Sunday, November 1, 2009

Learn About Your Religion Month (November 2009)


While writing for another project of mine, I was reminded of some experiences I had while teaching a class on the psychology of religion at a large state school in the southeast a few years ago. On the one hand, my students were very hungry to learn about the topic. On the other hand, they were so poorly informed about the facts of religion--even their own religions--that it was agonizingly difficult to conduct the class at first. I wound up revising my syllabus and lesson plans about a week into the semester, to allow for a three- or four-session unit devoted to just conveying the basic facts about some of the major religions of the world.

Then, a couple of years ago, I came upon Stephen Prothero's excellent book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--and Doesn't. Dr. Prothero documents just how ill-informed the average American is about religion--again, his or her own religion, let alone the religions of others.

This should not be. An understanding of the basics of religion is important to understanding American and world history, art, and culture. Beyond that, at the risk of stating the obvious, religion offers an important resource for many areas of one's life.

Consequently, the On The Mark blog is designating November 2009 as our first "Learn About Your Religion" month. I encourage you to take some concrete action to learn about the basics of your own religion sometime this month. Specific suggestions follow below.

Study

There are many aspects to religion: there are actions, emotions, and experiences that are all a part of religion. However, one of the problems with the way many Americans approach religion is that they pay no attention at all to the content of religion. "Content" refers to what religions actually teach about life and the world. As Dr. Prothero puts it:

Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion. They are Protestants who can't name the four Gospels, Catholics who can't name the seven sacraments, and Jews who can't name the five books of Moses. (Religious Literacy, p. 1)
Fortunately, ignorance is a curable disorder. I would suggest that people interested in learning something about their religion would do well to study one or more of the following:

  • A For Dummies or Complete Idiots guide about your religion. The For Dummies series (Wiley) and the Complete Idiots series (Penguin) each publish books about Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Wicca, and so forth. Within Christianity, each series also has separate books just about Catholicism and Mormonism (the nickname for the Latter-day Saint faith). You'll find a good selection in any large bookstore, and they can be ordered online as well. Read one this month.
  • A For Dummies or Complete Idiots guide about the scriptures of your religion. Each of these series also publishes books about the Bible, the Jewish scriptures, and the Koran. One can hardly be said to know one's religion without knowing something about the central writings of one's religion. A For Dummies or Complete Idiots guide can give you the basics that you need to know how to go about studying these central writings themselves.

(Of course, I've co-authored a For Dummies book myself, but my book [look for the announcement soon] is in a completely different area. Be assured, please, that I don't make a nickel from your following my suggestions above.)

Coming This Month

As the mood strikes me, I may have other suggestions for Learn About Your Religion Month. In the meantime, you're welcome to share your experiences, comments, and questions in the comment space below. Enjoy.

Monday, October 12, 2009

How New and Recent Graduates Can Get Jobs



The cover story of the October 19, 2009 issue of BusinessWeek is about the so-called new “Lost Generation”: new and recent graduates of college and graduate school who cannot find jobs.

Here’s the problem. To get jobs, new grads must show experience in solving business-relevant problems. In a normal economy, this is done by internships that students work at during the summer, sometimes winter or spring break, and sometimes right after graduation. Jobs like these, as well as entry-level positions, allow students and new grads to show their stuff and build their resumes.

The problem, of course, is that we left a normal economy behind sometime in the early winter of 2007. Now students are having a hard time getting internships and entry-level positions, because firms have eliminated them (along with millions of other, regular jobs). Therefore students and new graduates can’t demonstrate the kind of experience that they need to get regular paid employment. It’s the Catch-22 of our economic system: you need to have had a job to get a job.

As bad as this news is, it gets worse. When the recovery comes, recent grads will be at a real disadvantage even in relation to brand-new grads: recent grads will have a period of unemployment after graduation on their résumés, a disadvantage that brand-new grads won’t have. (Crazy, I know, but we can all reform the corporate world from the inside once we get jobs there.)

There’s no doubt that the news in this article is especially grim. The danger, as the artice points out, is that we are growing a ‘Lost Generation,’ like Japan did in the 1990s, of young people who are perpetually behind the curve when it comes to income and career advancement. This would be bad news for everyone: the graduates themselves, of course; also, corporate America, who will be missing youthful exuberance (on the employee side) and lower sales (on the customer side); and finally, the increasingly larger number of older people on Social Security (because there will be fewer young workers to pay into the system).

However, this bad news is not reason to curl up in the corner and sniffle. Yes, it would be good if the old system worked: get diploma, get job, go to work. But the old system doesn’t work anymore, for an increasingly and painfully large number of people. Recent grads can show that they are true (if young) adults by adapting to new circumstances. If conventional methods fail, new and recent graduates can get jobs through the use of more innovative approaches. Here are two paths to potential success:

Path #1: The Personal Showcase

I call the first path to success “The Personal Showcase.” The idea here is that you build your resume through volunteering your brilliance.

So here is what you do. If you can’t work for cash to get the experience you need to get a real job, you can work for free.

Here’s the process. Identify some not-for-profit organizations that address important problems in society: unemployment, homelessness, lack of economic development, environmental crisis, you name it. Here’s the kicker: You devise some way to solve part of those problems. You went to school; you’re bright and full of energy. Go to the library, read up on the problem, read what other people have done, and see what inspirations strike you. Then approach the appropriate not-for-profits and volunteer yourself to implement your vision, or extend theirs.

Yes, it’s a gutsy approach. However, you actually do have something of an advantage here. In the best of times, not-for-profit organizations operate in marginal terms. Now, although some are seeing an increase in volunteer labor, others are downright desperate. They may very well welcome your offer to work for them on what is called a “pro bono” basis. See if you can get them to agree not to mention that you are working on a pro bono basis to the other employees. Depending on the labor laws in your state, you may need to have a title like “Intern” or “Volunteer”; operate within the law.

Try to structure the job on your terms. You’re not doing this to spend all day stuffing envelopes (although you should be willing to do your share of scut work). From the beginning, you want to structure this job to get entry-level front-line, management, sales, manufacturing, accounting, and/or software development experience depending on the nature of the not-for-profit).

You may need to educate the not-for-profits you approach, to indicate that you are not trying to be a traditional “volunteer”; rather, you are a “pro bono worker.” At some agencies, a volunteer really is like a junior executive; at others, a volunteer sweeps the floor. As noble as either form of work is, you are doing this, in part, to build up a business resume, and your experience on the job needs to reflect that.

When you get the job, treat it like the “real” job it is: get to work on time or, preferably, early, and be prepared to work late. Dress up to the level of your manager. Just because you’re donating your effort does not mean they owe you anything: they’re doing you the favor, not the reverse.

After a year, if you’ve structured the experience appropriately, you should have a great resume and terrific references (also a necessity for future career development).

Budding actors do this all the time: it’s called a “showcase.” People get together, hire a theatre for an evening, and put on a show. The actors may make nothing (or perhaps a pittance), but they have documented experience on stage.

Will you need to live with your parents, essentially begging them for room and board? Probably. But unless they’ve just been hitting their heads into the wall repeatedly for recreation lately, they know that there’s a recession on. They may very well understand the need to operate like this, and they will probably respect you for your willingness to go to work, even pro bono, to give yourself a leg up the ladder later.

Path #2: The Pop-Up Start-Up,
or Showcase Firm


I call the second path to success “The Pop-Up Start-Up”; you could also call it, “The Showcase Firm.” This involves the formation of a time-limited partnership firm. You band together with other jobless grads to start a time-limited company; one year is a good period. During the lifetime of the firm, you all pledge to develop and market a product or service. You each commit to a year of daily work; flextime is okay, but 40 hours weekly is a minimum commitment. (People can be released from their commitment if a paying job comes along. People can also be fired!) You all beg your families and friends for resources (office space, legal advice) and raw materials if you are manufacturing a prototype. (I never fail to be amazed at the amount of raw materials simply thrown out every night on the streets of New York: lumber, metal, even file cabinets and office furniture.) And, of course, you beg your folks for free room and board.

Think about it. You guys are the best and brightest. The bookstores and libraries are bursting with books about unleashing your creativity. There are plenty of magazines about entrepreneuship and business. And, the world is full of problems to be solved, market niches to be filled, people who, even in a recession, will follow the Universal Rule of Sales: someone will buy something if it provides more value to them than the purchase price. (Looking for inspiration? Check out BusinessWeek's articles on Best Young Entrepreneurs of 2008 and 2009; the Yahoo! version of the latter includes some interesting profiles.)

