Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Film Review: Children of Men

I was so unpleasantly astonished at the high production values and comparatively poor thought value behind Alfonso Cuaron's putatively-critical 2006 film, Children of Men, that I decided to write a quick review:

We all know that concerned, critical-minded people the world over want to see film better portray the problems of our world. And many of us know that the Hollywood film industry functions, for the most part, as a form of indirect propaganda (as opposed to the direct form of propaganda with which most are familiar) that reaffirms many of the establishment's viewpoints and ideological underpinnings. Those dissidents among us eagerly wait to see the gem of critical thought and subversion that slips through here and there. Hollywood sees that segment of the population (particularly after wildly successful response to films like "The Matrix"), and, as always, attempts to capture our "demographic's" collective hearts and minds with more recent films that have some of the characteristics, and some of the grittier content, of subversive art, but none of the subversive conclusions and implications.

In other words, Hollywood has been quickly seeking to do to the burgeoning independent film industry what it did with the 1960s-70s counterculture (and what the establishment naturally seeks to do to all culture); capture its flavor, distill it of undesirable political content, and commoditize it into profitable form that crowds out content by the less-ideologically-reliable independent film scene.

Children of Men is a highly, highly overrated piece that is indeed ideologically-reliable, and joins the chorus of voices in the establishment-approved film set encouraging us to adopt a deep, individualistic, to-hell-with-everyone cynicism, all the while stroking the egos of the burnt-out 60s-generation dropouts.

In terms of its storytelling and vision, it's hard to describe exactly how it falls flat. Beyond its very loaded message (more on that below), it is technically superb, with a cinéma vérité-ish feel, but it seems the filmmakers were, well, trying too hard. Trying too hard to fit in everything they could, with plenty of contemporary references stretched to the point of incredulity. Trying too hard to clone every intense scene taken by war photographers from Vietnam to the U.S.'s most recent imperial adventure in Iraq. Trying so hard to make it disjointed and senselessly random, which of course is how war really plays out, but in such a way as to bring it to the point of looking artlessly (as opposed to artfully) disjointed, and, well, rushed. Indeed, the whole film felt altogether rushed, with every possible shortcut taken to establish a depth that can only be false depth.

Politically and socially, it really seems to seek to appeal to burnt-out, cynical and (again) to-hell-with-it-all baby boomers, and is in places almost fawningly flattering to their self-view. Yes, here we have it: escapist baby boomers save the world, or humanity or whatever. After all, we're shown what we are encouraged to interpret as the foolishness and futility of political organization and action, and that, in the end, those resisting tyranny (the Left, of course) will always be just as bad as those they fight, and thus that just getting away from all those messed up people to some far away place (or, again, dropping out) is the solution.

Indeed, overall, the vision behind Children of Men seems to highly support a very denunciatory view of humanity, like those old hysterical nuclear war films that portray people descending on others and themselves in riotous, crazed frenzy, because, well, you-know-how-people-are. When disaster strikes, people's real nature comes out and they show their self-interested true selves.  The film's message is rather traditionally conservative in that regard.

Films like this "doth" protest too much. They are supportive of the old, self-serving conservative view of human nature. After all, if humankind tends toward whatever we define as evil, then social justice is silly and we should just accept injustice, firm social control, and a militaristic and exploitative social order as "necessary." But if humankind is more complex than that, and is not how the worst of us like to portray all of us, then such an order becomes a tragically self-fulfilling prophecy. It's a point to be considered with more political maturity than that shown in this film.

And if you felt more cynical and defeated, with a more dismal view of mankind's prospects for some better form of social existence, after watching the film, rest assured that such is no doubt the filmmakers' intent. It is, in the end, a political argument, and one that, as expected in any film that strives for mainstream legitimacy, attacks those who organize and resist the evils depicted in the film with as much disdain as it attacks those who perpetuate it.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Why Identity Politics Are Wrong

As usual, this is a long essay. The first half is sort of a personal history of my intellectual development on the subject, and can be considered optional. If you wish to skip to the actual argument, you can skip down to the bolded text preceded by "Here is why."

As long as I can remember, I have essentially been critical, justice-minded and what can be most broadly characterized as populist and left-leaning in disposition. Be that as it may, I spent several essentially reactionary and aggressively conformist years of my life as a convert to Mormonism. It did not lost long, but that was the unfortunate state of things when I entered into what, to me, constituted the most powerful and accelerated stage of my intellectual, moral and political development. This occurred in the first year I entered college full-time, in my late twenties.

One of my first experiences was in a postwar American History classes in which the topic of gay and lesbian marriage came up. Taking the "strong" moral position to stand up for what is Right and True, I was that guy in the class, that day, arguing that homosexuality is wrong and that gay marriage should not be allowed because it hurts society and the institution of marriage and that sort of thing.

It was an odd thing, as I had had no strong feelings about the matter one way or another before, and knew little about it. But my lack of understanding played into the fore when the church had teachings on the matter, and I too-casually took the role as arrogant, self-righteous persecutor in that classroom. Thinking about it later, it disturbed me.

As I read and learned more, I began questioning more and more of my assumptions (along with conclusions that had been taught by previous education, mainstream media and general conventional wisdom). Studying American History, I read in-depth about slavery, anti-slavery, war and imperial foreign policy, brutal suppression of labor and socialists, and other sharp ugly issues.

I was shamed into taking a class in women's history by my semiconservative Christian academic adviser and history teacher, who herself taught the class. I really didn't want to take that class. It sounded narrow and boring, and a crop of old prejudices and unfavorable impressions came to mind. And besides, I already considered myself sympathetic; what more could they tell me that I didn't already know?

Nevertheless, I took the class, and like so many others, it radically altered my understanding of the matter (again, note that this was a Christian, right-of-center professor as well). For women's studies, for example, I realized the issue isn't female identity or silly mischaracterizations like oppositions to bras, but justice.

As I learned more in my studies of history, I realized that all these issues tied together. Women, racism, economic exploitation, colonialism and the tortuous history of America's resumption of Europe's role over the old colonies throughout the 20th Century. It all came together in a seamless whole, and I identified with and fully supported the radical rebellions. I saw the points feminists and socialists and environmentalists and civil rights advocates and other persecuted groups were making, and I found myself in agreement. In fact, it seemed all the more clear in light of the syntheses that figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Black Panthers posited. The problem was capitalism, the idea that it is acceptable for one man to exploit another.

Needless to say, my acceptance of Mormonism had began crumbling decisively, and about a year or two later I repudiated it.

By the time I came into law school, I was a sort of self-styled radical with decisively Leftist leanings. (A very lonely thing to be in any law school, even a relatively liberal one, by the way.) I was going to learn to fight the good fight, to bring about real justice. But I kept finding myself at odds, unable to work with, the groups around me. There was the Multicultural Law Students Association, with its Asian and Latino and even Middle-Eastern (inactive as it was) subsections. There were the usual groups, such as the disgusting conservative Federalist Society (fawning after archconservative Antonin Scalia and the whole pantheon of right-wing hero figures) and the liberal equivalent whose name I cannot recall (which itself, I think, is quite appropriate). There was a women's organization, and a gay and lesbian organization. They all were champions of their respective causes, and loosely allied, but all were eagerly seeking generalized legitimacy and, well, kind of unfriendly and uncomfortable with more radical types -- if not outright hostile.

It was odd to me, and it caused me a lot of angst. Even the socialist-founded National Lawyers Guild was peopled with individuals who merely seemed to want a more strenuous ACLU, rather than a holistic opposition to the prevailing ideology. All were distinctly uncomfortable with the anything more than a vague, unspoken leaning to the left. And this was at a very, very liberal university that had a fair number of radicals in the undergraduate college.

I never quite understood it, though I agreed fully with all their causes. But the question nagged me: why do these people not see past their narrow perspectives and take a larger view? Why are persecuted gays any more important than persecuted women (or vice-versa), or than Guatemalans, Haitians or East Timorese murdered in the interests of U.S. corporate and governmental interests and their client states, or than people impoverished and worked to the point of degradations in mines and factories, all in the name of "progress" and profit?

