Archive for the ‘Reflections’ Category

On the Naming of Sports Teams IV: Native American Team Names & What to Do About the Redskins

Thursday, November 13th, 2014

I have left the teams named for Native American warriors and tribes for this separate post, instead of including them in the earlier one on warriors and local groups, to which the names logically belong, because there are special questions raised about the propriety of such names. The three previous posts in this series are On the Naming of Sports Teams I: Animals & Birds; II: Non-Indian Warriors & Groups with Local Associations; and III: Colors, Abstractions, & Inanimate Objects.

Except for the rare collegiate self-mocking name, it should be evident that, despite the evidence of some bad choices, no one deliberately chooses a sports team’s name to bring scorn and contempt on the team, rather the opposite. So the question is not of a deliberate attempt to disrespect or ridicule Native Americans, even for the worst of the lasix names, Redskins.

There are not as many team names falling into the Native American category as there used to be. Stanford, Dartmouth, and U of Massachusetts are among those having made name changes. Others have kept names but eliminated Native American images and sideline performers. Wikipedia has a good article (at least as I write, it does) “Native American mascot controversy” on the topic.

There was no denying the valor of Native American warriors. So, even as Native Americans were pushed out of their homelands by force of arms, with great suffering and loss of life, they gained respect, even admiration, for their “savage” bravery and warcraft. Thus the many teams that chose Native American names in the past. I understand the argument against these names, but I can’t help feeling that eliminating them would contribute to our forgetting the heroism of the Native American resistance.

Here is the breakdown for this final team name category, with an example of each.

10. Native American warriors and tribes

(A) general: Chiefs
(B) tribal / local: Seminoles
(C) racial: Redskins

To 10A belong the Golden State Warriors, Atlanta and Bradley Braves, Kansas City Chiefs, William & Mary Tribe, and Cleveland Indians. Personally, I think these names are as acceptable as Spartans or Minutemen, though I have to admit they may invite some fans to don unfortunate Indian costumes. But must we outlaw Indian costumes at Mardi Gras and Halloween? I think football game face-painting etc. (which is not confined to teams with Native American names) is something we can tolerate, just as we tolerate identifying teams with fierce animals. There’s something a little primeval about it, but perhaps better not suppressed.

Tribal or local names (10B) include Florida State Seminoles, Central Michigan Chippewas, Utah Utes, Chicago Black Hawks, and San Diego State Aztecs. The Fighting Illini of Illinois used to be counted in this category, since Illinois was named for the Illiniwek tribal group and the school used an Indian chief with full headdress as its symbol for many years, as well as having an Indian-garbed mascot at games. Those images have been banished, and the claim is made that Fighting Illini referred to Civil War soldiers from Illinois originally, anyway, which would belong in 4B. Most of these remaining names are probably in danger. Although the opinion that they are insulting or, at the very least unacceptably insensitive, is not the majority one, it is strongly held. Florida State would seem to be in a pretty strong position for defending its name since the Seminole tribe of Florida likes ambien it. The same can be said about the Utes and the Chippewas.

The Aztecs aren’t exactly around to weigh in of the San Diego State name, but it almost escapes the Native American category by not belonging to a group within the USA. It’s more like Trojans or Spartans in belonging to a distant past. The strong association of the Aztecs with human sacrifice and cannibalism, however, makes the name problematic for me.

The Chicago Black Hawks (NHL) name might sound like it belongs to 1A with the birds of prey, but the team logo depicts a Native American in profile, and the team is evidently named for an Indian chief called Black Hawk. Having everybody called by one man’s name doesn’t make sense to me. It’s like calling a Memphis team the Elvises. Well, maybe when Black Hawks is taken to mean everyone on the team has adopted Black Hawk’s totem animal it’s marginally OK.

There is really only one team name in the category that explicitly points to race, 10C—the Washington Redskins. Whatever its problems, the Redskins name clearly would fit into one of the fierce historical fighter categories, as would all the other Indian-derived names would. Going only by the name, I’d have assumed Redskins would have gone into the ruthless raider subcategory 3B. Based on the reference to scalping in the original version of the team’s fight song, I think this was the intent. However, the team logo is similar to the dignified face in profile that was seen on the Indian-head nickel. It doesn’t promote a blood-thirsty image at all. I take the team owner at his word that he views the name in a positive light that honors the valor of the Native American warrior. Unless one takes the position that Native American images cannot be considered for sports team logos period, the logo seems fine. But what about the name? It’s different from all the other existing names with a Native American zithromax theme, in its reference to skin color.

It should be acknowledged that red has traditionally been used to designate the skin color of Native Americans, just as yellow has been for that of the Chinese. When Jesse Jackson spoke of creating a Rainbow Coalition he said “Our flag is red, white, and blue, but our nation is a rainbow—red, yellow, brown, black, and white.” He was certainly not meaning to offend anyone, on the contrary. I don’t recall anyone objecting. The point I’m making is that, however inaccurate using red for skin color is and how unnecessary it is to even use a color, it has been the standard, unthinking shorthand way of identifying Native Americans. Given that, I think the Redmen (U of Massachusetts and St. John’s) name was almost as defensible for a team name as Indians, when it was first used, but it’s just as well that it is gone. Incidentally, the Cleveland Indians logo, which is the red-as-a-lobster cartoon face of “Chief Wahoo,” really needs to be discarded, and that minimal act of respect wouldn’t require renaming the team.

But back to the Redskins name. It’s not enough to sincerely say you don’t mean the name in an offensive way. The historical usage and racial emphasis cannot be wished away. Forty years ago, before there was any controversy that I was aware of, an Austin poet pointed out to me, with a poet’s concision, that the name Washington Redskins was like Birmingham Niggers. This was shocking and, I realized upon reflection, basically true, though I hadn’t thought of it that way before then.

Redskins was a term of racial contempt applied by Whites to the native peoples of North America within the shameful historical context of getting them out of the way. The term emphasized the otherness, and implicitly the inferiority, of the Native Americans, and surely played its part in maintaining the mind-set that could justify their cruel prednisone treatment. We can’t forget the genocidal phrase: “The only good Injun is a dead Injun.”

The word Redskins, although it may have been used without thought or conscious prejudice in the past, is not uttered by any halfway sensitive person these days except in the context of NFL football. The name Redskins has to go, and it will go sooner or later. I want to propose a compromise solution, which means it will not satisfy anyone who has a strong position for keeping things just as they are or for eliminating all Native American associations with the team. It is meant as a compromise with a certain naturalness to it, given the team’s location in our nation’s capital. Who knows, maybe it will remind the politicians there what compromise for the common good is.

One step away from Redskins would be Indians, but that would not be far enough for the most adamant objectors to the current name, and there is a baseball team with the name already. Native Americans? That has become the political correct term, even though a considerable number of the persons to whom it applies still prefer to go by American Indian. Some who oppose the current name would strongly object, and defenders of the current name might feel moved to make a death struggle against political correctness and save the name Redskins. In any case, Native Americans can be thrown out as a name for having too many syllables, without considering it further. I don’t think anyone would suggest Senators or Congressmen, speaking of not wanting a name that’s widely held in contempt.

Here is my two-part proposal. First, keep the current logo (hopefully making the skin color a bit more realistic). Second, change the name to Washington Americans.

Keeping the logo (and the team should get rights to that as a trademark, which has been called into question recently, as a way of pressuring the team to change the name) would minimize damage to the value of the franchise and to the psyche of fans who see the logo as representing a team they support and have supported, some of them, for their whole conscious lives. Yes, many would persist in calling the team the Redskins, singing Hail to the Redskins, and bringing signs to games with the word Redskins on them, but so what? The official name, the name used in accounts and discussions of the team on national tv and press would be Americans. Over time, no one would be using the name Redskins. Those who believe no team should have a Native American image to represent it could continue that battle and perhaps try to confiscate all the Indian-head nickels while they’re at it. Sticklers for Native American usage could call the team the Washington Native Americans if they wanted to, though I don’t think that would be very widespread.

I see the combination of the name Americans with the Native American image for the team logo as a way of honoring the first Americans. Would Native Americans be offended instead of feeling honored? My guess is that most would not, but that could be part of the debate before the new name was adopted. As a name for a team in Washington DC, I think Americans is better than Nationals, using an actual noun to express more of less the same thing. The name Americans is proud, tough, and patriotic. Problem solved.

On the Naming of Sports Teams III: Colors, Abstractions, & Inanimate Objects

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

This is the third installment in my series of four posts on sports team naming. What nearly all the names in this post have in common is that they are not based on identifiable creatures that have ever walked the Earth, not on man nor beast. Those names either have no meaning outside the context of the team (Athletics, Astros) or refer to phenomena, abstractions, or objects that can’t be easily related to the human activity of sports competition (Hurricanes, Magic, Spurs), if at all.

In place of names like those considered in the previous posts (On the Naming of Sports Teams I: Animals & Birds, On the Naming of Sports Teams II: Non-Indian Warriors & Groups with Local Associations), which link a team to a species or historical group, thus implicitly allowing for the existence of individual personalities of the team members, some of these team names present monolithic regional symbols or indivisible abstractions. They conflate team loyalty with brand loyalty. It’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that most of the worst names are relatively recent ones given to professional teams formed in league expansion.

Evidently, the human mind can adjust to having a baseball team named for a mountain range (Rockies), even though it jars logic to think of the individual players as mountains, a paradigm of immobility. And a musical genre (Jazz), an abstraction which cannot logically be broken into parts for connecting to individual persons, presumably serves well enough as a team name, or at least as a placeholder for one. Still, I can’t help thinking that these illogical and homogenized names are like a background noise that one adjusts to, but which nonetheless causes ongoing psychic stress.

Let me put it this way: these team names are not of anything a child could pretend to be in play. Well, Marcel Proust, who might for a brief period of confusion at the edge of sleep imagine himself to be a string quartet, possibly could, but not an ordinary child. Would any child pretend to be a nugget, a spur, or a hurricane? These names are not play-worthy. That makes them, in my mind, unworthy of serving as a team’s name, and I’m glad to have hit upon the perfect criterion by which to judge whether a name is even worth considering.

Here are my proposed categories for the rest of the non-Indian team names. As with the earlier categories, there are some names that could fit into more than one category and some that don’t fit well into any of them, but which aren’t worth a new category. I give but one example for each subcategory in the listing, but mention more in the discussion that follows.

6. Colors

(A) plural (Reds)
(B) singular (Crimson)
(C) uniform identifiers (Red Sox)

7. Manufactured names

(A) adjectives as nouns (Athletics)
(B) local contrivances (Expos)
(C) abstractions (Magic)
(D) meaningless names (Hokies)

8. Forces of nature

(A) emphasizing the collective (Crimson Tide)
(B) weather phenomena (Lightning)
(C) destructive phenomena viewed as individuals (Hurricanes)

9. Inanimate objects

(A) associated with speed (Rockets)
(B) associated with location (Buckeyes)
(C) others (Nets)

In addition to names, all teams have at least one identifying color, which the team members and many fans wear or otherwise display. It is a secondary way of identifying with the team. Fans and followers of the teams may identify with the colors as much as with the names, and in some cases the team is just named after one of its colors. I think the naming of a team for a color has a quasi concreteness about it, because it is directly tied to the team without an intervening image or abstract mental excursion. In politics, if we hear Greens or Reds, we have an immediate idea of the group, and I think the same is true for teams named for colors.

Team names designated by color (6A) include the Cincinnati Reds, St. Louis Blues, Cleveland and (in the past) St. Louis Browns. The choice is one with ancient roots: chariot teams of Rome were identified by color, since it was the only way to tell them apart at a distance. The St. Louis Blues NHL team name is kind of a pun with a local reference, because of a famous song, but I’m calling it a color, which saves it from the abstractions category 7C, into which its kindred name Utah Jazz has been placed.

I had thought Harvard Crimson was the only team named for a singular color (6B), which abstractly emphasizes the group rather than its members. It’s different from Alabama’s Crimson Tide, where crimson modifies the noun representing the team. But as I wrote this, I discovered that Stanford goes by Cardinal, another shade of red that sounds derivative, but seems not to be, at least not completely. I had known that Stanford’s Cardinal referred to the color, as opposed to the bird, but I’d thought Stanford used the plural Cardinals. The old Stanford name Indians was nixed in 1972 as offensive, and I just saw on Wikipedia that they used the plural version Cardinals until the singular Cardinal was made the name by school president fiat. It does look a little like wanting to step into an elite circle of two with Harvard, but maybe it was only to get rid of the bird name confusion. I note that North Texas, though nominally still going by the name Eagles, has pretty much joined the singular color club with Harvard and Stanford, but with an adjective meant to be intimidating: Mean Green.

Teams identified by the color of their “Sox” (Chicago White Sox and Boston Red Sox) are really a variation on the team color category 5A, but with concrete imagery. There is some confusion about this, though, as an individual Boston player may be called by some a Red Sock, or even self-identify that way, as though the name belonged to the inanimate object category 9C. I think the absurdity of that image makes the point rather well that this is a team color name. The Cincinnati Reds were known for a time as the Cincinnati Redlegs, an awkward name chosen not for concreteness but to avoid the association with Communism that “Reds” evoked. Red Sox was already taken, and the old Red Stockings name probably sounded too effeminate, so they went with Redlegs from 1953 to 1959. This was such an unattractive name that it’s hard to believe they actually used it, but this was the time of “better dead than red,” so having an ugly name was a comparatively minor sacrifice.

