The Fantastic Power of Music: A Note from 1667

When the diarist Samuel Pepys went out to the theatre one night in the late 17th century, something truly amazing happened.   The play was Massinger and Dekker’s The Virgin Martyr, and at one point an angel appears in a kind of Christian deus ex machina. The recorders, a relatively new instrument at that time in England, began playing as the angel descended and Pepys was completely blown away.  In one of the most exquisite passages of his diary he writes:

“But that which did please me beyond any thing in the whole world was the wind-musique when the angel comes down, which is so sweet that it ravished me, and indeed, in a word, did wrap up my soul so that it made me really sick, just as I have formerly been when in love with my wife; that neither then, nor all the evening going home, and at home, I was able to think of any thing, but remained all night transported, so as I could not believe that ever any musick hath that real command over the soul of a man as this did upon me.”

I’m sure this has happened to you.   You hear music so thrilling, so soul-piercing that you actually feel sick, like life is hardly worth living anymore because a different world has been revealed, a divine world far from the everyday concerns of this one.   It’s a siren song that makes your heart yearn for something you can’t even describe, and it stays with you for days.

That’s the Sacrament of the Arts.

This “transportation” that “commands your soul” can also come from a play, from a book, from a painting, a statute, or a song. And yes, Pepys gets it exactly right– it’s like being in love for the first time, when that glorious feeling seizes you, grips you, binds you to that other human being who has shown through the most secret acts of intimacy, that you are loved in return.  That’s a sacrament too.

The Virgin Martyr is rarely played anymore, and I’m not sure that particular bit of wind-music has been preserved, but what Pepys is describing has not been lost– it’s there for all of us to experience, not just when we fall in love, but also when we find that ineffable connection to the arts that ravishes us to our very souls.

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Jimmy Carter Edits the Bible

An astonishing bit of news from former President Jimmy Carter on behalf of a group called the Elders:

“The justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher Authority, is unacceptable.”

In short: don’t believe everything you read in the Bible.   What’s more, because the Southern Baptist Convention does in fact find the discrimination of women “acceptable” (i.e., biblical, so just do it) Carter has ended his association with that influential group. Let me remind you that the Southern Baptists are  15 million strong—second in size only to Catholics in the USA.

The astonishing part is the reason Carter gives for deeming this practice of discrimination unacceptable:

“The carefully selected verses found in the Holy Scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place – and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence – than eternal truths. Similar biblical excerpts could be found to support the approval of slavery and the timid acquiescence to oppressive rulers.”

Wow.   President Carter rejects certain verses because they can’t be direct orders from a divine Being despite the fact that they are in a holy book. Why can’t they? Because there is a higher authority than what some guy thousands of years ago wrote down on a piece of papyrus, a higher authority that lies within each of us: Reason. If a practice like slavery causes suffering to a whole class of people, it cannot be just or what God wants us to do. If half the population is reduced to a kind of sexual slavery because of a certain verse on an old parchment passed down from father to son for a couple of millennia, then toss that verse in the trash can of oblivion and let’s live according to a different standard: the Greater Good based on the rights of all human beings.

Carter’s welcome apostasy opens up the door to a room we so badly need right now in the world: the editing room, a place where so-called holy writ is analyzed and large sections consigned to the dustbin, from Balaam’s ass to the virgin birth. People have been busily at work in this room since Epicurus first wrote that the gods have no interest in us mortals, so lets get on with finding the best way to enjoy our lives together. It’s a room where Socrates, Hus, Bruno and a host of others have labored until overwhelmed by the forces of the dark side.

President Carter’s declaration means we should think about each and every verse in the Bible and every other holy book, asking ourselves “is this a keeper?”  and the gauge can be found in the precepts of Humanism.

For more on this subject try “Sam Harris to Muslims: Edit Your Sacred Texts!”

