Monthly Archives: July 2007

Another peace post

One of my sister Abby’s favorite blogs is “A Commonplace Book,” written by the children’s book author Julius Lester. Recently, Abby alerted me to an excellent post by Lester about how few protests against the war in iraq that we’re seeing (link). Lester has a follow-up post, where he says that one of his readers says that much of the protest is now happening online (link).

Both posts are worth reading. But I’d also say that the news media are ignoring the few protests that do take place, e.g., the media ignored the March 16 protest at the White House that resulted in the arrest of 200 religious leaders including Jim Wallis (as I pointed out in a past post: link).

I don’t know what the answer is — more protests, get Congress moving — all I know is that we’re spending an awful lot of money in Iraq, with few positive results. Beyond that, any war carries a huge moral cost — and I think we’re already beginning to pay that moral price.

Appreciations of Richard Rorty

Philosopher Richard Rorty died on June 8.

Jurgen Habermas writes an appreciation of Richard Rorty: Link. Not much of substance, but a nice appreciation by the man who is now arguably the greatest living philosopher.

Daniel Dennett’s appreciation is here — scroll down half way to find it. Dennett said that a difference between Rorty and himself was that he wanted the approbation of scientists, while Rorty wanted the approbation of poets.

Recalling A. Powell Davies

When I was visiting my aunt and uncle last week, Uncle Bob got to talking about A. Powell Davies. You see, Uncle Bob grew up in All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C., and he was a member there when the legendary A. Powell Davies was minister. Uncle Bob remembers it was an exciting time to be a part of All Souls, with large numbers of newcomers joining the church during this time. And he remembers regularly seeing United States senators and representatives sitting in the congregation, attracted by Davies’s preaching.

One of the things that Uncle Bob said that grabbed my attention was that Davies had little to do with the general administration of the church;– there was an executive secretary who took care of that. Davies attended some of the key committee meetings, and of course he had a big say in the direction of the church, but mostly he served as a religious leader. (I said that I’d bet that he had at least twenty hours a week to prepare his sermons, and Uncle Bob said that was possible. I added that I’d never be up to Davies’s level as a preacher, but that if I had twenty hours to write a sermon, it would be a lot better than what I produce now, and Uncle Bob laughed and said he’d bet that it would make a difference.)

Uncle Bob is a retired business executive, and so I thought I’d ask him what he thought of John Carver’s “policy governance” model, which is now all the rage among larger Unitarian Universalist churches, and which promotes the idea of the minister as the CEO of the church. Uncle Bob listened politely, but it was obvious he didn’t think much of policy governance. Neither do I. We both agreed that the All-Souls-Powell-Davies model of having the minister as a religious leader, with an executive secretary (or executive director, or whatever you want to call the position) sounded pretty good to us.

Uncle Bob said something else that grabbed my attention. He said that Davies typically preached about current events. According to Uncle Bob, Davies would pick a current event, hash out the moral and ethical implications of what was going on, and end up with three or four ways forward. I may not have gotten this exactly right, but the point is that Davies really gave his congregation something to chew on each week. That’s what Uncle Bob said he really liked best about a sermon — he wants something that’s going to keep him pondering over the whole week — and that’s what Davies was able to do. And what Davies chose to talk about was not typically religious:– he talked about current events, not about the Bible (or if he were still alive, things like spiritual practices and Eastern religions).

Off the highway

Three of us — my father, my older sister, and I — drove down to visit my father’s brother, Lee. We’re staying in a hotel in Lima, Pennsylvania. The motel we’re staying in is right off U.S. Route 1, one of those small motels that all look pretty much the same:– bland prints in gold-toned frames on the walls, slightly worn desk and chest of drawers covered in wood-grain plastic laminate, little two-cup coffee maker next to the sink.

