Think the Unthinkable


I’ve had a hard time writing this sermon because what has been on my mind this past week is really hard to explain. It’s about thinking things that make us uncomfortable – things that never occur to us, because they don’t fit our worldview. Thinking the unthinkable. As a long-time teacher, I know that we never learn anything new if we only stick to things we already know. Understanding that our own way of seeing the world is not the only way is hard. It is hard to understand that people who disagree with you are not your enemies, they are just people who see things differently

Not wrong; just different.

And, yes, sometimes wrong but that does not have to make them your enemy.

I’ve written in the past about the mythos: the underlying stories about ourselves that we never question. The mythos includes a whole lot of things that we take for granted. Our country is the best. People who break laws should be punished. Children should always obey their parents. God exists and loves us, or god doesn’t exist, and the whole thing is pointless.

The whole good versus evil thing.

Some things that used to seem rock solid are being questioned; things like gender, and with it, marriage. This upsets the people who are so determined to protect their mythos that they want to imprison or even kill people who don’t fit their worldview. That leads to thinking in black or white without any room for shades of gray. If you don’t like it here, leave! Back when I was a hippie, I heard that a lot. Where was I supposed to go?

The thing that really got me upset was something on Facebook. (I really should just stop going there.) It was a video clip about some idiot wearing a Nazi armband in Seattle. Well, this guy was clearly foolish for two reasons, the second was wearing the armband in Seattle, of all places. That really is just asking for trouble. Anyway, in the video, the Nazi got in an altercation with a guy who punched him in the jaw – knocked him right out.

I could easily sympathize with the puncher. Possibly he felt threatened or provoked. And although I don’t like violence, I can understand protecting yourself, even if the threat is not immediate. If you are black, or Hispanic, or, well, just about anybody, Nazis are a threat. But that isn’t what upset me. What upset me was how many people applauded the puncher and posted to say what a good thing the punch was.

Encouraging violence. Applauding violence. Getting turned on a little by violence.

Here is where I want you to think the unthinkable.

What if the guy was wearing a Bernie armband, instead of a Nazi one. What would your response be then?

I’m betting that if you tend toward the liberal, you would criticize the hitter, and you would not be alone.

What if neither of them was wearing any kind of political badge? What if it was just two guys having a fight about, I don’t know, say, soccer. Would you still praise the guy who knocked out the other team’s supporter?

What if they were arguing about Star Wars vs. Star Trek? Is that worth throwing a punch? How about which end of an egg to open – the big end or the little end? Should we go to war over that?

What if they are both wrong?

What if neither view is worth fighting for?

What if violence is never the answer. Ever?

What if patriotism is not the capstone of all virtue?

What if god really wants you to stop believing in her?

What if we really do have the power to change?

What if we don’t find violence a turn on?

What if insulting someone you disagree with is the last thing you think of?

What if you forgive people who hurt you?

What if we all give up our guns, including the police?

What if one person makes a difference?

What if it really is up to you to make things better?

What if we could tell the difference between what is “right” and what is needed?

What if punching someone in the face is not seen as legitimate political discourse?

What if we talk about things we have in common, instead of fighting about things that separate us?

What if we see that doing what we want might not get us what we need?

What if love really is the answer?

What if we think the unthinkable?

What if for just one day, no one anywhere acts like a dick?

What then?


Man in a Hat



I wear hats. I have ten at last count and six caps, not counting baseball caps, which I almost never wear. I grew up wearing hats. I am the fourth son of a member of the last generation of men who always wore hats.

Growing up I learned the following things about hats: you take them off when you go inside; you either touch the brim or take them off when you meet a woman you don’t know or a friend; you never, ever wear them inside. My wife thinks I’m nuts because I carry my hat to the door, put it on, and then promptly take it off again when I get into the car. But I just feel uncomfortable wearing a hat indoors. As to taking my hat off when I meet a woman, I’ve kind of given that up, because it seems just kind of – outdated. Most women under the sixty look at me like I’m nuts if I take my hat off anyway.

Now the reason I’m thinking about hats, is not so much the hats, but the little rituals that go with – or at least, went with – wearing hats. When to wear one. Who to take it off to. When not to wear it. These little ceremonies, if you like, had to do with good manners. Like holding the door open for someone. Or pushing their chair in when they sit down. Calling a man “sir” and a woman “ma’am,” especially if you don’t know their name. All of these things are marks of respect.

Manners, it has been said, are the grease that makes the wheels of society run smoothly. Showing respect isn’t kowtowing to power, it’s showing that you are willing to treat people politely. Polite comes from the Latin, politus: polished; made smooth. Like well greased.  A synonym of polite is civil. Also from the Latin, civis, a citizen. In other words, polite means how people in society get along. Basically it means, treating everyone the same. Treating everyone the way you expect to be treated. The way you want to be treated.

In other words, not being a dick.

