"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Full Of Hot Air

A few days ago I flew in a hot air balloon.  The best part of the trip – a flight over Napa Valley – was the inflation of the balloon.  From inert, saggy things draped on the ground to 100’ seven-story magnificent, multicolored flying envelopes in a matter of minutes. Of all the photographs taken by our party on that day, most of them were of the inflation and ascension of the balloons. .

Hot air balloon

The expression “He’s full of hot air” now has real meaning. Limp, damp, empty rubber suits fill up, fill out, and puff up. They tell implausible stories, make up things, invent themselves many times over, and most of all keep talking. Every so often they open the gas valve and fire up the propane, their thin envelope swells and rises, and they are filled with more hot air. .

Their cousins, windbags, are thick bladders of air like the ones Aeolus gave to Greek sailors.

Image result for images aeolus wind bags

They are tightly inflated, and are bursting with compressed air. Like the mythical Aeolian winds, they are inexhaustible, and once air escapes it rushes in a gale, it is impossible to stop. The windbag’s words are propelled by the pressure built up in the leather pouch. He talks on and on, seemingly unable to force the winds back in, tie up the sack, and stow them away.

In the Chinese fable The Five Brothers, one brother can hold his breath forever.  He inhales all the air around him and fills his lungs.

Image result for story three chinese boy swallowed the ocean

Each of the Chinese brothers survives a dismal fate because of their supernatural abilities, and the brother who can hold his breath forever escapes being smothered. 

In many ways I am awed by modern-day windbags, men and women who simply cannot keep their vents closed and pour out rushes of air. Some are so self-centered they have no idea how their wind affects others. Some windbags lack self-confidence and fire thousands of cubic feet of gas to give themselves volume, substance and depth. Others simply ‘like to hear themselves talk’, and get pleasure from inflating, expressing, and re-inflating their balloon.  They like the roar of the gas burner and the feeling of ascendant power as the heat and intensity of their arguments sends them higher and higher above the rest.

I am often reminded of Thanksgiving Day Macy’s parade. Huge, multi-story balloon figures filled with hot air, bobbing above the crowd.  They have no meaning, no importance other than their size and grotesque caricature.  The same goes for windbags. They are so full of themselves and hot air, that they have no idea what they are to others.

Image result for macy's thanksgiving day parade


Perhaps too much emphasis is placed on substance. We are supposed to be solid, made of firm stuff, have our feet on the ground, walk tall and with purpose.  There is nothing pejorative about a ‘weighty’ person or one with ‘gravitas’.

Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being wrote about the importance of lightness, and Tomas avoids political and personal commitment. The world itself is insubstantial if not meaningless, and the only way to live peaceably and well is to live above it all, with no moral grounding.

Kundera in his later books explored this idea in more academic terms, referring to Greek and Roman philosophers to construct his world of dark and light, weightlessness and heaviness. 

Earth, air, water, and fire were the primal elements of antiquity, defining the world, personality and character.  Airy people were like Tomas, moral sprites who added little of substance to the world but gave it humor and lightness. Spores that float on the breeze.

Everyone falls on a lightness spectrum with Tomas on the one end and windbags on the other.  Tomas is sublime, unencumbered, a free spirit who is rebelling against nothing, but at home and happy with things as they are.  He is confident, centered, and happy. Windbags are grotesque caricatures. They are pressurized envelopes of hot air, balloons over a parade.

Image result for images milan kundera


Everyone else falls somewhere in between.  We are moderate, modest, tolerant, and attentive to others.  We sense when others are losing interest.  We never want to bore or annoy.  We keep the social ship on an even keel.

Politicians are a unique breed of animal.  Half-windbag, half-person of intelligence and substance, they are mutants.  They cannot stop talking, love the attention and adulation of crowds, and have been gifted with a silver tongue. They are always inflated with hot air but are agile and sensitive enough to feel the currents around them and change course when required.  If we ever catch them in a quiet, reflective mood, we assume something is wrong.  The propane burner is broken.  There is too much fog rolling in from the ocean to fly.

