News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian

Saturday, April 09, 2011

The News of the Times

From Fukushima to Tahrir, the days take on apocalyptic fervor. The last days will come like a thief in the night, Jesus said. For some, Fukushima is simply an accident to either bad-aid or encase in concrete. Tahrir is more promising since the freedom of people we see inspires and motivates. Yet our lives - in the west - become more and more digitalized. Is there something essential that could be lost or are we, as Floridi says, simply adapting to new environs, new modes of doing what we as humans must and will always do? The apocalypse may be televised or tweeted, but we must hope that it always brings us to who we can and should be.

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Friday, January 29, 2010

Getting to Santa fe

My first journey to SF in '79. Didn't know not to fly into SF airport. I guess I had figured that I could get a taxi - it was an airport after all - to get up to school. Well, afte deplaning I was somewhat taken aback by the lobby - if you could call it that - being greeted by a coyote, some lizards, and a roadrunner. Seriously, though. The place was just a museum of old planes or something. And there definitely was not a taxi in sight. For that matter, no cars at all.

This was before that end of Agua Fria was a main thoroughfare. It was maybe even dirt. So I ask the coyote where the taxi is. He kinda looked @ me funny. Maybe he mentioned the yellow pages or maybe he just walked away shaking his head. So I call the taxi company - there was just 1. Woman answers phone, saying "hello." Not Juan's Taxi or something like that, like maybe you'd expect. So, noting this, I ask whether I could be picked and taken to the college. She said, "yeah, he'll be out." How long. "Well he's working on the car, so he'll be out as soon as it's fixed." No shit. True story.
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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Torture and the Human Image

Update 3/15/09: The NYTimes has released transcripts of interviews of those tortured at US "black sites."

The following published 06: I've meant to write about the decision by the US Congress last month to effectively legalize the torture of people. I haven't done so yet because of personal emergencies and time constraints. I've also been trying to weed through the various angles taken by the political and legal commentators on the issue. My take--strangely to me at least--always comes back to the ethico-religious perspective. ...

I say strangely because it seems to me that there are viable arguments from a pragmatic and ruthlessly mercenary perspective wherein torture can be justified. I do not agree with these, and I think they can be undermined logically, yet I think that people are rarely persuaded to act by either logical or rational arguments. That is, as I have argued before, when it comes to "skin for skin" as the Accuser in Job says, people will resort to distinctly seemingly irrational--although understandable--actions to save themselves.

Often, these avenues of saving oneself can occur against one's will. That is, biological and psychological forces take control of a person and the survival imperative becomes paramount in how one acts--and why one acts is often incommunicable, at least at the time. It is perhaps only after years of having done something that why you did what you did that the "reasons" you acted that way actually ever becomes sayable, to use a Wittgensteinian phrase in a rather superficial manner.

The Christian apostle Paul once had a chance to undergo torture for his belief in the Christian message he was hoping to spread throughout the world. Given the choice of suffering for his good news, Paul did something that his tormenters perhaps least expected. Paul invoked his Roman citizenship. Somewhat unique for a Jew of the time, Paul’s Roman citizenship brought with it a protection against the one thing that probably evoked one of the profounder fears in his contemporaries—the usual torture to elicit a confession that was normal operating procedure in the Roman provinces.

Roman citizenship brought with it the protection from mandatory torture. Besides the other economic and social privileges that came along with being a Roman citizen, this legal protection against being tortured—whether innocent or not—is perhaps the one right that stands out for us who look back over the millennia. That is, we take our protection from torture for granted, seeing it as the mark of a civilized nation.

No doubt, the Romans used the threat of torture as a coercive means of maintaining control over those who refused Roman rule. Indeed, this one right could be seen as a stick and its promise a carrot. How much subservience would a person give to the ruling powers if they’re faced with the instruments of torture?

In passing legislation that effectively legalizes torture, the US congress turned back the clock on civilization two millennia. Given the most likely fact that US citizens themselves could be tortured, this clock is set even farther back—back before the establishment of the Roman Republic, 2700 years ago.

This disturbing historical fact is further aggravated by the notion that the US has effectively set itself up as arbiter for determining who is and who is not a human being. This goes beyond a simple political dimension—it carries with it something of a metaphysical aspect that delegates to the US a power of life and death that in many religious or philosophical systems belongs to a transcendent power alone. It is this immense power over who’s determined to be human or not—who deserves the concern of human integrity—that led many early Christians in writings like the book of Revelation to characterize the Roman Empire as a Beast or demi-god that tries to usurp the power of control of the world’s maker.

The French thinker Simone Weil carried these images to their ethico-religious conclusions. Basing herself on the perception that humans turning humans into things--as they are in war or via slavery and torture—is the main feature of every evil regime throughout time, she appealed to a basic sentiment in humans that revulses from watching the suffering of others.

For Weil, the basic feature of the Beast’s method is to create an environment of illusion wherein people are alienated from their consciences. Dealing and doling out various fantasies, the Beast attempts to create in people a world free of pain and suffering or one where pain and suffering have no reality except as the cries of characters in a fantasy world without gravity of depth.

Weil’s appeal to primitive conscience is perhaps the last gasp of an unrepentant idealist. He was without a doubt a Platonist who attempted to integrate the Platonic world of ideas into political and social dialogs. For many post-modernists, this attempt already marks her work as trying to resurrect a defunct superstition of ghostly worlds where the disconnect between that world and this world creates an inherent illusion and self-deception. One places one’s will and its dispositions in that world rather than dealing with the world as it is in this world.

Be these philosophical questions be as they may, Weil’s central point about whether there’s a conscience and a human sentiment of sympathy for another’s suffering seems unreducible. Answering that question in the affirmative—whether via scientific research or based on introspective analysis—goes a long way in answering questions about why or why it’s not moral to torture others. Certainly, there are factors that come into play to undermine this basic human sentiment. In some religious contexts, it’s called original sin, in philosophy a matter of mistaking evil for the good.

Once you accept the basic notion of a human aversion to suffering of others, as well as the desire to make others suffer, then any time that such practices of condoning suffering and institutionalizing them becomes a matter of dealing a severe blow to what old-time humanists used to call the human image, and which various religious and philosophical apologists have termed the integrity of something that transcends the merely socio-biological human animal.

Related Link Against the Grain: Series on Christian Teaching and Torture: 1, 2, 3, 4
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Letter in Support of Shirin Ebadi

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Ayatollah Shahrudi,
Head of the Judiciary
Mohammad Khazaee,
Ambassador and Permanent
Representative of the Islamic Republic
of Iran to the United Nations

I want to add these words in support of the recent letter asking you to help stop the attacks on Shirin Ebadi and the organization she heads. If the stories of these attacks are true, they represent a stain against the honor and words of the people and land of Iran. They surely represent an assault not only on a noble and courageous person but on the very being of justice itself.
Ms Ebadi's work has always been to bring the peace of Allah and the justice of the Most High into reality. The words she has written have inspired many to see Islam, Iran, and the revolution as beacons of hope and potential joy. I have taught her work to others in America and their hearts were softened from ignorance of Islam and its teaching to openness and dawning awareness.

I personally have opposed on my blog and website any attack by the United States or any other nation on Iran. I have defended the good faith and rational actions of Iran in seeking its best interests.

With these thoughts in mind, I therefore beg the Supreme Leader to personally seek the swift and immediate stop to all attacks and efforts to silence, threaten, intimidate, or harm Mrs. Ebadi. Please find the mercy of Allah in your heart to seek understanding of her words and actions where you may now see something more sinister. I believe that a woman with the purity of heart that she reveals in her writings harbors no harmful intent to you or to Iran.

May the Will of Allah Be Done and His Peace Be Yours,
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Saturday, December 06, 2008

Dick on Ideas That Live Us

Very interesting short talk by the author Philip K Dick on ideas--"realizing" them, understanding them, and living them. I'm in the midst of reading several of Dick's 60s and 70s novels. He's not only a very good writer--many notches above pulp hacks--but also a thinker, in the way that Heidegger writes about.

In philosophical terms, this speech might be an interesting, perhaps poppish, version of his Kantianism. But I think that his primitiveness adds a special quality of genuine awareness of the newness and aliveness to ideas as they live us. The speech... expressed in much more existentialist frame-of-reference, and perhaps owes something to Heidegger; allusions to the pre-Socratics might bear this out.

If You Think This World Is Bad, You Should See Some Of The Others
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Friday, November 28, 2008

The REAL Maverick: Present Economy worse than Depression

Be afraid... be very afraid. Unfortunately, I find this man's opinion difficult to believe, since he has not understood Wittgenstein. He has also a lot of money from his theories. That Mandelbrot sits alongside him and speaks little says something, perhaps, about how seriously we should take this. As they say, a grain of salt. But then I am looking to move whatever money I have to under my mattress.

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Once upon time in the west - Final showdown

Is Obama the Charles Bronson figure in this film, come to exact vengeance for the rapes, pillaging, and murders perpetrated by Bush and his gang?

