully, the definition of which is someone too scared not to lash out.

Think of the bullies you’ve known.

They taunt you for the way you dress, the way you look, the way you sound. They project their own insecurities onto you, and then try to beat them away. They assault you and threaten those you love.

As children we were told never to fight the bully. Don’t give in and give him what he wants. Listen to him. Understand why it is that he’s bullying. Ask him what he is afraid of? What is making him so angry?

While we might be able to empathize and listen to Trump, and try in earnest to understand what it is that drives him, the fact is we’ve chosen a bully to represent us.

And while that might look attractive to the lazy Americans who voted for him, consider again what happens when two bullies confront each other. While a playground skirmish might be benign to the average child enjoying his or her recess, imagine those bullies with guns.

Imagine them with nuclear weapons.

Maybe all of this is mere hyperbole.

Maybe my words here really are, as I’ve seen told to others, just a bitter response to losing.

Which I would accept, were we to have elected John McCain or Mitt Romney.

But those were men of honor.

I do not agree with them on many political and social issues, but they would have made exceptional Presidents.

Donald Trump is a joke.

He is a deplorable person.

He is my President.

Where is My Empathy?

It would be unfair to simply assume that half of those Americans who voted did so for less than honorable reasons, such as their laziness. Or to say that maybe they were simply bored and wanted something fun to watch for the next four years.

Likewise, it would be unfair to simply argue here that they were perhaps too ignorant themselves to realize what they’d done. To compare their actions with a clever metaphor: voting for Donald Trump is like hating property taxes so much you burn down the house, only to realize you now have no place to live, and still have to pay the tax.

It would be unfair to judge them for simply voting party. I’ve seen this argument come up a few times. It’s used as an excuse, an attempt by the user to disassociate themselves from Donald Trump. As if they might further argue that while they hate the man and everything about him, they still support their party. I mean, all judgment aside, this is an irresponsible argument, isn’t it? Voting party does not excuse one’s support of the party’s candidate. After all, to be that party’s candidate, the party must accept that person, and everything he brings with him. You can’t just say, “I didn’t vote Trump, I voted Republican,” because an aegis ‘Republican vote’ was a vote for Trump. After all, you could have written in the name of another Republican, such as John McCain said he would. At least that would have been more responsible.

It would be unfair to point out that Donald Trump represents the complete opposite of the religious right’s position on absolutely everything. It would be additionally unfair to assume, then, that he received their votes because, though he might not be a man of God, at least he hates their enemies (everyone who isn’t Christian) as much as they do.

It would be unfair to point out the ignorant futility of a white middle-class, angry at its lack of representation for the last eight years, that just elected a man whose economic plan has been predicted by experts (in all their uselessness, see below) to directly hurt the white middle-class.

It would be unfair to point out the hypocrisy of those who voted for Trump because he was the candidate who showed himself as a man who ‘supports our troops,’ especially since he thinks he knows more about military thinking simply because he successfully dodged the draft five times.

It would be unfair to assume one of the major reasons he won America’s vote is simply because, unlike any other candidate, he seems more likely the type of person you’d want to have a beer with. A clever way of saying a candidate seems more like ‘one of us,’ and less like the typical, out of touch, politician. Except that it’s a stupid qualification for President. Sure, being able to sit and chat with the man who holds the nuclear codes would be fun, but I wouldn’t want it. Look, politics is hard. It takes focus and concentration and tactical moves across a chess board of players all better at it than you are. It’s a game. A hard game. It takes training and skill. It takes subtlety and nuance. It isn’t just about showing your hand every time you think you’ve won. It’s also a job, and just like any other job, it’s not something you want the average beer drinking Joe to have, regardless of how ‘down home’ and ‘relatable’ he seems. That’s why we tend not to elect people who run under ‘nicknames’ or on platforms of free nacho night every third Tuesday. It’s because politics is serious, with serious repercussions. I would not vote for a man or woman to the Presidency simply because I felt like I could have a beer with them. Voting is a job interview, after all, and I’d want them to do the job, not hang out. Save that sort of thinking for people you wouldn’t think to send to speak on behalf of America in Iran or China.

How does this lead back to empathy?

America has its issues, and our fragile political system, with its flaws and corruption, shouldn’t be immune to change. Occasionally electing an outsider whose rhetoric and policies diverge from the path of the same old empty promises can seem like a useful remedy. The status quo can only work for so long before it begins to work against the American people.

Donald Trump fit that description well.

So did Bernie Sanders.

Now, before we distract ourselves with conversations about corruption within the DNC, and arguments about why Clinton should have accepted that she could not have won against Trump, my summoning Bernie Sanders into this rant is not meant as an endorsement, but instead as an empathic understanding of one side’s thinking.

These two candidates seem to have grown out of a discourse that demanded change. They arose out of frustration, on both sides, of a Presidency mired in ‘do nothingness.’ Out of the frustration of watching Barack Obama either act in a manner that didn’t benefit the American people at large, or constantly battling a Congress that refused to work with him.

These two candidates represented a shift, especially toward the more extremes of each party: one toward the anger and racist bigotry associated with far-right thinking, and the other toward socialism.

Were I a supporter of Bernie Sanders I would, if nothing else, better understand how Trump came to crystalize the discourse of the Republican Party. How he kept his momentum and seemed ever more resilient against each disparaging and damning fact that came out about him.

I can empathize with this.

It makes sense.

If only the Democratic Party had realized that as well, I can’t help but think (from a liberal perspective at least) that we wouldn’t have a deplorable man as President.

The New Deplorables

During the campaign, Hillary Clinton referred to certain members of Trump’s support base as ‘deplorable.’

This is an apt description, given their, well, deplorable nature.

You’ve probably seen them. I have.

They wear t-shirts that support lynching members of the press.

They wear t-shirts that in some ‘clever’ way call Hillary Clinton a bitch.

They accost protestors.

They kick the wheelchair of a child with disabilities peacefully protesting at a Trump rally because of the way he mocks the disabled (side note: where you at, Sarah Palin, with your ire over the use of the term ‘retarded’ in even a benign context?).

They take to the internet with chants of MAGA!

They spread disinformation and hate.

They feed on discord and violence, and Trump eggs them on and supports them and blames the victims for their actions. The classic, well if you weren’t such a (insert insult here), I wouldn’t have called you that.

I’ve known a lot of these types of people in my time. They used to call me a ‘faggot’ for dressing a certain way or for reading during my lunch breaks.

For going back to school.

I sat once and listened to a group of them talk angrily about President Obama with statements like, someone should just kill him, while their children nodded in agreement.

They argued for years that Obama wasn’t an American, even after he supplied his birth certificate. They kept the argument alive by denying its accuracy, or incorrectly stating that Hawaii wasn’t a state when he was born there (he was born in 1961, and Hawaii became a state in 1959).

Out of curiosity, I checked the Facebook pages of the people I knew who were like this.

They voted Trump.

Now, whether any of this is correlative to the deplorable nature of Trump’s campaign rhetoric, and whether it is (again) fair to categorize all republican-voting Americans in this list of people (it isn’t, of course), it begs the greater question: perhaps they aren’t the deplorable ones.

A majority of Americans elected Donald Trump.

Maybe the people we thought were deplorable aren’t really the deplorables.

Maybe I am?

Maybe my type of thinking, or even just my way of life, is the new deplorable?

Here’s what I mean.

Prior to this election, the academic world was in great decline. Funding for state universities has been lessening more and more, and especially in the humanities, jobs are dwindling to nothing. People are being fired and tenured positions are disappearing. ‘Adjuncting’ is the new norm. A form of teaching where we receive less than minimum wage, no benefits, and no funding for research and/or conferences. It’s actually better to simply get a full-time job and do the whole academic thing as a hobby.

As well, there persists this notion that a college education isn’t valuable anymore. But I’d argue that this stems more than anything from a misunderstanding about what an ‘education’ means. Of course it doesn’t just mean a four-year degree. An education can be gained from courses taken at a community college, courses that vary from the most basic level of the humanities to more direct vocational training. Both of which share inestimable benefits. Or even from skills learned outside the context of a college setting. But this isn’t the misunderstanding I mean here. Rather, I’m referring to the idea that an ‘education’ consists mostly of taking classes and graduating. A misunderstanding, then, about the ‘college experience’ in general. For me, college is where people discover how to deal with difficulties. Where we are faced with the challenge of addressing different subjects all at once. Where we ‘grow up.’

Here’s an example: I was terrible at math. I failed every class in High School. When I finally went back to college I had to start at the beginning. Adding and subtracting. My homework was writing out numbers. One hundred. Four thousand, two hundred, and twenty five. I hated it. I worked hard. I studied. I got tutoring. I passed every class. Asked now, I couldn’t possibly remember how to do the things I learned in order to pass. But the point is, I learned them. I forced myself to learn a task and excel at it, regardless of how much I disliked it. Tell me that isn’t the sort of knowledge that might come in handy in the ‘real world.’

Nevertheless, the nation’s mood toward academia was bad before. It’s worse now.

From inside this context I’ve seen the rhetoric on the right side of things getting more and more combative against the ‘educated elite.’ When Britain’s own end-of-the-world scenario was decided (‘Brexit’), one of the rallying cries from the ‘leave’ campaign was the notion that we’re “tired of the experts.”

Anti-intellectualism is becoming more and more normalized. It’s being filled with conspiratorial accusations, the worst of which dealing with ‘Global Warming.’ I’ve known intelligent, rational people, for whom I hold great respect, deny any and all aspects involving the pollution and direct influence humankind has on the environment with passionate claims that the whole thing is a hoax in order to get us to pay more taxes. They reject academic articles on the subject, and published scientific findings because, in their lives, they’ve known academics who were corrupt or opinionated. I myself have been asked on a few occasions what my ‘agenda’ is in my own research, a response that stems directly from a mistrust of the academic world. A mistrust, I believe, that arises from negative personal experiences. It’s sort of like dismissing scientific data about the dangerous repercussions of fracking because a lecturer once gave you a poor grade for a paper you wrote about feminist narrative in 19th century southern fiction.

I’ve also seen angry contempt over the building of wind and solar farms, punctuated by the central issue of their aesthetic appeal. I’ve found myself arguing that perhaps the ugliness they see in wind turbines and solar panels is not necessarily the objects themselves, but what they represent. In this sense, a physical embodiment of the liberal lie that is Climate Change.

Conspiratorial thinking, based on feelings rather than facts.

Donald Trump, after all, thinks ‘Global Warming’ was invented by the Chinese.

My larger point here is that I’ve seen myself and others depicted as the new deplorables. This has been especially evinced over the last few days by colleagues who have described scenes of students crying in class, or the fact that here at Dartmouth a number of professors cancelled their lectures and instead held open office hours for those who wanted to talk.

Why, you might wonder?

Because the future for academia, for creativity and exploration, and especially for rational and objective thinking, seems to be heading toward an end.

And this isn’t just because some of the things we research are so easily politicized.

As a quick example, allow me to move away from the emotions of undergraduates at an IV university in New Hampshire to my own experiences.

I finished my PhD about a year ago and have been writing articles and chapters and books to ‘boost’ my CV. In that time I’ve applied for about 20 or so teaching positions or post-doctoral fellowships. The rejections I receive tend to have the same response. Thanks for the application, you look great, we’d love to have you, but we had about 200-500 applicants and only had space for one. This is pretty normal.

It also doesn’t help me that I research something that’s kind of sexy, but not really sexy enough. That’s my own fault.

Right now the academic market is currently flooded with applicants, and there just aren’t enough jobs for us. Which is getting worse. As I mentioned above, funding for new positions is getting cut. Departments are downsizing. Current lecturers and professors are fighting just to keep their own jobs.

In America, an academic CV just isn’t what it used to be.

Which is a direct result of the sort of discourse that will find support in Trump’s America. A PhD used to mean something. Now it’s something we might be better off hiding about ourselves.

Here’s another issue: since academia seems to be losing its support, and since the outcome is the adjunct solution mentioned above, where we might have found financial and beneficial support in the past, we are now finding ourselves in the position of having to decide whether or not to dismiss ever getting the PhD in the first place.

One of the first things Trump has vowed to do as President is repeal the Affordable Care Act, removing this basic service for millions and millions of Americans. Which means those of us surviving on an adjunct basis no longer have the medical benefits our universities don’t offer us. Meaning, while we could have nominally survived a few years before finding a full-time position, that option seems impossible now. Which makes it harder to boost one’s CV, which makes us less and less qualified for a full-time position.

In other words, it no longer makes financial sense working as an academic grunt if a basic injury might send me deeper in debt beyond the money I owe for the education I got in order to be an academic grunt.

See, it’s little actions like this, seemingly unrelated, that cause the biggest effect. The Affordable Care Act, from an academic perspective, was something that supported academic thinking by making the terrible situation of finding a job that much easier. Now, I’m better off working at Home Depot.

