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We’re All in the Same Cult

12 Nov

I never get approached by Jehovah’s Witnesses. It’s one of my life’s sad truths. I see them often enough, standing outside of my local subway station, clutching copies of Watchtower and Alive! magazine. I’ve noticed them strolling around the neighborhood in pairs, ringing doorbells and attempting to spread the gospel. But somehow, I always get overlooked by these well-meaning weirdos, and honestly I can’t help but feel like I’ve been snubbed. Am I that obviously doomed to eternal damnation that I’m not worth their time? Or perhaps they don’t want me in their exclusive little club because I look like I’d be too difficult to shame. I know I dress like I’ve got nothing left to lose, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to hear the Good Word. Because honestly, that shit cracks me up.

There’s a tendency among smug assholes like myself to view the devout as a bunch of brainwashed rubes. It seems like the more fanatically followers adhere to non-secular rules, the more bizarre those rules are. It makes sense, I suppose: you can’t exactly half-ass snake handling or self-mutilation to please your ethereal alien masters. Spaced-out diatribes by Moonies and Hare Krishnas lead us to believe that behind the barricades of your average religious compound are a bunch of vapid airheads who have completely lost touch with reality. But that’s not necessarily true, as I learned from Kyria Abrahams’ memoir I’m Perect, You’re Doomed, which describes her upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness in late twentieth-century Rhode Island. You can be a wackadoo who believes that Jesus Christ is fascinated by your masturbatory habits and be really into The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. The two things aren’t mutually exclusive.

I learned a lot about Jehovah’s Witnesses from this lively and hilarious book, and the culture of shame that keeps meat in the Kingdom Hall seats. But I was more interested to learn of the familiar dysfunctional aspects of the author’s upbringing. She had a lot of the same stupid thoughts and feelings that any kid has, but all couched in this belief that these were the trappings of the mortal, and therefore inconsequential world. Where one kid might anxiously worry about their grades because they wanted to secure a good future, the author felt that it didn’t matter since she’d inherit the earth eventually anyway. However, she still experienced anxiety over the stuff she didn’t have, the friendships that were at once tenuous and vital, and the inability to actualize. These are things that all kids feel, whether they think that a hundred and forty-four thousand chosen people will sit at God’s right hand in Heaven or not.

And maybe that’s why I haven’t been approached by any Jehovah’s Witnesses, because I come across as an unapproachable jerk who will probably make trouble. Which, incidentally, I would. I mean, these people believe that they’ll inherit the earth and live in peace with lions and bears, for crying out loud. How awesome is that? One of my favorite parts of I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed is when the author was cruising around the neighborhood, looking for homeowners to pester with the True Word, fantasizing about which homes they’d occupy once all of the non-Jehovah’s Witnesses vanished after the Apocalypse. So essentially, after the Rapture, they can traipse into my apartment and see the copy of Answer Me! and various morally stumbling influences that would have made me a poor candidate for eternal life in the first place. Your sins always find you out.

Besides writing a worthwhile book, Kyria Abrahams also writes for and tweets hilarity from @KyriaAbrahams. Check her out!

Mormons: Morons, or More “On?”

26 Jan

Growing up in New York City, I didn’t get the opportunity to interact with a lot of Mormons. In fact, until I was in my late twenties, I encountered exactly zero Mormons, at least to my knowledge. I was aware of Mormonism, however, through a series of awesome commercials that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would run on Saturday mornings during my cartoon time. When I was very young, I thought they were another of the morning’s public service announcements, like the one where a bunch of sock puppets warned you not to take your mother’s Sucrets. By the time I was nine years old, I realized that I was actually being pitched to by a religion, and a Christian one at that. It didn’t really bother me, except that religion was cutting into my personal Saturday time, when everyone knows that church and evangelical television programs belong on Sunday.

My first exposure to actual tenets of the Mormon religion–besides their famous and salacious allowance for polygamy–was from watching the movie Plan 10 From Outer Space. This remains on the list of weirdest movies I have ever seen, and I could spend this entire essay trying to explain the plot. Pertinent to this piece were some of the facts about Mormonism as presented in the movie: that God came from a planet called Kolob, and every Mormon gets his own planet in the afterlife. It was starting to sound more like science-fiction than spirituality. A couple of years later, I started dating someone who had a copy of the Book of Mormon, which I promptly borrowed and read and never returned.

