Peers and Um-peers

“Peer” is the English language version of the Latin par, which means “equal.” [1]“Umpire” just means “not a peer.” English borrowed nompere from the French but over time “a noumpere” became “an oumpere”—a process I learned just today is called metanalysis. And that is why in English, especially at baseball games, an umpire, who is “not a peer” gets to say which are balls and which are strikes. Pitchers, catchers, and batters may disagree, of course, but they are all peers (equals) and so must defer.

Mariners vs Pirates - June 29, 2016But in the U. S., we live in a time of tribes and there is a squeezing together of people who were once “peers” into a virtually featureless mob of adherents to a common cause. “We” now all hate the same people and love the same people. This is a real problem for someone whose instincts run in the direction of making up his own mind and the role of umpire beckons.

This squeezing of pre-established hierarchies into groups of peers has been an artifact of war for a long time now. Of course, it sound better in iambic pentameter.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother…

So it goes in the famous Crispian’s Day speech in Henry V. These few brave Englishmen did not melt into “a featureless mob of adherents,” at least not in Shakespeare’s treatment of them, but the silos of like-minded political activists do, in fact, run that risk. They read the same sources, subscribe to the same blogs, listen to the same broadcasts and podcasts, and attend the same rallies. The idea that other people might raise questions that begin from another ideological base place is a genuinely foreign idea.

There are two common responses to the well-known fact that some people do, in fact, formulate problems beginning at a different place than yours. The first is that they are wrong. Something—morality or efficiency or sustainability or something—requires the starting point that my tribe and I have chosen.

ump 4The other, the one that comes down on my house, is that admitting that there is more than one starting place is a bad idea because it weakens the tribal bond. And they are right. It does weaken the tribal bond. A person who often says that you can plausibly start at either place really has the burden of justifying this practice to his colleagues. [2] This person is an umpire—a non-peer.

The count is 3-2, last of the ninth, two outs, the bases loaded, and the pitch comes in in the vicinity of the outer edge of the plate. The batter knows it is wide and starts off for first base. The pitcher and the catcher know it caught the corner and head for the dugout pumping their fists. These are two peer groups: the batter belongs to one, the pitcher and catcher to the other. The interest in one call or the other is very strong and their perceptions follow along obediently.

The umpire is in a different place. [3] His job is to say where the ball was, with reference to the strike zone, no matter what the implications are for one team or the other. And now that we have electronic tracking of each pitch, it is worth pausing to admire how good these human calls really are.

That’s not the kind of umpire I am. I am the kind that says that when you start here, the logic of inference will bring you out there. This is the tribe-specific answer to the claim that the event is “really about this.” As I noted recently, I have a special antipathy to “that’s not what it’s really about,” which is, nearly always, a demand that we start the discussion here, where I am, rather than there, where you are. And we should do that, according to this particular device, because “the issue” is “really about” one thing but not the other. Puh-leese!

Here’s an example. A black man jaywalks across a busy street, putting the orderly flow of traffic at risk. The police arrest him. Liberal sources will feature “black man” and “police.” They will not say that this citizen should not have been breaking the law. Conservative sources will feature “lawbreaker” and “police.” They will not say that the man is a member of a small racial minority which is often arrested for doing things that members larger racial minorities are not arrested for. [4] Both of these are true. The pundits at each site will say, with reference to the other source’s emphasis, “but the real issue is.”

In fact, it is true that I, acting as an umpire, am weakening the argument being made ump 7by my friends and neighbors. That is a cost to the issues they hold most dear. If I am going to continue in their company—not to be a member of their tribe because umpires don’t belong to tribes [5]—I need to make at least one other point. Here it is.

Recognizing that other people begin with alternative biases is a good thing for this group. It benefits them is some important way to be continually aware of that. If you are trying to sell an idea, for instance, you don’t start with why the target audience ought to care. We already know they don’t. You need to start with what they already care about and sell your idea as a way to expand the value they already hold.

Here is an extremely local example. I live in a senior center that has just taken a turn away from “homey” toward “professional.” One small part of that change is that the residents receive, at the end of the meal, slips to sign indicating that the charges for the meal are correct and that we consent to have that amount subtracted from our monthly total. These slips are printed on expensive and non-recyclable paper.

Some people don’t like these slips—they are new, after all, and we are old—because they signal the decay of the homey culture. We are moving, they say, toward a more “commercial” and “impersonal” culture. Some don’t like the slips because they are environmentally aware, and hate to waste all that paper. Some don’t like it because the paper is expensive and in one way or another, we are going to have to pay for it.

I don’t have to be a member of any of these groups to know that if I want their support, I am going to have to start where they start. I don’t start with the green group and try to argue that they should resent the creeping commercialism of the new process. Why would I do that? I will start with what they already value—this is non-recyclable paper and there is a lot of it—and point out that getting rid of the post-meal accounting system would save a lot of trees.

I’m not going to make that point at all in my role as umpire. I am going to try to get this group of greens to be willing to keep me around because “beginning with people who have alternative biases” is a really good skill to have. My awareness of the different biases cherished by other people makes me a benefit to this tribe, even though I don’t argue the tribal line. That’s why they should consent to having a non-peer (me) in the group with them.

I feel sometimes like Andrew McPhee in C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength. He is the designated skeptic in a collection of people called to fight to the very end in a war that is, to McPhee, murky and uncertain. You wonder after awhile why he is there. [5] But Edwin Ransom, the Director, says to Jane Studdock, a new member, “I want you to like him if you can. He’s one of my oldest friends. He’ll be about the best man if we’re going to be defeated [by the forces of evil]. …What he’ll do if we win, I can’t imagine.”

I like being an umpire. I don’t like not being a part of the tribe, but I think that is a cost that going with the position. The deal is that they like to have you around because of what you can do that they can’t do or don’t want to do. They forgive you your lack of enthusiasm for the currently hot consensus because they want you to stay even though you are a pain in the butt from time to time.

It’s really not a bad deal at all.

[1] I can scarcely use the word without hearing the Major General in The Pirates of Penzance singing “Peers will be peers and youth will have its fling.”
[2] I am not counting as “colleagues” the other people who have that same practice. I am picturing a logician in a group of friends, pointing out that the other argument is as logical as ours. I am aware that this logician has colleagues—other logicians—who will applaud (in absentia) what he is doing.
[3] It is not quite as different as is sometimes maintained. Umpires are under a good deal of pressure to keep the strike zone constant. They would be criticized harshly fall establishing a narrow strike zone in the early innings and then expanding it when the game is on the line in the ninth. That means that the umpire needs not only to see where the ball is, but also to remember how he has been calling pitches like that in the game so far.
[4]I know that sounds clunky, but I keep hearing that whites are going to lose their status as “the majority” in the U. S. and I thought I should begin practicing other ways to say it.
[5] Someone is going to cite the Major League Umpires Association, superseded in 2000 by the World Umpires Association as the “tribe” to which umpires belong. There is some merit in that point, but umpires do not live with the other members of the Association, so the problem doesn’t really go away.
[5] Some Lewis scholars think that is adding McPhee to the mix, he is redeeming the story of his own teacher, William T. Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick whom the Lewis men (father and two sons) called “the Great Knock” had no room at all in his life for the Christian faith which was later to be the foundation of Lewis’s life, but Lewis remembered him with great affection and brought him back into the story as McPhee.







