Archive for March, 2012

(Image from Zazzle)

Although I am retired from teaching, I am still a scholar.  My field is rhetoric–an unfairly maligned and regularly abused art.  Rhetoricians do not accept the popular notion that rhetoric means “mere words”;  rather, we rhetoricians are inclined to accept Aristotle’s definition of rhetorical invention, which is the art of finding all the available arguments concerning a given issue that are available within a given time and place.

A commitment to invention requires that practicing rhetors make themselves aware of all positions taken by any party to a disagreement.  When my students engaged in any systematic process of investigation, they often found that their original claim was changed in some way by the provision of new information or their increased awareness of the situation of people who opposed their initial position.  They also found this extremely frustrating.  It’s hard to change your mind about something you have believed since childhood.

But that is what education is all about, isn’t it?

Asking this question so nakedly makes me uncomfortably aware that my own belief about the purpose of education may be radical, given the current ideological climate.  In many American classrooms, students are merely provided with information and then they are tested to make sure they have retained this information.  Teachers in public schools have been forced to adopt this approach by state standards and the “No Child Left Behind” legislation.  But there is another reason that public school teachers use the information-recitation model:   they are afraid of being fired if they encourage their students to think–that is, to invent.  If students are taught to think for themselves–that is, if they are taught how to find all the available arguments, they may adopt sets of beliefs that differ from those preferred by the communities in which they grew up.  They might become liberal, or feminist, or even atheist.

Because I taught at universities, I enjoyed privileges that are denied to public school teachers.  I was free to teach my students how to search for arguments that supported, expanded, or opposed their claims.  And, unlike public school teachers, I had few enough students that I had time to work with them individually if they needed assistance while thinking through issues that concerned them.  I also had time (and the obligation) to do research and publish the results.

After I retired I belatedly discovered that the research question I most often asked was this:  why do people accept this or that system of belief?  Answering this question often involved me in historical research.  I studied beliefs about the proper way to teach writing and beliefs about the ways in which universities ought to work (but often don’t).  Now I see that I was interested in these issues because common practice violated my ethics–bad teaching methods keep students from learning and restrict teachers’ access to institutional respect and even fair  compensation and promotion;  ill-run universities provide power to those who profit from their existence.

Nearer the end of my career (when I was relatively safe from professional retribution?) I took on bigger belief systems:  male supremacy, white racism, and fundamentalist Christianity.   I published a book about fundamentalism, which I revised over forty times in an attempt not to offend fundies (which word, needles to say, I never used in the book).  The book was well received professionally, but I ended up on the shitlist of a few right-wing colleagues and many, many fundamentalist Christian graduate students.

I can draw only one of two conclusions from this reaction:  either my own belief system is so far from fundamentalism that we haven’t even got language in common;  or, fundies were offended because I told the truth, which is they they promulgate a self-sealing belief system that relies not on facts but on a constant reshuffling of its core principles in order to adapt it to current realities.  For example, during the Cold War the Russians were the villains in their apocalyptic mythology;  during the ‘nineties the villain was Iraq or the entire middle east;  and lately, China is the bad guy.  And this is supposed to be eternal truth?

While writing those many revisions of the book I toyed with the notion of revealing my own non-religious affiliation.  I finally decided that there was no point in doing so because my unbelief would become clear very early on in the text.  But in the glorious freedom offered by this medium, I can specify the nature of that unbelief a bit here.

I was raised a Catholic, and I attended Catholic elementary and junior high schools.  When it was time to attend college, I chose the state university.  My father later told me that neighbors in our very small town warned him that I would “lose my religion” if I went to a secular university, and they were right.  I vividly remember the day when I heard that the Pope, having just returned from South America, had reaffirmed the Church’s ban on the use of contraception.  I knew from my studies that poverty is rampant in underdeveloped, patriarchal cultures because women have no way to protect themselves from multiple pregnancies.  And if the women in such countries are devoutly Catholic, their spiritual beliefs keep them from practicing contraception even if they have access to it.  In other words, the Pope’s declaration seemed to me to condemn helpless women and children to lives of poverty.  Which is not very Christian in my book.

My departure from Catholicism did not mean, however, that I became a committed atheist.  I usually say, when asked if I am an atheist, that I don’t consider the matter important enough to take a position on it.  But lately the religious right’s ideology has become so intrusive on the lives of Americans, that I feel it is necessary to proselytize, not necessarily in favor of atheism but against religiosity.

