Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Young People Speaking Their Minds

There's something happening here, What it is ain't exactly clear. There's a man with a gun over there, Telling me I got to beware.
I think it's time we stop, children, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down.   Stephen Stills, 1966. 

Lie-In, February 19 

One of the most significant and unlikely political movements involving constitutional policy in  United States history may have started Valentine’s Day, 2018. That day a mentally unbalanced teenager caught an Uber ride to his former high school in Parkland , Florida, and with his legally acquired assault rifle rained fire and bloody death on 17 students and teachers, and left a dozen others with injuries.
It’s an old story, right? Another week, another mass shooting; another month, another school shooting. As news reports start coming in, the first question that comes to mind is “how many this time?” Then come the whys—why here? why now? why does this keep happening? why can’t we stop this? But the first question is the only question that ever seems to get answered, and that comes pretty quickly. Seventeen, fifty-nine, forty-nine, nine, thirty-two, fourteen, twenty-six, fourteen, twenty-six….

And then the whys just stop coming and are left unanswered after a few days, or a week—the time before forgetting them just depends on the numbers (only three?), or depends on the relative heinousness (children? church-goers?). The demands for changes to gun laws fade to silence as lawmakers assure us that it is too early, it is a time for healing, it is a time for deep thoughts and piteous prayer. Changes can be made when cooler heads prevail. Like….never.

Then February the 14th happened. The grim circumstance presented the same questions and the same silence... but not for long. Perhaps it began with two heartbroken students talking between themselves, maybe more; perhaps it got networked through Facebook or Snapchat or Instagram...but however it developed, it was soon viral. It seems for the first time a political movement has the potential of affecting some serious changes to laws dealing with firearms, and possibly even shaking the Second Amendment from its perception as being the most inviolable of all rights, which all but allows every individual to become one’s own personal military arsenal. At last, a group has seized on the opportunity created from horror, the same horror that has created so many missed opportunities before. And that group —the movers of the movement, the spirit that drives it—are the students themselves. Fourteen to eighteen year-olds, mainly. This is the most unlikely part of it, though on second thought, it shouldn’t necessarily be so. Most of them can’t even vote. But it is a matter of self defense, after all. What else can they do? There are no grown-ups in the room. It started with Parkland students speaking loudly and often this past weekend, and seems to be attracting young students in other parts of the country. Today a lie-in was held by students in the D. C. area near the White House. They are saying “these are our lives and dreams being shattered, and we will have something to say about it...if we can’t vote, we’ll be in the streets; and when we can vote, all of you NRA puppets will be out of here!”

Plans have been announced for a “massive rally against school and gun violence in Washington, D.C., on March 24, with smaller rallies and protests in cities around the U.S.,” reported NPR yesterday. Women’s March organizers have planned a nationwide walk out of schools to protest gun violence. This seems to be a cause created for humanists. NOSHANs have been active in making their views seen and heard at events during the last few years, including several members going to Baton Rouge to join with other groups in a counter-rally to then-Governor Jindal’s love fest and rally with the American Family Association on the LSU campus; participating in two Women’s Marches; joining in with the March for Science last Spring, and a curbside sign-waving rally on Clearview Parkway in objection to the Hobby Lobby corporation's decision to refuse including payment for contraceptives in their employees' insurance plan (which later became the landmark Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby case heard before the Supreme Court). If students of local schools plan a version of this march for our area, we belong with them; if they don’t, perhaps would should take it on ourselves to become a visual or vocal presence on this issue. It would be an opportunity to show our solidarity with our young citizens, our children and grandchildren; and, for once, it can be an opportunity not missed.

The Humanist Advocate--
report by Marty Bankson

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Looking at Identity from the Center

A Liberal Opinion from Mark Lilla

 “...the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’ oppression.” —from the Combahee River Collective Statement, 1977
"anything achieved through movement politics can be undone through institutional politics."—Mark Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal 

Once upon a time in recent history, someone altered the quotation  “All politics is local,” reportedly said by former Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives Tip O’Neill, to fit a blossoming cultural trend and controversial niche of higher educational study and curricula to “All politics is identity politics” (and its corollary “all politics is personal”), which has proven to be, at the very least, a fail proof title for bloggers and journalists under which to express their own two cents worth on the subject. A few examples can be seen here, there, and everywhere. One ambitious writer even tries stirring interest with its antithesis yonder.

Mark Lilla, author of last year’s much-discussed book The Once and Future Liberal (HarperCollins, 2017, Kindle Edition) is Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University and a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, and has written other books about political philosophy and history, including The Stillborn God, The Shipwrecked Mind, and The Reckless Mind. The oddly simplistic titles of the books, along with a lucid and straightforward writing style belie his  thorough understanding of the history of ideas of politics. In this book he takes a position that is usually associated with the thinking of both those farther left of liberalism and farther right at the same time, those which challenge the idea that identity politics is true politics in the first place; a paradox that I’ll try to illuminate later.

