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

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Atheism–Only Cold Comfort Dispensed Here

Tiffany White, writing in The Guardian (9.29.13) comes out of the closet and admits she is an atheist.  Although she doesn’t quite know how or when it happened, there it is; and she finds that the hardest part is not knowing how to console others. Since her new belief – or lack of it– eliminates references to God, she cannot pat and comfort with the usual religious nostrums like “She is in a better place”; or “She is with Jesus now”. but she feels uncomfortable with the passionless “I’m here for you” or “I’m sorry for your loss”. What’s an atheist to do?

Well, first, get over it. Having to resort to Hallmark Card nostrums is the least of your problems.  Try looking into the deep, dark abyss.

Atheists are a funny lot.  Most of them are not yet comfortable in their skins.  The number of atheists’ clubs, conventions, websites, and jamborees is increasing by leaps and bounds.  It is not enough to simply say “There is no God” and go back to washing up.  Atheists need to reconfirm their guilty rejection of God by assembling with other, like-minded people.  They, like their revivalist brothers and sisters who jam mega-churches very Sunday, need a pastor to hector, cajole, and threaten; and they  need fellow non-worshipers to validate the experience. “You don’t believe in God? Wow, cool.  Neither do I.  Let’s have lunch”.

Atheists put up billboards, construct websites, wave banners, and rave in solidarity.


Atheists need to embrace causes, like prayer in the schools.  For them the issue is not the separation of church and state, but religious indoctrination.  Pro-choice is not only about a woman’s right to choose, but about the legitimacy of doing away with a godless, soulless, lump of matter.  Atheists fume over Congressional prayer breakfasts, burn dollar bills to protest against ‘In God We Trust’, and go apoplectic at the sanctimonious references to God by American politicians.

In other words, atheists like Christians need something to believe in and something to be against.

Hinduism is a very sophisticated and complex religion, and there is something in it for everyone.  For the ignorant peasant, there are the mythical divinities like Krishna, Siva, Durga, Ganesh, and Vishnu.  They can be worshipped without thinking and the worship alone is uplifting and satisfying.


The more spiritually evolved can consider the nature of Oneness, Creation and Destruction, the nature of Free Will, reincarnation, and enlightenment.

The same is true for atheists. The lower orders can raise their banners, protest outside the Supreme Court, and hear blood-and-thunder secular preachers at conferences. 

Intellectuals can see Rationality, Secularism, and Humanism as the philosophical underpinnings of their belief system.  Everyone is happy.

The statistics collected by the Census Bureau are organized into the following Non-Believer categories – Atheist, Agnostic, Humanist, No Religion – but the most important category of all, Don’t Care, is not reflected. There must be millions of uncounted Americans for whom religion is simply irrelevant.  They don’t think about it, love it, or hate it.  They are indifferent. God never comes up except in secular and historical ways.  There is no way to understand civilization without studying religion, no way to appreciate art, music, and dance; and certainly no way to make any sense of today’s violent world without considering secular conflict.  However, looking for spiritual salvation or redemption; searching for higher meaning in death; or answering the Great Questions is beyond them.

This is not a kind of agnosticism, an indifference based on maybe or “We’ll soon see”. It is not a belief or disbelief in anything. Don’t Cares do not live within a religious world, nor deify reason and rationality, but are neither mystified by chance or randomness. Don’t Cares do not feel bereft of anything or wish they could believe.  They do not conjure up images of God and feel fearful.


It is often hard for believers and atheists alike to understand Don’t Cares because both are religious at heart.  Both need a structured belief system which provides a context bigger than themselves; and they do not understand how anyone could live in such a soulless, passionless world.

Nothing could be further from the truth, of course.  Don’t Cares experience as much passion, conviction, and ecstasy as the next guy; but just don’t talk about it.

Most importantly, they could care less about godless remarks.  “Have a nice day’ is just as good as “God be with you”; and as far as consolation is concerned, a warm hug and a few tears do just fine.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Siesta–A Most Civilized Tradition

I could never imagine working an entire day through without a siesta.  Soldiering through a long morning, a working lunch, and  long unremitting afternoons without respite has always been painful to consider.  While low-rung administrative assistants manage a few girls’ lunches out, and senior executives do white-tablecloth pukka grilled salmon outings a few days a week, most American office workers row in the slave ship from dawn to dusk with only a few scraps to eat at midday.

