Friday, July 1, 2011

One Hundred

Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end; then stop. ~ Lewis Carroll

And so, at long last, we arrive at two-word titles on Measure of Doubt, some three years and four months after we began. One hundred posts. Eighty thousand words. I don’t keep comprehensive tracking statistics, because I’m opposed to writers surveilling their readers, but I do have a counter that indicates that I have had something on the order of 35,000 unique “hits” on this page.

I have more to say, of course. Consider:

- Those digital signs that span the 401: they bug me. The other day, one said, “School is out. Watch for children.” Are children playing on 400-series highways now? And if I intended to drive like a psychopath, gunning for children, would the sign make me reconsider?
- “Natural” is not synonymous with “good”.  Polio is natural. Polio vaccine is unnatural. Which would you rather have?
- The organizing principle of homeopathy cannot be true unless the laws of physics and chemistry are false.
- Oprah’s practice of having only herself on the cover of her own magazine is made all the more egotistical by the fact that she very occasionally violates the practice. It wouldn’t be a problem if it were a general policy. It’s not. It’s question of her finding someone worthy to appear with her.
- Television is both worse (reality TV) and better (Mad Men, The Wire, Breaking Bad) than ever.
- My wife makes the best sandwiches in the world. On Saturday, it was avocado and red onion on grilled French bread with a cilantro chipolte mayonnaise.
- The proper way to cook a steak is in a very hot cast-iron fry pan until it’s rare or medium-rare, not on a gas BBQ until it’s a greyish brown colour.
- One advantage of cats over dogs is that you can leave them alone for the weekend. They have this advantage over children, too.
- The phrase, “those who can’t do, teach” doesn’t apply to university professors who are active in scholarship in their field: they teach precisely because they can “do”.
- The guy who first proposed that his company should pour tap water into a plastic bottle, ship it across the country, and sell it at variety and drug stores for three times the price of gasoline deserves a big raise. And to be beaten.
- It’s hard to find good restaurants in London, Ontario.
- The greatest movie ever made is Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo.
- Nonacademics have more freedom to express their views on academic matters than academics do, even though academics are supposed to have academic freedom. You wouldn’t believe the blogs I didn’t post.
- The scariest book I’ve read in the past two years is The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. Anyone who spends more than an hour per day on the Internet should read it.
- Technology is not neutral. It changes us even when we’re not using it.
- Educated people built Auschwitz and the atomic bomb. Rationality can sometimes lead to horrible things. But irrationality always does.
- Steinbeck is overrated. That’s irrational, I know.
- Get over the Beatles, everyone. They only recorded something like 9 hours of music. Seriously. 9 hours. Move on.
- The Golden Compass series is better than Harry Potter by a longshot. And Harry Potter was good, although by the last book in the series I was skimming.
- In the 1960s, this actually happened: university administrations decided it would be a great idea to get teenagers who have never taught and never studied pedagogy to be the ones to decide whether or not university professors with PhDs, lengthy publication records, and decades of teaching experience are any good at teaching. That actually happened.
- A recent study in the United States found that between 1961 and 2003, the number of hours per week that university students spent on all aspects of their studies declined from 40 to 27. Assuming the same rate of decline continued through to 2011, the figure would now stand at about 24 hours per week.  Average grades, however, have gone up rather dramatically. Draw your own conclusions.

Well, I could go on and on, but things have value precisely because they don’t. And that is why this 100th column of Measure of Doubt will be its last. 

I’ve changed. You’ve probably changed, too. I’ve gotten a load off of my chest and have begun to repeat myself. So now it’s time for other things. 

Are you out there, readers? Are there more than three or four of you?I have no idea. I have unlocked my message board: there is no need to register. If you have read Measure of Doubt, and it has meant something to you, leave a message. I’d like to know.

Well, that’s enough, I think.  One final thought: Bertrand Russell said that the whole problem with the world comes down to the fact that intelligent people are full of doubt while the stupid ones are sure of themselves. So may you always be full of doubt, my friends.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Violence

A true story. On the 24th of November, 1326, four horses entered the marketplace at Hereford, England, dragging behind them Hugh Despenser the Younger, recently convicted of treason, while the Queen, Isabella, and the assembled crowd of courtiers and commoners hooted and jeered. Already wearing a crown of nettles and disfigured by crude tattoos of verses concerning matters of retribution from the Old Testament, Despenser was stripped naked and “half-hanged” — that is, hoisted by a noose until semi-conscious — at which point they cut his genitals off. This was considered very fitting by all assembled since Despenser was known to have been the lover of the King, Edward II (himself to die the following year by means of a red-hot “trumpet” thrust into his anus, according to at least some accounts.) 

The writer Alison Weir recounts that Despenser then emitted a “ghastly, inhuman howl”, but his punishment was very far from over. Weir then picks up the account of a contemporary chronicler who wrote, “Then his belly was split open” – this while he remained conscious — “and his heart and entrials cut out...when the other parts of his body had been disposed of, Sir Hugh’s head was cut off and sent to London. His body was then hewn into quarters, which were sent to the four next largest cities in England.” You can see the event depicted, above. I bet nobody accused Isabella of being soft on crime.

Despenser was no saint. Weir speculates he may have raped the Queen. Certainly he had tried to bribe the French into killing her, as she was herself plotting against the King. All this is part of the point I'm trying to make, so bear with me.

Grisly though it was, Despenser's execution was kid’s stuff by Medieval standards. Consider, if you will, the words of the Dominican friar Bartolom√© de las Casas who recounted that Spanish conquistadors in the New World would “hang 13 natives at a time in honor of Christ Our Saviour and the 12 Apostles.  Straw was wrapped around their torn bodies and they were burned alive.  They took babies from their mothers’ breasts, grabbing them by their feet and smashing them against rocks.  They would cut an Indian’s hands and leave them dangling by a shred of skin and threw others to the dogs and thus were torn to pieces.”

Well, that’s (late) Medieval justice for you, a fact that Shakespeare was very much aware of when he had his hero Henry lay the following threat onto the governor of the French town of Harfleur in his great play Henry V.

    Therefore, you men of Harfleur,
    Take pity of your town and of your people,
    Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command;
    Whiles yet the cool and temperate wind of grace
    O'erblows the filthy and contagious clouds
    Of heady murder, spoil and villany.
    If not, why, in a moment look to see
    The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
    Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
    Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
    And their most reverend heads dash'd to the walls,
    Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
    Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
    Do break the clouds


It’s Shakespeare, yes, but historically accurate: Henry really did make a threat like this and the actual execution of such threats was commonplace throughout the Middle Ages. Indeed, the people of innumerable towns and cities have suffered similar fates from ancient times through to Nagasaki and beyond.  But this particular passage was excised in the 1944 Olivier film version: it wouldn’t do in 1944 to have a Shakespearean hero employing Gestapo methods against England's enemies even though at that very moment, the planes of Bomber Command were burning German cities and the people in them to the ground, night after night.

And what do all these people have in common? These crowds who cheered for the drawing and quartering of a homosexual? The medieval kings who ordered their men remorselessly to rape and murder their way through towns and villages? The conquistadors who actually did spit naked infants upon pikes?  Well, for one thing, they were all Christians, devout believers of utterly unshakable convictions. And, why not, really? In the Old Testament, Mr. Tough-on-Crime himself orders all manner of massacres and whatnot.  Yahweh is not merely vengeful and jealous but is also fiendishly diabolical in the manner of a James Bond villain. In 2 Kings 2, verses 23-24, He sends a couple of “she bears” to rip apart forty-two children for making fun of Elijah’s baldness. Do not mess with this cat. Seriously.

