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Here’s the basic text of the message I delivered to the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Franklin, NC, August 17, 2014. (The lyrics marked with a * are sung, not spoken.)

*15 men on a dead man’s chest
Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum*

On July 11 I woke up at 4:30 a.m. with a great title for today’s talk. “Yo Ho Ho and a bottle of rum!” Together with the subtitle: Black death, white sugar and the quest for a living wage.”

Three weeks later I sat down to actually write this thing and abruptly realized that I was going to have to connect a whole lot of dots over about seven centuries. To begin with, I should probably have said “brown sugar” even though the imagery of black death and white sugar seemed pretty strong. So I did the only thing a reasonable person can do when faced with that sort of problem. I went outside and pulled weeds.

Later I tried again. The first, obvious, question to ask is what were 15 men doing on a dead man’s chest? Was he still breathing when they sat down? Thinking back to my childhood I recalled that my immediate assumption when I first heard that song was that it must have been a treasure chest. But Wikipedia set me straight. There’s an island in the West Indies called Dead Chest Island. It’s a rocky little bump with no trees or water which looks a little like a floating body. Legend has it that Blackbeard once left several unruly pirates on the island as punishment. Each man was supposedly given only a single bottle of rum. As the story goes, when the ship returned at the end of a month, a few of the pirates were still alive. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the song for his novel, Treasure Island and turned Dead Chest into Dead Man’s Chest.

Good story, but it seems that Blackbeard was actually quite a gentleman and ran his boat with the support and consent of his crew who he apparently paid pretty well. He paid what we could call a “living wage,” or at least a fair crew-share of the proceeds. He avoided violence while cultivating a violent image because he believed fear was better than murder in achieving his goal, which was looting merchant ships from the Indies to coastal Carolina.

Piracy was one reason that a lot of those merchant ships were carrying molasses. Not many pirates wanted barrels of molasses which is a sticky mess after you shoot up the boat with a cannon. And there wasn’t much of a black market, or maybe you’d call it a brown market, for molasses.

I could see I was getting ahead of myself, so I went back to weeding and pretty soon I realized I should have started with Christopher Columbus.

In the late 15th Century European ships had improved to the point that exploration and trade were becoming popular with Queens and Kings. The marvelous goodies that had come from the Far East via the Silk Road had dried up when the Turks captured Constantinople in 1453.

So the Portuguese were exploring the African coast looking for a western route to China, and Columbus convinced the King and Queen of Spain that he could beat the Portuguese by sailing east. He promised to make them very, very rich, which is something Queens and Kings like even better than spices and silk.

Columbus promised gold, but in the course of his voyages he didn’t find much. So he switched to slaves, which were also becoming popular in Europe, with a regular trade developing along the Gold Coast of Africa.

Slavery had always enjoyed some popularity in Europe, but there was a new reason for the demand.

In the 14th and 15th century the Black Death swept Europe. One third to two thirds of the people died over the course of about 100 years. Historians still debate the numbers. The principal disease itself, bubonic plague, was only the beginning of the problem. Many farmers quit planting crops believing that the end times had come, so starvation ensued.

The germ-theory of disease was way off in the future, and whole towns-ful of Jews were murdered because they were thought to be poisoning wells.

Witchcraft was blamed, so witches were burned and cats were exterminated because they were obviously involved in witchcraft. My four cats and I have long thought that was one of the highest ironies of that era, since rat fleas were the carriers of the disease and cats were and are one of the most effective rodent control systems on earth.

The results of the Black Death were extremely beneficial for most survivors. There were a lot of empty houses. Demand for goods collapsed so prices fell. And labor was in short supply, so wages rose. Landlords desperate for workers were outbidding each other. Serfs who didn’t like their treatment simply left, knowing they could find other work. The first strikes occurred and in some places serfs revolted and took over whole towns and regions.

You can see why there was a burgeoning demand for slaves.

So when gold failed to materialize, despite the reasonable rule laid down by Columbus that natives would deliver set amounts of gold each year or have their arms cut off, jolly old Christopher started shipping slaves back to Spain.

Big problem. Over half of each boatload died en route, and the survivors didn’t last long. Other than the Vikings, way up north, there hadn’t been any contact between European and Asian germs and Western Hemisphere natives for tens of thousands of years. Bubonic plague, smallpox, measles, and other diseases for which Europeans and Africans had developed some immunity were lethal.

Columbus and crew also apparently took home syphilis, which was new to Europe. Not sure the Kings and Queens were wild about that.
Between cutting off arms, disease and horribly abusive slavery, Columbus and his followers quickly depopulated every island they visited.
This continued everywhere Europeans landed, and disease ran ahead of advancing troops and settlers, ravaging two continents. Cortez conquered the Aztecs before they took sick, but most Incas were dead before Pizarro arrived in Peru, and most North American tribes were felled before they ever saw a white face.

What to do? Well, one of the other things that Queens and Kings had taken a fancy to, and that the Turks had cut off, was sugar. Sugar cane had been domesticated in Asia a couple thousand years ago, and then the process for deriving sugar crystals was invented in India a thousand years later. Later still sugar cane was planted in Mesopotamia, but now the Turks controlled the candy and the candy store.

Portugal began growing sugar in Brazil, and then Spain and England recognized that conditions were perfect in the newly conquered islands. Soon the islands had been converted to huge monocrops of sugar cane, with smaller plantations of limes, which were also in short supply since the old lime groves were in Persia. Unfortunately the potential local workers were dropping like flies, so pretty quickly the same ships that delivered sugar to Europe were delivering African slaves to the islands.

Then someone invented the daiquiri. Actually, what happened is this. Fermented sugar cane had been consumed for thousands of years, but in the 17th century slaves in Brazil and the West Indies discovered that distilling the brew made it much tastier and of course, much stronger. Soon enough there was a thriving rum trade. Kings and Queens and nobles and tradesmen and everybody else who could afford it thought it was a great addition to the bar. Pirates and sailors liked it too.

It seems that sailors really couldn’t be trusted with barrels of rum and some of it inevitably disappeared en route. Worse still, pirates both enjoyed it and knew where to sell it.

There was another problem as well. Distillation requires a lot of fuel for boiling and fuel was getting scarce in the islands. But lo and behold, New England was covered in hardwood forests just aching to be clearcut for farmland and sheep pastures, and the wood was going to waste.

Soon molasses, which sailors didn’t drink and pirates didn’t steal, was being shipped in quantity to Boston, where it was converted into rum. In short order there was more rum than the locals could drink, although anyone who’s been to a Red Sox game might doubt that, and shiploads of rum were sent to Europe and Africa.

The sailors still drank some, but piracy is a lot less likely on a cross-Atlantic trip than sailing up the coast from the Indies to Boston. Poor Blackbeard was out of luck. Now the New England traders could exchange rum for slaves in Africa, whom they took to the Caribbean where they traded the slaves for molasses, and everyone was happy. Except the slaves, of course.

Although modern Americans mostly remember the Tea Act which resulted in the Boston Tea Party, and the Stamp Act which precipitated the American Revolution, we often forget that the first tax protests were against the Molasses Act, a tax on molasses from non-British colonies. This was a price support measure intended to force New Englanders to buy British molasses for their rum production. As with all such efforts, smuggling was the result. The American colonials mostly ignored the law.

In regard to the American Revolution, I’d also note that the Continental Congress borrowed huge sums of money from France in 1781 to keep the war effort going. Soldiers hadn’t been paid for months and were threatening mutiny, so one of the first military supply purchases was 300 barrels of rum.

Along the way, sugar also became more and more available, and was tremendously popular among the tea drinking English and their American colonists.

*So drill, ye tarriers, drill
And drill, ye tarriers, drill
Oh it’s work all day for the sugar in your tay
Down beyond the railway
So drill, ye tarriers, drill.*

In fact, over the years, it became abundantly clear to rulers around the globe that assuring their populations of a steady supply of sugar and other sweeteners, along with alcohol, was a very good way to dampen discontent and revolutions and other unpleasantness. When was the last time you were in a government office where the clerical desks didn’t sport candy dishes? And have you taken a good look at the amount of real estate in Ingles devoted to candy, cookies, soft drinks, beer and wine? Not to mention the corn sweetener in pretty much every prepared food item on the shelves. Sometimes we seem to act just like the hummingbirds at my hummingbird feeder, aggressively chasing each other away in order to protect our sugar supply.

