Thursday, May 31, 2007

Old Mud Blood at the Banshee

"And I do not want anymore to be useful, to be docile, to lead
children out of the fields into the text
of civility, to teach them that they are (they are not) better
than the grass."

-Mary Oliver, excerpt from Rain, originally published in "New Poems"(1991 - 1992)
A year or so ago I met a friend for drinks at The Banshee on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Sitting next to us at the bar was a poet, in his early fifties, who had recently moved to New York from Los Angeles. Feeling uncharacteristically social (after sufficient lubrication), I got into a conversation with the man. He had experienced some critical success within west coast poetry circles but had grown frustrated with "the scene," and opted to try on NYC for size.

After a half-hour of talking, he announced, "Well this is really great. You're the first person I've met since moving that's really got me feeling like there is that creative pulse you always hear about New York." He insisted on giving me his card and asked for information on my website and future exhibitions. I've lived in New York long enough to view his gushing with some skepticism; still, I'd enjoyed the chat and exchanged information with him agreeably enough.

As the gentleman prepared to depart, he paused, cocked his head quizzically, and asked, "So who are your favorite contemporary poets?"

It was an easy question to answer. "At the moment I'm enjoying collections by Mary Oliver and Galway Kinnell. I've always..."

I couldn't finish my reply; the poet broke into a peal of laughter. I was understandably taken aback by this reaction. After regaining some semblance of self-control, he exclaimed, "And the whole time you had me thinking you knew good poetry from bad poetry. Mary Oliver is garbage. Kinnell is little better." I stared at him blankly. He laughed a little more, shook his head, and continued, "I mean, that's like me telling you that my favorite painters are Edward Hopper and Norman Rockwell. You'd be appalled. That's not even art! That's illustration!"

I wasn't quite sure what to say. I shrugged and finally said, "Well, I read a fair amount of poetry, so my landing on those two isn't just chance. I think they're good."

He appeared genuinely crestfallen. It was as though my bad taste sapped New York of the intellectual and creative energy he believed he had just become acquainted with. He may have pegged me for an appreciator of mundane poetry (guilty as charged, I suppose), but his explosive dismissal of Oliver and Kinnell, both gifted and rewarding poets, and his use of Hopper and Rockwell as parallels reveals inherited (or adopted) prejudice.

Hopper and Rockwell painted with reproduction in mind and, indeed, both worked as professional illustrators for a time; this being the case, labelling them illustrators isn't entirely inaccurate but, as Peter Schjeldahl wrote recently, "If 'Nighthawks' is an illustration, a kick in the head is a lullaby." Hopper and Rockwell aren't favorite artists of mine, but their work is not deserving of the lambasting it receives from so many art world experts. (The unintentionally comical Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, comes to mind here. In the documentary, "Who The $#%& Jackson Pollock?," Hoving dismisses the opinion of someone outside the art establishment by wagging a finger and saying, “She knows nothing. I’m an expert. She’s not.”)

The truth is, many critics and connoisseurs build upon the existing scaffold of criticism and connoisseurship to such a degree that, generations down the line, their tower of opinions is an esoteric curiosity, shaky and too tall to be buttressed by the masses. I'm not suggesting that experts don't have a place nor that populist art is superior to "high" art, but merely that it is unfortunate that so many members of creative communities are eager to demonstrate their "expert" status by espousing those ideals or ideas most removed from the general consensus.

I sometimes struggle to explain Mary Oliver's value to non-believers. One acquaintance described Oliver as "the Thomas Kinkade of poetry." The comparison is ludicrous. Oliver writes of the "live animal," of a becoming with the natural world that impregnates experience with a meaning distinct from reason. Kinkade is the master of commodifying kitsch. They are worlds apart.