Am I saying that religion is the problem, that it “poisons everything” as a recent book put it? Certainly not. The claim that “religion poisons everything” is an empirical one, and until such time as we have studied religion in relation to, well, everything, we can’t possibly reach that conclusion. And there is, moreover, the undeniable fact that, in absolute terms, the secular (and in some cases aggressively irreligious) dictatorships of the 20th century: Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and Mao’s China, killed perhaps 100 million people between them. Indeed, Stalin, the foremost mass murderer in history, studied for the priesthood for only about four or five years so.

Here’s the catch, though. In absolute terms, the 20th century was undeniably the most violent in history. But there were also a lot more people to kill, and I am very far from convinced that, in relative terms, the 20th century was necessarily more violent than any of a number of centuries that preceded it.  For Americans, the death rate from their Civil War, fought amongst themselves in the 1860s, was about six times greater than World War Two; a Frenchman was more likely to die in the wars of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars than during the World Wars;  the average person living in early 16th century “Germany” during the Thirty Years War, was almost certainly more likely to die from violence than the average German living in the first half of the 20th century, and all these wars were fought amongst Christians. We could go on and on. Need I even begin to enumerate the catastrophic death toll of the Atlantic Slave trade?

Anyone who studies military history long enough eventually reaches the conclusion that there is basically nothing that people won’t do to one another. There is no act of betrayal or violence or cruelty so profane that people will not do it to their fellows in order to impose their will, and every human religion, doctrine, or philosophy can be and has been utilized to sanctify acts of unfathomable cruelty. But history also shows that people are often selfless, will sacrifice themselves for one another, and will die to defend the lives of otherwise defenseless people who they have never met and from whom they can earn no reward. As historians, we need to devote greater efforts to understanding what motivates actions such as these, in addition to understanding the everyday kindnesses, of which there are a multitude, that go unrecorded and unnoticed in the annals of history.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Silence

One of the many, many irritants in my life is the music they play near the elevators in my apartment building. The radio station (yes, they still have those) that I am forced to listen to for a few minutes every morning describes itself as “the home of the best rock of the 70s and 80s”, by which they mean some of the worst music in the history of the world. I can do without “Highway to Hell” at any time. I certainly don’t need to hear it at 7:45 AM. Yesterday it was “Hotel California.” At 7:30 in the morning. I felt like I was the person in the song. If I were an aging hippy, and lived in a van, and were brain damaged from too many drugs, I might want to listen to the Eagles at 7:30 in the morning. But I’m not. So I don’t.

Some mornings, I catch the station between songs. But this only makes things worse, when the disk jockeys (yes, they still have those, too) are bantering. This station has three of them. You know the types: the one who always seems to be suppressing a laugh at his own joke; the one with the barking voice who sounds like he’s going to tell you that this FRIDAY, at the METRODOME, the first hundred FAMILIES to see MONSTER TRUCKS get a FREE 12-GAUGE; and then there’s the hapless female, who makes inane sexual innuendos at her own expense. She serves no other purpose on the show. When I get to Hell that’s what will be awaiting me. An eternity of listening to FM Whatever-Whatever, Home of the Hits.

In the winter, my morning ritual involves a short walk to the corner of the downtown intersection to catch a bus. I used to stop at Starbucks for an espresso, but the long lines, the fact that, after a while, I caught myself translating my own order into Italian (“doppio espresso”), and their diurnal selection of music just became too much.  The musical selection usually involved the latest CD by another in a litany of minimalist folk-rock females of modest talent who will one day be featured during a weepy montage sequence at the end of an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.  In Starbucks, you get the added bonus of listening to the counter-staff (who are supposed to be making your espresso) talking about the music. (“This is Morgana Wheatfield. She is, like, so cool. She’s, like, such a great poet.”)  People who work at Tim’s prefer the Eagles, I think.

Out the door, espresso in hand. Standing at the corner, waiting for my bus. My city has located all of its social services in the core. There are arguments for and against this, and for good historical reasons I get quite uneasy at the suggestion from some of my city’s quite clueless public officials that all such services and the people who use them should be “relocated to the east.”  Anyway, the very core of the city is a haven for small-time drug dealers. They’re there all day long, and everybody knows it. In an effort to get them to move, the owners of the building set up speakers and started playing classical music at quite a loud volume. The hope was that this would be so unendurable to the dealers that they would leave. This hasn’t worked but I suspect that, in six months or so, London will have the most erudite and cultured criminal element anywhere.

And then the bus arrives. I sit between two people wearing iPods and playing them at such a volume that I can hear every note. And usually the music sounds something like: “WAAGGHAH! AAAARAGHA! WOOOOO! BAY-BEE! WAAAAGHAHAGH!” and the people listening to it nod their heads and play drums on their knees while I’m trying to read a book. Add to that the following fact:  my city’s busses talk. Insert blasphemy of your choice here. Can I say it again? My city’s busses talk. The busses. Talk.  They announce the next stops. This is one thing on a subway, where the stops are blocks apart. It’s another on a bus, where they are fifty feet apart.

Silence. Please? May I have a moment without an endless cacophony of noise? Well, yes. Because then I get to class. It used to be, only a few years ago, that when I wanted to start lecturing I would have to tap the podium for some time to bring my students’ chattering to a close so that I could begin the process of crushing their youthful enthusiasm for learning. (“I'm teaching you to think critically. Now memorize this lecture: it's on the exam.”)

So, what has changed? Well, now when I enter the lecture hall there is silence. Because my students aren’t talking to one another. They’re “talking” to people who aren’t there. They’re sending text messages on a device that used to be used for speaking.  (
Some day there will be a class-action lawsuit against Blackberry and others by the all the people who got arthritis by the time they were forty because of the thousands of hours they spent typing with their thumbs. Mark my words. It will happen.) And they almost never stop, just like the people who get on the elevator in my building in the morning, who start texting in the ten-foot walk between their apartment door and the elevator. Like the people on the bus, texting where a decade ago they might have been reading a book. Like the woman out walking her dog the other day, texting while she was walking, who strayed onto my side of the path while my bicycle and I were barreling down onto her.  I nearly hit her.  Like the grown man, texting behind the wheel of his SUV, who nearly hit me while I was crossing an intersection. Like the boring couples I see in restaurants, texting while sitting directly across the table from one another. Like increasing numbers of colleagues at meetings. Well, they might have a point there.

But why, really? What is so important? Well, nothing, of course. We have no evidence that students are smarter or businesses more efficient or people happier because we can now all "talk" to everyone all the time. On the contrary. What is important is that our brains want it and want it all the time. Our brains evolved to do simple things. Find a nut. Get an endorphin hit. Find a berry. Get an endorphin hit. Trap a small rodent. Get an endorphin hit. Now it’s: get an e-mail. Endorphins. Get a text. Endorphins. Send a text. Endorphins. These behaviours are a literally addictive byproduct of a behavioural process that evolved for other purposes. And it’s just one more thing that’s making people dumber. Every minute they spend sending messages they don’t need to send is another they could have been doing something meaningful with the ever-decreasing number of minutes that they have left.

Students sometimes ask me, “What can I do to get ahead?” By this, I assume they mean, “What can I do to get ahead of my classmates?” It’s a fair question, because it’s a dog-eat-dog world where they’re going to be competing for smaller numbers of good jobs with increasing numbers of highly credentialed classmates. My advice? Leave the laptop at home and get a cell phone for emergencies only. Then encourage your classmates to get the newest Blackberry and bring their laptops to school. I predict a twenty-point spread in grades at the end of a twelve-month period. Try it and see if I’m not right.

