Thoughts and Opinions

The Meaning of Meaning

Years ago, my brothers and I started debating the existence of absolute truth.  My brothers defended its existence and knowability.  I questioned its knowability, if not its very existence.   After decades retracing the same ground, our dialogue began to seem less like a path to enlightenment than a rut.  My brothers still believed in absolute, objective truth, and that it’s possible to know at least some of it, while I stuck to my subjectivist guns.

My subjectivism included the matter of language.  I see words as arbitrary patterns of sound waves without inherent meaning, which is to say, lacking any meaning until two or more people reach agreement (or at least think they’ve reached agreement) on what idea those sound waves represent.  The word “fruit” is not inherent in apples or oranges.  Not only the sound f-r-u-i-t but the very concept of fruit exists only in the mind.  A “fruit” is not a real thing, but a category, a label for an idea.  And ideas, as we all know, exist only in the mind. 

Having agreed that early ancestors of MacIntosh and Granny Smith had enough in common to be called “apples,” and that the ancestors of navels and clementines had enough in common to be called “oranges,” we then went further and called them both “fruit.”  Slicing and dicing with our verbal ginsu knives, we label some fruit as “citrus.” We group fruit with legumes and call them both plants.  We add ourselves and elephants as mammals, then add plants and viruses and call us all “living things.” All the while, scientists debate the very idea of what living things are, including and excluding actual things from what is, I maintain, just a concept.  Importantly, the things themselves are not affected by what the scientists call them.  A rose remains a rose, by whatever name we call it.   

And so language, I say, remains subjective.  We attempt to group and classify real things by using conceptual labels.  We distinguish between a gallop and a trot, but we ignore the difference between the way I “walk” and the way a thoroughbred horse does, or a camel or a duck.  Arbitraily, subjectively, we call them all the same thing: “walk.”  Why not distinguish between a walk and a shawk and a mawk?  It’s all very arbitrary.  What constitutes a “walk” is obviously an idea – and ideas exist only in the mind.

Comfortable in my subjectivist philosophy of language, I recently came across the late Hilary Putnam, former Harvard professor and president of the American Philosophical Association.  Putnam famously claimed that “meaning ain’t just in the head.”  In his books Meaning and Reference (1973) and The Meaning of Meaning (1975), he used a thought experiment to demonstrate that the meanings of terms are affected by factors outside the mind.

Essentially, Putnam did this by asking us to imagine a world that is a perfect twin of Earth – that is, in every way but one.  The only exception is that its lakes, rivers, and oceans are filled not with H20 but with XYZ.  But everything else is identical, including people, and their tongues, and their languages – so that both Earth’s Frederick and Twin-Earth’s Froderick use the identical word “water” to refer to the stuff that fills the oceans on their respective planets.  Since Frederick and Froderick are physically indistinguishable, and since their words “water” have different meanings, those meanings cannot be determined solely by what is in their heads.  

So said Putnam.

The idea that meanings are rooted in real things, not just in subjective minds, became known as “semantic externalism.” It was credited with bringing about an “anti-subjectivist revolution” in philosophy, a revolution that threw into question the very “truth” of subjective experience.[1]

Yikes!  Was I wrong yet again?  Did I have to rethink my whole philosophy of language?  Did I have to concede to my brothers that there is such a thing as objectivity, at least in the meaning of words?

Not so fast.

Putnam’s Twin Earth thought experiment had me worried.  But at the end of the day, I decided it suffers from the common logical fallacy that its conclusion is contained in its premise.   The real question, I believe, boils down to one that Putnam may have had in mind when he titled one of his books The Meaning of Meaning.

If language is as subjective as I suppose, and if words can mean different things to different people, as I believe, who’s to say what a word really means?  I don’t believe there’s an objective answer, and perhaps Dr. Putnam did, but I think it may come down to what we mean by the word “meaning.” When faced with such questions, I’ve often sought the judgment of etymology, the history of words. I find it instructive to retrace the way words (and their meanings) change over time. And so I set out to unearth the etymological path by which the word “meaning” came to have meaning.

According to my research, the word is related to the Greek and Latin root men– (“to think”) from which English words like mental and mentor have derived.  It came into Old English as the verb maenan, meaning to state one’s intention, to intend, to have something in mind.  And much later, the verb “to mean” led to formation of the verbal noun, “meaning.”

From an etymological perspective, I would argue that meaning is therefore subjective, by definition.  If to “mean” something means to “have it in mind,” then there cannot be meaning independent of someone’s mind.  Definitionally, it is the idea formulated in the mind.  The person whose tongue pronounces the word’s sound is trying to convey the meaning in her mind.  And when the listener who hears the sound uses it to form an idea in her mind, “meaning” happens again.  To “mean” something is, always, to have an idea in mind.

I find it interesting to imagine the day, within the past few hundred years, on which two people were watching a meteor shower, or a lightning storm, or a two-headed snake – some occurrence that struck them as an omen of sorts – and one of them first asked the question, “What does it mean?”

It’s a question we’ve all asked at some point – if not about an omen, then about a symbol, a gesture, or some other mindless thing. The question has become an accepted expression in modern English.  But what a momentous event, the first time it was asked!  Here we had a word – to “mean” something – which (at the time) meant that a speaker had some concept “in mind” and “intended” to convey that concept to another.  That is, as then used, the word clearly referred to a subjective concept.  You’d long been able to ask what a person meant, intended, or “had in mind.” But when the question was first asked, “what does it mean?” referring to a lightning bolt, an earthquake, or a flood, the one asking the question was implicitly asking another, broader question – whether, perhaps, the “it” – the burning bush, the flood, the electrical discharge – could have “something in mind.” 

Alternatively, they were asking if the thing or event had been endowed with a meaning by virtue of having been in the “mind” of some superconscious deity that had caused the event.  If the “meaning” was that which had been in the mind of such a deity, it was arguably still subjective, i.e., still dependent on the idea that existed in a particular mind.  But if the meaning had originated in the thing or event itself – in the rock, or the flame, or the electrical discharge – then the conclusion would have to be that “meaning” can exist independent of a mind.

At any rate, it seems to me that whoever first asked the question, “What does it mean,” was expanding the very idea of “meaning.” Until that moment, to “mean” something meant to have it in mind.  To think it.  Until that moment, as I see it, everyone understood that “meaning” is entirely subjective.  To ask what “it” means was a misuse of the word.

And so, on the basis of etymology, I stand my ground. Meanings,” by definition, are ideas that form in the mind.  The idea of fruit.  The idea of walking.  Even Mr. Putnam’s theory of semantic externalism – that meaning “ain’t just in the head” – is an idea that, like all ideas, is just in the head.


[1] Davidson, Donald, Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective, Oxford University Press, 2001.

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Impeachment Again

     While I may be wrong, I believe there are good grounds for impeaching presidents.  I just don’t think the House has chosen wisely in its effort to define what they are.

     Consider the second proposed article of impeachment.  It essentially charges the president with “obstructing Congress” by refusing to comply with Congressional subpoenas. My problem here is that I don’t think a President is required to do whatever Congress orders him to do. As I see it, refusal to comply with a subpoena is a perfectly valid way of contesting its legality.  As best I recall, it is not uncommon for a party in litigation to refuse to comply with a subpoena, as one of the ways of getting a court to decide whether the subpoena is legitimate.  And it seems to me that in cases involving the separation of powers, it’s similarly legitimate for a president to refuse to comply with a subpoena, anticipating that Congress would then have to go to court to seek to enforce it.

