Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Thou Shalt Have No Other Soft Drinks Before Me!

Yesterday, the Supreme Court handed down two different decisions (here and here) regarding the ability of state or county officials to display the Ten Commandments in public. No doubt the closely split decisions will fuel the on-going debate about the role of religion in politics. However, to my mind a far more interesting debate, and one which you’re not likely to hear in public, is how any seemingly rational person could believe that the Ten Commandments could form the legal basis for any kind of good society at all. In fact, I believe that the Supreme Court should have thrown the Ten Commandments off of government property on the simple and common sense grounds that any government which claims these ridiculous rules as its legal origin doesn’t deserve the respect or loyalty of its own citizens (or, at least, of the non-retarded ones).

Face it, some of those Ten Commandments are pretty silly. And the belief that they are the perfect creation of some all-powerful, all-knowing infinitely benevolent God is laughable once you begin to look at them in detail. You would think a Supreme Being could do better. I bet that if you were to randomly pull twelve people off a bus they could come up with a better code.

Now, some of the commandments do make a lot of sense: don’t kill, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal and don’t lie. Those are good. Any functioning society requires them. But they certainly don’t need a divine source – a society of atheists would require them as much as a society of religious people would. Then there are some that are good advice but I’m not sure about their elevation to the level of divine commandments. For instance, “Honor your mother and you father.” OK, yes, you should respect you parents. But what about the commandment to not covet your neighbor’s house or ox or wife? Does envy really deserve to be on the same level as murder? But hell, let’s be generous and say that these six rules are beneficial and necessary to creating a good society.

Now we get to some commandments that are just plain stupid and that any society could do without and be none the worse and perhaps even better. For instance, the first one: “I am the Lord thy God…Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Talk about self-serving tripe. Think about it. If Pepsi was writing the Ten Commandments, the first would be: “Drink Pepsi!” On the same basis we can discard “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” (a.k.a. “Don’t slam Pepsi!”). So, too, with the commandment to observe the Sabbath (“Take the time to enjoy Pepsi!”). As a society we can chuck out all of these and we’re no worse off. The final commandment to consider is the prohibition against idolatry/graven images. Once again, this rule is completely arbitrary and unnecessary. And the irony, of course, is that those who support putting the Ten Commandments in every courthouse and classroom are themselves guilty of engaging in idolatry. So this commandment doesn’t even work on the people who claim to believe in it.

So in the end we have six good commandments and four which are, to put it mildly, crap. But it’s worse than that.

Now it’s pretty obvious that certain very important things are missing from these allegedly perfect commandments. For instance, where is “You shall not rape”? Where is “You shall not commit genocide”? These would have been far more helpful that some jackass rule against engraving. (Of course, there’s no Biblical prohibition against genocide because the Bible is a pro-genocide book. See Exodus 17:8-16; Num. 21:33-35, 24:20; Deut. 7:1-2; Joshua 6:21, 8:24-26, 10:28-4; 1 Sam. 15:2-7.) Where is “You will help the unfortunate”? Or “You will be compassionate.”?

No, legally, the Ten Commandments have nothing to offer us. An important historical document? Yes. But that's all they are. To display them publically as a source of on-going inspiration and guidance in public affairs is to do nothing more than to openly advertise your own stupidity.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Book Nazis

Friday’s Wall Street Journal has a fascinating article about the growth of elite book clubs across the nation:
Nearly every city has one: the book club you can’t get into. Much like clubs that screen members for social connections and Ivy League degrees, they require applicant interviews, references and take pride in their rejection rate. And now, the most elect of these groups are spawning a wave of copycats.
With so many people trying to get into these clubs, the people who run them can impose pretty much any rules they wish. Things gets strange fast. One club has a paid moderator. Another has “no discussion of the book before dinner, but during dinner only discussion of the book.” Another club brags that it won’t admit any new members who “can’t say where they were when JFK was shot” (cute). Another club reads only non-Oprah-approved fiction of under 350 pages (sorry Tolstoy); to join this club – I shit you not – you must submit an essay. Another requires three letters of recommendation just to be put on the waiting list.

Obviously, these reading groups are about social status, not literature. One elite club in Washington, DC is headed by Helene Safire, wife of former New York Times columnist and comb-over king William Safire. Its members include Kate Lehrer (wife of Jim Lehrer) and Ruth Boorstin (wife of the late Daniel Boorstin); I suppose to join this club you must be able to say where you were when McKinley was shot.

However, you don't need to be famous to be a book nazi. Sarah Milks, a New York legal assistant has a book club which rejected about 200 new applicants last year. This club is particularly pretentious:
While the young financial and artistic types who make up the group pride themselves on their literary standards – their reading list includes William Faulkner and Aldous Huxley – most of the applicants have been “young girls who have just moved to the city,” says Ms. Milks. “They’re like, ‘Oh I love to read Candace Bushnell,” a reference to the “Sex and the City” author. “And I’m, like, no.”
Yes, those kind of girls would never understand “As I Lay, Like, Dying” or “Brave New, Like, World” I find it amazing that people would put up with this sort of abuse. Especially over books. 

When I read a book all that counts is what I think of it. The opinion (let alone, approval) of others means nothing to me. If the people in this Wall Street Journal article are book club snobs (a snob being someone who’s haughty to their inferiors and groveling to their superiors) then I and my friends are book aristocrats – confident, independent, interested in the opinions of other aristocrats, to be sure, but ultimately masters of our own judgment. We don’t do clubs.