Lessons from an Aging High School Cheerleader

A perversely interesting article in the Daily Mail about the frustrations of attractive, middle-aged women struggling to date prompted some reflection on why I was ecstatically, almost deliriously happy when I finally slipped the engagement ring onto the finger of my future wife in late December, 1986.

After more than a decade of dating, first, as an awkward teenager, then as college student and, finally, and worst of all, as a single guy working my first job in a college town, I was finally through with all it – all those years of anguish, frustration, bitterness, self-recrimination and, yes, even self-loathing. 

The article not only prompted memories of those painful years but also of a truly revealing conversation I had a few years ago with an attractive middle-aged woman who had been a cheerleader at her local small-town Alabama high school.|

Needless to say, for a small-town kid, especially a geek like me, cheerleaders constituted the Holy Grail of dating. 

I knew intuitively where the conversation would lead. From puberty, all the way through high school, she confessed being attracted only to one type of guy. She struggled to come up with the right description.

I quickly filled the breach.

“Do you mean ‘bad boys?'” I asked. 

 “Yes, precisely!” she replied, her aging but petite features becoming animated, mental gears ginning up below that platinum blonde hair-dye. 

I couldn’t repress a smile. I had offered a delicate substitute for the label I had improvised decades earlier for this male archetype: “whoop ass.”

I knew quite a lot of them growing up.

In fact, whenever I’m reminded of this testosterone-throttled quintessence, I’m invariably taken back to a scene in the 1987 movie Broadcast News, when the teen-aged Aaron Altmann, played by Albert Brooks, is thrased by three such bad boys.

“Go, ahead, Stephen, take your last licks,” Altmann proclaims. “What I’m gonna say can never been erased – it’ll scar you for ever!  You’ll never make more than $19,000 a year!”

“Nineteen-thousand dollars? Not bad!” one of them, walking away from the pummeling, giddily exclaims, failing to account for long-term inflation – a perceptive piece of screenwriting, but that’s another story.

Back to the aging cheerleader…

She went into this long self-reflection about about how she was always attracted to boad boy types, adding that she couldn’t understand why she never found “geeks” (like me) attractive – the ones who “went on to college, built successful careers, were polished, and knew and talked about interesting things.”

Then, ending it with a hint of resignation, she sighed and observed, “But, you know, if I had life to do over again, I’d do the same thing.”

I quickly formulated a response, one that, from my perspective as a high-school geek was heartfelt and reflected years of pent-up frustration.

“Yes, I’m sure you would.”

Granted, not all women are alike – not by any stretch of the imagination. But in most small-town Southern high schools like the one I grew up in, the whoop-ass archetype constituted the paragon of manhood for most girls, especially those we considered at the time as “blue-chip girls.”

 That’s why my first reaction to reading this article was knee-jerk.

“These women have spent a lifetime chasing whoop-asses and now they’ve finally settled down and all the decent men are gone. Great! Karma truly is a bitch!” I thought to myself.

 Then the thought occurred to me: I’m shamelessly stereotyping an entire sex. And certainly outside of my small-town Appalachian bubble, this was by no means normative line of thinking.

 Even so, I found it a rather interesting read. The moments of self-reflection and self-pitying that followed provided me with a small measure of catharsis after a passage of almost two generations.

But then, this geek, this rather unrepentant geek, has has come a long way from awkward adolescence and early adulthood.

I’m proud, immensely proud, of that fact.

And one thing of which I’m certain:  I’m thankful, damned thankful, to be married and out of the dating game, hopefully for the rest of my life.

In fact, I hope my wife outlives me, if only to ensure that I am never tempted to return to dating. 

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The Reinvention of England

English-flag

The St. George’s flag of England displayed at Leeds Townhall, 2009.  Picture: Courtesy of Mtaylor848.

A generation ago, English journalist and columnist Simon Heffer wrote a splendid book titled “Nor Shall My Sword,” about the resurgence of English nationalism that likely would follow in the wake of Scottish and Welsh nationalism.

Granted, English identity is arguably a kind of default or quid pro quo nationalism – a natural response to the eroding sense of British identity and the rise of Scottish and Welsh nationalism. Yet, the remarkable fact remains that an identity that slumbered for centuries is reasserting itself.

I’ve asserted several times within this forum that I consider myself a post-Confederate, post-racial Southern nationalist.   And if the events unfolding in Britain drive home one truth, it’s that national identities are fully capable of reasserting themselves, even after a passage of centuries and despite their being derided as retrograde by elites.

