By Peter Wall

The Holiday Season

Ryan Bell is “Claiming Christmas for Humanism”: “whether or not Jesus was a real historical person, the legends about his birth and the counterintuitive announcement of peace and human flourishing make Christmas a beautiful humanist holiday.” (Go read the rest.)

Hey, in  a world where people salivate over Marvel, Disney, and Lucasfilm joining forces, with a culture that can support subversively and ironically humanizing phenomena like Comic-Con and Star Wars conventions, and when the ancient tradition of reimagining old stories is chugging along with renewed (rebooted?) strength, there’s no reason why a story involving infanticide, other-worldly messengers, gritty shepherds, exotic magicians, and a subvert-the-powers-that-be vibe can’t be added to the mix.

And for me, Christmas has only improved with distance from the culture of Christianity. There’s no reason to pretend that we’re still using the Christian liturgical cycle to order our society or maintain solidarity, so why not step back and look at what we actually do with Christmas? It’s part of a big, nearly-three-month cycle of U.S. culture that manages to sweep up lots and lots of our culture in a wide array of festivities and contemplations.

It begins in October with a celebration of horror, death, humor, and sex. Interestingly, the family vs. friends dynamic for this celebration is relatively fluid—if you have young kids, you’re with them; otherwise, do as you please! Either way, be sure to push the limits. Explore the fine line between horror and hilarity. Cosplay at the boundaries of the sense of self, and wonder at the natural totemism of a kid dressed up as a monster. If you’re not spending the evening with the kiddies, then transcend convention by drinking a lot, and getting laid while wearing a costume. Contemplate death. This one is about ritual decoherence.

Having blazed quickly through an overtly raucous existential combo, we move into a strange, more interiorized phase where we wrestle with a variety of problems: incoherence from deseasonalization through globalization (“harvest” means almost nothing to most people anymore, but we keep the imagery, which becomes ironic because most of us are engulfed in plenty year-round); the question of whether “Christmas” decorations should start to go up yet (which I interpret as a manifestation of guilt arising from the tension between our need for lengthy celebration and our drive to work as much as possible); and an obligation and a desire to express gratitude and contingency (which can sometimes be a challenging mental state to reach, given the year-round plenty that we’re also failing to make sense of), culminating in Thanksgiving, which is solidly a family event. No wild sex involved. This one isn’t about transcending conventions, but embodying them, getting our feet back on the ground after the haze of Halloween.

Then we drop the interiorized stuff, jump into overt consumerism and gluttony, move temporarily away from the family (now’s the time for awkward office parties!), eat and drink to excess, listen to sentimental music, put up our most intense decorations of the year, and begin the terrifying slide back to the family core, culminating in the Christmas Eve—Christmas Day cycle that is so oddly syncretistic that one of the most common traditional threads is having distinct, family-unique traditions. (When does your family open presents? What food does your family eat? Does your family always go see a movie together? Attend church together?) Now that you’ve decohered into death, re-embodied convention, and spread yourself too thin, it’s time to hook back into your own nativity. This is the great star of the holiday cycle.

And then, finally, there’s a weird pause, where we’re all in this supersaturated state of peaceful (or is it just relieved?) afterglow for a few days, and the whole thing finishes with a bang-up party to celebrate the coming of the New Year. And it’s decidedly not a family-centered event: now is the time to get back with friends, let down your hair, and be relieved of the pressures and appearances of the family Christmas gathering. The New Year’s party has an interesting symmetry with Halloween in that sense, where humor and sex have survived the cycle, but horror and death are as far away as can be.

After all of that, go for a single jog or take a single trip to the gym, and eat healthily for a day or two, to symbolize your new resolve to live better, and then get back to work.

The End of It

“Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man as the good old City knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them, for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed, and that was quite enough for him.”

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Stave Five: The End of It.

Wholehearted Bliss

“We know that the most blissful moments in our lives are those when we are swept up so deeply by an experience that it would never occur to us to check our e-mail. If we are fully in the moment, we wholeheartedly care about one thing and anxiety drops away. Wholeheartedness is great, but obviously we cannot be wholehearted if we thinking both ‘I like this baseball game’ and ‘It’s great that I’m being wholehearted.’ Then we have at least two thoughts.”

Eric Kaplan, Does Santa Exist? A Philosophical Investigation (Dutton 2014) pages 54–55.

Belief and Propaganda

Napoleon Crossing the Alps

“Would you like me to tell you, as one old friend to another, how it is you follow what the crowd hold in your ideas about things, instead of consulting the oracle of Reason? It is because you believe that there is something divinely inspired about it . . . because you imagine that the common consent of so many peoples down the ages, can only be the outcome of some manner of inspiration—vox populi, vox dei; it is because, being a theologian, you are accustomed to give up reasoning when you think you are in the presence of a ‘mystery.'”

Pierre Bayle, Pensées diverses . . . à l’occasion de la comète, § 8, quoted in Paul Hazard, The Crisis of the European Mind: 1680–1715, translated by J. Lewis May (New York Review Books 2013) page 179.

