Surly Curmudgeon

   The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire. The former are idealists acting from highest motives for the greatest good of the greatest number. The latter are surly curmudgeons, suspicious and lacking in altruism. But they are more comfortable neighbors than the other sort.
-- Robert A. Heinlein
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    Saturday, November 21, 2009


    Mystery beast

    For the past several nights, the dogs have been going crazy about something outside the southeast corner of our fence. Last night, Zeus and Zoe refused to come in, so intent were they on barking at the mysterious creature, and Zack only came in because he knew there would be treats involved.

    Mrs. Curmudgeon got Zoe's attention by squeaking a toy at them, but she wanted to turn right back around and go back to barking. Zeus wouldn't budge for Mrs. Curmudgeon, so I grabbed a spotlight and went out after him.

    I got to about 20 yards away, and kept calling him. He finally turned around and came to me. As he did so, my eye caught something in the spotlight beam as a part of the dead undergrowth moved in the woods beyond the fence, startling me. I panned the spotlight around a bit, and two little eyes sparkled. My eyes finally distinguished the creature from its surroundings, and it was huge... at least as big as Zeus, with white or gray fur on top and black on the bottom.

    My mind said "skunk", even though I know skunks don't get that big... do they? I kept working the light back and forth, trying to get a better look, but unwilling to get closer in case it was a skunk. Of course, I also realized that the dogs hadn't been sprayed, but I didn't want to be the thing that tipped the decision if the thing was feeling otherwise safe.

    It's a strange sort of cognitive dissonance when your brain insists it sees one thing but everything you know says it can't be what your brains says it sees. I went through the immediate suspects... coyote? Couldn't be (because it's a skunk!), it doesn't move right, and it's round, not skinny. Sheep? That would be one danged ugly sheep, and again it doesn't move right.

    Oh well, I had Zeus in hand and didn't want to get involved with holding dog and spotlight and running away from el chupacabra or whatever it was, so I took Zeus back in the house and told the wife about it.

    While getting ready for bed, I did some internet searches and confirmed that yes, it was way too big to be a skunk. I tried a generic search for "Oklahoma wildlife", and came up with nothing. I was brushing my teeth when it hit me, and a quick search brought up a picture that is exactly what I saw:





    If I were a person who believed in omens and good luck, this would be one of the best omens I could ask for. I kind of have a thing for porcupines. Now all I need to do is hope it never gets close enough to the fence to send one of my dogs to the vet with a face full of ouch. Oh, and be on guard for an opportunity to get some photos of my own, instead of nicking them from someone else's blog.

    Posted by Tom, 11/21/2009 5:27:17 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Friday, November 20, 2009


    Quote of the Day

    "Every time I hear about some father in the Middle East killing his daughter for wearing a tank top to school, the response we seem to get from the Left is 'oh well, at least he's not a Baptist.'"
    -- Tom the Impaler


    Posted by Tom, 11/20/2009 8:05:50 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Christopher Moore

    A friend of mine loves Christopher Moore's books. He recommended them to me a while back, and I just never got around to buying one until recently. On my trip back to Ohio for the high school reunion, I picked up a copy of A Dirty Job in the airport book store, and blazed through it in a few days. It contained an excerpt from You Suck, the sequel to Bloodsucking Fiends, and I was so taken in by the first paragraph that I had to run right out and get both of them (You Suck downloaded wirelessly to Mrs. Curmudgeon's Kindle, which was way cool).

    Moore's writing is easy to read, generally flowing smoothly from one scene to the next, without much to cost the reader any great effort. They're relaxing books, and I usually felt refreshed and eager to read more after spending time with them.

    Three themes figure heavily into these three books (and near as I can tell, the rest of his catalog): sex, death, and the supernatural. They are all related in the telling by how they are expressions of human frailty or vulnerability, and Moore handles each in a way that is simultaneously funny, (mostly) respectful, and almost gentle. For example, sex is apparently a source of great amusement for him, tied up as it is in complex (sub)cultural rituals of courtship and mating. He's never pornographic or even really crass about it, but he doesn't pull punches when he finds something funny about the way people behave with regard to the subject. I found myself laughing out loud on more than one occasion as he described some character's conflicting desires and emotions, the resulting actions, and the way they looked to other characters in the story.

    The supernatural is used largely as a plot device, but he does so in ways that highlight the universal fears and anxieties that give rise to belief in the same. Vampires are both movie monsters and an expression of our fear of aging and death. They represent in some ways all that we wish we could be (what child doesn't want to be a superhero, and what adult has completely forgotten that wish?), but in other ways all that we fear we might be. Moore doesn't really come right out and say this, but this is the tone he seems to strike with the topic.

    Death is of course the ultimate human frailty -- that point at which we are no longer in control of what happens to the physical body we've inhabited for all our lives. Moore manages to find gentle humor in it, but once again he is never crass about it (though some of his characters may be). I got the idea that Moore would have made a fine grief counselor, given the way he handles the deaths of various characters, and I even found myself feeling better about my Aunt Deb's passing as a result of reading these books. A Dirty Job is even dedicated to hospice workers, which I thought was a nice touch.