It was a tough call whether to put the Detroit Red Wings name in 6C or 7D (for meaningless names), but since the wings are on the team uniforms, and the color is an essential part of the name, I decided to put it into the group with Red Sox.

Included in the names that are pluralized adjectives (7A) are the Oakland Athletics, Boston Celtics, Kansas City Royals, and Washington Nationals. The Oakland team uses a totem-animal elephant identifier as well, since there really isn’t any way to depict an “Athletic”. Royals actually could be considered a noun directly, as those of royal blood are called that. But I’ve already refused in the previous post to make a special category for kings. However dubious a grammatical practice this turning of adjectives into nouns may be, it’s clear these names are meant to apply to individual human beings, the players on the team, supposedly endowed with the characteristics specified in the name. These characteristics are more abstract than the wearing of a certain uniform item, but the principle of self-referential naming applies.

The locally contrived names (7B), which include Montreal Expos (in the past), Houston Astros, and Washington Capitals, go a step beyond the association of team members with defining characteristics to assigning them membership in nonexistent local groups. Still, the names are meant to apply to individual human beings. The problem with these names is that it’s even harder to picture them than those of 7A.

The MLB Expos of Montreal were an egregious example of the contrived local name category. Yes, there was a Worlds Fair in Montreal once, called the Expo, but it is ridiculous to call baseball players Expos. A worlds fair cannot be personified. The MLB Houston Astros also come to mind. There is no such thing as an Astro. It’s a prefix. I know Houston has a NASA Center, but this was a bad choice.

Washington Capitals? There is one national capital, and it’s a city. This name almost made it into the category of nonsensical names along with Suns, another unique thing used in the plural, but since it makes up a name (as applied to hockey players) with a tight local connection, I think the locally contrived name category is fitting.

Names that are abstractions include Orlando Magic, Miami Heat, Utah (formerly New Orleans) Jazz, New England Revolution, and Minnesota Wild. These are names that clearly have no intention of providing a way to visualize an individual team member from the team’s name (with the possible exception of the Revolution). This kind of name is my least favorite. I’m afraid I would ban them if I had the power as a league commissioner.

Jazz started out as at least a local reference in New Orleans, but makes no sense at all in Utah. Heat might arguably be placed in the weather phenomenon category 8B. Heat Wave would be, but Heat by itself is just too vague. It really only serves to suggest an unpleasant, inescapable experience, which is perhaps why the name has also been used as a slang term for the police (like Fuzz). I could live with Magicians, might even set up a special category for them with the Wizards, but Magic is the very worst team name of all.

I’m putting the New England Revolution in with the abstractions as well. As opposed to the Patriots and Minutemen names, which refer to individuals joined by a common name because of their making history together in a common cause, Revolution refers to a historical event or process, which in a sense stands above the participants. The Revolution name is much like the forces of nature names of category 8A.

Among names I call made-up and meaningless (7D) are Virginia Tech Hokies, Texas Tech Red Raiders, Buffalo Bills, San Diego Chargers, and Indiana Pacers. Silly as these are, they are like the locally contrived names of category 7A in inviting us to think of individual team members as being Hokies or Bills or whatever.

The name Hokies was deliberately chosen by students in the desire to have a completely meaningless, made-up name. In a way, it’s like choosing a color for a name, for there is no mental image of a Hokie to slow the mind’s transition from name to team.

Indiana Pacers is another dumb professional team name, meaning not much of anything, supposedly combining (abstractly) the pacing horse of harness racing with the pace car of the Indianapolis 500!

The San Diego Chargers might be thought of as spirited horses, but it turns out the owner liked the crowd shout of “Charge!” after the bugle call at ball games, and that is where the name came from. Who’s charging? To further confuse matters, the Chargers have something like a lightning bolt for the team symbol, which makes me think of AAA road service for a dead battery.

Texas Tech Red Raiders is a rare, if not unique, case of a name containing Red that has been certified not to refer to Native Americans. Originally named the Matadors, the team, which wore red uniforms, took on the Red Raiders name about the time a guy made a dramatic entrance on horseback before a game, bullfighter’s red cape now trailing behind him (like a superhero’s), eyes covered with a Lone Ranger or Zorro mask. This became a tradition and presumably defines what a Red Raider is supposed to look like. The idea of a whole group of caped Lone Ranger lookalikes is comical though. It is possible to imagine kids pretending to be this kind of Red Raider, but it is still a made-up name that only looks good compared to names like Buffalo Bills.

What about the Buffalo Bills? Buffalo Bill Cody was a real person. He made a name for himself killing bison by the thousands to feed railroad workers, then formed a touring Wild West show. So, since buffaloes don’t have bills, and I can’t think of what a generic bill would be, I am forced to picture a bunch of identical guys with a certain kind of beard and wearing western garb, brandishing rifles. What does their sideline cartoon character look like? A blue buffalo. So, possibly without realizing it, they are trying to get back to the safety of a totem animal, which presumably even has some historical local connection, given the city’s name.

The Phoenix Suns are put in category 7D for want of a better place. Everyone knows what the Sun is, so it is not a made-up name in that sense. Maybe kings and suns should go into a special category for names of magnificence, which become absurd when applied to a whole team. But there logically can be multiple kings for multiple kingdoms, while there is only one Sun, which makes Suns possibly the most ridiculous of all team names. Yes, I know that the Sun is but one of many of stars, but there is only one Sun. This choice of name seems an attempt to sell what the desert has plenty of, but without stopping to think it through. Sunrays would make more sense, which is not to say it would be good. If a Sun reference is desired, the name Phoenix Sunburns would convey the idea of inflicting pain on opponents without the Satanic imagery of Arizona State’s Sun Devils. Sunstrokes might be even better, as that name evokes images of opponents brought to the ground.

Names that are forces of Nature, which in the singular are presumably meant to bring to mind a team’s powerful collective action, include Alabama Crimson Tide, Tulsa Golden Hurricane, Colorado Avalanche, Tulane Green Wave, Chicago Fire (MLS), and Colorado Rapids (MLS).

It’s possible for members of a team and their fans to think of themselves as part of a collective that works together to make a powerful whole, so that taken together the group could be called, symbolically, the Crimson Tide or the Golden Hurricane. If an army could be given such a nickname, then it could work for a team. Natural forces, especially those of the irresistible or devastating type are sometimes chosen. Tulsa’s Golden Hurricane (singular) makes more sense than Miami U’s 8C plural Hurricanes name, but it seems odd to an outsider, since a golden hurricane is not easily pictured, unlike the Green Wave of Tulane, which brings to mind something like a tidal wave, even if a wave of green-clad athletes is meant. Note that Alabama, like Oakland, has chosen an elephant as a visual totem-animal representation of the team.

The Chicago Fire references a famous local destructive event, and fits into 8A as well as any other category. I guess it didn’t bother the namers that the fire destroyed much of the city the team represents. I’m not sure whether the Colorado Rapids are supposed to be admired like the Rockies are feared like the Avalanche, but I can’t think of a better place to put them than here. Rapid is an adjective, so they could also be, secondarily (as a pun), an example of an adjective turned into a noun to denote individuals (7A).

The singular noun weather names (8B), Oklahoma City Thunder and Tampa Bay Lightning (NHL), are both associated with the same frightful phenomenon. Except for having the notions of sudden action, danger, and impressive sensory stimuli in their favor, they are like Heat in being abstractions difficult to identify human beings with. They are something like the names of 8A. But, since they are intermittent phenomena, not as easily associated with massive group activity, I think they deserve a separate category. Thunder Claps and Lightning Bolts would go into 8C.

Category 8C contains names that implicitly identify the team’s players with destructive phenomena through the use of the plural. These include Iowa State Cyclones, Miami and Carolina Hurricanes, Calgary Flames (NHL), and San Jose Earthquakes (MLS).

Hurricanes are really too big to associate with individuals, even in the imagination, but the Miami University (FL) and Carolina NHL teams make the attempt. Cyclones in Iowa are tornadoes. These are at least confined to a smaller area and thus a little easier to associate with individual players, but nothing about a bunch of tornadoes suggests co-ordinated action. Flames are the plural representation of fire, which can be viewed as a destructive natural phenomenon. I thought Hurricanes covered too large an area to make sense, but Earthquakes take the prize for sheer physical extent, not to mention impossibility of visualization.

Inanimate objects that at least move through space rapidly have been chosen to name the Houston Rockets, New York and Winnipeg Jets, Seattle Supersonics (in the past), and Baltimore Bullets (in the past).

The Houston Rockets NBA team, like the city’s MLB team, the Astros (7B), uses a space theme to associate it with the local NASA center. Rockets are as inanimate as Spurs and Nuggets (see below), but they are at least speedily mobile and self-propelled and, unlike the Astros, refer to something beyond the team itself. Jets and Supersonics (now defunct) are also fast and self-propelled, though none of them can purposefully guide themselves. Now that I think of it, could the name of the New York Jets also contain a West Side Story allusion? If so, the Jets could be street-gang members instead of airplanes, which could move them to category 4D. There’s no such possibility for the NHL Winnipeg team though.

The Jets and Rockets could raise the question of whether they satisfy my criterion of being things a child might pretend to be in play. I suppose that, in a way, I pretended to be a fighter plane, when as a boy I made the sounds of a diving Hellcat on a strafing run, guns firing, my arms outstretched for wings, but that imaginary plane was just a prop for what I saw myself as—the plane’s pilot. So I still say no to Jets and Rockets, and the criterion was only for being considered, anyway.

The Baltimore Bullets (9A) NBA team of the past, sort of melded the ideas behind the Colt 45s (see below) and the Houston Rockets, but alliteration was surely a factor. Bullets are mere projectiles, however, dependent on being shot from a gun to attain their speed. After the team had been in its new home in Washington DC for a while, it was decided that Washington Bullets was unseemly for the nation’s capital, especially given the city’s high murder rate. So the team namers went for alliteration again and came up with Wizards, an unfortunate name that fits none of my categories, but doesn’t seem worthy of having one all to itself.

Inanimate objects with a local connection of some sort have provided names to the San Antonio Spurs, Ohio State Buckeyes, Houston (formerly) Colt 45s, Toronto Maple Leafs, Denver Nuggets, Detroit Pistons, and Columbus Blue Jackets.

In the same way as White Sox identifies a Chicago team by a uniform part, the San Antonio Spurs name might be suitable for a rodeo team of some sort, though it would need to add a distinguishing adjective (Silver Spurs?). But basketball players don’t wear spurs. As a standalone name, Spurs is pretty weak, in my mind. Literally speaking, who wants to be a Spur? It’s like the laughable reference to a Boston player as a Red Sock. The great success of the San Antonio NBA team has made its name seem more plausible than it really is. But at least spurs are concrete, which makes them superior to names that are just flagyl abstractions.

An interesting, and at first puzzling, inanimate object name with a local connection belongs to the Ohio State Buckeyes. The Buckeye is a tree, or the inedible nut from that tree. Ohio evidently became known as the Buckeye State during the Presidential election of 1840. I can’t help thinking that the choosing of the name Buckeyes was done without much thought as to what a Buckeye really was. They have actually made the sideline cartoon fellow be a personified nut. I guess the Buckeye is in a sense a totem tree, but I think there’s an element of the adjective (as in Buckeye State) turned into noun effect through its use in the plural (like Athletics), which explains the name better, even though I’m leaving it in 9B. Of course, as with any successful team’s name, a Buckeye is by now someone who plays for Ohio State.

The Maple Leafs (why not Leaves?) obviously must come from the Canadian flag, right? Actually the team name came long before the adoption of the current flag. The maple leaf emblem had been on the uniforms of Canadian soldiers in WWI, though, and that is presumably why Maple Leafs was chosen for the team, whose members would also wear the symbol. An argument could be made to put this name in with uniform identifiers (6C). In any case, even as an inanimate object name, Maple Leafs is a great improvement over the team’s previous name—St. Pats—which is even more absurd than ambien Buffalo Bills.

I recall that the Houston MLB team, like the Spurs, was first identified with inanimate objects with a Texas Wild West theme, but in the weapons category. The Houston Colt 45s was a name which could not be sustained.

The Denver Nuggets name probably stands alone in being totally inanimate, inert, inorganic, and not a product of human manufacture. How can fans urge a pile of rocks into action? How could I have forgotten? Writing the phrase “pile of rocks” actually brought to mind another team name that comes pretty close: the Colorado Rockies (referred to above in an introductory paragraph, actually written later). Must be something about Colorado. Blue Jackets is not much of a name, but the other finalist for the Columbus NHL team name was Justice, which would have been much worse.

Inanimate object names that don’t fit well into other categories are Brooklyn Nets and Buffalo Sabres. The NBA Nets (then New York) name was clearly chosen to rhyme with the already existing NFL Jets and MLB Mets, and is pretty meaningless. Yes, I get the basketball net reference, but who wants to be a Net, which just hangs from the rim passively? Sabres are inanimate slashing weapons, perhaps chosen because of a certain resemblance to skate viagra blades.

The terrible sports team name game is easy to play. Choose something inanimate or abstract, preferably with a geographical tie-in and alliterative with the locale. What about New Orleans Mardi Gras or Chicago Mob? Los Angeles Freeways or Newark Needles? Fresno Frenzy or Carolina Calm? Houston Hiphop or Raleigh Rap? Jacksonville Judgment or Tennessee Truth? Seattle Nirvana (trademark issue?), Kansas City Karma, Denver High, or Hollywood Egos? Michigan Mystery or Cincinnati Certainty? Madison Affair or DC Drones? Wouldn’t London Plague be a devastating name for an NFL expansion team? Hawaii Lava or Washington Eruptions? Atlantic City Ocean or Montana Sky? Sad to say, some of those sound like realistic candidates for future team names.

