What the hell happened in the USA in 2016? I gaped at the anger that kicked liberals in the teeth on election night. Take that f’ers. Confused, I made an effort to better understand the right. I asked questions with an open mind. What I got was disturbing: “the Koran orders Muslims to kill us”, “climate change is just weather.” What bothered me most was the cold anger, now thawing under a Trump star. Just as I was about to slink back into my echo chamber I came across an important book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild. A Berkeley liberal, Hochschild spent five years in arch-conservative Louisiana, bayou country, listening to what the other side had to say.
“An empathy wall is an obstacle to deep understanding of another person, one that can be make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances.” My background has some similarities with the Louisianans, coming from a large, low-income, Christian family. It is my memory, and Hochschild observes, that the people are kinder and more generous than their politics and theology. That said, I share little with the Louisianans today, having raised a small family on a dual income, being an atheist. The differences explain things. For example, I consider it my job as a citizen to pay taxes and help others. Louisianans hate taxes, but not for lack of caring of course. They tithe through the church so taxes seems redundant. Unfortunately the church does not scale to solving a global problem like the environment.
The environment is the key paradox of the book. Hochschild returns to it in every chapter. Louisiana is the most polluted state and yet it is also the strongest against environmental regulation of corporations. Across the states, those with higher exposure to pollution are more likely to be strong Republicans. How can this be? Certainly, less regulation leads to more jobs but toxic exposure is destroying their land and families. Short term risk can be rational but it seems to me that Louisianans are getting numb to the damage. They are not alone. Many people need a hard shake to see that green jobs also put food on the table.
Education is part of the difference. Education qualifies people for jobs, yes, but it is not just about university degrees. It is also about knowing how to find and analyze information. Fox News can be a source of information but it should not be the only one. The collapse of traditional journalism has left a vacuum of authority. People fail to check the source of their news. It is a festering pot for ignorance. Hochschild calls it a deep story, a psychology of resentment about being left behind. Liberal insults about rednecks and white trash cut deeply. Self-sufficient and gritty to the core, they do not whine like liberals. Still they do not recognize themselves. They are strangers in their own land, a Biblical reference to alienation. This is what happened in the USA in 2016.
It is important to figure this all out, to prevent spillover into Canada and beyond, to disarm the anger before it escalates into hate and violence and war. We must meet anger with open-mindedness, good information, and loving-kindness. Strangers in Their Own Land is a worthy book in this campaign.
I still love to sing the old hymns I grew up with, the ones in our church song book, the Psalter Hymnal. Hymns like Abide with Me and How Great Thou Art. I have yet to find a satisfactory playlist of these hymns so I started a Psalter Hymnal playlist on Spotify. It’s just a start and my target list is included at the bottom of this post. The Spotify playlist is configured as collaborative, so please add songs.
I am a happy atheist. I also like to sing songs that celebrate our short life on this planet, Dust in the Wind by Kansas or Scare Away the Dark by Passenger. They are also hymns or anthems. They fit in another playlist I call my Alter Hymnal, and I have created a second collaborative playlist for these.
Target list for Psalter Hymnal playlist.
Living for Jesus
It is the Family Day long weekend in Ontario, a ﬁtting time to chat about Catch Me When I Fall by Patricia Westerhof. Westerhof, now there’s a Dutch name, like all the others in this book. There’s the “Van” crew of course, like Van Dyk. There’s an abundance of Frisians, the Northerners, all ending with the letter “a”: Boersma, Dykstra, Veenstra, Zylstra. I am a Miedema and grew up with people just like them. There are many immigrant stories in Canadian literature, but few Dutch ones. Dutch immigrants were a quiet, practical lot, quick to assimilate. Westerhof’s collection of eleven loosely related short stories is a rare treat.
