Links and Comments: Susan Jacoby; Erasure; Boars and the Sixth Extinction; Jerry Brown and Jean-Pierre Dupuy

From last Sunday’s papers, the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle.

» NYT: Susan Jacoby: Sick and Tired of ‘God Bless America’

Well, of course; this is someone daring to point out the obvious, mostly unmentioned privilege that the faithful have in the US, despite Christians’ protestations of being persecuted (they love to feel persecuted; it’s in their prophecies). Which is to say, all the presidential candidates pander to the faithful. Despite the rise of the “nones”,

our political campaigns are still conducted as if all potential voters were among the faithful. The presumption is that candidates have everything to gain and nothing to lose by continuing their obsequious attitude toward orthodox religion and ignoring the growing population of those who make up a more secular America.

With many examples, even from the Democrats. Jacoby emphasizes what should be the larger values:

Freedom of conscience for all — which exists only in secular democracies — should be at the top of the list of shared concerns. Candidates who rightly denounce the persecution of Christians by radical Islamists should be ashamed of themselves for not expressing equal indignation at the persecution of freethinkers and atheists, as well as dissenting Muslims and small religious sects, not only by terrorists but also by theocracies like Saudi Arabia.

And points out the obvious:

As defined by many pandering politicians, “religious freedom” is in danger of becoming code for accepting public money while imposing faith-based values on others.

And ends with:

“God bless America” has become the standard ending of every major political speech. Just once in my life, I would like the chance to vote for a presidential candidate who ends his or her appeals with Thomas Paine’s observation that “the most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is Reason.”

This rise of the ‘nones’ in the population, if not yet the politicians, is yet another cultural shift in expanding morality, which, like the acceptance of same-sex marriage and the shared equality and dignity of all sexual minorities, is actually happening quite rapidly, at least in American culture, compared to the vast weight of past history. Happening within a single generation! Of course, progress in morality happens among a few at first, and gradually shifts to the majority, via that Overton Window; but politicians necessarily pander to the majority, or they would not win elections.


Two items in the NYT Magazine.

An essay by Parul Sehgal, Fighting ‘Erasure’, that triggers off recent news, about how events that concern minorities, or the conquered, are systematically erased from history.

‘‘Erasure’’ refers to the practice of collective indifference that renders certain people and groups invisible. The word migrated out of the academy, where it alluded to the tendency of ideologies to dismiss inconvenient facts, and is increasingly used to describe how inconvenient people are dismissed, their history, pain and achievements blotted out. Compared with words like ‘‘diversity’’ and ‘‘representation,’’ with their glib corporate gloss, ‘‘erasure’’ is a blunt word for a blunt process. It goes beyond simplistic discussions of quotas to ask: Whose stories are taught and told? Whose suffering is recognized? Whose dead are mourned?

The casualties of ‘‘erasure’’ constitute familiar castes: women, minorities, the queer and the poor.

History is written by the winners; and journalism is written by folks, honest or dishonest, with conscious or unconscious biases. There is no such thing as purely objective history, or journalism. You have to try to understand the point of view of of who is doing the writing, and adjust.

Recent examples, the essay points out:

Texas Board of Education issued new textbooks for some five million public-school students that omitted mentions of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan and made slavery a side issue in the Civil War.

Because American exceptionalism — about which I will have more anon, in a future post.


And Helen Macdonald, author of the acclaimed 2015 memoir H Is for Hawk, about how wild boars in the woods of England bring to mind humanity’s relationship with nature: A Hint of Danger in the Forest.

When animals become so rare that their impact on humans is negligible, their ability to generate new meanings lessens, and they come to stand for another human notion: moral failings in our relationship to the natural world. As the boar ran up to the fence on that summer day, I felt a huge and hopeful pressure in my chest. The world has lost half its wildlife in my own lifetime. We are living through the earth’s sixth great extinction; climate change, habitat loss, pollution, pesticides and persecution have meant that vertebrate species are dying out up to 114 times as fast as they would in a world without humans. Seeing this single boar gave me a sense that our damage to the natural world might not be irreversible, that creatures that are endangered or locally extinct might one day reappear.

I’ve bolded the key point. Here’s my post about Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction.


Finally, a column by San Francisco Chronicle writer Joe Mathews: Why Jerry Brown is practicing ‘enlightened doomsaying’

Jerry Brown is by a large consensus an uncommonly successful governor, who has improved the California economy and initiated progressive climate change remediations, among much else. This fascinating essay claims that his philosophy derives from his long-time friend,

the French techno-philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy, who practices what is called “enlightened doomsaying” from perches at Stanford University and Paris’ École Polytechnique.

So what is his philosophy all about?

Dupuy’s work doesn’t just provide reassurance that there is a coherent philosophy behind our governor’s ramblings. The work itself is irresistibly thought-provoking, brilliantly connecting history, science, religion, economics and art in an open spirit. I’d recommend that all Californians — as citizens of a global hub for apocalyptic and utopian thinking — read his most accessible book, “The Mark of the Sacred.” It should be required for state workers.

Here’s a summary: We are doomed to destroy ourselves because humanity has lost touch with its sacred origins — not just faith but also rituals and traditions that remind us how many things are beyond human control.

This hubris creates two problems. First, we no longer understand our own limits, and recklessly reshape the world without anticipating the consequences. Second, without a respect for the sacred, we can’t convert our knowledge about the threats we’ve created to our own existence — from nuclear weapons to climate change — into the visceral belief necessary to galvanize humanity to save itself.

And this curious cultural tangent:

[H]e grounds his philosophy in a California classic: Alfred Hitchcock’s film “Vertigo,” a tale of humans falling, from Fort Point to Mission San Juan Bautista. Dupuy calls the film “the womb from which I am issued,” and sees humanity’s delusions in the fictions within that movie’s fictions, particularly Jimmy Stewart’s imposition of a false reality on Kim Novak’s character.

Vertigo is one of my favorite films, but I’m not sure that to say his philosophy is based on some movie does his philosophy much credit. Still, I will check out his books.

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