Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize
Dylan’s best lyrics cause us to think twice and to sit and wonder why
Fresno Bee, October 22, 2016
Some wonder whether Bob Dylan deserves a Nobel Prize. Folk music and rock ’n’ roll are not literature. But if art is supposed to change the world, Dylan’s songs are worth more than any novel. He is the voice of the 1960s counterculture. His songs inspired the Byrds, the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix.
Dylan’s art is iconoclastic. In “Maggie’s Farm,” Dylan complained, “I try my best to be just like I am; But everybody wants you to be just like them.”
This may explain Dylan’s public silence about the Nobel Prize. As Dylan once sang, “sometimes the silence can be like thunder.” I appreciate Dylan’s reticence. There is something disheartening about imagining Dylan in a tuxedo, schmoozing the Swedish nobility. What does Stockholm have to do with Woodstock?
This is not the only controversial Nobel Prize. When President Barack Obama won the Peace Prize in 2009, critics complained that he didn’t deserve it. Henry Kissinger’s 1973 Peace Prize and Yassar Arafat’s 1994 Peace Prize were lampooned and criticized.
And so it goes in politics, as in art. Genius lies in the eyes of the beholder. One man’s hero is another man’s knave. Judgments about art and politics involve tastes and preferences. One man’s bread and butter is another woman’s basket of deplorables.
Great artists shape our desires. No one is born savoring Dylan’s gravelly whine. Artistic genius gives us a taste for something we didn’t know we loved.
Great art also provides a consolation and escape. Dylan asked Mr. Tambourine Man to take him on a trip upon a magic swirling ship so he could “forget about today until tomorrow.” But while most pop music is merely escapist, Dylan’s lyrics are also deep, dank and dark. They linger on desolation row where the world is often tangled up and blue. Or, as he sings, “people are crazy and times are strange.”
Dylan is a master of partial perspectives and disjointed imagery. He channels chaos and dislocation. “Something is happening but you don’t know what it is, Mr. Jones,” he sings. “How many times must a man look up before he can see the sky?” Dylan asks. But the answer is left blowing in the wind.
In Dylan’s universe, thieves and hobos hold on, while time moves like a jet plane. They knock on heaven’s door as storm clouds gather. For a moment, they see a light come shining and are released, finding temporary shelter from the storm. But as Dylan warns, “whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast.” He intones, “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.”
Dylan’s songs are ironic and often playful. He sang, “There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.” The biggest joke is on the masters of war – and maybe also literary snobs – who criticize what they don’t understand.
Dylan’s enigmatic lyrics have literary merit, even if some of his songs are trite (“Lay, Lady, Lay” comes to mind). In some of his best lyrics, he criticizes formal, stuffy art, singing, “Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial.” He continues, “Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues. You can tell by the way she smiles.” Like Mona Lisa’s smile, Dylan’s best lyrics cause us to think twice and to sit and wonder why.
NOVELISTS USE WRITTEN WORDS. SONGWRITERS ADD MUSIC.
REGARDLESS OF THE GENRE, THE TASK IS TO SHED LIGHT.
Dylan hints that the poet’s task is as a mirror to the world. In “Hard Rain Gonna Fall” he explains, “I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it; And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it.” Artists reflect the wonder and horror of the world.
Novelists use written words. Songwriters add music. Regardless of the genre, the task is to shed light.
But to reflect the world, the artist must stand outside of it. In 1964, as Dylan was starting out, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre refused the Nobel Prize. Sartre explained, “The writer must refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution.”
Dylan’s reticence inspires a comparison with Sartre. The world seduces the artist, luring him back to work on Maggie’s Farm. But artists venture off the farm. They lead us on with enigmatic words and pregnant silences, trying to get to heaven before they close the door.
We all need clean, well-lit place to heed call of nature
Fresno Bee, April 30, 2016
- Transgender toilet issue points toward larger question of bathroom ethics
- Equality, access, justice and basic hygiene are important issues
- Recommendations for restroom reconstruction are considered
Transgender people appeal to a basic principle of excretory equality. We build special stalls for the handicapped. Why not also help transgender people? A bathroom revolution would help trans people and the rest of us as well.
Lavatory access is far from equal. Those long, slow lines for the ladies room at public events are not fair. Women suffer from a toilet deficit. The men who wait for these ladies suffer also.
Unisex bathrooms would solve these problems. This works at outdoor festivals, where the port-a-potty lines are gender neutral. Our home toilets are not segregated by sex. A unisex bathroom revolution seems like a no-brainer.
Critics worry about public safety. The Rev. Franklin Graham opposes transgender bathroom access, warning that we need to “protect young girls, boys, and women from sexual predators and perverts.”
Of course, perverts can haunt mono-sex facilities. One solution is bathroom attendants. Unisex toilets in European cities are staffed by attendants. That might deter the predators. Attendants also keep the place clean. This is as important as equality and safety. After we solve the transgender issue, let’s move on to basic hygiene.
