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Dec. 18th, 2009 @ 02:53 pm Volume 3, Number 2
THE INVENTION OF THE INVENTION OF LYING

For the past several months I’ve been receiving e-mails from fans of my novella, City of Truth, asking how I feel about the recent Ricky Gervais comedy, The Invention of Lying.

The parallels between my novella and Gervais’ movie are many. Both posit societies in which mendacity is unknown. Both sport plot devices that turn on terminal illness. Both exploit their central conceits to spin out jokes ranging from the restrained to the obvious. In City of Truth, a prominent clinic is called the Center for the Palliative Treatment of Hopeless Disease. In The Invention of Lying, a retirement home is labeled A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People.

Is there something unsavory afoot here? City of Truth first appeared nineteen years ago in England, Gervais’s native country. Since 1993 the American trade paperback edition has been in print, and several independent film producers have optioned the property over the years.

That said, I honestly don’t believe that any conscious or overt plagiarism has occurred, and I’ve been advised by several Hollywood insiders that I would be wasting my time to take my case to court. Moreover, as a secular humanist, I must admit that I’m glad The Invention of Lying got made. While I found most of Gervais’s movie tedious and unfunny, I thought the second act did a marvelous job of articulating the “Emperor’s New Clothes” essence of the God hypothesis.

I'll conclude these meditations by thanking those bloggers who’ve compared The Invention of Lying with City of Truth and judged my novella the more resonant effort.


SCOUNDREL OF THE YEAR

So there I was, all set to convert to Judaism, my war with God having finally ended, and then along comes the imperially pious Senator Joseph Lieberman. Sorry, Yahweh. Tough darts, Adoni. The deal is off. If You cannot be bothered to inform Mr. Lieberman that You are personally revolted by his gelding of health-care reform in the United States, then I’m going back to worshipping trees.

“I have a responsibility to my constituents, really to my conscience, to be here on something as important as health-care reform,” Lieberman told the congressional newspaper The Hill, explaining why, on a recent Saturday – that is, Sabbath – afternoon, he subjected himself to a four-mile, snowy walk to the Capitol from his Georgetown synagogue.

Translation: “I have a responsibility to the numerous insurance companies of Connecticut to guarantee that this bill will maximize the profits they reap from human suffering, and while I was once vociferously in favor of a Medicare buy-in, there was ultimately no way I could reconcile that position with my inveterate narcissism.”

To their eternal credit, several Connecticut rabbis have stepped forward to remind the senator that his faith does not necessarily countenance such cruelty. Alas, these worthies are of the Reform and Conservative persuasions, and so their pleas failed to penetrate Lieberman’s deaf Orthodox ears. It occurs to me that the sort of Judaism observed by Lieberman is depressingly consistent with the practices recommended by the God of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, that fiend who seems to have no particular problem with child sacrifice but who in His dubious generosity is willing to let the Israelites “ransom” their first-born with cattle and shekels.

Now and forever, Senator Lieberman, the blood of innocents is on your hands. But, sad to say, apparently not on your conscience.


SPEAKING OF SCOUNDRELS

I cannot wrap up The Passionate Rationalist for 2009 without mentioning the visit that Michael Behe, avatar of Intelligent Design, made to Penn State in March. He arrived under the auspices of an undergraduate organization called the Science and the Bible Club, whose “main purpose” is to “research connections and relationships between science and scripture.” Although their website doesn’t say so, I would infer that the Science and Bible Club is a branch of the nationwide Lewis Carroll Cabbages and Kings Society, whose main purpose is to research connections and relationships between paired entities that have no conceivable connection or relationship to each other.

Behe’s presentation was open to the public, and so I gritted my teeth, girded my loins, left the house, and, accompanied by son Chris, walked to the Thomas Building. I’m not sure what I was expecting. I thought perhaps Behe would attempt to wow the crowd with the more technical aspects of his “argument” for Intelligent Design Implicit Onto-Theology, discoursing on certain biological puzzles that he believes cannot be addressed except in reference to the supernatural. But no. Instead Behe chose to waste everyone’s time with a smug PowerPoint presentation trashing Richard Dawkins, dissing Charles Darwin, celebrating the irreducible complexity of mousetraps, and setting us straight about Mount Rushmore: if you believe this second-rate piece of sculpture didn’t happen by accident, then you are tacitly assenting to theism.