Seeking that elusive “unified Left,” I became active, for a time, in the Oregon Green Party, which I later realized was riven with ideological conflict between the “watermelons” (socialists who had been absorbed into the Greens – Green on the outside, red on the inside – get it?) and the centrist-liberal environmentalist libertarian types, the “real” Greens, they asserted. The written platform of the Green Party was fantastic, but on the ground it was riven with the same narrow divisions and failures of "big picture" awareness. A little less than a year later I resigned in disgust after being pulled into the middle of a petty and destructive factional feud.

It later all came together for me in a quick, frustrated after-class lecture by an African professor of international and criminal law who worked with Nelson Mandela. Responding to a student's question on some issue, he explained that, rather than being the solution, identity politics are a problem that undermines any potential solutions.

Identity politics? I had heard the term used, but had discounted it as facile, self-serving conservative dismissal of critics. Quickly defined, one might say identity politics is political behavior, association or allegiance based upon rigid, involuntary identities – gender, sexual orientation, race, nationality, and so forth. And they are a natural reaction to the identity politics of the Western order, which manifests itself as the western European Christian societal power so firmly ensconced for longer than anyone knows different. After all, they have the Ku Klux Klan, and so why shouldn't persecuted blacks form their own exclusive blacks-only organizations? Women have dealt with patriarchal exploitation for so long; why shouldn't they have their own equivalents? Why shouldn't people who have suffered deep and abiding general bigotry become separatist?

Since I became socially conscious and social-justice-minded, I felt firmly supportive of and empathized with separatist movements and groups, though I always, as I have touched upon, felt uncomfortable around them. Though I am in agreement and sympathy and share convictions with you, I am, when it comes down to it, the wrong race, or the wrong sex, or the wrong ethnicity. And we go our own ways.

Of course, as a side note it must be said that not all involved in such pursuits are universally so small-minded or parochial. But enough are; the problem lies in the methodology, not the individuals.

Thinking about the matter, I concluded that my international law profession is correct.

Here is why.

1) Identity politics narrow one's scope of empathy and crowd out larger considerations of morality and social consciousness

It has been said, and I think it true, that people are quite decent to others within their scope of empathy. What this means is that, if you truly accept another's humanity and feel a commonality with them, you will find it very difficult to mistreat or dishonor them. It is only when others become dehumanized to us that we become hardened to them and either disregard or actually seek to create harm to others.

Empathy is a powerful emotion – nature's way of producing cooperation and aiding survival – and is one of the redeeming features of humanity. It is one of the primary sources of altruism and beneficial human behavior. [1]
[1] I would like to clarify a commonly misunderstood concept in regard to empathy. Empathy is not the same thing as sympathy. Both work as an emotional bond with another that produces compassion, but their foundation is different.

Sympathy is compassion based upon mutually-shared experience and nuanced understanding. For example, I can never know what it's like to have grown up gay in the United States, a country noteworthy for a its extreme persecution of homosexuality, and thus can never truly share experiential sympathy.

Sympathy as a source of compassion is not in itself wrong. The problem is that, if I rely upon sympathy to form the basis of my compassion for people, I must rely on the mere accident of circumstance to determine my sympathies and social awareness. If human society depends upon mere sympathy for cooperative behavior, it will be divided into experiential subgroups with powerful understanding for those like them, and misunderstanding, wariness and antipathy for others. I am already describing mainstream America.

Sympathy is the most intuitive and basic form of cooperation, and is the basis for tribalism and team dynamics.

Empathy, on the other hand, is compassion based upon a more generalized feeling of human unity. I can really never know what it is like to be gay in America, but I can certainly realize that, whatever its source and its individual nuances of flavor, human suffering is universal, and that, as fellow beings, we have far more in common than different, and desire the same basic things. Suffering is suffering, and one can indeed base a more generalized sense of concern for the well-being of others on shared humanity, rather than shared subcategory.

Sympathy will not save the world, for it predictably fails to bridge divisions. Only empathy can do so, though broadening of sympathy is generally be a part of the path toward a more generalized empathy.
That said, such things as war propaganda are specifically designed to heighten narrow group identity and, more importantly, undermine empathy. Notice, for example, that such propaganda and even action films use the technique of hiding, obscuring or parodying the human faces of the “enemy” in order to remove their apparent humanity. In Star Wars, for example, the enemy stormtroopers always had helmets suggesting grotesque, monstrous visages. In old World War II propaganda, including Popeye and Disney cartoons, for example, Japanese and Germans were rendered with the familiar grotesque facial features posturing in ways guaranteed to demonstrate a decided lack of humanity. And, of course, it is useful to think of how Nazi schools taught their children about what Jews "are like," showing hunchbacked pictures with exaggerated noses and facial distortions. The face is an important element of human recognition and empathy.

One of the biggest problems of identity politics is that it strongly tends to hyperfocus one's attention and scope of empathy on the specified group. After all, I am of Middle-eastern descent, not gay, Latino or female. They have their problems; I have mine. And thus I shall focus on mine and cooperate with them where there is mutual gain to be made.

In a way, this sets these different identity interests at odds with each other. After all, which deserves national attention? They become like advertisers, who are not so much interested in squashing the advertisements and billboards of others as they are making their own shine above all others. They render so much energy in their own causes, and become so emotionally invested in them, that their own sympathized causes really do take an overweening prominence over all else.

And, after all, why shouldn't they? If one studies, in depth and with compassion, the persecution and mistreatment and dehumanization that gays, for example, have suffered and still suffer, one is immediately struck with grief and rage. One does not have to be a member of a persecuted group, after all, to understand that the infliction of deep suffering, arbitrary social exclusion, physical harm, and worse to anyone is a horrible crime against everything decent that must be stopped immediately. The more I read about the history of the treatment of blacks in America, the more I felt a deep rage – of the good kind, that is – the kind that impels action and that we should all feel at injustice, and the more I felt it was a burning issue.

In fact, these are all burning issues. And the persecuted and exploited in this society are like a veritable forest, with different types of trees gathering into groups for mutual protection and urging the woodcutters to go cut somewhere else. They are not so concerned where.

In other words, identity politics strongly tend toward a narrowing of social conscience and a feeling of competition toward other causes. Often, such groups are peopled with individuals whose social conscience really is substantially limited to the issue in question, much like the Mother Against Drunk Driving who was apathetic before but, now that she lost a loved one in a drunk driving accident, now has the one issue in the world about which she knows enough to care.

And a narrowing of social conscience is the narrowing of the scope of empathy. As we divide into parochial groups with competing desire for attention and redress, we lose sight of each other – never mind the big picture and those with less public concern and publicity resources, such as those suffering in the Third World from Western military-economic depredations. And, as a result...

2) Identity politics perpetuate and re-energize divisions

I often hear conservative whites talk of “reverse racism” and justify their bigotry on the ground that blacks have overreacted and now do the same in kind. I find this to be bullshit, and an argument wholly deserving of contempt for its self-serving shortsightedness.

However, there is indeed a seed of truth – as there always is behind the bloodiest and dirtiest lies. And that seed of truth is that identity politics can indeed function to perpetuate irrational divisions by re-enforcing the same lines that the original aggressors created. Thus, where the whites in power had sought to segregate blacks in designated areas, often blacks, quite naturally and understandably, reacted along the lines of, “Fine – you don't want us, and we don't care to have to fight to be with you. We'll have our own areas.”

Have we not all felt this way about rejection and dehumanization by others? I certainly have, and not just in the distant past, either.

If this was the only way of dealing with the humiliation and dehumanization by those with social power against marginalized and demonized groups, then it would be justifiable. After all, if the division is already there and irrepairable, should individual groups not at least be able to reclaim some of their dignity? But if there is a better solution that accomplishes more while visiting less damage upon human society, it is an unfortunate misapplication of energies.

The problem, rather, again relates to the undermining of our ability to see our commonality and to extend our empathy beyond ourselves and those most immediately like us. And because it creates an us versus them mentality that is likely to be immediately reciprocated and reinforced, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Indeed, on that point...