I first encountered the siesta in Dakar.  Offices opened at 8, closed for lunch at 12, reopened at 3 and closed again at 6.  Three hours for lunch! I was in heaven.  I walked across the Place de L’Independance to the Teranga, a four-star hotel on the ocean, took a long swim, settled in for a three course meal of coquilles Saint Jacques, grilled capitaine, tarte aux citron, chilled Sancerre, and coffee, and then retired to my room for a long sleep.  Not just a twitchy nap for a few minutes, but a full pajama, under-the-covers, slippers by the bed sleep.

Even better, no one was expected back to the office until four; and the few hours worked were not the buckle-down, tunnel vision kind that made up in productivity for lost time, but casual affairs with many coffees and camaraderie.  Who cared if any work got done?

This was the routine all over Africa in the 70s and 80s, and I became accustomed to what I now still call ‘civilized lunches’ – sit-down meals with cloth napkins, deux couverts, crystal glasses for red and white wine, and impeccable service. Whether in sand-blown Nouakchott, by the sea in Dakar, in the lee of the Burundi Highlands on Lake Tanganyika, or in the care of two old ex-colons from la France profonde in Bamako, I was happy.

My office hours in Port-au-Prince were even more agreeable.  My government counterpart never came in before 10, and by 11 her eyes started to glaze over with hunger and fatigue.  By 12 we were all out the door and slated to return – if at all – by 4.  I took a taxi to my hotel, the Splendide, an old Victorian, polished brass and mahogany relic not far from the Oloffson. It had white balconies overlooking the harbor and the long road up to Petionville, and standing on them at night I could hear voodoo drums coming from the hills around Kenskoff.  At lunch I swam, ate lambi creole on the open terrace by the bougainvillea, and slept for two hours.

I hit the wall when I started to work in Eastern Europe where the routine was a mammoth breakfast of smoked fish, tomatoes, caviar, tongue, and cold sausage; no lunch; and a normal dinner.  It was very hard to stoke up at 7am – gavage, a Rwandan friend called it, force-feeding geese to make foie gras – but stuff it in I did.  But no matter how many hardboiled eggs, slices of bologna, or wedges of country cheese I ate, I was still hungry long before quitting time.  The better restaurants in Warsaw, Bucharest, and Tbilisi never opened until 7, and I barely made it through the afternoon.  I hate Goldfish, but that’s all there was to eat in the emptiest part of the day.

Days without a long noontime break were interminable. It wasn’t the lack of food so much – the morning’s gavage usually did the trick – but the absence of a break, and especially the delicious full-stomach languor and long, reclined sleep of midday.

When I returned to Africa after many years working in Eastern and Central Europe, I spent a lot of time in post-civil war Angola. There were few hotels in Luanda, the capital, and always penitential traffic, brutal crime, and few restaurants.  The country was truly a shithole with oil.  No siestas there, only big-time gavage in the morning, and a long, traffic-jammed trip  for dinner out to the Isla, a long peninsula with Atlantic and Bay beaches, excellent seafood, great Brazilian cachaça, and soft sea breezes.  If only I could have had civilized lunches there!

After so many years living and travelling in siesta-land, I took a Washington job.  Personnel management, budgets, proposals, and client relations replaced my free-and-easy life, and the need for a noontime rest was never more urgent. So I walked to the Botanical Gardens near the Capitol, found a bench high up in the tropical canopy and slept.  Or in the more comfortable armchairs in the lobby of the Willard. Or on a park bench in Lafayette Park. I was too old to worry about what people thought and never tried to disguise my dozing with a book or newspaper.  I just put my head back and slept.

According to Paul Hamilos, writing in The Guardian (9.27.13) Spain, the mother of all siestas, plans to do away with them.  For too long have Spaniards lived crazy hours, say government officials, outside the normal routine of Europe, and it is time to get with the EU program, increase productivity, and become more German. Spaniards have always taken siestas, however, and it will be very hard for them to work a 9-5.

The new schedule makes business sense, however – no traffic jams four times a day, new restaurants in commercial zones, and a work schedule similar to that of the rest of Europe.  As a part of this ‘time reform’, the Spanish government wants to change the country’s time zone to what it was before Franco, in solidarity with his Nazi allies, put it on German time.  Now breakfast, lunch, and dinner will be held at the more civilized hours of 8, 1, and 7 instead of the absurd hours of the present, or so they say.

