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Archive for the ‘Modern living’ Category

The American Gulag

Here’s a draft of a talk I delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Brevard, Dec. 16, 2012

***

The American Gulag

by Cecil Bothwell

“Make me an angel

That flies from Montgomery

Make me a poster of an old rodeo

Just give me one thing that I can hold onto

To believe in this livin’ is just a hard way to go.”

- John Prine

The phrase “Angel from Montgomery” refers to a pardon for a prison sentence from the governor. It is also used to refer to a last minute pardon from the death sentence. The phrase originated in Alabama where the capital is Montgomery. The way John Prine framed it in his song, the woman is living in her own self made prison from which she can’t escape. Hence she needs a pardon (the angel from Montgomery).

If we take a thoughtful look at the entire prison system in America, it’s pretty clear that we are in need of an army of angels from every state capitol, to free not only the unjustly incarcerated, but to free our society from a system of laws and sentencing guidelines that is as poisonous as it is ineffective.

My personal experience of incarceration is fortunately very brief. When I was 22 years old I was a member of the Florida Farm Bureau – I was following Joni Mitchell’s exhortation to “get back to the land and set my soul free” and I was homesteading a patch of Florida swamp land while I worked as a masonry subcontractor. The farm bureau had a discount offer from a local tire store, and I needed a new spare tire. I went into the store on a Thursday afternoon. While the mechanic mounted the tire, I went to the counter to settle the bill with the store owner, showed him my Farm Bureau membership card and drivers’ license, and then discovered I did not have my check book. So I said I’d have to return the next day with the check. I got tied up managing my masonry crew on Friday, and decided to make the payment on Monday.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, the mechanic had put the new spare tire in my car trunk, a fact which I discovered over the weekend.

On Monday morning, early, I was awakened by a knock on my cabin door, pulled on a pair of pants and opened the door to greet two sheriff’s deputies with a warrant for my arrest for theft. You might imagine I was pretty surprised. I asked what I had stolen and they said, “You know, kid.” They insisted on accompanying me back into the cabin while I put on a shirt, socks and shoes, put me in the back of their squad car and hauled me to jail. They refused to tell me anything about the charges until I was booked for stealing a tire, and photographed, and allowed one phone call and escorted to a cell where I sat alone, wondering what would transpire. It was late that night when a friend finally appeared to bail me out, after the longest, loneliest day of my young life. Imprisonment is frightening. The sense of helplessness is devastating.

The next day I paid for the tire, told the owner that while I had previously purchased tires for both my car and my flat bed truck at his establishment, I wouldn’t be back. The judge later dropped the charges (although I had to pay court costs) and admonished me that he hoped I had learned a lesson.

I did learn a lesson: I was and remain convinced that if I had looked like the tire store owner in short hair and a plaid work shirt instead of long hair, a beard and a tie-dyed tee shirt, I would never have been charged or arrested. He had an opportunity to teach a long-haired hippie a lesson and the sheriff’s department was more than happy to help out. I doubt that the tire man missed my business.

That was obviously an extremely minor brush with the law, but it loomed very large in my life experience forty years ago, and everything I have learned about our legal system since that time has reinforced that lesson.

Much more recently I started a jail ministry with a few other folks at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Asheville, and garnered a great deal of first hand experience with low-level criminals in the Buncombe County Detention Center, over a five year period.

First, a note about why I wanted to start that ministry. I had been an investigative reporter for Asheville’s Mountain Xpress newspaper for several years and had received a fairly constant stream of complaints about conditions in the local jail. Like any other story that depends on whistle-blowers, it’s urgent that a reporter obtain either documentary proof of allegations, or find believable witnesses who are willing to be quoted on the record. Otherwise you have nothing more than hearsay.

Then a woman died in the jail and her adult daughter came to me alleging that her mother had been denied insulin while incarcerated and had died of complications from diabetes. A lawyer who had spent a few days in jail on contempt of court charges, came forward, though off the record, and told me that she had heard the woman moaning and screaming in pain, begging for her insulin injections, and being left untreated until she blacked out and died. Somewhat later I obtained the state coroner’s report which identified intestinal ischemia as the cause of death, and it only took a little more searching to find that intestinal ischemia is often a result of untreated diabetes.

No one was ever charged for that crime.

Another informant came forward to remind me of a death which had occurred a couple of years earlier, and had gone virtually unreported. I dug into the details I was given, did public records requests and learned that a man had been arrested for driving his tractor-type lawn mower, in his own yard, while drunk. He was put in a holding cell and was found dead an hour later. He died of a broken neck. When I reported that in the newspaper, as part of the woman’s story, I got an anonymous tip from a man who claimed to be a guard in the jail. He said, “We all know who killed him.” Then he hung up.

