Friday, May 28, 2010

It's in your genes - maybe!

Public Broadcasting is doing a series of programs on the human brain. I lucked into an episode where a panel of experts were discussing the emotions and physical reactions we call “fear.” Most interesting was the agreement among them that physical response to danger precedes cognition, i.e. the physiological response to a fear-inducing incident (such as raised hackles, sweating, increased heart rate, etc.) occurs before we are even able to recognize the danger and react to it on the thought level.

Why is this important? For one, it links us more closely genetically to the rest of the animal world; research in the area of fear when done on animals shows a remarkable similarity to research done on humans. Secondly, it means that whatever impulses lead to violence and aggression, they are built into the biological genome structures.

I grew up being told that we are “born in sin” and that we need to be washed clean of our condition in order to be redeemed, an idea I’ve often questioned. In a sense, though, the research on fear and aggression suggests that we are genetically programmed to respond with “fight or flight,” and that it is not so much about a learning of aggressive responses as it is about the curbing (or not curbing) of aggressive behaviour. In other words, fear and aggression are natural states for every creature from the fruit fly to humans. Civilization is only made possible, however by the stifling of natural impulses in the interest of community. A similar stifling among the creatures of the wild kingdoms would be disastrous.

It’s an interesting area of research. Obviously, biological impulses in general can be shown to serve survival needs. Sexual lust, for instance, is necessary to facilitate procreation and the preservation of the species. Where appropriate controls on this other “emotion” are not learned, though, it threatens the kind of cooperation that is required for a safe and functioning civilization.

Old Testament law—and New Testament reconciliation—can be described as humanity’s struggle to come to grips with the great irony presented by the emergence of human consciousness, namely that the genetic endowments with which we are born because we are biological animals must be suppressed for species-survival’s sake. An evolutionist would probably say that our misfortune is that the evolution of civilization and human invention has occurred in thousands of years while the genetic evolution required to keep pace with it requires millions of years. Civilization has rushed way ahead of biology, in other words.

Have a nice day. Curb your instincts. What a prospect!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

What about Beatrice and Virgil?

The top plant is good; bottom plant is not good - the plant critic.

--“Except for luminous moments, the book's language lacks luster, and the symbols positively crash.” Michael Autrey, special to The Oregonian.

--“Beatrice and Virgil is so dull, so misguided, so pretentious that only the prospect of those millions of Pi fans could secure the interest of major publishers and a multimillion-dollar advance.” Ron Charles, The Washington Post.

--“This novel just might be a masterpiece about the Holocaust…. somehow Martel brilliantly guides the reader from the too-sunny beginning into the terrifying darkness of the old man’s shop and Europe’s past. Everything comes into focus by the end, leaving the reader startled, astonished and moved.” Published in Deirdre Donahue, USA Today.

--“Extraordinary…. A novel that is ambiguous and inscrutable — but also provocative and brilliantly imagined.” Adam Woog, The Seattle Times.

What do you make of these four quotations from reviewers of Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil? Agnes and I just read it. We both loved Life of Pi and were looking forward to his latest book. Agnes asked me what I thought of Beatrice and Virgil; I said, “7 out of 10.” She said “That’s where I’d put it too.” A friend lent us the book; she said she couldn’t put it down.

“There’s no accounting for taste.” So when one reader loves a book and another hates it, this comes as no surprise.

But when 4 professional reviewers are so far apart in their assessment of a book’s quality, one has to question their skill, their motives or both.

Beatrice and Virgil is a book where the sentence, “It’s sort of like . . .” has no ending. It’s innovative, breaks new ground while it breaks old rules of novel writing. Perhaps new rules of novel reviewing are called for.

I have a theory. When a novel is as symbolic, as allegorical as is Beatrice and Virgil, the readers who “don’t get it” either fly into a frustrated rage and pan it mercilessly, or they praise it fawningly in hopes that others will assume they “got it.” Most of us get it in part, don’t get it in part, and end up judging it on the basis of whether or not it “tasted good.”

Then there’s that other temptation: harsh criticism has the inherent quality of suggesting that the critic is smarter than the one being criticized.

A good piece of art has the power to heighten the observer’s perception of the world. I think Beatrice and Virgil has the potential of doing this for at least some readers.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A modest political proposal

This historic landmark (the former German-English Academy, Rosthern Junior College) is now a venerable 100 years of age. It's currently the Mennonite Heritage Museum.

Sunday morning. Brown toast with apricot jam and a hot cup of Kick Ass coffee (that’s right, it’s a trade name; organic and fair trade and very good; ground and packaged in BC).