You can judge the quality of a culture by the cleanness of its commodes. I’d love a politician to promise an unsoiled seat for everyone and soap in every dispenser.
While we’re at it, here are some reminders of toilet etiquette. Be discrete, be quick and be clean. Flush when done. Keep the seat dry. If you use the last piece of paper, change the roll. And don’t forget the most important imperative of lavatory virtue: wash your hands.
As we reconstruct our toilet culture, I suggest eliminating urinals. They are messy and, frankly, a bit weird – especially the open-trough variety. In the meantime, some men need lessons in urinal decorum. Leave a space, where possible, between yourself and the next guy. Stand as close to the device as you can. Don’t look at what the other guy is doing. Please don’t start up a conversation. And stop pretending that using a urinal absolves you from the need to wash your hands.
The challenges of excretory ethics could be solved with proper education. Universities are leading the way. Unisex bathrooms already exist on some campuses. In dorms on some campuses, there are co-ed bathrooms where men and women attend to their needs side by side – yes, even showering in closed stalls.
I’ve heard that this helps keep things clean. Men do a better job of cleaning up after themselves when they share the facilities with women. After all, that’s how it works at home. A gentleman always puts the seat back down.
THE GOLDEN RULE APPLIES IN THE BATHROOM. LEAVE THE TOILET AS YOU WOULD HAVE OTHERS LEAVE IT FOR YOU. WHEN YOU MAKE A MESS, CLEAN IT UP. WASH YOUR HANDS. AND HAVE COMPASSION FOR THOSE WHO DON’T HAVE ANYWHERE TO GO.
Basic bathroom justice should also be considered. The transgender issue is an important reminder of the need for access. But there are fewer transgender people than there are poor, toilet-less people. About 700,000 people in the U.S. are transgendered. Nearly three times that many Americans do not have a working bathroom. 1.6 million Americans live in homes that lack indoor plumbing. Another half a million are homeless. That means that about 2.1 million people lack a private, indoor toilet.
Meanwhile, the affluent enjoy luxurious facilities. The number of toilets per house is growing. It used to be standard to have one bathroom for an entire family. Newer homes now have three and even four bathrooms. The average person goes to the bathroom once every four hours. In some houses you could use a different toilet each time the need arises, while just down the street homeless people can’t find anywhere to go.
It must be tough to be transgendered, homeless or toilet-less. Imagine the indignity of finding yourself locked out when nature calls. We all need a clean, well-lighted place to heed the call of nature.
Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article74494232.html#storylink=cpy
Interfaith Understanding, Peace, and Justice
Fear and prejudice breed ignorance about religion
- Ignorance about religion is a problem
- Fresno’s 19th annual Interfaith Scholar Weekend attempts to bridge gaps
- Peace and justice result from education, dialogue and interreligious education
Education about religion leads to peace and justice. But religion education is not easy. Fear and prejudice get in the way. We are afraid to examine our own assumptions. And we are often ignorant about religion.
Stephen Prothero spoke about religious ignorance last month at Fresno’s Town Hall Lecture Series. Prothero is a religion scholar from Boston University who is the author of a widely used “religious literacy” test and a book explaining the need for education about religion.
We know very little about religion, including our own religions. Prothero explains, “Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that the Bible holds the answers to all or most of life’s basic questions, yet only half of American adults can name even one of the four gospels, and most Americans cannot name the first book of the Bible.”
Prothero inspires us to learn more about religion. This weekend, there is an opportunity to do so. Fresno’s annual Interfaith Scholar Weekend features a famous religion scholar speaking at a Sikh gurdwara in Selma on Friday night, a Jewish synagogue in Fresno on Saturday and the Unitarian Universalist Church in Clovis on Sunday.
Jim Grant, chair of the Interfaith Scholar Weekend committee, described the event as a chance to explore religious meaning by “joining with diverse others in diverse settings.” Grant said that there is something amazing about “being exposed to experiences that are foreign but which resonate with our spiritual yearnings.”
Grant suggested that we all have a common spiritual yearning. Human beings look for meaning and purpose. We value community, love, peace and justice. And we benefit from education.
Grant also is director of the Social Justice Ministry for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno. He pointed out that interreligious dialogue and education about religion are dear to the heart of the Catholic tradition. He explained that Pope Francis began 2016 with a prayer that “sincere dialogue among men and women of different faiths may produce the fruits of peace and justice.”
The Interfaith Scholar Weekend has existed since 1998. The weekend typically involves Jewish, Muslim or Christian scholarship and communities. This year is the first time Sikhism has been featured. Grant noted the growing importance of the Sikh religion in the Central Valley. He expressed thanks for the enthusiastic support of the local Sikh community.
This year’s invited scholar is Professor Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh from Colby College. Singh is the author of an important and accessible introduction to Sikhism. She explains that Sikh monotheism focuses on the oneness of God, which encompasses everything, including diverse religious traditions. She writes: “Everybody is welcome to perceive that One in their own way.” She explains that this has the potential to end conflicts over our interpretations of God.
