Good Without an Apology


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Saw this in Cedar City this summer (I think Moni took the picture.)

Atheists can’t provide a sound basis for their morality.

…it’s the kinder gentler version of “atheists can’t be moral,” which is a common theme among Christian apologists. To be sure, some folks go back and forth between the two messages, but at least some apologists do seem to keep a clear distinction between the claim that atheists cannot be moral and the claim that whatever morals we may have, we simply cannot justify them in rational terms.

Some folks express this position in the form of an architectural metaphor; we have no foundation for our ethics, so the argument goes. Alternatively, we cannot ground our moral principles in a sound basis of judgement; our morals aren’t based on anything objective, and so on. The sheer physicality of this rhetoric is always striking to me.

I know.

Metaphors happen.

Still, I can’t help thinking some of those using this language could stand to think about those metaphors a little bit. It would be nice if they at least recognized them as metaphors. As often as not, I suspect many of those producing such messages take these terms rather literally.

All that aside, lately, I’ve been thinking about this less in terms of the argument at hand and more in terms of the narrative about that argument. Questions about the nature of morality go back a rather long way in the history of western philosophy, to say nothing of countless other contexts in which people could ask about what people ought to do and whether or not they can provide a sound reason for their answer. This is not just one ongoing debate; it is many, and while that debate rages on with no likelihood of a clear winner, this story of the unique moral failure of atheism flourishes in its own right. The notion that atheists can’t provide an adequate account of the nature of morality may be a contention to be argued in select circles. It can also a story told about the difference between us and them.

…in this case, I’m a them. Damn! (Othered in my own blog post.)


First an anecdote!

This theme reminds me of a time a college friend took me to see Gary Habermas speak at his church. Habermas is a renowned apologist, so I was expecting to hear an interesting argument in favor of Christianity. Suffice to say that I didn’t. I don’t know how to convey just how unimpressive Habermas was on that occasion. I could hardly believe my ears. To this day, I wonder if I missed something important or if Habermas was just having an exceptionally bad day? I don’t know.

The whole performance got a great deal more interesting though after Habermas stepped down, and the regular pastor for this church took a moment to add a few thoughts of his own. The pastor himself struck me as a fairly nice guy. I couldn’t help but like him, but there I sat listening to him try to put Habermas’ presentation into perspective for his audience. What impressed the pastor was the notion that someone could field a complex and sophisticated argument in favor of the Christian faith. He ended his own comments by saying how good it felt to know that people of intelligence could defend the faith, that smart people did in fact believe in Jesus and that they could justify that faith.

So, there I sat thinking on the one hand that Gary Habermas might be a smart guy, but we sure as Hell hadn’t seen anything to prove it on that particular day. More importantly, I couldn’t help noting how much had been lost on the pastor. He had nothing to say on the topic at hand, or the arguments Habermas had made, nothing at all. The mere fact that Habermas had fielded an argument in favor of Christianity was what interested the pastor. Such an argument did exist, and its existence was a comfort to him. It should also, he thought, be a comfort to others attending his church.

This is what I mean by the narrative value of the argument. Habermas and people like him continue to make their arguments, and people like me continue to be unimpressed by them. Still, the arguments seem to hold a value in believing circles, a value almost entirely unrelated to the soundness of the arguments themselves, much less the impact of those arguments in contested circles. An apologist may fail to engage unbelievers entirely and still count as a success in believing circles. For some, it is enough to know that smart people defend the faith.

Toward what end is another question.


So what? Conflict is a common source of good narrative material, and conflict over religious beliefs is no different. We unbelievers have been known to tell a story or two out of season ourselves, but I don’t think we’ve established quite the market for selling to the non-choir, at least not yet. A few unbelievers may be working tales of battle into a profession of sorts, but we are generations behind the business of Christian apologetics. So, our narratives are generally more fluid, the pay-off less certain, and the likely consumers for such stories less obvious. When an atheist fields an argument against a believer, it is still reasonably likely that the believer is the actual person we are trying to communicate with. Christian apologetics, by contrast is full of people framing arguments in terms of a confrontation with unbelievers only to produce them for the benefit of other believers. It is in effect a business aimed at producing stories like those told by the pastor above, stories of reassurance.

Let’s come back to the notion that atheists can’t justify our own ethical principles. What does this contention provide when it’s construed in terms of narrative themes? I think the payoff is very clear, namely in the implied contrast. If we non-believers can’t justify our moral principles, so the argument seems to suggest, those who believe in God can. As much as people working this argument may be trying to tell us about the failures of unbelief, they are also claiming a victory for theism, or at least for specific variations of theism.

What is wrong with us, so the story goes, is we cannot justify our moral principles. We may be moral people, but our morality is lacking something, and that something is important. Don’t get me wrong; this story a damned site better than the argument that non-believers are inherently immoral, but this particular concession that we are moral without a sound reason damns us with faint praise.

What’s so infuriating about this is the difficulty of the issue. It really is very difficult to establish a rational justification for ethics. We can often establish reasonable connections between certain basic value judgements and more specific propositions (Kant’s categorical imperative could be used for example to suggest that one ought not to lie to someone else as that would entail reducing them to the status of a means to an end), but providing those basic value judgements with a non-circular justification is damned difficult. I won’t say it’s impossible, but it’s certainly difficult, and always subject to contention. Is morality deontological or consequentialist? Universal or some variety of relative? These are all pretty difficult questions, and belief in a god simply doesn’t provide an obvious solution to any of them.

When apologists pretend that atheists are uniquely unable to handle the matter, it always strikes me as a rather premature declaration of victory. As often as not, they seem to confound two or more sub-themes in these discussions. When for example a theist claims their oral principles are objective because they have been mandated by God, I find myself at a loss for words. Even an ultimate subject is still a subject, and a morality derived from the will of a subject, even an ultimate subject, is still a subjective ethics. …unless of course one can demonstrate that the subject (God) has Herself based her judgement on something objective. Or perhaps, there is an objective reason why we as subjects are obligated to do what God (that uber-subject) wishes, but that would be stretching the meaning of objectivity a bit thin. I can certainly understand someone expressing skepticism at any of the attempts to establish an objective or absolutist form of ethics, but atheists simply are not uniquely implicated in this problem. I’ve known Christians who handle this issue very well. They are not among those proclaiming to failures of atheist ethical theory to the faithful in their churches.