You can do this.

Over the last month, two locations within walking distance of my residence in midtown Manhattan have sprouted something I’d never heard about before: the pop-up restaurant. One was a showcase for new chefs in the New York City area. Another was a showcase for a popular soft drink, and some magazines. At the end of a week, each restaurant disappeared, and the empty retail space went back to being empty. I thought this was a clever idea. It is the inspiration for the Pop-Up Start-Up Company idea.

At the end of a year in your Pop-Up Start-Up, at the very least, you will have a solid résumé. If you are fortunate, you will have a product or service that you can sell to another firm. At the very best—you will attract investors who back your pop-up firm and transform it into a continuing concern. You will have a paying job you love!

If you go this route, you will want some good business advice. Someone will need to arrange for liability insurance, in case of an accident at work. Everyone will need to sign contracts as pro bono professionals or interns. You should have policies about intellectual property. For all this advice, check with your contacts at your family, place of worship, and so forth; don’t forget to check with the retired executive corps in your community.

Response to an Objection

"Work for free? Work for free??"

Look at it this way, champ. You could not work, for the same period of time, and not have anything to show for it. Or you could work for free, and have a great deal to show for it. Your call.

Having the courage to take an unconventional path to career success is definitely On The Mark.

(This post expands on a comment of mine on a news item in The Huffington Post. The original news article is available here. An archive of all my comments on The Huffington Post is available here. Readers are welcome to become what The Huffington Post calls “fans” of mine on HuffPost.)

(Copyright 2009 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)

[The photograph above shows doctoral academic regalia of different types being worn by people at the May 2008 graduation ceremonies of Worcester Polytechnic Institute. The photo was taken by Alex Zozulya, who has placed it in the public domain. It was obtained from Wikipedia.]

Sunday, October 11, 2009

(Part 1:) A Real Recipe for Financial Wealth


[Photo by PHGCOM. Details at the end of this post.]

Usually in the “On the Mark” blog, I consider issues of meaning, the higher values, good and evil, honor and duty.

But sometimes you just need cash.

Contrary to popular opinion, the scriptures do not say that ‘money is the root of all evil.’ Rather, as the ancient apostle Paul wrote, “the love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10, emphasis added), and I agree. (Although there are certainly other roots to evil, I get his point.) But if one can transcend the selfish love of money and wealth, money can allow one to do great things. In the Latter-day Saint scriptures, one reads that certain believers “will seek [riches] for the intent to do good—to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted” (The Book of Mormon, Jacob 2:19). A comprehensive solution to any one of these problems would require billions of dollars. If those are your ambitions—how do you generate that kind of cash? Good question; one might want to look at what people with billions of dollars do.

Beyond that, even for the task of providing for oneself and one’s family, it is fair to wonder whether there is anything to be learned from the hyper-wealthy. If you’re looking for financial inspiration in these difficult times—why not dream big?

Consequently, today I will consider some advice that a major American financial magazine has given regarding financial wealth. I find their advice at best useless, and at worst quite harmful. In this series, I critique this article, point out some potential landmines, and make my own observations about wealth and its creation. I hope that readers will find something here that they can use to create wealth for themselves, and advice that they can pass on to their children and grandchildren.

If you find that what I have to share works for you, then, when your riches come in, I ask that you remember the poor, the naked, the homeless, the hungry, the captive, the sick and the afflicted. In a big way.

The online edition of Forbes magazine on September 30, 2009, published an article, “A Recipe for Riches,” regarding the characteristics of billionaires. (I read it first in a version of October 9 appearing on Yahoo! Finance.) The article opens by asking such questions as, “What are the common attributes among the über-wealthy? Are there any true secrets of the self-made?” Let’s consider what the article has to say—and what it fails to say.

The Basic Secret to Wealth: Create Value for Others

Somewhat stunningly, the article ignores the single most important common attribute among the very wealthy. A large proportion of them are involved in the creation of value for others. Many of them invented new ways to create value for others. This is clear for many of those on the Forbes 400 List of Richest Americans.

Perhaps the most spectacular examples are in the areas of computer software (and, to a lesser extent, hardware). Bill Gates of Microsoft (#1 on the list), and Steve Jobs of Apple (#43), between them invented the desktop computing industry. Michael Dell of Dell Computers (#13) invented methods to get computers to people cheaper. Larry Ellison of Oracle (#3) invented an important software application for business. Sergey Brin and Larry Page (both tied for #11) created value for others through inventing Google, Jeffrey Bezos (#28) through inventing Amazon, Pierre Omidyar through inventing Ebay, David Filo (#tied for 296) and Jerry Yang (tied for #317) through inventing Web portal Yahoo, and 25-year-old Mark Zuckerberg (tied for #158) through inventing Facebook—all software applications that it would be difficult to imagine modern life without. Michael Bloomberg (#8) invented a way to get investment information to investors quickly. Charles Schwab (#50) invented a way to help people invest more easily.

However, it is not just in the area of software applications that wealth is to be made through creating value for others in innovative ways. The same principle applies in other industries, some very old indeed. Several of the Forbes 400 (starting at #4) are related to Sam Walton, who invented a different way to manage retail sales, one of the oldest businesses there is.

Few things are as basic to human life as food. One might think that there was not much room for wealth from innovation in this area—but one would be wrong. Several on the list (starting at #19) are members of the Mars family who inherited wealth generated by an innovator in candy and pet food, the latter also being the domain of Clayton Mathile’s success (tied for #204: Iams); William Wrigley, Jr. (tied for #154) is on the list for chewing gum, James Leprino (tied for #141) is there for cheese, and Christopher “Kit” Goldsbury (tied for #347) for salsa. People important in the Subway sandwich shop chain (Peter Buck and Fred DeLuca, both tied for #236) and S. Truett Cathy (ditto), the founder of the Chick-fil-A chain, are on the list.

Innovation in responding to other basic human needs has created billionaires, as well. Philip Knight (#24) and Jim Davis (tied for #204) made their fortunes from innovations in shoes—yes, Nike and New Balance, respectively, but still shoes. Ralph Lauren (#61) made his billions from innovations in clothing and its marketing. Ty Warner is on the list (#94) from one of the oldest types of consumer goods in history: toys. (He’s the Beanie Baby man. And anyone who does not think that “toys” are a basic human need has never been around four preschool children as the winter holidays approach.)

Bradley Wayne Hughes and his family are on the list (#85) for one of the most low-tech industries imaginable: he developed Public Storage. (And I’m glad he did: half my stuff is still in units in Orlando.)

Wealth can come through innovation in the creakiest and seemingly most boring of industries. Take package delivery. Frederick Smith (#212) wrote up his senior thesis in college on the subject of a system for delivering packages, efficiently and cheaply. Word is, he did not get a great grade on this paper. But Mr. Smith took his Yale thesis, built an integrated network of planes and trucks, and founded FedEx in 1971. Now he’s worth over $1.6 billion—personally. All this, through creating value for others.

I’ll tell you whom I do not see on this list: stage entertainers, musicians, and professional athletes. Yes, Oprah Winfrey is on the list (tied for #141), but Oprah is not really in the category of “stage entertainer.” Oprah is more “infotainment” than entertainment; in addition, she runs a slew of businesses: her show, a magazine, a TV production company, and, soon, her own cable network.

My point? Mega-wealth is developed by innovation in creating value for other people. Yet, our popular culture does not celebrate this kind of achievement. Instead, the culture lionizes stage entertainers and professional athletes. Those of us who do not consider ourselves stage or sports field material might benefit by realizing that we can still think outside the box, that we can still innovate, that we can create value for others in ways that have not been done before. In addition, we can encourage our children to think in innovative ways, to think about improving how things are done, to think in terms of how to create value for other people. They’re not going to be getting these thoughts from popular culture, to be sure.

Creating value for other people in innovative ways is most definitely On The Mark.

As always, your comments and "follower"-ship are welcome.

[The photo shows a 250 kg (about 550 lb) gold bar, reportedly the largest manufactured pure gold bar in the world, currently in the Toi Gold Museum in Toi, Shizuoka, Japan. The photo is dated 2007, and its author is PHGCOM. The photo was obtained from Wikipedia and appears here under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License.]

(Copyright 2009 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)

Friday, October 9, 2009

Does President Obama Deserve the Nobel Peace Prize?



