Sunday, July 31, 2011

Altruism- Guilt and Obligation, or Compassion and Contribution?

This post will be very eclectic, a bit of another UU Blog, a bit of Tim Minchin, with some Marshall Rosenberg thrown in for good measure. The general theme is 'altruism, motivation and guilt'. I really enjoyed reading an article posted this week on UU World Online, “Stopping For Everyone; How Responding to Panhandlers Has Become One of the Most Delightful Spiritual Disciplines”. I hope you’ll read it, but to summarize: The author, Victoria Weinsten, writes about how several years ago she made a policy that when someone asks her a question, she will give her full attention and a response. This frequently has come to include “street people” who ask if she has any change. Not only does she often stop to give them money, she engages them in conversation and has found that many “street people” say most people do not even stop to look at them. After talking to a man who thanked her for looking at him, and after her feeling outraged on his behalf, she writes, “What we determined that day, my friend and I, is that it is exhausting and depressing and lonely to be on the street asking for money, and that it is also exhausting, depressing, and lonely to be the one who walks by averting her eyes, feeling guilty for ignoring the human being asking for help and angry for being confronted and discomfited by such need.”

I admit I felt a twinge of guilt after reading this. Although I have given to people on the street in the past, more recently I’ve become one who walks by without looking. I’ve thought about, (and probably have, to be honest), saying, “No, I’m sorry. I don’t have any”. This is often a lie. I’ve thought about stopping to explain that while I wish I could help, I’m really short on money myself and my family is here in this big city as our vacation and we really looked forward to hot chocolate from that famous chef’s Mexican street food restaurant and I wouldn’t have the money if I gave it to him. This is where the truth does hurt. After reading Weinstein’s article, I realize that I need to find a balance, in which I may choose to not give to someone on the street, but I may choose to still look them in the eye, and give them an answer (much shorter than babbling about hot chocolate). I would like to treat all people with respect and value their inherent worth and dignity!

The Tim Minchin song that popped in my head while pondering this (because Tim Minchin songs pop into my head whenever I ponder anything) was “The Guilt Song (Fuck the Poor)".

So, simply, this song questions our motives of why we help people. Is it only to assuage our guilt? Here is a quote from Tim Minchin, on altruism, from 2009:

“In its pure sense, I don't really believe in it because I think people only act altruistically to make them feel better about themselves, thus rendering the act selfish. But I still think it's much better to make yourself feel good by giving away your toys to poor kiddies than to make yourself feel good by sniffing cocaine off the back of a dead albino dolphin.”
“The Good, Bad & Ugly; Tim Minchin, Entertainer” The West Magazine, April 25th, 2009 (still searching for electronic link)

I’m not big on guilt. I try to practice Non-violent Communication, which is really more of a credo of peacefulness in all thoughts and actions, than specifically about communication. Non-violent Communication (NVC) asserts that we choose our actions based on trying to meet our needs. Further, we will be happiest if we do things with the intent of bringing joy into our lives, and not out of a sense of obligation. In my house, we have a magnet on our refrigerator, with a quote from Marshall Rosenberg (founder of NVC). It reads, “Please do as I requested, ONLY if you can do so with the joy of a small child feeding a hungry duck. Please do not do as I request if there is any fear of punishment motivating you, out of hope for a reward, out of guilt, shame, duty, or obligation.” When I ask my kid to clean the litter box, I hope that he does it, not to prevent my anger, but because he loves our cats and wants them to be happy, with clean litter boxes. He then cleans the littler box with a sense of contributing to our cats’ well being, rather than grudgingly out of an obligation to do a chore. The task is more pleasant that way.

This is how I think of altruism as well. When I give (money or time) to charities, it usually meets my need to contribute something positive to a child’s life, or to help promote justice, or to simply be compassionate. So is this still “selfish”? Maybe, but it feels different, and more affirming, than to do something out of a sense of obligation, or to avoid guilt. By the same token, I then am free to NOT give to charities, when I find that doing so would hinder my own need for safety, or security, or connection with my family, or any number of needs I may not be able to meet if I took the time or money to give, in that particular instance.

That is my balance and I hope I can just try to be honest with myself, and with people making requests from me, about why I choose to help or not to help in any situation.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Cognitive Dissonance? Honoring Religious Freedom, Rejecting Extremism?