Addendum, June 13th. Just finished reading a very good and profoundly startling book, Nicholas Carr's The Shallows in which the author argues that our cognitive equipment simply can't handle the amount of stimulus I talked about in this column and the last. The exigencies of modern life require mastery over a range of skills, but really learning something important requires concerted effort and concentration on one thing (or a small number of things) at a time. Modern communications technology, however, practically demands and usually receives shallow and superficial spurts of attention. It is making us stupider. In fact, I took time out from marking to write this paragraph. And you, presumably, took time out from something else to read it.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Rhinoceroses

A funny thing: about three years ago I arrived at work to discover that somebody had put a rhinoceros in my classroom. Nobody told me it was going to be there. I didn’t ask for it, either. I just showed up one day and there it was. It’s an enormously disruptive beast, and I spend a lot of time trying to cajole it into a corner. Believe me, I’ve complained. But whenever I do, I get told, “Well, Broad. Get with the times. We all have rhinoceroses in the classroom now. Adjust your teaching style. Deal with it. Work it into your lectures.”  Some say the problem is me.  “Maybe if you were more interesting, students would pay less attention to the rhinoceros.”  Relax. Deal with it. Adapt. Make the flying leap into Rhinoceros Age.

Actually, none of that happened. Instead, somebody decided it would be a great idea to install wireless Internet instead. Now half of the two-thirds of the students who show up for my lectures have something else to do while I’m trying to talk to them. Is that lecture about the Holocaust getting you down? Never fear – here’s a video of a panda bear sneezing. Update your Facebook status. Multiplayer Call of Duty awaits.

Well, we all used to fade out sometimes, didn’t we? I recall doodling and making to-do lists the odd time, and fighting to remain conscious against the sonorous drone of a handful of sonorous droners. But that’s not really the point. Good lecturers can compete with everyday classroom distractions. I personally can blow the student paper or an idle game of hangman out of the water, any day of the week. What I can’t do is compete with Youtube, Facebook, and Call of Duty. If I could do that, I’d create a website called grahambroad.com, upload my lecturers, and be a multi-billionaire by the end of the year. They’d make a movie about me, with George Clooney in the starring role. We’ll call it The Asocial Network. But I can’t compete with those things, and for a simple reason: I’m not in the entertainment industry.

A few weeks ago, I had a “eureka” moment while a student was giving a presentation. I should haul out my laptop and phone and start surfing the web and texting while this student is talking, I thought. And then, when the student appeals his grade on the grounds that I wasn’t paying attention, I’ll tell the Powers That Be, “Well - that student should have just incorporated my web surfing and texting into his presentation.”  Nonsense, isn’t it? And yet another example of the double standard (or perhaps lack of standards): we profess to be preparing our students for their professional lives, but we permit them to behave in ways that would be considered highly unprofessional if we were to do it.

Oh, puh-leeze, I can heard the digerati saying. This discussion is so 2007. This generation of students “lives on the Internet” and they communicate by texting. You can’t ask them to stop. 

Oh, yes we can.  Can we all say it together, like at an Obama rally? Yes. We. Can. We ask students to do things they don’t want to do all the time, like write essays, take tests, and read books. Or does anyone think that, if it weren’t for university, they’d be quizzing each other on Plato’s Republic and writing papers about it?

Okay, I admit it. I’m getting on. I blinked and suddenly I was middle-aged fogey. “That lecture was sick!” one of my students said after class a few weeks back. Only later did I learn that “sick” means “good.” And I was just getting used to “bad” being “good.” Now it turns out its bad again.

So let me put the question another way. What have we wrought? PowerPoint. WebCT. E-mail that effectively renders our office door open 24/7. Wired classrooms. Digital databases. WikiLearning. Educational podcasts. Flat-panel displays mounted on nearly every square inch of empty wall space. Tweeting to students, sometimes from the front of the lecture hall. Clickers. And for all that, for all those billions of dollars and millions of labour hours expended, do we have so much as a tiny, tattered, threadbare shred of evidence that our students are smarter than they used to be? Are their essays better researched or written? Are their exams more accurate? Are they more literate? More articulate? Better able to critically assess what they read and learn? And if they are not — and I have searched the pedagogical literature in vain for evidence that they are — then why is the rhinoceros in my classroom?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Apocalypse

Okay, everybody good? Whew. Dodged that one.

Well, in fairness, it wasn’t supposed to be the End of the World per se. According to Harold Camping and his followers, about 200 million people were supposed to have been saved, and the rest of us left to await the actual end of the world, which will occur in October. But there was supposed to have been a monumental earthquake. And 200 million people disappearing. And all manner of apocalyptic whatnot.

Okay. Avoid cliches, students. But sometimes they’re inevitable. This is shooting fish in a barrel. But there is a larger point that this minor, media-inflated incident raises. Predictions of apocalypse come and go. Many authorities in the field of Biblical Exegesis agree that Jesus himself was (historically) an apocalyptic preacher who (scripturally) predicted that the End would occur within the lifetime of his own followers. We could go on and on, covering a truly staggering number of failed predictions, from those made by some very noble Roman Christians trying to understand the catastrophes of the world around them in a pre-scientific age, to the seediest of money-grubbing American evangelicals such as the late Jerry Falwell, who in 1999 predicted that the Big Wrap Party would occur “within a decade” based upon his “reading” of recent events in the Middle East.

I’m an historian. Reflecting upon the past and attempting to rescue wisdom from it is the essence of what I do. Just yesterday, I bought new translations of Herodotus and Thucydides in preparation for an academic suicide mission I'm embarking on this fall, and last week I turned the last page on Karen Armstrong’s engaging The Bible: A Biography, part of the excellent “Books That Shook the World” series. But it’s one thing to search for meaning, guidance, and wisdom in old books (or very old bronze-age books).  It’s another to thing to organize one’s life around one particular reading of them. Camping, his followers, and people of their ilk live in a small, shriveled, self-centered, mean, miserly, intellectually constipated world.  In a world full of causes worthy of pursuing, they decided to devote their lives to preparing for an apocalypse that didn’t even happen.

It is now 12:02 AM in Apia, Samoa, which means it’s May 22nd everywhere, and not everybody is good. Yesterday, about 20,000 people starved to death. Some people console themselves by believing that they are in a “better place” now. Harold Camping and people like him believe they are in Hell, eternally to be punished unless they died in a (proper) state of grace. Am I mocking Camping and his ilk for their religious beliefs? To quote one of the great figures of American politics of the modern era, you betcha.  Me, I’m always willing to listen, at least for a while, to what people have to say. But there must be fairness in any such relationship. Proselytize, and I should be permitted to argue without fear. Threaten, and I will defend myself.  And if you tell me that I’m going to Hell, I get to tell you to precede me there. 

Update: May 24th:  Harold Camping has emerged unraptured. To his thousands of followers who quit their jobs and spent their life savings spreading his message, he offered the following: God has decided to do the rapture and the end-of-the-world thing in one fell swoop, October 21st. The remarkable thing is how many of his followers are standing by him. As always, the problem isn't the ability to absorb information. It's the ability to think.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Rapture

Well, so far, so good.

As Measure of Doubt reported back in January, months before the Johnny-Come-Lately second-stringers at The New York Times and on CNN did, a small group of very vocal fundamentalists centered around an evangelical preacher named Harold Camping and his Family Radio Network are saying that today’s the day. Pack your things, ‘cause Jesus is Coming Back.

It’s currently 2:44 AM, May 22nd, on Christmas Island, which is the world’s farthest forward dry-land Time Zone. No Rapture has been reported there. They skated through the whole of May 21st with nary an Apocalypse in sight.

Well, it’s only 1:51 AM in Apia, Samoa. So if we’re taking Coordinated Universal Time into consideration (and what is this blasphemy of time being different in different places, anyway?) He has another 22 hours to show up.  Maybe we haven’t dodged that bullet yet. I’m drinking beer and running up the credit cards for the rest of the day, just in case.

I’ll check in tomorrow, when it is definitively May 22nd, 2011, everywhere, to see if y’all have come back. Or if I’ve been Left Behind.

In the meantime, consider the innovative business opportunities being pursued by the Damned.

http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2011/05/18/atheists-offer-to-rescue-christians-pets-after-judgment-day/

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Arguments

Ne nuntium necare.