To be continued...
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Friday, November 14, 2008

I heard several commentators expressing their awe and feelings of transcendence they are experiencing now. The quasi-religious expressions and emotions felt have been striking. I myself do not feel this–even the sense of the historical has of yet escaped me. I thought it might be that I believe this should have happened years ago–that the time is well-nigh for a black person be elected to higher office be a simple reality, unastounding but nonetheless just and wonderful for that.

I do believe in the hope this man’s words and the symbolism evoke. But I am unmoved by the religious iconography, I think, since there is little that can or should approximate to the immensity of the inifnite in this world’s flux. I hope no one hears pessimism or sarcasm in these words. Irony-well that is a cleansing mood, as Kierkegaard argued. The irony is tempered at its harder edges by the words and hollow epithets I have had to endure from Republican and conservative pundits on the mass media. While countries lie in ruins, lives decimated and hundreds of thousands of dead crying from death’s maw, there is little that can assuage my feelings that there should be an avenging angel flying overhead somewhere. Obama’s words of peace and hope can certainly take away the brine of these tearful thoughts, yet one must surely hope for the knell of justice to be rung for these unjustly killed.

Some say that this election shows how good and right Americans are. I sit back and wonder whether this side of light can ever be balanced against the darkness visited on others by the past eight years when 95 percent of these good and right people believed that their princes and principalities acted in the right.
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Wednesday, November 12, 2008


The US News & World Report, seen at a newsstand as I waited for the train in Penn Station, read: Promises to Keep." A picture of a young and intelligent Barack Obama graced the cover as well.
And I thought, "Promises from a man of promise, a man gifted with youth, eloquence, and intelligence. It is easy to think that he can keep the promises. Anyone older, less graced with handsome vigor would not inspire such promise of keeping promises."
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ABC News Updated Milgram Video

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Disneyland in Iraq

I refused to give in to peer pressure and family and child pressure when it came to taking my children to Disneyland or Disney World. While I have been the beneficiary of Mickey Mouse coulture and used to watch the Mickey Club as a child, as I grew older and educated myself about culture, I came to despise everything associated with what the East German playwright Heiner Muller once derided as America's greastest contribution to world culture.

As I say, I have benefited from Disney's worldwide attempt to monopolize the fantasies and dreams of our children. My kids spent hours watching their movies while I continued those same cultural studies alone in my bedroom. It's a tangled tapestry to unweave and perhaps overgeneralized to blame anything and everything on such cultural factors. Disnetangling the effects that consumer culture, perhaps no better epitomized than by Disney, has preoccupied me for some time now.

Is Disney the heart of Darkness, the bedizened corrupt core that we can point to when we say what's wrong with American culture? It seems that to say so in the mouth of an American can only seem a bit supercilious if not downright dishonest.

Yet, this notion in the mouth of others loses its superficiality and opens up a dimension of awareness that perhaps only suffering and its assciated emotions can evoke. The following words, therefore, are perhaps worth more than numerous essays and books that critique American culture.

In his description of the US Army's destruction of Fallujuah, Dahr Jamail quotes an Iraqi as saying:

"This is the freedom. In their Disneyland are there kids just like this?"
The last question is not rhetorical. At first reading, I thought it referred to the soldiers devastating the man's city. Just now, though, I also see that it might refer tot he man's own children, who no doubt clung to him like reeds scared by the end of the world. The end of the world that will visit their nightmares for years and years, just as it will perhaps visit the soldiers whose hearts of darkness opened so many doors to the pit of hell.

There is perhaps a bitter irony in the ambivalence about which children the man referred to. It points to the idea that we are all indeed the same, yet also so vastly different. The children bred by Disneyland visited Iraq and brought death and desolation to the land. Like some B-movie horror show, these Mickey minions roamed and marauded the desert to the bane, experts estimate, of over 1 million dead.

Yet, the mirror show does not end there. It also belies a terrible irony, one that builds on a theme that Jamail himself brings to light: the dehumanization and beggary imposed by Americans on those too distant others, too far away to be considered "thy neighbor" to fit into the category of those we must love.

Jamail writes:
None of this -- from the unending "incidents" themselves to the way the Pentagon has dominated the reporting of them -- would have been possible without a widespread dehumanization of Iraqis among American soldiers (and a deep-set, if largely unexpressed and little considered, conviction on the American "home front" that Iraqi lives are worth little). If, four decades ago, the Vietnamese were "gooks," "dinks," and "slopes," the Iraqis of the American occupation are "hajis," "sand-niggers," and "towel heads." Latent racism abets the dehumanization process, ably assisted by a mainstream media that tends, with honorable exceptions, to accept Pentagon announcements as at least an initial approximation of reality in Iraq.

Whether it was "incidents" involving helicopter strikes in which those on the ground who died were assumed to be enemy and evil, or the wholesale destruction of the city of Fallujah in 2004, or the massacre at Haditha, or a slaughtered wedding party in the western desert of Iraq that was also caught on video tape (Marine Major General James Mattis: "How many people go to the middle of the desert.... to hold a wedding 80 miles from the nearest civilization? These were more than two dozen military-age males. Let's not be naive."), or killings at U.S. checkpoints, or even the initial invasion of Iraq itself, we find the same propaganda techniques deployed: Demonize an "enemy"; report only "fighters" being killed; stick to the story despite evidence to the contrary; if under pressure, launch an investigation; if still under pressure, bring only low-level troops up on charges; convict a few of them; sentence them lightly; repeat drill.
To think that hatred is manipulated in this way--that we buy into such hateful images of those we should call brothers and sisters--it does indeed call into question how deeply the supposed sympathy for others delves into the human soul. Read more!

They're Such Nice Boys

From an article by Conn Hallinan trying to explain why occupations fail:

Israeli psychologist Nofer Ishai-Karen and psychology professor Joel Elitzur interviewed 21 Israeli soldiers who served in the Occupied Territories. They found that the soldiers routinely engaged in murder, assault, threats and humiliation, and many of them enjoyed it.

“The truth is that I love this mess—I enjoy it. It is like being on drugs,” one soldier told them. Another said, “What is great is that you don’t have to follow any law or rule. You feel you are the law, you decide. Once you go into the Occupied Territories, you are God.”

One soldier told a story about seeing a four-year-old boy playing in the sand in his front yard during a curfew in Rafah. The soldier says his officer “grabbed the boy. He broke his hand here at the wrist, broke his leg here. And started to stomp on his stomach, three times, and left. We are all there, jaws dropping, looking at him in shock…the next day I go out with him on another patrol, and the soldiers are already starting to do the same thing.”
And on the Napoleonic army in Spain:
A few hours with the works of Goya will give one an idea of how the French army behaved in Spain.
These quotes, as well as the stunning statistics of American soldiers' indifference to Iraqi suffering testify to the validity of Milgram's experiments on the dark heart in every human, I think. Read more!

Henwood on Economic Crisis

Left economist Doug Henwood and guests on the recent US economic crisis. Read more!

One Nation Under Urizen (God)

Of the primeval Priests assum'd power,
When Eternals spurn'd back his religion;
And gave him a place in the north,
Obscure, shadowy, void, solitary.

Eternals I hear your call gladly,
Dictate swift winged words, & fear not
To unfold your dark visions of torment.

-- Blake. "Urizen"

I missed a posting on William Blake's 250th birthday a few weeks ago. Sadly, because I cut my prophetic teeth on Blake. I respected his poetry and vision so much that my second son's middle name derives from the poet. Due to a very busy schedule and some anxiety about the future, I couldn't get off the floor to say thanks to a person whose work fprmed much of my adolescent psyche.

Much of Blake's poetry was directed at what he deemed the demonic side of the Enlightenment. Locke and
Hume were targets of his sarcasm and venom.

These memories are roused by this response to Mitt Romney's speech on mormonism and religion the other day.

Geoffrey Stone writes:

To be sure, there were traditional Christians among the Founders, including such men as John Jay, Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams. Most of the Founders, however, were not traditional Christians, but deists who were quite skeptical of traditional Christianity. They believed that a benevolent Supreme Being had created the universe and the laws of nature and had given man the power of reason with which to discover the meaning of those laws. They viewed religious passion as irrational and dangerously divisive, and they challenged, both publicly and privately, the dogmas of traditional Christianity.
Stone's message here is important. As he says, the common understanding that is gaining steam in popular culture is that the US was founded by Xtians. Stone's points show the misunderstandstood and superficial historical record on this.

Newt Gingrich, for example, is showing up on the talking-head sphere with a CD and book, "Rediscovering God in America: Reflections on the Role of Faith in Our Nation's History." In conjunction with Huckabee's rise and Romney's attempt to align his Mormon heritage with evangelicalism, it behooves us to keep the historical record in mind.

Without a doubt, the Deist religious view espoused by the so-called founding Fathers was of the form that Blake attacked to his dying breath. For the poet, those who espoused rational light and clarity only did so to blind us to the darker recesses where the starving children and dead bodies huddled and were buried. For Blake, humans could only be spiritually healthy when they balanced reason with imagination and the emotions.