In short, an embarrassing, disingenuous, and self-serving performance, topped off with Behe whining about Judge Jones’s landmark decision in Kitzmiller v. Dover, the case that put the lie to IDIOT and dealt Behe such a humiliating personal defeat. Evidently Jones’s 139-page opinion included certain rhetorical flourishes that he failed to attribute to their original author, a scientist who testified on evolution’s behalf. If that’s the sourest grape Behe can find in Jones’s magnificent essay, I would say that, as a device for impoverishing the minds of school children, IDIOT has reached its apex and has nowhere to go but down.


ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL

The evening ended on a happy note. During the Q & A session, a handful of students – presumably not members of the Science and Bible Club – stepped forward to challenge the presenter. I would paraphrase their wonderfully impertinent questions as follows: “Why are you lying to us, Dr. Behe?” “Why are you attacking a caricature of Darwin’s idea, as opposed to the idea itself?” “Why do you deliberately misrepresent the intentions behind recent laboratory experiments keyed to evolutionary theory?”

Evidently the biology courses taught at my local university are something to write home about. These young men and women had their facts straight. I personally don’t care whether we ever win another damn football game, but I was proud of Penn State that night. Bless you, kids. You brought a tear to my eye.

I didn’t get to ask my own question of Behe, but I did approach him at the lectern afterwards. “Doesn’t the natural history of the AIDS virus suggest that Darwinian evolution is more than the inconsequential sideshow you make it out to be?” I inquired. Behe proceeded to best me with the Argument from Because I Said So. I threw up my hands and said, “Okay, you got me, God created AIDS – though that fact makes me wonder about His alleged benevolence.”

Whereupon a student, presumably a member of the Science and Bible Club, turned to me and said, helpfully, “It’s a fallen world. Of course there’s an AIDS virus. How could it be otherwise?”

Foolishly, I decided to pursue the conversation. “Does that mean that the scientists working on an AIDS vaccine are blasphemers? Are they miscreants arrogantly tempting to undo the sin of Adam?”

The student said nothing but instead marched merrily away, eager to lend her deaf ears to Joseph Lieberman.

Merry Solstice, everyone!
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From:kylecassidy
Date:December 18th, 2009 08:21 pm (UTC)
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welcome back! i've just started "shambling" -- liking it very much so far.
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From:sovay
Date:December 19th, 2009 07:00 pm (UTC)
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If You cannot be bothered to inform Mr. Lieberman that You are personally revolted by his gelding of health-care reform in the United States, then I’m going back to worshipping trees.

V'imru amein.
From:tntanuki
Date:December 25th, 2009 12:23 am (UTC)
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To both posts I heartily say: hear, hear!! And I'm so glad you're back! Happy Solstice, backatcha!
From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 27th, 2009 02:03 am (UTC)

I'm Jewish and I'm with Lieberman

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Mr. Morrow -- help me out here. When a religious believer in the Senate votes to criminalize abortion on account of his religious teachings, secular humanists say that religion should not be brought into politics. But when a religious believer instead casts a vote on something that you believe violates the tenets of his religious teachings, then you have to bring bring his religion into it. I not only disagree with you on this, as a Jew I am personally offended. This wouldn't bother me so much if it weren't for the fact that while just about every secular humanist I meet cares nothing about offending the pious, you have always seemed to try to avoid being hostile. Until now.

Having said that, however, I must add that most of the Connecticut rabbis you've mentioned are of the reform and conservative varieties; both movements like to take ideas found no where in the Torah and call them part of Judaism. Most orthodox rabbis are on Lieberman's side on this. While G-d mandates that we give 10% of our incomes to the poor (taxes do not fulfill this obligation, which is a key point here), we also believe that G-d abhors communal ownership of anything. Read Genesis 23.

Regardless of the differences of opinion you may have with Lieberman, it astounds me that you are unable to at least see the other side of the health care debate. It just so happens that Republicans -- and Lieberman -- care very much about health care reform and saving people's lives. Our argument is that public health care will endanger lives. I am the first to admit (as I'm sure Lieberman is too) that the U.S. health care system, though the finest quality in the world (which I know for a fact, having lived in countries that use the socialized system and having to be on waiting lists for over a year just to see a specialist), is inadequate in universal access, owing to its ridiculously high costs here. There are many steps that can be taken to solve some of these problems, such as tort reform, but it has been the Democratic Party that has prevented such reforms from taking place.