Image result for image bill clinton

Talk show guests are bombastic windbags who blow at each other.  They yell, rant, interrupt, and challenge. It is not what they say but how much propulsion they can generate from their hot air.  It is quite a show.  Liberals get upset over Fox News, but it is the best nonsensical performance on the air.  Not to be missed.

Intellectuals and academics have a fear of hot air. They choose their words carefully, parse sentences, and construct hyper-logical arguments that can withstand scrutiny and attack. The worst libel they could suffer would be to be called a windbag, filled with hot air and no substance.

The balloon flight over Napa Valley was pleasant.  It was a beautiful day and we could see the precise contours of the vineyard on the hills sloping up from the valley and the diverse plantings of Cabernet, Pinot, Merlot, and Chardonnay.  But without a doubt the high point of the trip was the balloons themselves. Archaic throwbacks to the first ones built and flown in 1783, they have changed little, and they are still primitive. Hot gases superheating air, air rising, and balloons sailing over the countryside. They are spectacular, loud, and perfectly silent.

Image result for image napa valley from balloon


Perhaps these criticisms of windbags are uncalled for. After all God made us all and we should be tolerant of what we perceive to be the excesses of others.  Still, a hot air windbag, like the magnificent hot air balloons over Napa, are something to behold.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Hot And Bothered Over Nothing–Political Debate And The Demise Of Reason

I recently read a seething, angry, frustrated Facebook posting. The writer had launched a vitriolic, hateful attack against religion; but, he said, for a good reason. Religion was responsible for the rape, pillage, and slaughter of millions from the Crusades to the great holy wars of Europe. 



Slave owners whipped and beat African chattel and then sanctimoniously went to church on Sundays. The Germans in the 30s were a profoundly religious people.  Bavarians had been devoutly Catholic for generations, and northern Germany was the birthplace of Martin Luther.  Yet they were complicit in the Nazi genocide and the deaths of millions of innocent civilians throughout Europe.

  Image result for image swastika       

The Facebook writer saw the ugly, evil hand of religion everywhere.  Protestants and Catholics alike were responsible for the enslavement of women, the deprivation of civil rights, and the aggressive promotion of capitalism, a Calvinist-based doctrine of individual wealth and salvation.

Unfortunately he only singled out Christianity for his diatribe. Islam’s brutality and savagery in Jerusalem in the early years of its emergence from Saudi Arabia were overlooked, as were the excesses of al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Boko Haram.  Muslims are a put-upon people, half-exterminated by Christian Crusaders, corralled and broken by the Jews in Palestine, unjustly attacked in Afghanistan and Iraq; and therefore their murderous violence is justifiable as a reasonable reaction to oppression.

Image result for images muhammad's armies attack christians jerusalem


President Obama got himself into hot water by suggesting that all religions have blood on their hands; but that truism was quickly pilloried by the press. Of course religion has been the motivation behind much world atrocity.  The point that he failed to grasp was that militant Islam is replaying history, is an implacable enemy of the West, and must be defeated.

By calling out radical Islam for its geopolitical ambitions, megalomania, and desires for world empire, no one is criticizing religion but the expected, predictable, violent actions of self-interest.  Islam may be the foundation for ISIS expansionism, but their actions are unmistakably political.

Image result for images ISIS


The obverse is also true. Religion has been the foundation of culture since ancient Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, and Mohenjo-Daro. It has provided guiding moral and ethical principles, the way to spiritual evolution and salvation, and generated art, music, dance, and literature.  Can there be one without the other?

Image result for image mesopotamian gods


It is doubtful that any civilization, especially one which feels itself anointed by God, can possibly sit back and let events take their course.  Civilizations which have a foundational religious belief feel they have an obligation to spread the word while expanding their territory.  It is no surprise that monks, priests, and friars accompanied Spanish conquistadores in the Americas.