3) Identity politics often result in their own forms of bigotry

Identity politics are a creation of homogeneity unpolluted by the outside judgments and persecutions that incited their formation. When I seek those like me, I want to find people with whom I can share assumptions and not have to justify my every statement, much less my existence and my dignity. And why not isolate oneself from hostility and stay within a community of like kind?

However, as can be seen by closely watching any relatively homogeneous group of people with similar backgrounds and assumptions, people tend to let loose in such contexts and relax their guard – both against external offense and against our internal suppression of ideas that, in a wider context, might be hurtful to outsiders.

After all, within a White Pride meeting, it flies quite naturally to demonize non-whites for their persecution of whites, who, after all, just want to have a little Pride, teach Correct History and retain the Purity of the White Race. Share those ideas outside such a den of masturbatory regressiveness, and you're likely to meet with some persecution yourself, and not unjustly I might add.

However, even among the inoffending and marginalized, social isolation into a group who share a common bond of persecution and rigid identity offers the same opportunity for bigotry. Often it might begin as mere humor or emotional purging in a safe place, and everyone will laugh and bond together. It might be retained as an in-joke or catchphrase, and eventually, perhaps, become a fixture of the new subculture.

History repeatedly shows that even the worst victimization is no guarantee that the victims, once they attain their own power over some sphere, won't repeat the original offense against others. Indeed, psychological study of what has been called the “cycle of abuse” quite supports this.

Identity politics can and often do result in a collective version of the cycle of abuse. After all, who is more inclined to become militant and hostile than someone who has been victimized, persecuted, and found new strength later? And because the group is cohesive and homogeneous, it is far less likely that new bigotries – especially well-founded ones – will be challenged and a fair and universal standard of moral judgment applied to them. The golden rule will give way to the iron rod.

As a result...

4) Identity politics are guaranteed to produce bad feelings by excluding fellow travelers

In the antislavery movement, there were instances where black abolitionists, tired of regular white bigotry, on the one side, and its equivalent in the paternalistic haughteur by white abolitionists who still retained an abiding contempt for blacks [2], on the other, concluded that they should have their own organizations exclusive of whites. And, given this paradigm, is this not justified?
[2] One might recall the old witticism that the southern racist "doesn't mind 'em living close as long as they don't get uppity," while the northern racist "doesn't mind 'em getting uppity as long as they don't live close." There is a great deal of truth to this, and there was a great deal of racism among even many abolitionists, many of whom just wanted blacks to be sent back to Africa.

But, if it is justified, are not there undeserving whites who would be excluded, and is there a less severe way of accomplishing the goal of excluding the abolitionists who were, in the end, still racist?

The problem is that the answer to both questions is yes. Not all white abolitionists were that way – and, indeed, I named my son after one who was not – but this man, who felt an affinity and kinship and true equality for black people without the paternal baggage of subconscious feelings of class and race superiority (indeed, he addressed and decried it), would be so excluded. And, for most of us, the exclusion from a group with whom we shared perspectives and ideas and kinship on the basis of mere identity would be very hurtful, and would constitute a reassertion of the old boundaries that these particular individuals might have worked hard to transcend.

Are those who are in empathy and ideational agreement not those whom we least wish to drive away?

And might an exclusion on the basis of attitude and perspective be more effective? It would certainly be messier to raise the issue and declare that even mild attitudes of paternal superiority are unacceptable, but it would also raise consciousness of the problem and protect the vulnerable cross-identity fellow-travelers.

By the way, let me note that I am not offering a critique of poor, besieged blacks who were (and whose descendants still are) trying to escape from under the thumb of a sea of racism. While one strategy may be more effective than another, one can hardly fault people in individual contexts for failures of foresight or for errors of passion. Absolutely no one deserves to criticize blacks for their failures in escaping or dealing with the brutal repression clearly shown by historical evidence.

What is the answer then?

What is better, then? The answer lies in avoiding identity-based politics and focusing upon idea-based politics. It is not exclusion that is wrong per se – after all, it is quite appropriate to exclude unsympathetic whites from an abolitionist meeting. Rather, it is the systematized exclusion on the basis of identity – another variant of tribalism, after all – that is the problem. And why is that? Because it ignores a far more fundamental problem that is at the root of almost all others – those of gays and lesbians, women, Third World peasants, racial minorities, and the rest.

The problem, as Malcolm X came to see, is that we all do have the same interests, and the problem, as I will explain below, is far more universal than this line of thinking tends to believe. When Malcolm X returned from the Middle-east, he had a change of heart, and, like Martin Luther King, Jr., came to see that racism was a narrower implementation of an even more insidious idea – the idea that exploitation of Other human beings is acceptable.

All other issues – one of the most important being tribal forms of thought that enforce empathy with the tribal group and dehumanize those outside it – are subsidiary to this.

While this may seem a far-fetched claim, the problems of the world do, and can be shown to, tie together in a complex pattern. For example, who is benefiting from the persecution of gays and lesbians? Religious forms of social control have their own requirements beyond just enemies to demonize. The Christian demonization of homosexuality is tied to two of things. First, Christianity's combination with exploitative secular authority to keep the majority of the people in check and eliminate any potential challenges to either secular or religious authority. One of the tools of Christianity has been the demonization of the interior self – our instinctual thoughts and behavior – that does not conform to the narrow, sanitized version of a “good” human being. This included sexuality. Furthermore, Christianity's most formative period occurred when it was in competition with less militant but, perhaps, less ascetic forms of religion collectively labeled as “paganism.” Because it needed justifications to suppress and eradicate them, it was handy to conveniently demonize behaviors which might have been more prevalent among them. It is quite likely that this is a prime reason for the original demonization of homosexuality, which, as we know, was a non-issue in early Western culture – virtually all respectable people were bisexual.

Closely in competition with the factor I have described is Christianity's aggressive pronatalism - doctrines and policies designed to maintain high birthrates. Pronatalism has for millennia been strongly tied primarily to the desire of those within the social and religious power structure (which, under Christianity, were virtually one and the same) to maintain growing stocks of human beings to labor, fight, pay tithes and taxes, and in general as a resource for those in power. Christianity, being a xenophobic, expansionist religion, has been characterized by leadership acutely concerned with maintaining a growing population under its control. After all, more people under you means more power and wealth for you. (And, furthermore, it is well-supported that the firmest Christian is a born-and-raised Christian.)

As anthropologist Marvin Harris explains it quite well [3], this desire by those within the societal power structure leads directly to policies designed to discourage nonprocreative sex and to create both social and psychological pressures upon people to bear children. Confining the sexual instinct to procreative sex is wonderfully effective, as that instinct is extremely powerful and will tend to be better harnessed toward procreation if otherwise-repressed. After all, all of the alternative forms of nonprocreative sex that bring satisfaction without inflicting additional children on already-impoverished and overtaxed families will tend to undermine this pressure. Thus, masturbation, "Onanism" (coitus interruptus - "pulling out"), oral and anal sex, and, of course, homosexual sex, are an enemy to the driving population-growth desires of the power segment of society. They relieve pressures that these interests do not wish relieved.
[3] His book, America Now (Simon & Schuster, 1982), is extremely insightful and descriptive in plain, entertaining and nonpedantic language of many "mysterious" social developments in America. I highly recommend it.
As what has passed for civilization has developed, this trend has continued, and we may recall that German and Italian fascism gave medals to women who gave birth to certain numbers of children - militarism goes hand-in-hand with pronatalism, as every baby is just a little soldier in waiting. Combining this with urbanization, increasing difficulty maintaining decent living standards (nowadays almost impossible without two-income families), and the increasingly pauperizing cost of raising children, and we have a society with an alarmingly (to some) shrinking population growth rate. When we throw in the abiding demonization of homosexuals at the cultural level, we have what we now have.