In the end, I think this theme has two significant practical implications:

First, it reverses the point of morality, at least for purposes of the narrative in question. One might expect that the value of ethical behavior would be in some sense be found in the behavior itself. Those hawking the notion that atheists are unable to demonstrate a sound basis for our moral judgements are, in those moments at least, shifting the focus of the work at hand. They are in effect, presenting the intellectual justification for morality as an end in itself. The point of morality is in such stories a bit intellectual exercise. I might do right by my neighbor, so the story goes, but I don’t really know why I should do so.

And thus doing right by my neighbor becomes just a little less important.

Second, this theme seems to produce a kind of moral hierarchy. There are those of us who do right, so the story goes, and those who know why we do right, or at least why we should do so. I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise to see this kind of division of labor appearing as a theme in apologetics, but it is fascinating to see the way it takes shape in this rhetoric. The authority of the faithful seems to colonize the world at large in these stories, and those of us who are merely moral (at best) are just a little less than those that know why we should be so. Our actions are just a little less significant than those who claim to know the objective basis for moral principles. We can say no, as I surely do, but that’s to be expected of us. The faithful know.

But of course this isn’t simply a claim to authority over the rest of us, and it isn’t even a claim that privileges the perspectives of priests and pastors, much less the avergae everyday believer. It is a claim that privileges the perspectives of apologists. Simple pastors like the man I mentioned in the story above can do their best, but it is up to the smart people who defend the faith to do the real work of ethics. The rest of us, believer and unbeliever alike can be moral, sure, but our morality will always be missing something.

Which of course makes Christian thought into a rather esoteric enterprise.

And no, that doesn’t strike me as a good thing.





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The first time I recall reading a trigger warning it was in the off-topic sub-forum on a gaming discussion board. If I remember correctly, it was in the title for a thread about sexual abuse. That usage struck me then, as it does now, as a perfectly appropriate warning to some that the ensuing discussion was going to cover issues which some might find intensely stressful. I also understood the likely reason for this to be that some people might have had direct personal experience with the realities of such abuse. It has ever since struck me as a reasonable and positive thing to provide that warning in advance. It also serves as a good reminder to the rest of us that something we may regard as grist for the mill could have serious personal significance for others. I know that reminder has helped me to appreciate the weight of some issues. I can’t say that I’m always happy with my performance in dealing with these things, but I do think I handle these issues with more care now than I did in earlier days, and I credit that first encounter with a trigger warning with producing the difference.

Within a couple years on that same discussion the trigger warnings in the off-topic forum had multiplied beyond my wildest imagination. Countless variations of trigger warnings could be found in the title of one thread after another. I found it increasingly difficult to take them seriously, not because I couldn’t imagine someone getting upset at this or that topic, but because there comes a point where the likelihood that someone will become upset ceases to be a function of the topic and becomes an abstract possibility that is simply always there. People get upset, but it isn’t always because the discussion at hand is intrinsically dangerous subject matter. As I read the increasingly common little warning symbols, placed conveniently in square brackets, I couldn’t help but think the point was far more likely to be a statement about the values of the person employing the hashtag. Right wingers like to call this ‘virtue signaling’, and I don’t necessarily dispute the appropriateness of the label, though I do suspect the convenience of that buzz-term is a vice of its own. Whatever the purpose of the growing trigger-warning craze, I couldn’t help thinking then, as I do now, that the concept is subject to inflationary pressures.

As in, increased usage leads to decreased significance.

Where do you draw the line? I don’t know, but somewhere between a trigger warning fr sexual abuse and the many seemingly trivial uses I have seen over the years, the significance of these warnings does seem to change. Moreover, the expectation that someone ought to use trigger warnings, or that they must use them introduces a level of coercive authority into the equation. It wasn’t that long ago that a Dean at the University of Chicago denounced trigger warnings. In so doing, he clearly took them to be a mechanism for silencing those with whom one disagrees. But what about those who choose to use such warnings, some argued. Is that not permitted? And thus the renunciation of authority came  itself to be viewed as an assertion of authority, one itself worthy of denial. Who is oppressing whom and how is, it turns out, a bit more complicated than some would have it.

I guess I’m enough of an old fashioned liberal to want to have my free speech and use it too. I don’t like seeing efforts to silence speakers at public universities in the name of safe spaces, and that isn’t because I’m a fan of people like Milo Yiannopoulos. What I really don’t like is watching the careers people like that flourish as a direct result of the explosive outrage they specialize in …triggering. People like that have nothing to say, and they need the spectacle of outrage to provide the illusion of substance. I’d rather answer them. I would rather make the case against them, at least when that case can be made without fear and intimidation coming from the other side. I have seen right wingers drown out their critics, and I wouldn’t tolerate it. Lately though, a number of right wing sources have come to relish moments in which the left appears to be doing the same thing.

…is doing the same thing.

That too should not be tolerated, not the least of reasons being that it’s exactly what some of these hacks want from us.

This brings me back to the whole inflationary pressures thing. If the left wing over-uses trigger warnings, I think the same can be said of the right.

…well the ‘trigger’ part anyway, not so much the ‘warning’ part.

Time and again, I see folks respond to an argument for social justice by claiming its proponent has been triggered. Hell, I’ve gotten the response myself a time or ten, sometimes when I am more amused than agry. It’s fascinating to me, to see this cry of victory. As often as not, the signs of stress just aren’t there, or if they are, they are present to exactly the degree that one might expect from anyone else upon expressing disagreement. Yet, those proclaiming their opponents have been ‘triggered’ seem to hope those opponents are wallowing in distress, or at least they seem to enjoy pretending that is the case.

This is of course the hope of a troll, and it isn’t much worthy of anyone who claims to be advancing a serious point of view on any subject. But I suppose it does help to confound the issues, to ensure that no-one ever does take a trigger warning seriously. Still, I can’t help thinking for some it appears to be an end in itself, the prospect of making someone else feel bad.