    Moore's descriptions and scenes are vivid enough to give you an idea of what's going on without falling into the Tolkien/Auel trap of describing every last excruciating detail. Where he really shines however, is in his dialogue. Conversations between characters are so vibrant and colorful, they will remind the reader of any number of instances from their own lives, with the characters randomly changing frames of reference, making sly innuendos, or even just riffing on something the character finds amusing. Simply put, they are hilarious because they are so much like the conversations we have in real life. I've read more books than I can remember, and I've never read anyone who puts together conversations quite as well as Moore does.

    I would personally recommend reading Bloodsucking Fiends followed by You Suck and then A Dirty Job rather than the order I read them, because all three books happen in that order in the same place, with some minor character crossover between the second and third books. That's not to say that A Dirty Job is the third book in a series; its events just coincide somewhat with those of You Suck. The first two books, being about vampires, are also somewhat more accessible and relatable. So if you're not puritanical about sex, you're OK with the supernatural as a plot device, and you love a good laugh, Christopher Moore is probably going to entertain you as much as he did me.

    Finally, I thought I'd make a note on the Kindle, since You Suck is the first book I've finished in that format. The Kindle makes reading an electronic book very easy, and far more comfortable than any computer-based solution I've ever tried. The physical device is just about the right size (though I'd really like to try a Kindle DX sometime for comparison), the display is easy to read in good light and outdoors (though not backlit for dim light, as many reviewers have complained), and it keeps your place in whatever book you're reading at the time. It also stores an entire library (I have the whole Honor Harrington collection loaded), so it's great for folks who like to read several things at once, but don't want to carry multiple books around with them.

    That said, it feels like there's something missing. I love physical books... I love the tangible object, and the way they looked lined up on a bookshelf. I've always wanted a house with a library, and the Kindle and its competitors make it seem as though that may be a dream of the past. There's also the unsettling spectre of remote deletes that makes me not want to trust the electronic book system. At least with a physical book, Amazon's not going to break into your house and take back items that you've purchased. And what of the storage limits of the device? At some point I'll have to start deleting books -- throwing away things I've paid money for -- only to need to repurchase in the future if I decide I want to re-read them.

    I guess in my ideal world, every physical book purchased would come with a voucher for a Kindle version, so I could have it both ways -- a physical book for stacking on my shelf and preserving, along with a Kindle version for portability and everyday reading. Here's hoping Jeff Bezos has the same idea.

    Posted by Tom, 11/20/2009 7:30:25 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Thursday, November 19, 2009


    T Minus 7 Days...

    ...until the annual self-imposed one-month exile. Even here in the relatively mild shopping climate of Oklahoma, the Curmudgeons find it excruciating to venture into retail space between Thanksgiving and New Year's. We make our Thanksgiving leftovers last as long as possible, try to guess the days and times when the grocery store will be least populated for supply runs, and give places like Wal-Mart and the mall a wide berth.

    It's not that we're anti-social, it's just that the crush of humanity sets our teeth on edge in ways that cannot be mitigated by anything less than pharmaceutical intervention. The chaos of the Great Unwashed searching and clawing for this & that during Christmas shopping season carries with it a cacophonous roar that assaults the ears, while the inevitable incidental bodily contact with strangers provides a constant stream of stressors that feed anxieties about personal safety in the event the herd decides collectively to stampede.

    Even our favorite activity, going to the cinema, is usually curtailed at this time of year unless we can find a suitably early enough showing (10 AM) that most others will be fighting one another at Kohl's instead. If you're the type to voluntarily venture out into this madness, may God have mercy on your soul.

    Posted by Tom, 11/19/2009 7:09:54 AM (Permalink). 2 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Tuesday, November 17, 2009


    Don't ever think it's easy

    I've posted a fair bit about carrying guns, the right to self-defense, and the survival mindset. The comments of some of my fellow travelers in this regard may lead one to believe that this is a simple decision, and that the idea of shooting someone is regarded cavalierly. I can only respond that it was not a simple decision, and it required me to do some serious soul-searching. The decision should be a sober and contemplative one, arrived at by considering all the facts. Among those facts are the experiences of those who have already had to defend themselves with deadly force, and accepting that what's happened to them will likely happen to you if you have any human decency.

    Recently, a poster at a gun forum I frequent had this to say:

    This happened when I was about 21 years old - and I'm now 59. It can still bother me, about twice a year or so I have a nightmare about it. I had one last night & thought I'd talk about it here.

    When I was 21 years old, I had to shoot an intruder in my home with both barrels of a 12 gauge shotgun. I was alone in this big old house my former husband & lived in St. Louis. He was out of town & in the middle of the night, I heard the glass breaking in my front door. Standing at the top of the stairs, in the dark, I saw someone reaching in to unlock the door. By the time I grabbed the shotgun he was in the house. I told him I had a shotgun & to just leave. He started talking & moving forward slowly one foot at a time. I told him to listen & then cocked one barrel & then the other barrel. You could really hear this in the quiet. I told myself that when his foot hit the bottom of the stairs, I was going to shoot. Well, he kept coming forward and when his foot hit the first step, I braced the butt against the wall & fired both barrels. There was only one phone in the house & it was downstairs, past his body. I must have been in shock, because I calmly told the police that I had killed someone in my home. And they didn't believe me. They finally sent someone, and then a lot more when they saw the body.