Next came cotton. The invention of the cotton gin made large scale production possible, but picking cotton remained a manual task until the 1950s. So the well established slave trade began to supply workers to the American south. After the Civil War, sharecropping took the place of slavery, and due to a lack of opportunity elsewhere, the system continued to depress wages in the South until mechanization of farms and industrial growth in the North began to erode the sharecropping system.

During the Civil War somewhere between 650,000 and 850,000 men died, most from disease. I haven’t been able to trace the specific effect on wages of this enormous loss. However, the South lost more workers than the North, and plantation owners were soon complaining about a labor shortage. Adding to that was a sudden shift away from field labor by many black women, no longer slaves, who saw more benefit to their families in tending to children, raising and processing food for the home and so forth. Meanwhile, many northern widows entered the work force, which helped offset losses of labor there.

What is clear is that unions began to gain strength in the late 1800s, hundreds or thousands of labor strikes occurred each year, the National Guard and federal troops were often called in to break strikes, and many organizers were gunned down or executed. Populism and socialism found tens of thousands of advocates. In 1900 there were 2 million union members in America, less than three percent of the labor force. By 1920 that had risen to more than 12 percent.

Fifty years after the Civil War another plague swept the world. The flu pandemic, which was sometimes called the Spanish flu, though Spain had nothing to do with it. In the U.S. an estimated 675,000 died. Globally it killed more people in one season than the Black Death had killed in a century. Unlike the strains of flu we are familiar with today, it was most deadly for young adults, age 20-30, and so it had a tremendous effect on the labor force.

According to an in-depth study of the effect of the flu on economies, the resulting labor shortage drove up wages. Workers were less mobile in the 1920s than today, so wage rates were more local. In states hardest hit by the pandemic, the average income of survivors increased much more than in states where the disease was less prevalent.

During the 1920s powerful business interests fought off unions with open shop rules, like the ones still in place in North Carolina, but after the Depression unions successfully pressed for federal legislation and greatly improved wages and benefits for most American workers.

The pandemic was coupled with the devastation of World War I, in which somewhere between 9 and 15 million people died. Because the physical destruction never reached the United States, we benefited enormously in the aftermath, with industry taking up the slack in Europe. This was repeated again following WWII. Wages rose with the help of a strengthening union movement operating in a rising economy.

The greatest downward pressure on wages today is arguably mechanization. As one wag has it, the factory of tomorrow will be run by one man and one dog. The man is there to feed the dog and the dog is there to keep the man from touching any of the machines. Automation is coupled with global population growth and the ease with which employers can change location.

While factory jobs offered a way out of the south in earlier generations, leading most noticeably to the so called Great Migration of African Americans to the industrial north, today’s factory jobs require far fewer people. The new automobile factories across the South use robotics, and southern anti-labor laws keep wages low. Just like the poor whites who fought for the Confederacy, hoping to preserve the slave system that was helping to keep them poor, today’s southern voters keep voting for politicians who support labor laws that depress their wages. They seem to have forgotten where their sugar comes from.

Today’s living wage campaigns face enormous hurdles thrown up by both mechanization and politicians reliant on corporate donations. As Elizabeth Warren pointed out last February, “If the minimum wage had kept pace with productivity over the last several years, the minimum wage today would be $22 an hour. Productivity went up, but wages didn’t.”

In the same conversation, economist Robert Reich said, “I think that Sen. Warren’s $22 is certainly defensible, but it’s at least $15 an hour.”

According to Just Economics, based in Asheville: “A “living wage” is the minimum amount that a worker must earn to afford his or her basic necessities, without public or private assistance. In short, a living wage is the real, just, minimum wage.”

“The living wage for a single individual living in Western North Carolina for 2014 is $11.85/hour without employer provided health insurance, or $10.35/hour with health insurance provided by the employer.
While large companies are mostly very resistant to raising base pay, small businesses tend to be more in touch with their employees. Just Economics has certified well over 200 businesses in WNC as Living Wage Employers.

The cities of Asheville, Montreat and Weaverville have all adopted living wage rates for full time employees as well. In Asheville we even voted to make a living wage requirement part of all City contracts, but the General Assembly killed that idea last year, banning any pay restrictions in municipal contracts.

One of the early names for rum was Kill-Devil, memorialized in this state in the name of Kill Devil Hills, where the Wright Brothers first flew in 1903. The area got its name because shipwrecks were once common in the area and enterprising locals often salvaged barrels of rum which they then buried in the sand dunes for later recovery.

Interestingly, when Orville returned to Kill Devil Hills in 1911 to set a new world glider record, he glided into the wind for more than 10 minutes but made almost no forward progress. Looking at the plight of working people through the centuries, that could be said of the struggle toward a living wage. Sometimes the demand for increased wages and more benefits gets airborne, but the aircraft is as likely to move backwards and forwards.

Today in the United States the wealth gap, that is the disparity between the rich and the poor, is arguably the highest it has ever been. One percent of the people control 25 percent of the wealth, and globally the richest one percent own 45 percent of everything. In former colonial territories around the globe as fast as countries shook off colonial rule, powerful elites took over and diverted wealth to Swiss bank accounts.

In China and Russia communists once promised to level society, but when the old dictatorship model collapsed, the politically powerful engineered exactly the same result.

Meanwhile increasingly automated factories and farms need fewer and fewer workers, and industry moves around the globe to employ whichever work force will labor for the lowest price.

In conclusion, and playing the devil’s advocate, a not illogical conclusion one might reach is that the best hope for a general pay increase for the workers of the world is another devastating pandemic.

H1N1 anyone? (In sort of a call-and-response a few voices in the congregation added “Ebola?”)

*Yo Ho Ho and a bottle of rum.*

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For immediate release: 1/1/13

From: Cecil Bothwell, Asheville City Council

Subject: Gun shows on City owned property

Contact: cecil@braveulysses.com, 828-713-8840

 

Bothwell demands enforcement of City gun ordinance

Asheville City Council member Cecil Bothwell today called for the City of Asheville to ban gun shows from City-owned properties, including the WNC Agricultural Center.

“Our municipal code specifically prohibits the carrying of weapons on City owned properties. I don’t understand why that law is not being enforced,” Bothwell said.

The City of Asheville’s Civic Center and WNC Agricultural Center have both been rented to gun show promoters in recent years, despite this long-standing ban.

Bothwell explained, “Many citizens have contacted Council members asking for action in the wake of the Newtown school murders, but the City has very little ability to regulate guns, permitting or background checks under North Carolina and United States law. However, we do have the power to enforce the laws that are on the books.”

“Gun shows not only promote the ownership and use of weapons, including the glamorization of the assault-type, semi-automatic killing machines used in too many mass murders, but sellers at shows are not required to perform background checks on buyers. That means that guns intended for rapid fire killing may easily fall into the hands of persons who are mentally unstable or who have criminal intent.”

“This is one place we can easily draw the line,” Bothwell added. “The law is already on the books.”

 

 

Section 12-42 of Asheville’s City Ordinances reads as follows:

(a) No person shall possess, use or carry any firearm, gun, rifle, pistol, air rifle, spring gun or compressed air rifle or pistol, or other similar device or weapon which impels or discharges with force any bullet, shot or pellet of any kind, including arrows with metallic tips or sharp tips of any nature, designated to penetrate and propel a bow or spring dvice, in any park or other city-owned facility. Further, no person shall possess, use or carry any knife, other than an ordinary pocket knife, which means a small knife, designed for carrying in a pocket or purse and which has a cutting edge and point entirely enclosed by its handle and that may not be opened by throwing, explosive or spring action, or a kitchen knife, when it is used or intended to be used for its ordinary purposes, in any park or other city-owned facility.

