Ideas & Philosophy

Secretary Clinton’s Speech in Recognition of Intl. Human Rights Day

On Tuesday, December 6, 2011, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a historic speech at the United Nations in Geneva, discussing the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  While applauding the forging of such a document (in 1948) and its success in helping to achieve equality and dignity for many minority groups across the globe, she acknowledged that there is still one minority that is consistently left out of the push for equality:  the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender community.

This address focuses on the LGBT community in particular, but so many things she says apply to all human beings on this Earth.  Indeed, Secretary Clinton proclaimed that, “Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.”

Her message was powerful, succinct and clear.  Take the time to watch all 30 minutes of the speech.   Some of my favorite lines are below, but then I will also provide the transcript of her whole speech.

“No practice or tradition trumps the human rights that belong to all of us.  Rarely are cultural and religious traditions and teachings actually in conflict with the protection of human rights.  Indeed our religion and our culture are sources of compassion and inspiration toward our fellow human beings.  

Minorities can never achieve the majorities necessary for political change.  So when any part of humanity is sidelined, the rest of us cannot sit on the sidelines.  When we see denials and abuses of human rights and fail to act, that sends the message to these deniers and abusers that they won’t suffer any consequences for their actions.  But when we do act, we send a powerful moral message.”  

That made me think of a couple of different quotes:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr


“Sometimes we must interfere.  When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Whenever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”  – Elie Wiesel


Full text of the speech (thanks to the U.S. Department of State’s website): 

“Remarks in Recognition of International Human Rights Day”

Good evening, and let me express my deep honor and pleasure at being here. I want to thank Director General Tokayev and Ms. Wyden along with other ministers, ambassadors, excellencies, and UN partners. This weekend, we will celebrate Human Rights Day, the anniversary of one of the great accomplishments of the last century.


Beginning in 1947, delegates from six continents devoted themselves to drafting a declaration that would enshrine the fundamental rights and freedoms of people everywhere. In the aftermath of World War II, many nations pressed for a statement of this kind to help ensure that we would prevent future atrocities and protect the inherent humanity and dignity of all people. And so the delegates went to work. They discussed, they wrote, they revisited, revised, rewrote, for thousands of hours. And they incorporated suggestions and revisions from governments, organizations, and individuals around the world.

At three o’clock in the morning on December 10th, 1948, after nearly two years of drafting and one last long night of debate, the president of the UN General Assembly called for a vote on the final text. Forty-eight nations voted in favor; eight abstained; none dissented. And the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted. It proclaims a simple, powerful idea: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. And with the declaration, it was made clear that rights are not conferred by government; they are the birthright of all people. It does not matter what country we live in, who our leaders are, or even who we are. Because we are human, we therefore have rights. And because we have rights, governments are bound to protect them.

In the 63 years since the declaration was adopted, many nations have made great progress in making human rights a human reality. Step by step, barriers that once prevented people from enjoying the full measure of liberty, the full experience of dignity, and the full benefits of humanity have fallen away. In many places, racist laws have been repealed, legal and social practices that relegated women to second-class status have been abolished, the ability of religious minorities to practice their faith freely has been secured.

In most cases, this progress was not easily won. People fought and organized and campaigned in public squares and private spaces to change not only laws, but hearts and minds. And thanks to that work of generations, for millions of individuals whose lives were once narrowed by injustice, they are now able to live more freely and to participate more fully in the political, economic, and social lives of their communities.

Now, there is still, as you all know, much more to be done to secure that commitment, that reality, and progress for all people. Today, I want to talk about the work we have left to do to protect one group of people whose human rights are still denied in too many parts of the world today. In many ways, they are an invisible minority. They are arrested, beaten, terrorized, even executed. Many are treated with contempt and violence by their fellow citizens while authorities empowered to protect them look the other way or, too often, even join in the abuse. They are denied opportunities to work and learn, driven from their homes and countries, and forced to suppress or deny who they are to protect themselves from harm.

I am talking about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, human beings born free and given bestowed equality and dignity, who have a right to claim that, which is now one of the remaining human rights challenges of our time. I speak about this subject knowing that my own country’s record on human rights for gay people is far from perfect. Until 2003, it was still a crime in parts of our country. Many LGBT Americans have endured violence and harassment in their own lives, and for some, including many young people, bullying and exclusion are daily experiences. So we, like all nations, have more work to do to protect human rights at home.

Now, raising this issue, I know, is sensitive for many people and that the obstacles standing in the way of protecting the human rights of LGBT people rest on deeply held personal, political, cultural, and religious beliefs. So I come here before you with respect, understanding, and humility. Even though progress on this front is not easy, we cannot delay acting. So in that spirit, I want to talk about the difficult and important issues we must address together to reach a global consensus that recognizes the human rights of LGBT citizens everywhere.

The first issue goes to the heart of the matter. Some have suggested that gay rights and human rights are separate and distinct; but, in fact, they are one and the same. Now, of course, 60 years ago, the governments that drafted and passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were not thinking about how it applied to the LGBT community. They also weren’t thinking about how it applied to indigenous people or children or people with disabilities or other marginalized groups. Yet in the past 60 years, we have come to recognize that members of these groups are entitled to the full measure of dignity and rights, because, like all people, they share a common humanity.

This recognition did not occur all at once. It evolved over time. And as it did, we understood that we were honoring rights that people always had, rather than creating new or special rights for them. Like being a woman, like being a racial, religious, tribal, or ethnic minority, being LGBT does not make you less human. And that is why gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.

It is violation of human rights when people are beaten or killed because of their sexual orientation, or because they do not conform to cultural norms about how men and women should look or behave. It is a violation of human rights when governments declare it illegal to be gay, or allow those who harm gay people to go unpunished. It is a violation of human rights when lesbian or transgendered women are subjected to so-called corrective rape, or forcibly subjected to hormone treatments, or when people are murdered after public calls for violence toward gays, or when they are forced to flee their nations and seek asylum in other lands to save their lives. And it is a violation of human rights when life-saving care is withheld from people because they are gay, or equal access to justice is denied to people because they are gay, or public spaces are out of bounds to people because they are gay. No matter what we look like, where we come from, or who we are, we are all equally entitled to our human rights and dignity.

The second issue is a question of whether homosexuality arises from a particular part of the world. Some seem to believe it is a Western phenomenon, and therefore people outside the West have grounds to reject it. Well, in reality, gay people are born into and belong to every society in the world. They are all ages, all races, all faiths; they are doctors and teachers, farmers and bankers, soldiers and athletes; and whether we know it, or whether we acknowledge it, they are our family, our friends, and our neighbors.

Being gay is not a Western invention; it is a human reality. And protecting the human rights of all people, gay or straight, is not something that only Western governments do. South Africa’s constitution, written in the aftermath of Apartheid, protects the equality of all citizens, including gay people. In Colombia and Argentina, the rights of gays are also legally protected. In Nepal, the supreme court has ruled that equal rights apply to LGBT citizens. The Government of Mongolia has committed to pursue new legislation that will tackle anti-gay discrimination.

Now, some worry that protecting the human rights of the LGBT community is a luxury that only wealthy nations can afford. But in fact, in all countries, there are costs to not protecting these rights, in both gay and straight lives lost to disease and violence, and the silencing of voices and views that would strengthen communities, in ideas never pursued by entrepreneurs who happen to be gay. Costs are incurred whenever any group is treated as lesser or the other, whether they are women, racial, or religious minorities, or the LGBT. Former President Mogae of Botswana pointed out recently that for as long as LGBT people are kept in the shadows, there cannot be an effective public health program to tackle HIV and AIDS. Well, that holds true for other challenges as well.

The third, and perhaps most challenging, issue arises when people cite religious or cultural values as a reason to violate or not to protect the human rights of LGBT citizens. This is not unlike the justification offered for violent practices towards women like honor killings, widow burning, or female genital mutilation. Some people still defend those practices as part of a cultural tradition. But violence toward women isn’t cultural; it’s criminal. Likewise with slavery, what was once justified as sanctioned by God is now properly reviled as an unconscionable violation of human rights.

In each of these cases, we came to learn that no practice or tradition trumps the human rights that belong to all of us. And this holds true for inflicting violence on LGBT people, criminalizing their status or behavior, expelling them from their families and communities, or tacitly or explicitly accepting their killing.

Of course, it bears noting that rarely are cultural and religious traditions and teachings actually in conflict with the protection of human rights. Indeed, our religion and our culture are sources of compassion and inspiration toward our fellow human beings. It was not only those who’ve justified slavery who leaned on religion, it was also those who sought to abolish it. And let us keep in mind that our commitments to protect the freedom of religion and to defend the dignity of LGBT people emanate from a common source. For many of us, religious belief and practice is a vital source of meaning and identity, and fundamental to who we are as people. And likewise, for most of us, the bonds of love and family that we forge are also vital sources of meaning and identity. And caring for others is an expression of what it means to be fully human. It is because the human experience is universal that human rights are universal and cut across all religions and cultures.

The fourth issue is what history teaches us about how we make progress towards rights for all. Progress starts with honest discussion. Now, there are some who say and believe that all gay people are pedophiles, that homosexuality is a disease that can be caught or cured, or that gays recruit others to become gay. Well, these notions are simply not true. They are also unlikely to disappear if those who promote or accept them are dismissed out of hand rather than invited to share their fears and concerns. No one has ever abandoned a belief because he was forced to do so.

Universal human rights include freedom of expression and freedom of belief, even if our words or beliefs denigrate the humanity of others. Yet, while we are each free to believe whatever we choose, we cannot do whatever we choose, not in a world where we protect the human rights of all.

Reaching understanding of these issues takes more than speech. It does take a conversation. In fact, it takes a constellation of conversations in places big and small. And it takes a willingness to see stark differences in belief as a reason to begin the conversation, not to avoid it.

But progress comes from changes in laws. In many places, including my own country, legal protections have preceded, not followed, broader recognition of rights. Laws have a teaching effect. Laws that discriminate validate other kinds of discrimination. Laws that require equal protections reinforce the moral imperative of equality. And practically speaking, it is often the case that laws must change before fears about change dissipate.

Many in my country thought that President Truman was making a grave error when he ordered the racial desegregation of our military. They argued that it would undermine unit cohesion. And it wasn’t until he went ahead and did it that we saw how it strengthened our social fabric in ways even the supporters of the policy could not foresee. Likewise, some worried in my country that the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would have a negative effect on our armed forces. Now, the Marine Corps Commandant, who was one of the strongest voices against the repeal, says that his concerns were unfounded and that the Marines have embraced the change.