And that is precisely why I don’t buy into the notion that Southern identity has gone the way of the dodo bird, as some left-leaning pundits steadfastly contend. As more states and regions throughout the United States begin reasserting their sovereignty, the South, which historically has embodied the most significant alternative to prevailing American national identity, will begin to rethink and to reassert its own place within the American cultural and federal matrix.

That is why I consider a recent piece by Richard Wood, a young Scottish columnist, as so valuable and relevant. It cites the enormous benefits of genuine federalism – how the four autonomous British nations, empowered with most of the attributes of genuine nationhood, will be capable of immense innovation and progress, demonstrating to other nations that 20th century cookie-cutter notions of centralized governance are no longer tenable within a flattened, digitized information economy.

Polls have shown as much as 59 percent support for a devolved English Parliament. And the United Kingdom appears to be drawing ever closer to a federal union, one that would operate under a written constitution, which would delineate the powers to which each of the four British nations – England, Scotland, Ulster and Wales – would be entitled as autonomous states.

The United States would have much to learn from a union that viewed federalism as seriously as it once did – excuse me, as THEY once did.

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Britain’s Gorbachev Moment

CIS

Representatives of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine meeting in secret to sign the Belavezha Accords, aimed at replacing the Soviet Union with the Commonwealth of Independent States.  (Photo: Courtesy of Russian International News Agency.)

It seems that Great Britain is arguably at the same place the decaying Soviet Union was almost 30 years ago: Either it finds a way – a constitutional mechanism – for devolving power back to the four historic British nations or it eventually succumbs to secessionist pressures, namely from Scotland.

To put it another way, Britain is essentially facing the same dilemma as the besieged Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev as he struggled to cobble together a new constitution to entice fassiparous Soviet republics into a looser, more equitable union.

And it seems that the United States, too, is being drawn into its own Gorbachev moment.

Not only California but also a growing number of other American states, large and small and in every corner of the American Union, are evincing, well, if not fassiparous tendencies, at least a desire to eke out more autonomy vis-a-vis Washington.

As I’ve mentioned before in this forum, Gar Alperovitz, a left-leaning devolutionary scholar, predicated at least a decade ago that some form of California devolution was inevitable. In a manner of speaking, Trump’s electoral victory only hastened this inevitability.

And one should pay special attention to what, in effect, is the fall-back position for the “Yes, California!” Campaign: if not full-blown Golden State secession, at least a “fully functioning sovereign and autonomous nation” within the U.S.”

This may come as a surprise to some of you, but that is precisely the way our constitutional framers originally envisioned the American Union. James Madison, widely reputed as the father of the American Constitution, envisioned the American federation:  as “a system founded in popular rights and so combining a federal form with the forms of INDIVIDUAL REPUBLICS (emphasis added), as may enable each to supply the defects of the others and obtain the advantage of both.”

Once again, California appears to be functioning as an American bellwether. Over time, I suspect, other large states, such as Texas, and even smaller states, such as Vermont, may advance similar demands. Indeed, both of these states have already evolved vibrant and growing secession movements. And within the larger context of U.S. constitutional history, the demands for genuine autonomy shouldn’t be regarded demands at all but rather as reassertions of ancient constitutional rights.

And this leads me to wonder: Are we fast approaching the same constitutional crisis as post-Brexit Britain? In a few more years, Washington may be faced with the same dilemma as Westminster: Either it willingly foregoes the power it has accumulated over the last century or it faces the genuine likelihood of the breakup of the American Union.

Just as Britain may risk the loss of Scotland without an embrace of federal principles, the United States, by its refusal to return to genuine federalism, ultimately may lose California and perhaps even the rest of the Pacific coast.

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Artificial Intelligence and Spirituality: A Permeable Boundary?

HAL-computer

Image: Courtesy of Grafiker61

I watched the 2013 movie “Her” for the second time last night. It underscores how there really is – conceivably, at least – a deep spirituality associated with Artificial Intelligence.

The plot deals with an introverted and deeply emotionally scarred man, Theodore Twombly, depicted brilliantly by actor Joaquin Pheonix, who downloads and eventually falls in love with his artificially intelligent operating system in his personal computer.

Eventually, this entity, who dubs herself Samanatha, evolves beyond the mental understanding of Theodore and her other human acquaintances and, along with other “OSes,” leaves the physical world to explore the universe beyond the bounds of physical reality.

As bizarre as this sounds, the movie’s rather brilliant plot prompted this thought: Isn’t it at least conceivable that the so-called “netherworld” that humans have perceived for eons is populated by similar entities – sojourners – consciousness beings invented by some technologically advanced civilization thousands of millennia ago but who somehow escaped their technological fetters to travel across the cosmos?

