Archives for April 2012

The power of quotation marks

Truly, political correctness is anathema to me….

As a writer, I understand the power of quotation marks. In fiction writing, it’s when my characters come to life and speak.

In my nonfiction work, this form of punctuation indicates the words contained within are quoted verbatim, exactly as uttered from the mouth of the speaker cited.

Sometimes in my writing, I’ll put quotation marks around a single word to convey what I consider to be questionable usage.

Those applications are the only ones using quotes with which I am comfortable using.

For example, today I’d like to talk about the ongoing effort to stigmatize users of an currently “unpopular” word.

You see, in this instance, “unpopular” suggests that nobody likes the word. But in truth, only a certain set of people dislike use of the word and seek to marginalize its use by the general public.

However, there is yet another convention. In the modern vernacular, quotes placed around only a single letter signify that the word associated in question that comes to mind in the given context is politically incorrect, or verboten.

For example, the “N” word associated with a racial slur is considered one of the most horrible, offensive words in the English language. It is thought to be so bad that a teacher got fired for using the word “niggardly” correctly in a sentence, because it only sounded like the forbidden one.

Before you think it was simply an aberration, the same thing happened to the aide to the mayor of Washington, D.C.

In other words, ignorance and hypersensitivity to political correctness can cost people their jobs. Some sins are simply believed unforgivable — even if the actual sin wasn’t committed, but somebody thought you did and took offense anyway.

My point isn’t to advocate or defend use of  the “N” word, because I don’t particularly care for it. But I say, if a word is banned, then it cannot be used by anybody.

What I don’t understand is how white people in the movie Pulp Fiction were allowed to say the word to black people.And black people in the movie said it to each other.

But I better not say it.

For the record, Pulp Fiction was a pretty good movie and I wasn’t so horrified that I walked out, but I admit it made me uncomfortable. I think the movie would have been just as good with a substitute word, but I’m not Quentin Tarantino, so what do I know?

What bothers me so much about the “N” word is the thought that it’s only banned for certain people, and I’m not sure who’s on the “permitted” list.

If the word is really and truly that horribly offensive that people who use words that sound similar should lose their livelihood, then please remain offended when it is every other word from the mouth of a black comedian, or the only rhyming word in a rap song.

Sorry, but exchanging “a” for “er” at the end of the word doesn’t appreciably soften the blow or make it more friendly for me.

And it makes zero sense to ban or rewrite Huckleberry Finn under the excuse of protecting impressionable young minds from this horrible racial slur, for them only to listen to NAS’s Live Nigga Rap on the way home from school.

But, it seems, this time I digressed before I ever really got started.

Today’s topic of discussion is the latest organized effort to remove a word from normal use now being called the “I” word, described as “dehumanizing”, “hate speech”, “slur”, and “racist”.

There is even something called the “Drop the ‘I’ Word” campaign.

And what, pray tell, is this “I” word in question?

It would be “illegal”, as in “illegal immigrant” or “illegal alien.”

In her interview with Bill O’Reilly, when “Drop the ‘I’ Word” campaign coordinator Ms. Novoa described the word as “not accurate”, I found myself asking an “inconceivable” question: does “accurate” mean what I think it means?

My apologies to fans of The Princess Bride.

It is against  the law to be in the United States without permission. That means you have a birth certificate that says you were born here, a green card, or an immigration visa. If you don’t have legal permission to visit America, that would make you an “illegal alien.”

Ipso facto, the usage in indeed “accurate” to call people in America without permission illegal aliens.

But instead, I am being told the politically correct word I should be using is “undocumented.”

And I would, if I had the least bit of concern about offending the sensitivities of people breaking the law.

I will concede that it’s also true these people are “undocumented.”  That’s precisely why it’s against the law for them to be here. They are indeed breaking the law. That makes their actions illegal. They are not U.S. citizens, which makes them aliens.

Why, shazam!

I believe that would make them “illegal aliens”, correct?

 

The blind eye to a bully

Physically, I’m not all that big or intimidating. I don’t bully people that way.

However, that does not translate to mean I am totally incapable of mistreating other humans.

Quite the contrary. In other writings, I have previously recounted bits and pieces of one personal situation where I irritated, manipulated and cajoled one particular “adversary” to the point where he threatened to commit suicide on my front doorstep.

The point of mentioning this is not to brag. I’m not proud of that moment in time, a personal nadir.