So in the end, people like me but without the benefit of an amazing wife whose employer offers spousal benefits are finding themselves at a crossroads. Which is why, even at the undergrad level, people are worried.

Couple this with the notion that in contemporary America, and especially in Trump’s America, academics are becoming personae non gratae, and we begin to see a growing issue.

Yet, and regardless of this, some of you might find yourselves asking if academics really matter that much? Why should we support people who just think about stuff or who have circle-jerk arguments about theories? Who don’t have ‘real jobs?’

To that I’d answer: because people who devote their passions to research and study and teaching provide a service immeasurable to the benefits of society.

We thrive on furthering intellectual thought.

We study religion, and law, and science, and provide the basis on which culture not only starts, but grows.

Because we are storytellers, and the world does not exist without stories.

Because without academic thought there is no democracy.

There is no dissemination of knowledge.

Because without academic thought, ignorance thrives.

And so does laziness.

Fight or Flight

So here it is, the end of this rant.

Here’s where I wrap up the whole thing and end on a positive note.

During the campaign, and especially since it ended, I’ve seen a lot of people talking about leaving America.

I admit, last Wednesday I thought about contacting friends and colleagues abroad for advice on attaining research visas. Maybe going back for another PhD. Which I would love to do. We loved living in Scotland. We loved traveling Europe. The last year has been difficult. The reverse culture shock is only getting worse.

And for many of us, Donald Trump’s success has brought us to a crossroads of fight or flight. The nightmare we thought just couldn’t happen has happened, and suddenly we’ve come to find ourselves as the new deplorables.

We find ourselves in the minority for promoting racial equality, same-sex marriage, the separation of church and state. We support the dangers of objectivity. Of rationality. Of not being lazy.

Maybe we should just run away. Run and hide someplace where this sort of thinking is welcomed and loved. What America used to be.

When I think about these two options I can’t help but consider one of them weaker than the other. What does it say about me as a person that when faced with an orange Mussolini Presidency I immediately run away?

What does it say about me if I don’t stand and fight for the democracy I hold so dear and sacred?

The idea of a Trump Presidency is a nightmare. Not just for those of us who didn’t vote for him, but for all of us.

Empathy and fairness aside, this man is the least qualified individual to have ever attained a political position of power in the history of the United States.

And it’s our job to ensure he doesn’t destroy it outright.

For that reason, I am staying here.

For that reason, I wholly accept that I am the new deplorable.

I embrace it.

I will be the constant annoying reminder that the America I have always known and loved is still here.

That they can’t just have what they want. That America doesn’t work like that. That this isn’t a monarchy. This isn’t a theocracy.

I will remind him and his followers that the First Amendment does not promote religion. It does not quiet Free Speech. It does not deny me the right to protest.

I will remind our new Vice President, our actual President by everything but name alone, especially after Trump realizes how hard the job is, that though he may be a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican (in that order), the American people are not. I will remind them both that this is not a Christian nation.

I will remind them that the First Amendment protects religious freedom by not infringing on it. By not promoting one belief over another. By keeping it out of political decisions. By removing it from state capitols and courthouses.

That the First Amendment protects their own religious beliefs from their own machinations.

I will remind the new Supreme Court that it is its job to ensure all Americans find equal protection under the Constitution. That it does not serve to promote, protect, and defend the Americans with whom the majority of Justices agree politically or religiously. That decisions are, and should be, difficult. That they need to look no further than their own history, to the history of Judicial America, to find the foundations of equality on which decisions like Snyder v. Phelps (2011) and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) have been made.

Rather than lowering to his level and insulting his ‘tiny hands,’ I will remind President Trump why American democracy is so great. Every time he tries to do something unconstitutional, I will remind him why that document exists. When he tries to gag the press because he doesn’t like how the media (or the public) treats him, I will make sure he sees it.

I will remind him that equality is better than racism. That homosexuality is not a sin. I will normalize these things by living a life that accepts people, regardless of their ‘differences’ from me.

I will implore others to empathize. To understand why people might act out with violence, and argue that responding with violence isn’t always the best approach.

I will ask them to consider the heartache someone might feel in not being allowed to sit with the person they love as they die. To hold their hand. To kiss them. To cry with them. To be with the person they love more than themselves during a moment of fear and loneliness. And then I will ask them if they think the type of sex these people have should restrict them from this.

I will remind Trump’s America that as parents of daughters, and as grandparents to granddaughters, that normalizing sexual assault is an insult to humanity.

I will remind them that children need to learn that sexual assault is a crime, even if their President does it.

I will remind them of this because they’ve elected a President who thinks sexual assault is permissible because of someone’s financial worth or fame. I will force them to justify this decision. To explain their choice to their children. To explain why they decided to normalize these actions. Why they thought a ‘strong leader’ was worth electing a sexual deviant.

I will remind them that Planned Parenthood isn’t about abortion, it’s about women’s health. It’s about offering women a place where they can responsibly care for themselves, a place to find support and treatment.

I will remind them that abortion is legal in the United States, that American women have the right to make that choice, even when I don’t agree with it.

I will remind them that though America has immigration issues, and though we have illegal immigration issues, there are better resolutions than militarily rounding up and deporting people. That this was never a part of our social and civil infrastructure. That it only breeds more hate, and this is not how I want the world to see us.

I will remind President Trump that he must now do the job. That perhaps his own worst nightmare has come true.

I will remind him that this job requires more than just making empty threats built on the foundation of ignorant fears. That it is more than just riling up hateful crowds. That he must now do more than simply wave his hands and tell people that his plans are the best, really the best, better than anyone else’s.

I will remind our new Secretary of State that feelings are not more essential than facts.

I will remind them both that they have to speak to foreign leaders on behalf of all Americans and, worse for Trump, respect them. Especially the women. I will remind him that he can’t just dismiss Angela Merkel, perhaps soon to be leader of the free world, because, as we’ve seen, he has no respect for educated, rational women.

I will remind him that he now has to make decisions. Difficult decisions.

I will remind him that his decisions might cost America billions of dollars. That his decisions cannot only benefit Republican ideals, if he even knows what those are, beyond what is told to him by aides.

I will remind him that his decisions cannot only support white, Christian men.

I will remind him that his decisions cannot simply benefit Vladimir Putin.

I will remind the baby-boomers who elected him, who lived through the Cold War, that they might have just elevated a ‘useful idiot’ to the Presidency. That we are perhaps set to see America’s involvement in, and support of, a Russian invasion of Europe. Under the guise of protecting it from Islamic terrorism. Of our becoming a part of the new Axis Powers in a third World War: Russia, Britain, the United States. Do the bad guys know when they’re the bad guys, or does that realization only occur after they’ve lost?

I will remind him that he has to make decisions that don’t cause further damage to the already weakened peace of racial America. I will remind him that in the inevitable event of another Ferguson, he cannot simply militarize the police. That in the face of racial violence, from both sides, the best solution is found in locating the source of this violence, and resolving it there.

I will remind him that when he calls the spouses and parents of soldiers killed in the service of their country he cannot disrespect them or insult them because they’re Muslim or supported a different candidate.

He can’t call them cowards if they get captured.

I will remind Republican Americans that the next time they ask me to ‘thank a sniper’ or admonish me for not properly celebrating Memorial or Veterans day by thanking a veteran, that this man was their choice. That before they demand this sort of respect from me, they should first demand it of their Commander in Chief.

I will remind Trump’s America that anger is not an option.

That fear and hate are not American ideals. They are his.

They are not mine.

I will make myself inclusive to other’s beliefs, as I always have been. As I was taught by my parents and my grandparents.

I will find commonality with people who think me their enemy.

I will show them love and compassion and empathy when they show me hate.

I will defend their right to speak freely, to protest. Even when I don’t like what they say.

I will defend our right to do this together, and I will do it peacefully.

I will invite Republicans and Democrats to join me in this, in being the new deplorables. In finding harmony in our disharmony in an effort to preserve and protect all that has been great about America. To ensure America is as great as it always has been. To keep it safe during the inevitable hard times to come.

I will defend the disestablishment of religion in America, and I will do it by continuing my research. By writing about and publishing and teaching others about religion.

Mine will be a voice of American Atheism, a reminder that regardless of our own beliefs, the sacred right of religious free exercise, even in our darkest hour, remains sacrosanct and enduring.

Donald Trump is my President, and I will proudly be the new deplorable.

 

 

Very Beautifully Reviewed

The United States is currently 28 days from electing its next President, and while that fact alone might inspire both anxiety and excitement for individuals both in and out of the US, this recent election seems to be doing both in greater detail. Perhaps it has something to do with the candidates that we, as a nation, have elected to represent our two political viewpoints.  Or, perhaps it’s something else.

A few days ago these two candidates met on stage at the second Presidential debate, where they discussed, amongst other things, campaign finance reform, combating ISIS, racial violence, Iran, Russia, tweeting as a modern form of communication, and whether or not assaulting women by “grabbing them by the pussy” is permissible due to one’s celebrity status.  All important topics in a Presidential debate, and perhaps that ‘something else’ I just mentioned.

In addition to these, one of the audience members, Beth Miller, asked the poignant question: “What would you prioritize as the most important aspect of selecting a Supreme Court justice?”

I refer to this as poignant because, since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court of the United States has been limited to eight members. This is problematic for two reasons:

  1. The Supreme Court (the ‘Judicial Branch’ of the United States) shapes American law via decisions about how American law is interpreted.
  2. When the justices of the Supreme Court disagree, having an odd number of justices shifts that disagreement toward a majority decision.

As it is right now, the second reason is limiting the first. That is, because the Court is limited to eight members, when it comes to a ‘tie,’ a swing opinion is not there to grant a proper decision.

Here’s an example.  Let’s say the Court chooses to decide on the legality of a prayer given at the beginning of a town board meeting (which, on the surface, looks unconstitutional when we consider the disestablishment of religion granted by the First Amendment of the US Constitution).

Many issues are present here.

  • Does having a prayer at a town board meeting represent a governmental establishment of religion when the prayer invokes a specific religious belief, or any in general?
  • Does this represent an historical precedence, and thus an action of tradition?
  • If it is tradition, is it secular or benign?
  • What about the language used by the man or woman providing the prayer? Is it specific? Or general?
  • What is the majority religious affiliation of the members of the board, or even the city, in which the board meets? Does this matter under the Constitution’s strict separation of Church and State?
  • What about past precedence in similar cases where the Supreme, District, or Circuit Courts have had to make similar decisions?

So the Court meets and hears testimony and debates and discusses these issues and then the individual Justices come to their individual conclusions. Which also means that they confer and either agree or disagree with each other on the central question pertaining to this particular case: does the action of having a clergy member give a prayer at a town board meeting indeed represent an unconstitutional act.

Now, in this hypothetical example, let’s imagine there exists a tie, four against four. We would need a tie breaker, a Justice who sides with one or the other, and thus provides us, the American people, with a decision. In this case, the decision would be represented by a 5-4 majority.

This scenario actually happened recently, in the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014). In this instance the Court ‘split,’ with the final opinion being drafted by Justice Anthony Kennedy.

What’s also interesting here, and which leads me to the point of this post, is that the ‘split’ that occurred here took place along a ‘right/left’ line. That is, the decision to legally declare that sectarian (the majority of which was Christian) prayer is is entirely constitutional because it represents an historical understanding that America has a long tradition of being ‘Christian,’ resulted from the combined decisions of five Catholic Justices, appointed by conservative Presidents. Not surprisingly, the dissenting opinions came from Justices appointed by Liberal Presidents, three of which are Jewish.

In other words, thanks to the Court’s decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway, non-Christian individuals, who either identify with a different religious organization, are Atheists, or do not identify religiously at all, must participate in the opening prayer, because board meetings in the past got away with it. Likewise, this also opens (and did open) the opportunity for any religious organization to offer an opening prayer.

Thus, the Court essentially ensured that at any meeting there might be someone who feels oppressed, awkward, or marginalized.

So, Beth Miller’s question to the two candidates on Sunday night is all that more poignant because the person who is elected President will be appointing a Justice to fill Scalia’s absence. The assumption with this, of course, is that this person will appoint a Justice that might ‘shift the balance’ of the Court from a conservative majority to a liberal one, or keep it as it currently is. This would in turn either maintain decisions like Town of Greece v. Galloway, or shape them differently.

For those curious, here’s how the candidates responded:

While both responses are guilty of tangential wandering, particularly toward each individual’s political ideologies (duh), Mr. Trump’s is quite worrying, particularly because it demonstrates his utter lack of understanding about how the Court works, as well as his inability to hold one single thought longer than thirty seconds or so.

Here’s his response, taken from this transcript:

Justice Scalia, great judge, died recently. And we have a vacancy. I am looking to appoint judges very much in the mold of Justice Scalia. I’m looking for judges — and I’ve actually picked 20 of them so that people would see, highly respected, highly thought of, and actually very beautifully reviewed by just about everybody.