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The Episcopal Ghost from Hell

I have been a fan of C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce for a long time. I have appreciated it the way a reader of fiction appreciates, and since I have taught courses using it as a text, I have also appreciated it the way a teacher appreciates it. The course I taught was called “Seven Characters in Search of Damnation,” a play on Luigi Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author.”

The Setting

The basic mechanism that collects these characters in one place is the bus that leaves Hell every morning, taking any Ghosts (that is the term for the people who have chosen to live in Hell) up to Heaven. There, they will meet Spirits (the term forEG 6 people who by accepting God’s invitation, have chosen to live in Heaven) who have come down to the bus stop to meet them and if possible to assist them in any way. With a single exception, every character in the book who comes in the morning chooses to go back “home” in the evening.

The sin—it is the same one for every character—is the determination to put something first that is not God. God is to be used, variously in the case of the different Ghosts, as a tool to get something they value. This valued thing varies from one Ghost to another, which is what makes the book so interesting, but over the years, I have found “the Episcopal Ghost”(EG) to be the most challenging. [1]

The Episcopal Ghost

In this little episode, Lewis [2] comes very close to condemning liberalism as such. I say “very close” because he makes the Episcopal Ghost such a fearful hash that even people who would like to embrace some version of his positions do not want to be seen in public with him. I feel that way myself.

EG 8That is a very good way to write a character. You push him out to the very margins of what anyone would tolerate. Then you define “the alternative” as certain (the Spirit actually knows the truth) and as conservative as you like. The reader is put into the difficult position of inventing an alternative where there is no space for one. The positions taken by EG and the Spirit take up all the theological space there is. You would need a crowbar and an immensely long lever to create any space at all between them. And yet, I do believe that I fall between them. I am not the muddled theological liberal EG is. On the other hand, I am not aggressive and knowledgeable conservative the Spirit is.  Where I live, think really don’t have the clarity he draws on. And Lewis, is, after all a master of the either/or. For instance.

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice.

And yet, the dilemma the Spirit faces with this Episcopal Ghost has intrigued me for many years and I want to look a little more carefully at this episode, which, does, after all offer a daunting question: Can a person really be damned for believing the wrong things?

EG is the classic maddening liberal.

Picture yourself trying to make a point—any point—to someone whose mind works like this. The structure has collapsed entirely. Everything is process. Words cannot be found that clearly mean anything in particular. Tone is everything. Allow yourself to get good and disgusted and then we can come back afterwards and see if anything can be salvaged of his actual views.

EG here shows no understanding of where he is at the moment or at where he was before he got on the bus in Hell. But that isn’t the worst part.

‘Well, it’s obvious by now, isn’t it, that you weren’t quite right. Why, my dear boy, you were coming to believe in a literal Heaven and Hell!’

‘But wasn’t I right?’

‘Oh, in a spiritual sense, to be sure. I still believe in them in that way.

He still believes in “a literal Heaven and Hell” he says, but only “in a spiritual sense.”
The Spirit faces the Ghost with the reality of his choices and their effects. That doesn’t go too well either.

‘I’m not sure that I’ve got the exact point you are trying to make,’ said the Ghost.

‘I am not trying to make any point,’ said the Spirit. ‘I am telling you to repent and believe.’

‘But my dear boy, I believe already. We may not be perfectly agreed, but you have completely misjudged me if you do not realise that my religion is a very real and a very precious thing to me.’

The context here is doctrinal. The notion that the Ghost’s beliefs are “a real and…precious thing” brings no clarity at all to the doctrines he holds to be true. The Spirit knows what is true and what is not and “my religion…is precious to me” is neither true nor false. It has nothing to do with truth or falsity.

So that doesn’t work. The Spirit then tries direct and immediate action.

‘Will you come with me to the mountains? It will hurt at first, until your feet are hardened. Reality is harsh to the feet of shadows. But will you come?’

This is not doctrinal, please notice. “Let’s go to the mountains (the natural goal of every Spirit in heaven) and let’s start now. Here, take my arm.” But the response is eerily familiar.

‘Well, that is a plan,” says the Ghost. “I am perfectly ready to consider it.”

Notice that “considering the plan” does not get either of them any closer to the mountains. Walking would; “considering” will not.

At that point, the Ghost begins to ask for assurances. I will consent to accept Heaven if I can be given some guarantees. He has two in mind. You will not need to be told, at this point, that neither of them is viable.

The first is that he wants to be “useful.” Then he demands “the free play of the mind.” These are not ridiculous, particularly if we contrast them to the alternatives as he experienced them in his life on earth. But they make no sense at all in Heaven, as Lewis describes it. Here is the Spirit’s response.

‘No,’ said the other. ‘I can promise you none of these things. No sphere of usefulness: you are not needed there at all. No scope for your talents: only forgiveness for having perverted them. No atmosphere of inquiry; for I will bring you to the land not of questions but of answers, and you shall see the face of God.’

We are not “needed” in Heaven as if God had some deficiency that only we could remedy. “Inquiry” is not needed when the plain and true factuality of everything is staring you in the face.. Forgiveness is needed and it is abundantly available and the Truth is here, indeed it is unavoidable except by such subterfuges as the Ghost keeps using.

Nothing works. The Ghost needs to be needed, even by God, and he needs to keep his mind spinning by what he calls “free inquiry.” But facing the clear and real Fact of God, the Ghost equivocates.

“You will keep on implying,” he says, “some sort of static, ready-made reality which is, so to speak, “there”, and to which our minds have simply to conform.”

Notice the pejoratives. “Static” is bad because it is not “dynamic,” “Ready-made” is bad because God, not this particular Ghost, has made it. “Conform” is bad both because it implies compulsion and also because it is a demand made by a reality outside the Ghost himself. Everything about Heaven and God is not quite up to snuff, somehow.

And finally, God is not a person in the sense that one can have a relationship with Him. God is:

“The spirit of sweetness and light and tolerance—and, er, service, Dick, service. We mustn’t forget that, you know.”

A man like this Ghost would drive me crazy. He is repulsive to me in nearly every way. The Truth, apparent and irrefutable for once, does not meet his needs and he escapes back to Hell where his talents can be more fully utilized. “Service,” you know.

Believing your way to Hell

I have spent a little of your valuable time on the true ugliness of this Ghost because I EG 7want to separate it from the reason he is in Hell in the first place, which is, according to the Spirit, who has to inform him of the reason, that he is apostate. [3] He was once “a slave of Christ” (Ephesians 6:6, Colossians 3;24, 1 Peter 2:16), but he has “run away,” as the etymology implies.

This is the part of the dialogue between Spirit and Ghost that I wanted most to explore. The setting of Heaven and Hell (and the bus line that connects them) and the obnoxiousness of the Ghost, are just setting the table. What, specifically is the charge that the Spirit brings against the Ghost. Here is the central passage for that question.

