Thursday, April 30, 2015

Huck's Dilemma: Mark Twain on the Heart Versus the Conscience

"In a crucial moral emergency a sound heart is a safer guide than an ill-trained conscience." - Mark Twain
Today I came across the quotation above, and thought it sounded like very wise advice. It's from one of Mark Twain's notebooks, in which he reflects on the central moral crisis in Huckleberry Finn. In the book, Huck's friend Jim, the runaway slave who came down the river with him, has just recaptured--betrayed by King and the Duke, the two con artists they had been traveling with. Huck is trying to decide what to do, and as hard as it is for us today to imagine, his conscience tells him it would be wrong to help Jim. That's what he's been taught all his life. It's what they taught in Sunday school in those days. But his heart is saying something different.

Usually I do my own writing on this blog, but this time I'm going to let Mark Twain make his point in his own words. Why describe the maestro's music, if you can invite him up on stage to play?

First, here's the passage from Huckleberry Finn. It's a long quotation, but it's also one of the most powerful things I've ever read, so think it's worth it. Today Huck's reasoning and his use of the N-word are shocking to us (as they should be), but they're an accurate reflection of how someone in Huck's culture would have thought and spoke:
After all this long journey, and after all we'd done for them scoundrels, here it was all come to nothing, everything all busted up and ruined, because they could have the heart to serve Jim such a trick as that, and make him a slave again all his life, and amongst strangers, too, for forty dirty dollars.

Once I said to myself it would be a thousand times better for Jim to be a slave at home where his family was, as long as he'd got to be a slave, and so I'd better write a letter to Tom Sawyer and tell him to tell Miss Watson where he was. But I soon give up that notion for two things: she'd be mad and disgusted at his rascality and ungratefulness for leaving her, and so she'd sell him straight down the river again; and if she didn't, everybody naturally despises an ungrateful nigger, and they'd make Jim feel it all the time, and so he'd feel ornery and disgraced. And then think of me! It would get all around that Huck Finn helped a nigger to get his freedom; and if I was ever to see anybody from that town again I'd be ready to get down and lick his boots for shame. That's just the way: a person does a low-down thing, and then he don't want to take no consequences of it. Thinks as long as he can hide it, it ain't no disgrace. That was my fix exactly. The more I studied about this the more my conscience went to grinding me, and the more wicked and low-down and ornery I got to feeling. And at last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven, whilst I was stealing a poor old woman's nigger that hadn't ever done me no harm, and now was showing me there's One that's always on the lookout, and ain't a-going to allow no such miserable doings to go only just so fur and no further, I most dropped in my tracks I was so scared. Well, I tried the best I could to kinder soften it up somehow for myself by saying I was brung up wicked, and so I warn't so much to blame; but something inside of me kept saying, "There was the Sunday-school, you could a gone to it; and if you'd a done it they'd a learnt you there that people that acts as I'd been acting about that nigger goes to everlasting fire." 
It made me shiver. And I about made up my mind to pray, and see if I couldn't try to quit being the kind of a boy I was and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn't come. Why wouldn't they? It warn't no use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from me, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn't come. It was because my heart warn't right; it was because I warn't square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting on to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write to that nigger's owner and tell where he was; but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can't pray a lie—I found that out. 
So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn't know what to do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I'll go and write the letter—and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:
Miss Watson, your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send. 
Huck Finn.
I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn't do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking—thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I'd see him standing my watch on top of his'n, 'stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he's got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper. 
It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

"All right, then, I'll go to hell"—and tore it up.
When I read Huckleberry Finn as a kid, the force of that passage was mostly lost on me. When I read it as an adult a while back, I felt like I had been punched in the chest.

Now let's turn to the full passage I found today, where Mark Twain is explaining how he saw Huck's dilemma (actually, he's writing to himself about what points to make in a speech on the topic).
"I should exploit the proposition that in a crucial moral emergency a sound heart is a safer guide than an ill-trained conscience. I should support this doctrine with a chapter from a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat. Two persons figure in this chapter: Jim, a middle-aged slave, and Huck Finn, a boy of 14. . . . . bosom friends, drawn together by a community of misfortune . . . . . 
In those old slave-holding days the whole community was agreed as to one thing – the awful sacredness of slave property. To help steal a horse or a cow was a low crime, but to help a hunted slave. . . . or hesitate to promptly betray him to a slave catcher when opportunity offered was a much baser crime, and carried with it a stain, a moral smirch which nothing could wipe away. That this sentiment should exist among slave-holders is comprehensible – there were good commercial reasons for it – but that it should exist and did exist among the paupers. . . . and in a passionate and uncompromising form, is not in our remote day realizable. . . . It shows that that strange thing, the conscience – that unerring monitor – can be trained to approve any wild thing you want it to approve if you begin its education early and stick to it.
I was tempted to let Mr. Twain end this post there, because he can write circles around me, but I've learned that I haven't always made my point as clear to others as it seems to me. So, my point is this: Mark Twain was right. The world has seen all kinds of conscience-deforming dogmas that tell people not to let compassion get in the way of doing the "right" thing. Think of the fundamentalist Muslim fathers who think the right thing to do if their daughters are raped is to kill them to preserve the family's honor--even if it breaks their heart. Think of the medieval priest trembling as he orders a "witch" to be hanged, because he honestly believes it will save others from hell. Think of the young Nazi soldier weeping--as many did--the first time he is ordered to shoot Jews. His heart is screaming "NO", but his conscience has been taught not to let compassion override the "greater good" of racial purity. Think of all the 19th century Americans raised like Huck Finn. How many of them saw runaway slaves, and sympathized with them, but turned them in anyway--because they had been told all their lives that it was the right thing to do?