Whatever the claims of its adherents, history shows Christianity to be a militant, power-seeking and expansion-oriented religion with its roots in rigid, absolutist theocracy. While infamous for its centuries-long Inquisition, which brutally suppressed any heterodoxy and sought to destroy non-faith-promoting books, creating what we now know as the Dark Ages, and its bloody Crusades, it has conducted similar campaigns throughout its existence whenever it had the power to do so. Sexual “deviants” are merely one side casualty in its never-ending quest to retain and expand its social and political power. Who knows what might have been if its early opponents had been homophobic and its search for pretexts to destroy them had led it in another direction. It would certainly have been far more ambivalent and nuanced to the point of convolution in its response toward alternate forms of sexual expression.

The whole anti-rationalism that has engulfed the 19th and 20th centuries after the brief flourishing of rationalism in the preceding centuries is also related to the issue of exploitation and power. After all, the increasing use of reason and the mounting escape from the brutal stranglehold upon thought maintained by the Catholic Church in all its manifestations were leading to declarations of human rights and dangerously subversive critical evaluations of the prominent social forms. As rationalism has led to far more unified and effective forms of resistance, such as socialism, so have the power elements of the dominant institutions sought to restrain rational thought. And this, of course, leads to a whole host of other problems for everyone else, and particularly for social minorities and women, who, after all, have long been a source of free labor and one-sided sexual gratification for men.

Because reason undermines the entitlement of elites to the increasingly severe exploitation of those beneath them, it is an enemy to the forms of power that have endured so long.

In the same way that I argue against postmodern dismissal of truth and knowledge as a retreat from the often-uncomfortable field of moral inquiry into the self, identity politics are likewise such a retreat. The solution for us all lies in our finding and exploring our commonality and in the development of understanding of others, of ourselves, of human nature and of the nature of exploitation and tribal narrowmindedness. The solution lies in a broad-scale embrace of the idea of justice and reason, not just the defense of sympathized groups.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Is there a universal basis for morality? Part One

We live in an age of utter cynicism. There are many reasons for this, but prominent among them is the horrible direction in which "progress" has taken us.

The nineteenth century was an age, to a large extent, of positivism and belief in natural, inexorable progress toward some better state of collective being. The dominant paradigm of the intellectual world everywhere reflected that basic optimism, which itself was based on the values of the Enlightenment as carried by its missionaries, the merchants and rising "middle class" everywhere. Science would bring increased freedom, and steady improvement in everyone's lives. Reason would lead naturally to increased cooperation and universal brotherhood. Civilization would become humane, its legal structure evolving toward "natural law" based upon universalities.

While the first World War was a massive, horrifying shock to this optimistic worldview, the second World War put it to rest, and we have since been passing by its grave daily on our way to work, casting it scornful, disapproving glances.

Indeed, an age of optimism has given way to an age of cynicism. Somehow the Enlightenment did not bring what its prophets augured, though it has brought to a select few profits and power undreamt of before. Science, instead of bringing freedom and improvement, has, for most of the world's population, only resulted in more efficient and inescapable forms of exploitation and control. It has, for all of us, brought the horror of vastly more effective weapons of mass destruction and of individual annihilation.

Reason has become a whore, used spuriously by those who have no respect for it and who cast the worst of aspersions upon its actual adherents, giving us a more scientific, self-absorbed consumerist tribalism rather than universal brotherhood. Civilization has merely improved its capacity for propaganda, collective self-deceit and war. "The worst are full of passionate intensity, while the best lack all conviction..."

The law has abandoned any pretense at universality, instead scoffing at the idea of morality as anything more than "generally accepted beliefs" (which, given their previous bases for morality and their belief in the natural universality of their own narrow views, is probably a good thing anyway) and wholly reflecting the cynicism of the age.

The events of the twentieth century have resoundingly and painfully rebuked humanity for its arrogant assumption that evolution -- biological, social, cultural or otherwise -- is "progress," that history is a natural progression toward better, higher. No, evolution is adaption to circumstances, not improvement, and it is noteworthy to remember that the height of evolution is the development of sophisticated predators, not its unusual and unique hominid children that have come to dominate the planet. History has no guarantees that the world of the future will be a better one, and current events suggest it may be steadily worsening.

So, it is no wonder that the most prevalent epistemological attitude toward philosophy, morality and truth is a disapproving denial of universality, and indeed in many ways of objective reality itself. Post-modernism is a reaction to the foolish, self-righteous strutting of an eager modernism that has since shown itself to be nothing but a charlatan. But is it the answer? After all, if we accept post-modernism, we, as a matter of course, have little hope for peace and true progress toward a better world. And, indeed, post-modernist thought tends toward self-absorption and abandonment of interest in the outside world, concentrating instead on one's own limited "circle of influence." Post-modernism, in fact, plays right into the hands of the worst of us, those who love power and thrive on conflict.

I once heard someone say that the optimist is someone who sees the value of everything and the price of nothing, while a pessimist is someone who sees the price of everything and the value of nothing. Could it be that we have swung from one unsustainable extreme to another? Could it be that, rather than defining the extent of what is possible, modernism and post-modernism merely express two possible answers among a larger variety available? Might there be another answer that provides humankind with a new possible direction, with new hope for that universal brotherhood that today, given the comeback of fundamentalism, fascism and sheer cynicism throughout the first world, seems laughable?

I have thought long and hard on this subject for most of my life. I have wondered at it as a puzzle to be solved. Is there a way to resolve the conflicting views, needs and perceptions of all human beings into a social, or at least intellectual, reality that is consistent and truly universally-applicable?

Put another way, is there a universal basis for morality that is not culturally-biased, based on superstition or collective self-deceit? One that is not self-serving, serviceable only to the needs of a certain region or nation, or even species-specific? A morality that is not only logically-consistent and able to withstand the deepest of scrutiny, but also compelling and useful to an ailing, technologically-advanced humanity in thrall everywhere to the worst of men using creeds of bigotry, hate, propaganda and fear to control their wards?

I think there is. I will elaborate in a second post. For now, however, I would love to hear anyone's thoughts on the matter.


Monday, April 30, 2007

Thoughts on Atheism and Faith

I can speak, you know. I just choose not to.
-- The Rabbit

I have often heard the claim that someone who is atheist or anti-theist is essentially committing the same error as a religionist, akin to the recent assertion of a good friend of mine, from a quasi-religious viewpoint of his own informed by a sort of postmodern skepticism, that atheism is "just another kind of faith" -- the belief in something that cannot be proved.

At first, he had me at a loss to explain the difference. After all, one can't prove a negative, and therefore to believe there is no God (or god, or god-figure, or Shiva, or Athena, or Pan, or what-have-you) is to believe in a proposition that cannot be proved. But surely one cannot consign the principled skepticism of atheism to the dustbin of presumptuous faith-based belief, can we? (And, I might add, to the solipsistic skepticism of postmodern thought.)

I thought about it for the next few days, and I came to what I believe is the answer, or, more accurately, a decent answer that gets at the root of the issue.

I believe that the key to the riddle is patterns.

The nature of all learning comes from the fact that we perceive patterns in life. Everything we "know" is based on patterns taken either from the assertions of others (hearsay) or our own observation. For example, we don't know exactly what causes gravitation, but we all can see that gravity exists as a pattern of matter being attracted to the earth, and, in space, to other matter based upon relative mass. From our observation of the physical effects of it, we can believe that it, and similar phenomena, are at least reasonable and believable suppositions. Indeed, we would be hard-pressed, indeed backed into the corner of irrational fantasy, to attempt to disbelieve it.

But that's too dull. Let's take a more, well, exciting example. It is perhaps obvious, but I shall name it anyway: talking rabbits.

You see, I not only do not believe in rabbits that can speak Swahili, or any of various pre-revolutionary French dialects, but I affirmatively believe that they do not exist. That is something of a leap. How can I be sure? How can I be so arrogant?

The problem is that we are not at liberty to responsibly believe everything. Everything we accept as real must somehow suggest itself in some sort of pattern. No evidence exists, nor has any ever been recorded or even alluded to, that rabbits have spoken. Indeed, none exists of any non-human animal ever having picked up on a human language. There just is simply no recorded pattern whatever in existence of non-human animals speaking human language, despite the fact that people have been rather inclined to induce and record such things.