Manners, however, are out of fashion. I’m not sure why this is so, but frankly I blame myself and members of my generation. Back in the sixties, there was the idea that “letting it all hang out” and “being true to yourself” was all important. As I recall, there was also a lot of talk about loving everybody, too. Somehow that got forgotten in the “be yourself” culture. Then, in the seventies and eighties, there was this idea that society didn’t exist; that we were a multitude of individuals, each out for himself. Greed, it was said, was good. Success was the goal, and if being polite got in the way, throw it out. All that stuff just gets in the way of being true to yourself.

Besides, if we’re all equal, only the strong survive. Fight for the right to be… whatever the hell you want.

This idea was right up there with the “alpha wolf” concept, which I have written about before. And it works, too. If what you want is hell.

What it doesn’t work for is any kind of functioning society. You know, where people aren’t fighting each other for enough to eat? For the kind of society where we get to something like civilization, we have to rub along together, and in order to keep the friction of rubbing along to a minimum, we need manners.

Now the point is, I suppose, you have to learn manners. I was not born knowing to take my hat off indoors. Likewise, as any child minder will tell you, there is a stage of child development where teaching kids to share is necessary, and that learning the basic “Do as you would be done by” has to begin. In other words, people tend to become dicks unless they are not taught not to be. Psychologists call this “socialization.” I call it “learning to behave yourself.” And the single most important part of this is learning that the world does not revolve around you. The world does not revolve around any one of us. We’re just along for the ride, and we are all in this together. Making that ride stress free, healthy, fun, and full of love is our business. Fortunately, life is not a zero-sum game. If you get more; I don’t have to get less. Not if we treat each other with respect.

Not if we are civil to each other.

Good manners isn’t looking down your nose at people who don’t know which fork to use. It’s making sure they have enough to eat.

Good manners isn’t holding the door open for someone. It’s just not letting the door slam on the person behind you.

Good manners isn’t just letting someone speak. It’s listening long enough to hear what they have to say.

Good manners isn’t just saying please and thank you. It’s being genuinely grateful and not expecting things to be done for you.

Good manners isn’t even taking your hat off indoors. It’s learning to not subject others to your thoughtlessness, your greed, your dickishness.

And, no, good manners won’t change the world. But they can change the way we think about and treat each other. Good manners reminds us that life isn’t just about ourselves.

And that is the first step to not being a dick.


The image is from @GirlsOwn a wonderful source of amusement on twitter.




One of my favorite books is Alice in Wonderland, and its sequel, Alice Through The Looking Glass. Like so many children, I grew up with the stories and could recite “You Are Old, Father William” by heart by the age of six. And even at that young age I realized that although so much of the story was called nonsense, there was a special kind of sense that hid behind the silly things that were said and done. I still like to browse through it from time to time, to see what new nuance I can pick up.

One of my favorite characters in Through the Looking Glass is the White Knight and not just because I look rather like him. Personally, I think I’m more like the Mad Hatter. In any case, I have always thought the foolish old White Knight with the song he sang for Alice was one of the nicer characters she ran into. But it is not the song I want to talk about, but rather what the White Knight said about it.

“It’s long,” said the Knight, “but it’s very, very beautiful. Everybody that hears me sing it – either it brings tears to their eyes or else –“

            “Or else what?” said Alice, for the Knight had made a sudden pause.

            “Or else it doesn’t, you know.”  

And that is the wisdom of the White Knight. It isn’t either or. It isn’t black or white. If they don’t cry, it doesn’t mean that they laugh. It just means that they don’t cry. They could smile. They could yawn. They could hum a little of the tune. They could do anything.

As an artist I know that you can make an image using just black and white, but though it might be recognizable, it will lack fullness, it will not have depth. Because it is only by the careful use of grey that you get anything like an image that shows the fall of light, the subtlety of shadow, the truth of form. So thinking that the opposite of white is black is not something I do. If it’s not white, it’s any of five shades of gray. Because I find five grays and black and white are about the minimum to show the full picture.It’s even more obvious if you think about color. Though the complement of green is red, no one would say “her hair is either red or green.” That would just be stupid. Yes, green and red are located opposite each other on a traditional color wheel. And added together they make a kind of greyish brown if you are using paint. But they are not opposites. They aren’t even alternatives. They are part of a continuum.

In fact, although for artistic purposes it is useful to divide the colors of the spectrum into six primaries and secondaries like the rainbow flag, in reality there are thousands of hues between red and violet on the spectrum. They blend into each other, in fine gradients that your eye can’t actually distinguish.

And speaking of the rainbow flag, that is inaccurate at best; far too simple. As a cis male I have been accused of being gay. My wife is a woman from Mars. My friends are whatever they chose to be, and any good biologists will tell you that male and female are not clearly defined, and certainly aren’t the only alternatives.

Either you are male….. or you’re not. And just how male is up to you. Because I for one don’t have the knowhow to lay down the law on what you are. Only you know that – maybe. People simply aren’t limited to binary distinctions.

At some point after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, then President George W. Bush made a statement that “If you aren’t with us, you are against us.” But that doesn’t follow at all. I can be with you about looking for the perpetrators and bringing them to justice, and against invading Iraq for no reason connected with the attack. I can agree with you about invading Iraq, but think banning every member of the previous government from holding office is a stupid, counterproductive move that will cause chaos and leave the country in ruins. There are all kinds of ways in which I can agree with you while still withholding complete support. That’s what is meant by being an ally. Allies work with you, not for you.