Freedom of Speech on the Internet: the Case of Revenge Porn and Hate Speech

 

Germany has a law in the works that would fine social media companies up to $53 million if any postings with criminal content or offensive material show up on their sites. The companies would have 24 hours to remove the “criminal content” and 7 days for “offensive material”. Apparently youtube does a pretty good job of this already, but Facebook, Twitter, Google, and others do not.

Is this a good idea? Let’s break it down into its parts:

Freedom of Speech   Free speech advocates will deplore this law, but let’s get real. What the Founding Fathers wanted was not the freedom to say anything. As I’ve written before, the German term Meinungsfreiheit (Freedom of Opinion) is a better way to describe what any free society should be aiming for.   We want a marketplace of ideas and opinions, but that does not mean we can say or publish anything we want.   We live in an age where some people have slipped so far into the Dark Side that they are getting their kicks from posting naked shots of those who have spurned them, or even filming and uploading rapes. How low can we go in our race to the bottom? Images like this have nothing to do with opinions.  It turns the Sacrament of Sexual Union into a societal sickness.  Making sure the sickness doesn’t spread should be a high priority.

Enforcement  Is it possible to police this? Yes.  The big dollar amount is meant to get the attention of these companies that are making criminal activity possible. That makes sense.   If there were a TV network that allowed criminals to conduct their dealings on the air, or a newspaper that published revenge porn, they would be sued, put out of business, and their owners sent to the penitentiary. If it’s going to exist at all, Facebook should make sure it can police itself—hire more staff, whatever it takes to ensure that we don’t have to live in a world where the pseudopods of the Dark Side gradually engulf us all.

Who will decide what is criminal content? The companies themselves will have to set limits. If they want to play it safe, those limits will err on the side of caution, and that would not be a bad thing. Social media is so powerful– a good idea or an uplifting moment can reach millions instantaneously.  But so can a bad idea or a propaganda piece urging jihadists to go lone wolf.  This “platform” is so powerful, that far from being a soapbox on a street corner, it’s a stage as big as the world itself. Someone has to edit the scripts that are being read on that stage.

Who will decide what is offensive? The companies again will have to decide what to delete, and, again, as I’ve written before, the gauge should be respect. Many are offended by much of what Donald Trump says, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be able to say it. But if the utterances are couched in scurrilous or scabrous language or images, –it’s trash talk, send it to the trash.

The larger point here is this: yes, it’s censorship!  Embrace it–we need it.   We don’t need a tool that allows us to upload pornography, rapes, torture, or beatings onto the internet. We could get along fine without it.  So if we’re going to allow it to exist, it should only be under strict conditions.  If you’re going to argue that we need to be free to put anything we want out there for public consumption —no, we don’t. Because the yahoos of the world will take that freedom and use it to abuse others. We need a law like the Germans are proposing in order to protect ourselves from ourselves.

For more on this subject:  Freedom of Speech in Germany? Up to  a Point

Free Speech Crisis in Germany

Our Sexual Emergency: Watch out, World

I just nominated “sexual emergency” as the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year for 2016 in the category of “most euphemistic.”   For those who missed it, there was an appalling case out of Austria where a 20-year old man at a public pool grabbed a 10-year old boy in a changing room and raped him. The man then went back to the pool and was practicing on the diving board when the boy notified the lifeguard who notified the police who arrested this guy.   This horrible story made headlines around the world because although he admitted he’d made a huge “mistake” and scarred the boy for life, his defense was that he had had a “sexual emergency”: he was a refugee from Iraq and had not had sex for four months. The court found him guilty and sentenced him to 4 years in prison, but in a development out of the Twilight Zone, on appeal the verdict was overturned by the Supreme Court because it wasn’t clear if the boy had agreed to the encounter.   Fortunately, when the case was then re-tried, the justices found that consent had indeed not been given, and ended up handing down an even longer sentence.

