Thoughts, facts, opinions

Snippets of thoughts, quick notes, sources of what might appear in a more complete way on my website -

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Religious or secular civilization?

America is a product of the European Enlightenment. Of the thought of Diderot, Montesquieu, Voltaire who gave us the idea of human rights partially owing to the earlier thought of John Locke. Enlightenment is the breakthrough that defined the European civilization. It is founded on the assumptions that human reasoning can reach insights and results about how people should be governed. These insights do not come from sources of eternal wisdom - whether they be Christian, Judaic, Muslim or Taoist - or those of "native" peoples. They come from current rational debate that chooses its sources of knowledge on the basis of reason. Knowledge coming down to us as an authoritative teaching of wisdom is to be excluded from participation in the political process. This is especially true of teachings of religious nature. Knowledge influencing the political process and ideologies is to be secular in nature.

America is conflicted about the nature of its civilization - in a way it is an adolescent child of Europe. America has a strongly religious population that professes the Judeo-Christian religious tradition as a founding principle of its political system. I hope America will deal with its religious legacy without a major conflict and resolve it in a manner similar to Europe. Europe has already determined that as a civilization it will not allow religious teachings to determine political choices. Despite, or perhaps due to, much longer religious tradition and religious conflict, Europe has decided, more or less at the end of the 30-year war in 1648, that religion is a matter of private individual choice.

Both America and Europe are getting themselves into a lot of trouble by allowing the settling of large minority populations that profess adherence to varieties of religious beliefs and wish to be governed by principles derived from those beliefs. The adherents of Islam even make the claim that they will never stop to strive for the whole world, or a country or civilization, to be governed by a law flowing from the teaching of Islam. Islam is the religious movement most visibly incompatible with the idea of secular civilization, but other religious ideologies - such as Russian Orthodox or American fundamentalism - should also be viewed with suspicion.

Multiculturalism is the idea that various religious ideologies can be reconciled and find some compromise while being allowed to participate in the political process. In other words that the political power structure can be the result of a compromise between rivaling religious traditions. Multiculturalism has been to a large degree promoted and adopted as a project in the US and Europe - and leads us in a dangerous direction. It leads toward religious conflict and civil war because many religions espouse intransigent totalizing views of the origins of authority and law. A religion, in its essence, is a response to a basic human subjective anxiety of death, a response becoming an institution and an objective source of authority and power. The roots of religious feeling are immensely strong as they reach into this basic existential anxiety and therefore religion is especially dangerous when it is allowed to play a role in the political realm of power.

The achievement of secular civilization is to limit the reach of religion and bar it from entering the realm of temporal power brokering on the national or social scale - known as politics. The discourse over political ideology, of the law, of political figures, of economic choices, artistic expression, - is then allowed to be free. Free from the imposition of totalizing sources of authority which bind us into the basic anxieties of our life. That subjective problem is best dealt with privately or as a matter of private choice in the so-called communities of faith that are free to operate as enclaves within the secular civilization.

This is of course written in the wake of the terrorist attacks against "Charlie Hebdo" on January 7, 2015 (and now after the Copenhagen attacks on Feb 14-15) and after public reaction condemning violence with roots in Islamic religion. Secular civilization that has overwhelming support in Europe and America has of course its implementation problems, identified variously as racism and colonialism, and these can be addressed in the atmosphere of safe public debate, with free speech, free from religious terrorism and other irrational prejudice.

We need to support the secular civilization as it respects religious freedom among other freedoms. Religion needs to respect the secular civilization.

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Sunday, March 16, 2014

Miguel Gutierrez and the mind-body problem

After my first encounter with Miguel Gutierrez's performance art I had to talk about his uniqueness to many around me. I spoke about his courage, about taking actual risks in stage acts and risks in interacting with the audience. And much of what he did was in line with a wonderful statement that I found printed in the program. I extolled it as the best artist's statement I have ever read. Without claim to accuracy I recall that he spoke about the function of art and of performance art specifically. Answering the question why exactly do we want to show ourselves and act in front of the audience - or among the audience or other performers. He gave a brilliant answer: that we want to have a witness to our experience. A witness that reflects to us not our own image but the truth of our experience, validates the experience.