But people that will respect the Constitution of the United States. And I think that this is so important. Also, the Second Amendment, which is totally under siege by people like Hillary Clinton. They’ll respect the Second Amendment and what it stands for, what it represents. So important to me.

Now, Hillary mentioned something about contributions just so you understand. So I will have in my race more than $100 million put in — of my money, meaning I’m not taking all of this big money from all of these different corporations like she’s doing. What I ask is this.

So I’m putting in more than — by the time it’s finished, I’ll have more than $100 million invested. Pretty much self-funding money. We’re raising money for the Republican Party, and we’re doing tremendously on the small donations, $61 average or so.

I ask Hillary, why doesn’t — she made $250 million by being in office. She used the power of her office to make a lot of money. Why isn’t she funding, not for $100 million, but why don’t you put $10 million or $20 million or $25 million or $30 million into your own campaign?

It’s $30 million less for special interests that will tell you exactly what to do and it would really, I think, be a nice sign to the American public. Why aren’t you putting some money in? You have a lot of it. You’ve made a lot of it because of the fact that you’ve been in office. Made a lot of it while you were secretary of state, actually. So why aren’t you putting money into your own campaign? I’m just curious.

While his ramblings about campaign finance might make some sense if we attempt to empathize with him and assume he is here trying to point out Clinton’s hypocritical use of funding from donations she herself has criticized, his central point (if there is one) is that his Supreme Court nominee would be a carbon copy of Justice Scalia. Which, to be fair, is not that different from Clinton’s intention to appoint a Justice who will ensure more liberal decisions (such as supporting Roe v. Wade or overruling Citizen’s United v. FEC). However, given his rhetoric during the campaign, and his general discourse, his decision is problematic in that he seems to believe the proper nominee is one who would make decisions based on the interests of a select few, rather than the whole of the American people. Like we saw in Town of Greece v. Galloway.

The Supreme Court does not exist to protect certain Americans, it exists to ensure all Americans are granted the rights and protections granted them by the United States Constitution. So, while yes I do concede that there is inherent bias in both candidate’s answers, I would likewise argue that Mr. Trump’s is representative of an intention to shift the Court toward the former.

Here’s an example of what I mean here.

I’m currently in the early stages of writing a book on the certain Supreme Court decisions that have either focused on, or influenced, American Atheists and the protection of their beliefs under the First Amendment’s clauses about Free Exercise and Disestablishment.

At the start of one of these cases (Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow2004), Justice John Paul Stevens makes a reference to Texas v. Johnson (1989), a case that addressed the question as to whether or not the act of burning the American flag in protest constituted an illegal action.

Here’s some brief facts of the case:

  • During a protest outside the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas Texas, the defendant, Gregory Lee “Joey” Johnson, set fire to an American flag.
  • He was arrested, charged with desecrating a ‘venerated object’ (an actionable offense in Texas), convicted, sentenced to one year in prison, and fined two-thousand dollars.
  • He appealed to the Texas Fifth Court of Appeals, but was denied.
  • He then appealed to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which overturned his conviction, citing his permission to burn the flag as an action permitted by the First Amendment’s protection of Free Speech.
  • The case found its way to the Supreme Court, which upheld the Criminal Appeals decision.
  • Interestingly, the Court’s decision was ‘split,’ with Justices Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun, Scalia, and Kennedy concurring in the decision against Justices Rehnquist, White, O’Connor, and Stevens.

The decision in Texas v. Johnson was a controversial one.

It still is.

This is even more apparent when we learn more about Johnson himself. Not only was he a member of the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade, an organization that, during the Cold War, would represent a direct assault on ‘American values,’ his actions, along with other protestors at the time, were peppered with violence and the destruction of both public and private property.

Here’s an image of Johnson with his lawyer,William Kunstler:

william_kunstler_and_gregory_lee_johnson

Case decisions like these are hard.  They’re supposed to be.  They should be challenging and difficult and make us think objectively about how different each and every American is from each other.

Yet, this decision also demonstrates a clear representation of the Supreme Court ensuring the protection of the First Amendment to all US Citizens. After all, if an American citizen, whose contrarian actions and opinions make him seem ‘un-American,’ isn’t equally protected as everyone else, then the First Amendment loses it’s essential meaning.

We see this as well in the case of Snyder v. Phelps (2011). Here, the Court (in an 8-1 decision) upheld the Free Speech of the Westboro Baptist Church, an organization that has become famous for, among other things, protesting funerals with hateful signs declaring “God Hates Fags.”

It is (and was) the Court’s duty to ensure that grotesque and moronic individuals like those who belong to the Westboro Baptist Church are granted the same freedom of speech as every other American citizen (such as Johnson). Otherwise, we get back to the erroneous idea that particular beliefs and actions are granted more protection than others.

Again, that’s why case decisions like these are hard.

So let’s go back to the beginning.

While yes, I might personally agree with Clinton that the Supreme Court has been shifting in a more dangerous direction (particularly concerning American religion), I’d also argue that perhaps the better answer, from both candidates, would have focused on the argument that the proper Supreme Court Justice would be someone who can look at each and every case through a dispassionate lens of objectivity. This would be someone who could review the material, learn the facts, weigh the options, and ultimately come to a decision founded upon the singular intent of ensuring fair and balanced protection for each and every United States citizen under the Constitution. Even when the defendants of these cases represent foul, oppressive, and disgusting individuals, they should still be granted the same rights as everyone else.

Of course, that’s perhaps not as sexy as the answers most people might want to hear. Nor does it fit within the present discourse coming out of this election cycle, particularly from Mr. Trump’s campaign. Then again, it’s difficult being objective. It’s difficult making sure people who disagree with you or repulse you are allowed their ‘day in court.’ It isn’t easy, and it’s not supposed to be. It’s supposed to be complex. It’s supposed to require rational, patient, intelligent, and unbiased thought.

It’s also why, in all likelihood, Mr. Trump won’t be granted the opportunity to appoint the next Justice come election day.

 

Trumpler: The Fiction of Party Brands, and the Virtue of Trump for the Republican Party

Since returning to the United States, and especially as there seems to be some kind of election going on, we’ve been noticing a lot of political discourse lately.  This is probably also the result of us having access to a television, which we’ve been happily without for about five years.

One aspect of this discourse that we’ve noticed rising above the rest has been a particular comparison: “Donald Trump is literally Hitler.”

Here’s some examples:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/15/opinion/weimar-america.html?_r=0

http://www.cracked.com/blog/why-comparing-donald-trump-to-hitler-makes-perfect-sense/

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/plot-america-donald-trumps-rhetoric

http://www.tikkun.org/tikkundaily/2015/12/15/something-is-happening-here/

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/trump-man-meme

https://www.donaldjtrump.com/positions/second-amendment-rights

http://edition.cnn.com/2015/12/08/politics/jk-rowling-donald-trump-voldemort/

http://www.cnn.com/2016/02/26/politics/vicente-fox-donald-trump-hitler/

http://theantimedia.org/chomsky-trump-rising-in-polls-for-same-reasons-germany-embraced-hitler/

mein-coif

This is an unfair comparison, to both Hitler and Trump.

First off, Adolf Hitler was personally responsible for killing millions of people, through both the instigation of a World War, and a rather successful genocide.

Secondly, while much of Trump’s rhetoric during his rise in popularity has embraced, inspired, and even supported jingoistic, racist, and yes, even sometimes ‘war criminal‘ ideologies, he’s not in any way as evil as Hitler.

Or, said otherwise, though he’s the ideal candidate for America’s leading asshole, he is not ‘literally Hitler.’

trumpitlerThat being said, I of course have a secondary argument here.

Over the weekend, John Oliver, who left his post as a ‘correspondent’ for Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show to host a thirty minute HBO series called, Last Week Tonight, provided a twenty minute criticism of Donald Trump.  The result of which became the catchphrase #MakeDonaldDrumpfAgain.

While Oliver’s wonderfully scathing criticism pointed out a number of humorously apt points about Trump’s brand, I would argue it does something a bit more, particularly in consideration of the way words embody ideas and thus become representations of those ideas.

As pointed out today by Salon‘s Chauncey Devega, Donald Trump’s campaign, but more specifically, his campaign’s narrative, has lifted a veil of sorts on the Republican Party.  To summarise, Devega’s article focuses on the ‘brand name’ of the Republican Party, and how it has shifted its self-description in the last decade and a half.  As he states:

Political parties are a type of “brand name” that voters associate with a specific set of policies, ideas, personalities and moral values. Consequently, the types of voters who are attracted to a given political party also tells us a great deal about how it is perceived by the public. And in a democracy, the relationship between voters, elected officials and a given political party should ideally be reflected by the types of policies the latter advances in order to both win and stay in power.

In essence, political Parties represent a type of fiction: a political symbol with which individuals might help shape their own identities.  As such, when we associate with a party, register, and vote for candidates within that party, we are using that fiction in order to describe ourselves.

Alongside this description, Devega also points out some interesting, if not briefly described, correlations with the rise of Donald Trump’s political ‘brand,’ and American political fundamentalism:

The Age of Obama also gave rise to the Tea Party movement. As an extreme wing within an already extremist and revanchist Republican Party, Tea Party members and their sympathizers were/are extremely hostile to Barack Obama and the symbolic power of a black man leading “their” White America. The Tea Party demand that “they want their country back” is both a direct claim of white privilege and constitutes a worldview where whiteness is taken to be synonymous with being a “real American.” 

Or, as I might contend, the term ‘Trump’ has become a signifier into which the more fundamentalist or ‘racist’ parts of the Republican Party have found a place to affix themselves.  He has become a fiction within a fiction: a symbol within a symbol that represents both an aspect of that larger symbol, as well as an independent integer.

This, I would further conclude, leads to two outcomes:

  1. Trump has come to represent the embodiment of the stereotypes we might perceive of the ‘new’ Republican Party, or at least the one that has been shaped by the fundamentalism resulting from the presidency of Barack Obama.  Or rather, his name, and thus his brand, has become a signifier for the rhetoric we’ve seen arising out of the Tea Party movement, which itself has signified a more solidified version of the fundamentalism that arose during the Scopes Trial in 1925, and that resurfaced as Richard Nixon’s ‘quiet majority.’
  2. ‘Trump’ has become a scapegoat.  Since the term, and thus the man, has embodied the description above, he is aptly poised as an example against which the Republican Party, and the two other candidates running against him, might distance themselves.  In this way, though he might present a threat to the Party in embodying a candidate we might all fear would ‘make America hate again,’ he is also rather useful.  By pointing to his brand as racist or jingoist or even criminal, the Party can distance itself from their own similar narratives, and thus appear more appealing to a larger voting public.  After all, winning the office requires receiving the majority votes of all Americans, not just those who vote for a particular party.  By saying, “at least I’m not Trump,” the Republican candidates vying for their Party’s nomination can appear to look like the lesser evil, even if they agree with him, albeit with different terminology.  As such, Trump has become a necessary evil, in that calling him out on his rhetoric gives them the opportunity to seem more inclusive, more willing to empathise or work for others, and thus more appealing to a voting public that might otherwise have dismissed them for the same reasons, for lack of a pragmatic comparison.

This, as well as how ‘Trump’ and the other candidates have branded themselves, as well as how they are used by their Parties and opponents as ‘symbols,’ is a type of fictionalisation we might consider as the results of Super Tuesday are announced this evening, and we get a larger perspective not only on who might be representing their political brand in the election to come, but how we might ourselves use these symbols to identify ourselves in comparison to others.

 

Fare Thee Well

We leave Edinburgh today.

While we were sad, for a number of reasons, to leave the places we’ve let before (California and Texas), we knew we’d always need to come back (families, etc.).

Leaving Edinburgh is odd, then, because there might not be reasons to ever come back.  That’s five years of roots we will be pulling up when our flight departs.

In an act of serendipitous fate yesterday, as we were discussing these very feelings during our last walk around town, we received the perfect farewell.

As we went to cross the street, in the middle of an intersection of course (jaywalking?), a well-dressed older gentleman greeted us from the opposite side with an emphatic, one-worded yell:

“GETTHEFUCKOUTOFTHESTREETANDFUCKOFF!!!”

It was, perhaps, the perfect way for Edinburgh to bid us farewell.

In that spirit, here’s a song for that gentleman, as well as for Edinburgh, from us:


***Whilst the lyrics of “Fare Thee Well” do not, perhaps, convey the exact message I’d like, I still believe the overall theme works here.  Also, go see Star Wars.***

Happy Christmas

Around this time of year, an occasional debate comes up about the ‘inappropriateness’ of saying either ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Holidays.’  Here’s a funny anecdote.

A few years back I was working at a rather famous department store, before I got distracted with all this ‘academia’ nonsense.

It was the first day of Chanukah.  This wasn’t unknown to people.  It was on the news.