I truly think that every literate person should read the Book of Mormon, because it is one of the funniest and most insane books ever written. If you’re like I was, you probably think the book is full of a bunch of new age baloney and pseudo-holy mumbo jumbo that isn’t worth your time. But you’d be wrong. The Book of Mormon is the unbelievable and ludicrous story about Jews living in America during biblical times, how they warred among themselves, and how a faction of the Jews named the Lamanites angered God were turned into red-skinned Native Americans as punishment. The book claims that, during the three days between Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and his resurrection, he zipped over to what would become America and imparted some sage wisdom to its multitude. I mean, that just blows my mind. That means the Book of Mormon is partially an account of Jesus’ “lost weekend.”

In 2003, I read Jon Krakauer’s wonderful book Under the Banner of Heaven. It’s a compelling, well-written account of the history of Mormonism interspersed with a more current story about a Mormon woman murdered by her brothers. The book is really about a Mormon sect that is not part of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints–that would be the “official” Mormon church, but like any religion there are lots of splinter groups with their own ideas. Some of them still practice polygamy and engage in incest as proscribed by scripture, and Under the Banner of Heaven makes clear that these practitioners comprise the smallest portion of Mormons. In fact, they would not even resonate as Mormons as we know them. Turns out that the ones practicing incest and killing their wives were a far cry from the short-sleeved, starched shirt missionaries with precise haircuts and shit-eating grins that one would normally associate with Mormonism. I still came away with the notion that Mormons are a strange, backwards people, well worthy of my ridicule.

It was around this time that I actually met a guy who was Mormon, the idea of which tickled me to no end. Imagine my disappointment when he didn’t try to explain that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson, Missouri, didn’t tell me about Heavenly Father’s plan to give me my own, personal planet in the afterlife. He was, annoyingly, a very pleasant, polite person that liked a lot of the same comic books that I do. I plied him about his faith, and he pretty well pulled my card: “You’ve read the Book of Mormon,” he said, “you know what we’re about. If that doesn’t appeal to you, then fine. It doesn’t make me want to stop talking about Batman.” I was very embarrassed. Here I was, hoping to meet a kooky, wacky Mormon that would regale me with ridiculous stories about Jesus visiting America, all along I was the nut job hovering around, pressuring him to say something that I could laugh at. It occurred to me that practically every creed and belief sounds like complete bullshit when you voice it aloud: “I believe that the universe was spontaneously created and that the invisible air around us actually contains tiny particles whose structure and movement matches that of our solar system.” Weirdo. I lost touch with this Mormon friend a while ago–he lost touch with me, actually, probably because I was such a pain in the ass about his church. But I resolved from then on to judge people by the things they do, not by my regard for their beliefs.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw The Book of Mormon on Broadway. I’m a fan of Matt Stone and Trey Parker, and really enjoyed the episode of South Park which details a basic history of Mormonism. The musical was hilarious, too, and if you’re not shy of some seriously blue language, you should check it out. However, the play ends implying that working together and helping each other are the real major tenets of Mormonism, not the stuff about golden plates and multiple wives. The important things are the values that they espouse, because everyone believes in some retarded-sounding shit whether they know it or not. The episode of South Park dealing with Mormonism ends in much the same way. Many people I’ve known say that they respect religious scripture and spirituality, but reject churches as inherently corrupt. Mormonism kind of turns that idea on its ear, a religion based on scripture that sounds like a load of donkey loafs, but realized in a church that actually fosters community, family, and good works. You really can’t hate on that.

You Spring For the Rum, I’ll Get the Drugs

23 Jan

I first became aware of the Amish practice of Rumspringa from watching The Devil’s Playground, a documentary about Amish teenagers. After viewing that movie, my understanding was that Rumspringa is an Amish person’s last chance to engage the “English” world of sin, debauchery, and other types of fun. I figured that it made good sense: by allowing its members to sow their wild oats, the Amish religion can retain at least some of its members, should they feel vacuousness in the secular world of ironic t-shirts and gangster rap music. It was my small-minded assumption that everyone in the world wants to watch shitty prime-time sitcoms and play with their digital watches which led me to believe that Rumspringa is a structured allowance to sin, an attempt to abate any future curiosities and non-Amish leanings. I mean, those Islamic fundamentalists are just jealous and hate our freedoms, right? All they want is to sink their teeth into a salty Quarter Pounder with Cheese. But they can’t, and that frustrates them, so they hijack planes and stone women to death.

Then I read the book Rumspringa: To Be or Not to Be Amish by Tom Shachtman. Let me say right away that you should not read this book. It is very poorly-written, and in fact comes across like a medium-grade master’s thesis for a third-tier university. It’s not so much an essay as it is a string of direct quotes from Amish teenagers, who–surprise, surprise–are not a whole lot more articulate than their “English” counterparts. Curse words are inexplicably redacted with a bracketed “[expletive deleted]” like it’s the fucking Nixon White House tapes or something. Buddy, if I’m old enough to read about Amish kids smoking crystal meth, then I can probably handle a few instances of the s-word. The writing is shitty and dry, and may have benefited from a few bad words peppered among the ridiculous dialog.