I should start by saying, this isn’t my favorite Tim Minchin song, but I thought I’d get it over with early on. I’d also like to point out that I said at the end of my post on July 20th, that my next post was going to be about this song. That was two days before an anti-Islamic fundamentalist enacted heinous terrorist attacks in Norway.

My lack of enthusiasm for this song stems from my cognitive dissonance regarding our UU principles of acceptance and respect for religions, while enjoying the critique of extremist ideas that seem crazy. Of course, it is easier to talk about “crazy” in vague terms of not making sense to those who don’t practice said religion, than it is to talk about literally “crazy”, shooting teenagers at a camp.

I *know* this song is criticizing extremists, not criticizing these faiths (Right? Am I right?). That, of course, is what I intended to say, even before the tragedy in Norway. Now, it seems more pertinent though that this song is criticizing EXTREMISTS, and maybe as UUs we need to criticize extremists.

My friend, Roger, a UU Minister, wrote as a facebook comment, “‎’The suspect was cooperating with police, making it clear he wanted to explain himself.’ Definition of terrorism, Christian style. We need to learn that just because they are talking hate and murder in religious language and symbolism we are taught to revere, does not mean that they in fact deserve our reverence. Do not give moral authority to religion.”

When I asked if I could quote him, and showed him the draft for this post, he replied, "I am not at all sure that it is in anyone's best interests, especially not ours as UUs, to smile at beliefs that are demonstrably false or patently ridiculous. Unless it is because Tim is making fun of them, of course ;->"

Thanks for basically writing this post for me, Roger. Well put.

“Ten Foot Cock and a Few Hundred Virgins” Lyrics-

So you're gonna live in paradise
With a ten-foot cock and a few hundred virgins
So you're gonna sacrifice your life
For a ride on a UFO
And when the Lord comes down with his shimmering chariot of salvation
Your gonna be the first to know

So if
God was there from the very beginning
He invented men and women
Then He also invented wanking
Then He said wanking was sinning
So now if I'm feeling randy
I'm not allowed a hand shandy
But having sex with my family
That is just fucking great
It's all there in Ezekiel 8
Just before he opens up His big pearly gates
And says that it's a sin
To take it up the date
Even if it's great
Even with your mate

So you're gonna live in paradise
With a ten-foot cock and a few hundred virgins
So you're gonna sacrifice your life
For a shot at the greener grass
And when the Lord comes down with his shiny rod of judgement
He's gonna kick my heathen ass

So if you
Cover the bodies of your women
Everybody is grinning
Because black is so slimming
Though it's not great for swimming
But it gives you an erection
With the increased sexual tension
What with the UV protection
That is second to none
You'll find it all in the Koran
Just next to the bit that justifies guns
And says that it's a sin
To take it up the bum
Even if it's fun
Even with permission from your mum

So you're gonna live in paradise
With a ten-foot cock and a few hundred virgins
So you're gonna sacrifice your life
For a shot at eternity
And when the Lord comes down and I haven't done my penance
He's gonna disembowel me

You say that
If I
Stumbled on a watch I'd assume it had a watchmaker
That a muffin presupposes a baker
So we must agree sooner or later
This proves there's a creator
So if I put your foot in a stinker
You'd assume the existence of a sphincter
Thus you don't need to be a great thinker
To conclude that God's a bum
Which negates the words of Genesis 1
Which make him out to be so much fun
Until Adam succumbed
To temptation
And then his only son
Got nailed to a gum

Or the Middle East equivalent
Which suggest that God's omniscience
Is nullified by his ambivalence
Unless it turns out that he's impotent
And if God can't get a boner
I guess that explains the plethora
Of huge erections in His honour
Cos we all know a steeple is just a subconscious, compensatory manifestation of a huge, stiff penis
And still He tell us that it's heinous
To stick a penis up your anus
Even if you're famous
Even if you like tennis

So you're gonna live in paradise
With a ten-foot cock and a few hundred virgins
So you're gonna sacrifice your life
For a ride on a UFO
And when the Lord comes down with his big, stiff, slimy rod of judgement
I'm gonna be the first to go
He's gonna send me down below
He's gonna whip me like a ho
D'you really think so?
I'm gonna be the first to go

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Atheism in America; slow development of my integrity

So, after seeing Tim Minchin perform twice this summer, and reading or watching interviews while he is on tour, I wonder how he perceives us Americans. I sometimes wonder if he had any preconceptions that have turned out to be wrong, or that he has reexamined. I wonder if there are any preconceptions that have been confirmed or are worse than he thought. I’ve heard him on a couple occasions say that he knows he’s “preaching to the choir”. He knows there are a number of godless people in America, but suspects that number is actually higher than reported. I suspect that too, and suspect that number is growing.