He sets up his premise looking at twentieth century U. S. history based on two different and opposing grand political themes—which he calls “dispensations,” borrowing from the theological term meaning, loosely, “ divine ordering of the world”—named for their association with the presidents that inspired them and became recognized as the guru of each. The Roosevelt dispensation began with the New Deal escape from the Great Depression and excesses of monopoly capitalists, and continued through the defeat of fascism, the civil rights movement—up to the Great Society days of Johnson. It “pictured an American where citizens were involved in a collective enterprise to guard one another against risk, hardship, and the denial of human rights.” and could be tagged with words like solidarity, opportunity,  and public duty. The Reagan Dispensation “pictured a more individualistic America, where families...and businesses would flourish once freed from the shackles of the state,” with watchwords like self-reliance and minimal government. The early 1970s is generally accepted as the time the transition began, culminating in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan. Lilla’s ultimate message is to emphasize party politics over movement and identity politics as the only successful way to achieve progress, but  that about this time,  democrats abdicated power to the Republican Party by not following this prescription. The New Left of the 1960s spawned  issue-based movements that helped bring about progressive change, writes Lilla, but did nothing to contribute to the unification of the Democratic Party and develop a liberal vision of America’s shared future.  Remnants of the New Left were left scattered following their attempt at a radical transformation of American society. Scattered, but not forgotten: many of the group, now with degrees, returned to campuses as instructors or activist hangers-on and “turned the university into a pseudo-political theater for the staging of operas and melodramas” which, “generated enormous controversy about tenured radicals, the culture wars, and political correctness.”  On the other side, however, Republicans were spreading out across the country through small towns, rural counties, and big cities participating in “real” politics by getting people elected to offices of magistrates to judges to governors, where the power for change really rests.

Enter Reaganism—the new vision of bootstrapping one’s way to success if only big government would get out of the way was presented in 3D and replayed through political campaigns and commercial media. The economic lull of stagflation after the post-war boom years and flattening  wages was blamed in whole or part on big government with its proliferation of welfare and social aid programs, byzantine bureaucracy, and appetite for war (even if was about Communism). The vision of the newly empowered individual speaking true to the power of the monolithic state swept Republicans into the driver’s seat in statehouses, federal offices, and the Presidency. And this is the paradox: another form of individualism was populating our campuses and writing policy in the Democratic playbook. That form being self-definition, construction of personal brands, self-regard, and training students to become “spelunkers of their personal identities. Reaganism for lefties, Lilla calls it. We now had two identitarian groups; one of wallet-watchers and the other of navel-gazers, neither concerned much about the concepts of reciprocal rights and duties, civic responsibility as a virtue, a common vision for the future, or the priority of citizenship over group or personal identity. (Sam Harris claims we deny the common rationality shared by humans.) The conservatives are correct in saying that liberals run academia, but fail to see that it works in their own favor, since collegiate identity politics has a fragmenting, anti-political quality built in, which  should affirm that the Republican has no need to feel threatened or challenged for power, at least from those quarters. The left identitarians create their own problem, with the backlash from white supremacists gaining a renewed feeling of empowerment—courtesy of the student body’s lead that it was now okay for everyone to get along with expressing their own identity.

Some reviewers of The Once and Future Liberal see it as more of a polemic than a scholarly social analysis, filled with over-simplifications, stereotypes, and buzzwords. Lilla himself admits to being “harsh” in his criticism of the phenomenon. But often it takes a rousing polemic to refresh interest in a topic that has tended toward the over-analyzed and  a sameness that triggers the glaze-over-zone-out effects in readers. The feedback from writers in the national media demonstrates the controversy his book has created. Lilla’s insistence on moving on from what is now a four decades-long move from the civic-minded citizen working with others to get through troubling times and plan for the better future into today’s hyper-individualistic, atomizing, de-politicizing, and self-absorbing libertarian ideology is probably a project those who identify as humanists could agree with as project worth pursuing. Whether they would agree that working through grassroots Democratic party politics to accomplish that is another question. After all, the accusation that both major party organizations, as servants to a larger neoliberal capitalist ethos are systemically corrupting in themselves cannot be ignored. That the ethos motivated by profits alone can, in the course of one television program, promote ideal of all people of various cultures and skin colors celebrating life while enjoying their soft drink in one commercial; and in the next, offer inexpensive DNA test kits to show you just how different you are from the  folks in the previous commercial shows where the vision of the current party politics is likely focused.
So is Lilla’s solution to the problem viable? Is the problem really a problem?  Whatever the correct answers are, it is a good bet they won’t be the coming from one person, one party, or one identity group alone.

