New Subsets of Strange

Admittedly Southern California is a strange place, but the San Fernando Valley is even stranger – a special subset of strange. Some know it from the movie filmed at the old Sherman Oaks Galleria – Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Some know it from Frank Zappa’s daughter, Moon Zappa, and that Valley Girl thing. Gag me with a spoon! And high above Ventura Boulevard, in the hills below Mulholland Drive, is the Buckley School – a very exclusive prep school with its Robert Young Library – as in Father Knows Best and Marcus Welby, MD. Young threw a lot of money at the school, and it’s a private place for the children of the famous. Had that interview back in 1981 gone better Paris Hilton might have been one of my students. Oh well.

But in the flats below it’s just flat suburbia baking in the desert heat. The San Fernando Valley used to be all orange groves and open space, and Edgar Rich Burroughs owned a chunk of it and called it Tarzana. But that’s just strip malls now. The Valley is now just kind of creepy – like an extended surreal episode of Leave It To Beaver written by Kafka. And it goes on for miles and miles. Down in Toluca Lake, at the edge of Burbank, there’s the classic hotrod thing every Friday night at the original Bob’s Big Boy – poodle skirts and ’57 Chevys and sometimes Jay Leno drops by with one of his classic cars – and no one is under sixty. That’s a bit unsettling. Existential despair hangs in the air. But that’s the Valley – two hundred sixty square miles of creepy.

And back in the nineties, after the second divorce, it was dating a woman from the Valley, the divorced holistic New Age midwife, who of course was a vegetarian, and a former Jewish-American Princess like in all the jokes. The yard of her little house baking in the flats was filled with odd concrete figures – frogs, fairies, trolls and the like – and she had delivered the kids of celebrities. The medical doctor who backed her up when necessary – an obstetrician – was the father of Heidi Fleiss, the famous Hollywood Madam. That was interesting. But the midwife’s pre-teen daughter was pretty normal.

But then the pre-teen daughter had her friends too – the home-schooled crowd, which meant basic math, reading comprehension and a lot of Bible stories and not much else, and no television or radio ever. Nice kids – very polite – and from another planet. There wasn’t much to talk about.

Yeah, yeah – that’s just Southern California. Everyone knows it’s a strange place. But you might recall that in the late fifties and early sixties, when everything was going right out here, just after they built Disneyland and a brilliant university system that was virtually free, there was a lot of talk that California was the future of America – this is how things would be and should be, everywhere. It was the California Dream or something – folks in Pittsburgh were reading Sunset Magazine and everyone was listening to the Beach Boys. And even in the late sixties you knew you’d be safe and warm if you were in LA. And now, as the state is broke and things are falling apart, people fear California is still the future of America – political gridlock and frauds in office and evangelical megachurchs everywhere, with lots of Mexicans hanging around, speaking Vietnamese to the Islamic terrorists while the gays marry each other. Yes, existential despair will hang heavy in the air, just like out in the Valley.

It’s coming your way, of course. At least one element is, the part about schooling, and how it should be done, or if it should be done. The Tea Party crowd elbowed out the boring mainstream Republicans in any number of states this summer, and the new Senate candidates, who may well win their seats, want to abolish the Department of Education entirely – get the governments out of education. That’s the position of Sharron Angle in Nevada and Bob Miller in Alaska, and Colorado’s Ken Buck, the Republican Senate candidate there this year. He also wants to eliminate Social Security and Medicare, scrap student loans, ban all forms of birth control, eliminate all abortions under all circumstances and so on, like the others, but this week he spoke specifically about education:

In the 1950s, we had the best schools in the world. And the United States government decided to get more involved in federal education. Where are we now, after all those years of federal involvement, are we better or are we worse? So what’s the federal government’s answer? Well, since we’ve made education worse, we’re gonna even get more involved. And what’s gonna be the result? It’s kinda like health care. We’ve screwed up health care – Medicare – we’ve screwed up all kinds of other things, so what are we gonna do? We’re gonna get even more involved in health care. What are we going to do? We’re gonna get more involved in education.

