The Fly

Two things about the 2020 vice-presidential debate will go down in history – the significance of Kamala Harris as the first woman-of-color contender, and a fly landing on Mike Pence’s head and staying there for two full minutes.

At first, you assume it’ll just fly away and it’ll be as unremarkable a moment as when a fly landed on Hilary‘s face in 2016 debates. But then it just stayed there, huge and prominent against Pence’s snow white hair, through his grandstanding on law and order and his steamrolling through the moderator’s six attempts to keep him within his own two-minutes. Combined with him looking generally unwell, including some kind of pink eye situation, it was the happiest I’ve ever been watching reality TV. In that moment life was imitating art, and I saw God.

People on the internet went nuts. Pretty fly on a white guy. One fly over the cuckoo’s nest. Pence the shithead. Lord of the lies. Just so many good ones. The Biden Campaign, doing everything right, immediately put flyswatters on their merch site and they sold out by morning. Then the jokes died, along with the last gasps of Pence’s soul once he realized what had been the most memorable part of his performance.

Of course what made this moment a lasting thing of beauty is the fact that Pence is the most prominent evangelical Christian in modern U.S. history. According to the reality that he is living in, the fly meant more to him than it did to us. We know the fly probably just got stuck in his hairspray, or is residing on a stationary object, but he and his base of fundamentalists have to reckon with the fact that the fly is considered the bearer of death in their religion, symbolizing rot, decay, and corruption to nobles. Satan himself, Bezelbub, is named “Lord of the Flies.” So as the head of the alleged Coronavirus Task Force (*gestures to the situation*) the symbolism is undeniable. Why the fly landed there, then, for that long, at such a crucial moment of his political career while his base ostensibly is praying for him, this cannot and will not be so easily dismissed by the people it matters to most.

“But if you will not let My people go, I will send swarms of flies upon you and your officials and your people and your houses. The houses of the Egyptians and even the ground where they stand will be full of flies. ” – Exodus 8:21

There no better symbol for the man that Mike Pence is, and no more meaningful time for it to present itself. He knows it, his base knows it. You don’t even have to be religious to see that Pence’s role these last four years has been very vulture-like, hovering somewhere behind or beside the cancer that is Trump, waiting…and now ushering.

Pence the Prince of Pestilence. Even the name fits.

‘Agnotology’: The study of ignorance

Prof. Robert Proctor, who teaches History of Science at Stanford University, is the co-editor of Agnotology: The Making & Unmaking of Ignorance. He coined this term for “the study of ignorance.” On July 8, 2020, he was a guest on Alie Ward’s “Ologies” podcast (episode: 1 hour, 8 minutes).

“Ologies with Alie Ward” podcast, July 8, 2020 episode with Robert Proctor.

In this interview, Proctor explains: We begin in ignorance when we are born. Then—because human eyes are focused, and for any number of other reasons—“we ignore almost everything. We have the focus of a predator and not the eternal watchfulness of prey.” Most of what we do notice, we must forget; that is the only way we can absorb and remember the most important information. And some kinds of ignorance are “virtuous” in their intent—for example, when a person means to protect privacy or maintain neutrality in an appropriate situation—while, by contrast, people have often practiced willful ignorance regarding the causes and effects of forms of social oppression including racism and sexism.

Outright brainwashing is one way to foster ignorance, but “misdirection campaigns” are more “subtle” and “clever” strategies to manipulate others’ thought. Big Tobacco, for example, “knew that cigarettes cause cancer,” Proctor says. “And their whole goal was to create ignorance, to stave off people learning the truth, by creating doubt, by throwing up a smokescreen, by throwing sand in the gears. And they were able to instrumentalize science by doing that. By funding genetics, by funding the study of viruses, they created all these blind alleys and false etiologies” to deflect from the fact that certain diseases were really caused by tobacco. Through trade groups, such industry agendas coordinate to become “engines of uncertainty, engines of ignorance.” Proctor studies “how science itself can become corrupted.”

“I think we live in the Golden Age of Ignorance,” he said. “Ignorance spreads at the speed of light now, and—with the rise of conspiracy theories, with the rise of denial campaigns, with the siloing of people into reinforcing ‘like’ communities through Facebook or whatever—it’s easy to find self-reinforcing bubble worlds, and that’s a huge problem.” He continued: “That democratization has also been a kind of a dumbing-down. I think a lot of media is very easy to circulate. If everyone can pop off anything they want on Twitter, and that’s all you read—there’s no quality control there.”

Proctor cited the “commercialization” and politicization of Christianity as a problem, as well as its theological exclusivity (especially in the United States, where it is uncommon—as contrasted with India—for people to claim multiple religious identities). This exclusivity limits people from examining and choosing what might be good from other religions.