After eight hours in the car, I was ready for a walk. Dad came with me. We walked up towards the state highway — the motel sits at an intersection of a state highway and Route 1 — but there were no sidewalks, not even a verge on which to walk. Dad has a bad knee, so he gave up and went back to the room. I walked down towards Route 1 through a boarded-up gas station — still no sidewalks and no verge — nothing but a big mall across four lanes of traffic. I walked around the periphery of the motel parking lot, but there was no way out. This is not a pedestrian-friendly motel. We’re fenced in on all sides by highways, like the characters in J. G. Ballard’s novel Concrete Island.

But I was desperate for a walk, so I walked back up to the state highway. A kid carrying a skateboard was walking precariously along the curb at the edge of the highway. I figured if he could do it, so could I. He looked surprised to see another pedestrian when we passed. A couple of hundred feet along the roadway, a construction entrance led into trees.

I walked in to find a completed road but no houses. Blackberry bushes grew along the side of the empty road, and some of them were ripe. After I ate a couple, I turned off and followed a path someone had mowed along the right-of-way for an underground gas pipeline.

I wound up at the edge of a farmer’s field, with chimney swifts circling overhead catching their evening meal of insects. A flycatcher was calling in the trees off to my right somewhere. I could barely hear the noise of the highways, although I could see, through a break in the trees, the huge mall across Route 1.

Some preliminary notes on evil

Does evil exist? This questions vexes many religious liberals. Of course evil does exist;– but how do we define it, and what forms does it take? Can we call a person evil, or just a mass of persons, a society? Does evil have an existence apart from persons and societies, or does it only manifest in the real world?

To avoid such vexing questions, some religious liberals deny that evil exists. Some others claim that evil is a false construction arising from the errors of religious conservatives or fundamentalists. A larger number of religious liberals simply avoid using the word “evil,” substituting words like “inhuman” (even though it’s quite clear that humans are fully capable of evil), or “pathological” (which may imply that disease is at the root of all evil, or perhaps even that evil is at the root of some diseases).

I think it makes more sense to say that evil does exist, and I think it makes more sense to use the word where I feel that it should be used. I’ll give you an example. I believe that torture is evil. I can’t imagine that there would be any doubt about that fact:– torture is indeed evil. But to say “Torture is evil” causes a small problem, because now you have to define what you mean by torture. George W. Bush has said that torture is evil, and he has asserted that the United States does not use torture (the events at Abu Ghraib prison were an aberration caused by some individuals going against U. S. policy). However, some critics have charged that the United States has engaged in torture. Both these critics and George W. Bush agree that torture is evil, but they have different notions of what constitutes torture, and therefore they have different notions of what is, and what is not, evil.

So while evil certainly exists, we don’t all agree on what is, and what is not, evil. In fact, consensus about what is evil may change over time. Five hundred years ago, there was no world consensus that slavery was evil. People like Paul of Tarsus accepted that slavery was a normal part of the human condition. Most societies around the world had some form of slavery. Yet today, five hundred years later, slavery is illegal in all nations, and there is a worldwide consensus that slavery is evil. Over the course of the past five hundred years, the working definition of evil has changed to include slavery.

I’d say, in fact, that the working definition of evil is always “in play.” Working definitions of what evil is can and do change over time. The important contests about what is, and what is not, evil take place in the public realm, just as the debate about the evil of slavery took place in the public realm.

This may help explain why some religious liberals are reluctant to use the term “evil” — if the definition of “evil” can change and evolve, who are we to make pronouncements about what is, or is not, evil? But this notion may well be based on two false premises. First, it may be that there is no such thing as absolute goodness, or absolute truth, or absolute evil. The accomodationist tendencies of religious liberalism, our willingness to adapt to the changing times, would seem to indicate that we don’t believe in absolutes. The process theologians among us even say that God can change and evolve (assuming that you believe in God) — so how can there be any absolute truth, absolute goodness, or absolute evil?

