"Atheists are as dull," the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning once wrote, "who cannot guess God's presence out of sight."
I don't know if atheists are dull or not, but lately I've been feeling the incredible dullness of political pundits and commentators who have nothing but gloomy cynicism to offer, who cannot see the dynamic nature of the changes that take place on this planet every day. What can be duller than a person who truly and deeply believes in statements like these about the human condition, about the prospects for the future of our world?
Nothing will ever change.
Politics is just a lot of noise.
It's a corrupt game. Only the worst people can win.
This week, USA President Barack Obama and Cuba's President Raul Castro reached a historic (though still informal) agreement to suddenly end the state of hostility that has existed between these neighbors for 53 years. The news dropped in the middle of a busy holiday season news week, briefly dominating social media and the airwaves for a few hours between other major global political stories involving CIA torture and North Korean cyberterrorism. I wonder if many people do not realize how momentous the news about Cuba is.
The horrifying report of the US Senate investigation into CIA torture during the Iraq War was released to the public this week, revealing depths of sadism and cruelty that nearly everybody but Dick Cheney considers un-American. When scandals like this are revealed, our first instinct is to look for someone else to blame.
This is a natural instinct, and I followed the instinct myself when I called out Dick Cheney above. But that was a cheap shot, and blaming others for a complex problem always feels like a moral dead end. Did we not all participate in the democratic process that led to the election of the leaders who embraced barbarity on our behalf? Are we not ourselves all to blame?
To blame ourselves seems more enlightened than to blame others. And yet, surprisingly, it brings us no closer to real understanding. Whether we blame others or ourselves, either way we are identifying a flaw in human character as the cause of a terrible problem. We are presuming that bad traits like greed or sadism or toxic ideology or ignorant apathy lead certain individuals (others, ourselves) to make wrong decisions. But we always discover that this realization doesn't improve anything, because no personal judgement will have an impact on problems like torture -- or human slavery or terrorism or genocide or any other form of geopolitical atrocity. Even when we occasionally manage to put some evildoers in jail, we don't seem to be fixing the underlying problems at all.
Imagine a bunch of people floating on rafts towards a waterfall that will soon kill them all. They are all paddling as hard as they can in a desperate attempt to save their lives. Some are using their hands, some are kicking their legs, others are trying to lash their rafts together. They are all yelling at each other that somebody else is doing it wrong, or they are crying for help because they know they are themselves doing it wrong. But the key point is this: they are all going to go over the waterfall. It doesn't matter whether they paddle with their hands or kick with their legs. It doesn't matter what any of them think, or what any of them say. They are in the grip of a force of nature. They are floating on a river that is carrying them against their will.
When we invaded Iraq in 2003, it may be the case that a CIA torture scandal was simply inevitable. It may not have mattered what Dick Cheney thought, or what any Cabinet official or Washington Post reporter or angry voter did. It may be that the CIA's descent into barbarity was an inevitable result of the invasion of Iraq. The actions of certain powerful individuals surely made the torture scandal worse, and the actions of certain other individuals may have made the scandal less horrible. But this is like the difference between people who are paddling fast or paddling slow to get away from the waterfall. Either way, they are all going over.
When we discuss atrocities like the CIA torture scandal, we should try to puzzle out the actual forces of nature that caused the atrocity. Just as a river is stronger by levels of magnitude than any individual swimmer, decisions made during time of war seem to always follow a natural logic that is far more powerful than that of any individual decision-maker's personality or character. In these situations, we begin to operate according to the logic of the herd mind, whose patterns do not resemble those of the individual mind at all.
What can a pacifist say about racism? A lot, it turns out. The pacifist perspective is badly needed when rage abounds, as it does right now following the decisions by grand juries in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City not to indict two policemen who killed two unarmed African-American men.
"American society's admiration for Martin Luther King increases with distance," writes Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic, in an article subtitled with blunt words: "Violence works. Nonviolence sometimes works too."
Ta-Nehisi Coates has also been exploring the evergreen idea that racism can be corrected by war on his Twitter account, evoking the North's victory over the South in the American Civil War as a relevant moral victory, and declaring that:
I was recently pondering the upcoming midterm elections here in the USA while stopped dead in rush hour traffic on a Fairfax, Virginia highway. Far away by the side of the road, I spotted a freaky-looking old white-bearded guy waving a sign that I had to strain to read.
I guessed that his sign bore a political message, but based on his expression of plucky determination I could not guess whether it would be a message I'd agree with or not. This gave me a unique opportunity to form an advance opinion of this person's character and intelligence based only on his appearance -- blue jeans, work shirt, a funky-enough hat -- and to compare my initial impression to the impression that would follow once I could read the words on his sign.
Based on initial impression, I liked this guy, because it takes a lot of guts to stand at a crowded highway intersection all by yourself and wave a sign at frustrated rush hour drivers. I also liked him because he had a pleasant and intelligent face, and because I tend to always like people with strong opinions and the courage to stand alone. As my car inched closer to where he stood, I really hoped his sign would say something deeply insightful.
It’s easy to get angry when listening to Sam Harris, a stubborn young philosopher who recently made headlines for joining Bill Maher to condemn the entire religion of Islam on TV (Ben Affleck took the smarter side in this debate). Sam Harris is a pop-culture philosopher with a message of urgent, fervent atheism -- though he has so little respect for religion that he doesn’t even prefer to define himself by this negative belief (there is no word, he points out, for people who don’t believe in Greek myths or in astrology, so we shouldn’t need a word for those who don’t believe in Christianity, Islam or Hinduism either).
