Archive for September, 2013

Can the Man Reads III: H.G. Wells, The Time Machine

Sunday, September 22nd, 2013

 

 

I have always been fascinated by books that give us a glimpse of the future, a picture of what we might see coming around the bend.  H.G. Wells is one of many classic authors that really spurs this excitement in readers.  The radio performance of his novel War of the Worlds famously enamored the American public into thinking that an alien invasion was taking place during the 1930’s.  It is easy enough to be in awe of his stories and the imagery of his prose, but Wells was also an unprecedented visionary of literature in his day.  He published The Time Machine in 1895, an era that was defined by horses and steam engines.  At this point in history there was no scientific foundation for the idea of time-travel, let alone the possibility of an actual time machine.  The Time Machine was written without any serious connection to real possibilities of time-travel. Yet by the time Wells had passed away in the 1940s, Albert Einstein had already laid the mathematical groundwork making time-travel a theoretical possibility.  Well’s fantasy slowly changed from romantic fantasy into a physical possibility for the future.  It seems as though the best authors prove to us all that imagination is often more important than what we believe to be possible.

 

In addition to the historical context of the book, Wells crafted a masterpiece of fiction when he penned this brief account of a scientist known only as the Time Traveler.  To anyone who is unfamiliar with Wells, I have to suggest The Time Machine as an ideal introductory work.  The book stands at an unintimidating 108 pages, and the verbiage tends to pleasantly suggest a visit to the thesaurus rather than a reevaluation of one’s education.  The story moves quickly (almost too quickly by the end), and is viscerally crafted with fantasy and adventure.  Upon finishing the book I humorously thought to myself, why do we ever bother with reading anything that stretches into hundreds upon hundreds of pages. Despite the slight size of the work, it contains an astounding number of insightful allusions, parables, and predictions.  Wells uses the adventurous plot to postulate his own interpretations on human nature, economics, and prejudice.

 

One of the most important discussions that Wells delves into during the adventures of the Time Traveler is the fate of a society divided by capitalism.  Writing during a time when class distinctions were sharp and often immutable, it is clear that Wells understood an important perspective on socioeconomics.  When the protagonist of the book begins to ruminate on the future state of humanity, he admits that it can all be traced back to our human nature.  We want the comforts and excesses of the world so badly, that eventually they become the evils of our society.  We exploit our fellow man willfully and without mercy so that we may live a life that is cleaner, easier, and more enjoyable.  The Time Traveler notes that there very well may have been a time when this system worked, but that it is fundamentally flawed.  In the mind of H.G. Wells, the social division between laborers and the bourgeois creates a society that is hopelessly divided into two completely different races.  After hundreds of thousands of years the working class becomes pushed underground, relegated to obscurity, while the “higher” people eventually descend into a mental and physical malaise.

 

The fundamental point of the work that I found is that, while we make decisions for the short term, the consequences of those decisions stretch into eternity.  Having a society that worships fine clothes and luxury cars may only divide society on economic lines, but ultimately it is something much more than that.  The system doesn’t work, it has never worked, and in the long run it really doesn’t work.  Above all else The Time Machine is a dire call for long-term perspective and understanding the consequences of human desire.  It is a message that is shrouded in mystery, action, fear, compassion, and a story that will have you wishing for more.  Ultimately, the novel serves as a cautionary tale about the permanence of human actions.  Our decisions do not only impact our lives, they stretch far beyond us into the future.

 

-J.A. Young

Another Day in America

Saturday, September 21st, 2013

I have reached a point where the cycle of tragedy, death and destruction in America no longer stimulates an emotional response.  Another shooting in the United States, this one leaving 13 people dead, and I’m left feeling somewhat empty about the whole damn thing.  Much like every other mass-shooting, the media orchestrates the tragedy in a way that attempts to pander sympathy and consideration for those families suffering at the hands of evil.  After Newtown and Aurora, and the countless violent incidents in between, I do not believe I can express much concern or sympathy at all for these events.  It is no longer a reaction of shock or disbelief, but rather, “Oh that happened again?”