A phone call came in on our cash wrap desk and I answered it: ‘Happy Chanukah.’  This was, I admit, an unorthodox response, considering we were all told to say: ‘Happy Holidays.’  I answered the caller’s question, and all was fine.  About two hours later, I received a message to see the manager of our department.  It turns out a complaint was filed, and I was given a written warning.  I was told that I had offended a caller with an inappropriate holiday greeting.  I was reminded how to properly answer the phones, and was sent back to work.

Since then, and after all these years, I’ve come to a simple conclusion when it comes to this, dare I say, ‘nonsense.’  It is, admittedly, once again rather unorthodox.


In 1984, the United States Supreme Court announced its decision on the case of Lynch vs. Donnelly.  Here’s a brief description of the case from the IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law website, Oyez:

The city of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, annually erected a Christmas display located in the city’s shopping district. The display included such objects as a Santa Claus house, a Christmas tree, a banner reading “Seasons Greetings,” and a nativity scene. The creche had been included in the display for over 40 years. Daniel Donnelly objected to the display and took action against Dennis Lynch, the Mayor of Pawtucket.

The lead question facing the Court’s decision is described as such:

Did the inclusion of a nativity scene in the city’s display violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment?

The answer they provided is described as such:

No. In a 5-to-4 decision, the Court held that notwithstanding the religious significance of the creche, the city had not violated the Establishment Clause. The Court found that the display, viewed in the context of the holiday season, was not a purposeful or surreptitious effort to advocate a particular religious message. The Court found that the display merely depicted the historical origins of the Holiday and had “legitimate secular purposes.” The Court held that the symbols posed no danger of establishing a state church and that it was “far too late in the day to impose a crabbed reading of the [Establishment] Clause on the country.”

The key element of this case is the statement here: “legitimate secular purposes.”  In essence, the court had stated that the image of the nativity scene was just as secularly innocuous as that of a Christmas Tree or Santa’s house.  The sacred element of the image no lounger remained.  It, and what it stood for, had become secular.

 In a similar case in 2010, the court decided in favour of the placement of a latin cross on government property in the Mojave desert in California.  Originally placed by members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars foundation as a memorial to those killed in battle in 1934, the cross became an issue worthy of the court’s attention as it appeared to challenge the disestablishment clause of the First Amendment.  A former member of the National Park Association, Frank Buono, eventually filed suit, and the case worked its way to the Supreme Court.

The decision of the Court was very similar to that in Lynch vs. Donnelly, namely that the cross itself, as a memorial, represented a secular image.

 So what does all of this have to do with ‘Merry Christmas?’

 By means of an explanation, consider the fact that we, as a western society, tend to not work on Sundays, and have built our culture around a particular calendar.  We take time off for Christmas and Easter, regardless of the fact that this often gets disguised by ‘winter’ and ‘spring’ breaks.  Now, this does not mean that these days are not still ritually ‘sacred’ to certain individuals.  It does, however, mean that they might accommodate two meanings.  After all, Sundays are used for football viewings and BBQs, as well as for church-going.

 In this way, then, and in taking the Supreme Court’s lead, there’s nothing seemingly wrong with saying ‘Merry Christmas’ as, like the nativity scene in Rhode Island, the cross in the Mojave, and our use of the ‘sabbath’ for secular purposes, ‘Christmas’ is no longer, or at least, no longer needs to be, sacred.  It’s a holiday we can all enjoy.  We can find pleasure in the twinkling lights, the trees, the markets, and even the nativity scenes, without needing to ‘believe’ in the myths that give these objects sacred meaning.

 With that in mind, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas!

 

 

 

 

Tourist Trap Sacred Space Revisited

10:10 AM, Saturday, The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família, Barcelona, Spain

Our tickets permit us entrance at 10:30, so we have to wait another twenty minutes.

We walk the Christmas Market in the park, the Fira de Nadal a la Sagrada Familia.  Vendors are just starting to slowly open their booths.

We sit on a bench and eat an apple from the hotel.  We look up at the Passion Facade.

We watch as three people, likely father, mother, and son walk through the crowd of tourists, then return to a spot behind a booth, and retrieve two cloth sacks from outside the plastic liner of a trash can.

Are they dangerous?  Should we move?  Should we tell someone?

The son kneels on the sidewalk, right in the middle of the crowd.

He slowly unwraps the cloth, folding it open on the ground.  He begins to place items in rows.

A tourist comes up and hands him her phone.  He attaches it to a pink ‘selfie stick’ and she offers him a five euro note.


20:30 PM, Fira de Santa Llúcia, Catedral de Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain

At a stall, we purchase a small el caganer.

We marvel at the nativity scenes, at the many ways people can decorate or design their own.  Some are built of large bark pieces, others of tiny stone walls, designed to mimic old rock houses, with windows and half-covered straw rooftops.  Assorted animal statues are sold, as well as different depictions of Mary, Joseph, the infant Christ, the shepherds, and wise men.

You can buy flats of moss, pine branches, and whole trees.

There isn’t a single ‘German’ booth, like those which we’ve grown accustomed to in Edinburgh.  There are no fudge or marzipan sellers.  No bratwursts or pretzels.

Here, below the cathedral, the products are all telling the same story.


11:00 AM, Sunday, Mercado de San Miguel, Madrid, Spain. 

Hundreds upon hundreds of people.  Pushing, fighting, yelling.  Ordering olives, oysters, paella, vermouth in a glass with ice, with lemon.

All are dressed in black.  Most have just come from mass, or are on their way, their rosaries still hanging out of pockets.  Crumpled prayer and scripture pamphlets on the floor.

An old man tries to sell us lotto tickets.  Later, an old woman does the same.


12:00 Noon, Sunday, Santa María la Real de La Almudena, Madrid, Spain.  

A few clanks of coins into a donation box.

Catholics rise from their pews, walk together, kneel, receive the host.

Tourists take pictures.

A woman, hidden somewhere within the dark places of the cathedral, is singing in Spanish.  Her voice echoes back to us.

We wait until the pews refill, then walk quietly to the door and back out into the cold, Sunday light.


12:45 AM, Sunday, Templo de Debod, Madrid, Spain.

Climb the stone steps, turn left into the entrance.

Enter the dark rooms and read about the hieroglyphs.  Wait in line and climb the wooden steps upstairs and wait to see a reconstructed map of Egypt.

Outside, amongst people taking selfies in the two archways that once led to the temple.

Sit with our feet hanging off the wall behind the temple, eating a stromboli of ham and mozzarella, purchased earlier at the market.

We watch the hazy light over the city.  People walk their dogs.  A young boy is kicking a ball back and forth with his father.


17:20, Sunday, Buen Retiro Park, Madrid Spain

Sitting in a cafe, drinking coffee and Campari on ice, watching people walk by.

Thousands of people are here this afternoon, speaking different languages, families of different ethnic and religious backgrounds.

On our way to the Atocha metro station, we stop at the Monumento del Angel Caido.  At the top of the fountain, Lucifer is falling in place in bronze.  All around us are skateboarders and people on roller blades.

Someone is playing music far off in the distance.


19:00, Sunday, Adolfo Suárez Madrid–Barajas Airport, Madrid, Spain 

Waiting for our flight.  Delays, delays, delays.

Sitting in a row of chairs facing a blank wall with a small door.  Over the doorway there is a sign: ‘Capilla.’

We share a can of Mahou beer.  We eat sandwiches with ham, cheese, and a barbacoa sauce.

At the gate next to us a plane is boarding for Turkey.  The usual noise of people standing in line, of children fussing about and adults complaining to each other in whispers.


12:10 AM, Monday, The 100 Airlink Bus from the Edinburgh Airport to Waverley Station 

We talk about the trip, about the things we saw, and how this will be the last trip for us to Europe for some time.

We talk about the people we encountered, about how so many of them seemed more concerned with pictures of themselves.

So many tourist traps, and so many sacred spaces.

Are we pilgrims?  Are we a new type of pilgrim?

In the contemporary world, with terrorism and secularism and ever-changing religious diversity, what does it mean to visit a sacred place?  What will it mean in the future?

Moreover, has our idea of the sacred changed, or, have these places become a hybrid?

A place to worship, as well as a place to take a selfie.  To say: here I am, I was here, here’s my proof.

What, then, is the difference between a selfie, and this sort of writing?

Is this not, in its own way, a literary selfie?

I went to these places, I am writing about them, here’s my proof.

 

 

Everything is Temporary

I’m standing at the bar in the lobby of the London Heathrow Ibis Hotel, ordering a sandwich, when the television behind the register flashes in bright red letters: BREAKING NEWS.

I hate that phrase.

Or rather, at this moment, I find myself having a deep and profound hatred of that phrase.

About five hours ago, I was sitting alone at a cafe in London Heathrow’s Terminal 2 (the Queen’s terminal), when out the window I watched as United Airlines flight 96 sped down the runway and lifted off into the air.

It’ll be about another 5-6 hours until I can stop worrying.

On that flight are my wife and dog, heading back to America.

About two weeks ago, I told my wife that there are a number of dominoes that we’ve lined up: her last day at work; the family arriving for graduation; the ceremony itself; sending our dog back to the States; our last flight out.

As of last week, we tipped the first one over.

This is the fourth domino.  Only one more to go.


So while I’m sitting here, eating my sandwich and waiting to find out if the two most important things in my life made it safely across the Atlantic while simultaneously refreshing United Airline’s flight tracker, I thought I’d take a minute and write about the temporariness that has been our lives these last five years.


When you move to another country as a student, your life becomes a temporary thing.  Right there, in your passport, your life has an expiration date.  Ours is 31 December 2015.  This is the time within which you must complete your degree, then go home.

So, though you might get a job, make friends, build a life, you know that it isn’t meant to last.  In that way, while it’s a great metaphor for life in general, it also teaches you, from early on, not to get too attached to things.

Thus, you spend your time as a marginal person.  You know, from the outset, that the things you love will have to be left behind: sitting on a particular bench in the Botanical Gardens, an odd little Mexican restaurant that has felt like home, pretzels at the Christmas Market, drinks outside on summer days, taxi rides in the rain, watching Scotland pass by through a train window, our seats at the Cameo.

That, and the people who come into your life slowly fade away.  In fact, it’s amazing how quickly those who were close friends become acquaintances, and then complete strangers.  Many of them becoming nothing more than Facebook profiles, like all those you’ve left behind.  Some, by their own doing.

What’s more, you start to realise that you’ve become a different person as well.  Sure, you’re still an American, and nothing will change that, but you’re also a bit Scottish.  As much as you’ve tried to respect your hosts by not mimicking their accents, or colloquialisms, it’s been almost five years, and things have rubbed off on you.  This happened when you moved from California to Texas.  Will these things change when you go back?  Will you find yourself adapting these adaptations to a foreign, yet inherently familiar, context?

As you might expect, within this liminal stage you guard yourself.  You protect yourself from getting too close to things, because you know they won’t last.  Interestingly, when you look back over the years and think of those fellow Americans who lived here but never really seemed to embrace Scotland, who always talked of the things they missed, of the differences between this place and ‘home,’ and who also seemed to be back in the States every Christmas or summer break, you start to realise this was their own way of protecting themselves as well.

Yet, it also isn’t just those fellow Americans with whom you find yourself empathising toward the end.  It’s people here as well.  You come to realise that perhaps those with whom your were close all this time, who have turned away from you when you needed them the most, are doing this to protect themselves from the disappointment or sadness of the reality that your relationship was a temporary thing.

The end of something is always difficult.

In fact, all in all it isn’t easy.  None of this is easy.


Yet, again, none of this is all that surprising.  It isn’t as if you suddenly, one day, realise that your time is up.  You have years to prepare.

This is the essence of ‘everything is temporary,’ and again, I think it’s an excellent lesson for life in general.  There will always be moments when things feel like they’ve become permanent, when, even against your better judgment, you might find yourself bored with the monotony of life.  That doesn’t matter, because things will change.

Which also reminds me that while our time here has been measured by a stamp in our passports, we’ve also had the luxury of knowing when that end will come.  Some, if not most, don’t have that.  For them, this realisation comes suddenly.  Loved ones die, jobs end, love fades.

At least for us, the end has come just when it said it would, and though it is sad for its own reasons, it also means we get to move on into the next temporary stage which, if it’s been anything like this one, should prove equally rewarding.

 

 

 

It’s All Relative

This week is graduation, and since it’s the only ceremony of this type in which I have allowed myself to be forced to attend, my family graciously came to visit.

Part of the fun of family coming to visit, is you get to see the city through the eyes of first-timers to Edinburgh.  Suddenly, all the places that eventually blended into the background of your mundane day-to-day, have regained the romance they had when you first arrived.

Whilst they were here, we enjoyed touring the Castle, St. Giles Cathedral, Rosslyn Chapel, Mary King’s Close, the High Street, the Christmas Market, golf at St. Andrews, and a few other spots.  At each of our stops, as we passed through the gift shops conveniently placed at every exit, we spent a bit of time looking over clan tartans.