A second false premise may well be the assumption that one can remove oneself from debates about evil by simply not using the word “evil.” But if the definition of “evil” is a debate that is played out in the public realm, then to remain silent is to participate in that public debate by abstaining (abstention is still a kind of participation). Further, religious liberals act in ways that indicate what they do think is evil — the religious liberals I know believe that sexism is evil, and they act as if sexism is evil, and such actions are (in a very real way) a contribution to the ongoing debate about what is, and what is not, evil.

Fortunately, most religious liberals are willing to use the term “evil.” In one way, it speaks well of religious liberals that they use the term sparingly. On the other hand, it seems to me that we have to be willing to engage in the ongoing public debate about what is, and what is not, evil. If we believe, for example, that torture is evil, we have to talk about what torture is, and we have to talk about whether the actual torturer is evil, and we have to talk about in what way the society that condones torture is itself evil, and we have to talk about what it means that other people have other definitions of torture. If we don’t talk about these things in public, then we are abstaining from deciding such moral questions.

Just some preliminary notes on the topic of evil. Debate and discussion welcomed.

Changing cultural locations

From my perspective, Harvard Square in Cambridge has gone downhill over the past decade or so. My chief criterion for judging Harvard Square has always been the number and quality of the bookstores — there used to be more than fifty bookstores in and around the Square, and now there are only eight. People are pushier than they used to be and often nasty. The street musicians are mostly whiny singer-songwriters and pop-star wannabes.

This afternoon, I got off the subway at Davis Square in Somerville. McIntyre and Moore Used Books in Davis Square has become my favorite bookstore. People walking around the square seemed cheerful and friendly. The street musician in the subway station was playing Baroque music on an alto recorder.

Forget Cambridge. Forget Harvard Square. These days, Davis Square, Somerville, is where it’s at.

Stop whining.

While stupid alter ego Dan is prostrated by the heat (actually, it’s a combination of his allergies, the heat and stupidity), Mr. Crankypants is back for a moment to berate all the idiots who are mad at the New York Slime for publishing a review of the latest Harry Potter doorstop-sized book before the official release date of the book. The horror!

The people who write in to the public editor of the N. Y. Slime say how “disappointed” and “upset” they are with the newspaper’s editors. Wait, isn’t this the newspaper that published George W. Bush’s false accusations that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Is this is the newspaper that you would trust with a review of a book that you really care about? Apparently, the answer to this second question is “yes”:

“I am shocked that The New York Times didn’t consider how upsetting this review would be to fans, like me, who have taken this journey with J.K. Rowling for many years and desperately just want to enjoy the final book without knowledge or hint of what is coming,” said Karl Hinze in a typical e-mail to Times editors.

Mr. Crankypants has advice for Mr. Hinze, and all the other Harry Potter fans who read the reviews before they read the book: Don’t read book reviews of books you care about, before you read the book. Especially not in the Times.

Completely shameless promotion

It finally arrived. Carol finally got a copy of the book she has been working on for the past year or so. The book, titled Reusing the Resource: Adventures in Ecological Wastewater Recycling, was published by the small non-profit she runs, Ecowaters — in other words, Carol co-wrote the book, edited it (with lots of assistance from her mother), and laid it out. The book has also been the cause of a certain amount of angst in our household, as it slipped farther and farther behind schedule over the past six months.

But at last the book has finally arrived, fresh from the printers. I got to leaf through a copy this afternoon, and I can tell you that it’s an attractive book, beautifully designed, chock full of solid information about reusing wastewater. I particularly like the fact that there are fifty short profiles of people and companies that have already built wastewater recycling into their homes, businesses, and skyscrapers — which makes you realize that recycling wastewater is not some hippy-dippy pipe dream, but financially viable reality. There are even a few illustrations by me (my only contribution to this project).

And if you really want to buy a copy, please buy it directly from Ecowaters. Amazon and other online booksellers force Ecowaters to cut their profits in half, and those profits are what fund their presentations, tours, and the rest of their educational mission. Available online using Paypal here. (I warned you that this was a completely shameless promotion.)

