Religion

I stumbled upon our society's most fascinating enduring metaphor by chance. Clicking around on iTunes, I noticed that I owned six different songs called "Ship of Fools".

But these weren't six different versions of one song. "Ship of Fools" was not a classic cover song, like "Dancing in the Streets" or "Hallelujah". Rather, six different songs called "Ship of Fools" were written and performed between the 1960s and 1980s by the Doors, the Grateful Dead, John Cale, Bob Seger, World Party and Robert Plant.

Strangely, all six were good songs, which seemed to me as significant as the fact that all six had the same title. How often do six good songs show up in a row on a random playlist? What on earth, I wondered, was going on with this ship of fools? What was this meme about?

I knew that the concept of a ship of fools can be traced back to Book Six of Plato's Republic. Socrates and Adeimantus are discussing the different models by which a government can rule wisely, and Socrates offers this analogy to Adeimantus:

Imagine then a fleet or a ship in which there is a captain who is taller and stronger than any of the crew, but he is a little deaf and has a similar infirmity in sight, and his knowledge of navigation is not much better. The sailors are quarreling with one another about the steering -- every one is of opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation and cannot tell who taught him or when he learned, and will further assert that it cannot be taught, and they are ready to cut in pieces any one who says the contrary.

They throng about the captain, begging and praying him to commit the helm to them; and if at any time they do not prevail, but others are preferred to them, they kill the others or throw them overboard, and having first chained up the noble captain's senses with drink or some narcotic drug, they mutiny and take possession of the ship and make free with the stores; thus, eating and drinking, they proceed on their voyage in such a manner as might be expected of them. Him who is their partisan and cleverly kaids them in their plot for getting the ship out of the captain's hands into their own whether by force or persuasion, they compliment with the name of sailor, pilot, able seaman, and abuse the other sort of man, whom they call a good-for-nothing; but that the true pilot must pay attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds, and whatever else belongs to his art, if he intends to be really qualified for the command of a ship, and that he must and will be the steerer, whether other people like or not-the possibility of this union of authority with the steerer's art has never seriously entered into their thoughts or been made part of their calling.

Now in vessels which are in a state of mutiny and by sailors who are mutineers, how will the true pilot be regarded? Will he not be called by them a prater, a star-gazer, a good-for-nothing?

Socrates is suggesting that we cannot always listen to our mob mind when we make decisions as a community; we must discern our smarter instincts and repress our dumber ones. On a political level, Socrates appears to be suggesting that a simple democracy may descend to dysfunction and chaos. Indeed, one of the main ideas of The Republic is that a wise captain must guide the ship of fools.

Plato's analogy of a boat filled with stupid people (interestingly, no translation of The Republic actually includes the phrase "ship of fools") resembles the same philosopher's famous analogy of the cave, which appears in the same book. The cave-dwellers who cannot see the light are the fools on Plato's ship.

Socrates and Plato are pointing to something beyond the political here, though. We've mentioned before on this site that The Republic is a a work of psychology over all. The ship of fools that most concerns Socrates and Plato in The Republic is the clamor of stupid voices inside each of our own stormy minds. To thrive and live well, each human soul must appoint a wise captain for itself.

The metaphor of a ship filled with fools emerged anew in 1494 when a German theologian named Sebastian Brant wrote a popular book of verse called The Ship of Fools, known as Narrenschiff in German or Stultifera Navis in Latin. A satire on various aspects of contemporary society, the book was translated into several languages and was a gigantic hit all over north and central Europe.

Sebastian Brant's Ship of Fools poked fun at judges, politicians, clerics, academics and merchants by satirizing them as characters on a small ship crowded with questionable characters. The "fools", who apparently like to wear comical pointed hats in various illustrations for the book, were understood at the time to correspond to well-known or influential people in European church, government, commerce or royalty. The fact that the book dared to confront powerful targets for their foolish or immoral ways probably explains its popularity with all levels of readers.

Like Erasmus's similarly-titled In Praise of Folly, Brant's book gave Gutenberg's newly invented printing machines a workout in the 16th century. A modified English language version by Alexander Barclay spread the book's popularity even further by adding new verses mocking British celebrities and archetypes of the era. Various editions of the book inspired artists like Albrecht Durer, whose woodcut images of a boat crowded with fools became popular on their own.