~reported by Marty Bankson NOSHA Board Vice-President

Friday, January 5, 2018

We Got to Admit It's Getting Better...All the Time

Even though that wall calendar with photos of wide-angle landscapes or cuddly kittens is now out with the trash, I’ll bet some of you are still writing 2017 in your checkbook (if you still use checkbooks), or just find it hard to break the habit of the year just passed in some other insignificant way; so I’ll use that as a justification to look back one more time at that curious time that was 2017— through the lens of NOSHA activity. Though most versions of “Year in Review” (and its concomitant long list of notable deaths) appear in media platforms the week after Christmas, this is only a week behind schedule, so please indulge me and overlook the lame checkbook reasoning.

In Memoriam: The Winter Solstice celebration of the year before (2016) was probably the last time many of us saw Harry Greenberger. His wry smile belied the almost limitless generosity of his spirit. He was the élan vital of The New Orleans Secular Humanist Association as President. He had just recently resigned from the Board of Directors; and following a brief illness, died weeks before his 90th birthday. He is NOSHA’s notable.

So….Just In Case You Missed It —

The year began with a shared and uncharacteristically cheerless mood for most progressive and optimistic humanists following the election in November of the current occupants of the White House, so much so that no January program was scheduled, as if in mourning to the dream of a better world that could soon possibly turn into a nightmare…...   Several members attended the first-ever national Women’s March, on January 21st, coincidentally held the day after the inauguration…... In February, in lieu of a formal program centered around Darwin Day, and in keeping with the spirit of Mardi Gras, a dozen or two gathered at Monkey Hill Bar on Magazine Street to pay tribute with drinks and and birthday cakes to the Evolution Guy…..
Returning to Jefferson East Bank Regional Library in March, NOSHA members and guests were presented a screening of the film Bag It! and an address by  Max Ciolino, with the No Waste NOLA group, both the film and talk about the potential for environmental—and thus human—catastrophic poisoning from the accumulation of indestructible plastic containers, packaging, and grocery bags. New Orleans goes through 225 million plastic grocery bags a year (!) Where do they go?…...
To my knowledge, the first field trip in NOSHA’s 17-year history hit the highway to Livingston, La., the site of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO).

A description of this marvel of science and engineering is too long for this format, but some background about it  and our experience  can be read here. In short, no better way to experience Einstein’s prediction of the effects of the “warping” of space-time and how it can be measured…....

In May, Seth Andrews, the man behind The Thinking Atheist blog was our guest speaker and drew one of our largest audiences of the year. There is nothing quite like scheduling a “big name” atheist to pack them in. The previous year, David Silverman resulted in similar interest…...
The summer side of the solstice celebrations went off smoothly with the help and graciousness of Membership Coordinator Beth Deitch, once again offering her home as the venue. She cannot be thanked too many times…….
Marjorie Esman, the now-retired Executive Director of Louisiana’s American Civil Liberties Union, addressed the audience at the July monthly meeting, emphasizing some changes for the better that had been taking place within state and federal government laws through the ACLU’s diligent and legal involvement, such as bans on immigration on religious grounds, voter discrimination laws, reducing prison populations (and encouraging the establishment of programs to reduce recidivism), and sharing the good news that the theocratic lobby Louisiana Family Forum is losing its once very powerful influence in legislative and court battles…...
Williams and Bust of Volney, France
Thomas Christian Williams, probably the leading  historian on the works of the 18th Century French author Volney, and specifically, The Ruins of Empires, which is a “book of secular general principles,” most notably as the book that Thomas Jefferson began translating into English until a run for the presidency forced him to abandon the project. Williams’ presentation was proof that a lecture on the history and implications of a single book need not be dry or boring…... The subject matter of October’s meeting became deadly serious as Julie Hanway of The Final Exit Network came to town to tell us about her group’s dedication to and work for securing the right to die for the terminally ill and those suffering from chronic unbearable pain. The group was founded by some of the original members of the Hemlock Society (hemlock being the poison Socrates drank to emphasize his right to choose the time, place, and by whose hand he would die). This is a somber subject and occupation—but someone needs to do it ......
The third Saturday in November, NOSHA’s scheduled monthly meeting date, ended up on election day this year and we were forced to find an alternative meeting place since the Jefferson Parish library is also a designated polling place. The good folks at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Claiborne Avenue were kind enough to provide (for a nominal fee) their sanctuary for our “service,” which this month was an open discussion on atheism in general and as a movement (no irony here, right?), free speech and tolerance within the movement, and how our organization in particular could polish its public face with visitors and potential new members. Ms. Deitch did a professional job of moderating the discussion as she has done several times previously. Did I mention she was capable of hosting large parties as well?…...
But for the 2017 Solstice Celebration, Winter edition, Marshall Harris took over the reins as “official” host at his home on Bayou St. John.