Finally, think about what we might be doing today that falls into this ugly tradition. Which of today's dogmas result in an ill-trained conscience? What hurtful "moral" decisions are being made today that future generations will look back on in horror? And how many of them could still be avoided if, like Huckleberry Finn, we have the guts to go with our heart instead of our conscience?

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Colorado Behind the Scenery: When Small Mountains Tell Big Tales

The lyrics to America the Beautiful first came to Kathy Lee Bates in 1895, when she was 14,000 feet above sea level at the top of Pike's Peak. That makes perfect sense to me, because I've been up there, too, and it is incredible. Colorado is hard to beat if you want inspiring scenery. You constantly see scenes you can't quite believe. It's all so BIG, like a landscape made for gods or giants. When I drive through the Rockies, the music that comes to my mind isn't America the Beautiful, but Wagner's Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It's a rare landscape that calls for tympani.

I've recently moved back to Colorado after living in Louisiana for five years. When I lived here before (three different times--I can't stay away), the scenery was the main thing I was after. I would always try to climb the highest mountains, to find the widest, biggest, most glorious vistas. Nowadays, though, that's not so much what I'm after. I still appreciate the scenery as much as ever, but I often find myself stopping at the places you don't see in coffee table books. These days I want to listen to the mountains as well as look at them. I want to learn what they have to say about their history, and the history of the Earth as a whole. It turns out they have a lot to say, and it's not always the most beautiful ones that have the best stories to tell.

Consider the mountain below:

It's called Yarmony Mountain, and it sits at a bend in the Colorado River at a tiny little nothing of a town called State Bridge. Yarmony Mountain is certainly pretty, with its red and tan rocks and Pinyon tree plumage, but it's no Pike's Peak.

Still, when I came around a bend in the highway and saw it, I pulled over to take pictures. Lately I've been trying to teach myself geology, and Yarmony Mountain looked like a nice example of something called an angular unconformity, which I promise is not as boring as it sounds. When I got home and looked up that totally not-boring term in a book on Colorado geology, there it was: a picture of my mountain. I had happened across an actual textbook example of something I had been reading about; something that--at least to me--makes this little unknown mountain just as awe-inspiring as Pike's Peak.

Here's why. If you look the layers of rock, you see that the red and white layers are tilted nearly vertical, while the darker layer of rock that caps the mountain is almost horizontal. That arrangement speaks volumes about the history of the mountain, and the landscape around it.

Looking at the vertical layers, as you move from left to right (or deeper into the mountain and to the left) the rocks get older. I don't have a detailed enough geologic map to identify them in detail, but I know the leftmost red layer is called the Maroon Formation. It's the same rock that forms the famous red peaks near Aspen called the Maroon Bells. If you look closely at it, it's mostly made of coarse sandstone with some larger rocks and gravel. That tells geologists it formed from streams powerful enough to carry real rocks, not just sand and silt. And that means those streams were coming down a steep slope--they were mountain streams, in a long-since-eroded mountain range called the Ancestral Rockies. They carried the sand and gravel out of the mountains, and dropped it at their flanks in broad, fan-shaped aprons of debris called alluvial fans. Eventually those fans solidified and reddened to form vast beds of red sandstone. The alluvial fans on the other side of the ancestral Rockies formed similar red rocks, which can now be seen at places like Garden of the Gods and Red Rocks Amphitheater.

Today all these rock layers are sharply tilted or almost vertical, but when they formed they were close to horizontal. This reflects a basic geologic law called the Law of Original Horizontality, which goes back to the 1600's. Gravity being what it is, most layers of sediment are flat when they're first deposited.* In the case of the Maroon Formation, they stayed flat for over 200 million years. Then, around 75 million years ago, the modern Rocky Mountains started to rise in a great mountain-building event called the Laramide Orogeny. Tectonic collisions raised huge blocks of granite and ancient metamorphic rock from miles underground. The relatively thin, flat layers of sedimentary rock above them were lifted high in the air, and sometimes tilted almost upright, as they still are at Garden of the Gods and Yarmony Mountain.

