Category Archives: philosophy

The Pursuit of Happiness/Georgia On My Mind

Because I live in New Jersey, my idea of a happy life has mostly been to get the hell out and live somewhere less vapid, brutish, and rampantly assaholic.  In fact, we’ve spent five years “interviewing” more likely locations.  (Our current favorites are Savannah during the teaching year and Martha’s Vineyard over the summers).  If only we’d known that modern technology could have saved us all that travel.  Take this ten-question quiz, and the good folks at TIME Magazine will automatically match you up with the state that most suits you.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

Remarkably, when we took the test, each of us came up Georgia.  Guess I’d better start developing a taste for mint juleps.

But, look.  I know that happiness doesn’t come at the butt end of a moving van, even if that van is headed away from Jersey.  To quote Confucius by way of Buckaroo Banzai, no matter where you go, that’s where you are.  And, even more to the point:  No matter where I go, when I get there I’ll be retired, displaced, and staring into the face of the pursuit of happiness.

So, after 56 years, what exactly do I know about my own happiness?

My first thought is, not much.  When I look back at my life so far, it seems to me that instead of pursuing happiness, I’ve been content with avoiding unhappiness.  Not to cue the violins, but I’m an abandoned kid.  Inevitably, an abandoned kid grows into an adult who is convinced that he is unlovable, undeserving of happiness, and baffled by the ways that other people seem to slide easily and contentedly through the world.  So, I’ve never had a nose for joy.  Mostly, “joy” for me has been the cold relief of avoiding a constant toxic feeling of wrongness and shame.

But, that’s not really fair.  True, I haven’t spent my life chasing pleasure.  There’ve been no sports cars, five-star restaurants, or beachfront resorts.  I cringe at the idea of getting a massage or other “pampering.”  Heck, I’ve never even tasted coffee or tried a cigarette.  My life has been much smaller:  Holding down a workaday job, being a husband and father, a few hobbies mostly in the homely worlds of folk music and community theater.  Nevertheless, like the great majority of Americans, I would say I’m happy.  I mean, it’s not like I am clueless when asked to choose between Red Lobster and Le Bernardin.  I have some instinct for joy.  So, what is it that makes me happy?

Thoreau, by way of LL Cool J, said:  “Do what you love.”  (Thoreau continued, “Know your own bone,” advice that seems directly related to his famed love for solitude).  That would make a nice motto on some poster with a playful kitten, but really, it’s not very helpful.  “Do what you love” means, happiness is doing things that make you happy.  Sort of begs the question, no?

If pursuing happiness were as easy as “doing what you love,” then we’d all be blissed-out pleasure zombies, rather than thin-lipped, rueful, and rudderless.  Yes, we all have hobbies, interests, diversions, sometimes even passions.  But, despite all those pastimes, we no more know what makes us happy than we know how our cells accomplish mitosis.

Just consider the groaning shelf of “what to do when you retire” books at your local bookstore.  The audience for those books are folks who fear that, without a job to fill our waking hours, we’ll fill them instead with reality television, outlet-mall shopping, and Bud Light swilled from cans.   If people believed that “doing what you love,” whether golf, ballroom dancing, or building model ships in bottles, would actually produce happiness, we’d never see “what to do when you retire” books.

And yet, somehow, we are happy.  We stumble through life, doing what we do rather than “doing what we love.”  And, doing what we do makes us happy.  How does the one lead to the other?  Let’s see.

  • For me, most of my waking hours are spent practicing law.  Most lawyers, and especially trial lawyers like me, hate their jobs.  But, I get real happiness from mine.  I enjoy the problem-solving, the Dutch-uncle schmoozing, the gathering teetering piles of facts and law into a solid structure.   However misguidedly, those parts of being a lawyer make me feel competent, clear-thinking, and effective.  And, that makes me happy.
  • The next largest block of my time is spent being a husband.  My marriage has an unusually strong balance of yin and yang.  Barbara’s awesome strengths are in creating visual beauty, giving love loyally, and intuiting emotional truths.   In the hollow of that womanly curve, she allows me, and confidently expects me, to try to be a good man, which means for example accepting and cherishing her love, being confident, respectful, and reliable, and knowing when to advise and when to hold my peace.  When I can live up to that role, it feels like being forty feet tall.  And, that makes me happy.
  • And yes, I do have hobbies.  They’ve always been creative hobbies:  Writing, teaching, acting, singing, songwriting, and most recently creating a concert series.  I’m an awful actor, mediocre professor, and made a fair botch of my short career as a singer/songwriter.  And yet, creating my classes, writing my songs or articles or reviews, taking a concert series from a little hole in the wall to a pulsing community with thousands of participants, all made me feel creative and engaged.  And, that’s made me feel happy.