Finally, progress comes from being willing to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. We need to ask ourselves, “How would it feel if it were a crime to love the person I love? How would it feel to be discriminated against for something about myself that I cannot change?” This challenge applies to all of us as we reflect upon deeply held beliefs, as we work to embrace tolerance and respect for the dignity of all persons, and as we engage humbly with those with whom we disagree in the hope of creating greater understanding.

A fifth and final question is how we do our part to bring the world to embrace human rights for all people including LGBT people. Yes, LGBT people must help lead this effort, as so many of you are. Their knowledge and experiences are invaluable and their courage inspirational. We know the names of brave LGBT activists who have literally given their lives for this cause, and there are many more whose names we will never know. But often those who are denied rights are least empowered to bring about the changes they seek. Acting alone, minorities can never achieve the majorities necessary for political change.

So when any part of humanity is sidelined, the rest of us cannot sit on the sidelines. Every time a barrier to progress has fallen, it has taken a cooperative effort from those on both sides of the barrier. In the fight for women’s rights, the support of men remains crucial. The fight for racial equality has relied on contributions from people of all races. Combating Islamaphobia or anti-Semitism is a task for people of all faiths. And the same is true with this struggle for equality.

Conversely, when we see denials and abuses of human rights and fail to act, that sends the message to those deniers and abusers that they won’t suffer any consequences for their actions, and so they carry on. But when we do act, we send a powerful moral message. Right here in Geneva, the international community acted this year to strengthen a global consensus around the human rights of LGBT people. At the Human Rights Council in March, 85 countries from all regions supported a statement calling for an end to criminalization and violence against people because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

At the following session of the Council in June, South Africa took the lead on a resolution about violence against LGBT people. The delegation from South Africa spoke eloquently about their own experience and struggle for human equality and its indivisibility. When the measure passed, it became the first-ever UN resolution recognizing the human rights of gay people worldwide. In the Organization of American States this year, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights created a unit on the rights of LGBT people, a step toward what we hope will be the creation of a special rapporteur.

Now, we must go further and work here and in every region of the world to galvanize more support for the human rights of the LGBT community. To the leaders of those countries where people are jailed, beaten, or executed for being gay, I ask you to consider this: Leadership, by definition, means being out in front of your people when it is called for. It means standing up for the dignity of all your citizens and persuading your people to do the same. It also means ensuring that all citizens are treated as equals under your laws, because let me be clear – I am not saying that gay people can’t or don’t commit crimes. They can and they do, just like straight people. And when they do, they should be held accountable, but it should never be a crime to be gay.

And to people of all nations, I say supporting human rights is your responsibility too. The lives of gay people are shaped not only by laws, but by the treatment they receive every day from their families, from their neighbors. Eleanor Roosevelt, who did so much to advance human rights worldwide, said that these rights begin in the small places close to home – the streets where people live, the schools they attend, the factories, farms, and offices where they work. These places are your domain. The actions you take, the ideals that you advocate, can determine whether human rights flourish where you are.

And finally, to LGBT men and women worldwide, let me say this: Wherever you live and whatever the circumstances of your life, whether you are connected to a network of support or feel isolated and vulnerable, please know that you are not alone. People around the globe are working hard to support you and to bring an end to the injustices and dangers you face. That is certainly true for my country. And you have an ally in the United States of America and you have millions of friends among the American people.

The Obama Administration defends the human rights of LGBT people as part of our comprehensive human rights policy and as a priority of our foreign policy. In our embassies, our diplomats are raising concerns about specific cases and laws, and working with a range of partners to strengthen human rights protections for all. In Washington, we have created a task force at the State Department to support and coordinate this work. And in the coming months, we will provide every embassy with a toolkit to help improve their efforts. And we have created a program that offers emergency support to defenders of human rights for LGBT people.

This morning, back in Washington, President Obama put into place the first U.S. Government strategy dedicated to combating human rights abuses against LGBT persons abroad. Building on efforts already underway at the State Department and across the government, the President has directed all U.S. Government agencies engaged overseas to combat the criminalization of LGBT status and conduct, to enhance efforts to protect vulnerable LGBT refugees and asylum seekers, to ensure that our foreign assistance promotes the protection of LGBT rights, to enlist international organizations in the fight against discrimination, and to respond swiftly to abuses against LGBT persons.

I am also pleased to announce that we are launching a new Global Equality Fund that will support the work of civil society organizations working on these issues around the world. This fund will help them record facts so they can target their advocacy, learn how to use the law as a tool, manage their budgets, train their staffs, and forge partnerships with women’s organizations and other human rights groups. We have committed more than $3 million to start this fund, and we have hope that others will join us in supporting it.

The women and men who advocate for human rights for the LGBT community in hostile places, some of whom are here today with us, are brave and dedicated, and deserve all the help we can give them. We know the road ahead will not be easy. A great deal of work lies before us. But many of us have seen firsthand how quickly change can come. In our lifetimes, attitudes toward gay people in many places have been transformed. Many people, including myself, have experienced a deepening of our own convictions on this topic over the years, as we have devoted more thought to it, engaged in dialogues and debates, and established personal and professional relationships with people who are gay.

This evolution is evident in many places. To highlight one example, the Delhi High Court decriminalized homosexuality in India two years ago, writing, and I quote, “If there is one tenet that can be said to be an underlying theme of the Indian constitution, it is inclusiveness.” There is little doubt in my mind that support for LGBT human rights will continue to climb. Because for many young people, this is simple: All people deserve to be treated with dignity and have their human rights respected, no matter who they are or whom they love.

There is a phrase that people in the United States invoke when urging others to support human rights: “Be on the right side of history.” The story of the United States is the story of a nation that has repeatedly grappled with intolerance and inequality. We fought a brutal civil war over slavery. People from coast to coast joined in campaigns to recognize the rights of women, indigenous peoples, racial minorities, children, people with disabilities, immigrants, workers, and on and on. And the march toward equality and justice has continued. Those who advocate for expanding the circle of human rights were and are on the right side of history, and history honors them. Those who tried to constrict human rights were wrong, and history reflects that as well.

I know that the thoughts I’ve shared today involve questions on which opinions are still evolving. As it has happened so many times before, opinion will converge once again with the truth, the immutable truth, that all persons are created free and equal in dignity and rights. We are called once more to make real the words of the Universal Declaration. Let us answer that call. Let us be on the right side of history, for our people, our nations, and future generations, whose lives will be shaped by the work we do today. I come before you with great hope and confidence that no matter how long the road ahead, we will travel it successfully together. Thank you very much.

Categories: Ideas & Philosophy, Politics/Current Events | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Science is the Poetry of Reality

A friend shared this awesome YouTube video called the Symphony of Science.

“The story of humans is the story of ideas that shed light into dark corners”

Categories: Ideas & Philosophy, Science/Technology | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Academe: Strangers on a Train

Yesterday, I read this article from the most recent edition of Academe, the magazine of the American Association of University Professors. It’s about a lesson in complicity in the crisis of the humanities.  I’m not going to add any commentary of my own; I’ll let Dr. Davidson do the talking herself.

Cathy N. Davidson holds distinguished chairs in English and interdisciplinary studies at Duke University; is cofounder of the Humanities, Arts, Sciences, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC); and codirects the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition. She is a member of the National Council on the Humanities, and her most recent book is Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn.

Strangers on a Train

Early on in my first tenure-track job at Michigan State University, in the late 1970s, I happened to be riding the same train from Lansing, Michigan, to Chicago as the department chair who hired me, Alan Hollingsworth, who had since become dean of our College of Arts and Sciences. It had taken me three years to land a tenure-track position, and I was a second-round pick at that, after the original candidate failed to pan out. According to Modern Language Association statistics, it was the worst time for new PhDs (until the present one). It was the tail end of a baby boom, with too few students coming in to undergraduate colleges and universities and too many overblown humanities programs continuing to churn out new PhDs as if the demographics had never changed. There were more than six hundred applications for my job, and I felt like I was hanging on to the profession by my fingernails. And there was my chair-turned-dean standing over me, nodding to an empty seat and asking, “Is this seat free?” I thought about the five-hour ride from Lansing to Chicago as I moved my book bag and tried to make it seem sincere when I smiled and replied, “Of course! Please join me.”

It was one of those “strangers on a train” encounters that changes you forever, in this case in a good way. For those familiar with Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 detective novel of that name, I hasten to assure you that no one was murdered in my untenured-prof-trapped-with-dean-in-a-railway-car version of noir.

Al Hollingsworth passed away in 1991, but I’ve never forgotten that train ride. I still keep close two lessons from it. The first unforgettable moment was Al ranting (he liked high rhetorical mode) that he was sick of humanists complaining about the “crisis in the humanities” and not doing anything about it. He was convinced that if humanists were more assertive about their value to society and created programs that underscored that value, theirs would be among the highest-stature fields in academe. “Everyone knows the big three of learning are reading, writing, and arithmetic—and English departments have their stake in two out of three. But English department meetings are spent trying to dump reading and writing programs and are devoted to battles over who will hire the second Victorianist or medievalist or some other subfield where enrollment is already negligible. Then they wonder why deans want to cut their positions.”

That’s a rough reconstruction from memory many years later, but you get the drift. Al was sure that the humanities had become hyperspecialized to ape the hyperspecialization of the sciences and had abandoned creative writing and rhetoric, defining them as peripheral, low-status programs rather than championing them. He also believed critical thinking, historical perspective, languages and linguistics, and other components of cross-cultural literacy (though he would have used a different term in the late 1970s) should be trumpeted by every humanist as necessities in the complex world. In addition, he valued the “real-world” humanistic skills of being able to analyze the meaning of complicated texts and synthesize abstract or theoretical information from multiple (even contradictory) sources.

Al believed humanities teachers should present our mission as career preparation, even job training, for undergraduates. Instead, we fueled the crisis by our emphasis on preparing students for graduate schools that were already pumping out far too many graduates. Ninety percent of the battles within the humanities faced inward, like the disputes between Englishers and Americanists in English departments and the vicious wars between different theoretical schools that few outside the humanities understood. No one was attending to the real dynamics, dimensions, and demographics of the “crisis in the humanities.”