Then I got a call from a man named Carlos Payne, who said he had information about the jail that he’d like to share with me. From his voice I got the impression, correct as it turned out, that he was a large, black man. And while I have worked hard to overcome the cultural biases I was taught as a child, I have to admit that I was viscerally scared when he indicated that he wanted to meet me, alone, in the basement of a nearby church. A fellow reporter insisted that I not go alone, and so the two of us met Carlos in a darkened room in that church basement.

Carlos was pretty scary, and he’d done time for involuntary manslaughter. But he was also an obsessive/compulsive and had kept meticulous daily records of his time in jail and in prison. Further, he had befriended a guard in the Buncombe County jail who had obtained a print copy of his official record during three months in the jail. The official record completely corroborated his allegations that he had repeatedly requested blood pressure medication for his dangerously high blood pressure, and had been repeatedly refused that medication with the guards noting that his demands were not to be believed. They noted that he cursed them repeatedly for the failure to provide medication.

Finally, he blacked out and fell, breaking teeth which caused bleeding, and was rushed to Mission Hospital where the doctors diagnosed his extreme blood pressure, renewed the prescription he had been asking for all along, and sent him back to jail where they then provided his daily prescription and according to the record, stopped cursing the guards.

His sentence had been for 90 days in jail, with a three year suspended prison sentence as long as he obeyed the rules while in jail and reported to a parole officer during the three years. But when he was supposed to be released, he was taken before a judge who was told by the commander of the jail that Payne had violated the jail rules by cursing at guards.

According to the court record, Payne told the judge that he had only cursed because he was denied life-saving medication, and that he had quit cursing once he was provided with his prescription. The officer told the judge that Payne was lying and that the cursing had continued right up to his release date. The judge ruled that the officer was believable while the defendant was not, and sentenced him to three years in North Carolina’s prison system.

Three years later, out of prison, Payne obtained the written jail record he showed me, and wanted his story to be told.

I tell you all of that to explain why I had been trying to get inside the jail to learn what I could about conditions there for a few years. But I was denied permission by the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department, which runs the jail. They do not allow visitors other than those who come in during visiting hours, to sit in front of a glass panel to talk to one inmate while guards monitor the conversation.

Then I learned about the only exceptions to that rule. Churches are allowed to create ministries which can conduct meetings with up to 10 inmates at a time, and discuss whatever they wish. Some social services organizations are also allowed to conduct counseling sessions.

So, we started a jail ministry through the Unitarian Universalist church. We had to have criminal background checks, an instructional session with the jail programs administrator, and be trained by attending a couple of Bible ministry sessions with a Baptist preacher, but then we were free to conduct our own program. It was and is the only non-bible ministry in the Buncombe County jail.

As it happened, when we finally got going, the old, crooked sheriff had gone to federal prison and a new, much more modern and professional sheriff had been elected. Whereas before, guards were selected as punishment for misdeeds as patrol officers, guards are now required to apply for what are now higher paying jobs, and have special training. Medications are well supervised and according to the inmates I’ve spoken with, guards no longer beat prisoners on the elevators. They used to administer beatings there because it is the only place where there are no security cameras.

We were only permitted to meet with non-violent inmates. Most are there on drug or DUI charges, some for failure to pay child support, and a few for theft, and other relatively petty crimes. Most admitted some guilt, but generally disputed the level at which they had been charged. District Attorneys always throw the book at arrestees, threatening the worst possible convictions, in order to coerce plea bargains to lesser charges. That avoids court trials in terribly overbooked courts.

Although my initial motive for creating the ministry was to get inside the jail, to get a feeling for the place, to hear from inmates in their own words about the experience there … the actual ministry was much deeper. I met people operating in a world that’s mostly hidden from my position in life. Of course, I know the statistics, I read sad tales in the newspaper, I understand the financial cost to society of social welfare programs and the court system, but most of the people in the Buncombe County jail are not newspaper readers, are not politically active, don’t have library cards, don’t come to my book signings and don’t attend services at the Unitarian Univeralist church.

They didn’t go to college, they may not have graduated from high school, most don’t hold regular jobs, and they don’t eat at the mid-scale and upscale restaurants in Asheville. They are invisible from where I usually sit.