The awarding today of the Nobel Peace Prize to U.S. President Obama raises a simple question: What has he done to deserve it? This question has a very straightforward answer: He has changed the course of a nation, and, in a real sense, the world, for the better.

Within less than nine months as President, Obama has taken America out of the role of loose cannon, rolling about wildly on the deck of the global ship of state, and into the role of a leader among cooperating nations. He has advanced the cause of nuclear disarmament, which has languished for years, even as the threat of nuclear war has hung like the sword of Damocles over the world for nearly two-thirds of a century. (Read an earlier post about nuclear disarmament here.) He has reversed U.S. policy on the use of torture, a policy that had actually promoted terrorism. He has reversed the direction of the United States on global warming, which has the potential to incite war in the long term through its effect on population centers and agriculture.

The function of the Nobel Prize is not merely to reward someone, but to hold that someone up as an example for others to follow. Although some of Obama’s efforts have yet to bear fruit, the mere fact of his undertaking these efforts, and the very real results that have been obtained so far, are a much-needed inspiration for everyone from schoolchildren to statespersons. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Obama makes his message of hope, and the value of working hard in the cause of peace, that much stronger.

There are those who criticize the Nobel Peace Prize Committee because they have not, in this case, followed the example of the committees regarding awards in the sciences, where Nobel Prizes are awarded years after some achievement. This is a foolish comparison. We are living in a crucial moment of world history, when the potential for catastrophe—nuclear, environmental, biological—is very great. The time to act is now. Consequently, the time for inspiration is now.

It is written that a very small rudder can move a very large ship. The efforts of President Obama, although in some cases still in their early stages, are what the world needs to achieve peace now, on multiple fronts. It is not only that those efforts deserve this award, although they do. However, in addition to that, the people of America and the world need the inspiration to follow the President’s example. Faced with an unprecedented level of challenge and risk, the entire world needs to think, “Yes—we can! And the world needs to think this now, not twenty years from now.

In the matter of this award, the Nobel Committee, and especially President Barack Obama himself, are On The Mark.

(This post expands on a comment of mine on a news item in The Huffington Post. The original news article is available here. An archive of all my comments on The Huffington Post is available here. Readers are welcome to become what The Huffington Post calls “fans” of mine on HuffPost.)

[The photo of the 1933 Nobel Peace Prize medal awarded to Norman Angell, on exhibit to the public at the Imperial War Museum in London, was taken on August 26, 2005 by Anubis3. The image was obtained through Wikipedia, and is in the public domain in the United States.]

(Copyright 2009 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Should Roman Polanski Be Extradited to the United States? Hell, Yes!



(Photo of Roman Polanski, on the right in the photo, by Rita Molnar.)

Recently, the worlds of auteur cinema and Franco-American relations have been rocked by the arrest of famous 76-year-old film director Roman Polanski in Switzerland. Polanski faces extradition to the United States for having sexual intercourse with a then-13-year-old girl in 1977; one may read an Associated Press (AP) story, one of the many media accounts of this incident, here. (Polanski pled guilty to one count of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, but fled the U.S. in 1978 before being formally sentenced.)

In France, where Polanski is a citizen, various government officials are up in arms about Polanski's arrest. The AP story quotes the French Foreign Minister (the equivalent of the U.S. Secretary of State) as saying, "A man of such talent, recognized in the entire world ... all this just isn't nice." The French Culture Minister, Frederic Mitterand, is quoted as saying, "To see him like that, thrown to the lions because of ancient history, really doesn't make sense." Polanski's victim, Ms. Samantha Geimer, identified herself years ago; having reached a settlement with Polanski in years past, Ms. Geimer joins the call for a dismissal of charges against Polanski, saying she wants the case to be over.

Are these people simply insane?

Consider this my memo to the French national cabinet and Ms. Geimer: You are so wrong in so many ways, it will be difficult to respond to you within the bounds of even my epically long posts. Yet, logic, reason, and justice all demand that I try.

Let us keep one fact in mind that is disputed by no one: Roman Polanski had sex with a 13-year-old child--a minor who was in eighth or ninth grade--when he was 44 years old. With this fact firmly in mind, let us consider several arguments that have been advanced as to why Polanski should not be extradited to the United States to pay for this crime:

"All this happened a long time ago."

What possible relevance could this have? Certainly the matter of a statute of limitations does not enter into the discussion. The crime was prosecuted within a year of its occurrence; the only reason a long time has passed is because Polanski ran away, a fugitive from justice. Do we reward runaways from justice by dismissing their convictions, after a certain period has passed? That is exactly what we would be doing by dismissing Polanski's case on this basis.

Beyond that, what does it matter how much time has passed? The man had sex with a child when he was in his forties, for heaven's sake. The fact that it happened a long time ago is completely irrelevant from a moral point of view.

One is reminded in this respect of a terrible incident in which Mr. Polanski's own wife was the victim. In 1969, Mr. Polanski's second wife, the actress Sharon Tate, eight months pregnant, was brutally murdered by the followers of Charles Manson. (The person specifically responsible for murdering Ms. Tate was released from prison a little while ago with inoperable brain cancer, and died last week.) All of that was a good eight years farther in the past than Mr. Polanski's sexual episode with the child; do the French ministers want to make the case that Charlie Manson should be let out of prison? After all, the Sharon Tate murder is even more 'ancient' an incident, don't you think?

I mean no disrespect to the deceased Ms. Tate or her memory by making this grotesque comparison. However, I felt it necessary to mention the heinous crime of her murder to expose the wild logic of the argument that the passage of time somehow makes a difference here.

"The man is an internationally famous, highly talented artist."

The lack of logic here is astonishing, as well. Intellect and talent do not entitle one to a "Get Out of Jail Free" card in the Monopoly game of life. It would not matter if Polanski had the intellect of Einstein, the artistic sensibility of Da Vinci, the fame of Julius Caesar, and the humanitarian record of Albert Schweitzer, Mahatma Gandhi, and Mother Teresa combined. There is only one standard of justice in an equitable society: You do the crime, you do the time--regardless of your status in society. In large part, this is what the rule of law is about.

Any standard other than this leads to social madness. The intelligentsia of society, the talented elite, must not be given moral freedoms beyond what ordinary people have; this would establish a two-tiered system of morality that is morally intolerable. We have enough problems with inequity in society on the basis of income, gender, social status, race and ethnicity, religion, and so forth; we should be eliminating such inequity, not encouraging it.

I have a right to talk about the rights of the intelligentsia. I'm one of them.

Folks, I'll tell you something that I wouldn't ordinarily reveal. I have a measured IQ in excess of 150; yes, by some measures, I am a certified genius. I am an elected Fellow of the American Psychological Association, and have received awards from three Divisions of that august learned society. Despite these distinctions, despite the certified strength of my intellect, I consider myself to be under the same legal and moral strictures as anyone else.

It must be that way, for a just and equitable society to survive. Indeed, it can and should be argued that I--and Mr. Polanski--have a responsibility to work harder than others for the advancement of a moral and just society, that we have a responsibility to provide a better example of moral behavior. Where much is given, much is expected. (I have made this argument elsewhere, and doubtless shall again.)

Yes, of course, there are different versions of morality in different cultures. However, no reputable form of morality allows a man in his forties to have sex with a child.

If we followed the logic of the French ministers, then we would have to allow someone more brilliant or talented than Mr. Polanski the right to cause him harm. Let's have the brilliant physicist, Stephen Hawking, maim Mr. Polanski--oh, can't do anything about that; Mr. Hawking is just so very brilliant, you see. (Of course, I strongly suspect that Stephen Hawking would be the very first to deny that he has any special rights because of his stupendous intellect, astonishing as it is.)

"This man has already suffered so much in his life."

No one disputes that Roman Polanski has suffered a good deal. His mother died at the Auschitz concentration camp during the Holocaust. His second wife was murdered along with their unborn child, as I mentioned above. This is terrible; this is more than one would wish on one's worst enemy; I deeply sympathize with Mr. Polanski for his unbearable losses.

And none of that means a thing.

One does not earn 'suffering points' that allow one to commit crimes. In that direction, too, madness lies in wait.

Shall we establish a hierarchy of suffering, then? Perhaps someone who was tortured or maimed in some incident of ethnic cleansing, someone who lost their entire family, should be permitted to run roughshod over Mr. Polanski. Wouldn't that make sense, by the pretzel logic used by the French cabinet ministers?