    By way of analogy, in order to challenge the validity of Jim Crow laws, Rosa Parks had to “violate the law,” triggering her arrest for  refusing to sit in the back of the bus.  This was risky, but a legitimate way to get judicial review of the constitutionality of the law in question.   In order to get the courts to consider his status as a conscientious objector, Mohammed Ali had to “violate the law” by refusing to submit to the military draft.  Risky again, but legitimate.  The courts have developed a doctrine of “standing,” a doctrine designed to prevent just anybody from asking the courts to decide purely hypothetical questions.  “Standing” means that to challenge a law, you have to be actually affected by it.   For reasons of “standing,” violating a law is sometimes required in order to get a court to consider its validity.   If you want to challenge a local zoning law in court, you may have to violate the law (as interpreted by the zoning board) or you won’t have standing.  If you think a provision of the Internal Revenue Code is unconstitutional, you’ll probably have to violate the I.R.S.’s interpretation of the law, getting assessed taxes and penalties, before you’ll have standing to challenge that law in court.  There were various examples of this in my own  practice of employment law.  Often, it’s risky.  If you lose such challenges, you suffer the consequences.  But if you win such challenges, the ultimate prize is a finding that you were actually within your rights all along – in effect a ruling that, like Rosa Parks and Muhammed Ali, you were never really in violation of the law in the first place.

     If Congress were King, I’d favor the impeachment of presidents for refusing to comply with its subpoenas.  But Congress is not King.  In our system of law, it is the Courts that are the arbiter of what is and isn’t against the law.  It seems to me that impeaching a president for refusing to comply with Congressional subpoenas that haven’t been considered and approved by the Judiciary turns the separation of powers on its head. If Congress starts removing presidents just because those presidents don’t submit to its orders, I fear for the balance of power that is the cornerstone of our system of government. 

     Consider next the first article of impeachment.  In it, the House is charging the president with abuse of power— specifically, by pressuring a foreign government to take an action that would interfere in the U.S. electoral process .  Now, I favor impeaching presidents for anything that would interfere with the U.S. electoral process, but I find an important distinction between things that would interfere in the process and things that could affect the outcome.  Specifically, I find it helpful to distinguish between three types of conduct that might be considered potential interference.

     The first type I’ll call “direct” interference in the electoral process itself.  Impeding access to the polls.  Casting fraudulent ballots.  Bribing election officials.  Falsifying results.  I think pressuring a foreign government to engage in such direct interference surely ought to be grounds for removal from office.  But such direct interference is not what the House is alleging.

    Rather, the House is alleging pressuring a foreign government to take action that could be expected to influence some U.S. voters, and thus, the election outcome.  In my view, the conduct charged raises serious questions about when and why actions taken on the world stage that could affect election outcomes constitute “interference” with the electoral process.    If the president succeeded in pressuring Iran to cease its nuclear weapons development, there’s little doubt that such action could affect the election outcome in the president’s favor, but I can’t see that the same as interference in the process.   Would pressuring Saudi Arabia to investigate the murder of Jamal Khashoggi  result in “interference” in our elections if it affected the outcome?  Would pressuring North Korea to investigate the treatment of U.S. student Otto Warmbier, if such an investigation benefited the incumbent president?  In my view, we want our presidents to pressure foreign governments, and it makes no difference to me that, if the pressure works, the result would influence voters in favor of the president or his party. 

     Two of the words I find most troubling in the Article proposed by the house are the little words, “that would.”  The President is not even accused of soliciting action “for the purpose of” influencing the election.  He is accused of seeking action “that would” influence the election, i.e., the election outcome.     One might argue that Lincoln saw the Emancipation proclamation as something “that would” help him win re-election.  One might argue that FDR saw the New Deal as something “that would” help him win re-election.   One might argue that Lyndon Johnson saw the Warren Commission’s investigation into the assassination of JFK as something “that would” help him win re-election.. Parties and candidates are always doing things for political purposes, i.e., doing things that will enhance their prospects for re-election.  I just can’t conceive of impeaching presidents for conduct because their actions would “interfere with elections” by having an impact on election outcomes.

     My view does not change simply because the target of the requested investigation is a political opponent or relative of a political opponent.  Many Presidents, from Abraham Lincoln to Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, have been embarrassed by the conduct of close relatives.    Imagine that, in some future election cycle, evidence surfaces that suggests that Opponent O’s cousin may be conspiring with foreign companies to import drugs into the U.S.   Obviously, announcement of an investigation into such a possibility  might embarrass Opponent O and thereby affect the election outcome.   Do we want to discourage President P from soliciting a foreign country to undertake an investigation of the matter, because such an investigation would amount to interference with the election?  I think not.

     I would suggest that there is a third category of arguable election “interference” – and I think many of those who favor the impeachment of Mr. Trump may be motivated by the belief that his conduct falls into this third category.  I’ll call it the Fake News Category.  Impeachable offenses in that category might include, say, doctoring a videotape of one’s political opponent to make it appear she said something she really didn’t.  Photoshopping an opponent’s face onto a picture of someone doing something despicable.  Making up fake news stories for the purpose influencing votes.  In my view, this sort of conduct – widely acknowledged to be on the rise, widely predicted to become even more common in the future – is not direct interference with the electoral process.  But, to me, it is still problematic, even thought it is designed to affect election outcomes rather than election processes.  In my view, creation of such fraudulent news poses a threat to the integrity of our electoral outcomes every bit as serious as direct interference with processes, like stuffing ballot boxes, etc. I could favor articles of impeachment that directly accuse an incumbent president of intentionally fabricating such fake news for the purpose of affecting election outcomes.  And I suspect that Trump’s opponents believe that the President’s solicitation of Ukraine was tantamount to fabricating fake news.  But the Article the House is now considering does not accuse the president of fabricating fake news.   Rather, it accuses him of soliciting an investigation that would influence U.S. voters.

     Nowhere is free speech more important than in the political and electoral process. Charges of fabricating “fake news” are essentially charges of intentional fraud on the electorate.  An essential element of fraud is a misstatement of fact, known to be false when made, and made for the purpose of inducing someone to rely on the false statement to their detriment.  Intentionally creating fake news for the purposes of misleading the electorate amounts to such fraud, and should not be tolerated. But calling for an investigation into smoke is not the same as asserting the existence of fire when one knows there is in fact no fire.   In my view, if a President thinks she sees smoke, even about a political opponent, calling for an investigation to determine if there is a fire strikes me as a very legitimate use of power – and one we should want to encourage in  our presidents, not despite a possible impact on the outcome of elections but because of such impacts, in which investigations help to bring out facts and in which the electorate is able to assess thje evidence and how that evidence impacts their votes. Even now, members of the House are calling for an investigation of the President, anticipating that it will affect the outcome of upcoming elections  Should that turn their very votes for impeachment into impeachable offenses themselves? Do we want a world in which all our elected representatives risk impeachment any time they call for investigations into their opponents?

     Some, I suspect, would say that Trump’s calling for an investigation of Hunter Biden was tantamount to a fraudulent falsification of fact because allegations of impropriety by Biden have already been “discredited.”  But Ukraine is a country with a history of corruption.  The prior investigation I’m aware of only found no evidence of a violation of Ukranian (not U.S.) law. Was the prior investigation thorough? Unbiased? Not itself the result of corruption? Might a new investigation unearth evidence of a violation of U.S. law, or simply information the U.S. electorate might find relevant to its voting in an upcoming election? Investigations are meant to dig deeper into the truth.  In my view, calling for them does not come close to the kind of manufacture of fake news that I would consider good grounds for impeachment.

     For these reasons, I am not a fan of the House’s articles of impeachment, as drafted.  That said, there are other grounds for impeachment I would not mind seeing the House approve.  If Mr. Trump is suspected of fabricating false statements in order to affect election outcomes, I say charge him with fraud on the electorate. If the evidence supports the charges, I say remove him from office because of it.   In fact, I’ll go even further.  Just as I believe that impeaching for bribery will tend to discourage bribery and impeaching for cover-ups will tend to discourage cover-ups, I believe that impeaching for eating hamburgers will tend to discourage eating hamburgers.  What constitutes good ground for impeachment is a political question, not a legal one. And I believe the grounds chosen can be expected to have an in terrorem effect on the behavior of future presidents, discouraging them from engaging in whatever type of conduct is seen as grounds for impeachment – even if its eating hamburgers.  