The immigrant story is not a new one but the Dutch perspective is unique. The church was the core of this community. Religion was heavy-handed and the book’s title was well chosen. The fall of man is central to Dutch theology. Of course there was doubt. In Unfailing Mercies, Sarah stands in front of the church for the ritual Profession of Faith. She ponders, “How casually she had drifted into the faith, agreeing to believe.” When Reverend Post asks her to commit her life to Christ, she feels an urge to laugh then panics. Personally, I declined to undertake the ritual. It was my point of departure from the church. Still, in general, the Dutch were better than their theology, good people looking after one another. I still love to sing the old hymns.
The stories touch on all the memorable points, the diﬃcult ones and the beautiful. There was the Dutch school with all those young blond heads and blue eyes. These immigrants were not so much victims as bearers of prejudice – against the Catholics, blacks, gays, you name it. Still, in the war many Dutch people risked their lives to hide Jews from the Nazis who occupied their country. There was the food! Meat and potatoes, soup with maggi, boterkoek with butter, apple pie and ice cream. My diet has changed considerably too since those days, but fond memories.
Westerhof’s stories are often sentimental and this works because the Dutch are sentimental. That, and stubborn. Wooden-shoed and wooden-headed. In another story, Probability, Ellie is never as conﬁdent as her aptly named friend, Will. “Maybe the certain answers of his faith made him feel there should be certain answers for everything.” Westerhof nails it there. Belief in a grand design has a way of programming you to see the world in a structured way. Now Will is dead. What will she write for a eulogy? Well, Westerhof’s book is a eulogy of sorts, a testament to a past time that still echoes with love in me. Thank you Patricia.
(Originally published on this website on 2013-02-15)
This morning I dusted off my OpenBook WordPress plugin. WordPress sensibly suppresses old plugins from its search directory, so I had to manually install it from its website. WordPress warns that the plugin has not been updated in over two years and may have compatibility issues. I was fully expecting it to break, if not during the installation then during the book search or preview function. To my surprise, everything worked fine!
Some of you will remember that during my days in library school I programmed the OpenBook plugin to insert rich book data from Open Library into WordPress posts/pages. The plugin got a bit of attention. I wrote an article in Code4Lib. I was asked to write another for NISO (pdf). I did some presentations at library conferences. I got commissioned to create a similar plugin for BookNet Canada; it is still available. OpenBook even got a favourable mention in the Guardian newspaper during the Google Books controversy.
OpenBook went through a few significant upgrades. Templates allowed users to customize the look. COinS were added for integration with third-party applications like Zotero. OpenURL resolver allowed libraries to point webpages directly to entries in their online catalogues. I’m still proud of it. I had plenty of new ideas. Alas, code projects are never finished, merely abandoned.
Today, I am invested in publishing my After Reading web series. I am not announcing the resurrection of OpenBook. The web series will, however, use technical diagrams and code, to illustrate important bookish concepts. For example, a couple years ago I had an idea for a cloud-based web service that could pull book data from multiple sources. I was excited about this use of distributed data. Today that concept has a name, distributed ledger, that could be applied to book records. I will not be developing that technology in this series, but you can count on at least one major code project. There will be code.
The After Reading series will be posting book reviews, so I figured what the heck, dust off OpenBook. Maybe a small refresh will make it active in the WordPress search directory again.
I once sought truth in text. Reading the Word of God is central to growing up in the Reformed Church. My father read the Bible to the family after each meal. At school children memorized the books of the Bible and many of its passages. Two sermons on Sundays plus weekday youth groups and catechism classes, we became biblical scholars. I can still quote the Bible but it is no longer my source of truth.
The Song of Solomon is the most beautiful book in the Bible. Verse one names it “the song of songs.” It is love poetry, a woman’s expression of physical desire for her lover, and then his for her. The church had a strained relationship with the book. It was rarely read. As children we tittered about the mildly erotic imagery. The woman’s breasts are compared to twin fawns. I think the church struggled with the fact that the book was more song than text, resisting literal interpretation. It never mentions God. We were advised that the book is an allegory for Christ’s relationship with the church. Of course.
The church also celebrated with song, the approved ones in the Psalter Hymnal. The songs remain with me. I still love singing Abide with Me, How Great Thou Art, and O Come all Ye Faithful. Atheist though I am, I imagine Amazing Grace being sung at my funeral. Of course I also have a list of atheist “hymns,” Scare Away the Dark by Passenger, Dust in the Wind by Kansas, and We’re Here for a Good Time Not a Long Time by Trooper. Call this second list my Alter Hymnal.
