Donald Andrew Henson II

Archive for February, 2014|Monthly archive page

Two Prophets of the End Times

In American Economy, American Society, Current events on February 23, 2014 at 11:10 pm

The Transfiguration

I would call most of what I do on this blog ‘commenting’ – I have a look at what people are saying and doing, and talk about how I think it’s good or bad for America. I like to play the Devil’s Advocate, questioning concepts that we take for granted, looking at the bad ideas that are often floating around, extending them out to their often frightening logical conclusions, wondering aloud how our society could be better if we could just break out of lazy, routine habits of thought. I do not believe that our future as a nation has already been decided by an all-knowing deity somewhere at the center of the cosmos; we, ourselves, will decide our own future, either through purposeful action or blind inaction, for good or ill.

Sometimes, however, while looking for something germane on which to comment, I encounter a real prophet. In doing some research about Scots-Irish immigration to America, I ran across an irreverent essay written by Joe Bageant, How the Scots Irish Screwed Up America. That’s actually the subtitle; I’ll warn gentle readers that the main title might offend. Bageant’s writings show an understanding of the plight of the used-to-be middle class better than other I’ve read. Here’s an excerpt from his essay Waltzing at the Doomsday Ball that truly explains our economic problems today:

“As an Anglo European white guy from a very long line of white guys, I want to thank all the brown, black, yellow and red people for a marvelous three-century joy ride. During the past 300 years of the industrial age, as Europeans, and later as Americans, we have managed to consume infinitely more than we ever produced, thanks to colonialism, crooked deals with despotic potentates and good old gunboats and grapeshot. Yes, we have lived, and still live, extravagant lifestyles far above the rest of you. And so, my sincere thanks to all of you folks around the world working in sweatshops, or living on two bucks a day, even though you sit on vast oil deposits. And to those outside my window here in Mexico this morning, the two guys pruning the retired gringo’s hedges with what look like pocket knives, I say, keep up the good work. It’s the world’s cheap labor guys like you — the black, brown and yellow folks who take it up the shorts — who make capitalism look like it actually works. So keep on humping. Remember: We’ve got predator drones…. 

Capitalism is about one thing: aggregating the surplus productive value of the public for private interests. As we have said, it is about creating state sanctioned “investments” for the workers who produce the real wealth. Things like home “ownership” and mortgages, or stock investments and funds to absorb their retirement savings. That crushing 30-year mortgage with two refis is an investment. So is that 401K melting like a snow cone (on) the beach.

As the people’s wealth accumulates, it is steadily siphoned off by government and elite private forces. From time to time, it is openly plundered for their benefit by way of various bubbles, depressions or recessions and other forms of theft passed off as unavoidable acts of nature/god. These periodic raids and draw downs of the people’s wealth are attributed to “business cycles.” Past periodic raids and thefts are heralded as being proof of the rationale. “See folks, it comes and goes, so it’s a cycle!” Economic raids and busts become “market adjustments.” Public blackmail and plundering through bailouts become a “necessary rescue packages.” Giveaways to corporations under the guise of public works and creating employment become “stimulus.” The chief responsibility of economists is to name things in accordance with government and corporate interests. The function of the public is to acquire debt and maintain “consumer confidence.” When the public staggers to its feet again and manages to carry more debt, buy more poker chips on credit to play again, it’s called a recovery. They are back in the game.

Dealer, hit me with two more cards. I feel lucky….”

Unfortunately, Joe passed away in March, 2011, so his prophecies have come to an end. I am enjoying the work he left behind little bits at a time so that I can savor every word. If you haven’t yet read Deer Hunting with Jesus, grab a copy; he really understands what makes America’s white underclass tick.

Still alive and kicking – and seemingly as mad as a hornet – is another doomsday prophet, James Howard Kunstler. Where Bageant seems annoyed, Kunstler is truly pissed off. And, like any good prophet, he predicts a host of calamities that will soon beset the world order as we know it. If you want to know how 2014 is going to turn out, have a look at a Burning Down the House, a recent post on his blog, the title of which, once again, may offend the gentle reader. Here’s a sampling of some of his least frightening observations:

“Sorry to skip around, but a few stray words about the state of American culture. Outside the capitals of the “one percent” — Manhattan, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, etc. — American material culture is in spectacular disrepair. Car culture and chain store tyranny have destroyed the physical fabric of our communities and wrecked social relations. These days, a successful Main Street is one that has a wig shop and a check-cashing office. It is sickening to see what we have become. Our popular entertainments are just what you would design to produce a programmed population of criminals and sex offenders. The spectacle of the way our people look —overfed, tattooed, pierced, clothed in the raiment of clowns — suggests an end-of-empire zeitgeist more disturbing than a Fellini movie. The fact is, it simply mirrors the way we act, our gross, barbaric collective demeanor. A walk down any airport concourse makes the Barnum & Bailey freak shows of yore look quaint. In short, the rot throughout our national life is so conspicuous that a fair assessment would be that we are a wicked people who deserve to be punished.” 