If the notion of a trigger has lost some of its value in overuse by those on the left, it’s losing even more value as playground conservatives transform the term into a trophy of sorts. If they have their way, the public will be incapable of distinguishing between the psychological traumas experienced by some when dealing with sensitive issues and the irritation others feel upon realizing someone is wrong on the internet. This isn’t really conservatism, of course. There is nothing conservative about mocking women over their looks, disabled persons, victims of crime, or even minorities for pleading their own case in the public eye. Conservative politics may be resistant to a number of efforts at correcting social harms, but the growing orgy of right wing schadenfreude is an altogether different animal. Some people really do hope to inflict suffering on others.

To them a trigger warning is a symbol of hope.

It’s a hope I would see them denied.

Mother Earth, the Invisible Hand, and a Few Eider Ducks


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standingtallI’ve been thinking lately about the notion of Mother Earth (or Primal Gaia). She figures rather prominently in a lot of the literature I read back in grad school, and I frequently have occasion to revisit some of that material with my students. What has me thinking about this lately is a few discussions on the topic of climate change initiated by a colleague of mine. So, like I said, …I’ve been thinking about her lately.

To say that I find it hard to believe in such an entity is putting it mildly. I don’t literally believe that the earth itself has a will of its own. Even still, I can’t help thinking the notion of Mother Earth has a lot going for it. Near as I can tell, talk of Mother Earth conveys two things about the environment that are all easily lost in Her absence.

The first entailment is a sense of dialogue (or perhaps dialectic) in nature. So long as we think of the world around us in terms of objective data it becomes that much easier to anticipate the consequences of our own actions in terms of an essentially cause and effect sequence. We may recognize that some of the effects of our actions escape us at the moment, but that just doesn’t stop folks from thinking of their actions in terms of a discrete cause and effect sequence based on our present understanding of the world at hand. If I do x, the result is y. That seems to be how people think about objects.

Not other people!


People (and most living things) can be predictable, to sure, but they are never entirely so. My cat is meowing at me as I type this. I expect she will bring me a toy to play in a moment. That’s what I expect her to do, but she may surprise me. Likewise, I may surprise her. Maybe this time I won’t stop typing and toss the toy about for her to chase it. Likewise, my students may not do the assignments I give them; my boss may not count my workload as I expected; and the folks at Amazon may not package my latest order of chili paste as they have so many times in the past. Living things…

hunter(Pardon me. I’ll be back in a moment.)




As I was saying, living things always seem to add something else to the mix when they react to our own behavior. Sometimes, they even start things of their own accord. Therein lies one of the real advantages to thinking of the environment in terms like those suggested by terms like “Mother Earth.” It gets us out of the habit of thinking that we know exactly what She is going to do. …of thinking that the concrete effects we hope to bring about with any given action ever come close to a thorough account of our impact on the world around us. I can think my way to this bit of humility, but talk of Mother Earth suggests that notion from the very outset. If I think of the earth as a living thing, I don’t have to remind myself that burning carbon-based fuels may have unintended consequences. I can be sure of it. In this context and others, I can be sure that Mother Earth will always add something to the mix when she responds to me and others.

Oh sure, we can conceive of particular things in terms of fairly discrete cause&effect relationships. If I leave a Cocacola outside, it’s going to freeze and burst. Hit a ball with a bat and it will fly away.Better yet, hit a cue ball low with a well-chalked cue-stick and it will (hopefully) spin backwards after contacting the object ball. These are things we can imagine in relatively specific terms. But as our account of the object world expands, as we approach aggregate subject matter such as an ecological niche or regional environments, our ability to conceive of things in such neat terms starts to fall apart. Which is precisely what makes the notion of Earth as a subject in Her own right becomes a rather tempting option.

But I did say that the notion of Mother Earth conveys at least two things about the physical environment, didn’t I? Well the second is pretty simple. Thinking of earth as our Mother effectively conveys a sense of nurturing. More to the point, it conveys a sense that we are the ones being nurtured, and that we are dependent on her. Since She is a person, rather than a thing, or even a collection of things, this means we are dependent on Her good will.

The upshot of all this is a kind a moral responsibility, a sense that life itself entails a moral responsibility to earn the good will of the world that makes our lives possible. We could get to that sense of moral responsibility in other ways (even stewardship, perhaps), but I don’t know of any ideas that convey it quite so effectively as notions like those of Mother Earth or Primal Gaia.

For me , at least, She may be little but a metaphor, but for a metaphor, Mother Earth can be damned compelling.


featherSo, what has me thinking about this tonight? A film called People of a Feather. This documentary follows the efforts of an Inuit community dwelling on the shores of Hudson Bay (near the Belcher Islands)as to learn why the local population of Eider ducks is in serious decline. Following substantial die-offs in the 1990s, they asked the Canadian Wildlife Service for help in determining the cause. What they got in the way of help was Joel Heath, an ecologist who documented his years of research in this film.

This is a gorgeous film. Heath’s underwater footage of Eider ducks swimming about in search of shellfish is absolutely spectacular.  He also spends a good deal of time documenting the lives of local Inuit and filming the cycles of surface ice on Hudson’s Bay. One of the things I like most about this film is the way Heath leaves much of the detail without comments. He simply lets his camera linger on the scene and leaves us to piece together the details for ourselves. If Heath has done his job well, and he has, the footage alone is often enough to tell a story in its own right.

What the film does take the time to explain is just what is happening to stress the Eider ducks in this region of Hudson Bay. It’s worth knowing at the outset that these ducks do not migrate. Instead, they spend the winter along small patches of open water called Polynyas. The problem of course is that something is happening to the Polynyas. They have become significantly more unstable in the 2000s, effectively leaving the ducks without a dependable means of surviving the winters.

So, why is this happening? The simple answer is that the hydro-electrical systems used to heat the major cities of Canada have altered the currents (along with the salinity) of the bay. The Hydro-electric dams in the region typically release large amounts of fresh water into the bay during the water, effectively reserving the normal cycles of activity. The increasing instability of the polynyas may be just the tip of the iceberg here (ironic metaphor, I know). Heath’s work, and that of his Inuit friends thus raises questions about the total long range-impact of the power-grids used to support the mainstream communities of Canada. As people who rely on the natural cycles of the region to support themselves, the Inuit who initiated this research are felling the effects more directly than those living in the cities, but this is small comfort to anyone contemplating the long-term consequences of changes in the water system of the region. In effect, the eider ducks may have been a bit of a miner’s canary. Things are happening in the area that no-one really anticipated, and the questions are how much change will the hydro-electric systems brings about? How much will they be allowed to bring about? Are there alternatives?