I didn’t agree with all of his positions, but most of what he said made sense then and makes sense now. If you look at the curriculum in most humanities departments, you would barely notice that there is a crisis and there has been one for decades. At most colleges and universities, humanities departments continue to have a hierarchy of requirements and teaching assignments that imply that the department’s chief mission is to train students for professional careers in the humanities. Most humanities departments do not seem designed to prepare students for any and all careers, including in the sciences, even though all careers require reading, writing, critical thinking, theoretical analysis, historical perspective, and cross-cultural knowledge.

Al’s comments resonated on that train ride partly because I was in hot water at the time. As a new assistant professor, I was, of course, relegated to teaching first-year composition. I was already running afoul of our university writing program directors by emphasizing “real” writing instead of the “research paper,” that strange collegiate form of writing—I call it “researchese”—that one rarely uses outside of college or graduate school and that, if one succeeds as a humanities scholar, editors later attempt to eradicate. The final assignment I gave my expository writing students was to write their own résumés and job letters for dream internships. Other students in the class read the letters and gave feedback, and then the students sent off the letters for real internships or summer employers and reported back the results. This was Michigan, with the auto industry tanking. I felt it was important to help my students, many first-generation college students, in the formidable task of finding jobs. The director of our program reprimanded me more than once for deviating from the prescribed syllabus of first-year comp. What Al said on that train that day spoke to me then and continues to now.

The Humanities’ Contribution to the Crisis

The second “strangers on a train” moment came with a question Al asked a few hours into the trip. “Tell me, what do people think about my deanship?” he asked. “What do you think?” I gave him my sense of what people liked and what they didn’t, what I liked and what I didn’t.

I was too naive back then and too foolhardy to realize he had been testing me.

“You’re being more candid than most academics would be when talking to a dean,” he warned. “Most academics pretend they stand up to administrators, they bluster and posture about ‘I told him thus and so,’ but, in my office, with the door closed and no one else around, they usually tell me what they think I want to hear. Then they go back to their friends and go on and on about how ‘these administrators never listen.’ They rarely acknowledge their own complicity.” I must admit that I was surprised at that statement, and I was even more taken aback when he warned that I needed to think about my own career and whether I wanted to continue to speak candidly to my academic superiors. He wasn’t telling me not to, only to be aware when I did that most people do not. “Never forget you are doing it at your own risk,” he said, or something like that. I’ve chosen most of my career to take the risks, but, whenever I do, I remember those long-ago words of caution.

I repeat them now because I’m about to take a risk. And the risk here (I now have tenure) is that my words will be misread. So this is just a reminder that I’ve spent a career talking back to the status quo. In this case, the status quo is twofold: first, administrators who hack away at humanities programs in order to make a budget; and second, humanities departments that have still not gotten the message that we could and would be central to higher education if we took our role in society and as educators more seriously. In other words, there is something in the prescriptions that follow that should offend just about everyone. If you don’t want to be offended, stop reading now.

Here’s the sequence:

NUMBER 1: Unfair, thoughtless, and sometimes downright ineffectual and stupid cutbacks are being made to humanities programs around the country and abroad. Programs are being cut, often without a plan or consensus and often without reason, strategy, or clear thinking. Any administrator, anywhere, who lops off this or that humanities program or funding stream without a comprehensive plan or logical justification is pursuing the neoliberal policy of scapegoating. He or she places the burden of a large failure in education funding on the least accountable, least powerful, and often even least financially significant parties. Taking cost cuts out of the hide of the humanities breeds greater and greater inequality but does not solve the problem. In fact, it rarely saves more than a pittance, and its symbolism merely justifies power imbalances and the status quo without rectifying the underlying structural problems that led to a deficit in the first place. It has been demonstrated many times (most notably by Christopher Newfield) that when salary, buildings, labs, and technology costs are factored into the equation, humanities programs typically turn out to be cost-effective, especially at tuition-driven institutions. Cutting them without an overall plan for the entire university is classic bad management, start to finish.

NUMBER 2: Nevertheless, some humanities programs deserve to be cut or closed, and just about every humanities program needs to rethink its role in educating students in the information age. Every survey of employers says students graduating today, in any field, lack skills that humanists should be claiming as our mission to teach. If we are fulfilling our mission, saving the liberal arts should be a top priority for any thoughtful, wise university planning commission. (See number one above about feckless and unwise administrators.) Many non-humanities programs are in the same boat; they aren’t rethinking their missions either, but because that isn’t what this forum is about, I’m not going to address that larger issue of university failure here. Our focus is the crisis in the humanities, and I’m sick of having had to address that crisis every year, year in and year out, for my entire career. Until we admit our complicity, we don’t even have a chance of addressing the crisis.

NUMBER 3: My own opinion is that only some portion of any humanities program should be devoted to preparing potential professional humanists. Producing PhDs trained to produce PhDs is, like all inbreeding, a way to guarantee decline and eventual extinction. Most students attend college because they are on a journey to independent adulthood. Translation: they need jobs, a career, a way to support themselves. Whether you are a vulgar Marxist or a raging capitalist, you have to support yourself somehow, and you have to do so in a given historical moment and cultural context. This particular historical moment, with all of its glaring inequalities, is terrible for anyone trying to be a self-sustaining adult in the United States. No one envies the twenty-two-year-old facing the job market. Students have a right to a college education that helps prepare them for an economically challenging, complex, global, fast-paced, Internet-driven future. Right now, for-profit colleges are subsidized to the tune of billions of dollars a year from taxpayer-supported Pell Grants, according to statistics from the Department of Education. Some for-profits have graduation rates as low as 25 percent. Yet they appeal to students because they promise job training. At the same time, most legitimate nonprofit colleges and universities boast loftier, and to my mind, indefensible, goals. Over a million students this year are turning to for-profit institutions, many of them out of despair at the lack of alternatives. We educators must change our focus. For our sake, for the sake of students, why not have humanists lead a necessary transformation throughout the entire university?

NUMBER 4: Al Hollingsworth was right that the world wants good readers and good writers, and that these are fundamental, foundational, indispensable job skills. Any survey of employers ranks reading and writing as the skills most coveted and most often lacking in new employees. Other missing skills include collaborative abilities, abilities to translate complex and incommensurate information into conclusions, critical thinking, persuasive skills, and project-management skills, plus global awareness and an understanding of culture and context for facilitating interactions in distributed, globalized workplaces. Sounds pretty “soft” (as scientists like to say). Sounds pretty humanistic. Instead of declining, our undergraduate enrollments should be soaring. If they are not in your department, you are missing the boat. I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat it. We are living in the information age, for Pete’s sake. If humanists can’t make what we do central in an information age, we never can. Still, most humanities departments act as if the Internet had not yet been invented. As I noted on my blog at, the information age without the humanities is like the industrial age without the steam engine. But few humanities departments could pass the essential litmus test to make that a concrete analogy rather than just a witticism.

NUMBER 5: Al was wrong about one thing. He said humanities departments could, if they had the will, lay claim to only two of the three foundational human skills—reading and writing. I believe we can lay claim to the third, arithmetic, now too. Given the importance of digital humanities, and all the ways the digitization of texts has an impact on our lives, given ways that data scraping and mining and extracting and analyzing can help us understand information flows now and in the past, we could be teaching students not only how to extract data but also how to analyze, interpret, and apply it in meaningful, paradigm-changing ways. Humanists have to get past the tired binary of “qualitative” and “quantitative” thinking—the former so often dismissed by number-crunchers as a “soft” skill and the latter so often dismissed by humanists as “positivism.”
To reimagine a global humanism with relevance to the contemporary world means understanding, using, and contributing to new computational tools and methods. There are many fascinating examples of digital humanities projects that use newly digitized resources to change our often Eurocentric ideas of human interactions and contributions. Even a few examples show how being open to digital possibilities changes paradigms and brings new ways of reimagining the humanities into the world. Mappamundi, a digital and web-based initiative that studies the global Middle Ages, is a partnership of medievalists and supercomputer scientists from Texas to Istanbul to Hangchow and even Timbuktu. Together, humanists, computer scientists, and engineers are building a virtual world where avatars can tour an ancient city, hear its music, walk around its architecture, read its texts, and see its carvings and statuary. The project requires global, cross-disciplinary partnerships that break boundaries and help students collaborate on project management and technical training along with new, multilingual, multinational, multireligious humanistic paradigms (“medieval” no longer implies “Christian” in the Mappamundi project).

Similarly, the Law in Slavery and Freedom Project brings together a worldwide cohort of faculty and students, often in seminars taught simultaneously with research collaborators at the University of Michigan and in Brazil, Canada, Cuba, France, Germany, and Senegal. In some classes, students mine local archives, create new databases, and exchange information and ideas to help inform our understanding of the institutions of slavery, abolitionism, and emancipation while, again, using interpretive and narrative skills once seen as outside the purview of the humanities. Last year, at my own university, the Haiti Lab in Duke’s John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute analyzed more than a hundred years of computerized ship records to prove that the recent Haitian cholera epidemic must have been imported from outside the country in the wake of the devastating 2009 earthquake. Crunching all the data now available in digitized records, the Haiti Lab participants (historians, literary scholars, computer scientists, visualization experts, and global health practitioners) proved that Haiti never before suffered from cholera even though other Caribbean countries did. This research helped inform the Centers for Disease Control’s response to the outbreak. Numbers matter to the humanities. Humanistic interpretive skills matter to a data-rich world. The world needs skillful, critical, creative interpreters of data now being produced at the click of a mouse: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Together again, at last. The humanities need to claim all three.

NUMBER 6: So what does this all add up to? A crisis, yes, but one that needs to be addressed (a) by protesting administrative stupidity (see number one above) and (b) by employing an equal amount of introspective activism about what we do, for whom we do it, and how we contribute to our own precarious state within the larger university. If I am a student already facing economic crisis, do I want to specialize in a discipline synonymous with “crisis”? We humanists need to change our mission and forever disown our self-defeating posturing.

C. P. Snow wrote about the “two cultures” in 1959. Looking backward thirty years, he noted that the two cultures came about largely because of the stature of the humanities being “on the decline,” while science was on the rise. Really. We’re eighty-two years old and still feeling one down? Enough. Acknowledge the crisis, but also acknowledge that the two-cultures argument is a product of the industrial era. So is overspecialization. We live in a new era, where work and life are blended, where multimedia arts are part of science, where computation is sociality, where Eurocentrism is outmoded, and where globalization touches us all. We have a new opportunity and, fifteen years into the commercialization of the Internet, now is just about the right time to be reforming institutions. Industrial Taylorism transformed the institution of the medieval university into the modern research university in which the humanities and the liberal arts more generally were already being rendered structurally and conceptually peripheral to “real,” specialized advanced training.