My final post on the topic of sports team names will be devoted to names based on Native American warriors and tribes. There I will present my solution to the problem of the Washington Redskins
viagra name.

On the Naming of Sports Teams II: Non-Indian Warriors & Groups with Local Associations

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014

This is the second installment of my thoughts on the naming of sports teams, leading up to my proposal for dealing with the Washington Redskins name, which will appear a couple of posts later, to universal applause, I’m sure. In my previous blog post, I discussed the very popular use of animals and birds for names and suggested categories into which the names could be organized.

Here are my proposed categories for the next-most popular type of team names, those in which either the fierce animals are replaced by fierce human beings or the less fierce totem-like animals are replaced by people having a special association with the team’s home territory. Team names that are Beings of Good or Evil, though few in number, seem to warrant a category of their own. As before, I give only one example for each subcategory in the list, but mention more in the discussion that follows. I am saving the discussion of the use of names associated with Native Americans, which naturally belong in the categories 3 or 4 below, for a separate treatment in the last post of the series.

3. Fierce fighters from history or myth (non-local)

(A) brave warriors (Spartans)
(B) ruthless plunderers (Raiders)
(C) mythical (Titans)

4. Groups with local associations

(A) historical non-military (Sooners)
(B) historical military (Minutemen)
(C) occupational (Steelers)
(D) representative / emblematic (Texans)
(E) students at the school (Cadets)

5. Beings of Good or Evil

(A) Good (Angels)
(B) Evil (Blue Devils)

I’ve suggested that naming teams after animals is psychologically akin to the choosing of animals as emblems for totem groups. Names based on groups of historical people come closer to actual identification, being roughly equivalent to veneration of heroes or honoring of ancestors. Although most people probably don’t think about it more than they do for teams named after animals, I wonder if this doesn’t unnecessarily elevate some bloodthirsty qualities in the case of fierce fighter names, especially, of course, those of category 3B, with whom no one should want to identify.

Among historical brave warrior names (3A) are the Michigan St. Spartans, USC Trojans, and Holy Cross Crusaders.

There are numerous teams with Native American warrior names, but I’m putting that discussion off for later. It’s really striking how few of the non-Indian warrior names there are. Were the Spartans chosen over their formidable military rivals, the Athenians, because Sparta’s side ultimately won the Peloponnesian War? It’s probably because Athens is more renowned for its philosophers than its fighters, while the severe military culture of the Spartans automatically makes one think of warriors. Winning can’t be the only criterion for being deemed worthy of a team’s name, or how would the Trojans, who lost to the Achaeans, get the honor? Have the Achaeans been left out of naming because they had to use a ruse to conquer Troy? Or is it just because most people would call Troy’s besiegers Greeks, which wouldn’t work as a name due to modern associations that would override any Homeric allusion? Romans can be ruled out on similar grounds. Somehow the Trojans managed also to get a condom brand named after them, so clearly they are the ultimate winners in terms of lasting name recognition.

Some would no doubt object to my including the Crusaders in category 3A, since they are typically viewed these days as early European imperialists, conquering and oppressing the Arabs of the Holy Land, centuries before the next wave of British and French came to dominate the region. In fact, the European knights who waged the Crusades were at a technological disadvantage, but nevertheless managed through their zeal, courage, and battle skills to win and hold a good chunk of territory in the Holy Land for decades. And it should be remembered that the Crusades occurred in the context of centuries-old Arab rule of Portugal and Spain. The clash between the warriors of Islam and Christendom in the Crusades of the Middle Ages went on for almost two centuries, far surpassing in length the wars in which the Trojans and Spartans fought; not to mention the Punic wars between the Romans and Carthaginians (neglected also). Saracens, as the European crusaders called their Arab warrior opponents, might make a good name in the historical warrior category, but it will never be chosen, especially in the context of modern Jihadism. I have to wonder how long the College of the Holy Cross will hold on to the Crusader name.

To the ruthless plunderers category 3B I would assign the Minnesota Vikings, Oakland Raiders, Pittsburgh Pirates, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Idaho Vandals.

I’m sure that, beyond their image of ferocity, part of the attraction of these category 3B names is their association with anarchic freedom and adventure. But this is anarchic freedom with respect to those who are being raped, killed, enslaved, and plundered; and the adventure is in the hunt for new human prey. Someone looking for a name-changing moral crusade (oops, that word!) might want to consider eliminating names of category 3B before going after Native American names equivalent to those of category 3A.

The name Idaho Vandals, while evoking images of juvenile window breakers, makes reference to the “barbarians” that sacked Rome in 455 A.D., an allusion which few are likely to get without help. I wonder why the Vandals were chosen over the Visigoths, who also sacked Rome? Syllable count perhaps. Other invaders that terrorized Europe, such as the Mongols and Huns have also been shut out of the ruthless plunderer name category. As I will say more than once, I think the fewer of these kind of names the better, so I’m not proposing them for new teams.

Given the merciless way the inhabitants of conquered cities were usually treated in ancient times, the distinction between brave historical warriors and ruthless plunderers may seem to rest more on what characteristics the namers have sought to attach to their teams (martial virtues or sheer ferocity, roughly) than to degrees of savagery. But Trojans and Spartans did abide by some rules of war, such as truces for burial of the dead, recognizing places of sanctuary, and keeping (for a while anyway) of treaties, and there was an element of patriotism or a higher cause in their struggles. This sets them apart from marauders like pirates, who were thieving cutthroats out for bloody personal gain and nothing more.

I think the association of a team with fierce human fighters risks taking on their moral shortcomings in a way that identification with blameless wild animals doesn’t. Mythical warriors (3C) such as the New York and San Francisco Giants and the Tennessee Titans are more like animals in that regard. The Houston Oilers (4C), when they moved to Nashville, became the Tennessee Titans (obviously chosen for alliteration, 3C), that name being available because earlier the New York Titans (lame New York Giants imitation, given the location) chose a rhyming name (Jets) when the New York Mets got a MLB franchise.

In the case of local associations, the names are an assertion of local pride, whether in city or in State, at least in the beginning; but sometimes the association fades and the meaning of a name becomes obscure to everyone, eventually coming to mean little beyond the athletic team itself. The transformation of an obscure local group reference into an animal totem sometimes occurs, as I mentioned in the previous blog post on animal names for the case of the Oregon Webfoots (people, 4A) becoming Ducks. Similar examples are mentioned below.

To the category 4A (historical non-military) belong the Oklahoma Sooners; Dallas, Wyoming, and Oklahoma St. Cowboys; Virginia Cavaliers; Texas Rangers; North Carolina Tar Heels; San Francisco 49ers; Philadelphia 76ers; San Diego Padres; New England Patriots (see discussion); Seattle Mariners; Notre Dame Fighting Irish (see discussion); and New York Knickerbockers and Yankees.

The Cavaliers are borderline military. So are the 76ers and Patriots through their ties to the American Revolution. The Cowboys and Mariners could arguably be put in the occupational 4C category, but the historical association seems stronger to me. There are several other team names in category 4 for which the subcategory is not clearcut, but their existence is not sufficient reason to dissolve the boundaries between subcategories, in my mind.

The Sooners were, strictly speaking, cheaters, as they were the early bird homesteaders that went into Oklahoma to claim land well before they were authorized to in 1889, but I guess they get credit for their initiative, and they got to keep the land they claimed. Oklahoma was supposed to be Indian Territory, but there’s nothing unique about that kind of takeback. Given the Oklahoma football team’s success over the decades, Sooners has become a name that defines a team, rather like the Dodgers and Lakers names do, making the historical reference largely irrelevant.

North Carolina’s Tar Heels name seems to be the local equivalent of Hillbillies (and might go into either 4A or 4D depending on whether the historical aspect is emphasized). Similarly, since the Texas Rangers (State law enforcement officers) still exist, they could arguably be paired with Houston’s Texans as representatives of the State in 4D, but I think the historical association is stronger. The 49ers (4A) of San Francisco could evoke the frenzy of a gold rush, but they also are a case where the team has come to define the name rather than the reverse.

The New York Knickerbockers name (Google it) probably fits best into 4A, given its roots in stories of New Amsterdam. Now everyone just says Knicks, and few probably know how the name originated, but I think everyone feels Knicks are somehow New Yorkers. This is just another of the team names that might be placed in either 4A or 4D, depending on how current the usage of the name is deemed in denoting inhabitants of the team’s territory.

It’s hard to say where to put Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish, as it’s a name that brings to mind short-tempered brawlers (who may have had too much to drink) rather than warriors. I think historical association with tough Irish Catholic immigrants is the best way to look at it, making the name a sort of extension of category 4A.

Historical military names (4B) include the Massachusetts Minutemen, Mississippi Rebels, Tennessee Volunteers, and (originally) Kansas Jayhawks.

The U. of Massachusetts Minutemen name is a nice example of 4B. The name was originally the Redmen, but that was wisely abandoned for one having a local historical military connection. The New England Patriots name is in the same general line, though the name Patriots associated with Boston in particular evokes memories of Paul Revere, Sam Adams, and the Boston Tea Partiers, as well as those who fired the shots heard round the world, and I have placed Patriots in 4A. The original Patriots logo, which was sort of comical, showed a guy wearing a three-cornered hat (making it clear that the reference was to the time of the American Revolution) and down in center position with a football. The current logo shows instead the face of a nonexistent comic book superhero “Patriot,” known locally as the “Flying Elvis.” Imagine a whole team of those characters. Ugly vision.

The Rebels of the University of Mississippi are named for those who took up arms in support of secession from the United States in order to preserve the institution of slavery. That is the fact. Of course, many rebels fought bravely and most were not personally slaveholders, but this is a case where courage can’t be separated from the cause it supported. The Civil War does not belong to the forgotten past, and the riots that accompanied the enrollment of the first Black man, James Meredith, at the University in 1962 are a century closer. There is now a statue of Meredith at the University, and the Confederate officer sideline mascot has been transformed into a “Rebel Black Bear,” but the team name remains Rebels, and it should also be retired.

The Kansas Jayhawks name (4B, originally) is a quasi-military historical reference, made even more obscure by the metamorphosis of the Jayhawk into a cartoonish totem bird. The Jayhawks fought on the anti-slavery side in Kansas before the Civil War, and, in reality, may have been more like marauders than minutemen, but they have receded into the mists of history. A mythical bird is now used to depict the Jayhawk, since the totem animal (1A) impulse has once again triumphed, as it did with the Oregon Ducks. The “Jayhawk” does not look much like a hawk. It resembles Heckle and Jeckle, a pair of cartoon magpies, though with a somewhat curved bill, to suggest hawk. It is hard to imagine a large group of these cartoon birds, as the plural of a team name implies.

Names associated with local occupations (4C) include: Pittsburgh Steelers; Purdue Boilermakers; Green Bay Packers; Nebraska Cornhuskers; UTEP Miners; and Edmonton (also in the past, Houston) Oilers.

I would imagine most colleges with occupation-based names gain nothing from them for out-of-state recruiting of athletes. If you grow up in Nebraska, you may take pride in the name, but if you were from California would Cornhuskers be attractive? At least it’s a lot more attractive than the team’s original name of Bugeaters (a local bat, 2A). Still, with enough success, the team defines the name, and the name can become an asset.

In the 4D category I would put the New York Mets and Islanders, Houston Texans, West Virginia Mountaineers, and Ottawa (also in the past, Washington) Senators.

The Senators name sticks out in that group as one that applies only to a small number of the city’s inhabitants, but it doesn’t seem right to file it under occupational. The name is just a way of stating the town is a seat of government, and not just historically.

The name of the New York Mets (4D) is a short form of Metropolitans, which seems quite appropriate for a NYC team, since the shortened form is used when speaking of the Metropolitan Museum or the Metropolitan Opera. Through rhyming imitation, though, the Mets name inspired the unfortunate inanimate object Jets and Nets names.

The Los Angeles Dodgers (originally trolley dodgers) name was a kind of local reference in their early Brooklyn days, but now it’s just a name with a lot of baseball tradition and no particular meaning beyond baseball. Dodgers could be assigned to 4D with an asterisk. The same thing might be said of the Los Angeles Lakers name, which made sense when the team was in Minneapolis.

The Boston MLB team is lucky to have shed Beaneaters, an early 4D name. I assume the Iowa Hawkeyes would originally have gone into 4A or 4D, but following the totem-transformation principle, they are now indistinguishable from hawks (1A), though I can’t say much for the quality of their logo.

College teams named after the members of the student body (4E) include Army Cadets, Navy Midshipmen, and Texas A&M Aggies. The military academies’ students shed those names upon graduation, but an Aggie is an Aggie for life. At least it was so in the past when A&M was all-male and required ROTC, and I imagine it still is for most. I remember hearing an Aggie friend of my (non-Aggie) father say that he had decided there were only two kinds of people in the world: Aggies and non-Aggies.

Beings of Good (5A) include the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the New Orleans Saints, though both need an asterisk.

While I’ve designated the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim as the example of a team named for Beings of Good (5A), which is technically true, the name may be better suited to an extended view of 4A or 4D, since it comes from the Spanish name for the Ciudad de los Angeles, thus making Angels a historical association, though not with an actual human group, and also emblematic. The New Orleans Saints name is in rather a similar position, since it obviously comes from historical association of the city with the famous jazz hymn, rather than with an actual group of people. Within Catholic Church tradition, I think Saints would be classified as 5A, since no one becomes recognized as a Saint while alive on this Earth, and such recognition requires miracles of intercession to have been made through said Saint, verified to the satisfaction of the Church. The 5A classification probably makes as much sense as any, though I have no idea what is in the mind of New Orleans football fans. As with many teams, the team has come to define the name to the point where the word Saints makes many people think of football, just as Yankees makes them think of baseball.