People of a Feather doesn’t really answer these questions, though Heath does outline a few brief policy considerations as the credits roll. What makes this film great, however, is his patient development of the problem itself, and in particular his ability to help us understand just what this problem means to the Inuit living the area, Inuit who (it must be emphasized) saw fit to initiate the study itself and provided active support throughout its development.

This is one of those times when indigenous people got the details right. It’s a story of indigenous people working closely with scientists to address an important question about the natural environment. I’m reminded of similar efforts to improve the accuracy of whale counts along the coast of the North Slope here in Barrow. When scientists and Inupiat whalers disagreed about the number of bowhead whales in local waters , both groups devised new means of counting the whales. Turns out the Inupiat were right. (You can read about it in The Whale and the Super Computer by Charles Wohlforth.) Simply put, it pays to listen when indigenous communities raise concerns about what’s happening in the local environment. They don’t just give us grand abstractions like Mother Earth and poetic themes for movies, poems, and pastel-laden paintings. Sometimes, they really do provide the best resources for understanding particular things.

That said, I do find myself wondering about the story-line presented in People of a Feather. It’s not the most heavy-handed narrative, to be sure, but in this film it would be fair to suggest the hydro-electric dams appear to be the source of evil, so to speak. That isn’t because the people producing them mean to hurt anyone. It really isn’t. Rather, the problem is an unintended consequence of their function, a consequence felt most particularly by an indigenous population whose livelihood is determined as much by the natural cycles of Hudson’s Bay as it is by those of the modern market. Which reminds me of other narratives that could be told of this same issue, narratives about progress and development, of carving a civilization out of the frozen wilderness. These are the narratives that will be more familiar to people living closer to those power grids, and to most I suspect that will read this blog post.  In these narratives, the dams are good thing, almost a miracle, one that makes possible the lives of countless people. We could probably even point to a few benefits enjoyed by those in various indigenous communities. Those connections are there. How we sort the details, and what people want to do about them is another question. My point is that these grand narratives tend to predetermine the significance of the facts. It may not even be that the policy-considerations demand a choice of one value or another, but in the stories people tell about this such an issue the choice is often already made by time the plot starts to quicken.

…which may be the reason this film has me thinking about Mother Earth. This is one more instance in which something people didn’t anticipate turned out to be critical to the lives of some people (and some ducks). It’s also one case in which people have begun to sort those consequences out, just as we hope to be doing with issues like global, ocean acidification, and so many other issues in which the natural environment as a whole seems to be threatened, and along with it, us. Yet our understanding of these issues is always playing catch-up to the processes we’ve initiated, and frankly, it isn’t clear that this understanding is catching up fast enough. It’s enough to make us wish we had a way of talking about these issues that reminded us from the outset of just how much we don’t know about the impact of humans on the environment.

The temptation to call for Mother aside, it’s worth noting that comparable metaphors typically guide popular thinking (and policy) on the subject as it stands. Here I am speaking of the invisible hand of the market. Hell, the very notion of a market is a bit of a metaphor, an image that transforms known tendencies, tendencies with variable strength and effective) into a kind of thing that we can depend on. Do people in cold climates want a means of keeping warm? Supply will rise to meet the demand. The market will sort its way to a kind of equilibrium. One could easily apply such thinking to the process which puts all those dams on Hudson’s Bay to begin with, and it would help us to understand a few things. But this thinking too relies on the turn of a metaphor, and it too seems to distorts the facts in a few subtle ways.

One of the most interesting things about the invisible hand of the market deity is just how effectively it can be used to remind us of just how little we know about the economic impact of government policies. Time and again, market theorists remind us that each and every regulation (such as laws mitigating fresh water release in the Canadian hydro-electic system) will have unanticipated consequences. Time and again, free market fundamentalists will tell us to be wary of efforts to correct social ills. We may just make them worse! They are right, of course, except on the main point, because those truly devoted to this metaphor consistently tell us to let the market work itself out. It’s easy to think of this as a kind of humility, a recognition that being mere mortals, human beings cannot anticipate all the consequences of our own actions. The problem of course is that free market fundamentalists will only carry this logic as far as the market itself. How those unintended consequences will affect the balance of human relations to the environment is typically beyond the scope of their reckoning. Any humility we may learn from tales of the invisible hand seems ironically to leave us with an odd certainty in its own right, a mandate to leave unquestioned most anything done in the name of profit. For a lesson in humility, this takes us to a place that looks awful lot like hubris.

Stories of the invisible hand bid us to exercise caution less the market come back to bite us for every effort to legislate our way to a better world. They don’t do much to address the externalities piling up in the environment around us. In vie of these externalities, it is becoming increasingly clear that just about every cost-benefit analysis ever computed in human history has fallen short of a proper reckoning. I don’t see an adequate account of this coming from those devoted to the image of the invisible hand. If such is to be had, it will either come from painstaking empirical research, or from the language of another metaphor entirely.


…a trailer for you!

Open Letter to the Scorpion that was not in my Boot


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20160918_124752So, I just turned my boots over, banged them together and held them out a moment. You didn’t fall out. In fact, you were nowhere to be seen, and neither were any of your relatives. I haven’t seen a bug in months, but I still want to thank you for staying out of my boots. That was kind of you. I mean, it would have been quite an effort for you to appear in my footwear today, so I suppose you must not have been too put out by this whole thing, but still I want to thank you. I like my boots way better when you stay out of them.

This was also true when I lived in Arizona, and when I lived in Nevada, and when I lived in Southern California. When I lived in Chicago, you didn’t seem  a likely guest, but checking for you was also a way to check on the roaches. So, it was just as well that you weren’t there either. I checked every time I put on my shoes.

I first started thinking about you when I was little. Mom told me that she found you in my shoe. Or maybe it was one of your relatives, a great uncle perhaps? She wasn’t entirely sure, because you might have been a vinegaroon. That’s what she said anyway. I always wondered about the name of that bug. Do you know him? Well anyway, it was either you or him that Mom found in my shoe. …or a distant ancestor to one of you I suppose.  She seemed quite excited about the whole thing.  This may seem judgemental, but she really didn’t think any of your belonged in my show, and she was particularly concerned that you in particular should stay out of there. So, she wanted me to check and see if you had dropped by whenever I put stuff on my feet.