And then he went on and talked about poodle skirts and ’57 Chevys. No, not really – but his point was that schools were great in the fifties and they’re lousy now. But Ian Millhiser points out that this is nonsense:

Buck’s claim that American schools are worse now than they were in the 1950s is laughably wrong. In 1957, less than half of white Americans and fewer than one in five African-Americans graduated from high school. By 2002, however, almost nine in ten white children and eight in ten black children earned their diploma. Likewise, college graduation rates more than tripled during the same time period for both racial groups. Our country has a long way to go before we build the education system Americans deserve, but Buck is simply wrong to claim that American schools haven’t made massive strides since the 1950s.

Steve Benen has much more – this in nonsense on multiple levels – and sums it up this way.

But all of this is lost on Buck, just as reason is lost on the drunk guy shouting at the TV at the end of the bar. Government bad, schools bad, health care bad … voting for angry loudmouth good. Who can take this seriously?

Well, that depends on who you ask. These candidates are inspired by Glenn Beck, and many take him seriously. It’s just not everyone:

While just 24 percent of Americans have a favorable view of him (13 percent strongly so), only 19 percent have an unfavorable one (14 percent strongly). That leaves 57 percent who either don’t know Beck or are indifferent toward him.

This compares quite favorably to, for example, Rush Limbaugh, who was the subject of a similar question in the NBC/WSJ poll in June. Limbaugh was regarded favorably by 23 percent of Americans, but unfavorably by 50 percent — including 37 percent who held a strongly negative view.

Is that encouraging? Your mileage may vary.

But Beck is onto something. Consider his latest position on education – “We have been setting up re-education camps. We call them universities.”

This is beyond home schooling – basic math, reading comprehension and a lot of Bible stories and not much else. This is don’t-send-your-kids-to-college, ever:

There was a time not too long ago in this country that we used to walk through walls of fire to make sure we weren’t funding Hamas or Hezbollah. I have news for you: there are a lot of universities that are just as dangerous with indoctrination of our children as these terror groups are in Iran or North Korea.

Perhaps they will be told that America is not that exceptional after all, and learn about other cultures and other political systems, and even learn a foreign language – not to mention being told about the Enlightenment and Darwin and what some say are mistakes America once made, when everyone knows America never makes mistakes. And that will make them terrorists.

That’s interesting. But he’s not from the Valley. Beck is a Yale man, sort of. In 1996, while working for a New Haven-area radio station, Beck took a theology class at Yale University. The class was called “Early Christology” – but that one class was it.

See Mark Alden Branch – Yale ’86 – in the Yale Alumni Magazine:

As a GQ profile from a couple of years ago tells it:

“With a letter of recommendation from Senator Joe Lieberman – who came on Beck’s Connecticut radio show several times and whom Beck voted for – Beck enrolled at Yale as part of a special program for older students, studying theology. He took only one class – the night before the semester began, he and his first wife decided to divorce, and suddenly he had two households to support – but when his professor told him, ‘Glenn, you belong here,’ it was an experience that gave the high school grad a new sense of intellectual worth.”

One course – probably in the non-degree special student program – apparently doesn’t get one into the alumni directory. But the take-away here is that if it hadn’t been for Yale, Beck may never have acquired his current sense of intellectual worth.

No, one course does not get you into the alumni directory, particularly if you drop out the first day. But it lets you know universities are at best worthless, and otherwise they are terrorist re-education camps.

So, as you know, he set up his own university, Beck University – and the currently available courses are Faith 101, 102, and 103; Hope 101, 102, and 103; and Charity 101, 102 and 103. The classes are weekly online lectures every Wednesday night – and for $9.95/month you can become an Extreme Insider and take the courses and be sent your diploma, sort of. Needless to say this is not accredited.

And you can see why. Faith 101 deals with American history and is taught by David Barton – the guy Beck says is “the Library of Congress in shoes.” And Barton is an evangelical minister who is more than controversial for his argument that the founding fathers renounced the separation of church and state, as they were the “Black-Robed Regiment” – they had no use for Locke and the Enlightenment and they were all evangelicals, really. Everything you learned in school was wrong.