Can I be anti-Nazi and still think it is necessary to talk to people who might be naive enough to agree with some pretty far out things? Do I think it’s right for a Nazi to punch you? No. Will I protect you, if I can, from such violence? Yes. Do I think you should punch every Nazi? No. And this does not make me a Nazi, because anyone who punches someone is a dick. And two dicks are just twice as many dicks as one.

Because it isn’t either / or.

It isn’t this or that.And it never was.

You can’t rewrite history to suit your views. The soldiers of the Southern Confederacy were not all heros nor were they all despicable bastards. They were people, as we all are, who do things for the best of all reasons and for the worst of all reasons. People who were brave and foolish and easily led and greedy and generous and alive, and now they are dead. There were members of the Wehrmacht who were fighting for justice by their way of thinking.  I am sure there were soldiers on the Persian side of Thermopylae who thought the Greeks were real sods. And their families back home on the banks of the Euphrates thought they were the heros. But people are neither this nor that. They never are.

Politics isn’t binary.

Gender isn’t binary.

Race isn’t anything like binary.

People aren’t binary.

Unless you want to say that there are two types of people in the world. Those that think there are two types of people in the world……. and everybody else. And just possibly, those who are dicks. And all the rest.


Do unto others part 4


At various points over the past eight months I have written about why people act like dicks. In three previous sermons, I have talked about forgetfulness, anger and selfishness as causes of dickish behavior. This time I want to talk about the fourth reason people act like dicks: because they want to.

When I was about fourteen years old, I came across a book by the British humorist and broadcaster, Stephen Potter. It was called The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanshp, or The Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating. It was very British, very dry, very funny, and I loved it. It was all about how you could put people off, make them feel ill at ease and confused, and thus unable to play – whatever you were playing – at their best. It was a handbook on practical psychology of annoying people. In short, it was a manual on how to be a dick.

I read it with enthusiasm and bought the two sequels, One-upmanship and Lifemanship. Of course, I knew the books were humorous. Why, the very way Potter wrote them was off-putting, as if he, and every other reader but you, were in on some kind of private joke. What a perfect ploy! What a perfect example of being one up. The joke on me was that he was showing up the awful kind of games people play when they are playing games and holding them up to ridicule. I took it seriously. I thought it was a great idea.

So I proceeded to follow his advice and annoyed the crap out of people. But as I said, I was only fourteen. The best possible age to be a fourteen-karat dick.

Because at fourteen you don’t know anything. And even if you do know things, chances are no one is going to be interested. If you are into sports, there is a fair chance that someone will be better. If you are musical, it only helps if you have brought along your instrument, and even then someone has to ask you to play. In fact, the only way you can make yourself look good is by making someone else look bad. Or weak. Or stupid.

In short, by doing the exact kind of things that you would hate to have done to you.

One of the techniques Potter presents is ‘plonking.’ Plonking someone involves interrupting a speaker in order to make some kind of point. It usually takes the form of showing off that you know more about the subject than the speaker.

“Look at that gargoyle! I love that kind of…”

“Actually, that’s not a gargoyle, it’s a grotesque. It’s only a gargoyle if it’s a waterspout…”

Nowadays we might call that mansplaining, though I think the older term, plonking, is better, because it’s gender neutral. And trust me, anyone can do it to anyone.

Another example is to insert some useless detail into someone else’s story.

“We got back on Tuesday night…..”

“Actually, it was Wednesday. I remember because the papers hadn’t been delivered.”

Who cares? The listener? The teller? No one. Just the plonker who has to show he knows more. And, who, most importantly, has now taken over the story, whether it’s his story or not. And absolutely no one cares about the detail about the papers and they never will.

The reason for plonking is to steal the limelight from someone. To rain on their parade. To ‘one-up’ them. Incidentally, it was Stephen Potter who invented the term one-up.

In the case of the Gamesman, it’s someone who can’t win on their own merits and isn’t good enough (or brave enough) to cheat. Besides, cheating involves the risk of getting caught. The point of putting your opponent off is to not cheat, but win anyway.

There is a certain amount of Gamesmanship in professional soccer, where if you are tripped up, or even just fall over, you writhe around on the ground as if you were at death’s door or have a broken leg at the very least. This is often used as a way of getting a penalty or in any case stopping the flow of the game.

Golf is also a great sport for the Gamesman. Just as your opponent is lining up his shot, you clear your throat, and ask, “I’m not bothering you here, am I?”

Well, you weren’t, but now you are.

I’m sure you can think of many examples of this kind of thing.

Why would anyone do this shit?

I believe it’s because it’s the only way they can see themselves as winners – by making someone else look like a loser. It is the alpha male mentality I wrote about last week. But the thing is, life is not a contest with winners and losers. We all lose in the end – each and every one of us. So it really isn’t a matter of winning or losing, but of how you are playing the game, right now, this minute.