A famous painting by Heironymous Bosch (seen at the top of this page) is believed to have been inspired by the Durer woodcuts. Despite its once vast popularity, Sebastian Brant's Ship of Fools is not often read or discussed today. The topical references make the satire hard to penetrate five centuries later, and it doesn't help that you need to know your classical Greek and Roman mythology to get many of the jokes. The archaic medieval language also provides a rough reading experience, yet it is possible to read and enjoy Brant's book, and often the meaning of a verse shines through:

We are full lade and yet forsoth I thynke
A thousand are behynde, whom we may not receyue
For if we do, our nauy clene shall synke
He oft all lesys that coueytes all to haue
From London Rockes Almyghty God vs saue
For if we there anker, outher bote or barge
There be so many that they vs wyll ouercharge.

Four and a half centuries later, Katherine Anne Porter set the great metaphor afloat again when she wrote a novel called Ship of Fools in 1962. Like Sebastian Brant's Narranschiff, Katherine Anne Porter's Ship of Fools was a huge commercial success and a #1 bestseller.

This book took place on a German luxury cruiser heading across the Atlantic Ocean in the portentous 1930s, just as Hitler's Nazi Party was beginning to threaten the weak democracy of the Weimar Republic. This ship's passenger list includes both proud Jews and harumphing Nazis, along with various other unsettled souls, angry lovers, lonely has-beens, ruined businessmen, rebellious children, and one wise small person named Glocken who spends his life crossing the ocean back and forth, as if searching there for the home he's never found.

Katharine Anne Porter is said to have spent 30 years writing "Ship of Fools", basing it on the memory of a boat trip she took herself in 1931. The popular novel was transformed into a successful 1965 movie directed by Stanley Kramer and starring Vivien Leigh (in what would be her final performance), Jose Ferrer, Lee Marvin, Simone Signoret, George Segal and Oskar Werner.

Like Brant's book of verses, this movie doesn't appear to have wide currency today, but it was a big international blockbuster in its own time. One Spanish version was called El Barco De Los Locos.

The use of "locos" in this translation of the title raises a question, though. Is a ship of fools a ship filled with crazy people, or stupid people, or professional clowns? This particular title indicates a ship filled with crazy people, but that's only one of several possible interpretations of the phrase.

In Plato's original analogy from The Republic, the ship is filled with stupid people. These people may begin to act insane once the results of their stupid decisions begin to reap disaster, but the core of their problem is that they are too dumb to operate a ship.

However, the Ship of Fools described by Sebastian Brant and illustrated by Albrecht Durer appears to depict a ship filled with rude and disreputable characters who may be professional clowns.

These characters wear funny pointed hats like those worn by theater clowns or court jesters, who were also known as fools. Interestingly, the hats in Durer's "Ship of Fools" woodcuts resemble the hat worn by Max on his boat ride in Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. Maurice Sendak knew his Albrecht Durer; maybe he was trying to suggest that being a fool on a ship can be fun, especially on a solo voyage.

As I pondered the enduring cultural significance of an ancient anecdote about a boat packed with dumb and/or crazy people, I ended up spending nearly ten bucks buying every song I could find on iTunes called "Ship of Fools". It turned out there were several more to find.

I still hadn't discovered even half of the artists who'd created distinct songs titled "Ship of Fools" -- Erasure, Echo and the Bunnymen, Sara Brightman, Ron Sexsmith, Flyleaf, Fucked Up, the Scorpions, Soul Asylum. I obsessively bought every one of these songs, and this act of faith paid off well when I found several gems in the playlist of sixteen songs I eventually created from this binge.

Here, for your enjoyment, is a detailed rundown and analysis of sixteen songs called "Ship of Fools", listed in order from my least favorite to my most favorite, with videos of what I consider the best five songs on the list: Sixteen Songs About A Ship of Fools.

3

From Plato's Republic to Sebastian Brant medieval satire to Katherine Anne Porter's bestselling novel, the idea that we are sailing on a ship of fools has intrigued many minds.

view /ShipOfFools
Monday, March 23, 2015 09:59 pm
boat full of dumb crazy people, by Heironymous Bosch
Story
Levi Asher

Twenty-five centuries ago, a Hindu scholar named Panini produced an analysis of the Sanskrit language so remarkable that later language theorists such as Ferdinand de Saussure would eventually cite it as the foundation of linguistics itself. Panini shows up in Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty, a new book by novelist and computer programmer Vikram Chandra, who describes the ancient scholar's achievement thus:

His objects of study were both the spoken language of his time, and the language of the Vedas, already a thousand years before him. He systemized both of these variations by formulating 3,976 rules that -- over eight chapters -- allow the generation of Sanskrit words and sentences from roots, which are in turn derived from phonemes and morphemes ...