‘Go on, my dear boy, go on. That is so like you. No doubt you’ll tell me why, on your view, I was sent there. I’m not angry.’
‘But don’t you know? You went there because you are an apostate.’
‘Are you serious, Dick?’
‘This is worse than I expected. Do you really think people are penalised for their honest opinions? Even assuming, for the sake of argument, that those opinions were mistaken.’
‘Do you really think there are no sins of intellect?’
‘There are indeed, Dick. There is hide-bound prejudice, and intellectual dishonesty, and timidity, and stagnation. But honest opinions fearlessly followed—they are not sins.’
‘I know we used to talk that way. I did it too until the end of my life when I became what you call narrow. It all turns on what are honest opinions.’
‘Mine certainly were. They were not only honest but heroic. I asserted them fearlessly. When the doctrine of the Resurrection ceased to commend itself to the critical faculties which God had given me, I openly rejected it. I preached my famous sermon. I defied the whole chapter. I took every risk.’

The heart of EG’s defense is that these were “honest opinions.” Here is the Spirit’s rebuttal.

‘Friend, I am not suggesting at all. You see, I know now. Let us be frank. Our opinions were not honestly come by. We simply found ourselves in contact with a certain current of ideas and plunged into it because it seemed modern and successful. At College, you know, we just started automatically writing the kind of essays that got good marks and saying the kind of things that won applause. When, in our whole lives, did we honestly face, in solitude, the one question on which all turned: whether after all the Supernatural might not in fact occur? When did we put up one moment’s real resistance to the loss of our faith?’

EG responds.

“But it’s not a question of how the opinions are formed. The point is that they were my honest opinions, sincerely expressed.”

This is the Spirit’s devastating response, which he knows to be true because he was there at the time and made the same mistakes.

‘Of course. Having allowed oneself to drift, unresisting, unpraying, accepting every half-conscious solicitation from our desires, we reached a point where we no longer believed the Faith. Just in the same way, a jealous man, drifting and unresisting, reaches a point at which he believes lies about his best friend: a drunkard reaches a point at which (for the moment) he actually believes that another glass will do him no harm. The beliefs are sincere in the sense that they do occur as psychological events in the man’s mind. If that’s what you mean by sincerity they are sincere, and so were ours. But errors which are sincere in that sense are not innocent.’

Let the Trial Begin

EG says first that there are no “errors of the intellect” and if there are, they are sins like prejudice, intellectual dishonesty, timidity, and stagnation. He says then that his new beliefs were honest (When the doctrine of the Resurrection ceased to commend itself to the critical faculties which God had given me, I openly rejected it) and also courageous.

This is EG at his best, I think. Not the weasel-worded obscurantist who shows up later in the dialogue. This is the best he has got.

And it is not nearly good enough for the Spirit. First, the Spirit says that there are, in fact, “errors of the intellect.” He says that right away. And the language Lewis provides is very strong because the Spirit asks EG to deny a negative formulation. “Do you really think there are no—that there is no such thing as— errors of the intellect?”  A less strong response by the Spirit would be no answer at all.

Second, the Spirit describes how “honest opinions” must be maintained. This sounds odd to my ears and I am guessing it will sound odd to yours as well. I’ll take the second one first. Dick (the Spirit) and EG followed the same track at first.

“Having allowed oneself to drift, unresisting, unpraying, accepting every half-conscious solicitation from our desires, we reached a point where we no longer believed the Faith.”

EG 5This way of looking at it is as far as can be imagined from EG’s “When the Resurrection ceases to recommend itself to [my] critical facilities, I openly rejected it.” [4] The validity of the Resurrection is “maintained,” as the Spirit now sees it, by praying, by resisting the drift toward unbelief, by refusing to accept the pull of our desires. “Belief in the Resurrection” as the Spirit now sees it, is based on basic spiritual disciplines. These require active intentional living. Prayer requires that. Resisting the drift away from the faith requires that—in fact even being willing to notice the fact of drifting is harder than you might think if you have never tried to do it. Refusing to give in to the pull of illicit desires [5] requires that.

“Keeping the faith,” is, in this formulation, like keeping a marriage alive and vivid. You don’t keep testing your relationship with your wife to make sure that it continues to “recommend itself to your critical faculties.” You work it. You remind yourself of your common intention. You supply those intentions with resources. You attend to any “drifting” you encounter—although everyone will assure you that such drifting is perfectly natural—and try to counter it.

EG didn’t do any of those things, and neither did Dick, according to his retrospective account, and that is why their faith failed them. (Dick reconsidered his spiritual laziness toward the end of his life—becoming “narrow” according to EG—and reclaimed his faith.) Contrast this with the Spirit’s notion “believing the Faith” requires constant effort of every kind, not just intellectual assent.

And where does such drifting get you? A man gets to the place where he will believe lies about his best friend. A drunkard gets to the place where he “sincerely believes” (at the moment) that another glass will do him no harm. Those beliefs are “sincere” in the very limited sense that one believes them at the time, but they are also culpable because you should have known better than to believe them at the time.

That is the prosecution’s case as it bears on “sincerity” and “courage.”
But these failures are not personal peccadilloes. They are part of the familiar structure by which neighborhood conservatives “go off to college” and become secularists. Dick and EG grew up in the faith, then they went away to college where they heard other things: things that seemed “modern and successful.” [6] And they wrote the kinds of papers that their godless professors and their godless fellow students approved of wholeheartedly.

"My mother broke up with Jesus in college; he wouldn't return her calls."Lewis is not holding back here and I think his case is better for that. Outside “the home” is “the world” where the forces of evil hold sway. And at college, there is the social whirl, which is a really good way to keep yourself from being alone and thinking seriously if you know where the choices you are making are leading you. Nothing in your academic training encourages you to wonder whether “the Supernatural” might not be True—with a capital T—especially since everyone laughs at the idea and would laugh at you, too, if you began to consider it.

These two explanations (accusations) by the Spirit fit together ominously well: the personal and the programmatic. The personal practices that would defend your intellect against the attacks of secularism are abandoned. The friends you cultivate are not the kind that will help to remind you of your highest loyalty and are, in fact, the kind that would ridicule you for that loyalty.

You accept your own desires as worthy of fulfillment, even as you are only half aware of them, and you accept the rewards offered by the formal programs as “daring” and “modern” rather than as true. [7]

But what about the Resurrection?

I chose this character to examine because, like him, I have concerns about the Resurrection. I don’t confuse, as Lewis does, “my faith” and “the doctrine of the Resurrection.” I am aware that after Jesus’ death, something happened that dramatically catalyzed his disciples and sent them out proclaiming his continuing presence. I don’t know what that “something” was and the written accounts provided by the writers of our gospels don’t show much interest in exploring  just what that “something” was. Whatever questions we are asking, they really didn’t care about them.

I guard “the faith I was given” as well as I know how. I understand that relying on it requires active investment in the practices and the associations that support my faith. These are the things the Spirit accused EG of neglecting.