One of the things I am really enjoying about being a little Tim-obsessed right now, is that I am finding I am feeling more comfortable being open about my religious views in other places besides church, and even more open at church as well. I’ve always felt a bit guarded and worried about being judged. I’m now asking myself why that is, and why it is OK for teachers at the school I work at to have Christian plaques on their desks, and give assignments like “What is God’s Big Plan For You?”, and for the school to have a fundie Christian group come in to teach abstinence education, while I feel too shy to be open about my atheism. (Have you ever felt relieved when you say something about your “church” to a conservative Christian, knowing they assume you mean a Christian church, and not corrected them? I have and I’m starting to feel like I can and should be more explicit that while I may go to church, I’m not Christian.)

He is touring at a time here in America, when I think there is a growing atheist movement even. I’ve seen him on video interviews and podcasts for several different atheists and skeptic groups, who may want to claim him as their new spokesperson. I doubt Tim Minchin wants to be in that role. I think a lot of us have experienced the feeling, though, that he surely articulates ideas we have wanted to express, and after hearing his songs, we feel more free to express them.

On his Fan Forum, someone asked him in 2008, about atheists in America. I am going to paste that question and response:

Forum Question- My question is about the atheist or, dare i assume, anti-theist themes in some of you songs and how they go with an American audiance. With the religious climate in the State, and atheists being generally regarded and the sporn of satan in most places there, do you change your act to accomodate these attitudes or have you had any trouble with psyco fundies?

Tim’s response- Oo. Now this one I could obviously spend hours on.

But I won't.

I'm in the US now (love the time-lapse) and it's kind of interesting. I do think there is a general feeling that Atheists Are Bad over here... and you can imagine how much that freaks me out. However I'm certainly not going to alter my material. If there is anything worthy about my show beyond pure entertainment value, I think it is in its attempt to encourage critical thought. I hope that doesn't sound condescending to anyone... but that's really what my show is about in my head.

I went out last night after the show with a couple of very smart New Yorkers... and they didn't know (for example) that the "under God" bit of their Pledge of Allegiance was added in 1951. It's not that they are not extremely well educated - they were smarter than me - it's just that critical analysis of their society's religiosity is not the norm. They even posed the question, "How do you comfort yourself in grief if you don't believe in God?", which barely makes sense as a sentence. (Not only can I list the ways one may try to comfort oneself in grief, but I don't understand how one can claim a "belief" by citing the benefits of that belief. It's like Pascal's Wager - it's useless. Just because the belief that tomorrow I will wake up with a perfect body and loads of money and a wife who likes threesomes makes me happy... it doesn't mean I can believe it. My rational mind prohibits it.)

It is obvious to me that Atheism - for all it's negative connotations - is the only possible position one can take on religion without completely discarding rational thought. And I am going to continue to treat my audiences with respect - by which I mean, I will continue giving them the benefit of the doubt and assuming they are clear-thinkers.

ps - I have dropped "10 Foot Cock" over here... but only because of time-constraints. I don't want half my show to be about rationalism. 1/3 is about right!

So, for next time- Let's Discuss "Ten Foot Cock and a Few Hundred Virgins". I'll post the video and we can discuss some more, the balancing of respecting one's freedom of religion and criticizing when people use religion to act in ways that are disrespectful, at best, violent at worst.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Just this beautiful, complex, wonderfully unfathomable world?

I haven't made a new post recently for a couple reasons. I've been thinking a lot about the song, "The Fence" and wanting to post about it. However, it is no longer available on YouTube. I understand this is because he is trying to sell it on iTunes, but unfortunately it is not available to us here in the States. So, I'm going to hold off on "The Fence", which is just as well, because I need to do some research on the Dalai Lama, before we discuss "The Fence" anyway.

Oh, and I took a little road trip to see Tim Minchin in St. Louis.

The show was phenomenal. It was at The Sheldon Theater, which has AMAZING acoustics and beautiful stained glass windows.

The show was just brilliant and I loved every second. Then, he did two encores. First encore, “White Wine”. When the first few notes were played, a woman put a bottle of wine on the stage, and I think started to give him a wine key, but he had his own. So, for the first verse of the song, he SANG. Solo, acapella, clear, perfect, mellifluous, hands opening a wine bottle, instead of playing piano, perfect. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever heard. He popped the cork, took a drink, and hit the keys, for the rest of the song. Amazing.