"The victim herself calls for Polanski to be released."

Here I must tread delicately. Mr. Polanski's victim, Ms. Samantha Geimer, has suffered a great deal, no doubt, because of this case and its publicity.

All that being said, I must point out that Ms. Geimer's opinion on this issue means nothing at all.

Mr. Polaski's crime was not just a crime against Ms. Geimer. It was a crime against society, which is why it was prosecuted as a criminal matter, not a civil one.

Let me put it this way. There will always be 13-year-old girls, and there will always be 40-something-year-old Hollywood stars of one sort or another. What kind of message are we sending out if we just let Roman Polanski walk? What kind of behavior are we rewarding?

On the other hand, if we do not let Roman Polanski walk, perhaps it will give some Hollywood stars some pause before they sexually exploit some minor, in the future.

When it comes to forming society, it's largely about what you reward. My suggestion is that we do not reward either sexual exploitation of minors, or skipping out on the United States justice system.

I am sorry that Ms. Geimer will be discomfitted by the publicity involved in this case. On the other hand, Ms. Geimer is in her forties. There are minor children to be protected here, and their concerns take priority.

Conclusion

None of the grounds advanced in favor of dropping Roman Polanski's extradition have any logical or moral bearing on the matter. To the contrary, extraditing him is a statement in favor of an equitable society, the rule of law, and the safety of sexually exploitable minor children. I appeal to the Swiss authorities to hasten his extradition. And I appeal to the French governmental ministers, and Ms. Geimer, to rethink their position, for the good of society and the safety of children.

Roman Polanski, and his supporters in the French government, are most definitely not On the Mark.

[The image of Roman Polanski at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival is from a photo by Rita Molnar. Obtained through Wikimedia Commons, the image appears here under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 license.]

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A Shout Out for Help to My Audience


As the video I have just uploaded to YouTube notes, I could use some help in finding a literary agent and someone connected with cable TV. Any information forwarded to me would be greatly appreciated.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Beliefnet Article: "New Dan Brown Novel Means Extra Scrutiny for Masons"

Over the next two weeks, you may be assured that you will hear more and more about the forthcoming Dan Brown novel, The Lost Symbol, which will be published on September 15. As author Dan Burstein notes on his new blog, Matt Lauer of the Today show will be reporting on the novel from sites around Washington, DC, from September 8 to 15.

I was recently quoted in a BeliefnetNews article regarding the impact that the Brown novel will have on public perceptions of Freemasonry; you may read the article here.

I won't let The Lost Symbol take over this blog; I have another blog for that particularly obsession. However, the publication of a new Dan Brown novel is legitimately something of a cultural event, worthy of comment in a blog of social commentary. Thus, from time to time I may have something to say about Dan Brown, his novel, and what relevance this has for spirituality in our day.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ted Kennedy: A Lesson From the Presidency That Could Have Been



As I write these words, the world has just learned that Senator Ted Kennedy has died. Whatever one thinks of the late Senator's politics, all will agree that he was a major figure in American politics over the last half-century, and that his passing is a moment to show respect for a great public servant.

I'll go along with all of that. As it happens, I agree with much of Senator Kennedy's politics, so his passing means that much more to me. However, I bring up his passing here for another reason, a reason that is every bit as much personally relevant to you, the reader, as it is to me.

We'll read a lot over the next few days about the great Senator that Ted Kennedy was. However, we should also consider the great President that he might have been. Kennedy's Presidency­-that-wasn­'t, and the personal choices that derailed that Presidency, carry an important lesson for each of us.

I was a very young man in the summer of 1969. It was an almost surreal summer, with its constellation of watershed events of cultural and even cosmic significance, all of which I followed eagerly as I read the Rocky Mountain News and watched Walter Cronkite on television while visiting with my uncle's family in Denver. This was the summer of the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon, the summer of the Charles Manson murder spree, the summer of Woodstock--and the summer of Chappaquiddick.

The broad details of the Chappaquiddick incident are well known. Senator (yes, even then, Senator) Kennedy was attending a reunion party for some of the female workers on his late brother's presidential campaign. (Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated over a year earlier, during this campaign.) Other men were in attendance at the party as well. As Kennedy later reported it, shortly before midnight, one of the women, Mary Jo Kopechne, asked him to drive her back to her hotel. On the way, Kennedy drove off a bridge; he escaped the car, while she did not. Kennedy did not report the incident until Ms. Kopechne's body was discovered, late the next morning.

There have been unanswered questions for many years about many aspects of this incident--but this is not the place to go into them. I would rather dwell on another aspect of this tragic incident. In doing this, I mean no slight to Ms. Kopechne or her memory. However, there are other issues to consider here, issues usually ignored.

Most commentators agree that the incident at Chappaquiddick ended Ted Kennedy's presidential ambitions. At the very least, Kennedy made a monumental error in judgment in not contacting the authorities immediately after he drove off the bridge into the water.

But what if he hadn't?

What if he had known better than to even put himself, a 37-year-old married man, in a car alone, late at night, with a 29-year-old single woman?

Beyond that, what if he'd reported the accident immediately--thereby possibly saving Ms. Kopechne's life, and definitely showing his willingness to risk his reputation to try to do so?

We just might have had a President Ted Kennedy in 1972, instead of the second presidential term of Richard Nixon. A Kennedy presidency at this time might have ended the Vietnam War years sooner, saving hundreds or thousands of American lives. A President Ted Kennedy might have given us an enlightened energy policy back in the Seventies, when the oil embargo of 1973 demonstrated conclusively the dangers of America depending on foreign-supplied fossil fuels.

Perhaps even more intriguing, we might have elected a President Ted Kennedy in 1980. (In real life, Ted Kennedy lost the Democratic nomination to Jimmy Carter in 1980.) We might have avoided the Reagan years and the first Bush Presidency altogether, along with the legacy of those years: the disastrous consequences for education, the environment, civil rights, foreign policy, the rule of law, and the national deficit (remember 'Star Wars'? and I don't mean the movie).

But we didn't get that. Instead, a few seemingly minor personal choices affected the course of American history, and arguably the history of the world.

The poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote that
For of all sad words of tongue or pen
The saddest are these:
"It might have been."

And so it is. Both the Rocky Mountain News and Walter Cronkite have passed into history, and now so has Senator Ted Kennedy. We shall never know what a Ted Kennedy Presidency would have accomplished. However, we can know this:
At some time, each of us will face what I will forever after call "Kennedy's choice": a seemingly minor personal choice where a lapse of good judgment can have far-reaching consequences, consequences that can change one's life--maybe many lives.

What if everyone behaved as if their choices could affect history? Sure, we might have some interesting stories disappear from our lives. However, overall, we would avoid oceans of heartbreak and missed opportunity. Beyond that, our power to contribute to our own success, to the prosperity and well-being of our communities, even to our nation and world, would be vastly increased.

We need to have the perspective that our lives are not our own. Some in the world would have us believe that our life is nothing but an opportunity for personal pleasure, personal enjoyment. We need a higher perspective here. I would submit to you that each of us has received our life in stewardship, an opportunity to do the most possible to improve the world in which we are placed. From this perspective, we just don't do things that could impede our ability to be useful, to ourselves, to our families, to our communities, to our world, to all the people who do or could depend on us--now or some day--to help them, even if that help is just to give them a good example.

So that's the lesson that I propose we consider taking within ourselves on this sad day. Do the right thing. Act with integrity, in things large and small. Act in private with the same values we would have if our behavior were broadcast to the Jumbotron in Times Square. Be the same person when we are alone that we are in public. Avoid even the appearance of impropriety. It's about integrity; it's about character.

I will miss Senator Kennedy. I mourn his passing; I admire him for the kind of man he ultimately became. But I cannot help but be haunted by what might have been. That's a lesson I want to apply to my own life for a long, long time.

The post is an elaboration of a comment that I made on The Huffington Post today. Read the Article at HuffingtonPost.

[The image of the late Senator Kennedy is in the public domain, and was obtained from Wikipedia.]

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Annals of Well-Used Lives, I: Michelle Kwan Chooses Grad School Over Olympics

Michelle Kwan, nine times U. S. Figure Skating champion, twice an Olympic medalist (silver and bronze), announced on Friday, July 31, that she was passing on preparing this fall for the Winter Olympics, and instead would enter graduate school. (Read about it here and here.) Nancy Armour's article for the Associated Press quoted Kwan as stating the following:

Skating will always be a part of me .... But in the bigger picture of my life, I have always wanted to find a career that will allow me to make a positive contribution and difference in the world.

