Haunted Houses

Haunted houses and walks along the spooky lanes of a dark woods are in operation around here. Once again, people are lining up for that annual risk-free rush of adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine! But I don’t have to leave home for that. All I have to do is turn on the national news.

A modest proposal

To anyone who thinks that wearing a mask during the pandemic is a terrible burden:

Such an imposition, isn’t it, to mask up and do your bit to protect yourself and others, especially since everyone (especially you) has all those constitutional rights and freedoms, and no one’s gonna be the boss of you, by golly!

OK, then. Tell you what. If you ever need surgery, make sure that unless your surgeon and all the other operating room personnel go maskless, you’ll pass on the procedure. I mean, what about their rights? And wouldn’t you want a surgeon who’s breathing comfortably to be the one, say, resecting your bowel? Oh, that’s not the same thing, you say? How ’bout you really try to think about that for a while.

Birds Aren’t Real!

Your neighbor is probably a perfectly normal, reasonable adult. But suppose you and your neighbor are having an over-the-fence chat about this and that. You comment about how many sparrows you’ve had at your bird feeders lately, and his eyes bug out, he starts huffing and puffing, and next thing you know, conversation ceases as he goes off into the wild, blue yonder.

“Hey, pal, those “sparrows” aren’t real,” he says. “It’s not some theory! There’s this Instagram place with 335 thousand followers that tells The Truth about “birds” and there’s stuff on YouTube. That’s a fact that proves that “birds” aren’t real, but you want more proof, then just think on this! There’s an official website about how “birds” are fake! There’s hats and T-shirts! Why the hell would there be hats and T-shirts that say birds aren’t real if birds are real? You follow me? Many people are talking about what “birds” really are! It’s a fact that those so-called “birds” you see and the ones you don’t see are surveillance drone replicas cooked up by the evil so-called scientists and launched by the government to spy on you. Yeah, on you, buddy, and everybody else! Jeez, I had to close all the blinds because three of those damn general surveillance “sparrow” drones just happened to be sitting in the hedge outside my bathroom window trying to record what I was reading on the can! You want the International Conspiracy to take away everything you love? I’m talking about your guns, your freedoms and rights, your Bible, your….” (and so forth)

Did that imaginary rant sound so bonkers that you can’t imagine it happening?

I can’t completely dismiss the possibility. Walking among us are multitudes like the hypothetical neighbor up there, so ignorant and confused, so willing to turn their brains over to some ranting crackpot, and so in need of attention and affirmation that anyone loud and authoritative enough can get them to believe in and act on the most absurd, nonsensical rubbish.

This is nothing new. The human brain has been cooking up mass hallucinations and delusions for centuries. But it feels like we’ve passed a crucial tipping point, and we’re seeing rationality and reason dissolving in a flood of mindlessness. I don’t see how that’s going to change.

By the way, if you’d like to check out the satiric “Birds Aren’t Real” movement, here you go.

Stupidity

The reality show our species produces and acts in is appalling and discouraging. We could be doing so much better for ourselves and our planet, but we keep on mining those veins of stupidity and self-destructiveness that never seem to run out. Ödön von Horváth said, “Nichts gibt so sehr das Gefühl der Unendlichkeit als wie die Dummheit.” (“Nothing conveys the feeling of infinity as much as stupidity does.”) Is he right about us?

Are humans generally uninterested in or incapable of discovering truth through reasoning about evidence? Do most humans believe rubbish because it’s convenient or easy or because they’re too lazy to examine their programming? Are humans generally so gullible and exploitable that they’ll continue to surrender their brains to whackdoodles, demagogues, and manipulators? Will stupidity continue to overshadow any good sense we manage to muster to face the increasing challenges to our continued existence?

If as a species we are that stupid, then game over and onward to the world of Not Even Light.

A favorite story from my teaching days

The first time I saw the “Earthrise” photo taken by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders on Christmas Eve, 1968, I was astonished by the image of our lovely living planet suspended in the depths of space above the bleak lunar surface. I eventually bought a black and white reproduction which I tacked up on the bulletin board in my classroom.