In category 5B are the Duke Blue Devils, Wake Forest Demon Deacons, Arizona St. Sun Devils, and New Jersey Devils.

Except for one (sort of, supposedly), the teams named for beings of Evil (5B) have no excuse of history or geography to justify their choice. The namers just wanted to symbolically acquire the power of Evil and the ability to inflict the pains of Hell, judging from their team logos. I’m sure this is all meant tongue in cheek and not really thought of for the most part, as is the case of all team names. Still, I think this is a bad idea, even worse than identifying the team with ruthless felons.

The Jersey Devil is supposedly a legendary, chimeric creature said to inhabit the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, but the team logo clearly has horns and a pointed tail on the J of NJ, and the arena “mascot” is made to resemble the traditional depiction of Satan; so whatever the origin of the name, it’s associated with the Evil One or his cohorts now. The Arizona St. logo is a horned, tailed, pitch-forked Devil. Now, for those who don’t believe in supernatural evil powers, the choice of devils for the team name may seem something like the choice of Titans, a mythological sort of unrestrained afflictive force, carrying no more moral responsibility than the choice of blameless animals. I think, however, the strong identification of devils with Evil, whether or not one believes in them, makes them unworthy of providing names to a team. Interestingly, the Duke Blue Devils and Wake Forest Demon Deacons (what a combination!) were, when the names were chosen, at least, schools in close relations with Protestant churches, having loosely used Methodists and Baptists as team names earlier.

The NBA Sacramento Kings don’t fit into any of my categories, and don’t warrant having one of their own. They were the Cincinnati Royals (originally with alliteration in Rochester) before moving to Kansas City, which already had the Kansas City Royals MLB team. Keeping the connection to royalty, while regaining alliteration with the name Kansas City Kings, may have seemed like a no-brainer, but the idea of a whole team consisting of kings seems pretty ludicrous to me. Still, it’s only a little more problematic than one made up solely of chiefs, which Kansas City already had in its NFL team at the time the name was chosen. An opportunity was missed to change the name from Kings when the team moved to Sacramento. I just noticed the Old Dominion Monarchs, so there’s at least one other name like the Kings, but I am not adding a category for hereditary rulers anyway. Whoa, I forgot the Los Angeles Kings NHL team (Stanley Cup Champions!). If I ever revise this analysis (unlikely), I’ll have to think about adding monarchs.

I think that if I were naming a team, I would choose either an animal name, a color identifier, or a local non-military group association, avoiding even a hint of glorifying historical butchery or support for a bad cause. The next installment in this series will deal with team names that are abstractions, forces of nature, or inanimate objects.

On the Naming of Sports Teams I: Animals & Birds

Monday, September 29th, 2014

My foolhardy and woefully unfulfilled goal back when I started this blog was to have one post per week. But that was before the App Store called and before I got on Twitter (@onscrn). I think I may be able to meet that schedule at least for the next few weeks. So, stay tuned. It’s only fitting that I should turn to a Twitter-worthy subject, but one that requires far more than 140 characters to begin to do it justice: the naming of sports teams, which has been under discussion in the context of the recently controversial Washington DC National Football League team name, Redskins.

First, I mean to discuss and analyze this phenomenon and then to provide a solution to the problem of the Washington Redskins name. Rather than do all this in a single post, as I had ativan originally intended, I’ve decided to spread it out over four posts to avoid having a post that’s longer than what almost anyone would read.

Why do sports teams need names anyway? There is a practical aspect. “The Cubs are in town today,” is a succinct way of saying “Chicago’s National League Baseball team is playing here today.” But, beyond that, the need for associating some name and image to a team seems part of our psychic makeup. Primitive societies subdivide tribes into totem groups, each group identified with and named for a specific animal or bird. Nor can we overlook the lions and dragons of heraldry or the eagles of the Roman legions. The emblem gives a sense of reality to an abstract concept of group membership. That is easiest, of course, when the name is concrete instead of abstract. I am very glad that no team I naturally support because of where I live or where I went to school has a name like Magic.

The types of names—I’ll say names rather than mascots to avoid confusion with actual animals sometimes seen on the sidelines (such as Bevo, the Texas longhorn) or with the unfortunate walking cartoon characters with disproportionately large heads, who seem a requirement at games now—fall into a few categories. Very few team names have more than three syllables, and I can’t think of any with more than four. So shortness is a criterion. The name needs to be easily shouted in cheers. Alliteration, as in Jacksonville Jaguars and Pittsburgh Pirates, is obviously a feature that team namers love.

In this blog post and the following three, I shall take a stab at defining the various categories into which team names fall. I’ll be giving a single example in category itemization, but will mention more in the discussions that follow. It will be obvious that some names could fit into more than one category and that my classification scheme is not the only one that might be devised. It should serve to organize the discussion though. My ideas on where the various Native American team names fit into this scheme will be presented in the final post of the series. Here are the first two of my categories, the ones I discuss in this post.

1. Fierce animals and birds

(A) wild predators (Lions, Hawks)
(B) belligerent male herbivores (Bulls)
(C) other combative “domesticated” animals (Bulldogs, Gamecocks)
(D) stinging insects & venomous reptiles (Hornets, Diamondbacks)

2. Totem animals and birds, not noted as fierce

(A) local (Horned Frogs, Orioles)
(B) non-local (Huskies, Owls)
(C) humorous/offbeat (Anteaters)

I haven’t made a survey, but animals and birds would seem to provide the most team names. Since team names are most often meant to present an image that’s intimidating to opponents and inspiring to the team it represents, wild carnivorous beasts and fowls predominate, but the totem-like aspect of the association of a group with an animal can’t be ignored. Some obvious names come to mind in the fierce animal predator category (1A), with some of the names attached to several teams: Detroit Lions; Chicago and Baylor Bears; UCLA and Boston Bruins; Memphis Grizzlies; LSU, Missouri, Auburn, and Detroit Tigers; Cincinnati Bengals; Houston, Brigham Young, and Washington St. Cougars; Carolina, Florida (NHL), and Pitt Panthers; Jacksonville Jaguars; Kentucky and Kansas St. Wildcats; Minnesota Timberwolves; Michigan Wolverines; Florida ‘Gators, to name a few of the current professional and college team names. The prevalence of feline predators is notable, probably due to the suddenness of their attacks. Fierce feathered predators (1A) include: Philadelphia and Boston College Eagles; Atlanta Hawks and Falcons; and Seattle Sea Hawks (Ospreys). These birds, like the wild cats, are also noted for their sudden attacks, and share with them long, sharp claws, which make for an imposing aspect.

Sometimes these animals also have a geographical association with the team, as the ‘Gators with Florida. Historically speaking anyway, most of the North American mammals and birds probably have some geographical connection with the teams whose names they supply. Non-mammalian animal names, such as Gators, for teams are pretty rare, presumably because it’s harder to identify with a Gator than, say, a fellow mammal like a Bear.

Herbivores, both wild and domesticated, if perceived as strong and dangerous, may also be chosen as a team’s fierce animal image (1B), e.g. Chicago Bulls, St. Louis and Fordham Rams, Milwaukee Bucks, and Colorado Buffaloes. Bulls, Rams, and Bucks make the association with aggressive males specific. The Dallas Mavericks, viewed as adult males, rather than calves or generic cattle, could fit into 1B also. Of course my Texas Longhorns, a name with obvious local associations as well, are in this category. I don’t know what their dispositions are like, but those intimidating horns could impale a person or other large mammal, which is why Bevo, the sideline animal, is actually a testosterone-limited steer instead of a bull.

I think other domesticated animals with a reputation for combativeness are worth a separate subcategory (1C). Bulldogs (Georgia) were bred for the cruel sport of bull-baiting and are feared watchdogs today. South Carolina’s Gamecocks are fighting non-predatory birds, though it’s illegal to actually set them on each other for sport these days. I’ll put the Arkansas Razorbacks (feral swine) into 1C, but a case could be made for expanding 1B to include these pigs, since these non-predators are reputedly just mean by nature and were not bred to fight. One could also make a case for putting hawks and falcons in category 1C, given their use in the sport of falconry.

Even more difficult to identify with than the Florida Gator is the Arizona Diamondback (rattlesnake, 1D), but there is again a geographical association, and there’s no denying the things are intimidating. Ditto for the San Jose Sharks (1A), who really don’t have much of a geographical argument in their favor. The Georgia Tech Yellowjackets and Charlotte Hornets (1D) sacrifice all pretense to intelligence to maximize the intimidation factor, in a way that suggests a swarming onslaught. I think I’d rather support a team with a more intelligent animal than a reptile or insect as its namesake, but I suppose one gets used to it. If I can support a team designated by the color of its “Sox,” why not?

A handsome bird such as a Baltimore Oriole (2A), Toronto Blue Jay, or St. Louis Cardinal is sometimes chosen with or without strong local association, instead of a raptor, but never an ugly or overly common bird such as a sparrow. And never a carrion eater, or one whose diet is primarily carrion, anyway. I had assumed Oregon’s Ducks would naturally fit into category 2A or 2B, but a Wikipedia article revealed that the original team name was Webfoots, which referred to some early human settlers, thus corresponding to category 4A (to be revealed in the next post). The image and name of the webfooted bird has taken over, though, and has assumed a totem-like role. I imagine the charming Delaware Blue Hen is a local totem bird (2A). The New Orleans Pelicans are surely local totem birds, as I can recall when Louisiana license plates had a pelican on them. The owl (1A or 2B) is carnivorous and brings death to small animals just as surely as other flying predators, while lacking the speed of the falcon or the grandeur of the eagle. The owl carries a certain mystique associated with silent, nocturnal flight and its supposed wisdom, and Rice and Temple Universities have chosen the owl as their symbol.

My favorite of all bird names belongs to the minor league baseball Toledo Mud Hens (2A). We called coots mud hens in Texas too. I’ve been wishing Toledo could get a major league team just for the name. The Mud Hens may be an exception to the rule I postulated above that no ugly birds would serve for a team name. I knew they had to be a local totem bird, (2A) because how else would they have come up with the name? Wikipedia confirmed that the original ball park was located next to a marsh inhabited by American Coots. The Atlanta Thrashers, formerly an NHL team, were obviously a local totem bird (Georgia’s State bird is the Brown Thrasher) with a tough-sounding name in the context. The U of Texas at San Antonio Roadrunners would seem to fit nicely into category 2A, as roadrunners are plentiful around San Antonio and are not perceived to be fierce. They are a bit like the owl and badger in having a case for technical inclusion in 1A, since they actually prey on lizards, rodents, and snakes, not just insects. But perception is paramount in a team symbol, and the cartoon Roadrunner has formed people’s impression of the bird, at least where it is not native, so some might perceive the name as belonging to category 2C. Anaheim Ducks began as a Disney film tie-in (Mighty Ducks), but have since moved into the totem category (dropping the “Mighty”), as is the natural tendency.

The Beaver of Oregon St. is obviously a geographically linked totem animal (2A) since the State flag of Oregon displays a beaver. Minnesota Gophers (2A or 2C?) is an odd name, since the small rodents are usually viewed as varmints. They gain some prestige (hinting at something magical?) by being called the Golden Gophers, and, I must assume, gophers are plentiful in Minnesota. An alternative breakdown of “non-fierce” totem animals might have been into spirited and placid ones. The Wisconsin Badgers (2B, 1A) don’t sound all that intimidating, though I wouldn’t try reaching into a badger burrow, and they certainly prey on gophers. I imagine they would go into the spirited subcategory, while the gophers and beavers probably wouldn’t. The TCU Horned Frogs (actually lizards) fit the local non-fierce totem category (2A), but their thorny skin and horns do give them an intimidating appearance. To me, as a kid, they were just the “horny toads” we used to pick up by the tail for fun. They puff themselves up to appear more formidable and are known for squirting blood from their eyes to thwart predators. Despite their appearance, they are really about as placid as could be and are less intelligent, even, than gophers.

Unbroken horses like SMU’s Mustangs and Denver’s Broncos can do a lot of damage with their hooves, even if they are less likely to charge than a bull or bison, and they are certainly swift (another prized descriptor for a sports team) and spirited. They might belong in 2A, given the western locations of the teams they symbolize. The committee that chose the name for the Washington Huskies made a rather strained case for its referring to a totem animal with a local connection, saying Seattle was recognized as the “Gateway to the Alaskan frontier,” but I’m calling it non-local (2B). The Husky name replaced the local group reference name Sundodgers, which might belong in the comical made-up name category tramadol (7D in later post).

Some relatively recent names are of aquatic animals not normally thought of as fierce, but associated with the area of Florida teams: Miami Marlins, Tampa Bay Rays, and Miami Dolphins. I’d call them all totem animals with a geographical tie (2A). Chicago’s Cubs are the only example that comes to mind of a team named for a baby animal. Since they have not matured yet into fierce predators, I’m putting them in 2B. Wait, what about the Indianapolis Colts? Since they started in Baltimore, I’m thinking they were envisioned as old enough to race, not wobbly foals. The Pittsburgh Penguins of NHL hockey were no doubt chosen for the alliteration, as well as for seeming at home on the ice, but technically they belong to 2B.

