(This is an updated version of a column that was first published in 2006.)

While listening to the news one day, I suddenly realized that I’ve been operating under a false assumption all these years. I had been taking for granted that I was born into a civilized period of human history.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

You may remember that in the early 1990’s, after the fall of the Soviet Union and the repressive regimes of Eastern Europe, a conservative wag named Francis Fukuyama had the temerity to come out with a book entitled The End of History – as in, that’s it, everything is settled, capitalism has triumphed, there’s nothing else to be decided, game over. Subsequent events, of course, have proved him wrong on that score, and the author, to his credit, has since recanted his thesis.

“End of History”? Heck, we’re not even out of the Dark Ages yet.

Now, before you try to refute that assertion with a litany of our advances in such areas as dental medicine and indoor plumbing, let me explain what I mean by “civilized.” Here is my definition: we can be said to be more or less “civilized” as a society, culture, or species to the extent that intentional acts of violence are seen as unnecessary – that is, one would never come to a moment where one feels that one has to resort to inflicting harm or suffering on another human being. Violence might still happen accidentally, of course, or as an unforeseen consequence of a decision, but not by intention or desire… or because it seems there is no other choice.

Some reflection will show the implications of this definition. For such a society to exist in the first place, any motivation for violence would have to have been eliminated. Crime? Want? Poverty? Human needs would be sufficiently addressed, including the understanding and treatment of substance abuse and mental illness. People would have access to the resources they need. War? Conflict? Our communication skills, and cross-cultural awareness, would have been well enough developed that conflicts would no longer arise from interpersonal or intercultural misunderstandings. All theologies would have disavowed violence as a justified means of carrying out their missions. Problems of resource availability and distribution would have been sorted out, and the idea of separate “national interests” would have been permanently shelved. (Can you think of other root causes for violence? Imagine how they might be solved in a “civilized” society. Discuss. Give examples.)

By such a definition, humanity obviously has a long way to go – but to be fair, we have made some considerable strides. In most cultures violence is now regarded as a last resort, rather than the first. We managed to get rid of dueling a while ago, and fisticuffs are not generally accepted as a means of conflict resolution any more (except on the Jerry Springer show, of course). In fact, we’ve actually become a very pacifistic species in many ways. (For more examples, and the statistics to back them up, see Dr. Stephen Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.)

I think it might be accurate to say that we are beginning to get a slight glimmer of what actual “civilization” might look like – and yes, I mean to include every single one of those wimpy qualifiers – but we are also still close enough to the edge of the abyss of absolute savagery to hear its echoes. What veneer of civilization we have managed to develop is still quite thin, and is looking a bit threadbare in many places at the moment. In fact, as I write these words the headlines are full of tales of extremist groups that seem quite determined to reverse this progress and march cheerfully and resolutely back into the bloodier times of the past.

Some people might think a truly civilized society is unattainable – and maybe it is. But what I’m really talking about here is the proper application of a word. Let’s not call ourselves “civilized” if we’re not – and let’s not prematurely call ourselves “more civilized” than any other given bunch of humans.

If I’m honest with myself, after all, I can’t help but see that my own veneer of civilization is itself pretty thin. There’s not as much distance as I’d like to think between me and my “barbarian” ancestors, plasma-screen televisions and ultrasonic toothbrushes notwithstanding. I haven’t completely purged the violence out my own system yet. So again, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that we’re further along the road than we actually are, or pretend that we are significantly ahead of others.

But at the same time, we should not abandon ourselves to the supposed inevitability of human violence – rather, let us keep in mind that this development is an ongoing process, a journey that can at least be undertaken, and possibly even completed successfully.

Someone once asked Gandhi, “So, sir, what do you think of Western civilization?”

And as he famously replied, “I think it would be a wonderful idea.”


someone who knows it’s all going to shit,
but still thinks it will turn out OK.
– anonymous Facebook meme

Yes. That’s me. I knew it the moment I saw the definition.