***

It goes on to exempt those holding conceal-carry permits from the restriction on parks (as mandated last year by the General Assembly) and law enforcement officers.

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It is well to consider during our deliberations the amorality of corporations, created to shield investors from liability and for the legal obligation to generate profit. It isn’t that they are inherently bad, but being artificial persons they have no conscience. Short term profit always trumps long term societal good. In the words of Thomas Jefferson,

“Merchants have no country. … I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”

The founders were unable to crush that aristocracy, though they tried. Abraham Lincoln observed:

“I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. . . . corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.”

Fifty years later, President Teddy Roosevelt broke up the too big to fail corporations of his era, and thirty years on, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt acted again to reign in corporate power.

The American Dream is ever threatened by greed, and ever defended by true patriots. May we always, in this chamber, be ready to defend the life, liberty and happiness of the people we serve.

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McArthur Wheeler attempted to rob two banks in Pittsburgh. He walked into the banks without a mask or other disguise and he was openly carrying a gun. He smiled directly at the security cameras and went to the teller windows to demand money. Several hours later the images were broadcast on TV, the police were informed of his identity by numerous callers, and he was arrested that night.

When questioned by the police, Wheeler expressed shocked amazement that he had been identified and caught. “I used the juice,” he said.

It turned out that he had been told by friends that if he rubbed lemon juice on his face he would be invisible on camera. He didn’t take them at their word, so he applied lemon juice and took a picture of himself with a Polaroid camera and to his surprise he wasn’t in the picture! Apparently he accidentally aimed the camera at the ceiling. But, it was enough to make a believer of him, and he proceeded with his crime spree.

As I write in my latest book, Whale Falls, we believe we are rational beings but have very little proof to offer in its defense, apart from some low resistance to magical thinking that a vanishingly small subset of our number call up from time to time.
During the last decade of the last century, I referred to the fantasies amorphously embraced by the label “New Age,” as “woo-woo.”
In conversation this emerged as “She’s into that woo-woo stuff,” or, “Sounds pretty woo-woo to me!”

The “woo-woo” wasn’t really meant to be harsh or unkind. It was more in the way of gentle sarcasm, triggered not so much by the particular beliefs espoused (since we are all entitled to believe what we will), as by the mercantile slant of many of its practitioners. Sometimes, popular New Age cosmology at the turn of the century seemed like the first fundamentally mail-order religion. Snake oil used to be peddled off the back of wagons, but the business had diversified and gone digital.
The underlying skepticism, however, was more consequential. We are entitled to beliefs, but that doesn’t guarantee their truth or utility.
Those who question the dominant paradigm of corporate greed, mercenary wars, boundless consumerism, upward mobility and other pillars of unbridled capitalism seem to split into two camps. On one side of the river, reside the woo-woos. Over here on my side, we practiced the bunny-hug.

Bunny- (or tree-) hugging is the manifestation of a core belief entirely opposite that embraced by the woos. However-many attempts are made to bridge the divide, peaceful coexistence involves a large measure of good-natured tolerance. Those who pretend to embrace both perspectives are lost in the fog of a comfortable delusion.
This schism invokes the same issues which spurred Martin Luther to nail his ninety-five theses on the door of his local indulgence-monger. Are we saved by our faith, or by our works?

Orthodox Woos clearly come down on the side of faith. I know generalizations ignore subtle wrinkles, but the bedrock remains: Woos place the inner world first and believe that changing the self will change the rest.
Devout Huggers believe in salvation through work. For us changing the world is physical and political, and the changes in self necessary to achieve that work are also physical and political. Sacralizing work may be useful as a motive force, but in any case, the outer work must be done.

No doubt many Woos are vegetarian bicycling recyclers, while many huggers entertain deep spiritual beliefs, but the practical behavioral divide is as real and deep as a river.

This difference emerged in a conversation with a Woo of my acquaintance. We were discussing the concept of embracing abundance—the belief that the universe will provide for all of our needs if we simply open ourselves to that truth. A simple example of this would be the use of visualization to manifest a loaf of bread, which my friend believed could really happen.
Then my friend suggested, “Existence is not a zero-sum game.”
The idea here is that everyone can enjoy abundance without anyone else giving up anything. Reality is a bottomless cornucopia. We’ll make more! I skidded to a halt.
“Wrong,” I thought. “It is.”

Here is the hurdle: If the world is not a zero-sum game, then faith alone might set us free. If it is, faith will not suffice. In a physically limited system on an increasingly crowded and resource-poor planet we need to curb our appetites and impose pollution controls. Protecting whole watersheds and building bicycles instead of cars become imperative. In short, we need to work, not meditate, if reality is circular—that is, if the loops of hydrology, nutrients, and energy are closed.

The best evidence is that the total biomass of our planet has not changed since the last ice age. That is, if you compare the total mass of all living things 20,000 years ago to the total mass of all living things today, they’re about equal. Back then there were more mastodons and giant ground sloths and whales, today there are more cattle and a whole lot more people. But the sum total has not changed. The game is zero-sum.

Life depends on sunlight and the amount of sunlight striking our planet each year is fairly constant. We now divert more than half of the sunlight that falls on the earth’s land mass to human use and that use is expanding fast. The rest of the earth’s species are headed for extinction at our hands.

Hold up your hands, make two fists and take a look. At the current rate of extinction there will be vanishingly few wild creatures on earth larger than your fists 100 years from today, unless we change our course.

To the Hugger, the Woo embraces pretty illusions which might bring personal joy, but permit the world to die. To the Woo, the Hugger focuses on negative images that block personal joy—and, thus, prevent a perfect world from manifesting.

Environmentalism is the philosophic stance taken by those who believe that we are likely doomed but might be saved by our work; therefore the work must be done. We have no choice.

In everyday life, Huggers and Woos can get along, and do. Both might equally appreciate a sunny summer day, the glory of gladiolus and cosmos and roses, a fresh breeze off the ocean and the spark in loving eyes. They may well agree with Alice that, at the end of the game, we can all be Kings and Queens together. But still, the divide remains. Work or faith?

In reading Thom Hartmann’s well-considered and deeply disturbing volume about our oil-dependency, The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, I was brought up short by his conclusion that the most important step in addressing our pending energy-starved doom is meditation. He states, “It’s amazing to think that it’s possible to change the world by changing ourselves, by changing the way we think and live and experience every moment, but that’s been the core message of virtually every religion in history, from the most ancient and primal to the most modern and recent. You can change and save the world by changing yourself.”

Well, it may be amazing to think that, but it would be more amazing if anything came of it. Religion has always failed us as a practical approach to problem solving. Magical thinking is magical thinking, no matter how it’s done up.

This harkens back to the thoroughly debunked “proof” that prayer by strangers for patients who don’t know they’re being prayed for affects medical outcomes.

Meditation is a fine practice for those who find it rewarding, as is prayer, but demonstrable success in changing the world is sadly missing. Woos give their mystical practices credit when things work out and then allow that the desired outcome must not be God’s will when the belief-train leaves the tracks.

A deeper difference of opinion embodied in the Woo-Hugger debate involves death and survival. Woos see spirit as separate from flesh and generally believe in some sort of transcendence of this earthly plane—whether that means personal salvation, reincarnation or dissolution into Krishna consciousness and liberation. Such beliefs seem to place a high degree of centrality in homo sapiens sapiens, and consequently feed the idea that we are apart from nature, that we are somehow special. At the same time, the idea that the true self will survive death must devalue life. If you believe in a glorious heaven, boundless enlightenment, permanent liberation, why hang around this vale of tears? Why not strap a bomb to your chest?