In the latest show, titled "and lose the name of action", - I saw it in Seattle at OnTheBoards March 9, 2014 - he battles the problem of the body being dominated by formal and authoritative systems of knowledge. Miguel apparently responds to the impression made by a close encounter with modern medicine where his own father was treated for a serious illness. Scientists, technologist doctors, patients and perhaps transiently angelic beings populate the stage. The doctors display the mastery that comes from technology based on scientific knowledge, passion for knowledge and dispassionate analytic attitude toward its effects in human world. The angelic beings seem to pray to the absent and unnamed gods. Patients throw fits of indignation about being only objects and just objects and that their rescue depends on their existence being treated on the level of existence of objects of science. Everybody joins in the debate about the nature of experience. Do I respond to heat because it is my experience of heat or because science has defined heat as an objective phenomenon that our brain (an object) is capable of responding to? Miguel's piece contains a very clever dramatization of the so-called mind-body problem. Of course it remains unresolved. The scientists debating it end their discussions with mutual "fuck-you's".

The reason for this impasse is that the patient is unwilling to take charge of his experience and say that he/she is the authority. The patient - that is most of us - will hand himself/herself over to the systems of knowledge asking for salvation. What the system will deliver is a body fragmented and converted into a set of objects that it can manipulate. To defend ourselves from that we must claim the ownership of our subjective life. This is something Miguel has not yet asserted in this show but an inkling of that notion was present in his early days manifesto with the excellent artist statement.

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

America - everyone's imaginary love

There is a lot of love and admiration for America outside of its borders. At the same time Americans in the country are full of dissatisfaction and even outright loathing for the state of the union and its vicious actions abroad. Americans think that they are powerless to change the situation internally and ambivalent about the value of cultures and societal arrangements of foreign countries. They admire the "communities" maintained by materially deprived peoples and are shocked by the rules that restrain individual liberties there.

Lacan has implied in his lectures, quite derisively, that America is sustained by a culture of the imaginary. That individuals dream up their dreams and work to realize them without quite bothering to internalize the meaning of their life and career. You become what you may in the course of pursuing your dream - this is the idea. In other cultures it behooves the individual to validate the course of his career with the society, with the roots where he comes from. His life becomes a sort of service to the society that brought him up, a sort of repaying the debt of being immersed in the Other's view of the world. So that is why when people outside of this country dream their dream is American.

I saw a film a few days ago. A new Belgian film by Felix van Groeningen titled: "The broken circle breakdown", released just late last year 2013. It is about a Belgian Dutch speaking couple involved in a bluegrass band that literally worships American culture - mostly folk and country culture - and their conflict around the death of their daughter who succumbs to leukemia at the age of 7. The film is an homage to the American imaginary way of life even when the main hero rants from the stage against Bush and the religious right who restricted the support for stem cell research. That technology and scientific progress could have saved their daughter or other children in the future. He worships the American country culture with bluegrass music being its pinnacle - yet cannot admit that it expresses the imaginary and naive field of belief in supernatural beings who control our lives. That belief can make its way all the way up the chain of government. He would prefer science to have the control of our lives. Here his woman partner protests - she claim the right to believe whatever she wants (and accords the same right to the naive Americans - so much cultivated in the life of the band). She chooses to unconsciously believe the lies told to her dying daughter about the star that she becomes - a star that shines its rays into the eyes of beings in the future. She believes that the image of the raven will deter the birds from crashing into the glass of the veranda. She blames herself and her partner for the death of her daughter - predicating their faults on scientific theories of hygiene of pregnancy and child rearing. He is closer to the scientific naivete when he tells his dying daughter the story of the star's light surviving its lifespan and giving of light to observers far off in the future. That story soothes the child's dying moment but is totally imaginary. The contradictions in the minds of the adults between what they imagine about themselves and the world and what they are compelled to know and rationally profess are quite apparent and explode in emotional outbursts. The woman commits suicide. While her comatose body is disconnected from life support her husband's band plays a bluegrass "breakdown" tune as a funerary dirge.

Another night I attended an eclectic performance that included two modern art pieces and one traditional presentation of Indian classical dance. It is amazing how much the emotional life and the interactions that observe those are formalized in language. The gesture of dance speaks of what lives in the imagination and expresses itself as emotions. However, the latter are captured in language. In the case of that performance in the language of dance - in gesture. It is anti-expressionistic - the body is harnessed by language.

The solo female dancer ended her performance with an homage to America. She presented the song "God bless America" (or another of those songs of patriotic devotion) in Indian classical dance. It was very interesting and beautiful. However, I felt a certain uneasiness and even horror in the American audience that the performer, an immigrant, did not expect to arouse. The motive of the performer was to express the love and admiration for America and the benefits of its civilization. Americans, the natives of this land foremost, not necessarily "native" Americans - do not feel that admiration and do not have a sense of what this country offers to the world and how much it is loved for it. I felt uneasy too - about the uneasiness of the "born-here" Americans, their cringing at someone from the outside imagining something about them that they do not dare imagine themselves anymore.

