Friday, September 27, 2013

Anamosa, then and now

This building is located in Anamosa, Iowa, 25 miles from Cedar Rapids. It was built between 1875 and 1899, and is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. It has even given its name to a historic district in Anamosa.

Its occupants probably do not fully appreciate its history and architecture. The building is a penitentiary, still housing inmates.

Two things are striking about the facility. First, it is remarkable how only a little over a century ago a building intended to house hardened criminals was designed with exterior beauty in mind. You may or may not like the Gothic/Romanesque/Victorian mash-up style, but there is no doubt that it was intended to be visually pleasing and add to the townscape.

Planning an attractive prison today would be considered an act of folly. Hell, we even make our new art museums or additions to old ones ugly.

 Royal Ontario Museum with its new entrance

Second: aside from its exterior, the Anamosa Penitentiary is the very model of forward-thinking criminology. According to Wikipedia:
Supporting the Treatment and Security functions of the prison there is also a comprehensive program of religious services, physical, and creative activities.
A.S.P. Religion Center: This offers an expanding variety of services, programs, and studies from multiple faith groups. These include (listed alphabetically): Asatru, Buddhist, Christian (Catholic, Liturgical Protestant, Pentecostal & Gospel), Jehovah's Witnesses, Moorish Science Temple of America, Muslim (Sunni), Nation of Gods and Earths, Native American sacred ceremonies, Satanist, and Wicca. The program is supported by 60+ regular volunteers who are clergy and lay authorities in their various faith groups.
"Sorry, Warden, I can't make it to the license plate shop this afternoon. I'm on my way to Asatru class, and after that, my Satanist studies."

I wonder how they recruit the teachers or ministers. Ads in newspapers or online?

is currently seeking a
Certified Satanist 
(Must have M.S. degree in Creative Incarceration)

To serve in magnificent building in historic district of Anamosa

All benefits, including subsidized higher education leading to an
Advanced Satanist certificate

Women and minorities encouraged to apply

If only Alcatraz had been run along such progressive lines.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Westgate Mall is a test. It is only a test. Regular programming will resume shortly.

Terrorists give a new meaning to "shop till you drop."

I have been saying for years that if the jihadists are serious about striking at the heart of the Great Satan, they won't waste their time wearing explosives as fashion statements on airplanes or sneaking little bottles of weaponized cough syrup through security. Not when there are thousands upon thousands of targets as soft as a baby's bum where Americans gather. A massacre at a shopping mall, or three, or 10, will destroy life as we know it.

Not just because it will wreck the economy. The psychological effect on the population will be more devastating than September 11, which for the most part has already been reduced to a Hallmark holiday commemorated with ceremonies that seem more routine by the year and a genteel televised teardrop. Killing hostages at malls will induce mass psychosis. Americans afraid to shop. What will they do with themselves? What will they live for?

The jihadists in Nairobi culled the non-Muslims from the crowd for special treatment ... like execution. Victims reportedly had their faces burned and hands cut off to prevent identification (why? Death wasn't satisfying enough -- Al Shabaab needed an extra thrill from mutilation?). Bodies were piled in entrances as barriers. The attackers gloated as they tweeted play-by-play messages about the horror they were causing.

The Daily Mail story says:
Up to three American teenagers were among the terrorists who attacked the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya's foreign minister Amina Mohamed confirmed on Monday. The Americans, aged between 18 and 19, of Somali or Arab origin, lived in Minnesota and one other place in the U.S, she said in an interview with the PBS NewsHour. ...
US authorities are concerned that Al Shabab is using violent propaganda videos that glorify terrorism to lure youths from Minnesota's Somali community to fight in the Middle East against the West and its allies. ...

The Twin Cities has one of the largest Somali communities in the world, with around 35,000 residents emanating from the east African nation, and there are fears that Al Shabab has been actively recruiting from it. WCCO-TVreported that one recruit, Dahir Gure, who has since been killed, said: ‘This is the real Disneyland. You have to join us.’
But I refuse to write a posting about the lessons we should learn from this, because we will learn nothing

The script is already written. We will be warned against a "backlash" against Somalis who have turned a chunk of Minnesota into East Africa. Fair enough. But nobody will ask: what are they doing here in the first place? Why do we have mass immigration from places that have no concept of American values? Why is population replacement U.S. government policy?