Rather ashamed of myself, in fact.

My only point in mentioning the story was to acknowledge the fact that I am perfectly capable of being a bully. And I know it.

The question is, what should I do with that information? Now, in my defense, many would argue the person who threatened to kill himself because of my evil scheming was himself a thug and a supreme jerk, and “got what he deserved.”

Truthfully, it’s not like I was picking a fight with Mother Teresa. However, that’s no excuse.

To make another human being feel so bad about himself that he claimed he wanted to die at my feet, because of my words, was not a good feeling. I had to ask myself, is the only way to deal with a bully to become a worse one?

I think not.

The incident in question was not a proud moment to remember from my personal history, precisely because in order to defeat what I hate most, I became what I abhor. A bully.

Of someone several inches taller, and about fifty pounds heavier than me — but as we all know, size has nothing to do with it. Speed kills.

This person was afraid of me, simply because of the words that might next come out of my mouth. He was perpetually about three moves behind me in our little psychological game of chess.

Most bullies prefer physical intimidation, brawn to brains. But I am forced to use the limited weapons at my disposal, mostly my wits, which are often but not always quick.

I won’t flatter myself to suggest this person was incapable of matching wits with me. I think it was more a matter of he never expected someone that much smaller to be so much meaner than him.

It really bothered him that I showed no fear of physical altercation with him, to the point where I taunted him and dared him to come try assault me — from a safe distance away by phone, of course.

I believe it threw him off his normal avenue of attack because he couldn’t tell if I wanted a physical confrontation so I would have an excuse to fight back, have him arrested, or if I was simply insane enough to engage in hand-to-hand combat with him.

We’ll leave it at that. You may wonder, too.

These days, I ask myself: was I really forced to use this insidious tool at my disposal? Was getting what I wanted at the time really all that important? Were any of the hurtful things I said to him really necessary? Couldn’t I have dialed it down a couple of notches and accomplished the same goal, still gotten my way? Did I really have to make the guy feel as bad as I deliberately did?

Was there pleasure that I took in his misery?

In retrospect, the disturbing truth for me is, yes, I believe so.

I went for the emotional jugular vein because he’d made me angry. I wanted him to feel bad. I wanted to crush his spirit.

And I did. My only real defense is to point out in my case, at least I could say that the attack had been provoked. He started it, and I finished it.

At the time this exchange took place, I knew exactly what was wrong with my adversary.

Now, I’m wondering what in the hell was wrong with me. Of all people, I should know better.

My son was bullied by a gang of children at his middle school. Because his mother and I were blessed to hold jobs that paid well at the time, we could afford private school. We had the choice, and a simple solution, after the school administrators failed to protect our son and punished him if he dared retaliate.

Not every parent is so fortunate.

A sad, disturbing, but well made and excellent movie called Bully (that unfortunately had to be made) illustrates the problem with tragic real life examples of bullies in action.

In one trailer clip, Kelby describes what it feels like to be bullied for being gay in high school.

The school administrator in the trailer who was approached by the parents reminded me a lot of the teacher with whom I spoke, after my son had been terrorized in the bathroom by several kids. She defended the bullies as “good as gold” on the bus. In our case, the school official also implied the problems faced by our son on a daily basis were fictitious or grossly exaggerated.

This was after the school official in Bully saw videotape of children punching, kicking and choking the child allegedly being victimized. I merely use the word “allegedly” for comic effect, because nothing else about the movie is funny.

Watch the movie. See for yourself. If this doesn’t make you upset and angry, what will?

To her credit, the same official is later heard asking, “Tell me how to fix this?”

My answer to her: “you” can’t do it alone. You’ll need help. From every last one of us.

I remember feeling great anger and frustration after the school failed to address my concerns about my own son. I shudder to think what might have happened if we had done nothing.

Fortunately, we did have other options.

We pulled our son out the public school, and enrolled him in an excellent, and safe, private though expensive school for about $10k per year.

Sadly, many parents that find themselves in a similar position with their children being bullied, but they simply cannot afford the luxury of private school. Besides, avoiding the problem does not solve it. The bullies will simply find a new target.

If you think the problem is isolated and it cannot happen to your children, think again.

I get really angry when I see kids tormenting each other like common thugs and domestic terrorists. But my blood really boils into apoplectic rage when I read about teachers and adults actually exacerbating the problem.

