Thursday, July 30, 2015

Hard-Headed Science-Fictional Romantic (A)Theism: The Mystic Leaps in Arthur C. Clarke's CHILDHOOD'S END and SPACE ODYSSEY


            In August of 2011, there was an exchange on the ListServ of the Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA-L Digest, 13.24) among some heavy hitters in the field — Elizabeth Hull, Eric Rabkin, James Gunn — on the tone and meaning of the conclusion of Arthur C. Clarke's 1953 novel, Childhood's End. The ending is both somber and sublime and a test — perhaps a kind of Rorschach test — of readers' values and worldview.
            In the climactic sequence of the novel, the prepubescent children of Earth come together in a mass with each former child showing "no more emotion or feeling here than in the face of a snake or an insect." The controlling aliens in the novel, "The Overlords themselves were more human than this," but the lead Overlord tells the last human, watching with distress Earth's former children, that he is “searching for something that is no longer there. […T]hey have no more identity than the cells in your own body. But linked together, they are something much greater than you" (ch. 23, [Ballantine 1953: 202-03]).
            To that last man and to just about any reader, the transition from children to … this is appalling. In their development, the children at first appear savage and then what we would call subhuman: filthy to start with, and then appallingly destructive, sterilizing the world around them, and finally destroying it. They are on their way free from "the tyranny of matter" (ch. 20, p. 183), but this allows a contempt for the body and for nonhuman life: The adults of Earth have been dead for a while, typically in despair at the loss of posterity and their world, typically by suicide in one sense or other (ch. 20, p, 185; ch. 21, p. 188; ch. 23, pp. 208 & passim).
            Finally, what has quickly evolved from the children of Earth absorbs into itself the energies of the planet and leaps like a "great burning column" into the "Overmind": an evolved entity beyond matter and energy, combining as many species as It (I'm going to capitalize the "I") can find for further evolution. Finally, the Children are gone, and the Overmind departs: "They had leeched away the last atom of [… Earth's] substance. It had nourished them, though the fierce moments of their inconceivable metamorphosis, as the food stored in a grain of wheat feeds the infant plant while it climbs toward the sun" (ch. 24, pp. 216-17).
            Where they are going is foreshadowed by the dreams of the first child to begin the metamorphosis as he moves in his subconscious with increasing fearlessness and enthusiasm "into the universe that was opening up before him," including visions of "Sidereous 4 and the Pillars of the Dawn"; as one of the Overlords says, "and there was awe in his voice. 'He has reached the center of the Universe'" — though perhaps just the local universe, our galaxy — "And," adds the head Overlord, "he has barely begun his journey," envying the leap that will destroy the human species but which his species cannot make (ch. 18, pp. 170-80; ch. 20, p. 185).
            With no exception I can recall, my students who spoke up on the end of Childhood's End really disliked it. I would cite to them how the Overlords envy humans for being able to evolve beyond individuality and the material world. I'd read Clarke's pulling out all the figurative stops in a crescendo of prose/poetry to describe the children of Earth's fiery apotheosis. And I'd quote the judgment of the last man — a humanist romantic — on what he had seen of the end of his kind: "Yet it was fitting; it has the sublime inevitability of a great work of art" (ch. 24, p. 205).
            Nah. They'd have none of it, at least not those who spoke up. Individuality was too high a price even for immortality and participation in a kind of godhead.
            So we moved on to Clarke's and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey as novel and film, where another final man, in a sense, retains his individuality but becomes Star-Child (ch. 47), a god-like entity in communication with the other gods (ch. 32, "Concerning E.T.'s"). I pointed out to my students that the ending of Childhood's End, although indecorously flashy, was in a well-established Eastern tradition of becoming nothing to become All, and that 2001 was in the Western tradition of the Superman/√úbermensch, as signalled by Kubrick's use of Richard Strauss's tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra — which makes the transcendent theme pretty damn problematic, given the Nazi horrors Friedrich Nietzsche's ideas on supermen either led or got dragged to.
