Friday, January 6, 2017
Both Grant Smith and Ricky Adams are leaving our board of directors after many terms of service. Smith has been a tireless volunteer at our monthly meetings handling our directional signs and Adams initiated the design and ongoing maintenance of our fun and functional website as well as being an enthusiastic "regular" at many of our social activities. Rita Premo finished her service in August as our board secretary and made herself indispensable by volunteering to take our out-of-town speakers on a tour of the city before our afternoon meetings.
Each one performed a vital role in the ongoing success of our operations and we couldn't have done it without them! We all wish them well in their new endeavors.
Our new members are Anne McKinley and Glenn Pearl who joined us in December and September respectively. McKinley brings a lot of organizational experience to the table and has already become instrumental in our Last Supper Dinner Club and our Book Discussion Group. Pearl will take over the general maintenance of our website and also has been a key organizer of our volunteer activity with Second Harvest Foodbank over the past couple of years.
We are very lucky to have them both!
Friday, December 23, 2016
I no longer believe in Christmas
Nativity scenes make me cringe
Halleluiah choruses assault my ears
Santa and elves bring me to tears
I once believed in the myth
Believed in peace, hope and love
Decked the largest evergreen tree
For all to see and complement me
I baked the puddings, pies and cakes
Wrapped and tied a mountain of presents
Tipped the postman and the teacher
Prayed in church with the eloquent preacher
But in my subconscious year after year
I began to understand my deepest fear
That all of this was a grand delusion
Resulting in profound confusion
While I am celebrating the season
The chaotic world fights wars without reason
Religions fight over which one is right
There’s no peace on earth this Christmas night
No more will I drink from the cup of mirth
Toasting the season and expanding my girth
Maxing my credit to give more and more
I’m turning it off and shutting the door
I’ll light a warm fire and reflect in the glow
Dream of a world tranquil and free
Where nations agree that war should cease
Where all are free and live in peace
Than like the old man that flies through the sky
I’ll open my wallet and give my best try
To assist those who need me and have much to fear
Now that’s the true Christmas year after year.
Tuesday, November 22, 2016
This much we do know without looking back at our history in this area or doing any soul searching about the “should” question: there are some limitations on what we can do. As a chartered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, loosely categorized as a “charitable” organization, the IRS does not permit direct campaigning for or against candidates in an election, or endorsing or contributing to candidates. If found in violation, we could lose our tax exempt status. That is the worse case scenario and is usually applied only to flagrant or repeat offenders; but an excise tax could be levied and an infraction could still end up being costly. This only applies to the organization and officially sponsored activities—individuals within the group are free to do as they please as long as the group is not directly endorsing such participation. Legislative “action”, or lobbying, is not permitted if it is a “substantial part of its activity”. Read here about the restrictions and follow the links for definitions of “political and lobbying activities”. Beyond those specific regulations about campaigning for candidates and frequent lobbying, the field seems almost wide open about political activism. There are no restrictions on legislative and issue advocacy, which, together would cover just about any political activity imaginable— from demonstrating in front of a Planned Parenthood clinic, to holding placards on a busy boulevard alongside a shopping center, to offering opinions as a witness in a legislative education committee about the problems of laws allowing for religious interpretations of the origins of life on earth being given equal time in public schools. It could mean delivering a secular invocation at a city council meeting, or setting up a table in the rotunda of the state capital and speaking with legislators and civilians alike about some of our concerns about keeping religion out of the business of government officiating and laws. It could be participating in or observing a reading of Sinclair Lewis’ prophetic play on right wing populism based on his novel It Can’t Happen Here.
Except for the first, we have, as an organization, had representatives at each of these; and did not participate in the first only because it was cancelled by the officials of Planned Parenthood as being possibly provocative and counterproductive. So we do have a history.