 

 

The nation was unquestionably horrified by the violence focused on children at the Sandy Hook Elementary Shooting, and I will offer that it significantly changed the way I think.  The thought of a disturbed young adult conducting an armed invasion of an elementary school, is horrifying.  The scene of shots ringing through halls and children being massacred even more so.  The events even compelled me to scribe a letter of condolence that was mailed to the PO box specifically created in the wake of Newtown.  That being said, the public outcry for progressive action fell mostly upon deaf ears, and has since retreated back into the corners of society after being beaten soundly by gun activists. If the death of twenty children isn’t enough to change minds, what is?  Will another call for action come because the Navy Yard was a mere half-mile from the nation’s capital – or because this happened on a relatively secure military compound?  It cannot be the latter, as we’ve already had an incident at Fort Hood where Nidal Hasan took the lives of 13 people.  Nor should it be the former, as violence will find a way into every town, city, or state regardless of where it is.  Investigative forces will plumb the same avenues for motive, and will likely find none.  The media will conjure reasons why they suspect Aaron Alexis committed this act – but they too will never reach the full answer.  If we haven’t changed based upon incidents in the past, what gives the American public reason to believe this will change anything?

 

 

To put things in perspective, 277 people have been shot and killed in Chicago since the beginning of 2013. [1] This isn’t grabbing national headlines because many of these murders occur in low-income projects where gang-violence is an every day occurrence.  People fail to recognize that this is the greater tragedy at work in America because it is the result of a number of smaller failures in the social structure.  Poor educational standards, a decrease in interpersonal relationships, an advance in the alternate-reality/self identification problems of social media, and a fundamental decrease in decency, morality, and responsibility all factor into these senseless shootings and deaths. There are no simple fixes to either the gang related deaths in Chicago, or the mass-killings that pockmark our country’s recent history.  However we need to start seriously looking at plausible, rational, and intelligent solutions.  We need to first relieve ourselves of the predisposed notions of what causes this type of violence.  Politicians and pundits alike are quick to condemn guns or violent video games—rather than the numerous gaps in our educational and legal systems that allow men like Alexis or Adam Lanza to carry out their heinous acts.  We must also come to realize that the same media that conjures up our sympathetic response is also advocating violence as entertainment in movies and television shows.  In Chicago, there is no real hope for many of the young men and women caught up in gang warfare—and the life is often glorified as the “only way.” It has already been reported that Navy shooter Aaron Alexis had several run ins with law enforcement related to firearms, and was repeatedly referred to mental health programs.  Surely not all of these deaths are preventable, but circulating one over another based solely on the fanatical media “tragedy-whoring” is disgraceful and misappropriated.

 

 

I am fast approaching the day where these mass-shootings no longer hold any bearing on my emotional response.  Each one is exploited as a means to accrue higher ratings, and to expunge any memory of prior incidents, however terrible.  We move on, and we’ll mourn this Navy Yard shooting for two months until we either become distracted by something else – or another person picks up a gun and decides to instill fear in the heart of innocents.

 

-Spencer James-

DEATH BY CHEMICALS OR BOMBS: WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?

Sunday, September 15th, 2013

The hardest part of being in the field of political journalism is the reality of soul-wrenching information that begs to be covered.  As casual observers of global news are aware, there is no shortage of death and destruction taking place across the planet.  Just in the last two weeks several videos have surfaced from Syria showing two distinctly different visions of death, each shocking in their own regard.  One purportedly shows Syrian “Rebels” executing Syrian government troops with automatic weapons, while the other shows children convulsing and frothing at the mouth after a supposed Sarin gas attack.  While both of these videos are horrifying, the global community has asked us to choose a side.  As a global society we have decided that chemical weapons are the wrong way to kill someone, whereas cluster-bombs, automatic weapons, and surgical strikes are the right way.  While innocent civilians in a war-stricken country deal with these deadly attacks, the “civilized” world debates the legality and arbitrary difference between the two.

 
It is no surprise that some American politicians wish to intervene in the, for lack of a better word, cluster-fuck that is Syria.  However, a strong majority of the American people do not acknowledge the metaphorical red line that our faltering President Barack Obama and John Kerry have.  Yes, the use of chemical weapons is deplorable and has no place in this world, but how can we proudly claim that these deaths are worse than alternate means of justified murder.  The “surgical” drone strikes O-bomb-ya sends across the globe have a poor record for limited civilian casualties, yet no other country is levying threats against us for doing so—but there is open criticism for our controversial practice.  We’re indiscriminately killing civilians in other countries to pursue our ideal of “national security.”  However, we continue to deem it necessary to intervene militarily in a country killing itself with civil war.