Celebrating the Solstice
The gleaming white living area, all trimmed in red and strings of lights (similar the decorating theme of that
other holiday happening around this time of year) also served as a perfect setting and time for the presentation of the Harry Greenberger Humanist Award to Marjorie Esman, who was a lock to be the selection for this award as soon as she became able to except it. As the now-retired ACLU chief, she was no longer restricted from accepting gifts or awards from partisan groups, save possible accusations of conflicts of interests. Free of that, there has never been a more powerful group sharing NOSHA’s  concern of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment than Louisiana’s ACLU, and Ms. Esman continued that tradition as well or better than her predecessors in the role of Executive Director. We should be humbled by the fact that she took our award to be a true honor and compliment.
President Klasson (l.) Presenting the
 Greenberger Award to Esman

Behind the scenes of the public third-Saturday lectures, discussions, and parties are a couple of other projects that deserve a mention to appreciate the dedication of our members to getting out our message that one can be Good Without God. Some of our members took part in demonstrations having shared common interests with, and sponsored by, larger groups: The March for Science in April, the Chevron NO/AIDS Walk walk in October, and the Second Line for Equal Justice in November all drew at least a few NOSHAns.

Harris, Stage Right
Our own Marshall Harris served as the Master of Ceremonies for the No/AIDS Walk™ for the second straight year…...

Since taking over “The Humanist Perspective,” the television program aired on the access cable network NOA-TV, the team of Deitch, Dugan, and Klasson have, through scheduling interesting guests and with their unique interviewing styles, added a new a new twist to program. Dare I say a new perspective? A re-make of the introduction of the program is in the planning stages, so stay tuned. Archived programs can be seen on YouTube’s “New Orleans Humanists” channel…...
Our commitment to public service volunteer projects is undergoing a revitalization and evolution of the NOSHA Social Aid and Pleasure Club, by expanding the scope of activities with which we will try to involve ourselves, and adding the name NOSHA Service Corps. What started out as clean-up crew under the city’s Save Our Cemeteries organization five years ago, the effort  has grown to include usually two shifts at the Second Harvest Food Bank, and this year, tree-planting excursions to Port Manchac, La.

Now that the shock of the national political turmoil has faded for most of us, we should expect nothing but a better year. It’s here!

January 4, 2018

The Humanist Advocate

Marty Bankson

Monday, December 11, 2017

Defining Our Terms—and Ourselves

An event  that would not have been expected is one of several current definitions of irony. NOSHA’s November program—in a group discussion format— "Atheist Infighting: Is the Movement Falling Apart or Just Growing Up?” fit the definition perfectly when the monthly meeting at the Jefferson Parish East Bank Regional Library had to be moved because it was election day and the library also serves as a polling place. The First Unitarian Universalist Church on Claiborne Avenue became the most practical venue substitute, offering a flexibility of attendance size and affordability. Not that NOSHA has been averse to meeting in churches; it has done so before; but it’s likely the gods couldn’t have been more devilishly gleeful at the prospect of atheists discussing their own demise in a house of worship.

As is usual, however, group discussions raise more questions than are (or can be) answered. Membership Coordinator and moderator Beth Deitch was well-prepared to lead the discussion, and with a deep background on the current movement to keep the discussion moving and even offering a few suggestions—if not hard answers—of her own. A sampling of interesting questions that brought mention on the topic were:

  • Are we (speaking of NOSHA) an atheist group or a humanist group? This one seems easy: “Secular Humanist” is part of our group name. “Secular” implies non-theism.
  • What do we claim as our position and whom do we claim to be our spokespeople?
  • What, exactly, do we want? Political power? Community?
  • How much did social media contribute to opening up the atheist movement to racist, anti-feminist, and more generally, anti-social justice and reactionary political opinion. And its logical follow-up question:
  • Do we have to be accepting of all viewpoints? Does the ideal of freedom of speech require us to tolerate the intolerant?   