    All I can remember is that it took forever for them to finish up. At that time, you had to clean up the bloody mess yourself, and for some reason, as soon as the body was removed, but the police were still there, I had to start cleaning. I think I scrubbed everything for hours. The police finally realized I was in shock & took me to the hospital.

    The nightmares have decreased, but I did have one last night. It's always the same - just the loud boom of the shotgun & blood all over the place. Of course, I wake up sweating & my heart racing. And no more sleep for the rest of the night. Over the years, I've seen psychologists for the problem with nightmares & that has helped a lot. I'm hoping I can get a good night's sleep tonight and I think part of writing this may help.

    Anyway, thanks for listening (reading). Don't let anyone ever tell you that taking a human life is easy. If the situation would repeat today, I'd still do the same thing, cause I still love myself better than anyone else. But it does have consequences.


    It's my hope that everyone out there values themselves enough to defend their own lives by whatever means necessary, up to and including the use of deadly force. It's also my hope that everyone is a decent enough person, morally and spiritually, that the decision to do so is not an easy one. But I pray for those who've had to do it, that their spirits find peace.

    Posted by Tom, 11/17/2009 7:50:07 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Saturday, November 14, 2009


    I know famous people!

    My sister-in-law Lori is in the process of becoming a stuntwoman. She's working on a movie called The Greening of Whitney Brown, doubling for a child actor to do riding stunts. Here she is doing a train transfer:









    I'm so proud of her I can hardly stand it. Of course, I say that like I had anything to do with her mad horse skills.

    I have given her strict instructions to get me an autographed photo of Zoe Bell if she ever meets her, preferably one with Lori in it too. Because, you know, it's all about what I want.

    Posted by Tom, 11/14/2009 9:26:29 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Thursday, November 12, 2009


    Quote of the Day

    "Elections have become largely futile exercises to reveal comparative popular contempt for competing professional politicians."
    -- James Bovard, Freedom in Chains


    Posted by Tom, 11/12/2009 3:45:25 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Full of Fail

    In the last week, there have been three epic failures of government policy. The first was with the shootings at Fort Hood... a military base that was a giant "gun-free" zone, aka "target-rich environment".

    The first people with guns to confront Hasan, two local police officers, were the ones who put a stop to his rampage. And while Sgt. Kim Munley and Sgt. Mark Todd acted heroically, they did not arrive on the scene until a crucial 10 minutes or so had elapsed and Hasan had fired more than 100 rounds.

    Then we have America's best known eminent domain case, which utterly failed to produce anything but homeless people -- literally:

    The Supreme Court's 2005 decision in Kelo v. City of New London stands as one of the worst in recent years, handing local governments carte blanche to seize private property in the name of economic development. Now, four years after that decision gave Susette Kelo's land to private developers for a project including a hotel and offices intended to enhance Pfizer Inc.'s nearby corporate facility, the pharmaceutical giant has announced it will close its research and development headquarters in New London, Connecticut.

    And finally, there is the little matter of the automobile manufacturer bailout (hat tip, Reason):

    If you believed all the talk from Chrysler about how our tax dollars would help finance its fast-track electric-vehicle future, you're in for a big disappointment.

    Chrysler has disbanded the engineering team that was trying to bring three electric models to market as a rush job, Automotive News reports today. Chrysler cited its devotion to electric vehicles as one of the key reasons why the Obama administration and Congress needed to give it $12.5 billion in bailout money, the News points out.


    Some have taken exactly the wrong message from these last two -- that the corporations involved are somehow to blame. And while it's true that they have not followed through on their promises, the real devil here is a government that sees nothing wrong with looting taxpayers and landowners for the benefit of the politically connected. It's a system of rationalized plunder -- theft made legal (but not moral) because it supposedly serves some nebulous "greater good". If government did not have the power to loot money and land from people, there would be no corporations lined up at the trough of stolen property, because there would be no trough. But once the trough exists, one can hardly blame the businessman who, upon noticing that his competitors are getting free stuff, decides that he'd better get in line if he wants to stay competitive.

    People ask me, "why are you so cynical about government?" My response is that, put simply, government is the law of unintended consequences. Take virtually any policy proposal, examine its stated goals, and the best money to be made is betting that those goals will not be achieved by said policy, and more likely than not, some other problem will arise as a direct result.

    As James Bovard wrote:

    President Bill Clinton declared in January 1997 that people can "make [America] better if we will suspend our cynicism" that exists between the public and the politicians. This is the "Peter Pan" theory of good government - that government is not wonderful only because people refuse to believe that government has magical powers.

    Go on if you want; I'm too old to believe in fairies.

    Posted by Tom, 11/12/2009 3:24:33 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Tuesday, November 10, 2009


    A small reversal

    After having previously stated my objections to the death penalty, I will now state that in the case of Major Nidal Hasan, the murderer at Fort Hood, none of those objections are activated. This is not a case of forensics, or police misconduct, or even one where there is any question who was doing the shooting.