The Ontological Argument.  Famously associated with Anselm of Cantebury. The argument holds that the existence of God follows from the concept of God in language. It works like this: God is the most perfect thing that can be conceived of. But if He didn’t exist, He wouldn’t be perfect. So He exists.  Rejected by intellectuals ranging from Thomas Aquinas to Bertrand Russell (who admitted that he had a fifteen-minute flirtation with it in his youth.) Currently returning to fashion in a modified form, the argument basically contends that if you write a good enough job description, the ideal employee must exist.

The Cosmological Argument.  Holds that all things must have a first cause, and that the first cause of all things is God. Dates from antiquity, but is hoisted by its own petard, as the ancients well realized. Complicates rather than simplifies the problem, thus answering nothing. Why is there something instead of nothing? Because of the Creator. Why is there a Creator instead of no Creator? Let’s change the subject. Implies nothing about the correctness of any particular religion, let alone denomination. Implies almost nothing about the nature of any alleged creator or creators - neither omnipotence, nor omniscience, nor omnibenevolence, and certainly not gender. At best an argument for a highly conditional Deism.

Argument from Miracles. Holds that the existence of various miracles proves the existence of God. Four problems. First, evidence for the supernatural origins of miracles doesn't pass peer review, except where vested interests are involved. Second, even if the miracles had supernatural origins, this doesn’t imply any particular supernatural origin. Third, if God is the cause of all things, it makes no sense to make a big deal about miracles, which would be just another thing he caused. Four, for alleged “signs from God”,  the miracles are often extraordinarily unimpressive: bleeding statues, low-probability recoveries from illness, bell-shaped watermarks that look like Renaissance portraits of Christ or the Virgin. Statues wandering about churches, getting their pictures taken with parishioners; prayer regenerating amputated limbs; full-colour, 3-D talking images of the Virgin giving interviews on CNN. This would be impressive.

Argument from Design.  Similar to the Cosmological Argument, but focuses on the remarkable complexity of life as opposed to the curious existence of the cosmos itself. See Darwin, Charles.

Gender. The belief that God must be a man runs contrary to claims of omnipotence. 

Deism. The belief that God is essentially indistinguishable from the physical laws of the universe. The default position of most of America's Founding Fathers. They would not be elected two-and-a-half centuries later. 

The Mysterious. Can be appealed to in place of making embarrassing concessions such as, "You've got a point there."

Pascal’s Wager. Famous argument that contends it’s the best bet to believe in God. Maybe. But Pascal left the problem of which God to worship and how unresolved. Rather more critically, he failed to distinguish between the beneficence of belief and actually believing. Belief follows from persuasive evidence; Pascal’s Wager offers none.

Argument from Personal Faith. Simultaneously unconvincing but irrefutable. “I know in my heart that I’m right.” But every devout believer in every god in every society in the history of the world has said the same thing, including many today who are convinced that everyone else, including you, is going to Hell.

Agnosticism. A cancellationist position which holds that the evidence for and against the existence of God is about equal. Good for fence-sitters who don’t like to commit. Agnostics are often found attending United Church services "for the music" and like to recite tautological banalities such as, “Everything happens for a reason.” Intolerable people. 

Russell's Teacup.  Russell once argued that while he couldn't prove that a teacup is not orbiting a distant planet, that was insufficient reason to be agnostic about the issue. This is important.

Suburban Protestants and Cafeteria Catholics.  Polls show that something on the order of 90 or 95 percent of people believe in God. Polls also show that the great majority of ostensibly religious people have no idea why they believe and very little idea about what they’re supposed to believe. A recent poll found that the overwhelming majority of alleged Christians could not name the four canonical gospels. Curiously, such people often get a free pass from the devout on the grounds that, “At least they believe in something.” Non-believers whose atheism is a consequence of sincere, daily, and lifelong study don't stand a chance of getting elected to political office.

Oprah. The dominant religion of our era is a belief in an immensely gregarious God who wants us to be comfortably middle-class and soothingly middle-brow; a celestial Oprah who will one day welcome all of us onto her living room set in the sky and let us jump on the sofa for all eternity.

Impossibility Arguments. Highly sophisticated evolution of ancient arguments that explored the paradoxes of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence and which conclude that God, like a square circle or an honest lawyer, is a logical impossibility. Fascinating, but they do not preclude the possibility of an extraordinarily powerful but less-than-perfect God. Human beings went from stone tools to the surface of the moon in 5,000 years.  Imagine a race 5 million years old. Or 5 billion. We build skyscrapers. Could they build universes?

Theological non-cognitivism. The position that all God-talk is cognitively meaningless. Stems from the impossibility arguments. Some theological non-cognitivists are therefore hard atheists; others contend that no discussion about the matter is possible until theists can arrive at a cognitively meaningful definition of what it is that we're supposed to be talking about.

Einstein, Albert.  At a public debate, I sat, jaw dropping, as an atheist and theist argued over whether or not Einstein was religious. Did they think that the existence or non-existence of God was somehow contingent on what Einstein believed? A particularly dangerous argument for Christians to make, because if Einstein was anything, he was a Jew. Similar arguments are deployed for a pantheon of historical giants, good and evil, from Plato to Jefferson to Hitler.  Historically interesting but, as a point of logic, utterly irrelevant in terms of the argument over the existence of God.

Atheism, hard. The position that there is no God. Generally held to be logically untenable, but adherents of impossibility arguments say otherwise.

Atheism, soft. The position that there is insufficient evidence to believe in God. An important distinction. 

Atheists. Very rare. A rigorous philosophical position: not something soft that one can fall into. Atheists are also not to be confused with secular liberals who are mad about organized religion.


New Atheists. A recent breed of aggressively irreligious nonbelievers who hold that a general critique of the beneficence of faith follows from their disbelief. But whatever else they may be, religions are social institutions of enormous importance and cannot uniformly and universally be deprecated for "poisoning everything."

Prayer.  Fortifying for millions, but removed from schools. The worst prayers are the begging kind: the belief that maybe this time God will intercede on your behalf. (“Please let my team win the Superbowl”, etc.) Convincing to some people because of an inability to separate correlation from causation.  “I prayed and somebody found Fluffy, who was lost for three days.” Wow. Now, about that Holocaust...

Praying. It is disrespectful for non-believers to lower their heads, as if in prayer, while others are praying. Listen attentively, instead: you might learn something. But do not disrespect the devout by pretending to be something you are not. In the 7th grade, a nasty old crone who was our substitute teacher for the day made the whole class re-do the Lord’s Prayer, saying the words. Even then I wondered, “What is the point?”  If the words meant nothing to us, did she think we would be fooling God?

Comparative Religion. Should be mandatory in schools. Until 1988, students in Ontario public schools rose diurnally for the immensely symbolic pairing of “Oh, Canada” and the Lord’s Prayer, understanding neither. Nor did most of their teachers, and discussion of religion was verboten anyway. Further proof that the real agenda of the Ministry of Education is to impose ignorance, and for obvious reasons. Educated people would abolish the Ministry of Education.

Darwin, Charles. A visionary genius who both demonstrated the fact of biological evolution’s existence and offered a theory – natural selection – to explain the mechanism by which it operates.  Also, and this is critically important, dead since 1882. He lacked a proper understanding of heredity and did not know about genes. Today, most competent undergraduates in biology know more about evolution than did either of its co-discoverers. School-boards in Texas and Kansas can deny the existence of biological evolution all they want, but what they think doesn’t really matter. Darwin gathered a few pebbles of evidence that subsequently have become mountains. “It’s only a theory,” they say. So is gravitation. They lose. Period.

Evolution, biological. Change in the inherited characteristics of populations over time. As factually established as anything can be science. Has implications for most creation myths and for the Argument from Design, but otherwise has no bearing on the argument over the existence of God.