But, frankly, Heaven and Hell have never meant very much to me. If there is any life after this one, it will be in God’s care, just as this one is. And “things,” by which I mean the intersection of what I believe and how I feel and what I do may not be related to an afterlife in any way that ever occurred to me. I may wind up, as Lewis described his own conversion “as the most… reluctant convert in all England,” Or, in my case, England’s former colonies.

[1] All the other Ghosts want to use God in some instrumental way, like Michael’s Mother who will worship God as much as anyone would like provided that when she is done, she will get to see her son, Michael. Or they refuse to accept God’s forgiveness because they demand to receive only what they deserve, like the man I call “the Rights-monger.”
[2] Lewis is also a character in this fantasy. He is the schlub to just doesn’t get it and who in that way gives his guide, George McDonald, a chance to explain further.

[3] Here, as so often, the derivation of a word casts its current meaning into sharp relief. The Greeks is apostatēs and it referred to “a runaway slave.”
[4] You may have noticed that I left out a few words in my formulation. EG refers to “the doctrine of the Resurrection,” rather that the event itself, distancing himself from it. He also describes his critical faculties as “the critical faculties which God had given me,” implying that he had made a proper use of those faculties.
5] I am willing to use the word “illicit,” even though the Spirit does not use it because it has the effect of weakening your fidelity to your own faith. That’s enough for me to call such desires “illicit” even though I don’t know what they were.
[6] There is an odd transition here where you give up the faith your learned at your mother’s knee (uncritically because you were only a child) and substitute for those beliefs notions that you learned at the knee of your Ph. D. advisor (also uncritically, because you are only an apprentice in your new trade). In terms of credulity, there is very little to choose between these two socializations.
[7] In The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape, the senior devil, advises his apprentice, “don’t waste your time trying to persuade them that the messages you are giving them are ‘true.’ Let they think them to be “bold” or courageous” and that will work as well or better. Lewis takes the same view here.

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Final Rest

It took me roughly a year to decide to get a tattoo. It took something like 5—7 minutes to actually get the tattoo. Here it is.

IMG_0599.jpgI am amazed, as I look back at this simple process, to think that I imagined that just getting it on my foot would be the end of it. But now that it is there, I find my mind wandering about and finding one context after another. Here are some of the contexts. Let the eye-rolling begin.

All I had in mind when I began to think about getting it was how funny it would be to me to have a note on my foot. As anyone knows who reads what I write, I am alternatively celebrated and derogated for my use (overuse?) of footnotes. My love letters to Bette were adorned with footnotes and I learned only later that she would read the footnotes first because they were funny and only then go back and read the actual text.

So I have always been a footnote guy, that is, a guy who uses footnotes, and how I am also a footnote guy, that is a guy with a note on his foot.

And that is all there was to it at the beginning. But when I dry that foot off in the morning when I get out of the shower, my mind begins to run off in other directions. It began to occur to me, for instance, that this is an eighth note. I designed it as an eighth note because a quarter note is just a staff and a filled in oval and I was afraid it wouldn’t look enough like a note for people to get the pun at sight.

What kind of note is it?

It’s an eighth note, which means that it takes one half of one beat in 4/4 time. That’s not much time. But as soon as I began thinking of how short it was, it began to occur to me the claim that when I was younger, it was a sixteenth note. I used to be a lot faster, in other words. (See chart for details) And then I began to thing that as I continued to slow down, the most truthful tattoo would be a quarter note. Imagine for instance that I planned to return to Adam Craven at Oddball Studios to ask him to un-tattoo the flag on my eighth note. [1] Taking the flag off would make it a quarter note and would signal that I was slowing down.

tattoo 7Adam’s next service would be to remove the solid inner core of the note and signal that I had slowed down from one beat to two. This would make my tattoo a half note. And after that, he would take off the stem and the tattoo would be a whole note, lasting the entire four beats of the measure.

When I first got this idea and began to chuckle about it, claiming that the note had once been a faster note—and by implication, that I had myself been faster—the notes are all I had in mind. But as you see, notes are not all there is. There are also rests.

What if it wasn’t a note?

But when you get that deep into the question, you get to wonder why they are called rests. They are “not-playings” certainly. They are silences. They are quiets. When you think what else they may be, it is kind of cool that they are called “rests” as if all that playing is tiring and a rest would always be welcome. Actually, I have seen some music by Mozart that strongly suggests that.

And then I began to wonder why, apart from the essential pun itself—it has to be a note if it is going to suggest a footnote—I had chosen a note at all. There is no reason I could not have chosen a rest. I could have had a little ottoman tattooed on my foot and have called it a footrest.

But given that that rests are available to me as well as notes, it tattoo 3is immediately obvious that I could begin in the same direction by interspersing notes and rests as any composer, not just composers of puns, does. I could, for instance, have shown some measures that had only notes in them and then begin to introduce very short rests. I would probably call them naps because that is what I have called short rests all my life. [2]

Then I would show measures that had longer rests. You have the chart, so you can add the big deal rests as you like. Where Bette and I live, in a Continuing Care Retirement Center (CCRC) there is a fine balance between playing (notes) and resting (rests). A friend of mind gets up and dresses and comes down to the lobby for coffee. She puts the cup on her walker, sits in a good chair, and goes back to sleep. Those have to be at least quarter rests and there are a lot of them.

Final Rest

And since we are going that way, we could show measures with more and more rests compared to the number of notes. And eventually the logic would produce a measure with only a whole rest in it. So we are not talking about naps anymore; we are talking about death.

And now we get to go back and harvest the crop we planted by wondering why the “not playings” were called rests at all. When you get to the whole rests [3] you are in the area of “requiem.” A requiem is a kind of music, to which we will attend shortly, but the word itself is the accusative singular form of requies, which means “rest” (after labor) or “repose.”

And why is the accusative form used. Users of English who are unfamiliar with Latin might hesitate to put a word like “accusative” that close to “final rest,” because English doesn’t use the accusative case; we have to make do with only the objective case. The point of the accusative can be seen in the whole Latin phrase, “Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine,” (Give him eternal rest, O Lord). Grammatically, there is a giving (dona eis) by God (O Lord) and so what is given should be in the accusative case—it shows what it is that is being given. It is a rest that is being given.

I like very much the idea of being “given” a rest. Rest can be opposed to active labor, certainly, but it can also be opposed to anxious waiting. We can survey our own lives to establish what a rest is not, just as we established what a note is not.

And I like, too, that it is the rest that is given. I have done some very demanding physical jobs in my life where you had to earn a rest by the amount of work you had completed. I think that is fine if you are pitching pea vines in the hot sun, [4] but in the larger setting of living a life, I believe that the work God gives us to do is the best way to spend our time and after that the rest God gives us to enjoy is the best way to recover from those labors.

tattoo 6That same opposition of “profitable labor” to “sound sleep” shows up in the laments of Henry V (Act 4, scene 1) where he wishes he could have both of those, as “the wretched slave” has, knowing that being the king, he can have neither. But I, not have earned them, but having accepted them, can have both.

We have come a long way from the original pun, have we not? A long journey and now I’m tired and I think I’ll take a rest.