    Hasan was apprehended in the act of killing multiple people. We know who he is and what he was doing. He was "caught red-handed", as it were. If these were the only cases where the death penalty could be applied, I would be entirely for it, though I still don't believe that anyone should take any joy in executing him. Weird as it may sound, it should be done with love and sorrow, like putting down a rabid dog. I don't have a real objection to having the death penalty applied in the rare clear-cut case like this one, but I'll remain in the anti-death penalty camp because it seems easier to me to have a law abolished than to have it fine-tuned.

    Posted by Tom, 11/10/2009 6:08:19 AM (Permalink). 2 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Monday, November 9, 2009


    Quote of the Day

    On tactics in a violent encounter:

    "If you're not shootin', you should be loadin'. If you're not loadin', you should be movin'. If you're not movin', someone's gonna cut your head off and put it on a stick."
    -- Clint Smith, Director, Thunder Ranch


    Posted by Tom, 11/9/2009 7:22:02 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Sunday, November 8, 2009


    Well, that's a new one

    Turns out the Fort Hood shooter used a FN Five-seveN pistol, which of course the press is calling a cop-killer:

    The gun thought to be used in the Fort Hood massacre packs so much firepower, it's known as 'the Cop Killer,' federal law enforcement officials said.

    The round used by the Five-seveN was in fact designed to be armor-piercing, but the armor-piercing variant is not available to the general public:

    One of the design intents of the SS190 variant of this cartridge (not sporting variants) was that it have the ability to penetrate Kevlar protection vests such as the NATO CRISAT vest.[16] In testing conducted by Passaic County, New Jersey Sheriff's Department, the SS190 penetrated 11 inches in bare ballistic gelatin, and penetrated 9 inches in gelatin protected with a Kevlar vest.[17] ...

    ...

    The Five-Seven and 5.7x28mm ammunition were the target of brief controversy in the United States in 2004[16] when it was claimed by the Brady Campaign that commercially available SS192 penetrated a Level IIA vest in testing.[22] However, armor piercing variants of the 5.7x28mm are only offered to law enforcement and military customers.[23] Commercially available variants of the 5.7x28mm cartridge are classified by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) as being not armor piercing[24] and it was claimed that the SS192 and SS196 cartridge variants did not penetrate Kevlar vests in tests conducted by FNH USA.[24]


    Since Hasan reportedly purchased the weapon (and presumably the ammunition) from a gun shop rather than through military procurement channels, I think it can be safely assumed that he was probably using the civilian version of the round. Even if he was not, however, the armor-piercing variant would not be ordinarily available to the rest of us. This renders any talk about banning the round or gun pointless.

    As a person who takes a personal interest in weaponry, I do find the choice of weapon rather odd. It's not often one hears about a mass shooter using something as esoteric as the Five-seveN, which is why I previously assumed it was a boring old Beretta M9. Next it'll be a Heckler & Koch VP70Z or G11.

    Posted by Tom, 11/8/2009 9:34:21 PM (Permalink). 2 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Friday, November 6, 2009


    The Shout Out

    Conservative pundits are all in a tizzy over President Obama's "shout out" to a guy in the audience, a Congressional Medal of Honor winner:



    I do think he rambles on a bit much about the conference, and doesn't get to the Ft. Hood shooting in a timely fashion. But he should not be castigated for giving the nod to a CMH winner. It's not like the Congressional Medal of Honor is handed out to just anybody. It's not a Nobel Peace Prize, after all.

    Update: Out of curiosity, I went to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society's website, and looked for "Dr. Joe Medicine Crow", but couldn't find him. So I found him on Wikipedia, and it turns out that President Obama misidentified the honor bestowed upon him -- he won the Congressional Gold Medal, not the Congressional Medal of Honor. And it turns out the CGM probably is handed out to just about anybody. So perhaps it's right to be irritated with Obama... he basically just insulted all of the CMH winners by not knowing the difference.

    Posted by Tom, 11/6/2009 7:40:36 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Scary buzzwords in the news

    I really despise reporters who have no clue what they're talking about, and just throw in terms that sound scary to them, in order to make the article seem more knowledgeable. Case in point, this article on the Ft. Hood shootings:

    Lt. Gen. Cone said the victims, mostly soldiers, were waiting for treatment. Soldiers at the base do not routinely carry weapons and, therefore, would have been unarmed at the time of the attack. Maj. Hasan used two handguns, he said, including a semiautomatic weapon.

    The injuries of the wounded varied significantly, he said.

    Quick action by base personnel protected about 600 people who were in a nearby theater to attend college graduation ceremonies for 138 soldiers, Lt. Gen. Cone said.


    What could possibly be the purpose of using the term "semiautomatic weapon" here, when virtually all modern handguns are semiautomatic weapons? I realize that revolvers technically aren't, but most reports that talk about the guns he used are saying/assuming that he used "standard issue" handguns, which I take to mean your average, every day, Beretta M9:



    ...or something similar. The point here is that the phrase "...including a semiautomatic weapon" is pointlessly redundant unless the writer believes it means something more significant, as with the usual reporter's ignorance about the fact that "semi-automatic" and "machine gun (ie, fully automatic)" are not the same thing. The only possible reasons a reporter could have to make this stupid statement in this article are either A) they don't know the difference and think "semi-automatic" means something scary like "machine gun", despite the easy availability of information to the contrary, or B) they do know the difference but are deliberately attempting to scare readers who don't.