Catholicism. A favourite target of liberals who are at once relativists but also moralizing crusaders. In other contexts, the same people gleefully will report you to a Human Rights Commission for criticizing a religion or religious group.

Argument from Beauty. Similar to the Argument from Design. Holds that such-and-such a cultural object is “too beautiful” to have been created by a species that emerged solely as a consequence of random mutation followed by non-random natural selection. Bad thinking for obvious reasons. “How do you explain Mozart?” they say. Okay, how do you explain Michael Bolton?

Doubt. Malcolm Muggeridge said that doubt is like a pillar at the center of faith, because no one who is sincere in his or her beliefs need fear argument and disputation about them.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Beer

The problem with wine is that it breeds wine snobs. We are not wine snobs. We love wine. Rare is the night that a new bottle isn’t corked around Broad-Green Estate and a glass with any lunch worth having is customary, too. We are particular about what we like and what we don’t. A big yes to French syrah, a big no to Australian shiraz, even though they’re the same grape. We know the difference, sometimes on sight and smell alone, between major varietals (though Chardonnay, which can be manipulated into almost anything these days, often fools us.)  We reserve our right, in decent restaurants (hard to find in this city), to ask for small pours to sample; we solicit opinions from knowledgable waitstaff (harder still) but don’t always follow them. Amanda and I are also compiling a very substantial collection of futures to open after aging for a decade or two, and I maintain that, yes, there is something to all that nosing and swirling and decanting and tongue-smacking. But we are not wine snobs.  My wine-tasting vocabulary extends as far as such words as, “yummy”, although I confess that the scrupulous avoidance of wine-tasting terminology could be viewed as a form of pretension, too.  I also believe that it’s undeniably true, as the enormously likable and sensible Billy Munnelley says, that “we live in a golden age for wine” where there are a ton of great wines for under twenty dollars and a lot of good ones for under ten. Our everyday go-to pours are screw-top bottles from Italy, France, and, yes, Niagara, and they all come in under twenty bucks, positively a steal when one considers that the cost of psychotherapy ranges upwards of $150 an hour.

An aside for my American readers, who are probably thinking that twenty bucks is a lot to pay for a decent table wine. Indeed it is, at least in a civilized place such as, well, anywhere in the United States of America. Not so in Soviet Canuckistan, where government-owned provincial monopolies are the order of the day in all provinces except one.  The Liquor Control Board of Ontario is the biggest single buyer of wine in the world.  They have a good gig.  It works like this: Ontarians pay taxes to maintain a crown corporation that sells wine back to them at inflated prices. In other contexts this is known as a “protect racket.”

Now, concerning the matter of beer. The words “wine and beer” are often uttered together but the experience of consumption usually is very different.   Unfairly is beer denounced by wine drinkers as nitwit juice, mass produced in watery forms such as “Coors Light”, to be swilled one after another by fellers with big guts, who like football and eating nachos and hitting on the woman from the next trailer over when she’s visiting to watch the game on the big-screen they’re paying down over eleven years, while meanwhile their wives are in the same room, half-passed out on the sofa from too many vodka coolers at four o’clock in the afternoon while their gaggle of kids, all precisely eleven months apart, scream like monsters running from room to room shooting at each other with squirt guns loaded with bleach. This is unfair stereotype, as Coors Light is consumed by many hockey fans, too. 

Moreover, good beer also has its partisans and its snobs. I myself have just downed a rather engaging, bitter and spicy little lager from San Francisco. (Put this in the “Did you know?” file, readers: your noble author almost always consumes some sort of alcoholic beverage while blogging. Can you tell? Hint: the passive-aggression meter goes up depending on the time of night and number of beverages consumed.)

A few weeks ago, the commissars at the LCBO decided that it was in the public interest to remove from their shelves forthwith and forevermore a beer called Smashbomb Atomic India Pale Ale, produced by the cheeky Flying Monkeys brewery (formerly the Robert Simpson brewery). Their reason? Because the name of the beer might promote violence. Read that again, dear readers. It might promote violence. Two observations, if I may. First, of course it will promote violence. It’s alcohol. Second, it’s not the name that’s the problem. It’s the alcohol. From the window where I type, I watch every morning as a group of homeless and/or destitute men gather in front of the LCBO, waiting for it to open, so that they can rush in and buy the cheapest bottles of swill they can get their hands on, and the LCBO sells it to them quite obligingly. But I can’t buy an India Pale Ale because the LCBO is afraid I might go and go and build a nuclear weapon in my kitchen. Good Lord. What goes on in their tiny, tiny brains?

A few days later, I discovered that a local bar and grill that serves serviceable food pours Smashbomb Atomic on tap. It was a done deal. In a fit of rage against the machine, I had a pint at lunch and went back for another the day I wrote this. Take that, Liquor “Control” Board of Ontario! I am drinking the beer because you took it off the shelves. It’s good, incidentally. Positively terrific with fish and chips.

And did I give in to fits of violence? Did the name of the beer make we want to go out and smash or bomb somebody? Well, no. But, after lunch, I immediately went home and decided to turn against everything good and decent in Western civilization and violate the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a hobby project.

Oh, dear. Did I just get myself flagged by a number of security and intelligence services? Probably. Hey, guys: I was just kidding. It’s a joke. Let me make it up to you. Have a Coors Light on me.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Voting

As an historian, I’m skeptical any time I hear someone say, “History shows us that...” or “one of the lessons of history is...”

History is a series of arguments about the past – it is not the past itself, and rarely does it offer us clear lessons.  Hindsight is not 20/20: if it were, we wouldn’t need historians. And when historians themselves do not agree about what the lessons of history are, how are we to know what lessons to derive from the past?  The problem seems insoluble.
 

I think that the lessons of history are of a more general kind. For instance, I believe that there is a remarkable uniformity to human behaviour over time, probably the result of our evolutionary endowment manifesting itself in a plurality of social circumstances. If there’s one general “lesson of history” to be learned in regards to tomorrow’s election, it’s this: when decent people surrender the political sphere, people who crave power will occupy it for them, and there are no shortage of hate-filled, venomous, cruel, crazy, stupid, and naive voters willing to hand it to them. Never, ever forget: Adolf Hitler was elected. How many times have you heard some pinhead begin an argument with a phrase such as, “Hitler went too far, but...”?

Decent people who actually think about complex issues are often paralyzed, by contrast, because they are so disillusioned by the infantile character of our political discourse. It is understandable that so many of them exercise their right to abstain.  But there is a difference between abstention, which is a considered position, and not voting because you couldn’t be bothered. 

From time-to-time, some of my more politically savvy students on the left tell me that voting is inconsequential. Do they really believe this? I always administer a simple test:  would they not protest, then, if voting rights were taken away or denied to certain groups, and we reverted to an era like the one depicted in the photo above?

Voting is, admittedly, only a small part of what it means to be politically active. But democracies function on participation, and voting is an important part of it. So, for any students who are reading (and I know that some of you are), consider your position, and then get out there and vote for the political party that is least likely to destroy our country in the next five years.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Death

I'm thinking about death because today is my birthday, and birthdays are days for reflection. I have now undeniably used more than half of the upper extremity of years granted me by the 90th Psalm and must face the real prospect that, by the pure mathematical progress of years, there are fewer ahead of me than behind.

Death. It happens to the best of us. I’m not particularly afraid of it — the prospect is more disappointing than anything else — but most deaths these days are drawn out, painful, and personally degrading. Consequently, I want the event to be as brief and trouble-free for me and everyone else when the moment comes, and indeed I’m trying to avoid it, if at all possible. Douglas Adams wrote that the “trick” to flying is to throw yourself at the ground and miss. When the moment comes, I intend to hurl myself, unflinching, at death. And hope to miss.