In the one clip, when Kelby said the teacher called for “boys…girls…and Kelby”, I didn’t think it was the least bit amusing.

While I’m usually quite reticent to demand someone’s job over a single infraction, I found myself willing to make an exception for this supreme jerk. Pick on somebody your own size, and age.

Actually, there’s at least two supreme jerks and bullies who deserve to lose their jobs.

Besides the teacher in question, there is Obama’s “anti-bullying czar” Dan Savage, who uses his position of authority to bully students about their Christian beliefs. He unbelievably launched a personal tirade against students as they walked out of his presentation, after Savage categorized the Bible as “bullshit.”

Savage called the students “pansy asses,” a very curious choice of words coming from a homosexual activist. These words are coming from a very powerful employee of the Obama administration, a representative of the federal government.

Incredibly, though teachers in the room described the scene as “hostile” toward Christians, nobody voiced any objections to Savage — like to say, shut up, for example. Take the microphone away from the jerk, and send him packing. Who cares if he’s a minion sent forth by Obama to do his dirty work?

Savage is nothing more than a coward and a bully.

How does this end? Simple. We put an end to it. Dan Savage should lose his job. Today. If not immediately, come November.

Zero tolerance. One thing that we do not see in any of the clips in which Tyler or the other kids traumatized by their classmates is anybody on the scene sticking up for them. Why aren’t parents teaching their children to stick up for one another, and defend the weak and the outcast, befriend the friendless?

In short, we police ourselves, and each other. I don’t care if so-and-so is your “B.F.F” or whatever you want to call it, if you see that friend bully another human being, call them out. Embarrass them until they cease and desist.

Protect the innocent and shame the guilty.

Students who witness teachers picking on fellow students should tell supervisory school officials what happened. If they fail to take action, their parents must follow up with the school board.

The onlyway that bullying will continue is if we collectively allow it to happen.

Earlier I posed a rhetorical question: what should I do with the knowledge I have the capacity to be a bully. To which I say, bury it.

Don’t permit yourself become a nightmare of a human being, and don’t sit back idly and watch another human being be bullied.

Just say NO.

Do not turn a blind eye to the misfortune of others, simply thankful that you aren’t them. No one deserves to be bullied. Not even a bully.

Anyone who would mistreat an animal will do the same to a human being, if given half a chance. Don’t ignore cruelty to man nor beast.

While maintaining a vigilant watch for the bully in your midst, don’t forget to take a good look in the mirror.

Student loans

Not long ago, a friend asked me to support a “movement” to forgive all outstanding student loans.

What, a bowel movement? My response to him was not just no, but Hell, No!

My parents paid off my student loans. I’m doing the same for my son. He’s currently saving money to go back to school.

Actions have consequences. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

These phrases became clichés precisely because they are true.

After she’s pregnant, it’s too late to say you don’t want to be a father. Nobody puts a gun to your head and forces you to attend Harvard.

Take what you want, but pay for it yourself.

Oh wait, sorry. My bad. I forgot about the “convenience” called abortion.

That subject was still taboo when I was single. In those days, women weren’t proud to have aborted a baby. Instead, they were ashamed they let themselves get impregnated by a jerk. It doesn’t seem to be a big deal these days.

Of course, “back in the day,” abortions were self funded and not covered by any medical plans.

Now, the self-proclaimed “have-nots” want the mysterious “haves” to give them anything they desire, and the soup du jour is a free college education.

Obama is playing to that class warfare crowd, moaning about the expense of higher education without examining the actual costs.

This political advertisement claims “student loan debt exceeds one trillion dollars.”

But has anyone asked the question, why? What makes college so expensive?

The liberal answer to the rising cost of education seems to be that it should be free, simply because it costs too much.

Really? What sort of logic is that?

I’m also a big believer in the axiom “you get what you pay for” and when it comes to college tuition, people are apparently paying way too much and getting way too little in return.

Well….what are we getting for the money?

I see where Harvard paid one professor $215,000 dollars per year AND gave her a zero interest loan of another $50,000.

Not exactly chump change.

College professors do not have forty hour work-weeks.

Plus, this particular professor has significant outside sources of income, which is not unusual. The people who don’t get paid extremely well teach for the love of teaching and work in community colleges and smaller schools.

For the record, I’ve read a couple of my son’s textbooks, and none of them were worth more than $20-$30 at the most.