A more nuanced historical view than the one presented by Romney et al is that even their religious views are built against a background of Enlightenment assumptions. Like the shrill ghost that Bush is quickly becoming, these politicians may mouth anti-enlightenment rhetoric when they rant against secularism, the Republican foreign policy agenda assumes Enlightenment principles.

This point itself may be one of those things that liberals and conservatives either like to forget and perhaps don't even know. As with many things, the dividing point between the two does not emanate from a complete difference of world view but rather from a shared world-view parts of which each party emphasizes at the expense of others.

The importance of Blake and other of those who rebelled against the dictatorship of Reason is that there must be a regeneration of vision, a new world, where love and forgiveness are placed at the highest pinnacle--far ahead of reason and prudence.

Related Link Read more!


Is there anything that provides a grimmer testament to human frailty than the Abu Ghraib pictures now available on the web? When you see these pictures, many react with disgust, anger, horror, or perhaps pity. Maybe you even react dumbly and uncomprehendingly. After all, they are pictures of men stripped naked and put into positions that make no sense. You have to think the brute reality of their physical discomfort into the pictures. The pictures themselves don't breathe the sighs or the smell of bodies contorted into shapes and positions meant to humiliate and demean. Pictures don't bleed.

But there's more to a picture than what's seen. That we fill that unseen void with our own nightmares or lack of feeling or overblown sense of pity--is it there where the gulf between human and human eventually erupts and discharges its foul poisons? For no picture can grasp that image that eludes every camera, that sense of who we are and that no word will ever inscribe on paper or sand but whose carcass can taunt with nagging ignorance.

These pictures tell a mute story of desolation and desecration; the profane shock of nude men that have become nothing but masses of flesh and hooded mannequins. They elicit more of that final and ultimate irony: our safe securities are nothing but lies and self-deception. ...

One thing that the photos from Abu Ghraib do not document and perhaps cannot show is the fragile hold that custom and ritual have on our lives. You have to delve deeply into the literature to see the concerted regime undertaken by the torturers to reduce these men to mere zeroes. The awful truth revealed by this psychological desecration is that what binds us to each other is quite tenuous and that it breaks quite easily in times of crisis and stress.

Humans are indeed a product of their culture and environment. This is a sad truth that the torturers and their medical gurus know well how to exploit and destroy. To break someone down, attack, mock, and crush their most sacred customs and ideals. Isolate, intimidate, deafen with noise to disconstruct a human being into its most elemental parts. And when the human grovels at your feet begging for mercy, start to retrain it and make it compliant and scarred for life. In this condition they might even learn how to kill for you.

Humans can and will mistreat each other much like a bad dog trainer treats an untrained dog. Given the right circumstances and the right conditions, to paraphrase Simone Weil, humans are capable of the most despicable crimes. The problem is, she said, that most of us will not admit that truth to ourselves. Instead, we work under the illusion that we wouldn't do it, we couldn't do it. ...

Our leaders want us to believe that what will save us is something called civilization. The Pope, for example, has joined the choir of those singing the hosannas of western culture and civilization. (Also see 700 Club reporter's comments.) Along with Pres. Bush, the Pope tells us that Christianity itself is threatened by the terrorists. This choir makes common cause on the Scylla and Charydbis of secular relativism and Islamic fundamentalism.

Were we to sacrifice a billion lives on the altar of western culture, would it produce a society where these crimes would never again arise? Given the assumption of original sin shared by the Pope and Bush, they cannot guarantee any such thing. And given the inability of social and cultural constructs to ensure this, why should I care whether western civilization survives or not?

The Pope’s and Bush’s view makes the basis for individual salvation count on belonging to a group of believers; belonging to this group somehow works magically to obviate the consequences of individual evil--that is, just as long as I belong to the group I am saved. Like those terrorists that say their group is the one to belong to, civilization has now come to a war between what group guarantees salvation or not.

Nothing in culture or civilization will save me from having to face the evil over and over that might face me as a possibility. Never, until time itself ends. The trumpet blare to fight for and save civilization as though it means the salvation of myself is just as much a manifestation of nihilism as the nihilism that these politico-religious leaders say they are out to destroy.

Religiously minded nihilism destroys values and guts self meaning as surely and widely as does the nihilism of secularity. Both purvey a type of self-consciousness that means joining the herd. Like any other consumer movements, religious institutions cannot but mirror this process since they have bought into the presuppositions of nihilism itself. And they themselves are part of the problem.

There are millions of ways that religious nihilism accommodates with purely temporal productions a universal human desire for happiness. Not only does the loss of cultural and social roots create the types of nihilism and violence exhibited by various religious fundamentalisms--Islamic, Jewish, Xtian, and Hindu--civilization and the need to ensure its survival also produces various forms of fascistic political regimes that fill the ennui and despair with repressive and nihilistic gestures.

As Kierkegaard noted long ago, modern individuals face a stark choice: join the fundamentalist charge back to the "origins," the culture of mass mind (mirror image of secularism itself) and thereby lose your real self in mindless despair. Or one can choose to realize the temporality of existence and in radical self-choice disengage oneself from the surrounding world; self-consciously aware of one's eternal destiny.

The way of the solitary individual is a narrow gate that few will enter. The modern age is a time when the spiritual is gutted and enervated to the point that even understanding that one has an eternal self is a joke and a scandal. Unless you can regain primitivity your only health will be envy, resentment, and the anger of the mutant lashing out an alien world.

False religion and its call to group identity destroy the true desire for love and community. Merge into the faceless herd of civilizattional religion or respond to the task of becoming a self, an individual of true faith striving to attain a perfection that you know in dreams but that existence itself tells you is impossible.

Related Links

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Driven to Distraction (1)

What does it mean to be distracted? Are we as Americans more distracted than people from other countries or perhaps than others in different times and places? What does it mean if we are distracted?

On a recent radio show I heard someone talk about Americans being distracted. The person making these remarks appeared somewhat skeptical of the view that Americans are distracted--voiced perhaps by pundits and other intellectuals of the public sphere.

The speaker seemed to want to counter an assumed view that Americans are becoming more distracted in their daily lives. What remained unquestioned in the speaker's talk was what it means to be distracted.

Note the passive voice construction already used here. The view under discussion assumes that something or other is distracting us, distracting you, me, from what is or should be the most important thing in life perhaps. That is, we are the passive victims of forces or apparatuses that divert or move our proper focus from a proper goal or objective. And, of course, we all know what that most important thing is, right?

What is doing the distracting? Certainly, again, the assumption--the unspoken answer ("You must get it don't you see, or you will be deemed illiterate, dumb, or just plain stupid, don't you see?") is that modern culture, especially the variety of entertainment venues, distracts me. I am pictured here as a passive imbiber of stuff out there that is meant to grab my attention. This stuff includes everything from TV to the Internet to various other media. It is meant to make me look at it, take note of it, and perhaps understand it.

Leaving aside numerous assumptions about a passive viewer somehow influenced unconsciously by outside sources, one thing that demands immediate question might be: what would prove that I am distracted or not? or that the majority or even a minority of the public is distracted?

And what does it mean to be distracted? In its apparently most obvious sense, distraction is where I am diverted from looking at something I need to be looking at and instead look at something else. My attention is drawn for whatever reason to something else than what I should focus on.

The analogy to seeing is obvious here. I say obvious but it also seems right to say that it could be otherwise. The image of the seeing eye--the eye that sees all seems right in our culture that focuses on the image. But the mind is not an all-seeing eye, or at least it does not seem that is anything else but a metaphor, right?

Given the vast resources to flood our environment with images and sensory input meant for the sense of sight, it is perhaps inevitable that when we describe being distracted we use the analogy with sight. So--this line of thought goes--when I am distracted in my thoughts I am thinking or pondering a thought or idea when I should be focused or concentrating on another, more important thought. I should be looking elsewhere, concentrating on a single point or visual image that will by pointing me in the right direction. It might even be that I should be seeing the picture--like a movie or maybe a painting of what it is that the world should be or look like.

This last remark seems very interesting. I could go in several directions here, but I want to get at this picture of a picture, so to speak. I say picture of a picture because the thought that we should see reality as a film or picture is itself a picture of what supposedly should or should not be. I feel as though I am looking into one of those pictures that depicts a mirror reflecting a mirror reflecting a mirror and so on to infinity.

What I want to question is whether the image of an image is indeed inevitable--that is, is it somehow a fact about thought and the way we think and see reality really all about seeing images and pictures inside pictures?

And I still want to look at what it might mean to be distracted--what that might mean, whether it matters, and the perhaps many different ways it could matter.

And, of course, the question remains: are we distracted?

Driven to distraction (2) Read more!

Where Does Your Heart Lie?

Reading the obituaries to my home-bound mother, I discovered the following as part of the final memories of a deceased woman:

"She loved shopping."
The statement speaks for itself. With all due respect, I wonder what it is that would place this in the obituary writer's mind as the most important thing to think about when someone has gone to the other side. The answer probabkly refers to information the writer received from a family member. Still... Read more!