We now live in an age that requires synthesis and reconnection across isolated and overly specialized fields throughout the university (by no means just in the humanities). If the university is in intellectual crisis (in addition to economic crisis), it is the consequence of a mismatch between the educational needs of our era and the antiquated design of our educational systems. In short, we need a wholesale reconceptualization and transformation of the industrial-age university for a global, interactive, interdisciplinary digital age. The humanities have the skills to put the present university in historical perspective and to lead its reformation, to turn a crisis into an opportunity. First we must acknowledge our complicity in the current crisis. Until we acknowledge our complicity, we will change nothing—but others will change us, whether we like it or not. There seems to be no third alternative in this version of the “crisis in the humanities.”

NUMBER 7: I don’t like finger-wagging, and I’ve done a lot in this piece. So I will end by pointing toward one modest program we’re exploring at Duke University to create a prototype of what a new and essential humanities for a digital age might look like. In December 2009, David Bell, senior associate dean of the graduate school, asked me to gather together faculty to brainstorm ideas. We did this in an open fashion by posting ideas online, on a Commentpress blog, and holding open forums. We compiled about three hundred responses into a program that we turned this way and that to come up with what is, at the time of this publication, still a proposed draft (making its way now through various committees) for what will probably be a master’s degree, a “bachelor’s plus,” or a “PhD plus” (or all three) in what we are currently calling “knowledge networks.” Whatever specific institutional or degree form this takes, the new program’s hallmarks are deep critical thinking about the information age, about how concepts and ideologies change in response to technology, about historical process and critical thinking, combined with new modes of assessment and data analysis, technology training and requirements, peer learning, project management, and real-world application in year-long internships. It’s only one version and, as I’ve said, it’s still being drafted, but we hope to have students participate in this new program in fall 2013.

A program in knowledge networks is hardly a full solution, but it crosses some new boundaries and might offer ideas to other humanities faculty. I, for one, would much rather set a new standard for our profession than let ourselves be dismembered by those whose motives might be unsavory or even deadly to the goals of productive, creative, intellectual, social, and economic futures—our students’ and our own.

Highsmith, Complicity, and and Crisis

Now back to those strangers on a train. In Patricia Highsmith’s brilliant, grim tale of complicity, the architect Guy Haines encounters a stranger, Charles Anthony Bruno, a playboy and sociopath, and they exchange secrets: Haines would love to divorce his unfaithful wife and marry the woman he loves; Bruno would like to kill his father and inherit his fortune. Bruno suggests the two make a pact to each murder the inconvenient person in the other’s life. Because they met randomly, neither will have a motive. Theirs will be the perfect set of crimes, and they can then go off independently and unencumbered to lead happy lives.

Complicity never quite works so easily. Haines sees the scheme as a fantasy until he returns from a trip to find his wife murdered. He knows Bruno did the deed but is afraid to go to the police for fear that he will be implicated and charged as an accessory in a conspiracy to kill his wife. He is consumed by guilt, of course, and also fear. Bruno keeps turning up at inconvenient times and places (such as at Haines’s wedding), and, this being a noir mystery, a detective sleuths about trying to figure it all out. In the process, Haines finds himself more and more in thrall to Bruno, more and more powerless to lead an independent life. Haines can scarcely believe the person he has become because of that one brief encounter, because of his own cowardice and complicity.

As Highsmith knew, that’s how complicity works. Once you give up your independent judgment to another, it’s hard ever again to live free and clear of the desires of the person you most fear—or to be able to fulfill your own.
I’m not being entirely glib when I say the “crisis in the humanities” is a bit like an arranged murder interlaced with the complicities of all parties, and no one is completely innocent. It’s a terrible cycle. We have to break it. As humanists, we need to find our independent way and lead higher education, not simply follow in its own self-destruction and our own.

Right now, virtually all nonprofit higher education is institutionalized for the swiftly departing industrial age. It needs to be reformed, at every level and in all fields, for the digital future. Why can’t humanists lead the way instead of wringing our hands over how we are being mistreated by those whose values we probably find questionable in the first place? Educational and institutional leadership must begin with the radical reformation of our own disciplines and our own mission. If we do it right, we will have the public on our side because most people outside of academe are all too painfully aware that education (kindergarten through college) is not yet fulfilling its obligations to this new age. Students would not be turning to for-profit institutions if we were doing our jobs.
Higher education today is training students for the twentieth century, not for the one in which we live. The humanities could bring higher education into the twenty-first century. We need to find our independent way to our own radical reformation, and then we need to start on the rest of the university too. There is no other choice. We must reform ourselves before we are deformed by more powerful forces (those administrators!) into beings that we can scarcely recognize as ourselves.

Categories: Ideas & Philosophy, Politics/Current Events | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

What is Water?

What does it mean to “learn how to think”?  Is it just a cliché?  Or is there really something to it?

I remember my first day in my introduction to cultural anthropology class when my professor – one of two people I’ve come to consider as a mentor – told us that the purpose of higher education should not be to learn, but instead to unlearn everything we know…and then relearn it.  In essence, he felt that education at the university level should teach us to think critically, or analytically.  Since then, I’ve never had a single class that so drastically changed the way I see the world, and indeed, the way I think about things.

That professor recently shared an article that drives home a powerful point, a point which I’m sure the professor made clear in his class, but which I had since lost sight of.  It is namely that, we cannot only think critically about the “outside” world:  about how governments and other powerful institutions work; about how culture is formed, or what it all symbolizes; about how meanings are made; about the relationship between power, knowledge, and those meanings; about why humans do the things they do.  No, that is not enough.  As the following article makes clear, we must also learn how to think about the things that go on INSIDE our heads.  As David Wallace (the “author” of the article, which is actually the transcript of a commencement speech he gave) puts it, “ ‘learning to think’ really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.

Take seriously Wallace’s words; think about them .  They are not a manifesto, meant to dictate how we “should” live our lives.  They are more of an invitation…though, if he is to be taken seriously, his words are nothing short of an invitation to freedom.  That is, freedom from your own mind.  As he puts it, and I do agree with him, we are all naturally and almost unalterably self-centered.  After all, there is no experience that we have had, or will ever have, in which we are not the center of the universe; everything that we see, read, feel, hear, learn about, has to be processed and filtered, and understood inside our skulls, thus making our mind the center of (our) universe.  So, this self-centeredness is our “default setting.”

The point of “learning how to think,” then, is not only to question this default setting, but also to be able to exercise a certain amount of control over it…In essence, to take ourselves out of the center of all existence.  As Wallace puts it, it is no coincidence that we often refer to well-educated and sympathetic people as well adjusted.   They have learned to break out of the trance that is induced by the incessant monologue that goes on inside our heads, day-in and day-out.

How does all of this theoretical gobbldy-gook  translate into real-life application?  Because, that is after all, what’s most important.  To help the graduates he’s speaking to better grasp what he’s talking about, Wallace paints a very familiar scene:  You’ve just gotten off work, after a very long day, and you have to go to the grocery store to buy food for supper.  As soon as you enter, you realize that haggard old woman in front of you, pushing her cart so slowly, is in your way; and the kid chasing the bouncy-ball he just bought is getting on your nerves…You get the picture.  It seems as if those de-humanized globs of aggravation and sheer stupidity are simply there to make your day miserable.

Let me give another example from my own experience:  you’re heading to class – and you’re not even late; you make sure you leave with enough time – and then you get to campus and it seems that all 30,000 students have come to campus – in individual cars – at the same time and have taken up every single parking space – and the rest are circling around like freakin’ vultures waiting on a spot to open up.  They’re all frantically waiting to take your spot, to make you late.  Because, what do they have to do?  They’re just probably going to some stupid management class.  They’re not a TA who has to go impart wisdom about the history of world civilizations.  And then, because they didn’t recognize that the center of the universe itself needed a parking spot, they have put you in a bad mood for the rest of the day.

Wallace says that this type of thinking is our default setting.  And in modern mass society, where there is so much inevitable interaction between all of us, this aggravation with other people is amplified by sheer number of interactions.  And so, we are doomed to be constantly aggravated and depressed unless we learn how to control what we think, and de-center our selves.  We cannot actually control what goes on in the outside world – but we can control how we think about it, how we interpret what happens.  Perhaps that cashier who didn’t tell you “thank you” kindly enough was too busy worrying about who was picking up her child from school.  Perhaps that kid who got to the parking spot first was on her way to taking one of the most important exams of her academic life.  As Wallace points out, these ‘rosier’ situations aren’t very likely – but they are indeed possible.  But if we choose to think of it in that way – if we control our thoughts to interpret it in that way – we have taken (even if momentarily) ourselves from the center of all being, recognized the humanity in another, and at the same time, saved ourselves a load of frustration and stress.

That is the freedom that Wallace is talking about.  The freedom to choose how you think about the world; to free yourself from the hum-drum of daily life.  The cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant, but a horrible master” then takes on a whole new dimension.

It is sad that I must add that Wallace’s commencement address is not being circulated around the internet because he just gave the speech.  No, unfortunately, he just died at the age of 46; apparently by suicide.  Perhaps he found it too difficult to master his own mind and reach a level of freedom and peace.  I will quit rambling now and let you read Wallace’s wonderful, direct, and powerful words:

(click picture above for link to original webpage)

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

If at this moment, you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise old fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude — but the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense.

A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real — you get the idea. But please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called “virtues.” This is not a matter of virtue — it’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default-setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.

People who can adjust their natural default-setting this way are often described as being “well adjusted,” which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

Given the triumphal academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default-setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about college education, at least in my own case, is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract arguments inside my head instead of simply paying attention to what’s going on right in front of me. Paying attention to what’s going on inside me. As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head. Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal-arts cliché about “teaching you how to think” is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: “Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.” This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger. And I submit that this is what the real, no-bull- value of your liberal-arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default-setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.

That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. So let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in, day out” really means. There happen to be whole large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.