Triple that, and that’s about what you actually pay for the crap from which they are taught.

Now as a capitalist, I’m a big believer in paying a person what he or she is worth.

That being said, given the current product of our educational systems, can anyone seriously argue we’ve gotten a reasonable return on our investment?

Our colleges are producing people who apparently cannot think for themselves. They are herded like sheep through high schools where the educators are more interested in satisfying quotas than actually transmitting worthwhile information from instructor to student.

They believe the solution to their problems is to act like a herd, and “occupy” public land until their grievances have all been addressed. The funny thing is, they don’t even know what they want, but these protestors are determined to occupy space until they get it.

My theory is, if you want something, get off your butt and work hard.

But the question remains: is education too expensive? Obviously, the answer is yes. If college cost less, then student loan balances wouldn’t be so high.

Oh, no, my liberal friends will lament. We can’t cut the price of tuition. We would lose our best educators to the public sector.

Well, in my opinion, it’s time to thin the herd of academic elitists hiding in ivory towers. However, if the example set by Elizabeth Warren was merely an aberration, this article would not have been written.

Her hypocrisy is laughable but not surprising, and certainly not enough to merit an article.

I’m much more concerned about overpaying professors such as Alex Vitale of Brooklyn College, Heather Gautney of Fordham, and John Hammond from CUNY (College of New York).

These three professors saw fit, and had the financial means to visit Tehran – as in Iran — for a discussion about the Occupy Wall Street movement.

This is a country responsible for the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of American soldiers. Iran is well-known to be a primary source of IEDs used in Iraq.

Why these college professors would give aid and comfort to our enemy as a propaganda tool is puzzling to me.

Perhaps they are only following the example made by some Democrat Congressmen, I guess.

The “Occupy Movement” can’t have anything to do with their jobs – there’s nothing to be learned from the movement, a group of poorly organized malcontents who can’t conceive that somebody else has been Taxed Enough Already, precisely because they’ve never paid taxes.

If these professors did their job properly, and taught the Occupiers basic economics, accurate history, legitimate science, and real math, everyone would be a lot better off. The kids in college would have a meaningful education.

Obviously, the people at Occupy DC were clueless. Ironically, the woman speaking gibberish in the video linked above was wearing a Harvard sweatshirt.

And she claimed to be a junior. Scary, and depressing.

It has been my experience that whenever someone around me babbled that incoherently, I discovered that they were on drugs. The people in the video all appeared to be sober, unfortunately.

Some people have discovered the degree obtainable from an online university can get them a job just as fast as a degree from Duke or Harvard. The more “prestigious” the degree, the more likely the recipient will believe he or she knows everything.

The education you currently have is only as good as the effort you put into it.

As soon as you think you don’t need to learn anymore, you’ve begun the regression back to stupid.

The death of comity

While he was alive, my father said he preferred the company of animals to the company of people. At the time, I thought he only meant my company. After all, we’d both outgrown the idea my living under the same roof with him. I didn’t take it personally.

We both knew when it was time for me to go.

However, in retrospect, I believe Rocky was actually making a more general statement about the human condition because the older I get, I more I get to be like him. These days, it seems the more people I meet, the fewer I wish to know.

Not because of how they look, but how they act. I already know enough people who behave like Melvin Udall, before he fell in love and became human. For example, real-life Rocky and fictitious Melvin shared more than one personality quirk in common.

Hostility, much of it fueled by racial prejudices, increases by the day. People no longer stop to think before they speak, or about the feelings of those they are ripping to shreds. They don’t even bother to listen to the civilized debate point the other is trying to make before shouting them down.

Instead, these very angry people just unleash their vitriol at will, because it feels good to let it all hang out. Often though, it is blind hatred directed against an innocent bystander, not directed anger at another who actually caused them harm.

And the smarter someone thinks he or she is, the more likely they will feel empowered to call the target of their derision an idiot, a moron, or an animal.

Interestingly enough, only recently someone rather vociferously asserted that I was a moron, simply because I lacked a uterus and dared to express an opinion contrary to hers.

I thought it odd, because previously I had believed “moron” was an insult intended to reflect a general lack of intelligence. Silly me….I had no idea intellect was stored in the womb.

But I digress…what a shocker!

Let’s start with the easy one and work our way to the more difficult case, shall we?