Some may question where the title subject for the program came from to begin with. New members and followers of our local group, and even old veterans might ask what all the fuss is about. Is there really “infighting” about atheism, and how can that even be? Is atheism really a ”movement,” or just a mindset or philosophical opinion about metaphysical questions, and is the movement no more than local organizations of like-minded folk? More than one person shared with me (and I’ll bet there are more than a few others) that she wasn’t up on all the current goings-on in the cybersphere or skeptic and atheist national conventions. So maybe a very brief history—as I can relate with my recently refreshed memory on it—about when and what the disagreements and bickering began, and, for some, how it has become a Manichean duel to the death.
Atheism has been around human culture as least as long as belief in gods, and its voices in literary and philosophical thought have waxed and waned since at least the classical Greek civilization. September 11, 2001, many have been the trigger for the most modern version, “New Atheism,” a term coined by Gary Wolf in 2006 after the publication of Sam Harris’ The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, mostly inspired by the 9/11 attack. It was the first of a group of books published by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, journalist Christopher Hitchens, philosopher Daniel Dennett about the foibles of true belief and religious thinking. This latest iteration was the first to benefit from the internet era, where it became a topic of blog writers, videographers, social media and news platforms, sub-reddits and YouTubers. Almost from the beginning, both ends of the political spectrum were showing up in what had been more generally also secular, atheist webpages. Susan Jacoby, a longtime skeptic and humanist, pointed back to secularright.org in this article in 2011, opening with “The world, it seems, is waking up to the existence of politically right-wing atheists,..” Secular Right still displays archives from 2008. At the same time (2011), a decidedly uglier offshoot of secular righties’ conflation of social justice with social Darwinism was starting be heard. Skepchick’s Rebecca Watson’s “Elevatorgate” reporting seemed to offer for some a prime example of why feminism—and for a few of them, all three waves of it—was not only unnecessary bitching, but symbolic of the inherent evil embodied in all forms of identity politics. Blogger Thunderf00t was fired from PZ Meyer’s enlightening Freethought Blogs for his increasing anti-feminist posts, and the war was officially on. Now that feminism was an acceptable object of fear and scorn, race, religion, and the basic liberal foundations of an open society became available for the next round of hate-thy-neighbor-in-the-name-of-atheism wannabe YouTube stars like The Amazing Atheist, Sargon of Akkad, The Armored Skeptic, and —the appropriately named—Slymepit and Shoe0nHead.

These perversions should be expected in a free press, but do the divisions among atheists on political, social, or, more fundamentally, “human nature” spell the end of the “atheist movement?” If one could define atheism in one sentence, it might be “a metaphysical concept of natural causes and explanation of the universe versus a supernatural one.” No basis of a movement there, in my opinion. Indeed, part of the vulnerability of atheism to “being hijacked” (as one commenter observed), lies in its breadth and vagueness. Secular humanism, said another, has an advantage of a more specific identity because it has its own code, viz., The Humanist Manifesto. We should be thinking in terms of different sects of atheism, because atheism, in itself, is not a sufficient measuring stick to make a judgement between an alt-right atheist oozing anti-feminist, Islamophobic and anti-semitic bile over there, and a liberal humanist encouraging inclusivity and respect for all over here. And given that insufficiency, we are not obliged to either support or even defend bullshit coming from a fascist playbook or its readers. As the commenter above also noted, the best thing we can do is partner with other groups, growing a community of people committed to a much higher ideal.

And in doing so, perhaps the irony of a NOSHA program in a U.U. sanctuary becomes not quite so great as it first seemed to be.


Thanks again to Beth Deitch, The First Unitarian Universalist Church, and everyone who participated by offering your thoughts in the discussion. And have a Great Holiday Season, Solstice, or any other favorite flavor you may have for celebrating the season!

The Humanist Advocate ~Marty Bankson December, 2017

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Halloween Horror, 365

Socrates Chooses to Self-Administer Death

Right-to-Life Laws Punish as Hell Could Only Dream

The Final Exit Network “is the only organization that educates individuals that are suffering, either with terminal illness long term untreatable pain, and provides a compassionate presence at their bedside,” said Julia Hanway, who had come to New Orleans to make a presentation at NOSHA’s October meeting. Most would agree with little argument that is a noble calling.

Part of the “education” she refers to, however, is counseling the individual on humane ways to end suffering by terminating the patient’s life, which, most states prohibit through archaic religious-based laws. Leaders and activists in the Final Exit Network (FEN) have paid the price for following their conviction and dedication to their humane mission. In 2009, Thomas Goodwin, former  president of FEN, and Deems Egbert, the medical director of the then Georgia-based organization, along with two others, were arrested and charged under Georgia’s assisted suicide law in the death of John Celmers. At the time, FEN only accessible method for assisting the patient’s life was through asphyxiation, using helium and plastic “exit hoods”. All charges were dropped when the Georgia Supreme Court found the state law prohibiting assisted suicide in violation of the free speech provision of the First Amendment. Things did not go so well for FEN in a Minnesota case involving decedent Doreen Dunn, however. In 2015, FEN was convicted for violating Minnesota’s assisted suicide statute and was order to pay a fine of $30,000 and reimburse the family $3,000 for funeral expenses. In December, 2016, a Minnesota appeals court refused to reverse the decision, and the case awaits a review before that state’s Supreme Court, and if the case is not taken there, it is also to be considered for a hearing at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Much of the legal challenge is based on the language of “advising and encouraging” the patient, resulting in the free speech defense being used in these cases; another, can lead to an even more varied interpretation of “suicide”, or, as FEN calls it, “self-deliverance.”