Most of the inmates I’ve met express remorse, at least about getting caught, and usually about the lives that had led to their current predicament. While the Bible ministries all tell participants that they must accept Jesus as savior, and that they will never fix their lives without Him, we tell participants that we don’t care what beliefs they have about Jesus, or the Bible, or what will happen when they die. We talk about how they might fix their lives when they get out of jail or prison, to avoid the recidivism that is so characteristic of these people. For most that I met over the years, this was not their first time in jail, and it would not be their first time in prison when they were sentenced.

More than a few told me with surprising honesty that THIS time they planned to go straight when they got out. That is, they would go straight after a couple of weeks, but first they would check in with their contacts, and do some drug deals to raise enough cash so they could live until they found jobs. One young man told me his girlfriend had their baby since he’d been arrested, and he was going to do whatever he had to do to buy Pampers and baby food and baby clothes the first day he got out.

And this is where we run into the deep problems with our current laws, our enforcement policies, our judicial system, our prison system and the collateral damage we are doing to individuals, families and communities in America.

We imprison more people per capita than any other country in the world. We have more people imprisoned than Josef Stalin’s gulag state. The world average for incarceration is 150 per 100,000 population. The American prison system stands at 753 per 100,000.

We imposed mandatory minimum sentences for drug related crimes at both the federal and state levels in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and our prison population exploded.

Those with the most incentive to sell drugs are those with the least to lose. Desperate, out-of-work parents with a small baby, and who have had some exposure to drug dealing have very little to lose and a tremendous amount to gain by making a few sales, usually to people they already know.

Because drugs are illegal, there is a high markup. Marijuana, which is essentially a weed, and extremely easy to grow, could easily be sold for a nominal amount, but because it is illegal, requiring an extensive underground network for production, distribution and sale, the price per ounce runs into several hundred dollars or more, with high profits accruing at each step in the distribution chain. The same is true of other naturally occurring drugs: cocaine, heroin, peyote, and mushrooms.

Once someone has been arrested and convicted of a drug crime, the incentives become even higher, because felony convictions make it very hard for ex-cons to find decent jobs. Even with moderately good intentions, like many inmates I met, the lure of quick cash is strong. And, of course, the odds of getting caught during any one sale are very, very low.

Now as it works out, the people most likely to be arrested for drug dealing are those who carry out their trade on the street, soliciting sales to strangers. Again, it is the poor who are most likely to risk exposure in street dealing, and the poor who are most likely to be customers on the street.

The truth is that surveys reveal that illegal drug use is ubiquitous in American life. As a percentage of the population, white middle class people use as many and often more illegal drugs than poor non-white people. But they don’t get arrested very often. Deals that go down in suburban living rooms, corporate lunch rooms, lawyers’ and doctors’ offices, country clubs and the like are not very likely to run afoul of drug suppression teams from the local police force. Furthermore, there is racial and class bias among law enforcement officers, prosecutors and judges. There are unwritten rules about driving while black or brown, rules that we children of the white ruling class never have to consider, unless we grow our hair long, or adopt other outward badges of nonconformity.

Evidence of bias was never more personally clear to me than about ten years after my day spent as a jailbird. I had just completed a year as a house parent in a group home for developmentally disabled children. I was headed to Mexico on a six week camping trip, and my hair was still down over my collar.

At a stopover in Tucson, reacting to a dare from an old friend, and abetted by tequila, I shaved my head.

Two days later I was standing on a sea wall in Mazatlan, Mexico, talking to a retired policeman. I asked him to relate his most memorable experience after a career with the LAPD. Without hesitation he said he loved the sound of his baton coming down on hippies’ heads during demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. He said they split open like ripe watermelons.

I knew in an instant that he would never have told me that story before my new haircut and I adopted that new disguise for the next 8 years, just to experience the world as a skinhead instead of as a hippie. It was during that time that I first heard myself referred to as Mr. Bothwell.

The racial bias in our enforcement system is so pervasive that it is sometimes, and I think accurately described, as a new form of Jim Crow. Nationwide, about 1 in 138 people are incarcerated, which alone seems pretty high, but, of course, men cause most of the problems, young men even more so.

Among white men, aged 16-64, 1 in 87 are incarcerated. Among black men in the same age group, the number is 1 in 12. For black men in their late 20s, the number is 1 in 8.

When unemployment is high it is always higher in the African American population. Partly this reflects racism in hiring, but it also reflects a reasonable reluctance to hire ex-criminals.