Clear-eyed Huggers see our consciousness as a function of our brains and therefore terminal. This life is the only life we will experience, so we’d best make the most of it. Making this world better for everyone, helping those we love and those in need, sharing our joy and ideas and creations, listening to the stories of others, all of it will end far too soon. Time’s a wasting!
Furthermore, Huggers’ acceptance of science and most particularly evolution cuts hubris down to size. Our species is new in the history of our planet, and temporary. The sun is a middle-aged star. As cosmologist Martin Rees, of Cambridge University, once observed, “Most educated people are aware that we are the outcome of nearly 4 billion years of Darwinian selection, but many tend to think that humans are somehow the culmination. … It will not be humans who watch the sun’s demise, six billion years from now. Any creatures that then exist will be as different from us as we are from bacteria or amoebae.”
As will their consciousness. From their distant perspective we will be just one among many species that came and went from this planetary stage, if they are aware of us at all.
***
Tor Norretranders wrote a fascinating book titled, The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size, back in 1999.

Among his surprising insights is the idea that there is more information in a mess than in order. The expensive part of knowledge is not gaining new information but getting rid of the old. Calculation involves eliminating irrelevance—the total on your grocery bill involves less information than all of the individual item prices taken separately, and is therefore more useful. The value of any piece of information is directly related to how much exformation (discarded data) resulted during its creation.
The brain receives about 11 million bits of information per second from sensory sources but conscious thought can handle—at most about 40 bits per second. (15-25 is more likely) There is an awful lot going on that you are completely unaware of, and which you cannot possibly ever notice.

The Illusion of this work’s title is drawn from the user illusion you are experiencing right now listening to me.

If you use a computer you are probably aware that the documents on your screen, the file folders, the cascading menus, the trash can, the pictures of your children, and all the rest, are illusory in the sense that they do not exist inside your computer. They only exist on the screen. Inside one would find a network of impossibly complicated electrical circuits processing apparently endless strings of binary numbers.
As a computer user you don’t care how the innards work, as long as they do. You interact with a surface illusion which allows you to accomplish work or play. What you see doesn’t need to be accurate or real, it needs to offer a manageable working hypothesis.

In the same way, suggests Norretranders, our consciousness is the result of one half second of processing by the most powerful computer known—the human brain. The world we interact with is entirely a simulation, a very detailed user interface, in which almost all inputs and computation are hidden. It is very deep, resulting as it does from the creation of massive exformation. (Remember that we process about 11 million bits of sensory input per second, plus whatever signals such input creates internally; and only consciously experience about 30 bits per second.) But we experience that depth as surface, just as we experience our computer “desktop” versus the quick flicker of binary code inside the CPU.

Life is largely a non-conscious experience.
Consciousness is far too slow to save us. When a car veers into your lane, you swing a ball bat, or sit on a tack, your “Me” takes over and your “I” finds out the result. The order is: input, action, consciousness.

The most troubling aspect of this unfolding of modern brain research, math, physics and information theory involves free will. It turns out that conscious free will consists of veto power. Conscious thought can halt a hand, but not un-wish to slap the silly grin off a face. This is profoundly at odds with the usual illusion that “I am in charge here.” (For example: it flies in the face of the Christian notion that one can choose not to think sinful thoughts.)

Norretrander’s concluding chapter is entitled, “The Sublime.” Heaven is all around us, he suggests … it exists one half second in your past. Just as a map offers the barest outline of a journey, and the computer screen a pleasant workplace, consciousness provides only a hint of the depth and richness and wonder of human experience.

***
David Dunning, a Cornell professor of social psychology has observed that
Psychologists over the past 50 years have demonstrated the sheer genius people have at convincing themselves of congenial conclusions while denying the truth of inconvenient ones.  You can call it self-deception, but it also goes by the names rationalization, wishful thinking, defensive processing, self-delusion, and motivated reasoning. There is a robust catalogue of strategies people follow to believe what they want to, and research psychologists are hardly done describing the shape or the size of that catalogue.  All this rationalization can lead people toward false beliefs, or perhaps more commonly, to tenaciously hang on to false beliefs they should really reconsider.

An interesting result of our tenacious adherence to belief over reason, is that we often seem to judge others based on their expressed beliefs rather than on their evident behavior.

It seems to me that belief has very little to do with the good or bad results we leave in our wake. Mother Theresa’s legacy is her charitable work minus whatever one knows about her dark side, not her Catholicism. The Dalai Lama is an atheist, but that doesn’t make a whit of difference in his work to free the Tibetan people or, more broadly, to sow peace around the globe. Ghandi practiced Hinduism, but asserted that all religions were equal – still, it is his invention of nonviolent resistance that changed India and the world. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy is equality under the law, and it was nonviolent resistance and community organizing, not prayer that brought the changes King achieved.
In the same way, the burning of Salem witches or the torture of unbelievers during the Spanish Inquisition are repellent to us today not because of the beliefs of the practitioners, but their acts. Islamic suicide bombers are not a threat because of their religious tenets, but due to explosives strapped to their chests, and U.S. predator drones that target wedding parties are not made moral by the prayers of Senators and Congressmen.

As one of my favorite songwriters, Carrie Newcomer, once put it, “We shall surely be known forever by the tracks we leave.”
Yet, all too often, we forget that profession of belief is not of much use in evaluating the world or our fellow beings. The problem has always been due to the things we don’t know. There are questions about our ultimate origin and our ultimate destiny that, so far, at least, are beyond the reach of scientific inquiry. Our questions and fears are sometimes soothed by woo-woo practitioners who claim to know more, to have seen more clearly, to have received stone tablets or golden records or heard angels or been taken for a ride in a flying saucer.
The real problems emerge when we fail to question our beliefs. Francis Bacon said it almost 400 years ago: if you begin in certainty you are likely to end in doubt, but if you begin in doubt you can gradually build to certainty. As UUs we have placed a reminder right up front in our fourth principle, in which we promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. When we find that truth we can act on it, and move our world toward health, happiness, inclusion and justice.

As my fellow non-theist Noam Chomsky has written, “We are after all biological organisms not angels . . . If humans are part of the natural world, not supernatural beings, then human intelligence has its scope and limits, determined by initial design.  We can thus anticipate certain questions will not fall within [our] cognitive reach, just as rats are unable to run mazes with numerical properties, lacking the appropriate concepts.  Such questions, we might call ‘mysteries-for-humans’ just as some questions pose ‘mysteries-for-rats.’ Among these mysteries may be questions we raise, and others we do not know how to formulate properly or at all.”

I have no brief against Woo-woo’s who choose to believe that faith can feed the world, but if I were a sad and hungry little bunny, I think I’d opt for a carrot and a hug over prayer. We might laugh at McArthur Wheeler for believing that lemon juice would make him invisible, or feel some pity for his evident ignorance, but what we decry is not his belief but his criminal action. Will we leave our grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren an abundant or a barren earth? One hundred years from now, or one thousand, our professions of faith will ring hollow and we will surely be praised or damned for what we did or didn’t do.

May it be so.

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Year two of the the tour

In 2010 I was lucky enough to be asked to address conventions, civic groups, book store crowds and conducted church services in: Newark, NJ; Asheville, Black Mountain, Boone, Burnsville, Charlotte, Franklin, Raleigh, and Tryon, NC; Charleston, Columbia and Spartanburg, SC; Minneapolis and Denver. To date, 2011 has taken me to UNCA’s Reuters Center, Burnsville, Hendersonville, Greensboro, Knoxville, Tenn., Cambridge, Mass., Des Moines, Iowa, and Washington, DC.

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Swallowing Whales: What Jonah can teach us about faith

The clan gathered on the beach. Children were silent and their parents murmurred quietly while all together they stared at the shimmering behemoth which lay stranded by the outflowing tide.

Whales were not unknown to the people of the coastal forest. They had occasionally spotted pods swimming near the coastline, had noted the spout or spume when the great beasts breathed, and had witnessed a sudden breach or the slap of massive tails and fins. But the Neanderthal were not seafaring folk and, in fact, had not yet learned to include fish in their diet. The sight of such an enormous beast stretched out on the strand, feebly twitching and breathing out in labored gasps presented an entirely new tableau.

An experienced hunter advanced and touched the whale’s side with his wooden spear. There was no reaction. He pressed harder and a coconut-sized eye eased open to fix him for a long moment in a clearly sentient gaze before falling shut once more.