By way of example, let’s say it’s an average day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging job, and you work hard for nine or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired, and you’re stressed out, and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple of hours and then hit the rack early because you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home — you haven’t had time to shop this week, because of your challenging job — and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the workday, and the traffic’s very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping, and the store’s hideously, fluorescently lit, and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be, but you can’t just get in and quickly out: You have to wander all over the huge, overlit store’s crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the ADHD kids who all block the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough checkout lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day-rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can’t take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register.

Anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and pay for your food, and wait to get your check or card authenticated by a machine, and then get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death, and then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn’t fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive rush-hour traffic, etcetera, etcetera.

The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default-setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look at how deeply unfair this is: I’ve worked really hard all day and I’m starved and tired and I can’t even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid g-d- people.

Or, of course, if I’m in a more socially conscious form of my default-setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic jam being angry and disgusted at all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV’s and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks burning their wasteful, selfish, forty-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers, who are usually talking on cell phones as they cut people off in order to get just twenty stupid feet ahead in a traffic jam, and I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and disgusting we all are, and how it all just sucks, and so on and so forth…

Look, if I choose to think this way, fine, lots of us do — except that thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn’t have to be a choice. Thinking this way is my natural default-setting. It’s the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities. The thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stuck and idling in my way: It’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive; or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to rush to the hospital, and he’s in a way bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am — it is actually I who am in his way. Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have much harder, more tedious or painful lives than I do, overall.

Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you’re “supposed to” think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it’s hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you’re like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat-out won’t want to. But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line — maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept. who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible — it just depends on what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important — if you want to operate on your default-setting — then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying. But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars — compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship…

Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational. What it is, so far as I can see, is the truth with a whole lot of rhetorical bullshit pared away. Obviously, you can think of it whatever you wish. But please don’t dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.”

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out.

Categories: Ideas & Philosophy | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Miniature Earth

If we could turn the population of the earth into a small community of 100 people, keeping the same proportions we have today, it would look something like this:

61 Asians

12 Europeans

14 Americans (from North and South America)

13 Africans

01 Australian (Oceania)

50 women

50 men

10 are homosexuals

33 are Christian (Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox)

18 are Muslims

16 are Hindus

16 are non-religious

6 are Buddhists

11 practice other religions

41 live without basic sanitation

16 live without an improved water source

6 people own 59% of the entire wealth of the community

13 are hungry or malnourished

14 can’t read

only 7 are educated at a secondary level

only 8 have a computer

only 4 have an internet connection

1 adult, aged 15-49, has HIV/AIDS

Of the village’s total annual expenditures of just over US$3,000,000 per year:

US$ 181,000 is spent on weapons and warfare

US$ 159,000 is spent on education

US$ 132,000 is spent on health care

If you keep your food in a refrigerator, and your clothes in a closet…

If you have a roof over your head, and have a bed to sleep in…

You are richer than 75% of the entire world population.

If you have a bank account you’re one of the 30 wealthiest people in the community.

25 struggle to live on US$ 1.00 per day or less…

47 struggle to live on US$ 2.00 per day or less.


Work with passion

Love without needing to be loved

Appreciate what you have

And do your best for a better world.

*These statistics are from at least 5 years ago.  It would be interesting to see updated numbers, but I didn’t find any.*

Categories: Entertainment, Ideas & Philosophy | Tags: , | 2 Comments

What Would It Look Like?

Have you ever stopped to wonder what the world would be like if we really did something to stop greed and violence, hatred and pollution?   To wonder what would happen if we, as humans, reached our full potential?  I know you have.  Millions day dream about it at some point in their lives.  And then we usually wisk it away, feeling that it’s just that: a daydream.

The folks over at the GlobalOnenessProject have asked that same question in their 25 minute mini-film, “What Would It Look Like?”  Writer and Producer Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee interviews 9 people, and they discuss the need – and even the possibility – of a peaceful, more eco-minded world.  The peace that’s needed comes not from lack on conflict because we have all become one, but a peace born from respect of our differences.  A world in which we realize that we must cooperate with Mother Nature, not master her.

“We can split the atom…we can go to the moon,” one interviewee says.  “This is the imagination.  We can do even more with the power of Love.”

What would it look like?  It would be a world without boundaries, but still with diversity and flavor.  It would be a world in which we would share – share our resources, our knowledge, our patience, and our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of contentment.  “When we don’t want to share the world,” one interviewee warns us, “all that’s left is fundamentalism.”

“Let’s stop a moment and look at our lives from a broader perspective.  Then we will realize that there are more important things in life than spending the whole weekend in the supermarket trying to buy everything we can so that we can experience momentary satisfaction.”

Click on the picture below to watch the 25 minute video.  It’s a beautiful picture that is painted.  Studying history, I sometimes resign myself to the fact that humans will always exploit each other, war with each other, and draw lines between ourselves.  But this movie gives me hope.

It may be just idealistic.  But then again, what’s wrong with being idealistic?   

From the website:

“What if the world embodied our highest potential? What would it look like? As the structures of modern society crumble, is it enough to respond with the same tired solutions?

Or are we being called to question a set of unexamined assumptions that form the very basis of our civilization?

This 25-minute retrospective asks us to reflect on the state of the world and ourselves, and to listen more closely to what is being asked of us at this time of unprecedented global transformation.”

Categories: Ideas & Philosophy, Politics/Current Events, Religion | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

After the End

“What are you?” asked the woman.  She had caught a glimpse of my true form in my stolen eyes.

It had been one hundred lifetimes since I had seen a human being.  A thousand years ago exactly, judgment had been passed down from on high, and I, along with those like me, had been banished to a pit of flames and ash.  After the final battle, a new Earth had been established and a millennium had passed under his reign.  But now, that period was over and the Revelation, the final chapter of his Book had come to a close, and I was released from my fiery prison.  Nothing else was written in the Book, so the future lay before us all like blank pages.

“You cannot know,” I told the woman.  She looked deep into my eyes, searching for some type of answer.  I closed her eyes as she slid her hand down my bare chest, and in one fluid motion I entered her.  She cried out in ecstasy.  As I breathed out, she breathed in, and with that very breath – the carrier of life – she and I became one.  I could feel her body in its entirety, and I knew that she was the realization of perfection…pure and flawless.  From the moment of my liberation, I had searched for one like her.  Her dark skin, without blemish, set her apart, and I knew that she was the one.

After the deed was done, I withdrew and she fell back against the wall, panting.  Even I had trouble maintaining the image of my borrowed appearance.  She saw the shimmer in my persona and her hand fell instinctively to her abdomen.  I took a step forward and placed my own hand on her stomach.  As my hand met her skin, I felt the faint hint of movement.  It was the first new life created in a thousand years.

“What now grows inside you,” I told the woman without moving my mouth, “will assume the mastery of this world.”  I saw a trace of fear flash across her face.  But soon, it gave way to a content happiness, as she caressed her stomach.

“I do not understand,” she told me.

“You cannot,” I repeated.

For a thousand years after the victory of the great I Am, mankind lived in a world unlike any except that into which the original Pair was born.  The survivors of the great battle lived in a world with no pain, no misery, no sorrow.  He himself wiped away every tear of joy from their eyes.  Every instant of the millennium was spent in joy and in worship of he who created them.  However, though there was no death and no loss, there was also no creation of life.  That is why the sensation of life within her womb was new and alien to the woman standing before me.

During my imprisonment it became clear to me what this new kingdom on Earth was meant to do.  It was the only way that he could fix his creation’s flaws.  By removing all temptation, by removing all pain, all sorrow and by providing only one option, that is gladness, salvation, oneness with him, would mankind finally be what he wanted it to be.  Only on the straight and narrow path could humans achieve what he, the Lord of All Creation, deemed perfection.

For a thousand years, the embodiment of beauty standing before me worshiped her heavenly father without ceasing and sang his praises.  But now I saw that I had given her something that she had never experienced:  physical pleasure as well as the knowledge that there was indeed something alive inside her; it was the feeling of motherhood.  And yet, she could not understand.  She had not been created in this new kingdom to understand.

I reached out my hand to her and in my palm was a perfect apple.

“Eat this,” I told her, “and you will understand.  And then take the seeds from the Fruit and plant them in the garden.”

Before the woman could take the apple, a wind at my back blew my robes into small wisps of smoke.  And a hand, perfectly sculpted yet scarred grabbed my wrist.  Even before I turned my gaze I knew who held my arm, and I looked up into the grey-blue eyes of the Archangel.

“Ah, hello, Gabriel,” I greeted him.  The wounds on his left chest, the ones I inflicted on him a millennium before, still bled.

“You have been summoned,” he said to me in a voice more powerful than thunder, and he released my hand.  I nodded to him and looked back at the woman one last time.  I snarled as I noticed the Fruit rotting in my hand.  Fiery wings erupted from the flesh of my back and I spread them wide in the room.  I beat them once and leapt into the heavens.

In an instant I stood before eternal and never ending gates.  A saintly gatekeeper stood before us and acknowledged my guardian and me before gesturing that we should enter.  I stepped forward and Gabrielle led me into the throne room.  It was a room unchanged, perfect and bright.

I saw the feet of the Alpha sitting before me, and the throne to his right was occupied once again.  It was the Son, sitting, radiant and pure.  My eyes rose up from the feet set before me, those foundations of all things, and I met the face of the Alpha.  No man had seen that face and lived.  But then again, I was no man.

His face was not beautiful or flawless like his Son’s.  It was ever changing.  In one instant it was that of a wise old father; in the next, that of a fresh, newborn child.  In the blink of an eye the face would meld to that of a haggard woman before suddenly giving way to the wretched, repulsive face of Death.

I felt his piercing stare fall upon me, and when he spoke, his voice came not from his mouth, but radiated from his heart.  “You, oh Great Deceiver,” he addressed me, “dare come before me in guise?”

As he spoke, I felt as my body was forced to assume its true form.  My damnation and expulsion from heaven had scarred my figure.  Once the Lord of Luminescence had stolen all Light and kept it for himself, there was nothing left for me except Darkness.  And that Darkness devoured my being and left me forevermore hideous.  My wings were no longer beautiful and feathered, but instead shredded and leathery.  The fires of jealousy and greed had singed my skin and the envy, the desire for what had been taken from me, had consumed my angelic features.  Hatred – the hatred of those countless generations that came after me, and my own hatred at the injustices thrown upon me – had distorted my body into something repulsive.  My charred skin had become hard, as hard as my own heart.  Even my feet had taken the same shape as that worn by the lowest beasts that walked the Earth.