Old Testament doomsayers such as Ezekiel or Nehemiah could hardly have said it any better. Is anyone paying attention?

Be sure to ‘like’ americansecularist on Facebook to get posts as soon as they’re published.

Also, check out my newest blog – nevercomingback – for tales from my travels abroad.

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Is Secularism Dystopian?

In American Enlightenment, American Society, Current events on February 21, 2014 at 12:03 am

I commented a couple of days ago on four recent news stories that, taken together, I felt illustrated a disturbing trend in American society – our ignorance may be becoming more dangerous. I thought that there was little controversial subject matter in what I wrote – I did call creationism a lie, and perhaps that was harsh. I know that Christians believe it is true, and when they tell it to their children, they do not think they are misleading anyone. I once believed in the Bible narrative myself, and spent a lot of years trying to come up with theories that would reconcile my belief with the available evidence, until the weight of the latter finally crushed the frail construction of the former. This change in ideology took many years to occur – I was a fundamentalist at 20, an apologist at 25, a non-creationist Christian at 30, a ‘spiritual but not religious’ person at 35, and consider myself to be an agnostic with a nostalgia for religion today.

I did not really think that I was saying anything that even most Christians would not be able to agree with, but apparently I was wrong. Marcos Ortega, writing on his blog Word of Life described my post in what I thought were rather harsh terms. If you didn’t read my post Dumb, Dumber, and Dangerouser, take a few minutes to read it, then look at his response. Note the Orwellian artwork on the page.

I can only guess as to what Mr. Ortega’s definition of secularism is. He seems to equate it with atheism, nihilism, socialism, and communism, erroneously thinks it appeared for the first time during the French Revolution, and feels that it is the cause of most of the ills and atrocities that have plagued society since that time. From the George Holyoke quote that appears on every page of my site, he selects only the words that he feels are damning, ignoring the part about how secularism “does not say there is no light or guidance elsewhere, but maintains that there is light and guidance in secular truth, whose conditions and sanctions exist independently….” Since secularism is interested in knowledge that “conduces to the welfare of this life,” it cannot by definition seek to enslave or terrorize.

Secularism is a worldview, but it is not a dogma. It does not start from a preconceived set of ideas handed down by a deity or enlightened leader. Secularism ever cries out for evidence – material, not spiritual. (If this is what Mr. Ortega means by materialism, then with that I must agree). If you say something is true, I want to see the evidence. The New Testament casts the disciple Thomas in a negative light – he is the hero of the secularist. If I am expected to believe outrageous claims, I want to see extraordinary evidence – let me thrust my hand into the wounds.

Anyway, we’ve had a rather lengthy conversation over the last couple of days in the comment section of his site – I don’t want my readers to miss out. I became aware that he had written about my post only because of a ‘ping’ back to my site, so I felt obligated to respond:

Thanks for reading my post. I am honored to see that you dedicated an entire post to responding to my humble observations. I will respond in kind to yours more fully in the next day or two – I always prefer to mull criticisms over for a bit before responding. 

However I do believe you read hostility to Christianity into my narrative where none exists. I commented on 4 news stories, only one of which referred to a person who identified as Christian, and I did not hold him up as representative of the mainstream, other than to say his literal understanding of the scriptures directly caused his death. 

I don’t think a ‘Tarzan-esque’ rendering of my overall theme would be “secularists smart, Christians stupid” but rather something like this: 

Americans not know science good
Corporations help you be stupid
Extreme religion maybe kill you
Rich want be your master

I’m not sure how you got to the French Revolution from there, but I assure you there’s nothing dystopian about understanding the world, avoiding the lethal side of religion, and fighting against corporate oppression. Surely you would agree?