California Seasons

A mélange for the last Sunday in October.

“In the great Central Valley of California there are only two seasons—spring and summer. The spring begins with the first rainstorm, which usually falls in November. In a few months the wonderful flowery vegetation is in full bloom, and by the end of May it is dead and dry and crisp, as if every plant had been roasted in an oven.” [1]

“So has it been said by Tochihuitzin,
so has it been said by Coyolchiuhqui:
It is not true, it is not true
that we come to this earth to live.
We come only to sleep, only to dream.
Our body is a flower.
As grass becomes green in the springtime,
so our hearts will open, and give forth buds,
and then they wither.
So said Tochihuitzin.” [2]

Western Fresno County kit fox habitat in 1920. Photograph by Joseph Dixon from the archives of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California, Berkeley.

“Like robots last week
we slipped into the polls
to fling blindfolds at
the hand twitching
against the Pentagon,
finger hovered
over the bomb’s red button—
it never mattered
which face he wore.” [3]

“One day we must go,
one night we will descend into the region of mystery.
Here, we only come to know ourselves;
only in passing are we here on earth.
In peace and pleasure let us spend our lives; come, let us enjoy ourselves.
Let not the angry do so; the earth is vast indeed!
Would that one lived forever; would that one were not to die!” [4]

The same location as above, in 2001. Photograph from California State University Stanislaus, Endangered Species Recovery Program.

[1] John Muir, “Through the Foothills with a Flock of Sheep,” in My First Summer in the Sierra (Sierra Club 1988), page 1.

[2] Cantares Mexicanos, folio 14, v, quoted in Miguel León-Portilla, Aztec Thought and Culture, translated by Jack Emory Davis (University of Oklahoma Press 1990) page 72.

[3] Wendy Rose, “November 1980,” in Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology, volume 2, issue 2, page 158 (1980).

[4] Cantares Mexicanos, folio 26, x, quoted in Aztec Thought and Culture, above, page 73.

Strange Ideas with Large Numbers

The age of the universe, measured as the time elapsed since the Big Bang, is currently estimated at about 13,798,000,000 years.

In 2010, the world average life expectancy was 67.2 years.

That means the age of the universe is about 205,327,380 average 2010 lifetimes.

And the population of the world in 2010 was about 6,916,000.

So if about three percent of the people alive in 2010 had lived average lifespans consecutively, then together they would have lived the age of the universe.

Peg Words

“There is a group of words such as ‘fact,’ ‘event,’ ‘situation,’ ‘case,’ ‘circumstance,’ which display a queer sort of behavior. One might say of such words that they serve as pegs: it’s marvellous what a lot of things you can put on them. . . . So far they are very handy; but as soon as one focuses on them and asks, e.g., ‘What is a fact?’ they betray a tendency to melt away. The peg-aspect is by far the most important of all.”

Friedrich Waismann, How I See Philosophy (1968), quoted by Rodney Needham in Belief, Language, and Experience (University of Chicago Press 1972) page 125.

Inherent Controversy

“Politics is inherently controversial because human beings are passionately attached to their opinions by interests that have nothing to do with the truth.”

From Harry V. Jaffa, “Aristotle and the Higher Good,” The New York Times, July 1, 2011, reviewing Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, translated by Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins.


Casting Off and Arguing

Winslow Homer, "The Herring Net" (1885)

Ryan Bell asks “From where will our salvation come?” He started out this year asking, “[I]f I remove God and traditional religion as the source of salvation for humanity, what is left?” A few days ago, he recited four “primary narratives”: religion; science and technology; markets and capitalism; and democracy. All of them are problematic. “What are we to do?” he asks. “How can we sustain movements of peace and justice such that they are an actual force for good in the world? How can people be motivated when they are being anesthetized by technology and bought off by capitalism?”

He winds up this way: “I am concerned that atheists and other non-theists are so concerned about weakening their position that they have a hard time acknowledging that the myth of progress is also running out of gas. Where to from here?”

That’s no easy question; I’ve been wrestling with it for a long time, too. (Ryan abandoned “God and traditional religion” at the beginning of this year; I did the same thing fourteen years ago this month.) And for now at least I think that where we go from here is to cultivate and practice moral argument.

Something that science and technology, markets and capitalism, and democracy all have in common is a sense that each can be relied upon to avoid the difficult process of moral argument, that if we simply rely on “the people,” or “markets,” or “evidence,” then solutions to all of the difficult decisions besetting our lives, and how we ought to live them, will simply present themselves. That is, we convince ourselves that a determination to rely on these procedural tools is a way to escape the problem of considering, or determining, or persuading how best to live: the good life will emerge automatically and organically if we just aggregate votes (democracy), material preferences (capitalism), and evidence (science). Those are the bones of the myth of progress.