That being said, the information contained within Rumspringa was very interesting. I came to learn more about Amish life and mores, and had a few of my preconceptions shattered. For one thing, like in any religion, there are many different sects and beliefs under the umbrella of the Amish religion. Amish people do not eschew every modern convenience, and in fact there are regular meetings among Amish communities to determine what, if any, technologies can be applied to daily life. It’s a struggle to keep a balance between living an austere existence, which will involve some suffering, but still working efficiently in a way that will compete with “English” suppliers of the same goods. For instance, some communities would not allow gas-powered plows on their farms, though their use had been suggested year after year. But most of these communities will have one communal telephone, which is integral to doing business. And if that telephone gets used occasionally to contact distant relatives, well there’s no great harm done.

More interesting to me was the actual philosophy behind Rumspringa. It has little to do with sowing your oats, as I thought, and everything to do with the Anabaptist tradition of only accommodating members who join of their own free will and cognizance. People are baptized as adults, and that baptism is a pact between the adherent and his church, not a direct communion with God. In fact, being baptized Amish doesn’t itself guarantee passage to heaven, which is the usual cornerstone promise a church offers for your tithing. People born to Amish families are raised in the Amish tradition, but when they are old enough to think for themselves, they can then choose to join the church or not. While deciding, they are free to live life however they wish.

I had assumed that Rumspringa would last roughly between the ages of sixteen to twenty-one, but I found that many Amish-born people stay in a technical limbo for much longer than that. The trick here is that if you don’t join the Amish faith, then you will simply be the “English” relative of an Amish family, allowed contact with them and even to stay at home, if the father sees fit, until you make a choice one way or the other. But if you do join up and then decide to change your mind later, then you stand a possibility of being shunned; contact will be severely limited and you will not be allowed to share meals or in functions with the community. Seems to me that the best way to hedge your bets would be not to join, that way you can sin to the degree that you like and still talk to your mother from time to time. But that is, of course, my secular view of things. Certain churches demand allegiance as a kind of threat: join us or your family, your community, and your God will hate you. The Amish church is, in this sense, more liberal than some other Christian denominations. You should only join the church knowing full well what is expected of you and because you think it is right, not because you’re afraid of losing touch with your family.

Some years ago, I had the opportunity to sit and talk with an Amish woman, who lived on a farm in southern Wisconsin with her large family. She invited myself and my friends in for some incredibly weak tea and bland ginger cookies. The house was cozy but relatively bare, not jammed with lamps and framed pictures and plush furniture like my own home. The floor was covered in a fine, brown dust of tracked manure. While the younger girls tended to the youngest children, I conversed with the matriarch of the family who was very pleasant and accommodating. It was a few years after 9/11, and the Amish woman asked me about it. I began to relate my personal story of the day, when she cut me off: “No, I mean, what happened that day? Some structures were blown up? Did it affect New York?” She was aware that a serious event had occurred, but didn’t know any of the specifics. Trying to look at it from her perspective, I can’t say that any of the specifics mattered. There was a great loss of life, the president used that to justify military action, and the exact figures and dates are minor compared to those points. From my perspective, the events of 9/11 were a turning point for world politics and how America would be perceived in the twenty-first century. To this woman, it was just more calamitous noise coming from the secular world. How did the events of 9/11 affect this woman, her family, and their farm? Most importantly, how did it impact the price of eggs?

Could It Be…Satan?!

14 Nov

My brother was a big fan of Dungeons & Dragons, but I never got into the stuff. Truthfully, I was a few years too young for it even in 1985, when the craze for role-playing games was dying out. The whole thing seemed too complicated to me, a lot of charts and weird-looking dice, and I was never into the fantasy genre. Still, you couldn’t get away from Dungeons & Dragons and a few other similar games in the early 80s. Their popularity seemed to grow alongside the mounting hysteria surrounding these games’ connection to teenage depression and the occult. My brother often quoted a most likely false tale about a kid who was so obsessed with Dungeons & Dragons that when his character died while playing the game, the guy went home and committed suicide. My brother would grin with glee while telling this story, proud to be dabbling in something so dangerous and wicked.