Our sudden (or maybe longstanding) interest in all things Scottish tartan came with a reason.  It was perhaps quite convenient that just before my family arrived, a relative of ours discovered the following information about our Scottish heritage (on my father’s side):

westmore

The most relevant part of this new info is this:

In 1988, while researching an ancestor with Scottish lineage, I discovered that Maldred [my ancestral grandfather, d. 1045] was the younger brother of Duncan I, King of Scotland.  With this discovery, twenty additional generations were added to the previous documented 29 generations, resulting in 49 documented generations in this family.   

So, knowing now that we are descendants of Scottish Royalty, this last trip, with the whole family, felt extra special.

Of course, anyone slightly familiar with the content of this blog would know that I would simply write this off as a type of ‘fiction.’  In this case, however, and ever so briefly, I’ll let it slide.  I mean, I do in fact look a bit like Fassbender’s MacBeth, right?

https://www.youtube.com/embed/RgH_OnrYlCk?feature=player_detailpage“>

So, all hail me, Dr. Ethan G. Quillen, Scottish Royalty.


On a less ridiculous note, my family’s new info, and thus further interest in all things Scottish Tartan, got me thinking.  In fact, while waiting out the long list of names called at the ceremony today, and perhaps as one last chance to consider changing my Thesis topic, I threw together this idea.  I will present it here as a brief abstract, because, given the celebratory frivolity of this afternoon and evening’s events, I simply don’t have the time to expand.

It’s All Relative: An Ethnographic Analysis of American-Scottish Identity Constructions

Everyday in Edinburgh, visitors from America come to the numerous ‘Scottish Heritage’ shops conveniently placed on the Royal Mile.  These individuals are, in our contemporary context, a new type of pilgrim.  They are in search of a connecting thread, a symbolic link to an ancient past.  They spend hundreds and hundreds of pounds purchasing clan information booklets, kilts, scarfs, and clothing fashioned from a particular woollen tartan, their tartan, a physical embodiment of their ancestral lineage.  Why do they do this?  This analysis will attempt to answer this simple question with four case studies, while at the same time both establish a linkage between these pilgrim’s construction of Scottish ancestry and the notion that they further an intercontinental sense of imagined community, as well as challenge the perception that one’s heritage is nothing more than a type of identity artifice, of fiction.


***One last funny anecdote from this week***

When my parents arrived, a day ahead of my brother and his family, we took them to the Christmas market.  While standing at the bar in St. Andrews Square, I caught the attention of a rather sullied and drunken gentleman chatting up a young woman.  He looked at me, caught her attention, and announced to all in ear shot:

“Look eh this chap, ‘ere.  This is a Scotsman!”

Then to me, he said:

“I bet your name is Robert Robertson from the highest highlands!”

Back to the young woman:

“Look at him.  He’s the most Scottish I’ve ever seen!”

Taking a moment to let his declaration sink in, as well as to build a rather large pregnant pause, I responded, in my most Southern California accent:

“Sorry to disappoint you, but I’m just an American”

My fellow drinkers found it rather humorous, and the drunken fellow happily hugged me.

He then further declared:

“Eh, it’s all relative!”

 

 

 

Everything is Fiction: A Discursive Year in Review

One of the benefits of using WordPress to host this blog is it provides some rather amusing data.

For example, it keeps tabs on where each post has been viewed.  This provides the excitement of knowing there are people in Nepal who’ve read something that I wrote.  As well, it allows me the ability to keep track of how many Americans have viewed my blog, versus Brits.

Another thing it does is provide me alerts, such as the one I received last week, wishing me a ‘Happy Anniversary!’

So, apparently, it’s been a year.

To celebrate, I thought I’d put together a little year in review.  Which then got me thinking: a blog like this, with weekly updates, is like a diary, an on-line cache not only of my obscure thoughts, but about the things that have inspired those thoughts throughout the year.  Or rather, it’s like an auto-ethnographic discursive source, where I am both anthropologist and subject, so that in equal measure, the text, this text, is like a fieldwork account, a window onto my own unique cultural perspective.

With this in mind, this review is something of a look back, not just for my dear readers, but for myself as well: a short trip back in time to see not only what it is that I have done, but how those things have shaped my way of thinking about my surrounding world.

I present to you, then, my year in review.


18 November 2014, Everything is Fiction

Screen Shot 2014-11-18 at 12.54.31

This first post was nothing more than an introduction, a foundation on which to build the theme of the whole blog.  I wrote it when, at that time, I had somehow deluded myself into thinking I’d be done with the Thesis by Christmas.  As such, it is heavily influenced by my Conclusion, particularly the quotes I provide concerning the use of the term ‘fiction’ and how it challenges any sort of normative understanding we might have about texts that are considered ‘true’ or ‘authentic.’


25 November 2014, Harry Potter and the Precarious Use of Fiction

potter

The second post came by accident.  For our tutorials that week on a course called ‘Modern Religious and Ethical Debates in Contemporary Fiction,’ we had read the last of the Harry Potter novels.  Our discussion for the week was on the religious implications in the book (Harry’s ‘Christian world’ in contrast to the wizarding world in which he now found himself), as well as the public’s perception of ‘witchcraft via a popular medium.  One of the students in my tutorial chose to shape they’re presentation of the novel around an on-line ‘fan fiction’ called “Hogwarts School of Prayer and Miracles,” by a Grace Ann Parsons under the name ‘aproudhousewife.’  While we enjoyed a nice conversation about how this fan fiction represented a type of religious identity, via the language used by the author in her argument against J.K. Rowling’s own fictional representation of witchcraft, we had an even more fun chat about the precariousness of using fiction when examining identity, as I revealed the fact that though popular, Grace Ann Parson’s fan fiction was not real.  It was, in fact, an example of something called ‘Poe’s Law:’ no matter how ridiculous or humorous a fundamentalist argument is, and though it might be fake, it is inevitable that someone will confuse it for real, because of his or her perceptions of fundamentalism as being ridiculous or humorous.  Tread lightly, was my conclusion, as all writing, whether a novel or an ethnography, is ‘fiction,’ due to the fact that it is inherently artificial.


2 December 2014, What do you call it when a gentile writes a post about Jewishness?

Brooks-inquisition

This post, like the previous one, was inspired by a tutorial.  This time, we had just read Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question, and we’re discussing the use of a novel as a source for ‘jewishness.’  The Finkler Question is perfect for this as the story it tells is of a gentile, obsessed with Jewish culture, struggling to identify himself as being ersatz Jewish.  The post I wrote not only discussed the use of stereotypes within written accounts, it also dealt with ones I might have considered when I visited Israel in 2014, as well as a few humorous examples from popular media such as Seinfeld, Fraser, and Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part One.  Both culturally insensitive, as well as representative, these sources proved rather useful as we delved deeper into the use of fiction as an ethnographic source.


 9 December 2014, Rumsfeldian Atheism

mission

I few years back I graciously accepted the offer to present a paper at the Sociology of Religion Study Group (SOCREL) Conference held at the University of Chester, by a friend whose research focuses (in part) on conspiracy theories.  I didn’t really know all that much about conspiracy theories, aside from the few things I remembered from my degree on New Religious Movements, nor did I have a clue on how to combine that lack of knowledge with my research on Atheism.  So, I cobbled together some related details, out of which emerged this theory of Atheism.  In short, when we take Donald Rumsfeld‘s famous tautological reasoning for declaring war on Iraq (Known knowns, Known unknowns, and Unknown unknowns) with the philosophical foundation of the dichotomy between Theism and Atheism, we find some interesting similarities: Known knowns (Theism and Atheism), Known unknown (practical agnosticism), and Unknown unknowns (complete ignorance of both Theism and Atheism).


16 December 2014, The Bone Wars

brontosaurus

When I attended the Non-Religion and Secularity Research Network’s conference in 2012 I wanted to present my criticism of the term ‘non-religion’ in a way that was both memorable, as well as humorous.  My thinking was, if I was going to be utterly critical of the term’s usage, I might as well do that in a way that was rather funny.  I focused my presentation, then, on the nominal battle over whether or not the Brontosaurus actually ever existed, as its title came from a mis-named larger sample of the Apatosaurus.  The essence of my argument was as follows: in his attempt at beating his rival by discovering and labelling more specimens, Othniel Charles Marsh called the Apatosaurus something else, sort of like referring to Atheism as non-religion.


23 December 2014, Shrinkage

david

For a Christmas break, my traveling companion and I spent a few days in Bruges, Belgium.  Aside from biking around the city, eating waffles, and drinking delicious ales, we also went to the Church of Our Lady to see Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child.  Whilst there, I noticed an oddity about the baby Jesus: he was uncircumcised.  Surely, I thought out loud, in a church, after eight days as Jewish boy would be circumcised.  Why isn’t this Jesus snipped.  I was then reminded that Michelangelo’s David, in Florence, is likewise ‘intact.’  This blog post was about the use of foreskin as a symbol of an artist’s own influence over the factual accuracies of his or her representation.  In other words, Jesus and David weren’t snipped, because Michelangelo wasn’t.  Food for thought.


30 December 2014, Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

tribe

After it premiered, Ridley Scott’s epic, Exodus: Gods and Kings, was banned by the country of Egypt.  While it was, for me, a rather innocuous action film, for many around the world, its parting ways with the Biblical narrative not only came across as blasphemous, but as threatening as well.  Thus, it was banned.  This got me thinking.  Did this banning have anything to do with anxieties felt by some that a re-telling such as this was harmful to the sour material by reminding the audience that both are nothing more than stories?  That is, if Ridley Scott can re-write the story so easily, then is the original nothing more than a template, a plastic and bendable thing able to be re-created, and thus void of what we might perceive as some sort of ‘sacred’ something?  To conclude, by way of an answer, I posed the curious question: when the critically disliked and epic-looking Troy came out a few years back, with its predominant white cast and highly adapted re-telling of the Trojan war (which ‘historically’ took place around the same time as the Exodus out of Egypt), why was it not banned for its inaccuracies or insults to history?  Is it because we now think of the Trojan War as nothing more than a myth?


6 January 2015, Everything is Fiction: A Discussion on Narrative and Reflexivity

Chester

When I first came to Edinburgh, even before I started my degree, I had the great privilege of meeting Chris Cotter and David Robertson, the two minds behind the Religious Studies Project.  Since that first meeting, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to be a part of a number of roundtable discussions, one of which took place at the University of Chester on the topic of narrative and reflexivity in the study of religion.  This was, in my five years in Britain, one of the most fun and rewarding conversations I’ve had on the topic of fiction, ethnography, and the use of discourse and narrative in the study of both.  Below is the link to the recording, which I encourage everyone to enjoy.


13 January 2015, A Sucker Born Every Minute

cardiff-giant

When the former Seventh-Day Adventist minister, Ryan Bell, concluded his ‘year without God’ with the announcement that he no longer believed in the existence of God, it caught my attention.  This post was about his conversion, and how I thought it related to the story of the Cardiff Giant, a hoax believed, and defended, by a curious and believing audience.  Here’s the essence of my argument:  if we were intent on understanding how beliefs become solidified, such as the way a hoax is marketed and devoured by a demanding audience, or in Bell’s case, how identity becomes constructed, is this not the ideal set of data with which to study?  That is, though it might look, through a certain lens, to be something designed or formed in such a way as to inspire criticism, is it not still something worth examining?  Or, is all of this once again a reminder that no matter how cautious or critical we are, there’s never really a sure way of knowing if something is a hoax (such as discourse observed), so that we must continually remind ourselves that in the study of ‘others,’ and regardless of objectivity, we might be nothing but ‘suckers?’


20 January 2015, Assholes: A Theory of New Atheism

not wrong

Perhaps the most popular of my posts, this one was once again inspired by a tutorial, or rather, by a course for which I tutored: ‘Atheism in Debate.’  While I have had my criticisms of this course, particularly concerning the fact that it was designed to bring in students interested in reading the four ‘New Atheist texts,’ only to ‘trick’ them into reading nineteenth-century theological apologetics, maybe my biggest point of critical discussion over the three years in which I led tutorials was the manner with which we compare the New Atheism with the Old.  How, we were often asked, do these two groups differ?  My simple answer: the New Atheists are assholes.  This is an oversimplification.  To make my argument, I used the ‘theory of the asshole’ as defined by the philosopher Aaron James, who describes an asshole as such: “a person counts as an asshole when, and only when, he systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunises him against the complaints of other people.” (4-5)  In order to apply this to New Atheism, I took examples where the New Atheists did just that, and thus determined them as ‘assholes.’  Which, I concluded, also made them different from their ‘older’ counterparts.  It’s not a perfect description, but it is fun.


