midnight oil…

Growing up I was not introduced to worship and faith in what I would describe as a helpful manner. That having been said, several members of my extended family were quite religious. The manner of their practice focused on the prohibitions and consequences rather than anything that could be described as love or virtue. I did get the lesson that we – human beings – were to oppose evil but there wasn’t any clear indication of an effective methodology.

Early on my experience with God distilled to an unrelenting and judgmental view of humans, in which they were essentially worthless, while giving them the loftiest of assignments. It isn’t remotely logical even to someone in grade school.

By the time I was twelve years old I divorced myself from attending church although, at that age, that wasn’t the phrase I used. I just stopped going. Theology became a cerebral, philosophical matter for me. For a time I dismissed faith as belonging to the same category as superstitious belief in fairies or magic. I did not embark on a life of deplorable behavior or debauchery. That path seemed dangerous; avoiding it was not based on the avoidance of sin. The concept of sin was also grouped with legends and fables.

As a subject theology (in a number of ways in which humanity has approached it) has stayed with me as an object of fascination. The notion of “evil” remains an idea that I’ll spend time pondering. A worthy handbook on the subject would, I think, provide 1. a concise but through definition of evil, 2. training on how to recognize it, and 3. procedures for to do when it found. Scripture and religious texts are actually fairly vague on these points – apart from praying to and praising the divine.

I have from time to time asked people how they address the first point. The most frequent answer is that evil is defined as “anything that causes harm”. On face value that makes sense but razor blade can cause harm. I wouldn’t call them evil. Given the assignment to resolutely stand against evil, usually no matter the cost – to attack it continuously until it is banished – it seems to me that evil has to be something so universally heinous that most people would agree, “Yeah. That has to go.”

From an intellectual stance and for more than a decade I used a formula in place of “evil”. What almost everyone else used that term to describe I would evaluate as a combination of stupid, crazy, and/or cruel. That does cover a wide range of objectionable behavior and wretched results. Were I to include a fourth element it would probably capture the willfully contrary and/or ignorant.

Stupidity does not require endless war; it can be “cured” with ongoing education. Insanity can be mitigated including by the hospitalization of those beyond treatment. The correction of cruelty falls in part within our education system and, failing that, our justice system. History has many example of how to correct those who deliberately oppose truth: shame, guilt, and other forms of peer pressure – resulting in exile as a last resort.

Evil would therefore be something outside those categories. I’m afraid I cannot provide Article I of a Moral Constitution. The above, I think, accounts for some of the things that evil is not. Recent research does, however, remind me that there are a few hundred named demons in past. There are fewer than 20 named demons in the Bible. Renaissance fascination with the occult provides most of the rest of the roster.

I once read that “public belial” used to be a crime. Unfortunately, I cannot find any proof of that now. Rather than working on the three-point handbook I may gradually add to a list of which demon represents what societal sin.

Belial – assholes generally; Mammon – unrestrained capitalism and obsessive greed; Baphomet – obstinate know-it-alls (à la “My mind is made up. Don’t confuse me with the facts.”); Dagon – anything that teaches, glorifies, or encourages poor behavior; Moloch – those who oppose and obstruct another’s effort to do an agreed upon good; Abaddon – fearmongers and those who foster enmity instead of amity; Pythius – peddlers of alternative fact and those who obscure truth.

sin-sign

In these times it is interesting to note that in 1818 Jacques Collin de Plancy gave Rimmon as the name of the demon ambassador of/to Russia. There’s another point of trivia from esoterica that I can no longer connect to a source. The above image of a symbol for sin. It is identical to one of the alchemical symbols for sulphur apart from the “rocker” at the top. Use it in good health.


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dear Brutus…

dna chain

In mid-May of 2014, at the 60th anniversary of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC), Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) was quoted as stating the equivalent of “There’s no gene for invasion in Chinese people’s blood.”

In late June of that year, Jürgen Klinsmann, the head coach of United States Men’s National Soccer Team (USMNT) said, “It’s not in the U.S. DNA to go out and play for a draw, nor is it in the German DNA, we’ll both be playing to win.”

The phrase “not in our DNA” has long been a bête noire for me. The connotation is, more often than not, used to state an aversion somehow built in to the behavior of a person or group. As such, it is a reversal of the late ‘90s business jargon of “corporate DNA”. In that context it was meant to express what was part of a company’s vision, mission, and culture. It has evolved into what could become a dangerous misconception based on casual misuse.

While technically correct, behavior is not dictated by DNA, the metaphor has become very common in American political discourse. In May of 2011, then presidential candidate Herman Cain voiced the opinion that being No. 2 economically and militarily is not in our DNA. This bad habit is not limited to the GOP either; their critics often charge that “unlike the conservatives, it’s just not in our DNA.”

Often this is used to hint at one position having moral superiority over the opposing side. Last year, President Obama opined that discrimination casts “a long shadow and that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on.”

