Shameless Advice

The advice-to-young-people racket is utterly shameless. Even William Burroughs gave in to the temptation, proving that the best advice-to-young-people may be to ignore all advice-to-young-people. Unless, of course, it comes from The Stranger, Seattle’s ornery, Pulitzer-prize-winning alternative weekly, whose annual back-to-school issue confronts incoming freshpeople with all manner of weird, ironic, and occasionally even useful advice on life, love, and… oh yes, sex.

This year, they decided to go for broke and include religion, and who else would they turn to but the Accidental Theologist? — who obligingly came up with ten questions for “young people” to ask if they’re trying to choose a religion:

1. How loud do its proponents talk? If they’re shouting, that doesn’t make what they say truer. On the contrary: There’s generally an inverse relationship between decibels and truth. Besides, do you really enjoy being preached at?

2. Do they know what God wants/thinks/intends? If so, either they are God or they think they are God. That’s called heresy if you’re religious, and psychosis if you’re not.

3. Are they obsessed with sex? If they’re threatened by women or are LGBT-phobic, there’s weird sexual stuff going on. If you’re similarly threatened and phobic, Westboro Baptist Church or Mars Hill Church will happily provide a home for your penis.

4. Do they have good music? Christians might have this one beat (Bach’s Mass in B minor, gospel music…), but if you’ve never heard Pakistan’s Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, you have an ecstatic Sufi feast in store.

5. Talking of feasts, do they have good food? Communion wafer, anyone? At least Jews have matzo-ball soup and four glasses of wine at Passover. And Muslims get to dine on fatted lamb at Eid al-Adha—but winelessly.

6. Do they cite chapter and verse at you? This is the primo tactic of fundamentalists: cherry-picked quotes, out of context. Try tossing this one back at them: “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life.” (And since they can’t hear you unless you add numbers, that’s 2 Corinthians 3:6.)

7. Do they have any idea what “metaphor” means? If not, gently suggest they sign up for English Literature 101—no, demand it. Do not put up with literalism.

8. Are they into social justice? That’s the essential subtext of both the Bible and the Quran: social and economic protest against corrupt elites. The Big Three monotheisms began as the Occupy movements of the ancient Middle East. Where do you think Marx got his ideas from?

9. Do they insist on your swearing belief/loyalty/obedience? If they lack a sense of mystery and claim to have all the answers, run like hell. That’s not faith, that’s dogma.

10. Are they into joy? Do they celebrate life—in this world, not a next one? Do they make you want to laugh, cry, hug, dance, stay up all night and watch the sunrise? Do they make you happy and grateful and goddamn humbled by this strange thing we call existence? A++ if they do.


For your enjoyment, a few quotes from Thomas Nagel, the philosopher of consciousness who famously asked “What’s it like to be a bat?”  (His answer:  we’ll never know.)

To my mind (as it were), Nagel is one of the most readable philosophers out there.

These are all from “The View From Nowhere.

On death:

         — “I believe there is little to be said for it.”

         — “Each of us has been around for as long as he can remember. It seems like the natural condition of things.”

On truth:

 — “If truth is our aim, we must be resigned to achieving it to a very limited extent, and without certainty.”

— “If you want the truth rather than merely something to say, you will have a good deal less to say.”

 On being human:

— “The human race has a strong disposition to adore itself, in spite of its record.”

— “Our constitutional self-absorption together with our capacity to recognize its excessiveness make us irreducibly absurd.”

 On philosophy:

   — “Philosophy is after eternal and non-local truth, even though we know that’s not what we’re going to get.”

   — “Philosophy is the childhood of the intellect, and a culture that tries to skip it will never grow up.”

And this:

— “I would rather live an absurd life engaged in the particular than a seamless transcendental life immersed in the universal.”


The Rubble-Bucket Challenge

If you happen to live in Gaza, the one problem with accepting the ice-bucket challenge is that it requires a plentiful supply of ice. After seven weeks of bombardment, water is in short supply in Gaza, and electricity is scarce, so there’s no way to make ice. As journalist Ayman al-Aloul noted, however, what Gaza has in abundance is rubble. In fact thanks to the Israel Defense Forces, it has whole neighborhoods of it. Thus: the rubble-bucket challenge, which I accepted this afternoon halfway round the world in Seattle.  Please consider this an open invitation to take the challenge too:


(The rubble I used came, either ironically or appropriately, from a building site.)