 
Now that Russia has emerged as a possible diplomatic savior (yes you read that correctly), the Syrian conflict has changed drastically.  Under the recently proposed plan, Syria would relinquish their chemical stockpile to international control and have it promptly destroyed—something that reads like common sense to most of us.  America has already used the guise of “WMD’s” before and it led us down a bloody road, but are we not being hypocritical in our condemnation of such weapons?  We are, after all, the only country to deploy a nuclear missile in war and are now the world’s crusaders against weapons of mass destruction.  Let us not forget that many of these nerve-agents and chemical weapons were pioneered by the western world.  These chemical weapons induce some of the most horrific symptoms a human could experience.  Seizures, uncontrollable bowel movements, vomiting, open sores, all lead to a miserable death that reminds us that these weapons are something we wish we could “disinvent.”

 

 

A bullet can either kill instantly, or leave a person maimed, disabled, or scarred for the rest of their life.  When it comes to war, there are no winners—other than those companies building our killing tools. Whether it is death by Sarin gas, or execution in a shallow grave, there is no way to justify the death and destruction taking place in Syria.  Instead of contemplating a half-billion dollar “short-term” offensive in Syria, maybe the United States could use that money towards relieving the millions of refugees suffering in the surrounding countries.  Or better yet, we could choose to solve our own problems first and bring that money back to the people boldly proclaiming their case for no military attacks in Syria.

 

 

*Graphic Video showing possible Sarin Gas attack in Syria*

 

 

 

-Spencer James-

Inadequate Responses to American Religiosity.

Sunday, September 8th, 2013

We live in a country that has a very unique history of religious perspective.  America began with a fundamentally religious background, the first English settlers founded the colonies in order to gain independence from European theocracy.  This beginning has had many repercussions for our country, especially in forming opinions concerning religious rights.  In particular, it has lead to a great deal of unearned respect and reverence for religious beliefs.  Today we live in a country where people unfairly hide behind our country’s foundations of religious tolerance to promote ideas that do not make sense.  We have to stop allowing this type of unwarranted religious respect to deter justifiable criticisms of religion.

 

Pointing out the contradictions and inadequacies of theology typically causes one of two reactions, anger or an appeal to ignorance.  Being raised in a religious household, I understand the reticence that people have to asking questions about the specifics of personal religion. Any time a question comes up that is really important, the same answers are given time and time again on the basis of dogma.  The most common response to a criticism of faith or doctrine is one of feigned disrespect.  If you take the time to point out that a person’s religion is perhaps incompatible with reality or logic, they will immediately withdraw with well-rehearsed horror at your audacity and say, “who are you to question my faith?”

 

I can assure you after a great deal of experience in these discussions that the anger is very rarely sincere, if ever.  It is all too common for zealots and mildly religious people alike to dismiss any type of objective criticism by turning arguments into emotional issues.  Someone may commonly go out of their way to show you a new tattoo of a rosary or crucifix, but if you were to bring up the fact that body art is forbidden by the Bible they will most likely recoil in dread. “That is so disrespectful, why would you say that?”  I don’t know, why would you not read the book that clearly means so much to you?  In our culture it has become taboo to criticize the ridiculousness of religious beliefs, while there is also an infuriating double standard.  The majority of people act based upon the incorrect assumption that religion can be used as an interchangeable justification for anything, which cannot be challenged.  This deference to social politeness has become a real problem, and it is one of the main defenses that is used to unfairly support theology.

 

Another reply that is commonly parroted in response to the inconsistencies in modern Christianity is related to the mysteries of God.  I can vividly recall asking questions about scriptural irregularities in my youth, only to be met with an argumentative cure-all.  The response was always the same, “We do not understand the ways of God, it is not our place.”  Not only does this obviously not respond to criticism, but it also serves as powerful deterrent from any future questions that might cause problems.  We can look at the place of Christianity in today’s professional sports as a way of explaining this issue.  If you were to prompt a professional football player with the inconsistencies between their ideology and the world, I can promise you that one of these two responses would follow.  You would either hear them say that it is unkind to ask such questions about someone’s religious choice, or they would opine to you the mystery of their God.  “Well I don’t know why God didn’t stop that woman from getting raped, but I sure as hell know I couldn’t have got that first down without him.”  This response is, of course, built into Christian scripture itself, and is contradictory to an objective understanding of the world.  I find it profoundly odd that people who are scientifically minded find no qualm with the unthinking mindset that is undeniably promoted by the Bible .  Repeatedly the scriptures tell us that the world is a mysterious place, and that no matter what happens God always has a plan.  This biblical message dissuades curiosity and understanding of the world, the two things that we need most for coming times.