Freud Converts the Masses

This BBC video, "The Century of the Self," explores how Freud's theories influenced propaganda efforts, especially through his nephew Edward Bernays. I believe that Bernays was a type used by Dos Passos in his USA trilogy.

One fact I did not know is that Bernays' spearheaded the translation of Freud's works into English. Does this mean that Freud's works would have remained a blip in the history of the history of ideas? Though I had an inkling that Walter Lippmann was influenced by Freud, this documentary makes that plain.

In part 2, I discovered the role that Freudians played in working with the Army during and after WWII. Compare this fact with recent stories of psychologists working with the CIA and others to develop forms of torture. (See this Salon article on one man's experiences at a CIA black site Also see this translation by Juan Cole of a US soldier's eyewitness account of torture at Bagram.)

I accept the notion that political reality is manipulated via emotions, aka the will, and not reason. The challenge, then, is to identify a way to bring to bear on the will the desire for justice over the destructive and selfish wants and desires. I also believe that the reason why many Leftists simply don't get this, some like Zizek are important because they understand--through Lacan--that the reality underlying political and ethical behavior is inherently irrational.

This statement does not mean that I am a Lacanian or Zizekian, yet I do think that the latter understands things that others simply disregard because it does not fit their Enlightenment models.

This documentary can also be put into a wider historical perspective. As JGA Pocock notes in several of his books on English history, the beginnings of capitalism included an awareness that it opened up a vast reservoir of anxieties and dark passions. Economic theorists of the day spent numerous pages on trying to figure out how to stem the tide of these passions from overwhelming the economic stability of the country.

I was reminded of these remarks the other night when I saw a TV ad for an online stock trading program, TDAMERITRADE (the video loads very slowly, even on DSL). It quite overtly assures the prospective customer that the software would allow them to make stock-buying decisions rationally as opposed to emotionally.
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Driven to Distraction (2)

Are we distracted? Does the outside world distract us from some important truth or reality that we should otherwise be looking at or doing or both?

Right off, there seems to be something wrong with this notion of a passive viewer. It assumes a lot about consciousness and the way that I engage the world and what's "out there." (And I think of the motto for one of my favorite TV shows, the X-Files: "The truth is out there.")

What's askew--and perhaps not exactly wrong--here is the opposition between an inside and outside to how I live in the world. The reason this is important to realize is that this notion of inside and outside leads people to think that there's an inside world inside me as opposed to an outside world that somehow influences me in ways that the inside sometimes does not perceive.

Why it's not wrong to think this way is because we often find ourselves thinking about memories and ideas and perhaps images that only we personally can access. (actually do we really "think about" memories, etc. or just remember--no thinking about occurring at all.)

These things are private to me, it's said. They make up "my world," as distinct from what others have or have not perceived. In this sense, I can therefore seemingly ask whether I can ever really know someone else. Since their world is cut off from mine, since they have memories and perceive the world by way of these memories (apparently) then I have no way of really knowing what they're thinking.

Yes, we cannot really know anyone. We can't see into their heads, so to speak. But who says we could? While it makes sense to talk about really knowing someone, things go awry when we take that talk and try to literalize it. To make like there is an actual room or space in the brain where--if I had god-like powers, say, or a special instrument--I'd be able to see what you or anyone else are thinking.

And isn't this notion really attractive or alluring? Isn't it perhaps related to the notion of the "fly sitting on the wall" seeing and overhearing unseen what others are doing? The wish to really see what others are like--what they really do in secret--goes at least as far back as Plato and the ring that makes one invisible.

So the idea of an inside versus an outside is compelling and perhaps reflects old desires to see the world as if we weren't there. The notion that if I didn't exist or weren't somehow perceived, I'd be able to see the world as it really is.

This desire to see the world as it really is seems to be something that science can give us. The world as it is--unskewed by personal concerns, memories, biases, or what have you--can be given to me by scientists with their tools of objectivity. This is a very attractive and appealing notion: to be given the world as it is, unvarnished and throbbing with the very juices of life, so to speak, drives a deep well into our inmost desires and needs.

What many thinkers of one branch of philosophy question, though, is whether science or even philosophy itself can deliver this viewpoint. Can we really detach ourselves from what time and personal histories have made us? Can we really disengage from our bodies and its needs and desires to attain that god-view? Are we really unable to know other's in such a radical way that they are closed to understanding?

Though some of these questions are more obvious than others, neither seems easier than any other to answer--at least in a way that everyone would agree on. Maybe there is no one answer and the fact that we tend to want an all-comprehending answer that covers questions of this kind is a problem of its own.

That suggestion, or insight, is what the philosopher Wittgenstein suggested. Seeking what I call the decoder book to all questions is the sign of a common human failing. It's a failing in the sense that such a decoder book leads us to think that we have answered questions that really aren't questions to start with. Indeed, the notion of a decoder book leads people to seek that which covers up what is ultimately in front of us all the time.

The preceding remarks are a short introduction were meant as a way of getting at what it might to be distracted. I launched into the introduction because I wanted to see why we want to differentiate a world inside from a world outside us. The argument itself is the barest outline of what is called Wittgenstein's rebuttal of the idea that there can be a private language that no one else could understand.

What the argument seems to describe are fundamental facts of human language. That is, language is not some individual accomplishment. It is a socialized phenomenon that we learn via numerous linguistic and non-linguistic practices. The ability to learn language is inherent to the human animal in its biological and social existence.

Language, then, is important in understanding that in understanding being distracted we should be discussing what words and stories relate to being distracted. Read more!

New country (Iraqi song)

This video is very powerful. It made a big emotional impact on me. I can only imagine how it affects someone living in Iraq who knows what the "impure footprints" dredging ruts of sand have meant in their lives. The video comes from Last of the Iraqis blog. According to his blog posting, the song in the background is so popular that 80 % of Iraqis have saved it in some digital form. Check out the blog.

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Facing the Animal In Us

An example of the way that theories of human nature impact our lives and predispose us to see life in a certain way, coinciding with stereotypes of human behavior, came in an ordinary way the other day. I am trying to introduce my dog into a home where an older dog has made its home for many years. The owners of this dog believe that their pet will simply accept my dog, acting like the wonderful pet it has been for some time. Unfortunately, that has not been true.

As many people will know, domesticated animals easily adapt to their human owners' way of life. This adaptive behavior is upset, though, when the pet acts in ways that exhibit the genetic predisposition built into them. When a dog, for example, turns from friendly companion to vicious turf defender, owners are not only surprised, they also make numerous excuses that try to cover up the "indecent" behavior exhibited by friendly Fido.

Of course, in my tortured brain these events align with some things I have written about concerning Milgram's experiments into authoritarianism and Wittgenstein's attack on theory. That is, genetic make-up taking over and undermining domesticity of the family dog exhibits strange parallels to how humans act against even their most cherished values in such conditions as authoritarian hierarchies and rationalized societies.

I'll try to describe how I see some of this thinking working itself out. The following comments are obviously hastily written and would require augmentation in many ways.

One of the fall-outs of the Milgram experiments is that people often act against their own ethical and moral principles. That is, even though someone might oppose cruelty to other human beings in theory, when it comes to performing acts commanded by authority figures and as part of some "objectively" structured situation , they often perform acts that contradict what they say are their most cherished beliefs and values.

In his work on sociology and theory, Wittgenstein and the Idea of a Critical Social Theory: A Critique of Giddens, Habermas and Bhaskar, Nigel Pleasants notes that liberal sociologists and liberals in general often reject Milgram's findings because they contradict an assumed theory of human nature that sees human nature as inherently rational and disposed to do good. To over-simplify, Pleasants understands this rejection of Milgram's research as a predilection for theory according to which all things human must coincide.

Pleasants explains that Wittgenstein's approach to philosophical analysis undermines this theoretical bias. Instead of theorizing about human action, Wittgenstein talks about describing things that are so obvious that we simply ignore them, though their power to dispel illusions and "philosophical" questions is overwhelming. One thing that militates against the "simple" explanation is that it's so common and so "Doh." Yet, this very ordinariness, when seen in its interrelatedness with other similarly ordinary things and events takes on a truly awe-inspiring grandeur. In a world with a predilection for spectacle and the sexified, such ordinariness does not captivate enough.

Without going into the full range of Pleasants' and Wittgenstein's arguments, I must admit that I often understand their points intellectually. While I've had some experience with the way that a non-theoretical approach to dispelling self-delusions works, I had some problem with the Milgram experiments. This is not to say that I haven't seen the psychological mechanism described by Milgram at work, but it does mean that I have not drilled down deeply enough into my psychological make-up to see how the mechanism works in my own everyday actions.

What Wittgenstein talks about simply comes in the flow and stream of life. To pull oneself out of it, so to speak, is exactly what thinkers like Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard and Heidegger meant when they discuss the distorted view about reason's role in making decisions. That is, as Heidegger puts it, we only attend to the world in a rational way when things begin to break down. In the course of living life, we simply live it, embedded in its practices and language in a way that makes living possible.