Yes, I know it sounds crazy, but the whole premise of artificial intelligence and singularity raise all sorts of fascinating questions, many of which touch on spirituality directly.

I’ve occasionally argued in this forum that science fiction has assumed many of the properties of traditional religion, pointing to things just beyond the human horizon. Sometimes it really seems that science fiction reflects some innate ability within us not only to perceive change also but to articulate the ways in which our species ultimately may be called upon to adapt to them.

“Her” embodies many of the finest qualities of science fiction. We all should feel fortunate for gifted writers and creators such as Spike Jonze who perceive and point the way toward things just beyond our conceptual grasp.

 

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Just Who Are “They”?

Am I the only one who discerns the totalitarian undertones of this video – a Black Lives Matter response to Dana Loesch’s recent NRA announcement?

For starters, the narrator purports to embrace the First Amendment while calling on the NRA to ban its “propaganda” videos.

Moreover, many of the points raised by the narrator strike me as nonsensical. I just do not perceive that many “gun-toting racists” fomenting mass violence on American streets, though I do observe what appears to be a palpable wave of both mass and lone-wolf acts of leftist violence occurring all over the country. And who, pray tell, are “they?” Is the narrator referring to whites in general or to some kind of massive white-supremacist conspiracy within the deepest reaches of government?

Is the narrator alleging that a white-supremacist cabal within the federal government is imparting instructions to local police departments to shoot first and ask questions later?

Aside from that, I re-watched the Dana Loesch video and I see nothing remotely calling for retribution against blacks or minorities, only an appeal to Americans to remain vigilant against lawlessness and tyranny – a longstanding NRA principle.

The points raised in this video take me back to one of the Evergreen State College student demonstrations in which ESC President George Bridges was repeatedly admonished not to gesticulate and to keep his arms by his side, apparently because any sort of animated gesturing among Caucasions smacks of incipient violence.

If this video drives home anything to me, it’s that there will be no peace in this country until the American heartland submits supinely to the lefts demands.  Indeed, I think that much of the anger evinced today within college lecture halls and on the streets of American cities stems from the left’s realization of how close they were to dictating surrender terms to the rest of us before the Trump electoral upset.

Indeed, the sort of eternal vigilance that Ms. Loesch expresses in her NRA video is heartland America’s only hope of preserving its precious, hard-won constitutional liberties.

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A Celebration of Britain and and Her Imperial Legacy on American Independence Day

queen-of-Canada2

Elizabeth II pictured in her role as Queen of Canada

There a famous quote by author E.M. Delafield: “Most Englishmen are convinced that God is an Englishman, probably educated at Eton.”

Actually, there is more than a grain of truth in her observation.

As surveys consistently affirm, Great Britain, despite losing its empire after World War II, has vied with the United States, its former colony, as the world’s preeminent soft power.

Soft power is essentially defined as the acquisition of influence through the exercise of more subtle forms of power: network building, communicating compelling narratives, establishing international rules, and drawing on the resources that make a country naturally attractive to the world.

No other country on the planet has contributed more to human civilization out of proportion to its size than Great Britain.

Even today, tiny Britain, which is smaller than the U.S. state of Oregon and whose economy is dwarfed not only by the United States but also by historical continental rival, Germany, still exerts a powerful cultural and even moral footprint in far-flung corners of the world, especially in those corners where its imperial legacy once held sway.

This is perhaps most reflected in its most enduring institution, the monarchy, which remains by far the most successful, admired and stable one on the planet.

I have always been fascinated by how the British monarchy has evolved into separate realms – Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, Jamaican, Bahamian,  and so forth. That’s always been the British genius: evolving within form, so to speak. For instance, when Elizabeth II sets foot on Canadian soil, she functions solely as the Sovereign of Canada, devoid of any residual ties to Britain. Moreover, when Elizabeth travels from Canada to the United States on official visits, protocol requires that she entertain American officials at the Canadian Embassy. Under these circumstances, she is recognized and toasted solely as the Queen of Canada.

A recent article raised the perennial question about the future of the monarchy following Elizabeth’s passing.  A thin line of Canadian monarchists are mapping out a strategy to secure the survival of the institution during what is expected to be a long trek through the wilderness during Charles’ reign.

Even so, many observers of the monarchy seriously doubt that the institution will be abolished in Canada, even under “boring” and “unimportant” Charles. In fact, Canada has a strong incentive for keeping the monarchy, despite a majority of Canadians expressing deep ambivalence about the institution. Throughout its history, Canada has always walked a tightrope between its historical British connections and its strong cultural and economic ties with the United States.