    Either way, it's a perfect example of what I hate about the mainstream press. Whether they practice willful ignorance or deliberate manipulation, most reporters handle the subject of guns with criminal disregard for the facts.

    Posted by Tom, 11/6/2009 4:17:32 AM (Permalink). 2 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Wednesday, November 4, 2009


    Quote of the Day

    "Bipartisanship (or is it post-partisanship?) is when the other guys come to our side, not the other way around."
    -- Michael C. Moynihan, One Man's Judas, Another Man's Purged Moderate


    Posted by Tom, 11/4/2009 7:20:33 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Patriotism

    I am occasionally involved in discussions that come around to the topic of patriotism, wherein someone will invariably demand some action on the basis of my patriotism. The problem is, I can never just take such a loaded concept at face value and run with it.

    Patriotism can refer to a simple preference for one's own country and culture, a form of nationalism, jingoism, xenophobia, or even outright racism. I've seen all flavors expressed by various friends and acquaintances.

    I have no problem stating that I prefer America; I've been to a few other countries and read extensively on a few others, and have pretty much concluded that this is the best of the bunch. At the same time however, I don't buy into the notion that this makes America inherently great -- to my mind, it's the equivalent of being a person of below-average intelligence in a town full of morons. America may have the "best" system going, but somehow we seem to have decided that this means we're "done".

    Beyond the simple question of "greatness", I have no love for the various governments of America, and refrain from any "patriotism" that smacks of support for same. When the military comes up, I'm careful to differentiate my support for "the troops" from my (lack of) support for the various wars. I despise any cultural influences that lead one person to believe they can assert the right to control the activities of others (absent the caveats about force or fraud), influences that are present in nearly every subculture in America. And I see nothing wrong with purchasing goods or services made elsewhere, so long as they meet my subjective standards for the purpose to which I will put them.

    So when someone says I should be "patriotic", it gives me pause. I need to find out more about what they mean before I can agree that I should be what they're asking. As with almost everything, I find it really difficult to just give a simple answer when asked about my patriotism, or lack thereof.

    Posted by Tom, 11/4/2009 7:03:26 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009


    Quote of the Day

    "You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice
    If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice"
    -- Rush, Freewill


    Posted by Tom, 11/3/2009 7:22:38 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    What is God?

    A couple of Facebook friends have recently linked the trailer and site to a new documentary, Oh My God. From the website:

    I was frustrated with the childish schoolyard mentality that permeates this world - I call it the "My God Is Greater Than Your God" syndrome - where you have grown men flying airplanes into buildings shouting "God is Great" - where you have the leader of the free world telling the BBC in 2003 that he invaded Iraq because God told him to - where you have the constitution of a country (Iran) that dictates that its supreme leader is God's representative on earth - where you have young men and women blowing themselves up (and innocent others) to buy a place into heaven. None of these concepts made any sense to me. Does it matter what I believe? Does it matter what you believe? And what is this entity that goes by the name of God, that seems to bring about so much friction, hurt and pain? So I decided to go around the world and ask people what they think.

    I wonder how many people he had to talk to before he got an answer more thoughtful than the cliched ("God is Love") or the banal ("God is everything"). How many hundreds of fundagelical types did he have to slog through, the types who insist that God exists only within the pages of the Good Book (and only their interpretation thereof, to boot), and how many starry-eyed flower children, with no concept of rules or structure even when it comes to their own thoughts ("it all tastes like chicken")? I also wonder if he got anyone appealing to George Lucas ("an energy field that surrounds and binds all living things").

    The smartass in me jumps immediately to Douglas Adams' minor character Oolon Colluphid, author of (fictional) philosophical works such as "Who is this God Person Anyway?", and I'm of course reminded of the old joke about the rabbi and the pope.

    Once I'm past my initial need for wisecrackery though, I find myself pondering the actual question. What is God?

    My immediate thought is to consider the scope of the question: are we only concerned with what God is with reference to my own internal dialogue? If so, I find the question rather pointless. Listening to someone describe the "other" voice in their head is perhaps interesting to the psychiatric professionals among us, but beyond that it lacks meaningful context. And given the director's statement above, it seems clear that he's interested at the very least in how the concept of God gets translated into action by the individual, and how those actions affect the rest of humanity. And if that's the case, should the inquiry be limited to just the scope of one individual's inner dialogue translated into just that individual's action, seen as an atomic unit, isolated from the actions of those who might be doing similar (or dissimilar) things in service to their own version of "God", or should these somehow be aggregated before they can be considered significant?