There aren’t very many names that belong in the comical or semicomical category 2C. I think they are basically mistakes, as they display a certain contempt for the idea of sports team allegiance. But even for these names, the totem principle asserts itself. Anteaters for example. I have no doubt that the 60‘s choice was meant as a kind of parody choice when selected by student vote, but now they actually have Anteater pride at UC Irvine. Bowdoin once went by the Fighting Pine Trees, but later became Polar Bears. Stanford’s sideline mascot dresses as a tree now, but how long will this last? I had assumed the Tufts Jumbos (circus elephant) must belong in this class, but the truth was a little different. P. T. Barnum was a Tufts alum, and he donated the stuffed actual Jumbo to the school. Supposedly, the coaches and athletes decided to become Jumbos. Unfortunately, the remains of Jumbo were consumed in a fire in 1975. Given the Barnum connection, I think category 2A is appropriate for the Jumbos. I have a problem with a whole team being named after an individual though. UConn Huskies (get it?), as distinguished from the serious totem (quasi local) animal, the Washington Huskies, must have been chosen for the chuckle value originally, but I’m sure it is now a serious totem animal. I can only think of one team using an extinct animal in its name: Toronto Raptors, which doesn’t seem worth making a separate (accutane) category.

My next post will deal with teams named after fierce warriors or groups associated with regions, exclusive of Native Americans.

Sudden Death for Thirty Classmates

Monday, July 20th, 2009

Thirty of my high school classmates wiped out in a few seconds! Did disaster strike a class reunion? No, in truth they have been dying one by one over the years, while I was unaware of it, just as I was unaware of any details of cialis their lives. But reading the list of the names of the deceased, as I did recently, was like reading in the paper that they had all been mowed down at the same time, and I was shaken.

This experience has made me realize how my life, divorced from contact with anyone from that time in my past, has been unrealistic in a certain way, shielded from the strongest material evidence of mortality, the numerous deaths of those my own age with whom I shared the rather unhappy years of my adolescence. Suicide and heart attacks and causes unknown to me—accident? AIDS? cancer?—have brought them down. The total represents roughly ten percent of our class, which seems reasonable, though the list is probably incomplete. Of the thirty dead, twenty-two ambien were male.

Some of the names on the list I merely recognize as belonging to a classmate but associate with no face or personality. A couple of names are even below that level of recognition. A few names evoke phantoms I can almost but not quite make out clearly. Some names are attached to persons or events that have survived in my memory. Here are some I remember, without mentioning names.

The girl and boy whom I and the rest of the class gathered around to watch dance the “dirty bop” at the seventh grade Christmas party—they’re both dead. That girl whose ass caught my attention with such curious force (as I watched her walk out of the room one time in the seventh grade) that the event seems to have marked the beginning of a new phase in my life, as if some dormant primate instinct came to life at that moment—she’s not moving now, or ever again. The senior football player, whom I saw brutally put a sophomore player in his place (I picked a tooth up off the ground)—he’s no longer commanding respect on this Earth. The catcher that threw me out at third base in “Show Me Where It Hurts: Memory Illuminates a Few Moments of My Baseball Career” is gone as well. Our exuberant male cheer leader—silent now as old Marley. Dead also is the boy I envied as he related how a neighbor kid’s older sister had called him into her bedroom for an initiation I could only dream of.

My friend with the Ford convertible, one of only a couple of boys with whom I could talk about books, God, life, and death, now knows nothing—or perhaps everything—about what we pondered then. My fellow unexpected National Merit Finalist—he’s been dead some twenty years. A girl xanax whom I imagined to have suffered, as one deemed so unattractive must, feels neither suffering nor joy anymore in this life. A boy that later served voluntarily in Vietnam and survived the war, now rests in endless peace. Another who went to West Point (and Vietnam too?)—also dead. An odd fellow I really didn’t like, who once in the ninth grade invited me to meet him after school for a “friendly fight,” is now among those I’ll never meet again in this life. How could that boy I knew as such a lively, smiling kid in junior high, before he slipped into the background for me, have come to such a static, stolid end? The boy I resembled superficially, whose name a friend would tease me with, owes any current resemblance to the embalmer.

Also on the list of the dead is a guy with whom I shared a hair-raising (for me) ride home from an out-of-town football game as he drove at high speed on the city streets; we stopped to retrieve beer from the back of a building, the site where he had earlier in the evening used the full beer cans as missiles in a battle with someone encountered on the way to the game. Had he tried to escape there, only to find himself cornered? Or had he and a different passenger been the pursuers? I never understood what had happened. The chance for him to clarify has passed away with his existence.

I’ve written this piece to convey the shock that I experienced on learning of all these deaths at once and then the contemplation I fell into about this new knowledge. I remembered some of the dead and have presented a few images of them, just to cast the light of memory on a moment or two of their lives. The moments I remember are by the nature of memory—mine anyway—ones that stand out because of something out of the ordinary in my experience, and thus they are not at all of the sort to give a full and undistorted picture of the person. Should any of my surviving classmates read this (and I know at least one will), I request you not to ask me about the identity of any of the people in these memories. Read the names and see what images your own memory pulls up. As far as relevance to the lives of those dead classmates goes, I could have made up my memories. To me these memories made the people real again, though, and let me experience more intensely the knowledge that they have left this world forever, trailblazers for the rest of us in the class, whose names will all surely join theirs on the list of the departed within the next three decades.

Thoughts of Water on the Eve of Obama’s Inauguration

Monday, January 19th, 2009

Certainly everyone recognizes that the election of Barack Obama, a man with a Black African father, to be President of the USA is one of the most important milestones in our history. Yet I wonder if younger people, for whom the extreme racism of the past is not something they have lived through, and who see African-Americans everywhere in the media and filling all sorts of roles in society, don’t in truth underestimate how dramatic a change it represents from even the time when Obama came into this world.

President-Elect (I need say for a few more hours) Obama was born in 1961. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed while Obama was a young child and had little direct effect on his early life, since he didn’t live in the South or even in the USA for part of that time. Some have maintained that by being the son of a Kenyan and a White American woman and by spending four of his early years in Indonesia, Obama has led a life quite different from and easier than that of many African-Americans born of the descendants of slaves and growing up in the South or in the ghetto; say, for example, that of Condoleeza Rice, who grew up in Birmingham and was friends with one of the little girls killed in the infamous church bombing of 1963. That may be true, but it is also completely beside the point as regards the significance of Obama’s election.

To the millions of White people trapped in the racist belief system that largely defined and thoroughly deformed the South (and which seeped into the rest of the country, in a somewhat diluted, mostly unofficial, form, as well) at the time when Obama was born, such a man with such features was not one to be let into one’s own house as a social equal, never mind the White House as one’s President. And let us not forget that the Supreme Court decision outlawing segregated schools in 1954 involved the Topeka, Kansas (home State of Obama’s mother) school system; even de jure segregation was not restricted to the South. That wasn’t long ago!

No one alive today remembers slavery, which had, let us recall, been abolished for less than a hundred years at the time of Obama’s birth. We can read about slavery in the USA—I recommend Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made for a thorough description of life under slavery and an analysis of how the oppressive system was maintained—and try to imagine what it must have been like, but imagining is not living. Thanks be to God, we have neither felt not inflicted the lashes of the whip, nor lived, as Lincoln did, knowing that whippings and worse were being carried out in our country, with the sanction of the law, on men and women viewed as outright property to be bought and sold.

As those who lived during slavery days have all passed away, so have more and more of us who grew up in the days when Slavery’s unrepentant ghost ruled in the South, during the so-called Jim Crow era, in which separation (and of course inequality) of the races was cruelly enforced by the State. I came to manhood as a White person in Texas during that time and under that system. Though I have no doubt that the system as it existed in Alabama and Mississippi was even more oppressive than the one in Texas, except perhaps in some parts of East Texas, the Texas one was bad enough, unspeakably bad in fact. Yet, anything one is born into seems “normal” at first, and it is only over time that both the injustice and illogic of everyday life can come to be recognized.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say about my own experience and the development of my views and feelings later, but for now I will just make one point. It was the courageous Black demonstrators such as the students who engaged in the lunch counter sit-ins in 1960, that made it inescapably obvious to me that the wrongs of this system were keenly felt by those it oppressed, and that it had to be ended. It’s one thing to recognize an evil abstractly and another to have it firmly grab you by the collar to demonstrate how painfully unbearable it is for those suffering its most direct effects.

Eventually the Civil Rights Movement had the whole country by the collar. President Lyndon Johnson got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress because its time had come, as shown by the thousands of Civil Rights demonstrators clearly willing to die for the Cause, and not because he was out in front of the country on the issue. Yet, he was out in front of his fellow White Southerners, and I’m glad it was a President from Texas who played an important role in abolishing all the trappings of Jim Crow.

Even the recognition that the system must be ended as soon as possible was not enough to bring a full realization of just how bad it was to live on the oppressed side of the color line. I remember how in 1964 or 1965, my wife and I, both students at the University of Texas, had occasion, through work in a political campaign trying to elect the first Black man to the Austin City Council, to get to know a few people from the other side of the racial divide in a way that allowed us to speak freely.

During a conversation with one of the Black campaign workers, a man named Ed, who was a few years older than I, we learned more about what the thoughts had been of those suffering directly from the racial oppression. Although it shouldn’t have been, it was shocking to hear Ed matter-of-factly talk of the intense hatred he and his high school mates had felt toward Whites. They had fantasized about the most effective way to kill a large number of us at one time. An attack from the air on a crowd at the University of Texas football stadium had been deemed most promising, as there would have been tens of thousands of Whites in a concentrated mass, with no Black fans in the stands and no Black players on the field. No Black players—can anyone who wasn’t alive then imagine that? How common were such fantasies of mass killings? I imagine they were common.

Racial prejudice went far beyond wanting social separation of the races for a lot of people, for the Jim Crow segregation system served not only to limit social contact between the races (especially between Black men and White women, it should be noted), but also to stigmatize Black people as inferior and, beyond that, as irremediably unclean in a way that could contaminate Whites who made physical contact with them.

I can remember, as a young child, having some adult (not sure who, but not my mother or either of her parents, I’m sure) telling me not to put money in my mouth because “some nigger” might have handled it. The point of this was to convince me I shouldn’t put coins in my mouth, not to  promote the idea that Black people were especially unclean, which was assumed in the admonition; but of course this is the way such notions are transmitted to a young child. I don’t remember accepting that idea fully, as it didn’t really make sense, but I’m sure its prevalence had an effect on my early view of things.

Consider the maintenance and enforcement of separate drinking fountains for the two races. From where we now stand, separate drinking fountains for the races might seem an inconvenience and an indignity, one more way to make a point of the second class status of Black people, yet not that significant compared to impediments to voting, gross inequality in education, and subservience enforced by violence. The race-specific fountains were found only in places where the races were bound to be intermingled to some extent: court houses, train stations, department stores, etc. There was no need for a dual-fountain system in the schools, which were already single-race institutions. But it would be wrong to minimize the effect of segregated water fountains. The segregation of water fountains showed how deeply irrational the ugly ideology of racism was, and at the same time served to reinforce and perpetuate that ideology.

If Barack Obama and his mother had come to my home State when he was two years old, one can imagine the stares or worse that this White woman with an obviously mixed-race child would have received. What if her little boy had been thirsty? Which public drinking fountain should little Barack’s mother have held him up to? White for her race or Colored for his? The segregation of water fountains was based on the way you looked. Two-year-old Barack Obama, future President of the United States, would have been judged Colored and thus too contaminated with Blackness to drink from the White fountain.

Back then, a White person conscious of the injustice of the system, might still, while maintaining hope for reform towards greater equality within the confines of segregation, make the case that separation of the races was something that each race really wanted and that having schools and other facilities that were separate but equally funded, say, was a morally acceptable solution to the problem of racial differences and antagonisms. And in fact some people did hold such views. One could work for more funding for the Black schools, at the risk of being called a “nigger lover” of course, without overturning the whole system of segregation.

But what about those separate water fountains? They betray the diabolical worm in the rotten heart of the Jim Crow system, exposing the depth of irrationality, fear, and superstition that was inherent in the ideology of White supremacy: that the Black race was considered, not just different, not just inferior even, but unclean in the way that lepers were in the Old Testament and that the caste of Untouchables still is in some rural areas of India.

So even if the schools had been made “equal” and the streets in the Black neighborhoods paved (as so many weren’t), those segregated fountains would have remained to proclaim that one race was considered unclean, which in practice of course served to justify the denial of equality of resources and living conditions to people of that race. And every Black person that drank from the Colored fountain had to do it knowing there was more to it than mere social separation of the races involved. Every White person had the idea of possible contamination through interracial contact reinforced or first suggested by those signs designating race above the fountains.

As an aside, I might add that President-Elect Obama’s mixed-race parentage does more to demolish the myth of racial contamination than the election of a “completely Black” person to the Presidency would have. Obama’s election likely causes Nazi Klansman David Duke even more consternation than Jesse Jackson’s would have.

Laws can change attitudes. We have seen it. Some false ideas can’t survive long without the oxygen supplied by State support. Can laws change hearts? Yes, over time certain laws can—by changing behavior in a way that nullifies fear. When those artificial, State-enforced barriers were removed, the exaggerated ideas of difference and status they engendered and maintained began to weaken and fade. This was partly due to the older, more inveterate racists dying off and being replaced by a younger generation not subjected to the constant subtle propaganda on the dangers of racial contamination. But I feel sure that some people felt their own irrational fears subside. Remove the separate fountains and you remove the constant message that one group of people is to be shunned as unclean. You drink from the same fountain, even swim in the same pool, and nothing bad happens. Life goes on.