“We’re going to have to rethink our metaphors,” he said, regarding how we can persuade people away from science-denialism having to do with, for example, climate change. “We’ve got to think much more creatively about how to bond people in the stories we tell—the allegories—the stories we tell about why we need to act differently from how we’ve acted in the past.”

Empathy allows us to see that much ignorance is driven by fear. To begin addressing situations in which people are acting fearfully, Proctor recommends that we take a step back and ask: “What is at stake? Who benefits? What are the alternatives?”

A-debate a-brewing

Ludwig Wittgenstein in his youth.

Ludwig Wittgenstein in his youth. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As Wittgenstein put it in the “The Blue Book”:

Our craving for generality has [as one] source … our preoccupation with the method of science. I mean the method of reducing the explanation of natural phenomena to the smallest possible number of primitive natural laws; and, in mathematics, of unifying the treatment of different topics by using a generalization. Philosophers constantly see the method of science before their eyes, and are irresistibly tempted to ask and answer in the way science does. This tendency is the real source of metaphysics, and leads the philosopher into complete darkness. I want to say here that it can never be our job to reduce anything to anything, or to explain anything. Philosophy really is “purely descriptive.

Part one of the debate here.

Part two is here.

Request answered!

A reader asked me about how to obtain Bob’s book on the  bible. The answer my friend is here:

Download a free copy here.

One comment on the book:

“READING THE BIBLE: Intention, Text, Interpretation was exactly the text I wanted to bridge the ever-widening gap between the ancient stories and contemporary students. I used the book in a second-year university course which studied the influence of the King James Bible on two 20th-century fiction writers: Howard O’Hagan (Western Canada) and Flannery O’Connor (Southern U.S.). Robert Lane has a unique gift for both interpreting key passages/motifs, and putting them into 21st-century perspective. Virtually every student in the class at some point remarked that this book made it possible to finally understand where much of our modern literature comes from. Lane’s style—a combination of meticulous scholarship and humourous personal anecdote—makes it accessible to all students and does much to correct the woeful ignorance in our society about this critical topic. I highly recommend this text for any university course, including graduate level, which is concerned with the literary, cultural, and mythological aspects of the Bible.

Reviewed by Richard Arnold, Ph.D., Professor of English, Vancouver Island University”

Or, Amazon has some copies if you don’t like free!

Exegesis is important!!

Suppose you’re traveling to work and you see a stop sign. What do you do?

That depends on how you exegete the stop sign.

  1. A postmodernist deconstructs the sign (knocks it over with his car), ending forever the tyranny of the north-south traffic over the east-west traffic.
  2. Similarly, a Marxist sees a stop sign as an instrument of class conflict. He concludes that the bourgeoisie use the north-south road and obstruct the progress of the workers on the east-west road.
  3. A serious and educated Catholic believes that he cannot understand the stop sign apart from its interpretive community and their tradition. Observing that the interpretive community doesn’t take it too seriously, he doesn’t feel obligated to take it too seriously either.
  4. An average Catholic (or Orthodox or Coptic or Anglican or Methodist or Presbyterian or whatever) doesn’t bother to read the sign but he’ll stop if the car in front of him does.
  5. A fundamentalist, taking the text very literally, stops at the stop sign and waits for it to tell him to go.
  6. A preacher might look up “STOP” in his lexicons of English and discover that it can mean: 1) something which prevents motion, such as a plug for a drain, or a block of wood that prevents a door from closing; 2) a location where a train or bus lets off passengers. The main point of his sermon the following Sunday on this text is: when you see a stop sign, it is a place where traffic is naturally clogged, so it is a good place to let off passengers from your car.
  7. An orthodox Jew does one of two things:1) Take another route to work that doesn’t have a stop sign so that he doesn’t run the risk of disobeying the Law.

    2) Stop at the stop sign, say “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, king of the universe, who hast given us thy commandment to stop,” wait 3 seconds according to his watch, and then proceed.

  1. A Pharisee does the same thing as an orthodox Jew, except that he waits 10 seconds instead of 3. He also replaces his brake lights with 1000 watt searchlights and connects his horn so that it is activated whenever he touches the brake pedal.
  2. A scholar from Jesus seminar concludes that the passage “STOP” undoubtedly was never uttered by Jesus himself, but belongs entirely to stage III of the gospel tradition, when the church was first confronted by traffic in its parking lot.
  3. A NT scholar notices that there is no stop sign on Mark street but there is one on Matthew and Luke streets, and concludes that the ones on Luke and Matthew streets are both copied from a sign on a completely hypothetical street called “Q”. There is an excellent 300 page discussion of speculations on the origin of these stop signs and the differences between the stop signs on Matthew and Luke street in the scholar’s commentary on the passage. There is an unfortunately omission in the commentary, however; the author apparently forgot to explain what the text means.