When the clan returned the next morning the creature no longer breathed and chunks of its flesh trailed in the surf, torn out by sand sharks which had dug into the carcass during the intervening high tide. Gulls were picking at shredded wounds and crabs scurried and nibbled at the margins.

Two hunters drew stone knives and carved into the whale body, tasted cautiously, then took full bites of the succulent red flesh. As the unfamiliar meat was passed from hand-to-hand and savored mouth by mouth others joined in the butchery. Later still, chunks of whale meat, some bearing sizable slabs of blubber, were impaled on sticks and roasted over a cook fire where the dripping fat set off leaping flares as it sizzled into the flames.

The Neanderthal were familiar with the various properties of animal grease and quickly understood the fuel value of the beast delivered to their shore. They gorged on whale meat for days thereafter, until the flesh began to putrefy, and used the blubber for much longer to stoke cook fires and torches and to work into animal hide to render it waterproof.

Perhaps the first of our predecessors to utilize whale products were not Neanderthal but Cro-Magnon or Homo habilis or Homo erectus or Paranthropus, but at some time in the ancient past we began a cultural, ethical and utilitarian dance with our cetacean kin.

Some whales are utterly enormous. One can’t help but wonder what a one hundred and ninety ton creature feels. What feedback do they receive from the distal portions of their vast epidermal sheath? They are inured to cold, surely, or at minimum less sensitive to extreme cold than you and me. We know they tend to be well insulated with blubber, of course, but that is interior to the skin. While it may serve to keep their innards warm in the frigid, heat sucking sea, there is still that outer layer of whaleness that interfaces with the aquatic realm from the tropics to the poles. Skin is the sensory organ that collects data about the air-ocean puddle in which we earth-folk swim or walk or fly.

In our own skins we have nerves that react to temperature, to the tiny needley tube inserted by a mosquito, to a lover’s touch, to a bucket of ice water in the night.

How sensitive is whale hide by comparison? Is the rush of water across her skin as pleasurable as my warm shower or your sitting beneath a cascade in a mountain stream? Is the penetration of a harpoon into a cetacean more akin to a mosquito bite on one’s arm, or a spear in the gut? Fat doesn’t contain a wealth of nerves, so if the skin is relatively numb, how far in does the barbed weapon have to go before she feels pain?

Or is the pain of violence really more about violation of one’s envelope than it is about sensation? It’s hard enough to claim certainty about how or what other human beings feel. The basis for interspecies empathy is largely conjectural.

Not that most humans have thought long or hard about whales’ pain. Before the last years of the last century, most who considered whales at all were chiefly interested in converting them to cash. At one point whaling was the fifth-largest industry in America. Collateral damage has never much mattered where it stands between men and wealth—whether it’s cancer and black lung in coal mining communities, children blasted by cluster bombs and land mines laid in oil fields, or gang victims in the misguided and fraudulent war on drugs. The pain of whales, poor or non-white children, and those defined as criminals rarely affects public policy, no matter how they might climb our personal heart charts.

When the discovery that whale blubber could be rendered to useful fuel was combined with improved navigation and the construction of large ships, we started on the road to Exxon-Mobil, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, global climate change and the BP oil blow-out in the Gulf of Mexico that has rendered a wide swath of the ocean floor lifeless.

“Thar she blows,” indeed.

It all started with beached whales.

For reasons largely conjectural, whales beach themselves but there’s strong anecdotal evidence that human technologies trigger some beaching. For example, the U.S. Navy’s new high powered sonar is a particularly potent source of intense sound waves. Cetaceans are a sonically attuned, auditorily nuanced family. The high-powered sonar may drive them mad.

But “natural” whale beaching far predates intrusive human technologies. Recall Jonah, whose myth could easily have been swallowed by humans familiar with great “fish” on their beaches. There’s some evidence that whales in poor health run themselves aground and perhaps that’s not much different than the practice of Inuit elders who go out on the ice when their time arrives.

In any event, as described in my opening vignette, the arrival of huge mammals on the shore was a great windfall for our ancestors who ate the flesh, used the bone for tools and rendered the fat. Whale oil became an important but sporadic source of energy. Various peoples hunted the giants starting several thousand years ago, but their use of whale products on a subsistence level didn’t contribute to the evolution of our industrial and petroleum economy.

Subsistence hunting remained the rule until larger boats and dense population centers combined to create the means and the demand for large scale harvest. European whalers began to work the waters of the north Atlantic in about 1600. Then, in the 1630s, the Dutch began commercial whaling in U.S. waters.

The financial reward for successful whaling was enormous. A single right whale carcass towed to shore in Rhode Island in 1662 reportedly garnered more cash than a whole farm could earn in a year. In addition to the oil, right whales were “right” because their bodies floated when they died, making them easier to haul.

During his days inside the great fish—or whale, depending on your preferred version of the tale—the Biblical Jonah repents and obeys the call to prophesy against Nineveh, the Ninevites repent in turn and God forgives them for being recalcitrant Ninnies.

The Jonah story offers one of those odd tests of faith that populate religious belief. No one with any understanding of physiology could imagine that a human could survive three days in the digestive tract of a beast, and of course that’s the point—it could only have been a miracle that permitted the prophet a chance to reconsider his wayward path and be delivered intact to a beach. But, then, whose word do we have on that score? Why, the word of a raving prophet who claimed to have been swallowed and spit up on a spit.

Seems, um, a little fishy to me.

When I came to write a biography of the evangelist Billy Graham I was startled to learn that while he had rejected a literal interpretation of the Biblical creation story and allowed that the seven days could be read as an allegory for the billions of years over which our solar system and planet evolved into existence, Graham, even today, still holds to his belief that Jonah actually spent three days inside a whale.

Embracing faith seems ultimately a matter of choosing to believe in the putative benefits of having faith, and where one chooses to draw one’s lines seems as arbitrary as taste in music or art or literature. It begs ancient questions about nature and nurture, with some embracing their familial beliefs and others flatly rejecting them. We seem to say, “This set of rules speaks to my need for mystery or inspiration. That set does not.”

Of course, the faithful generally assure others that lack of faith in their version of reality will result in an eternal journey through hell, or reincarnation for another shot at enlightenment, or conquest by heathen enemies, or crop failure, or bewitchment, or disappearance of the sun from the sky … there are warnings aplenty for the apostate. Last year the Christian televangelist Pat Robertson announced that the Haitian earthquake was punishment for a supposed pact with the devil made by the denizens of that sad nation— just as he previously opined that Hurricane Katrina was God’s vengeance on sinful New Orleans and 9/11 God’s reaction to sodomites in the Big Apple. I’m eagerly anticipating Robertson’s explanation of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Perhaps God is angry about faulty Toyota floor mats.

As usual Robertson had it all backwards. When someone makes a deal with the devil it is for wealth and success and pleasure in this world to be paid for later with one’s soul. If Haiti had actually made a deal with the devil it would be one of the richest countries in the world instead of one of the poorest. And in that case the buildings would have been more substantial and the earthquake would presumably have done less damage, if the devil permitted the earthquake to happen at all.

What good is a deal with the devil if it doesn’t include earthquake insurance?

In 1690, Nantucketers upgraded their techniques with the expertise of a Cape Codder named Ichabod Paddock. Paddock’s first claim to fame was to have been swallowed by a whale in whose belly he found a mermaid and the Devil playing cards for his soul. What Nantucketers thought of their instructor’s elaborate history is less than clear, but this more modern-day Jonah’s hunting expertise and the new harpoon he invented were deemed a boon to industry.

The disparate translations in different versions of the Bible teach us a good bit about our long-term confusion concerning whales. Was Jonah supposedly swallowed by a great fish or a whale? While it might make little difference to those who focus on the supposed spiritual nature of that tale, the difference is profound.

In March of last year, The Hump, a sushi restaurant in Santa Monica, California, was busted for serving whale meat, a direct violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. It seems pretty clear that anyone who would serve or eat whale must be thinking of whales as fish, or at least as dull-witted creatures like chickens, sheep or cattle. I would guess that few of The Hump’s patrons would request dog sushi.