27 January 2015, ‘Hey, at least he was a Satanist, not an Atheist.’

stav

During a trip to Bergen, Norway, my travel companion and I took the tram out to the re-constructed Fantoft Stavkirk, that was famously burned in 1992.  Though not convicted for this particular arson, the Satanist Varg Vikernes was found to have been connected to it when he was convicted for similar crimes, as well as murder, in 1994.  In response to this information, I recalled thinking, ‘at least he was a Satanist, and not an Atheist,’ a statement I assigned to a ‘friend’ within the post itself.  Aside from providing some simple background on the rise and fall of Satanism in Norway, I used this post to present a theory that, in fact, the ‘Satan’ of the Bible was the first skeptic, a foundational precursor to modern Atheism.  I justified this via Biblical references where ‘שָׂטָן’ was associated with doubt, skepticism, or an adversarial position, such as Numbers 22:32, 1 Samuel 29:4, 2 Samuel 19:35, 1 Kings 5:4, 1 Kings 11:15, 1 Kings 11:23 and 11:25, 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13, Luke 22:3, and John 13:27.  Or, to put it differently, examples of ‘Satan’ as a ‘Devil’s Advocate,’ such as we famously find in the Book of Job: ‘Skin for skin!’  Satan replied. ‘A man will give all he has for his own life. But now stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face.’ (Job 2:1-7).  I thus concluded: “in combining the lexical process of being deemed an ἄθεος (scepticism, doubt, critical debate) with the doubt, opposition, and adversarial nature of Satan (שָׂטָן; διὰβολος) we might confortably conclude here that Satan is, in fact, a representative sort of Atheism.”  


3 February 2015, A Feeling of Ownership

Wmalinowski_triobriand_isles_1918

Presenting at conferences is something that I have found, as an academic, to be a rather rewarding experience.  Not only does it necessitate travel, it also gives one the opportunity to receive feedback from people about his or her work.  At the same time, though, it also leads to the notion that one’s work is his or her’s property.  This feeling presented itself when I met Liam Frasier and Chris Cotter briefly to discuss a roundtable we were planning for the students of our course on ‘Atheism in Debate.’  As we introduced ourselves to each other, giving the ‘elevator pitch’ of our research, I came to realise that the thing I study is a large part of my identity.  In this way, I ‘own’ it, in that it is my perspective, my interpretation, my product.  This sense of ‘ownership’ always brings me back to Malinowski, who himself saw his presentation of the Trobriands, and thus the Trobriands themselves, as his ‘property:’ “Joy: I hear the “Kiriwina” [another name for the Trobriands; more strictly the northern province of Boyowa].  I get ready; little gray, pinkish huts.  Photos.  Feeling of ownership: It is I who will describe them or create them.” (Malinowski, A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term, 1967, 140).


10 February 2015, Especially Our Snipers

bless our troops

Another post inspired by a film, this time in response to the debate taking place about the ‘accuracy’ of Clint Eastwood’s Oscar nominated film, American Sniper.  While many of the ‘facts’ about Chris Kyle’s life have become exaggerated myths, the exaggeration is, as I argued, not unlike the ‘bumper sticker arguments’ we might see attached to people’s cars.  While these might reflect opinions that are as affixed as the stickers themselves, they also represent a type of narrative statement: a story, told with few words, that reflect a facet of the individual who places them.  As a conclusion, I made this argument: “when we see these sorts of images, perhaps we might be better off simply understanding that they represent a narrative, a means with which certain individuals define themselves, either for or against the statements made.  Whether we want to simply believe them as true, research the facts within, or work to disprove them, they will always be stories.  After all, Chris Kyle now lives solely in legend, but only because he now exists solely as a character within a story; a fate that awaits us all in time.  For pragmatic reasons, then, the stories others tell, the stories we tell about them, and the stories we tell of ourselves, work as identifiers, assisting us in making sense of life in our determined search for meaningful fictions.”


17 February 2015, Origin Story

origin

For a period of time, I put off writing a post for the Non Religion and Secularity Research Network’s blog: http://blog.nsrn.net.  This wasn’t because I didn’t want to, but because I was worried I didn’t really know what to write.  While I’ve been critical of their term usage, doing that again seemed like overkill.  Instead, I decided to write a post that presented the discursive approach I adopted for my Thesis.  To get to that, though, I felt like I should tell the story about how I got involved in the study of Atheism itself.  This post was a companion, then, an informative, and personal, precursor for the one published on their blog: http://blog.nsrn.net/2015/02/13/discourse-analysis-and-the-study-of-atheism-definitions-discourse-and-ethnographic-criticism/  


24 February 2014, Tourist Trap Sacred Space

guer3

Perhaps one of my all time favourite pieces of art is this painting, by Picasso, of the bombing of Guernica.  I had the opportunity to see it in person in February, after presenting at a workshop on ‘Atheism and Literature in Europe,’ put on by the Blanquerna Observatory’s School of Communications and International Relations, as part of a series of workshops on ‘Religion in the Shaping of European Cultural Identity.’  Here’s a short video of the conference, in which I am briefly featured at the end:

While the worksop was an excellent and a truly great experience, because my time in Spain, and especially Barcelona, was short, I spent most of it going to ‘tourist attractions,’ such as the Sagrada Familia and the Barcelona Cathedral.  This got me thinking about ‘sacred spaces,’ and the focus of this post is on the interesting balance we perform between sacred and profane when we visit such ‘tourist trap sacred spaces,’ such as I’ve done in Jerusalem, the Vatican, and even outside Waco, Texas.


3 March 2015, When Trolling Religion Becomes Religion; Or, Why it’s All Bertrand Russell’s Fault

fsp

In my efforts to discursively examine Atheism, one of the routes I’ve taken is following specific lines of influence from one argument to another.  As such, this post presented one of these discursive threads, from Bertrand Russell, to the New Atheism.  More specifically, it followed a particular philosophical discourse that originated with Russell’s argument against the belief in the existence of God, by comparing it to the belief that there exists a ‘china teapot’ orbiting in an elliptical between the Earth and Mars.  By fictionalising a belief that is as equally impossible to prove or disprove, Russell inaugurated what I coined as the ‘argument from fictionalisation,’ a position promoted by a number of individuals across the last fifty years.  In specific, I then compared the same usage of this fictionalisation between three ‘invented religions,’ religious organisations designed on the premise that their deity is as equally provable and disprovable (the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Invisible Pink Unicorn, and the Church of Bacon) as ‘God,’ which in turn provides for us an interesting discursive type of Atheism.


10 March 2015, The Zombie Apocalypse Secularization Thesis

walking dead

Zombies are very popular lately.  Then again, zombies have been popular for quite some time now.  As entities that have infiltrated a number of popular culture media, from movies and television shows, to graphic novels, the living dead have been a part of ‘horror’ for at least a century.  What this also means is that the discursive influences on the writing of these outlets has changed just as much as the culture within which they’ve thrived.  Do these films/shows/graphic novels tell us something about that culture?  This post answered ‘yes,’ with a specific focus on the role of religion in the twentieth-century.  By looking at how the origin of the living dead turned from Alien and ‘Voodoo’ inspired, to George Romero’s liminal ‘they simply exist’ era, which was then replaced with the discourse of disease (plague/epidemiology), the Zombie narrative provides for us an insight into the influence of secularisation: a transition from a discourse based on either mythical or mysterious influences, to that of the scientific and empirical.


17 March 2015, Tell me about your mother, Mr. Hubbard

tomato

Back in my younger, and perhaps more naive, days, I wrote a paper where I analysed the philosophy, and thus foundation, of L. Ron Hubbard’s ideas that turned into Scientology, via the deconstructive lens of Freudian psychology.  In essence, I took Freud’s three part ‘Psychic Apparatus,’ and compared it to Hubbard’s notion of Body, Mind, and Thetan.  While the result might have led to a criticism of one against the other, the focus of my post was more narrative driven.  As I concluded: “as narrative devices, as stories that tell us something about how these men interpreted their world, and thus in turn tell us something about them personally, they function on an entirely different spectrum of criticism.  Thus, rather than merely trying to connect dots that might creatively lead us to some sort of conclusion, using these narratives to make sense of the individuals who told them, as well as the individuals who use them, becomes that much more useful than even the most pragmatic attempts at comparing like with like.”


24 March 2015, Comedic Criticism: A Discursive Source of Atheism

george-carlin-quotes-sayings-about-religion-mind-control

In another attempt at discursively examining Atheism, this post utilised comedy as a medium.  In this example, however, I got a bit more specific about exactly how I was going to use these discourses to examine Atheism.  By adopting three ‘anti-religious comedy routines’ (Ricky Gervais, Bill Maher, and George Carlin) as ‘texts,’ I then analysed them via Norman Fairclough‘s ‘three analytically separable elements:’ “the production of the text, the text itself, and the reception of the text” (10).  By closely examining the language used by each individual in the three examples, I produced a number of correlative discursive elements across each.  These, then, contributed to a discursive understanding of the Atheism presented within each account.  When compared to three clips of the New Atheists promoting their Atheism, this sort of analysis assists us in better understanding how such relatable philosophical arguments are disseminated via different venues (genres), as well as how they are received by a larger ‘public.’  In the end, I made the following conclusion: “this works much better than merely speculating or theoretically stipulating what we think these sorts of things (like Atheism) mean, and is therefore a much more useful (and, to be honest, more enjoyable) means of researching precarious concepts such as ‘religion’ or ‘Atheism.'”


31 March 2015, ‘Statistics can prove anything’ (and other fictions used by New Atheists)

statistics

This is perhaps more of a ‘reactionary’ post.  Toward the end of the semester, and thus the end of my final tutorial period on Atheism in Debate, I was looking for specific ways to approach New Atheism in a manner that both presented their arguments from an unbiased and objective, yet also critical, perspective.  For this week, I chose their bad scholarship, which, regardless of whether or not someone agrees with them, is something that should infuriate everyone.  Three of them have PhDs, after all.  That doesn’t mean I assume anyone with a PhD should automatically be considered smart; but come on.  Getting a PhD means you’ve been trained on how to do good research, how to build your arguments on solid data, and how to avoid becoming a caricature of bias and opinion.  Nevertheless, what the New Atheists do is bad research, of which they are then arrogantly proud.  It’s sort of embarrassing.  The purpose of this post was, however, not just meant to point out their poor scholarship.  Instead, it was designed as a means to assist my students in understanding how when they do good scholarship, the sort of arguments that they make can be even more meaningful than when they’re presented with the passion one might associate with the rhetoric of a zealot.


7 April 2015, Thank God for Book Reviews

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 10.02.18

Book reviews are often considered ‘easy’ publications, something much less strenuous than an article, monograph, or edited volume.  When simplified, they come across as rather simple: read a book, summarise it, tell the reader what was good and bad about it.  With my first experience writing a review (on which this post was focused), I quickly learned this is not the case.  In fact, the three-part story that I present in this post functions as a personal account of the lessons learned through writing this review: how the editing process works in the writer’s favour, how defending your argument (such as my capitalisation of the ‘A’ in Atheism) reminds you of why you are doing the research, and how copy-editing, or having someone re-write your work, and then arguing in favour of your version, builds a sense of confidence in one’s writing.  My review itself can be found here: http://www.secularismandnonreligion.org/articles/10.5334/snr.au/ 


14 April 2015, Whose Story is it Anyway?

inbred

This post was inspired by the premier of the fifth season of HBO’s hit series, Game of Thrones.  Specifically, it was inspired by the furore expressed by many fans that, unlike the previous four seasons, this one would be mostly the product of original writing, rather than adaptation, as the series had thus far exhausted almost all of the story published in book form by George R.R. Martin.  I took this as an opportunity to discuss the perhaps disappointing fact that all writing, regardless of whether it is original work or an adaptation, is still an artifice, and is thus entirely made-up.  There is, then, no such thing as an ‘original source.’  Using a quote from Clifford Geertz’s Works and Lives wherein he states that acknowledging ethnographic writing as just as creative and literary as fictional writing, is the same as realising a magic trick is, in fact, not really magic.  Thus, my conclusion stated: “In a world where everything is fiction, or rather, where everything is artifice, the notion that an adaptation is telling a story incorrectly is rather moot.  Even when the ‘original’ author might agree.  In the end, all stories are adaptations, even when they are initially told.  Which also means that all stories, just like looking at the discourse that gives meaning to a word, rather than just defining it, are neither right, nor wrong, by the mere fact that all stories are nothing more than re-tellings of a story none of us will ever see.”


21 April 2015, Cheaters never prosper. Well, that’s not true. Sometimes they do.

money books

Around the end of April, I began putting together what would eventually become the final draft of the Thesis.  I still had a few months to go, but I didn’t know that at this point, and any full draft, once finished, felt like the final thing.  As well, a colleague and close friend, Jonathan Tuckett, successfully defended his, adding to the anxiety.  For these reasons, I found myself leaning (perhaps a bit too much) on distractions to break up the stress that comes with finally being finished.  One of those came in the story on which I based this post: an individual on the website reddit posted a meme in which they admitted to submitting a thesis, and thus earning a PhD, that was entirely ghost written.  As I sank deeper into the anxiety of polishing off one, more, draft, this story hit rather close to home, so I decided to investigate a bit more into the world of academic plagiarism.  What I found was both interesting and disheartening.  The conclusion I put together was a criticism not just plagiarism, but of the academy itself, an argument that as the academic world becomes more and more like a business, the more and more profit-gaining opportunities (like plagiarism) begin to make sense.