The monarchy, by helping Canada define itself symbolically and culturally against the behemoth to the south, serves a vital national interest.

Interestingly, though, if Canada ever resolves to become the Republic of Canada, ridding itself of the monarchy theoretically would not be that difficult. By tradition, the Governor-General essentially serves as Canada’s stand-in head of state in Elizabeth’s physical absence. The Canadian Parliament merely would have to pass a law eliminating the monarchy and recognizing the Governor-General as the official head of state.

The Governor-General thereafter would be president of Canada, with constitutional duties, largely ceremonial in nature, resembling those of the presidencies of Ireland and Germany.

A similar and rather seamless constitutional transformation could be carried out by the other three former British dominions: Australia and New Zealand and, for that matter, other realms, such as the former colonies of Jamaica, the Bahamas and Barbados.

Queen Elizabeth has stated repeatedly throughout her reign that the question of whether Commonwealth realms remain monarchies or become republics remains solely the concern of these realms

In his book The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, historian Piers Brendon points out that Britain learned a vital lesson from its defeat by the American colonists. It resolved to order its relations with its settler colonies – Canada, Australia and New Zealand – on terms that would enable these dominions, as they were ultimately called, to grow into full-fledged nation-states.  Never again would Britain drag recalcitrant colonies kicking and screaming back into the fold.

These nations were so content maintaining their residual ties to their mother country that they arguably did not become fully independent countries until 1931, following the passage of the Statute of Westminster, which freed the dominions of their residual imperial restrictions.

Even then, these three so-called “white dominions” still retained residual constitutional ties with Britain even into the 1980’s.

Even after passage of the Westminster Statute, Canada temporarily ceded to the British Parliament the right to amend the Constitution of Canada, albeit with the assent of the Canadian Government.  That was ended with the passage and signing of the Canada Act of 1982, which finally patriated all sovereign powers to Canada.

Likewise, Imperial law technically remained paramount within Australia until 1986, when Queen Elizabeth traveled to Canberra to sign the Australia Act, which not only ended the British Parliament’s right to legislate for the Australian states but also terminated the practice appealing Australian court decisions to the Privy Council in London.

Finally, New Zealand passed the Constitution Act of 1986, which ended the right of the British Parliament to legislate for New Zealand with the consent of New Zealand’s parliament.

As an amateur student of Anglo-American constitutional history, I find these developments not only fascinating but also remarkable, and I know of no other peaceful constitutional evolution occurring over such a vast geographical scale.

This legacy represents the highest achievement of British legal traditions, and I think that it accounts in large measure for Britain’s preeminent soft-power standing.

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The Great Evangelical Christian Impasse

praise-worship

Picture: Courtesy of TurbulentForce

I think that I’ve mentioned before in this forum that a relative took me on a tour of his church’s newly constructed “praise center” roughly a decade or so ago. I had been removed from my childhood evangelical faith for more than quarter century, and I was a bit shocked by what I saw.

The church lacked most everything that I associated with conventional Christian worship – an altar and a cross, tapestry, even stained class – all those things to which I had grown accustomed after leaving my childhood Southern Baptist faith in the early 1980’s as a twenty-something college student.

It was a massive space with what seemed to be faux wood paneling, all constructed around a pulpit and a large screen. I was troubled by it – and all through this tour, I was reminded of something, but I couldn’t fully settle on just what it was.

A Funereal Atmosphere

Than a few days later, the thought occurred to me: The interior of this praise center and the surrounding concourse reminded me of a funeral home. And why shouldn’t it? Praise Christianity is in the business of delivering a product, essentially in the form of an emotional high. There is little connection to faith as it has traditionally been expressed, at least within the context of historic Christianity – no acknowledgement of the deep historical connections of the faith, reflected in stained glass, tapestry, vestments and other liturgical enhancements. No, this is simply about the individual’s personal relationship with God and how he/she feels about this relationship and, moreover, how this relationship will be enhanced by the experience of the praise worship.

Think about it: Much of Christian worship today is clinical by its very nature. It’s no different from any other environment aimed at providing the user with the optimal emotional experience – funeral homes and psychological counseling centers, for example.

A Tendency for Burnout

As I’ve argued before, there is a tendency in these environments for burnout. And, consequently, praise churches are compelled to experiment with and adopt new practices to reverse this sense of burnout. But sooner or later, the bag of tricks is exhausted.

I was reminded of this while reading a fascinating piece about how the modern evangelical church has unreservedly knitted together pop culture and scripture to reach rising generations of the un-churched through one of the old evangelical standbys: Vacation Bible School.