Mr. Ortega responded:

Dear Don (can I call you Don?): 

While you ponder your answer, let me respond to your comments. I have been reading your posts for the past couple of years, that is until the “Great Firewall hiatus” of the past year, and I must say that I find them very interesting. However, I do read hostility against Christianity in your latest blogpost when you talk about “creationism being a lie” (which is generic), your Darwinian belief in the inferiority of snake handlers or their followers (which is somewhat racist as well) and faith healers’ perceived dishonesty as being a proof of God’s lack of interest at best, or non-existence at worst. As I mentioned in my post, it seems that in 2005 Americans at 25% not knowing that the earth revolves around the sun fared much better than their Europeans counterparts at 44%. This is even more telling when we take into account the fact that most of Europe has had a secularized school system for more than a century, are more “advanced” than us, and yet they fared worse (go figure). I think that you read this matter to your own advantage, because, as we know, the church held as dogma the myth of geocentrism, so in a way, you were implying what you say you were not saying (i.e. that Christianity is a hotbed of ignorance). I would also add that if religion has a lethal side (from which most of us steer away), so do secularism and materialism, which brought me to my historical recount of its ongoing lethality, beginning (yes!) with the French Revolution, the spiritual monster child of enlightenment and the root of most (not all) evils of the 19th and 20th centuries. Finally, I do agree with you about corporations being the root cause of America’s downfall, but their worship goes more towards the Golden calf and Mammon, than Jesus, who was poor and never hid it. Thank you for responding.

Really I thought that his first set of criticisms would take days to respond to in full. But while I was still composing a few key points, I find that he thinks my comments were racist as well. He does agree that corporate America is contributing the downfall of the nation, but does not see Christian ideology as a contributing factor. He re-states his idea that the French Revolution marks the beginning of secularist thinking – I’m a bit rusty on my French history, but since there were schools unaffiliated with the church in Padua and Bologna in the 1500s, I’m thinking he’s at least 300 years off the mark. And to attribute the cause of any war or revolution to one or two causes is to rely on the most facile line of logic.

Singer Sargent Hercules

My reply:

Hi Marcos – sure, let’s talk on a first name basis.

I am still working on my response to your initial criticisms, and I see I have already generated a few more! I marvel that you find so much of what I say upsetting, as it does seem straight-forward to me. I am as Heracles to your Hydra – I cannot address one issue before another is opened up on another front. Is there no Iolaus among your readers who might come to my aid?

I would like to come to some agreement on one argument before starting another. In your original post, you described my view as dystopian – a charge I think unfair. I thought it was clear that my ideal America would include adults who can understand the most basic scientific principles, corporations that do not make profits from our ignorance and fear (I would add our illness), and Christians who do not take the Bible so literally that it actually kills them. If I followed my gut, I would add that people like Tom Perkins should be tried for sedition – but my head knows that’s going too far.

Do you want Americans to be stupid? Are you in support of Christians handling snakes? Do you agree with Tom Perkins? I would have thought that the Christian and the secularist could come to agreement on these issues. Why steer the debate towards a hot button issue like abortion when nothing in my post was remotely related?

The problem with adopting a dualistic worldview – good v evil, God v Satan – is that everything must now be viewed through that lens. Therefore, anyone who isn’t saying pretty much what you are saying must be your enemy. This is what I feel is the fundamental problem (pun intended) with our politics in America today. If you feel your opinions were spoken to you by God, then it would follow that my opinion must come from the Devil – unless I ‘agree’ to see things your way. One of the over-riding themes of my blog is that democracies cannot function this way.

I think American Christians have developed an almost Pavlovian response to the word ‘secular’, automatically seeing it as threatening, an idea that needs to be quashed – all the more so if it actually starts making any sense. I feel your description of my ideas as dystopian fall into this category – I don’t see it as a fair description of what I said. The word seems to conjure up a lot of other scenarios in your mind – none of which I or any other secularists I know are in support of.

I think the charge is particularly hypocritical because of the future foreseen by most American Christians. Do you believe in 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10 as the inspired word of God? Then are you joyously awaiting the day Jesus will destroy somewhere around 5 billion people so that he can set up his kingdom here? (My post on this topic). I do not know for a fact what your opinion is about this scripture, so I won’t put words in your mouth. But if this is part of your ‘end times’ theology, I think you should be very careful describing the ideas as others as dystopian.