            Now I have problems with the whole set of issues involving apotheosis, transcendence, supermen, separable souls, and the Platonic-Christian-puritanical tradition of asceticism and the denigration of the body.* (Ancient Egyptians, Spartans, and others come in here also, but in complex ways, and also some of the far more recent Cyberpunks, who know better.) Still, I admire Clarke for confronting head-on a problem in what we might call humanist-Romantic- secular-scientific SF: all us geeks who think of ourselves as hard-headed but really, really want SF adventure in galaxies far, far away, or at least our local group.
            This issue is handled by that head Overlord, Karellen, in what amounts to a press conference addressing the human species under his supervision. "
                "There has been some complaint, among the younger and more romantic elements of your population, because outer space has been closed to you. We had a purpose in doing this; we do not impose bans for the pleasure of it. But have you ever stopped to consider—if you will excuse a slightly unflattering analogy—what a man from your Stone Age would have felt, if he suddenly found himself in a modern city?”               “Surely,” protested the Herald Tribune, “there is a fundamental difference. We are accustomed to science. On your world there are doubtless many things which we might not understand — but they wouldn’t seem magic to us.”               “Are you quite sure of that?” said Karellen, so softly that it was hard to hear his words. “Only a hundred years lies between the age of electricity and the age of steam, but what would a Victorian engineer have made of a television set or an electronic computer. And how long would he have lived if he started to investigate their workings? The gulf between two biologies can easily become so great that it is — lethal.”
               […]               “And there are other reasons why we have restricted the human race to Earth. Watch.” The lights dimmed and vanished. As they faded, a milky opalescence formed in the center of the room. It congealed into a whirlpool of stars—a spiral nebula seen from a point far beyond its outermost sun.               “No human eyes have ever seen this sight before,” said Karellen’s voice from the darkness. “You are looking at your own Universe, the island galaxy of which your Sun is a member, from a distance of half a million light-years.”               There was a long silence. Then Karellen continued, and now his voice held something that was not quite pity and not precisely scorn.               “Your race has shown a notable incapacity for dealing with the problems of its own rather small planet. When we arrived, you were on the point of destroying yourselves with the powers that science had rashly given you. Without our intervention, the Earth today would be a radioactive wilderness.               “Now you have a world at peace, and a united race. Soon you will be sufficiently civilized to run your planet without our assistance. Perhaps you could eventually handle the problems of an entire solar system — say fifty moons and planets. But do you really imagine that you could ever cope with this?”               The nebula expanded. Now the individual stars were rushing past, appearing and vanishing as swiftly as sparks from a forge. And each of those transient sparks was a sun, with who knew how many circling worlds ...               “In this single galaxy of ours,” murmured Karellen, “there are eighty-seven thousand million suns. Even that figure gives only a faint idea of the immensity of space. In challenging it, you would be like ants attempting to label and classify all the grains of sand in all the deserts of the world.               “Your race, in its present stage of evolution, cannot face that stupendous challenge. One of my duties has been to protect you from the powers and forces that lie among the stars — forces beyond anything that you can ever imagine.”               The image of the galaxy’s swirling fire-mists faded; light returned to the sudden silence of the great chamber.               Karellen turned to go; the audience was over. At the door he paused and looked back upon the hushed crowd. “It is a bitter thought, but you must face it. The planets you may one day possess. But the stars are not for man." (Part II, ch. 14, [Ballantine 1953: 136-37]) 
            One of those "younger and more romantic elements" (with the unRomantic name of "Jan") becomes the Last Man, and he, too, comes to this conclusion, and does it looking at the extinction of humankind and the leap to the stars of the beyond-human children. After noting "the sublime inevitability" in the passing and surpassing of the human species, the last man sees that "[…] the road to the stars was a road that forked in two directions, and neither led to a goal that took any account of human hopes or fears."