For the moment, let’s ignore the fact that he was a migrant from Iraq, and the bizarre twist in the verdict.   Let’s focus on that word.   “Sexual emergency” (sexuller Notstand) is new to English, but has been around for a while in the German language.   There was a women’s punk band that had a top-selling song of that title back in 1981. I tried to listen to the lyrics, but because it’s hard to hear and because the song itself is not something you’d want to listen to more than about zero times, I gave up. However if you google the term “sexueller Notstand” you come up with a lot of chat rooms where women are trying to figure out what’s going on with their men. Sometimes the term refers to women whose sex lives have dwindled to nothing, and sometimes it refers to men who are desperately in need of sex.

So sexual emergency is another way of saying you haven’t had as much sex in your life as you’d like to. But to try to excuse what this man did … What next? Would we excuse all those attacks in Cologne last New Year’s Eve in the same way? Or just a few days ago in Innsbruck? Viewed that way, life itself is a sexual emergency.   We’re programmed by our DNA to want sex, and in fact not just to want it, to crave it desperately and do just about anything to get it at certain times of our lives.   Our hormones go berserk and our animal brains seem to demand we give in to the reproductive urge.

But would anyone dispute the idea that one of the most important things in life is to learn to control this urge? It’s called “civilization.” You don’t just follow your desires, your appetites unless you’re some medieval barbarian warlord.   Those strands of DNA inside of us are tyrants, demanding that we yield to their decrees if we want to survive. But Reason has elevated us to a different level of being. We’re not beasts anymore, though the veneer of civilization is spread pretty thinly over our lizard brains.

The “emergency” around sex is that we are not treating it as something sacred, something greater than a mere appetite, or vehicle for continuing the race.  Until we can figure out how to teach every individual on this planet self-control,to respect women, girls, boys and not treat them as “objects of desire” then stories like this one will continue to plague us. We need to get onto this universal education project urgently.  Either that or develop the artificial sex partner, Gigolo Joe and Gigolo Jill, at a price anyone can afford.  The faster the better for everyone.

Respect for Women!

Whatever else we take away from the 2016 election season, I think everyone will agree that it’s a whole new world as far as how we’re talking about women—and by that I mean, how they have been talked about in public forums. Women have always had it rough : sized up by men in those infamous locker rooms and harassed by anonymous cat-callers on city streets.   But now things have taken a dive deeper into the slime. The soon-to-be leader of our country is on record as not only publically laughing at women he finds unattractive, but of bringing taboo words and taboo subjects out in the open.   Whatever he said the media covered, ad nauseum.  The green light is now on to say any crass thing you want in any forum at any time and we need to turn it off.

These words and subjects have to do with what I call “the sacrament of sexual union”. The sanctity of this beautiful experience has been verbally violated many times in the past few months. Making this violation commonplace has created a culture that is, …yeah, let’s say it!–deplorable.   We might as well be cavemen, leering at women we find appealing and jeering at those we don’t. Forget the meek, it’s the internet trolls who have inherited the earth in 2016.

We need taboo words to remain taboo!  The original meaning of “taboo” in the South Sea Islands was “sacred”, and in that sense “forbidden”—more like the Greek root of the word “Mystery”—”that which is not spoken of.”   Sexual union is a Mystery in this capital-letter sense, a thrilling, private, after-dark intimacy, but to subject it to the harsh light of day and the thoughtless, crass, drooling language of the troglodytes among us is to lose any chance of experiencing something greater than a momentary spasm of pleasure. The opportunity is there for transcendence, for a union not just of bodies, but of souls through the body.  To get there, we need to approach it with respect.

So lets slap down our lizard brains whenever they want to break the taboo in public forums.  Parents, teach your children to always speak respectfully of women and the mysteries surrounding  intimacy!

For more on this subject go to The Sacrament of Sexual Union

Pope Francis on Marriage: Get it Together, People!

Pope Francis is in hot water with conservative Catholics.   He recently responded to a question on marriage by saying that most (later changed to “many”) marriages were invalid because the couple didn’t understand the sacrament of marriage. They did not, he said, fully comprehend what they had agreed to as they exchanged those vows. His antagonists began piling on, saying that he was making the entire Catholic community wonder if their marriages were legit, and “muddying the waters” of the Roman Church even more than he already has with his liberal attitudes towards gays, divorcees, and others living beyond the pale (their pale, that is). You could almost hear the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments as they proceeded to excoriate the Pontiff, as if he were an ordinary Joe off the street instead of the Vicar of Christ.