A friend of mine, in Asheville, presents a case in point. Ed Chapman spent 15 years on North Carolina’s death row before he was exonerated. He had been convicted by a prosecutor and law enforcement officers who suppressed evidence, buried the result of a police line-up, and even ignored the jailhouse confession of the actual murderer (who is also on death row, for other crimes.) Once he was released, he’s had a very difficult time finding a decent job, because potential employers identify him as an ex-convict.

Our laws have helped create and build a permanent underclass. Many or most of those young black men have fathered children, and so while they are doing time their babies grow up in single-mother households, and single mother households comprise the highest proportion of homes below the poverty line. And when those young fathers get out of prison, unable to find work, they can easily represent one more dependent instead of one more wage earner in the household. Unless, of course, they are willing to do some drug deals and generate some cash.

And here I might note that while there is a high markup on illegal drugs, there are so many people dealing at the street level that studies suggest that most low level dealers don’t earn much more than minimum wage for their time. But, at least its a job.

For those whose morality is offended by my argument that we should go ahead and legalize the most popular, least physically dangerous drugs, I would say this: the American people have voted with their wallets. We have more drugs on the streets now than when the much heralded War on Drugs was declared about fifty years ago. The drugs are often higher potency. The prices are higher, due to our suppression efforts, so the profits are greater and the incentive to sell is greater. By making less harmful forms of some drugs more expensive, for example cocaine, we have spawned worse problems via conversion to crack cocaine, which delivers more bang for the buck. Because the supply chain for crystal meth is shorter, and often more reliable, if not in your own neighborhood, it is easier to get than other drugs which are physically less hazardous. We have succeeded in making the problem worse.

And at the other end of the supply chain, we are making drug king-pins rich, encouraging an international arms trade across the Mexican border and elsewhere, funding the rebel armies that protect the king-pins and destabilizing governments around the globe. For instance, heroin is Afghanistan’s major export commodity, and some Afghani Taliban groups rely on the heroin trade.

(The following paragraph is an addition to the talk as originally delivered at the Brevard UU Church on Dec. 17.)

The banking industry is implicated as well, because king-pins don’t stuff all that cash into mattresses. The British bank, HSBC, was recently found guilty of laundering billions of dollars in drug money, but was only given a slap on the wrist by the United States justice department. The negotiated penalty was $1.9 billion, a “record” settlement—equal to a few week’s profits for the banking giant. But the government had the legal authority to confiscate all of the banks assets, and all of the assets of all of the bank officers implicated in the laundering. Instead, they were let off easy due to expressed fears about what repercussions a meaningful penalty might have triggered in international finance. If you are caught with a single marijuana cigarette, the police can confiscate your cash, your vehicle, even your home. If you are caught laundering money for murderers, extortionists and international drug lords, you may lose your Christmas bonus. The injustice is bizarre beyond belief. [end of new material]

A year from now we’ll begin to learn how much money Colorado and Washington are saving due to their recent decisions to legalize marijuana. They predict savings in the millions in law enforcement, court costs and incarceration. Some foresee a noticeable uptick in tourism as well. This week, the Obama administration announced that it will honor those state-level decisions and not pursue recreational marijuana users in those states.

My experience with the Buncombe County jail ministry has strengthened my belief that most of the poor souls doing time for drug crimes would much prefer to be home supporting their families. If we legalized drugs, they might get jobs in drug stores because there wouldn’t be a profit to be made on the street, and drug king-pins are not the sorts of employers who provide paid vacations and health insurance. When I asked them about what jobs they have done in their lives, they often expressed clear pride that they had once worked doing roofing, hanging drywall, changing tires, putting down asphalt or even digging ditches for a plumbing contractor. All of us gain some sense of self-worth from contributing to society, from providing for our families, from doing our fair share.

One drug dealer I met in jail even bragged to me about the rules concerning children and charitable giving he had organized among dealers in South Asheville. He insisted that his homies had agreed never to sell to kids, never to sell near schools, and to divert money to a program that bought school supplies for the elementary school in their neighborhood.

I have no idea if they stuck to the sales rules, but I looked into it, and they definitely bought those school supplies – or at least, someone claiming to represent the local dealers had delivered the goods.

When I thought about that, it was hard to claim that school supplies paid for by drug sales were any more or less moral than our state-sanctioned education lottery, which is about as morally twisted a way to pay for schooling as I can imagine.

America can do better. I hope we can all help.

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“Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken

And many times confused

Yes, and I’ve often felt forsaken

And certainly misused

Ah, but it’s all right, all right

I’m just weary to my bones.

Still you don’t expect to be bright and bon vivant

So far away from home. So far away from home.”

- Paul Simon

Over the river and through the woods.