At any rate, I was all too happy to read Bioephemera's recent toast to Oliver. Cicada observes, "Some critics grumble that [Oliver] is insufficiently challenging or unsurprising, but she leans so heavily on the sense of wondrous recognition fed by nature, I wonder if a failure to be moved isn’t primarily a failure of that wonder-sense." Or, in the words of Oliver herself,
"I don't want you just to sit down at the table.
I don't want you just to eat, and be content.
I want you to walk out into the fields
where the water is shining, and the rice has risen.
I want you to stand there, far from the white tablecloth.
I want you to fill your hands with the mud, like a blessing."
-from Rice, "New Poems" (1991 - 1992)
Later in her post, Cicada describes the sense of belonging, if you will, that an Oliver poem provides. "...her poems make me feel rooted in humanity, grounded in my own body, aware of this lumpy, piecemeal tangle of cells which is somehow, miraculously, taking pleasure in language. Oliver’s poems are spiritual experiences for those who would not necessarily describe themselves as spiritual." But why take her word for it?

The Fish
The first fish
I ever caught
would not lie down
quiet in the pail
but flailed and sucked
at the burning
amazement of the air
and died
in the slow pouring off
of rainbows. Later
I opened his body and separated
the flesh from the bones
and ate him. Now the sea
is in me: I am the fish, the fish
glitters in me; we are
risen, tangled together, certain to fall
back to the sea. Out of pain,
and pain, and more pain
we feed this feverish plot, we are nourished
by the mystery.
-from "American Primitive" (1983)

I guess it's true that one man's "garbage" is....

Photo credit: Hungry Hyaena, 2002

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Economics and equity revisited

Chris Jordan
"Container yard #1, Seattle"
44 x 59 inches

Edward Winkleman's blog is host to an interesting conversation this week (or, rather, several related conversations). Over the course of four or five recent posts Winkleman and his readers, some of whom are very articulate and opinionated, have weighed in on a number of topics. Principal among them are art and commerce, "high" art versus populist aesthetics/inspiration, and the boundaries of the avant garde. The dialogue is pervaded by market concerns and, as I read through the comments, I found myself considering not only the art market, but also broad cultural attitudes toward commerce, creative responsibility, and the social role of the contemporary artist. Regarding this last point, there seems to be much confusion, even among artists themselves...and perhaps especially among artists. Eleanor Heartney's reaction to P.S.1's "Greater New York, 2005" exhibition came to mind.
“The show suggests that artists are connected to events in the outside world but have little sense of what to do about them, other than to create artworks that incorporate their frustration, rage, apprehension or sense of the absurdity of contemporary life.”
The industry we've built up around contemporary "fine" art may be more thoroughly intellectualized than that of Hollywood or hip-hop (often without good reason), but it is, essentially, the same beast. It is difficult, if not impossible, to make a living in any of these industries without becoming bogged down in a muddy mix of networking, posturing, and promotion. I'm terrible at all of these (hence my choosing words with negative connotations, such as "bogged" and "muddy") and at times I wish for nothing so much as a full-time spin doctor. Most of the successful emerging and mid-career artists that I know excel at navigating the swamp of promotion (they either enjoy it or reconcile themselves to its necessity). The amount of time and energy they commit to such endeavor makes them jealous of our independently wealthy counterparts, artists benefited not only by abundant studio time, but by greater freedom from the system. Certainly some monied artists pursue the nominal celebrity offered by art world success, but because they don't need to sell their work, they can, in effect, choose to work away from the noise and the distraction of "the scene."

While reading through the comments at Winkleman, I begin to feel that the dialogue, interesting though it may be, is just an echo of that scenester noise. Most, if not all, of the conversation taking place is grounded on the assumption that when creativity meets money, competition results, which leads to even greater creativity. That assumption is the bedrock of neoclassical economics and, in turn, free market philosophy, but not every economist embraces it. I recall John Stuart Mill's assertion that a balanced, sustainable economy (as opposed to one that is "growing," "strengthening," or, in the words of President Bush, "getting going") is "more conducive to long term political, ethical and spiritual improvements." I was first introduced to Mill's writing a few years ago, when I began pondering the concept of the Steady State Economy. This economic philosophy received a fair amount of attention on HH in 2005, when I was initially digesting the idea, but I haven't written much about it since; you needn't ruminate so often on that which you wholeheartedly believe, and the benefits offered by economies of scale and measured population dynamics are clear.