Actually, I’m not sure I would have been happier to meet a vinegaroon in my shoe either. No offense intended, but I just don’t think any of you guys need to be making a home in my footwear.  On that score, Mom and I have always agreed. That’s why she urged me always to check and evict you if necessary. I have to admit I wasn’t always diligent about this protocol, but an unhappy encounter with a beetle was enough to get me on board with Mom’s plans.  Don’t worry, the beetle is fine, or at least she was when she crawled off and away from me as I tried to calm down all the hair then standing on the back of my head. I mean, Mom had been talking about you so much at the time, so when I met the beetle, for just a moment I really thought you had dropped in to pay me a visit after all. I’ve since been looking for you pretty much everywhere I go, or at least when I put stuff on my feet.

Honestly, I’m not sure I can remember having ever found you in my shoe, so I suppose I should be thankful that you have respected my wishes and those of my mother all these years. Looking for your has become quite a ritual. I bang my shoes together before putting them on my feet in the hopes of finding you no matter where I am, or even if I already know you aren’t there. I simply cannot do otherwise.

I don’t wish to appear ungrateful. It’s just that I’ve been living at the top of Alaska for six years now and it’s twenty below outside, and I still found myself checking to see if you had dropped in. So, I guess I just wanted to let you know I’ve been thinking about you.

Despite never having really met, you do seem to have left quite an impression on me. I think about you a lot, really I do. In fact, I can’t even seem to put a shoe on without looking for you.

Hugs and kisses,

  • Dan

The Hip Show (Guest Post)


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2q-cqain_400x400My friend, Lorien Crow, recently shared some thoughts with me on last tour of the The Tragically Hip. As I enjoyed reading them, I asked if I could also share them here. She has graciously agreed to let me do so.


“Scott’s gone,” Kristin said.

“What do you mean?” I didn’t understand.

“He’s gone…he passed away.”

Kristin was my best friend. Scott was her older brother. We were nineteen years old, and she was a sophomore at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont.

She left for school in the fall of 1995. I’d gotten in, but decided not to go to college yet. It was the first time we’d been apart since we were five years old. I started visiting her almost immediately, once every couple of months, crashing on her dorm room floor, going to parties, inserting myself into her new life.

It was at one of those parties, probably the spring of ’96, when I started hearing people talking about “The Hip” and “The Hip Show.” These Canadian guys Kristin knew had an apartment off campus, with this giant boa constrictor they kept as a pet—total party attraction. I had the snake wrapped around my neck when I asked “what are you guys talking about? What’s ‘The Hip?’”

Their reaction was so incredulous, it startled the snake, which attempted to suffocate me.

“How can you never have heard of The Tragically Hip?”

I was used to being the resident music junkie and mix-tape aficionado among my friends, so being teased for not knowing a band was a novel experience. Someone put on a record. Someone invited me to the show.

That week, I promptly went to my local record shop and special ordered Fully Completely and Road Apples on CD. A die-hard SNL fan, I realized I’d seen TTH perform on the show the previous year. I pulled out the VHS tape and re-watched. I played the CD’s trying to figure out an appropriate comparison to the music I knew: sort of grunge, in certain moments; Gord Downie’s vocals occasionally reminiscent of Michael Stipe; poetry like Bob Dylan, but with an eclectic edge; a little twang, like the classic country I grew up on. My knowledge base just didn’t compute. This was something totally new.

Sadly, I don’t remember many details about The Hip show, the only one I ever attended. I couldn’t tell you where it was, just that it was someplace small. I don’t remember exactly which songs they performed; I was probably high, drunk, or both. I know there was some crazy dancing (on stage and off), and that we had a blast. That we hugged, smiled, cried, and didn’t know how young we felt. That some of the lyrics were really strange (“did he just say ‘sled dogs and Kurt Cobain?’”), and that that night, Gord Downie was unlike any other performer I’d seen.  Some sort of alien Warhol from another dimension, who’d never quite landed among us, but knew what we were thinking and feeling.

Or maybe that was just the pot. The Canadian guys always had the best pot.

What I do remember is the long car ride home from Vermont to Connecticut, a year later, bringing Kristin home for Scott’s funeral. Today, thanks to the internet, I know what “Wheat Kings” is really about, but back then, it was just the soundtrack to the saddest event I’d ever experienced. Beautiful and heart-wrenching, wafting out the car windows with our cigarette smoke, over the fields and ramshackle farmhouses of northern Vermont and upstate New York.

Kristin and I drifted apart pretty quickly after that. Somewhere along the way, I lost those battered Hip CD’s, and mostly lost track of the band. The advent of streaming brought me back to TTH over the last few years, and I delighted in catching up on what I’d missed. The deluxe reissue of Fully Completely in 2014 is a masterpiece, and Man Machine Poem is TTH at their finest (if you can’t relate to the song “Tired as Fuck,” we probably can’t be friends).

Then in May came the awful news of Gord Downie’s cancer diagnosis, and shortly thereafter, the announcement of a 20-city Canadian tour rumored to be the band’s farewell. Families went together—brothers, sisters, parents. Articles and conversations began popping up about what TTH means to Canada’s national identity. A piece in The Guardian referred to their music as “the antidote to American imports” and the headlines kept proclaiming them “the most Canadian band in the world.”

In all my years as a TTH fan, I never really contemplated their Canadian-ness. Why would I? Like almost every band I discovered and fell in love with, they inherently became part of the soundtrack of my life, attached to emotional memories, rites of passage, good times and heartbreak. Now, all of a sudden, people were talking about why I couldn’t fully understand them; why they could never mean as much to me because I’m not Canadian. It didn’t seem fair, at first. I loved them too. I was grieving, too.

Then, on Saturday, August 20th, the CBC aired the band’s final show of the tour, in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario. Live. For more than three hours, uninterrupted by commercials, an entire nation watched and cried together. The Prime Minister attended. Twitter exploded with #Canadaisclosed. Canadian Olympic athletes watched together on a big screen from Rio.

I went out that night, figuring the footage would be online later; it wasn’t.