The rules are of four types: (1) rules that function as definitions; (2) metarules -- that is, rules that apply to other rules; (3) headings -- rules that form the bases for other rules; and (4) operational rules. Some rules are universal while others are context sensitive; the sequence of rule application is clearly defined. Some rules can override others. Rules can call other rules, recursively. The application of one rule to a linguistic form can cause the application of other rule, which may in turn trigger other rules, until no more rules are applicable. The operational rules "carry out four basic types of operations on strings: replacement, affixation, augmentation, and compounding."

This is interesting on its own, but a reader who shares Vikram Chandra's familiarity with technology will probably notice how much fun Vikram Chandra is having here with words that have become standard computer programming jargon: "rules" and "metarules", "override", "recursion", "trigger", "operations on strings". The problems that concerned Panini as he read the Rig Veda in 400 BCE are apparently the same problems that concern software developers around the world today.

Geek Sublime is subtitled "The Beauty of Code, The Code of Beauty". I suspect this catchy subtitle was suggested by the publisher's marketing department, because it promises a much simpler equation than this unique work actually delivers. There's nothing very original about finding beauty in computer programs, which have aspired to be "elegant" since the days of FORTRAN and COBOL. Geek Sublime does touch upon the familiar topic of beauty in its first chapter, "Hello World!", but only as the starting point for a series of independent explorations that refuse to combine and intersect in predictable ways. I expected Geek Sublime to be an extroverted book, an accessible work of non-fiction, but in fact I'm now sure that Vikram Chandra wrote it with a novelist's mind, and even with a novelist's refusal to tie up loose ends.

Geek Sublime turns out to be a work of imagination and suggestion, a core dump of various ideas that have obsessed its author as he writes fiction and codes algorithms on the same keyboard. This is not a book that can be described by a flowchart, but it delivers something more worthwhile than a pat message: an invitation into the author's own peculiar ideas about language and logic as they manifest themselves in our everyday lives.

The topics Chandra touches upon here include:

The Soul of the Indian Programmer: In the early 1950s, India's government had the bright idea to start setting up the IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) system and importing mainframe computers for its fledgling computer scientists to learn on. This program was, obviously, a gigantic success, even though the soul of the Indian programmer remains mysterious to others, techie and non-techie alike. As a member of this global community, Chandra explains its contradictions, such as an alleged attitude of humility that masks a competitive intensity strangely invisible to outsiders. As an American-born techie who has often had the pleasure of being outnumbered by Desis in cubicle farms, I particularly enjoyed Chandra's point of view about the meaning of technology in the life of a modern Indian immigrant to America. I also enjoyed learning a few new words -- like jugaad, a creative workaround designed to solve a tough problem -- that I've never actually heard in any office, since the Indian programmers I work with (unlike Vikram Chandra) communicate with me exclusively in English. The richness of this vocabulary makes me wish they wouldn't always do so.

Gender and Ethnicity in the Workplace. Vikram Chandra recognizes the character of Raj in the TV comedy "The Big Bang Theory" all too well: an Indian "brain", awkward and unconfident, lacking the bull-headed masculinity of another techie stereotype: the superhero invincible programmer who can handle the toughest languages and debug the worst disasters with ease. This leads Chandra into a topic he has less first-hand knowledge of: the difficulties female programmers face in the overwhelmingly male world of software development.

This is a very relevant topic today, but like the book's subtitle it may have been grafted onto this book in an appeal for sales-worthy relevance, as Vikram Chandra really doesn't have anything new to add to this much-discussed controversy, except to point out that Indian programmers also sometimes struggle to fit into raucous American workplaces. These sections of the book are less successful than others also because Chandra seems to lack firsthand observation: while this novelist certainly is a real computer programmer, he does not appear to have held a full-time job in a technology department for a long time, and does not have his own stories to tell.

The Search for Elemental Roots of Language: modern programming languages are designed to be expressive and readable, which means they are abstracted by several layers from the actual physical instructions that are executed by the computer processor itself. These physical instructions are called "machine code" and are written in machine language, which is expressed in hexadecimal expressions that correlate to a more readable format known as "assembly code" written in assembly language.