You will not get the job by pretending to know more than the interviewer.

You will not make friends by putting them down.

You will not get the girl/boy/other person by acting like an asshole to everyone around you.

You will never earn the respect and love of the people around you by being a jerk.

The prize you want is in front of you today: your life, lived well.


Alpha Male


I came across a review the other day, for a famous Pulitzer-Prize winning play, Glenngarry Glenn Ross.

It’s not a play I have seen, but one I know of, because it has become part of the American psyche since the 1992 film adaptation starring, among others, Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Al Pacino and Alec Baldwin.  Alec Baldwin is remembered for his performance as Blake, a character not in the original stage play, but added especially for the film.

It’s the character of Blake that interests me especially, because, although he is listed in the credits by name, in the film, when asked what his name is, answers “Fuck You.” And that is almost all you need to know about Blake.

Blake is the kind of man who presents himself as an “alpha male.” The idea comes from the belief that in a wolf pack, there is a hierarchy among the wolves based on aggression, violence, and fighting. The leader of the pack is the alpha male, who has first place at the food, first choice of the females, and lords it over the rest of the pack. In the real estate agency where he works, Blake is the alpha male. Or wants to be, anyway.

He insults all the other salesmen and disparages their weaker, less successful, attempts to sell worthless properties to gullible clients. In other words, he is not just a dick, he’s a crook. But then, all of the salesmen are more or less crooks. Some are just better than others. Or dirtier. Or meaner. Or less scrupulous. Or bigger dicks.

Perhaps the most famous piece of dialogue in the film is from Blake:

“‘Cause we’re adding a little something to this month’s sales contest. As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anyone wanna see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired….(If) you can’t close the leads you’re given, you can’t close shit. You ARE shit!”

Nice guy.

But here’s the thing. This point of view, the idea that to be best you have to be the most violent, most aggressive, most insulting to others, that in order to succeed and be alpha male; this idea is part of American culture. It’s part of corporate culture, which is almost the same thing. And when people talk about toxic masculinity, I think this is what they are talking about. To be a success, you have to be alpha male, and to be alpha male you have to be a dick.

But what’s really tragic is that the whole alpha male thing is a myth. It isn’t true, neither about human beings nor wolves.

The idea of the alpha male was started by a biological researcher, L. David Mech, who wrote a book, “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species,” in 1968. As a result of the research he did after the book became popular, he’s been trying to get his publishers to stop printing it ever since. Because one of the ideas he wanted to change was the concept of the alpha wolf. The reason why the wolves he studied fought for leadership was because they were all caged wolves from different packs. They had no natural hierarchy, so they had to form one. In the wild the pack leading wolf achieved that position by mating and producing pups. In other words, the real names for the alpha male and alpha female are “Papa” and “Mama.”

In the wild, the alpha pair look after the younger wolves, most of whom are male. The young females go off to find mates to start new packs. In fact, it isn’t clear whether the male or the female is the leader. It might well be that there are no alpha male wolves, just alpha “mama” wolves.

But because of this bit of mistaken research, we have, in our society, the idea that you have to be tougher to survive. Meaner. More vicious.

But we aren’t a pack of wolves anyway. We are co-operative primates who from our earliest days as hunter gatherers have had to work together to survive. The more complicated our culture, the more we have had to co-operate. The guy who wants to be alpha male just screws things up by causing people to compete when they ought to be working together and by making us think that aggressiveness is the only way to measure masculinity or worth.

Now, as I have mentioned before, our society is based on myths. The mythos, the underlying beliefs that we use as our basis. But they are all just that: myths. Made up stories. And because of that, we get to choose which myths we believe in.

And the myth of the alpha male is one we just don’t need. Because it is the myth of the King Dick as leader.

We don’t need alpha male politicians. We don’t need alpha female feminists. We don’t need alpha policemen. And we certainly don’t need alpha male racists, who just stack one kind of myth on top of another.  That’s what makes them super-dicks.

What we need is to value each other for who we are. Not even for what we can do. Just who we are.




From time to time I just have to disconnect from online media. For me this usually means not looking at Facebook. That happened earlier this month when I just couldn’t stand the aggression, anger, foul language, and general verbal violence any more. Even people I like and get on with face to face were acting like dicks. Enough was enough, I signed off for the rest of the month.

It was interesting how many positive responses I got for that. People agreed with me, told me to have a nice Facebook-free break. One even commented that driving me away should act as a reminder to my friends just how distasteful things had become.

I really rather liked that one.

Tomorrow is the first of August, and so I shall officially return to posting on Facebook.

Here are a few observations, and one confession in connection with my return.

First of all, I really didn’t miss it all that much. The people I have the most contact with, family, close friends, my two doggies; I don’t need Facebook to keep track of them.  Secondly, there was much less aggravation in my life. I’ve noticed the same thing out in my car, when I turn off NPR and listen to the classical music station. Things are just…. Quieter.

And thirdly, because I was off Facebook, I kept my mouth shut. And that’s where the confession comes in. I still looked at Facebook.