Or—to state our trajectory more accurately—through the woods and over the river; we hung a left past the bridge; then a right; a left; a zig; a zag; another right; and there we were at grandma’s house—just 515 miles from transom to transom. Twenty hours total driving time there and back again, divided in half by a two-week visit to my partner’s home place.

That this sort of casual travel is possible is one of the miracles of 20th century technological civilization. Mobility has blessed and cursed us, enabling an endless diaspora while chaining us to our machines. In the process our dispersal may well have become the biggest psychological obstacle to creation of a sustainable society. And creation of a sustainable society is essential if we are to mitigate the human impact on global climate change.

And while I’m pointing a finger I’m not afraid to admit my own culpability.

Between April 2 and April 11 of 2010 I traveled more than 10,000 miles while feeling more than a little carbon guilt. I flew to Newark to give a speech and then to Hawaii. My best buddy from high school gave me a ticket to visit his home there. I assuaged myself in part by attending a symposium on alternative fuels hosted by the U.S. Navy which announced plans to derive 70 percent of its fuel from renewables by 2030. They’ve even figured out how to distill jet fuel from switchgrass. The state of Hawaii has made the same commitment to 70 percent renewables by 2030.

Other speeches in 2010 took me to Minneapolis and Denver, adding another 5,000 miles to my hemispheric walkabout. Toss in 10- or 15,000 miles of automobile travel, and the total is more than once around the earth.

In 2011 I flew a bit less, perhaps 6,000 miles, speaking in Cambridge and Des Moines, and with three visits to Washington DC, including a protest against the XL Pipeline, but drove more, criss-crossing Western North Carolina during my run for Congress.

And flights are up again this year: Between Miami, Providence, Denver, and Winter Park, Florida, nearly 8,000 miles, with another trip to South Florida scheduled for this December.

But my carbon guilt is deeper and wider than that. Up to the turn of the millennium I spent a great deal of time on the road, for pleasure. Cheap oil let me visit the Grand Canyon and the Badlands, New Mexican mesas and Aztec ruins, Big Sur and the Olympic Peninsula, Vancouver and Fairbanks and Anchorage, the Yukon, New Orleans and Chicago, San Franciso and Washington, DC, Tijuana and Newfoundland, the Little Big Horn and the Saw Tooth range, the Okefenokee and the Louisiana bayou. I’ve canoed in every Great Lake and most of North America’s river systems. I’ve hiked in Yellowstone and the Snake River Canyon and the Chiricahuas and the White Mountains and the Green Mountains and the Cascades, the Catskills and the Sierra Nevada and the Sand Hills and the Ozarks, of course the Southern Applachians and too many more places to easily catalog. It was a grand adventure and it was cheap.

Taking the long view—disastrously cheap.

In addition to my former partner, Susan’s, inclination toward travel and my own willingness, there’s a longer-term picture to consider as well. My parents met and married in Florida, though Dad was born in Chicago (as was I). The introduction occurred because my Mom had worked in New York City for a couple of years, where she met Dad’s cousin (also from the Chicago area) who suggested the two get together after Mom returned to her high school home town, Orlando, where Dad was building homes and breeding Shetland sheep dogs. Mom was born and half-way raised in Pittsburgh. I had moved to New Hampshire and then North Carolina with a year-long stop-over in Arizona. But my trajectory had included junior high in Long Island, New York, and high school in Florida, with a couple of years of college in Atlanta.

Susan’s parents settled on her grandmother’s farm-turned-suburbia in Ohio, and her aunts, uncles, cousins and two siblings stayed close to home, but her other brother moved to Tucson, then Portland, Oregon. A niece and nephews spun out to Washington, DC, Knoxville and Salt Lake City/Dallas and then Atlanta, respectively. Neither of our families was particularly atypical for the post-WWII years. We spread out and dissolved the extended families of past generations. We did so because we could—often for better job prospects, sometimes on whims, for love, or, pretty often, simply to shake off the past. My buddy in Hawaii, who has since retired to Asheville, held jobs in, Florida, Virginia, Alabama and Pennsylvania before he headed west and his wife, from Pennsylvania who he met and married in Virginia, met her first husband in Maryland.

Cheap energy made cost no real object, and that same cheap energy made family visits, shared holidays, weddings and funerals and graduations and other base-touching reasonably affordable.

But the families were fragmented despite phone calls and (increasingly rare) written letters. (E-mail has lately abetted better and more frequent contact for many.) The easy distancing could engender real difficulty when a physically remote mother or father needed nursing care and the lack of nearby grandparents shifted more children into daycare.