On the other hand, there are plainly measurable and consistent patterned reasons why they cannot -- lack of sufficient brain development and lack of vocal apparatus being chief among these. Indeed, researchers have spent years trying to teach the most intellectually-capable species of monkeys and dolphins language, without success. Even where basic concepts are taught (e.g., "hungry," "food," and "come here"), complex ideational linguistic development is well beyond their reach. (Although, from what I understand, dolphins have come closest, and are just simply amazing creatures who have their own rather complex form of aural communication that allows them to coordinate complex aerobatic maneuvers and to cooperatively herd large schools of fish with great precision and timing. But, even if they do have the intellectual capability to understand language in some form, one won't say, 'allo there!, to you. They are just not physically capable.)

Thus, there does not exist a pattern of any non-human animal speaking human language, other than rote-memorized repetitions of small phrases without true comprehension (parrots) or sub-linguistic communications (dolphins, monkeys).

But, you say, my child just told me that Dog spoke to him, as a man speaks to a man! And, indeed, there have been numerous animated films starring talking rabbits. Here is evidence!

Okay. Let's rephrase this. No evidence from reliable witnesses that ought to be taken as evidence of the occurrence of real phenomena. The human imagination is amazing, and can mix existing, real patterns into new imagined patterns that have no counterpart in what we call reality. Thus, this very second, I am envisioning rabbits with a species-specific form of gravity that makes any two rabbits coming within 20 feet of each other slide toward each other and stick together like two little fuzzy magnets. I'll call it, say, Rabbitation.

And note that, in my mind, those rabbits are chatting quite amiably with each other over tea as it happens.

As I noted, however, human imaginings are noteworthy in this ability to synthesize new, impossible patterns from perceived existing patterns. I might be able to submit my Theory of Rabbitation to the nearest university physics department, but your average first-year student will see right through it, and indeed might find my submission of the theory to constitute evidence of propositions quite different from those I've asserted. For example, my lack of sanity, or at least my lack of sincerity.

So, to rein this back in, human imaginings are not valid evidence constituting "patterns" upon which belief ought to be formed. When we speak of "reality," we speak of observable patterns beyond the realms of our own fancy. I understand that post-Modernist modes of thought currently fashionable posit no distinction between the inner and outer world, between perception and reality, but I disagree rather strongly, and think they've disappeared down the rabbit-hole of solipsistic contemplation. (To be fair, not all are so bold, but there are some that boldly follow themselves to that logical conclusion.) I invite any of them who imagine no distinction between physical reality and perspective to abandon food and just imagine they do not need it anymore.

Of course, is it truly physically impossible for a French-speaking, tea-drinking rabbit to be born tomorrow somewhere in Marseilles? No, not strictly so. There could be a series of simultaneous, viable mutations that spontaneously do what millions of years of evolution took with the hominids, producing a rabbit with human-approximate intelligence, motivations and vocal characteristics, that happens to be born in the right place and time to be noticed for what it is and appropriately educated in the French countryside. However, given that the probability of even two or three minor simultaneous mutations to be both viable and improvement-bearing is almost impossibly remote, and given the overwhelming likeliness that any given mutation will be nonviable, we can handily classify this rabbiteering possibility as "impossible" in the same way that we may so conclude with Douglas Adams's postulate that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the collected works of Shakespeare.

Thus, coming back to the god conundrum, how do I "know" that there is no god?

Well, it's not strictly, technically impossible that some sort of metaphysical uber-being approximate to the forms envisioned by the self-ordained prophets of the world could in reality exist somewhere, somehow. But we might assign it the same probability as our simian Hamlet. Tielhard de Chardin be damned.

The idea of deity as envisioned by the creators of human religions throughout the preceding millenia matches no existing observable patterns. It's not just that we can't see these guys; it's that there is no fact, no evidence, no phenomenon, nothing, that even suggests that such patterns exist. Indeed, most such superstition has had its starting points in wonder, ignorance and fear; why did a big mountain explode out of the earth and pour fire on the neighboring village? They must have pissed off someone.

On the other hand, there is overwhelming evidence to support the conclusion that, for every religious utterance; for every assertion of divinity or communication with divinity; for every sighting of a ghost, a god, a demon, or the sudden collision of two teacups shattering and spilling their contents as the rabbits holding them were violently thrust together by an unknown force; for every assertion of human superstitious imaginings, there is a far more simple, consistent and reasonable explanation, producing far less inconsistency. Or, in other words, we can cut them all with Occam's Razor.

Of course, enumerating these is beyond the scope of my argument here, but I imagine anyone who would care to read this probably needs little enlargement upon this proposition.

But what is more damning to assertions of the existence of deity is a third factor: the countless examples supporting a pattern of the invention of deities, demons and other metaphysical bugaboos for reasons psychological and sociological. Indeed, there is a rather strong and consistent pattern of certain groups of humans, who we'll collectively call "the priests," using religion as a tool to control those beneath them and to "consume the grass belonging to their flock," to roughly quote the recorded statement of a victim of the Catholic Inquisition. We have much evidence of patterns of self-serving motivations and creative ignorance behind the creation of many of these people's gods, of which Mormonism is but one excellent case study. In law, we call it conflict of interest.

To render it in terms familiar to the Western courtroom, we have ample evidence of these declarants being unreliable, self-interested witnesses whose answer to questioning is hostility, derision and condemnation, rather than honest answers. Would you believe a witness whose only answer was to damn opposing counsel to eternal flames, or to the depths of Hades, or to "outer darkness"?

To conclude: given the utter absence of supporting evidence for, or patterns suggestive of, the possibility of deity (outside the rather anything-goes realm of human imaginings), combined with the utter banality of self-serving or ignorant-superstition-induced creation of spiritual or deific beings, we can safely conclude that these assertions of gods and demons are indeed the self-serving imaginings that what evidence does exist shows them to be. Kinda like our fuzzy pink talking rabbits, and like any of the sundry tribal gods and demons our modern religionists themselves facilely dismiss as ignorant, superstitious paganism (even as they assert their own invisible gods and demons) in their selective critical inquiry.

Yes, I imagine it's not outside the realms of possibility and probability so aptly explored in Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, but I'm rather comfortable sticking to observable patterns and probabilities and therefore actively disbelieving in gods, demons, spirits, and little, pink, unusually-adhesive bunnies chatting with each other over broken dishware. To do otherwise is to disappear down that rabbit-hole of subjectivity and remain in the darkness of superstition, confusing imaginings with reality.

(For the record, I understand that gravity is not adhesion, per se, but I claim poetic license.)

Does this mean that I, and others who likewise so disbelieve in things without example in reliably observable reality, are closed-minded and assume we have seen all patterns in existence? No. But neither are we gullible, taking the self-interested word of suspect individuals or groups without scrutiny. Furthermore, religion is a special case, because of the massive evidence against every instance of it, the total lack of any supporting patterns elsewhere, and the emotion-based nature of such faith. Indeed, I am far more apt to be open to the possibility that rabbitologists and rabbosophers might be able to show my rabbit example wrong. I am open to new patterns and to the possibility that patterns in which I had believed were incorrect (or incorrectly perceived). But show me evidence and do not try to persuade me through emotion and histrionics.

Note: By the way, I had not read of "Russell's Teapot" or the "Flying Spaghetti Monster" when I wrote this. But, except for the "patterns" bit, it is the same sort of approach. In other words, take away the special dignity given to one's religion of choice, and apply the same standard to all propositions, and the absurdity becomes manifest. In the end, it's just institutionally-backed special pleading. Not all propositions are equal.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Of Sinners and "Saints"

As those of us who have painfully crawled, or been dragged kicking and screaming, out of the proverbial cave into the painful light of day all know, the Mormon church (and Christianity in general, in most cases) has very damaging and repressive effects upon the psyche, all of which last well beyond the escape of the damaging religious social system.