28 April 2015, Based on ‘Real Life’

Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 18.22.21

This post dealt exclusively with two examples wherein fiction and ethnography appeared to merge into a category of similar, yet distinct, types of fictional writing. The first was a New York Times article by Laura Tavares on the use of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird as a source of cultural insight into the American south, and the struggle of racial violence.  The second was a relatable discussion of the subtle differences between a novel as an ethnographic source, and an ethnographic description, by Thomas Hylland Eriksen.  Together, these two examinations worked to further blur the line between ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction,’ particularly concerning how both are products of creative artifice.  As I concluded, in regard to the cover image used of the film Noah as being ‘based on real life:’ “While I am quite willing to blatantly claim that all textual representations are fiction by means of their ‘artifice-ness,’ this of course brings us into a discourse where, like the notion of ‘everything is fiction,’ we get somewhat distracted by what might be ‘based on real life’ and what might be a story assumed by some as the same.  This is not equal, however, to a declaration that the story of Noah, which might be defined as both, either, or neither a myth and truth, is definitively one of these things.  Rather, my point of having it here, and the point of this post in general, is a reminder that when we declare ‘everything’ as fiction because of the role that artifice plays in the creation and presentation of interpreted ‘things,’ a movie about Noah and a movie about William Wallace are equally ‘based on real life.’  In other words, the distinction between what is ‘fact’ (quantitative data about lynchings in the US) and what is ‘fictional’ (Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird) might blur into a perception where they become equal representations of some type of ‘truth.’  I, for one, am ok with this.”


5 May 2015, The Spiritual Menu: An Alternative Solution to the World Religions Paradigm

Howard Jacobs

The Hotel Preston, in Nashville, Tennessee, has listed on its in-room amenities an intriguing option: A Spiritual Menu.  What this means is, at any time, day or night, a guest of the hotel may request a religious text brought to his or her room for some quiet reflection.  For me, this led to a discussion of the World Religions Paradigm, and its limitations on the broader study of religion.  While on the surface, the options provided by the Preston Hotel’s menu seem to simply further support the WRP, I argued that is, in fact, providing narrative sources, rather than theoretical interpretations.  Or, as I stated in my conclusion: “by translating the mythological and doctrinal narratives that are used by individuals in the process of their ‘religious identity construction’ as a ‘menu,’ through which they isolate their own discursive understandings of ‘religion,’ we can form a much more complex and varied person-to-person perspective on how individuals use, and thus define, the concept for their own intentions.  Which, I believe, seems much more in keeping with the culture of religious studies.”


12 May 2015, The Profitable Age 

Fifty-Shades-Getty

Based on Bruno Latour’s Gifford Lecture series here in Edinburgh, and particularly on his notion of the ‘Anthropocene,’ this post presented my argument that we are, currently, living in what I call the ‘Profitable Age.’  I based this argument on evidence such as the ‘trilogy’ that Peter Jackson created out of Tolkien’s short novel, The Hobbit, as well as the similar film franchises based on the Fast and Furious, Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Politically, this is evinced by Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United vs. The Federal Elections Commission.  Academically, this is found within not only the rising costs of education, but in the rise (and thus debt contributing) of ‘for-profit’ educations centres.  Each of these equally contributed to my theory.  Or, and as I stated in my conclusion: “This is a Profitable Age.  Whether that is defined by film or novel franchises, by political developments, or the business of academia, it seems more often than not that the world in which we are living is dictated by profit.  How this then dictates the way we move forward, and whether that might mean a diminishment of value, is something we will have to wait and see.”


19 May 2015, We’re All Novelists

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 12.26.21

At this point in my story, I had finally finished the Thesis, and turned it in.  So, for this week’s post I turned that into a story itself.  More specifically, I told a story about how on certain occasions life looks like the plot of a novel, with characters and sets and plots designed for some ultimate purpose.  This story, the story about my thesis, was one of those examples.  Mixing in my turn to fiction for the PhD, and focusing on the journey I have taken to get the Thesis written, I also took the opportunity to weave in my theory that all writing is fictional, which then led to the argument that a thesis is as equally a novel as those texts on which my research was focused.  We, then, are equally novelists, as the theses we write tell, in their own way, a part of our story.


26 May 2015, In Memoriam

Screen Shot 2015-05-26 at 11.49.19

In honour of Memorial Day in the United States, this post focused on the religious diversity found within the U.S. National Cemeteries, especially Arlington.  At the top of each headstone is a religious symbol, chosen by the deceased or his or her family, to symbolise the religious beliefs of the individual interred.  While originally these symbols were isolated to a few types for Christian and Jewish, the symbols permitted (and thus accepted) by the United States Department of Veteran’s Affairs have grown to accept a wide spectrum of religious beliefs, including Atheism, Wicca, and Odinism.  In fact, the symbols permitted and accepted keep growing, a testament, as I argued, to the religious diversity (and freedom) found within the United States.


2 June 2015, Fictional Anthropology: Making Sense of Observation by Looking through an Imaginary Lens

boom

In late May I was given the opportunity to present at the Old Religion and New Spirituality conference, at the University of Tartu.  Unfortunately, our plane out of Edinburgh was delayed en route to Amsterdam for weather issues, and we subsequently missed our flight to Estonia.  In order to make the best of a bad situation, we chose to stay in Amsterdam for a few nights.  On our last day, we had a few hours before our afternoon flight, and given the rain, decided to waste the time in a movie theatre.  We saw Mad Max: Fury Road.

While the film has proven quite successful, both with critics and at the Box Office, I decided to use it as the basis for what I called a ‘dream course,’ those classes we hear about where the instructor has created a connection between some subject and a popular medium.  Here is the course I created:

Title: Fictional Anthropology: Making Sense of Observation by Looking through an Imaginary Lens

Description: When we read Malinowski’s seminal work, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, the famed anthropologist describes for us the requirements necessary of a truly objective cultural observation.  While this gives us a useful means of observing, recording, and writing about an other’s culture, it sometime leaves us without a practical description of how that might be done.  With this course we will apply the methodology of anthropological observation to a more ‘hands-on’ experience by making sense of a ‘fictional culture.’  What this will entail is a detailed observation of the world created by George Miller for his film “Mad Max: Fury Road.”  Alongside reading Malinowski’s Argonauts, we will try to determine the ‘imponderabilia’ of the culture within the film.  We will take field notes, compare insights, and even construct short ethnographic representations, both empirically objective and reflexively subjective, in order to make sense of the methodological requirements demanded of an anthropologist’s job in the field.  As an introductory course, those interested need not have any prior knowledge about anthropology, though students from all levels are warmly invited.


9 June 2015, The Malaise

Landscape

By June, I had reached the post-thesis malaise.  This is that time between submission and defence where you find yourself wanting to separate as much from the damned thing, but also realise you need to prepare as much as possible for the viva.  So, for this post, I wrote about it.  A cathartic attempt at vocalising the anxiety that comes from suddenly being finished with the Thesis, but still having it there, in your mind.  It’s like having an obsession that haunts your thoughts, whilst you sit on the cusp of the end of it all.  As I stated: “To conclude, the malaise that I associate here with the post-submission mindset is in its own way indicative of a ‘crisis,’ not only in our confidence of what it is we have written, but in the loss of the obsession that is writing a thesis.  It is a malaise defined by this double loss, a horrific perfect storm bolstered by a separation from that which has defined us for years, and the ultimate concern that the typo on page 137 will be the deciding factor in our inevitable failure.”


16 June 2015, Bully for Free Speech

nelson 2

By mid-June, commencement ceremonies in both the US and Britain are in full swing, which also means individuals of merit are providing audiences with commencement addresses.  One such address came from Ian McEwan, given at Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  While I gained a great deal of respect over the last five years for McEwan, given that my PhD research focused on two of his novels, I found myself in sincere disagreement with the theme of his address: the defence of free speech and an admonition of those unwilling to stand beside the authors of the recently attacked Charlie Hebdo.  That is, though I do agree with him that free speech is a human right for which we must always fight, I could not help but find an almost hypocritical argument within his lack of empathy for those who take such offence at certain examples, that they respond with violence.  Empathy, I argued, is the ability to understand another’s perspective, so that even when we despise their reaction, we still understand why they might have reacted that way.  Ironically, this thinking comes across in his fiction, though was sadly missing in his commencement address.


23 June 2015, Identity Matters

zebra

For a couple weeks over the summer, news outlets were seemingly obsessed with Rachel Dolezal, who had resigned as President of the Spokane, Washington branch of the NAACP after it was revealed that though she had been presenting herself as ‘black,’ she was, in fact, biologically caucasian.  As ‘identity’ was a major part of my research, this of course caught my attention.  By using her story as data, her use of ‘creative non-fiction’ in identifying as ‘African-American’ becomes an intriguing insight into the difference between self-identification and normative categories.  As a tie-on to my previous post using stand-up comedy as a discursive source on Atheism, I presented this conclusion: “Issues of racial identity are likely to arise within nations (such as the US) wherein the ethnic and racial identities of the citizens that make up that nation’s culture come from a myriad of different origins.  In response to this, comedians have attempted to address this in an equal number of ways.  As I perceive it, perhaps the three best, if not most memorable, are the links below.  I place them here as a supplement to my own opinion, a translation, if you will, of a heavily serious topic, textually transformed into a comedic response.”

https://www.youtube.com/embed/JxtixtZzU2c?feature=player_embedded“>

https://www.youtube.com/embed/C9XQDofW17A?feature=player_embedded“>

https://www.youtube.com/embed/IlLPAIrmqvE?feature=player_embedded“>


30 June 2015, A Day in the (Fictional) Life

walking

This post came about a week prior to my viva, so I felt the best way to deal with this would be to fictionalise a normal day in my life, which I also fictionalised, for the benefit of the story.  In this post I described a regular day, as experienced, by an American, in Scotland.  I designed the post to make it read like an ethnographic field report, partly to support my theory that ‘everything is fiction,’ and partly because it was fun to do it.


7 July 2015, Nothing to be Afraid Of

i'm finished

This post came five days after I successfully defended my Thesis.  I used this as an opportunity not only to share my experiences (and the idea that it was, in the end, nothing to be afraid of), but to discuss the anxieties writers feel, when writing.  To do this, I used a quote from Hemingway that I think best encapsulates the perfect advice for a writer, of any type of fiction:

For Christ sake write and don’t worry about what the boys will say nor whether it will be a masterpiece nor what. I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket. You feel you have to publish crap to make money to live and let live. All write but if you write enough and as well as you can there will be the same amount of masterpiece material (as we say at Yale). You can’t think well enough to sit down and write a deliberate masterpiece and if you could get rid of Seldes and those guys that nearly ruined you and turn them out as well as you can and let the spectators yell when it is good and hoot when it is not you would be all right. (Re-printed via www.lettersofnote.com)


14 July 2015, In Comparison a Disappointment Dwells

new yorker

In mid-July, Harper Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchmen, was published, to mixed reviews.  In particular, much of the disappointment felt by reviewers and readers alike was Lee’s description of Atticus Finch, the beloved father of Scout and proud advocate for racial equality in To Kill a Mockingbird, as an old racist.  This disappointment stemmed from a shock, as if suddenly this literary hero’s true self was revealed.  I took this disappointment and applied it to a similar comparison between Malinowski’s seminal Argonauts of the Western Pacific (which has been seen as the paragon of textualized participant observation), and the diary he kept, published some twenty years after his death.  Like this new Atticus, Malinowski’s diary revealed a betrayal of sorts, showing readers his true opinions, his bias, and his more human (subjective) side.  By comparing these two comparisons, I concluded that the result of comparison would only ever lead to disappointment.


21 July 2015, The Expert in the Room

know it all

My two favourite paintings a the Scottish National Gallery are these two by William Dyce:

david in highlandschrist in highlands

I enjoy these paintings because they represent a different perspective, a contextualization of two Biblical figures (David and Jesus) into Dyce’s setting: the Scottish highlands.  This post, however, only used these as entry points into a larger discussion about the ‘expert level’ people adopt when they gain knowledge about something.  Likewise, this presented the opportunity to further discuss the reality that people with PhDs, whilst knowledgeable on single subjects, are not knowledgable about everything. I used some images by Matt Might to represent this, particularly this one:

phd all knowledge


28 July 2015, Shameless Self-Promotion

self promotion

This post was, as the title suggested, a shameless self-promotion.  Earlier in the year I submitted an article for consideration to a special volume of the journal Science, Religion, and Culture.  It was, to my surprise and delight, accepted.  So, I used this post to promote it, as well as the other articles included.  It’s really that simple.  Here’s my article: “Discourse Analysis and the Definition of Atheism.”