The wish to theorize and impose a theory onto what we actually experience runs very deep, even in those that do not practice philosophy "officially." This common propensity to formulate and impose theoretical models onto reality is something that Wittgenstein's work deals with. While many see his work as just applying to professional theorizers in the sciences--as it surely does--it also applies to people in general. The desire to come up with a theory that explains it all for you, so to speak, is the source, I;d venture, for many phenomena that includes conspiracy theories to ideology.

The idea that humans are genetically related to animals, and monkeys or apes in particular, repels many people it seems. This observation has been exploited by numerous authors recently on several sides of the political spectrum. Some on the Right, for example, see disgust as a natural instinct that should form the basis for what called natural law. Others, on the Left, see many facets of disgust as socially conditioned.

The problem with these theories is that they attempt to explain large swathes of human behavior as only related to disgust. The appeal of an emotion like disgust for politically oriented thinkers is that it is a hidden psychological process that seems to control and define our behavior. The scientist--or politically motivated philosopher--can use this discovery about a hidden mechanism to seemingly explain human nature. The appeal here is obvious: it gives the illusion that I can explain why humans do what they do. It's especially appealing to those who wish to find eternal truths that cannot be overturned by contingencies.

Have we reached bedrock--as Wittgenstein would say--with an emotion like disgust? Is it, instead, a mainly socially conditioned response in an otherwise open human ability to create and sustain a personality over time? The notion of a theory itself is in question here. While it seems true that disgust is a powerful emotion, it seems too much to say that it is eternal in any sense and must or should form the basis fora personal ethical understanding of life. Instead, we might do well to stay at a more profound level whereby we resist intellectualizing the emotion and remaining aware of those times when we experience disgust and reflect on whether the emotion is just or not.

In the same way, though, we should remain receptive to situations wherein others exploit and marshal the emotion to promote unjust "solutions" to events that might best be reflected on and discussed in more rational terms.

At the same time, we must remain vigilant for the animal that sits at the door of our actions and waits to drive us to ravine and fear and compel us to act in a way other than the human. Read more!

Kierkegaard Carnival III

Welcome to the December 23, 2007 edition of The Kierkegaard Carnival. After a long hiatus, I am proud to present the most recent issue of the Kierkegaard Carnival.

This edition continues in the tradition of the past two installments. The blog postings are diverse in their range of topics and include academic postings to those from non-academic bloggers, from pastoral to the everyday. The subjects chosen reflect not only those that some might consider relevant to a 19th century Dane but those that speak to the face of every day.

While there's much to thank for the ingenuity of these authors' intelligent remarks, it is the melancholy Dane's vibrant spirit that happily haunts this Christmas edition of the Carnival staged in his name. In the names of Christmases past, present, and future, it is perhaps a note of sobriety that Kierkegaard brings to the riot of Xmas greed and consumerism. I can only hope that this sobriety works as meant: not to strangle the child in its crib but to liberate the hosannas in the heavens and on earth and bring freedom and peace.

The continuing diversity exhibited by admirers of Kierkegaard's thought relates tangentially to the accusation of Levinas that Kierkegaard, like Nietzsche, practiced a "philosophy of the hammer." While it's debatable whether Kierkegaard was even a philosopher in the academic sense, it is a charge that many agree with.

From his "ambush from behind" of the Hegelian blitzkrieg through history, to his so-called attack on Christendom, Kierkegaard brought into play a formidable array of rhetorical and logical weapons against his adversaries. Yet, as Mark Dooley argues in The Politics of Statehood vs. A Politics of Exodus: A Critique of Levinas’s Reading of Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard did not only marshal an acidic wit against those who exercised power irresponsibly in the name of a bastardized religious sentiment. For those without the trappings and arsenals of real politique at their beck and call, the weak and despised at the margins, Kierkegaard had words of consolation and upbuilding. At the same time that he undermined the ideological systems of Hegel and much of western metaphysics and theology, he wrote in his discourses words that brought comfort and love.

There are some who take Kierkegaard's attack on Christendom as a major plank in a program of defense for what is commonly called western civilization. In the name of a neo-orthodox theology, this program sets itself against what it perceives as an attack from anti-civilizational forces whose malevolence is identified with the forces of Satan himself.

The theologian Richard Neuhaus, for example, has written kindly of a recent translation of Kierkegaard's Training in Christianity (a work perhaps more accurately titled Practice in Christianity, as Howard and Edna Hong translate it). Neuhaus is a member of that contemporary contingent of Christian apologists for the political ideology of the neocons. This movement has earned the title of Theocons.

Neuhaus' reading of Kierkegaard is perhaps best explained by the translation of Practice in Christianity on which he bases his foreword. By the estimable Lutheran cleric, Walter Lowrie, the translation often does read like a defense of neo-Orthodox theo-political thought. Yet, as commentators have shown, Lowrie's translations are more conservative socially and theologically than the Danish text allows. Perhaps Lowrie was only partially to blame, however, for this conservative slant. Historian Bruce Kirmmse has argued (persuasively I believe) that the effort to paint Kierkegaard as a defender of the conservative status quo was begun by literary executors while the thinker's body was still warm in the grave.

Neuhaus would argue that such work as Kirmmse's is at best academic nitpicking and at worst historical revisionism, most likely in the name of a Liberal, if not Leftist, ideological agenda. I cannot go into details here, but one can find in commentators such as Hannay, Dooley, Pattison, and Westphal an awareness that Kierkegaard's thought evolved over time. Going from a fairly aristocratic conservatism to a more and more radically social Gospel, Kierkegaard's work shows a growing awareness that to defeat the Kingdom of Satan one must attack the gatekeepers and their clerical minions. His final words against the ruling church hierarchy was therefore an attempt to bring down the edifice of institutional Christianity--Christendom--by undermining one of those pressure points of solidified power that Foucault investigates.

Neuhaus' reading--and those who would join his ranks--of Kierkegaard is not only ideologically based but based in such a way as to violate the text and the spirit of Kierkegaard's thought. While the patriots of monology despise any notion that every human act is tainted with ideology, I would suggest that this idea works its way throughout the Dane's work. I'd even be so bold as to assert that Kierkegaard would ask whether anything is ever non-ideologically based. In various guises as angst, purity of heart, despair--social conditioning and human sinfulness corrupt the heart and leave none innocent.

We all indeed stand sinful in God's eyes.

Blog Postings

Kierkegaard and Aesthetics

  • Kyle presents Hero of the Subjective posted at Post Classic.

  • The Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer once criticized Kierkegaard for underplaying the role that aesthetics plays in a religious life. This piece explores the struggles of an artist with some of the Dane's writings, struggles I think many of us can identify with.

Kierkegaard and Bible

Kierkegaard and Heidegger on Dread (Angst)

  • Michael presents Dread in Kierkegaard posted at Le gai savoir.
    A comprehensive review of Kierkegaard's concept of anxiety and how the German philosopher Martin Heidegger used it in his book, Being and Time. This is a subject that has been investigated by other commentators who note Heidegger's unacknowledged debt to Kierkegaard. Like Sartre, Heidegger relied heavily on Kierkegaard's "Concept of Anxiety," though Dreyfus thinks that Kierkegaard's Christian Discourses was more influential. Be sure to follow the rest of Michael's series on this fascinating topic at the Kierkegaard Label page.
  • Lars presents The Other Kierkegaard posted at Spurious.
    An introspective, anti-realist dialog with Kierkegaard and other non-presences, living and dead. An imaginative and evocative dialog that calls up a side of Kierkegaard's spirit, perhaps not least his concern of love for the dead, the most perfect work of love.

Kierkegaard on Love and Ethics

Kierkegaard and Theism

Fear and Trembling

  • Stephen presents Kierkegaard posted at Stephen Law
    A short "Introduction to Kierkegaard on the Knight of Faith." Provides critical remarks on Kierkegaard, with a few questions that any Kierkegaardian should be ready to confront and try to answer.
  • Rick presents Soren Kierkegaard and Ethics posted at Ikant; A Refutation of Moral Relativism.
    Explores the dilemmas posed by Kierkegaard's ethico-religious sphere. Fear and Loathing has always threatened to erupt into the personal lives of its reader's. It probably cuts as close as any writing can to real flesh and bone. The author of this piece leaves some open questions that any reader of Kierkegaard should work to answer.
  • Geoffrey presents thoughts on Kierkegaard and faith... posted at Shadows Veil Our Eyes....
    Personal reflections on how Kierkegaard's Abraham intersects everyday life.

Kierkegaard for Living

Book Review

  • Chris presents Fear and Trembling(Penguin Books, Great Ideas Series, ISBN 0-14-303757-9) posted at Only a Game.

  • Reviews the book that breaks the back of Hegelian pretensions to Xtian religious hegemony.

Kierkegaard and Politics

  • Charles presents Texas George Rex Judas at the cynic librarian.

  • A diatribe that calls it as the writer sees it. Contains a Kierkegaardian reading of present-day events, perhaps relying too heavily on the background work of Matustik and Huntington. The background on Kierkegaard starts after the Introduction.