I am not very much into "self-help" books myself, given that I object to what I see as the solipsistic subjectivism of much of New Age thought. [1] However, some time ago I happened upon and found interesting a book by one of my favored authors, Bertrand Russell [2], called "The Conquest of Happiness," and bought the book for LB. Reading it myself, I find it to be excellent and quite relevant to current circumstances.

[1] The denial or minimization of objective reality, instead positing that subjectivity is the only lens that matters, that the self is the only provable truth, and that the highest calling of the enlightened human being is to focus on the self and be at peace with the rest of the world, no matter what its state.

[2] Russell is, of course, is, like me, an objectivist/realist -- one who believes in the independent existence and verifiability of the world outside the self, and in the ideal of human interconnectedness and cooperation in finding universal truth, rather than individual searches for individual subjective truth.

More particularly, in his introductory chapter, "What Makes One Unhappy," Russell touches on a major source of deep, abiding unhappiness that is, to be sure, endemic to humanity in general, but that is exacerbated and brought to crushing heights within puritanical Christianity, and even more so within its more manipulative and suppressive forms (such as, of course, Mormonism): self-absorption.

One of the foremost goals of Christianity in general to inculcate in people a sense of real inadequacy, sin and need for redemption. The psychological fallout from this is broad in scope and deep in effect, and the sense of preoccupation with self, combined with the lack of a sense of personal identity, is among the worst and most difficult-to-repair damage.

So, for those of us who have imbibed an excessive self-consciousness from within this kind of religion, I thought I would reproduce, with minimal editing, a small section from Russell's first chapter that I find to be insightful. His paragraphs are a bit long, and this is, overall, not the shortest passage in the blogosphere, but I highly recommend reading it, as it gives a big-picture view of a phenomenon of which many of us are accustomed to thinking in terms highly-tailored to our own life and religious experience. Also note that the book was written in 1930 Britain, and it is evident. Footnotes are my commentary.

. . . I was not born happy. As a child, my favorite hymn was: "Weary of earth and laden with sin." At the age of five, I reflected that, if I should live to be seventy, I had only endured, so far, a fourteenth part of my whole life, and I felt the long-spread-out boredom ahead of me to be almost unendurable. In adolescence, I hated life and was continually on the verge of suicide, from which, however, I was restrained by the desire to know more mathematics. [3] Now, on the contrary, I enjoy life; I might almost say that with every year that passes I enjoy it more. This is due partly to having discovered what were the things that I most desired, and having gradually acquired many of these things. Partly it is due to having successfully dismissed certain objects of desire--such as the acquisition of indubitable knowledge about something or other--as essentially unobtainable. But very largely it is due to a diminishing preoccupation with myself. Like others who had a Puritan education, I had the habit of meditating on my sins, follies and shortcomings. I seemed to myself--no doubt justly--a miserable specimen. Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to center my attention increasingly upon external objects: the state of the world, various branches of knowledge, individuals for whom I felt affection. External interests, it is true, bring each its own possibility of pain: the world may be plunged in war, knowledge in some direction may be hard to achieve, friends may die. But pains of these kinds do not destroy the essential quality of life, as do those that spring from disgust with self. And every external interest inspires some activity which, so long as the interest remains alive, is a complete preventative of ennui. Interest in oneself, on the contrary, leads to no activity of a progressive kind. It may lead to the keeping of a diary, to getting psychoanalyzed, or perhaps to becoming a monk. But the monk will not be happy until the routine of the monastery has made him forget his own soul. The happiness which he attributes to religion he could have obtained from becoming a crossing-sweeper, provided he were compelled to remain one. External discipline is the only road to happiness for those unfortunates whose self-absorption is too profound to be cured in any other way.

[3] Math??

Self-absorption is of various kinds. We may take the sinner, the narcissist, and the megalomaniac as three very common types.

When I speak of "the sinner," I do not mean the man who commits sins: sins are committed by every one or no one, according to our definition of the word. I mean the man who is absorbed in the consciousness of sin.

This man is perpetually incurring his own disapproval, which, if he is religious, he interprets as the disapproval of God. He has an image of himself as he thinks he ought to be, which is in continual conflict with his knowledge of himself as he is. If, in his conscious thought, he has long since discarded the maxims that he was taught at his mother's knee, his sense of sin may be buried deep in his unconscious, and only emerge when he is drunk or asleep. Nevertheless, it may suffice to take the savor out of everything. At bottom he still accepts all the prohibitions he was taught in infancy. Swearing is wicked; drinking is wicked; ordinary business shrewdness is wicked; above all, sex is wicked. He does not, of course, abstain from any of these pleasures, but they are all poisoned for him by the feeling that they degrade him. The one pleasure that he desires with his whole soul is that of being approvingly caressed by his mother, which he can remember having experienced in childhood. [4] This pleasure being no longer open to him, he feels that nothing matters; since he must sin, he decides to sin deeply. When he falls in love, he looks for maternal tenderness, but cannot accept it, because owing to the mother-image, he feels no respect for any woman with whom he has sexual relations. Then, in his disappointment, he becomes cruel, repents of his cruelty, and starts afresh on the dreary round of imagined sin and real remorse. [5] This is the psychology of very many apparently hard-boiled reprobates. What drives them astray is devotion to an unattainable object (mother or mother-substitute) together with the inculcation, in early years, of a ridiculous ethical code. Liberation from the tyranny of early beliefs and affections is the first step towards happiness for these victims of maternal "virtue."

[4] Or, perhaps, from authority figures within one's community or church -- any early-life source that offered beaming, seemingly-unconditional approval at an early age before that approval became conditional.

[5] I have studied violence against women and domestic abuse in general, and this brings to mind the "cycle of abuse" that abused couples go through. According to one researcher, conservative religious affiliation is "one of the greatest predictors of child abuse, more so than age, gender, social class, or size of residence." This quote comes from Kimberly Baker, "God's Warrior Twins," Toward Freedom, Fall 2003. See the studies cited therein for more information.

Narcissism is, in a sense, the converse of an habitual sense of sin; it consists in the habit of admiring oneself and wishing to be admired. Up to a point it is, of course, normal, and not to be deplored; it is only in its excess that it becomes a grave evil. In many women, especially rich society women, the capacity for feeling love is completely dried up, and is replaced by a powerful desire that all men should love them. When a woman of this kind is sure that a man loves her, she has no further use for him. The same thing occurs, though less frequently, with men: the classic example is the hero of that remarkable novel "Liaisons Dangereuses," which describes the love affairs of French aristocrats just before the Revolution. When vanity is carried to this height, there is no genuine interest in any other person, and therefore no real satisfaction to be obtained from love. Other interests fail even more disastrously. A narcissist, for example, inspired by the homage paid to great painters, may become an art student; but, as painting is for him a mere means to an end, the technique never becomes interesting, and no subject can be seen except in relation to self. The result is failure and disappointment, with ridicule instead of the expected adulation. The same thing applies to those novelists whose novels always have themselves idealized as heroines. All serious success in work depends upon some genuine interest in the material with which the work is concerned. The tragedy of one successful politician after another is the gradual substitution of narcissism for an interest in the community and the measures for which he stands. The man who is only interested in himself is not admirable, and is not felt to be so. Consequently the man whose sole concern with the world is that it shall admire him is not likely to achieve his object. But even if he does, he will not be completely happy, since human instinct is never completely self-centered, and the narcissist is limiting himself artificially just as truly as is the man dominated by a sense of sin. The primitive man might be proud of being a good hunter, but he also enjoyed the activity of the chase. Vanity, when it passes beyond a point, kills pleasure in every activity for its own sake, and thus leads inevitably to listlessness and boredom. Often its source is diffidence, and its cure lies in the growth of self-respect. But this is only to be gained by successful activity inspired by objective interests.