It would seem that the ultimate goal of the Final Exit Network would—indeed, should— be the end of the need of itself, or any other organizations providing the same service. Oregon was the first to adopt a Death with Dignity Act, followed by Washington, Vermont, California, Colorado, and the District of Columbia. The laws, also categorized as physician-assisted dying and aid-in-dying laws, provide that physicians may provide pharmaceutical options for ending life to patients with prognoses of death within 6 months. The Canadian Supreme Court recently “threw out” existing laws, said Hanway, and deemed that under their national healthcare system, doctors “must provide for your wishes in dying.” Still, many states refuse to recognize the inhumanity of forcing people to go through the suffering of pain or the anxiety of waiting on the inevitable and cling to punishing laws based solely on Biblical and Koranic ethics. (While euthanasia and assisted-suicide are prohibited in the Islamic faith, turning off life support systems is permissible in hopeless cases.)

There is a certain irony of that goal of eventual self-extinction by the Final Exit Network and its current function of providing counseling and—usually—assistance to those in dire need of escaping traumatic pain and grief through “self-deliverance.” But given the current conservative climate in many statehouses, the goal may yet remain in faraway territory for a while longer. In the meantime, families, loved ones, and lone individuals alike need to take precautions for any and all eventualities regarding end-of-life issues, including preparing a Living Will, stipulate a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) clause, and generally become educated on the options and support groups available for guidance on those issues. Bookmark websites like www.finalexitnetwork.org , The Conversation Project www.theconversationproject.org , and National Healthcare Decisions Day www.nhdd.org. Support efforts to dismantle laws restricting the individual’s freedom of choice on life and death matters. And support and encourage groups like the Final Exit Network to continue their challenge to cruel laws, including their acts of civil disobedience of disregarding and breaking the law. Without these test cases to the criminal statute, the faraway land of sane and rational laws could be a hopeless destination.

October 31, 2017
Reporting: Marty Bankson

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Renaissance Man? Lessons from a Lost Classic on Secularism

In the current (Sept/Oct 2017) edition of The Humanist, former president of the American Humanist Association Lyle L. Simpson marks the centennial anniversary of the modern humanist movement with a brief summary of its improbable beginning in a Minneapolis Unitarian Church, while also mentioning its ancient origins with Greek and Roman literati Epicurus and Lucretius.
Epicurus' teaching, "centered on each of us maximizing our life here on Earth instead of our life being regulated by the gods"  was "spelled out in detail" in Lucretius' poem "On the Nature of Things" writes Lyle, and was later translated into Latin and adopted by the Medici family, Florentine rulers in the early 1400s, as a code for living.
Missing from Lyle's abbreviated history was an entire movement generally referred to as Renaissance Humanism, beginning with the efforts of Italian poet Petrarch, promoting the idea of human progress—only three centuries removed from the Dark Ages—  and as an alternative to the static outlook of Catholic scholasticism. Petrarch's belief was that in order for humanity to advance and regain "cultural excellence"—and thus "progress"—Classical-era texts and histories of needed to recovered, restored, and thoroughly studied and then emulated in life. He considered the Greek and Roman classical age as the high point of civilization, and emphasized the need to get back to a culture modeled after it. From the late 1300s to the 1600s, humanists went about searching "private and monastic libraries, [the region of] Byzantium, and [interviewing or uncovering works by] Muslim scholars and merchants," (1)  collating and cross-checking translations for accuracy. The rebirth of the Classical age was the goal, and that would be progress.