As to today’s comments, I do wish you would be more careful with the term racism. I feel you owe me an apology on this count, as there was nothing racist in my words. Our species has but one natural advantage over many other species in the animal kingdom – our intelligence. Any species that doesn’t have – or refuses to use – such an advantage when encountering another more dangerous species, will, over time, find itself at a numerical disadvantage. This will happen irrespective of race. Because as humans we have many bad ideas that do not bear directly upon our chances of survival, unlike animals, our bad decisions tend to carry from one generation to another. Saying that this is in anyway racist is, in my opinion, so extremely hyperbolic as to be wholly inaccurate. I did not say that Coots died because he was a Christian or because he was an Appalachian; I think my words were more along the lines of ‘gross misunderstanding of the scripture’. Again, I thought most Christians would agree.

I am a son of Appalachia; my parents grew up in Harlan County Kentucky, which borders Bell County where Coots’ church is located. My first wife was from Middlesboro. I have both dear friends and relatives who still live there. I mentioned his death not because I view him as an inferior creature – but because I am saddened that a faulty ideology has robbed this man’s family of someone they dearly love. If he was ignorant, he was willfully so – every American town has dozens if not hundreds of churches to choose from.

I did not mention the fact that Europeans did more poorly than Americans on the aforementioned science quiz because I am guilty of not reading below the first paragraph. I saw the same headline in dozens of news outlets, none of which referred to that particular statistic, and I assumed that was the gist of the story. Why did none of the headlines read differently? I chose a headline and linked to it in my post – and I see that further down it does include the statistic you mention. I will read more closely in the future before linking. I did say that any society beyond the penis gourd stage should be ashamed of such numbers – and that goes for the Europeans as well.

I still maintain that three out of the four stories I commented on had little if anything to do with Christians. When I said that ‘creationism is a lie’, I said it in the context of what Bill Nye’s goal is – I think everyone knows he was at the Creation Museum in Kentucky last week for a debate. This shows no hostility to Christianity per se, as many Christians – in fact many mainstream denominations – do not believe the world was created six thousand years ago. I suppose you might say these people are not really Christians – I don’t know. Again, I will not put words in your mouth. There are many other systems of belief that also believe the world is created – Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, etc, so my comments cannot really be said to be anti-Christian as they could be said to cast doubt on any and all creation stories.

While I enjoy our back and forth on this page, I find that even in such a long response, I cannot respond to all of the inaccuracies and red herrings your comments contain. I feel it is not I who is painting the other side with a broad brush. I wrote a post about 4 news stories that should sadden every American. I wonder if there would be less umbrage on your part if the word ‘secularist’ did not appear in my title.

I like many of Mr. Ortega’s posts. He is usually thoughtful. He is well-educated – got his degree at Stendhal. He did offer the ‘I apologize if I offended” kind of apology that we commonly accept these days – I guess I’m old school in preferring the ‘I stand corrected’ variety, but yes, Marcos, I was a little offended at the racist comment, but I do accept your apology. I honestly believe you meant no harm.

I suppose it will be up to you, the reader to determine if Mr. Ortega’s criticisms are warranted or not. I am pessimistic, as I expect his readers will take his side, and my readers mine. I would like to think there would be a common ground, where everyone would more or less agree that, yes, we as Americans really need to put down the cheese-crust pizza and try to focus a bit more.

But I fear that a dualistic worldview may not allow it.

Have an opinion? Please post in the discussion section. Your views are important to me!

Dumb, Dumber, and Dangerouser

In American Society, Current events on February 19, 2014 at 12:12 am

Heliocentric

A tough week for those of us posing as ‘American intellectuals’, as our countrymen have once again lowered the bar on that standard, ever nearing the threshold past which the phrase becomes an oxymoron.

According to Time, a full quarter of Americans do not know that the Earth revolves around the sun – or at least they couldn’t answer such a question correctly on a recent survey. I know we have a lot of phrases in our language that are holdovers from an earlier age – sunrise, sunset, the sun will come out (pretty good songs actually) – showing that a belief in a geocentric universe was at one time common.

That it would be common today in any culture of people not running around in penis gourds is frightening. Poor Bill Nye the Science Guy – he REALLY has his work cut out for him. Trying to convince people that global warming is the truth and creationism is a lie – not the opposite – is a lot harder when your audience doesn’t have the capacity for abstract thought. What exactly are they teaching in science classes today?