I, the Fallen One, shed my skin like a serpent and stood raw, naked and exposed before him.

“What is it you wish to accomplish in my new kingdom?” the Lord of Thrones asked me.

“I wish only to grant back to mankind that which you took away from them,” I told him.  For a moment, there was silence throughout the cosmos.

“You, the ruler of only one-third of the stars, those that fell, hope to advise me, creator of all that was, is, and all that shall be, on how to govern that which I have created and provided for?”

“Yes,” I answered him.

He gave a snort and then replied, “You have been released from your prison but for an instant and already attempt to blacken their salvaged hearts.”  Upon receiving no answer from me, he continued, “You seek a woman.”

“No,” I corrected him.  “Not a woman, but a mother.”

“And what do you desire from a mother?”

“A fresh beginning,” I told him.  “In the Beginning was the Word,” I continued, “and the Word provided for mankind, but kept from them one Fruit, the lush sustenance of Knowledge.  However, I offered them the Fruit and you punished them for wanting to become like me…and like you.  You had to begin again, washing away not only their sins, but everything of their past.  After that, you provided yet another beginning when the Word became flesh and your own Son sacrificed himself for your creation.  Yet again, you have wiped clean, through warfare and bloodshed, everything of their world, keeping it “pure” for a millennium.  And yet, as you said, I have been released for only an instant, and already, upon given a Choice, one of them has already chosen against your Will.”

“Why do you wish to steal happiness from them?” he asked me.

“It is not happiness that I wish to steal.  I wish to grant to them Choice.  Free choice in their lives.”

“I gave them free will!” he bellowed.  For a moment, the tides of time reversed, but soon proceeded normally once again.

“Free will indeed,” I told him.  “And yet, it enraged you when they chose to do that which would not be pleasing to you.  You have since cursed them for that, plagued them with disease, disaster, and eternal damnation.  If it were not for the Compassion of your Son, not a single of these souls would join you here after death.  I wish for them to have true free will.”

“You would have choice without consequences?” he demanded

“Consequences come naturally, my lord,” I replied.  And then there was silence as the Ancient One thought.

His head shifted to that of a great blue elephant and he asked, “You would have them indulge in the pleasures of the flesh?”

“Yes,” I told him.  “I would wish for them to know the intimate senses of the flesh, but I would also have them truly know the deeper pleasures of Life as well without fearing themselves or others.  I would have them enjoy pure happiness and jubilation, that which comes from themselves, not the shallow and hollow joy which is feigned by your ministers.”

“Explain yourself,” he demanded.  The sharp gaze of a falcon now stared down at me from above.

“Look below at your Creation,” I said, and turned to point at the small orb known as Earth below us.  “How can one truly know pleasure if one has never felt pain?  How can one actually appreciate the joy of love without ever experiencing the piercing pain of loss?  One cannot exist without the other.

“Look at your new kingdom, look deep within the city walls,” I told him, “You claim to have given them delight and merriment, and yet all you have done is taken away heartache and death.  In your quest to keep from them the Knowledge of Evil, you have kept from them true Knowledge of Good.  No loss has fallen upon mankind for a thousand years.  And here in heaven has it ever.  Yet the absence of Loss does not grant Joy and Contentment.  Eternal joy is not joy at all.”

The Son turned his gaze to Earth and then over to me as the Father stared down as well.

“Look around,” I told him.  There were humans and angels and all of his creations bowed and worshiping him without ceasing.

“This is not salvation,” I said to him, he who sat on the throne.  “It is bondage.”

Both Gabrielle and the Lamb looked to the King, anticipating his reaction.  But there was none, so I continued.  “To live in fear of your creator, to live in fear of those different from oneself and to live in fear of the unknown of an afterlife is to not live.  Particularly when the afterlife is not a life at all, but simply the fulfillment of a duty to the cosmic master.”

The Great One waved his hand and time itself stood still.  Only those in heaven continued unaffected.  “And what is it that you ultimately want, oh Lord of All Things Vile?”

I took a deep breath and exhaled.  I had waited for this moment since my expulsion.  My forked tongue slipped forth eagerly from my lips.  And then I spoke:

“I do not seek retribution, nor do I hope that you will clear my name from all of the wrongdoings and lies with which it has been falsely associated.  I am not here to ask forgiveness, for I know your forgiveness has limits.  I stand before you to ask for the World of Man.”

He who was, is and will be, suddenly was not in the throne, nor was he anywhere, but he was everywhere all at once.  Finally, a shape reappeared on the throne, and as I looked up, I stared into the eyes of every man, woman and child that had ever lived.

The Son now looked anxious.  His Father spoke:  “You ask for that which I created?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“What makes you think that I would grant such a request?”

“Because,” I told him, “the final chapter of your Book has closed.  There is nothing left.  Your millennial reign on Earth has ended.  And yet, you are not pleased with your creation.”

In the silence that followed, I realized that the Father strummed the cover of his Book.  As I continued, I wondered if he thought of the final pages:

“You are the Alpha, but you are also the Omega.  You created this world many lifetimes ago, and now you have ended it.  Go!  Begin anew!  Elsewhere,” I told him.  “But, leave this world to me.

“You remain angry and unsatisfied with the World of Man and blame them for their flaws, those decisions which are against your Will.  But, both you and I know, oh Exalted One, the real reason for your anger.  You wrote a book that limits your own power, and above all, a flawed creation means a flawed creator.”

Suddenly, the Son sat upright in anger.  Instinctively, my hand moved swiftly to the hilt of my sword.  Yet, I knew I had nothing to fear.  The Prince would not strike me; for, violence had been reserved for the Father, and the Son’s own Compassion was too great.  He felt it even towards me.  However, his Father’s silent contemplation only angered him further.

Moments would have passed if time had been allowed to run its course.  As it were, I could not tell if I waited for a second or an eternity, though I knew it was neither.

Finally, the Father spoke:  “So be it.”

The Son’s face fell.  That was understandable.  He had given his life, had given everything for the salvation of Mankind so that they may not be eternally damned by the Cosmic Judge.  And suddenly his Father had, with three words, delivered the entire fate of mankind into my hands.

And yet, when he looked at me, and our eyes met, I felt a sense, however small, of understanding.  For, he had stepped into the World of Man so that they could escape the strict and impersonal rules and commandments laid forth by the God of Gods and instead find Compassion and the personal connection with the Lamb.  A part of me expected the Prince to speak, but he remained silent.  I did not know if his silence stemmed from fear of his Father, or from his wordless consent.

Suddenly, I noticed a third throne, sitting to the King’s left.  In it sat a woman, more perfect than all creation.  Her dark skin set her apart and was pleasing to my eye.  She sat staring down at me, beautiful and frightening.

I felt the Father’s voice in my body once again, “She who carries your seed is yours.  Of her own free will.”

The woman stepped down from her throne to stand beside me.  She turned to face the Father and Son.  “Does this please thee?” the King of all Kings and the Lord of all Lords asked me.

“Yes,” I answered.  “I wish for nothing further.  I will not pursue you anywhere you may go.”  My gaze met with the Prince’s once more and I saw a twinkle in his eye before he looked sternly forward, glancing only momentarily down at Earth one last time.

“One final thing,” said a voice from the throne in the middle.  I was given a start as I looked up.  The Father’s eyes now peered down through a majestic and angelic figure, my original given body.  He was talking to the woman.  I saw how she gazed at the heavenly creature sitting before her, and anger flared up inside of me as I stared down at the distortion I had become.

In my body, the Father stepped down from his throne and extended his hand.  In his palm was a perfect apple, the Fruit.  “Take this,” he commanded her.  She obeyed.  His body, my body, suddenly shriveled like the desert sand and withered away.  He was back on his throne, faceless.

“Then I have spoken,” boomed the Lord, Creator of All Things.  “It is done.”

In the next instant, I stood on the wall of New Jerusalem, my talons digging deep into the stone.  A clap of thunder more profound than had ever before been known heralded my reentrance into this world.  People ceased their worshiping and then exited their dwellings to step out into the streets.  For the first time in a thousand years, a cloud drifted in front of the sun.  Many people below were afraid of its shadow, yet some found comfort in its shade.

Without warning, the sun was extinguished and the world was plunged into darkness as all of the stars fell from the sky.  Chaos reigned as the Creator and the Word left this world forever.  I wasted no time in replacing every star individually and I hung the moon tenderly myself.  My winged followers began dismantling the walls of the Golden City so that mankind could again inhabit the whole of the Earth.

However, I remained perched in the sky alongside the woman.  I silently folded my wings tight around me, cloaking myself to hide my scarred exterior.  “Eat, Mother,” I told her.  She bit deep into the Fruit, and then I set the world in motion once more.

I reached over and placed my hand on the woman’s stomach.  Feeling the life that I had created brought a smile to my now attractive, borrowed face.  The smile only widened as I watched the people below as they gulped up water and fed themselves for the first time since the Four Horsemen established the heavenly Reign on Earth.  Hunger had been a stranger for the past millennium, but so had the pleasure of food and a full stomach.

Yes, the humans went on with their new lives and they once again became the host of Age.  For now they were grateful for their gifts.  However, there would come a day when their Compassion and Patience with each other would come to an end.  Some would want Favor, others Riches and Power.  Others still would want Answers.  A segment of their kind would simply always feel unworthy and lost, seeking personal validation, satisfaction and Purpose.  And when these desires could not be fulfilled to their liking by Earthly means, they would turn their attention to the heavens.

This time, I and my son would be waiting to fill the empty thrones.


Creative Commons License
“After the End” by W. J. Newsome is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Categories: Entertainment, Ideas & Philosophy, Religion | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

What Is It About 20-Somethings?

Following is an article from the New York Times on August 18, 2010 by Robin Marantz Henig.  It’s about how the transition to adulthood is now collectively being pushed back to later ages.  Psychologists are now defining a new phase in the maturity process that takes place during the twenties.  It’s a phase characterized by moving around more, changing jobs at a higher rate, and getting married later.  Critics of this new transitionary phase say that it’s simply kids coming out of college and pushing off responsibility.  However, psychologists answer by pointing to the fact that 100 years ago, the transitionary phase we know as adolescence wasn’t generally accepted either.