I wasn’t raised a Christian, so I wasn’t told that God is an all-seeing, all-knowing vain asshole who requires my persistent patronage and adoration. But I did know that Satan was a force of evil, I was made aware of this by news reports of satanic ritual abuse and talk shows about satanic cults and pamphlets and magazine articles and movies all telling me that Satan was looking to steal my soul. Strangely, it never occurred to me that Satan was in an eternal struggle with God, I thought it was us versus Satan; either we let the devil make us bad people, or we decide to be good. The punishment for siding with Satan would be eternal damnation and torture, but the reward for being good would simply be death. Mind you, this is something I determined when I was nine years old. I can only imagine what kinds of berserk shit I’d have been thinking had I been raised a Catholic like my friends and specifically told what tortures lie in store for me should I ponder upon a bosom.

The fear generated by the belief in a worldwide Satanic conspiracy during that time was unbelievable. Satan was everywhere: in our music, in our television shows, in our board games. He preyed mainly on standoffish adolescents and cooing infants, though he wasn’t above the occasional demonic possession of a retiree. Stories about massive cult blood orgies and ritual sacrifice of kidnapped children began popping up, each instance awakening the repressed memories of former members or victims of these cults, their flashbacks recorded while under deep hypnosis on a therapist’s couch. These satanic organizations comprised a highly organized network of devoutly evil people who had infiltrated every town, every suburb, every neighborhood. The most insidious thing about it was that anyone could be a secret satanist: your teacher, the bus driver, even members of your very own church could be paying lip service to God while shitting on a crucifix in their spare time. The main concern were those targeted by the prince of darkness: children. And so a lot of corny shit was justified to insulate the average child from inducement into evil by way of Black Sabbath records and fantasy board games.

No one considers themselves a bad person. We always do what we think is right, which pretty much justifies any act. The guy killing prostitutes at the suggestion of the voices in his head is only doing what he thinks is right. It’s a lot more palatable to believe that the fucked up stuff we do to one another is beyond our control, all manipulated by hoary forces and complex machinations that work incessantly to foster your poor choices. Demon bullies, essentially, or comic book super villains that are committed to evil for evil’s sake. Growing up, my Christian pals told me that God had given all of us free will, which boiled down to the freedom to choose between believing in Christ the messiah or eternal hell fires. This struck me as odd since it implies that our natural state is to be bad, that we have to work to get into God’s graces or we can relax and act naturally for a free trip to Hades. I figured that after all this time, that many billions of souls condemned to hell had to have figured out a loophole. I mean if there’s anything the human race excels at, it’s justifying and even reveling in its own laziness.

The notion that evil forces are invested in making our comings and going as nefarious as possible is a scary one, but far scarier is the reality that there are no evil forces, that we hurt our loved ones and fall short of our potential because we are selfish, and small-minded, and hopelessly locked within our own skin. There is most likely no final reward, no waiting punishment, no foundation to the ideas of karma or cosmic balance or divine retribution. We’re a component of a universal design so complex so as to render us practically irrelevant, and whatever little squabbles we have with each other, no matter if we kiss or kill each other, our most important function is to exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen. Our lives are not significant enough to warrant speculation by demons and devils. Our best hope is that, along the way, we’ll get to roll the twenty-sided die a few times and end up with an extra bit of treasure or a Cloak of Wisdom or something.

All I Ever Needed to Know About Adolf Hitler, I Learned From Daffy Duck

7 Jul

In the days and weeks after 9/11/01, I recall being very disappointed in some of my friends and acquaintances who, through one instance or another, proved themselves to be racist assholes. I admit and have admitted that right after the Twin Towers fell, I had a little bloodlust, myself. I wanted to pound Osama bin Laden in his ugly face and carpet bomb whatever sand-choked hellhole he had squirreled himself away in. But I never felt like attacking Muslims, frankly I didn’t make the direct connection between Islam and the events of 9/11 until FOX News kindly pointed it out for me. When someone carries out hurtful acts in the name of a religion that otherwise preaches peace and moderation, then they are not representatives of that religion. They’re wackos.

So right after 9/11, I noticed that a lot of my peers and neighbors were fucking dickfaces. It wasn’t just the people around me, either, but all over America there were flags on car bumpers and anti-Muslim slogans and outbursts of racist violence that, quite honestly, scared the shit out of me. As our army was pulled from Afghanistan and sent to Iraq in order to ferret out those elusive Weapons of Mass Destruction, I wondered what the fuck is happening in my country? I felt powerless, the events that directly affected my life were out of my control and coalescing into something I could not understand. There is nothing wrong with owning and displaying the American flag, if that’s your thing, but the implied and actual jingoism of the early twenty-first century was a little much.