During passing time one day, I noticed a student staring hard at the picture, and I said, “You really like that photo, don’t you.”

“It’s really cool,” he said. And then in all innocence he asked, “Did you take it, Mr. S?”

What could I say that wouldn’t make the kid feel foolish? After a couple of beats, I managed, “No, but I sure wish I had.”

Thinking

I’m a fairly thoughtful person by nature. If asked to list my hobbies or favorite pursuits, I always put thinking at the top of the list. Once upon a time during a free period, I was seated at my desk thinking. A student walked in and asked if I could help him out with a knotty math problem since it didn’t look like I was busy with anything just then. I’m pretty good-natured, too, so I just smiled and said that I’d been busy thinking, but that I’d be glad to help out anyway. After we’d worked our way through the problem, I hoped he’d learned two things, viz., how to think a little bit more effectively math-wise and that despite appearances, thinking is indeed something that someone might be busy with.

My Body, My Rights/Choice

I’ve seen these words or some variation on many signs carried by all sorts of people. What does it mean to say “My body, my choice” or “My body, my rights” without contradicting oneself or being hypocritical?

Let’s say an anti-vaxxer claims a “right” to abstain from vaccinations, becomes infected with a virulent strain of a virus, and then infects the new-born child of, say, a close relative resulting in the death of that infant. To what degree is the result of that decision different from that of someone who elects to have an abortion? Where does the human-concocted idea of self-governing sovereign rights fit in with the notion of universal moral principles?

I struggle with this issue, and, I’m sorry to say, it seems nearly impossible to have a reasonable conversation about it with anyone infected with the mishmash of politics, ideology, and absolute conviction which dismayingly passes for thinking these days.

Faith vs Covid

If you think your faith (religious, political, ideological, etc.) protects you from Covid, and that therefore you don’t need to pay attention to science or get vaccinated or wear a mask, answer me this. If you had to chose between (a) standing unprotected in front of a firing machine gun or (b) not standing unprotected in front of a firing machine gun, would you choose (a) because of your faith? I think this is a fair question.

Spaceships

“I’ve often heard people say: ‘I wonder what it would feel like to be on board a spaceship,’ and the answer is very simple. What does it feel like? That’s all we have ever experienced. We are all astronauts on a little spaceship called Earth. (R. Buckminster Fuller)

R. Buckminster Fuller was an authentic visionary who saw the big picture (as evidenced in the quotation above) and the necessity for humans to find sustainable ways to continue our existence at the global level. That means learning to exist comfortably on our planet without royally screwing it up.

I cannot help but think that the Billionaire Cowboys riding their little rockets into space might better have turned their efforts to improving the planet for everyone, not just the moneybags who will someday become “space tourists” enjoying the thrill of their little individual lives.

Name-Calling

I’ve done my share and, I’m ashamed to admit it, still do when I don’t catch myself before calling someone a wack job or a nazi or an extremist or worse. I like to think that I’m better than that. So, why is it so easy for me to stoop to this form of verbal abuse? Calling someone a name doesn’t elevate me in my own estimation of myself (quite the contrary) so why am I tempted to anyway? I know why, and I’ll bet you do, too. It’s because it’s an easy and lazy way to avoid thinking about or engaging with someone who doesn’t agree with my way of reasoning.

I suppose I could blame the national ethos, the appalling level of political discourse in the USA, my general apprehensiveness owing to our society’s tsunami of mindless self-absorption, a devaluation of morality in public and private matters, and so forth. But I’d be kidding myself if I thought that would be anything but easy and lazy, too. It’s my choice to call names or not.

It’s not easy to drive by a house with an incendiary or angry or defamatory banner prominently displayed without thinking moron or moral imbecile. But even thinking that, temporarily satisfying as it might be, subverts what I think my principles are and diminishes any chance I might have to view another with genuine curiosity as to why he or she thinks it’s a good idea to fly that kind of flag.

I’m less evolved than I like to think I am. However, I’m resolved to do better, and one way to be serious about it is to resist name-calling.

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