The megalomaniac differs from the narcissist by the fact that he wishes to be powerful rather than charming, and seeks to be feared rather than loved. To this type belong many lunatics and most of the great men in history. Love of power, like vanity, is a strong element in normal human nature, and as such is to be accepted; it becomes deplorable only when it is excessive or associated with an insufficient sense of reality. Where this occurs, it makes a man unhappy or foolish, if not both. The lunatic who thinks he is a crowned head may be, in a sense, happy, but his happiness is not of a kind that any sane person would envy. Alexander the Great was psychologically of the same type as the lunatic, though he possessed the talent to achieve the lunatic's dream. He could not, however, achieve his own dream, which enlarged its scope as his achievement grew. When it became clear that he was the greatest conqueror known to fame, he decided that he was a god. Was he a happy man? His drunkenness, his furious rages, his indifference to women, and his claim to divinity, suggest that he was not. There is no ultimate satisfaction in the cultivation of one element of human nature at the expense of all the others, nor in viewing all the world as raw material for the magnificence of one's own ego. Usually the megalomaniac, whether insane or nominally sane, is the product of some excessive humiliation. Napoleon suffered at school from inferiority to his schoolfellows, who were rich aristocrats, while he was a penurious scholarship boy. When he allowed the return of the émigrés, he had the satisfaction of seeing his former schoolfellows bowing down before him. What bliss! Yet it led to the wish to obtain a similar satisfaction at the expense of the Czar, and this led to Saint Helena. Since no man can be omnipotent, a life dominated wholly by love of power can hardly fail, sooner or later, to meet with obstacles that cannot be overcome. The knowledge that this is so can be prevented from obtruding on consciousness only by some form of lunacy, though if a man is sufficiently great he can imprison or execute those who point this out to him. Repressions in the political and in the psychoanalytic senses thus go hand in hand. And whenever psychoanalytic repression in any marked form takes place, there is no genuine happiness. Power kept within its proper bounds may add greatly to happiness, but as the sole end of life it leads to disaster, inwardly if not outwardly.

The psychological causes of unhappiness, it is clear, are many and various. But all have something in common. The typical unhappy man is one who, having been deprived in youth of some normal satisfaction, has come to value this kind of satisfaction more than any other, and has therefore given to his life a one-sided direction, together with a quite undue emphasis upon the achievement as opposed to the activities connected with it. There is, however, a further development which is very common in the present day. A man may feel so completely thwarted that he seeks no form of satisfaction, but only distraction and oblivion. He then becomes a devotee of "pleasure." That is to say, he seeks to make life bearable by becoming less active. Drunkenness, for example, is temporary suicide: the happiness that it brings is merely negative, a momentary cessation of unhappiness.

The narcissist and the megalomaniac believe that happiness is possible, though they may adopt mistaken means of achieving it; but the man who seeks intoxication, in whatever form, has given up hope except in oblivion. In his case, the first thing to be done is to persuade him that happiness is desirable. Men who are unhappy, like men who sleep badly, are always proud of the fact. Perhaps their pride is like that of the fox who had lost his tail; if so, the way to cure it is to point out to them how they can grow a new tail. . . .
And thus ends my lengthy quotation.

As a side curiosity, it's interesting to note the difference between deceitful hedonist, Joseph Smith, and his successor, the iron-handed powermonger, Brigham Young. It is plainly clear to me, from my reading of history, that Smith was a charismatic narcissist whose love of himself could only grow as he gained adulating followers. It is also plainly clear, on the other hand, that Brigham Young was not. He was a megalomaniac. Fuck love, you sentimental assholes; give me power, do what I fucking say, and enjoy your proximity to my power. (Indeed, he explicitly said as much several times in Journal of Discourses, though not so bluntly.)

I do think there is a relationship here, in this context, between these megalomaniacs and the sinners who follow them. The American beauty rose rises to heights of beauty and size usually unmatched by other similar plants, but it does so by greedily grabbing nearby nutrients and sunlight for itself, stunting the growth of nearby plants. So it is with those who wish to fulfill their dreams of self-elevation. After all, if you desperately need people to give all their attention to you, your interests and your thoughts, it will naturally require that they stunt their own growth and selves, and will require various methodologies to get them to accept their own de-emphasis as autonomous, equally-valid human beings.

If you have read through all of this, I'm impressed and appreciative. Again, I apologize for the length (particularly of Russell's paragraphs -- he writes 'em long). I'd love to hear any thoughts on this, in either direction. Who knows? Maybe Russell's full of shit.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

[H]arming your Children with the Gospel

Looking through some old book boxes, I came across the hated church-books box. While I am satisfied to see this load of propaganda de fide no longer consuming valuable space on our shelves, I still find it an obnoxious imposition that they take up a cheap cardboard box and a couple of cubic feet in the garage.

Nevertheless, I picked one up on top, intrigued by the title: Arming your Children with the Gospel: Creating Opportunities for Spiritual Experiences by a presumably husband-and-wife team of "organizational consultants" -- Wayne Boss, a professor of business management, and Leslee Boss, who "holds a Ph.D. . . . and has been on the nursing faculties of several universities." [1] Of course, "[t]he Bosses are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and have served in numerous church leadership positions." So, figuring this surely has some juicy bits of sheer manipulation, I began paging through it and did not take long to run across a fascinating, marvelously-manipulative passage in a chapter ominously entitled "FOLLOW THE BRETHREN." I'll produce it here, footnoted with my comments and translations.

Criticism of Church leaders damages the faith and spiritual development of children. [2] The testimonies of most children are not well grounded in Church doctrine, and many children do not have sufficient wisdom and experience to differentiate between Church doctrine and the behavior of Church leaders. [3] Thus, when parents ridicule, condemn, or find fault with leaders, it can be, in their children's eyes, the equivalent of criticizing Church doctrine or the Church itself. And most children's fragile testimonies cannot withstand such an attack without suffering permanent damage. [4]

In citing research on the subject [5], Gene Dalton observed, "The Mormon parents, who had apparently been reared in active homes themselves, constantly complained and criticized Church authorities, but they never left the Church nor abandoned its teachings as guides in their lives. They were too much a product of their own upbringing to do so. [6] But their children, who had heard the chafing and the criticisms at the dinner table all their lives, did leave -- to the partial dismay of their parents." [7]

Rearing children is such an important yet unpredictable challenge that, to be successful, most of us need all the help we can get. [8] We never know who will be called to teach or lead our children. [9] So to destroy the credibility of a future leader or teacher is of such serious consequence as to hardly go unnoticed by the Almighty in the eternal scheme of things. [10] Under such conditions, the law of the harvest often comes into play: "Whatsoever ye sow, that shall ye also reap." (D&C 6:33).
Several years ago, a counselor in a Young Women's Presidency had a serious conflict with the Scoutmaster over the scheduling of some church facilities. [11] Although the Scouts had previously scheduled the building, the counselor insisted that the activity for all the girls in the ward took priority. The Scoutmaster disagreed and refused to change the schedule. An appeal to the bishopric resulted in a decision in favor of the Scoutmaster. [12]

The woman [13] took the decision personally and singled out the Scoutmaster for being at fault. She shared her feelings with anyone who would listen. [14] Unfortunately, her most captive audience sat around her dinner table each evening; [sic] and for two years she consistently pointed out the man's shortcomings to her four teenage children. [15]

Two-and-one-half years after the incident, the Scoutmaster was called to serve as the bishop. [16] At about the same time, the woman began having trouble with her oldest daughter. When the problems became quite serious, this woman [17], now repentant, went to her bishop for assistance. However, when he sat down with the daughter, she refused to even listen -- he had absolutely no credibility with the girl. [18] The continuous diet of criticism had rendered him powerless. [19]
Regardless of the seriousness of our problems with others or the depth of our feelings about those problems, it is in our and our children's best interests to avoid criticism. [20]
. . .

[1] I find it fascinating that Mormons have accepted, lock-stock-and-barrel, the presumption of business leaders in teaching them how to run their families, corporate-style. Consider this book along with one of the vaunted and pre-eminent Mormon authors on family and life: Steven Covey, who wrote The Seven Habits of Highly Successful... series, one of which, of course, is an adaptation called The Seven Habits of Highly Successful Families. (LB and I actually read the latter during our TBM phase. This nauseates me.) His collaborator and wife, we are told, holds "a Ph.D." and thus is some sort of smarty pants, we assure you.