You see, my phone kept telling me when people had posted things. And sometimes these posts were from people I don’t otherwise hear from; friends back in the UK, family on the other side of the country, people whose ideas I really want to hear.

So every now and then, I peeked.

Two or three times over the past month I was glad I had peeked. Mostly it was just as bad as ever. So, to my well-wisher who hoped people might get more civil in my absence, it didn’t work. But one thing did happen that I want to talk about.

Because I was “off line” for this month, I didn’t comment on anything. I didn’t post. I couldn’t. Otherwise people would know I was peeking.  So I kept my mouth shut.

I just read, looked, thought, and didn’t say a thing. I was present, but disengaged. And that was almost as good as not being there at all.

The Buddha teaches “detachment.” Christians speak about being “In the world but not of the world.” I call it, “Keeping your trap shut.”

It takes two to tango, as they say, and you can’t have an argument with someone who doesn’t answer back. And you can’t get involved in an argument if you don’t say anything in the first place. What’s more, if you aren’t talking, you just might be listening.

And here is what I learned, by listening on Facebook.

People have very strong feelings. They often have strong arguments in favor of one thing or another. The two are not the same thing. Just because your feelings are heartfelt, doesn’t make your argument strong. Actually, the stronger your emotions, the less likely you are to be rational.

Furthermore, you can’t argue someone out a position they arrived at through emotions. Because emotions are illogical, Jim. Illogic does not respond to logic. So arguing with someone who is emotionally involved in a point of view is a waste of time. Especially when your strong emotional attachment to your viewpoint leads you to attack the individual, call them names, and swear a lot.

Trust me, calling people names is never, ever, going to sway them over to your side. Just not gonna happen.

Now, stopping and listening to someone you disagree with might be frustrating. But if you do, you might just find the person behind the opposing point of view. And since you will never be able to change the point of view, you might, over time be able to reach the person and change them.

And besides, wouldn’t you want them to listen to you, instead of shouting? In other words, stop being a dick? Like you are?

I admit, it’s a long shot. But until one of you starts listening, and that means keeping your trap shut, nothing is going to change.

And you know the coolest bit of all this? The person who benefits most from keeping quiet is you. Because not talking requires you to be detached. In the argument, but not of the argument. You can listen, and study what is said, and understand. “This is just invective, this is ad holmium attack, this argument is based on false premises…” And if there is a valid point, you might just be able to dig it out of the paragraphs of screed.

It’s hard, sometimes, not to put in your two cents worth. Hold fast! Stay strong. Bite your lip. Shut the eff up. Just listen. After a while all the noise just seems to blend together, and becomes a kind of background drone, like a hive of bees or white noise. Something you can ignore.

Guess what? You feel better. The problems that cause rage don’t upset you anymore. And because they aren’t upsetting you, you might just be able to do something about them, instead of arguing about what should be done.

There were a lot of people on Facebook this past month, people I like, friends, who were talking a lot of nonsense.  What’s more, they were being insulting and verbally violent towards each other. And I didn’t have to hear it. And if they all just followed my example and didn’t post their reactions?


Kittens! Look a puppy!

Oh, lord, do I have to see your lunch? Oh well, alright.

If you shut up long enough, you might hear another voice, one deep inside you reminding you:

Shut the eff up. Don’t be a dick. Listen.


Rights and Duties


There is a kind of tension that exists in societies, especially ones like ours in the United States, between the rights of the individual, and the duties of that individual to society as a whole. In fact, the whole history of the US can be seen as a struggle between the people who feel that individual freedom is most important, and the people who feel the needs of the group are paramount. Our laws are a balancing act between the things the state (as the embodiment of society) can demand of us, and what rights we reserve to ourselves completely. The Constitution as drawn up by the founders of the country, lays out what government can do. The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, are to set out what rights the state can’t infringe on.

So far so good.

Then comes the question of just who gets to have those rights.

The obvious answer to me is, well, everybody, but that has never been the case. Native Americans, black people, brown people, female people, young people, gay people, transgender people, convicted felons, people born outside of the country, people born in the country but whose parents are not citizens; all of these people have had their rights curtailed.

When we talk about civil rights, these are the rights we mean. The right to have the same rights as everybody else.

Last week I talked about three types of culture, honor culture, dignity culture, and victim culture.

Honor culture is very much the culture of individual rights. If someone does something that I don’t like, or that injures me, or offends me, it is my right, and indeed my duty, to get revenge. I can shout at them, insult them, fight them, or kill them, as I see fit. What’s more, anyone who stops me from doing these things is infringing on my freedom to act.

Dignity culture divides infringements on the individual rights into big things and little things. Big things the state handles; we have laws, police and courts to deal with them. Small things are handled by social norms of behavior, called manners.

Victim culture doesn’t really come into this discussion, because it ignores honor, civic structures, and manners.

Now, I feel that as long as we are guided by the basic Golden Rule of treating people in exactly the same way as you want them to treat you, we should have as many rights as possible, and as much freedom as possible. But it’s funny, you know, just how much one man’s freedom is society’s pain in the ass.