Ask yourself this: can you think of one band or artist that could unite America that way for five minutes? One hour? One band that warrants so much respect, our networks would eschew billions of dollars just to let them perform for a few hours? One artist that means so much to all of us, Americans would put aside their political agendas and prejudices and just sing along, together, as a nation of fans?

Yeah…me neither.

Cases can certainly be made for some artists. Johnny Cash comes to mind…maybe he could have done it. Springsteen? In the eighties, perhaps. Elvis, way back when, well…probably. Michael Jackson in his heyday, perhaps. (I promise, I really tried to think of more than one artist who wasn’t an adult white male, which is obviously part of the problem). But what about now?

Listen, I’m not hating on America. I’m just saying, like almost everything else in our culture, we tie music and movies and television to individual identities, not a national one. Diversity is a wonderful, necessary, and inevitable thing, but too many artists and genres are politicized, classified into categories befitting specific subsets of the population. Think of the stereotypical country music fan, rap fan, alternative music fan, EDM fan: a picture came to mind, I bet. Most of us, in the age of streaming, cross genres sometimes, but those stereotypes go deep, and they’re incredibly divisive. They turn fans into opponents, words into weapons. Where is the picture of someone who truly bridges this divide? Why isn’t there one?

There’s something to be said for having one band that would be able to transcend all of the noise and social media chatter and political bickering, the road rage and the racial tension. Maybe it never existed here; maybe it never will. But if music is one of the only things that can truly unite people…we might be in some trouble.

So, Canada, I realized: you’re right. I can’t ever totally understand what The Tragically Hip means to you as a nation, because there is no American equivalent.  That’s a rare and beautiful thing. Hold on to them tightly. Keep the footage and the memories.  Know that for all our noise and bluster, we envy you this. We, the United States, are incapable of uniting this way. You are so fortunate. You are an example of what should be possible.

I hope you won’t mind if I borrow Gord & the boys, though, from time to time. TTH grieved with me and my sweet friend on that car ride so long ago, and we’ll grieve with you, when the time comes. Maybe we’ll drive up north into farm country with the windows down, listening to “Wheat Kings,” remembering what it was to be young and free and open…and high on some killer Canadian weed and music.

And Context Wept: Islam and its Net-Critics


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Let’s say I post a criticism is Islam (or of some Muslims) somewhere on the net. What is the most likely impact of this action? I know. Crickets chirping, right? But let’s think about the possibilities. Even if it is an e-drop in the digital ocean, I, like others who add their comments to countless social media accounts are trying to communicate something to someone. That may or may not happen, but as it is the point of posting in the first place, it’s worth thinking about it. So, my question is, what kind of impact will my criticism have?

If I say something about the mistreatment of women or homosexuals in Islamic countries, will my words have any positive impact on the lives of vulnerable people in places like Saudi Arabia, Iran, or those living in ISIS controlled territories? Or will my criticism simply add to the din of anti-Muslim rhetoric in the west? Will I in some small way help to ease the pressure on those oppressed by Muslim strictures? Or will I in some equally small way help others to make a case for bombing runs abroad and discriminatory policies at home? If I complain that Muslim women are oppressed through the need to wear a burqa, will this help to give some poor lady the right to bare her face in public? Or will my comment be just another insult to Muslims in general, even the women wearing those burqas? If I complain about female circumcision, will I help to spare woman this procedure, or will my comments serve simply denigrate those who have already had it? If I simply disagree with something Muslims believe, will my comments to that effect give them something to think about? Or will they just add to the stigmas already placed upon Muslims now living in the west? Might my comments (whatever the specifics) help to inspire some nutcase to go scapegoat a random Muslim on some random street corner in America?

And by random Muslim, I could well mean a Sikh, not because I’m unaware of the difference, but because those inspired to such random violence generally don’t.

Could my criticism have more impact on the lives of Muslims actually living in the west? Perhaps. But what would that impact be? Will I inspire people in a predominantly Muslim community to be more accepting of some of some of their own members? Will I make them a little less likely to entertain acts of terrorism? Is that even a real concern, much less a real hope? Or will my criticism simply provide one more signal that the western world is truly hostile to their own ways? Will I give them one more reason to insulate themselves against the rest of us, and live apart even as they live nearby?

I can do some things to increase or decrease the likelihood of positive impact. I can study-up to make sure I have a reasonable point, or I can pass along a meme with a real gotcha kinda gut-punch? If I choose the former route, what then? A reasonable criticism presupposes a basis for constructive dialogue, even a willingness to listen to the response. Sitting up here on the northern edge of northiness, I’m not sure I have such a basis for constructive dialogue, and I suspect your average Muslim (whether living in the  West or otherwise) will have even less reason to give a damn that some random guy has a bone to pick with his or her religion. There may be inroads to make such conversations possible, but they don’t begin with the criticism. They don’t begin with me sitting down and saying; “I’m gonna take Islam down a notch today.”

I write this because some people seem to think criticism of Islam is a moral obligation. They can often point to bad things happening in Muslim circles, and I can often agree that some of those things really are bad. But how the Hell do I express concerns about things without making life more miserable for the countless Muslims here or abroad who just want to get through their day?

Much as I do.

It’s not at all uncommon to see net-warriors goading certain parties to be more critical of Islam. This is often coupled with an effort to minimize criticism of some other interest. Evangelical Christians, for example, will sometimes complain of atheists that we criticize Christianity while ignoring Islam. (A common gambit here is to suggest that we are too scared to criticize Islam. …chicken if you don’t, so to speak.) Voices within the right wing echo chamber frequently ask why the left complains of homophobia in their own circles when the executioners of ISIS literally throw gay men from rooftops. The answer frequently strikes me as obvious. No-one from ISIS gives a damn what I type. The far right here in America probably doesn’t either, but they are a lot closer to it than anyone living in ISIS-controlled regions of the world. Net battles are all sound and fury, this is true, but there is a lot more cause for hope when speaking to people with more cultural baggage in common and less political baggage piled up between them.

I used to hear and read similar games played on the subject of communism. Some folks would wonder out loud how the American left could be so critical of our own nation when we have so little to say about the crimes of the Russians. Why didn’t we protest their policies, I recall a few folks saying. I always thought the answer was damned obvious. The

The political context of such conflicts simply don’t give us a clear line from a criticism to a positive outcome or even a constructive dialogue. More to the point, the criticisms themselves suffer in this case from a lack of attention to context. It isn’t just that Muslims are unlikely to listen to a random criticism from a random non-Muslim; that criticism is unlikely to be worthy of consideration in the first place, still less so if it is made under the illusion that the value of such a criticism could be determined in the abstract.