               At the end of one path were the Overlords. They had preserved their individuality, their independent egos; they possessed self-awareness, and the pronoun “I” had a meaning in their language. They had emotions, some at least of which were shared by humanity. But they were trapped, Jan realized now, in a cul-de-sac from which they could never escape. Their minds were ten — perhaps a hundred — times as powerful as men’s. It made no difference in the final reckoning. They were equally helpless, equally overwhelmed by the unimaginable complexity of a galaxy of a hundred thousand million suns, and a cosmos of a hundred thousand million galaxies" (CE ch. 23, p. 205).

            And at the end of the other path is either disillusionment or something godlike. In Clarke's mostly capital-G Godless universe, it had to be something that had, highly improbably, evolved.
            The usually hard-headed, often hard-science thinker and author Arthur C. Clarke ran into the hard facts of not just the great barrier of the speed of light but, even if that barrier could be broken, the sheer immensity of the universe. And that was the universe of 1953 and 1968, not the increasingly plausible multiverse of the 21st century.
            We could joke back in the 1980s about Carl Sagan's pronunciation of "billions and billions of stars" and the line as many of us remember it that "We are made of starstuff." Neil deGrasse Tyson says the same things, with an additional generation of science behind him, and with a better voice. We joked, but these ideas are literally awe-inspiring, at least if one has a working imagination and sense of awe.
            That starstuff and "billions and billions of stars" also should be daunting, since Sagan and Tyson can take us through the universe only through the spaceship of the imagination. As places for Romantic exploration, "The stars are not for man." And "no, nor woman neither," as Hamlet added to a somewhat related comment on human beings as "how like a god!" and "this quintessence of dust" (2.2.300-06).
            Clarke's mystic leaps are either audacious or cowardly, depending on how you want to look at them, and the ideas are dangerous (and Eric Rabkin did a penetrating brief critique on Childhood's End in the ListServ exchange). Still, they should be kept in mind every time we see a space opera or any variation on the theme of (actual title in 1940), Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. Insofar as we take them seriously, Clarke's mystic leaps are a variety of leaps of faith into the absurd. Any idea of human beings "conquering" the universe or the galaxy or even more than a handful of stars: that is what is ever-so-politely called in scientific and scholarly discourse, "counterfactual." Less politely put, galactic spacefaring is fun fantasy I thoroughly enjoy, but also thoroughly Romantic and fantastic bullshit; and in the Flash Gordon/universal conquest vision, parochial — and delusional. Given the suffering and evils of our world, a comfortable Theist is pretty contemptible and possibly dangerous; given the immensity and indifference of the universe, a comfortable atheistic SF fan hasn't thought things through.


         * Note
                  "Ursula K. Le Guin and Arthur C. Clarke on Immanence, Transcendence, and Massacres." Extrapolation 28 (Summer 1987): 105-29.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

American History 101: Blood Money (USA as Well as CSA)

            "War is God's way of teaching Americans geography," Ambrose Bierce is said to have said, and we might add nowadays that multiple murders, shootings, and figurative battles over emotion-laden symbols is God's way of teaching Americans a bit of history.

            Among the more useful lessons that can be taught may come from the backlash against removing Confederate (CSA) flags and memorials through a more legitimate variation on the argument tu quoque — "You're one too!" — that points out the evils committed under the flag of the United States (USA), and notes how slavery flourished because of complacency, complicity, collusion, and corruption extending far beyond the South.*

            We talk today of "blood diamonds": diamonds from combat zones in Africa whose purchase helps brutal warlords in their massacres. Well, in England and much of the United States one could talk of "blood sugar" in England and the northern American colonies and not refer to people's glucose levels but to the brutal exploitation of slave labor in the Caribbean plantation system that supplied the sugar. Similarly for tobacco in what became the United States, and then, finally, cotton.

            It was indirect, but elegant people putting sugar in their coffee and tea and learning to "drink" tobacco — that was the early expression — were complicit in the slave trade (plus other exploitation for the coffee and tea). Less culpable were more ordinary folk later producing cotton fabric and being able to buy cheap textiles: people complicit in "blood cotton."

            Far more directly sin-laden was the wealth generated by trade by northern colonies and then under the United States converting blood sugar and molasses to rum to slaves in the Triangular Trade: "a pattern of colonial commerce in which slaves were bought on the African Gold Coast with New England rum and then traded in the West Indies for sugar or molasses, which was brought back to New England to be manufactured into rum." Although some of the rum went to other purposes: as Benjamin Franklin said, in his Autobiography of the local Indian tribes, with only a bit of hyperbole: "[…] if it be the design of Providence to extirpate these savages in order to make room for cultivators of the earth, it seems not improbable that rum may be the appointed means. It has already annihilated all the tribes who formerly inhabited the sea-coast" (1771-90, Part III, p. 57).

            Cotton is a useful product, and sugar is a "food-drug," not just a drug. With tobacco and rum, however, colonial America and later the United States were engaging in trade in psychoactive addictive drugs produced by slaves, including the hard drug ethyl alcohol that from colonial times to the present has been devastating to many Native Americans.

            Et bloody cetera.

            So we do indeed need to look back at the sins of the CSA, but to do so without hypocrisy, all White Americans (and some of the Black economic elite) need to acknowledge how much of our present wealth is blood money, the product of good old USA crimes against humanity.