Politicians who store up their prayers for special occasions, like a disaster or atrocity, will queue up to the microphone to announce that their thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims.

The media will be full to overflowing with stories of good African immigrants who drive taxis (but no seeing-eye dogs allowed if the driver is Muslim), sell food from sidewalk carts, and are now trembling with fear from American citizens who rescued them from their native hellholes. 

There will be more security everywhere, further draining funds that might be put to some economically useful purpose. CCTV. Uniformed oafs frisking you in the mall as other shoppers look on, snickering. Official law enforcement officers and various species of rent-a-cops stopping and questioning you ... unless you look like an immigrant. "Oh, you're an IT specialist from Pakistan? My mistake, sire. Free to go."

Our crypto-Muslim president will inform us that it is our duty to welcome a few hundred thousand more Somalis to our shores so they can be converted into Americans through social work programs. Midnight camel races? Encouraging the building of more mosques will help, providing religious guidance.

What about those jihadis who took pleasure in their killing recreation? A bunch of losers. They have no influence (except when they point a gun at your face). They hate us for our freedoms. And there's no greater freedom than to re-settle in the Formerly United States.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

I've got the world on a string

Whoever would have thought of making art with string? Quite a few people, actually.

Unless a kitten is in close proximity, string is surely less messy than paint. It's easier on the budget, too. Some examples follow. Let's unroll!

Everystring's coming up roses.

State of the art.

For those of you too young to remember audio cassettes,
they looked like this. It contains a recording of the
Incredible String Band.

A string quartet playing an arrangement of
Respighi's The Birds.

Members of the animal stringdom.

What's that? You've had enough? You won't stand for any more of these ridiculous puns?

All right. Here, have a seat.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Call me unpersuasive

In the previous posting, I summoned up a column by Melanie Sturm in the Aspen Times where she wrote about her discomfort in the presence of a tattooed woman she saw on a visit to San Francisco. I suggested that Melanie's reaction avoided the bigger issues involved. 

Yesterday Melanie responded with good grace in the comments to my posting. I think she and I can have a reasonable conversation, and here is my part of it. Although I will quote from her comment, you are encouraged to scroll down and read her remarks in their entirety.

Melanie says:
I'm writing to you because I can see you're clearly very intelligent and articulate and I wanted to reach out, as a fellow conservative, to encourage you to consider ways you might channel your writing talents toward persuasion, and perhaps less toward pure opinion -- that is if you aspire to influence readers who don't already agree with you.
I am not a conservative. There is no conservatism left in this country -- the Left has obliterated it. We live under a Stalinist system in which everyone and everything revolves around government, especially the federal government. Unelected federal judges determine whether laws stand or fall depending on whether the judges like them. Unelected bureaucrats make rules that people must follow. Presidents decide to invade other countries without a declaration of war. The U.S. has a single political party, the Republicrats, whose opposition to each other is over the division of the spoils.

Under the circumstances it's nonsense to imply there's anything to conserve. People who call themselves conservatives have only two concerns, abortion and economics. If a name is needed for my political views, I'm a neo-reactionary.

I don't care about persuading anyone about anything except the value of thinking and of keeping an open mind about paranormal phenomena and the spiritual dimension of life. On the political level, efforts at persuasion are a waste of time and energy. Leftists may very occasionally have a change of heart on their own, but never because someone has argued them into it. The spectrum of the Left, ranging from Stalinism to tea-with-milk liberalism, isn't a philosophy; it's a religion for people who don't believe in God. If I were a hundred times more eloquent than I am, I doubt I could cause a single conversion.