Most Spaniards say the time zone change is all hogwash.  It is not the sun but cultural traditions which govern daily routines.  No one will be hungry at 7, regardless of daylight, and scarfing un sandwich at noon will be downright impossible.

Most importantly, the siesta will disappear.  The last vestige of a civilized, unhurried, dolce vita tradition will bite the dust.  Spain, of course, needs all the help it can get.  After years of profligacy, inefficiency, low productivity, and self-indulgence, it is high time to be…well, more like the Germans.

A Spaniard naps in Valdeavellano, near Soria.

Photograph: Ignacio Pérez Díez/Flickr Vision in Hamilos article

For me the siestas and civilized lunches are now things of the past. Although I could recreate them – there are plenty of white tablecloth restaurants in Washington that serve formal meals at noon – I could never reproduce them.  In my mind they are associated with palm trees, warm breezes, beaches, and a lazy indolence.  There is no way that the dark interior of the Hay Adams, elegant as it is, can replace that.  So I have summer salads and a few twitchy Z’s after lunch; and that seems to do the trick. Everything in its own time and in its own place. 

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Language Police–Keep ‘Blog’ Out Of German

In an article in the New York Times (9.26.13), Anna Sauerbrey writes that the German dictionary Duden – the equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary and the accepted arbiter of what is German and what isn’t – has recently included 5000 new English words or words of English origin. This is a good thing, she says:

We Germans owe the English language a debt of gratitude. If English didn’t lend us one or two little words every once in a while, we would probably call blogs “digitale Netztagebücher” and apps “Anwendungen für mobile Endgeräte.” Even for German speakers, those don’t exactly roll off the tongue.

Not all Germans are happy, however, and many see these new Anglophone words as unwelcome intrusions and erosions of their language and culture.  Sauerbrey suggests many reasons why her countrymen are so unhappy, surprising in an age of internationalization where a multi-language environment is the rule rather than the exception and where English has become the lingua franca which unites countries as different as Poland and France.  It is this very internationalization, says Sauerbrey, which angers many older Germans, and their obstinate refusal to introduce English words is a cultural battlement.  German socio-cultural heritage is being threatened.   The implication is unspoken, but presumably the Old Guard hopes that eventually Germany will rise far beyond de facto European leadership and primus inter pares status in the EU and will rise once again to its historical supremacy - .Deutschland über alles" without National Socialism.

Worse yet, says Sauerbrey, older Germans are resentful of the younger generation who throw English words around as a status symbol.  They are prattlers and braggarts who show off their cosmopolitanism with an airy, hipster casualness. In so doing, say the Crusties, they cheapen all language, bastardize it, and pollute its purity. German will soon become a mongrel, a pound dog language with no links to the country’s historical past.

The Germans are no different than the French who have taken linguistic xenophobia to the extreme.  The French government has mandated that radio stations must devote a certain percentage of air time to French music; and that cinemas cannot show only foreign offerings.  This is as much a attempt to resist the assault of English as it is to keep out creeping American sleaze; and France has realized perhaps more than any other country, the unbreakable link between language and culture.  Whereas French language policy seems like the arrogant, defensive posturing of a second-rate power which once ruled the universe with its language and culture, it really is a defense of French history. 

A simple linguistic example illustrates the dilemma. The English word ‘software’ is a particularly American conception. It is practical, based on engineering, and is the antonym of ‘hardware’.  The French term, at least for now, is ‘logiciel’ which refers to logic, intelligence, and meaning.  In other words, the French have looked for a deeper and more sophisticated and complex meaning of the concept rather than rely on meaningless, American Silicon Valley shorthand.

The English word ‘computer’ is similarly derived from practical engineering.  The computer is the grandchild of the calculator which computed numbers.  The fact that today’s PCs and tablets rarely compute is of no consequence.  The French term for computer is ‘ordinateur’ a term which ignores engineering and practicality and reflects and understanding of the instrument as an organizational tool.  The computer no longer computes, but organizes vast amounts of data, trillions of bits and bytes into a usable system. By refusing ‘computer’ and ‘software’ the French Academy has not taken a political decision to keep America at bay, but a cultural one.  Given French intellectual history, and especially the contributions of the supreme logician, Descartes, it is not surprising that French lexicographers have used logic to search for appropriate terms and have chosen words which reflect French intellectual tradition.