I do what I do.  And, at their best, the things I do make me feel competent, creative, and nurturing.  There, I think, is the secret of my future happiness.  Doing what I love is not about playing ultimate Frisbee or reading the classics or learning the piano.  Doing what I love is putting myself in a position to be creative, build community, nurture others, be a good man.  Whether that means teaching at community college, leading walking tours, or volunteering to give advice at small claims court, this has to be the goal.  As long as there are mint juleps waiting.

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November 5, 2013 · 6:32 am

Hubbard, Hagiography, Hitchens and “Humprey” (Two Lessons of Scientology)

Joseph Smith was a huckster who was making a living using “seer stones” to hunt for buried treasure when he claimed that God had called him to restore the Church of Jesus Christ.  He announced that the Angel Moroni had led him to 1400-year-old golden plates, which he read using magic spectacles and translated (mostly into passages from the King James Bible and from a religious book that he had read a year or two earlier) as the “Book of Mormon.”  He then focused on bedding a string of teenaged girls, which he justified by another vision, in which God revealed to him that men should have multiple wives, and that his existing wife would be “destroyed” if she did not accept it.

Joseph Smith is now revered as a Prophet.  To this day, church members will fervently dispute that he was ever arrested for fraud, forced himself onto a string of child brides, or boasted that he had translated a set of mundane Egyptian parchments into the Book of Abraham.

Elijah Muhammad, after doing away with his predecessor Wallace Fard, grew the flock by announcing that the black race had been formed 74 trillion years ago, and even though a “big head scientist” named Mr. Yakub had created the “devil” white race 6000 years ago, their six-millenium reign over blacks would end in 1984.  He then focused on violently putting down his rivals, diverting millions of dollars intended for the needy to himself, enjoying his private jet and $150,000 jewel-studded fez, and producing at least 13 illegitimate children through at least seven mistresses, many of them young church members.

Prophet Elijah Muhammad now sits exalted at the right hand of God, according to the Nation of Islam.

Despite this well-worn story, the history of Scientology, told in the new book “Going Clear,” is fascinating, and makes me think of hagiography, of Hitchens, and of “Humprey” Bogart.

According to “Going Clear,” L. Ron Hubbard was a born huckster, who lied lavishly and compulsively about his childhood, his war record, his travels, and his accomplishments.  He falsely claimed that he grew up on the Montana ranch of his wealthy cattleman grandfather (actually it was a townhouse, and his grandfather was a working-class veterinarian); that he became a blood brother of the Blackfeet tribe at age six (nope); that he studied nuclear physics while getting his engineering degree (never studied physics, and dropped out of college as a result of poor grades); was one of the country’s most outstanding pilots (actually, he never flew an airplane and qualified only to fly gliders); was a world explorer and adventurer (nope); was a war hero who was wounded repeatedly in combat (actually, he was a substandard serviceman, never saw combat, and was hospitalized for ulcers and conjunctivitis).  And, it goes on and on, including decades of lies about the accomplishments of Scientology, the religion he founded.

Hubbard announced that he had discovered that all humans are inhabited by “thetans,” disembodied spirits that were released 75 million years ago when billions of people were brought to Earth and then blown up with hydrogen bombs by Xenu, the tyrant ruler of the Galactic Confederacy.  Hubbard sold a method to remove these thetans through the use of a sort of self-psychotherapy aided by galvanic skin response machines, which developed into the religion of Scientology.  Ron did not claim to be divine, but he did claim enlightenment and a host of supernatural powers, none of which seemed to have saved him from constant ill health, paranoia, petty vindictiveness, or enormous greed.

File:L-ron-hubbard.jpg

And yet, to this day Scientologists will forge documents, cultivate false witnesses, and persecute anyone who disputes the exalted version of Hubbard’s life story.  To the Church, Hubbard was a child prodigy, a world explorer, pilot, horseman, and adventurer, and a war hero.

Which makes me wonder, is hagiography itself a bad thing?