The he did “Hallelujah”. Dark theater, full moon shining through stained glass, chorus of voices joining in. Every breath we drew was hallelujah.

My friends and I got to meet him afterward, and it was so fun. He is so gracious with his time and attention. I loved watching all his interactions with people. We had also been a few seats away from him in a diner before the show and had sent him a drink (instead of interrupting him), and he came over to our table to thank us, like a half hour before his show was starting. The whole time he was there, people kept approaching him, and he really seemed to not mind, and took time away form eating to turn around and visit with people. I'm just amazed by how kind he is.

Back to my busy life- Today I took my son to UU Midwest Leadership School for Youth. He took my Tim Minchin T-shirt and intends on reciting "Storm" for a coffee house. So, that'll be today's video. Too tired to discuss now, but I do suspect we UUs have some Storms among us, but I love this poem, and I do love most Storms I meet too.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


Last night, I went to our church's newly formed Anthropology Group, where we watched "Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial". It was really fascinating and I learned more about evolution. It is interesting that much new knowledge about evolutionary science has been obtained since I graduated high school, and even since I graduated college. I'd really like to continue learning about evolution and am going to check into taking a class at our local community college this fall.


The whole video can be watched here:

Of course, Tim Minchin has a lot to say on evolution. Here is a clip of him talking about us Americans and our beliefs:

And of course, here is one of my favorites, "Tony The Fish":

"Imagine what Tony would think, standing there on his brand new feet,on the brink of the beginnings of mankind as we know it, if he could look forward just a few short hundreds of millions of years, to see one of his descendants, a Palestinian Jew by the name of Jesus, having a nail hammered through his feet, the very feet our Tony provided him with, as like, a punishment for having a sort of schizophrenic discourse with a god who was created by man to explain the existence of feet, in the absence of the knowledge of the existence of Tony."

After watching "Judgement Day", I can see why Tim Minchin may think that we Americans are a bit crazy, in that so many reject evolution. I hope he doesn't see this:

Miss USA Contestants answer, "Should evolution be taught in schools?"

To be honest, I haven't even watched the whole 15 minutes of it yet. It was really too painful. I hope that as Tim Minchin continues to tour America, he is meeting hundreds of thousands of us who do embrace science. I hope he is meeting people like the science teachers of Dover high school who refused to compromise their integrity or to falsify science.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Freedom of Speech and Taking Responsibilty

Today, I just want to appreciate Tim Minchin’s willingness to consider the impact of his lyrics. This interview with Tim Minchin, by Dan Savage, was posted a couple weeks ago, but I have been thinking about it, and decided to highlight it for today’s post. I will post the parts of the interview I found to be the most compelling, then post a couple of the songs mentioned. (Saving “The Pope Song” for another day, because that one is so penetrating, there is much to be considered.)

Here is the address for the whole interview:

This excerpt is what I’d like to focus on for this post:
DS: There was a shitstorm at my paper when I posted—and this is really reaching back to some of your early stuff—"Fat Children" on our blog.

TM: Oh, yeah, Jesus! I didn't know that caused a shitstorm at your paper, but I did drop that song and stop performing it because, well, I'll tell you why after you tell me what happened.

DS: Some folks thought it was bullying. I thought it was tough. But the shitstorm left me wondering how you, as an artist and a satirist, balance your clearly empathetic, humanistic side, you know, the part of you that writes passionate and funny songs about the Palestinians ("Peace Anthem for Palestine"), about women's rights ("Confessions"), and gay rights ("I Love Jesus"), with your role as a satirist? Being a satirist requires taking the piss out of people. But being a humanist can get you boxed into this corner where you're not allowed to be "mean." How do you balance that? And now that I know you're not performing "Fat Children" anymore, I have to ask why.

TM: Fuck, I love talking to you. I stopped performing that straight after the first tour because I didn't want everyone to look at the fat people in the room and think, they must be hating life. It was the same reason I dropped the word "nigger" from my song, "If You Really Loved Me." To be fair to myself, I understand the history of that word, but I didn't understand it quite deeply enough, but I wasn't unaware at all of the history of that word in all its power. You don't hear that word in Australia outside of hiphop. It's not like anyone calls a black person that word here. It's just sort of a hiphop gangster word. There's lots of highly offensive lyrics in that song, and so I wrote this lyric, "We go together like a cracker and brie, like racism and ignorance, like niggers and R&B."