          * "Under the flag of the United States" could get literal. In Smuggler Nation, Peter Andreas points out that during the period in the 19th c. in which slavery was widespread but the slave trade illegal, US flagged vessels were the ships of choice for what had become illicit shipping of slaves. The US government resisted British attempts to stop and search even blatant slavers on the grounds that freedom from search on the high seas was more important than ending the slave trade.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Dysphemism: Sodomites and Breeders (and Gay Marriage in America)

            If "eutopia" is a good place, a dystopia is a bad one. If "euphemism" is saying things way too delicately — "fallen warrior" as opposed to "dead soldier," "collateral damage" for "killed, wounded, maimed civilians" — dysphemism is saying something overly crudely.
            So in direct language, people die; in euphemism they pass on or, frequently nowadays, just pass; and in dysphemism they might croak. In my years and decades teaching writing, I advised sticking with direct forms most of the time and (usually) to avoid both euphemism and vulgarity — and just about always to avoid derogatives for ethnicities and other human groups. I'll stick with that position, but discuss here an exception.
            As we move from gay marriage into disputing broader issues, it would be well for a few impolite folk to throw into the debate the derogatory term "sodomite" for homosexual and "breeder" for (married, reproducing) hetero. Such words will stop intelligent discussion in its figurative tracks for a bit, but in the long run getting the nasty terms out into the argument would be useful.
            It'll start some fights, but "Sodomites" and "breeders" will aid keeping the conflict clear.
            "Sodomite" comes from the story in the Biblical Book of Genesis of the destruction of the Cities of the Plain of Sodom and Gomorrah (18.17-19.29): by fire and brimstone — directly sent by the Lord — because "the outcry against" them "is great, and their sin is very grave" (18.20). Now what the sin of Sodom (and Gomorrah) is, or sins are, has long been a matter for debate and, in LitCrit terms, narrative elaboration by the early rabbis on down. Still, in moral and political Christian usage — and in old legal statutes — "sodomy" means sexual "sins against nature," excluding masturbation but capable of applying to all non-reproductive sex, but centrally sex acts of a homosexual variety.
            One probable sin of Sodom in the Biblical story is demanding a violation of the laws of courtesy to guests by demand two of them to be gang-raped by "the men of Sodom, young and old — all the people to the last man" (19.4). Now, the guests were angels, but they were gendered male and thought to be men by their host, the Hebrew Lot, and the mob of (male) Sodomites. Also, Lot offers instead his two virgin daughters as preferable to surrendering his male-gendered guests, so, especially in ages that don't rank the obligation of hospitality up there with "Honor father and mother" — and the Jewish morning prayers do so rank it — especially in later ages, the issue here was less rape than indeed, homosexuality.
            And this makes sense since Hebrew Scriptures are important in the great tradition of pronatalism — "Be fruitful and multiply" and all that — and in keeping the classifications of the world in order: emphatically including the binary oppositions (and sometimes complements) of male/female and Israelites/gentiles.
            One way to encourage fruitfulness, strongly, is to forbid all sex except the reproductive, and the Mosaic Torah pretty well does that. And, indeed, later interpreters even got around to including masturbation by tweaking a bit the story of Onan (Genesis 38.8-11), and the Roman Catholic Church came to forbid even heterosexual vaginal sex between a married couple — if they used contraception.
            Homosexual sex was among "The Abominations of Leviticus" because it undermined what were considered proper male/female roles, thereby undermining patriarchy in Israelite society — and because it was seen, with some justice, as popular among the gentiles — and because it wasn't reproductive.