[1] They do that with Q-switches lasers, according to Wikipedia. This a good deal better that earlier methods, one of which required wine, lime, or pigeon excrement. Check it out.
[2] I used to work at my dad’s lumber yard in the summers. The yard was two or three blocks from home, depending on the route taken, and we had an hour to walk home, eat lunch, take a nap, and walk back to the yard. It was a very short rest indeed.
[3] “Whole life” is a kind of insurance. That’s a whole different thing.
[4] Many thanks to the DelMonte canning company for that experience

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Pentecost, 2018

I’ve had the basics of an essay of Pentecost in mind for awhile now. And next Sunday is it, so I am going to try to pull a set of analogies together for you. These analogies are emotional access points to the story.

The other half of the Tower of Babel 

Pentecost is a big deal in the church calendar. It is “the birthday of the church,” as they say. I’ve been accustomed to think of Pentecost as the bookend event with the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11). The story of the tower has men with a common language and so they misuse it to plan a campaign against God. God thinks that maybe if they couldn’t understand each other, that would slow down the attack on heaven, so he “confuses the languages,” so that no one can understand anyone else anymore..

pentecost 1And then at Pentecost, something happens—the accounts in Acts are not consistent—the result of which is that everyone can understand what the Galileans are saying. God, in this story has devised a way to speak to men so that each can understand God’s message in his own language. The Eleven, each with a tiny flame of fire on his head, is speaking Aramaic, which is, so far as we know, the only language they knew, but everyone is hearing what they are saying in their own language.

So the communications barrier is “broken,” in a sense. These men still can’t communicate to each other—the solution to the Babel problem still eludes them—but they can hear Aramaic spoken and it sounds to them like their own language. At Pentecost, God finds a way for all these language groups to hear His message even though it is spoken in only one language.

So there goes my old “bookend” analogy. The only repeating theme is that God acts on human language first to make plans incommunicable—they were bad plans anyway—and then to make His own message available to everyone regardless of the multiplicity of languages. The two stories are clearly related to each other, but they are not bookends.

The United Nations

So how shall we understand the event as an event? Not the significance of it; just the “what happened” part. Well, it isn’t like the U. N. When I was in high school, I was part of the Junior Council on World Affairs and we went to New York to sit in on a session of the General Assembly of the United Nations. On the back of the seat in front of you is a black box with a switch that clicks over from one side to the other. You put on your headphones, and you discover that at each click, you hear a different language. There were five official languages established by the United Nations for their own use (they added Arabic in 1980) and as I clicked across the box I heard French and then German and then Russian. And so on. But I wasn’t hearing the speaker. I was hearing a translator. The translators are very good, I have been told, and trustworthy as well, but they are not the voice of the speaker.

Maybe Pentecost is like that.

The Last Starfighter

I think there is a scene in The Last Starfighter that is closer. Alex Rogan, a mere earthling, is spirited away to the planet Rylos where he is introduced to a Babel of languages as well as a huge variety of physical forms. He can’t understand a thing.

Then an male officer and a female aide come up to him. “Listen,” says Alexpentecost 3, “There’s been a big mistake.”  The aide attaches a button to Alex’s collar and the officer says, “Welcome to Starfighter command.”  You speak English?” asks the dumbfounded Alex.  No,” replies the aide, “You hear English, thanks to your translator device.”  Here is Alex with his pilot and navigator.

In this scene, there is no “translator” in the U. N. sense. The button simply converts the speakers words into the language of the wearer of the button. The “translator” is a computer algorithm.

Maybe Pentecost is like that.

The Right Stuff

But maybe it isn’t. Let me direct you to another analogy. This one isn’t as spiritual as Pentecost or as old school as the U. N. or as fantastic as The Last Starfighter, but I think it has advantages of its own. I’ll describe the scene, then I’ll come back to the advantages.

There is a scene in The Right Stuff that I’d like to offer as another way of understanding Pentecost. The first group of astronauts has been assembled by NASA. The program is going badly, from the standpoint of the astronauts, because the spacecraft is being designed by people who know nothing about pilots and also because the astronauts have not been able to make their voice heard.

In the film, the reason they have not “made their voice heard” is that they do not have “a voice.” They have many voices and the men themselves have many different priorities. They are not a team in any sense of the word and that is why they have no voice.

pentecost 5In the middle of all this cacophony, Gus Grissom (Fred Ward) changes the agenda. “You’ve got it all wrong,” he says, “The issue here isn’t pussy. The issue is monkey.” Grissom is not presented in this film as a scintillating intellect, but what he says changes the group entirely. John Glenn (Ed Harris) has been saying that the astronauts are all public figures and should lead exemplary lives. In this situation, that means not accepting the sexual advances of the flocks of young women who are trying to make the rounds of all the astronauts. The astronauts are not of one mind about Glenn’s proposal. They have not been, to this point, of one mind about anything. And that is why they have had no voice.

But NASA has decided to send a chimpanzee into space first, rather than a man. Furthermore, the spacecraft, the capsule in later conversations, is being designed with a chimpanzee’s abilities, not a seasoned pilot’s abilities, in mind. That has irked them all, but it is Grissom who says it. “The issue isn’t [what divides us], it is [what unites us]. [1]

Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank) sees immediately what Grissom is talking about and puts the matter into a more comprehensible form.

What Gus is sayin’ is that’s we’re missin’ the point. What Gus is saying is that we’ve all heard the rumor that they’re thinking of sending a monkey up first. Well none of us wants to think that they’re sending a monkey up to do a man’s work. But what Gus is sayin’ is that they’re tryin’ to send a man up to do a monkey’s work. Us a bunch of college-trained chimpanzees.

It is at that point that Grissom utters the iconic “Fuckin’ A, Bubba” the precise meaning of which has been debated by cinemaphiles for 35 years now. But it is clearly intended as agreement. He means that Carpenter’s rendition of the point is the direction he intended to go.

With Grissom’s agreement, Carpenter continues.

What Gus is sayin’ is that we’ve got to change things around here. We are pilots and we know more about what we need to fly this thing than anybody else.

At that point the direction is clear and Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid) joins in, continuing the idea that each person is “interpreting” what Grissom had said. “What Gus is sayin’ here is that we got to stick together on this deal.”

And that is what they do. They approach the German scientists who are designing the capsule with chimpanzees in mind and force them to revise it with real pilots in mind. [2]

I’m proposing that the model in The Right Stuff casts a new light entirely on Pentecost. It might feel a little odd because the tone of the two settings in so different, but look at it this way. The setting of Pentecost is completely fantastic. This is Acts 2.

2when suddenly there came from heaven a sound as of a violent wind which filled the entire house in which they were sitting; 3 and there appeared to them tongues as of fire; these separated and came to rest on the head of each of them.

And they began “speaking in tongues” in such a way that some in the crowd laughed, thinking that they were simply drunk. And no one understood what was being said any more than the astronauts understood what Gus Grissom meant when he said “We are the monkey.”

So we have in each setting a powerful but incomprehensible utterance, which someone is able to unfold as meaningful. It is Peter in the Pentecost scene. It is Scott Carpenter and Gordon Cooper in the astronaut scene.