It just makes sense.  Too many delicate interrelationships have been disrupted. Too many laws – physical, manmade, karmic – have been broken, too many crimes committed against both nature and humanity, too much suffering rained down on too many innocents, just so that a blindheaded brainaddled few can get their fancies tickled.

There will be – there must be – recompense. Not for the sake of revenge, or righteous wrath, but simply because that is the way of things: to seek, and maintain, balance.

And know this: the balance will be restored, one way or another.  We may still have some choice as to how… but I see no reason to expect our present systems, shortsighted and dysfunctional and corrupt as they are, to make the right decisions to prevent disaster.

And so, in the course of that restoration, there will be some awesome hell to pay.

But on the other side of that time of fire and grief, I see seeds germinating, seeds that are being planted now as they have been for the past generation.  They are seeds of knowledge waiting to be rediscovered, and new values waiting to be realized.  They are like the seeds in pine cones that only open when exposed to great heat, and then take root in the ashes.

We will come through this, and we will come through wounded, but we will come through wiser.  There will be such lessons seared into our collective consciousness, I hope and believe, that they will be remembered and honored for generations to come. The notions of disconnection and separateness, of dominion and domination, will seem as absurd as the belief in a flat Earth in a geocentric universe does today.

So yes, I am a apocaloptimist.

Bring it on.


Prospiracy Theory

Every once in a while, I’m pretty sure, you’ve looked in horror at the headlines, or contemplated the scope of human history, or even just spent half an hour channel surfing, and asked yourself this question:

“Just what the heck is really going on here, anyway?”

Some people think they have the answers all sussed out, and what they see isn’t pretty.

Somewhere, somehow, according to these “conspiracy theorists,” there is some hidden cabal of folks, shrouded in deliberate obscurity, who not only know what’s really going on, but can actively manipulate and orchestrate events in ways that put us mere mortals (except maybe wedding planners) to shame. These powerful people, furthermore, are not acting with our best interests at heart, but are instead scheming to deceive, enslave, poison and brainwash us, and very possibly sell us as appetizers to extraterrestrials.

After a lot of study and thought on the subject, though, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no such group. What we do seem to have, as near as I can tell, is a whole bunch of different cabals, each of which thinks that they really run the world, or ought to… or at least they just go around acting as though they really did.

I find so-called “conspiracy theories” problematic for a couple of different reasons. For one thing, they aren’t predictive. A good scientific theory not only explains observed phenomena, but also gives you a good idea of what to expect in the future. “Conspiracy theories” usually manage to cover a lot of bases regarding past events, drawing intriguing and possibly valid connections, but they don’t give us much of a clue about what might be coming next.

They’re also rarely actionable. By definition, these conspiracies operate deep in the background, far under the radar – and the theories rarely suggest courses of concrete action to take in response (beyond, of course, spreading the theory to other people). As a result, these theories can be very disempowering. If our fates are held so solidly in the clutches of these massive and powerful groups, after all, what can a single individual or small group of people possibly hope to accomplish? (Not to mention the fact that by the time you have mastered all the arcane trivia that supposedly establishes the theory, you barely have room in your head for any other information!)

They are also “unactionable” in another sense. I like asking people this question, which I invite you to contemplate: Suppose that it was proved beyond a shadow of doubt that there was, say, more than one gunman involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy (to cite one of the most popular subjects for conspiracy theorists). Would your daily life change in any way? Would you do anything differently? Would you switch careers, move somewhere else, take up macramé? Probably not – and if not, why concern yourself with such things at all?

Another thing about conspiracies: we always seem to assume that they’re nefarious, up to no good, plotting to control or torment or exploit, and probably quite a few of them are. But couldn’t there also be benevolent conspiracies? I don’t mean groups that justify terrible means by lofty ends, like promoting the advancement of humanity by culling the population, or enforcing some ideal system of utopian governance that only they understand. No, I’m thinking shadowy groups of crafty and clever individuals who lurk around, unnoticed, finding opportunities to secretly do nice stuff for other people.

