A Lottery for Barbarians

the_lotteryFrom time to time in my unorthodox career, I’ve found myself teaching a class—be it in ethics or literature or law—which includes a reading of Shirley Jackson’s horror story, The Lottery, first introduced in eighth grade English (or it was back in the day) and having the singular distinction of being the one story most retain memory of—even those who despise fiction.

I can’t possibly spoil the story by telling the ending, as everyone must’ve read it. So it is only memory that I prod when I relate that the denouement involves a contemporary American village’s annual custom of stoning a lottery winner—this time, a housewife and mother—all in order to make the corn crop grow. At least that’s the implied reason, as the purpose is left vague. The power of the story lies in the chilling nonchalance with which the ordinary townspeople conduct this yearly slaughter.

My students react with predictable disgust at the characters’ ignorance—“doing something for which they have no good reason,” it is often expressed.

But surely those are the wrong objections, I say.

“You’re faulting them because they’re illogical? Because there’s no real correlation between human sacrifice and corn growth?”

If so, what if there was a “good” reason? What if blood spill were actually to make corn grow, and science said that it did. Would that make the townspeople right? What if hunger could be eliminated, lives saved, etc., with the shedding of this particular character’s plasma? [Read more...]

Science and Faith: an Evolving Conversation

Transparent chemistry glass tubes filled with substances

“I left the Church,” my tablemate explains, “because my priest couldn’t answer my questions.”

We are at a gathering of scientists, religious leaders, and people who write about science and religion. We are discussing how people in these often counterposed domains can collaborate for the betterment of mankind.

I confess I am skeptical about the benefits to mankind that will accrue from elite collaboration. I’m a Madisonian in that regard: our wellbeing is safer when elites keep each other in check rather than partner.

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This Is the Way the World Ends

Confucius thought that social unrest could stem from dissociation between language and reality. A “rectification of names” was called for when words no longer related to their material referents. But how do you rectify emotions or conscience? How do you re-sensitize a world gone numb?

Lately, I’ve come across a little interjection of indifference—“meh”—that tersely appraises the emotional lethargy of our age. There’s a certain economy to the remark, a complete confluence of sound, syllable, and even appearance that expresses the languor of a soul that won’t be stirred by what’s posited for its consideration. [Read more...]