Unbelievers are in a difficult rhetorical place.  On the one hand, we are arguing against a dominant belief system, and on the other, we do not wish to seem to defend some other, competing belief system.  This is why atheists chafe when they are asked, “well what do you believe?”  An unbeliever can only answer in the negative (“I don’t believe in God,” for instance) or we can burble on, using quasi-religious language about the capabilities of the human mind and the glory of nature and all the rest.  While the stunning complexity and beauty of the universe are enough to awe anyone, that appeal is usually not convincing to religious believers because such an appeal can be read as a sidewise acknowledgment of some sort of prime mover.

There is another route–that taken by Richard Dawkins.  Atheists can go on the offensive and demonstrate the utter silliness of common religious beliefs.  Take belief in the virgin birth, for example, or the immaculate conception, which claim that Mary was not only a lifelong virgin (even though history–what we have of it–shows that she her gave birth at least twice, to Jesus and his brother James), but that her own birth was virginal–that is, she, too, was not born of woman.  Of course this set of beliefs is necessary to legitimate the very old Christian belief that women (except Mary) are the source of all evil.  This is what you get when dogma is written by celibate men.  The loving God postulated by Christianity should not prefer one-half of the human race to the other, but that hasn’t stopped Christians, ever since Paul, from teaching that this is so.

As this example shows, religious beliefs are not only silly.  They are dangerous.  Christian belief has been used to authorize mass killings (auto-da-fe, crusade) and discrimination against entire peoples (anti-semitism).  Perhaps because it is itself an autocracy, the Catholic church has always preferred authoritarian political ideologies over progressive ones.  During WWII, for example, Pius XII supported fascist regimes over their socialist rivals in Germany and Italy.  And the Church has never had much use for the United States because it is a democracy.  It’s no accident that democracies began to flourish following upon the Protestant revolution, which, among other probably unintended consequences, taught people that they could think for themselves.  Nonetheless, fundie Protestants, from the eighteenth century forward, have not been happy with the American constitution which, in their eyes, committed the sin of abolishing theocracy.

So, like my objections to bad teaching and bad university administration,  my objections to religiosity are ethical and moral.  Religious beliefs cause harm to actual human beings.

Ironically enough, I could subscribe to the teachings of Jesus.  If the historical records we have of his ministry can be trusted (and that’s a big if), he taught his followers to love one another and all humans.  We have no evidence that his teaching about love extended to other creatures and to nature herself, but then the evidence that does exist may not be all there is, given the level of editing that appears to have taken place in the extant New Testament accounts.  It may be the case, in fact, that Jesus was executed precisely because of his belief about the centrality and importance of love to human relations.  If so, I cannot see how Christian churches (“Christ” was not Jesus’ choice for his own name, let alone that of a church based on his teaching) can teach hatred and exclusion as though these are authorized by his ministry.

But they do.


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The folks pictured here are Richard Dawkins, Susan Jacoby, and Steven Pinker.  What do these folks have in common?  Well, aside from the fact that they are all pointy-headed intellectuals, they are also atheists.  And atheism is what they will discuss when they appear together tomorrow on Chris Hayes’ show.

Dawkins is a biologist;  Jacoby a political scientist;  and Pinker a linguist who studies the ways in which brains process language.  As it happens, I’ve read the work of all three of these folks, and I was impressed in every case.

Can you believe it?  A serious discussion of atheism on a mainstream teevee channel.  So I’ve set my DVR to record the show, which comes on at the ungodly hour (pun intended) of 5 am out here in the western side of the country.  Maybe MSNBC is hoping nobody will be up that early.  No doubt the irony of this timing was not lost on the very smart Hayes, who named his show simply “Up.”

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I just got my federal and state returns back from my accountant.  Ouch!  As always, I will get a little bit back from the state–I wonder if Arizona collects more taxes than it requires in order to invest the extra money for a little while?  I wouldn’t put that past our legislature.

And, as always since I retired, I have to pay a whopping amount to the IRS.  I have jerryrigged and juked all I can, including deducting whopping amounts of withholding from my tiny annuity and sending in quarterly payments.  The problem is that since I retired, I have to show royalties as self-employment, rather than a necessary product of my job.  And in years when I get nice fat royalty payments, as I did last year, it can more than double my income from social security and the annuity.