I find Sam Harris writings and statements about religion dull and unperceptive. Part of the problem is that he's an overconfident philosopher, heavily armed with a degree in neuroscience from the University of California at Los Angeles. He's so sure of his atheism (he does not want to call it atheism, but I still may do so) that he fails to realize his rote paragraphs have failed to win us over.
Over and over, he lays out a scientific or semantic principle and concludes that he has proven some point. He believes that abstract concepts can be clearly defined and that arguments can be won by declaring logical truths, which is to say that he lives in a world before Nietzsche, before Wittgenstein, before Derrida. This gives him a confidence in his conclusions that is awkward for a more existential philosopher to behold.
However, Sam Harris should not be written off as a hack. He is an energetic philosopher who has managed to establish himself as a voice for other fervent atheists, many of whom congregate at his admirably useful website Project Reason. He has a long career ahead of him, and he has even shown significant signs of improvement -- when he stays off the topic of Islam and away from television talk shows.
The past week was a rough ride on the literary Internet. Thursday brought the sudden death knell of HTMLGiant, a rollicking community website frequented by writers like Tao Lin, Zachary German, Megan Boyle, Noah Cicero, Marie Calloway and Blake Butler along with a wide cast of erratic contributors and scattered postmodernists. This lively website always reminded me of the fun and psychotic days when Litkicks ran message boards.
The good news is, HTMLGiant is staying alive through October for one last gasp, promising to unleash a series of farewell blog posts "because if there’s anything this website deserves it’s an uncontrolled flameout". That's the way to do it, HTMLGiant!
Nothing I can write today will be as relevant as an event that took place in New York City and various other places around the world today: the biggest climate march in history, attended by over 300,000 people. The Huffington Post has the scoop.
The specific policy mission of this march is to deliver a message of solidarity before the beginning of the United Nations Climate Summit. This large group of concerned human beings seems to be doing a great job of making its voice heard.
It's because words are such effective tools of communication that we sometimes fail to realize how often we communicate without them. A conversation is sometimes a physical exchange. These conversations carry meaning that can only exist in the physical realm.
We signify to each other with words, with gestures, with emotional expressions. We also signify with commitments, with actions, and when this occurs (as it constantly does in our everyday lives) we are able to see that logical meaning is itself a physical thing. We can't say what we want to say without putting our bodies into it.
For example: my wife and I go to a wedding of a friend of hers who we haven't seen in a while. We both like the bride and groom a lot, and we used to enjoy hanging out with them, but tonight we barely get to talk to the marrying couple because they are so busy running around being the bride and groom. Still, we are glad we came to the wedding, because we are able to express something to the couple by being there. They know that we are there because we want to celebrate their marriage, and this recognition (which might not take place till weeks later when they see their wedding photos) amounts to a happy conversation that could not have been carried out if we were not there. We could have sent a card, and the card could have had many more words on it than we had a chance to speak. But the card would have expressed not more meaning but less than we expressed by being there.
Exactly 150 years today, the most grueling and relentless eight days of the Civil War in the United States of America began. These are the opening days of the Overland Campaign, in which two armies rampaged south through north-central Virginia in their final race towards Richmond, capital city of the Confederacy. They stopped frequently along the way to try to kill each other.
The Overland Campaign was recently featured in the TV series House of Cards. The crooked politician played by Kevin Spacey visits a newly dedicated (and fictional) battlefield park dedicated to the Overland Campaign, and meets a reenactor costumed as his own doomed Rebel ancestor. In real life, the park is known as the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Battlefield, and despite the House of Cards fabrication, it's not dedicated just to the Overland Campaign: there were so many fights in this region that Wilderness and Spotsylvania have to share space with Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, where major battles were fought in 1862 and 1963.
Those were also critical and immense conflagrations, but Civil War experts know the Overland Campaign was the greatest match of them all, because it was in these battles -- Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Yellow Tavern, Cold Harbor -- that General Ulysses S. Grant faced General Robert E. Lee directly for the first time. This was the big one, the championship between the two top teams. This was the Finals, and it was a hell of a fight.
I've been trying to philosophize about the Ukranian crisis in real time. This is always hazardous. Last Saturday morning, February 22, I invited readers to look at six images representing the history of Ukraine and to suggest three more that help fill out the story we are trying to understand. The idea was to try to puzzle out new insights about the enigmatic and confusing geopolitics of this Eastern European country, which has endured terrible conflicts and sufferings for centuries.
I thought this would be a worthy Zen type of philosophical/political exercise -- but I felt the sand of the mandala falling out under me when, just as I hit "publish" on my blog post, news blared out all over social media that the embattled Russian-sponsored President had suddenly fled the city of Kiev. This meant that the violent Kiev uprisings of the past weeks had turned into a successful revolution. Huge news! But I regretted having published my blog post about Ukraine's history on this hopeful and joyous day in Kiev and around the world. My blog post had a gloomy and angry tone that did not match the jubilation I even felt myself as I watched reports of Ukranian citizens celebrating on the streets of Kiev.
Even so, my intrepid and erstwhile Litkicks commenters came through in the clutch and answered my challenge with several great sets of images (see the comments on last weekend's post to enjoy the selections). I was glad that Subject Sigma remembered the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, and also shared the image of a beautiful breadbasket Ukranian field that is at the top of this page.