Online Resource

For numerous online articles about Kierkegaard, don't forget to visit Online Kierkegaard Links

That concludes this edition. Submit your blog article to the next edition of kierkegaard carnival using our carnival submission form.

Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page.

If you want to host a future editions of this Carnival, use the email address at Carnival Blog to contact me.

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Left Behind: The Reality Show

Mike Davis' work on world poverty, "Planet of Slums," is perhaps the most revolutionary work written in the last half-century. It ranks with many works that describe the horrendous conditions in which most of the world's population lives.

In the following interview, Davis discusses some of the important political aspects of his work:

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Remember, though sounding like something from revelation, the following is something that real people live every real day:

Hundreds never woke up. They were killed even before they realized what had happened. Enormous flames leapt from the nearby gas storage plant and shot a mile into the air. Bodies simply disappeared in the fireball, snatched from the earth without a trace. People ran through the street, some with their clothes and hair on fire, all screaming in fear. The sun had not yet come up, but the light from the flames lit up the scene as if it were noon. -- Simon, quoted in David, Planet of Slums, p. 130
Someday someone will write a "real-time" version of revelation and it will contain images like this. Read more!

XXXXXX = Freedom in the US of A

It seems that American citizens must begin to reflect not only about the neighbor/enemy half-way across the world. They should also begin thinking about those neighbors next door--the ones with the slaves in their own homes.

There's a Swiftian irony at work here; something breaking thru the world of imagination and hurling its sadness onto the shows of unsuspecting bystanders. While the US spouts so many cliches about free markets and freedom thru the mouth of Bush, we can perhaps solve all kinds of problems using good old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity.

Consider the case of those middle-classers who have the expertise to hook up a camera and a microphone to the Internet. Then they troll the poor streets of of Mexico, the Phillipines, Russia, or some other equally clueless nation looking for a pretty young thang. Promise her a nanny job or maybe just a job, a meal, or something like the promise of freedom. (I mean that's what we are about, right?) You know how the story ends, doncha?

If you don't, here's Suffolk County DA Spota describing the wonderful entrepreneurial spirit of those true 'Mericans:

Spota described how law enforcement officials found several Mexican women held against their will in a Plainfield, N.J., house, and said he is "convinced that there are hundreds of similar homes in our communities."

On Long Island, most of the victims of human trafficking come from Mexico or Eastern Europe, Spota said. They come for a better life, but find slavery, he said.
I know, I am an evil old man, looking through the dirt pile when I should find the silver lining, the light at the end of the tunnel, pie in the sky, blah blah.

Call me an archeologist of self-deceit and the easy lie.

PS While you're at it, take a gander at the edifying story of the glittery duo living in one of the most exclusive spots in the US of A and how they simply asserted their God-given right to the pursuit of happiness.

PPS It might be somewhat fallacious, but I'd note the similarity of these domestic issues and a much overlooked fact of life under US occupation in Iraq: the healthy growth in sex trade.

You might also take a look at this article on Israel's role in the international sex trade. Read more!

The Genesis of Atheism, on Video and Tape

The Huge Entity links to a series of videos outlining the history of modern atheism. I say modern atheism, since I think that there are ancient versions of it, as well, though perhaps Huge and others think it's a manifestation of modern science alone. Ancient forms include the Indian Carvaka and Hellenistic Epicureanism. I'd also include various forms of Buddhism, though I think Houston Smith disagrees with that view. Since the videos only cover the last 500 years, you'd also have to include the Renaissance as pre-Modern, so does Bruno fit the model of an atheist? What about Machiavelli and those who gravitated to varying degrees close to his views?

Note: You'll have to download Veoh to see the videos. It's relatively painless to do so. Read more!

Conversation wil Dr. Zimbardo

Interview with Philip Zimbardo about his Stanford experiment on prison torture and its conditions.

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Stanford Prison Experiment

Following up on the Milgram experiments, Zimbardo tried to see how normal people would react to being guards and prisoners. His findings surprised everyone, including himself.

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Asch Conformity Experiment

Not only are we acculturated/hardwired to follow authority, many also have a strong need to conform. Read more!

New World Order Memory Lane

In case you forgot, here's a short video ramble down memory lane. Read more!

Milgram , the British Remake

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"He was A Policeman; I thought I was Doing What Was Right"

This seems to contain information that does not appear in the segment that is available at ABCNews. What's interesting about this segment is the report of the McDonald's case. That is very odd.

NOTE: Whoever recorded this and uploaded it to the web left in the commercials. The experiment segment starts at 2:26.

part 3 of 3 of the series

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"I'm Sorry, Wrong Answer; 450 Volts" :: Milgram's obedience to authority study: parts 1-5

A re-creation of the famous study originally done in the '60's. Until recently, no one was authorized to replicate it due to ethical considerations. However, in 2007, ABC News was granted such permission and did so with many of the original researchers and some of the actual participants.

New data was also added.

This is the remake that ABC News did. It's an extended version of the segment that runs on the ABC site.

The laughter or snickering or both is an interesting phenomenon that not only appears in this sequel to the experiment but in the original video as well. Milgram commented on this. My best guess now is that the laughter here is about as close to the "baring of teeth" and aggressiveness that laughter is supposed to be related to.
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War Porn: Occupation, Sex, Prostitution

Several years ago I linked to articles that report the rise of prostitution among young Iraqi girls. Many of these prostitutes serviced US military men in Iraq.

As usual, the press has ignored this story, as it has much of the reality on the ground, such as the sexual hrassment of femake US soldiers by their male comrades, the use of chemical weapons in Falluja, the atrocities committed by US soldiers, the toll on civilians of the air campaign and so on.

Now a story out of Syria, where almost a million Iraqi refugees have fled, documents a flourishing sex trade that exploits penurious Iraqis. Reuters writes:

A score of young Iraqi women in tight, shimmering gowns shuffle across the nightclub dance floor under the hungry eyes of Gulf Arabs at nearby tables.

The band blasts out Iraqi songs into the early hours as the watching youths join the dancing or summon girls to sit with them -- there is little pretence about what gets transacted at this neon-lit nightspot half an hour's drive north of Damascus.

The dancers, some in their early teens, do not want to talk, but one said she had no other way to support her family. "My father was killed in Baghdad and our money is finished," muttered the dark-haired girl in a black and silver dress.

The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR calls it "survival sex", a desperate way to cope for Iraqi refugees whose savings have run out since they escaped the violence at home.
As I noted before, the human toll of war expands far beyond destruction of lives and property. It destroys human spirits. Read more!

War Porn II: Invitation to a Beheading

I share little in common with my father except nightmares and genes. Echoing through the silence of the years during which we have not spoken there winds the terror and horror of an insanity that was his and which I have guarded against. As with most shadows, though, the danger in fighting them brings the danger that you will mistake what's real for shadow and shadow for what's real.

There's no doubt that I have often taken a no-prisoners strategy in defending those I love and myself from often paranoiac fears that my father was on the highways, headed my way with a trunk full of automatic weapons and bent on a rampage that started with the death of my mother and would end with the slaughter of my children and me.

These personal comments relate to the paranoia that strikes deep in the heart of fantasy and illusion that comprise the American dream. When attacked, the US public responded with a hysteria that can only astound the rest of the world for its over-reaction. ...

While we sit and watch the fantasy war unfold, US citizens sit bemused and impotent at the sight of their representatives who are apparently incapable of doing anything to stop the madness that their own hysteria set in motion. Asserting the type of sovereignty and authority that a head of state is supposed to exhibit, the mannequin that voices testosterone-filled apothegms that beggar grammar strides the world stage like an idiot savant known for bringing death and destruction to innocents.

It's said that during the first days of the Afghan invasion Pres. George Bush once told the CIA to send him the head of Osama bin-Laden after the terrorist was caught and killed. The CIA agent on the ground took the order seriously enough that he gathered the materials required to pack the head in dry ice and ship it to Washington.

What this story says to me is that the facade created by the civilized US invasion is nothing but a charade created by a sophisticated media effort. The real, on-the-ground actions that buttress the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have never made it into the US public sphere. Instead of the decapitation fantasies of our leader, we see the US portrayed as the army of light versus the forces of darkness.

I have drawn attention to the appearance in the public fantasy show of a genre called War Porn. This genre gains in popularity, it seems, throughout the US and perhaps the world, as suggested by hits at my blog with "war porn" as the search terms.

Yet, the indecency of this genre is many-sided. What differentiates the prurient interests of adolescents and young soldiers looking for, trading, and selling this type of porn and the types of videos put on the web by the oh-so-virtuous jihadists? Consider the beheading of famous Iraqi female journalist Atwar Bahjat.

As the following description shows, the thin line separating the video of this crime and that in porn is a diminishing, if not non-existent, value:

We now know that it was not that swift for Bahjat. First she was stripped to the waist, a humiliation for any woman but particularly so for a pious Muslim who concealed her hair, arms and legs from men other than her father and brother.