Peter says [3] is this:

16 On the contrary, this is what the prophet [5]was saying: 17In the last days—the Lord declares—I shall pour out my Spirit on all humanity. Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young people shall see visions, your old people dream dreams. 18Even on the slaves, men and women, shall I pour out my Spirit. 19 I will show portents in the sky above and signs on the earth below. 20The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon into blood before the day of the Lord comes, that great and terrible Day. 21And all who callon the name of the Lord will be saved.

You have just heard and seen something you could not comprehend, says Peter, but what these men are tryin’ to say is this. You can hear there, I hope, “What Gus is tryin’ to say is…”

In both of these scenes, so incompatible in some ways, the reference is to something that just happened. The speaker (Peter, in Acts, Carpenter and Cooper in The Right Stuff) declares what it means. The utterance in The Right Stuff, and the event of tongues in Acts, are taken as the common property of the group. The logic of both events goes like this. This just happened. You all saw it. Now let me tell you what it means.

That’s how they are alike. But in the sermon in Acts, Peter cites Joel’s signs and identifies Jesus of Nazareth as “the Christ of God.” The crowd responds like this.

37 Hearing this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘What are we to do, brothers?’ 38‘You must repent,’ Peter answered, ‘and every one of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

In the movie, nothing that dramatic happens, but it is true that now that the issue is changed to how we (the astronauts) can replace the chimpanzees in NASA’s plans, the astronauts are united and powerful, where before they were quarreling among themselves and completely ineffective. [5]

We will never know what happened at Pentecost. The treatment is symbolic, not descriptive. But we can appropriate an understanding of how it felt for that great event to happen before our eyes and trying on one—and then another—of the analogies that are useful in their own partial way.

Here are two I have loved.

[1] I have a longstanding issue with the formula, “the issue isn’t X, it’s Y” as if there is one issue and it can be interpreted in either of two ways. What that formulation really means is, “Instead of talking about X, as you prefer, let’s talk about Y as I prefer. Y is better than X.” That’s what it means.
[2] That is where the line “No bucks, no Buck Rogers” comes from.
[3] Prefacing his remarks with one of my favorite scriptures. “These men are not drunk as you suppose, for it is only the third hour of the day.” That would be 9:00. The joke is that these men are not drunk because they have not yet had the time to get drunk. Come back in twelve hours and you’ll see what you are expecting.
[4] Joel, chapter 2.
[5] There is considerable disunity in the book of Acts too and in every instance, the issue is reformulated from one that divides them to one that unites them. And that is all done without anyone having to say, “What Gus is sayin’ is.”

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All-wheel Drive

As I get older, I think of all-wheel drive (AWD) as increasingly important to me. [1] And I’m not thinking about driving. I am thinking about how best to live my life.

When I wrote about this before, I imagined myself in a sailboat, but becalmed. [2] Since I want to go somewhere, I am alert for the slightest breeze so that I can orient my sail to catch it and move me toward home. This is not a traction problem; this is a propulsion problem.

But today, I am having un-sailboat thoughts. You guessed that, I suppose, when I AWD 1introduced all-wheel drive. I am one of the world’s worst in understanding mechanical relations and most of what I know [3] I learned from ads for cars featuring AWD, but what I get is a marvelous metaphor if traction is the problem. It doesn’t help you choose the right destination. It doesn’t help you avoid drunk drivers. But it is said to be really good when the surface you are driving on is slippery.

The surface I am living on is slippery. This is not one of those far-fetched analogies.

I am going to imagine a car with an ego. The ego is the part of us that is responsible for the executive functions. Imagine the CEO of a company, if the Freudian division into three parts [4] doesn’t call up a clear picture. The CEO decides what is important and how projects ought to be pursued. The executive function of the car does the same thing for the problem of traction. Not much of a problem if all the wheels have good traction.

But when some do and some don’t, decisions are going to have to be made about which wheel is going to get the power sent to it. Since I am the “executive function” in “the car” under consideration, I can stop talking about drive trains and wheels and start talking about resources for living. If I am trying to go somewhere and am not able to, then “traction” is exactly the problem I am having and if the places where my life meets the road don’t all have the traction I need, then I need to rely particularly on the one that does. That is the virtue of AWD for my life.

To begin to get serious about application, let’s imagine that I have four (only four) wheels. [5] What are they? What are the places where my rubber meets my road; the places where I can get the traction I need?

AWD 2Exercise is one wheel, for sure. And it’s not just the cardiovascular stress, although that’s nice. It’s also the sheer moral satisfaction. At a very deep level, I feel that exercise is “a good thing” and it makes me feel good about myself. Not to knock the cardio, but I really believe that the surplus virtue I accumulate is more important in providing the traction that makes that wheel move. And if that is the only wheel with traction, it is the one I ought to be relying on.

I feel that way partly because I used to get a lot of the same feelings by cleaning out the garage. That worked for me so often that I still call that kind of task “cleaning out the garage” even though I no longer have a garage. It’s work that has to be done and that I have been putting off and that I’m going to feel good about myself if I get it done.

Writing is another wheel for sure. There are times I am so out of sorts or so locked into some condition or other that writing is about all I can do. Blogs were made for people like me. I write about things that interest me and things that irk me. I formulate structures that can contain ideas that normally just cancel each other out and I can put these anti-ideas in touch with each other. I like that.

I write serious ideas and playful ideas. I write about religious and political ideas—separately, mostly. I write about societies and individuals and how they relate to each other. I write about getting old and about staying in love. The first of that pair is about gravity; the second much more about levity. And if writing is what has the traction, that is where the power goes.

Getting together with friends who know me and love me anyway is the third wheel. [6] I AWD 3am very fortunate that Bette, my wife, is one of those friends. I know it doesn’t always work that way. But there are others, some family members, some long time friends whom I can contact. Just talking to people you can afford to be candid with helps give me traction.

Pattern-breaking is the fourth wheel. It doesn’t seem to matter a great deal what pattern I am breaking. When I am not going anywhere because none of the other wheels have traction, I begin to think in terms of larger patterns. And the violation of those patterns, somehow gets me moving again. I could take a trip to somewhere I always wanted to go. I could buy something I have been thinking about and have never really decided to buy. I could ride a Tri-Met bus I’ve never ridden and go on that bus to some part of Portland I’ve never been to. I could decide suddenly to go to the coast and stay for the night and walk on the beach or just get rained on.

It doesn’t really matter much, as I said, what pattern is being broken. Once the pattern comes to seem to be part of the problem, breaking it helps me get moving again and go somewhere I really need to go.

AWD 4People who know me as religious person are going to wonder why at least one of the wheels doesn’t refer to my own faith. The long answer is way too long for the 4WD metaphor, but the short answer is that all of them are religious. (Maybe not “cleaning out the garage.”) My own faith is a part of who I am when I have no traction at all and it is part of my choice about where to send the power. What part of my life—again, maybe the garage—is not part of my commitment to hear what God has to say to me and to respond to it as wholeheartedly as I can? That’s why there isn’t a wheel I call “faith.”