     As a result, while I oppose impeaching presidents for refusing to comply with Congressional subpoenas, and I oppose impeaching presidents for pressuring foreign governments to conduct investigations that could affect U.S. election outcomes, I would LOVE to see Congress impeach this president (and several of their own number) for “Fomenting National Divisiveness.” As I see it, particulars to such articles might include such things as “Making public statements and otherwise manifesting such extreme disrespect for others as to exceed the bounds of propriety in a pluralistic society.”  Evidence in support of such charges could certainly include fabrication of false news stories, calling for investigations of opponents in bad faith, etc– but the gist of such charges would be the disrespect and divisiveness involved.  If presidents (and members of Congress) were to fear impeachment for “fomenting national divisiveness,” I believe they would be influenced to call for greater harmony; that they would tend to manifest greater respect for those who disagree with them; that political rhetoric would soften, and that civility in political debate would increase.  In my view, those would be very good results –not for one party or the other, but for the country as a whole.

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Primates and Praise

Early in the Christian churches, bishops and archbishops came to be called “primates.” The word was not intended to evoke images of orangutans or macaques.  (It would be another five hundred years before Carl Linnaeus classified homo sapiens as a member of that order.) Rather, even in Latin, the word for “first” had been used to mean a superior, a leader, or most excellent person, and the Christians had no problem designating their spiritual leaders with the term as well.

There are many things I like about my Christian heritage.  If Christians today preached what I believe the historical Jesus preached, I’d readily identify as a Christian.  But as I see it, modern Christianity gets Jesus wrong in a number of respects. 

When I was only eight, I was invited to spend the weekend in the countryside with a friend.  Since I’d have to miss Sunday mass, I made a phone call to ask for permission to do so.  My friend’s family got quite a laugh when, after the call, they discovered I hadn’t been calling home, but the church rectory. The “Father” they’d heard me addressing was not my biological father, but the parish priest.

I had already been taught to call all priests “Father,” and even when I talk to priests today, I use the term of respect I was taught as a child.

But it wasn’t long after the parish priest told me it would be a sin to miss Mass  that I came across Matthew 23:9, where Jesus is said to have told his followers “to call no man Father, for one is your Father, which is in Heaven.”  Given that scripture, I never understood how Christians developed the practice of calling their priests “Father” – especially in an age when fathers demanded so much respect – except, of course, that the priests had taught them to.

It’s easier for me to understand why hierarchies arose as church memberships and treasuries grew – and why words like “bishop” (from Greek epi-skopos, meaning to watch over) came into use.  And it seems almost inevitable that as such growth continued, layers of rank would have to be added, for practical, administrative reasons.  So by the time the Bishops of Canterbury, York, Armagh and St. Andrews had become powerful, it isn’t entirely surprising that they’d call these leaders ‘primates.” But the primates were always first among “fathers,” and I still had a hard time squaring that with Matthew 23:9.

Nor was it that particular scripture alone.   According to Matthew 12:50, Jesus instructed his followers, “Whosoever shall do the will of my Father, which is in Heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.”  Jesus preached, “Blessed are the meek; for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5) and “Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:4). I read of a Jesus who washed the feet of his disciples, of a Jesus who frequently dismissed those who treated him with special reverence, of a Jesus who said to a man who addressed him as Good Master, “Why callest thou me good? There is no one good but one, that is God” (Matt. 19:16). I read of a Jesus who, when asked if he was King, replied only, “You said it” (Matt 27:11), as if to disavow the title himself.  In fact, Jesus taught, in the Sermon on the Mount, that his followers should pray to the Father (for His was the power and the glory). And, if we believe Matthew 7:23, Jesus chastised those who would honor him, warning, “Many will say to me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? And in thy name done many wonderful works?’ And then will I profess to them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.”

One reason I haven’t been to church but a few times in the last fifty years is my lack of comfort with heaping praise on this man who fought so hard to avoid it.  Last month, I went to a Catholic mass for the first time in many years.  One of the first hymns sung was To Jesus Christ, Our Sovereign King.

“To Jesus Christ, our sovereign king, who is the world’s salvation, all praise and homage do we bring, and thanks, and adoration. Christ Jesus, victor!  Christ Jesus, Ruler! Christ Jesus, Lord and Redeemer! Your reign extend, O King benign, to every land and nation; for in your kingdom, Lord divine, alone we find salvation.  To you and to your church, great King, we pledge our hearts’ oblation – until, before your throne, we sing in endless jubilation.”

Homage? Kingdom?  Reign? Throne?  I was taught the theology behind this hymn.  But for me, the theology fails to justify adoration of a man who shunned adoration, who deflected all praise to God, his father in heaven.  To my way of thinking, Jesus would not have approved of such a hymn.

Meanwhile, whatever may be said in defense of praising Jesus, I have even greater trouble with adoration of mankind.

Consider this passage from Pope John Paul II’s Gospel of Life, Evangelicum Vitae.  I can’t read it without thinking of Jesus’ teaching that the meek shall be blessed.

52. Man, as the living image of God, is willed by his Creator to be ruler and lord. Saint Gregory of Nyssa writes that “God made man capable of carrying out his role as king of the earth … Man was created in the image of the One who governs the universe. Everything demonstrates that from the beginning man’s nature was marked by royalty… Man is a king. Created to exercise dominion over the world, he was given a likeness to the king of the universe; he is the living image who participates by his dignity in the perfection of the divine archetype.”

I hope that my thoughts are not taken as an attack upon those who sing the hymn, or upon Pope Paul II for his thoughts about mankind.    I mean no disrespect, and God knows, I may be wrong.  But as Christians prepare this month to celebrate Jesus and his birth, I’m moved to point out my inability to buy into these aspects of modern Christianity. As I like to think of it, “I prefer the original.”  Father, Primate, Pope, Homo Sapiens Sapiens.  Clearly, we are prone to bestow honor on ourselves.  I don’t know whether we inherited this tendency from other primates or not, but the Jesus I believe in warned us against it.

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From Front Row Seats

Here’s a poem I just ran across. I wrote it twenty three years ago. I guess the origins of WMBW go back further than I previously thought.

.

From front row seats

behind home plate

we watch the batter swing,

we hear the bat crunch,

we cringe and wince,

able to feel the wood

shatter in our palms.

.

I know that when my friend

puts one hand on the top

of her head, and the other

at the base of her jaw,

and pushes hard

in opposite directions,

the sound I hear is not

my own, but her neck cracking.

Still, I put my hand

to my own neck, and rub

away the hurt I feel.

.

Stopped at a traffic light,

hearing tires screech,

I hold the wheel tight

and step on the brake

to avoid the crash.

And when the screeching

stops in silence, I’m relieved.

.

We cannot help but empathize.

How much we share, unwittingly,

At times like these!

And how sad we are,

if we only laugh

when someone else

does something dumb.

.

3/14/96

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Submission

My recent trip to Morocco got me thinking how much our cultures shape us and make us who we are – that is, how much the ruts in our thinking can masquerade as truth itself.

As I packed for my trip, I decided to bring along a couple of books – Susan Miller’s A Modern History of Morocco and a copy of the Qur’an I’d bought a couple of years ago, a 1934 translation by Abdullah Yusuf Ali.   I thought they might help get me into the spirit of the trip – my first to a Muslim country.

Upon reading the first sixty pages of Ali’s translation when I first got it,  I’d found it a bit like Leviticus or the Gnostic Gospels – fragments of wisdom scattered among verses otherwise resistant to comprehension.  Miller’s history made more sense to me (once I started distinguishing between the Alawids, the Almohads and the Almoeavids).  But I like getting to know about things I know nothing about; the more foreign, the better.  So Morocco turned out to be a great trip, just as I’d hoped. 

To begin with, it felt like a different planet, the terrain like the barren brown land of La Mancha where Clint Eastwood filmed spaghetti westerns to pretend he was in the American West.   (It was barren, just sand and clay, devoid of plastic, steel or chlorophyll.)  Yet when we crossed the Atlas mountains into the Sahara, I realized how much green I’d been taking for granted.  Upon our return from the sand dunes to the “green” side of the Atlas, I did indeed notice occasional olive trees, date palms and cacti.  The rare new shoots of chlorophyll in the otherwise dry brown wadis – the result of a downpour on our third day in the country,  the first of a rainy season that, having just begun, showed no further hint of itself for the rest of our stay – were cause for celebration. After all, they had made the country comparatively lush.  What had seemed a wasteland at first now showed precious signs of life.