    The question "What is God?" also assumes that we have dispensed with its precursor, "Does God exist?", which some might find presumptuous. In the context of the film and the question it asks, however, it is clear that God does exist at least to the extent that people are willing to change their behavior in response to what they believe God wants. It may be that "God" is only a figment of their imagination, but they make God real for the rest of us by acting on His behalf. Indeed, this is one of the central premises of the Emmaus movement: we are the hands and feet of Jesus. If folks believe in "God", it would not matter at all that they did, or what they believed about God, if they did not act on that belief. We must therefore proceed, not from the assumption that "God" exists, but from the acknowledgment that He/She/It does, and that His/Her/Its existence is at a minimum manifested in the actions of those who proclaim such belief, if in no other way.

    We are certainly free, however, to wonder at the conflict of words and actions. Some will say that their God is great and merciful or just an overall swell guy, but the way they serve Him is unmistakably negative. Then again, there are those who think that God is the angry, hateful sort and their actions pretty well demonstrate fidelity to that concept. There are also those who believe God is an unmitigated positive force, but who have trouble with other people regardless.

    On the one hand, we have the rather obvious notion that we can know a personís God by observing their actions and attitudes. On the other hand, we need to be careful to understand the context of those actions and attitudes. C.S. Lewis struggled to explain in Mere Christianity that a generally nice person who becomes a believer may attribute their niceness to their beliefs, but the fact is that they were pretty easy to get along with all the while. At the same time, the most hateful, disagreeable person alive may become a believer and be thus transformed into a run-of-the-mill jerk, and will have experienced a greater transformation than the nice person who becomes a little bit nicer. The problem for the rest of us is that our perceptions say that the nice person is the greater Christian, when in fact this may not be the case.

    I am also concerned with the chain of responsibility. Iíve read and listened to a fair amount of fundagelical (fundamentalist/evangelical) preaching on the idea that we Christians should be pushing various doctrines unapologetically, since after all, "we" didnít come up with it, God did. Essentially, the message is that our words and actions are not our responsibility so long as we can ascribe them somehow to God using our sacred texts.

    Of course, this can have the immediate effect of excusing murder. Exodus 22:18 says "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." The new Christian hears such a sermon about transferring responsibility to God, reads this verse, meets some Wiccan at a college mixer, and proceeds to "do the Lordís work." Modern society takes a dim view of such things, and legal shenanigans ensue. Of course, a person "devoted" enough to kill someone else on the basis of Exodus 22:18 is probably "devoted" enough to simply equate their imprisonment with that of any of the apostles or other martyrs for the faith, and put their trust in God (as they know Him) for the duration of their stay. Society may take this as a sign that the person is truly in need of psychiatric "help" and have some well-meaning counselor assigned to set them straight, which will be interpreted by the "patient" as an attempt to deter them from their faith, and the whole cycle just gets tiresome after a while.

    The question that most interests me in this hypothetical situation is this: where did the person go wrong? Do they go wrong in the simple act of believing? Or is it the act of translating belief into action? Or is the problem in their interpretation?

    The act of believing canít be the problem, because faith operates at the bottom of everything human beings do. I remember a moment in 8th grade pre-calculus class, when our teacher showed us a logical proof that someone had taken the time to discover and write out. It was fairly complex, beyond our ability to understand, and historically speaking was a fairly recent proof. The truly astounding part was the purpose of the proof: to demonstrate that 1 + 1 = 2 (see Russell, Whitehead, and Godel). The point here is that, previous to the writing of Principia Mathematica (and for the lifetimes of all but the most nerdy since), folks simply took it on faith that "1 + 1 = 2". And so it is with much of science: taken down to its core, there is always some point at which we have to simply believe that X is true, because without that belief we cannot proceed.

    Similarly, we can't say that the errant believer is wrong because he translates his belief into action. Human creativity and invention is based upon this mechanism. Without it, there is no experimentation, no technology beyond that which happens at random, and indeed no reason to get up in the morning.

    Nor can we really fault (on the face of things, anyway) the person's interpretation: Exodus 22:18 is fairly plain-spoken on the matter. One might even say that it's among the most easily understood verses in the entire Bible. There is little in the surrounding text to mitigate its rather harsh view of witches, and condemnation of witchcraft continues throughout the rest of the Bible. Exodus 20:13 ("Thou shalt not kill") appears to directly contradict it, though clearly the rest of Exodus' rules and regulations give someone the authority to kill others, what with all the death penalties being handed out for various offenses, so witches are presumably fair game.

    All of this is a rather long-winded way of saying that to my mind, it makes no sense to accept anyone's insistence that God and God alone is responsible for their doctrinal statements or the actions that proceed therefrom. "God", as understood by the individual, may in fact be the heavenly partner in a dynamic, growing, fruitful relationship that leads to all manner of personal edification and spirituality. But "God", as understood by the rest of society, must necessarily be the individual in question. If "God" tells you to strap on a bomb and blow up a Starbuck's -- and you do it -- the responsibility is yours, not "God's".

    At the same time, I find that on a personal level it is very difficult for me to do positive things without "God" helping and encouraging me. When I give to charity, or perform some deed in the service of others, I find it brings me closer to "God"; closer still if I deflect any praise away from myself and to "God". If I understand that society sees me and my "God" as inseparable, how is it that it somehow feels better to transfer that responsibility, and perhaps more interestingly, how is it that I see others in a more positive light when they do it? Are we in fact referring to some external "other" that is reachable only through the internal dialogue, or are we simply making a personal connection based on the similarities in our internal conversations?