This vision of oneness is inspiring, as is the pope’s idea that interreligious dialogue may produce peace and justice. When we listen to one another, we avoid violence and condemnation. When we open our minds to inquiry, we realize how little we know and how much there is to learn. Through listening and learning, we forge friendships that transcend our differences and discover all that we share in common.
PEOPLE UNDERSTAND VERY LITTLE ABOUT THEIR OWN RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS. WE KNOW EVEN LESS ABOUT OTHER PEOPLE’S BELIEFS.
But we often fail to engage in sincere dialogue. Perhaps we are afraid. Perhaps we are too busy. Perhaps we just don’t care. Or perhaps we have grown accustomed to a culture in which insults pass for arguments and ignorance is viewed as a virtue.
Whatever the reason, the result is disheartening. People understand very little about their own religious traditions. We know even less about other people’s beliefs. We are also often ignorant about the First Amendment and the importance of religious liberty in a pluralistic democracy.
The Sikh scriptures begin with the assertion of one God and one truth, which is beyond fear and hatred. The Catholic pope urges us to talk to one another about our religious differences in order to produce peace and justice. And here in Fresno, a growing interfaith community is actively engaging in the kind of inquiry that is needed to cure hate, prevent prejudice, overcome ignorance and build a better world.
Today, It’s Impossible to Ignore Religious Diversity
Shreveport Times, Sunday Feb. 21, 2016
It may have once been possible to ignore religious diversity. But globalization, immigration, and the Internet have ended the illusion of homogeneity. We disagree about religion. In fact, people have always disagreed about religion. The best solution for living well in the midst of radical religious disagreement is an open-mind, a compassionate heart, and a political system that provides for extensive religious liberty.
While the candidates slug it out on campaign trail, President Obama has been actively reaching out to diverse religious communities. He has offered insight into the problem of religious diversity—and created an opportunity for philosophical reflection on this crucial topic.
Obama spoke as the Israeli embassy in January. He visited a mosque in early February. Two days later, he spoke to a multi-faith assembly at the National Prayer Breakfast. Obama is spreading a message of inclusion, tolerance, and hospitality.
At the Prayer Breakfast, Obama said we should pray, “that our differences ultimately are bridged; that the God that is in each of us comes together, and we don’t divide.” That’s an important idea at a time when religious violence is on the rise and mainstream parties are flirting with intolerance.
We certainly need more tolerance and hospitality. But we also need to understand that behind these important values there are deep and substantial disagreements. And we need to see the value of secular systems of government, which protect religious liberty, while permitting substantial disagreement about fundamental things.
Some people affirm a light and breezy kind of pluralism, which holds that all religions point in the same direction. That’s a nice idea. But it is not true. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and atheists disagree about fundamental truths.
We should admit these disagreements. Indeed, the fun of studying religion lies in discovering new and interesting ideas about fundamental reality. Our differences are important. But we can agree to disagree and thereby avoid violence, hatred, and bigotry.
Tolerance is a value for mature people, who are brave enough to acknowledge that disagreement is not a threat. Hospitality is a value for people who are curious about the wild and wonderful ideas that strangers have. Inclusion is a value for those who feel compassion for the excluded and abused.
The way forward is to cultivate courage, curiosity, and compassion. We need to understand the depth of religious diversity, while affirming the importance of toleration, inclusion, and hospitality.
At the Israeli embassy Obama stated, “An attack on any faith is an attack on all of our faiths. It is an attack on that Golden Rule at the heart of so many faiths…” He is right. We need to imagine ourselves as “the other”—as a stranger in a strange land, where people believe strange things—and imagine how we would like to be treated.
This is a deceptively simple solution to intolerance. The Golden Rule is part of a common ethical core found in the world’s religious traditions. That ethical core is shared despite radical disagreement about other things.
The Golden Rule provides a basis for hospitality and inclusion. But political toleration rests on slightly different grounds. The First Amendment to the Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Behind this idea is an entire philosophy of politics and religion. The political philosophy of secular states holds that government should stay out of the religion business and that each person should be free to find their own answers to questions of ultimate concern. Related to this is a conception of religion, which holds that religion is something private and internal to persons.
External conformity has little to do with sincerity of belief. And religious faith cannot be subject to coercive force. I could torture you and force you to make a confession of faith. But a coerced confession does not indicate what you truly believe.
If the state uses its power to enforce religious conformity, all we end up with is violence and misery—but no increase in faith. Indeed, coercion often backfires in the realm of ideas, since it discredits the ideas of those who resort to force.
At the National Prayer Breakfast Obama pointed out that “fear does funny things.” Fear, he said, can lead us to lash out against people who are different. And it can erode the bonds of community. When we are fearful we resort to coercion. We want to destroy the thing we fear and we learn to hate.
The solution is an education that creates curiosity and compassion. Martin Luther King, Jr. once explained that “Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they can not communicate; they can not communicate because they are separated.”
King is right. The more you know, the less you hate. The foundation for a better world rests upon toleration, hospitality, and inclusion. Our ongoing task is to strengthen that foundation and build upon it—in our schools and institutions, and in our hearts and minds.