I got a similar sense reading In the Garden of Beasts by the engaging and talented Erik Larsen. It’s about a family of four, the Dodds, the head of which was a Midwestern university professor, tapped by President Franklin D. Roosevelt for travel to Berlin as an ambassador of America. He takes his clan: wife, son, and his free-spirited and sexually liberated daughter Martha, and when they arrive to Germany in 1933, Hitler has only just become Chancellor and the Nazi Party is gaining its footholds. In just one year, the Nazis break the Treaty of Versailles, remove practically every right of Jewish citizens, and stage a bloody coup in which as many as a thousand people are simultaneously assassinated. In the middle of it all is the Dodd family, beholden to American isolationist interests, but recoiling in horror at what is happening in Germany.

It’s easy to pretend that the Nazis rose to power overnight, confounding an otherwise peaceful public who went to bed one evening and discovered Stormtroopers goose-stepping down their streets the next morning. But it didn’t happen like that, and political coups are rarely that abrupt. We remember the acts of violence: Kristallnacht, concentration camp murders, the bombing of London. But we don’t recall the legislation put into place years earlier that forbade gentiles to marry Jews, or made it mandatory to salute parades and any Nazi officers that happened to pass within one’s field of vision. It’s a subtle ramp up to accepting a fascist dictatorship, so sneaky that you barely realize anything’s changed until you discover that all of your Jewish neighbors have disappeared. And then you remember that they had an awesome radio in their living room.

I wonder how far along this path we Americans went in the years following 2001. We accepted the Patriot Act, we accepted an unjust military foray into Iraq, we accepted that we would have to sacrifice some of our personal freedom for the hope of safety. Often I wonder if we’re still headed down that path. We subject ourselves to a degrading experience every time we travel by air, is it impossible to think that at the end of a line of people taking off their shoes and belts, wearily but willingly being prodded by metal detectors, there might be a communal shower filled with Zyklon B? Would you step into the shower if you thought that it would stop another 9/11 from happening, or would you resist? At that point, would resisting even be an option?

I’ve heard from a few people that don’t know what the title of this essay is about. I’m surprised at all of you! See below.

Take My Legally Recognized Life Partner, Please

27 Jun

Since the passing of landmark legislation this past weekend, more than a few people have asked me what my thoughts are on New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo ratifying a bill to allow same sex marriages in the state. I’m curious to understand why people want to know my opinion, I don’t think I’ve ever come out staunchly for or against homosexual relationships in the past. The most I’ve written about it here was a quick mention at the end of this essay, essentially to say that I don’t care about homosexuality. Not against it, not for it, don’t really give a shit. That’s not me adopting a cool, disaffected attitude to mask some underlying anxiety about homosexuality, but the result of deep, soul-searching introspection which has turned up a complete and utter void where my personal opinion was supposed to be. I think I must have taken some of my opinion on this matter and used it to pad out my opinion on Saved By the Bell, about which I can go on for volumes. Don’t test me on that.

Now that the deed is done in New York State, let’s all be real here for a minute: by and large, the conservative attitude against gay marriage has not been about marriage between two women, but between two men. That double-standard where homosexuality among males is a sin but homosexuality among females is more innocent–a turn-on, even–is as pervasive as it was in Ancient Rome and underscores the entire anti-gay agenda. When a woman dresses like a man, it’s cute, but when a man dresses like a woman he’s a fruitcake. When women kiss each other hello, it’s accepted, yet if men kiss either hello many people are disgusted. I get disgusted by it, too, but not because I assume the two men kissing are gay. I assume the two men kissing are French. French people are gross.

So I’m not going to elucidate the point that it’s okay for two women to be married. I think only the shrillest, most fundamental Christians are opposed to that, and there’s a limit to the things a well-paid Republican will rail against. “I just got a blowjob in the bathroom from a Taiwanese runaway,” thinks a Republican senator, “how can I, in good conscience, not allow two women to have a legal partnership? Especially if they’re hot women. And Taiwanese.” No, the issue here is whether or not it’s okay for two men to get married. Matrimony is not part of the life cycle, it’s a social construct. It’s really two people signing their names to the same piece of paper so they can get tax breaks and lots of junk mail from Babies “R” Us. I know there’s a deep religious component for some people, but since our Bill of Rights guarantees a separation of church and state, who cares? Start up a new church called the Holy Cathedral of Not Letting Gays Marry Ever and deny homosexuals membership. From a purely bureaucratic standpoint, two gay people getting married as about as newsworthy as a gay person signing up for a fishing license, or a gay person filing for bankruptcy. It’s just paperwork.