Kwan begins a masters degree in international affairs at Tufts University in the Fall. For the last three years, she has served as a U.S. public diplomacy envoy on the behalf of the State Department, and this experience seems to have encouraged her to move in this direction.

Yes, I know that the cynics out there will say that Kwan, who has suffered injuries in recent years and is now 29 years old, might have looked at her Olympic chances and considered them a long shot anyway. I prefer to take her at her word. Either way, though, let's give some thought to this act and its meaning, not for Kwan, but for America.

As a society, American culture is obsessed with professional sports (and, make no mistake about it, the Olympics are essentially professional sports under certain restrictions). To judge from the media, it has occured to very few people to point out that very little of any lasting value has resulted from the world of professional sports.

Oh, sure, the people who participate in professional sports can become fabulously wealthy, and some of those who've done so have done good and charitable things with their wealth--more power to them. However, truth be told, Americans aren't remotely as concerned with sports figures' charitable activities as they are with their athletic performance.

And we so love to watch those performances, don't we?

Whether it's the weekly ball games, or national or world competitions, or the weeks of Olympic competition, we love to watch those performances. We identify with the athletes; their victories are our victories, their pain our own.

But what difference does any of this make, at all?

Is one sick child made well by a goal or a block? Is our community any closer to fixing poverty because someone did the breaststroke in record time? Does even the most breathtaking, run-up-the-wall-and-jump catch, deep in the outfield, do a thing to better education or literacy, anywhere in the world?

Of course not. It's not supposed to. It's essentially entertainment for the spectators, and a massive paycheck plus the achievement of a personal goal for the athlete. And that's it.

Few have been better at their sport than Michelle Kwan is at hers. But now she wants her life to make a difference. Implicitly, she is stating that her athletic pursuits really were not making a difference in the world. And they weren't!

The spotlight will be off Michelle Kwan now. Nobody gives endorsement money for international relations. There's no standing on the podium while they play your national anthem and give you a medal, no matter how well you handle a diplomatic crisis. There's no stadium watching as you try to achieve peace and prosperity in a troubled world.

But somewhere, inside, I think she'll experience the satisfaction that comes of knowing that you've tried to leave the world a better place than when you found it. Years from now, when she is an accomplished diplomat with some achievements under her belt, I hope that she tours the schools of America and tells the story of how the athletic hero walked away from it all, to really make a difference. Directing your life to a greater purpose: it's a lesson that a lot of children need to hear.

A lot of adults, too.

Michelle Kwan's choice to make a difference is definitely On the Mark.


[The image of Michelle Kwan performing her signature spiral at a practice session of the 2002 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Los Angeles was taken on January 8, 2002 by Kevin Rushforth, who has made it available for use here through the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License. The image was obtained through Wikipedia.]

Sunday, May 17, 2009

President Obama's Notre Dame Commencement Speech


President Obama's Notre Dame commencement speech represents a watershed moment in American politics, an extraordinary contribution to the greatest challenge that America faces at this moment in history.
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At one level, we face challenges involving the economy, environment, matters of war and peace, and health. But at a higher level, our nation has long faced a greater problem: the challenge of dealing with difference, whether in terms of race, ethnicity, economic class, religion, politics, even worldview.
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I do not exaggerate when I say this is our greatest national problem. It is our lack of skill at dealing with difference that has impaired our ability to work in and with what is called 'the Muslim world.' Our lack of skill here, in part, resulted in an attack on my hometown--I live in Manhattan--resulting in thousands of fatalities. It is our lack of skill at dealing with differences that, I fear, targets my town and my country for terrorist activities, from suitcase nukes to bioweapons. It is our lack of skill in this area that makes the environment for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan so dangerous, in multiple ways.
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Even aside from the apocalyptic, our problems in dealing with difference contaminate our personal lives. I myself have been beaten bloody by people who took issue with me, either as a Puerto Rican, or a White man. I have been ridiculed for my religion (by some of those who agreed with my politics), as well as for my politics (by some thoughtless members of my church). We need a better way to deal with differences than many of us have been taught to use.
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For nearly thirty years, since the election of Ronald Reagan as U.S. president in 1980, American political and social discourse has increasingly invoked the rhetoric of division, the demonizing of one's opponents, the winner-take-all approach to politics. As our society has become more obviously multicultural, as America has become more diverse on every possible dimension, overall we have shown ourselves to be poorly equipped to deal with difference.
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In contrast, at Notre Dame, President Obama elaborated a vision of civility and fairness in dealing with differences of opinion. He called for people to hold fast to their faith and their values, yes, but he also called for them to show respect to those with different faiths and values, always holding the presumption that one's opponents are people of good will. Obama exhorted us all to appeal to reason, to universal and not parochial principles. One of his phrases will stay with me for a very long time: "Open hearts; open minds; fair-minded words."
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Although not delivered in the high style or dramatic setting of Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, President Obama's remarks may ultimately be seen as just as important in redefining American political and social life. Thank you, Notre Dame, for giving him this platform. Both President Obama and Notre Dame are most definitely On The Mark.
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I posted an earlier version of this in response to a news article at The Huffington Post (THP). I invite you to visit my profile at THP, see my other comments that are indexed there, comment on them--even become an official "fan" of my writing at THP, if you like. (And, if any reader of this blog is the person identified as "viewfromuphere," who became my first 'fan' at THP: Thank you for your support.)

Friday, May 15, 2009

On Angels and Demons and the Illuminati

With today's nationwide release of the movie version of Dan Brown's book, Angels and Demons, many people will be exposed to Brown's fictional version of those boogeymen of the conspiracy community, the Illuminati (cue creepy trumpet music: DAH Dah dah dahhhhhhh). Here, then, is a brief guide to help you discern Illuminati fact from fiction.


Two warnings: (1) I base my comments on Brown's depiction of the Illuminati in the book version; the movie may deviate from the book. (2) Although I do not reveal any plot twists, by necessity I will convey information about the Illuminati that appears in Brown's novel.

The Illuminati Really Existed

There have been several movements throughout history whose adherents were known by the name (translated into English) of "Illuminated Ones," or (in its Latin version) Illuminati. The movement to which Dan Brown is referring is the Bavarian Illuminati, founded on May 1, 1776, by Adam Weishaupt, a Jesuit-educated but anticlerical university professor who taught at the University of Ingolstadt, in upper Bavaria (the southeastern part of what is now Germany). The Bavarian Illuminati (hereafter just Illuminati, for short) were a revolutionary group that proposed to overthrow the absolute powers of the day, the Church and the Monarchy. Their plan was to replace these with a reverence for Reason, and a sort of primitive Democracy.

For the most part, the Illuminati were high on revolutionary talk, and low on action. However, what they were talking about was truly revolutionary. Had the Illuminist agenda been carried out, it would have meant a thoroughgoing reorganization of society.

Weishaupt and his associates designed a series of initiatory ceremonies, or "degrees" of initiation, by which they brought people into what was truly meant to be a secret society in the proper sense: that is, a society whose very existence was supposed to be a secret from the surrounding greater society and culture. Under Weishaupt's leadership, agents of the Illuminati infiltrated several Masonic lodges in Europe, and subverted these lodges to serve as fronts for Illuminati activities. However, Weishaupt's plans were discovered by government authorities, and several European states worked to crush the Illuminati and the revolutionary activities of its members. Within about ten years of its founding, for all practical purposes, the Illuminati were no more. Reportedly, Weishaupt himself died reconciled to the Church he had once spurned.

Until my own book on the subject is published--and, I am actively seeking representation and interested publishers!--probably the best general reference on the Illuminati, in my opinion, is the portion on the Illuminati (chapter 11) in Christopher Hodapp and Alice Von Kannon's book, Conspiracy Theories & Secret Societies for Dummies. (Yes, this is a "Dummies" book--and a pretty good one, too.) Some material from this chapter is available on the May 1, 2009 post of these authors' blog devoted to this topic.

However, the Illuminati have had a much livelier existence after their suppression, as they have formed the core of Western conspiracy theories and conspiracy-themed fiction for over two centuries (a topic explored in detail in my book). However, the Illuminati of conspiracy theory and fiction differ in major ways from the real Illuminati of history. Below, I describe some of the ways that Dan Brown's Illuminati, as depicted in Angels and Demons, differs from the Illuminati of history.