If I’m moving along well on dry and solid surfaces, none of this really matters. Two-wheel, four-wheel, all-wheel. Ehh. But when only one wheel really has any grip—when, to say it another way, I have mostly lost my grip—it is a great help to find the wheel that still has some purchase and direct all the power I have to that one.

For me, the hardest part of all that is being willing to notice how many of the wheels that I ordinarily rely on are simply not getting me anywhere. But when I notice that, finding the one that still works feels really good.

[1] It is possible that what I am talking about should he called “intelligent all-wheel drive.” If there is a difference, that is the one I am referring to. I am going to continue to use 4WD because i4WD would look like an Apple product.
[2] The boat is becalmed. I am not. Particularly as time passes, I am not.
[3] Not ALL of what I know, because my son Doug has persisted in trying to teach me more so I could write this essay without embarrassing myself.
[4] I’m thinking of something like “Homo mentis est omnis divisa in partes tres.” That does sound familiar, doesn’t it?
[5] I probably should take the time to say that I understand that I have more than four. I could turn whatever the number is into four categories, but I think it would be clearer just to pick four for today, understanding that they might be different ones next year.
[6] “Know me and love me” is not a casual reference. The formulation I most often use is one I found in Snell and Gail Putney’s book, The Adjusted American: Normal Neuroses in the Individual and Society. The formulation they use is “an accurate and acceptable self-image.” These friends have an “accurate and accepted” image of me, which is why they are so important.

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Karl Barth and Ergophobia

I want to think today about ergophobia. [1] I mean by this term not the familiar “fear of work,” (illustrated by the man hiding under the desk, below) but more a “fear of works righteousness.” The mainstay of Christian theology is that salvation comes by grace, not by merit. This clause in Ephesians 2:8, 9 suggests why that is important:

Because it is by grace that you have been saved…not by anything that you have done, so that nobody can claim the credit.

Credit-claiming is a big deal, apparently. The the grace of God is a big deal too. But you can take it too far. Karl Barth, for instance, takes it too far, in my judgment. Consider this.

“…the man who faces Christ… will see that he is in no position to have faith in himself, or to ascribe to himself a capacity or power by means of which he himself could somehow bring about his salvation, or co-operate in bringing it about. What proceeds from himself the man who believes can only consider as the sin which is forgiven him.

If he were to any extent to rely on himself too, as well as on Jesus Christ, he would to that extent fall back into sin, and deny the completeness of the salvation received through Jesus Christ and thus the glory of Jesus Christ as the only Savior. But if he cannot rely on himself, he cannot rely on his own faith as a work, to accomplish which he possesses the organs and the capabilities in himself.” [2]

It is passages like this that have pushed me so far as to invent a word like “ergophobic.” Barth is an ergophobe, as was the apostle Paul. [3] Barth says that we cannot rely on our faith “as a work.” I like that. Treating the faith you have as if it were your contribution to the salvation that you and God jointly provide is wrong. It is “credit-claiming.”

ergo 1On the other hand, faith can be considered not as “a work,” but as a personal and wholehearted commitment to receive the gift that God offers. That still violates the higher standard that Barth offers in this passage—faith that proceeds from the self is as sinful as everything else that proceeds from the self—but it does surpass the lower standard. It does not treat faith as if it were “a work” and thus “deserving” of salvation. It treats faith as a response to grace.  That seems perfectly reasonable to me.

Let’s start somewhere else. Is it better for us to think of the salvation that God offers as more like a wedding or more like being struck by lightening? [4] I think it is more like a wedding. Wedding language is commonly used in the Bible to point toward the relationship of God and His people. Here, just as one example is a clip from Jeremiah 38:

My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD.

But every covenant, not just a marriage covenant, relies on the need for at least two parties. A covenant of friendship requires two. A business partnership requires two. A doubles tennis team requires two.

Why is it a good idea to obliterate that crucially important dimension? I think it is not,ergo 10 but the people I am calling ergophobes are not driven by their judgment that it is a good idea; they are driven by their fear that attributing some part of the transaction to the human partner will constitute “credit-claiming” and thereby undo the grace of God. In their fear, they are giving up too much.

Maybe it would be enough to acknowledge that the initiative lies in God’s hands. No one imagines that we approach God with the idea that He and I form a joint partnership. Surely Barth would say that giving the initiative to the human partner is putting it in the wrong place. I agree. But they go on to say that when God offers the initiative—as all scripture suggests—that we go too far by accepting the initiative. I don’t agree.

One of the best-known representations of God’s initiative and our response is this passage from Revelation 3 where God is pictured standing at the door of a house and knocking, asking to be admitted.

20Look, I am standing at the door, knocking. If one of you hears me calling and opens the door, I will come in to share a meal at that person’s side. [5]

In this image, the house is ours. God comes to our house and knocks at the door. The initiative is His. But the ability to respond to that request is ours and can only be ours. The passage presupposes that we may choose to open the door or not. It makes no narrative sense at all to ask that the door be opened if the resident could not choose to open it.

ergo 8In the Barthian sense above, opening the door is a sinful act which we hope will be forgiven. That seems “too far” to me. Fearing “credit-claiming” that much (too much) is what makes me search around for words like ergophobe.

Christians do not, in fact, practice their religion that way. We understand in the most practical terms that God has offered us an invitation and that we are free to accept or reject it. We do not all understand the consequences of rejecting it in the same way, as I noted recently. But when anyone goes as far as the ergophobes go, they deny human agency and scripture teaches that God went to some lengths to preserve human agency. In theological settings, it is called “free will.”

Some Barthians say that “faith” is the gift of God in the sense that God guarantees it as a choice we could make if we were willing. I think you have to relax your ergophobia at least a little to come that far and I appreciate it. We still may choose, in this way of imagining it, but it is the action and intention of God that the choice be there for us to make.

But some say that the faith itself is an act of God and that seems to me a violation of any relationship that could be called a covenant.

[1] There is already a word “ergophobia” or, alternatively, “ergasiophobia,” which means fear of work or fear of finding work. But that’s not what I mean and the Greek ergon = “work” plus the suffix -phobia, meaning “fear” are both so much in the public domain that I feel free to combine them as I like if I want to shape them into a new word.
[2] This passage is from Karl Barth’s Gifford Lectures given at Aberdeen, Scotland from 1936—1938. The lectures were called “The Knowledge of God and the Service of God According to the Teaching of the Reformation.” This passage is apparently taken from a reflection on the lectures by W. Travis McMaken in 2011. I mention that because he is the one responsible for the choice of the bold font.
[3] Often, the suffix -phobic is used to represent excessive fear; more fear “than their ought to be.” I mean less than that. I mean that the ergophobe features work—or “works” in the context of theology—more than is necessary or desirable. I don’t mean that it is neurotic.
[4] It is cute, I think, that we call being struck by lightening “an act of God” for insurance purposes, but do not call the union of two souls made for each other an act of God, even though it is true that the insurance companies do make some adjustments in the latter case as well.
[5] For reasons I don’t really understand, this translation from the New Jerusalem Bible says “standing” although it is a perfect verb, which ought to indicate an action that is completed already. That is what “perfect” means. And the verb translated “knocking” indicated a present and continuing action. It ought to mean “I have come…and I continue to knock.” Hm.