            "Sex is a great mana," as Ursula K. Le Guin says in a major essay, and therefore "there is always a code" for sex in any society. An "immature society" or immature individual psyche will set "great taboos about it. The maturer culture, or psyche, can integrate these taboos or laws into an internal ethical code," with true maturity allowing "great freedom" but forbidding "the treatment of another person as an object" ("Is Gender Necessary?" Language of the Night [1979]: 166).
            Sex is controlled by strong taboos in the Mosaic Torah, and in some ways got even stronger taboos in the more puritanical of the sects that evolved from it. Throwing in a body/soul opposition that would've seemed an Egyptian hang-up to Moses, later sects got sex associated with the corruptible and corrupted mortal body as opposed to the soul: indeed, the body was the prison of the soul and temptress. Sex became something not only to be regulated by taboo but in dire need of justification and redemption.
            "Be fruitful and multiply" — okay. Sex within marriage for reproductive purposes … redeemable (if barely in some views); any other sex was either natural in the sense of brutish or an unnatural act: sodomy.
            "Breeders!" was never thrown about to the extent of "sodomites!" and never got backed up with threats of execution or jail. But if you listened carefully in the right conversations, it was a possible epithet, and, as should now be clear, a kind of complement to "sodomites."
            Gay marriage in the US is more settled as a legal issue than abortion and more settled as a cultural issue than, say, the significance of the US Civil War. The continuing fights over sexuality will be over the larger issues the gay marriage debate has raised.
            Paul the Apostle and much of Christian doctrine following him stressed Christian freedom from Torah, with Torah a word Christians consistently translated "Law." But — but there were a lot of "but's." The ancient equivalent of shrimp wrapped in bacon (Leviticus 11.7-11) coming from a pagan sacrifice, would be okay for a Christian to eat at a baptism feast for a son emphatically left uncircumcised. Or you might be offered to eat blood pudding at an Anglican Church breakfast, even though God forbids blood-eating not just to the children of Abraham but also to all the descendants of Noah — i.e., in Biblical terms, everybody. But homosexuality … maybe not. For some of Paul's long-range spiritual descendants, definitely not.
            A rigorous Calvinist nowadays can learn that homosexual orientation has a large genetic component and find that appropriate: some of the damned majority of humankind can be justly damned for homosexuality programmed into their bodily genes.
            Well, etc.
            In a world of competing tribes and nationalisms, in which "People are the riches of a nation" and numerous people are the strength of a nation, pronatalist policies can make secular, national-interest/national-security sense. In our world of competing tribes and nationalism and over seven billion people, encouraging "breeding" is some place between "problematic" and just a horrible idea — and taboos on homosexuality can be defended only as taboos, only on religious grounds.
            So the first question in the US is the First Amendment one of what extent, if at all, religious taboos are to be incorporated into American law and custom and enforced by the power of the State, and the second question is the other half of the First Amendment as to what accommodations are to be made to people's strongly-held taboos.
            The third question is, if marriage is to be open to all US adults and not centered on "breeders," what options do we want to make for marriage as a society and how much should we continue to bring in the State (and tax codes) in the process?
            Like, okay, some county clerks don't want to grant marriage licenses to sodomites (including female ones). Beyond asking "Should they be required to?" we should start asking whether marriages should be licensed by the State at all or just registered with the State, or maybe something different.
            Perhaps we should go for a situation where some Americans see gays as sodomites and state that outright — and then mind their business and let their sinning fellow citizens of all varieties quietly go to Hell in our own ways (as long as we at worst only annoy, not harm, the neighbors). And given environmental and resources issues to come, the breeders out there should be happy with their life choices but have to start defending all claims to tax breaks and other privileges.