 

-J.A. Young

Christianity in the NFL: God cares about sacks but not suffering.

Sunday, September 1st, 2013

“God is not going to provide any leadership on this team.  He couldn’t care less if we win or not.”

-Bob Knight

 

I recently had the pleasure of attending an NFL game at Chicago’s historic Soldier Field, with all the pageantry of America’s most popular sport on full display. While there I noticed something interesting during the course of the game.  Immediately before kickoff, the majority of players casually jogged to the end zone and proudly took a knee.  After a few moments in silent meditation, many of the players methodically traced a crucifix across their chests, or kissed their hands and pointed towards the sky.   It was not as though a small segment of the players performed this pregame ritual, it was nearly all of them.  After witnessing this, I began to think about the prominent role that Christianity occupies in many professional sports, most notably American football.  To be completely honest, it made me very angry to realize that many professional athletes really think that God is on their side.  People may not wish to acknowledge it, but implying a relationship between the Christian God and the arena of sports is ridiculous.  Not only that, it is ideologically condemnable, and completely incompatible with an empathetic worldview.  If these athletes were to take the time to think deeply about the consequences of their actions and statements, I think that they would come to better understand the important values of their theology.

 

The relationship between religion and pro sports has become more and more apparent in recent years.  Mark Oppenheimer of Sports Illustrated recently published an article entitled “Does God Care Who Wins the Super Bowl?”  You can find this provocative title poised above an intentionally pious photo of Ray Lewis, one of the NFL’s most polarizing figures (and an outspoken Christian). In the article, Oppenheimer explores the obvious juxtapositions that exist between many features of pro-football and the traditions of Christianity.  He points out that in addition to the obvious disrespect for the sanctity of Sundays that defines the NFL, that the violent and extravagant nature of the sport seem to conflict with many of the values inherent in America’s most dominant religion.  He also notes that the lifestyles and personas of many of the NFL’s biggest names seem to be at odds with Christian morality.  As anyone who watches ESPN will tell you, we constantly see and hear news of players getting into trouble with the law and openly flaunting their wealth, despite the fact that many of them cultivate Christian personas.  While I agree with Oppenheimer’s points in the article, I couldn’t help but feel as though he was backing away from what really needed to be said.  Every time a postgame interview mentions the importance of God, or Colin Kaepernick kisses his laughably ironic religious tattoos following a touchdown, we skirt the real issue at hand.  No one wants to point out the absurdity of the connection, and the saddening reality that unites pro sports and theology.  When these players thank God for their performance, their thought process is completely absent of how awful the world is for so many people.

 

After a big playoff win or a career-defining performance, we all watch as the best players take to the cameras to thank the big man upstairs for all their success.  I’m sure many of you know that Tim Tebow rarely makes a television appearance where he fails to mention the words “faith” or “God” several times.  But why is this such a farce? We can answer this question just by looking at the issue with a tinge of perspective.  These players pray to God before they take the field and thank him readily following a good performance.  Ergo, they believe God has something at stake in the game that they are playing.  He cares who wins and who loses, who gets injured, he has some type of power over who succeeds and who does not.  If someone gets hurt during a game, maybe it is because they didn’t pray beforehand, or perhaps they were even atheistic.  The real problem is that it has become so commonplace for athletes thank God that we no longer think about what that really means.

 

This perspective is completely at odds with a reasonable and empathetic understanding of the world.  Just consider for a moment any of the most horrible real-life situations that you can think of.  Genocide, starvation, violent rape, torture, they will all lead us to the same conclusion.  The Christian God is by definition an all-powerful, benevolent creator of the universe.  This means that when Ray Lewis goes up in front of a camera he is sincerely expressing his belief that God, the alpha and the omega, has gone out of his way to help him get a sack while simultaneously failing to address the horrors of the world.  At the same time that an NFL player is praising God for their great game, that same God is ignoring the death of thousands of children to starvation.  He is allowing innocent people to be raped and murdered without remorse. They’ll say God works in mysterious ways, but to me that doesn’t serve as the comforting blanket of warmth that it does for other people.  When I hear someone charismatically state that their God had something to do with a meaningless game of football my blood begins to boil.  I struggle to think of the words to describe how insane that belief really is. 

 

-J.A. Young