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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

To my left-liberal friends

Having lived in the US since the time of Reagan I feel nowadays - in the end of 2013 - an eery sense of foreboding. Something will happen, something on a scale not seen since the wars of the 20th century. Not a "consciousness shift" that would guarantee peace and prosperity and life everafter in the harmony with nature which will gently bestow upon us her splendid gifts. Not material violence and destruction. I feel something else that is invisibly hollowing out the soul of Americans. That void is increasing and a point is approaching when a great cry will be uttered: "Oh my god, we have lost our soul." While we enjoy our amusements, our soul is being destroyed by the monster of the "lesser evil." We are supporting the lesser evil as it were not evil and as if we were not responsible for its actions.

Why is it a "lesser evil" - if it kills every day scores of innocents abroad under the guise of the war on terror? Was Reagan's expansion of the US nuclear weapons program a "greater" evil - even when those weapons did not kill a single person? The "lesser" weapons of Obama kill many more.

And if you think that this is a "lesser" evil - is not opposing it the right thing to do? Or at least exerting political pressure and a pressure of public opinion so that this evil we elected to live with is diminished every day?

I think we all know that the fight to reduce even the "lesser" of evils is the right thing to do but yet we do not do it. Why? Oh why!!!

Because we have bought into the party of evil - the lesser one that it may be. We have something to gain by cooperating and by not obstructing the path of power. We want to hold on to power ourselves, to the portion of power that we released into the hands of our government. We want minor aspects of power, aspects of it that we could have held ourselves by our industrious efforts, but we preferred to become subsidiaries of a greater power, a power luckily deemed to still be a lesser evil.

We wanted to be safe: from the risk of illness, from an occasional wacko with a gun, extremely safe on an airplane trip, safe in a steady job and prosperous retirement, be assured that our food and drugs are superbly safe too. To arrive at these ends we call on the coercive hand of the government to weigh in. As if we could not achieve most of those safeties and comforts through our own free and peaceful arrangements - or our own sovereign powers if need be. We want to be nannied and coddled - preferably by a "lesser evil" power.

The dissonance between allowing ourselves to be cared for by a ruthless power of the state and our own aspirations of creating our own life in honesty and peace will be soon felt. This hollowing of our soul will be felt mostly when we lose the sovereignty of our own power and will only ask for the subsidiary powers as servile subjects of the state. When we try to shake off the servility we will be punished. That is the nature of the "lesser evil". Do you want that?

Do you want to condone any sort of policy - violent, militaristic, criminal - to protect the government because you already bought goods and services from it? Did this man sell you stuff and now you are protecting him to ensure the delivery?

Obama giving State of the Union address in January 2014

If we settle for the "lesser evil" do we want to do something to make it even less evil? How do we do that? And if we don't then aren't we assuring that the evil we settled for will grow to become greater. Maybe in a short time it will get worse than the one we initially had rejected. Or maybe while settled and coddled by the lesser evil the vexation will lead us, irrationally perhaps, to lurch to electing the "greater evil" that will step in inheriting all the powers of the former.

The impending moment for America is a moment of revolting shame, disgust with oneself and self-hatred. Comfortable, self-satisfied we will suddenly realize what price we have paid. Not unlike in Nazi Germany where atrocities and even genocide were justified by the need of the people for safety and comfort - for the "Lebensraum". Here in America we call it American interests abroad, which we are free to defend with lethal force. So said our president to the United Nations last fall. And here we do not prosecute the Jews, but revile corporations that operate for the abominable profit, forgetting conveniently that we ask the government to collude with the largest of them in service of some public interest, and in service of benefits that we have commissioned.

My liberal friends! Please understand that you are asking for your own disempowering. You want the individual to give up some of their power, that is liberty and material means, in favour of the state (typically the US federal government) and then ask the government to return to you benefits obtained in transferring the power into the hands of large corporations. That is how you become serfs and vassals of the state and of the corporation.


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

What is Immunism (not Communism)

It is a great film - "Communism" (youtube about 50 min long) - narrating roughly the marxist theory and its current, and forced, application to our world - about 150 years after the "Communist Manifesto". It has a surprising conclusion about which in a moment.