Let’s not even call such a thing a conspiracy. Let’s call it a prospiracy. And let’s call the participants delightists – the opposite of terrorists. These would be folks who, in Anne Herbert’s marvelous phrase, go around practicing “random kindness and acts of senseless beauty.” Such folks might also, unlike their conspiratorial counterparts, eschew any ambition for trying to control or orchestrate events, but instead would recognize the utterly illusory nature of such attempts, and become experts at body-surfing the waves of change.

I’d be willing to bet that many of the people reading these words are already involved in this delightist prospiracy. And it’s easy enough to join. There are no secret handshakes to learn, paintings to decode, or puzzles to figure out—although if you know someone who likes puzzles, you might make one up for them and leave it on their doorstep.

Just (ssshhh) don’t tell anybody. It’ll be our secret.

The Peace & Justice Files: On the Need for an Enemy (2006)

(An earlier version of this column was published in July 2006.)

C.S. Lewis, the author and theologian best known for the “Narnia” fantasy series, also tried his hand at science fiction once.  In his so-called “Space Trilogy” – the books Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength - he used alien planets and mad scientists to craft Christian allegories. In the second book, Perelandra, Lewis’ hero, a professor named Ransom, pursues a fiendish creature, the “Un-Man,” across the landscape of Venus.  The “Un-Man” looks like his friend and colleague Weston, but Ransom knows that in fact it is an incarnation of Evil itself. After several skirmishes and a long pursuit, exhausted and weary, he finally catches up with the creature, which leads to the following astonishing passage:

“… Then an experience that perhaps no good man can ever have in our world came over him—a torrent of perfectly unmixed and lawful hatred. The energy of hating, never before felt without some guilt, without some dim knowledge that he was failing fully to distinguish the sinner from the sin, rose into his arms and legs till he felt that they were pillars of burning blood… It is perhaps difficult to understand why this filled Ransom not with horror but with a kind of joy. The joy came from finding at last what hatred was made for. As a boy with an axe rejoices at finding a tree, or a boy with a box of coloured chalks rejoices on finding a pile of perfectly white paper, so he rejoiced in the perfect congruity between his emotion and its object. Bleeding and trembling with weariness as he was, he felt that nothing was beyond his power, and when he flung himself upon the living Death, the eternal Surd in the universal mathematic, he was astonished, and yet (on a deeper level) not astonished at all, at his own strength.”

“To fight with a perfect, unmixed and lawful hatred…” I suspect that this desire is an immensely powerful, and largely unacknowledged, part of our psychic makeup. (It’s certainly in my own head and heart, I can tell you that for sure.) What could be more satisfying than being able to unleash one’s unlimited wrath legitimately upon a fully deserving object, mercilessly, with complete justification, without a taint of guilt? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to identify such a target?

If none were available, wouldn’t it be tempting to create one?

If one were offered to you, wouldn’t you eagerly and gratefully – perhaps even unquestioningly – accept it?

Think about this from another perspective: if someone were seeking great power for themselves, wouldn’t providing such perfect enemies for their people be a great way to do it?

But there’s a problem when we succumb to this temptation, whether the object we’re talking about is Saddam Hussein or Cindy Sheehan, George Bush or George Soros, Hillary Clinton or Ann Coulter, Iran or North Korea, the NRA or James Brady, Israelis or Palestinians or Syrians or Hezbollah or ISIS or …. whoever.

The problem is this: Your hatred is a ring in your nose – by which anyone else can lead you around at will.

In fact, it could be argued that the whole bloody mess we are currently witnessing in the Middle East and beyond is a result of the clever manipulation of crowds through the creation of hatred. And every choice that international statesmen make that serves to enhance that hatred ensures the perpetuation of that mess.