Whether this social fracturing has been, on the whole, good or bad is open to debate, but the fact that cheap oil had social consequences is not.

My holiday journey over the river and through the woods traversed a landscape in transition. Farmland was sprouting subdivisions as thick and fast as springtime weeds, particularly along the Interstate arteries. The previous week, one of Susan’s brothers went to an auction of the farm which he (and their father before him) worked on as a young man. The gavel came down to the tune of one and a half million bucks, paid by a developer hell-bent on suburbia.

We have painted ourselves into a very difficult corner as cities metastasize into surrounding healthy tissue. The sprawl enabled by fossil fuel combustion has built us into a dependence on that technology that becomes harder and harder to break.

Look at the conundrum: Cheap mobility facilitates both commuting and distribution of goods. Easy commuting drives up the use-value of land far outside the cities, a change which also raises property taxes. At the same time, the distribution network permits import of food from lower valued land (usually with lower priced labor). Beleaguered farmers facing underpriced competition and overpriced land are understandably tempted to liquidate. The whole scheme floats on cut-rate oil.

Each new home on former farm land further entrenches political support for the status quo. People who have invested their savings in a home and who are dependent on a distant job to keep up mortgage payments are vested in the present cheap-oil economy. Adding insult to the internal combustion injury of the biosphere, the average size of new homes in the U.S. has grown enormously over the past five decades. More heated space will require more heat for decades into the future. Even construction methods are affected, as when cost/benefit considerations dictate the return on insulation or insulating windows vis-a-vis cheap energy.

At the same time, inexpensive oil encourages investment in inefficient vehicles, and—via conversion to electricity—in inefficient appliances of all sorts. Each consumer decision against conservation results in further stasis. A new auto which uses twice as much fuel as an alternative model locks that demand into our energy equation for twenty years or more. Ditto for refrigerators, freezers, ranges, water heaters and a host of smaller gadgets.

The chief obstacles to creation of more efficient, more frequent, more user-friendly public transit are low population density and cheap gas — and really, those are two sides of the same coin. During the oil price spike which some authorities believe precipitated our recent Great Recession, ridership on city transit systems kicked up significantly. The drop in ridership since 2009 is partly due to a temporary drop in fuel prices, elevated unemployment, and acceptance of $4 gasoline as the new normal.

And while I’m on the subject of transit, I could point out that subsidy for a transit system is a direct subsidy of employers in cities who hire low wage workers. Dish washers and bussers and other low-wage jobs frequently don’t pay enough to support automobile ownership and use. So many businesses are completely dependent on the transit system to enable their employment of those workers, at least at the wages generally offered. The government subsidies of transit would be lower if ridership were higher, so once again, cheap gas skews the equation.

Meanwhile the supply lines for food grow ever longer, and more and more of the fertilizer supply comes directly from what Thom Hartmann aptly referred to as “ancient sunlight”—fossil fuels stored up over millennia.

The U.S. has created one of the least efficient technological societies on the planet. While it’s true that we have improved efficiency over time, other countries have pushed fuel prices up through taxation to encourage conservation and made far greater strides. We have intentionally kept fuel prices low—an intentional subsidy to drivers, industry and agriculture, which, as I just mentioned, also creates demand for collateral subsidy of transit. With oil prices kept down, farm labor is devalued as well, since workers compete with cheaply fueled engines. This feeds directly into the issue of immigration because the low wages offered by farmers attract workers for whom those wages represent a step-up.

Because chemical nitrogen fertilizer comes from underpriced natural gas, we tilt the market toward chemical agriculture and away from organic. The price differential between organic and non-organic food is largely created by low priced fossil fuel supplies.

Moreover, we subsidize oil with tax money for military intervention as well as funding health care costs incurred by pollution victims. Our inefficient vehicles and high reliance on automobile use has created a childhood asthma epidemic, directly attributable to auto exhaust. Imagine how different our economic choices might be if we paid for wars and health care with taxes on the fossil fuels that create the need in the first place. In worst case conditions, such as the BP death gusher in the Gulf of Mexico, we will be dealing with toxins in the food chain for decades. The cost will never be accurately assessed.

The damage will not abate in our lifetimes.

More subtly, oil costs are externalized in the form of forest and agricultural decline resulting from acid deposition, nitrous oxides and low-level ozone. Citizens of WNC receive daily warnings about air quality and are often urged not to engage in overmuch outdoor activity because we are Code Yellow or Orange.

This in a region once famous for it’s healthful air.

