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June 22, 2005


Certitude kills writing. (Are you sure, Chris? No.) I read writing in which the author is certain of his or her ideas, and I never want to read anything by that person again.

There is a weed blooming in the backyard this week, something in the carrot family, whose bloom is a cluster of smaller flower clusters, each cluster a rough mirror of the ones it comprises - and the one it belongs to as well. From the vantage point of my porch I see three levels of cluster, three iterations of group-in-group. Have I gauged the complexity of the bloom from twenty feet away, or does the pattern extend down to the level of the individual flower atoms? At some point this week I will wander back there to take a closer look.

Certitude dismisses the fractal structure of the world, paves it over, turns meadow into concrete slab and then ignores the grasses struggling up through the cracks.

I exploded in a rather messy fashion this week at a man whose certitude led him to express hideously offensive sentiments. Or did the sentiments prompt the certitude? It occurs to me that I don't really care. My anger had no effect.

Where are the stories of rabbits and birds and wildflowers struggling up through hard-baked clay hills? From what dark center comes this writing of bleak politics, of friends lost, of the massive and persistent harms we do one another?

I feel something welling up inside me these days. I cannot find the border between politics and prairie. How can I mention the mockingbirds that dive-bomb Zeke on our walks without noting my fear that they will be gone next year? How can I mention mosquito-borne bird plagues without raging at the liars who hold that climate-borne disease vectors are an acceptable cost of next quarter's profit margin?

And how can I protest the liars without describing the world that could be, in which we would each have time to consider the structure of stray weeds growing in our path?

A friend - this one gone but not yet dead - once described me as someone who "listens to ravens and raves at the listless." We agreed it was a clumsy phrase, but I liked it very much. There is something to the raven's bark that defies interpretation. It sounds to my ears much as my rage must have sounded to the racist I berated this week: an unintelligible yet earnest entreaty to move in an unknown, inaccessible direction.

It seems a dreadfully confining world the certain inhabit.

I think about the stories I tell of absent friends, the walks through Buffalo streets and coffee in Nevada bars, the arguments and the companionable silence and the late night telephone conversations about baby names for a child who would never arrive. At times I regret that those stories will mainly die with me. At times I imagine a world laden with a trillion untold tales, entombed in silence. All those who once remembered them are long gone. They are a blanket on the earth. They push their way through the sodden ground in spring.

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that was a LONG comment thread. IMHO you were fairly restrained. the other guy couldn't see the difference between people and governments. and non-democratic (to be kind) governments at that. i think it is historically accurate that the japanese rulers and elites were viciously racist pre-ww2. that says nothing about the "common" people. your mild correction of pz about white people was good too.

the stories we tell each other, which you do so well, about weeds and birds and rabbits give us sustenance to persevere as compassionate, decent humans in the face of an insane world.

and who am i say you were overboard?

Posted by: dread pirate roberts at June 22, 2005 10:24 AM
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I think it was an entirely justifiable explosion.

Posted by: PZ Myers at June 22, 2005 10:24 AM
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Just home from a week on the road. Sounds like I missed a bit. But it seems to me that your point goes beyond the episode you named, Chris. You like to talk about important things, and while ceritude may indeed bring about the results you lament, the opposite of certitude - I don't know, call it the morass of indecision- is just as lamentable and just problematic.

As for myself, I strive for something similar to certitude, but with a caveat. I'm always open to being proved wrong, and to learning from the experience. Likewise, I try to distinguish between the few things I know and the many things I believe.

So how to deal with the situations you describe? The best advice I've heard is to put your time, energy & focus on the positive change you aspire to achieve. And I suspect that, despite the occasional detour, you're successful far more than you'll ever realize.

Posted by: tost at June 22, 2005 04:57 PM
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While your sentiments in the comments section of Pharyngula were warranted, I think your wishing death upon Harry was intelligible. I worry that it may have only shored his willingness to view those who would defend "Asians" from his accusations as those who must resort to slander rather than confront his (patently absurd) take on the Geneva Convention in an "informed" way.

Like most of us who have heard our fathers and relatives talk of their wartime experiences but have not been in a war ourselves, I imagine this Harry is attempting to replace his service to God and country with a lot of blow-your-house-down silliness. If drunk enough, I sometimes find myself doing the same, especially in a crowd of like-minded liberals, as it gives me something to be contrary about when bored. In Harry's case, though, it seems he isn't attempting just to elicit a reaction, but that he actually believes "Asians" - and anyone who lives near Asia, apparently - are devoid of compassion.

You're right. It's a lot easier to be an absolutist than it is to remain in the grey areas, determined to find the right, but not necessarily the morally superior, path. Sometimes, though, absolutism is called for, even valuable. My certainty that the loss of "wildlands" and a great chunk of biodiversity will crush the human spirit is an absolute I stand by, no matter the death threats.

Posted by: Hungry Hyaena at June 22, 2005 06:59 PM
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Well, HH, I certainly take your point. But I disagree milldly for a couple reasons. First, that I'm pretty sure my "fuck off and die" comment was taken as idiomatic dismissal rather than a literal wish for death.

Second - and this is the larger point - I am through taking responsibility for the persistent prejudices of others. I'm happy to try to persuade. But when people persist in hatred despite all evidence and logic, I'm condemning them from now on. Not always in as volatile a fashion as this weke, perhaps.

I do agree with you on the need for occasional absolutism. And tost, as regards that "morass of indecision" thing - how do the kids put it these days? Nail. Head.

DPR, That's why I keep you around. I need a native guide to Blowing-Up Land.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at June 22, 2005 08:36 PM
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Hey, I thought my comment about white people would be recognized as sarcasm! I'm so white, I glow like a fungus in the dark.

That thread, and quite a few others, put me in an awkward position. Heagar said many things that had me ready to haul out my battle-axes and long knives (this, for instance: "Chris and Professor Myers have put themselves in the position of defending people who chop the heads off helpless prisoners"), but...I run the place. I've got vast godlike powers of thread destruction. I've found more and more that I have to step back and let comments run their course, trusting in the mostly intelligent regulars who frequent Pharyngula to take care of the idiots for me, or I squelch the discourse.

I suppose I'd have to change that habit if the commenters were mostly idiots, but that hasn't been a problem so far.

Posted by: PZ Myers at June 23, 2005 07:20 AM
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It's hard to have an intellectual discussion if the other half participating lack the aforementioned prerequisite of participation. Some of us get there in our own time (some of us never do). I would never have thought myself a racist-not in the Archie Bunker style anyway, but I am. I fight with it everyday. I fight against my culture and my family and my upbringing and my history. I think it is this struggle that eventually will bring me closer to seeing the weeds and past the weeds and being able to call with the raven though only the other ravens can understand...that is still something, is it not?

Posted by: limesalttequila at June 23, 2005 08:54 AM
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I've been off in the Rockies for a few days, so am late to this discussion.

Chris, your explosion was little more than a small firecracker in my eyes, especially since Harry's comments were both predictable and offensive as usual. Reminds me of the long dispatched 'Richard' who sometimes had interesting things to say, but a nasty racist streak.

Have a margarita and think not of it again.

Posted by: Desert Donkey at June 24, 2005 02:04 PM
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That was a beautiful last paragraph, Chris (to this post, I mean). As for the comment thread, wow. I couldn't read (let alone attempt to counter) such idiocy without getting seriously upset - and why should I let morons ruin my day? I say, turn the other cheek. Mostly because it makes them go away sooner.

Posted by: Dave at June 26, 2005 02:47 PM
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