As soon as the mountains started lifting all these rocks, erosion set in and started wearing them down. At Yarmony Mountain, it planed down the vertical layers of sedimentary rock to form the near-flat surface, which the dark layer of rock rests on. That dark rock is totally different stuff from the rock below it. It formed from great floods of lava that erupted and flowed across the region around 24 million years ago. Further geologic forces have tilted it slightly in the ages since, but it's still mostly flat. The line of contact where it meets the ancient rocks below it represents about 270 million years of missing geologic history. That history is recorded in rocks in other places, but not at Yarmony Mountain.

What we do see at Yarmony Mountain, though, is an incredible chronicle of past ages; of the rise, fall, and rise of mountains, and of cataclysmic volcanic events. It's all recorded as layers of rock that can be read like a book by scientists who know what they're looking at. Thanks to all their work deciphering that book, and writing actual books to explain it to people like me, I can come across a place like Yarmony Mountain and know I'm looking at something remarkable. It's really just as remarkable as Pike's Peak, but in a different way. At Pike's Peak you're looking at vast heights and distances, but at Yarmony Mountain you're looking at vast expanses of time. It's a different kind of epic vista, and it's not as easy to appreciate, but once you learn to see it, it's just as awe-inspiring.


* Geologists today know the law is more like a rule of thumb, because not ever rock layer is perfectly vertical when it's first deposited, but most broad rock beds are initially pretty flat.

Friday, April 10, 2015

One Nation Under Buddha

The Buddha. Click for photo credit.
I'll probably never convert to an organized religion. Or a disorganized one, for that matter, though that might suit me better. But in the unlikely event that I do get religion, I guess Buddhism would be the most likely candidate. I was really into Zen Buddhism once, and I still think there's a lot of wisdom in Buddhism. But if I ever do convert--to Buddhism or any other religion--I hope I'll remember that mine is one of many religions in this country, and that I shouldn't go around trying to impose it on anyone else. I hope I will remember the First Amendment, which forbids the establishment of any official religion, while protecting the free exercise of all religions.*

Just in case I ever do convert, I think I'll go ahead and make some promises, and put them in writing. If I forget them you can show me what I wrote here.

OK then. Be it known that if I ever become a Buddhist, I promise I'll never do any the following things:
  • I'll never try to keep members of another religion from building a church or temple simply because I don't like the religion.
  • I'll never try to get "In Buddha We Trust" onto our money, or insert "Under Buddha" into the Pledge of Allegiance."
  • I'll never campaign to put a monument to the Four Noble Truths or the Eightfold Path on government property. Unless people are putting up monuments to other religions, and then I might, just to make a point. But I'd rather avoid all that. Let's keep it all on private property, where it belongs.
  • I'll never insist that government officials (including public school officials) begin functions with a Buddhist prayer. Unless they begin them with prayers from other religions (see above).
  • I'll never have a bumper sticker that says, "America is a Buddhist country!" Because it's not--it's a country with many religions, and many people who aren't religious.
  • I'll never support Buddhist teachers proselytizing to students in the classroom, or leading them in Buddhist prayers. If they were (quite rightly) told not to, I wouldn't say call it an attack on freedom of speech. But I would support all kids being able to pray or meditate at school--as long as they weren't being disruptive or forcing it other kids, and as long as it was their idea.
  • I'll never insist that Buddhist creation stories be taught in science class.
  • I'll never try to get Buddhist scriptures encoded in the law. If I think something is harmful enough to be illegal, I won't point to the Dhammapada and say, "Because Buddha said so." Quoting the Dhammapada to a non-Buddhist would be like quoting the Bible to an atheist...who would do that? Instead, I'll try to explain--based on evidence and real world examples, not scriptures--what makes the behavior so harmful that it should be illegal.
  • I'll never discriminate against someone and call it "religious freedom."
  • I'll never assume everybody in a room with me is Buddhist. If people tell me they aren't, I'll never be shocked or tell them I feel sorry for them, and I'll certainly never tell them (in a "bless your heart" tone of voice) that I'll pray for them. I'll never try to make a non-Buddhist take Buddhist oaths. I'll never say non-Buddhist morals have no real foundation, or that a non-Buddhist can't be a real patriotic American. 
  • If an overbearing minority of Buddhists does do these things, I won't take see criticism of them as criticism of all Buddhists, or of me. And if people told that overbearing minority that they couldn't lead classrooms in Buddhist prayers, or teach Buddhist creation stories, generally try to boss the rest of the country around, I would support them. I certainly wouldn't say they were getting offended for no reason, and tell them to get over it.
  • Finally, if ever convert to Buddhism, and I'm told I can't do any of the things I just said I'll never do, I will never, ever declare that there's a War on Buddhism, or that Buddhists are being persecuted. Especially if Buddhism were the most powerful religion in the country. Because that would really be ridiculous.