But Francis is on to something important.   Marriage doesn’t mean as much as it used to. It’s been plutoed. The Pope’s point is that those contemplating marriage are not being prepared properly for its demands, and that’s why there are so many seeking annulments (the Catholic Church does not recognize divorce).   They are too willing to call it a day and go on to the next partner on their dance card.

There are two things going on here. The first is the need to recognize that there are going to inevitably be some bad marriages and those people need to split up.   Maybe it’s nobody’s fault, maybe you can lay the blame at somebody’s feet, but every marriage is not going to be forever. People change. They get married too soon, too young, too unaware, blinded by passion and then one day they open up their eyes to a different person than the one they thought they knew.  They should be able to go their separate ways and start over.

But the second point jives with what Francis is trying to tell us. There is a sanctity in marriage, and not just for the Christian Faithful, but for everyone. Our partners in life, those with whom we beget our children should be our best beloved, and in that deep, ineffable affection and the intimacy of sexual union we find the Divine.  Call it God, call it whatever you want, it’s sacred.  Marriage should  ideally be for the long haul. But we live in a world of refunds, retooling, redecorating, and regifting. We have even invented the word “trial marriage”, an irritating phrase if ever there was one.

Forget for a moment the annoyance you may feel at celibate men of the Church ordering you around in this realm of intimacy and domesticity.  The world would be a better place if marriage were viewed as a sacrament instead of a tax benefit. The Pope is doubtlessly correct that many of us are woefully unprepared to be good spouses. But what is sacramental about the union of two souls, is not what happens in front of an altar as a priest utters some magic words. The sacrament lies deep in the heart of the bride and groom if they really care about each other and are willing to make sacrifices for each other and work together to make the marriage more important than either of their own individual lives. It is that depth of feeling that unites them, and makes them married in a spiritual sense. It is Divine. But you have to work at it.

 

Pope Francis Does It Again!

In a new “Exhortation” entitled “On Love in the Family” the Pope has broken new ground in humanizing the Catholic faith.   So much of this is desperately needed that it bears repeating, so here’s some of what he had to say:

1) Get it Together, Men! The Pope goes after domestic violence and verbal abuse of women as the antithesis of what a loving union should be.  Absolutely!

2) Not Sex Ed, …Love Ed: he warns about the danger of encouraging adolescents to “toy with their bodies and desires” treating the other person as a means of blithely fulfilling their own needs. They need to be taught that sexual union is based on a profound love, not personal gratification.

3) Treat Gays Kindly: we must respect the dignity of all, regardless of sexual orientation, and treat everyone with consideration

4) Stop Dissing the Divorcees: far from ostracizing those who get divorced, we must encourage them to be part of the community

A lot of this comes down to that best of all Bible passages: “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” It also emphasizes the need for a serious education, starting in childhood, on what this whole range of mysteries is all about: sexual attraction, marriage, and sexual union.  Too often we’re doing a bad job of this right now.   Mother Jones recently published an article on the “Abstinence Only” sex ed laws in Tennessee, which got their start when the daughter of a legislator in that state came home to announce that her instructor in AIDS prevention had illustrated the use of condoms by rolling one onto a vibrator—with her mouth!

Yes, that would do it.

We desperately need to let our children know that sexual union is sacred and it all ties in with how we treat each other as sexual partners and how we regard the sexual orientation of others. This needs to be taught in the home and taught at school, no matter what you think about God.

On the other hand, there are some things in Francis’s exhortation that are problematic, even for the most devoted Catholics. Take the Pope’s unhappiness with birth control, for example. Francis jumps on the fact that we call contraception “protection,” as if a future child were an enemy.

Semantics can be such a problem.