September 16, 2017
Williams and Bust of Volney
Thomas Christian Williams introduced attendees to the NOSHA September monthly meeting to the signature accomplishment of Constantin-François de Chassebouef, compte de Volney: his book Les ruines; ou Méditations sur les révolutions des empires; author and book hereinafter referred to as Volney, and the English title The Ruins of Empires, or just Ruins. Williams' lecture, titled "The Modern Day Relevance of Volney's Ruins" suggested that there can be lessons for humanity in this book he calls a "lost classic," "lost" even though it was popular in the late 18th and through much of the 19th centuries. ***
Perhaps the most interesting points about the history of the author and book is that Volney was acquainted with Benjamin Franklin, who, in turn, introduced him to Thomas Jefferson during the fledgling days of the American republic. Jefferson apparently liked Ruins well enough to attempt (anonymously) translating it into English, completing about 80 percent of it before abandoning the project to pursue running for the office of President. The remainder of the translation was completed by Joel Barlow and first published in the United States in 1828. The book was read by George Washington (the pre-Jeffersonian edition), Frederic Douglass (Volney was also an abolitionist), Abraham Lincoln (who wrote an essay about it), atheist crusader Robert Ingersoll, poets Walt Whitman (whose "Leaves of Grass"  is based upon) and William Blake, and women's rights pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton. With a list of readers such as these, it should  easy to believe in Williams' claim that this book of "secular general principles" is one "our species needs in the tumultuous opening decades of the 21st Century," and is one "people could use to build a peaceful, prosperous, and transparent democracy."
Williams is, by some accounts, the world's leading expert on Volney's Ruins, and that pedigree would be hard to deny. His expertise on the different editions and translations of the book can been seen on the Amazon website under comments section where he himself contributes to reviews of several versions of the book, including in some of them "Five General Rules to Purchase a Jefferson-Barlow Translation". He is the searching, diligent 15th Century humanist in this respect—making sure the Jefferson translation is properly identified, while giving background on other editions, motivated by the belief that a true understanding and implementation of Volney's works would be a progressive move forward. Unlike the Renaissance Humanists, though, his reflection to the past is not toward the cultural Shangri-la of the classical Greek era, but rather to a much more recent period of—primarily—intellectual history known as the Enlightenment, of which Volney and Jefferson  could be considered exemplary heirs.
For today's reader, getting through a translation of an 18th Century French work will probably prove to be cumbersome and tedious. One reviewer describes it as a "belated example of 'philosophic' polemics," so, dear reader,  be prepared to add to the already slightly arcane language layers of hyperbole and obscure allusions; and wading one's way through it could become an even slower slog for all but the most dedicated scholar. It is here where Williams' world class expertise is again on display by distilling  the highfalutin and flowery prose to straightforward interpretations for the modern day audience.
ISIS Execution Event at Ancient Palmyra: Cause and Effect of Fundamentalism
Volney was a secularist, who believed the cause of the demise of empires was rooted in a conflict between fundamentalism and modernity; the fundamentalist system of morality  being based on "metaphysical assertions," where modernists' moral code is based on the "physical realities" of nature. And the most evident of all physical realities to living creatures is based on the imperative to survive. Humanity—in the form of  governments and groups and individuals alike—can flourish only by accepting this basic natural law and encourage an ethic of "enlightened self-interest," which Volney defines as self-interest combined with education, moderation, and always applying the Golden Rule. This ethic, Williams writes in Amazon, is "a direct challenge to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Social Contract—if you refute the Social Contract, you refute the moral foundation of the big government social programs that exist in the world today."
The principle of enlightened self-interest, at least Volney's definition, may not sit well with many humanists who believe that government social programs are not a bad thing in themselves; on the contrary: it can be shown that they help mitigate many excesses of "self-interest" run amok, unfettered by any enlightened constraints, which has resulted in gross concentrations of wealth and political power in a world of capitalist economics.
But Volney’s ideas of a morality based on naturalism over the "metaphysical assertions" of religions; his promotion of  strict separation of church and state; and his abolitionist stance on slavery should be enough for secular humanists to at least familiarize themselves with his work, but not, as did the Renaissance Humanists, for the purpose of a nostalgic trip back to the past—where they believed were better books and a better life—to aid any attempt to emulate or recreate it in the present.
NOSHA extends its appreciation and thanks to Mr. Williams for his interesting and thought-provoking presentation!
—Marty Bankson

(1)The Teaching Company, LLC. (2007). https://thegreatcourses.com Great Scientific Ideas that Changed the World, Steven L. Goldman, Professor. "Progress Enters into History"

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Where Everybody Knows Your Name: A Case of Mistaken Identity

Someone once told me that opening up your Facebook app was like going to the neighborhood bar. The lyrics:

"Sometimes you want to go     
Where everybody knows your name,
and they're always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
Your name.

soon came to mind and continue—complete with the sappy melody from the Cheers sitcom theme of the '80s—to initiate a daylong ear worm every time I think about it.

For my purpose, the barroom analogy may be well-suited. Whether  you sit there reading, scrolling—latte or Red Bull within arm's reach of your keyboard—or with elbows and forearms prone on the counter guarding the  micro-brew standing between them,  with a co-relaxant/conversationalist on the next barstool, the inevitable interloper will walk through the door. How she got here if she were not otherwise on a "Friends with" list or a page group member, we may not know, possibly gaining entry through algorithmic aberrations of the Facebook master plan to have eventually everyone become friends of everyone else. But your space is public, just like the pub, so no explanation is ultimately necessary—it just happens. But this character is not the overly-welcomed Norm or the just-irritating trivia monster Cliff of Cheers, but a full-on goddamned troll; and just when you thought the day's stress was evaporating with each passing minute, she's on a mission. The analogy fails when, as most in-the-flesh disagreeable strangers keep to themselves in public settings like pubs,  the newcomer, seeing a group expressing opinions contradictory to his own, is more likely to grab a stool at the far end of the bar. Likewise the troll without the cover of his basement or bedroom, or the road-raging driver without two tons of Ford F-150 armor is effectively neutered. Isolation seems to bring out the worst in us.