            In those cultural battles, "sodomite!" and "breeder!" may be among the milder terms thrown around.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Values Voters

In those days there was no king in Israel.
Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
— Judges 17.6 (ESV)

            Puberty as such wasn't a trauma for me. I recall during my first shave, or an early one, catching a glimpse of my mother watching me, with her looking pleased and a little proud. Shortly thereafter, my father came up to me and gave me, let's say, a complimentary-size box of condoms (many more than I'd use by the time I left home) and delivered the fatherly advice, "Until you know what to do with it, keep it in your pants."
            What was jarring, my real loss of innocence, was when it hit me at about age fourteen, "Everybody feels justified!" Even then, I knew that was hyperbole and overgeneralization, even if I didn't know those terms: we often do things we know or believe are wrong, and we feel guilty. Still, I was surprised and a little shocked and upset to realize that people doing some nasty shit, including to me, felt justified: some guy hurting others, including possibly me, was doing "what was right in his own eyes."
            This was hardly a new observation, and I've since gotten it reinforced frequently. Shakespeare's Othello (1604) murders his wife for honor, and a murderer in Dennis Lehane's Mystic River (2001) is consciously specific about feeling justified in his crime. Indeed, in a number of books I've listened to recently — and in a couple cases went so far as to buy hard copy — in at least two cases, the argument is made explicitly that many "evil-doers" from petty thieves to international war criminals do what they do to right what they feel as an injustice.
            And, of course, in cases where it is the law that is wicked, criminals can do what is right in their own eyes and be right.
            Runaway slaves were stealing their masters' property, and after the passage of the US Fugitive Slave Act, anyone who helped them broke the law. Similarly with those Righteous Gentiles who helped Jews escape the Nazis, and, of course, any Jew who escaped the State-sanctioned policies of slavery and then death.
            We should keep this in mind if the discussion in the US heats up again on "Values Voters" and "Religious Voters.
            I'll take the second phrase first, because the clarification has been done for me by Henry Fielding with his satire of the Reverend Mr. Thwackum's position in the great line in Tom Jones (1749), "When I say religion, I mean the Christian religion, and when I say the Christian religion, I mean the Protestant religion, and when I say the Protestant religion, I mean the Church of England!" Ten to fifteen minutes listening to attacks on attacks on "religion" will make clear that "religion" usually means the religion of the speaker, not so much the Episcopal Church in America nowadays, but many of the churches and traditions and sects from Evangelical Christianity to Salafist Islam — and on.
            A caveat here, though: sometimes "Religious Voters" means just what it says, and differentiates between voters who take their religion seriously — for a wide swath of religious beliefs — and differentiates them from people who are secular. Or, in the United States, "Religious Voters" can refer to those who couldn't reliably tell you the basic tenets of any religion but have a traditional American commitment to a generalized faith in God and country and tradition, without thinking much about any of them — although this variety of "Religious Voter" can despise the secular with more vehemence than those who know about religion. (Indeed, Pope Francis knows a whole lot about religion and speaks loudly against greedy materialism, not so much against secular philosophical materialism.)
            It's scary that horrible people often feel completely justified, and, indeed, it's almost a matter of definition that psychopaths don't feel guilty at all about the harm they cause. On the other hand, it's just a given that most of us most of the time act according to our values. Sometimes a tragic hero (female as well as male) will see that something is wrong but doing it anyway — and ditto for more normal people. And sometimes we just fuck up. But most of us, most of the time are "Values Deciders" in our considered action, and rarely more so than when actually voting.
            Even as Mr. Thwackum was narrow-minded in limiting "religion" to, finally, his own Church of England, even so people are narrow-minded in denying values to people whose values differ. Or, putting the same point differently, "The Moral Majority" of the 20th century wasn't against an "Immoral Minority" so much as against other groups operating from different moral codes.
            And sometimes our oppositions are even deeper than fairly conscious moral codes or ethical systems and get into "world-views" and the basic myths — in the anthropological sense — that help us organize our dealings with the world.
            Here we need to be cautious.
            It pisses me off when Right-wingers passing themselves off as conservatives — there's nothing conservative about capitalism! — it pisses me off when hyperventilating people on the American Right praise "Values Voters" and/or "Religious Voters" and exclude those of us with other values and other religions.
            On the other hand, it's not always a good idea to be too explicit about just how radically (from the roots) we disagree on issues such as the history and nature of the universe and what we mean by such words as "liberty," "freedom," "country" and "honor." And clearly it can be risky to get specific about how much we disagree about even such relatively superficial things as the causes of the US Civil War and what is signified by the Confederate flag and the word "heritage" for the States, both Confederate and United.
            If you truly believe the "Heavens and the Earth" were created some 5775 years ago (Jewish count) in six days by a God who crowned creation with humankind, you are going to have a different world view from those who have as their creation myth The Big Bang of some 13.77 billion years ago followed a universe evolving in a way that happened, eventually, to produce us — along with innumerable other entities and species of importance equal to us, and some (a galaxy, say) a whole lot bigger.
            If you firmly believe that human beings are essentially souls to be saved and this life but a brief pilgrimage to heaven or hell — then you will and should have practical views different from those of us — who may include the author of Koheleth ("Ecclesiastes") in the Bible — who are pretty sure this life is all there is.
            If you accept as a tenet of faith that the Christian Scriptures are "inerrant in their original autographs" and that the King James translation pretty well says in English what those originals said; if you believe that the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles and the example of the Primitive Church established a Way for the saved then and until the end of time — then you're going to have different values from people who don't know what the hell what I just wrote means.
            So: Right-wing folk in America, please stop talking vaguely about "attacks on religion" and try to get specific about just what the attacks and conflicts are. And please don't talk of yourselves as "Values Voters" as if the rest of us didn't have values.
            But, yet again, all of us: Turn down the volume and the passion and the heat. We have serious disagreements, and the seriousness is all the more reason to practice care, humility, and compassion.
            We're not far in much of the world from large-scale wars of religion between Sunni and Shia. We don't need literal culture war in the US. We need to play nice, compromise where we can, find friends where possible, and at least tolerate otherwise decent people who are so benighted as to disagree with us.

            Criminals who are obviously hurting people and feel justified doing it — those folk we can get together and try to hold in check.