The architecture was equally striking.  Palaces, guest houses and mausoleums were opulent and ornate, sculpted or tiled into tiny squares, rectangles and diamonds, with Arabic scripts worming through the geometry like the tendrils of plants making their way through latticework.  But more than the fancy palaces and riads, I was struck by the simple architecture of the countryside.  Fields of clay separated by countless rock walls, most only one or two feet high, only a tiny fraction of which rose high enough to resemble stone buildings. Most of the structures were made of clay.  Berber villages, many miles apart, often consisted of only a dozen houses or so.  In one, a mountain village of sixty people called Outakhri, Lala Kabira treated us to two wonderful meals of lamb, eggs, vegetables, dates, couscous, green tea and flatbread, which we watched her bake in a blackened clay wood-burning oven.  When I asked our guide, Said, if she was his mother, aunt or other relative, he gave me a most curious stare.  Then he said, “No, she’s not related by blood.  But when you spend your life in a village of only sixty people, there’s really no difference.  Everyone is family.”

Not once in two weeks did I hear a complaint or a curse, not once an unpleasant gesture.  As the days passed, I began to feel majesty in the clay-colored, mountainous land.  The people, the food, even the terrain began to seem familiar.

One of our group, Juan Campo, is a professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  When I learned that Juan specializes in Islam, I asked for his opinion of Ali’s translation of the Qur’an.  When he said it was a good one, I asked if he’d written any books that a layman like myself might understand.

Yes, he said.  He’d been the chief editor of The Encyclopedia of Islam, (Checkmark Books, 2009).   

I have now bought and studied that volume.  My thanks to Juan for helping me better understand the basics of the Qur’an.  I’ve also now read a good bit of Ali’s translation  Based on this elementary introduction, I now understand that the Qur’an teaches as follows (citations are to chapter and verse of the Qur’an unless otherwise noted):

1.   “There is no god but God” (21:25).  (That is, there is only one God, and he is the God of all.)

2. That God is loving (85:14), eternal (2:255), merciful (1:1), omnipotent (3:26), omniscient (6:59, 21:4, 49:16), wise (2:216, 3:18), righteous (2:177), just (41:46), and forgiving of sins (3:31).

3.  That when God says something should be, it is. (2:117, 3:59.)  He created the world, a task which took him six days, creating day and night, the Sun, the Moon, and the stars  (7:54, 10:3, 11:7, 21:33, 25:61-62.)  According to some Muslim teaching, he created the Universe out of love, so that he would be known (hadith qudsi.)

4. God created the first human being, Adam, making him out of dust or wet clay, breathing the spirit of life into him  (3:59, 6:2, 7:12, 15:29, 30:20, 32:9).  He set Adam and Eve down in a blissful garden called Paradise, eating the fruits of the garden until Satan, the enemy (whom God had expelled from heaven for his disobedience) tempted them to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree (2:34-36, 2:168, 7:11-18, 7:189, 20:117-123).

5. Eve gave birth to Cain and Abel, and Cain later murdered his brother out of jealousy because God accepted Abel’s sacrifice rather than his (5:27-32).

6. God chose to save the righteous Noah, man of faith, while causing a great Flood that drowned the people who’d fallen into evil ways (7:64, 17:3, 37:75-77).

7.  Jews, Christians and Muslims are “the People of the Book,” all descended from that great opponent of idolatry, Abraham, the pious husband of Hagar and Sarah, the father of Ishmael and Isaac, whose faith in One God was so strong that he was prepared to sacrifice his son at God’s command (2:133, 19:41, 19:69, 21:51-58, 21:66-72, 37:112, 6:74-84, 37:99-111).

8. God chose Jacob, Moses and Aaron as prophets (19:51-53, 21:48, 21:72).  Moses was cast away on the waters as an infant, by his mother, to save his life (20:37-40).  Moses rose to prominence under the pharaohs of Egypt (7:104-109).  God spoke to him from a burning tree by Mount Sinai (28:29-30).  He spent forty days in the desert and received the commandment tablets from God while there (7:144-145).  In the absence of Moses, the Israelites worshipped the golden calf (7:148-149, 20:85-91).

9.  After slaying Goliath, David received a kingdom and wisdom from God.  Solomon ruled with wisdom and justice.  God listened to Job in his distress, and was merciful to him for his righteousness. (2:251, 21:78-79, 21:83-86, 38:20).  

10. John, the son of Zechariah (known to Christians as “the Baptist”) was a prophet made known to the father of Mary; he was princely, chaste, wise and righteous, and confirmed the word of God (3:39, 19:12-13).

11. Angels appeared to Mary and announced to her that God had chosen her above the women of all nations, saying “O Mary! God giveth thee glad tidings of a Word from Him: his name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, held in honor in this world and the Hereafter and of those nearest to God; he shall speak to the people in childhood and in maturity.  And he shall be of the righteous.” (3: 42-46).  Mary questioned the news, since she was a virgin, but God, who “createth what he willeth,” simply said “Be!” and breathed his spirit into her.  Thus was Jesus conceived. (3:47, 19:20-21, 66: 12).

12. Jesus is a spirit – Arabic ruh, or breath – proceeding from God; he is thus the word of God (4:171).   God strengthened Jesus with this holy spirit (2:87, 2:253, 5:110),  revealing the gospel of Moses and the prophets to him (2:136), teaching him the book of wisdom, and the law, and the gospel, and giving him the power to heal the sick and perform miracles (3:48-50, 57:27).  God said to Jesus, “O Jesus! I will take thee and raise thee to Myself and clear thee (of the falsehoods) of those who blaspheme; I will make those who follow thee superior to those who reject faith, to the Day of Resurrection.” (3: 55).  God ordained compassion and mercy in the hearts of those who follow Jesus (57:27).   Jesus is “a statement of truth” and a “sign for all people” (19:34, 21:91).

13. Charity is essential to a good and pure life.  As stated in the Qur’an (2:177):

Goodness is not that you turn your face to the east or the west.  Rather goodness is that a person believe in God, the last [judgment] day, the angels, the Book, and the Prophets; that he gives wealth out of love to relatives, orphans, the needy, travelers, and slaves; that he performs prayer; and that he practices regular charity.

14. The world will end on the Last Day, a day of Judgement and resurrection in which nothing will be hidden, the just will be rewarded by a return to Paradise and the unjust damned to hellish fire (1:4, 3:56-57, 19: 37-40, 21:47, 69:18-31, 74:38).  God will reward those who are faithful to him and his word by giving them a land of milk and honey, while punishing those without faith in eternal fire (2:164-167, 13:20-26, 21:39, 47-15).  “Those who believe (in the Qur’an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians [converts] – any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness – shall have their reward with the Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve” (2:62).  “Verily, this Brotherhood of yours is a single Brotherhood.” (21:92).

15. And so the Qur’an asks, “Who can be better in religion than one who submits his whole self to God, does good, and follows the way of Abraham, the true in Faith?” (4:125)

My dear Christian mother believed everything described above, yet her feelings about Muslims ranged somewhere between fear and loathing. 

As I understand it, in Arabic, there were traditionally no vowels.  The word Islam was essentially the three consonants, s-l-m – making Islam a cognate of the Arabic word Muslim, the Arabic word “Salam” (peace) and the Hebrew word “shalom” (peace).  The word Islam is often translated “enter into a state of peace.”

As we all know, some people err by confusing substance with translation.  Nowhere is this error more troublesome to me than when it comes to God.  When my mother cringed at the thought of worshipping Allah, I don’t believe she understood that “Allah” is simply the Arabic word for “God,” derived from the same Semitic root as El and Elohim.  I find it notable that, according to Professor Campo, Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews in the Middle East use the word “Allah” in referring to their God.