In our culture we know dogs too well, as responsive, individualistic creatures. We have personalized them and even labeled them as man’s best friend.

And one must surmise that the sushi-eaters at The Hump would balk if they were told that their California rolls were sprinkled with ground-up human beings. Cannibalism isn’t a big seller these days, but in the 16th and 17th century, finely ground Egyptian mummies were sold as medicine, a cure for whatever ailed you. The practice emerged due to a mistaken translation involving the balsam used in mummification, and if being “well preserved” is a compliment for elderly folks, it’s hard to argue that those dead Egyptians weren’t well preserved.

Nor is the human appetite for higher animals limited to cetaceans. You may have seen the report issued by the Zoological Society of London, last spring, that revealed that hundreds of tons of bushmeat is smuggled into Europe each year, through just one airport, Charles de Gaulle in Paris. Bushmeat is a term used to describe the flesh of wild animals, and the meat confiscated during last year’s study included chimpanzee, bonobo and gorilla. Eating primates is almost unthinkable to people in our culture, but expatriate Africans in Europe clearly hold different views.

Today we know that whales have brains up to five times larger than human brains, fifty times larger than dogs. Furthermore, whale brains contain the same kind of spindle neurons found in human, great ape and elephant brains. These brain cells have been pegged as having an important role in many cognitive abilities. Whale songs are still a mystery, but linguists have begun to understand that their vocalizations contain the same elements as human speech.

When we hear another human being speak in an unfamiliar language we are able to understand that the person is engaged in intelligent communication, even if we don’t understand a word. There is a form and a flow that lets us see through the absence of translation. And, of course, all humans have evolved with the same physiology, most importantly with opposing thumbs, and in the same terrestrial environment with the same experience of gravity. We humans walk alike and talk alike and manipulate tools alike and eat similar foods and view and listen to the world through the medium of air.

We posit a certain amount of cuteness to vertebrate land animals that we don’t accord to fish. Even watching a lizard, which exists with somewhere near the same brain function as a fish, we relate differently. We “get” how legs and arms and climbing and crawling and jumping happen much more easily than we apprehend fish movement. We connect, or think we connect, to what other terrestrials see and hear in a way that we don’t feel for a fish. This figures significantly in our relationship with cetaceans. When we use the term “cold-blooded” in regard to humans it means “unfeeling” and it’s easy to decide that cold-blooded creatures like fish are just that. Despite the fact that whales and dolphins are warm blooded animals, their “fishiness” still affects our perception of their thinking.

Think how vastly different the world must seem to creatures which evolved in virtual weightlessness in a medium that transmits sound four times faster than air and where visibility is greatly reduced. What different conversations must occur for beings without technology, without the opposing thumbs that make most of human technology possible? How can we stretch our minds to imagine the dietary habits of whales that eat krill, scooping up millions of gallons of water in the course of their lives, sifting tiny food particles through a baleen sieve, and only eating during the summer months each year, but fasting through the winter while giving birth and tending their young.

How would we be different if we constantly heard the singing of others across hundreds or thousands of miles, but with no recording devices other than our own memories?

One small clue might glimmer at us from the aboriginal people of Australia, as out on the edge as any group of humans, whose unwritten history was captured in the song lines, and whose physical world was all but enmeshed in their singing.

If whale minds and cetacean stories and dolphin philosophy evolved in even less familiar conditions, how could we possibly imagine that they are actually in some macroscopic view, like us? And yet, of course, they are.

As I discuss in a couple of chapters in my book, Whale Falls, the puzzle we confront in making dietary choices, or considering whether whales are more appropriately co-equal earthlings or a source of lamp oil, is that of consciousness. Who or what qualifies as conscious?

Carbon-based life as we know it only began once. It could have begun and ended multiple times before our line got started, but every living carbon-based life-form on earth is part of one great chain of being that emerged billions of years ago when our planet was young. Since then, as even Billy Graham has accepted, we evolved. Actually, we are still evolving. Whatever creatures are alive on Earth five billion years from now when the sun flares up and burns out will be as different from us as we are from the first bacteria. That is one of those facts that seems to be overlooked by people who believe that we were made in God’s image or that we are the crown of creation. Evolution isn’t over.

Bacteria can offer us an interesting insight into our own very self-centered view of the world. Bacteria receive direct input about their environment at every moment. Their experience is unmediated.

Our experience of the world is very different. Everything we experience is processed by our amazingly complicated brains. Our experience is constantly mediated. In that sense you could say that bacteria have a better picture of reality than humans do. It might be why they are so enormously successful – having outlasted millions of other life forms that have come and gone through the ages.

Due to our brain function we think we see the sun rise, move through the sky, and set. Although we are riding on a spinning ball that is moving through space at tens of thousands of miles per hour, at this moment your brain is telling you that you are sitting still. Our mental screening is so complete that we are often unable to see things we don’t believe in or find repulsive. Some Native Americans reportedly were unable to see the multi-masted sailing ships that brought Europeans to their shore. One famous psychological study showed that when test subjects watched a hotly contested basketball game on TV, during which a person in a gorilla costume wandered across the court, serious basketball fans rarely saw the gorilla.

To an alien circling the earth in a flying saucer, whales and humans would just be two versions of big-brained, warm-blooded, air-breathing, infant- suckling, vocalizing, earth animals, one aquatic and one terrestrial. One branch of intelligent earthlings likes to build things, the other likes to sing about them. They might also note that while the terrestrial mammals sometimes eat the aquatic ones, the reverse is never true. Even killer whales, the most ferocious of their kin, are not considered a threat to human beings outside of theme parks.

Theme parks, on the other hand are terrible places for whales and dolphins, where creatures accustomed to roaming over thousands of miles are imprisoned in concrete swimming pools where they die young, only to be replaced by more wild-caught prisoners. If you haven’t seen the recent documentary film, “The Cove” about the annual capture and killing of tens of thousands of dolphins by the Japanese, I commend it as a real eye opener.

And here we come back to who swallows whom, and what matters of faith we decide are palatable. For many people through the centuries the story of Jonah’s journey and salvation have offered a meaningful spiritual lesson. To others the story has seemed as irrelevant or silly as the Walt Disney version of Pinnochio which drew on the Jonah story. To some of us, whales are self-aware, intelligent and endangered: to others they are what’s for dinner. The important lesson, I believe, is that belief itself is a matter of choice.

Pick the metaphors that speak to you, that reaffirm your principles, whether those principles are seven or ten or simply the Golden Rule. Sometimes you swallow the whale story, it seems, and sometimes the whale story swallows you.

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I appeared on FrostCall (Austin, Texas) this past weekend. Here’s the podcast.

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Members of Asheville’s City Council take turns offering opening words. This was my contribution on Nov. 9, 2010.

Renowned cosmologist Martin Rees, of Cambridge University, once observed, “Most educated people are aware that we are the outcome of nearly 4 billion years of Darwinian selection, but many tend to think that humans are somehow the culmination. … It will not be humans who watch the sun’s demise, six billion years from now. Any creatures that then exist will be as different from us as we are from bacteria or amoebae.”

What Rees is saying is that the DNA record is clear. Dinosaurs have evolved into hummingbirds. Fish crawled out of the ocean, grew fur, gave birth, suckled their young and returned to the sea to become whales. Monkeys dropped from trees, captured fire, lit torches, fractioned petroleum, split atoms and untangled the chain of human DNA, the chain of our being. The lesson is that we are not the crown of creation, we are just one trolley stop on the long track from earth’s beginning to earth’s end, from life’s beginning to wherever it may go.

From Fu Xi to Heraclitus to Mozart to Robert Moog to Lady Gaga the song has been the same. The song is a song of change.

But this is our moment, and our only moment, to love as we are able, to listen as well as we can, to wield the tools we have fashioned or inherited, to feed those who hunger, to teach those who wonder, to build bridges where there are divisions, to break down barriers to justice, to make our moment in time a testament to all life that has gone before us and a beacon to all who come after. We can do no more, and surely we should attempt no less.