As I wrote in "Ecological Economics 101,"
"...[Brian] Czech, [author of "Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train" and president of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE)], offers advice for building a healthy alternative to unrestrained, free-market capitalism. In the steady state economic paradigm, growth (or, as Czech calls it, bloating) is discouraged; a balance is sought instead. This balance requires a more simplistic lifestyle, one driven by the quest for 'self-actualization,' a term Czech borrows from Abraham Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs," rather than self-esteem, which, in today's culture of celebrity and distraction, is tied to bling-bling displays of real estate, clothing, vehicles, expensive dining, and so on."

Chris Jordan
"Crushed cars #2, Tacoma"
44 x 62 inches

If you feel that the contemporary art world mirrors the prevailing culture of distraction, you're not alone. Innumerable bloggers, several prominent art critics, and theorists have echoed the sentiment in recent months. Counter points have been made, of course, arguing that art and commerce/power have always been bedmates, but that very answer begs the question, why, then, is the volume of dissent so very loud today? I believe it is because more people (both in sheer number and portion) are dissatisfied with the current paradigm. The scope of the problem is far greater than the art world, however, so let me shelve art for now, and elaborate on some of Czech's core ideas, as I promised to do in August of 2005.

Czech's prescription for a Steady State Economy is not original. He is merely playing the role of popularizer and spokesperson. Unfortunately, I don't imagine that "Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train" is reaching the audience it so desperately needs to, the American lower and middle classes. My other grievance is Czech's rabid focus on the liquidating class, or top 1% of consumers. He insists that they should be "castigated" whereas the members of the "steady-state class," the lower 80% of consumers, should be thanked. His critique of the liquidating mentality is warranted, but Czech goes too easy on the American majority. Most Americans make $30,000 a year (or less), yet boast of purchasing the latest cellphone, car, or designer shirt. It's no secret that success is measured by consumption. Frugality is no longer considered a virtue and, to my way of thinking, people with such unhealthy consuming patterns - the lion's share of us - are not members of what Czech calls the steady-state class, though members of the middle class undoubtedly have a less dramatic impact than the multi-billionaire, with his or her car fleets, mansion, yacht, and extravagant lifestyle.

Describing the typical "steady-stater," Czech writes,
"...[they] have small houses and lots, taking up less space and leaving more for others. Their small house and lots require less infrastructure and less commuting. Because they drive small cars that get good gas mileage, they leave a greater stock of petroleum to be tapped while scientists grope for a sustainable energy source. They also pollute less. Many of them ride bikes or use public transit. Because they don't have a different warddrobe for every occasion, they require less production of fiber, leather, and fur, which means that they leave more land for wildlife and for the grandkids. They don't accumulate large, wasteful items, thus saving storage space and tempering the traffic in trivial pursuits..."
This doesn't sound like a fair description of the lower 80% of American consumers! With the rare, off-the-grid exception, Americans exhibit r-selected, boom-and-bust tendencies, as did the citizens of the expansive colonial empires that preceded our own. The solution to the bloating and destructive habits must start with individuals and local legislation, eventually leading to critical mass and a paradigm shift that sees us abandon the fictions of neoclassical economics. (To many readers, this may sound idealistic, revolutionary, or just plain naive, but Homo sapiens are a young species and, taking the long view, we can surely arrive at a more equitable system; the troubling question is, will we be around long enough to get there?)

In his critique of neoclassical economic myths, Czech shines. He begins by pointing out popular misconceptions. Among his many examples is Robert Samuelson's article, "Stupid students, smart economy?," in which Samuelson "entertained an argument that despite the education crisis...the fact that economic growth continues is a sure sign of an intelligent, well-educated society." As Czech asks in response, "does a perpetual increase in American consumption of goods and services really mean that its citizens are smarter?"