I so wish my mother could have understood this.  Nothing was more important to her than submission to God.  Yet she seemed not to understand that “Islam” is an Arabic word that, as usually translated, simply means submission to God.  And that “Muslim” is simply an Arabic word for one who so submits.  Had I spoken Arabic when Mom was alive, I shudder to imagine her reaction when I called her one who submits.

“I’m no Muslim!” she likely would have said.

My thanks to our guides, Hicham Akbour and Said ibn Mohamed, to our host, Lala Kabira, and to Professor Campo, for helping me take a new look at my family’s western culture.

Salam aleikom.

(Peace be with you.)

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On What’s Right

I think it’s time for someone to speak out in favor of the right wing.  I’m talking about true conservatism.  I’m talking about grammar.

My mother used to have fits when one of her sons said, “I’m done,” meaning that he’d finished eating.

“You sound as if you have no breeding,” she’d say.  ‘I’m done’ means you’ve been left in the oven long enough to be well cooked.  What you mean to say is, ‘I’m finished.’ ”

This is false conservatism.  Mom believed it simply because it was what her mother had taught her.  (In fact, she boasted that she believed everything her mother had taught her.)  I say, that’s blind faith in the old way, just because it’s the old way.

True conservatism, I say, is more principled.  And that’s why “I’m finished” is no more correct than “I’m done.” 

“I’m finished’ is what Al Capone said when Eliot Ness hauled him off to the federal pen.  It’s what Wile E. Coyote thought every time he was outwitted by the Road Runner. The correctness of the idea doesn’t depend on the main verb – “to do” being essentially equivalent to “to finish” – the difference depends on the choice between the two auxiliary verbs, ‘have’ versus ‘am.’  Specifically, the first is active, the second passive. 

There’s reason behind such principle.  If you “have done” your work, you “have finished” it.  (Active. You’re talking about what you have done to the work.)

Whereas, if the work “is” done, then it “is” finished.  (Passive. You’re talking about what has happened to the work.)

I told Mom a thousand times that the correct way to disavow the intention of further eating is to say “I have finished” or “I have done.”  It got me nowhere. It wasn’t what her mother had taught her.

I also pointed out to Mom that language changes over time.  (If it didn’t, we’d still be speaking Anglo-Saxon and Latin.  Even further back, the Tower of Babel would still be standing.)   But doggone it, recognizing that language changes over time doesn’t make me a liberal. I recognize the inevitability of change.  I just insist that conservatism, at its best, is not tradition for the sake of tradition, any more than it’s just rich people being greedy.  When there are good reasons for things to mean what they mean, then conservatism is more than greed, more than blind obedience to tradition.  It’s about being right!

That’s why, despite my liberal education, I’m comfortable  on the grammatical right wing.  That’s why I go into spasms when I hear people give the now prevalent answer to the question, “Do you mind?” 

The question essentially means: “Do you object?”  Yet people these days almost exclusively answer the question the wrong way, not just on the street, but even in otherwise high brow movies and books:

“Do you mind if I sit here?”

“Sure.  Go ahead,” they say!

“Would you mind if I step on your toes?”

“Sure.  Go ahead.”

“Do you mind if I take all your money?”

“Yes, please do.”

What are these people saying?  Do they want their money to be taken?  People, please!  What they mean to say is:

“Do you mind if I sit here?”

No. (I don’t mind at all.) Go right ahead.”

“Would you mind if I step on your toes?”

Yes.  I certainly would.  It would hurt!”

“Do you mind if I take all your money?”

“Heck yes!  Someone call a cop!”

True conservatives believe that some things are right, and others wrong, not because their mothers told them so, but because there are good reasons things are the way they are.

(That’s why they call them “right.”)

My granddaughter refers to having done things “on accident.”  When her mother doesn’t flinch, I’m not surprised, because her mother was the one who first made me flinch upon presenting me with the offensive phrase some thirty years ago.  But after thirty years of arguing unsuccessfully that “on accident” is wrong, must I now watch the abomination get passed on to yet another generation? 

I decided I should consult authority.  (After all, “authority” is the preferred weapon of liberals and conservatives alike, even if choice of authority varies.) And so I went to the indisputable source of all modern authority, the Internet, and googling on ‘by accident, versus on purpose,’ I came across a near unanimity of authority.  With nary an exception, these sites treated the problem as if nothing but the opinions of the masses mattered.

To a website, they agreed that “by accident” is correct in written English, and “on accident” incorrect, because “on accident” is hardly ever seen in ‘serious’ writing.  (‘Serious’ was conveniently not defined.) But when it comes to spoken English, all the authorities were on the infinitely tolerant left wing, agreeing that “on accident” has overtaken “by accident” among younger Americans.  Therefore, they conclude, when it comes to correctness, “it all depends on what sounds right to you.”

Egads! Even the esteemed Chicago Manual of Style seems to treat the question as a matter of popularity!

Hogwash, I say!  Someone please call the Queen! Rightness should remain rightness for reasons other than popularity! 

The authorities agree that “on accident” appears to have arisen by analogy to ‘on purpose.’  But uniformly, these authorities fail to address WHY there is a difference.  They fail to appreciate why things should always happen “on” purpose, but “by” accident.  

As with “I’m done,”  the problem is a failure to account for agency.  A failure to distinguish between the thing that is doing and the thing that’s getting done.

“By” is a preposition that speaks directly to agency.  If a ball was hit “by” you, then you were the one that hit the ball.  In contrast, if the ball hit you in the face while you weren’t looking, it was surely thrown by someone else – which is to say (from your perspective) by accident.  “By accident” means that whatever happened was done by someone, or something – some agent of causation – other than you yourself having willed it to be so..

“On” has many meanings, but one of them is to express alignment with purpose.  We say that the arrow we shot was “on” target if we shot it where we wanted to.  We do something “on” principle when we do it in accordance with our guiding philosophies.  We do something “on” faith when it is in alignment with what we hope to be true.  We do something “on” a hunch if our action is in alignment with our guess.  A rest stop is convenient if it is “on” the route we’re traveling.  This use of “on” is all about staying focused “on” our goal, remaining “on” our intended path.

So when we do something designed to achieve an intended result, and we do it successfully, it only makes sense to say we did it “on” purpose, i.e., in alignment with our purpose.  But when we fail – when, despite our own plans, some alien force intervenes, when some freak happening produces an unintended consequence – it only makes sense to say that it happened “by” the influence of something else – i.e., “by” accident. 

This is not by accident.  At least when it comes to language, .being right is all about being on the right. And if anything else makes sense to you, you can be sure it’s a part of whatever’s left.

Right?

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Sweetgrass

This Wednesday morning, I leave for Morocco.  People often ask why we should travel to foreign countries.  “There’s so much beauty our own country we have yet to see,” they point out.  My reply has long been that, for me, the best thing about travel is finding places as different as possible from what I’ve grown accustomed to.  My default condition is that I’ve evolved to follow paths of least resistance – which is to say, I act  like a river, rolling downhill within the banks, powered by my own inertia.  I like travel best when it forces me out of such ruts.

I’ve written before about the concept Daniel Kahneman calls WYSIATS, the illusion that “what you see is all there is.”  Kahneman describes “the remarkable asymmetry between the ways our mind treats information that is currently available and information we do not have.”  That’s why I love astronomers and astrophysicists so much: keenly aware of how vast the universe is, they’re constantly reminded how little information is currently available.  They talk about the huge unanswered questions.  They point to things they believed five years ago, only to learn they were wrong.  Traveling within my own country, just like reading the books of my own culture or conversing only with folks who share my religion or my politics, ensures that I will continue to base my understanding of reality on that tiny fraction of facts I can actually see – the facts I have always seen, because they share my rut.

A good friend of mine asks why I spend more time questioning the precepts of Christianity, capitalism, and American democracy than I do the precepts of Buddhism, communism, or the United Republic of Tanzania.  It’s not because I favor other systems or countries over those in which I’ve been raised.  On the contrary, it is because I see the greatest danger of falling into the WYSIATI rut with respect to the inherited beliefs I’ve spent a lifetime immersed in, unless I question them.  (And I have faith that whatever’s good in them will stand up just fine to my scrutiny.)