Language in France is no simple matter.  It is not, as it is in America, a simple, necessary tool for communication, but a cultural expression; and defense of the French language has been the role of the State since Louis XIII.

L'Académie française is the pre-eminent French learned body on matters pertaining to the French language. The Académie was officially established in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister to King Louis XIII. Suppressed in 1793 during the French Revolution, it was restored in 1803 by Napoleon Bonaparte. It is the oldest of the five académies of the Institut de France. (Wikipedia)

                             L’Institut de France building

It is bad enough that the Germans have had to suffer the onslaughts of English.  After all, despite the efforts of the Nazis, German has never been a world language, and Germans have had to speak French and English to make themselves understood.  In the 19th century, however, France reigned supreme, and all diplomatic affairs were conducted in French.  The country enjoyed a political and cultural supremacy. The adoption of English as the world’s international language is a particularly hard pill to swallow.  Not only are the beauties, intricacies, and subtleties of French lost to the world, but the ascendancy of English means the descent of France.

France’s fight for the international linguistic equality of French (even the Institut de France has given up on supremacy)  is nothing compared to its battle for cultural and linguistic purity within its borders.  Like it or not, France is becoming more and more like America – a nation of immigrants; but unlike America, France is resisting multi-culturalism and is fighting tooth and nail to keep French pure and to homogenize all African and Arab newcomers.  There is no way to keep out Arabic, Berber, Bambara, and Wolof words just as there is no way to prevent the veil, burqa, headscarf, or niqab. Resistance is futile.

The French living in the Old Guard arrondissements of the 7th and 16th still refuse to accept the influx of immigrants and try to ignore them.  Avoid the Gare du Nord if you can, they say, the transit point for Africans coming from the Northern ‘suburbs’ (ghettos); but more and more Metro stops are filled with Algerians, Moroccans, and Malians. Eventually French will be a polyglot language, with thousands of borrowed African words.  For now, France has only to deal with English because it is a power language – the language of movies, business, finance, and politics. Africanisms may creep in via retail trade, but for now, little more. In a few decades, however, the language may be very different.

I have always felt that a country should never resist calling a foreign thing what its makers call it.  Most computing, IT, social media, and telecommunications originated in the United States, so there is no reason not to use ‘software’, ‘blog’, or ‘app’ any more than there is to create a new word for ‘pizza’, ‘pasta’, or ‘rigatoni’.

However, the French do have a point about language being the portal to cultural history.  I oppose ‘simplifying’ English spelling as George Bernard Shaw once tried to do.  English is a perversely complicated language to spell – so many homonyms, homophones, and homographs! It would be easy to spell ‘enough’ ‘enuf’; but in so doing we would lose its distant Germanic and Old English roots. Etymology is history, and once we make English a phonetic language, we lose all traces of the Norman Conquest, the influence of the Frisians, Danes, and Dutch; and the outposts of Empire.

The Chinese took a big step under Mao when it simplified its characters. Since ideographs are really gestalt images which convey complex meaning, when bits and pieces are lopped off to make them easier to remember, history and philosophy are changed.

Language has always been a socio-cultural and political affair.  I once worked in Cameroon which has French-speaking and English-speaking provinces. The lingua franca of the country is pidgin, and everyone speaks and understands it. When I suggested to the Ministry of Information that the media campaign which I was designing should be broadcast in pidgin, the suggestion was dismissed with disdain.  “Pidgin is not a language’, the Minister said, and that was that.  We had to spend ten times as much on developing programs in French, English, and five national languages.

Language is at the center of current ethnic disputes because it is the most obvious external expression of culture.  The defense of language is a defense of history and tradition.

The lesson of history, however, is that power determines language, whether it is military or economic.  Almost one billion people are native speakers of Romance languages, thanks to the Romans with tens of millions more speaking them as a second language. Right now America and English are ascendant because the US still is the world’s economic engine; but what will happen in 100 years when China is the world power and more and more transactions are carried out in Mandarin? English will not disappear, but it will no longer be the lingua franca of commerce and diplomacy.

It is probably a good thing that in two millennia all the world’s population will speak one language, for such unity will signify economic, political, and cultural parity.  But in this one-dimensional linguistic world, the most important, current, and accessible link to the past will be gone.