Chris Jordan
"Scrap metal, Seattle"
44 x 57 inches

It isn't just economic journalists that associate economic growth with universally good tidings, though. Our government makes the same mistakes. Over a decade ago, the Republican Secretary of Commerce, Barbara Hackman Franklin wrote, "Recognizing that commerce has supplanted military and security issues as the main concern among nations, the 14 diverse agencies that make up the Commerce Department advance a seven point agenda for fostering economic growth." What all this growth oriented talk ignores is the most basic principal of economics; all goods and services require input of land, labor, and capital. Actually, neoclassical economics doesn't so much ignore this truth as creatively amend it; its tenants are colonial in nature. Should a wealthy country fail to produce a particular commodity, due to a lack of land, labor, or capital, they can expand their reach, using trade or old-fashioned pillaging to acquire the commodity or the resources required to produce it. Today's celebrated globalization is another manifestation of colonial conquest. Because neoclassical economists observed this expansion (more accurately termed a displacement), they created the concept of substitutability. As Czech explains,
"...the factors of economic production could be substituted among themselves. For example, if land became scarce, more production could be squeezed from it if only more labor was applied, or more capital utilized, or both. The substitutability concept was extended to assert that a resource could not be depleted, because as it was extracted and the pickings got slim, another resource could be substituted for it."
Because supply is finite, however, the end result of such substitution is inevitably importation. When a population exhausts the local wood supply, they might substitute aluminum, but when that supply, too, is exhausted, one or both resources must be imported. There's no way around it...or is there?

This question brings us to the next fallacy of neoclassical economics. Resources are not limited, free market advocates tell us, because substitutability should include what lies over the horizon, new discoveries and technologies. For example, a neoclassical economist might advance the argument that the globe's fresh water supply is not dwindling, as many environmentalists and some (too few) policy makers fear, because new technologies will be developed that allow us to desalinate or otherwise produce potable H2O. Therefore, they argue, we should continue to promote economic growth and forgo any legislation regulating access and use of the existing fresh water supply. Czech says,
"We can reply that these labor- and capital- intensive operations consume their own resources and cause their own pollution, but they will reply that once we get the right technology developed, the problem will be solved. Despite the ludicrousness with which we view such 'solutions,' we can't really win the argument. Not in theory, because until we prove that these solutions are untenable, the theory stands. That is how science proceeds."
But neoclassical economics is not a scientific theory; there has been no rigorous application of scientific methodology. The free market is an experiment itself, one in which all of us are participants, whether we signed up or not.

Chris Jordan
"Pallets #1, Seattle"
32 x 40 inches

Another neoclassical argument related to the promise of technology suggests that we needn't worry about depleting resources because we are always increasing efficiency. Furthermore, the economists point out, most first-world countries are transitioning into service-based economies, which require less land and raw resources. Czech responds that efficiency, while certainly a good thing, is largely a myth. Most increases in efficiency are a result of new tools, many of which use more energy and require more fuel. In the end, the more efficient production methods save on labor, but use more capital and land, making them ultimately less efficient. If short-term economic growth is the goal, this model is sufficient, but, over time, so-called "efficient production" leads to a breakdown.

Though it remains popular even among the general public, the service-based economy argument hasn't a leg to stand on. A former co-worker of mine sometimes rhapsodized about humanity's "leaving behind the agricultural" economy in favor of a "white collar world where we will all be intellectuals." When I challenged her incomplete Wellsian fantasy, asking what she makes of the millions of blue-collar Americans, the outsourced jobs, and the staggering increase in imported resources, she dismissed my concerns as irrelevant. Overall, she countered, outsourcing and increased trade is better for the world economy, lowering the unemployment rates in other countries and giving "first-world" citizens more time to develop their intellectual capacity. The evident dearth of contemporary American intellectual capacity, our struggling public school systems, and the supremacist ambition of her arguments aside, she ignores the root equation: land + labor + capital = produce/goods. We aren't just the United States of America anymore; although I resist the label generally, we are a "global village." Turning again to Czech,
"The butcher and the candlestick maker depended on the farmer who raised cattle and pigs, while the baker depended on the farmer who grew wheat and oats. To 'produce' more T-bones or candles required more cattle and pigs. To 'produce' more bread required more wheat and oats. It is easy to see why Francois Quesnay and the so-called physiocrats (predecessors of the classical economists, prominent in France in the 1760s) argued that agriculture was the sole source of economic production and growth. That is how Thomas Jefferson saw it, too."
Some of you may have played Sid Meier's computer game, "Civilization." In this game you achieve victory either by a) developing your technology to such a degree that you are able to colonize Mars, b) total conquest of all the other civilizations or c) playing until a set date while keeping all your citizens relatively happy and your culture successful. One of the most effective ways to keep citizens of different cities and towns happy involves "changing" farmers into artists/entertainers. This is a neoclassical concept if ever there was one! In fact, it can be used by economists to "prove" my co-worker's argument regarding the benefits of a service and substitution based economy. In the game, as in neoclassical theory, each painter, dancer, singer, or writer requires notably less resources than does a single farmer. "The conversion of one farmer, whose existence is based on using hundreds of acres of land, makes way for a great many painters, the existence of each being based on a studio and tiny bits of product from the land." In fact, neoclassical economists suggest we can remove one farmer and add many entertainers to obtain a net gain in available resources. This is patently absurd, particularly given the ugly consumption patterns of today's celebrities, but even if we assume that every entertainer will be a steady-state saint, the resource use has only been displaced. The laws of thermodynamics, the theory of relativity, and, well, common sense, all dictate as much. That farmland is reduced on our soil mean broad swaths of Amazon forest will be cleared to make way for arable land in South America. Or, as Czech writes, "Getting back to the services sector, then, we see that only a limited number of farmers are available for conversion to services. The rest will have to stick to farming, or those of us not trained to survive in the wild - assuming there is any wild left - will starve."