Much of the film are interviews with lesser and better known intellectuals and luminaries of the world of business. They all can take positions with respect to the merits and demerits of the capitalist system with its centrality of the profit motive. Other significant concepts are those of money and commodity. Money is what makes it all possible and as kind of commodity that enables fluid exchange - one of the speakers admits - it allows for mostly peaceful exchange on a massive scale. Economists refer us to psychology saying that the reason that we wish to acquire things is some spiritual intangible value in them. That is aligned with Marx's insight from long ago that the transformation of an object of nature into commodity, that is for a product that is for sale, imbues it with some quality that is not its own but is imagined by the consumer. From a bag of potatoes to an elegant suit the consumer attaches a "spiritual" value - to a degree so - to his purchase. Marx originates here the idea of fetish. For Marx consumer is a fetishist.

Another challenge posed in the film is the metaphor of the blue and red pill - from the Matrix. Marx, in a cartoon character actually, is offered the choice either of seeing the capitalist system clumsily forge along (the blue pill choice) or the choice of seeing the consequences and true motives of the capitalist system destroy it and usher into an era of communism (the red pill). As we know the communist systems collapsed - almost all of them - and the capitalist system manages to reinvent itself.

The modern advocate of the Marxist condemnation of the capital and the free market is in a difficult situation. I would say he or she does not know how to restate the "Communist Manifesto" in a contemporary form. It is harder and harder to condemn the markets and the system of money for the prosperity it appears to facilitate.

Toward the end there are interesting voices brought into the conversation. First is Slavoj Zizek who says the the production of knowledge became nowadays more important than the production of material goods. But then he says that "knowledge is the antithesis of commodity", because "... when it is shared it even gets bigger." (minute 45) If this is the case then we are leaving the land of scarcity and are happily on a path to abundance - not that it does not bring new yet unknown problems. Still the situation changes drastically and Marxist assumptions are to be abandoned.

Another interesting voice is that of Peter Sloterdijk (minute 47 or so). He talks for "immunism," which he defines as finding basic solidarity against common destruction.
He says that people need to "forge alliance against the lethal." They "... must provide mutual security and offer each other communities of solidarity, even on planetary scale ... because for the first time collective self-destruction is possible". Then, "...before we say communism we must understand the principle of immunism". "...or the principle of our mutual insurance, which is the most profound motive of solidarity."

I have not heard of Peter Sloterdijk before but his observation resounds quite profoundly with me because it is minimalist. That is in the solidarity against destruction of value (i.e. against evil) we seek the most universally common aspects of value to protect - with force and vigor and possibly authority of government. That means that such things will be few. Also the solidarity means that the protection against evil could be offered in individual and community arrangements - entered into and dissolved by free agreement. The current alternatives to Marxist Communism seem to be maximalist - we will take all your freedom and offer you all the goods. I think we ought to strive for a world where we pursue our own goods individually and share with others the pursuit of such goods when we are really really sure they are shared.

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Thursday, August 01, 2013

Our troops are defending our benefits

Our troops no longer defend our freedom - they are defending our benefits. We can no longer be proud of their mission. The US has become a global bully defending its interests using military force and secret violent means all over the world. The violence that we unleash in the world is not for our safety but for the stability of the price of oil which allows us to live comfortable lives and drive large cars. We use the inherently coercive nature of government, its monopoly for legal use of violence, to bolster a business model of our lives that we imagine as the only one possible. Since we demand affordable healthcare, free education, cheap gas, well-paying jobs without heeding the intrinsic cost of delivering such goods. Someone has to pay the costs - and in our inability to face them we have shifted that burden away from ourselves on the most powerful player and the most dangerous of them all - the government. In this case the US federal or, shall I say, imperial government.

What shall the government do to pay the cost of our benefits? The obvious thing is to raise taxes and tighten the enforcement of its revenue collection. The other thing is to influence the world around us - China, Japan, Europe - with economic, political and military pressure - to protect what is perceived as the American interest. We went already almost full throttle on that foreign account by unceasing aggression abroad. This is so because the government is acting out its role as the enforcer which we have indeed authorized. The unique privilege of using violence is placed in the hands of government to protect freedom, but we have asked the government to use it to secure the practical, material side of life - to protect our benefits. The practical side of our life is supposed to be secured by peaceful economic process where the government is involved only to assure the honest execution of voluntary transactions.

We have asked the government to use its unique power in a corrupted manner. In the pursuit of the wrong goal.