Maybe the best way to eliminate our enemies is not to vanquish them, but to give up our need for them.

moonshine song

moonshine song
(by Blind Peanut Nicholson)
(a high-speed bluegrass breakdown)

we’re talkin moonshiiiiiiiine baby
the distillation of joy and good cheer
we’re talkin moonshiiiiiiine honey
mama pass that jar over here

it’ll lubricate your gears
and eradicate your fears
it will evaporate your tears
and recalibrate your years
it’ll blow out both your ears
for much cheaper than a beer
it draws folks from far & near
and then it kicks you in the rear

we’re talkin moonshine baby
the very quintessence of joy and good cheer
we’re talkin moonshine honey
mama pass that jar over here

it’s a gift from God above
it’s the next best thing to love
gets you cooin like a dove
ain’t no need to push & shove
it’ll warm you from within
lead you down a road of sin
give you that goofy-lookin grin
it’s a battle you can’t win

we’re talkin moonshine baby
the absolute expression of joy and good cheer
we’re talkin moonshine honey
mama pass that jar over here

in a mason jar or old tin cup
it’ll light your face right up
have you howlin’ like a pup
and then it whups you in the butt
then you wake up in your bed’
with that throbbin in your head
you might wish that you were dead
but you want some more instead

we’re talkin moonshine baby
the most complete manifestation of joy and good cheer
we’re talkin moonshine honey
mama pass that jar over here

takes the rust right off your car
you can’t get it in a bar
it’s the sweetest thing by far
just like heaven in a jar
it’ll warm you to your toes
evacuate your nose
make you do what heaven knows
let me have another dose

we’re talkin moonshine baby
the incarnation of joy and good cheer
we’re talkin moonshine honey
mama pass that jar over here

PLAUSIBLE NEWS: Robertson To Lead GOP Wannabes on “40 Days in Wilderness”Retreat

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“Keeping Ahead of Reality Since 2001″

Will Attempt To “Discern God’s Will” And Settle On One “Anointed” Candidate

VIRGINIA BEACH (Plausible News Service) – The Republican Party has a problem, and it is seeking Divine help to solve it.

Many of the GOP’s Presidential hopefuls, including Governor Mike Huckabee, Senator Ted Cruz, and former Senator Rick Santorum, have either hinted or declared outright that they have been ordered, or at least encouraged, to seek the Presidency by none less that Almighty God Himself. Cynical commentators have called into question how God could be promising His support to so many people at once. “Behold, His left hand knoweth not what His right hand mighteth be doing,” wrote one atheist wag.

For their part, GOP party leaders have more practical concerns. They fear that a contentious primary season could weaken their chances of a victory in November 2016. In the words of one party staffer, “A bunch of guys, each of whom is convinced in his heart of hearts that he has been personally chosen by God for a great mission, are not going to play together well.”

Enter “700 Club” televangelist and would-be kingmaker Rev. Pat Robertson. A former Presidential candidate himself, Robertson has announced plans to take all willing primary candidates on a 40-day “retreat into the wilderness” where “God shall examine their souls and test their hearts” and, presumably, settle on one standard-bearer who shall be, in Robertson’s words, “anointed with the awesome power of the Holy Spirit.”

According to reports, though, this “forty days in the wilderness,” despite its Biblical resonances, will not involve wearing hairshirts, wandering amongst cacti in the desert, or relying on manna from heaven for sustenance. Rather, the “retreat” will take place at the luxurious and exclusive Rancho Grande del Cielo resort in the Sierra Nevada mountains, which is operated by relatives of the prominent Republican donor T. Bigglesworth Bellows. Rumors that the retreat will also be attended by such deep-pocketed backers as the Koch brothers and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson could not be confirmed.

NEVER GO DOWN TO THE RIVER (bluegrass song)

The songs of old have nuggets of golden wisdom for you to learn
Just take their advice and your life will be nicer and you may not have to burn
But there is one part that you must take to heart when push has come to shove
Never go down to the river with the one you love

Never go down to the river with the one you love
Dreadful things may happen there under the stars above
He’ll say he wants you for your wife
And then he’ll take your honor and maybe your life
Never go down to the river with the one you love

You boys and young men, I must tell you again, you are not immune
You are likely as well to be sent down to hell by the light of the rivery moon
She may have found you’ve been messing around
And you’ll find she has dug you a hole in the ground
Never go down to the river with the one you love

Never go down to the river with the one you love
Dreadful things may happen there under the stars above
You’ll be much better off just staying in town
With a whole bunch of other people around
Never go down to the river with the one you love