Who Said It?

“Isn’t there a convention that if you don’t know the author of a quote, you can always attribute it to Churchill?” one character asks another in Zia Haider Rahman’s novel ‘In The Light of What We Know.’

“I suppose you’re right,” the other replies.  “In fact, as Churchill himself said, the false attribution of epigrams is the friend of letters and the enemy of history.”

“Churchill said that?”



That’s just an amuse-bouche from Rahman’s novel, which I’ll write more about soon.  But it seems to me that the epigram convention could as well apply to Kafka as to Churchill.  I suspect this might be the case in the following quote invariably attributed to Prague’s ur-existentialist:

— “The meaning of life is that it stops.”

I love the mordant humor of that (and have never heard it attributed to Churchill.)   My problem with it is that I can’t figure out where it comes from.  Was it really Kafka?   Kafka fan sites (a Kafkaesque notion in itself) list hundreds of quotes, but few bother to source the quotes precisely, and even on those few, this particular one goes unsourced.   A friend says it sounds more like Oscar Wilde, and it does have that sardonic Wildean touch.

So herewith, an appeal:  if you know where Kafka said it (or Wilde, or even Churchill come to that), please do let me know, so that I can give credit where it’s indubitably due.

And talking of crediting quotes, I’m still casting my net for the source of this brilliant definition:

— “Forgiveness is abandoning all hope of a perfect past.

At first blush, this sounds quite Wildean too, but it has a resonance — an afterlife in the mind — that speaks of deep sagacity, though the sage in question remains a mystery.   So again, if you know who said it (perhaps that should be written as whoseddit, as in whodunnit), do let me know.

In the meantime, here’s a sprinkling of well-sourced quotes that have been circling my head this past month:

— “I have decided to stick with love;  hate is too great a burden to bear.” — Martin Luther King

— “To be free of belief and unbelief is my religion.” — Omar Khayyam

— “We don’t even know for sure that our universe really had a beginning at all, as opposed to spending an eternity doing something we don’t understand.” — physicist Max Tegmark

— “I look forward to surviving.  If I don’t, remember that I wasn’t Hamas or a militant, nor was I used as a human shield.  I was at home.” — Mohammed Suliman, Gaza City

—  and again from Zia Haider Rahman:  “Listening is hard, because you run the risk of having to change the way you see the world.


lily tomlinAugust 26 update:

That quote on forgiveness?  Identified!

Many thanks to AT reader Nuzhat (see comments), who traced it to…  not Wilde, not Kafka, not even Churchill, but to a wonderful and totally unexpected source:  the wisdom of comedy in the form of Lily Tomlin!

Aron Kader’s War Against War

aron kaderI am going to wage peace upon everyone who disagrees with me. It will be an aggressive, offensive and hostile strike that will continue until I inflict the final death blow to misunderstandings and conflict. I will gather all my available resources & weapons for this assault. I will never surrender until the foes of harmony surrender. I declare war on war. I will inflict peace on everyone and occupy your fear with understanding. You will suffer under my brutal campaign of tranquility. The enemy will endure the horrors of justice, tolerance, compassion and freedom. I will indoctrinate the aggressors with acceptance until the resistance is futile. I will show no mercy for hate. If you are not with me you are against warmth, love and little furry baby animals.

This brief manifesto was posted on Facebook earlier today by Palestinian-American stand-up comedian Aron Kader, followed by this update:

My war against war begins tomorrow. I will be on CNN tomorrow on the Brooke Baldwin program to talk about the murder of my cousin Mohammed Abu Khdeir and the police beating of Tariq Abu Khdeir. Also my plea for ceasefire in Gaza and how you will never convince me we cannot have peace.

To say I’m an instant fan doesn’t begin to cover it.  Finally, a war I can support!


Gaza City

And now…?

gaza city

Photo:  Wissam Nasser for the New York Times

Gaza Morgue

I still have no words that I trust.  Only this photo of a doctor weeping in the overflowing morgue of Shifa hospital in Gaza:

Gaza doctor

(photographer: Oliver Weiken, for the New York Times).


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