I guess the foundation of my understanding of homosexuality lies in the belief that gay people are born, not made. Living in New York, I’ve probably encountered every gay stereotype around, plus met plenty of gay people who did not fit a stereotype. One of my mom’s first employers was a fat, belching dude who drank whiskey and smoked cigars and had a voice like James Earl Jones, since his throat was destroyed by whiskey and cigars. And my mom’s boss had a boyfriend. He wasn’t closeted, but he didn’t wear his homosexuality on his sleeve like “new gays” sometimes do. I’m reminded of a time that a newly-outed lesbian friend of mine suggested I read the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For because she knew I liked comics. I told her that the comic sucked, and she said I probably wasn’t into it because I’m not gay. “No,” I replied, “the comic sucks. That it involves the lives of several gay couples is the only interesting part about it, and that’s just not interesting enough by itself.”

So what the hell was my point again…oh right: my stance on gay marriage. What I’ve been asked to opine about is whether two men who are titillated by each other should be allowed to be wed. What I can’t wrap my head around is why I should care at all. People are enticed by so many disparate things, being aroused by another human being as opposed to some cartoon character or anthropomorphic deity makes more sense to me personally. Of course gay people should be allowed to legally marry, just like they should be allowed to get a driver’s license or register to vote. It’s a municipal designation where the law is concerned, nothing more. We’ve got a country of people who stay married for decades out of spite, partners who think of other people when they make love, couples that engage in shocking, dangerous stuff behind closed doors that would make the most avid Real Sex viewer puke. Two guys that appreciate each others’ penises should be allowed to get married, divorced, they should be allowed to open a limited liability corporation together and also have their names embroidered on hand towels. At least two men aren’t going to marry because they’re being pressured by parents or because one knocked the other up. No, gay people will marry, at least for the foreseeable future, out of love. And plus, every time a gay couple marries, it really pisses off an evangelist. That alone is reason enough to support gay marriage.

I Knew I Should Have Started Up that Suicidal Doomsday Cult When I Had the Chance

13 Jun

Just finished reading Seductive Poison by Deborah Layton, one of the few survivors of the Jonestown Massacre in 1978. She actually defected from the group, named the People’s Temple, some months before, and was instrumental in sending Congressman Leo Ryan to investigate matters in Jonestown, Guyana. His visit triggered the events that would ultimately lead to the mass suicide of almost a thousand people at the behest of charismatic and mentally bonkers leader Reverend Jim Jones. That much I knew before reading the book, and many more irrelevant particulars besides (like Jim Jones selling pet monkeys door-to-door early in his ministering), but I had never read a first-hand account of what went down inside Jones’ jungle compound. It actually makes me realize that I haven’t read that many consequential memoirs. While I am drawn to clunky history books in general, I don’t often learn about events from the people who actually experienced them.

Anyway, it was a pretty gripping book and I recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read it, even if they consider themselves experts on Jim Jones and the Jonestown Massacre. Delving this deeply into the mindset of someone who actually a resident of Jonestown is a chilling and humbling experience. I’ve always lumped this tragedy in with other wacky cult activity, and assumed that the people involved were either very stupid or very, very stupid, and so were separated from their basic civil rights quite easily. If they weren’t being fleeced by some huckster, they’d be blowing their money on the lottery or hoarding shit from the Home Shopping Network or otherwise get tricked by any of society’s many legitimate and illegal confidence games. In a world populated mostly by Larrys and a few Moes, these are the Curlys. Fodder for P.T. Barnum in one era, for David Koresh in another.

I see how closed-minded that thinking was, and how I’ve never really given serious consideration to people that get involved with these groups. It’s not a matter of being naive or stupid, but of wanting structure and guidance. Folks ensnared within cults, within paranoid militias, within terrorist cells don’t make the transition overnight. They start by looking for answers, some kind of frame for an otherwise meaningless existence. Someone might attend a lecture where they are exhorted to face and overcome their greatest fears. They might pursue that line of thinking and attend more lectures and workshops. A year later, these people are Scientologists and they’ve cleared their bank accounts to discover that our mental anguish was caused by Darkseid and his diabolical Omega Sanction. Or something like that.

It should come as no surprise to my trillions and perhaps quadrillions of loyal readers that I was no shrinking violet in high school. Yes, the unabashed nerd over whose words you lovingly pore was flush with pals in my teen years, owing mainly to our shared drug abuse but also due partly to my winning personality. I was somewhat of a leader to various high school outcasts, a distinction I neither sought nor disabused, and because I was well-read and articulate several chums sought my counsel (my standard advice: let’s get more pot). When I left for college, I largely sloughed off these would-be friends, in part because I was tired of maintaining the aloof image that masked my lack of self-confidence, but also because I didn’t know what to do with these kids. We had a lot of ideas regarding how to expend our youthful energy and idealism, but none of them panned out because we were so stoned all the time. I wish I had started up a pothead doomsday cult with that gang of weirdos. Our mantra could have been: “We will all commit revolutionary suicide to protest bourgeois oppression…tomorrow.