Trying to influence people to see things your way is like being attracted to somebody and trying to make that person fall in love with you. The harder you try, the less likely it is to happen. The object of your affections senses, consciously or unconsciously, the manipulation going on. All you can do is be yourself -- best foot forward and all that, but still, be your real self. Some people will like who you are; some will dislike it; a huge percentage won't care. If you're lucky, eventually someone you find attractive will correctly read your personality and be attracted in turn. But you can't shoot the lock off someone's heart, or their politics.
As the only conservative columnist on the opinion page of the Aspen Times (in radically liberal Aspen), I know I won't be read if I hurl red meat or play into the conservative stereotypes (insensitive and uncompassionate -- that was the one exit poll Romney lost to Obama in 2012, by a huge margin) that repel many Americans. You may have noticed that my motto is Think Again, with the tag line, you might change your mind. If I can't get people to read me and Think Again, I have no shot at getting them to change their mind.
I understand Melanie's temptation to wear protective coloration and subtly undermine the stereotypes that fashionable Commies have about conservatives. The trouble is, first, that most of them aren't about to Think Again because they didn't think the first time. They picked up their political beliefs by determining what is approved among Aspen's trust-fund babies and rich moral show-offs, and they get along by going along. 

Second, it's playing defense, which is what has brought the country to this pass. The Marxists were out to win, and they have. The so-called conservatives said, lower our taxes and ban abortion and you'll never hear a politically incorrect word from us again. It was a bad strategy when the outcome was uncertain; as passive resistance to defeat, it's futile.
... My goal was to draw the reader into judging the behavior of the tattooed woman. Liberals don't like to judge, so one must be careful. Ultimately, I wanted readers to come to the conclusion you did -- that the tattooed woman's behavior was not only self-indulgent and angry, but it's ok to derive that judgment. 
Melanie's goal is reasonable, but I suspect she overestimates her influence if she thinks that a column carefully worded to sound non-judgmental is going to cause any reader to "derive" a judgment.
... The world is a better place when individuals are kind and compassionate, not self-indulgent and angry. A kinder and more compassionate world is undermined by selfish individualists who dismiss standards and codes of conduct.
Who's going to argue against kindness and (genuine) compassion? But I still think Melanie is avoiding the tough business of making moral judgments by taking refuge in a sentimental platitude. Besides, for all Melanie knows, the tattooed one may actually believe she's being kind and compassionate, standing up for the rights of wackos to deface the skin God gave them, ticking off "normal" people who are all -ists and -phobes and responsible for society's ills.
But my bigger point, which I was inspired to make because of my personal experience over the summer and because we Jews were in the middle of the Days of Awe when we're supposed to be reflective and repentant before God, was this sentence: "What makes us matter in a world where we often can feel insignificant is not how we brand ourselves as individuals — it’s the mark we stamp on others’ hearts and the legacy we leave the world."

I'm sorry you missed the bigger point, which didn't escape most of my readers thankfully as the response to this column has been overwhelmingly positive. I'm still working through the emails.
I take exception to this. "We Jews" aren't the only people who try to be reflective and repentant before God. Some of the rest of us do too. She doesn't know anything about my spiritual values or practices, but seems to imply that her benign fellowship has a divine blessing, while my way of putting things is just "opinion." Of course it's opinion, and I'd never try to serve it up as anything else. I don't claim to be a sales rep for God's plan.

Maybe I missed her bigger point, but I'm not sure she made it clearly. What does she mean by "brand ourselves" -- tattooing? How we present ourselves? All our acts? Our spiritual travails? In any case it sounds like a false opposition between alternatives. If the sum of our behavior or the quality of our spiritual life is for the good, isn't that bound to leave an equally good legacy? 

Melanie concludes, "I'm glad you care enough to channel your considerable talents, time and energy toward improving our society and country. I wish you the best in your endeavors!" I'm afraid I'm not the reformer Melanie is, although there are aspects of myself I'd like to reform. If I can write a blog post that a reader finds interesting and worth the time spent reading it, that may not bring us closer to a better society, but I feel that I've accomplished something. I don't mean to imply that Melanie's way is wrong -- just that it's her way. I wish her the best in her endeavors.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The day of non-judgment

What are you looking at, you racist, sexist, homophobic,
lesbianphobic, transphobic, Islamophobic, judgmental creep?