4 August 2015, It’s the Little Differences

little things

Last July, the UK Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced that there would be major changes to the visa permissions and restrictions for non-european individuals coming to study in the UK.  At first, I figured this wouldn’t affect us, and focused this post on the ‘little differences’ that make big waves for people living within cultures not their own.  Part of my discussion included a Guardian article by Adam Trettel, who made many points about feeling ‘unwanted’ or ‘different’ while studying here in the UK.  Though I wouldn’t know it for some time, these visa changes would indeed affect us, and cause us to feel our own sense of ‘difference’ and ‘unwantedness,’ but that wouldn’t happen for some time.  A post on this will be coming soon.


11 August 2015, Language Games

cliceh

In early August, we took our last trip to Paris, a city that we have come to love, not only through multiple trips, but also after I lived there for two different months to learn French at L’Institut Catholique de Paris.  This post was a brief description of this last trip, and how when we (people) visit foreign countries we tend to ‘create’ selves that we wish to be seen by others.  In turn, those others also ‘present’ the ‘selves’ they want us to see, a never-ending cycle of performances that contribute to an interactional back-and-forth between entities developing an identity of ‘humanity.’


18 August 2015, Nothing is Real, and Nothing To Get Hung About

warehouse 51

This post took its focus from the idea that, without us giving things meaning, nothing means anything.  I presented a number of examples where this might prove valid: a controversial Kouros statue at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Southern California; the Fälschermuseum, in Vienna, Austria, and the Museo Del Falso at the University of Salerno’s Center for the Study of Forgery; the Hitler Diaries, forged documents created and sold by Konrad Kujau to the German magazine Stern, the UK’s Sunday Times, and the American magazine Newsweek; the exact replica of the Lascaux Cave, created to preserve the delicate art of the original, which can no longer be seen in person; and the genuineness of the items available for purchase on the website  Screenbid from the AMC hit show, Mad Men.  By comparing these examples, I concluded that there is no difference between something that is ‘authentic’ and something that is not.  The only difference is the one we give to the former, in our attempts at differentiating the two.  In this way, nothing is actually real.


25 August 2015, Live from Erfurt, It’s the XXI Quinquennial Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions!

erfurt

This post was the first of a series of ‘live from’ posts, where I was writing from a particular conference.  This one came from the XXI Quinquennial Congress of the IAHR.  This was an amazing conference, and something that I had been looking forward to since I first arrived in Edinburgh.  The post itself was about the panel on which I presented, and how these sorts of gatherings remind us just how small the world is, via our theoretical and methodological differences.  Also, side note: I wrote this with a cracking hangover.


1 September 2015, Vanilla English

piper

After the XXI Quinquennial Congress of the IAHR, we all went our separate ways.  My way home was via Berlin.  This post told that story, specifically about a simple insult that I received from a fellow passenger just prior to boarding the flight, from which it takes its title: vanilla english.  While it was a comment made in passing with an Englishman drinking beer at an Irish bar in Berlin, it also reminded me of the diversity of the IAHR (and particularly the panel in which I presented), and the incorrect labels we sometimes assume about things that might seem ‘bland’ from our particular perspective.


8 September 2015, Live from Canterbury, It’s the Annual Conference of the British Association for the Study of Religions

door

Shortly after the IAHR, a few of us attended the annual conference of the British Association for the Study of Religions at the University of Kent, in Canterbury.  Rather than what I had done before, using the post to just describe my presentation, I took this opportunity to tell the story of the BASR conference’s role in my life in Edinburgh.  Writing on the train south from Edinburgh, I described how I came to associate the BASR conference with the beginning of each new semester, and how this one, perhaps my last, would once again act as the penultimate start of my last September in Edinburgh, and the last conference I would attend in Britain.


15 September 2015, A Stereotypical Post

barbie 3

With the start of Fall, I decided to talk about stereotypes, particularly the one that associates Starbuck’s Pumpkin spice Lattes with ‘basic white girls.’  While this, in its own way, provided a humorous route into the use of stereotypes as discursive data, it also proved rather telling about the way we develop these stereotypes and what they tell us about ourselves, and those who create them.  As I concluded: “These are stereotypes, and stereotypes are interesting things.  Sure, they can tell us a lot about ‘other’ people, about their customs and culture, and about the way they define themselves.  In this way, they even represent a type of discourse: language used by individuals that we perceive in a particular way, and thus the language we use to describe those ‘others’ in a way that makes sense for both their context, as well as for our description itself. Yet, they also tell us a lot about ourselves as well, not just in how we perceive those ‘others,’ but in how we might thus be stereotyping ourselves in the process.  After all, if identity construction is all about projecting an image we want to be seen by others, which is then validated by an external entity (that other person), and vice versa ad nauseam, then aren’t we constantly being stereotyped as we stereotype others.  This is something we should all consider, particularly concerning the type of terminology not only being used in Europe at the moment concerning the difference between a ‘refugee’ and an ‘immigrant,’ but about how we perceive others on a day-to-day basis in our interactions and conversations with other human beings.”


22 September 2015, Thesis for Ants

for ants

In September, the redditor, /u/FaithMilitant posed the following simple question to the subreddit, /r/AskReddit:

PhD’s of Reddit. What is a dumbed down summary of your thesis?

Based on this, I focused this post on a discursive bias concerning the perception people have about what constitutes a ‘PhD.’  In essence, my argument stated that individuals tend to associate the PhD with research in the sciences, rather than the humanities, based on the higher ranked responses to /u/FaithMilitant’s question.  In fact, this was my thesis:

This discussion represents a particular bias, or rather, a particular discursive perception of the concept ‘PhD,’ and how the public might perceive of that concept as something more predominately associated with the sciences, rather than the humanities.  

In relation to the notion that there currently exists a ‘crisis’ in the humanities, or that the humanities is a dying art, this was my conclusion: “more than anything, perhaps it reminds us that though there are differences between these two fields, the level of importance between a thesis that tests the accuracy, or even existence, of a Higgs-Boson, and a thesis that argues that all writing, from ethnography to a novel, is fictional by means of its ‘artificial’ nature, is in itself a fictional differentiation established by our discursive perceptions, and perpetuated by the language of random sample data.  Understanding how that works will largely influence both the future of the humanities, as well as the future of education worldwide.  After all, how can we be expected to promote and describe our research, if we can’t even control how those descriptions fit into the discourse on what it means to have a ‘PhD?’”


29 September 2015, Close Encounters

mona lisa 2

This post came about after my usual museum companion and I failed to see the The Amazing World of M.C. Escher exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.  When we arrived, two days before the exhibition closed, we found a line of people that stretched all the way from the entrance to the street.  It was, by our estimation, at least an hour wait before we would get in.  As we sat and watched these people queuing up to see a few etching by the famous artists, I started to think about how rituals change over time, and how they are influenced by new additions and generational gaps.  For instance, is seeing Escher’s work ‘in person’ the reason we stand in line to see artwork we can view, in perhaps better detail, on the internet?  That is, is it the ritual of seeing the work, not actually seeing the work, that becomes the important part of the experience?  If so, then are sacred rituals (going to church, etc.) the same: is doing the ritual more important than what the ritual is venerating?  Or, in other words, is worshiping God more important than the belief that God exists?


6 October 2015, An Insight into the Real Me

sherlock 2

This post was short, because it it didn’t really require all that much more commentary than what I added.  Alongside this clip, which I think best describes my ridiculous thoughts about things.


13 October 2015, Perhaps the Most Logical Vote is a Write-In

Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 12.58.52

In this post, I took on relational terms, and in particular the term ‘nones.’ I haven’t, as evidenced by a few of the posts listed here, been much of a fan of relational terms.  I feel like they don’t quite represent the individuals we study well enough, and leave far too much room for ambiguity.  For this criticism, then, I chose to take on the ‘none’ category, and concluded with a useful (albeit likely disappointing) comparison: “The term ‘nones,’ and with that any terminology that has adopted the prefix ‘no’ or ‘non,’ thanks in great part by sociologists attempting to embody how individuals define themselves in relation to the religions of others ‘broadly conceived,’ seems like an attempt at defining what we can only presume is a large and growing group of like-minded individuals by simply describing them by what they aren’t.  Which, in my opinion, seems incredibly unfair.  After all, I’m not ‘non-British,’ I’m an ‘American.’  To call myself the former is just silly, and, really, doesn’t seem all that useful.”  For this reason I offered this solution, a ‘write-in’ option that I think will help assuage some of the ambiguity about this topic:

“In the space provided, please describe how you identify religiously, using the terms you prefer.”  


20 October 2015, I Know it When I See It

Raquel on the cross

How do we define ‘religion?’  Do we focus on rituals?  On belief?  Do we use dimensional or categorical means to define what we think religion might be?  In this post, I used a conversation between colleagues where we considered these questions to point out a means of defining religion that I thought worked best: I’ll know it when I see it.  This, sadly, is not my original thought.  I, in fact, borrowed it from Justice Potter Stewart’s exact expression, “I know it when I see it,” which came from his concurrent opinion on the 1964 Supreme Court case, Jacobellis vs. Ohio.  The case itself dealt with free speech and the difference between pornographic material and ‘artistic expression.’  Though the Court found that the film in question (Louis Malle‘s The Lovers) did not represent pornographic material, they were unable to define what constituted the definition ‘pornography.’  In his attempt to address this, Stewart stated:

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.

So, by applying this to the question of ‘how do we define religion,’ my response was equally the same: I know it when I see.  Of course, while I do (and did) accept that this might lean “perhaps a bit too precariously toward the substantive side of the debate, essentially arguing that what I think is religious is defined as such for no other reason than my own convictions,” I also feel (felt) that it’s equally “rather clarifying in its simplicity.”  After all, as I concluded: “just like how I might be able to determine something as ‘religious’ when I see it, this methodological approach seems to me that much better than the theoretical discourse of the last century, merely because I know it is.”


27 October 2015, Live from Cambridge, its Ways of Knowing: The 4th Annual Graduate Conference on Religion at Harvard Divinity School!

boston

This was my last ‘live from’ post of this year, this time from the 4th Annual Graduate Conference on Religion at Harvard Divinity School, ‘Ways of Knowing.’  While I chose not to write about the presentation I gave (I did that the next week), I did write about stereotypes, and in particular, those about Boston.  I used these three movie trailers:

https://www.youtube.com/embed/SGWvwjZ0eDc?feature=player_embedded“>

https://www.youtube.com/embed/QQ7wcayQQLQ?feature=player_embedded“>

https://www.youtube.com/embed/z02M3NRtkAA?feature=player_embedded“>

Not surprisingly, the Boston that we found was quite different from that portrayed in these films.  Once again stereotypes tried to influence my perception which, anthropologically, led to this thesis:

Our depictions of culture, either fictional or ethnographic, are isolated representations that, though we may emphatically defend as authentic, are unique to our own perceptions, and thus can never truly be so.  That is, even when we try to ensure that our representations honour our subjects with as much authenticity as possible, we can never truly grasp the reality of a place and its people because, no matter how hard we try, our representations are, by their inherent nature, the products of artifice.


3 November 2015, An Atheist Gospel: The Quest for the Fictional Jesus and the Gospel Novel as Atheist Discourse

jesus muscle

This post was a proposal, a detailed description of my post-thesis research.  It describes a number of details about how I will be using select ‘Atheist gospels’ to discursively analyse the Atheist arguments and philosophies found within each author’s shared re-write of the gospel narrative.  Within my description I provided a chapter outline, research proposal, research program, and bibliography.  Hopefully no one steals the idea.  Or, if nothing else, hopefully this will act as a kind of ‘copyright’ so if they do, I’ll be able to claim ownership.


10 November 2015, In Praise of Polyvocality: An Early Preview

babel

This post details the response that I wrote for Christopher Cotter‘s interview with Professor Johannes Quack for the Religious Studies Project.

The interview can be found here: http://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/indian-rationalism-and-a-relational-approach-to-nonreligion/

My response can be found here: http://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/2015/11/12/in-praise-of-polyvocality/

My response, as I plotted out in this post, was, in essence, this:

when viewed as a cultural unit, in the same way we would objectively assess the subjects of an anthropological examination, the polyvocality of this discursive field becomes a collective of individual identities conforming into a group one.  Thus, rather than the result being the “frustrating morass of contradictions and cross-purposes” (13) that Bullivant predicts, our different theoretical approaches to Atheism/non-religion/un-belief/ir-religion becomes a useful cultural unit with which we might, from a third-level perspective, make sense of the field itself. That is, if we step back and look at ourselves just as objectively as we look at our subjects, our differences transform from an atonal mess of scholastic disagreements, into a more discursively valuable cultural system.


17 November 2015, Everything is Fiction: A Discursive Year in Review

hemmingway 2

This brings us, then, to this post, which I have listed here to further the notion (as I’ve done throughout this year) that everything, even this blog, is fictional by the fact that it is designed, constructed, created, and imagined via my intentions.  As discursive data, however, it also provides an interesting insight into those things that influenced my thoughts.  Here’s to another year.