Then her arms were bound behind her back. A golden locket in the shape of Iraq that became her glittering trademark in front of the television cameras must have been removed at some point — it is nowhere to be seen in the grainy film, which was made by someone who pointed a mobile phone at her as she lay on a patch of earth in mortal terror.
The scene could come from a snuff film. Yet, tragically and inhumanly, it comes from a group of brutish men who think they perform this defilement in the name of Allah.

In a book called Toxic Religion, it's stated that the religious fanatics are often plagued by sexual thoughts that are perverse and violent. I suggest that the jihadists fit this description to a tee. That these demons in the form of men believe that they are virtuous because they can carry out this brutality only shows how empty and filled with a despairing sin their version of religion is. They manifest their own sickness and wretched feelings about sexuality in crimes that reveal nothing but corrupt hearts and spirits.

I have included this description along with my personal reminiscences for a reason: in his despair over his divorce and what he considered his betrayal by my mother, my father once described for me the very type of scene that was played out in Bahjat's death. That vision--of my mother's head in my father's hands and plunked on the hood of a car--haunted my late adolescent years and still does. I cannot watch the movie Seven because the ending plays back too realistically that vision for me.

Does the personal nature of my father's insane fury obviate in any way the crime he nurtured in his heart? Does it make what these so-called men did to this woman, who simply wanted to be a woman, more or less heinous once we see it from the perspective of the crimes and despair that fill not a personal life but the vengeance-filled fantasy of our leader?

Do these thoughts provide a spectrum of ghoulish sensuality that festers in the heart of men who despair of their own humanity so much that they cannot stomach a woman leading her own life and who must therefore degrade her sexually and monstrously?

Simone Weil once wrote that we must recognize that given the right circumstances we are all capable of the most despicable acts. I believe that she was right in this, and I therefore recognize that the acts of these men and the crime fantasized by my father are also potentially acts that I myself could and would enact.

Some will say that what separates us from them is the barbarity of their acts. Yet, barbarism is a reality that seems to change once we begin to plumb the depths of our own sins. Read more!

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Secularism, Nothingness, Religion, and the Secret Passwords

A lot of ethnographic, historical, and sociological evidence shows that when cultural systems decline, social and personal ills appear. You don’t need to look too far to see the truth of this conclusion. Within our own culture, the culture wars are a backlash against the destruction of traditional American cultural values. In the Islamic world, a similar reaction at seeing their culture trashed has been perhaps even more profound.

Statements by political and religious thinkers suggest some cognizance of the problem but also a willed attempt to shroud its source. Couched in the language of a clash between civilizations, the present situation assumes a world where everything that I am and that we are will die if we or I don’t return to a purified version of the traditional or founding values. ...

We face a situation in which those fighting the American culture war since the 60s against the counter-culture have come into conflict with Islamic cultural warriors who have been fighting a similar war for their cultural identity since the 60s, when the Muslim Brotherhood came to prominence in Egypt.

For many, religion has come to the fore as the main institution under attack. As a cultural system—to borrow a phrase from the anthropologist Clifford Geertz—religion is ultimately associated with ethics and social structuring in such a way that when religion withers on the vine, social chaos and personal anomie quickly ensues.

Even the so-called “evil” extremists are not anti-civilization. Indeed, that is the brunt of their message. The extremist Jihadist is as much concerned for cultural and ethical values as are PB16, Pat Robertson, or Pres. Bush himself. Seeing their culture devalued as second-rate compared to Xtian civilization—remembering the history of European colonialist nations’ attempts to carry out the protocols of manifest destiny--they bring into play the opposing view that Islam is a noble and valid cultural framework within which a human being can attain happiness.

What else are fundamentalists—whether Xtian, Jewish, Hindu and (dare I say it?) Rationalist—saying? They expect to convince me that the solutions revealed in their books, practices, rituals, holy verse, or methodologies can deliver the answers to all those questions that all humans in all places have asked. Indeed, all human desires, thoughts, and actions--these doctrines maintain—can be answered if we only find that one thing hiding the truth and crack open the shell—of faith, reason, or desire.

Where seek an answer when the locus or place of the problem is so varied—from the imperceptible movements and needs of the internal person to the profound social and historical non-human processes? The multitude of levels at which wrong, pain, and hurt can be felt pose problems enough. Modern consumer society provides numerous diversions to keep us from asking some very basic questions about ourselves and the world we implicitly give our allegiance to.

This is the crisis we face. This is the dilemma whose gates we stand before with the guard blankly asking for the secret password so we can pass through to greater awareness and understanding. We face our own alienation, boredom, ennui, self-deception, and despair and seek an answer from others who themselves ask the same questions. And when they can’t give an answer either or act in ways that rub us the wrong way, we immediately cast them in the position of being the root of our own despair.

This little Kafkaesque flourish points up the mystery of lives that have been denuded of all magic, all paradox, all byways by what used to be called spirit could entertain the visions of purity of heart, worlds beyond the world, dimensions whose hold on us made demands that drove saints into the desert. We are left with the anemic demons whose blood rituals grow in ever expanding orgies of blood lust.

On the face of it, this is a bizarre assertion. It suggests that the majority of human-kind is enmeshed in some kind of mass hallucination that hides from them the true nature not only of the world but of themselves. Not only that, it calls to mind the camp of fanatics, intolerants, and madmen throughout history; not to mention those saints and other religious aficionados who happened to escape from their faith and attain a measure of equilibrium, by which is meant producing a result that even the rich swilling at the trough of abundance and extravagance can find quaintly worthy of praise.

But there are signs of this mass hallucination everywhere. It takes on the guise of inter-religious and inter-ethnic violence, keeping up with the Jones’, scandal-mongering, apathy, and alienation. Everything from consumer shopping frenzy to stay in touch with the most recent product to religio-political programmes for civic sanitation and ethical renewal to fundamentalist rage and purification through romanticizing cults of death—all these phenomena represent a deeply ingrained despair, sometimes recognized, most times not.

Not only do these attempts to promise happiness—the ultimate Good, said Aristotle—they also promote a way of life that will ensure a society in which people within those societies can achieve happiness. If we all have the same things, then everyone will be happy. If we all look and act alike, then the lack of differences will assure peace through conformity. If we all vie for the same status and material goods, we will find stability in the struggle for subsistence itself.

The vagaries of history have favored capitalism. It is assumed by many, therefore, that it is the big winner of the cosmic lottery. Basing themselves on this apparent luck, Xtians, for example, see the hand of God at work. They believe that God is in control of all things and, like a big banker in the sky, is ready to repay all those centuries of investment by past generations who’ve sacrificed and labored in the Lord’s vineyards.

But what history, or God, gives, it can also take away. Unless of course, you think, like the savior-President, that God and history divinely ordain one group of people to spread to the rest of the world a message of peace and freedom.

Some crises are so great that falling back on the old ways and thinking simply don’t work anymore. This “not working” doesn’t just mean that we can’t make a success in life. Continuing in the old ways might indeed continue to bring success. But the success or the “working” part of our lives doesn’t mean anything. Life’s not working anymore means that the old ways just don’t make sense and do not bring the satisfaction that they did before.…

The Russian novelist Dostoevsky once wrote that one must experience evil to find good. What he meant by this is that the traditional values and ethical concepts have been denuded of meaning—that meaning that seeps into my very bones and animates everything else I do in life. Through the process of experiencing dissolution and evil I will come to know Good—that I must know what the reality of the evil is before can even begin to see the possibility of its opposite, the Good.

From this perspective, I begin to see the current ethical and spiritual chaos as an education for a higher order. I experience chaos and let its Antarctic cold tear off my face before I can even start that journey to anything else. The alternative is to lose myself in a faceless and meaningless herd mentality that promises the eternal in everyday routines and consumer Disneylands, but whose promise is ultimately empty. These Disneylands lead to much unconscious despair though emitting a veneer of pan-consciousness on the TV and computer screens of the world.

Absolute freedom promises absolute obedience. Knowing evil leads to good. Sickness brings health. In an age where all formulas and incantations to happiness have been co-opted by either a religio-political regime or otherwise colonized and turned into an advertising enthymeme, all values must become known through their opposites.

This is not a call to do evil for evil’s sake. Anyone familiar with the writings of Jean Genet understands how difficult it is to consciously pursue evil. Instead, the education of the modern age brings with it a despair that I must know and recognize, eschewing all empty phrases and jingoistic methods that deprive of something so essential to my life that I will indeed die. Violence is just another form of losing my self.

The crisis we face is two-fold: immunizing ourselves to the pain and suffering of others and the shutting ourselves off from that which would make us capable of perceiving the our true selves and thereby giving loving others for who they are. We are born with the sense for ethics; but it must engage an environment and practice that encourage its growth and continuation.

What modern secular culture does not do is to provide this environment. As a consequence, traditional cultures rebel when their cultures suffer desolation at the onslaught of secularization. Those already secularized find themselves in despair without knowing it—encased in an ever-growing cocoon of cultural anomie, social fragmentation, and personalistic isolation.