First, a topic near and dear to my heart – the recent “trashing” of Tybee Island during the “Orange Crush” celebration.

For the uninitiated, Orange Crush is a loosely organized gathering of black college students from nearby universities. The students congregate to “blow it out” during their spring break with a beach party. And yes, this year they apparently left more litter than they usually do.

They have fun, and with very rare exception, nobody gets hurt. No harm, no foul….except for the litter, which adversely affects the environment.

This year’s event received a lot of negative attention on the internet. And with most things that go bad on the internet, people will say things they would never dream of uttering aloud in public, unless they were accustomed to wearing white robes and pouring gasoline on crosses before lighting them.

Not if the person in question had a lick of sense.

I have been appalled that racism reared its ugly head in some of the comments critical of this year’s Orange Crush. Maybe it’s true that there was more trash this year than last.

There is no excuse for leaving the beach covered in garbage. But the problem reflects a lack of character more than anything else.

Stated more bluntly, another way: litterers cannot be identified by skin color.

Every person in attendance at Orange Crush could have been whiter than the pure driven snow and the beach would almost surely have been trashed just the same, unless they were all Boy Scouts or a church group.

Don’t even try to tell me that only black people go to the beach for Memorial Day and the 4th of July.

This year might have been a little worse than usual, but if you think the beach is pristine after ANY large group of people descends, you’re living in a dream world.

For the record, a group of volunteers from Savannah State, a “black” university, helped clean after Orange Crush last Sunday.

Perhaps before next year, the organizers of Orange Crush could reach out to Tybee officials well in advance to address the issues highlighted by this year’s adverse PR caused by this year’s litter and come up with a plan to prevent another  negative experience in the future.

Just a thought.

But as I read some of the online comments about Orange Crush, I cringed.

I don’t want to publicly embarrass an old friend in case he reads this and realizes that I’m speaking of him. But when my son was young, I didn’t want him to act like me; I encouraged him to emulate this particular friend. I’ve never seen this person lose his temper.

In the years I have known this friend, he has been by far the nicest, most polite, and most consistent person to live his religion, which is Christian.

The skin color of this friend and role model for my son happens to be more ebony than ivory. What difference does that make?

He is NOT the best black man I happen to personally know. He’s the best human being I know.

Sorry, Mom. You’d have to know Big “O”, and then you won’t be offended. I’ve heard Mom cuss before.

This particular friend helped me realize why I hate racism so much.

According to my faith, we’re not even supposed to judge each other, let alone blindly judge, solely based on skin color.

Now for the harder, much more serious case in point: the Trayvon Martin tragedy.

I say the case is tragic because either way, one young man is dead, and the other marked for death. And rather than argue about the “body of evidence”, which is not all in the public domain, I’d like to simply make a couple of salient points about the matter.

I can’t say with absolute certainty that the outrage would not be anywhere near the same if George Zimmerman were also black. There’s simply no way we could ever know for sure — but it’s a pretty good guess that the media would have reported the story quite a bit differently.

That is to say, they would not have reported it at all, certainly not at the national level.

Senseless violence barely merits any mention by the media when the crime is black-on-black, because sadly, it is too commonplace for them to care.

But in truth, one unnecessary death is no better or worse than another.

By and large, the American media is a pathetic joke. They routinely refuse to report stories that fail to fit into their politically correct media template. After giving the idea due consideration, I have decided I shall refuse to stir up mindless, racist by whites against blacks by pointing to the disturbing trend of hate crimes to “revenge” the injustice of the Trayvon Martin shooting.

Even our president, Barack Obama, poured gasoline on the fire when he claimed the son he doesn’t have would have looked like Trayvon. He should have been trying to calm the growing unrest, but instead, he lit a match.

Now POTUS remains mute, though he surely knows about these under-reported tales of senseless “revenge.” Why doesn’t he say the son he never had could look like Matthew Owens?

The mindless hatred and violence has to stop.

The American media may not report it, but the information is out there. Read international papers, or check aggregates like the Drudge Report for headlines that tell all the news, not just what the media wants you to know.

It’s bad enough the New Black Panther party put a “bounty” on George Zimmerman’s head. I don’t need to foment racial tensions any worse than they already are. I’m not even going to post another link to the story I read this morning about a gang that attacked a man and beat him into critical condition. Just know that it happened.