You are perfectly welcome to disagree with our evaluations of the costs / benefits of Obama's health care plans versus those of their more market-based alternatives, but can't we just stick to having a reasonable debate about our mutual goal of improving health care -- an issue in which both sides have good points to make -- rather than accuse a good Jew of being a bad Jew? I'm sorry, but I thought you better of this. Both sides need to stop attacking one another's honor.
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From:james_morrow
Date:December 28th, 2009 06:51 pm (UTC)

Re: I'm Jewish and I'm with Lieberman

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Dear Anonymous: I appreciate your thoughtful and heartfelt comment. To be honest, I’ve always resisted the notion of “taking offense” at another person’s critique of an arguably problematic worldview. (You know as well as I that the YHWH of the Torah recommends all sorts of vicious behavior.) To adopt such a posture, I feel, is to shut down the most precious post-Enlightenment gift the Western world possesses these days, reasoned discourse: “I’m offended, sir, therefore this conversation is over, period, full stop.” We can do better than that, Anonymous.

That said, I think you’re making an interesting point. Secular humanists, like everyone else, have foibles and hypocrisies. If I understand your reaction to my Joe Lieberman posting, it goes something like this: Is it not paradoxical for unbelievers to simultaneously deny the reality of a Supreme Being while presuming to understand what that same nonexistent God expects of his followers?

I must take issue with you, however, on the details of health-care reform. I, too, have observed the British, European, and Canadian systems up close, and I’ve reached conclusions quite opposite to your own. If these “socialist” institutions are so inefficient and unpopular, Anonymous, how to you account for the fact that no government, conservative or progressive, has ever attempted to get rid of one?

As for your assertion that “Republicans ... care very much about health care reform,” I would adduce the fact that Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, George H. W. Bush, and Bob Dole were proud and conspicuous enemies of Medicare, with Reagan famously claiming that, if that dreaded entitlement were ever enacted, we would all “spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children, what it once was like in America when men were free.”

Concerning the Republican chant, “Tort reform, tort reform, tort reform,” I can find no evidence that any such tweaking would begin to make quality health care available to the poor. Yes, I suppose there have been some questionable or even outrageous awards over the years, but on the whole the anti-malpractice-suit movement strikes me as just another assault on patients’ rights by the privileged classes.

It was not my intention to attack either your honor or your faith, Anonymous, and I’m sorry you took my remarks that way. When Al Gore selected Mr. Lieberman as his running mate, I nearly shed tears of joy at the thought that a person of Jewish heritage might become our Vice President, and by extension perhaps even President. I have no desire to rescind those tears, but of late I find precious little to admire in the man.


Edited at 2009-12-28 11:20 pm (UTC)
From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 29th, 2009 04:28 am (UTC)

Re: I'm Jewish and I'm with Lieberman

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Mr. Morrow, thank you for your very thoughtful reply. To begin, I see what you're saying about the notion of "taking offense," and from your point of view I can understand what you're getting at. The fact of the matter, however, is that it is impossible to critique a pre-enlightenment worldview with post-enlightenment premises. I cannot appeal to the kind of "reason" that you and the modern world expects in defending my beliefs in divine revelation, i.e. empirical reasoning. (although empirical reasoning is only one kind of reasoning -- experience and speculation are both in the category of reason, albeit not empirical in the post-enlightenment sense, as I cannot expect you to see what I see, experience what I've experienced, or interpret what I've interpreted. As a Jew, I don't even bother debating religion with members of other faiths. Some of my best friends are Christian, and though I'm interested in learning about what they believe, I respect that their piety is good for them and I am happy that it has brought them happiness. It would seem that a person like yourself -- a secular humanist -- ought to be able to at least not insult someone's religious beliefs. As a secular example, suppose you know a person who's wife you believe is completely nasty to others, but he loves her very much and they have a wonderful marriage. Do you tell your friend that he is a fool to love his wife? On the other hand, if his wife is now influencing him to do nefarious things, who should you criticize -- his wife, or him? It would seem that he is responsible for his own actions. If you want to be mad at God, fine. If you want to be mad at His followers for their actions, that's fine, too. But just pick one or the other. I would take no offense if your criticisms were merely lodged at Lieberman, but to bring his religion into it is what I found offensive.