Many Christians say that life must be considered sacred from “conception to natural death”, although polls show that most of them are willing to make exceptions in cases where they have something personally invested in the matter. I’ll leave the argument about my views on fetal life for another time. Let me instead observe that in our society there is very rarely such a thing as “natural death.”  Most dying patients receive highly unnatural forms of palliative care, which often involves essentially stupefying them for their last few days. But there is far more to it than that, even. In the modern western world, even before we are born, we begin to receive the most radical and decidedly unnatural forms of medical treatment and intervention to extend our lives for as long as possible. Any pregnant woman who has had an ultrasound, teenager who has had symptomatic wisdom teeth removed, middle-aged man who has a prescription for blood-pressure; anyone at all who has had antibiotics for a serious infection, stitches to close a wound, a suspicious mole removed, or his tonsils taken out, simply cannot believe in the concept of a “natural death.”  If we allowed “nature” to take its course the majority of us would have gone down to the same fate as the majority of people throughout history: we would have died in childhood.

Now, to the moment of death. 
If we are of sound mind we have a right, of course, to refuse treatment, and when we are incapable of making it for ourselves our family usually is permitted to make it for us. The decision to “pull the plug” is made by thousands of people every day when it is a clear that their brain-dead loved ones are being kept alive only in the sense of having a machine respirate for them. No one serious denies this right, as theoretically machines could keep us all respirating indefinitely, long after the brain has ceased to function. This is non-controversial.

Now, let me put another case to you. Supposing I have been diagnosed with a terminal disease and, at some late point in the disease’s progress, only pain, misery, and total loss of dignity lies ahead.  I have an undeniable right to refuse treatment, of course, but with the consequent and probably quite unbearable pain that would accompany such a decision; I have the right to receive large doses of painkillers and spend my last days or weeks in a narcotic haze, which is the standard method of passing for most people nowadays.  However, I do not have the right, not even in the clearest of mental states, to ask a physician to give me a lethal dose of drugs to end my life as quickly as possible.

Well, not quite. I can ask, but as matters stand no physician in Canada legally can fulfill my request. He or she can leave me dead to the world but not actually dead. But why not? There are, of course, serious concerns about the administration of such treatments, were they to be legal. There would have to be careful safeguards to ensure that people with reasonable prospects for recovery don’t end their lives prematurely. We mustn’t have angst-ridden teenagers showing up at our hospitals, asking for lethal injections because they can’t go on after their most recent breakup. But if I am in the later phases of a terminal illness, with no reasonable prospect of recovery and – most crucially – I have been professionally determined to be of sound mind, I see no grounds on which I ought not be permitted to choose to dispossess myself of the one thing that is most my own: my life. The easiest method for doing so would be to ask for the assistance of a willing physician to administer a lethal dose of painkillers.

And why can’t I? There is one answer. Because of opposition on religious grounds, by those who maintain that even fully consensual, physician-assisted suicide that meets precise criteria is a violation of the principle that life is sacred until “natural” death, even though very few of them really believe in the concept of “natural death” at all. In this regard, the only people who are being consistent are those members of certain religious minorities who refuse nearly all medical treatments on the grounds that it is a violation of God’s will. I regard this as perverse, but at least it has the virtue of consistency.

Canada’s constitution guarantees me religious freedom — a freedom which must necessarily include the freedom to be free from the religiously motivated dictates of others. I therefore regard my inability to secure a physician assisted suicide as a violation of my constitutional rights. Some will attempt to make the argument that all of our laws have religious antecedents, and that therefore my argument applies equally to laws against murder, rape, theft, and the like.  But there are many grounds for opposing such crimes quite apart from the fact that there are religious proscriptions against them. The conditions of human solidarity and of maintaining human society require them whether your particular god wants them or not. By contrast, secular objections to fulfilling the wish of a terminally ill and clear-minded individual to expedite the process are harder to locate. 
 

It goes without saying, of course, that no physician should ever be forced against his or her conscience or under threat of professional sanction to terminate someone’s life; we all recognize that the decision to end a life is, from both sacred and secular perspectives, a momentous one. The suggestion will be made, of course, that to permit physician assisted suicide will serve to further the secular society’s cruelest failing of all: the supposed devaluation of human existence.  But as a historian of war and conflict, I am not at all convinced that, in proportional terms, the century recently concluded was any more violent than others that preceded it nor indeed that it valued life less.   Indeed, allow me to suggest that it is possible that from a secular perspective the value of life is even greater – it has an inherent and intrinsic value, because it is the only life that we will ever have.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Horror

Bad news. For some reason, the dead have risen. All of them. They are now shambling about in search of human flesh and their bite turns their victims into more zombies. They can only be killed by destroying their brain. Brains do their thing because they’re part of a nervous system and fed by a circulatory system, but massive bodily trauma doesn’t stop zombies. Pretty much any poke to the noggin will, though. Shoot ‘em, stab ‘em, bash ‘em in the head, they go down like bowling pins. The trouble is that there’s too many of them. So, the few survivors of this zombie plague are now huddled together in boarded up buildings, fighting to survive as their food and supplies run low and as internal dissent rises – there’s always one asshole ready to screw things up, isn’t there?

This was the premise of a grim, grimy, grisly and really rather seedy 1968 horror film called Night of the Living Dead, and one think that that would be it, really. What else is there to say? The sequel, where the zombies shamble amok in a shopping mall, nearly indistinguishable from Christmas shoppers, provokes, I will admit, a slight crack at the corner of one’s mouth, but this supposed “social commentary” is just a veneer to conceal the real plot of the film, which is running from zombies. And the exact premise has been retold in literally dozens of films now, including quite pointless remakes of both Night of the Living Dead and its sequel, and in a small avalanche books (including at least one best-seller, World War Z, by Max Brooks), and, of course, in video games, where zombies have become the necrotic analogue to Space Invaders. You keep shooting them. They keep coming. Repeat.

Recently some students commended to my attention a new TV series entitled The Walking Dead. Reading up on it a bit I heard it hailed as as being the very zenith of the zombie drama. This is not the highest accolade, of course, but I did take note of the fact that the show is airing on AMC, the network that brought us two masterpieces of modern television: Mad Men, about 1950s-era advertising agents on the cusp of becoming dinosaurs amidst the social turmoil of the 1960s; and Breaking Bad, about a terminally ill chemistry teacher who becomes a drug dealer in order to provide for his family after he’s gone. I watched some of it and thought that, as zombie television shows go, it was eminently satisfactory, and will be loved by people who love that sort of thing. The producers might want to be careful how they promote their program, though.

The alleged “source material” — as if it needs any — for The Walking Dead is an utterly depraved “graphic novel” (that’s a comic book with sex and swearing) of the same name. I dipped my toe long enough into those waters to wish I hadn’t. A few selective readings revealed, among the usual zombie mayhem, decapitated children, vividly portrayed gang-rapes, and a woman shot through the chest with a shotgun while clutching her baby. They die in a spray of blood and body bits. If you meet people who like this sort of thing, I recommend that you take a step in the opposite direction. The comic's creators offer up the defense that this sort of thing goes on in reality anyway. Okay, granted. The horror genre is about the fear of death. But this isn’t about fearing death - it’s about making pornography out of it.

Zombies seem to be the next big thing in horror, perhaps because nearly all of the vampires have forsaken evil in favour of bedding teenage girls instead. You need only visit the “teen” section of the bookstore to see what I mean. Publishers have apparently given up on trying to get boys to read at all (well, somebody has to vote for the Tea Party) while for girls the teenage girl-meets-vampire-classmate genre has resulted in an avalanche of titles on the bookshelves. I’ve complained elsewhere that I invented this genre in 1986 and won’t renew this complaint here.