When I spoke earlier of mothers and fathers and children, I was, of course, actually talking about love and sex, and modern sexuality is, for all practical purposes, a petrochemical product even before you include condoms … which you should, because today’s safe sex practices are at least partly necessary because global transportation greatly increased the dispersal of sexually transmitted diseases.

I’m of the generation that explored its first lessons in practical anatomy at drive-in movie theaters. The motel, another augmentation for close personal relationships, was invented to serve travelers on the highway system developed by the Eisenhower administration to help General Motors sell cars. The car and the motor-hotel provided the means to find privacy and anonymity that was rare in less energy intensive times.

After going to movies or ball games, my crowd in high school used to drive to a Methodist Church parking lot that was surrounded by dense shrubs and fronted on a lake. The town police knew we were basically good kids and left us alone, our parents hoped we were good kids and didn’t much complain, we all felt entirely safe because we were surrounded by friends’ in their own cars, and we were pretty much left to our own devices.

My device was a 1948 Plymouth Special Deluxe, with suicide doors in back that opened on a rear seat that looked like a living room sofa. I bought it from the original owner when I was 17 and it was 20 years old and paid $75. I later gave it to my cousin who blew the engine and had it junked. I saw one online the other day offered for $35,000, ah the mistakes of youth.

More importantly, the oil economy profoundly affected the institution of marriage. World War II was, in many ways, a war about control of oil. Germany invaded North Africa in an effort to access Arab oil fields and Japan sought control of Malaya and Indonesia for oil and rubber. The U.S. won the war at least in part because we had ample domestic oil to fuel industry and war machines. There was a major mobilization of men for that war effort, women moved into traditional male jobs and the G.I. Bill permitted unprecedented access to college education. The geographical and social mobility had a huge effect on the availability of alternative mates.

Instead of marrying a high school sweetheart and settling in our hometowns, we were suddenly mixing it up.

Thirty-two years ago I moved to North Carolina and landed in a vacation home subdivision populated by Floridians on the edge of the Broad River Township, which is now part of Black Mountain. Over my twenty years there I came to understand that thirty years further back that valley had been all but cut off from the modern world. A round trip to the nearest accessible town of Hendersonville began before dawn and ended after dark even if your horses didn’t tarry along the way. The Ledbetters and the Owenbys each had 13 children and a dozen of each brood married a dozen of the other.

During the 1950s, oil-powered bulldozers built by the companies that built tanks for the war pushed a road through a mountain pass and most of the children of those dozen families left for good, finding and marrying their partners in far off Asheville, Hickory or Charlotte.

As Billy Wheeler and others have sung it,

“I can’t help but blamin’ your goin’

On the coming, the coming of the roads.”

Then too, the wider choice and the ability of women to join the workforce made divorce a much more tenable or even attractive option than in an earlier time.

I mentioned a quiet church parking lot, and note that religion has been changed by cheap energy too. Megachurches are commuter churches in the same way that sports stadiums and big civic centers and big golf tournaments are commuter entertainment venues.

The reason sports stars garner such huge salaries is a phenomenon largely driven by cheap fuel. The only way NFL and NBA games and baseball pennant races are possible in their modern form is because it’s cheap to fly thousands of players all over the country to perform in venues accessed by millions of fans who rely on cheap energy to attend the games. I suppose we could get around that by creating a sports city somewhere, where all the players lived and then just televise all the games, but I think the excitement would drain out pretty fast if all the home teams lived in the same town.

Then too, many of us dance when we date, or go to concerts. Look at what cheap gas has done to music! Before WWII, if you lived in a big city, the fancy dance clubs and restaurants had resident orchestras and dance bands. If you lived in a small town, you were lucky if a couple of local folks played banjos or fiddles or guitars, and you’d go to barn dances and church socials to sing or dance.

Then came the boom in recorded music, electrified instruments, radio and TV, and the interstate highway system. Now three or four musicians could make more noise than Count Basie’s whole orchestra and repeated air play made new songs more popular than classic folk tunes. The four musicians pile into a van with their gear and start touring. Suddenly you could hear the newest pop song from the actual band that recorded it and as those bands grew in wealth they could afford to produce shows that left local bands in the dust. Shows moved from dance clubs to stadiums and civic centers, and they too became commuter events. Superstars were born.