History also shows that “education” might be a more apt description than “charity” when categorizing our programs; and the charity operation is more accurately a volunteer labor pool. The speakers we schedule and the educational programs we produce or take part in generally center around the common core of a worldview, or ideology, for living well while respecting our fellow humans and other lifeforms in our biodiverse and common home, Planet Earth. Humanism we call it, specifically secular humanism. The foundation for this worldview was established beginning with new approaches to scientific study and a philosophical optimism: the possibility that there were some absolute truths, and that new advances in sciences and the letters could make these truths knowable. Mankind would necessarily improve his lot accordingly with this knowledge . This movement began in the 16th Century and continued to the 18th came to be called The Enlightenment. Secular humanism holds that the knowledge that leads to truth is discoverable in the natural world and documentable with the aid of the rational human mind; but warned that a pursuit of knowledge based on revelation from supernatural beings or the tutelage of ancient mythological tales will lead nowhere but backward.
A humanist ideology may, in a nutshell, be characterized as a union of two concepts of liberty philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote of in 1958. The human citizen of the world would be the embodiment and balance of 1) having certain protections from other individuals or state taking away choices or placing constraints on her; and, at the same time 2) having the freedom to be her own autonomous agent, living and flourishing as the director of her own pursuits. This ideal arrangement may be a contrivance in the evolution of human thought in an expanding population whose stability was becoming more dependent on a variety of social constructions, but it does not mean it is not natural or that it and cannot succeed. This is the intersection of a progressive secular humanism and politics, because politics is the vehicle for dispensing or withholding rights, freedoms, and justice among divergent interests.
It would follow from this that humanism, and especially secular humanism, would come a-courting the power of politics. Without the vehicle to propose and construct such a complicated rights-based framework for improving the quality of life, humanism would remain as only another idea floating around in a nebulous land of broken dreams, unlived afterlives, and visions of fantasy from religious and mythological deities. Secular humanism needs a particularly cozy relationship to stay planted in terra firma and its polis, because from that aforementioned ephemeral land emerge very natural-looking and convincing prophets of mysterious gods, well equipped to slick talk the virtues of theocracy.
A more politicized version of our local chapter of secular humanists may be necessary not simply to keep alive the promise and actuality of a humanist world, but to work against the new administration’s troubling visions and venomous threats of compromised rights and opportunities expressed during the campaign. Federal court appointments and cabinet heads that share their leader’s nationalist notions of returning to the greater country that America was in days past is not a conservative idea, but a reactionary one. We need to aid and assist in coalitions with groups that are potential targets of scorn and repression, including Muslims. (There, I’ve said it.) Mexicans. Pakistanis, Jews and Black Americans. Homeless Syrians and Hondurans. Women’s and LGBTQ rights have always been works in progress but now become even more tenuous. For that matter, the atheist and secular community could be subject to more scrutiny and derision, particularly if they get too vocal, if the executive and legislative branches cave to much more influence from the religious right. We need to defend the premise of dignity communicated through standards of common decency known pejoratively as political correctness. We need to resist the temptation to normalize the rogues’ gallery of white supremacists set to run this country.
Political activism is not for everyone, conservative or liberal, maybe including many in this group. But in this unknown and unprecedented environment, it looks to be a necessity for assisting in the conservation of the pinnacle of American law: The Bill of Rights. The amount or depth of political involvement should be the only real question here: how much can you do?
Sunday, October 30, 2016
When is a theatrical production not a play? When it is a reading, with script readers taking the place of actors and reading—while either seated or standing—the dialogue of a play written for actors by the playwright, and without a designed set or choreographed movement and action across a stage. It is still a theatrical production, but one stripped to the bare bones of voice.
Five of the 13 players sitting in a closely packed row of chairs in front of the conference room-turned-theater at Jefferson Parish Regional Library in Metairie were members and directors of NOSHA in what was a special invitation to participate in a reading of Sinclair Lewis’ play It Can’t Happen Here on. The occasion was the 80th anniversary of its release; the play was adapted and distributed by the Berkeley Repertory Theater. Berkeley Rep, a non-profit community theater established in 1968 is currently running the complete theatrical version of the play at its home base in California through November 6. It was a special invitation for JPL and our own secular humanist group to participate, as it was one of the fewer that 50 venues in the country that hosted and produced the event on the evening of October 24th.