The Real Illuminati Were Not A Conspiracy of Italian Renaissance Artists and Scientists

In Angels and Demons (hereafter A&D), the Illuminati were a group that existed back in the time of Galileo, whose writings give important clues to Robert Langdon, the hero of Brown's novel (played by Tom Hanks in the movie). This is nonsense.

The real Illuminati were founded in 1776 in Bavaria. Galileo died in 1642, a full century and a half earlier. Basically, Galileo was as far from the days of the Illuminati as we are from the era of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. This is not a small discrepancy.

So, why did Dan Brown position the Illuminati in the time and place that he did? Consider this:

  • As one can tell from both A&D and its sequel, The Da Vinci Code, Brown is interested in questions of religion and faith as these intersect with the historical positions of the Roman Catholic church. In addition, as we can see from these two books, he (and his wife Blythe Newlon) have a great love of Renaissance art. To address all of this, it makes a great deal more sense to write a story involving Rome and the Vatican, the artwork commissioned by the Renaissance-era Catholic Church, and so forth. Where else could he place such a story, but Rome? Ingolstadt? I don't think so.

  • As appears to be the case based on his court testimony a couple of years ago, Dan Brown reads widely, but not necessarily with a discriminating eye. My suspicion is that Brown has dipped into the conspiracy literature more than once for inspiration. In turn, the conspiracy community has latched onto the Illuminati as the ur-conspiracy, the Mother Ship of Western conspiracies, for a long time. Some writers have connected it to revolutionary movements occurring after the Illuminati's demise (such as the French Revolution, and the rise of Communism in Russia). However, other conspiracy writers (like Jim Marrs and David Icke) have connected the Illuminati to groups and movements that date to much earlier times, even centuries and millennia earlier. From that perspective, pulling Galileo into the Illuminati isn't much of a stretch.

The Illuminati Were Not A Conspiracy of Scientists At All

Brown's Illuminati are devoted to destroying the seat of Catholic governance through the use of extremely high-tech (even science fictional) means, as a way to usher in an age of science. This is a heavy distortion of the position of the historical Illuminati, who were not men or women of science. (I say "or women" because the historical Illuminati enrolled both genders.) The real Illuminati organization was devoted to making Reason, not Faith, the guiding principle of government and life, but that Reason was really a philosophical principal. (After all, 1776 fell well within the range of the period called the Enlightenment, right?) Reason was promoted as the principle to follow in the political process, rather than either religious faith or the supposedly divine right of kings. Thus, the Illuminati appealed to some figures in the arts, such as Goethe, and to liberally minded members of the European aristocracy. Scientists, however, barely figured into the historical Illuminati at all.

So why does Brown make his Illuminati into a conspiracy devoted to the ascendancy of science? The Illuminati, as a mythic icon, is a sort of Rorschach card into which each age reads its anxieties. To the clergy of the early American Republic in the late 18th and early 19th century, uncomfortable with their lesser power in a country with no established national church, the Illuminati were wild-eyed rationalists behind the anticlerical French Revolution. To our day, when issues of the relationship of science and religion are in the headlines, the Illuminati are anticlerical scientists. Brown is just reflecting the social anxieties of early 21st century America.

American Freemasons Were Never Involved With the Illuminati

One of the annoying claims in A&D is that the world's oldest fraternal organization, Freemasonry, is actually a front for the Illuminati. This is a staple of conspiracy literature, of course, and a full-blown refutation would take a great deal of space.

Let me put it this way. I am a Freemason: a Master Mason in the Blue Lodge, literally a man who has received "the Third Degree." In addition, I am a 32nd-degree Master of the Royal Secret in the Scottish Rite, and a Knight Templar in the York Rite (the Rites being appendant organizations that only accept Master Masons). I know several 33rd-degree members of the Scottish Rite, including some of the best-informed scholars in American Freemasonry. I have never detected even a whiff of a clue that Freemasonry is controlled by some secret "inner" organization.

The historical Illuminati did infiltrate several--probably dozens--of lodges in Continental Europe. They seem never to have had influence in English Freemasonry, where Grand Lodge Freemasonry began, let alone in the United States. Thus, what Dan Brown has to say on the subject is simply nonsense.

Then again, that's just what you would expect me to say . . . .

Enjoy the movie, as the work of fiction that it is.


[The image above, showing the cover of the book version of Angels and Demons, was obtained from Wikipedia. The copyright to this image is most likely owned by either the book publisher or the artist(s) who created the book cover. Wikipedia states that the use of this low-resolution image to illustrate an article dealing with the book is fair use under U.S. copyright law.]

Friday, May 8, 2009

Are "Young Americans Losing Their Religion" ?

Over the last couple of weeks, there have been several news reports (such as one by ABC News) regarding the Pew Center study on religion, supposedly showing that "young people are losing their religion," on the basis of the fact that the number of people in America who report "None" as their religious affiliation has grown precipitously over the last few years. However, the Pew study has been widely misunderstood. A proper understanding of this study reveals a lot about American religion over the last century, and points out an important opportunity for American organized religious groups.

What the Pew Study Really Means

What the Pew study really shows is that the number of people who have no affiliation to organized religious groups (churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, meetings, circles, etc.) has grown a great deal over the last few years. However, these young people are not "losing" their religion, so much as they are showing that they never had a serious or deep affiliation to a religious group from the get-go.

This should be no surprise. For years, many organized religions in America failed to engage their members in meaningful religious education beyond adolescence. That's a problem: personal faith that is 'frozen' in development at adolescence often cannot cope with the demands of adult life. This leaves family tradition, community ties, and habit as forces that kept many people tied to the religious groups in which they were raised.

However, the influence of tradition and community waned in America, as people began to move around the country a great deal more after World War II. Some people kept a nominal religious affiliation, but did not seriously involve their own children in any particular religious group. Now their descendants have no real ties to any religious organization.

However, every situation creates opportunities.

The Opportunity for Outreach

This presents a great opportunity for religious groups to make significant outreach efforts to those who define their religion as "none of the above," the so-called "religious 'nones' " (as they are referred to in the academic fields of the sociology and psychology of religion). At best, this would mean offering spiritual education to help people face life's issues on a mature spiritual level--more mature than what adolescents usually learn in classes to prepare for Christian Confirmation, Jewish Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and so forth. But will the religious groups of America make these efforts? Only time will tell. However, my sense of the situation is that those groups that do will grow and have a greater voice in shaping our society, while those who do not will fade.

So what do you do with all this? If you happen to be involved in a religious group, I would suggest two things. If you do not happen to be involved in a religious group, I have a different suggestion.

What Those With a Religious Affiliation Might Do

A fair number of the people who read this blog are members of religious organizations. (I know that this blog passes before the eyes of Catholics, Protestants, Latter-day Saints ["Mormons"], Jews of various inclinations, Muslims, members of the Society of Friends ["Quakers"], Wiccans, Gnostics, and Buddhists; I'm sure there are other groups represented as well in this blog's readership. Of course, many readers are honorable "nones.") Most of my readers who are affiliated with a group seem to be of what I would call the 'kinder' variety--less likely to burn people who differ at the stake, more likely to engage in dialogue for mutual understanding--and this variety of religion and spirituality, within any group, is something the world needs more of.

However, kinder is not necessarily better informed. I remember being shocked some years ago at the serious lack of religious and spiritual knowledge held by the students I taught at the University of Central Florida (where I taught the psychology of religion, among other courses). My impressions were confirmed by the grim findings reported in Stephen Prothero's excellent 2007 book, Religious Literacy. (For example: a significant number of American's actually believe that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. You can't make this stuff up.)

So, my first suggestion is really two-fold: (a) If your religious group offers spiritual education at the adult level--offering you a grounding in the teachings of your faith, and an adult level understanding of it--then participate in it; (b) however, if it does not, then help to institute such a spiritual education program within your congregation. Every spiritual tradition I know of has literature that can be used to create such programs. It can be done. If organized religion is to have a productive role in promoting individual and societal growth in 21st century America, it must be done.

My second suggestion: Expose your children in a serious way to your tradition. I mean the teachings, the ritual, the celebration, and discussions of spiritual issues in the home. I know that, in many cases, I am "preaching to the choir" (or coven) here, but it is still worth saying.