Which brings me back to my Facebook friend who could barely contain himself when it came to the subject of gays and religion. Why was he so surprised that religions are self-protective, insular, and profoundly conservative?  Catholics or fundamentalist Protestants don’t have a particular animus against gay people. They are simply building a perimeter to keep out the Other, to protect their traditional interests, and to guard against unwanted intrusions. The FB poster had more hateful vitriol in his system than any Southern Baptist who has re-read Deuteronomy and Paul and come to the conclusion that the Bible considers homosexuality ‘an abomination’.

Image result for images deuteronomy


A more important question must be asked – why is this millennia-long historical context forgotten when it comes to immediate and necessarily temporal issues? Homophobia is a product of many social, cultural, psychological, as well as religious factors.  Why is religion singled out? Or better, why is all religion damned because of one contributing factor to the question of equal rights?

The same is true for race. Entire institutions, such as ‘progressive’ newspapers like The Guardian and The Nation, make a living by ignoring context and complexity and fueling ideological frenzy.  This is understandable since the media are private and rely on readership.  No one expects moderation and due consideration when the audience demands blood. The question is why do readers fall for it?  Every polemic written by The Guardian’s US Editorial staff, regardless of its exaggerated claims, is taken at face value.  The world is filled with misogynist, racist, and homophobic men, and they must be neutered and eliminated.

Image result for logo the guardian newspaper

There are two possible explanations for such illogical behavior.  The first is age.  Young people fall hook-line-and-sinker for emotional arguments.  Reason and rationality are dry and academic tools of inquiry. They cannot possibly help to understand let alone resolve issues that affect people’s lives. Youth is all about passionate optimism, the ability to change destiny, and the importance of a communal, peaceful world.  Historical inquiry will only obscure the essential nature of the problem.

The second explanation is intelligence.  There are plenty of young people who reject emotionalism and illogic in favor of rigorous analysis.  The best academic institutions of America are filled with such minds.  Most people – young and old – do not have the honed intellect of students and graduates of Harvard or Yale. Philosophical conundrums – ethical quandaries, metaphysical dilemmas, phenomenology – are difficult if not beyond them.  Youth and intellectual debility combine in a perfect storm to keep the presses rolling with frantic stories of race, gender, and ethnicity.

Fortunately the acerbity and vitriol of true believers lessen in intensity with age.  The mature liberal has consolidated his progressive beliefs over time, perhaps added some factual corroboration to his theories, and defined his personal cosmology.  His arguments are always reasoned, but operating from a priori principles.  Environmentalism, civil rights, peace, and social harmony are absolutes within a secular theology. They are inalterably right, and evidence is sought only to confirm them. History is largely irrelevant because of liberals belief in progress and the perfectibility of man.  Of course our ancestors held retrograde beliefs.  They had not yet evolved to our more insightful conclusions.

New Age

“Let them be young”, said a friend of mine. “They’re not doing any harm”. Without them, political debate would be flat and unleavened. Spice-less and uninteresting. I cannot disagree more. Not only is there no reason why reason and optimism cannot coexist, it must. Illogical, idealistic optimism does no one any good.  And spiritless rationality becomes nothing more than artifact.

Tolstoy understood this after years of searching for philosophical meaning and for God. After he had finally exhausted every logical avenue of inquiry, he simply sighed and gave up.  If millions of people believed in God, and billions before he was born, then they might be on to something.  His anxious search was over.

Tolstoy A Confession

What bothers me most is the anger, the hate, and the hostility. It will always be hard for people to agree on complex issues; but there is no reason for destructive critical mayhem. A passionate but logical argument will resonate with opponents.  They may agree or not; but one’s critical duty has been discharged.

Perhaps the real answer lies in self-image.  It is not enough to mount a logical argument for or against gay marriage to establish one’s credibility.  A measure of passion, of insistence, of commitment must accompany it.  While most confident people will assess an issue, study it, come to a conclusion, and hold it until disproven; someone lacking in confidence go overboard.  Passion displaces and replaces reason because it is overt, visible, and quickly identifying.

I erased the Facebook writer’s post.  Better to retreat in the face of unreasonableness than agitate.  I am sure that his will be replaced by many which are even more hateful and angry; and I am only sorry that there are so many young people with such frustrated hostility.  The world really isn’t that bad a place.