The story was a preview into what America could look like if democracy succumbed to a political solution lead by a nationalist demagogue. Getting his gloomy inspiration from the election of Hitler in Germany and the rising influence of Louisiana’s populist Governor and Senator Huey P. Long, Lewis followed the career of small town Vermont journalist Doremus Jessup, who, though deeply motivated by the ideals of truth and justice, delayed getting involved in the growing movement that elevated a folksy charmer, a fictionalized authoritarian Long named Buzz Windrip. Windrip ends up winning the nomination of the Democratic Party, and is set to run for (and win) the Presidency against the Republican Trowbridge and Franklin Roosevelt (who ended up running on a third party ticket after losing the Democratic nomination).
Library program director Chris Smith introduced the program and narrated the settings between acts and scenes of the play. Curiously the readers were never introduced to the audience individually; time constraints may have been the reason: the reading took a full two hours, pushing the ending right up against library closing time. The readers seemed well-rehearsed—they spoke with just the right amount of dramatic inflection and were on cue most of the program, though the vocal projection of several waxed and waned at times. There were more characters in the script that performers, so some were required to do multiple parts. It could be a bit confusing if the observer wasn’t familiar with the storyline, especially with no action on a stage or costume changes to help visually associate the different characters.
Probably a more significant motivation than the 80th anniversary for Berkeley Rep’s staff to re-release the program was the current Presidential election campaign and to confirm that, yes, it could happen here. The rise of presidential candidate Donald Trump has uncovered an undertow of a new and septic populism—a populism founded on nationalism and some degrees of xenophobia and racism—and has found in Trump, warts and all, a bona fide advocate. Lewis’ story includes Windrip’s paramilitary Minute Men to deal with dissidents; Trump’s deportation force will be assigned to sort out the rapists and drug dealing illegals and place them on the right side of his Mexican-funded, beautiful wall. A probable adaptation by the Berkeley writers has Windrip reveling at a rally about how protesters were handled in the good old days. The historical Father Coughlin’s and his incendiary anti-semitic radio rhetoric becoming an ally of Long-Windrip parallels the evangelical Grahams’, Falwells', and Robertsons’ current romance with strongman Trump. The boorish everyday Donald we see is merely a simulacrum of the master wheeler-dealer of foreign trade, the ultimate job creator, and Isis-slayer Generalissimo Trump that he has cultivated and grown "bigly" with assistance from a ratings/profit-driven media. The power of the media in shaping pseudo-leaders and charlatans was a major factor in the rise of yokel Lonesome Rhodes, portrayed by Andy Griffith in the 1958 film A Face in the Crowd, who also had a bad mouth/hot microphone problem, which cost him dearly.
The program of It Can’t Happen Here on the Berkeley Repertory Theater website has the following advisory:
It Can’t Happen Here includes the use of herbal cigarettes, haze, and gunshot sound effects. Berkeley Rep offers an advisory about any stage effect of potential concern to patrons’ health. We don’t offer advisories about subject matter, as sensitivities vary from person to person. If you have any concerns about content, please contact the box office.
For those having seen enough of the similarities already, a trigger warning might indeed have been welcomed. Or at least, please, a caution about a possible circuit overload. But to those who are just about done at this point, and are happy to just plug their ears and hum along with with this 50 year-old ditty from The Mothers of Invention, this advisory: Don't do it.
Now, please, introducing our troupe, with kudos and congratulations to: Beth Deitch, Jim Dugan, William Gautreaux, Anne McKinley, and Charlotte Klasson.
Sunday, October 23, 2016
|Aunt Connie's Home--Before|
|Eve Ortiz sampling jambalaya, surveys the progress|
Many of the modest houses in this neighborhood were built on piers and were elevated about three feet above the ground, but the neighborhood got 6-7 feet of floodwater from the overflowing Amite River just to the west of it. The math of that equation added up to more than three feet of water in the house . Every house in the subdivision and many more subdivisions like it went under, along with most of the business along the main thoroughfares.