At least in my opinion it’s an incredibly interesting article about how environment and culture affect how we mature and how “childhood,” “adulthood,” and other “natural” stages of development are not fixed at all.  Here are a few teaser paragraphs, with a link to the full article.  It’s well worth the read.

Click here for the full article

“The 20s are a black box, and there is a lot of churning in there. One-third of people in their 20s move to a new residence every year. Forty percent move back home with their parents at least once. They go through an average of seven jobs in their 20s, more job changes than in any other stretch. Two-thirds spend at least some time living with a romantic partner without being married. And marriage occurs later than ever. The median age at first marriage in the early 1970s, when the baby boomers were young, was 21 for women and 23 for men; by 2009 it had climbed to 26 for women and 28 for men, five years in a little more than a generation.

We’re in the thick of what one sociologist calls “the changing timetable for adulthood.” Sociologists traditionally define the “transition to adulthood” as marked by five milestones: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child. In 1960, 77 percent of women and 65 percent of men had, by the time they reached 30, passed all five milestones. Among 30-year-olds in 2000, according to data from the United States Census Bureau, fewer than half of the women and one-third of the men had done so. A Canadian study reported that a typical 30-year-old in 2001 had completed the same number of milestones as a 25-year-old in the early ’70s.

The whole idea of milestones, of course, is something of an anachronism; it implies a lockstep march toward adulthood that is rare these days. Kids don’t shuffle along in unison on the road to maturity. They slouch toward adulthood at an uneven, highly individual pace. Some never achieve all five milestones, including those who are single or childless by choice, or unable to marry even if they wanted to because they’re gay. Others reach the milestones completely out of order, advancing professionally before committing to a monogamous relationship, having children young and marrying later, leaving school to go to work and returning to school long after becoming financially secure.

Even if some traditional milestones are never reached, one thing is clear: Getting to what we would generally call adulthood is happening later than ever. But why?”

The New York Times article (link above), references the cover of the May 24, 2010 edition of The New Yorker magazine.  Below is the image, which is titled “The Boomerang Generation” by it’s author, Daniel Clowes.

For me, a student working on a Ph.D. in History (of all things), the image of a young man hanging his doctoral degree on the wall of his childhood room is cause for more than a little worry.  I just hope that by the time I graduate, the economy will be back on its feet…

Categories: History, Ideas & Philosophy, Politics/Current Events | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

The Big Wooden Desk

I was sitting behind my desk.  Yes, the big, wooden desk that all business men (and women) dream of.  Well, I like to say it that way.  Because I bet you got the impression that I’m the boss of my company didn’t you?  I’m not.  But hey, wording is everything.  I learned this the hard way.  You see, my life’s not going so hot right now.  Ok, niceties aside, my life is pretty shitty at the moment.  Oh, it used to be the great, ideal, “perfect” life you dream of.  I had a house in the suburbs, a nice-paying job and a beautiful wife.  Hell, I even had a golden retriever.

But then…and there is ALWAYS a “but then”. So, but then, my brother came to me with that crazy idea.  One of those bizarre get-rich-quick schemes.  You know what I’m talking about.  And I guess it didn’t matter that I was happy and the thought of kids had even come up in some conversations between my wife and me.  It didn’t matter that I was already making enough money to live very comfortably on.  I wanted more.  Like always.  So I agreed to help my little brother.  I had to.  It was the big brother thing to do.  The main set back was that the “job” was in New York City.  We lived in Nevada.  But, I told my wife I’d be back every weekend, and I’d call her every night, and not to worry, “We’re going to be rich!” (That’s what my brother said.)

That was two years ago.  I now live in New York.  I have no wife anymore.  And guess what, I am NOT rich.  But hey, shit happens, right? At least that’s what Forrest Gump said.  You just have to roll with the punches.  And my brother was still promising the “big break” was just around the corner.  I had given up on that and gotten myself a normal job behind a desk.  The big wooden desk that all business men (and women) dream of.  Hmm, looks like I’ve made a circle.

On this particular day, on this particular cold, wet, dreary day, I was a nervous wreck.  My brother seemed to have gone missing two days earlier.  At first I just dismissed it as another one of his many long nights out on the town.  He was a lady’s man, and well, he was always off doing his thing.  When he wasn’t “working”.  I hadn’t really figured out what the job was.  But I’m pretty damn sure it’s not legal.  That’s why I bailed out a while ago.  That and the fact that I didn’t get rich quick.  But, since we both live in the same apartment, I noticed quite quickly when he didn’t come home two nights in a row.  So, of course I called his cell phone, blah blah blah, all of the usual stuff you would do if you were wondering where your brother was.  I left him close to a million voice-mails and then just quit worrying.  He was a big boy.  He could handle himself.  Or so I thought.

Just about ten minutes ago, my secretary let me know in her horridly screechy voice that “You have a call on line one.”  Oh fun, dealing with clients.  So, I pick up the phone.  This was definitely no ordinary business call.  It was some guy, who judging by his voice, looked like the main character from The Sopranos.  It’s funny how at such an urgent time like this, I could still make that connection. Maybe I do watch too much T.V.  Anyway, it was your typical ransom call.  This big brute of a guy (and his cronies I’m sure) had my little brother…and they wanted money.  How original.  They tell me the price and where to meet them.  And of course there was the “Tell no one, you hear me?!  You betta not call no cops, or Ill kill yo baby brotha, alright?!”  Icing on the cake.

I put the phone down and leaned back in my leather chair.  The one with nice smooth rollers.  The chair that all business men (and women) dream of.  Then it hit me.  Wait, let me re-phrase that.  Then, it HIT me.  HOLY SHIT!! They had my little brother!  After all that kidding around about his job, and now it was true.  Why hadn’t I stopped him when I bailed out?  Whoa, too many questions.  No answers.  And no time.  I looked down at my fancy (and fake) Rolex.  I had almost 8 hours to get…dear God, that just hit me, too.  Two hundred thousand dollars.  I am sad to say that my first impression was, why two hundred thousand?  It was such an odd number (well, technically it’s even, but I meant weird).  I mean, usually it’s one hundred thousand, or five hundred thousand.  Hell, this guy should have gone ahead and asked me for two hundred million dollars.  I had no where near two hundred thousand dollars.  And who would have known my brother was worth two hundred thousand dollars?

I felt sick.  If I didn’t some how get these guys their money, there was no doubt in my mind that they would kill my brother.  Wait, now I feel really sick.  Where’s the trash can?!  Phew, that’s better.  I’ve got to get this damn tie off.  I look at it in my hands.  Geez, this is so cheezy! I really wear this?  Crap! My brother, right.  Well, I couldn’t give them any money. So I needed another plan.  I did have a gun.  I’m not sure what kind though.  It’s black.  I had seen it on movies.  I think they said something about “a 9”.  9 what, I don’t know.  But I did know how to shoot it though.  Haha…Oh…There was that time I had accidentally shot it off in the apartment.  They called the cops and everything.  Made some huge deal about it.  I didn’t kill, or even hit anybody.  Somehow I had managed to get off.  Come to think of it, I think my brother handled that for me.

So, that’s what I’m going to do.  Be the hero.  I had no other choice.  Couldn’t call the police.  Didn’t have the money.  Plus this would add some excitement to my life.  But of course, my brother’s life hung in the balance.  I put my hands firmly on the desk.  The big wooden desk that all business men (and women) dream of.  I got up and walked across my office, leaving my cheezy tie and my old jacket lying on the floor.  I walked out the door and told my secretary that I was leaving.  Then there was that horridly screechy voice, “Alright”.

I raced out into the cold, dreary day, now wishing I hadn’t left my old coat in that office.  I’m glad I left that cheezy tie there.  I jumped into my old, used car.  I had a Volvo.  It was beige, boring.  But, everyone in the suburbs had one.  I mean, who cares if it was a boring sedan, it was a Volvo!  But I had to get rid of it.  I am NOT rich.

I speed along, cussing at people and flicking them off whenever possible.  Notice I said whenever possible, not necessary.  Cussing and shooting birds has become a habit of mine.  No, not a habit, a hobby.  Yeah, a hobby.  Most of these New York jerks need it though.  No skin off my back.  Was that the saying?…Ah, who cares.  Focus, damnit!  Oh, here I am, home already.

Through the lobby, up the elevator, get out the keys, open the door, and into my bedroom.  I get out the gun from my nightstand.  I head back out the door, but stop before I leave my room.  I turn.  And smile.  There it was.  A mirror.  Ooooh yeah.  I raised the gun so I could see it in the mirror along with me.  Now I really wish I would have brought that old coat.  It would have looked cooler than no coat.  But still, I’m glad I left that cheezy tie.  I cocked the gun like they do in the movies.  The “chick-chick” sound was so cool! I tried to do it again.  But it wouldn’t.  I probably broke it.  Oh well.  I looked back in the mirror and got all serious.  All business.  “So tell me, punk, do you feel lucky?”  Was that how he said it?  Something tells me no, but I couldn’t think of how he really said it.  Oh, who cares, you’re not Clint Eastwood, you’re YOU.  So, I say it again. “So tell me, punk, do you feel lucky?”  Wow. I looked good.  I was no 007 or anything, but for a stressed out business man with no coat, I was cool.

So, I go get back in my car. Still, it was no Volvo.  But, I was NOT rich.  I drove awhile, flicking people off and cussing.  Finally I arrived at the docks.  How unoriginal can you get?  I mean, why not meet on top of a building, at an airport, maybe at a cafe’?  But nooo, it’s at the dock.  And I was right.  As soon as I pulled up, the guy from The Sopranos comes walking up.  Ok, not the real guy, but you know what I mean.

I have to admit, I am nervous.  NERVOUS.  Maybe this isn’t a good idea.  Yep, in fact I’m sure of it now.  This is a bad idea. BAD.  But, Mr. Soprano yanks open my door. “Come on.”  I give him my serious-yet-casual business man nod.  I hope he didn’t notice that I almost peed on myself.  I reach over and get out “the money”.  Ha! It’s really just my empty briefcase.  Oh shit.  Wait a minute.  How unoriginal was that?  An empty briefcase?  Now this was a horrible idea.  HORRIBLE.  I get out and “come on”.  I’m following Mr. Soprano when I remember that the “9” (maybe it can hold nine bullets?) is just sticking out of the back of my pants.  My boring, old, blue pants.  So, being the suave genius I am, I just untucked my shirt and covered the gun.  I mean, would James Bond go into a deal with his shirt tucked in? Actually, he probably would.  Damn.  He’d probably even have a coat, too.  But not a tie.  Especially not a cheezy tie.

