Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Cruelty of Alzheimer's

In one of my favorite movies, The Shawshank Redemption, Ellis (Red) Redding (played by one of my favorite actors, Morgan Freeman) is re-united with his friend, Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins), after Red is finally paroled from Shawshank Prison, having served for 40 years.  At the time Red first was imprisoned, he'd been a "stupid kid" who'd committed murder during a robbery - after 40 years, he was an old man, deeply regretful of his terrible crime.  One message of the movie is that hope is a good thing, and good things never die.  In the movie, Andy and Red had 20 years together in prison and the movie ends with them being re-united ...

A bit more than 40 years ago, I first met someone who has been my friend ever since.  Those who know me may well know of whom I speak, but I'll not mention his name here.  What's happened is my friend is a victim of early onset Alzheimer's Disease.  His symptoms appeared before he was 60 years old!  As it has progressed, it first took away his ability to work - he was forced to retire because he could no longer do his life's work at the high level that he had established.  For my friend, this was a cruel blow, as he has been one of the best in the world at his job and loved his work, as I have.

It also took away something he was looking forward to at the end of his professional career - he had a hobby he cared for almost as much as his work, and anticipated being able to give it the time that his professional life didn't allow.  That, too, has been taken from him.  Those adventures he planned have never come to pass.

As time has passed, he has become less and less capable of doing things for himself.  He can no longer drive - he forgets where he was going, forgets how to get there, and forgets even how to find his way home.  He doesn't know how to work a seat belt.  He struggles taking the top off a water bottle or putting money away in his wallet.

Yesterday, he looked me in the eyes and asked, "Do I know you?"  Yes, I said, "We've been friends for 40 years." He stared at me in amazement.  He couldn't remember my name, or much about what we had done that day.  For all intents and purposes, the confident, supremely competent, generously helpful man that has been my friend for 40 years ... is gone.  He still has moments when the person we've known and loved peeks out from behind the fog of Alzheimer's Disease, but those moments don't last long and they only serve to remind him that he's losing his memories and his life.  That may be the cruelest part of all about this terrible disease:  he's known what inevitably was going to happen but could only watch as it has slowly and remorselessly taken things away.  His body continues to function reasonably well, but the person I've known for 4 decades is virtually gone - all that defined his personality and character are now just memories.  Memories, of course, are precisely what he no longer has.  It's as if those things never happened for him, now. 

Words cannot describe how painful it's been to watch this decline.  Today, my friend is gone, for all intents and purposes.  I knew this would happen.  I knew this day would come.  I knew that a 40-year friendship would come to be a lost memory for him.  Now that it's arrived, I'm somewhat depressed, but I still have my memories of that time and the adventures and experiences he shared with me over the years.  That's what keeps me from being really shaken by all of this.  My memories may not be as sharp as they were, but most of them are still with me.  I miss my friend, but he's given us a very meaningful legacy, a host of treasured memories shared - not just mine, but those of the many people whose lives he touched in a positive way.  I can endure this, but it hurts.

Alzheimer's is a cruel disease, and there are other degenerative diseases that can have similar results.  I know, because another long-time friend of mine is being victimized by a different disease - but with similar results:  faculties once razor-sharp now dulled into non-existence.  Another once-capable friend is slipping away from me, bit by bit, even as I type this.

If you have a chance to contribute to seeking cures for these intensely cruel degenerative diseases, please don't hesitate to do so.  And if you know victims, you should do as much as possible to interact with them while they still can enjoy it.  Your time with your friends (and family) is precious in any case.  You never know when it might be lost forever.

Hope may never die, but friends (and family) do.  The very worst part of growing older is losing your friends and family ...

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

What Does Freedom of Speech Mean To You? Part 3

My friend, David Matthews II, host of the ShockNet Radio program "Brutally Honest" posted (on 17 September) a fascinating analysis of how the by-now infamous "movie trailer" containing insults to islam (that triggered riots leading to deaths) relates to the topic of free speech.

He concludes with:

This video was done under a cloud of deception and misdirection. Their intentions are in doubt. They knew what kind of audience they were focusing on. If they wanted to show just how ugly and ill-tempered and ultimately fatalistic the Muslims can be, well, congratulations, they succeeded. And just as a bonus, they will get the very groups they otherwise denigrate – the ones that defend the un-defendable – to support their right to show that video. 