All in all, it’s a pretty childish game, I am talking about, but it’s one that seems to have extra traction as applied to Islam. The right wing has done a good job of generalizing the sense of war in our present age. In the days immediately following 9-11, George Bush was careful to tell the public that we were not at war with Islam or with Muslims in general. That didn’t ensure authorities would treat Muslims with anything near the respect deserved by any human being or even with the respect that should simply go with due process, but at least the man did make an effort to define America’s wars (reckless as they were) in ways that didn’t make innocent Americans into the enemy. The right wing echo chamber has been working damned hard to change that in the years sense then. Whether it was the fight over the so-called Mosque at ground zero or the constant drum-beat of professional bigots such as Pamella Geller, Ann Coulter, or virtually the entire Fox News Network, they consistently nudged the nation (and the world) toward a vision of one grand apocalyptic battle between the western world and the Islamic World. To be sure, there are voices within the Islamic world that agree with them on the terms of this war, but the mating calls of violent people will always resonant with those of their own enemies. The bottom line is that an awful lot of people see Islam itself as a force to be reckoned with, an enemy to be defeated with rockets abroad and with rhetoric at home.

This situation has the effect of skewing a number of general conflicts between Islam and its would-be critics. The philosophical arguments fielded against Islam by atheists, Christians, and others take on the significance of a political agenda. Sam Harris, for example, has suggested that 9-11 inspired him to become a vocal atheist. At the end of the day, atheists and Christians will have our disagreements with Muslims. If there have ever been paths to constructive dialogue between these communities, the notion that violence rests on the consequences doesn’t help much. Too often those of us on the other end forget just how much of that violence falls on Muslim communities. As the question is framed in popular culture, it is almost always about what they might do to us. What we have done to them never really seems to be on the table. Muslim and an atheist (or a Christian) could theoretically have a thoughtful discussion about their beliefs. Such debates are not the norm.

It wasn’t too log ago that I encountered a white nationalist on twitter claiming that Islam was a virus. He didn’t want that virus to infect the western world, and so his tweets on the subject moved back and forth between the notion that Islam itself was a virus and the notion that Muslims were the virus, that they must be kept out of western nations. To say that this was dehumanizing rhetoric would be putting it mildly. I have always regarded the dangers of comparing people to diseases (mental or otherwise) as one of the legitimate lessons of Nazi history. What surprised me about this example was the number of people who joined the conversation in order to defend the notion that Islam was a mental illness. Their interest in the argument, of course, stemmed from Richard Dawkins notion of religion as a kind of mental virus. That the specific comments in question were nowhere near so abstract was lost on the majority of those chiming in to defend the man’s comments. That the man producing them was a committed white nationalist was also lost on his many defenders. And thus a group of philosophy dude-bros came to the aid of an outright bigot without ever realizing the point at hand was more than a theoretical matter about the nature of religion.

Sometimes a philosophical discussion is anything but.

A second, and perhaps more serious problem lies in the nature of human rights abuses carried out by Islamic regimes or by militants under the expectation that such regimes will protect them. These deserve a response of some kind, but the countless war-mongers  spreading news of every atrocity ever committed in the name of Allah certainly aren’t doing anything to promote respect for human rights. (Honestly, I think some folks suffer from terrorist-envy.) I often pass along what I take to be credible news accounts of atrocities, and I am happy to support the efforts of organizations such as Amnesty International or other such organizations working to prevent human rights abuses. That may sound weak, but at least it doesn’t strike me as adding fuel to a fire. If there are better ways to address such atrocities, ways that don’t amount to promoting violence and prejudice in their own right, then I am open to reading about them.

All of this may be much ado about less than nothing. Someone wrong on the net and all, but to degree that any of these criticisms matter, my point is that telling the world you don’t like Islam isn’t all that helpful. Being helpful at this point in history is a little more difficult than usual, but a good number of people could stand to try a little harder.

Cue comments about the “regressive left” in 3, 2, 1…

Beaches are for Selfies


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iceselfieI took a walk along the beach the other day. It was a nice evening. Barrow nice. So, yes, that included a coat, and yes, you could still see your breath, but it was a nice evening just the same. I kept seeing these little patches that looked like snow. Pretty sure those are what’s left of the great blocks of ice I had been taking pictures of a week or so back. So, I and the dwindling blocks of ex ice say ‘hello’.

…that is all.

When Trolling Douchebags


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trumpcrop5“When trolling douchebags, take care not to become a douche yourself.”

I’m pretty sure that’s a direct quote from Friedrich Nietzsche. I’m almost certain my man Friedrich was talking about Trump when he wrote that. He was trying to tell us to be careful how we criticize Trump, because Trump is full of idiot and when you argue with idiot, you get idiot sauce all over you.

Make a note of that Hillary!

“Cereal?” You may be asking, but I can assure you that Nietzsche was totally cereal with all of this stuff, cause the man was a totally cereal kind of guy.

…at least about how you should argue with Trump. Or with the idiots who support his Trumpery badness.

Nietzsche’s point of course was that you really should watch what you say about Melania Trump. I know this, because I asked him. I asked Nietzsche straight up. I said; “what do you mean dude?” And he told me I shouldn’t really call him dude. He said Zarathustra would not approve. He then told me the whole damned quote was actually about Melania Trump. He wanted us to know that people should watch what they say about her.

“Surely, you don’t mean,” I said to Nietzsche, “that we can’t criticize her for plagiarizing Michelle Obama in her speech at the GOP convention.”

“No, that’s fair game,” he said. “You can totally criticize her for plagiarism. You can even take a few extra digs for saying she wrote it herself just before blaming the fact that she didn’t write it herself on the ghost who didn’t write it herself either. Damned ghosts anyhow! You just can’t trust a ghost to write new stuff you can take credit for these days. Rich folks ought to be able to take credit for the work of others. It’s the American way!”

I thought he had a point.

Nietzsche added, that you could probably criticize Malania and the whole Trump camp for pretending Obamas are the Devil himself when they actually seem to find some merit in what at least one of them does.