Melanie Sturm, an opinion writer for the Aspen (Colorado) Times, was grooving on "a glorious springtime visit to San Francisco" when she was shaken up by 
... a scantily clad, tattoo-festooned woman on whose neck and jaw was emblazoned the ultimate gotcha question: “Who are you to judge?” Disarmed and unnerved by her determination to discredit judgmental passers-by, and before I could Think Again, I felt shame. After all, what compassionate, well-meaning person could answer her question without seeming prejudicial? Don’t we judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin — even when it’s multi-variegated dragons or flowers?
Incidentally, Melanie, variegated means (according to Merriam-Webster) "having patches, stripes, or marks of different colors," so multi-variegated would be different colored different colors.

Melanie's shame at being judgmental about the tattooed lady is actually another form of the tattooed one's behavior -- based on the conviction that normality is conformist, narrow-minded, unworthy.

In my view, Melanie gets almost everything about this encounter wrong.

First, she does not recognize that the tattooed woman was not only being aggressive -- trying to upset and intimidate passers-by -- but was herself being "judgmental." That is, her body slogan assumed that anyone seeing her would have a "prejudicial" reaction.

Now it is true that outside of San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and most college towns, many do find grotesquely tattooed people distasteful if not revolting. According to Melanie's description, the anti-judgmental crusader's body "art" was pretty mild compared to other examples. I can't bring myself to link to it, but if you don't know the depths of this contemporary self-mutilation and think you can handle it, go to Google Images and type "tattoos" in the search field.


And here is Melanie's second, and biggest, mistake. She has signed on to one of the fallacies of institutionalized rebellion: the idea that something being permissible for the sake of individual freedom means that no one must criticize it or reject the person who performs the act.

That is, not only is everyone allowed the most outrageous exhibitionism, they are supposedly entitled to approval and protected from disapproval.

No! Disturbed people have a right to make themselves appear loathsome, while others have a right to say, "You are disgusting and make me sick."

Melanie seems not to get any of this. Her problem is in line with the therapeutic value system she was raised in: the offense was in making Melanie feel bad.
Like the branding on her skin, this encounter, though fleeting, stuck with me. Whether wearing a scornful signpost to the world actually makes her feel good, it made me feel bad. Was this her intention? [Note to Melanie: Do you have to ask? Publicly expressed scorn is designed to make someone else feel bad.] Why provoke defensiveness and discord in a world that suffers from too much already? Wouldn’t she be happier if passers-by smiled rather than recoiled, and wouldn’t more smiling passers-by make the world a better place?
Melanie then goes off on a side trip about being diagnosed with cancer and people who helped her through her successful treatment. If she wants my sympathy, she has it -- the whole article is really about her, not a social phenomenon or someone else's behavior. If she valued warmth and kindness while undergoing cancer treatment, why did she experience "shame" because of someone trying to make her feel rotten?

"Don’t we judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin — even when it’s multi-variegated dragons or flowers?" But the "multi-variegated" dragons, flowers, and other less savory designs that nut jobs have permanently inscribed on their skin reveal the content of their character. They weren't born that way -- they chose to have it done to themselves. Bless their souls anyway. As for their personalities, sod them.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Meeting Atropos: II

The keynote speaker for the first evening of the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS -- see the previous posting) was Eben Alexander III, M.D. He's a hot ticket these days: his book about his NDE (or if you prefer, "alleged" NDE), titled Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey Into the Afterlife, has reportedly sold two million copies.

In our time, that means he has been discovered by interviewers, cameras, and microphones. No one becomes a celebrity by writing a book, but when they are anointed by the media, it's off to the races.

Most people who write about the paranormal gain a certain following, but I don't know of anyone who has risen from obscurity to fame so quickly in the NDE studies field. Part of the reason is that he worked and taught at prestigious institutions, including Duke University Medical Center and the Harvard Medical School. He was a conventional philosophical materialist for most of his life.