* As long as such free exercise doesn't infringe on the rights of others, obviously. If someone decided to revive ancient Aztec religion and start offering human sacrifices to insure the sun kept coming up, I'm afraid the only thing to do is tell them no.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Dr. Evil and the Big Lie

This isn't the post I want to write today. I want to write about the "religious freedom" bills that have been emerging in states around the country. I see these bills as yet another instance of what I rail against most in this blog--people doing hurtful things based on unproven religious beliefs.* But I've written post after post on that topic, and there's no sense in rehashing the same arguments again. So, I'm going to write what I don't feel like writing about. It's something I need to remind myself about, because it's hard for me to remember right now.

The thing is, most people I don't agree with--even most people I see as doing very hurtful things--don't do them because they're bad people. I know, crazy, right? It's easy, and even perversely comforting, to think our ideological opponents are simply bad. This way of thinking is so common, and so harmful, that I've started thinking of it as The Big Lie.

We like to think life is like a Hollywood movie, where there are good guys and there are bad guys (some people in law enforcement and the military actually use this terminology.) We like to think actual villains are common. What I mean by "villain" is a person who is bad, knows he's bad, and does what he does because it's bad. Think Dr. Evil; the kind of guy who revels in his own badness. But Dr. Evil is a caricature. Hardly anybody is really like that (though the phenomenon of the internet troll has convinced me a few are.) The fact is, many people--even the ones doing serious harm--do what they do because they think it's the right thing to do.**

Take the people currently proposing laws that would allow discrimination against gays on the basis of religion. My knee-jerk reaction is to see those people as Dr. Evils--as doing it just to hurt somebody. But my knee-jerk reaction is wrong. Some do just want to hurt people, but most are proposing such laws because they truly think they're morally right. They believe that refusing to participate in a gay wedding, or perhaps even refusing to serve a gay person at all, makes them a better person. That's hard for a liberal like me to process, but it is how they see it.

And here's the thing: it's hard for them to process the fact that we're trying to do what's right. They're just like us that way--if they're not careful, they'll start thinking we're simply bad people who like doing bad things. They'll start thinking of us as Dr. Evil. How many times have you heard conservatives say that liberals want to see the United States fail, or that they support abortion because they like the idea of killing babies? We know better, but it happens all the time. But then, it's also common for us to say the same things about them: that people who don't agree with gay marriage must hate gays, or that pro-lifers are motivated by a desire to oppress women. Yes, there are some haters and oppressors, but the fact is that most of them are motivated by things other than hate and oppression.

However counter-intuitive this may be, it's true, and it's not helpful to pretend it isn't. First, the Dr. Evil view is simply an inaccurate view of reality. Take pro-lifers, for example. If someone actually thinks each life is created by God and begins at conception, and that is their motivation for being pro-life, then it doesn't serve any purpose to claim they're motivated to keep women down. It's much more helpful to understand people's actual motivations than their imagined ones. (Some people seem to think understanding equates to approval, but that's just silly). Second, the Dr. Evil view of the other side perpetuates the nastiness of the culture wars we're seeing in this country, and has been the root of many of the wars throughout history. It's a very, very destructive impulse.

When we understand that most people on the other side are trying to do the right thing, it lets us see them in a more positive light, and maintain a little more empathy for them. It also means the situation isn't as hopeless as we may have thought, because we have common ground with those on the other side. We both, for the most part, want to do the right thing. How about that--something we actually agree on!

What we don't agree upon, unfortunately, is what the right thing to do actually is. That's where we need dialogue. If we mostly want what's right, then let's talk about what that might be. What doesn't need to happen is more demonization and name-calling. If we don't want them calling us evil, we need to stop calling them evil. The problem isn't that people on the other side are bad. The problem is that it's so hard to figure out and agree upon what's actually good.

And that is a great big horrible problem. The sad fact is, many of the worst things people have ever done to each other have been a result of trying to do what's right, not what's wrong. But that's a topic for another post. For now, let's focus on the fact that The Big Lie really is a lie. Dr. Evils are rare, and most people aren't trying to be bad. They're trying to be good, and that's very good news.


* I've realized lately that what bothers me isn't the target of this hurtfulness--gays are the currently preferred target, but there have been many others throughout history. What bothers me is the rationale--people basically saying "What you are doing is wrong, because this one particular ancient book says it's wrong." Some people will think I'm evil for saying that.

** At the very least, they convince themselves that what they're doing is justified. Even complete sociopaths like Pablo Escobar spend a lot of energy explaining their actions. If you read Mark Bowden's book Killing Pablo, you realize Escobar thought of himself as a great guy who was just misunderstood. This is a man who would kick handcuffed people to the bottom of pools, and once blew up an airliner because he wanted one person on it dead.