So, he lets me into some old wooden room.  And, God, it smelled.  What exactly did it smell like?  Phew! Sweet Jesus, that is horrible!  All of the men were staring at me.  Whoa.  I pull it together and nod at all of them.  Mr. Soprano shuts the door and walks around to join the other guys.  There are four of them.  And there’s my little brother.  Tied and gagged. Just like the movies.

“So, you got it?”  Man, straight to business.  “Yeah,” I sneer.  I was a bad-ass. Hell, I was an international bad-ass.  I chunk the briefcase on the table.  I guess I should mention here that it was a cheap briefcase.  I am NOT rich.  The briefcase pops open, revealing the non-money.  Oops.  The Sopranos all look down at the empty briefcase and then back up at me.  I think I might have just lost my bowels on myself.  I know my heart is pounding like a jack-hammer.  Wow.  I’ve messed up, I just realized.

“I thought I told you to bring two hundred thousand dollars?!'” There it is again.  Two hundred thousand.  I couldn’t think of anything to say, except…”Sorry.”

“Sorry?!”  I’m pretty sure he was mocking me.  But just in case he was serious, I said “Yeah” again.  Turns out he was mocking me.

He pulled out his own “9” and shot my brother.  Shot him right in the head.  I blinked.  Then it hit me.  Let me re-phrase that.  Then, it HIT me.  HOLY SHIT!  Son of a bitch!  God damn! Whatever profanity you can think of, it ran through my head.  I only didn’t say it because I was in shock. I heard a siren in the background.

“You called the cops?!”

I don’t know.  Did I?  I sure don’t remember it if I did.  I didn’t care.  They had just killed my little brother! Right in front of me!  And I couldn’t move.  I blinked again.  I was numb.  Wow.  My mind would not wrap around the situation.  My brother, the only family I had left was now dead.  Was there a point in living?  I don’t know.  I don’t know anything.  Wait, scratch that.  I did know ONE thing.  The Sopranos were about to pay.  I pulled out my gun

Now, I must be honest.  I’m not sure why they didn’t react.  I like to think that it’s because I was moving with super-human speed like Neo from The Matrix.  Damn, Neo had a coat.  A really cool one.  But, I doubt I was moving too fast to see.  Maybe it was because they too were in shock. Only they were surprised to see a boring business man with a “9” of his own.  Or maybe they were just dumb as dirt.  All I know is that they didn’t move.  Oh well. No skin off my back.  So, I shot them.  All four of them.  Not in the head.  I’m not that good of a shot.  But these guys didn’t miss many meals, so they were an easy target.  That and we were standing only feet apart.  Wow.  I had never even seen a dead person before and now here were five of them.  And I killed four of them.  The other was my brother.  The other was my brother.  The other was my brother.

Wow.  I was still in shock, I guess.  I didn’t feel anything.  I was numb.  That scared me.  But, I knew the feelings and emotions would come later.  Welp, here’s later.  Sadness, remorse, loneliness, guilt, grief, confusion, anger, disgust, horror, fear.  What was that noise?  Sirens.  Oh, and there is splintering wood.  I turn around and there are cops, pointing guns at me. Great.  More guns.  I believe another “Oh shit” is needed here.  Because now that I think about it, here is a room full of dead people, all of them shot mind you, and here I am, holding a gun…a “9”.

Well, I got a free ride in a police car.  They cuffed me and took me down town.  Just like in the movies.  They didn’t waste any time getting me to trial. They didn’t believe my story.  But, I didn’t care.  I didn’t have anything else to live for anyways.  But, I do wish they would let me dress differently.  This jumpsuit is very unflattering.  I want to wear a nice suite and a nice coat.  But not a tie.  Especially not a cheezy tie.

Anyway, here I am sitting in the courtroom.  The jury is already back.  Everything was a blur to me.  Supposedly I was on the witness stand for a little while, but I don’t remember it.  But, now, I was focused.  Now I would get my sentence.  The Judge pounded his gavel.  Silence fell.

But my mind wandered.  Oh, how I wish I could be that Judge.  Free.  Free to sit behind that desk.  That big wooden desk that all Judges (men and women) dream of….

Creative Commons License
The Big Wooden Desk by W. J. Newsome is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Categories: Entertainment, Ideas & Philosophy | 1 Comment


“ I expect to pass through this world but once; any good thing therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature,let me do it now; let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again. ”

– Stephan Grellet –

"The Circle of Life." photo courtesy of Dr. Matthew Richard, VSU

Humanity.  It is such an intriguing topic.  It has captured my attention ever since the moment when I really became aware of its existence; the moment when I realized that Nationality, Race, & Religion are just lines in the sand – and in the sky; simply differences that we assign to ourselves and place upon others.  This process of self-differentiation, of creating We & Us and Them & They, is a process that strips other people of any connection to ourselves, and thus robs them of their very humanity.

I hesitate to continue, wondering if it’s possible to capture certain emotions or ideas and then force them here, into the physical world.  I did not sit down with the intention to ask why humans always divide themselves; to ask why there always exists an Other.  I’ve done that before, but no answer seems capable of explaining why it is so difficult to truly recognize the humanity in people different from ourselves.

Too often we are afraid to take a bite from the Apple, to open our eyes to the common thread that connects all human beings around the globe.  Certainly, it is much easier to sympathize with and care for those who are most like us.  But is it actually that much more difficult to empathize with someone who may pray to a different deity, has a different idea of marriage, or perhaps has totally different ideas as to what constitutes as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’?

Can we not look beyond the veil and see that the woman underneath loves her children just as deeply and passionately as our own mothers love us?  And what of the person who prays to no god?  He fears for his family’s safety just as any God-loving man does.  And what of the peoples who still nomadically roam their land?  Surely the hunger that they may feel is the same as ours.

The embrace of a loved one brings a smile to a Muslim face just as it does to a Christian face, does it not?  Isn’t the love between a man and his partner just as powerful as the love between a man and his wife?  And can we not agree that when Iraqi parents lose a child, their pain is just as piercing as an American family’s when their child dies in the war?

Before someone is Buddhist, atheist, a socialist, a foreigner, black, or white, they are first and foremost human.  That is our connection; we share so many of the same worries and fears, but we also share many of the simple pleasures of life.  Both laughter and tears are languages that cross all boundaries.

Humanity has an unquestionable hold over me.  It has, at times, brought me such anguish, and yet other times, filled me with an immeasurable joy.  But in particular, it is the human duality – humanity’s capacity to create such destruction and pain, and at the same time harness such understanding and compassion – that holds me spellbound and deeply moves me.

It is reading the story of a young boy who was pried from his life by the indifferent and obedient hand of History and placed into a bloody war; who was robbed of his father’s strong embrace, the smile of his brother, and his grandmother’s stories.  It is the story of a child who once spent his days playing soccer, but was forced to murder until it felt unnatural not to kill.  It is then reading this child’s words when he earnestly states that he would go through it all again – the killing, the months when sleep would not come to him, the migraines that he felt sure would finally relieve him of his burdened life – if only it would assure that no other child would have to experience such pain and loss, such confusion and sorrow.  Yes, that’s what moves me.

It is far too easy to focus only on humanity’s shortcomings.  Indeed, they are in no short supply.  But, it is important to realize that there exists a sincerely beautiful side of humanity, as well; a side that is too often pessimistically portrayed as disappearing in today’s world.  But, one mustn’t wait to read of a far-off war to witness such displays of compassion.  These acts of beauty, these acts of inspiration and raw honesty, are all around, if one will but see them.

Last week I witnessed an awesome act.  It was awesome in its simplicity and beautiful in the fact that it was mundane.  I noticed a librarian helping a blind girl to an empty space at a table.  I then watched in amazement as the girl pulled a laptop from her bag, put in earphones, and then proceeded to check her email and surf the Web.  That was it; nothing more.  It is a simple act that millions of people do several times each day, but I only wish that this girl knew how her act gave me an entirely different perspective and deeply transformed me.

My first reaction towards anyone with a ‘handicap’ was always one of pity, and that seemed like the appropriate reaction.  But I see now that pity (though meant with good intentions) still places the other person on a different, sub-standard level.  By pitying someone, we focus too much on their difference and in doing so, sometimes forget they are actually a whole person, capable of loving, hating, and everything in between.

So, as I watched this girl perform such a mundane act, realization washed over me.  It was as if I was seeing the girl – indeed, the world – through brand new eyes.  This girl was not sitting at the table thinking, “I’m blind, but I’m going to use my laptop anyway.”  She was simply a teenage girl, who happened to experience reality differently than I, but who was a complete and full human being nonetheless.  And so the act of checking her email was, in fact, nothing astonishing, but routine.  But that mundane act transformed the way I saw the world, and in doing so, became both beautiful and extraordinary.

Today I beheld yet another vessel of human beauty.  I was sitting at a table when something caught my eye.  I looked up as a young woman walked by, draped head to toe in the flowing, ebony fabric of a burqa. I had seen her once before, but only for an instant, and the image of her had lingered in my head for weeks.  But today, as she walked past, she seemed to simply glide effortlessly over the floor.  And although I could only see the golden skin around her stunning eyes, I found myself overwhelmed by her inexplicable beauty and grace.  Perhaps it had something to do with her strength.  To wear that shield of black cloth in this land, where it is neither forced or the Norm, must require amazing confidence and dedication.  I found myself wondering: Where does she come from? What is her story?  Her story, no matter its contents, has made her who she is.  That story, to me, is Beauty.  Her exoticness and our common human bond is Beauty.

We all have to wake up on some mornings when all we want is to sleep in.  We all have days when the world is against us, and we all have the capacity to be resentful and even hate.  But every one of us – even the person at work or at school, who we think has no heart at all – has something that brings pure, unadulterated joy into our lives.  We all have the capacity to overlook demographic differences and truly see one another.  To acknowledge the common thread of our existence is to show Compassion.

That is why I have come to believe that Humanity’s greatest attribute is not necessarily Love or Hope, but instead, Compassion:  the act of recognizing the Humanity in another.

This life is very short and fragile, but I find it quite comforting that one can find such solace in something as plentiful as the smile of a child.

Creative Commons License
Human Beauty by W. J. Newsome is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Categories: Ideas & Philosophy | Leave a comment

Blog at