What Those With No Religious Affiliation Might Do

Now, to my friends the honorable "nones": Allow me, please, to invite you to an investigation of organized religious traditions. There are many good resources in this area; Huston Smith's The World's Religions is a good overview of the heart of several traditions. (This is a great book. However, it is an overview. Within every tradition he describes, there are many organized groups, and he often does not speak at the "specific group" level; for example, he says little or nothing about my people, the Latter-day Saints. He also is weak regarding neo-paganism; for which, see Margot Adler, Drawing Down the Moon. So, Smith is a place to start one's study, not the endpoint.)

There is a power that comes of being grounded within a lineage of teaching, a 'tradition.' Much wisdom has accumulated over the course of centuries within organized religious traditions. In my opinion, it is worth exposing oneself to these, to see what resonates with one's soul. Good fortune to you in your journey.
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I posted an earlier version of this in response to an on-line article at The Huffington Post (THP). I invite you to visit my profile at THP, see my other comments that are indexed there, comment on them--even become an official "fan" of my writing on THP, if you like.
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The picture, of the ruins of St. Bridget's Kirk, was taken in 2006 by Simon Johnston, who owns the copyright. The picture is made available under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 License.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

What Star Trek Meant the First Time Around

With J. J. Abrams bringing his reboot of the Star Trek franchise to the movies on Friday nationwide, I and other fans in their fifties and beyond find ourselves reminiscing about what the original Star Trek television series meant to us in the late 1960s.

We Would Have a Future

First of all, Star Trek told us that we would have a future. This was a shaky proposition at the time. The principal of my parochial elementary school interrupted my first-grade classes one day in October 1962, as the Cuban missile crisis broke into the news, to tell us that we were dangerously close to war with the Soviet Union--and to lead us all in prayer. We held drills in school for years, climbing under our desks to prepare for nuclear attack. However, with our school less than three miles from the Empire State Building--likely ground zero in any attack on New York City--we knew that, in a nuclear war, we would all be vaporized before the plaster loosened from the classroom ceiling by a bomb blast even reached our desk tops. We wondered whether we would make it alive to high school, let alone adulthood.

In the midst of all this atomic anxiety, Star Trek gave us the mythology of a future, the assurance that humanity would not immolate itself in a nuclear orgy of destruction, but rather would survive to encounter marvelous wonders and do great things: we would go to the very stars themselves.

Somehow that all translated into the idea that we, the fifth graders who watched the debut of the series on September 8, 1966, would survive--not a totally logical inference, but it worked for us. Oh, and about logic ....

Math and Science Are Cool

Second, Star Trek taught us that science and math were cool. This was certainly not anything that we learned on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where the adults with the most secure jobs worked either for the City or the Mob. (No, I'm not going there.) Science and math, beyond what was necessary to make change, or calculate the odds on the ponies, seemed irrelevant in our parents' world.

Spock however, made science cool: he had the scientific answers to the seemingly impossible challenges that the crew faced weekly. Scotty, with his lightning-quick mental calculations of what the engines could do, and how long the Starship Enterprise could endure before the stresses of that night's adventure tore her to pieces--Scotty made math cool.

Sure, the science in Star Trek was largely made up, but a fair amount of it was based in reality, however tenuously. We heard about light speed, antimatter, genetic mutations, neurosurgery, artificial intelligence, and computers--all real scientific and technological concepts, even in 1966.

Star Trek got some of us to thinking that perhaps we could do something in science and math. As I grew up, my interests shifted towards social science, but I started out as a grade-school physicist and astronaut-wannabe, who was never scared by math--and I have Star Trek to thank for that, at least in part.

(In passing, I think that Star Trek really has exerted some influence on scientific and technological progress, by provoking questioning and thinking about even the seemingly wildest of its conjectures. For example, according to a recent article at Space.com, some scientists are working on the theoretical underpinnings of a faster-than-light propulsion system.)

A Future of Racial and Ethnic Equality

Third, Star Trek gave us hope that the time would come when ethnic and racial differences would mean nothing. This was certainly not the world that I inhabited. As a Polish-Puerto Rican biethnic child on the Lower East Side during the Sixties, I was beaten up now and again by bigger kids for whom someone like me was simply a biological and moral abomination.

Racial division broke out in open conflict in the larger world, as well. During the summer between second and third grades, we watched TV reports of the July 1964 Harlem riot. In subsequent years during our elementary school career, we watched TV reports of riots in Watts (August 1965), and Newark, NJ and Detroit (July 1967). As sixth graders, we witnessed the nation convulse in rioting during the spring of 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in April. A month earlier, a U.S. presidential commission issued the Kerner report, famous for stating that "our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white--separate and unequal."

But not on Star Trek. Look at that bridge crew! Sure, Captain Kirk was your standard White North American leading man-type, such as viewers would see on most TV programs of that era. However, Uhura the communications officer was African, Sulu the helmsman and tactical officer was East Asian, Chekov the navigator was Russian, Scotty the chief engineer was Scottish, and Spock the science officer wasn't even entirely human. One of the most important scientists in the Federation was an African American, Dr. Richard Daystrom, reputedly the Einstein of the 23rd century, maven of artificial intelligence. Several Starfleet officers and enlisted personnel had Hispanic names, such as Commodore Jose Mendez. Characters of multiple heritages were not uncommon on the series, the most notable being Spock himself, half-Human, half-Vulcan.

And, for the most part, the different ethnic groups and races got along, at least within the Federation. Oh, sure, there were skirmishes and even open warfare now and again between the multicultural United Federation of Planets, the Romulan Star Empire, and the Klingons, but these conflicts were primarily drawn along astro-political lines, rather than along racial or ethnic differences. Where there was racial conflict, the series bluntly condemned it. (Best example: the episode where Commander Bele--refrigerator white on the left side of his body, but coal black on the right--hunted down Lokai, who had the opposite coloring. After a long pursuit, they discover that racial hatred had utterly destroyed all life on their home planet.)

I do not know where the Star Trek franchise will go from here. I do hope, though, that in our world--where ethnic hatreds kill thousands annually, where religious conflicts threaten global peace, where American children lag behind other nations in their understanding of science and technology, even as environmental catastrophe looms--perhaps something like the original Star Trek series will help to inspire the youth of the 21st century, with new tales of possible futures. That would truly be On The Mark.

Mark Koltko-Rivera is the Director for Research at Professional Services Group, Inc., where he has responsibility for the professional futurism practice.
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The picture, the official 40th anniversary logo for Star Trek, is Copyright 2007 by Paramount Pictures and CBS Studios Inc.; it is described on Wikipedia as being available for fair use.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Annals of Heroism, 1: A Way to Die, A Way to Live

Your correspondent is typically a pretty optimistic fellow, not a morbid sort. However, death is part of life, and the last nine months or so I've had death come to mind more than usual, what with the death of a parent, and now, of course, the swine flu outbreak in Mexico; even one of the family cats died. An incident mentioned in the news today reminded me that, although we have no choice but to die, we have a great deal of choice in the how of it all.

This video and this report from news organizations in Florida tell the story of 70-year-old Mr. Charles Schulze. Mr. Schulze noticed two boys, 9 and 12 years old, caught in the currents and about to drown, off Pompano Beach in Florida (pictured). According to the reports, Mr. Schulze dove in, and brought both the boys close enough in to shore for others to bring them the last bit to safety. Unfortunately, then he was at trouble in the currents himself. Although rescued, he was declared dead at the hospital.

There are lessons to be learned here.

First lesson: One needs to be prepared for the moment of trial, when it comes. My guess is that Mr. Schulze was in pretty good shape for 70 years old, to be able to swim out into the surf and save those two boys. When one sees the struggling swimmers out in the current, it's a little too late to start laying off the snack food, a little too late to start the exercise and swimming program. The trial comes when it comes; at that point, the time for preparation is past. However it is that one feels about matters of spirituality, surely the parable of the wise and foolish guests (Matthew 25: 1-13) has applicability across traditions.

Second lesson, probably the most important: Be a hero, to someone. As I have said before, our lives are not our own. Be oriented to helping people.

This so flies in the face of the prevailing ethics of the modern world: 'Look out for Number 1,' 'Make your pile,' 'Take the money and run,' 'Every man for himself.' That Mr. Schulze is being called a hero is unimportant; unfortunately, soon enough that will be forgotten. However, even the very last hour of his life had meaning and purpose that transcended the accomplishments of all the media Idols that shall ever be, all the bonuses that the so-called Masters of the Universe in the financial world have been pouting and shouting about.