I think I am pretty well immune to political enthusiasm (being overly cynical or negative some might say); so the election of Senator Obama was not something that elated me from the standpoint of partisan victory, expectation of sweeping positive change, etc. the way it did so many I know. Nonetheless, I have had a feeling of deep satisfaction in Obama’s election from the standpoint of its freeing us from the past, and I have even felt joy in the contemplation and experience of how much this election has meant to so many, especially those who remember from personal experience the days they were deemed unfit even to drink from the same fountain as White people. Now I feel myself being drawn to unrestrained celebration when the actual inauguration takes place.

President Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, could not have foreseen that an African-American would ever come to fill the very office he held. Yet Barack Obama is about to be sworn in as President with his hand on the Lincoln Bible. Let the waters of reconciliation flow forth from the rock of our nation’s foundation! Let us all drink from that one fountain!

Something on Memories

Thursday, October 16th, 2008

This post is going to be about memories, at least as I experience them. I just tallied up the number of posts to this blog that are what one could call reminiscences. I think they are the ones that resonate the most with people, and the majority of the “Best Of” posts are in that category. I was a little surprised that there were only ten. That’s out of a total of thirty-four posts since I started this blog at the end of last February. That’s somewhat encouraging since I know that the number of memories I can use here is easily countable, though I can’t know the actual number.

Just to categorize all the posts so far, there have also been ten posts devoted to recent personal experiences, including three in the special category of computer troubleshooting experiences and one dream; five that were partly in the nature of research articles (e.g. on Ronnie Knox and the Large Hadron Collider critics); two commercial announcements about my science education software; two in the broad social/political observation category; one science observation; two that were basically thanking other bloggers (might have been included in recent experiences); and two miscellaneous ones, including the short introductory post.

I’ve thought a lot about memory lately, not just from reading Proust, but more from writing here. I’m realizing something obvious: it’s as though most of the events of my past life lie in darkness or in semi-darkness, where all the daily details are irretrievably lost, and only the rough outlines of routine can be distinguished, except for scattered spots of illumination, and even they are sometimes more penumbra than clear light. I remember something of my first day of school, for example, but nothing of the first day of second grade. I remember saying goodbye to my parents in the parking lot of the rundown private dorm I stayed in during my first semester at the University of Texas, but nothing about the first day of any other year as an undergraduate, or even much more about that day. Where did I eat that evening? I have no idea.

For me, looking into the past is like stumbling through a completely dark house and suddenly coming to a place where a magic window lets in enough light to illuminate a small area, allowing me to see, not just a place, but across time. For example, I remember clearly what the woman I would marry the next summer looked like for a moment at age nineteen in the backyard of her family home near the Texas coast. The memory is like a one-second film clip, complete with weather conditions, locale, and my feeling at the time; the rest of my first visit—how long I stayed, what we did, etc.—has fallen into oblivion.

For the past few months I’ve been jotting down events from my past that I might want to write about here. I scan the list for ideas, and I never know when a particular one (say the FBI interview) will become the one that bubbles to the top to take my attention. What I’m realizing is that practically everything I can remember, excluding things I would not write about for reasons of privacy (mine or others’), is a potential topic for a blog post, for I just don’t remember much that wasn’t significant in some way in my life, or at least seemed so by its novelty at the time.

How accurate are my memories? There’s nothing to compare them with in almost all cases, so I can’t really know for sure. Still, I feel certain about almost everything I write, and I note when there are uncertainties. Just a few days ago, I wrote (My Appointment with the FBI and a Long-Delayed Connection) that I couldn’t remember whether, in advance of my interview with the FBI, I had considered that they might have been calling me in to seek information on the SLA. Now I feel almost certain that I had considered that possibility and had actually been hoping that was the reason. Almost certain; but, since I wasn’t certain at first, I have to wonder slightly if it’s not reasoning more than memory at work. I now think I felt relief but no surprise at the sight of the SLA photos. The surprise of having my name linked to the handwriting of Nancy Ling Perry and an SLA safe house may have washed back over the original view of the photos in my memory, thus making me uncertain about whether I’d considered the possibility beforehand, as I tried to recall the event. I wrote that last post while I was still recovering from a bad cold, which may have affected my power of memory and discernment.

When writing about my bicycle accident in Times I Might Have Died, I kept going back and forth on whether to report that I had cytotec gone flying over the handlebars when I hit the wall. I could vaguely picture it, but I couldn’t convincingly feel it, so I decided it might not have happened; and I couldn’t in good conscience describe it, even though I thought it might well have happened. Perhaps it happened some other time. It doesn’t matter except that I would like to know and tell just to have that detail correct. I wish some particular detail would come back to nail down the candidate memory as a true memory or to definitively reject it.

There are some memories of habitual activities, I’m realizing. The thought of biking in my childhood in Eastland, Texas, has brought up the memory of a metal culvert that lay partly above ground, and over which my sister and I had to ride our tricycles when we circumnavigated our block; but we went over it many times. It was along a stretch where there were no houses fronting the street and no sidewalk, as I remember it.

OK, scratch the hasty assertion of the previous paragraph. Having had a short time for the memory to complete itself, I’m now sure the reason that the culvert came so clearly into my consciousness is that the first time I encountered it on my first tricycle trip all the way around my block, it appeared to me as an unexpected and formidable obstacle in my path; and I wasn’t sure how to proceed. I halted. What to do? Turn around? Could I get over it? I can’t remember if I rode over the culvert or walked my trike over it. I can’t remember that, but I know right where the culvert was on the block; and I am certain about being thoroughly disconcerted by its presence the first time I came to it. So the first encounter with the culvert was in fact a significant event to the child I was, and that is surely why the culvert came to mind. I wonder if I had just taken off around the block on my own, having grown tired of staying on the sidewalk in front of our house? I’m pretty sure my little sister wasn’t with me, though we definitely triked around the block with my mother’s knowledge after that first time. Years later, I wouldn’t have let my kids ride a tricycle around our block. What about all the driveways? What about sex offenders waiting for such an opportunity? We rode our trikes around the block in our little Texas town, just as I later rode my bike all over town and even on the highway beyond the city limits. We had so much (amoxicillin) freedom!

So how did an unconscious chain of thought link those two events (as it turned out) so many years ago? Was it just the easy mapping by association: encountering an obstacle (wall, culvert) as I rode a pedaled conveyance (bicycle, tricycle) while a child in Eastland, Texas? Yes, I imagine that was it. That was not a full-fledged, immersive Proustian involuntary memory triggered by some physical sensation, but it was still an unexpected, unpredictable arrival at a place in distant memory which I hadn’t visited in decades. Yes, I can feel the quandary of that preschool boy encountering the unexpected obstacle in that unexplored part of the world. It had been smooth sailing until then. Now I’d become anxious. Then I forged ahead. Good for me. And the child that I was then still lives, strangely, just as the young woman I mentioned earlier does also, though untold thousands more have fallen into unmarked graves.

Try as I might, I couldn’t recall any of the details of the physics demonstration that changed my life (The Second Most Important Event in My Life). I have a clearer memory of using a manometer, of the kind with a slanted arm, to make some pressure measurements along with a lab partner (faceless, nameless), though I can remember only the the look and feel of the apparatus, not the details of the measurements. That is, in fact, as close as I can come to a memory of doing any experiments in my physics class, though I’m sure we had new experiments at least weekly. That probably means that the pressure measurements with the manometer were my first experiences with physical measurements, which also makes it likely that the physics demonstration central to the blog post was also the first class demonstration by the teacher.

The memory that is very possibly my earliest one is vague and dreamlike, but I feel certain it is a true memory. I don’t remember any of my great-grandmothers, though two and possibly three were still alive when I was born. My memory is of looking across a faintly lit room, possibly from a doorway, trying hard to make out something I feel sure was the body of one of my great-grandmothers. The room was one at my maternal grandparents’ house in the country in northeast Texas. I imagine I was two years old. I’m not aware of any other people in the room, though someone may have been at my side. I just know I was straining to see something I couldn’t understand from some distance. It’s almost as though there was a gauzy tent in the room into which I was trying to peer. I don’t know if this could have corresponded to something real about the way bodies were displayed or not.

I think we had either just arrived to find things thus or I had stumbled upon it by myself, my parents possibly not having meant to expose me to it. It may have been a relatively brief look; perhaps someone took me away from the scene when they noticed me. I imagine it was the solemn behavior of the adults and the change to the room that made the scene so memorable, but I must have heard some words related to death to be able to associate the image with death and with my great-grandmother later. What was I thinking? I think I was trying to comprehend something new that was beyond my capacity. Perhaps they had told me that was Great-Grandmother, though I doubt it. Somehow or other I knew that death, a new concept, was involved and remembered it, though I was very young; and that hazy, mysterious image is still inseparable from my idea of death; so strongly do first impressions last.

I recently saw something about a man who had total recall of every minute of every day of his life, which sounds like a terrible affliction. Though I often wish I could retrieve greater detail of events from the past, I think that, without the filtering action of selective memory, focusing on, and possibly even identifying, the important events in one’s life would be very difficult. I haven’t really talked to others about the nature of their memories, so I may be unusual in only remembering certain, in some way impressive, events. I should add that I am talking about the events I remember, which doesn’t mean I can’t remember other things such as the layout of a house I lived in many years ago.

Having such vast lacunae in my memory of events in the past, I might as well have been etherized for months at a time, as far as my ability to recall details of my life goes. My memory is like a dark summer evening, where only here and there a firefly shows light and life. That makes the memories that I retain seem positively miraculous and the events associated with them all the more significant to have survived the almost universal destruction by time. I am thankful for the memories I have, for they are of the sort that take me out of time. The necessity to pull those memories up from the well of the past in order to have something to write about here is the main justification for keeping this effort going, I

Reading Proust for the Last Time

Friday, September 19th, 2008

A few weeks ago, I sat down in my customary reading chair, leaned forward to pick up from their customary nearby place on the floor the last volume of my Pleiade edition of A la recherche du temps perdu and my Concise Oxford French Dictionary, which I need to refer to frequently enough to warrant keeping it in my lap while I read Proust (Petit Robert on the shelf close by should the Oxford not suffice), as I had done so many times in the months since I impulsively started my third trip (second time in French) through Proust’s roughly three-thousand-page masterpiece, then posed the small Oxford volume on my lap and opened the Pleiade Proust to the page marked by the one of its two yellow ribbon bookmarks placed most deeply into the book. It was only then that I realized that I had merely been unconsciously following the path of habit, for I had finished the final volume the night before. I suppose that’s when it really sank in that the long journey had been completed and that, considering my other interests and duties, the number of years that had elapsed between my last two readings of Proust, as well as my undeniable sharing of at least one essential characteristic with Socrates, I had very likely read Proust through for the last prednisone time.

Since I’ve already talked about Proust’s importance to me (Ronnie Knox, Marcel Proust, and I), it seems fitting that I look back briefly on that last reading and pass along a few somewhat idle thoughts. Some of what I’m going to say will refer to incidents or characters in the book, which may not mean much to anyone that hasn’t read Proust, but no one need need worry about a so-called “spoiler” appearing, as it is not the nature of Proust’s work to be spoilable.

The first part of the work, which deals with the narrator’s childhood and especially the vacations he spent away from Paris with his family at his Aunt Léonie’s house in Combray, the small town of his family’s roots, is the part that I have always found the most magical. Though my circumstances were very different from those of Proust (and the narrator in his work), I spent a lot of time in my childhood in the country, staying with my grandparents; and the scenes and people Proust depicts resonated strongly with my own memories, so much so that even on first reading, I felt the narrator’s childhood memories to be coming from within myself and not just from the book I was reading. Of course, this was exactly Proust’s intent, expounded in the final volume, Le temps retrouvé, where the narrator finally discovers the secret of art that thrusts him into almost literally full-time writing after decades-long writer’s block.

Reading Proust once more this last time, I already had within me the memory of my previous reading, itself ready to be awakened by Proust’s evocative phrases and images (like so many  crumbs of Petites Madeleines dropped into the full, waiting teacup of my mind), so that the feeling of having actually lived the narrator’s childhood was even stronger in the retelling (Yes, I remember exactly the sound the bell of the garden gate made when Swann rang to announce his arrival in the evening!).

I believe I enjoyed even more than before (though I can’t be sure after more than twenty years) all of the work that comes before the time the narrator takes Albertine to live with him in Paris. It’s sometimes very funny, sometimes very moving, and always insightful and illuminating about human nature (including in particular that of the portion of humanity he refers to as residents of Sodome et Gommorhe), society, social class, personality, sleep, dreams, habit, memory, desire, jealousy, vanity, adolescence, anticipation, disillusionment, obsession, sloth, illness, nature, political passions, death, writing, music, art, and the artist: to (tramadol) mention only a few, as they say. And let’s not forget Time and those pages of deep poetry, such as the closing ones of Du côté de chez Swann.

Although Proust completed his long work, he did not truly finish it; the last part is more like a late draft. He reconciled himself to the fact that he would not live long enough to polish it all, got it into publishable form, and was able to publish the better part of it in several volumes during his lifetime, famously paying for the printing of the first great volume himself. I think I was more aware of the ragged edges, multiple sketches for the same scene, and outright contradictions in the later volumes this time than in my previous readings, but perhaps those fade from memory, as they are not what makes Proust Proust. I found overly long and repetitious the narrator’s analysis of his obsessive jealousy of Albertine, the mistress he had turned into a virtual prisoner in luxury. The analysis of his obsession became itself obsessive.

