Happy New Year!

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In 2012, may we inch away from becoming an endangered species (and, whatever we do, may we inch closer to gaining as much raw talent as Esperanza Spalding, shown below playing and singing Wayne Shorter’s “Endangered Species” on a recent Austin City Limits)-

Phallic Geology 101

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In their recent article “10 Crazy College Classes That Cost Big Bucks“, The Fiscal Times argues that even expensive colleges are dumbing down many of their courses in order attract and retain more students. Here are a few of the courses they list as evidence-

  • Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame, University of South Carolina, Columbia; 3 credits; $1,200 in-state; $3,150 out-of-state
  • The Phallus, Occidental College; $5,370 (based on eight-course-per-year load. Enrollment: 15
  • Geology and Cinema, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities; 4 Credits; $1,506.80 in-state, $2,168.32 out of state.  Enrollment: 347

The Lady Gaga class actually sounds kinda interesting, and might even be worth the money. Normally I’d enroll in any course that allowed me to watch movies, but the idea of having to suffer through films like Tremors and Journey to the Center of the Earth would force me to think twice before enrolling in Geology and Cinema. Finally, I’m not particularly interested in The Phallus myself, but then appreciating such a topic might be an acquired taste. Perhaps the Gender Studies and Geology departments should get together and offer a 1-credit course called “Phallic Geology”, which would consist entirely of discussing the extraordinary phenomena captured in photos such as these-

Vertical stone at Arches National Park, Utah

Upstanding on the beach, Olympic Peninsula, WA

Caught in the act, Bryce National Park, UT

R.I.P. Christopher Hitchens

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Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens died a few days ago. He was one those rarest of birds, especially among Anglo-American “public intellectuals”: an acerbic social critic who was provocative not entirely because he loved being so, but rather because he was ruthlessly honest with both himself and others. His independence was shown by his ongoing support for the Iraq invasion – which, coincidentally, officially ended today – when most others of his milieu remained vociferously against it. I couldn’t support the Iraq invasion because I abhorred the principle of “preventive war” on which it was based, but I very much respected Hitchens’ desire to defend the Kurds from a genocidal maniac, and his writing on the issue helped to temper my opposition to the Bush administration’s “adventure”.

Hitchens’ long history of smoking and drinking made it likely that his death would precede that of many others of his generation, of which I’m a slightly younger member. In his last article, published in the January issue of Vanity Fair, he left some typically honest reflections on Nietzche’s too-often uncritically quoted phrase, “that which does not kill me makes me stronger”-

I am typing this having just had an injection to try to reduce the pain in my arms, hands, and fingers. The chief side effect of this pain is numbness in the extremities, filling me with the not irrational fear that I shall lose the ability to write. Without that ability, I feel sure in advance, my “will to live” would be hugely attenuated. I often grandly say that writing is not just my living and my livelihood but my very life, and it’s true. Almost like the threatened loss of my voice, which is currently being alleviated by some temporary injections into my vocal folds, I feel my personality and identity dissolving as I contemplate dead hands and the loss of the transmission belts that connect me to writing and thinking.

These are progressive weaknesses that in a more “normal” life might have taken decades to catch up with me. But, as with the normal life, one finds that every passing day represents more and more relentlessly subtracted from less and less. In other words, the process both etiolates you and moves you nearer toward death. How could it be otherwise? Just as I was beginning to reflect along these lines, I came across an article on the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. We now know, from dearly bought experience, much more about this malady than we used to. Apparently, one of the symptoms by which it is made known is that a tough veteran will say, seeking to make light of his experience, that “what didn’t kill me made me stronger.” This is one of the manifestations that “denial” takes.

I am attracted to the German etymology of the word “stark,” and its relative used by Nietzsche, stärker, which means “stronger.” In Yiddish, to call someone a shtarker is to credit him with being a militant, a tough guy, a hard worker. So far, I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion. It is our common fate. In either case, though, one can dispense with facile maxims that don’t live up to their apparent billing.

The Dalai Lama: Ethics Beyond Religion

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While we’re on the subject of Atheism (see my previous post), consider what the leader of Tibetan Buddhism has to say in his latest book about the need to move beyond religion in popular ethics. Here’s part of an excerpt that appears on The Huffington Post-

So what are we to do? Where are we to turn for help? Science, for all the benefits it has brought to our external world, has not yet provided scientific grounding for the development of the foundations of personal integrity — the basic inner human values that we appreciate in others and would do well to promote in ourselves. Perhaps we should seek inner values from religion, as people have done for millennia? Certainly religion has helped millions of people in the past, helps millions today and will continue to help millions in the future. But for all its benefits in offering moral guidance and meaning in life, in today’s secular world religion alone is no longer adequate as a basis for ethics. One reason for this is that many people in the world no longer follow any particular religion. Another reason is that, as the peoples of the world become ever more closely interconnected in an age of globalization and in multicultural societies, ethics based in any one religion would only appeal to some of us; it would not be meaningful for all. In the past, when peoples lived in relative isolation from one another — as we Tibetans lived quite happily for many centuries behind our wall of mountains — the fact that groups pursued their own religiously based approaches to ethics posed no difficulties. Today, however, any religion-based answer to the problem of our neglect of inner values can never be universal, and so will be inadequate. What we need today is an approach to ethics which makes no recourse to religion and can be equally acceptable to those with faith and those without: a secular ethics.

This statement may seem strange coming from someone who from a very early age has lived as a monk in robes. Yet I see no contradiction here. My faith enjoins me to strive for the welfare and benefit of all sentient beings, and reaching out beyond my own tradition, to those of other religions and those of none, is entirely in keeping with this.

I am confident that it is both possible and worthwhile to attempt a new secular approach to universal ethics. My confidence comes from my conviction that all of us, all human beings, are basically inclined or disposed toward what we perceive to be good. Whatever we do, we do because we think it will be of some benefit. At the same time, we all appreciate the kindness of others. We are all, by nature, oriented toward the basic human values of love and compassion. We all prefer the love of others to their hatred. We all prefer others’ generosity to their meanness. And who among us does not prefer tolerance, respect and forgiveness of our failings to bigotry, disrespect and resentment?

In view of this, I am of the firm opinion that we have within our grasp a way, and a means, to ground inner values without contradicting any religion and yet, crucially, without depending on religion. The development and practice of this new system of ethics is what I propose to elaborate in the course of this book. It is my hope that doing so will help to promote understanding of the need for ethical awareness and inner values in this age of excessive materialism.

At the outset I should make it clear that my intention is not to dictate moral values. Doing that would be of no benefit. To try to impose moral principles from outside, to impose them, as it were, by command, can never be effective. Instead, I call for each of us to come to our own understanding of the importance of inner values. For it is these inner values which are the source of both an ethically harmonious world and the individual peace of mind, confidence and happiness we all seek. Of course, all the world’s major religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance and forgiveness, can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I believe the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics that is beyond religion.

My own view (which is traceable back to Kant) is that we need to find an effective way of teaching ethical reasoning to those lacking moral sentiments and instincts; in other words, we need to find an effective way of appealing to their rationality (and I don’t mean just their self-interest). But the Dalai Lama is surely right that trying to cultivate the moral emotions is better than resigning ourselves to living in a world of endless conflict.