Paul got the crew quick-schooled and started at the basics of house gutting: taking the door and baseboard trim off with hammers and pry bars, removing the electrical switch and receptacle plates, then pulling the soggy sheetrock from the wall studs at the seam four feet above the floor. Then the crumbling and saturated mess had to be shoveled and wheelbarrowed out of the house down the front porch steps, adding more to the misery of the front yard. Bathroom vanity cabinets, toilets, kitchen cabinets, pots, pans, dishes and foodstuffs in the pantry all had to go. Two mice were sent scampering when their space inside a wall was uncovered.
|Big Fans Matter|
The feeling of overwhelming loss never seems to be strong enough to keep the victims from finding something—anything—left in the wreckage that was salvageable, something to cling to; and those things become special and dear. Aunt Connie had set up a makeshift table in the front yard near the driveway, where she placed and cleaned and dried some things she found. Maybe a crystal dish; maybe a child’s trophy from a past school competition, or a stuffed panda that had been placed on a high shelf: things once mundane and overlooked now became priceless survivors. A pop-up summer shower was about to spoil what the floodwaters missed as she fussed over them, but we managed to get some scraps of plastic sheeting and a tarp over them before the hardest rain fell.
About midday someone delivered some go-boxes of jambalaya; so those that didn’t pack a lunch didn’t go hungry. And there was plenty of water for hydrating, but Cecelia had an overheating episode anyway. She later seemed confident that she had recovered to point of being able to get to her car and drive back to New Orleans. The heat and humidity was reminiscent of the hot tropical conditions that smothered New Orleans after Katrina. Joyce and Dave’s experience in the Katrina disaster was evident as they breezed through the day’s work like small potatoes, as if pantomiming “¡No problema!”.
|Paul (left) and NOSHA Volunteers (missing: Glenn Pearl)|
Wednesday, August 31, 2016
Readers interested in the early development of the Christian religion will enjoy Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity, by biblical scholar James D. Tabor. The book focuses on the first 30 to 40 years of the Christian movement, a period that is poorly documented and poorly understood.
Much of Tabor’s assessment falls well within the mainstream of scholarly opinion. Jesus of Nazareth was a real, historical person, although the romanticization of his life story makes it difficult for us to know anything about him. He was an observant Jew of the first century CE, who taught a particular interpretation of Judaism that was somewhat unique, but nevertheless within the known range of varied Jewish opinions of the time. He taught that an end of ordinary history was near at hand. He claimed, or others claimed about him, that he was the earthly Messiah, a political and military leader who would unify the Jewish people and guide them to independence and godliness. After Jesus was executed, his closest followers, including Peter and James, continued his teachings, which became one of the varieties of Judaism that existed side-by-side with others among the Jewish synagogues and communities already scattered throughout the
The apostle Paul, too, was a real, historical figure. We know only a little more about him than about Jesus, but it is clear that his letters, forming a significant portion of the New Testament, have been hugely influential on the development of Christian doctrine. Tabor, like many scholars, takes Paul at his word when he tells us he never met the earthly Jesus. Paul also claims not to have learned Christianity from Jesus’ human disciples, but from the risen, spiritual Jesus, by means of divine visions. We know from his letters that Paul took Christian teachings to "gentiles," meaning to non-Jewish Greeks and Romans, while Peter and James focused more on people who already identified as Jewish. We also know that Paul sometimes had disagreements with Peter and James. Paul asserted that Greeks and Romans could become Christians without adhering to Jewish law, while the followers of Peter and James were more likely to keep kosher and abide by most or all of the other details of the Law of Moses. The exact degree of difference between these early schools of Christian thought is uncertain, though, because the more Jewish form of Christianity faded out over time and left little documentary evidence. The many varieties of Christianity extant today are all descendants of Paul’s more gentile Christianity.