Yet, it is only through the purifying nothingness of secularism that I can or will come to know who I am. For we will learn that there are no systems that can grip with infinite value, no morals that cannot be questioned, no authority whose legitimacy is not based on egoism and self-interest, no final solution beyond the terror of mass enslavement and manufactured death.

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

All That Oil and No Bush in Sight?

I repost the following in light of arch-conservative Milton Friedman's pronouncement that "of course" the war in Iraq is about oil:

The point I was making was that if there were no oil under the sands of Iraq, Saddam Hussein would have never been able to accumulate the resources which enabled him to threaten his neighbors, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia. And having watched him for thirty years, I was very fearful that he, if he ever achieved — and I thought he might very well be able to buy one — an atomic device, he would have essentially endeavored and perhaps succeeded in controlling the flow of oil through the Straits of Hormuz, which is the channel through which eighteen or nineteen million barrels a day of the world eighty-five million barrel crude oil production flows. Had he decided to shut down, say, seven million barrels a day, which he could have done if he controlled, he could have essentially also shut down a significant part of economic activity throughout the world.

The size of the threat that he posed, as I saw it emerging, I thought was scary. And so, getting him out of office or getting him out of the control position he was in, I thought, was essential. And whether that be done by one means or another was not as important, but it’s clear to me that were there not the oil resources in Iraq, the whole picture of how that part of the Middle East developed would have been different.

Reading over a recent Guardian Unlimited piece on Christopher Hitchens, I recalled Slavoj Zizek's comments that Hitchens has presented one of the best arguments for the so-called war in Iraq
:The one good argument for war against Iraq is evoked by Christopher Hitchens: The majority of Iraqis are Saddam's victims, and they would be really glad to be rid of him. He is such a catastrophe for his country that an American occupation in whatever form is a much brighter prospect for Iraqi citizens. We are not talking here of "bringing Western democracy to Iraq," but of just getting rid of the nightmare called Saddam. To this majority, the caution expressed by Western liberals cannot but appear deeply hypocritical. Do they really care about how the Iraqi people feel?

Of course, what Zizek gives with one hand, he takes away with another. While conceding that most western liberals are mealy-mouthed placaters when it comes to opposing real evil and tyranny, he also notes that the war with Iraq is not that kind of war--no matter what Hitchens avers. Indeed, for Zizek the Iraq debacle is symptomatic of western neoliberals and the social and economic imperialism imposed by this way of thinking.

It's an oversimplification of Zizek's argument, but it seems that he has always said that any war--no matter how noble or apparently altruistic in intent any war carried out by neoliberal countries, they will always be underpinned by less noble, more mercenary motives.

The war in Iraq is a case in point. The Bush admin has crashed and tumbled over numerous "reasons" for going to war like a drunk trying to maneuver an obstacle course.

First, we had weapons of mass destruction and the impending shadow of nuclear mushroom clouds. When that didn't pan out and no weapons were found and the nuclear threat was shown to have been based on a forgery whose origin is still unknown, the Bush admin reverted to some soporific talk of democratizing the Mideast.

Now Iraq that is slowly circling the drain into sectarian civil war, the Bush admin has supposedly dropped its mantra about staying the course in Iraq. But what has appeared unique in the new rhetoric and the old one's demise is something of a peek at the real reasons for this war and for the US presence in the Mideast.

Thomas Nadelhoffer at Truth to Power (echoing others) points to Bush's own recent statements about the reason to see the nasty deed done to the bloodiest nail and tooth:
You see, 'reasonable' citizens of the world look at these kinds of facts and conclude that we invaded Iraq in order to liberate the Iraqi people from an oppressive dictator. The delusional, paranoid, and conspiratorial, on the other hand, are crazy enough to conclude that the Bushie oiligarchy might have invaded Iraq for profit and oil.
A day or so after I read Nadelhoffer's comments, I heard Pres. Bush voice the same argument again; that is, that if we allow the terrorists to take Iraq that they will gain access to Iraqi oil fields and thereby threaten US security. During his Oct 25 news conference, Bush said:
The fact that the fighting is tough does not mean our efforts in Iraq are not worth it. To the contrary, the consequences in Iraq will have a decisive impact on the security of our country, because defeating the terrorists in Iraq is essential to turning back the cause of extremism in the Middle East.

If we do not defeat the terrorists or extremists in Iraq, they will gain access to vast oil reserves and use Iraq as a base to overthrow moderate governments across the broader Middle East.
Of course, few in the MSM picked up on this comment or the one quoted by Nadelhoffer (though I believe that CNN's Wolf Blitzer made passing reference to it but without pursuing its implication; CNN's own report of the news conference doesn't quote it).

And--of course--the idea is not a new one, that is, that the US' main objective in Iraq is to secure the vast oil field and reserves there. Noam Chomsky has been saying this since the beginning of the so-called war, as I have in speaking to various groups of people. Indeed, the idea that the US or another imperial power would go to war over oil was first voiced by Simone Weil in the late 1930s. I have linked several times to articles that deal with this issue, most notably the comments by former Republican strategist and insider Kevin Phillips.

While all of this may be true, I want to look at one phenomenon I have recently encountered when trying to discuss this notion about the US going to war over oil. From the beginning of the invasion I always heard people say that it cannot be about oil. That if it was about oil, it'd be ... something.

The reason I put an ellipsis there is because when people say that it can't be about oil and then are asked why it can't be, they are often speechlessly left saying< "It just can't be...". One of the more articulate responses about why it can't be is because if it is then it's wrong. That if soldiers are dying for oil it's ... just wrong.

On the face of it, there's nothing unreasonable about a country that depends on oil to run its industrial infrastructure on oil trying to secure its sources for this valuable resource. In a world where Machiavellian maneuvering displace banalities about morality, the idea seems perfectly rational, indeed overwhelmingly rational. Many people, however, simply do not want to face several factors: 1) the immense role that oil plays in our lives, 2) the effects that having no oil would have on their lives, and 3) the desire to simply deny reality when it becomes apparent when the reality is staring them in the face.

Certainly, leftists have not made enough of the oil-over-war meme. In the rather over-used phraseology of an over-worked corporate hack, leftists have not "educated" the public in this aspect of 1) the war and 2) the role that oil plays in everyday life. Yet, beyond this practical, procedural observation, there's the existential fact that even should the idea gain some discussion in the public sphere whether people would believe it, want to believe it, or simply tune it out because it is unbelievable, conspiratorial sounding, or too brutally honest that they'd rather believe anything else except that.

I have a penchant for naivety. I respect the desire to see good in all things and to trust those who tell me something. I take seriously Kierkegaard's admonition that when faced with uncertainty involving hate or love, it always incumbent to choose love:
"[E]xistence must be so arranged that you do not with the aid of certainty in knowledge slink out of revealing yourself in judging or in the way you judge. When deception and truth are presented as two equal possibilities in contrast to each other, the decision is whether there is love or mistrust in you." -- Kierkegaard, _Works of Love_
Yet, this type of stance towards life does not rule out a common sense, critical eye on the machinations of the power mongers. Indeed, as Kierkegaard would have been the first to point out, those who attempt to deceive and falsely pass off truths that exploit our deepest anxieties must indeed be exposed for the liars and corrupters they are.

That argument has the distinction of giving the leaders of this country a benefit of the doubt. Imagine, on the other hand, that the scenario depicted in the movie Syriana of oil running out is not paranoid delusions. Then the leaders of this country could be seen as acting ethically, if by that you mean for the benefit of the whole. Yet, by hiding the truth of the danger and by lining the pockets of the wealthy oil barons, that ethical dimension begins to diminish as the level of corruption grows.

Ethically, the empire's leaders should level with the American public. Not in the saccharine and sanguine terms that GW tried to do several months ago with his talk about energy dependence. This talk should be as hard-bitten and to the bone as possible. It should be as black and white as possible with all the finer shades of grey included but not for the sake of cushioning the blow of the truth but to make the true light of that truth stand in its proper background.

My guess is that the truth here will be immensely bitter. Facing the facts would entail a complete redirection of the life of the community--away from excessive consumerism and take-it-all while you can life styles. It would mean a massive sacrifice of immediate pleasures and gratifications on such a large, painful scale that the US might actually look like a Spartan nation rather the ostentatious Athens that it now does.

Such an undertaking would guarantee future generations of our children at least a future. And if it is done right, that future would not have to look so spartan nor so bleak as a world in crisis because it can't feed its thirst for oil and blood might otherwise look.

My guess, though, is that there are few politicians who have the grit to bring these truths to reality for an American public more willing to delude itself because of its inability or its refusal to face the bare-knuckled ethical problems. The reasons for this are many and include the way that the republic is organized to leave a preening mass in the dark while the so-called insider elite finds its entitled glimpse of hardcore realities reason enough to govern.

The problem is that this position in the past has allowed them to moderately profit from their insider knowledge. Now, however, the lid has come off and the profit-taking and massive plunder of the public treasure has given them a taste for more and ever more. The restraint that a Protestant ethic once inculcated in the leadership has worn away and the profiteers of the republic have nothing to stabilize or stem their greed.

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