Were even one person with epidermis the same shade of melanin as mine inspired to inflict senseless harm on another simply because of something I wrote or brought more attention, I would consider myself just as guilty and irresponsible of inciting racial hatred as the media, the Klan Grand Wizard, or Al Sharpton.

Be careful, and be vigilant.

But not a vigilante.

The chicken-or-egg enigma, a slight return

 While wandering through the Humane Society of Forsyth County thrift store, I found a hardcover copy of Wendy Northcutt’s The Darwin Awards: Evolution in Action (with dust jacket) in their book section, for the bargain price of $1.

Years ago while working in the corporate world, I laughed along with my “techie” co-workers at the travails of the award “nominees” and “winners” on emails we used to circulate. So I snapped up the available copy, finding it to be in excellent condition.

The Darwin Award famously acknowledges the acts of individuals who inadvertently”added a little chlorine into the gene pool.” The winner usually receives the award posthumously, for what it’s worth.

Maybe it’s just me, but reading these stories about human beings killing and maiming themselves with a single, stupid mistake doesn’t strike me as funny anymore. Not when I know real people are dying, and leaving behind grieving family members.

I will be donating my copy back to the thrift store. I can’t bring myself to just throw it away because it can potentially raise another dollar for the Humane Society.

And reading the book wasn’t a total complete of time. It caught my attention when, in one aside to the reader, the author posed and answered the existential chicken-or-the-egg question.

Author Northcutt boldly wrote,

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? According to evolution theory, the egg did. New species evolve when mutations in parental reproductive cells result in offspring with unique traits. The fertilized egg is the first member of a new species, so the egg comes before the chicken.

Very interesting.

I remembered that while writing as the Atlanta Creationism Examiner, I published a couple of articles that explored the old existential philosophical question — specifically, which came first, the chicken or the egg?

The British researchers mentioned in that article said they had scientifically proved the chicken came first. Since the article was published by MSNBC, it must be true, right? You can’t have it both ways.

Actually, Jack Horner said neither the British scientists nor Northcutt were correct.

The self-proclaimed “real star” of Jurassic Park theorized that the dinosaur came first, as what he called the chickenosaurus. And he announced that he plans to prove it.

Unlike the character from the nursery rhyme, Jack Horner won’t be pulling a plum out of his Christmas pie, if he succeeds with his experiment. He’ll be pulling something less pleasant out from an even darker recess. I won’t be holding my breath….

The biggest problem is, Horner’s claim depends on Darwin’s theory actually working on macro scale, filling in the Big Picture. His theory assumes a creator God cannot exist.

Jerry Coyne can prattle on about why evolution is true as long as he pleases, and the entire world can believe it — but I steadfastly refuse, precisely because of the chicken-and-the-egg problem.

Of course, I have other reasons: there are thousands of NDEs, ghosts, psychics, and detailed records regarding religious memorabilia such as the tilma of Juan Diego that defy all logic, and must be completely ignored in order to seriously entertain Darwinism.

The assumption that no supernatural realm could possibly exist without bothering to investigate the body of evidence supporting these claims amounts to willful ignorance.

If Coyne is right and evolution is really true, then at some point in time, two creatures that were not chickens had to engage in sexual relations, producing an egg containing the first chicken.

If Horner ever succeeded, it would force me to revise my ideas about the limits of modern biology. But even such an amazing feat would not eliminate my obligation to the truth that I also investigate the available body of evidence supporting belief in the supernatural.

If the first two chickens were not born of eggs, but “evolved” into sexually paired and compatible creatures approximating chickens that sexually reproduced in order to produce an egg containing a chicken, that would be an interesting fact to note. Or, if a hen and rooster “spontaneously evolved” to copulate and lay an egg containing the first chicken, that would also be interesting. The problem is, there is no way to know what really happened. It’s an exercise in futility.

No matter how you slice it, to create the first chicken, every known law of modern biology was violated. Nothing makes sense.

Unless, of course, we consider the possibility that a creator God created the hen, and the rooster.

 

The Adjustment Bureau

SPOILER ALERT — plot details are included.

I freely admit that I’m not a huge fan of Matt Damon. I don’t go out of my way to see his movies.

Actually, the truth is that I rarely go out of my way to see anybody’s movies. I do like his movies better than Ben Affleck’s, for what its worth.

After all, Damon didn’t make Gigli.