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The clan gathered on the beach. Children were silent and their parents murmurred quietly while all together they stared at the shimmering behemoth which lay stranded by the outflowing tide.

Whales were not unknown to the people of the coastal forest. They had occasionally spotted pods swimming near the coastline, had noted the spout or spume when the great beasts breathed, and had witnessed a sudden breach or the slap of massive tails and fins. But the Neanderthal were not seafaring folk and, in fact, had not yet learned to include fish in their diet. The sight of such an enormous beast stretched out on the strand, feebly twitching and breathing out in labored gasps presented an entirely new tableau.

An experienced hunter advanced and touched the whale’s side with his wooden spear. There was no reaction. He pressed harder and a coconut-sized eye eased open to fix him for a long moment in a clearly sentient gaze before falling shut once more.

When the clan returned the next morning the creature no longer breathed and chunks of its flesh trailed in the surf, torn out by sand sharks which had dug into the carcass during the intervening high tide. Gulls were picking at shredded wounds and crabs scurried and nibbled at the margins.

Two hunters drew stone knives and carved into the whale body, tasted cautiously, then took full bites of the succulent red flesh. As the unfamiliar meat was passed from hand-to-hand and savored mouth by mouth others joined in the butchery. Later still, chunks of whale meat, some bearing sizable slabs of blubber, were impaled on sticks and roasted over a cook fire where the dripping fat set off leaping flares as it sizzled into the flames.

The Neanderthal were familiar with the various properties of animal grease and quickly understood the fuel value of the beast delivered to their shore. They gorged on whale meat for days thereafter, until the flesh began to putrefy, and used the blubber for much longer to stoke cook fires and torches and to work into animal hide to render it waterproof.

Perhaps the first of our predecessors to utilize whale products were not Neanderthal but Cro-Magnon or Homo habilis or Homo erectus or Paranthropus, but at some time in the ancient past we began a cultural, ethical and utilitarian dance with our cetacean kin.

Some whales are utterly enormous. One can’t help but wonder what a one hundred and ninety ton creature feels. What feedback do they receive from the distal portions of their vast epidermal sheath? They are inured to cold, surely, or at minimum less sensitive to extreme cold than you and me. We know they tend to be well insulated with blubber, of course, but that is interior to the skin. While it may serve to keep their innards warm in the frigid, heat sucking sea, there is still that outer layer of whaleness that interfaces with the aquatic realm from the tropics to the poles. Skin is the sensory organ that collects data about the air-ocean puddle in which we earth-folk swim or walk or fly.

In our own skins we have nerves that react to temperature, to the tiny needley tube inserted by a mosquito, to a lover’s touch, to a bucket of ice water in the night.

How sensitive is whale hide by comparison? Is the rush of water across her skin as pleasurable as my warm shower or your sitting beneath a cascade in a mountain stream? Is the penetration of a harpoon into a cetacean more akin to a mosquito bite on one’s arm, or a spear in the gut? Fat doesn’t contain a wealth of nerves, so if the skin is relatively numb, how far in does the barbed weapon have to go before she feels pain?

Or is the pain of violence really more about violation of one’s envelope than it is about sensation? It’s hard enough to claim certainty about how or what other human beings feel. The basis for interspecies empathy is largely conjectural.

Not that most humans have thought long or hard about whales’ pain. Before the last years of the last century, most who considered whales at all were chiefly interested in converting them to cash. At one point whaling was the fifth-largest industry in America. Collateral damage has never much mattered where it stands between men and wealth—whether it’s cancer and black lung in coal mining communities, children blasted by cluster bombs and land mines laid in oil fields, or gang victims in the misguided and fraudulent war on drugs. The pain of whales, poor or non-white children, and those defined as criminals rarely affects public policy, no matter how they might climb our personal heart charts.

When the discovery that whale blubber could be rendered to useful fuel was combined with improved navigation and the construction of large ships, we started on the road to Exxon-Mobil, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, global climate change and an oil blow-out in the Gulf of Mexico that shows no signs of stopping.

“Thar she blows,” indeed.

It all started with beached whales.

For reasons largely conjectural, whales beach themselves but there’s strong anecdotal evidence that human technologies trigger some beaching. For example, the U.S. Navy’s new high powered sonar is a particularly potent source of intense sound waves. Cetaceans are a sonically attuned, auditorily nuanced family. The high-powered sonar may drive them mad.

But “natural” whale beaching far predates intrusive human technologies. Recall Jonah, whose myth could easily have been swallowed by humans familiar with great “fish” on their beaches. There’s some evidence that whales in poor health run themselves aground and perhaps that’s not much different than the practice of Inuit elders who go out on the ice when their time arrives.

In any event, as described in my opening vignette, the arrival of huge mammals on the shore was a great windfall for our ancestors who ate the flesh, used the bone for tools and rendered the fat. Whale oil became an important but sporadic source of energy. Various peoples hunted the giants starting several thousand years ago, but their use of whale products on a subsistence level didn’t contribute to the evolution of our industrial and petroleum economy.

Subsistence hunting remained the rule until larger boats and dense population centers combined to create the means and the demand for large scale harvest. European whalers began to work the waters of the north Atlantic in about 1600. Then, in the 1630s, the Dutch began commercial whaling in U.S. waters.

The financial reward for successful whaling was enormous. A single right whale carcass towed to shore in Rhode Island in 1662 reportedly garnered more cash than a whole farm could earn in a year. In addition to the oil, right whales were “right” because their bodies floated when they died, making them easier to haul.

***

In 1977 I lived in a century-old farmhouse. The spread included a big garden space, ducks and a pond. The ducks belonged to the landlords and part of our rental agreement included duck feeding.

One morning there arose a calamitous tumult out at the duck pond with the adults squawking and honking and flapping and the dozen or more ducklings squeaking and dashing in every direction.

I ran out to the pond to discover a frog trying to eat a duckling about its own size, perhaps mistaking the bird’s head for a large bug. The frog couldn’t swallow the bird and the bird couldn’t extricate its head. It was flapping its tiny yellow wings and kicking it’s feet, while the frog kicked in the other direction, gap-mouthed and wide-eyed and unable (unwilling?) to spit out its prize.

I picked the pair up and slowly drew the duckling out. The duck went scooting back to join its nestmates and parents. the frog composed itself a moment on the bank, then jumped into the pond and swam away.

The frog became our stand-in for “a great sea creature” and the duckling was henceforth and obviously known as Jonah.

During his days inside the great fish—or whale, depending on your preferred version of the tale—the Biblical Jonah repents and obeys the call to prophesy against Nineveh, the Ninevites repent in turn and God forgives them for being recalcitrant Ninnies.

Our Jonah may or may not have repented, but he prophesied pretty well. His neck was twisted a little toward the right, and permanently bent, and when his adult plumage came in he had a wild feather that grew upward on that side of his head. It made him look like he was wearing a kid’s costume Indian headband and he tended to walk very fast, often in circles and squawk nonstop. So as the flock would cross the yard from the pond toward the house where we scattered food, Jonah would initially race ahead but curve back into the gang, preaching like mad, then curve some more and race to catch up.

The Jonah story offers one of those odd tests of faith that populate religious belief. No one with any understanding of physiology could imagine that a human could survive three days in the digestive tract of a beast, and of course that’s the point—it could only have been a miracle that permitted the prophet a chance to reconsider his wayward path and be delivered intact to a beach. But, then, whose word do we have on that score? Why, the word of a raving prophet who claimed to have been swallowed and spit up on a spit.

Seems, um, a little “fishy” to me.

When I came to write a biography of the evangelist Billy Graham many years later I was startled to learn that while he had rejected a literal interpretation of the Biblical creation story and allowed that the seven days could be read as an allegory for the billions of years over which our solar system and planet evolved into existence, Graham, even today, still holds to his belief that Jonah actually spent three days inside a whale.