I am reminded of the statement in the Talmud, the accumulated written wisdom of the rabbis of about twenty centuries ago: "whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world." Everything good that these two boys could ever do for the rest of their lives, every descendant they could ever have, at that moment hung by a thread over the Abyss--and then Mr. Schulze saved their lives.

Third lesson: Don't be afraid to die doing good. The point of life is not to live forever--at least, not as the kind of beings we are now. Whether your beliefs point in the direction of the Hindu Atman; the traditional Jewish, Christian, or Islamic heaven; the Buddhist Nirvana or Pure Land; the Wiccan Summerlands; the LDS notion of Eternal Life; many other traditions besides--whatever spiritual tradition claims your attention, the point of life is to improve oneself, even to perfect oneself, through service to others. There may be much else besides, but every tradition will claim at least this much, I think. It's not about getting the most toys, or playing the life game of Pig-in-Trough, as Robert de Ropp put it in that 1960s masterpiece, The Master Game. The point is to live one of the central paradoxes of human life: by becoming someone other than we started life as--the self-centered infant, of whatever age--we become who we really are meant to be. To die doing good: the perfect endgame in the Great Game. It is how I would want to go. I hope I have the preparation and the guts to follow through on that wish.

Fourth lesson: Don't be afraid to do good after you die, either. The fact of the matter is, we can all give someone life through our deaths. We might not all have a moment of final, dramatic heroism. But how about being a hero to someone through organ donation? (Let's face it, folks--you're not going to be using them any more.) Sure, it may make you squeamish--but it can give sight to the blind, air to those short of breath, life to those whose hearts are giving out.

Having a life that means something, even in one's death: That may be the most on-the-mark of all.


(The picture, by Friejose, is from the Wikimedia Commons, reproduced under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.)

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Annals of Innovation, I: The Football Lineman and the Solar City

As I mentioned in an earlier post, humanity faces quite an array of problems, ranging from global warming and terrorism to illiteracy and the threat of asteroids from space. It is a real joy to see someone doing something about one of these problems, in an innovative way. I am talking about the former football lineman and the solar city.

Time magazine reports on its website today, in an article by Michael Grunwald, that a former NFL lineman has made an innovative proposal for Babcock Ranch, a solar-powered city to be developed in southwest Florida (near Fort Myers, roughly halfway on a line between Miami and St. Petersburg). This would feature what would be the world's largest photovoltaic solar power plant.

After the OPEC oil embargo of 1973, when the volume went up on developing renewable energy sources, one argument against solar power was that 'the science isn't there yet.' It surely is now. The Florida solar power plant presumably would look and function something like the photovoltaic array at Nellis Air Force Base (Nevada), currently the largest solar photovoltaic power plant in North America (pictured above, from the Wikimedia Commons). The Nellis array, when fully developed, will supply over one-quarter of the power used on this base, which is home to more air squadrons than any other U.S. Air Force base in the world, including four air wings attached to the United States Air Force Warfare Center. Somehow, solar power is good enough for one of hte largest and most important bases of the U.S. Air Force. It should be good enough for much of the rest of the United States.

This idea for a solar city in Florida--what Time is calling the Sunshine City in the Sunshine State--is the idea of Syd Kitson, who, after six years playing as an NFL lineman for the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys, turned many years ago to real estate development. As Kitson put it in Grunwald's article, "The time has come for something completely different."

Kitson's proposal for his solar city includes details that would make his development sustainable and self-contained, with a green orientation that is unprecedented for a community of its size. That would be a major change of orientation for Florida, where communities typically are not sustainable, do require a car to do anything, and do carry an enormous carbon footprint per person. (I lived in Florida for over eight years. Sorry, my friends and former neighbors. I'm not saying that New York City, where I live now, is any better, either.)

My point in describing all of this is two-fold. Sure, I am promoting green ideas. However, beyond that, I am promoting innovative thinking. Here's a guy who played pro football for years. However, when that career ended, his thinking and ambition did not. He was willing to think outside the box, and to apply his intelligence to addressing some of the significant problems that our society faces: how to design sustainable communities, with renewable power, so as not to make our current environmental crisis even worse.

May his tribe increase. And may we each follow this example: each of us, in our own way, applying our intelligence in innovative ways to address the problems of the world. Yes, we can. Yes, you can. An innovative orientation like Syd Kitson's is definitely On The Mark.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Nuclear Disarmament: Yes We Must

As an elementary school student during the 1960s, I and other students across America took part in drills to prepare us to survive a nuclear attack. We dutifully crawled under our desks, to shield us from falling plaster, I guess. Then, on the walk home, I stood at the corner of First Avenue and St. Marks Place in Manhattan, looking to the northeast at the Empire State Building--not even two and a half miles away. It was widely rumored that the Soviets had two 20-megaton hydrogen fusion bombs aimed there. My school desk would not provide much protection against a blast that would vaporize the entire city block on which my school stood. I was stunned to learn, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, that some American political leaders and think tank consultants, such as Herman Kahn, talked about 'winning' a nuclear war, and about 'acceptable' levels of American casualties during a nuclear conflict--casualties in the tens of millions, of which I would undoubtedly be one, along with everyone I knew.

For a total of eight months during 1978-1980, I lived in and near Hiroshima, Japan, where one of the first atomic bombs had been detonated, at the end of World War II. The Hiroshima atomic fission bomb, "Little Boy," was a weak little monster by today's standards, with 'only' a 13-kiloton yield, or the explosive equivalent of 13K tons, or 26 million pounds, of dynamite. (A 20-megaton hydrogen fusion weapon has the explosive equivalent of 20,000K tons, or 40 billion pounds, of dynamite--well over 1,000 times the power of "Little Boy.") Yet, the Hiroshima weapon immolated about 75,000 civilians instantly (with more dying later). At the museum in Hiroshima's Peace Park, I saw artifacts and photos illustrating blast effects. In this city divided by many rivers, photos of bridges showed the permanent "shadows" created by the brilliant blast, shadows left behind by morning commuters, as well as children who had been walking to school on those bridges at 8:15 on the morning of August 6, 1945, when the children and the commuters and everyone else were turned into piles of hot ash. (See photo above; note the outline of the shoes.)

(Yes, I know the received wisdom about the bombing being 'necessary to end the war.' I don't buy it; the historical facts show otherwise. See Howard Zinn's essay about this claim.)

The 1980s saw the publication of books like Carl Sagan's A Path Where No Man Thought: Nuclear Winter and the End of the Arms Race, and Jonathan Schell's The Fate of the Earth, which documented how even 'small-scale' nuclear war could bring about global nuclear winter, changing the climate of the planet for generations, ending human civilization. (See also Schell's The Abolition, and his 2007 book, The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger.)

In the 1990s, with the political disintegration of the Soviet Union, I wondered who was taking charge of Soviet nuclear arms. I learned that, for all practical purposes, no one was; nuclear materials were being protected on lonely bases by rusty locks and corruptible guards. Consequently, there is now a lively international black market in nuclear materials and technology.

Yesterday in Prague, President Obama made an observation that should have been obvious since the demise of the Soviet Union: "In a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up." He has called for a renewal of American and international efforts toward nuclear disarmament.

I am not a pacifist. However, I have come to understand that the mere existence of nuclear weapons presents a threat to the survival of the entire human race. They must be eliminated from the armories of the nations of the world, and they must be kept from the hands of stateless terrorist forces.

Some say disarmament cannot be accomplished at this late date. I say this is a problem of will, not practicality. We have satellite technology that can read newspaper headlines from space; surely we can find a way to monitor the world for nuclear weapons.

Some say disarmament is weakness. I say it shows the will to survive. We are not the stronger for holding weapons that can destroy humanity; we are only making it more probable that some extremist politician or military officer or terrorist will someday use them.

I do not wish my someday grandchildren to end up as shadows on a bridge. Let us end these weapons now, before they end all of our hopes and dreams. I urge you to contact your federal Senators and Representative to instruct them to follow the President's lead on this matter, including the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Nuclear disarmament is clearly On The Mark.

Reference

Helene Cooper and David E. Sanger. (2009, April 6). Citing rising risk, Obama seeks nuclear arms cuts: Warns of spread of bomb technology in black market. The New York Times [late edition], pp. A1, A8.

Acknowledgement

Thanks to Adam Harrison Levy for posting the Hiroshima bridge picture on the site of DesignObserver with his story, "Hiroshima: The Lost Photographs."