I used to live in a house about four blocks from a McDonald’s. Very convenient if you wanted a burger, or a late-night shake. But also just about the exact distance that a person walking slowly eating their McFries will walk before they finish everything up and want to get rid of their paper bag, bits of burger and other leftover rubbish. Guess where it went? Yep, over my fence, into my garden.

I’m sure the individuals who did this weren’t thinking , “I know, I’ll be a real twenty-four karat dick and dump this stuff over there.” Very likely it was, “Erm… OK. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s a free country. I pay my taxes. Somebody else can clear that up.”

Unfortunately for me, I was never given any payment by the city for having my front lawn used as a communal garbage can. OK, so every Saturday morning (Friday nights were the worst) I had to clean up a bunch of paper bags, and loose paper napkins, and quarter-filled cups of milkshake. It could have been worse. I have worked as a janitor in a youth club, so I KNOW it can be worse.

Please notice that I was never tempted to lie in wait with a double-barreled shotgun to blow the brains out of the next bastard who throws garbage onto my grass. I do not subscribe to honor culture. I did try a “Please don’t throw your leftovers here” sign, but that was simply seen as a target. Still, this was small stuff, and as a believer in dignity culture I was taught not to sweat the small stuff. So I moved.

But the problem isn’t a few bags of McGarbage on a lawn or two. If you drive along the highways in our beautiful state you will see all kind of junk by the side of the road. And public spirited organizations adopt sections of the highway and clear it up. The group, society as a whole, deals with the selfishness of the free individual. But it doesn’t stop there. The idea that clearing up after my freedom is someone else’s job is almost universal.

It isn’t the paper cups in the garden, or the bags of rubbish by the road, or the old mattress dumped in the lake. It’s the oil spill in the river, the millions of tons of carbon pumped into the sky, the slurry overflow from the farm, the beer bottle on the alley, it is the vast island of plastic rubbish floating in the Pacific Ocean.

The idiot throwing his half a chicken McNugget into my petunias thinks that manners don’t matter, because I’m not going to shoot him. The person who leaves a bag of old clothes and dirty diapers at the side of the road knows he’ll never get caught. The international petroleum corporation who floods a town in crude oil knows that whatever fine they may  have to pay, they can pass the cost on to the guy who drives the car and dumps his garbage on the roadside. The car manufacturers and the power plant conglomerates know that they will never really have to pay for adding to global warming because they can donate enough to make sure no laws are passed to infringe on their rights to make even more money.

All along the line, people act like dicks, because they think they can sidestep the consequences, and besides that, they have the right to do that. To do what they want.

Thinking that you can do what you want to people, individually or as a planet, no matter what the consequences, is the act of a dick. It is doing as you will, not as you would have others do to you.

If you throw garbage onto my lawn, you are a dick. What are you if you put the whole planet at risk, because you are too lazy or too selfish to clean up after yourself?

What’s it going to be, Mr. Dick? Your lazy freedom or my right to a livable planet?

Victim Culture



I first came across the idea of victim culture in an article about sociology where the basic idea was that at various points in human history there have been different ways of dealing with interpersonal relations within the culture group.

One culture is the honor culture. In honor cultures, if someone offends against you by attacking you, stealing your property, or insulting you, you respond by defending yourself, often physically. You fight a duel, or ambush your attacker, or otherwise take your revenge. This is the culture of the family feud, and if you want to see examples of the honor culture in the modern world, I recommend Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.

Another culture is the dignity culture. In dignity cultures, an offender is dealt with by social institutions, such as the law. For personal attacks there are libel or slander suits, for physical injury, there are suits for damages, and for the more serious crimes, the police investigate and the state or city prosecute. The plaintiff demands restitution, or the society as a whole demands punishment. For small infractions, well…. don’t sweat the small stuff.

The honor culture often demands violent responses for small offences. The dignity culture tends to ignore small offences (micro-aggressions) as being “beneath my dignity.”

And then there is the victim culture.

In the victim culture, any offence, no matter how small, is paraded before the wide public of the Internet in hopes of gaining sympathy for the victim and attacks against the perpetrator. Any attempt on the part of the perpetrator to defend themselves is met with escalation and increasingly violent language. This is in part due to the medium. On the Internet, people can become offensive much more quickly than they would in a face-to-face (honor culture) confrontation. Because instead of actual violence, the most they face is the threat of violence. So, safe behind their screens, they turn nasty.

In short, they act like dicks.

This is not the honor culture, because the presumed victims are not defending themselves, they are calling upon the Internet to take up their cause. It is not the dignity culture, because the presumed victims do not rely on social institutions to defend them. They go directly to the Court of Public Opinion. Please note that regardless of whether you approve of the honor culture or the dignity culture, both resolve problems. The victim culture never resolves problems. It only amplifies them.

The victim culture encourages people to act like dicks. It is the natural breeding ground for trolls. It invites people who have no actual stake in …whatever it was…  to get involved at a distance without any personal risk or responsibility.

But what’s worse, is that victim culture encourages people to take offence over anything. It invites people to look for reasons to be offended. Victim culture encourages people to set out the terms under which they will disagree with you, attack you, censure you, and insult you.