    Obviously it helps if those involved in an interpersonal conversation about "God" come from a shared cultural or literary background. It is much easier for me, a Christian, to relate to other Christians on the concept of God, because we have a shared reference point in the Bible. It becomes a little more difficult, but not overly so, to relate to those outside mainstream Christianity, such as the Mormons, because their list of references includes one that mine does not (the Book of Mormon). By the same token, it's a little harder to relate to Jewish folks because my list of references includes the New Testament and theirs does not. The difficulty tends to grow the further away from my reference point the other person is, but curiously there is a point at which it actually becomes easier. I have known a Buddhist or two, folks whose cultural and literary backgrounds are completely alien, yet it's sometimes easier to talk about "God" to them than it is to talk to fellow Protestant Christians.

    Much as the director of Oh My God seems to want a unifying concept of God, I think we have to consider the possibility that, if we accept that when we talk about "God" we are talking about some "other" rather than a psychological manifestation of conscience or community or shared humanity, then we must necessarily be talking about multiple "others" when the accounts diverge widely enough. I find it difficult to believe, for example, that Fred Phelps worships the same God that I do, and I think that if he and I could agree on anything, it would be this point, though who is right and who is the heretic would obviously remain a point of contention. This tends to be lost on those outside of "Christianity", since they see us referring to the same Bible and making contradictory arguments about what it says. I will even concede that Mr. Phelps' knowledge of the Bible far exceeds my own, though I will still maintain that he is wrong about its message.

    Who then, is right? Must the answer to that question even be established? The first commandment is "Thou shalt have no other gods before Me", but we have to understand that there are two points that are often glossed over in the reading of that verse. The first is that the commandment implicitly acknowledges the existence of other gods. It is therefore not anti-Biblical to say that Fred Phelps and I may worship different gods. The second point is that the word "Me" is automatically assumed by the reader to refer to their own internal representation of "God". Fred Phelps reads it, and hears the voice of his hateful, wrathful, America-destroying God. I read it, and hear the voice of my own God, which I understand to be distinct from Fred's.

    At the other end of the spectrum, I note that there are those of completely different religions (and even atheists) whose actions and attitudes, as guided by their faith, are remarkably similar to the actions and attitudes required of me by my "God". Wouldn't this mean then, that we worship the same God, even though the way we've come to Him is by wildly different paths? If for example I were to boil down the message of the entire Bible to the primary action-item "love all, serve all" (a perhaps dangerous proposition), and I were to meet a Buddhist whose "primary action-item" from the study and practice of his faith was precisely the same thing, are we followers of the same God? I would argue that for purposes of how society should (and perhaps will) perceive us, our "Gods" are functionally identical. This sentiment appears at least somewhat echoed by Hugh Jackman in the Oh My God film's trailer.

    I realize I've said relatively little about my own concept of "God", fascinated as I am by the above meta-conversation surrounding the topic. As might be gleaned from the preceding, I find the question difficult to answer in simple terms. While I have a somewhat rocky relationship with a psychological construct that I call "God", I have no way of knowing for certain whether this "God" is entirely within me (in the sense of being a psychological construct or even a particular cluster of neurons firing in a "Godlike" pattern), or if "God" is a being external to myself. When I contemplate the former possibility, I find the conclusions that must follow from it far too intimidating to incorporate. So, whether out of cowardice or humility, I accept that my notion of "God" refers to an external or at least separate and distinct being from that which I call my "self". Whether this being is the same being as the one inhabiting or communicating with the consciousness of any random other person, I can only guess, again based upon the other person's actions and professed beliefs.

    Even in that there is peril, as I previously mentioned with reference to C.S. Lewis. There are people communicating with what is ostensibly the same God that I do, but who come from a far darker place in their spiritual journey than I do. To condemn them out of hand as "not being in touch with God" on the basis of observations that they're not as "good" as me, is to presume knowledge which I cannot rightly claim. I therefore find it difficult to assert with any great degree of confidence that someone else is or is not in touch with the God that I think of when I think of God, and I wonder about those who can.

    This leads of course to the implied questions, "what does God want from me/you/us?" and further "how does this change the way you think/feel/act?". My answer to the first is, in a word, humility. The problem is that most people read the word and don't understand it. "Humility" as a concept is so overwhelmingly pregnant with expectation, a person may spend the rest of their lives pursuing it and never fully realize what it is.

    The pedestrian definition of the word, functionally speaking, is "not thinking you're any better than anyone else". This is a decent start, but the more I understand the concept the more I think the pedestrian definition is only the smallest tip of the iceberg. Humility is not simply a lack of pride, but an ongoing acknowledgment of one's own limitations. As it pertains to religion and the concept of God, humility is lacking in all manner of conversation and action. This is obviously evident when one person attempts to proclaim "God's will" for another, presuming in the course of so doing that "God" has not told them otherwise. It's evident in the conundrum above, when some assert that others do not follow God, or do not follow Him properly, on the basis of limited contextual knowledge. It shows up in doctrinal disputes, when one person maintains that something is a sin (or a mandate), and another says otherwise. (Among Christians, I call this the "Romans 14 rule", because Romans 14 pretty clearly tells doctrinal disputers to knock it off.)