It is because of this that I have been so moved by Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass (Milkweed, 2013).  Reading it challenged not just my ideas about capitalism, ecology, and science, but the underlying ethics of everything I believe. 

The book may not present a panacea for the ills of the world.  But it did strike at the roots of my belief in Christianity, Democracy, Capitalism, the Enlightenment, Private Property, Western Science – all the basic systems of American thought that have claimed me as one of their own.  And the ironic thing is that I didn’t have to travel to Jupiter to get it, or even to Morocco – Kimmerer is a native American.  Her message is native American.  It grows from the roots of the land I’ve always called home.

So I write not to argue that Kimmerer’s views about science, economics, etc. are right, or better, than those I’ve grown up with.  Just that they are very different – and therefore, for me, profoundly thought provoking.  I especially love how she ties the way she thinks to her native American creation story.  I’d never realized how much the story of Adam and Eve – first heard, I suspect, when I was still wearing diapers – explains the rest of the world in which I’ve been living, and thereby forms the foundation of everything about my relationship to it.

In Kimmerer’s traditional native American creation story, Skywoman finds herself falling from some unknown place high up in the sky.  She is saved from a death-splat on the hard earth when a gaggle of geese fly up to meet her and break her fall.  One by one, the other animals welcome and seek to help her.  She ends up feeling a debt of gratitude to them, a responsibility to reciprocate.  She plants a garden with which to help feed the other animals.  Skywoman, in this creation story, is a newcomer who learns about the world from other living things, creatures who have been here far longer than she has, creatures who have much wisdom to impart.

How different is the story of Genesis, of God creating the whole world just for Man, telling him that he is made in the very image of God, that his wisdom is second only to God’s.  How different is Genesis, in which Man is charged with giving names to the animals, than the native American story of Nanabozho, in which Man is charged with the responsibility of learning the names of the plants and animals around him.  How different is our Judaeo-Christian teaching that other living things have been provided for us to put to our own uses.  How different the idea that we are here on earth as mere temporary visitors, briefly passing through on our way to eternal homes in Heaven, at the right hand of God.

As every landlord knows, temporary renters sometimes think differently than residents whose children will live in their homes for generations to come.  Not surprisingly, when we think of ourselves as recent arrivals in a world populated by others for millennia, we may end up thinking differently than if we see ourselves as owners of a place where everything else has been put here just for us, and which we will soon be leaving. 

In the Judaeo-Christian creation story, everything from the sun and the stars was created in just seven days, and Man – created that first week – has been at the top of the heap for thousands of years since.  How different when we think of a Universe that is fourteen billion years old, into which homo sapiens made his appearance in the last ten millionth of that time.   As Kimmerer says, the Skywoman story captures the idea that “we humans are the newest arrivals on earth, the youngsters, just learning to find our way.”

The implications of the native American worldview for ecology may resound more with some (like me) than with others.  Personally, I sense a kindred spirit when Kimmerer asks me to imagine an America focused less on a Bill of Rights and more on a Bill of Responsibilities.  I suspect many of my spiritually-inclined friends would smile with me when Kimmerer – a scientist – writes critically of the “unblinking assumption that science has cornered the market on truth,” or observes that “[w]e are all the product of our worldviews – even scientists who claim pure objectivity.”

But what I find most alluring is how Kimmerer portrays the native American mindset as steeped in humility. 

 After describing vast and complex communications among the trees in a forest – communications that Western science is only beginning to understand –  Kimmerer writes, “There is so much we cannot yet sense with our limited human capacity.  Tree conversations are still far above our heads.”

And, “[A]s a scientist, I am well aware of how little we do know.”

And, “We Americans are reluctant to learn a foreign language of our own species, let alone another species. But imagine the possibilities. Imagine the access we would have to different perspectives, the things we might see through other eyes, the wisdom that surrounds us.  We don’t have to figure out everything by ourselves: there are intelligences other than our own, teachers all around us… We have an opportunity to learn from them, to understand ourselves as students of nature, not the masters.  The very best scientists are humble enough to listen… [I]t takes humility to learn from other species.” 

Indeed – doesn’t it take humility to learn from other religious traditions, from other political parties, from other anything?  Quite often, as I read Braiding Sweetgrass, I found myself wondering whether I was stretching Kimmerer’s points too far, to support my own views.  Kimmerer was thinking of other species when she wrote, “Trying to understand the life of another being or another system so unlike our own is often humbling and, for many scientists, is a deeply spiritual pursuit.”  I found myself applying that same sentiment to understanding members of our own species in political discourse.  So too with another of her observations: Kimmerer describes being out in the rain, observing and listening, but I read more into her statement: “Paying attention acknowledges that we have something to learn from intelligences other than our own.  Listening, standing witness, creates an openness to the world in which the boundaries between us can dissolve in a raindrop.”

I recommend Braiding Sweetgrass. There was a great deal in it that I will never be able to forget.  And as I look forward to Morocco, I am especially looking forward to the night we will spend in the tent, in the Sahara, where the dryness of the desert will have removed so much moisture from the air, making the sky clear.  It’s supposed to provide one of the best views of the Milky Way from anywhere on earth. 

I hope to be awestruck, humbled by the vastness of things unknown.

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Disturbing Video

A good friend of mine recently included me on the recipient list when he forwarded a very disturbing video.  After viewing all 14 minutes of it, I was left wondering what portion of the people who view it find it disturbing for all three of the reasons that I do.

The subject of the video – white Los Angeles police offers chasing a black suspect through a housing project, on foot – is the sort of subject we hear a lot about these days. And the reasons it’s disturbing are familiar.

This particular video combines audio taken from police communication channels with audio and video from a surveillance camera and multiple police body-cams. It appears on the internet courtesy of the New York based Sergeants Benevolent Association, an organization of cops.  It’s narrated in large part by podcaster, commentator and author, Colin Flaherty.  (Flaherty, whose focus is apparently on black-on-white crime, is the author of books with titles like “Don’t Make the Black Kids Angry,” “White Girls Bleed a Lot” and “Into the Cannibals’ Pot.”) 

The video shows what a difficult job cops have enforcing the law these days as a result of resistance and disrespect in communities they serve.  This video makes that point very effectively – and (I think) disturbingly so.  In the video, residents of the housing project call the pursuing police officers “M.**F.**’s.  One of the black residents – seemingly nothing more than a by-stander – suddenly pulls out a pistol and shoots one of the pursuing officers.

It’s chilling.   It’s disturbing.  Today’s cops do face a tough job, and the video makes an important point. 

At the same time, I am disturbed by the racist commentary that runs throughout the video.  It mimics black accents.  It refers to the housing project residents as scam artists and welfare queens, and to males who “bounce from baby-mama to baby-mama” to game the welfare system. It suggests that hostile communities typically take Obamaphone video of arrests because their videos will give them a “payday.” It says that President Obama’s administration granted crime to blacks as an entitlement.  It concludes that the one thing a cop is never, ever, allowed to do – because it’s a “firing offense” – is to “make a black kid angry.”  Hyperbole and racially charged rhetoric run throughout.  I’ve never listened to Flaherty’s podcasts or read any of his books.  But I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that his detractors, if not his supporters, accuse him of fomenting white supremacy.  At a minimum, I have little doubt that he’s controversial, with both passionate supporters and angry detractors.

That the video is being distributed by the Sergeant’s Benevolent Union, and that it was passed on to me by a good friend who’s a retired cop – makes me wonder whether this is the sort of thing police unions are generally promoting these days – and if so, whether the cops and former cops who promote it see the same racism in it that I see.   

Do they see a video like this as part of the problem, or part of the cure, for the abusive treatment cops sometimes get these days?  Do they see the video as divisive?  Do they see it as  likely to increase, or to diminish, perpetuating black resentment of law enforcement?  