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The Zipper

One of the lines for which Thomas Hobbes is justly famous is that life without a strong central government (Leviathan, he said) is “solitary, nasty, poor, brutish, and short.”  [1] What he meant is that one of government’s prized functions is to keep the natural order of things from obtaining, by which the large and strong oppress the small and weak. His alternative was the rule of law, which, I have to admit, sounds like the better alternative.

The interposition of the law regularizes conduct by putting the strong and the weak under the same set of rules. Their behavior toward each other, in other words, is constrained by their obedience to a common rule that is not necessarily in harmony with with the preferences of either.

That said, let’s talk about merging traffic.

My stepdaughter, Melisa Jaenisch, took and passed a German drivers’ test many years zipper 1after she first passed one in the U.S. One of the ideas she came across in the German experience is “the Zipper.” If you can picture one line of cars approaching a single lane of highway from the highway and another from an access ramp (Einfahrt), you have the two elements that need to be “zipped together.” The fundamental principle can be put simply as “take turns,” but that neglects the point I am trying to make here, which is that the order of precedence is not controlled by the preferences of the drivers.

In the U. S., merging onto a freeway from an access ramp is more or less petitionary. The drivers already in the right hand lane pretend not to notice the drivers that are trying to merge. Eye contact is carefully avoided. Some of those drivers are generous and make space for the next merging car to join the lane; some rudely refuse even the smallest space. But nasty or nice, these are interpersonal arrangements and they should not be.  They should be social norms.

That is what the Zipper is about. You, the merging vehicle, have a right to pull into the lane in front of me. [2] And you, the next merging vehicle have the obligation to wait your turn and merge into the lane behind me. Neither one of these drivers is asking anything of the other. This is not personal. This is how we do it here. There is no asking and granting of favors. There is only the exercise of the rights that all agree each driver has.

I imagine that the Zipper doesn’t always work perfectly.  On the other hand, it is hard to imagine road rage emerging from the exercise of rights and duties that all drivers acknowledge. It is not at all hard to imagine road rage emerging from refusing to allow cars to merge at all–”not in front of ME; who do you think YOU are?–”or to imagine a jacked up Ram bulling its way into a line of well-behaved Priuses.

We survive these little traffic mishaps. I knew I was using hyperbole when I [3] began with Hobbes’ “war of each against all.” Still, these little encounters are often reliable indicators of some more general attitude toward the relationship between the society and the individual. Let’s look at some examples.

The presuppositions of trash

I have a special dislike for people who throw their trash on the streets and sidewalks or in the public parks. Why would anyone do that? I picture my brothers and I walking down the street together as young boys and I imagine one of us throwing the wrapper from a candy bar on the sidewalk. Mother, who was a world class user of teachable moments, would have stopped the parade and would have asked the offending brother, “Who do you think is going to pick that up?”

It’s an interesting question although she intended it only rhetorically. “Someone is going to pick it up” is implicit in the question. This will be someone who didn’t throw it there and who, therefore, ought not to be obliged to pick it up. It is an imposition on the person who will have to decide either to pick up my trash or to suffer a trashy environment through no fault of her own. So implicit in Mother’s question was the idea that I should not have thrown it, or, having thrown it, should pick it up because only that preserves the relationship of rights and duties of which society is properly constructed.

zipper 2I think of that example frequently. Daily, to tell you the truth. The part of Portland I live in commonly has trash on the streets and sidewalks and in the public parks. And particularly, for some reason, in the bus shelters. There is a lot of McDonalds trash. There are coffee cups. Sometimes a shoe and a sock. Newspapers and magazines. Orange peels and apple cores. And when I see that, mostly on my way back from Starbucks, which is why I see it so often, Mother’s question comes to me: “Who do you think is going to pick that up?”  Obviously, no one.

Someone thought that throwing the trash on the sidewalk was the appropriate thing to do. Was it an act of contempt for the people who don’t want trash on the sidewalk? Was it thoughtless; was it angry? What is a retaliation against “society” for damages real or imagined?

Just smile and wave

I was walking across a busy street in my neighborhood recently, when a “street person†and an associate walked across a busy intersection, with one light and against the other. It stopped traffic in both directions. The drivers were puzzled initially, but it wouldn’t have taken very long for them to get angry. The two men seemed in good spirits, waving to the drivers who had stopped so as not to run them over.  The redhead in the illustration below is obviously not a street person, but she is jaywalking in Normal, Illinois where my younger son was at the time I wrote this, visiting his mother.  Ah.

zipper 3I watched incredulously from the corner as I waited for the walk sign to come on and the street person noticed me. I don’t know what attitude he attributed to me but he decided that he owed me an explanation of how he was managing to do what he was doing. Or he may have thought of it as a tutorial. “Just smile and wave,” he called to me. I think he was answering the question, “How would I go about doing that myself? It seems to be working really well for you and your friend.”

There was none of the contempt for “society” that I so easily attribute to the trash people. This guy was doing something he wanted to do. He was sauntering, unhurried and unapologetic, from the southwest corner of the intersection to the northeast corner. It was much more efficient for him than crossing the street to the east, then the street to the north. He may have imagined that the people who sat in their cars while he and his friend did that were pleasant people who were happy to accommodate him, but my guess is that he is more likely to have thought them dupes, people who can be endlessly exploited and who will not know how prevent it.

I think of the trash leavers as angry young men. I don’t know who they actually are; that’s how I picture them. I think of the street guy as an experienced con man, taking what he wants from whatever suckers are there. Neither of these abuses squares at all with the Zipper, which is a way of thinking of society made up of rights and obligations. [4]

I think the idea of a society made up of rights and obligations as a society with a good foundation. I think that if a society is only rights and obligations, it will be rigid and dreary. Human society is so much more than that. The is generosity and gratitude and unexpected kindness to be found everywhere. I love those!

But they don’t control merging traffic. For that, we need rights and obligations.

[1] For reasons I have never understood, “poor” is frequently left out of this set, just as “toil” is often left out of Winston Churchill, “blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”

[2] But that does not mean that the five vehicles in line behind the first merging vehicle have the right to crowd into the lane just because someone is willing to let them do it. When I give up my place in line to more than one vehicle, I am giving up that space on behalf of all the cars behind me in my lane. They, too, will have to wait as I allow half a dozen cars to pull into the lane in front of me. They are in front of you, too, of course.
[3]  My understanding of why I should use “I” there instead of “me” is that the object of the verb “picture” is the clause “my brothers and I walking….” and that the phrase “my brothers and I” is the subject of the clause.  That is why it needs to be in the nominative case when a quick glance makes it look like the object of “to picture” and thus in the objective case.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.  Unless, of course, I’m wrong.

[4] And while I am using Germany as the exemplar of the Zipper notion of society, I’d have to say that parts of Germany are clearly unzipped. The graffiti on the overpasses, for instance, is a striking example of the failure to answer my mother’s question, “Who do you think is going to clean that up.” On the other hand, you hardly ever see trash in the streets.

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