Until a few years ago, it's unlikely anyone would have described him as the least bit eccentric. Alexander still looks Ivy League -- blazered, bow-tied, paid-up member of the Brooks Brotherhood. Readers who would never admit to reading a book by a psychic, or perhaps even an NDE experiencer, can feel reasonably comfortable with Proof of Heaven because of the author's CV.

In 2008 he caught a very rare and deadly form of meningitis and was in a coma for a week. A Harvard surgeon gets the best possible care from his colleagues, but -- according to Alexander -- they held out very little hope for him. His family was told his chances of survival were about 2 percent.

It is at this point that the most heated controversy about NDEs always arises: a near-death experience is not death, right? While some NDErs have returned after having no recordable vital signs, it's only logical to concede that if you are alive in the same body, you didn't actually die. Alexander was undoubtedly hooked up to the latest medical equipment that artificially kept him breathing and supplied his brain with oxygen. But if I understood him correctly when he spoke that evening -- I haven't read Proof of Heaven -- he is convinced the neurons in his brain were not conversing with each other. For his consciousness, it was game over.

I will not try to convey what the man described about his time in the other world. It would be putting words into his mouth that should come from him. You can read his book (I'll get around to it one of these days) and I reckon you can access interviews with him on YouTube. 

But I'll say a little about the way he did his best to let us in on the experience he had undergone. I'm interested in other people's personal style, having none of my own.

I was prepared to ... not dislike him, not disbelieve him, but ... find Eben Alexander irritating. What's this metaphysical rock star business? I had entered the large auditorium where he was to speak early and claimed a seat in the audience space near the stage, the better to take his measure. Then I left, spent half an hour yakking with other attendees in the lobby, and returned. By now the auditorium was standing room only. A rite was about to take place. It reminded me of when I was a tadpole and went to hear Timothy Leary in 1967 at UCLA, glorying in my fellowship with the other devotees hanging on each inspired word.

What's the big deal? I'm just suspicious of cult figures. They may start out as apostles of some insight, then they start believing the blurbs on the covers of their books and their publishers' publicity machines. They turn bloated with their own supposed wisdom. Eventually the mask drops and clatters on the ground. Anybody remember Fritz Perls?

That's what was in my mind in re Eben Alexander. Prejudiced? Who, me? Certainly. Prejudice is good. Life would be so much duller without it. Besides, it's always fully justified.

Once Alexander began speaking, it took me about two minutes to warm to him. He has the gift for connecting with an audience. It has something to do with the accent of the Upper South -- he was raised in Tennessee or North Carolina or someplace like that -- and it's one of the most pleasing forms of American pronunciation. Besides that, the territory of his origin seems to be the last refuge of the almost lost art of oratory. 

His delivery was polished, but I don't mean he sounded insincere. He just knew how to make dramatic effects: variations in tone and volume, pauses to let certain statements sink in. All his training as a doctor and neurosurgeon almost surely left no time for acting lessons, even assuming he ever had any interest in them. He's just a natural. He even saved a "big moment" for the closing (although I have to confess I saw the revelation coming earlier).

Did I believe him? Yes, at the time. Now? Probably. If I'd never heard a description of an NDE before, I might have been more skeptical. But although he was more articulate than some experiencers, his story included a fair number of elements in common with others.

The objection that he didn't actually "die," and that his consciousness during his long coma was only a response to an extreme brain state, cannot be proved or disproved. As he pointed out several times, psychology hasn't the faintest idea how consciousness comes into being. Nor do we know what death is.

However real and transcendent Alexander's venture into a different mode of consciousness may have seemed to him, we can't tell from the outside its ontological status. He may have basked in the company of God and angels; or simply perceived a specialized, fantastical illusion squeezed into the normal illusion we inhabit in our waking hours. Maybe we have to be content with asking, along with Edgar Allan Poe:
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Meeting Atropos: I

The classical-era Greeks imagined three mythological figures -- the Moirai (often translated as "The Fates") who followed every mortal life. Clotho spun the thread of life. Lachesis measured out the amount of thread allotted to each individual, that is, the length of the life. At the time it was fated to end, Atropos cut the thread.