Moreover, if I was a little too sensitive on this, it is because many of your blog's readers do not share your more refined and thoughtful attitude towards the pious. You have demonstrated, not only in previous blog posts over the years but also in your books, that you have a nuanced attitude towards religion that frankly a number of the commenters on your blog do not share.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 29th, 2009 04:29 am (UTC)

Re: I'm Jewish and I'm with Lieberman

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In addition to that, another reason I am sensitive to this is that Joe Lieberman, being the most prominent Jewish politician in the United States, is cited all over the Internet in anti-semitic slurs and rants. Not only have I seen it, but the Anti-Defamation League has documented hundreds of instances of Lieberman's religion being used as "proof" that Jews are capricious. Some of the ones I've seen include, "Joe the Jew would sacrifice as many Americans as possible for Israel," "Jew Lieberman will not be happy until America is destroyed," and "I would have gassed Joe Lieberman first." The health care issue has ignited even more of them recently. And the fact of the matter is that anti-semitism is now a phenomenon of the political left rather than the political right. While decades ago it used to be christian conservatives who used to hate Jews, it is actually now the liberal minded who have become anti-semitic. In our post-World War II era, the "progressives" have come to despise any kind of nationalism, and Jews being the "fossils of history" (as Toynbee called us), who just won't let our ancient sense of national pride go away (or our "outdated," "irrational" belief in God, for that matter), Jews (and Israel) have become enemies of the liberal project to make everyone in the world in exactly the same "grey group", living under the same collectivized system of pure post-enlightenment reason (which of course would be pretty boring, wouldn't it?). And, since Jews are just greedy, conniving profiteers who own the world (as the narrative continues), Lieberman's opposition to a public option on health care (apparently, according to the left, is motivated by his wife's financial interests), is only lending greater fodder for anti-semitism if you do some Google searches on it. Can't the man just be principally opposed to Obamacare and therefore a political opponent to Obamacare supporters and leave it at that? Unfortunately, most Jews fail to see what the left thinks of us, but that is the perspective of many on the left, nonetheless (the secular humanist author of Towing Jehovah excluded).

As for the politics of health care, I do not wish to get into a lengthy debate on the subject because I believe my point has been made. I will only respond by saying that European style health care has indeed been a big problem for its recipients, and they are constantly looking at ways of reforming it. It has not been eliminated for the sole reason that once you create any kind of government program, it becomes virtually impossible to get rid of it. This is the big reason why we need to be cautious about what we do here in the U.S. Bureaucratic agencies are here to stay once they are formed. There are too many strong interests engulfed in its preservation for them to be eliminated. Also, Europeans generally have a far more collectivized mindset at solving social pathologies while Americans have a more market oriented disposition. Thank G-d for the latter, but I fear that it will not last. As for tort reform, the high costs of health care premiums can indeed be traced to frivolous lawsuits. I am not suggesting that tort reform is the only solution that needs to be implemented, but it is one of the market based strategies that need to happen.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 29th, 2009 10:07 pm (UTC)

Re: I'm Jewish and I'm with Lieberman

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One last remark. It occurred to me that your argument, "if nationalized health care in Europe is not bad, why haven't they gotten rid of it?" contains a premise that doesn't accord with even your own worldview. If religion is so bad for us, as secular humanism insists, then why has it lasted and endured all these years? You know as well as I do, Mr. Morrow, that there is such a thing as collective madness, in which people make the same mistakes over and over. It's not that I believe religion is collective madness, but you do, and so you believe in collective madness. There's your answer right there as to why socialized health care hasn't been eliminated in Europe.

Moreover, if there's one thing that I can admire about the political left, it is that they are always reminding us about a phenomenon called "abuse of power." It's the one and only common thread between the classical liberalism of our founders and the reform liberalism of present day "progressives." The problem is, though, that modern day progressives don't listen to their own wisdom. Upon their reminder of abuse of power, they turn around and propose giving power to someone new (usually a bureaucracy), as if this new person / body in power is a philosopher-king incapable of abusing power. So I just don't understand why on one hand law enforcement agents are harassing innocent black Americans and planting evidence against them, yet a bureaucrat working in a cubicle (who, by the way, has far less transparency and accountability on his activities than a policeman does) won't be denying or delaying a black patient's health care treatment? A bureaucrat has nothing to gain or to lose by keeping any patient alive. On the contrary, a dead patient means one less person to treat.