Here’s a link to the video.

https://cdn-cinemr.minds.com/cinemr_com/980666186651697152/360.mp4

I hope that by providing the link, I don’t get accused of supporting white supremacy or being anti-cop.   I feel moved to share the video because of the third thing about it I find disturbing: namely, my concern that among those who view it, some will find it disturbing for revealing the excesses of black communities, some for revealing the excesses of white cops, and hardly anyone for both reasons.

Is it possible to be disturbed by both sides?  Have we become so polarized that in order to support one side, we can no longer see the other? I worry about that third thing — polarization –as much as I worry about either disrespect for cops or racial bias.  Once again, I hope I’m wrong in thinking hardly anyone else is disturbed by both.  If you watch the video and think I’m wrong to worry, I’d love to hear from you. 

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Your Daily Dilemma

You’re approaching a door. 

Not one of those modern supermarket doors with motion sensors that open automatically, but  one of those plain old doors with an old-fashioned brass knob you actually have to turn.

Cradled in your right arm, you are carrying a large bag full of groceries.

In your left hand, you are carrying a Slurpee (or a Slushee, or whatever they call them).  By whatever name, it is a large styrofoam cup (bad for the environment), with a thin plastic lid (bad for the environment) and a plastic straw (the type that kills innocent birds), the liquid contents of which you have already mostly consumed (to the detriment of your gut health).  But the styrofoam cup is still full of ice and a couple ounces of a chemical-laden soft drink which, if consumed, will only further poison you.

But enough of that.  The immediate problem facing you is how to open the door.

To open the door with your right hand you’d have to put the bag of groceries down.  At your age, given the condition of your back, this isn’t as easy as it once was.  You might strain your back, or even fall and break your hip.   And if you put the bag down, it might fall over, spilling out all that marvelous junk food you were so looking forward to.  Is the dog around?  How much of it will he get, before you can stop him?

To open the door with your left hand, you’d either have to put the soft drink on the ground – risking problems similar to those just described, though not exactly the same  – or trying to turn the knob with the drink still in hand, hoping to turn the knob without spilling the drink.  But of course, if you spill the drink, there’s a floor to clean…

Which hand do you use to open the door?

Stop.  Really.  Stop and reflect on it.  Which hand would you use?

Some people would say the correct answer is the right hand.  Others would say the left.

But these people have been raised in a different world than mine – one in which there are only two answers, right or left. 

And whether they’ve chosen the right or the left, they feel quite sure that they have made the only sensible choice.

In my world, there are many, many options available.  And even if it were a simple choice between right and left (which it hardly ever is), there are so many unknowns, ramifications, risks, possibilities and preferences to consider, that it’s really all very subjective. I mean, maybe it would be better for the dog to eat the Twinkies, rather than you…

How is it even possible to think one choice “right,” and the other “wrong”?

How is it possible to think someone who chooses differently than you is either stupid or evil?

Ya got me.  Maybe, as kids, we all just drank too much Kool-Aid.

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No More’n a Doorknob

After flipping off the light switch, Carlos crossed the room, moving past the stool and Mother’s vacant mattress to his own.  The dark didn’t bother him, as he knew where everything was. Things like stools and mattresses don’t move on their own.   They’re dependable, even if people are not.  Even in the dark, he knew his mattress would be there when he let himself fall.

That morning, Frank had put the four new kittens in a sack, tied a cord around the open end of it, and driven off in his Durango to drown them.  Upon his return, he’d thrust Carlos a glare that dared him to utter a sound. Though the boy had said nothing, Frank had insisted on driving his point even deeper.

“Don’t even start with me, boy.  It ain’t like they got souls.  Animals don’t feel things, not like you and me.  Any more ’n a doorknob does.” 

Carlos closed his eyes to fall asleep.  Yet with desperate kittens meowing in his brain, he eventually opened them again. Seeing his mother’s mattress in the moonlight coming through the window, he tried not to think about her.

He could still hear Frank’s voice:

“Any more ’n a doorknob does.”

Frank was wrong about the feelings of cats.  Could he also be wrong about doorknobs too? 

Carlos got out of bed and crouched in front of the door to the room. The brass doorknob glowed a little in the darkness.  Wanting Frank to be wrong, he peered into the brass as if into a deep, still pool, but it didn’t make a sound.  After a minute, seeing no sign of life, Carlos felt foolish.  Frank was right, of course. Things are never the way you want them to be. Carlos returned to bed, resigned to dreams of drowning cats.

He remembered the day Mother was taken away.  Frank had slammed the door – a powerful, thunderous slam, much like the time Frank had slammed him into the Durango.  How could a door not feel such violence?  Doesn’t it tremble? And doesn’t a doorknob, bound tight to its side, tremble with it? 

Father had told him, once, before he died, that everything – even people and rocks – are made from the same stuff.  He knew how it felt to be slammed. Would a doorknob tremble any less than he had?

Trying not to think of Frank or clawing cats, Carlos imagined that his doorknob was a living, feeling thing, no less than himself. The next morning, he opened the door more gently than usual.

Father had said that if you could look closely enough, you’d be able to see that the tiniest parts of things are always on the move, vibrating back and forth. Carlos could see guitar strings vibrating, but though he’d looked as close as he could, he’d never seen the little vibrating things his father had talked about, in wood, or stone, or brass.  Father had said our eyes aren’t keen enough to see them, but we can feel them: when something feels warm, it’s because its tiniest parts are vibrating faster than usual, and when something feels cold, it’s because they’re almost still. 

Might a doorknob feel the warmth of a hand that holds it?  Might it feel the air move past when it’s opened or closed?  Can a doorknob feel everything we can feel?  But then, he thought, animals can move when they want to, but rocks and chairs and doorknobs can’t. If the tiniest parts of such things are always moving, why can’t they move themselves?  Carlos spent the day wondering.

And that night, when he fell asleep, he dreamt that Frank was about to come into his room when his doorknob turned and shut the door on its own, leaving Frank out in the hall, pounding as hard as he could, but getting nowhere.

The next day, Carlos knew it had only been a dream, but he remembered something else his father had told him: that sound is nothing more than vibration.  That when you strum a guitar or ring a bell, you hear them because they’re vibrating.  Carlos spent the day thinking about the sound of the breeze, not only when it moves the leaves of trees, but when it’s all alone.  He thought about the way fans hum. And that night, when he turned off his light, he realized that even his light made a sound – you just had to be quiet, and listen hard enough to hear it.

Then his gaze fell on his doorknob again.  If a doorknob can feel vibrations, can it also hear sounds?  Could this one hear him, if he talked?

“Oye,” said Carlos to the doorknob across his room.  “¿Como te llamas?  What’s your name?”

The doorknob didn’t make a sound.

“Alright,” Carlos said.  “Have it your way.  Just be latón, and nothing more.”

Having decided that his doorknob was nothing but latón (the Spanish word for brass) Carlos closed his eyes again, trying not to think of Mother, or Frank, or drowning kittens.

*                      *                      *

As it happens, when your whole life is spent feeling the vibrations of things, you get a lot of practice knowing one vibration from another.  Everything has its own resonance.  Like a snowflake, a fingerprint, or a signature, every sound is different. Every hand knocks differently. A knock on the door means someone is about to open it, and you’re about to be sent swinging through space.  In time, you even get to understand the meaning of the words people use.

The word ‘Carlos,’ for example.  If the boy was there when someone knocked and said that word, the boy would always answer.   By listening closely, the doorknob had come to understand much about the names for things.   Every thing, and every person, had a name. And now, Carlos had given him one.

Latón could tell the difference between Carlos’s footsteps and Frank’s.  He could distinguish their breathing.  From the sounds of footsteps, fans, and even the way air bounced off walls, Latón had created a mental map of the things in the room.  And though he couldn’t see, or taste, or smell, he knew much about what went on around him.

Still, there was one big difference between Latón and living things. Frank might put a hand on him one day, but not the next.  Carlos came and went in ways Latón could not predict.  It was as if people had the ability to do things, or not, as they pleased. 

Latón didn’t.  He couldn’t make anything happen.  He couldn’t do anything.