Chris Jordan
"E-waste, New Orleans"
44 x 57 inches

Conservation and humanitarian efforts do not begin and end with the construction of highway underpasses or overseas rice shipments (or sending money to organizations which undertake/fund such enterprises), though these are vital components. They begin, rather, with personal practice, particularly in regards to consumption habits. I'm still not living up (or, more accurately, down) to my target footprint, but I do try to defeat my consumerist impulses. All the same, I just replaced my dying computer - which was purchased in 2001; planned obsolescence, anyone? - with a speedy (for now) laptop and, worse still, after selling a number of paintings and drawings a few months ago, I purchased a wide-screen HDTV to heighten the pleasure of my NetFlix compulsion. The truth is, I'm only marginally less guilty than the consumer who flaunts such acquisitions. Granted, I do a great deal that is considered eco-conscious: paying a premium for "green" power from ConEd, paying carbon offset fees for airline travel, recycling and composting, using canvas totes instead of plastic/paper shopping bags, using energy efficient light bulbs, relying on public transportation, contributing to many environmental policy groups, and so on. But so what?

As Edward Hoagland recently wrote in his essay, "Endgame," published in the June 2007 issue of Harper's Magazine, "People want mobility, yet a hideaway 'off the grid,' and to have the heart muscles of a hunter-gatherer, attained in a gym, though practically living in cyberspace, but still touch the earthly verities through yoga. Meanwhile, the pace and enormity of destruction is paralyzing, as is our general indifference." In this high-speed market world it isn't just creativity and creative dialogue that have been hijacked by the headlong plunge of Czech's runaway train; wise mans' social and biological imperatives are being forgotten.

Photo credits: all images from photographer Chris Jordan

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Thinking Blog Meme

Bioephemera, an excellent blogosphere resource for those interested in science, art and the intersection of the two, has tagged Hungry Hyaena as a "thinking blog." I'm honored to be included among so many thoughtful bloggers, particularly because it doesn't appear as though too many art-oriented blogs have so far landed on the list.

Memes are typically annoying, especially those that, like this one, introduce you to a world of content when you already have innumerable books, journals and magazines not-so-short listed...not to mention the NetFlix queue. Bollocks to the overwhelmed mind!

Still, this meme is better than most, as there are so many very good selections in the mix.

My additions to the Thinking Blog meme:

- Friendly/Agitate
(Well written and considered, even if I don't always agree with every argument or observation. In fact, the subtle differences of opinion make it a more interesting read for me.)
- Rigor Vitae
(Another good meeting of biology and art, this one with a focus on natural history.)
- Simplistic Art
(Writing on the intersection of neurology and art, with a little bit of of the writer's artwork thrown in for good measure.)
- Creek Running North
(A mix of biology, philosophical musing, and passionate storytelling, this stop rarely disappoints.)
- Blue Crane Standing
(No long rambles or tirades here; just assorted poems, images and links that, when taken as a whole, offer a complex, poetic portrait of our time.)

Those of you tagged should visit here for instructions on what to do, should you choose to participate.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

I finished a new painting this past weekend and thought I'd throw a pic up here.