“No matter how left you think you are, if you don’t believe x, you are still a Nazi!”

“No matter how conservative you claim to be, if you believe in y, you are a tree-hugging Libtard!”

“No matter how Christian you call yourself, if you don’t go batshit crazy over z, you are a spawn of satan!”

“No matter how much you accept science, if you still believe in the religious claptrap of n, you are a thumb-sucking loony!”

I’ve seen pretty much all of these.

When I first arrived in Seattle, I got a job serving behind the counter in a small shop. There I quickly realized that there are people in the world who go around looking for something to be angry about. It can be anything. The price of a first-class stamp. The length of a girl’s skirt. The color of a boy’s hair. The color of someone’s skin. Anything. Everything. And they take these things personally. Never mind that everyone has to pay the same price for a stamp, they shouldn’t be treated this way. It’s outrageous! And so they live their lives in a constant state of outrage.

Well, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but the universe doesn’t give a crap about your outrage.

And looking for something to be offended by on the Internet is an admission that you are a dick, because you think your opinions, feelings, and needs are more important than anyone else’s, and they should pay for the effrontery of thinking, feeling, or looking different from you.

It is the attitude of the child who says you have to play by their rules or you can’t use their ball. The only thing is, they don’t actually have a ball. They just expect you to play by their rules, or they will tell the Twitterscape on you.

There are real victims out there. People who are denied human dignity and honor because of the color of their skin, the length of their skirt, the people they love, their religion, or lack of it, how much money they have. Pre-existing conditions.

Social structures can take care of the most important offences. Essentially, we live in a dignity culture. But the social structures can be the offenders too. Black lives have to matter to the police or no lives matter to anyone. If we are going to change the social structures and institutions of the state to protect all of our dignities equally, we have to work together, not squabble over our personal demands for special treatment.

Victim culture only creates more victims and more dicks. It never solves anything.

Stave Church



A week or so back I was in Norway. This was altogether fabulous, and I saw many amazing and wonderful things on the trip, which doubtless I’ll talk about at some point. Right now, though, I want to talk about a church. The Fantoft stave church in Bergen.

This is the kind of building that takes your breath away. A wonderful combination of architecture and dragon, of wood and soul, of mystery and beauty and artistry. My wife said that she had always wanted to see that church. She was not disappointed. I first saw a stave church when I was sixteen, hitchhiking through Norway with my brother. I wondered if the Fantoft church could be as striking as the one we had seen. It was. It was better. And this time I got to go inside.

The church is a wonderful combination of Nordic pagan and Christian symbolism. The guide said that the dragons carved on the roof were to keep off evil spirits. We all know better. This building is the granddaughter of a Viking long ship. It absolutely reeks warrior.

And inside the White Christ hangs on his tree.

The church was built around 1150, and even though Norway was Christian by that time, it carries with it an undercurrent of Ragnarok and Odin and the whole Northern Thing what was in part the inspiration of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The feeling of the past and the many congregations who had used the church since it was built was one I had felt in many old churches in Germany and France.

Which is kind of odd, really.

Because the church wasn’t built where it now stands. It was built in Fortun and moved to Bergen in 1883, by the man who was the American Council there. More than that, the original building was destroyed by fire in 1992.

It’s rather like the old joke about the axe used to chop off Anne Boleyn’s head; the handle has been replaced three times and the head twice but it is the original axe.

It’s something I’ve noticed in other churches, though, the building itself seems to have a spirit of place, a genius loci that is connected to the building, but not dependent on it. Even when it has been turned into a museum, it still has that awesome feeling. And it’s not just churches, of course. Castles, palaces, market halls, they all have a feeling of time and place and importance. When we went to Gdansk in Poland, almost every building we saw had been destroyed in the WWII and then rebuilt using as much of the original materials as possible. Were we looking at the original building at all? It felt like we were. Those buildings were old! And the people of Poland who reconstructed Gdansk and Warsaw rebuilt their past because they wanted that feeling to remain.

Of course, it is down to the building, not what it is used for. In other words, the architecture, the decorations, and the artwork create the sanctified mood. After all that’s why the architect built it that way; why the artists painted the frescoes and carved the statuary. That’s why replacing and restoring the artwork gives you the same feeling as the original. That’s what art is for.

I think we are like those old buildings, though, like the stave church. No matter how much we change, there is a part of us that remains us. Call it soul; call it spirit; call it self-awareness; call it what you like.

Inside, I feel the same as I always have. No matter how much my body has aged, whether or not I have had teeth replaced, and wear hearing aids; regardless of how grey my hair is, and the fact that I have a mustache, I feel like the boy I was at seventeen. Five years old, even, sometimes. Physically I am hardly the same at all. Inside I feel the same. But I know I have changed a lot. I’m afraid when I was seventeen I was a bit of an intellectual snob and could be an absolute dick at times. I also had opinions that I have thrown out. Actually, I try and get rid of opinions as much as I can. And, yes, I know, this is a kind of opinion piece, so I suppose it isn’t working.