Even in the most Catholic countries, couples are ignoring the Church’s teaching on this point and using birth control in massive numbers.   If they were not, there would be millions of unwanted babies. The “enemy” if there is one, is not the child, it’s Want, Poverty, Starvation and all the social ills that come with them. The Pope and his men seem unaware of the dangers of the Population Bomb, or if they are, apparently they would address it by having us buck up, strengthen our self-control, and simply refrain more often from sexual activity to avoid the 12-child family.   They are dreaming. We are programmed to procreate–the urge is too great for most to resist.  Without contraception famine, wars over scarce resources, and mass migrations of peoples would overwhelm the earth even more than they already are.

So Two Cheers for Pope Francis, and thank God that Catholics around the world are using their common sense where it’s badly needed to keep Poverty at bay.

More on Sexual Attacks in Germany

Some of my German students returning to the US from their holiday break told me firsthand about the frightening events that occurred on New Year’s Eve.   One young woman said she was out with friends at a club and found themselves surrounded by 20 men, threatening them, some with knives. This happened not just in Cologne, but in Stuttgart, Bielefeld, Hamburg,… The most disturbing thing about these events is that they seem to have been planned by Muslim men from North Africa and the Middle East, some of them refugees who recently entered the country.

The German newspaper Die Welt reports that in Arab countries something called “taharrush gamea” is common. It means “coordinated sexual harassment” or sexual harassment planned and carried out by groups of men, ranging from molestation to rape.   It has never before been found in Germany. Now it is.

In the wake of these events, the German press is trying to get a handle on what is behind all this.  What is it like for women in their homelands? Die Presse from Austria interviewed four women from various parts of the Middle East. One woman from Iran recounted how at 16 she was accosted by a man on the street near her house who grabbed her breast. She ran home in tears but her family decided they wouldn’t take it to the police, because in all likelihood it would end up being worse for the victim than her attacker.   A woman from Iraq said the best part about living in Austria was that she could walk around freely, without men constantly in her face, badgering her, demanding her cellphone number.  In Baghdad she had to be home by 5 PM for her own safety. Others in IS-controlled Syria spoke of the fear of Islamist fighters killing them if they did not cover themselves with the hijab.

In short, these women are not free to live their lives.   Fear follows them wherever they go even if they are encased in their prison clothing.   Now women in Germany are afraid too.   Sales of pepper spray are up. Right-wing protestors are in the streets. No one knows how it will end.

 

 

Sacrilege in Köln (Cologne)

There is a song I’ve always liked by Georges Brassens, the unofficial poet laureate of France, called “Le Grand Pan”  (“Pan, the Great”). In the second verse he tells us how in the old days, the gods would rush to the aid of two lovers as soon as they heard a single “I love you,” and with their aid….

La plus humble amourette était alors bénie

Sacrée par Aphrodite, Eros, et compagnie.

L’amour donnait un lustre au pire des minus,

Et la moindre amoureuse avait tout de Vénus.

 

Even the most humble romance was blessed

Made sacred by Aphrodite, Eros and company.

Love gave a lustre to even the worst of losers,

And the least of women in love had all the qualities of Venus.

This is the sacrament of sexual union.   To sense those mutual feelings of attraction swirling, forming, taking over two “imbéciles heureux” as Brassens says, is to know what the Divine is all about.  And it’s there for everyone to experience, even the most humble of us.

But the important word here is “mutual.”   Those supernal energies that send us to the farthest reaches of happiness only operate when love is requited. Failing that, love withers and dies, or leaves only lust, and lust can lead to the Dark Side.  Men are programmed by their DNA to look aggressively for partners, and in the not-too-distant past, they took them by force if necessary. Civilization gave us romance and a moral compass, empowering women by diverting the genetic drive of the male to reproduce.  (I know, I know–women have this drive too, but the danger comes primarily from men).