In other words, despicable things are going to be defended by staunch defenders of free speech - after all, the point is that free speech only has real meaning when it is granted to those with whom you disagree.  Going along with free speech is easy (and meaningless) when the words (and intentions) are congruent with your own.

David talks about the intentions of the film makers - although he concedes that he can't be certain what they were.  Nevertheless, it seems reasonably likely that their intentions could have been to provoke the sort of reaction from radical muslims that actually occurred.  Let me assume for the moment that this is truly the case - their intention was to provoke a violent reaction from the muslims.

David also talks about the limits to free speech, using the familiar example of shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater.  Obviously, if the intent is to cause panic (which could well result in casualties) in a case where there actually is no such fire, then it's widely accepted that this oversteps the bounds of free speech.  There's a judicial test of speech that seeks to draw a line regarding inflammatory speech, called the "incitement test" - in reference to words "inciting" violence.  As found at this site, the test is simply 

... the government may prosecute words that are "triggers to action" but not words that are "keys of persuasion."

Note that shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater when no such fire is present uses no words that are explicit calls for action, but it can be argued that this single word "Fire!" is implicitly a trigger to action.  A fine line, here.  But drawing such a line is important, no? 

How does the infamous YouTube video situation fare using this incitement test?  David argues that events in recent history make it clear what muslims are likely to do when something comes out in the media that is perceived as disrespectful to islam.  Hence, any such blatant insults to islam, like those contained in this "trailer" (Does a full-length film actually exist?  I doubt it.), are virtually certain to incite violence.

But wait ... the "trailer" had a relatively long, quiescient history on the Internet, having first been posted some time ago.  It was only when someone posted about it on an Arabic-language blog did anyone in the islamic world even know about the existence of this video.  From there, it seems it "went viral" amongst muslims, triggering the riots.  The reactions to the video depended on getting the attention of the target audience.  Famous people are more likely to incite international reactions than nobodies.  Insults on a movie screen in a theater are more visible than those spoken in a tavern.

I've long held that words have no intentions associated with them - they're just words.  Some of them may be offensive to some people (who must choose to be offended by such words) and so could be considered provocative.  But not all uses of a particular word have clearly-associated intentions.  Compare the intentions of the word 'nigger' when used between two African-Americans, versus when used by a Ku Klux Klan member using it to describe an African-American.  Same word - two different intentions.  

Hence, we can't look to the objective reality of words to evaluate intent.  My friend David has evaluated intent and leans toward proposing that this violence-provoking YouTube video was intended to incite violence.  But the video contains no explicit calls to violent actions in its words.  We all know how muslims react to insults to islam ... but this video might fail the standard incitement test described above, unless the video implicitly is a "trigger to action".  Another fine line to draw.

Some friends and I are engaged in provocative presentations at American Heathen - the host (RJ Evans) has been the target of death threats, as has co-host Al Stefanelli.  None of us have made any secret of the fact that we have the same absence of respect for islam as we have for christianity.  Of course, at the moment, we're babbling away in relative obscurity.  What might happen if our program becomes well known nationally and internationally? 

Given this, here's what I worry about.  I have no problem if I start receiving death threats directed at me.  I'm willing to die for the cause of Freedom and Liberty for All that we espouse on American Heathen.  But what if our program gets popular enough to draw the attention of the fanatics (christian and muslim fanatics are hard to tell apart!) and in protest they blow up a building and innocent people become casualties.  I would not at all feel good about such an outcome.  

However, the issue comes down to this:  if I believe in Freedom and Liberty for All, am I willing to silence myself voluntarily owing to the actions/reactions of fanatics about my words?  Do I muzzle myself even in the face of a possibility of a violent reaction?  No matter how awful it would be for people to become victims through a reaction to my words, my commitment to this cause is no less deep than the commitment of the fanatics to theirs.  Does that make me a fanatic?  I think not.  Although I'm willing to die for my beliefs, I'm not willing to kill or injure anyone (except in self-defense) for any cause.  No cause, however otherwise noble, is worth supporting if it advocates or condones the use of violence on innocents to further its goals.  If anyone is so offended by what I say that they're moved to violence, they should have to courage to attack me directly, not visit their vengeance on innocent people.  If they do so, however, it will not silence me!

