Categories
Other

It’s a whole different world.

This article about atheists in Texas (via Pharyngula) is just mind-bogglingly odd to me. I grew up in secular, middle-class London where the default position was a casual agnosticism, so the image of atheists as a secretive minority, afraid to give their name in a newspaper interview, seems surreal. The flipside of that is the presentation of atheists as fiercely rationalist and potentially campaigning ideologues, who go to atheist meetings. What do you do at an atheist meeting? All sit in a room together not believing? It doesn’t sound like a lot of fun. Just like Christians, most of the non-believers I know are that way because they were brought up like that. I’m wary of attempts to make atheism into either an alternate belief system or a political cause. I mean, I don’t believe in unicorns either, but I’m not about to go to any meetings about it.

Of course, I can see that if I lived in America, it might seem more important, both because of the overwhelmingly religious culture and because the constitutional separation of church and state makes it into a political issue. There’s an irony in the fact that in the UK, which has a constitutional intertwining of church and state, we tend to be suspicious of overt religiosity in our politicians, while American politics practically demands it.

I remember a few years ago reading an article in the Economist which argued, in the context of abortion, that the US Constitution actually tended to inflame political debates, because the insistence on absolute and inalienable rights makes both sides inflexible and removes the chance of compromise. Specifically, it means that, whereas in Europe, the focus of the debate tends to move quite rapidly onto specifics which can be farmed off onto technical committees – the maximum age of a fetus that can be aborted, whether a woman has to see a doctor before getting an abortion – in the States, there’s always this central totemic Supreme Court decision that hangs over the whole subject, and the possibility of the decision being overturned. Once the sides have branded themselves in the rhetoric of absolute rights – the ‘right to life’ and the ‘right to choose’ – it becomes all-or-nothing. Similarly with obscenity and hate-speech laws vs. free speech, or the right to bear arms.

I don’t know whether the separation of church and state has played an important part in shaping American religious culture; the French, who have the same constitutional separation, seem to be pretty Godless. It certainly politicises the debate on teaching evolution in schools and prevents the obvious compromise of teaching Genesis in religious education classes and Darwin in biology, though. And although I completely agree that natural selection is the only origin theory children should be taught in biology, the debate shouldn’t be about constitutionality. It should be about teaching the overwhelming scientific consensus.

Categories
Culture

po-heritage

One of the things that seems odd to me about Ron Silliman’s legendary (post)Avant/SoQ dichotomy is that trying to claim ownership of a country’s cultural heritage, trying to shape a national canon, feels like an essentially conservative impulse. The idea of a national tradition of radical poetics seems self-contradictory, like the Maoist idea of continuous revolution. I don’t think there’s actually a logical contradiction, but there does seem to be some conceptual tension.

I was going to use this observation as the starting point for a whole post about America’s relationship with its cultural heritage, but on balance I think that’s an exercise best left to the reader.

Categories
Culture Other

Bob Denver & Americana

Bob Denver, the star of Gilligan’s Island, has died. Gilligan’s Island is one of those bits of Americana which feel familiar but I actually know entirely via hearsay. It’s one of the most frequently used pop culture references in other US pop culture – they mentioned it on House just last night – but I’ve never actually seen an episode because I don’t think it’s been shown on British TV in my lifetime (ever?).

Similarly, when I went to the US I felt it was very important to eat a Twinkie, to try and find out what it was about this confectionary that made it iconic. Answer – well, it’s certainly different. Bizarrely artificial and liable to send you into diabetic shock. The O. J. Simpson trial was odd, too. The whole thing was covered in detail in the UK news, partially because they tend to follow big US news stories anyway, and partially because the moment he was chased down the freeway on TV, it was a great story. But somehow, the whole point of the thing was missing; the premise of the story was that a Very Famous Man was accused of murdering his wife – but in a country where few people care about American football, he wasn’t actually famous before the trial. He’s famous now, but famous for being accused of murder.

Categories
Nature

candles

“Sometimes entire animals such as the stormy petrel and the candlefish of the Pacific Northwest were threaded with a wick and burned as candles.”

from here.