The veneer of civilization washes off quickly, especially when lubricated by alcohol, and especially when people turn into packs. The horrific events in Cologne, Germany on New Year’s Eve illustrate yet again how frightening life can be for women, even in the most civilized of countries. We don’t know all the details yet, but what we do know is bad enough: hundreds of drunken men encircling women, groping them, assaulting them, making them fear for their lives. It calls to mind events in our own country in 2000 when at the Puerto Rican parade in New York City the same thing happened, or the so called “Eve teasing” in India that can lead to the most terrifying sexual assaults imaginable.

What do we do about this?   Mothers and fathers! Your first duty to your sons is to teach them that sexual union is sacred to whatever gods you serve, or if you have no gods, sacred to what it means to be human, sacred to all that life on this planet means, sacred period.  Women are reflections of the goddesses and in motherhood they are heroes, bringing new life to the world at the risk of their own.   We owe women so much. They need our respect.  Teach your boys!

 

Women Saving the World: South Sudan, Kunduz and Hillary Clinton

As others have said before, notably the Dalai Lama , perhaps the only way to save the world is through women. This really hit home recently because of the juxtaposition of three events.

The first was a talk I heard from a young American woman who is working for an organization called Nonviolent Peaceforce in South Sudan. For those of you who missed it, our newest nation in the world has completely disintegrated, rivaling Syria for chaos and suffering.   As always, it is most dangerous for women. Men and children in war zones are subject to starvation, disease, and death but women are also in danger of being raped.

One of the points the speaker made was that the fighting in South Sudan is no longer just an ethnic conflict or the same kind of cattle raids that have occurred for ages. Things have really fallen apart. Because of the chaos created in the initial stages of the crisis, there are now armed bands of youths traversing the country under no one’s command. They want cattle and they want women. In her refugee center of Bentiu there are now 125,000 displaced persons with UN peacekeepers protecting them. They have their food airdropped in because as soon as you try to grow food, you are targeted by armed groups. But you can’t cook without fuel, and that means women need to go out and forage for firewood. After many months, they have to walk all day to find any, and then carry it in heavy bundles on their heads back to the camp. There have been many attacks and rapes, kidnappings and killings, so the women are naturally scared to leave the camps. The peacekeepers wouldn’t accompany them at first because it’s too dangerous: you’re making your way through grass that is taller than you are, a perfect hiding place for ambushes. So this brave young woman and others from her organization, accompany the African women on their foraging expeditions, prepared to confront any armed youths who show up, and warn them off by saying “We’re humanitarians, and if you attack us it’s a crime!”

For those whose initial reaction, like mine, is incredulity at their naïveté, let me add that apparently in that part of the world, saying you’re a humanitarian actually carries some talismanic weight with it, particularly because Nonviolent Peaceforce makes it a point to get to know all the players involved in a conflict zone and makes it clear that they take no sides. Still, with so many young men with guns, so much chaos, you can’t help but feel it’s more foolhardy than brave to put yourself in the position of these young women out in the bush. Certainly Boko Haram or IS would laugh in your face.  Nevertheless, they stand shoulder to shoulder with their African sisters, risking their lives to protect them, and, in the end, the UN peacekeepers were persuaded to start patrolling where the women were foraging.

The second event was the rape of a city: Kunduz in northern Afghanistan in early October. The Taliban managed to infiltrate and take over long enough to pillage anything they wanted, and what they especially wanted was to send a message to women’s group to shut up, shut down, and get back to the 7th century where you belong. Those noble women who ran shelters for abused wives had to flee for their lives or they would have been hanging from the lampposts in the city squares.   Scaring women into submission is apparently one of the main goals of the Taliban, and if anything could galvanize half the population into serious opposition to them, it would be the knowledge that under a Taliban regime, women can expect to be locked into the hijab once again, respected as breeders of men, but not as human beings. Try to break out of that mold and a horrible death awaits you.

The third event was the tour de force of Hillary Clinton in the first Democratic debate.   Whatever you think of her politics she showed the world what a woman can do, a woman with brains, ability, and moxy. Let’s hope her example can reach the women of Africa and Asia and give them some much-needed encouragement in what will be a long, hard road to equality.