But that myth not only presupposes our ability to attain the good life by these purportedly neutral procedures, it asserts a value judgment about what the good life ought to be (namely, the life shaped by neutral procedures), and—most egregiously—conceals its own value judgment and encourages us to think in ways that would preclude us from considering and making our own judgments of value. Or, to borrow the terms of political philosophy, the myth of progress prioritizes “the right” over “the good”—by insisting that “the right” is “the good.” That’s the concealed value judgment. And I think it’s concealed because argument about value judgments is moral argument, and we don’t much like making moral arguments.

You are always welcome in polite society to suggest that science, democracy, and capitalism are problematic; there will be much agreement, because it always has been (and probably always will be) fashionable, and fashionably easy, to observe that the world is not perfect. But people will only agree that the defects in our systems are procedural (that is, the way to fix them is by further purging value judgments, or building other purportedly value-neutral systems whose outputs will feed into the existing systems), and that these systems are the least worst (which is really just the avoidance of moral reasoning through the affectation of resignation).

I do think science, democracy, and capitalism are each morally defensible, but moral defenses are never complete defenses. A successful moral argument never enjoys the necessity of a logical or mathematical argument. Even the best and most persuasive moral arguments are risky arguments; that is because they expose the messiness and inconsistency of the values underlying our positions, and they require us to admit these things. Most of us (including, and maybe especially, the atheists) would prefer much safer argumentative techniques—ones that, if they don’t persuade opponents, at least make proponents feel secure in their rightness. Once upon a time, people might have believed that their moral arguments rested on a solid foundation called “God,” and felt a secure sense of rightness that way. But in practice that just meant those arguments rested on the ability to wield power. Maybe that kind of thinking is withering away in some places now, but it’s not been replaced in those places by significant advances. For the last few hundred years, people in my part of the world have been so enamored with the apparent certitude yielded by procedures like science, democracy, and capitalism that, while many of us feel safe in rejecting gods and challenging that oldest procedural tool, violence, we have not really improved our moral reasoning.

That’s not to say that cultivating and practicing moral argument ought to result in a monolithic culture. As Isaiah Berlin observed, “human goals are many, not all of them commensurable, and in perpetual rivalry with one another.” [1] But until we are able to operate the procedures of human society, be they democracy, capitalism, science, and sometimes even violence, without letting those procedures stand in for the moral argumentation entailed by those procedures, and by our diverse circumstances, then we should probably just expect more of the same—or worse, as our environmental circumstances continue to degrade.

[1] Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” in The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1998), page 241.

The Spirit of Nosey is Back

This one is mostly for locals.

If you’ve been in Fresno long enough, you probably remember the 2004 ballot measure for the Chaffee Zoo, Measure Z. The proposal was to increase our local sales tax by a tenth of a percent for ten years, to fund the zoo. Voters approved it.

You might remember the campaign signs featuring Nosey the Elephant, the beloved pachyderm that lived at the Zoo from 1949 to 1993. My in-laws kept one for many years (as did others, apparently—more on that below). Here is a picture of one they picked up at a garage sale:

2004 Nosey Sign

Now in 2014, the ten years are just about run. So Measure Z is back. And so are the campaign signs. Sort of. Here’s a picture of one that we picked up at Me-n-Ed’s Pizza:

2014 Nosey

It looks like the same sign at first, but there are several interesting differences:

  1. The purpose of Measure Z apparently is no longer to “Save Our Zoo,” but to “Keep Our Zoo.”
  2. Ten years ago, Nosey was very sad—her eyes were welling up with tears!
  3. The campaign website is now a dot-org, instead of a dot-com.

(Another feature that’s not apparent from the pictures is that the old signs only had the image on one side, while the new signs are double-sided. Fancy!)

I suppose the changes are  meant to reflect the different circumstances. The campaign for Measure Z in 2004 was an argument that the Zoo was in dire straits without public support. As the ballot argument in favor said, “without Measure ‘Z,’ we will likely lose forever this regional treasure.” But these days the Zoo seems to be doing better. That the signs are still so similar, but with these minor differences, is an interesting reflection of the arguments.

As to the politics, I’m ambivalent. I have no objection to the idea that scientific and educational resources like zoos are worthy of public support through taxation. But I understand part of the reason for the proposal is to ensure that ticket prices can remain low enough that the less wealthy among us, and those with lots of children, are able to enjoy the zoo—and I have no problem with that noble purpose. The more disadvantaged kids that can experience these kinds of things, the better off we’ll all be. Except sales taxes are regressive, their burden falling more heavily on people who have to spend more of their income consuming things that are subject to sales tax—precisely the people from whom Measure Z is supposed to be lifting a financial burden. I’d prefer to see the zoo supported with a property tax, to be a little less regressive.

Anyway, the signs are interesting. So keep your eyes peeled. My in-laws have their vintage 2004 sign out, and my wife says she’s seen others. People really like those signs. And they like having the Zoo, too.

I’m guessing Measure Z will pass again. So what will the signs look like in 2024?

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