Despite his dispassionate voice, or perhaps because of it, I couldn’t help feeling sorry at times for Proust the person, since his writing makes it clear (even explicitly at times, and the reader knows it is Proust speaking then, not a fictional character) that he knew, being one himself, that there were people who never inspired love in anyone else. I gather he was always in the position of having to buy a semblance of it. He talks of shared love at one point as something attainable by others, which seems contrary to his usual view of love as an unfortunate affliction, inevitably one-sided, based on jealousy and the fear of loss and the destruction of habit. I think he may have been missing something inside himself; but, in any case, there is no more detached and acute scientific observer of human nature and psychology, including his own, than Proust the writer. We can say about Proust that, having produced such a work as A la recherche du temps perdu, his suffering was not in vain; and there’s every reason to believe he felt the same way. For Proust, it was mainly through suffering that we are forced to transcend our ordinary, largely mechanical, lives in which habit dominates, and go deeply into our true selves; and Proust took advantage of those times to a rare degree.

It’s impossible to know what difference it would have made for Proust to have presented the feminine Gilbertes and Albertines of his book as the masculine Gilberts and Alberts they must have been in his life, but there is something unconvincing about his relations with them as painted in his book. And I have never been able to decide if one should interpret Albertine’s sexual attraction to women, and the narrator’s obsession with making sure she had no chance of acting on it, as a substitute for Proust’s own fear that his male paramours might actually prefer women to him or what. If the depiction were successful it wouldn’t matter, but it ativan seems false somehow, which makes me look for some explanation outside of the realm of art.

In any case, I have to say that Albertine, despite the number of times her name appears in the work and her supposed great importance to the narrator, is not for me in the least a memorable character (one can hardly call her a character at all), in a work containing many that were very memorable. Consider Françoise, Charlus, or the narrator’s grandmother, for example. Perhaps this is because Albertine was based on a composite of more numerous real-life persons; or perhaps it reflects the distorting influence of money in Proust’s real-life liaisons, and the lack of trust inseparable from such relations, which must have made it impossible to know for sure what the “prisoner” was actually thinking. Or maybe the gender switch was just too difficult to pull off. It should be noted that Proust had no patience with the biographical sort of literary criticism, and I agree that these speculations have no bearing on the merit of his work.

No doubt because I am now of an age that can only be described as old, if not yet very old, I found the descriptions of the characters the narrator was seeing at a social gathering after an absence of something like fifteen years, to be rather dispiriting. During the narrator’s absence, time has been devastatingly cruel to most of the characters, and some are mocked openly by younger newcomers to the society scene. I might mention that Proust, who died in 1922, seems to have projected the last actions of his book well beyond his lifetime, based on the amount of aging of characters he describes, including that of Gilberte’s daughter, who couldn’t have been born before 1913, but is said to be about sixteen. This obvious fact has no doubt been noted before, and I only mention it because I had already felt that the passage of time seemed unrealistic, without having done any calculation. It is also in this last section that we encounter numerous contradictions in the text, including totally contradictory descriptions of how a character has aged.

Lest my words on the last volume make it seem that it wasn’t worthy of Proust, it should be noted that it is there that the narrator makes his inspired connection between the timeless realm into which the sudden onrush of intense memories triggered by unexpected accident takes one and the state of aesthetic contemplation into which it is the goal of art to bring one. In his flash of insight, the narrator recognizes that his experiences of powerful involuntary memories have revealed to him the way that literature might accomplish the aim of art: sweep us away from the habits of daily existence to plunge us deeply into our true selves. For whatever reason, it was only on my third reading of Proust that I felt I had fully gotten what he meant; and I was strongly impressed by how clearly the narrator (and obviously Proust) had come to see the urgent task of the rest of his life and at the same time the justification for his previous life.

Near the end of the book there also occurs one of the most striking images in the whole work (for me at least): that of Gilberte’s daughter, whom the narrator sees for the first time at about age sixteen, as his own youth personified and incarnate. I’ve experienced something similar in my own life, though without the transcendent vision. It’s one thing to see someone from our past for the first time in many years and note how he or she has grown older, as so have we; but the sight of that person’s child (before only a baby or even nonexistent) standing before us as a grown person presents us with an undeniably material measure of elapsed time, yet glowing with the mystery of existence.

Finishing a trivial book, or even a good one, is not an event to necessarily make one think of one’s mortality. Finishing a very long and very deep book of the very rare kind that alters one’s view of the world and life is like finishing a stage in one’s life, which feels like a farewell, and so makes one especially conscious of the finiteness of one’s time. Obviously, Proust’s book is such a one for me.

Have I read Proust for the last time? I can’t know that, and I don’t want to put the thought of a jinx in mind by any sort of prediction; but, just as the narrator of Le temps retrouvé had to consider that, even as he realized he had a great work before him, he also had a limited amount of time of unknown duration in which to accomplish it, since events both internal (organ failure) and external (accidents) beyond his control might prevent its completion, I too have to recognize the possibility of such unforeseeable events. Of course we are every one of us in that position, for whatever modest plans we might have, but as our years mount, we have to face the increasing likelihood that our projects for the future may be left unfinished. Blogs are good from that standpoint. One post per week is all I aim for.

Cries in the Night

Monday, September 1st, 2008

A few weeks ago, as part of my post called “On the Breaking of Bad Habits Acquired in One’s Youth: Smoking and Atheism,” I examined a couple of quotes from atheists, which I had once liked, in a misery-loves-company sort of way. One of these passages was by Richard Dawkins, who has become, I think, the leading spokesman for atheism as a laudable, desirable, even necessary ideology, one to which he seeks to win converts through writings, personal appearances, and selling atheist-logo tee shirts.

In rereading the Dawkins excerpt, I was rather surprised to see how much of his case for there being no God rested on the observed suffering inherent in the animal world, where the contest between predator and prey propels the evolution of species, which here on Earth has led to thinking creatures that may view the process with pity, anguish, and dismay. Dawkins cannot forgive God for doing it this way, and denies His very existence as a consequence. He would rather have no God than what he sees as a cruel God. He cannot reconcile his innate sense of a loving God with the facts of the biological world. In a sense, he is rejecting his Father for cruelty to phentermine animals.

Without denying the truth of animal suffering, I usually just try to put it out of my mind and avoid it. I eat meat. I love to eat meat, I might even say; though I do it without thinking about what I am eating or how it came to be on my plate. This is a rather unnatural situation. Until very recently the slaughter of animals was not hidden, so almost all people were either involved in it or witnesses to it. I even killed some chickens at my grandparents’ as a boy, and the image brought to my mind by the expression “running around like a chicken with its head cut off” is vivid and rather disturbing.

We can also note that there is a wide gap between the hunter and the non-hunter in the industrialized world. I was struck by this a few minutes ago when looking at a picture on the internet of the governor or Alaska, Sarah Palin, newly announced as John McCain’s running mate, posed, along with her younger daughter, with the very bloody carcass of the caribou she had just shot. The sight is almost shocking to this city dweller, though I have seen plenty of kills in my younger days. Does our move away from killing represent progress or an evasion of our nature?

From recent occurrences in my life, I can’t help thinking that I am being forced to consider more deeply animal suffering and the cruelty of nature. First there was the Dawkins quote itself, which just came into my mind back when I wrote the post referenced above. I hadn’t thought of it in years; and, when I started to look for it, the only part I could remember was the “universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose,” not recalling what those “precise properties” were supposed to be. Then on my recent visit to Texas my mother several times referred to the cruelty of nature as witnessed by the vicious gang-pecking of birds in the tiny aviary of the assisted living facility she lives in.

But all that was nothing compared to what I experienced a couple of nights ago. I was awakened sometime in the night by what I at first thought was a cat fight. I mean with real felines; and not the preliminaries, but when they are really going at it tooth and claw. That was more or less what it sounded like, but with only one cat. That sound became mingled with a heart-rending cry of pain or call for help by what I took to be a young animal of some kind. It might not have been young, and I can’t for the life of me decide what kind of animal it was. I think I can eliminate any domesticated animal though. It did not sound like a dog or cat of any age. It sounded a bit like a wounded rabbit, but softer, less raspy, and terribly plaintive, as though calling for a parent to come to the rescue. Could it have been a squirrel? We have lots of those, but it was a far different voice from any of the sounds they make ordinarily.

After the cat-fight sound had ended, the cries of pain or for help went on and on at several-second intervals. Two or three more times, spaced at five or more minute intervals, the original cat-fight sound resumed, once or twice accompanied by a rustling of leaves xanax or undergrowth that seemed to be made by a fairly large animal.

What was going on? Was there some kind of cat and mouse game in progress, where the predator animal would release the prey animal and then capture it again? Was the wounded, scared animal in some sort of hole that the predator animal was trying to get it out of? Did the prey animal garner the strength and desperate courage to fight back or  attempt escape at intervals?

Perhaps it was a cat with a young squirrel, but there was no yowling mixed with that hissy attack sound I heard. We have raccoons around, but I’ve never heard one sound like that. Could the prey animal have been a young raccoon? Again I’ve never heard one sound like that. Actually, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard any sound from a raccoon. We also have possums and skunks in the neighborhood, but I suppose the possum would have fallen into its playing possum state and we would have smelled a skunk. The predator animal almost sounded birdlike. Do owls make such noises? Obviously, I’m mystified.

I went to the window to look out into our back yard but couldn’t see anything. I think it may have been happening on the other side of our back fence in a neighbor’s yard. My wife, who had been half asleep, was finally awakened by one of the cat-fight sound outbursts, but she was spared hearing the other pitiful cry. Finally, mercifully, all sounds stopped.

I lay awake a long time after all the sounds of the night had ended. It was almost as if I were being tested. So, you think it’s easy to dismiss Dawkins’s position, do you? Or perhaps I was being told something. I have certainly been compelled to think about animal suffering more.

I’m far from being knowledgeable about all the world’s religions, though I know there is a great deal of overlap in their teachings of right and moral conduct. Still, it seems to me that Christianity is more accepting of suffering than any of the other religions; not that it necessarily has a ready and satisfactory explanation for the inherent suffering in the world. The Fall only deals with stepping over the threshold from blameless animal to human being, as I read it. But Christianity posits the unjust suffering of Jesus, deemed God incarnate, as having been essential for the redemption of the world. Perhaps there is some deep connection between God and suffering in the world that Christianity has discovered. Try as we might, can we separate love stromectol from suffering in this world?

Simone Weil believed that it was only through suffering and fully recognizing how terribly contingent our position as creatures in the material world is that we are able to reach across the infinite distance that separates us from God. I don’t feel that is true, but these cries in the night have set my my mind off in the other direction. I’m wondering, and not wanting it to be true, if God is not crucified continually in Creation; if that is not the necessary condition for Creation; and if the cries of that animal in the night, and all such cries, are not a sign and measure of God’s love.

On the Breaking of Bad Habits Acquired in One’s Youth: Smoking and Atheism

Monday, July 21st, 2008

At the risk of thoroughly alienating some potential readers, I’m taking this opportunity to set the record straight. Despite my physics background, I am not an atheist, though I was one—and a “hard” atheist at that, one who would almost certainly have quit reading the blog of an avowed theist had there been blogs back then—throughout most of my adult life. I well remember my mindset as an atheist, though it is absolutely foreign to me now, and I look back at those decades with some wonderment at how I stayed stuck so long in what I now see as an immature world view, which I stumbled into during my adolescence.

I, as many do in those years of immaturity, made some bad decisions back in high school. First I joined the Cool Sophisticates’ Club (open to all cigarette smokers without further accomplishment) and a little later The Truly Smart Peoples’ Club (one of whose main requirements was a rejection of all religion and any belief in a Creator). I think I was fortunate that there was no functioning Cool Drug Users’ Club at my high school back in those days, though the possibly even more dangerous Wild and Crazy Beer Drinkers’ Club was definitely taking in members. I’m not sure The Truly Smart Peoples’ Club had any other members in my high school, but I could read (Bertrand Russell, for example), so I knew it existed, and I was ready to claim my place in it, especially as I had just discovered (and greatly overestimated the extent of its explanatory power) ambien physics.

I was able to get beyond the idea of cigarette smoking as a cool thing to do (even if Sartre, Brando, and James Dean all smoked) in a few years and, after about a year of trying to quit, finally escaped the notoriously strong hold which nicotine has on those addicted to it. But my addiction to the view that science can explain everything worth considering proved to have more staying power than nicotine’s chemical changes to my brain. Part of the difference was, I think, that, while I came to see that membership in the Cool Sophisticates’ Club, in addition to bringing serious health hazards, really carried no cachet, since any punk with half a dollar could join it, The Truly Smart Peoples’ Club maintained its elite, even heroic, status in my mind.

Someday I may trace on these pages (if I may call them that) my path to recognizing that our universe is created and meaningful. Given my intellectual approach to things, it was certainly a more purely reasoned and rational path than most people would take; which is not to say that it was at the end merely a logical conclusion with no mystical component. So the story may be of interest to zithromax others.

Today, however, I feel moved to look back at a couple of statements made by famous atheists, which, when I first read them, found great favor with me as being wonderfully eloquent. I somehow felt pride at being able to join with these highly intelligent and bravely defiant men in facing the reality of the meaninglessness of the universe, while inwardly mocking those who took the cowardly, intellectually weak way out: religious mystification and consolation. Of course, I have a very different response to them xanax now.