I once sought truth in text but now I follow a kind of music. The complexity of life cannot be captured in words. The signal of truth seems to me more like music. “Musica universalis” means universal music, an ancient philosophical idea about the movement of celestial bodies, more to do with mathematics than literal music. Today scientists are able to record radio waves leftover from the Big Bang. Artist-technologist Honor Harger tracks them as a sort of music of the cosmos. I think of music as a metaphor for truth, better than text at describing the complex dance of life and love on Earth.
Growing up in the Reform tradition, I turned eighteen and joined my peers in classes at the Minister’s house after church on Sundays. It was a privilege and a pleasant time, with coffee and cake and light discussion of the Nicene Creed. We were being prepared to stand before the church and recite the Profession of Faith, a personal statement of commitment, like a marriage. We would take our place as adult members of the church, submitting to its authority. I became more anxious as the classes neared their end. I asked the Minister for some personal time, but I could not frame my questions and he could not help. I dropped out. I lost my place among the people.
From a distance of decades, it seems no surprise now that I dropped out. Calvinism is rooted in the Reformation, the Protestant break from the Catholic church. Martin Luther taught that salvation is achieved not through the authority of the church but as a free gift through the grace of God. Sounds nice, but Calvinism is a stern theology. Its main five points can be represented by the acronym TULIP, the Dutch flower. “T” stands for “Total depravity,” the idea of original sin. Put simply, man is born in sin and must be saved. “U” is for “Unconditional election”, the God has already picked those who will be saved, while the rest are bound for hell. Need I go on? (Aside, the Reformed tradition is the one in which Donald Trump claims membership. His pastor has declared him inactive.)
On my own, spiritually, I learned different world views and experienced new insights. Today I call myself a happy atheist — happy not to worry about the fate my soul, happy to live by a practical morality of love and service to others, happy to find meaning in the small stories of life.
A few months ago I ran into a boyhood friend, one who always seemed more certain of his theology. Today he makes a living researching religion. I told him I am an atheist. He made a friendly joke about him not having enough faith to be one. I was impressed by the consistency of his religious belief over the years, but curious if anything had changed in his thinking over the years. He said his faith is less fearful, more embodied. I believe him. My atheist worldview disembodies me to some extent. I do not have a soul located in my body. I do not belong to a separate people, a religious tribe. I am estranged from a community of faith. I can live with that.
I am a son of Dutch immigrants, a people whose spiritual and cultural centre was the church. The Christian Reformed Church espoused a stern Calvinist theology, emphasizing frequent and close reading of the Bible. Three meals a day ended with scripture. Two sermons on Sunday plus weekday youth groups and catechism classes forged children into bible scholars. In English class at the public high school, I was the one who caught the Eden symbolism of the two rivers in John Knowles’ A Separate Peace. No one spoke of business on Sundays, but as a boy I was hired part-time by at the garage owned by church friends. Church members sent work to one another. They looked after one another, in business and spirit. You could say we were a “People of the Book.”
The Book imprinted deeply. Movies and dance were forbidden but books were always permitted. I believed myself clever escaping into forbidden reading, The Lord of the Rings or Catcher in the Rye. In university I imagined myself free of the influence of the religion, but I always signed up for long essay courses of a philosophical bent. In graduate school, I published my own book, Slow Reading, about the benefits of reflective reading. Books, always books. I was imprinted with a need for deep reading and metaphysical thinking. I was a person of the Book.
The expression, “People of the Book,” is Islamic in origin, applied variously to Jews, Christians and other religions that emphasize scripture and a monotheistic God. It is a friendly term, encouraging tolerance among people of like beliefs. I wonder, though, who among us is not a person of the Book? Whose beliefs differ so much as to be outside its influence? Most of us grew up in a print culture. Many books are not religious, but most have a single author, an authority to which the reader is expected to submit. The content is organized into a hierarchical table of contents through which truth is linearly revealed. Every book implies a Biblical worldview. To some extent, we are all a people of the Book.