[2] "Spiritual development"? Translation: ability to swallow massive incongruities, egregious hypocrisies and outright contradictions without letting their logical implications register in the psyche; reverential regard for the infallibility of religious authority despite its daily production of evidence to the contrary; incapacity for critical thought of any form.

[3] Right. Because they have been emotionally manipulated, made fearful of thinking for themselves, and fed a steady diet of guilt- and obedience-drugged milk in preparation for a later lifetime of gospel "meat." Brainwashing of children includes emotional-button-pushing stuff -- singing how they love to obey, mindlessly reciting the programmed words that will later constitute the "testimony" they bleat to people later in life, playing follow-the-leader games, and happy-joy stuff, not mere recitations of dry doctrine. Surely they won't be able to learn off-the-bat that you do as church leaders say, not as they do, and give the church leadership room for hypocrisy and backpedaling where they change their position.

[4] Translation: Fear! Be careful not to EVER let your children come into contact with critical thought or the idea that they can consider sacred truths using the hated light of reason. Such "permanent damage" is a dreadful contamination of their desensitization to any form of real moral agency or application of logic to important life events. Obedience, obedience, obedience. Why don't you talk about those pretty Book of Mormon action figures instead? You can recreate the slaying of Laban! "I will go and do..."

[5] Research indeed. I'd be curious to see what constitutes faith-promoting research.

[6] It is interesting and telling that he makes a deterministic argument here, rather than sticking to the free-agency line of argument. If people stick to whatever religion in which they're indoctrinated in their youth, then the issue is brainwashing of children to the point of inability to leave the cult, not the bringing about of free moral agents to an enlightened decision. I am consistently amazed at how quickly religionists use deterministic reasoning when it suits their fancy, then switch back to free-agency arguments when it is time to condemn others or tout the allegedly non-coercive nature of their faith and their deity.

[7] So, children must be steadfastly isolated from open conflict or talking of negative subject matter to ensure their inability to deal with it realistically later. Scrutiny of church doctrine that is not admiring and "reverent" will destroy your children.

[8] You can't do it alone; you need us. Give us your children, let us take care of it. After all, given the burden we place on you in addition to your childrearing responsibilities, you'll drown without taking every opportunity you can to let us indoctrinate your children.

Incidentally, they are correct to an important extent; solitary nuclear childraising is a poor substitute for the raising of children in a supportive community. The only problem is that the church community comes with strings attached, which slowly attach to one's extremities until one is little more than a marionette.

[9] Read: any "potential church leader" (i.e. male, but also to some extent females) must be immune from the application of critical thought.

[10] Ah, the ominously-understated divine threat. The authors are not pulling punches. "Destroy the credibility of" (i.e. criticize or complain of) a potential "future leader" in a divinely-ordained patriarchal order and you will be divinely punished. It's that important that you remain silent and obey.

[11] Here we have the beginnings of a classic patriarchal cautionary tale. Woman versus man. Certainly this won't take the predictable route, will it? This isn't going to be a "women keep your mouth shut" story, is it?

[12] Oh, my! Here we have a dutiful male priesthood-holder at the head of "the Scouts" who have scheduled the building, and an unreasonable, uppity woman who feels the need to challenge the natural order of things. Getting juicy.

[13] "The woman"! I love it! I learned how to do this kind of thing in Trial Advocacy class. Selective use of language, dehumanizing the other party with terse labels while upholding the dignity of your client. Let's see how the authors refer to the man.

[14] This "taking the decision personally" is a big favorite of the church. Everyone who has a problem with anything in the church has obviously let themselves be "offended" and has "taken personally" some sort of neutral, reasonable event. So, here we have "the woman" who took a predictable scheduling decision and began murmuring. We priesthood holders can wink at each other here with a knowing smile -- such children; don't they ever shut up?

[15] "Captive audience" -- implying that no one reasonable would bother to listen to such claptrap, but the uppity woman abused her power with her family to force them to listen to her talk about his every "shortcoming." The reader is led to understand here that she has broadened her very personal, bitter criticism of the poor man.

Also, we have "the man" used -- perhaps both will be referred to in neutral form, here? Of course, your average hearer will hear in mind the intonation of your average rhetorician. There is a subtle but distinct difference between "the woman" who is a wrongdoer and "the man" who is done wrong. ("Leave the man alone!") This difference is understood and clear here.

[16] As we see, "the Scoutmaster" is a worthy, upstanding male, of course, and his leadership time has come due. But what effect will that murmuring woman have?

[17] "This woman," not "the former Young Women's President"? Are we given no further information about her? No current calling? She remains faceless and a postergirl for shameful behavior. We may presume she holds no calling and is performing poorly in all capacities. Damned complainer.

[18] The standard story twist given by those who hold power to the powerless. You see? You complain about our power and resist us, but some day you'll be sorry and need us, and you'll come crawling back. And then your very complaining will be your undoing. I will be powerless to help you, though I will of course be the magnanimous one. And thus it comes to pass that she does so with "the bishop."

[19] Interesting wording. "The continuous diet of criticism" had made him "powerless." Us poor men, always the victim of unfaithful murmuring of women. Always the underdog, always powerless before sharp-tongued, insubordinate shrews.

[20] Translation: Keep your fucking mouth shut. Speak no evil. As was written in enormous letters on the wall of an old mid-century asylum I once toured, "Keep your voice low and be sweet."

Monday, January 15, 2007

In Tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr.

I celebrate few holidays. I either care little for them and find them pointless, like Halloween or my birthday, or find what they stand for to be noxious, like Easter, Christmas or Columbus day. Today is one of the ones that matter to me.

Martin Luther King, Jr., is a rather special figure in history -- someone who was altogether more real and powerful for me than most. He is also a religious figure who retains his appeal and moral authority even after my re-abandonment of religion, and who still inspires deep emotion in me. So, today, I thought I would write about what he means for me.

First, I should note that most people don't truly know what King stood for. He was a figure far more visionary and insightful than is generally known. If you recall Martin Luther King and think primarily of his feel-good "I Have a Dream" speech as definitive of him, then you're missing a lot about him -- in fact, you're missing some of the most important things, not least of which were his view of racism as part of a greater problem at the core of American society and his consequent opposition to the U.S.'s war in Vietnam.

There are two of his speeches in particular that express this part of King, which has (almost pointedly) received little attention, and that bring me to sorrow every time I hear them. In fact, listening to the latter of them was one of the few occasions in which LB and I have ever cried together. They are his "Beyond Vietnam" and his "I Have Seen the Mountain Top" speeches, the latter of which makes plainly clear that he knew he would be killed soon -- it was his last speech. (You can listen to them both here.)

Having read about him and listened to his speeches, I have discovered that I truly love the man and mourn his loss, though he was killed just a few years before I was born. He is one of the few celebrated people in history I truly, deeply respect and would give much to have known or even met, blemishes and all. Beyond that, he is an essential, grounding figure in history -- one that cuts through much of the smoke and mirrors of media blather and "official" history that gives us little understanding of the past, instead leaving us with a whitewashed list of facts, figures and dates leading to how wonderful everything supposedly is now. I know better. We all do, in our collective historical knowledge if not in our individual knowledge, because of men and women like King.

So, today, here, I express solemn appreciation and love for the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and what he stood for, and hope, somehow, to be one of those working to carry the torch he left behind. I will teach my children to love him as I do.

Every now and then I guess we all think realistically about that day when we will be victimized with what is life’s final common denominator – that something we call death. We all think about it. And every now and then I think about my own death, and I think about my own funeral. And I don’t think of it in a morbid sense. Every now and then I ask myself “What is it that I would want said?” And I leave the word to you this morning.

I’d like somebody to mention that day, that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others.

I’d like for somebody to say that day, that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.

I want you to say that day, that I tried to be right on the war question.

I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try to feed the hungry.

And I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try, in my life, to clothe those who were naked.

I want you to say, on that day, that I did try, in my life, to visit those who were in prison.

I want you to say that I tried to love and to serve humanity.
-- Martin Luther King, Jr.