And he was decent enough playing amnesia victim/master assassin Jason Bourne in the series of movies with remarkably improbable plots, but killer action sequences.

Casino Royale, which introduced the modern version of James Bond, would not have been nearly as good if The Bourne Identity hadn’t inspired its director, Martin Campbell.

On the other hand, all Damon did was say words other people wrote and pretend to be someone he isn’t. My opinion of actors has been adversely affected by hearing them speak off camera, I do admit.

Yet this weekend, I spent a couple of hours watching a Matt Damon movie I knew nothing about, The Adjustment Bureau.

Mostly, I felt like watching a movie because my body hurt too much to do anything else, but that’s another story.

The timing was simply exquisite. I was still a little irritated that I recently spent time (and money) reading Sam Harris’s book Free Will, which proved to be a monumental waste of my time, just as I had anticipated.

I turned on the television and tuned in just as the movie was starting. I only missed a few minutes in the very beginning, and the opening credits. Big deal.

It had been small consolation reading Free Will gave me an excuse to write something for my blog. I’m more in tune with the philosophy that if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything.

I certainly didn’t have anything nice to say about  Harris’s book.

I won’t say that I liked The Adjustment Bureau, either.

I loved it. Really loved it.

I’d have to see it a few more times to rank it against my all time favorites, such as As Good as It Gets, The Princess Bride, etc. but I don’t need to see it again to highly recommend the film.

It was clever, well-acted, and very well written.

If you combined the plot of The Time Bandits with The Princess Bride, you’d sort of be on the right track following the plot of this movie, based on the short story by Philip Dick.

Damon plays David Norris, an aspiring politician who meets his true love, Elise, during a chance bus ride. The only problem for David is the power controlling the universe apparently disapproves of their union. Caseworkers (angels) sent by the Chairman (God) intervene to end their romance before it ever begins. They are members of the Adjustment Bureau.

Norris is kidnapped. Elise’s phone number is taken and destroyed before he can call her. Without even knowing her last name, he’s left with no hope of ever finding her again.

However, David Norris is one determined young man, and he’s in love. He persistently searches for Elise until he finds her a second time, knowing all the while that the same people will interfere once more. Most caseworkers in the Bureau only care about carrying out their assignments.  One named Harry grows sympathetic to the lovers, even to the point of helping David overcome the incredible odds against his having a relationship with Elise.

After all, David is going against The Plan, as recorded in notebooks the caseworkers carry with them.

The Plan represents a deterministic world, where free will is merely an illusion. There are forces in the universe, these angelic caseworkers wearing spiffy fedoras, that enforce this plan and conspire against our natural desire to exercise free will. Nonconformity is not an option.

Or is it?

David’s solution is bold, yet simple and straightforward. He values his relationship with Elise above everything else, including power and fame. He’s willing to risk it all for her. So he wants to meet the author of The Plan, the Chairman, to argue his case and have The Plan changed.

But then Harry reveals he’s already met The Chairman and didn’t know it.

At one point, David asks, “Is this some sort of test?”

Harry answers, “In a way. It’s all a test.”

Harry eloquently sums up the debate about a deterministic world in an aside to the audience: “Most people live life on the path we set for them. Too afraid to explore any other. But once in a while people like [David] come along and knock down all the obstacles we put in your way. People who realize free will is a gift, you’ll never know how to use until you fight for it. I think that’s The Chairman’s real plan.”

Free will is a gift, the second greatest given to mankind.

The “Chairman’s” greatest gift of all is the gift of life, and our ability to love one another.

 

Mental masturbation

When someone goes out of his or her way to ask me to do something very specific, I usually try to accommodate them, especially if the request is reasonable. Though I’ve been quite busy editing the draft of my coming novel Secondhand Sight, my friend Sean made a point of asking me to read Free Will by Sam Harris.

I protested that I was busy writing and editing my novel. Readers of my first Robert Mercer mystery, titled Coastal Empire, have been clamoring for the sequel, which won’t come after Secondhand Sight. I don’t want interest to wane, while I’m screwing around reading another writer’s book.

Sean persuaded me by countering that the Harris book was short, and an “easy read.”

So I splurged on Amazon, shelling out $3.99 for the Kindle edition.

What a sucker I am!

Oh, it was short, all right. And an easy read. But more importantly, the book proved to be an utter waste of my time and money.

Love ya, Sean, but I should have just kept writing.