Pressure from a hand would turn him on his side. Release of that pressure would straighten him up again.  His favorite sensation was the movement of the air around him when the door was open or shut, but he never got to have that feeling when he wanted it; he always had to wait until someone else made it happen.  And his ride through the air always followed exactly the same path.  Sometimes, he imagined how it would be if he could just keep on going, on a path of his own choosing.  Sadly, he knew that day would never come.

The last few times Carlos held him, the warmth had flowed all the way inside him, into the metal spindle that was seated securely in his gut.  He’d liked that extra warmth.  But he had no way to make it happen again.  And he’d had no way to answer when Carlos spoke to him.  He was Latón because Carlos said he was, like it or not.

*                      *                      *

Carlos wondered: if he felt lonely, might his doorknob feel lonely, too?  Across the hallway were two other doors with identical knobs.  But his doorknob had never been with them, had never even seen them.  It seemed entirely possible that Latón might prefer to be among his own kind.  And so, waiting until Frank had left the house, Carlos removed the screws that held his doorknob to the door of his room and switched him to the other side of the door.  When he was done, he stepped into the hall, closed the door behind him, and spoke:

“Look, Latón, you’ve got company! I hope you’ll be happy now, with other doorknobs like yourself.”

*                      *                      *

When Latón heard the clinking of hard metal against his thin brass plate, he’d wondered what was going on.  In the moment that followed, he’d felt loose, disconnected, insecure.  Then, with Carlos’s hand around him, he’d felt cold air rush in to take the place of the spindle no longer in his gut.  That spindle had been more familiar to him than anything else in the world. As long as he could remember, the thin pencil-sized rod of hard metal had been seated right in the middle of his gut, so tightly it had sometimes seemed a part of himself.  With his spindle gone, Latón felt like a child who’s lost more than just a tooth.

A moment later, Carlos’s hand was lowering him, and letting go.  Latón’s round surface was suddenly rolling on wooden boards, making vibrations he’d never felt before.  It was so different, he hardly knew what to think.

Then Carlos’s hand was around him again, lifting him; there was the dull thud of contact with the door, the clink of brass and the feel of the spindle tight inside him again, everything  feeling the way it always had.

But everything was turned around.  The door, and its key hole, and its hinges, and latch – all of them – were backward.  Wait – no – he was backward, facing the opposite direction, on the opposite side of the door. And when Carlos went into the room, pushing the door back until it hit the jamb, Latón was left out in the hall by himself, with no way to understand his new surroundings 

And then, there were the startling words Carlos had used:

“… with other doorknobs like yourself.”

Was he now in the midst of other doorknobs?  The idea was deeply disturbing.  He had no way of knowing they were there, or anything about them, no way of signaling them that he was now in their midst.  He saw no way to make a sound himself, or vibrate, to let the other doorknobs in the hall know of his presence. And if they really were like him, they were equally powerless to signal him.  Had they all been banished to the same place? How could he tell anything about this place?  And how long might he have to stay here?

Latón wished he could scream. 

*                      *                      *

As even a doorknob knows, there are two types of turn in life: one from the outside, and one from within.  A turn from the outside is when, held by something else, you feel the pressure at your surface turn you.  The spindle in your gut resists the turn.  When the pressure is enough, the turning imposed from the outside makes the spindle turn with you. You are the instrument of someone’s hand, turning because someone else wants you to, and when you and the spindle have performed as instructed, the latch comes out of the jamb, allowing the door to open.

A turn from within is very different.  There’s nothing, no hand or anything around you.  You feel a tiny twist of pressure deep inside your gut, coming from the spindle.  It’s you that resists; it’s the spindle that turns you.  You turn the same way you do when you’re in a human hand, but there’s no hand around you doing the turning.  It’s as if human hands – the source of the most powerful movements you know – actually make no difference, as if they only exist in your imagination.  As if all power and energy really come from within.

Wondering about such things had bothered Latón for a long time.  But now, he came up with another theory. If he was not alone – if there were other doorknobs, on other doors, as Carlos had implied – then could one of them be just inches away, on the opposite side of his own door, attached to the other end of his own spindle?  Might a hand sometimes take hold of that other doorknob, causing him to turn?

The idea that there might be something exactly like himself sharing his own spindle, just inches away, once it occurred to him, would not let go.  The possibility of confirming its existence – even, perhaps, somehow communicating with it – became his only focus.

*                      *                      *

Frank slammed his bottle of beer on the kitchen table hard.  When he was finished reading the letter, he dropped it into the trashcan and left the house without saying a word.

Carlos might never have read it, since it was addressed to Frank, but a letter that could make Frank angry was hard to resist.  So Carlos retrieved the letter from the trash can, and as soon as he began to read, he was glad that he had.

The letter was from Mother.  She had been released.  As soon as she could find transportation, she’d be coming home. 

Carlos ran outside. For the rest of the day, every time a squirrel moved or a leaf fell, he spun around to see if Mother was coming up the drive.  When night came, he looked out the kitchen window for her. And now, as he lay on his mattress, his eyes fixed on the hallway, he kept seeing her there.  He gave no thought to doorknobs.  Instead, Carlos listened for the sound of Mother’s hand, turning the knob. 

*                      *                      *

Latón, meanwhile, had been spending every minute trying to send something of his own vibrations into his gut, in hopes of reaching his spindle-mate, while trying to feel something – anything – coming from the other side.  If everything vibrates, in tiny ways, he thought he might be able to feel vibrations coming in, or with enough intensity of will, he transmit some of his own and make some sort of connection. But try as he might, he felt nothing.

Was he a fool? If there was something so much like himself, so close, but he could never come to know it, was he better off to ignore it, to pretend that it didn’t exist at all?  Was he to be so close to something, for all time to come, but prevented from ever feeling anything about it?

Through the door, Latón could hear Carlos’s turning restlessly on his mattress.  When at last the boy fell silent, Latón was relieved.  He no longer wanted to hear or feel anything – not Carlos or anything else.  Existence itself was powerless, futile, and horrid.  He’d have rather had no feelings at all.

The moments that followed might as well have been timeless.  But then, from outside the house, Latón heard a vibration he’d never heard before. As it got louder it began to resemble the noise he heard whenever Frank came and went.  Someone was about to arrive. Latón didn’t care who.  He didn’t care about anyone any more, so he told himself not to listen.

But listening was all he could do. 

The noise outside stopped. A door opened downstairs, then closed again.  The noise started again.  It must have woken Carlos up when it did, for through the door, Latón could hear Carlos get up from his mattress.  He could hear Carlos’s feet on the floor. There were also footsteps down the hallway, coming nearer.  Latón  recognized them as Mother’s footsteps as soon as he heard them.  And Carlos’s footsteps were coming toward him at the same time, from inside the room. 

What happened next was more than Latón had ever imagined possible. Long as it had been, he’d never forgotten the gentle warmth of Mother’s fingertips, the way her palm and fingers and thumb enveloped him.  The feel of her hand around him was unmistakable.  But at the same time he felt it, he also felt a tingling in the spindle inside him, as if Carlos had taken hold of the other doorknob.  For the first time ever, the turn from outside, its warmth and pressure rolling through him, met no resistance from the spindle inside him. He didn’t make the spindle turn. The spindle didn’t make him turn.  There was no resistance either way, as if the spindle and he, too, and the doorknob on the other side were all turning by themselves, as if the power was coming from somewhere inside all of them, of their own free will.  And as Latón entered the familiar arc of movement, as he felt the brush of passing air, he felt neither pushed nor pulled, as if everything were happening this way because he’d always wanted it to.

“Mother!”

“Carlos!” He heard the words – or thought he did – and thought he could feel warmth in them.  But whether Carlos and Mother were still holding the doorknobs or not – whether it was some connection between them that had aroused his feelings, he didn’t know and didn’t care.  There was warmth inside himself, and inside the spindle.  For all he knew, Mother and Carlos were both figments of his imagination.  He could feel himself tingling, his tiniest parts dancing, and he was very much alive.

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