DS: Oh my god.

TM: You can imagine how that went down. My point, which is clear when that lyric is taken in context with the rest of the song, was that racism is the result of ignorance, and yet the R&B industry promotes the use of this word. It doesn't matter. It wasn't good enough. I got in trouble and dropped it because the people who got cross at me were right. As an empiricist and rationalist, it's incredibly important to be able to learn, to admit when you're wrong.

DS: And so what about "Fat Children," then?

TM: I don't mind offending people if I know how to defend my song, you know? I've got a case brought against me by some idiot with the Australian Human Rights Commission for religious prejudice because "Pope Song" was played on TV in Australia. And I would go to the highest court in the land to defend that song—not that I'll need to, because it defends itself, because it's very well thought-out and clear. Everything that I could possibly say about that song is in the song. It's got its defense built in. "Fat Children" is a funny song about not overfeeding your children. It's not a song about fat people. It's a song about people who are abusing their kids by forcing a choice on them and not helping their kids make the right choices. But, fuck, I just didn't feel comfortable doing it. I just didn't care enough about the issue to sit in a room knowing I was making the overweight people feel sad.

DS: How do you pick and choose whom to make feel bad? I mean, clearly you're willing to really scald people of faith, as we call them here in America.

TM: [Laughs] But I don't, actually. I mean, "Ten Foot Cock and a Few Hundred Virgins" was pretty mean, and that again was early on, but if you think about all my songs I've written about religion since "Ten Foot Cock," they're all specifically addressing the place where erroneous belief meets discrimination and prejudice. When I'm being mean about religion, I'm being mean about where religion goes wrong. I'm not just being mean to people for having faith. I think about this shit a lot. But to bring it back to what you were saying, I do want to be a humanist, and I do want to point out to people that beauty is in the real world and not in the fake one, and how the language of spirituality is empty. I mean, I'm not on a mission. I'm on a mission to just play fun gigs and make people have a fucking riot of a time. But the bigger my audience gets, the more I have to take responsibility for what I'm saying. And I guess that's the short answer. At some point I have to decide whether I'm going to be one of these comedians that says the unsayable for shock, or whether I'm going to be a comedian who says stuff he can back up intellectually in an interview with someone on the phone five years later. What do you think about "Fat Children"?

DS: Some parts of it made me go, "Whoa." Some of the lyrics—"Your 6-year-old miniature Jabba the Hut, eating half-melted Mars bars from the folds of his gut..." Ouch.

TM:[Laughs] That bit's funny.

DS: And, "Diet Coke is not the way back." Smart, true, you can't say that here. But I've watched people feed doughnuts to their obese children and felt myself getting angry—as a parent, as a human. I travel a lot for work, and I go through airports and see parents feeding their overweight kids Cinnabons that are bigger than their heads, and I think, "What are you doing?"

TM: I know. And I did write that song from an honest place of horror. And also because I get it. I don't suppose anyone would look at me and think I'm fat. But I've got my own issues with my body, and I've spent my whole life finding it difficult not to eat too much. And I work, and work, and work, and work, and run, and run, and run, and all this and I'm still a pretty chunky guy. And I was trying to write a song that was like, no excuses, no excuses, no excuses. If you put in more calories than you put out, you get fat. But you don't want to bully your own audience. And a satirist's job should be to pull down the people who are pulling down others. You pull down the church for fiddling with kids. And you pull down the church for discriminating against gays. You've got to decide where you're going to use your poison pen, and I decided pretty soon after I started performing that song that I didn't want to bully fat people, because most fat people are sad.

DS: It's still up online, still on YouTube.

TM: Ah, yeah. Look, I'm not trying to pretend it didn't exist. I just stopped performing it. And some people like that song. And some people are upset by it. And people can listen to it if they want. You're not putting people in a room and then trapping them there while you abuse them.

Today is the 4th of July, when we in America celebrate our many freedoms, one of our favorites being freedom of speech. I find if refreshing to hear an performer say, "it's incredibly important to be able to learn, to admit when you're wrong." Most of us are so defensive when we know we are right, and by god, we will NOT be censored. I liked reading about how Tim Minchin chooses when it is worth it to be offensive, and when it is worth it to make a change.

Fat Children:

If You Really Loved Me: (self-censored)