Doing the Right Thing is For Morons

2 Jun

We humans always do the right thing. It’s true! “Right” and “wrong” are subjective principles by which we guide our lives. Everyone can justify their actions, even if they are colloquially wrong we will convince ourselves we deserve the small pleasures derived from being bad. “I’ve had a rotten day, I can eat this entire carton of ice cream,” we might mutter to ourselves while filling shopping carts with crinkly packages of carbohydrates. “I lost ten bucks last week, so getting back too much change at the corner store evens things out.” Perhaps in a cosmic sense it does. But in a cosmic sense, money is a pointless construct that exists in our minds and nowhere else.

Even serial killers believe they are doing the right thing, as prescribed by the voices in their heads and their strange sexual urges. Many in the secular world seem to hold on to this belief that karma exists, that good things happen to good people and deviants always get theirs in the end. That simply isn’t true. Life is pointless and brutal, and there is no ethereal reward for making nice just like there are no punishments for being an asshole. Perhaps you are a member of some religion that has promised an eternal reward for a lifetime of servitude. If that’s the case, then your mind is already so warped that other people’s potential motives are as foreign to you as Martian wine. Your versions of “right” and “wrong” are all written down in some ancient tome full of subtext and hidden reasoning and you don’t apply critical thinking to anything but liberal politics.

There is no inherent equity in the world, and that can be proven. There is no justice for the deer whose fawn is eaten by wolves, there is no justice for the guy who careens off the road because he was cut off by some asshole in traffic. Existence is a string of meaningless and disparate events that are not tailored for or against your favor in any way. Rich people continue to get more wealthy while entire nations starve. Child abusers are exonerated by the Pope while child daycare becomes less and less affordable. There is no balance, there is no yin and no yang. There is no justice in the world, it’s just us. And most of us are repressed balls of rage, just biding our time until we can vent on those weaker than we are. That’s human nature.

How do I know that there is no justice in the world? I learned today that Gary Carter, Hall of Fame catcher and one-time player for the New York Mets, has brain cancer. Gary Carter was a central figure on the 1986 Mets team that won the World Series, not just for his skill behind the plate but because he was the only clean-cut gentleman in a baseball club full of philandering goons. Keith Hernandez would give locker room interviews while smoking cigarettes, Lenny Dykstra showed up drunk to most practices, Darryl Strawberry couldn’t stop touching the nose candy. But Gary Carter was always out there signing baseballs for the kids, promoting clean living and good behavior, flashing his bright Canadian smile from beneath the shadow of his brim, displaying thumbs up to everyone facing his direction. The Nationals didn’t respect his Expos Hall of Fame number and still, he kept smiling. He’s an active philanthropist who has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to public schools. He has over three-hundred home runs for crying out loud! So what part of the cosmic plan is Gary’s brain cancer? What is the universe trying to tell us? Doing the right thing is for suckers. Be sure to kick a puppy on your way home from work today.

Justice. Is Done.

2 May

I was just about falling asleep Sunday night when my girlfriend, who keeps later hours than I, came into the bedroom to tell me that Osama bin Laden had been killed. “Osama bin Laden has been killed,” she said, “I thought you might want to know.”

“Great,” I replied, and rolled over to go back to sleep.

I feel like a bad American because I don’t grasp the significance of this event. It’s like I’ve been playing some overwrought sandbox video game where I’ve spent so much time doing side missions for non-player characters that I forgot the original plot which brought me to a town of incapable retards in the first place. Sure, I remember Osama bin Laden, I can recall focusing my rage on his smug, bearded face in the days and weeks after 9/11/01. I naturally assumed that the U.S. armed forces would swarm upon bin Laden like futuristic robotic ants at a picnic hologram. And I supported it, for the most part. Despite my sneaking suspicion that the tragic events of 9/11/01 weren’t wholly unjustified, that there was a bigger reason behind the attacks than some crusty supervillain hating “our freedoms,” I wanted revenge. Who the fuck was this guy to mess up the New York skyline and kill those hapless people? Blow his head off.

So George W. Bush sent our troops over to Afghanistan to flush Osama out of his hidey-hole or whatever. I recalled the early 1990s Operation: Desert Storm where the U.S. military fired hair-seeking missiles from the comfort of their La-Z-Boy recliners, killing only the guilty and simultaneously breeding gratefulness among the Kuwaiti people by sending Jolly Rancher cluster bombs into the most populated districts for women and children to enjoy. Plus, every country was on our side, remember that? For a brief time, everyone wanted in on the revenge, so I figured it would be all be over in six months–a year, tops. I felt pretty assured that this asshole would die, and though it wouldn’t erase the events of 9/11/01, at least it would satisfy some of my bloodlust.