The rather extended lead-in here is to illustrate that possible mistaken or just haphazard confluences of associations of people with others or groups that would not, on the face of it,  appear as natural matches, in fact, occur; and when confined to the internet, telephones, or other non-physical modes of contact they can lead to very acrimonious verbal exchanges. This is not news to anyone who participates on social media or has ever had to deal with an inept customer service rep; and it is not news to frequent visitors to group pages like our own NOSHA page. There can be some interesting speculation on how these ill-matched conversationalists end up in the same place though.

There can be some confusion to the assumed general outlook and reason for being of the NOSHA organization itself, which can carry over as a misrepresentation in the social media. Some incorrectly assume that disbelief in the supernatural—all variations of atheism, etc.—is, pretty much, the beginning and end of the conversation, when, for NOSHA, it is really just the beginning. The American Humanist Association recently published a brief and insightful look into this topic  with a very brief review of historical highlights of atheism through the ages and a statement of principles of humanism, concluding with quotes from influential writers and scientists involved in AHA.

With the advent of the New Atheism in the mid-2000s came a resurgence of interest in the topic, and a new cottage industry of book and essay writing and speaking tours was born, followed not long after by the more contemporary communications available through social media, blogs, and  podcasts. The underlying theme of most of it was that atheism was a "movement". The NOSHA Facebook discussion page doubtlessly benefited from this surge, now approaching 1,000 members, doubling the number from five years ago. And since the New Orleans Secular Humanist Association was founded before both New Atheism and social media, it could be considered a placeholder when referencing the birth, development, and outlook of similar groups that have sprung up since.

But atheism—in itself—cannot be the foundation of a movement: the dialectical refutation of an idea (or, in this case, gods) can lead only to a 'higher" truth, not a validation of itself as the end. It is only a method, a tool. Negation alone leads to nihilism. So it should come as no surprise that lately cracks have  begun showing in the unity of the mission, perhaps the most glaring being the woeful attendance at the 2016 Reason Rally in Washington. Some blamed the scheduling at the beginning of summer, but much of it was due to atheist "purists" refusing to attend in reaction to programming geared more towards social justice and identity politics issues.  Podcaster David Smalley most recent contribution to the cybersphere is titled Eating Our Own: How You Can Save the Movement, which acknowledges that there are divisions within "The Movement," but tries to demonstrate that none of the divisive issues can be of more importance than keeping The Movement together. One would need not look far to find other examples or commentary on the subject.

But there are some bad actors who are atheists, let's face it; and the web is being populated with more white nationalists/supremacists and closet fascists by the day, not to mention the standard complement of politically mainstream Democrats and Republicans—many avowed atheists— that hold unprogressive notions antithetical to the goals of humanism. Smalley can't be further from the truth with his call for unity for unity's sake. All atheism may be created equally, but where one proceeds with it is what matters.

A recent dust-up on the NOSHA Facebook group page is what drew my attention to this conflict. It happens sometimes, but I suppose we should still—in the spirit of humanism—maintain a policy of open membership to anyone requesting it, and even let members speak their piece, even if that opinion involves an obviously anti-humanist agenda. That same antagonist, on the other hand, should expect pushback. If he (in this case) is unaware of the ideals of humanism, he needs to be informed, given that some may see NOSHA as primarily a gathering place for "just" atheists. Once informed that the tenants of humanism stand in sharp contrast to his own agenda, but he relentlessly pushes on, "speaking one's piece" becomes miserable trolling in its worst form.

In this case, the reactionary atheist interloper decided to leave the group. That happens sometimes as well, reminding me of another interesting analogy that compares entry into Facebook Land to "....like being hit with the braggart Christmas letter every single day—Johnny is doing this, Jane is doing that—thereby making you feel bad about all the things you're not doing. It's pushing you to participate in a game you didn't really want to play." (1) We have too many positive things going on, and that may, just may, be our "braggart Christmas letter" to reactionary and misanthropic atheists who really have nothing much other going on themselves.


Havens, Sara. The Bar Belle, Vol. 2. lulu.com: 2015


An afterword, taken from the AHA's link above.....

“It is quite possible to be an atheist and be quite deluded about other things other than religion. ‘Atheism’ is an empty category. ‘Humanism’ may be deluded about human potential, but at least it is a hopeful and non-exclusionary delusion!” – Joyce Carol Oates, AHA Humanist of the Year and prolific author.