Christopher Reiger
"between meaning and material (h.H.R.)"
Watercolor, gouache, graphite and marker on Arches paper
32 x 32 inches

I'm feeling very good about the Hysterical Transcendentalism series now. An intellectualized consideration of contemporary culture's relationship to Nature has grown into something more immediate and universal. The paintings are just one facet of a larger project now, a perhaps impossible attempt to reclaim lost communicative abilities. The premise of David Abram's important book, "Spell of the Sensuous," resides at the core of this project: "We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human." More specifically:

"The breathing, sensing body draws its sustenance and its very substance from the soils, plants, and elements that surround it; it continually contributes itself, in turn, to the air, to the
cornposting earth, to the nourishment of insects and oak trees and squirrels, ceaselessly spreading out of itself as well as breathing the world into itself, so that it is very difficult to discern, at any moment, precisely where this living body begins and where it ends. Considered phenomenologically - that is, as we actually experience and live it - the body is a creative, shape-shifting last, the possibility of a truly authentic phenomenology, a philosophy which would strive, not to explain the world as if from outside, but to give voice to the world from our experienced situation within it, recalling us to our participation in the here-and-now, rejuvenating our sense of wonder at the fathomless things, events and powers that surround us on every hand."

Abram's book was only recently brought to my attention, but it so articulately argues for a worldview I believe essential that I often read passages rapturously, as deeply religious people read their significant scriptures.

In any case, I feel good about life generally - although I still wish I could live in the country and have access to the city's cultural resources...but who doesn't? - and I'm more confident about my art than I can ever recall being. I'm excited about the studies I have going, some of which I will post on my website soon.

Richard Dawkins: Darwin's Rottweiler Becomes Defensive

There are no atheists in fox holes, or so the saying has it. It's also been said that aging fosters a spiritual or religious awakening. Both statements are generally true. Fear, it seems, is the common impetus, and specifically fear born of a proximity to death. The magical hereafter offers solace when you realize your days, minutes or seconds are few. In some respects, belief in the "next world" is a sensible adaptation to the shock of mortality.

But I'm not yet 30 years of age. Neither am I one of the brave, foolhardy or impoverished soldiers serving in a war zone. Why, then, am I becoming increasingly open to the value of metaphysical phenomena? It wasn't so very long ago that I dismissed supernatural explanations as weak-minded silliness. A decade ago, I petulantly stomped around a college campus in combat boots, pierced and angry, all too eager to explain to any intellectual miscreants why their belief in a higher power was not only stupid, but also hypocritical and loathsome. Considering that attitude today, I wince.

Although I still reject the notion of a creative, interventionist God, I find naturalistic pantheism congruent with my thinking. My younger incarnation would have spurned my present worldview, as it marries the mystical to the material and scientific. (Indeed, naturalistic pantheism is often dismissed as "religion for scientists" or "atheism for nature lovers." Worse still, from the perspective of my anti-spiritual past, I tend increasingly toward panenthism.) Whatever atheistic inclination may remain in me, I am today considerably more skeptical of those voices that wholesale dismiss spirituality and, likewise, am more accepting of magic and hyper-perceptual experience.

Last week I listened to a radio interview with Richard Dawkins, a one-time hero of mine. Dawkins, a professor at Oxford University, is a renowned ethologist (a field I have a special affinity for), evolutionary biologist and writer. He was in New York, where the interview was recorded, to accept the Lewis Thomas Prize at Rockefeller University, an honor bestowed upon those scientists who have achieved significant literary accomplishments. His most widely celebrated (and first) book, "The Selfish Gene," caused a stir of controversy in the late seventies - among biologists and theologians alike - and Dawkins has since remained a lightning rod for atheism and evolutionary biology.

Last year he published "The God Delusion," a tirade against religion. The title of the book is inspired by Robert Pirsig's observation, "when one person suffers from a delusion it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called religion." Although I continue to find some of Dawkin's arguments reasonable (even rewarding), his conclusions are as ill-formed and incomplete as those of the religious fundamentalists he most loathes. As the Publisher's Weekly reviewer writes, "for a scientist who criticizes religion for its intolerance, Dawkins has written a surprisingly intolerant book, full of scorn for religion and those who believe."