This is where Humprey comes in.  Prominently on the desk of my former boss is a framed picture of Humphrey Bogart.  He bought it for $1 at a garage sale, believing he’d found gold because the photograph was hand-signed by the star.  It was only later that he noticed that the photo was signed “Humprey” Bogart.  Yet, he loves that little forgery, and I love that he loves it.  I love that he has made the choice to treasure this flawed object, not only despite its flaws, but because of them.

Which reminds me of one of the many low points in my long years of dating.  I was on a first date with a woman who was a religious Jew.  At the time, I was feeling pretty cocky about Biblical history, having read a couple of books that used archaeology, historical records, and logic to show that most of the Bible stories could not have been true, and that the Torah and historical books of the Old Testament were likely written by King Josiah in the 6th Century BCE as a polemic to support his religious reforms (and to show that his tribe, Judah, was favored by God over the tribe of Israel).  Over what should have been a friendly drink, I therefore bull-headedly raised the topic of Jewish faith in light of the “fact” that the Bible stories are untrue.  Before shaking my hand goodbye forever, this poor woman answered me simply: It doesn’t matter if it’s true.  It is what we choose to believe in.  The Bible was her “Humprey” Bogart.

Ron Hubbard’s lifetime of whoppers, then, do not sour me on Scientology.  Followers believe in a different Ron Hubbard, one who walked this Earth in big boots, swashbuckling and healing and uplifting.  Does it really matter that this Ron Hubbard never existed?

However, the rest of Scientology, as described in “Going Clear,” is not so excusable.  As Hubbard notoriously said, “If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion.”  He (and his successor, David Miscavige) lived in unspeakable luxury while squirreling hundreds of millions of dollars into personal overseas bank accounts.  Control of church members was paramount, with followers being belittled, beaten, imprisoned, forced to undergo abortions and to cut off ties to nonbelievers, and to relinquish their worldly goods to the church.  Deserters were hunted down, and there is at least the suggestion that some were murdered.  To protect their power, church elders tirelessly persecuted all critics, including journalists, government officials, and former members who spoke out against the church.  Scientology’s practice was to file thousands of frivolous lawsuits against its opponents, and to burglarize government offices to remove files relating to investigations of the church.  Insiders lived in fear of being demoted, punished by solitary confinement, and (particularly during the reign of the rage-filled and mercurial Miscavige) beaten.

This brings me to Hitchens.  I’ve written before about “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” which I consider to be a delightful lark by a brilliant polemicist who knew full well that he was just toying with ideas about religion.  The story of L. Ron Hubbard (as well as the stories of Joseph Smith, Elijah Muhammad, the Catholic church, radical Islam, and so many other religions and religious leaders) proves again that Hitchens had it backward.  It is not the case that “Religion Poisons Everything.”  The fact is that humans poison religion.  From the Salem Witch Trials, to “religious” tribal/class wars as in Northern Ireland and Sudan, to religious despots like Ron Hubbard, human greed, lust for power, misogyny, and tribalism tend to corrupt religious leaders and the religions they lead.  It is unfortunate that those very human flaws tend to overpower actual religious values, and that people who are hungry for religious experience and community can be so easily misled by those very flawed humans.

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Wallflower At The Protest Rally

I spent Friday evening with Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Jackson Browne, Michael Moore, Hurricane Carter, and my Republican buddy Mike.  The event was called “Bring Leonard Peltier Home in 2012,” and was meant to remind folks that the Native American activist Leonard Peltier is still in jail for the murder of two federal agents, in spite of questions about his guilt.

More than 2000 audience members stood and cheered whenever speakers described Peltier as a “political prisoner,” or cried racism, or railed more generally against “our society” or “Wall Street.”

I remained seated.  And now, I’m figuring out why.

First, I don’t think that I am stone-hearted or ironically aloof by nature.  I was genuinely moved by Michael Moore’s eloquence and passion, which included his response to the shootings of schoolchildren in Connecticut that morning.  I was wowed by Native American singer/songwriter Bill Miller‘s big spirit, which reminded me of Richie Havens in his prime.  Hearing Hurricane Carter tell the story of his wrongful conviction with humor, resignation, and pride, was moving.

So, why was I so skeptical and cold-blooded about most of the event?  Why was I the wallflower at the protest rally?