Day Hike

Katama – Edgartown, Martha’s Vineyard, 8+ miles

When I got up and stuck my head out the window yesterday, it promised to be a perfect summer day — dry, warm but not too hot, breezy, perfectly clear. I spent most of the morning talking with my aunt and uncle (I’ve been staying with them for the past three days), and then told them I was going to take a good long walk. Uncle Bob gave me a map, showed me some possible routes, and I set off about 11:30.

It really was turning out to be a perfect summer day, the kind of day that energizes you. Except that on my second day of vacation, I wasn’t feeling very energetic. The grind of work had worn me down more than I had admitted to myself. For the first hour, I walked without paying attention to much except the bike trail in front of me. I did notice some invasive exotic plants: several big stands of Japanese Knotweed, and lots of Spotted Knapweed in full bloom along the bike trail. I also noticed huge poison ivy plants, some of which were bushes three and four feet high.

When I got to the business district of Edgartown, 3 miles and 50 minutes later, I bought a newspaper and went in to the Main St. Diner, which was the least pretentious restaurant I could find. The waitress, who looked to be in her late teens, brought me a menu, and looked at my newspaper. “The New York Times,” she said approvingly. “I read that paper.” I told her that I thought it was a pretty good paper, and thought to myself that that was a curious thing for a waitress to say.

After I finished lunch, I wandered around Edgartown, looking at the houses, and looking at the people. I had some pretty good people-watching. You could tell when a tour bus stopped in town, because suddenly the narrow sidewalks were full of people who all looked somehow the same and who all wore name badges around their necks. You could tell the upper class summer people because even I could tell that their clothes were far more expensive than mine. (That evening, Uncle Bob said he bet there weren’t any actual residents of Edgartown walking around that day, and I suspect he’s correct. The yards and driveways of all the houses were just about empty.)

I finally wound up down at the main pier in Edgartown Harbor, reading my newspaper, and now and looking up to watch the two little ferries go to and fro between Chappaquidick Island and the pier. Then it was time to start walking again. Instead of walking straight back via Katama Road, I headed off along Clevelandtown Road, and continued walking along some side streets, winding around towards Katama Airport.

It was not an inspiring walk. The few modest houses left on Martha’s Vineyard are disappearing one by one, either bulldozed so that a mansionette (or sometimes a real mansion) can be put up in the same spot, or renovated beyond all recognition. It’s not unusual to see a 3,000 or 4,000 square foot house going up. It’s no longer enough to have a dirt driveway, or one of crushed shell — the latest fad appears to be driveways paved with peastone, and lined with expensive paving blocks or curbstones. The more pretentious houses boast emerald green lawns with full irrigation systems, huge three car garages, and waist-high stone walls made from stones that have obviously been brought in from off-island. I saw one elaborate stone wall that included an enclosure about twenty feet square for the vegetable garden, with some tomato plants barely poking their crowns above the stone.

I could have been walking through and upper class or upper-middle class neighborhood in any one of dozens of wealthy towns around Boston or north of New York City. Was I in Weston, Darien, or Westchester County? I couldn’t be sure, except for the huge poison ivy plants along the side of the road. I would have thought that if you go away for the summer, you’d want to go some place that doesn’t look like home. Maybe if you see the poison ivy, you know that you’re on Martha’s Vineyard.

At last I made it to Katama Airport, a small airport with grass airstrips and no air traffic control. Both the airport and the adjacent farm are on town-owned conservation land. Mid-afternoon is when raptors like to hunt, so I walked down the dirt road between the farm and the airport looking at the sky. Sure enough, in the distance I saw a hawk gliding low over the tops of the grass and scrub. It was a female Northern Harrier hunting. She dropped down onto something a couple of times, but I never saw her catch anything. Once, a group of Red-winged Blackbirds mobbed her, pestering her until she flew away from their territories. Once she roosted for a minute or two on top of a tall bush, and then flew on again, her head going this way and that as she searched the ground below her for prey. I stood watching her for maybe half an hour, and all other thoughts left my mind.