Connecting sports and music stardom with religion, we saw the rise of Billy Graham and the mass revival. When he was a boy the touring superstars in the Bible belt were preachers who set up tent meetings for weeks at a time. Graham’s boyhood hero was Mordecai Ham, an anti-semitic fire and brimstone character who was sort of the Chuck Norris of the tent circuit. Graham built on that model with the new technology of pop music and worked the sports stadiums and civic centers to create huge commuter events that lasted just a day or a few. The economy of cheap gasoline made moving the show much more affordable. So whereas Ham would fleece the same few hundred townfolk for a month or more, Graham could fleece hundreds of thousands all around the world in the same time period.

The existence of superstars in sports, entertainment, and religion has had a collateral effect on society that is widespread and, in my view, pernicious. A lot of kids growing up in this superstar society believe that the same success and wealth is available to them. That idea tends to devalue education and everyday jobs and puts the focus on talent and luck. The fact that a kid from public housing has a much better chance of being a heart surgeon than a basketball star is lost. The fact that study and hard work can let you fashion a satisfying and productive life is set aside. Instant wealth seems possible just around the corner, as near as a winning lottery ticket.

And far beyond the immediate effect on one child, is the effect on many adults.

Cheap energy has been at the core of a modern mindset that anything is possible, that everyone has a shot at the gold ring. Who wants to be a millionaire? Who wants to dance with the stars? Who wants to be a survivor and make a killing on Wall Street?

That has infected our politics. Many people, imagining that they too will soon be rich, cast their lot with the the rich. They then vote for policies that continue to widen the gap between rich and poor. They complain about tax hikes for the rich, even when there are tax cuts for the poor, unwilling to accept that they are, and will almost to a person, always be among the 95 percent who are relatively poor. They buy into political viewpoints that teach them that it’s poor immigrants who are keeping them down, not their own choices in the voting booth. Cheap gas has fueled both the machines and the machine politics that has created the widest wealth gap in the history of the world.

And the machines include poker machines and other forms of gaming. In a world where luck is considered to be more the arbiter of success than work, gambling makes perfect sense. Lottery tickets, limos to Harrahs, weekends in Las Vegas and Buncombe County’s former sheriff Bobby Medford’s video poker racketeering are all part of that mindset. It’s really kind of boggling when you consider the popularity of gambling these days, where everyone knows that the house always, ultimately wins and it’s considered to be great good fun to give more than you can afford to corporations which are richer than you can imagine.

In order to move toward true sustainability we must—by definition—decouple our lives from dependence on non-renewable resources, but the political will for such sweeping change is conspicuously rare.

Though I treasure the chance to spend some holiday time with distant family members and friends, it is impossible to shake a sense of foreboding. The policies that made that Thanksgiving visit possible will make our entire economic structure impossible in the not-too-distant future as the oil runs out.

There is no substitute for oil on the near horizon, a fuel so condensed and portable and malleable that it is the lifeblood of modern technological society. If you have a 150 horsepower engine in your car, you are obtaining the work of 150 horses for $3.65 per gallon. Where will you find a substitute for those horses? We are building toward a crash of monumental proportions, on a scale that could easily dwarf the experience of the Great Depression or the current Great Recession. At least in the 1930s most of us lived closer to the farm, to our work, and to our families.

We chose to believe that low fuel prices were a social good. Our elected officials made sure THAT continued, at least in part because it was an easy issue. People notice how much it costs to fill their tanks and fill their grocery bags and if those prices jump up an opposition candidate can promise to knock things back down. So incumbents keep the lid on. The larger costs are hidden and spread out as hospital bills, acidified lakes, military intervention, and more—invisible in plain sight because they are diffuse and the dots haven’t been well connected in the public mind.

Though much of my air travel in recent years has come about due to speaking engagements, two of my trips this year involved a much more personal matter. My younger brother died suddenly on March 11, in Bryson City. On March 13 I flew to Miami to be with my 90 year old mother to support each other in that time of shock and loss and grief. Two weeks ago today, I honored my brother’s wishes and scattered Cameron’s ashes on a lake in Winter Park, Florida—the lake on whose shores we lived during our teenage years.

In his life and death there’s another tale of the modern diaspora. Mom has divided her time between Miami and Spruce Pine in recent years. Cam lived in Bryson. I live in Asheville.

Scattered to the wind, we are, and living amidst strangers. We have been fooled by cheap energy into choices we might soon regret. Whether we are down to our last five drops of gasoline, as predicted by peak oil calculations, or down to the last 5 million barrels we can burn before runaway greenhouse warming makes our planet uninhabitable, I fear it may be a very, very long walk home.

“So far away from home.”

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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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On April 29 I was a guest on Our Southern Community, a public affairs program on WNCW 88.7 FM.
Click here!

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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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Fun with film making

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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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