Anyway, in any other context, the efforts of a very elderly man to have sex with borderline or flat-out underage females would be called statutory rape or worse. (Edward is 98, Bella is 17; Angel is 240, Buffy is 16; Bill is 140, Sooki is, about 20, I guess.) Now add to it the fact that he is not merely elderly but, according to the genre’s own lore, deceased, and moreover almost invariably trembles on the brink of ripping her apart and eating her, and we have something else entirely. Let’s call it sadocanabalistic necro-adolescent-philia shall we? Something for the DSM V, as apparently millions of teenage girls have it.

Is there nothing new under the horror-genre sun? I am tired of vampires, zombies, witches, werewolves, ghosts, science-experiment run-amok monsters, and, above all, the slasher film, where people, usually teenagers, get butchered by a mask-wearing psycho because they act as if the live in a world where they don't have slasher movies. So I admit that I am curious about this, Rubber. It's a movie about a tire that comes to life and starts killing people. And I hereby claim copyright to the genre of teenagers falling in love with tires that come to life and start killing people.

Friday, April 1, 2011

University

There is a tremendous amount of finger pointing going on in Japan these days. Officials are asking why this emergency procedure and that emergency procedure failed; about how responses such as rescue work and the distribution of food and water might have been improved, and about what the government could have or should have done. All these things should be talked about. But the real problem wasn’t the response. The problem was the earthquake. And the tidal wave.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Charlie

The catastrophe that befell Japan late last week came on the very anniversary of another: the March 1945 bombing of Tokyo, in which perhaps 100,000 people perished by fire. I had intended the raid to be the subject of this week’s column — complete with a sober assessment of the realities of wartime Japanese imperialism — but when the earthquake, tsunami and now, it appears, partial meltdown of at least two nuclear reactors occurred in the past three days, I recalled something George Orwell said during the London Blitz: that there was much to criticize about England and its history, but now was not the best time to do it.

As of now, the official death toll in Japan is approaching two thousand and many thousands more are missing. The horrific images of the tsunami sweeping remorselessly over towns and fields, devastating everything in its path would, one would think, be enough to move even the most cold hearted reactionary to tears. But a quick perusal of message boards on CNN and Youtube suggests that a great many people are positively busting at the seams to sign up the next time the Brown Shirts role around. A small sample, shall we? (Brace yourself.)

xstongue
Theres a meltdown going on in America, can you news people focus on that instead of other countries news, we need to think about U.S. FOR A CHANGE....

primerib
What goes around comes around nips! Remember, Pearl Harbor, nips? Yeah....

BIG RED 1
Hasnt been that long ago old Tojo and his slaant eye folks were trying to killl all us Americans. They killed a whole lot of our grandparents. Please think before you start praising these people. BY THE WAY . . . THE BIG RED 1 WAS THE HONORED FIRTS ARMORED DIVISION. AMERICAN HEROES.

THEY DESERVE TO BE HIT BY QUAKE AND TSUNAMI,THEY ARE VERRY CRUEL AND HEARTHLESS,I HOPE THAT THEY WILL BE HIT AGAIN (JAPAN,JAPANESE) BY MUCH MORE POWERFULL MAGNITUDE 11 QUAKE AND TSUNAMI 100 METERS HIGH,,FUCK YOU ALL JAPANESE PEOPLE,GO TO HELL!!!
TheCityhunter08 1 hour ago

Who cares about the Japs and their bastard kids!!! They all deserve to die and the ones that r still alive need to melt from those reactors! Whoever does not die, we need to Nuke them to rid these Japs from the world. Justice for Pearl Harbor Baby!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
notre2010 4 hours ago

And so forth. Need I even get into the immense number of replies that contained the words “God” and “Jesus” “wrath” “revelation” “end times”, etc? Oh, what the heck:

i dont know much about japan but our preacher says they must have done many bad things for God to smite them in this manner. he says that many Japanese are atheists it is no wonder God would eventually take notice this should be a warning to all unbelievers. i pray for the japan people and that they will accept Jesus Christ.
ptl8888 7 hours ago

saudisRbest
Until Japan becomes an Islamic nation, it will continue to experience the wrath of Allah

We are living in a time of history like no other. We are living right at the very end of time. We are that last generation. Every time that God has brought judgment, he has warned the believers (1 Thess 5: 1-5). God is warning the entire human race that the Rapture of the true believers is going to occur on May 21, 2011. That will be followed by what the Bible calls the Day of Judgment after which, on October 21, 2011 God Himself will destroy this entire cosmos. (more info at familyradio,com 
horseandhisrider 5 hours ago

As Jesus approached the boat where the disciples were, Peter said, "Lord, if it's really you, tell me to come to you, walking on water." Jesus said, "Yes, come." Peter than walked toward Jesus on the water, but started to sink when he was frightened by the large waves. "Save me, Lord!" He shouted. Jesus grabbed him. "You have so little faith..."
racenuke 8 hours ago

this is only the start of it, earthquaqe, tsunami, earth axis change, vulcan eruption, nuclear plant explosion, and more too come :( the peple are greedy and fill they pockets with money, but what cann you doo with money now ? man kind doesent concentrate on the future :( the power and welth drives us twords selfdestructin :( 2012.12.21 is aproching :( god take care of all japanese victims who didnt hade a chance. PEACE

Now, stay with me. A very large number of postings argued that the real truth is being concealed by the main-steam media, with its corporate (or socialist, take your pick) agenda. In response to a terrifying Youtube video, one poster commented:

In a world full of lies few seem to know the truth. And the truth is simple - this video is fake.
Antikrew 1 hour ago

While others grafted their own social concerns onto the catastrophe since the corporate fat-cats who pull the news-anchors' strings wouldn’t:

glennsky
These are the Great Revenge of WHALES' AND DOLPHINS' HOME. Don't forget THE COVE movie. If Japan won't stop killing these animals there will be another GREAT REVENGE AHEAD.

And don't get me started with the numerologists, who found all sorts of associations using variations on the date of the earthquake and other catastrophic events. For example:

If you add 9/11/01 and 3/11/11 you get 12/22/12!

December 22nd, 2011 being the supposed date of the end of the world. Or, rather, the day after. But never mind.

One idea that many, many posters alleged (try Googling it) is that the earthquake was the result of secret military testing, probably the HAARP program. Officially, this unclassified program involves research of the ionosphere, but, as everyone in the tinfoil hat brigade knows, HAARP is responsible for the earthquakes in Haiti, New Zealand, and now off the coast of Japan, as part of an evil experiment being conducted by the CIA. I'm not sure why they're doing it. Just because they're evil, I guess.

Luckily, the world’s celebrities took to Twitter to solve this whole earthquake business whatever its real cause — overnight. For example, in British Columbia, the cast and crew of the forthcoming Twilight movie were relocated a little further inland as a precaution, as elevated sea-levels might pose a mild risk to the west coast when the waves arrived in a few hours’ time. Thinking fast, an actress from the film Tweeted that, if this was to be her last Tweet, she wanted her family, friends, and fans to know that she loves them. Confronted apparently, with the paranoia, self-absorption, and absurdity of this shout-out — did she really want what she apparently thought might be her last message to be a Tweet? — she replied, in another Tweet, that she was just “speaking her peace.” No doubt this gave her piece of mind. Or peace of mind. Like, whatever, LOL. Who has time for correct spelling when the cold, steely embrace of Death itself is closing in?

Well, at least the news of the earthquake did something that even the emerging civil war in Libya could not: keep the most appalling and most boring of Hollywood stars – Charlie Sheen — off the front page. For two or three weeks the antics of this raving conspiracy theorist, who starred in two overblown Oliver Stone epics in the 1980s and nothing of worth since, made headlines everywhere. But, no wonder. Read the message boards. He has a potential audience of millions who think just like him. He’s the most famous Internet troll in the world, and gaining greater and greater fame not for the quality of his mind but for having completely lost it.

Some day, I fear, all of this internet chatter will make fodder for a thousand PhD dissertations about the collapse of Western Civilization. They will tell the story of how the healthiest, wealthiest, most educated people in the history of the world decided to make a howling wasteland out of a garden, and all because of their incapacity to stop and think.