Embracing faith seems ultimately a matter of choosing to believe in the putative benefits of having faith, and where one chooses to draw one’s lines seems as arbitrary as taste in music or art or literature. We seem to say, “This set of rules speaks to my need for mystery or inspiration. That set does not.”

Of course, the faithful generally assure others that lack of faith in their version of reality will result in an eternal journey through hell, or reincarnation for another shot at enlightenment, or conquest by heathen enemies, or crop failure, or bewitchment, or disappearance of the sun from the sky … there are warnings aplenty for the apostate. This year the Christian televangelist Pat Robertson announced that the Haitian earthquake was punishment for a supposed pact with the devil made by the denizens of that sad nation— just as he previously opined that Hurricane Katrina was God’s vengeance on sinful New Orleans and 9/11 God’s reaction to sodomites in the Big Apple.

As one puckish blogger noted following Robertson’s comments, he had it all backwards. When someone makes a deal with the devil it is for wealth and success and pleasure in this world to be paid for later with one’s soul. If Haiti had actually made a deal with the devil it would be one of the richest countries in the world instead of one of the poorest. And in that case the buildings would have been more substantial and the earthquake would presumably have done less damage, if the devil permitted the earthquake to happen at all.

What good is a deal with the devil if it doesn’t include earthquake insurance?

In 1690, Nantucketers upgraded their techniques with the expertise of a Cape Codder named Ichabod Paddock. Paddock’s first claim to fame was to have been swallowed by a whale in whose belly he found a mermaid and the Devil playing cards for his soul. What Nantucketers thought of their instructor’s elaborate history is less than clear, but this more modern-day Jonah’s hunting expertise and the new harpoon he invented were deemed a boon to industry.

The disparate translations in different versions of the Bible teach us a good bit about our long-term confusion concerning whales. Was Jonah supposedly swallowed by a great fish or a whale? While it might make little difference to those who focus on the supposed spiritual nature of that tale, the difference is profound.

In March of this year, The Hump, a sushi restaurant in Santa Monica, California, was busted for serving whale meat, a direct violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. It seems pretty clear that anyone who would serve or eat whale must be thinking of whales as fish, or at least as dull-witted creatures like chickens, sheep or cattle. I would guess that few of The Hump’s patrons would request dog sushi.

In our culture we know dogs too well, as responsive, individualistic creatures. We have personalized them and even labeled them as man’s best friend.

And one must surmise that the sushi-eaters at The Hump would balk if they were told that their California rolls were sprinkled with ground-up human beings. Cannibalism isn’t a big seller these days, but in the 16th and 17th century, finely ground Egyptian mummies were sold as medicine, a cure for whatever ailed you. The practice emerged due to a mistaken translation involving the balsam used in mummification, and if being “well preserved” is a compliment for elderly folks, it’s hard to argue that those dead Egyptians weren’t well preserved.

I recently spotted an ad from a laboratory looking for volunteers who want to be mummified, after they die, of course. The ad read, in part, “Scientists now think they have finally solved the secrets of the process. If they have, the discovery is likely to have other significant benefits for modern medical science. The volunteer would be given unique insight into both the science and the Egyptian history involved. His or her body would be preserved—potentially for hundreds or even thousands of years.”

Of course, that leaves open the possibility that three thousand years hence, the volunteer might be ground up and sold as a nostrum.

Nor is the human appetite for higher animals limited to cetaceans. You may have seen the report issued by the Zoological Society of London, just this week, that revealed that hundreds of tons of bushmeat is smuggled into Europe each year, through just one airport, Charles de Gaulle in Paris. Bushmeat is a term used to describe the flesh of wild animals, and the meat confiscated during this year’s study included chimpanzee, bonobo and gorilla. Eating primates is almost unthinkable to people in our culture, but expatriate Africans in Europe clearly hold different views.

Today we know that whales have brains up to five times larger than human brains, fifty times larger than dogs. Furthermore, whale brains contain the same kind of spindle neurons found in human, great ape and elephant brains. These brain cells have been pegged as having an important role in many cognitive abilities. Whale songs are still a mystery, but linguists have begun to understand that their vocalizations contain the same elements as human speech.

When we hear another human being speak in an unfamiliar language we are able to understand that the person is engaged in intelligent communication, even if we don’t understand a word. There is a form and a flow that lets us see through the absence of translation. And, of course, all humans have evolved with the same physiology, most importantly with opposing thumbs, and in the same terrestrial environment with the same experience of gravity. We humans walk alike and talk alike and manipulate tools alike and eat similar foods and view and listen to the world through the medium of air.

We posit a certain amount of cuteness to vertebrate land animals that we don’t accord to fish. Even watching a lizard, which exists with somewhere near the same brain function as a fish, we relate differently. We “get” how legs and arms and climbing and crawling and jumping happen much more easily than we apprehend fish movement. We connect, or think we connect, to what other terrestrials see and hear in a way that we don’t feel for a fish. This figures significantly in our relationship with cetaceans. When we use the term “cold-blooded” in regard to humans it means “unfeeling” and it’s easy to decide that cold-blooded creatures like fish are just that. Despite the fact that whales and dolphins are warm blooded animals, their “fishiness” still affects our perception of their thinking.

Think how vastly different the world must seem to creatures which evolved in virtual weightlessness in a medium that transmits sound four times faster than air and where visibility is greatly reduced. What different conversations must occur for beings without technology, without the opposing thumbs that make most of human technology possible? How can we stretch our minds to imagine the dietary habits of whales that eat krill, scooping up millions of gallons of water in the course of their lives, sifting tiny food particles through a baleen sieve, and only eating during the summer months each year, but fasting through the winter while giving birth and tending their young.

How would we be different if we constantly heard the singing of others across hundreds or thousands of miles, but with no recording devices other than our own memories?

One small clue might glimmer at us from the aboriginal people of Australia, as out on the edge as any group of humans, whose unwritten history was captured in the song lines, and whose physical world was all but enmeshed in their singing.

If whale minds and cetacean stories and dolphin philosophy evolved in even less familiar conditions, how could we possibly imagine that they are actually in some macroscopic view, like us? And yet, of course, they are.

As I discuss in a couple of chapters in my book, Whale Falls, the puzzle we confront in making dietary choices, or considering whether whales are more appropriately co-equal earthlings or a source of lamp oil, is that of consciousness. Who or what qualifies as conscious?

According to a theory propounded by Julian Jaynes in the late 20th century, even human beings didn’t achieve consciousness until about 3000 BCE. Jaynes posited that before written language came into common use, our brain connections developed differently and connections between right and left hemisphere were stronger. He suggested that the reason ancient religous texts described an age of prophecy is that people actually heard voices in a way that we might describe as mental illness in this modern age.

To an alien circling the earth in a flying saucer, we would just be two versions of big-brained, warm-blooded, air-breathing, infant- suckling, vocalizing, earth animals, one aquatic and one terrestrial. One branch of intelligent earthlings likes to build things, the other likes to sing about them. They might also note that while the terrestrial mammals sometimes eat the aquatic ones, the reverse is never true. Even killer whales, the most ferocious of their kin, are not considered a threat to human beings outside of theme parks.

Theme parks, on the other hand are terrible places for whales and dolphins, where creatures accustomed to roaming over thousands of miles are imprisoned in concrete swimming pools where they die young, only to be replaced by more wild-caught prisoners. If you haven’t seen the recent documentary film, “The Cove” about the annual capture and killing of tens of thousands of dolphins by the Japanese, I commend it as a real eye opener.

And here we come back to who swallows whom, and what matters of faith we decide are palatable. For many people through the centuries the story of Jonah’s journey and salvation have offered a meaningful spiritual lesson. To others the story has seemed as irrelevant or silly as the Walt Disney version of Pinnochio. To some of us, whales are self-aware, intelligent and endangered: to others they are what’s for dinner. The important lesson, I believe, is that belief itself is a matter of choice.

Pick the metaphors that speak to you, that reaffirm your principles, whether those principles are seven or ten or simply the Golden Rule. Sometimes you swallow the whale story, it seems, and sometimes the whale story swallows you.

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