As I think back on it, as I think of the more than three hours of speakers and singers railing that Leonard Peltier is a proud and pure-hearted Native American, railroaded by the vindictive and hasty FBI, I realize the answer: I instinctively bristle when I hear easy, broad-brush caricatures that take the place of careful, detailed argument.  When a conclusion sounds too easy, my first instinct is to doubt it.  I am, in short, a Mudgeon.

The speakers told us that Leonard Peltier was framed by the FBI for the murders of two FBI agents at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in June 1975.  Why? Well, that was not completely clear, but the words “racist” and “political prisoner” were used a lot.

I don’t know if Leonard Peltier shot those agents.  The agents had entered the reservation in pursuit of Jimmy Eagle, who was wanted for assaulting and robbing some local ranch workers.  They were found dead in their cars, which had been sprayed with more than one hundred bullets.  No eyewitness has ever identified the shooters.  So, the evidence against Leonard Peltier was circumstantial.

Three witnesses said that Peltier was in the vicinity of the crime.  Later, the three said that their statements had been coerced.  Shell casings at the scene were said to match a rifle owned by Peltier.  Later, a memo from the FBI ballistics expert was discovered, showing that the casings were not a match.  When Peltier was extradited from Canada to stand trial, the basis was an affidavit from a woman who claimed that she was his girlfriend and knew that he had shot the agents.  That affidavit turned out to be false.

Some evidence is more damning.  After the murders, Peltier and two other suspects fled in a station wagon and an RV.  When police stopped the RV, which was being driven by Peltier, he shot at the police and fled.  One of the murdered agents’ guns was found under the driver’s seat, with Peltier’s fingerprint on it.  The station wagon, filled with explosives and driven by one of the other suspects who had fled with Peltier, exploded accidentally on a Kansas highway.  Police found the other FBI agent’s gun in it, as well as a rifle of the same type as Peltier’s.  Peltier claimed several conflicting alibis at the time, but in his memoir published a quarter-century later, he admits that he shot at the agents, but denies murdering them.

So, while my fellow audience members are hooting about racism and political imprisonment, I’m thinking that, at least,  there was plenty of evidence to prove that Peltier was one of the shooters (which he now doesn’t deny), and federal law considers an accomplice to murder to be just as guilty as the murderer.  And, when speaker after speaker calls for the President to commute Leonard Peltier’s sentence I am thinking that Bill Clinton did not commute Leonard Peltier’s sentence, and Barack Obama will never commute Leonard Peltier’s sentence, because this was the murder of two FBI agents, by someone who admits shooting at them, and if you’re the president there’s no upside to pissing off the FBI.  This is not like the story of Hurricane, the man the authorities came to blame, for something that he never done.

Leonard Peltier isn’t the only too-easy argument that turns me into an instant skeptic.  Opponents of hydrofracturing fret reflexively about fracking fluid “laden with industrial and toxic chemicals” that have caused “massive fish kills, sick children, dead livestock, and contaminated tap water.”  When I hear this, I think, wouldn’t this be front-page news if it were true?  And wouldn’t the EPA be all over it if there was a health risk?  Anti-union business interests have been supporting the “right” of unionized employees to get the benefits of a union’s collective bargaining work without paying dues, by arguing that unions are corrupt and skim almost all of their dues for internal administrative costs and left-wing politicking.  I think, if this were true, wouldn’t union members vote bums like that out of leadership?  And, when the rapper Mos Def told us on Friday that rap had been the authentic voice of the community until “Wall Street” corrupted it, was I the only person who thought, “Huh?  What does the banking industry have to do with rap music?  And aren’t rap artists mostly promoted by rap moguls like Def Jam and Roc a Fella?”

It was Ernest Hemingway who wrote, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”  I’d like to think that Ernest, surely a Mudgeon in his own time, would also have sat on his hands at the Peltier rally, quietly asking himself “isn’t it too easy to think so?”  Maybe Leonard Peltier is innocent; and maybe the Occupy Wall Streeters were all dangerous bums looking for free sandwiches; and maybe the EPA is corrupt and looking the other way as ‘frackers destroy the Marcellus shale bed, or cell phones and microwave ovens cause cancer.  But, my Mudgeonly hide will always thicken when these things are presented as though they are beyond question, by partisans who believe because they have an interest in believing, and not because a convincing case has been made.

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Filed under identity politics, philosophy, Politics, protest, skepticism, Uncategorized