Incidentally, one very popular HAARP conspiracy video making the rounds on Youtube is narrated by one Martin Sheen. I admonish my students not to use cliches, but here it seems inevitable.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Spartacus

Many readers, no doubt, are familiar with the hit TV series Spartacus: Blood and Sand, about the famous Roman-era gladiator. This is the greatest show ever made in the history of the world. It has no need for such bourgeois banalities as “plot” or “scripts.” Instead, it has full-frontal nudity, graphic sex, decapitations, and nonstop virtuoso swearing that would make a Marine Corps drill sergeant blush like a home-schooled teenager given her first valentine. And abs.

Spartacus is set at a time when Western Civilization was in its infancy, and made as if it died there in the cradle. The first six episodes consisted of Spartacus chopping heads off while bellowing, “I must find my wife!” When he found his wife, and she was dead, he spent the next six episodes chopping heads off and bellowing, “I miss my wife!” I realize that readers who have not seen the show may be baffled by the byzantine nature of its storyline, but try to keep up nonetheless.

Longtime friends can confirm that my real talents, such as they are, lie in the realm of fiction rather than non-fiction writing. As proof, I offer my own script for a new episode of Spartacus, which I humbly submit for consideration to the producers of series. As this is a family blog, I have omitted all swearing, though you should feel free to imagine certain four and twelve-letter swearwords sprinkled liberally throughout.

--------------

Exterior, Gladiator training school. Enter SPARTACUS and his six-pack abs. The sun reflects off them, blinding several stage hands.

SPARTACUS
“I need a new wife!”

Enter BATIATUS, his master, having sex with a slave.

BATIATUS

“Spartacus! You bring DISHONOR on the House of Batiatus!”

Enter CRIXUS, another gladiator, preceded by his abs.

CRIXUS

“I am the TRUE champion of CAPUA!”

SPARTACUS

“No, I am the TRUE champion of CAPUA! Still, you think maybe a Gaul like you and a guy like me..."

CRIXUS attacks. They fight, making a point to hit each others’ swords. A tidal wave of blood knocks everyone off their feet. They are about to resume fighting when DOCTORE, the gladiator trainer, appears and cracks his whip.

DOCTORE

“You can’t fight in here! This is the gladiator school! Ah...Ah...get it? Get it? Plus it’s a Kubrick reference, from Dr. Strangelove. But he also directed the movie version of Spartacus. You see, what I’m doing is subverting your expectations by inserting a metafictional reference, and...er...ah...come on, people. Work with me. You can win independent film awards for this sort of thing.”

Enter XENA, naked, with an entourage of NAKED SLAVES in tow.

XENA

“My husband, could you have Crixus brought naked to my room? Make sure he’s spritzed with a thin but glistening sheen of oil.”

BATIATUS

“Certainly, my dear wife. My goodness, how you two seem to be getting on well these days. No doubt you’ll have an enjoyable conversation or something. Anyhoo, I’m off to the market for precisely the amount of time it would take for you to have sex with a gladiator, if you were doing that behind my back, which you’re not, of course. Ciao.”

SPARTACUS (from below)

“While you’re at the market, can you find me a wife? I really need one. Seriously.You have no idea.”

Commercial.

Interior of BATIATUS’S digs. BATIATUS sits at his desk, writing a love poem for his wife, XENA. XENA and CRIXUS can be heard GRUNTING and MOANING and SIGHING and POUNDING THE WALLS in the next room. This goes on for twenty minutes. Enter SPARTACUS, with little frowney faces drawn on each of his abs. When he flexes, they become smiley faces.

BATIATUS (shouting over the noise coming from the bedroom)

“Ah, Spartacus. Your presence brings GREAT HONOUR on the House of Batiatus. Now pack your things. You’re fighting a TEN FOOT TALL NINJA with FOUR ARMS in the arena this afternoon. I must warn you. No ONE has EVER defeated the TEN FOOT NINJA with FOUR ARMS. There’s nothing I can do. I owe the man a dollar fifty.”

SPARTACUS

“Is he looking for a good husband?”

Commercial.

Exterior of arena. By which I mean interior of arena. The part of the arena that’s interior to the physical structure but actually is open to the air. You know what I mean. Thousands of HALF NAKED ROMANS await the arrival of SPARTACUS. They pass the time by the doing the wave. BATIATUS watches from his private booth. An IRRITATING ROMAN BLONDE WOMAN is there. XENA and CRIXUS are making out in the back row.

IRRITATING ROMAN BLONDE WOMAN

“Oooo how I totally hate that Spartacus. And why do all Romans have British accents?”

BATIATUS

“Spartacus may yet bring GREAT HONOUR on the House of Batiatus. Or GREAT DISHONOUR. Or, his effect might be more-or-less neutral in terms of its impact on the relative honour standing of the House of Batiatus. There’s no way of knowing without an objective consideration of his win-loss record over the course of the gladiatorial season.”

Cut to: SPARTACUS, entering the arena. He is BUCK NAKED except that he is carrying a sword in each hand and is also holding a shield. Don’t ask how. The CROWD begins to chant his name.

SPARTACUS

“I am SPARTACUS! Are any of you ladies single?”’

ENTER a TEN FOOT TALL NINJA with FOUR ARMS. He is carrying a sword, an axe, a spear, and an atom bomb. He and SPARTACUS fight. They make sounds such as “ARAAGH” and “OOOGHA” and “BLAGH” and say such things as “Hey! Careful there!” SPARTACUS is slashed across the chest, arms, legs, and nearly gets his shield-holder taken off. His hair is ripped out. His teeth are smashed in. He loses both eyes and has to put them back in to see, but he puts them in BACKWARDS and sees everything upside down. One of his six abs gets removed with a cake-lifter. He is finished off with a horrendous noogie. Spartacus collapses all dirty and sweaty. Four men throw buckets of blood on the camera. The NINJA pauses for a few hours to GLOAT.

Cut to: SPARTACUS, having a vision of his WIFE, who is named MILDRED.

MILDRED

“Is that the best you can do? Typical. You never could keep it up. What will the neighbours think? And you never help around the house. I should have listened to my mother and married a doctor.”

SPARTACUS

“I want my wife!”

MILDRED

“Not now. I have a headache. And If you think I’m washing your loin-cloths later, you’ve got another thing coming, mister. Anyway, get up and kill this Ninja. Get that promotion you’re always bragging about.”

SPARTACUS

“But why?”

MILDRED

“Because everyone wants to see you have sex with Xena next season.”

Cut to: SPARTACUS, raising both his swords and his shield. The NINJA goes to finish him off but stubs his toe. While he’s hopping around on one leg, saying “Ow! Ow! Ow!”, SPARTACUS cuts it off. Then his other leg, his ears, and each one of his fingers in turn. Then his arms, which SPARTACUS uses to wail on the NINJA for about half an hour. A thousand-gallon drum of blood is thrown at the camera. Finally, SPARTACUS chops off the NINJA’S head and punts it for twenty-five yard field goal. The CROWD goes WILD.

SPARTACUS

“That one’s for the ladies!”

Cut to BATIATUS, who is being jostled by XENA and CRIXUS who are rolling about the booth naked in a sweaty embrace.

BATIATUS

“Spartacus! You bring GREAT HONOUR on the House of Batiatus!”

SPARTACUS

“So you’re saying you find me attractive?”

Fin.

Next week on Spartacus: SPARTACUS searches a mail-order tablet for a wife. BATIATUS accuses him of dishonouring the House of Batiatus, and condemns him to fight a BRONTOSAURUS. The IRRITATING ROMAN BLONDE WOMAN tries to frame SPARTACUS for tax evasion. Everyone has sex while DOCTORE throws buckets of blood around. XENA and CRIXUS continue their secret affair.