If we surrender our freedoms, especially the freedom of speech, in order to avoid "offending" fanatic muslims (or fanatic christians) who then express themselves via violence, then we're simply allowing ourselves to be intimidated by weaklings, who have no other means of achieving their ends but by terror visited on innocents.  They are consummate cowards!  I spit on them and their causes!!  We will not give up our freedoms willingly in the face of terrorism.  The terrorists will have succeeded if we do so!!

For your convenience, here are links to Part 2 and Part 1  

Monday, September 17, 2012

Believers Arguing on Behalf of Their Beliefs

After years of struggling with something, it's nice to be able to come to a new understanding.  I suppose some of my readers may dispute the validity of my new thoughts.  If so, I hope they will offer comments here.

For a long time, I've wondered, 'What's the point of trying to rationalize religious beliefs?'  My understanding of christianity (i.e., that resulting from my upbringing) is that one should accept the existence and divinity of Jesus purely on faith - in his words from Mark 10:16 - "Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it."  This classic case of biblical ambiguity leaves open the definition of receiving something "like a child".  Just what exactly does that phrase mean?  Various interpretations exist, but the obvious one is that it means to accept something entirely without evidence, trusting in and accepting the "gift" without any questions as to its validity.  A child-like trust in the teachings of leaders is one that accepts things as given.  Questions are impertinent and out of place.

If this is a valid interpretation, then it follows that believers are supposed to accept Jesus as their "Lord and Savior" without question and without evidence.  If that's what someone chooses to do, then I'm fine with that.  It's their choice and their life.

Where I have a problem is when christians attempt to use logic and, yes, even evidence to validate their faith.  This has always seemed pointless to me - if you accept it on faith, why seek to make something irrational seem to be rational?  I observe that all humans in my experience have both rational and irrational aspects, including yours truly.  It's not an insult to label a belief as irrational - it simply says that logic and evidence have little or nothing to do with it.  If a christian has faith, then s/he has faith and that's that - end of discussion.  There's no need for, or point to, trying to create some sort of house of cards to justify that faith to someone else, if you truly have that child-like faith.

Such faith has no need for explanation.  In fact, explanations are antithetical to religious faith.  Of course, it's well known that the blind obedience associated with religious faith leads people to commit monstrous acts on behalf of their chosen belief system.  But perhaps most importantly in the context of this blog, it represents a source of cognitive dissonance in the mind of any reasonably rational person.  Religious faith inevitably clashes with logic and the rule of evidence.  In most aspects of a believer's life, they accept the rule of logic and the use of evidence.  Is such an acceptance based on faith, just like religious belief?  No, not all all.  It's a faith that's based entirely on evidence and empirical observations.  Hence, the word "faith" has two diametrically opposed meanings - I talked about that here.

It now seems clear to me that attempts at rationalizing religious faith (e.g., those of C.S. Lewis) are simply a manifestation of cognitive dissonance.  Despite claims of childlike faith, believers may seek to convince others of (i.e., to try to justify) the rationality of believing in a divine lord.  They sense that an unbeliever isn't likely to be convinced by an irrational argument.  They implicitly understand the weakness of their position in a logical discussion.

Just whom is it they're really trying to convince?  Most such attempts I've seen are pretty transparently flawed in their logic and completely devoid of any credible evidence.  Such rationalizations are not the province of true fundamentalists, who've accepted such things as the creation myth, the age of the Earth as less than 10 thousand years, the evil of homosexuality, the subservience of women, and so on.  No, the ones who seek to rationalize their irrational faith are those otherwise rational people who accept the validity of science and logic, but seek to put some sort of handwaving "spin" on the biblical passages that clearly are not consistent with our modern understanding of the world based on rationality.  Perhaps they seek to interpret biblical myths as reflecting the late Bronze Age absence of science-based understanding.  Perhaps they choose to see unsettling biblical passages as metaphors, or representing the concepts of a time 2000+ years ago that are no longer relevant.

If someone grasps the irrationality of religious faith, why not let it go with that?  Seeking to rationalize religious faith seems to be the direct consequence of - dare I say it? - doubts lurking in the minds of such believers (likely at an unconscious level).  It generates a clash between the rational and the irrational in their brains, and their rationalizations may be at least as much directed at themselves as they are to others around them.

Keep trying, and perhaps you can convince yourself - but it doesn't convince me.  I think I now understand why you hope to construct a logical argument for your religious belief.  The very effort to do so undermines your credibility as a believer - it seems faith isn't enough for you, after all!