I asked Nietzsche if the devil has multiple personalities. He said only when he’s from Kenya. That’s all Nietzsche was wiling to say about that subject, so we moved on.

I asked the old philosopher if we could criticize Melania for saying she graduated from a place that never spat a degree her direction. He said, surely we could. I also asked Nietzsche if we could raise questions about her immigration status when she came to the country. He told me that was probably okay, but it would really depend on the questions. Did we really want to encourage Trumpery people to think of immigration as a bad thing? I agreed that might not be wise.

“So what’s the big deal anyway?” I asked the old curmudgeon. “What is it we are not supposed to say about Melania?”

“Oh, you can say anything you want.” Nietzsche assured me. “Without gods, everything is totally cool.”

“So then what’s the problem?” I asked again. “Can we go after Mrs. Douchebag or not?”

“Of course you can, but if you go about it wrong, you will become a douche yourself. You’ll be talking along, or tapping away at your keyboard and suddenly your mouth and your fingers will be the mouth and fingers of a douchebag. If you’re cool with that, then it’s all good. But if you don’t want to become a douchebag, then you should watch what you type about Melania.”

I told Nietzsche that I really didn’t want the mouth and fingers of a douchebag.

“Well, then take care of what you type!”

“Okay!” I was getting a little exasperated at this point. I mean, Nietzsche may not be a systematic philosopher, but this was a little cryptic even for the proto-gonz himself. “What exactly is it that I might not want to type about Malania.”

“Don’t slut shame!” he said. “That way lies douchetude.”


“Totally cereal!”

I have to admit, I was a little taken aback by this whole thing. I mean, I really didn’t expect a conversation with Nietzsche in the first place, but nobody really expects that. What I really didn’t expect was that slut-shaming would be his biggest concern about election politics in the U.S. Maybe that wasn’t his biggest concern, but that’s what he chose to tell me at any rate. It really seemed to be the main point of the conversation.

“Why?” Nietzsche asked, “Why would you go after her anyway? Hasn’t the man himself given you enough cause for complaint to fill countless servers with perfectly sound criticisms? Does the image of Trump himself not make you want to claw your own eyes away from your face? Does his voice not make traitors of any ears foolish enough to pass along the sound of it? When you have Trump University, why would you bother about Melania’s degree? When you have Trump saying stupid things on a daily basis, why would you care if Melania chooses to channel Michelle like some drunken psychic who mistakes a radio for a ghost? Sure, you can make some good points about Melania, but the real story is always going to be the festering bloodfart beside her. Why on earth would anyone take the time to score a little field-goal against Melania, when you could score a game-winning touch-down against Trump himself? He’s the candidate for POTUS, and he is way worse than his wife will ever be? He’s worse than anyone’s wife will ever be. Hell, the Donald is worse than worse. He’s a singularity of worsitude? There is absolutely no reason to cap on Melania when her husband himself is such a bundle of dumbfuckery that the heavens themselves have been screaming “you’re fired” ever since his campaign announcement. Seriously, you have to ask yourself, why anyone with that much material on the Donald would instead choose to go after his wife? That just smacks of misogyny.  I’m saying that, and I’m a notorious misogynist.”

“That’s true,” I said. “Your writing about women is pretty bad. And when did you start using football metaphors?”

“When you decided to write me into this damned blog post.”

He had a point.

I’ll spare you the rest of the conversation. Nietzsche was getting a little belligerent at that point. Also his Superbowl predictions seem a little far-fetched to me. Really, you just don’t want to know.

My main point, Nietzsche main point, is that one ought to think twice about attacking Trump through the use of Melania’s nudie pics. It’s become a rather common game on certain social media circles. Some people like to circulate racy photos of Melania Trump along with a comment or two about how she could be our First lady. Yesterday the #TrumpsMexicoTripSayings even had someone suggesting a donkey show for Melania, thus mixing racism with misogyny. It’s an ugly argument, and one that doesn’t do a damned thing to show just how bad Trump would be as a President.

The problem here isn’t really fairness to Trump, or even Melania. Neither Melania nor Donald will suffer much as a result of such idiocy, and these memes aren’t going to cost him the election, but the notion that a woman deserves punishment for her own sexuality is toxic as Hell. It does hurt people. Maybe not the wives of billionaires, but hurts people just the same. An objection to commercial nudity is also pretty damned hypocritical when coming from people who consume such images themselves, all the more so for those spreading such images while criticizing Mrs. Trump for appearing in them.

With enough mental gymnastics, you could probably concoct a respectable-sounding argument about the topic, but at the end of the day, you are still using a woman’s body to attack her man. That way does lie douchebaggery. Nietzsche is right about that.

So, anyway, that’s what Friedrich Nietzsche has to say about this election. I asked him if I could share his thoughts on the subject. He said I could, but only if I did so by means of a completely ridiculous literary device.


Vegas Street Art, Volume 4


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IMG_20160604_083252So, it occurs to me that I’ve actually got quite a backlog of street art pics from Vegas. I’ve been collecting them for a couple years now without really doing a specific blog post on the topic. I’ve posted street art from Vegas before; here, here, here, and here. Oh, and here (a ways down the post)! I also included some murals in my original posts on the Erotic Heritage Center. but I notice some of those murals are covered now. In any event, I think it’s well past time for an update.

If there is any difference between this stuff and the murals I posted a couple years ago, I would say that I am seeing more large projects done by some well known artists these days. I’m still a fan of the lesser-known words tucked away in corners here and there, but it’s interesting to see the paintings moving closer to downtown and onto bigger buildings.

Anyway, here tis!

(Click to embiggen!)

A little Sea Ice


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SeagullI’ve been back in the arctic for a little over a week now. I didn’t really expect to see ice along the coast at this time of the year. I’ve seen it before, but it’s a little surprising. Still, the coast has been littered with the remnants of the melting ice pack the entire time I’ve been here. Thought I’d share a few pics.

It’s odd, I suppose. Over the years, I find myself taking fewer pictures of Barrow. I keep thinking things like ‘that’s old’ and ‘my friends have already seen that’, but I suppose that’s the same thinking that left me with so few images to show for a decade in northern Arizona. Anyway, that’s one thing I like about about getting away. You come back home and remember what’s cool about it.

…in this case literally.

(Click to embiggen!)