Now I know I shouldn’t complain about my situation, and I’m not, really.  I’m far better off than many elderly folks, having worked all my adult life and having made a good salary during the last fifteen years of my career.  For the ten years prior to that, my university salary was enough to support me, a couple of cats, and a small house.  Prior to that, well, even though I was gainfully employed, I never had much mad money but I got by.

So I know what it’s like to try to write with only a fire in the fireplace because I couldn’t afford to turn on the heat.  The cold was hard on my typing fingers, but the cats kept them sort of warm because my desk was the only warmish place in the house and they crowded around.  Trep, who survived much leaner times, can no doubt tell more hair-raising stories than this.

Anyhow, when my textbook finally became widely used, it started to produce handsome royalties.  Royalties nowhere in the league of the Harbrace Handbook, but nice.  Nice enough that I’m paying about ten percent less tax than I did when I was working, when I was in the highest bracket.  But then the withholding I had to deduct was never quite so obvious as it is now that my non-royalty income is less than one-third of what it used to be.  And of course I’m paying monster property taxes on my house as well, given that I live in so-called “metro” Arizona.

Again, though, I’m not complaining.  Just blowing off steam.  I know what taxes are for, and how important their payment is to the state and the country.  Like the Christian fundies, though, I sometimes wish that I had more control over what they are used for.

If I had my druthers, I wouldn’t go after Obama’s healthcare plan;   I’d choose first of all not to pay the salaries and health insurance of all state and federal Republican legislators who’ve shown that they’d prefer to follow the party line rather than think for themselves.

Then I’d stop all the hot wars in which we are engaged, and cut defense spending way back.  I’d make sure that vets and their families had jobs, though, along with enough to live on, and free health care to boot.  I’d increase subsidies and access to education and childcare for anyone who can show need and the desire to work.  I’d regulate the hell out of Wall Street and the banks, including forcing them to bring their overseas capital home so they’d have to pay taxes on it.  I’d give the subsidies that result from their paying their fair share of taxes to small businesses, who’d get tax relief if they can show they protect the environment and use fair employment practices.

There’s more, of course, but I won’t tax your patience any longer.

A girl can dream, can’t she?

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Peyton Manning has decided:   he will become the quarterback for the Denver Broncos.  He signed a five-year contract for 96 million dollars.  (96 million dollars!  That’s almost as much as what it will cost Obama to run for president this year).

I don’t know what the Broncos are thinking–sure, he is a great QB, right up there with Brady.  But do they think he can play for five more years?  He is 36, and he has had four surgeries on his neck to address serious spine problems.  And they certainly don’t need a QB coach, should he be forced to stop playing–their owner is  John Elway, one of the best ever to play the game, up there with Montana and Favre.

I’ve had no use for Manning ever since a former colleague of mine disclosed some of his behavior while he was the QB at Tennessee.  She was the Director of Composition there, and she discovered that widespread cheating among the football players was the least of the serious violations of the university’s so-called code of conduct.  Manning himself, already thought to walk on water, committed several heinous acts of sexual harassment toward female trainers whose job forced them into his proximity.

But as with most things in life, there is an upside.  Manning’s hire means that Tim Tebow, Christian for Hire, is without a job.  Even Dim Tim must realize the insult entailed in being fired by one of the greatest QB’s ever to play the game.  And Elway obviously cares more about winning than he does about the significant revenue brought in by the fanatical Christians who purchase Tebow hats and shirts and other stuff.

I sure hope Jesus can console poor Timmy in his time of trial–this has got to be worse than losing the national championship to Alabama, worse even than being beat out of the Heisman by guys from Alabama and Auburn.  Sob.

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In a new Geico commercial a couple attempts to save money on a security system by adopting a rescue panther:

The big cat spends the night on an armoire, making it difficult for the hapless couple to sleep. (The commercial is all over the web, if you want to see it).

Fortunately for me, Inky doesn’t seem to have the requisite attitude.

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Snow As Morlocks Know It

It ain’t much compared to the stunning images from Trep’s country.  But it’s probably enough for the geezers who have fled here from Canada and the upper Midwest.

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It’s not Spring yet!

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