Parts of Tabor’s analysis emphasize a much greater difference between gentile Christianity and Jewish Christianity than many biblical scholars would be willing to support. Here one must acknowledge that the documentary evidence is quite thin, and that some of Tabor’s positions, though feasible, may be based more on reading between the lines of scripture than on what the documents plainly say. In Tabor’s view, Paul actually saw his own understanding of Christianity as superior to that of Peter and James because Paul had direct communication with the heavenly Jesus. The writers of the four gospels of the New Testament were influenced by Paul and Paul’s followers, and thus understated the starkness of the difference between Paul’s gentile Christianity and the more Jewish form of Christianity taught by Peter and James, and presumably by the earthly Jesus. Paul saw in the death and resurrection of Jesus a pattern that he felt was about to be applied to all humans who were worthy. The righteous were soon to be converted from flesh and blood into beings of spirit, beings who had bodies, but bodies that were glorified and incorruptible. These would be part of the new Kingdom of God. Paul expected the heavenly Jesus to return to earth at any moment to usher in this next phase of history.
Barring the unexpected discovery of some unknown and indisputable manuscripts from the first century, it is unlikely that Tabor’s more unusual claims will ever be broadly accepted or firmly disproved. Rather, they will remain one of the many and often conflicting interpretations that well informed scholars can develop from the limited evidence that is available.
Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity, by James D. Tabor. Simon & Schuster (2013). ISBN: 978-1439123324.
Monday, July 25, 2016
There is far less here, than in many other studies of the same phenomenon, about religion and beliefs about witchcraft, and a lot more about the roles of women and men, and changes in the social and economic structures of Europe during the worst years of the witchcraze (1550-1750). Barstow sets the number of persons executed for witchcraft during that time at roughly 100,000, a lower figure than some other historians, and admittedly an estimate from incomplete sources. This does not mean she casts the witchcraze in a more positive light than others. In fact, she shows that a very large percentage of the accused and executed were women, and is careful to demonstrate the cloud of fear under which European women lived for those centuries, the nearly absolute lack of fairness or objectivity toward the accused, and the sexual sadism of the processes of interrogation and execution.
Why that time and that place? Barstow takes a multifactorial view. The roles and opportunities for European women had been narrowing for centuries (and would continue to narrow until well into the 19th century). The early rumblings of Capitalism were actually increasing the gap between rich and poor, and women who owned property but had no male protectors became especially vulnerable. Two religious movements, the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, generated a drive toward orthodoxy that included formal control of sexual expression as well as of religious doctrine. Increasingly centralized religious and governmental power meant more intervention by authorities into local and private interactions. Witchcraft came to be seen as not merely heresy, but as a crime against the state.
In a brief but fascinating analysis, Barstow points out that the era of the witchcraze corresponds roughly with the age during which Europeans enslaved Africans. This is no coincidence. Barstow writes (pp. 159-160):
“We need to see the similarities between all women in a patriarchal system and all persons in an unfree status . . . . free women and slaves of both sexes fell into many of the same categories in the eyes of early modern European men. Neither had control over what they produced, other than in exceptional circumstances, and their labor could be coerced. Both were seen by the law as children, as fictive minors who could be represented in court only by their masters/husbands. Both could legally be beaten, debased, and humiliated. When mistreated, both were impotent to gain help from others within their group, nor usually could their families help them.”
For readers interested in what early modern Europeans thought witches actually did and why, Kramer’s (ca. 1486) inquisitorial handbook Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer against Witches) is indispensable. A similar insider’s view of the Salem witch hunts can be found in Cotton Mather’s (ca. 1692) On Witchcraft. But the Malleus and On Witchcraft are products of their respective times and places, making no attempt to place paranoia about witchcraft in a social and historical context. Anne Barstow’s Witchcraze helps make sense of the nonsense.
Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts, by Anne Llewellyn Barstow (1994). Pandora/HarperCollins; ISBN 0-06-2500049-X.