The first passage to which I refer was written by Steven Weinberg, a theoretical physicist whose work on unifying the weak and electromagnetic forces of subatomic interactions was recognized with a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979. Weinberg, in addition to his contributions to theoretical physics, has written several books that attempt to explain new physics discoveries to the general educated public. One of his most famous works in this line was The First Three Minutes, which dealt with physicists’ understanding of what took place immediately after the initial singularity or big bang (or moment of creation or beginning of time) from which our universe seems to have sprung into being.

In the Epilogue of this book Weinberg writes the following (speaking at first of our beautiful Earth): “It is very hard to realize that this is all just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe. It is even harder to realize that this present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible the more it also seems pointless.”

Weinberg is a very good writer, and I recommend his books both for the science and the writing. But let us critically consider this passage of his. First comes his dismay that, from what we can tell, life must be very rare in the universe. The thought of all that vast space devoid of the conditions for life is evidently depressing to him, but that is a personal view, not something everyone must feel of necessity. If God created the Heavens and the Earth, this is the Earth and everything else is the Heavens. Consider the wonders of what we have here, whether or not we are the unique home to ativan life!

Then comes his reference to the “unspeakably unfamiliar early condition.” What should we expect from the moments after creation? Isn’t there cause for joy that we have been able to arrive at a reasonable scenario for that almost unimaginable period of time, rather than depression that it is so strange to us?

Future extinction? We know that each of us faces personal extinction in this material world already. That the universe may (and we are extrapolating from incomplete knowledge) also have an end, or an end to its life-supporting time, is depressing from the purely materialist viewpoint to some minds, but is it inherently depressing? Weinberg sees the continuation of life or, in truth, conscious, intelligent life, into the indefinite future as the main criterion for there being (just possibly) purpose to the universe. I wonder if the reason why the prospect of an end to all life in the universe seems so hard to Weinberg is that psychologically it makes our own end seem even more final. Perhaps it is just a transference of sadness over personal mortality to that of the universe. I might add that, whatever beliefs a theist may have about personal survival, God’s eternal existence is not in question.

From my current perspective, it seems obvious that hoping to find purpose in mere matter is bound to lead to disappointment. Weinberg is trying to read the universe as one reads tea leaves, searching for meaning in quarks and galaxies, but he seems to be excluding in advance the existence of a Creator as an outcome of this interpretation, thereby eliminating the only possible source of purpose. Weinberg sees the scarcity and precariousness of life as a sign of pointlessness. In Weinberg’s view, the briefness of life’s candle in the universe, makes human life in essence farcical, with scientific research offering the only meager, perhaps illusory, hope of temporary transcendence. Thus he rejects the mere existence of any conscious life existing at all as evidence for meaning, though I see this is as clearly a matter of personal opinion and interpretation.

At the time I first read it, I think I took Weinberg’s statement (and the words that follow it) as a powerful upholding of the materialist viewpoint and an admirable way of responding to its hard realities. Now I see that the only argument that could be extracted from it is circular, as it assumes materialism from the beginning. Within this materialist context, a single finite creature examines the universe from the standpoint of his own personal preferences and finds that the universe fails to match his hopes, which he takes as proof that there is no purpose to the universe. And it is only this perceived lack of purpose that could be used as an argument for the materialist view, already assumed.

It may be reasonable to think that the creation of moral, rational beings was one of the purposes, or even the purpose, for the creation of the universe, but a human being is overstepping the bounds of competence in rendering judgment on the whole project of creation based on personal feelings about whether the universe should continue to support material life eternally. And what is Weinberg getting at anyway? Does the idea of a purpose without a mind and agent behind it make sense at all? It seems that Weinberg is actually trying to see signs of God in the universe; but he has auditioned God and rejected Him as not suiting the part.

The second quotation comes from Richard Dawkins, the well-known biologist and author of popular books explaining natural selection and evolution from a strongly anti-teleogical standpoint (e.g., The Blind Watchmaker) and, more recently, a spokesman and propagandist for atheism (The God Delusion).

Here is what Dawkins wrote in a Scientific American article in 1995: “The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. …In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”

Whoa, Richard, hold on. Precisely the properties? I can imagine universes much more devoid of obvious design or purpose. What about one with only empty dark space: no matter and no light? What about one in which stars never ignite? What if the physical laws were changing all the time, so that nothing could persist, nothing were predictable? Yes, but there would be no pain and suffering in those empty universes, and that is really Dawkins’s only point.

While Weinberg is downhearted over the insufficient friendliness of the universe to life in both space and time, Dawkins, the life scientist, sees the existence of life as it actually is as a conclusive argument against purpose and good and evil. Beyond the suffering, Dawkins doesn’t seem to like chance and contingency at all, which is somewhat surprising given the supreme role it plays in his view of evolution and its wonderful results. But I gather he finds evolution by natural selection as being in itself an argument against God for the reason that any God worth his salt wouldn’t leave things to painful chance that way. Curiously, on this point he thus finds himself in agreement with religious fundamentalists who use it as an argument against evolution!

Dawkins surveys our universe of beautiful order, as seen in its physical laws and the immensely complex phenomena that flow from them—including the production of thinking creatures such as Dawkins himself—and then implies that if he were God, he would surely have done things differently. I gather he would have avoided all animal suffering and the eating of one animal by another. He is not the first to wish for this, but does the existence of animal suffering really show there is “no design, no purpose, no evil and no good?” Or does the notion of good and evil only apply to moral creatures such as ourselves? Is Dawkins not trying to impose his own idea of morality to the whole animal kingdom?

Dawkins is really wishing for Heaven on Earth, isn’t he? The ultimate materialist seems to be longing for a purely spiritual existence in which eating and dying don’t occur. In some circles such beings are known as Angels. Or perhaps there should be only vegan animals that live forever. That is an Edenic vision. Yes, Dawkins has a particular bone to pick with God: he doesn’t like animal suffering or anything involving chance accidents that harm the good as well as the bad or even give better genes to one individual than to another. Starting from his perception of “pitiless indifference,” he extrapolates to “no design, no purpose, no evil and no good.” How can one even speak of good and evil if the concepts have no meaning in this universe? Dawkins goes well beyond Weinberg in his willingness to judge Creation.

Both Weinberg and Dawkins are turning their backs on God basically because they find fault with Creation: Weinberg because it seems life won’t last forever and Dawkins because of animal suffering. There can be no God because this universe offends me in certain ways is what they seem to be saying. Talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth! Actually, I shouldn’t say they are turning their backs on God because of these perceived shortcomings of the universe. They, as I did, very likely banished God from their lives without giving it much thought at an early age. Now they are finding reasons to maintain their world view; and it is good to remember the distinction.

Why did I particularly remember these two statements? I think I know. They are both examples of how deep the spiritual pit can be for a materialist that thinks a lot about such matters as purpose in the universe. I too was one of those. These men both find that the universe is far different from their ideal one They use the perceived defects in Creation as their argument against a Creator. This goes well beyond “I see no evidence for God” or “I have no need of that hypothesis.”

No, these critiques are from men who are deeply disappointed in their failure to discern purpose in the universe, though this is bound to be the result of confining their search to the materialist context. Based on my own experience, I have to think that they are yearning for God, even as they resist turning to God, and even rail against belief in God, which they see as irrational, just as I now know I was yearning when I found their indictments of Creation praiseworthy. Purpose cannot be pulled out of the material universe without reference to a Creator whose power and wisdom, by very virtue of their being the Creator’s, are beyond question.

So what about suffering? That there are some things beyond the limits of our understanding is something we must humbly accept. Those who believe in God do not demand that God satisfy their personal criteria for perfection in the universe, but recognize the great disparity between creature and creator in understanding, wisdom, and power. I think the immense disparity–infinite disparity—between creature and Creator is the hardest thing for an atheist to imagine and appreciate. It really has to be experienced. This disparity is expressed poetically in an ancient text (Isaiah 55:8-9) thusly: For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.

I think that in originally accepting both Weinberg’s and Dawkins’s statements as exemplary, I was looking for and finding support from prestigious sources for my world view, with which my very self seemed inextricably entwined after so many years. Weinberg is one of us! I should have known that a man of such brilliance would agree with me on the subject of God and purpose. This of course confirmed once again that I was indeed a member of The Truly Smart Peoples’ Club. Beyond that, I have come to realize during the course of writing this piece, I took heart from the authors’ being able to carry on in the world under the burden of purposeless mortality.

I recall a conversation my wife had with one of my son’s sixth grade teachers, an atheist who, as most atheists probably are, was puzzled at the persistence of the superstitious, as he saw it, belief in God. I think more out of curiosity than through a desire to convert the students to his unspoken view on the subject, he had had them write briefly on why they thought people believed in God. In discussing this exercise with him my wife had told the teacher that I wasn’t an atheist, which he had naturally found surprising since he knew I was a physicist. She told him a little about my conversion and that I thought theism was more reasonable than atheism. This revelation evidently made him consider in a theoretical way the possibility, perhaps for the first time, that he might change his own mind on the subject. He said, “I don’t know how I could deal with that. My atheism is so much a part of who I am. I wouldn’t want that.”

Our strongly held beliefs, including our negative ones, are a major part of who we think we are. Weinberg and Dawkins were helping to reinforce my sense of self and the pride I could take in it. My son’s teacher was saying that even if he were wrong on the most important question of all, that of God’s existence, he would rather not change his mind because the attendant psychic adjustment would be too great. I doubt that he was really admitting the possibility that he might be wrong, but only thinking about how utterly different his outlook would be were he to change his mind on the ultimate question. In other words, he feared the mutilation of his self beyond recognition. For myself, during decades as an atheist, the only reason I could have imagined for my adopting theism at some point in the future would have been insanity.

When I was addicted to smoking, every cigarette I smoked not only kept my physical addiction going; it also helped reinforce my image of myself as a smoker; and, of course, the world can be divided along smoker and non-smoker lines just as along atheist and theist lines. I believe there was a similar dual reinforcement of my habit of thought at work in my reading of atheistic writing by authors I admired. I find it very plausible that statements like those by Weinberg and Dawkins may have served the function of maintaining a kind of downright physical addiction to the atheistic outlook. I certainly took pleasure in reading them far beyond what was justified by the content, which, as we’ve seen, was deeply pessimistic in tone and without value as argument. Thus there was probably something chemical going on in my brain that I liked and would want to have repeated.

Just as smokers continue to light up in order to relieve the anxiety brought about by the onset of nicotine withdrawal symptoms, so that the main purpose in the drug’s use becomes preventing the negative psychological effects of the addiction itself; so did I find comfort in reading such statements, though small comfort, from the ever present sense of despair that came with my bleak view of the universe as a place without meaning.

I would like to encourage any atheist that’s read this far to consider this one thing: whether or not God exists to give a purpose to the universe and our lives is the most important philosophical and personal question we have to answer correctly in our brief time of life. Were you raised an atheist or did you come, as I did, to atheism before reaching intellectual maturity? If so, then you may want to re-examine that step you took. Throughout history and into our own times there have been many “truly smart people,” who have recognized God’s existence, and their conclusions should not be dismissed out of hand. I’m speaking of scientifically literate people to whom the idea that God is a substitute for science applies not at all.

The question of God’s existence deserves deep investigation and thought and not casual dismissal for lack of scientific “evidence,” when the very nature of such hypothetical conclusive evidence is never even postulated. Can you imagine what the scientific evidence for God would look like? If not then perhaps you are looking in the wrong direction and not seriously looking at all. If there is some single phenomenon in the world (the suffering of innocents, for example) that prevents your even considering God’s existence, try to put it aside for the time being.

If the evidence you demand is something in the nature of a direct communication from God, then you are speaking of revelation, not sharable evidence. Keep in mind also that hostility to belief in God often becomes hostility to God. Are you truly open to revelation? The best way to become open to it must be through prayer, but few are the atheists who would start from that point. Only a miracle will satisfy you? Just remember that if God exists, you are not in a position relative to the Creator to set the terms of your enlightenment.

Also, keep in mind that if God exists, then so does the spiritual realm; for God is not material. Thus a categorial dismissal of the spiritual right from the outset is already a renunciation of the inquiry. If we are spiritual creatures as well as material, then internal evidence may need to be considered also, even though it is not objective in the sense that you could guarantee the same experience to another under the same conditions.

Evidence can be material or circumstantial. The law recognizes that circumstantial evidence can lead to certainty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Perhaps there is circumstantial evidence to be considered in the question of God’s existence? There is. A book that made a strong (decisive, really, coming when it did) impression on me was by John Polkinghorne (a theoretical physicist turned Anglican priest) entitled Belief in God in an Age of Science. It is of course written from a Christian standpoint, but the main arguments are for a Creator God without reference to scripture but only to the observable facts of the universe. Polkinghorne is a prime example of a “truly smart” theist. Of course, for an atheist to accept God’s existence requires him or her to drink long from the cup of humility, which comes with recognizing that oh so many “dumb” people have been correct on the most important question of existence all along.

Will strong circumstantial evidence satisfy you? There’s no way to answer that question in advance. From my own experience I can say that becoming convinced intellectually can lead to an opening of the heart from which certainty comes. And, in my experience, the nature of that certainty is very different from and stronger than the anxious and despairing lack of hope I felt as an atheist. The recognition of God as the Creator is not the end of the journey, far from it. With that awesome recognition comes the exciting responsibility of figuring out what that means for one’s own life.

My own evolution from atheist to theist took many years, and I was not consciously open on the question until near the end of that time. There’s no turning back the clock, but I feel very blessed that I didn’t die before I changed. I recommend to anyone at all open to the quest for God to try to become yet more open. If you are looking for Truth you are already on the right path.