Friday, May 18, 2007

New Humanism Conference III: Me and Salman

The thing-I-will-never-forget about the New Humanism Conference is that I got to ask Salman Rushdie a question.

The first night of the conference (Friday) was devoted to giving Rusdie some kind of lifetime achievement award in "cultural humanism". So there was a long process of introducing introducers who introduce somebody who introduces Rushdie. I'm sure you know how those things go. Steven Pinker was one of the introducers, and Rebecca Goldstein made some interesting points, so it could have been worse.

Then Rushdie did a reading from "Shalimar the Clown". I liked it a lot. At this point I have to make a shameful confession: I've never read a Rushdie novel. I bought "Satanic Verses" back when the Ayatollah was threatening to have Rushdie killed, but I never got around to reading it. Buying it was more of a political statement than a literary ambition. (I know you're wondering: Whatever happened to the fatwa? It was never officially rescinded, but Rushdie wanders around pretty freely these days. I get the impression that certain circles in Teheran will celebrate when Rushdie dies, but bringing that day closer doesn't seem to be high on anybody's to-do list.)

Afterwards there was a question period. I'm always conflicted in situations like this. Part of me wants to interact with the famous person any way I can, and another part of me is ashamed of that juvenile impulse and sits on it. So if I recognized God having the grand slam breakfast in the next booth at Denny's, I'd probably leave him alone. I don't want to waste his time with something stupid like: "The Universe was just such a cool idea. I really, really like it." I'd try to watch him without being obvious, and then later I'd think: "I can't believe it was like, God, right there. And I didn't say anything."

So I'm not saying anything, and all these people are trying to ask refined literary questions, some more successfully than others. Rushdie is answering them very graciously. One woman is an English teacher whose class read "Midnight's Children". They argued over what the ending meant, and she wants to know what Rushdie thinks it means. And he says exactly the right thing: "It's not my job to say what it means. That's your job."

I'm watching the line of questioners dwindle, when I realize that I actually do want to know something that nobody else is asking. So after some internal debate I stop sitting on my juvenile self and get in line. I continue to be the end of the line, and when the MC offers Rushdie the chance to declare victory and go home, Salman notices that there are only four questioners left and decides to let us ask our questions. I'm last.

I ask: "Looking back at 'The Satanic Verses' and the fatwa and the way it dominated your life for so many years, my question is: Would you do it again?"

And Rushdie very wryly says, "Well, I'd rather not." And then he makes a very interesting comment, which I won't put in quotes because I don't remember it word-for-word. He said that it makes him happy now that finally people can read "Satanic Verses" as a novel. For years, he said, no one commented on it as a novel. You could talk about it in a political context or a religious context, but not in a literary context. He said it was very frustrating as a writer to put so much of your time into writing a piece of fiction and have it talked about every way but as a piece of fiction.

Then the evening was over and I went home. For a while I thought that although Rushdie's answer had been interesting, he had sort of dodged the question. I had meant to ask: Knowing what he knows now, knowing what the effect on his life would be, would he have written and published "Satanic Verses" at all? And he didn't answer that.

At least not directly. As I thought about his answer and about the general tone of his other answers, I realized something: This crowd had gathered to honor him as a Humanist hero, and he wasn't going to come out and tell them in so many words "Being a hero wasn't worth it." That wouldn't have been gracious at all. Instead he told me that he was glad that the book had stopped being a symbol and gone back to being a novel. Which, I think, sort of means the same thing. But he made it my job to come to that interpretation, not his job.

And I guess that means that the book on my shelf has stopped being a political statement and started being a novel that I haven't read. Maybe I will.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

New Humanism Conference II: Da Yute

Easily the most fun session at the New Humanism Conference was the "Next Generation of Humanism" panel. Whoever assembled the panel must have had a blast doing it. In addition to leaders of more-or-less traditional student organizations -- Amanda Shapiro of the Harvard Secular Society, Peter Blake representing Harvard Graduate Humanist Community, August Brunsman of the Secular Student Alliance -- the panel included three new-media types: Rebecca Watson, editor of the online magazine and blog Skepchick and regular contributor to the podcast The Skeptics Guide to the Universe; Bryan Pesta, who hosts the atheist and agnostics page on MySpace; and Hermant Mehta, author of the book I Sold My Soul on eBay.

Mehta's backstory is the most entertaining: He grew up Jain but has been an atheist since he was a teen-ager. The stunt that eventually became his book was that he offered the following auction on eBay: the winner could send this lost young atheist to the church of his or her choice. He expected to get about $10, but the bidding ended with a $504 bid by evangelist Jim Henderson. Mehta proceeded to visit a number of churches chosen by Henderson and blog about them for Henderson's web site Off the Map. (If this all sounds too good not to be planned in advance, you too may be a skeptic.) The book chronicles Mehta's adventures visiting a variety of Christian churches, including Ted Haggard's church in Colorado and the Willow Creek megachurch in Illinois.