My own spiritual "awakening" aside, I'm still adverse to the stridently religious. Like Dawkins, I believe religion is too often decorated tribalism; as such, it remains responsible for the lion's share of world conflict. Even the hope offered by miscegenation will crumble in the face of religion, as our xenophobic instincts would still find in the stripe of faith reasons to identify, persecute and condemn "the other." Furthermore, as we are witness to in Iraq, even invasion and occupation by an alien force fails to trump the hate instilled via sectarianism. Dawkins highlights the tribal element of religion and faith in one of his lectures.
"Out of all of the sects in the world, we notice an uncanny coincidence: the overwhelming majority just happen to choose the one that their parents belong to. Not the sect that has the best evidence in its favour, the best miracles, the best moral code, the best cathedral, the best stained glass, the best music: when it comes to choosing from the smorgasbord of available religions, their potential virtues seem to count for nothing compared to the matter of heredity. This is an unmistakable fact; nobody could seriously deny it. Yet people with full knowledge of the arbitrary nature of this heredity, somehow manage to go on believing in their religion, often with such fanaticism that they are prepared to murder people who follow a different one."
From my mid-teens to mid-twenties, I frequently scribbled Dawkins' quotations in my journals and extensively annotated his books. His intelligence and wit, coupled with his supreme confidence in the promise of science, offered a beacon to which I was drawn. E.O. Wilson, the famed entomologist and another hero of mine, calls for rationalists to "light a brighter candle and chase back the darkness." Dawkins did just that. I adored him for it. In a nod to the man and his work, I continue to wear t-shirts and carry tote bags that read "Atheists for Jesus" or "Charles Darwin Has A Posse." These reflect elements of Dawkins' perspective that I still value. And like Dawkins I continue to label myself an atheist despite recognizing that the stance requires as much faith as a belief in God does. One can not disprove the existence of God any more readily than one can prove it; atheism and belief are therefore flip sides of the faith coin. (A previous post, "Atheists, Naturalists and Fundamentalists" offers a more complete consideration of this idea, as well as some insightful comments by readers.)

But perhaps, all these years later, I've become skeptical of the self-assured position, or rather I've become a traditional skeptic, an individual given to the belief that any and all knowledge is uncertain. As H.L. Mencken quipped, "We are here and it is now. Further than that all human knowledge is moonshine."

I assume that Dawkins would find my position untenable; he may even argue that it is nihilistic or defeatist in attitude. Furthermore, he would certainly dub my animist beliefs "supernaturalist obscurantism." I disagree, of course, but I wouldn't dare engage him in direct debate; Dawkins' stridency makes it difficult to spar with him. In fact, Dawkins was nicknamed "Darwin's Rottweiler" by Oxford theologian Alister McGrath. The moniker is apt; Dawkins is dogmatic to a fault.

During the call-in segment of the WNYC interview, Dawkins refused to consider a caller's assertion that the Big Bang is "in concept a kind of creation, and that much closer to the concept of a Creator - if not an anthropomorphic one." Why? The caller wasn't asserting that this creation was the event described in Genesis, just that the Big Bang itself, as a scientific theory, is a variety of creation. And so it is. But Dawkins played semantic games to avoid thoughtful consideration of the caller's point. "It's not a creation by an intelligence, it is something we don't understand. It's a coming-into-existence which physicists are now working on."

I'm troubled by his incomplete response for two reasons. Firstly, it ignores the necessity of a finite mind to locate a prime mover or impulse. Secondly (and particularly vexing), Dawkins is totally unwilling to allow for mystery. He admits that we don't understand what preceded or caused the Big Bang, yet rather than invest that void with magic or wonder, he turns it into dulled data; physicists are "working on" it, he tells the caller. But physics is a science of imagination; our finite minds must grasp at abstractions to explain the infinite universe and all its properties, most of which we are unable to sense, much less comprehend. At the very least Dawkins could have celebrated this artful thinking in the same way he does poetry, which he dubs "spiritual."

I believe Dawkins remains a man fueled by wonder. I just wish he wouldn't be so damned defensive about it. It would be much easier for me to continue holding him in high regard if he made room for a little old-fashioned skepticism and focused on the virtues of what he does believe, rather than the failures of that which he doesn't.

Photo credit: Image of Dawkins ripped from San Francisco Gate website