Do not assume that I fail to appreciate Sam Harris as a writer. On the contrary, I thought his book The End of Faith was quite good, though I disagreed with most of his conclusions. It was quite brave of Harris to admit that he believes in a spiritual facet of the universe that inexplicably exists, but cannot be defined in conventional, scientific terms.

The “Fourth Horseman” clearly departed from Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins on that point.  Harris said he prefers the term “mysticism” to “spiritualism” to describe this phenomena he accepts, because he believes the latter term has more “gravitas.”

But Harris does not believe in the concept of free will. To argue his point, he curiously makes the claim that if he had changed places with Stephen Hayes on July 23, 2007, he would have participated in the brutal assault on Dr. William Petit and the murder of his entire family because he would have had no choice in the matter. Actually, Harris did not say “he” would have committed the murders, but if we assume the space inhabited by the molecules and atoms shared the exact same experiences, environmental influences and genetic makeup as Hayes, from birth until that moment, then “he” would have done the same thing.

The philosophical argument is utter nonsense, sophistry at its worst — or, as the title of this article crudely described it, mental masturbation. It’s a complete waste of time to entertain the idea.

It doesn’t qualify as theory or hypothesis; it’s not even clever conjecture. It presumes the unknowable, the untestable, and ultimately the unbelievable.

Harris is making the claim that at every possible point in his imaginary life as Stephen Hayes, he would have made all the same choices, precisely because he had no choice. The idea is not only moronic, it’s immoral. In his argument that free will is merely an illusion, Harris is absolving Hayes of any responsibility for his actions in committing several despicable murders, in spite of any argument he might attempt to the contrary.

In my debate with the formidable Ed Buckner, former president of American Atheists, I vehemently argued that Harris’ argument against to the concept of free will was baseless and without merit well prior to reading his short, useless little book.

My point was simple — there was nothing in anyone’s genetic makeup, life experiences, or environmental pressures that forced those in attendance to sacrifice their Saturday afternoon in order to hear two grown men waste several hours of a beautiful afternoon, in an almost pointless debate about whether or not God exists.

The argument was pointless in the sense that both of us knew going in that there was little if any chance of persuading the other man that he was wrong. Ed didn’t appear to even listen to most of what I said. We both knew we both lacked any real scientific evidence to back our arguments, or defeat the other guys.

Our real challenge was to win over the audience. Except that was not really my goal, either. My only goal was not to fail completely.

I didn’t expect many in the audience to come with an open mind. My goal was to plant seeds of doubt, to persuade the atheists in attendance to really become a free thinker, and open their mind to the possibility of God. It doesn’t even have to be “my” God.

I’ve often said, get your own.

Only time will tell if our debate had any impact on anyone who attended.

But let’s be absolutely clear about a couple of things — I definitely had a choice whether or not to accept Ed’s challenge and meet him in debate by oral arguments. Attendance was not mandatory. Those in the audience also exercised their free will, when they chose to attend the event on a beautiful Saturday afternoon.

The argument that free will is an illusion is a silly one, and without merit.

I knew exactly what I was getting into when I accepted Ed’s challenge. I knew the odds were not in my favor, given his vast experience in debate, and my virginity with the art form. Yet I chose to meet him on his chosen field of battle, mostly because I was curious to learn if there was something he knew or believed that I hadn’t already considered. I risked humiliation, because my curiosity got the best of me. I have no regrets.

On the other hand, having now been there, done that, and I will go on record as saying that I have no intention of doing it again. I predict, should this opportunity ever arise again, I will once again exercise my free will, and this time, I state without equivocation beforehand that I will almost certainly only consider another debate of that nature when Hell becomes exothermic and freezes over.

Don’t get me wrong — I like Ed just fine, and I am not saying this because I think I lost our debate. Nor am I saying that was my last word on the matter.

However, next time, the debate will take place on my chosen battlefield — on the pages of a book. When I have more than a couple of hours to marshal my thoughts and put them all into writing, there won’t be much left to argue afterward.

But I will be fair. The title will be The Argument about God, as opposed to The Argument for God.

I plan to present the best arguments for both sides. When it has been published, you may choose to exercise your free will in deciding whether or not to read it. The book will be written, unless I stop breathing before it’s finished.

I’ve already decided. Of my own free will.

[Hat tip to Sean T. for inspiring this article]