Jillian Rayfield signed up and reports on what she was supposed to learn:

The Declaration of Independence is nothing more than a listing of all of the sermons that folks had been hearing in church in the decades leading up to the American Revolution. He described how state legislature sessions would be kicked off with a visit from a preacher, and how the scriptures were accepted as a means of “guidance” for legislators. In 1822 there was even a sermon given to Congress. The founders didn’t want the church running the government, Barton said, and they didn’t want the government running the church, but they did “want the influence in there.”

The evidence is scant, but this is essentially home schooling, like out in the Valley. There’s not much to talk about – different planets and all that.

And it’s not just Beck, as some Republican officials are really into this sort of thing:

The head of the Hawaii Republican Party is calling GOP Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona the only “righteous” gubernatorial candidate while urging pastors to bar Democrat Mufi Hannemann from campaigning in their churches.

In an undated e-mail that came to light Sunday in three Hawaii political blogs, Jonah Kaauwai also wrote that a vote for Hannemann or Democrat Neil Abercrombie is “succumbing to fear and advancing unrighteousness.”

The e-mail frequently cites Bible verses and uses other religious language to allege that Hannemann deceptively wants to visit church services to boost his support in the Sept. 18 Democratic primary.

“Duke will win because the church has been behind him the entire time operating in the POWER and the AUTHORITY of the NAME OF JESUS!” stated Kaauwai’s lengthy e-mail.

Kaauwai added that Hannemann does not deserve voters’ support, as, you see, he’s shown “no signs” of being “controlled by the Holy Spirit.” And of course voting for the Republican was “Christ’s opportunity.” And this is from the head of a statewide Republican Party. He must have “attended” Beck’s university.

It’s that home-schooling thing. Welcome to the Valley.

But if you really want to make Glenn Beck cry, there is this from Jennifer Quinn (AP):

Did creation need a creator?

British physicist and mathematician Stephen Hawking says no, arguing in his new book that there need not be a God behind the creation of the universe.

The concept is explored in “The Grand Design,” excerpts of which were printed in the British newspaper The Times on Thursday. The book, written with fellow physicist Leonard Mlodinow, is scheduled to be published by Bantam Press on Sept. 9.

“The Grand Design,” which the publishers call Hawking’s first major work in nearly a decade, challenges Isaac Newton’s theory God must have been involved in creation because our solar system couldn’t have come out of chaos simply through nature.

Hawking says it isn’t that simple. To understand the universe you have to know both how and why it behaves the way it does. He calls this “the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.” And the answer isn’t 42, of course.

It comes down to this:

Hawking, who is renowned for his work on black holes, said the 1992 discovery of another planet orbiting a star other than the sun makes “the coincidences of our planetary conditions … far less remarkable and far less compelling as evidence that the Earth was carefully designed just to please us human beings.”

That is not what he said in his 1988 book “A Brief History of Time” – but things came up and he thought it over:

“Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing,” the excerpt says. “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to … set the Universe going.”

Expect Beck to spend a week or two attacking Hawking. Beck will says he’s smarter. Beck will say this is one more reason there should be no universities. Hawking retired last year as the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge – after thirty years in the position, which was once held by Newton. Beck went to Yale for a day, but now has his own university. This should be interesting.

Of course the Hawking argument is causing no end of outrage among religious leaders in Britain:

…the head of the Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams, told the Times that “physics on its own will not settle the question of why there is something rather than nothing.”

He added: “Belief in God is not about plugging a gap in explaining how one thing relates to another within the Universe. It is the belief that there is an intelligent, living agent on whose activity everything ultimately depends for its existence.”

Williams’ comments were supported by leaders from across the religious spectrum in Britain. Writing in the Times, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said: “Science is about explanation. Religion is about interpretation … The Bible simply isn’t interested in how the Universe came into being.”

The Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols, leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, added: “I would totally endorse what the Chief Rabbi said so eloquently about the relationship between religion and science.”

Ibrahim Mogra, an imam and committee chairman at the Muslim Council of Britain, was also quoted by the Times as saying: “If we look at the Universe and all that has been created, it indicates that somebody has been here to bring it into existence. That somebody is the almighty conqueror.”

And Hawking was accused of “missing the point” by colleagues at Cambridge:

“The ‘god’ that Stephen Hawking is trying to debunk is not the creator God of the Abrahamic faiths who really is the ultimate explanation for why there is something rather than nothing,” said Denis Alexander, director of The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. “Hawking’s god is a god-of-the-gaps used to plug present gaps in our scientific knowledge.

“Science provides us with a wonderful narrative as to how [existence] may happen, but theology addresses the meaning of the narrative,” he added.

And so on, as there’s a lot more at this CNN item. But none of these folks are Glenn Beck.

In the Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog, Jason Boyett adds perspective:

Is this news? Not really. Hawking has made it clear in the past that he’s not religious, and his ex-wife, Jane, outed him as an atheist in her biography about their marriage. But Hawking has always been careful to delineate between religion and science, and his past writings seemed to have left open a window allowing for a God-like creator. In A Brief History of Time, he wrote of man’s steps toward figuring out the universe as attempts to “know the mind of God.”

But the new book appears to have taken that religious neutrality off the table. Due to laws like gravity, noted last week’s excerpt, Hawking writes that it is entirely possible that the universe “can and will create itself from nothing.” That’s why we exist. That’s why there’s something rather than nothing. We don’t need God.

And then Boyett reviews all the pre-Beck Tweets, as you can click on the link and see, and then summarizes them:

There were tweets belittling the physicist’s physical ailments. Tweets chortling about how he’ll be sorry when he dies and meets God. Tweets over-simplifying his ideas and then cheerfully labeling them stupid. Tweets calling Stephen Hawking an idiot.

Like dogs backed into a corner, my religious brethren went on the attack, escalating the culture war between science and faith.

Boyett offers this:

Jesus taught slowness to anger, compassion for the sick, and love for our enemies. But even accounting for the simplicity of Twitter, and the troll-like culture of the Internet in general, we still come across as a bunch of petty, rage-filled monsters eager to discount the life work of one of the world’s greatest scientists.

A genius with a debilitating disease says something we disagree with, so we make fun of his wheelchair and laugh at his impending death. Great.

This is why people have trouble taking us seriously.

And he wraps with this:

I’m not a humor prude. Sarcasm is my currency. And I enjoy a good check-out-the-robot-voice Hawking joke as much as anyone (including Hawking himself, who is also a genius at self-deprecation). But I hate the way some Christians react at times like this. And I hate that I might get lumped in with them.

So I want to apologize to Stephen Hawking on behalf of religious people everywhere. As believers in a God of justice and mercy, we’re not supposed to be heartless, ignorant jerks. But sometimes we are. I hope you’ll forgive us.

But who will forgive Beck?

And you thought just Southern California was strange.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to New Subsets of Strange

  1. Ron Krumpos says:

    In “The Grand Design” Stephen Hawking postulates that the M-theory may be the Holy Grail of physics…the Grand Unified Theory which Einstein had tried to formulate and later abandoned. It expands on quantum mechanics and string theories.

    In my e-book on comparative mysticism is a quote by Albert Einstein: “…most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and most radiant beauty – which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive form – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of all religion.”

    Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity is probably the best known scientific equation. I revised it to help better understand the relationship between divine Essence (Spirit), matter (mass/energy: visible/dark) and consciousness (fx raised to its greatest power). Unlike the speed of light, which is a constant, there are no exact measurements for consciousness. In this hypothetical formula, basic consciousness may be of insects, to the second power of animals and to the third power the rational mind of humans. The fourth power is suprarational consciousness of mystics, when they intuit the divine essence in perceived matter. This was a convenient analogy, but there cannot be a divine formula.

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