Misuse of “DNA” and what result it may or may not produce is probably unrelated to doubt of or actual opposition to science. For the most part, we trust doctors to use true understanding of genetics to treat or prevent disease. Increasingly we expect forensicologists to employ the same discipline either to convict or exonerate in matters of jurisprudence.

But at the same time the suspicion that the moon landing was a hoax persists and the anti-vaxxer subculture has been gaining strength for more than a century; it’s nothing new.

If we’re not careful about science, whether from ignorance or Luddism, in fiction or reality we run the risk of making potentially tragic mistakes. The Inquisition tried Galileo for heresy in 1633. He was sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life. Pope Urban VIII had acted out of anger and fear of science and its implications. Considering other acts of the Inquisition, Galileo got off lucky. It took the Vatican almost 360 years to come full circle on their decision with Pope John Paul II finally admitting the errors of the Catholic Church in that regard.

Misapprehension of science including genetics did not spare Alan Turing unfortunate and severe persecution. The father of artificial intelligence and hero of breaking the German Enigma cipher machines during WWII was honored in 1945 with induction to the Order of the British Empire. Six years later he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

The following year he was convicted of gross indecency (homosexuality was considered criminal in the United Kingdom from 1885 to 1967) and given a choice between imprisonment and probation. He chose the latter but that forced him agree to hormonal treatment designed to reduce libido. It is a widely held belief this judgment led to Turing committing suicide.

It may be hyperbolic to suggest that “It’s not in our DNA.” could lead to future attempts to cure racial or ideological diversity. There probably won’t be further recourse to medicine to enforce conformity with regard to gender binary. But misconceptions, like their cousin – superstition, die hard.

There are dangers in a political climate where one side seeks to make opposition illegal, or worse, misuse science to eradicate it. I can’t – and I don’t think we should – avoid the worry that any belief that fault lies in our stars (i.e., that our behavior is chained to our DNA) could end in catastrophe.


Keep ’em flying, son…

Marvel Comics announced last year that a female version of Thor would feature in a new storyline. Given that an African-American would assume the mantle of Captain America was announced at about the same time, it seems a reasonable suspicion that Marvel executives might have issued a “More Diversity” directive.

There was a degree of push-back on both Thor as a woman and Cap’ as a black man. I didn’t agree with the opposition to either character and still don’t. I’m very much in favor of stories that encourage an understanding of diversity. There is great value, particularly in entertainment that appeals to children and young adults, in a reader finding heroes that are readily seen as “like me” by said reader. This should not be limited to fiction either.

But I do understand why there was opposition. People are very resistant to change. In fairness, I don’t care as much about the dozen other characters who have taken up Captain America’s shield. If it isn’t Steve Rogers

So, these additions to the Marvel Universe met with immediate and vociferous objection from many – including, in the case of Thor appearing as a woman, from fauxminist Joss Whedon. If there was a memo, he seems to have missed it. According to Variety, the creator of Buffy and director of Avengers said via Twitter:

A female Thor? What the hell makes them think THAT would be cool?”
July 15, 2014

The likelihood that I’ll meet Mr. Whedon to discuss this seems a poor one. As he identifies as an atheist, I’m not sure his negative reaction to Thor as a woman is the one in which I’d most be interested. There are practitioners of Ásatrú (i.e., those who actually do worship Thor and other members of the Norse pantheon) and I’d rather chat with them about Asgardians in comic books – should I ever meet any. A far, far distant second place would be actual readers of Thor comics.

I was able to speak with a vocal protestor of the Thor-as-a-woman panic (who will be anonymous in this entry – as a courtesy). The objection boiled down to his confessed inability to glean as much meaning from a story when the central character is female. In essence, that renders every fictional woman an Unreliable Narrator. It would not be fair to suggest that this anonymous opponent of the female Thor went on to say the same lack of apprehension applied to true stories told by non-fictional women. He did not. And I hope not.

With the prospects of Ms. Thor, the objections seemed to go deeper and in a different way than Black Cap’. There was far more bile and venom thrown up about a “God” of Thunder portrayed as a woman. Nevermind that at least three women have lifted the Hammer in past comics. Fans don’t seem to have objected as much – if at all – when Loki appeared as a woman. (And why was that okay? There’s an entire other set of questions that could raise.)

Isn’t it likely that the gender and/or sexual preference of fictional persons is rarely the point of the work of fiction in which they appear? Tales are made of emotions, decisions, and words. English, unlike such languages of Greek and French, does not gender its words. Why, then, is our thinking so gendered? When we are defensive, what are we defending? And is it really under any attack?

I learned in preparation for this post that the Thor-aswoman title is selling better than the Thor-asman issues. It was also news to me that the Captain America of at least one fictional future is Danielle Cage (the daughter of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, a.k.a. Power Man).

danielle-cageIll have to put Ms. Cage as Cap’ on my reading list.