It sounds fanciful, but we are no closer than the ancient Greeks to understanding the inner meaning of a lifespan. Why are we born? Why do we live? Why do we die?

The last question -- together with its corollary, what is death? -- has perhaps puzzled mankind most of all. Some cultures have elaborate explanations. Others are, at least on the surface, casual about the business. For most of the ancient Romans, death gave them yet another excuse for the ceremonies they loved, but aside from some philosophers and a few thinkers such as Cicero, didn't provoke much questioning.

But in most Western cultures, Atropos has been a dark wraith -- even in the spiritually centered Middle Ages. We fear her, develop ways of trying to avoid her eye. In his novel The Gift, Vladimir Nabokov recalls the look of an Edwardian-era funeral parlor, like a hospital designed for those struck by the ultimate sickness: "The infernal black beauty of oaken caskets in a palm-decked display window. ... Thus a world of handsome demons develops side by side with us, in a cheerfully sinister relationship to our everyday existence ... ."

Still it's hard to say whether the old waxy corpses taking their ease in satin-lined display boxes are more revolting than our modern-cool memorials, ashes of bone contributed to the deceased's favorite body of water, urns on the shelf next to the porcelain unicorns, fruit-colored balloons released in a gesture seemingly designed for children including dead octogenarians.

But there are those who say that Atropos is not to be shied from: she is the doorkeeper to another,  beautiful and welcoming world on the other side of death. Some have been there and returned to describe their experience.

Last weekend, I attended two of the four days of the annual conference of the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) in Arlington, Virginia. Work commitments and cost made it impracticable for me to be there every day, but Thursday and Sunday brought me into an atmosphere that I rarely encounter -- hundreds of people who not only reject reductionist materialism as an account of reality, but in many cases have met or are in touch with the "dead."

One presenter asked for a show of hands -- how many present in the largest conference room had themselves undergone a near-death experience (NDE). The organization refers to them as "experiencers," an awkward term, but I can't think of a better alternative. I (not an experiencer) looked around at the assembly, and it appeared that a little more than half of the people in the room believed they had visited the Other Side.

I don't know if the organizers originally planned it that way, but it turned out that many of the speakers in the presentations and workshops chose as their topic ADC, or after-death communication to the living from those who have passed on. I was glad for the additional variety. 

To be continued in the next posting.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

A fine madness

According to Wikipedia, "2.7 million Muslims live in England and Wales where they form 5.0% of the population." Presumably there are also Muslims in Scotland, which is more populous that Wales. But if we stick to England and Wales, and assume that no Muslim will insult the founder of their socio-political system, then a potential 51 million of Her Majesty's subjects might in theory bad-mouth Mohammed. By implication they were all threatened.

A fine of £85,000 per possible Prophet insulter works out to, let's see, roughly 1.6 pence (slightly under US2.6 cents) per potential murder victim. Unless the British regulatory agency offers a volume discount.
Broadcasting regulator Ofcom said the statement aired live on Noor TV last May could have radicalised its young viewers and incited them to commit acts of violence.
No! Really?
Al Ehya Digital, which owns Noor TV, fired Nizami in May this year for promoting personal political opinions and supporting a violent act. In its statement Ofcom said Al Ehya Digital has not yet broadcast an apology or condemnation of Nizami’s remarks and appears not to have recognised the gravity of the comments made by Nizami.

Despite this, the regulator fined Al Ehya Digital only a fraction of the £250,000 it could have imposed – because it wanted to protect the station’s right to ‘freedom of expression’.
Presumably Ofcom expected that Al Ehya Digital would broadcast Road Runner cartoons dubbed into Arabic. Or it was saving its legal power to protect the BBC's freedom to suppress and distort news about the English Defence League.

When Barmy Prince Charlie comes into his own, he might as well just declare Britain a Muslim state and have done with it. Compared with the current farce, it would at least have the virtue of honesty.