A few days ago, Dwain Lingenfelter, leader of the NDP opposition in the Saskatchewan legislature, called our honourable premier, Brad Wall, “the little thief from Swift Current.” It’s been all over the StarPhoenix since. Seems the people of Saskatchewan are clucking their tongues in unison and the clucking is deafening. How dare Lingenfelter accuse anyone of being from Swift Current!?!

I don’t have to tell you what infantile behaviour is generated by the question periods and debates in those bastions of democracy—our parliaments. (Parliament: Middle English from Old French: speaking.) The reason for it seems obvious to me; democratic structures—in particular the adversarial party systems—have remained stuck in the “Old English” period and as time eroded the stiff-upper-lip politeness in our cultures, the gloves came off and parliamentary debate degenerated into a spectator sport.

I regularly get appeals for donations from a political party. Their come-on is not “let’s work together to make Canada a better place by . . .,” rather, it’s, “it’s time and it’s important to throw the current party out of office.” Something is wrong here. We’re wasting everyone’s time, money and energies on childish competitions for power.

Here’s a modest proposal: political parties are abolished. Independent candidates are put forward in each riding by one hundred (give or take) voters and their election hinges on their perceived quality as legislators. Following the election, an orderly process occurs among the elected candidates to appoint a government, committees, ministries, and they’re off. Not having party antagonisms to feed the rancour of debate anymore, legislators would be confined to dealing with the merits of the issues and the proposals put forward by the government or their fellow legislators. The senate, of course, is abolished.

Elections occur every four years and each duly-nominated candidate is limited to a campaign budget of, say, $5.000. Numerous physical and virtual town hall meetings are the primary means for the public to “parliament” before deciding which candidate deserves their support. Granted, election night would be a big bore with no “team” to cheer for, or against, and getting people to vote might take some concerted public education.

Sounds a lot like municipal government, you say? Or like Nunavut governance? Bingo. That’s where we need to go.

I think I’m done with party politics. If no strong independent candidate is proposed in my riding in the future, I may hand in a ballot with “none of the above” scrawled across it.

And Mr. Lingenfelter, there is no good reason to use the word “thief” and the name “Swift Current” in the same sentence. You’re tempting your rivals in the Saskatchewan Party to find out where you and each of your colleagues are from, and then a whole new round of undeserved epithets will take up another week’s debate in the ledge.

Who needs it?

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

More on Agnostic Christianity.

Grand Canyon serenity

The word agnostic is a borrowing from the Greek where gnosis means “knowing,” agnosis, “not knowing.” In the previous post I referred to the term Agnostic Christians, which some might assume to be an oxymoron. Fact is, there isn’t a branch of Christianity—as far as I know—that claims its basic tenets arise from knowledge; In general, religious tenets are held by faith, not by knowledge, and so Agnostic Christian is no contradiction in terms at all.

Admittedly, a dictionary definition, even when supported by an etymology, doesn’t necessarily complete the picture of what words mean, or what they meant to people who used them in their original form. The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines an agnostic as “a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable [or] one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the non-existence of God or a god.” Most of us would associate the word agnostic with a response to religious faith, i.e. the stance that the existence of God or a god is unknowable, and that there is no reason to be either a believer or a disbeliever.

Agnostic Christians would probably argue that one can believe in God and in Christ and still take an agnostic stance on matters like, for instance, how the death of Christ is able to bridge the gap between God and humankind, or how it is possible for there to be a single, triune God. I admit, the explanations for these great conundrums are unknown, possibly unknowable to me, a stance of agnosis whether I am prepared to admit it or not.

Why bother even talking about this? Because the pretence of certainty is, in effect, a grand delusion, or even worse, a corporate self-delusion that is potentially extremely harmful. The pretence of certainty makes it possible to commit wars, supplies justification to terrorism, provides an argument for raping creation, makes theological mountains out of molehills. It also forces cracking of social cooperation and eventually, is responsible for much societal fragmentation.

Certainty inevitably requires intolerance to sustain it.

We need to shorten our creeds, weed out what is unknowable and what is as yet unknown, and admit that everything we hold as opinion or certainty now may be superseded tomorrow. We need to accept that Creator and creation are as mysterious as they ever were, and live our lives recognizing where agnosis lies.

It’s through this recognition that we might someday be able to live comfortably with the proposition that our neighbour just might be worthy, that she might just be right, or—at least—that a person’s value is not determined by how well we understand him.

Check out this link for further thoughts on the subject.