Skepchick is another great story. The online magazine last published an issue in May, 2006, so it may be defunct. But the blog, forum, and podcast are active. Under slogans like "Smart is Sexy" and "Critical Thinking for the Masses", the Skepchick community discusses all sorts of topics from a youthful, skeptical, female viewpoint. (Anything from "Who are the 11 hottest movie scientists?" to "Can or should religion and science cooperate?") Probably the most outrageous thing they do is sell a "sensual but not lewd" calendar of skepchicks, which sadly was not available in the merchanting area. (Order yours here. Submit your photo for the next one here. See the 2007 calendar turned into a music video here.) This is not your grandmother's Humanism. It's not even the Humanism of your spinster great-aunt that nobody talks about.

The panel part of the discussion was noteworthy more for its attitude than for any outstanding idea or quote. This is a generation of Humanists who are not going peacefully into the closet. They don't shy away from terms like atheist. And they've also gotten past the in-your-face adolescent-rebellion God-sucks kind of atheism. And they don't look like the classic pocket-protector-wearing nerds. They are who they are and they seem comfortable with it.

The most interesting audience question/comment came from Fred Edwords of the American Humanist Association. He was being blown away by the numbers the new-media people threw around. Pesta's MySpace group has 31,604 members (I just checked) and Watson claimed her podcasts could get up to 16,000 downloads. Edwords pointed out that the MySpace group was technically the largest Humanist organization in the country. He urged the 20-somethings to come to meetings of the longer-standing humanist groups and explain how they were reaching so many people. It was like watching a middle-aged businessman boggle at the net worth of the Google founders.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Things I Learned at the New Humanism Conference, Part I

I went to the New Humanism Conference at Harvard two weeks ago, and I've had writers' block about it ever since. I think I've finally figured out why: I've been trying to write something that captures everything I learned, pulling it all together and capping it with a bright red bow.

Not going to happen. Too much. Too big.

The conference was full of stars: novelist Salman Rushdie, biologist E. O. Wilson, singer Dar Williams, Senate candidate Ned Lamont, and some other very important people who I hope are not insulted to be left off that list. Some of the talks launched me into idea-fugues of my own, leaving me unable to say exactly which ideas were theirs and which are mine.

This morning I figured out that I can break the logjam by starting small. One of the talks that got the least buzz at the conference was by Tu Weiming, a professor of Chinese history and philosophy at Harvard. Busting myths about Humanism was a general theme of the conference, and Weiming was part of a panel busting this myth: Humanism is a purely Western phenomenon that we are either exporting to or imposing on the rest of the world. Weiming tackled the subject of Confucian humanism.

My notes are a complete injustice to Weiming's talk. I fugued, but along the way I came to understand something about the East/West divide that I had never grasped before: the difference between Eastern and Western ways of thinking about self. In the West the self is a thing; it has an inside, an outside and a boundary. Sometimes when we're explaining things, we'll draw a little blob to represent ourselves. Other people have their own blobs, and each one has its own unique essence. When I learn and change, something is happening inside the blob that represents me. You could pick that blob up and put it somewhere else without changing its essence.

But when Weiming talked about the Confucian self, it sounded different. "The self is never an isolated individual but a center of relationship." I puzzled over that and similar statements for a while, until a new framing metaphor popped into my head: Weiming was viewing the self not as a blob, but as a point. A point doesn't have the space to contain an inner essence; all it has is a location. It exists on a map. And a person grows in wisdom by getting a ever richer picture of the map, not by developing the interior of the self.

To a Westerner that metaphor sounds, well, empty. If I'm a point, somebody could plunk me down somewhere else and I'd be just like the points that are in that location. If I moved to Detroit and became a lawyer, I'd be just another Detroit lawyer. We think that way because our maps are impoverished compared to the map of a Confucian sage. The sage understands the uniqueness of each location on his multi-dimensional map. I'd be not just another Detroit lawyer, but one who had these parents and went to that school and read those books and was influenced by such-and-such ideas. That would all be represented by my location, my point of view.

Two individuals, in this metaphor, are separated by a distance rather than a wall. The distance is ultimately uncrossable. I can move closer to your point of view, but you have spent your entire life getting where you are. I will never arrive at your location, nor you at mine. In the Confucian model, this -- not some interior essence -- is our individuality.

The Confucian humanist "seeks harmony without conformity by dialog. Dialog is not a way of persuasion; its purpose is to find out what we do not know." Conformity would be an artificial attempt to mask the distance between us, to hide the fact that we are in different locations and view things differently. And yet, despite our distance, we can harmonize our actions to achieve common purposes.

As I experimented with this model -- thinking of myself as a point rather than a blob -- a lot of Eastern (not just Confucian) thought made more sense to me. All the Buddhist talk about "the emptiness of the self" -- a Westerner hears that and pictures a blob with a vacuum inside. But points are empty because they have no interior into which you can put stuff. There is no vacuum, only a recognition that the space you imagined inside yourself is a misconception. Westerners hear about "destroying the Ego" and imagine that it involves achieving some universal point-of-view. If I read this metaphor right, the exact opposite happens: You understand that all you are is a point of view. The Ego is the illusory wall you have built around all the things to which you are attached.

I'm pretty sure Weiming said the stuff in quotes. As for the rest of it, I don't know. It happened somewhere in the space between us.