What will happen next? Or has already happened in consequence? The coercive power of the government is a commodity for sale - today sold to large corporations. They are the suppliers of materials goods the government is to deliver to us as benefits, they are there to make money helping the government fulfill and expand its coercive function. They will be the suppliers of helmets, bullets, tazers, vehicles, prison cells and jailers, intrusive health care, intelligence analysts, data collection facilities, jobs in the security sector. The corporations will also pursue their goals by prodding the government to discipline us as consumers - by enforcing draconian penalties for so-called intellectual-property violations, for any activities perceived as computer fraud even when they might be research projects. The government will intrude into our lives to all the medical and intimate details - when it sees its role as provider of health care it will be an enforcer of compliance with proper health practices. We are already restricted from self-medicating by the intricate system of licensing and drug delivery rules which allows the health care industry and big pharma to rise above us as a cartel. And we are sponsoring that!

People, we are asking the government to kick our collective ass! Wake up! Do we want to be cattle raised for the glory of monstrous organizations which we had initially created to protect us as humans aspiring to life in freedom? Wake up!


Thursday, June 13, 2013

Edward Snowden's act of sacrifice

Indeed, on hearing about Snowden's revelations of NSA domestic spying on US citizens I went on quickly to conclude that there is another hero and a revival of American spirit of freedom is possible and maybe even imminent. But then I hear about the belittling of his person and motives by the likes of Thomas Friedmann and David Brooks as reported on Democracy Now with Amy Goodman. Snowden is also coolly treated by legal scholar (and Obama's academic boss at the University of Chicago) Geoffrey Stone who very strongly argues that he is simply a law breaker and as such would not be tolerated by any government.

On the program of June 12 Chris Hedges, however, argues passionately, that lawbreakers such as Snowden may be heros as they expose other larger crimes committed behind the cover of the law. He speaks in defense of the "act of conscience" and about Snowden and "people who, within systems of power, have a conscience to expose activities by the power elite which are criminal in origin or unconstitutional. And that’s precisely what he did." In response to Stone he says: "When you have a system by which criminals are in power, criminals on Wall Street who are able to carry out massive fraud with no kinds of repercussions or serious regulation or investigation, criminals who torture in our black sites, criminals who carry out targeted assassinations, criminals who lie to the American public to prosecute preemptive war, which under international law is illegal, if you are a strict legalist, as apparently Professor Stone is, what you’re in essence doing is protecting criminal activity. I would argue that in large sections of our government it’s the criminals who are in power."

On the program of June 13, Christopher Pyle, a former whistleblower who exposed illegal government spying on US citizens in the late 60's, argues again in favor of Snowden's actions. Pyle says that Congress has lost the power of oversight because of the terrific degree of dependency on corporate sponsorship of their political office and because of the legal bind in which the secrecy of the object of oversight. Pyle: "Members of Congress do not go to those briefings (on security agencies), even if they’re offered, because once you go to the briefing, then you can’t talk about what you’ve been told, because it’s classified. So the briefing system is designed to silence Congress, not to promote effective oversight." Further: "Members of Congress don’t want to spend time on oversight. They’re too busy raising money. New members of the House of Representatives this winter were told by the Democratic Campaign Committee that they should spend between four and six hours a day dialing for dollars. They have no time to do the public’s business. They’re too busy begging for money. President Obama himself attended 220 fundraisers last year." And he describes the situation of fascist merger between private business and government: "the reason that private contractors get this business is because members of Congress intercede with them with government agencies. And we now have a situation where members of the Intelligence Committee and other committees of Congress intercede with the bureaucracy to get sweetheart contracts for companies that waste taxpayers’ money and also violate the Constitution and the privacy of citizens. This is a very serious situation, because it means that it’s much more difficult to get effective oversight from Congress."

So we have a very serious situation in this country. The government has excused itself from justifying its secret actions ostensibly taken to protect the Constitution. Citizens trying to force the US government to show the legal basis of its actions and would be met with persecution in the name of the law: Espionage Act, etc. The government acts behind the veil of secrecy with legal impunity while the citizenry is to exposed to indiscriminate spying and subject to prosecution. How do we make sure that the government is not exceeding its prerogatives? We can't. Furthermore, we can be sure that it is exceeding its constitutional prerogatives because it is in the grip of corporate, economic influence.

What about Edward Snowden, the low-level employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, a private entity entrusted with the mission of spying on us. He shows us the difference between what is right and what is legal. Sometimes what is legally called for is not right and the law needs to be broken because it is immoral and unjust. It would be better if we just change the law but first those who will reveal the injustice will be sacrificed. It is not the first time.