Atheists are a minority but this is changing, especially among millennials. This change coincides with the advent of digital technology. Think about it. Websites are compilations of multimedia content, created by many, dynamically changing, constantly remixed and reinterpreted in in different ways. Digital media lends itself to complex truths and knowledge. Today, I am atheist. I still read books, but they are diminishing in favour of digital reading. I am no longer a person of the Book. I believe that embracing diversity of thought allows for even more peaceful coexistence.
I grew up in a print shop. In the seventies my father acquired a Gestetner 480 to print church bulletins. As other printers modernized my father picked up their old presses for a song. He had to tear open a wall to bring in an elephantine poster press. That one never saw a job and it was carved up and sold for scrap metal.
In exchange for work, my father bought me an old but solid Underwood typewriter with a three-foot carriage, designed for typing sideways on legal and other over-sized paper. I started a neighbourhood newspaper, selling ads for a dime, printing on a ditto machine.
My favourite machine was a tabletop letterpress used for printing wedding invitations. I made words with my hands, assembling lead type into a metal form, packed into place with spacers and wooden blocks and wedged tight. The form was clamped onto the upper jaw of the press. Wedding stock was placed on the lower jaw and secured by guide pins. The press was hand cranked. In one deft motion, rollers would get pulled over the ink plate and type, closing the jaws so the inked type pressed upon the paper. You did not want to pull too hard for fear of smudging the ink or wrecking the type.
The printing industry was challenged by the digital revolution of the eighties. My brother developed the shop into a full-time competitive operation, upgrading to a desk-sized “Comp 1” typesetter and a Multilith 1250 press. Family and friends worked late hours, printing, collating, cutting and binding. For a time we kept up but a complete and expensive digital overhaul was required. The shop closed.
I grew up in the print shop, literally. While it lived, it operated out of our family home, next to my basement bedroom. At night it was my my job to clean the darkroom and presses. I could never wash the ink completely from hands and nails. Lead type and ink caused me no harm, except for imprinting my soul with a love of letters. I delivered newspapers. I became an avid reader. I imagined a career as a journalist or author. Instead I underwent a digital overhaul myself, making a living in the computer industry. Code is made of text; I suppose I am still a maker of words.
My story begins with a book. I recall a few things before I learned to read, but precious few: a favorite red baseball cap, a fun summer barbecue, a nasty rooster named George. There also comes a time much later when I found the end of books. In the end I learned my answers after reading; more on that later. In between these two points my life was a journey through books. Even before I could read, my parents read to me, and when they read, it was the Bible. Today I am a happy atheist but early on I had to sort my way through religion. My story, the story of John, begins with a book, and that book was the Word of God.
My parents immigrated from the Netherlands to Canada after World War II. My father’s family was poor, surviving the war by collecting and selling firewood and duck eggs. My mother’s family had a tobacco farm. Both families emigrated to improve the lives of their children. My father prospered as a mason contractor and my mother worked on her family’s new and bigger farm. They married young and had seven children. I was the second youngest.
The Dutch immigrants were a close knit community. Their religious and cultural centre was the Christian Reformed Church. It was a protestant denomination, evangelical and Calvinist, emphasizing careful reading of the Bible. Three meals a day ended with scripture. At the Christian school — the “Dutch school” with all those blond heads — the curriculum reinforced the readings. My grade eight science text, Look to the Ants, quoted from the Bible. Add to all this two sermons on Sundays plus weekday youth groups and catechism classes, the children of Dutch immigrants became biblical scholars.
I remember my upbringing with fondness. If it was too serious, it was also simple and certain and loving. Visiting a classmate on Saturday the lunchtime routine was the same, a seating at the table for prayers and Bible reading. It cultivated innocence for learning without fear. It developed a literary mind and fashioned a thinker and truth seeker. Of course, one book leads to the next, and I followed that path, ultimately discovering its end, and the enlightenment that follows.