But W. Bush didn’t fight the same war as his dad, no, he sent in a lot of ground troops and old-fashioned fighter jets to drop bombs instead of the science-fiction gadgetry I saw just as grunge music started taking off. Then W. Bush wanted to invade Iraq and burnt up all of our worldwide goodwill by brow-beating everyone in the United Nations. Osama bin Laden was on the run, we were told, proven by periodically released grainy video where he’d talk a lot of shit. Meanwhile, we had to get rid of Saddam Hussein for some reason or another. I started to feel like Osama bin Laden was the Joker, a diabolical mastermind would could not be caught so we’re better off not even trying. We can deal with his messes when they crop up, but for now we’ve got to corral the Riddler and Catwoman so let’s concentrate on them. It’s not like I started feeling sympathy for bin Laden, I just kind of pushed him to the periphery of a new cast of villains which included Saddam, Kim Jong-Il, and pretty much anyone and anything French.

It got more complicated from there. It turned out that the Iraqi War was fought for no reason yet we couldn’t leave because we’d unsettled the region politically (duh). The world’s economy went tits up and tens of thousands of mortgaged homes were foreclosed upon. There was also that thing where Israel bombed the Gaza Strip and a bunch of Turks were pissy about it. Or was it Greeks? The story was more complex than an episode of LOST, and in the shuffle I forgot that we were still looking for Osama bin Laden. I knew he was still an enemy, but it looked like we had bigger fish to fry. I mean, if the U.S. military ran into him at the 7-11, there would probably be a showdown. But provided bin Laden stayed wherever he was hiding out, he’d probably die naturally of vitamin D deficiency. Which is, in its way, a kind of justice.

One of the pivotal points of Barack Obama’s campaign platform was that he would remove troops from Iraq and put them back in Afghanistan. Unlike most political promises, Obama made good on that, and rather quickly as I recall. I was glad to see troops withdrawn from Iraq, a conflict that made little sense, and felt kind of lukewarm about them being sent to Afghanistan. I guess it’s to keep pounding the Taliban, I thought, or maybe to ferret out that bin Laden guy. I was so inured to our meddling in that region, I didn’t even bat an eyelid to hear that the U.S. was supporting Libyan rebels. I guess Ghadafi is the new enemy? I thought. That was comforting because I remember when he was an enemy before, way back when I was in grade school.

Last night, at the end of a press conference where Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed in Pakistan, he said, “Justice is done.” I’m wondering: for whom? For the thousands of people who died on U.S. soil during the attacks on 9/11/01? I find it hard to believe that the ethereal spirits of these people have been assuaged by the knowledge that some guy they’d probably never heard of in their lifetimes is going to join them in purgatory or wherever. Even for the families of these victims, it seems like a paltry vengeance. Was it worth hundreds of trillions of dollars, thousands of American lives and ten years doing fuck all but tracking bin Laden down for an unceremonious late night announcement? Does this assure that we will never suffer a terrorist attack again? Or have we put ourselves at an even larger risk by making a martyr of the very mad scientist who concocted 9/11/01 in his nefarious war room nestled deep within Dimension ZX-13? (Where, incidentally, everyone is evil, but Osama bin Laden was still the most evil. That’s how evil he was!)

I know I shouldn’t be glib. I know that killing Osama bin Laden is a big news story. But I wonder: what’s changed, besides more security precautions and the increased allocations to law enforcement that come with them? Has justice been done for cops? Is this justice for George W. Bush, who so desperately wanted to catch that varmint but was distracted by the nagging problem of Iraq’s exploitation at the hands of non-corporate interests? Perhaps this is justice for the U.S. military who haven’t even been tasked with killing bin Laden since 2003. It occurs to me that the only real justice that could happen after the events of 9/11/01 would be if America’s citizenry had returned to the naive, over consumptive state it enjoyed at the expense of the Third World prior to that fateful September day. To that end, we’ve been living in a state of justice for about half a dozen years now. In fact, we’ve barely curbed our wasteful ways. Justice is done.

Let’s Agree to Disagree

11 Apr

For almost five billion revolutions
Our planet has spun ’round
Give or take a few thousand years
(My watch was not yet wound)

Cosmic forces spewed red-hot goo
And, at first, it did expand
Then, over time, cooled and shrank
Into that on which we stand

That’s how it passed, I do not lie
Though others claim as such
They feel our whole existence
Came from bristles of God’s brush

If that is how you’d like the tale
I’ll be happy to adapt it:
God painted Earth with thermal law
The Big Bang was His palette

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