Perhaps you’re thinking that science just isn’t our game, or that the question was biased by some trickery of phrasing. Well, apparently American history can be pretty tricky as well. Groupon, the social media equivalent to the coupon supplement in the Sunday newspaper, seems to think that Alexander Hamilton is one of our past presidents, and accordingly, launched a promotion in his honor for Presidents’ Day weekend. He must be a president, right? He’s on the ten-dollar bill, after all. A day after their faux pas, a spokesman for the company is claiming that it was tongue-in-cheek, meant to generate publicity – and since it did so, was a huge success. While I’m not buying that for an instant, even if I did, I wouldn’t be less offended. This is what corporations do in one way or another – parlay ignorance and fear into profits.

Moving up the stupidity scale a notch – from dumb to dumber if you will – is the tragic death of snake-handling preacher James Coots of Middlesboro, KY. He believed that the New Testament encourages Christians to show their faith by picking up snakes and sort of waving them around. This particular doctrine is taught in perhaps as many as 40 churches across the US, most of them located in the hills of Appalachia. The idea comes from Mark 16:18, which states that believers “shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover”.

On the one hand, my heart goes out to his friends and family. My first job out of high school was in Middlesboro, and I know for a fact that there are many fine people living in those parts who – gross misunderstandings of the scripture notwithstanding – are truly the salt of the earth. On the other hand, the inconsistencies of such a belief system are so obvious as to be laughable. If the parishioners of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name Church truly believe this verse is a command from Jesus, why don’t they just put acid or poison or something truly lethal in their communion cups? Why the tease, the drama of dancing around with a snake – drink a quart of antifreeze already and wait for Jesus to deliver you.

Of course this would never happen for the same reason that a faith healer would never call an amputee up to the front of the church and pray for God to heal him; it would be immediately obvious that God either didn’t hear, doesn’t care, or doesn’t exist. You would think that Darwinism would insure that these kinds of people become extinct before snakes do; I’m not placing any bets.

While the stupidity of a backwoods preacher primarily endangers only a handful of holy-rollers (mostly – more on that in my next post), society should shiver in fear when frighteningly bad ideas start their Sufi dance around Wall Street and Washington. We’ve had so many of these from both sides of the aisle in the past couple of decades – the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, NSA spying, Obamacare, drone wars, Citizens United – I fear that very many more will crush us under the weight of our own pride, greed, and ignorance.

And so a short article in The Atlantic, “Tom Perkins Has a Fascinating, Radical, Un-American Voting Plan”, is keeping me awake at night. Perkins, a retired ‘venture capitalist’ suggests that our democracy is broken in America, and he knows exactly how to fix it:

The Tom Perkins system is: You don’t get to vote unless you pay a dollar of taxes. But what I really think is, it should be like a corporation. You pay a million dollars in taxes, you get a million votes. How’s that?

Well, Tom, since you asked, I think that, while you see yourself as the persecuted Jew in your Nazi fantasies – you are mistaken; your flippant half-assed ideas border on fascism, and are the kind that are running this country into the ground.

I am not at all surprised that an uber-rich guy like Perkins would spout such delusions (of course, like Groupon, he later claimed he was just trying to be outrageous). If you think that the rich are altruistic job creators, you are just a snake or two away from Beulah Land yourself. These movers and shakers see themselves as modern-day barons and dukes, and it sort of hurts their feelings that you haven’t awarded them their rightful titles. Like a half-senile uncle blurting out family secrets on turkey day, Perkins is just stating what America’s movers and shakers believe but are too discreet to say.

What horrifies me is no one has the guts to look at him and say, ‘Are you f$#%ing kidding me?” Which corporation would you like to see America run like, Tom – AIG? Chrysler? Lehman Brothers? That a magazine like Atlantic would treat this guy’s ideas as if there might be some merit in them – like they do not dangerously undermine our democracy – is appalling. Tom Perkins’ ideas are not ‘fascinating’, they are frightening. They are not ‘radical’, they are revolting and elitist.

And, in truth, his ideas are not un-American. Unconstitutional, undemocratic, yes. But being dumb and dangerous is anything but un-American these days – it’s downright patriotic. So grab a snake and dance til the sun comes up – don’t worry, Perkins and his friends will care of everything else.

Be sure to ‘like’ americansecularist on Facebook to get posts as soon as they’re published.

Also, check out my newest blog – nevercomingback – for tales from my travels abroad.