The spirit of the building resides in its form. Not in its use or name.  

Our spirit? Kind of hard to say. Maybe each one of us is a kind of work of art. Maybe that’s what remains unchanged.

I’ll tell you one thing, though, the idiot who burned down the Fantoft Stave Church was a complete dick. Because he was trying to destroy the spirit of the building by burning it down.

Kind of like what dicks do to people. Try to tear them down. So, please, respect everyone’s inner stave church. Don’t be a dick.


Stave Alter





I had an interesting exchange the other day with a friend. I say exchange, because it started via text and then turned into a phone call. I hope soon to finish the discussion face to face. We are indeed “living in the Future.”

The subject under discussion was honor, which my friend considered to sit in opposition to expedience. And if honor means living your life according to a personal set of values, then expedience is pretty much the opposite of that: doing whatever is necessary to achieve results now. In fact, expedience pretty much means ignoring all kinds of values except success.

My friend likes to quote the film Rob Roy and say, “Honor is a gift a man gives to himself.” Which is pretty much true, in that being honorable, like being a dick or not, is voluntary. But in fact, the concept of honor is not something one gives to oneself. We give it to each other. It is a social construct. It is, if you like, a myth.

Now, because most people use the word myth to mean something made up or not factually true (i.e., a lie) I am going to explain just what I mean by that. I’m using the word myth in the context of relating to the mythos. Mythos, according to Wiktionary is “A story or set of stories relating to or having a significant truth or meaning for a particular culture, religion, society, or other group.” It is, in short, the underlying assumptions we have about our world. The Mythos are the things we believe without question; the assumptions we never discuss.

For instance, we believe that the United States is a democracy. Even saying that we believe this is to almost commit an act of heresy, because it implies that it might not be true. But it isn’t true. The underlying principles are democratic, but our electoral system frequently thwarts the wishes of the majority. And even when a candidate is elected with a clear majority of the population (As opposed to the most votes cast) they frequently ignore the wishes of the voters.

Likewise, there is the belief that the US is a Christian Country. It isn’t. It clearly isn’t because there are a lot of people who aren’t Christians, and the Constitution prohibits the establishment of any state religion.  Now it is true that the culture is based on a lot of Western Christian Traditions, but that isn’t the same thing at all. It would be like saying that the US is a nation of meat eaters. There are a lot of ‘em out there, and there is a great tradition of hamburgers around here, but no one is required to eat meat.

So that is what I mean by a Myth. Something we act as if was real, even if, upon investigation, we find out that it isn’t.

So back to honor and expediency.

One of the reasons our elections aren’t “democratic” is because of expediency. We want quick, easy to understand elections that give a result in one day. Whoever gets the most votes wins. This is called “First Past the Post.” Other democracies think this is unfair. Any country that uses proportional representation or single transferable vote think first past the post is undemocratic. But we believe in first past the post because it is part of our Mythos. So we continue to say we live in a democracy, even when politicians are elected with less than a majority of the votes, and when elected, ignore the needs and desires of the people.

It seems to me that a man of honor, elected by an unfair system, would work to change the system. Funny how rarely that happens.

And this is because Honor, like democracy, is a myth. It also doesn’t exist.

And here is the interesting thing: none of the Mythos, the underlying beliefs that we have about our country, our society, our planet, our species, none of it exists. To paraphrase Terry Pratchett, take the whole of the universe and everything it and grind it down to the finest powder. Pass that powder through the finest sieve imaginable, and not one atom of honor will you find, not one molecule of democracy. Not one atom. Because things like Honor, Democracy, Love, God, General Electric, the United States, don’t exist as atoms and molecules. Honor, charity, truth, perhaps, only exist in the mind or the heart. They are ideas, emotions. And they are a gift we give – not to ourselves – but to each other. Because it is only by agreeing to act as if these things exist are we able to live as human beings.

Honor is a gift we give to each other. As is respect.

We may or may not agree on whether the US is a democracy, or that our elections are fair, but unless we agree that democracy as an idea exists, and that one way of making it work is elections, we’re screwed. Unless we agree that some people have honor, and you can trust them, and that you should maybe not trust someone who values only expedience, we are going to find any kind of society difficult. In fact, everything that makes life worth living is a myth. It only exists because we believe in it. We want it to be real.

But here is something I think is really cool. We get to decide what we want to be real. My friend gets to choose to be honorable.  We get to agree that our country will not be a tyranny, run by a King Dick. In fact, that’s why the United States exists at all: people agreed to it. It was an act of will. It still is. Honor, honesty, generosity, loyalty, patriotism, faith. We get to have these or not. But we have to choose for them to exist. It isn’t automatic. The sun will rise tomorrow; that is a fact, made of atoms. But being honorable, that is a choice. That being the case, we really have to think long and hard about what we want our society to believe in. Honor or Expediency? Generosity or Greed? Our world, our lives and our children’s lives depend on what we choose.

I choose to be a loving man, and an honest one, because although I am made of atoms, those things are not, and I have to will them into existence.

And, just in case you are wondering, I think tomorrow I will try to not be a dick.