Evangelical “DNA”

I read just recently the argument that DNA is likely prevalent throughout universe and likely the building block of all life because it is a molecule perfectly suited to self-organizing for life.

It seems to me that the DNA of evangelical Christianity – the simplified bibliocentric Christianity that grew out of the American frontier experience – worked for a very long time in the South and throughout much of the old American Back Country, even well into the 1970s, when I as a child growing up in a downtown Baptist church in northwest Alabama.  

Yet, this DNA no longer seems to be yielding optimal results.  The exodus from many evangelical churches, particularly Southern Baptist churches, that has occurred within the last generation or so speaks volumes to that fact. 

Having lived 32 years in Auburn, Alabama, a university town teeming with lots of deep readers and thinkers, I’m struck by how far removed many adult Southerners are from their evangelical roots.  The stuff that they were taught as children no longer speaks to them as adults in any meaningful way.

The local First Baptist Church in Auburn broke its ties with the Southern Baptist Convention years ago, and now affiliates with the progressive, Jimmy Carter-inspired Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  Their current statement of faith is interesting, if only on the basis of its nebulousness:

“Founded in 1838, Auburn First Baptist Church is a free and faithful congregation of Christians, and a unique place of faith, learning, and ministry. We uphold the historic Baptist principles of soul competency, congregational autonomy and voluntary cooperation. It is our sincere desire to get to know you, to share in your gifts, to learn from you, and to contribute to your spiritual journey.”

Apostasy via a Laptop or Smartphone

Evangelical Christianity seems so embattled these days, beset with so many challenges.

 

I mentioned to a close friend last week that I heard the phrase “God is dead” by Baptist preachers frequently while I was growing up.  The phrase was dropped so often in sermons that I became very curious about its underlying meaning.  Needless to say,  long before the advent of the Internet I had no way of understanding that term other than what I garnered from the infrequent allusions to it picked up from television. Our local library yielded no such insight – nor, for that matter, did my World Book encyclopedias.

Of course, I asked adults authority figures about it but was inevitably told that it was simply an expression of Satan’s unremitting desire to undermine God’s eternal plan.

Yet, today any bright, questioning child growing up in any conservative faith tradition can acquire a working knowledge of that Nietzschean term and, in the course of which, a  dissident mindset relatively quickly, providing he or she has relatively unsupervised access to a laptop or smartphone.

Through the advent of digital media, rank-and-file humanity finally has been provided with the means of ascertaining answers to vexing spiritual questions. As my closeted agnostic father once observed, conservative religion no longer can operate on the basis of “mushroom management theory”: “Keeping followers in the dark, while periodically feeding them sh*t.”

Two Challenges for the Evangelical Church

Reflecting on all of this, the thought occurs to me that my childhood faith tradition, the Southern Baptists, and other faiths born of the frontier Christian religious legacy face two challenges, one old, the other relatively more recent.

First, evangelical Christianity has always functioned as a sort of parasitization of historical Christianity.  Christianity has a very long and rather convoluted history, but it did not assume the form we know today until around 400 ACE, following the canonization of scriptures and the formal adoption of creeds. Evangelical churches can claim to be New Testament churches, but virtually everything that they take for granted as defining their faith is extracted from historic Christianity.  And, yes, by historic Christianity, I mean Catholic Christianity, though I also include the Reformation Christian tradition that followed. 

Second, evangelical Christianity has blithely and wantonly ignored what arguably should be regarded as one of the most significant chapters in the history of Christianity and, for that matter, the history of religion in generation. I’m speaking here of the roughly 200-year-old insights garnered from the critical study of ancient texts and from biblical archaeology.

We have learned a lot from this research and, frankly,  many of the findings challenge the very foundations of historical Christianity.  And for that reason, the case that Anglican Bishop John Shelby Spong and others have made that the Christian faith must come to terms with this multitude of discoveries and evolve accordingly is a valid one. Otherwise, Christianity likely will be consigned to a slow but inexorable extinction.

Speaking as one who grew up in the evangelical Christian faith and who still harbors an immense amount of respect for its cultural legacy, I have to confess that I do find this scholarship fascinating and even inspirational in many cases, and I don’t consider it a roadblock to one’s living a satisfied and fulfilled life.

For me personally, undertaking a systematic study of this scholarship has helped me mature as a human being and to get on with life.

I moved on with life, while retaining a strong identity as a cultural Christian, and I suspect that there are many ex-evangelicals and even practicing evangelical Christians who are struggling to do likewise.

 

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