    It is the "humility mandate" that makes me pause whenever someone asks me if I "believe in the Bible". The simple answer is that yes, I do believe in the Bible, but the simple answer doesn't communicate the truly important information: what do I believe about the Bible? Do I believe the standard fundagelical line that the Bible is literal truth? Do I believe that it is rather more nuanced, a signpost pointing to Truth, but not Truth in and of itself? Do I believe the more mundane assertion that the Bible is a cultural artifact of a particular people in a particular setting? Do I believe that it is the "inspired Word of God, a message to His people", and if so, what do I believe the message is, and who do I believe are "His people"? And in the context of my metaphysical dilemma over the nature of God Himself, how does the message or the meaning change, if indeed it necessarily must?

    In philosophy, there is a branch called "epistemology", or the "theory of knowledge". It addresses the following questions:

    What is knowledge?
    How is knowledge acquired?
    What do people know?
    How do we know what we know?

    I believe that the "humility mandate" demands that we at least contemplate these questions, especially the last one, and I find it reasonable to argue that most people do not. As shown by the proof that "1 + 1 = 2", there is a vast wealth of knowledge carried around by every human being that is unquestioned, untested, and unchallenged. For many reading this post, it never dawned on them to wonder if 1 + 1 did in fact equal 2. It is always worthwhile to ask "how do I know this?", even if the exploration merely confirms that the knowledge is sound. As Socrates said, "The beginning of wisdom is the admission of one's ignorance."

    This is not to align myself with those Rand called "skeptics" -- those who assert that knowing is impossible. I firmly believe that knowing is possible, and must be possible, otherwise action would be pointless. All I'm saying is that humility demands that we always accept the possibility that we are wrong, that we don't have all the answers, and that the answers we do have may have been produced by some fault in our premises or logic.

    The "humility mandate" also extends into politics and power. I think this is the area where the broadest swath of Christendom falls flat. We Christians may be able to accept that as individuals, we don't have the Bible completely locked down in terms of understanding. We may also approach the topic of knowledge and meta-knowledge with appropriate levels of uncertainty. But when it comes to laying the smackdown on the sinners by way of government, we are convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that we know what's right and what's wrong. From health care to homosexuals to heroin, it's difficult to walk into a church, ask a random person what they think government should do about an issue, and get anything other than an ironclad level of certainty in the response. There seems to be precious little consideration, among supposed followers of a "God" they label "the Prince of Peace", for the violence inherent in the way government gets things done. I've even had some reference "the law" as though it's the ultimate given, apparently without suffering any cognitive dissonance whatsoever in the face of the fact that "the law" in a putatively democratic system is and can be whatever "we" want it to be.

    As I've argued again and again and again and again, the means by which we achieve something matters. Humility demands that we understand what we are doing to our fellow man, and ask whether we have the right to presume our decisions are superior and to force our conclusions upon him by getting the government to do our bidding. The initiation of force is the ultimate conceit: "not only have I decided what is right, but I have also decided that nothing you say can change my mind, there is no reason whatsoever to take your point of view into consideration, and you will live according to the rules I devise or you will die." It does not matter whether the proverbial gun, the implied threat of violence, is in the hand of the voter or in the hand of a government agent; what matters is who asked for the the threat to be made in the first place. When someone takes that approach and says that their inspiration is "God", I become very suspicious that their "God" is closer to the God of Islamic terrorism than to the God I recognize and venerate.

    I have my own problems with humility, and it may be that some don't see much of it in me. It may therefore follow that even though this is what I think of when I think of "What is God and what does He want?", I'm not a very good representative of that particular God. But until the questions are asked, the assumptions broken down, the premises checked, indeed until there is some outward evidence that a similar struggle has taken place in another's quest for knowledge and wisdom in this regard, I find myself uninclined to submit to examination on that count. I'm willing to change my mind, but I need a better reason than "because I said so". Maybe that's my sinful conceit.

    Posted by Tom, 11/3/2009 7:21:51 AM (Permalink). 1 Comment. Leave a comment...

    Monday, November 2, 2009


    Finally...

    ...Norman Oklahoma has a gun store again. We've been without for several years, ever since the previous store reportedly got shut down because the owner was too lazy to keep filing his FFL renewal.

    Understand that being a town in Oklahoma without a gun store is like being a teenager without angst. And when your "town" is a city of over 100,000 people, it's just plain weird. There are towns in Oklahoma with fewer than 1,000 people that have their own gun stores. Norman ought to have at least 7 or 8 of them, one would think.

    Anyway, Academy Sports recently opened a new location in the new retail strip being built north of Robinson, on I-35, and I had to go visit to make sure they hadn't "forgotten" to put in a firearms counter. Thankfully, everything seems to be in order, even if their prices and selection are completely mainstream. Now if they can just do something about the ammunition shortage around here...

    Posted by Tom, 11/2/2009 7:05:24 AM (Permalink). 2 Comments. Leave a comment...