In describing the work of the ancient linguist Panini, Chandra points out the traditional belief that Sanskrit words have roots in primal sounds that actually express the true nature of the universe. This is a lovely belief (of course, for all we know it may be true), especially when considered alongside the primal electronic structures known as logic gates, the tiny physical circuits that actually run machine code instructions on the processor chips that live deep inside each computer.

Like Chandra, I am also a longtime admirer of logic gates, and I can sense the novelist's true techie nature as he obsesses over the psychological metaphors these circuits provide, and when he provides photos of actual logic gates built with Lego blocks, movable by gears and dials.

The search for a physical corollary to language may be closer to Geek Sublime's elusive core than anything else. The book is much more about rootedness than about beauty -- though I guess "The Rootedness of Code, the Code of Rootedness" would not have worked as a subtitle.

This section unintentionally reveals how rapidly the field of software technology is changing, because the examples Chandra uses in this section would have made more sense twenty years ago than they do today. (Like me, Chandra became a computer programmer in the 1980s, though unlike me he was able to make enough money writing to stop coding full-time.) In the chapter titled "The Language of Logic" Chandra implies that C# programs are compiled into machine language instructions that run directly on a processor's circuits. While this might be true if he were writing in C++, a language that has stubbornly resisted virtualization, Vikram Chandra is actually simplifying a much more complex story here, since modern computer languages like C#, Java and PHP tend to run in virtual environments that sever the programmer's direction connection with the computer's physical circuitry. If a computer is like a film projector, it's a simple fact that C# and Java and PHP programmers do not get to ever create the film that runs on the spool. In the age of cloud computing and virtual machines, we are much farther away from the physical chip than we were twenty years ago when Chandra was actively hacking for a living.

Dhvani and Rasa: along with new Sanskrit words for various flavors of technological frustration and revelation, I'm happy to learn from Geek Sublime a new vocabulary for artistic expression. Dhvani and rasa appear to represent the full appreciation of the meaning of a work in both an objective and subjective sense, and that's as much as I can confidently explain about these fascinating words, which I did not know before I read Geek Sublime. I may need to read the book a second time -- or follow up on some of the Sanskrit texts it beguilingly teases -- before I can try to explain these terms better. Till then, though, I'm happy to have them in my toolkit, where they may find some use.

Like the fascinating vocabulary it presents, Geek Sublime is certainly a work of depth and serious purpose. It's not the trendy nonfiction book it pretends to be, which is why I suspect it may actually be a novelist's latest novel in disguise. It works well enough that I'm looking forward to checking out the author's earlier ones.

1

A novelist and computer programmer explores the intersection of the two worlds.

view /GeekSublime
Sunday, February 15, 2015 10:08 am
Geek Sublime by Vikram Chandra
Story
Levi Asher

There are some days when only a very old poem will do. Sometimes a 2600-year-old poem. Here are a few selections from the Tao Te Ching, apropos of a hard day at work. -- Levi

Chapter 43

The softest things of the world
Override the hardest things of the world
That which has no substance
Enters into that which has no openings
From this I know the benefits of unattached actions
The teaching without words
The benefits of actions without attachment
Are rarely matched in the world

Chapter 44

Fame or the self, which is dearer?
The self or wealth, which is greater?
Gain or loss, which is more painful?
Thus excessive love must lead to great spending
Excessive hoarding must lead to heavy loss
Knowing contentment avoids disgrace
Knowing when to stop avoids danger
Thus one can endure indefinitely

Chapter 20

Cease learning, no more worries
Respectful response and scornful response
How much is the difference?
Goodness and evil
How much do they differ?
What the people fear, I cannot be unafraid
So desolate! How limitless it is!
The people are excited
As if enjoying a great feast
As if climbing up to the terrace in spring
I alone am quiet and uninvolved
Like an infant not yet smiling
So weary, like having no place to return
The people all have surplus
While I alone seem lacking
I have the heart of a fool indeed – so ignorant!
Ordinary people are bright
I alone am muddled
Ordinary people are scrutinizing
I alone am obtuse
Such tranquility, like the ocean
Such high wind, as if without limits
The people all have goals
And I alone am stubborn and lowly
I alone am different from them
And value the nourishing mother

Chapter 29

Those who wish to take the world and control it
I see that they cannot succeed
The world is a sacred instrument
One cannot control it
The one who controls it will fail
The one who grasps it will lose
Because all things:
Either lead or follow
Either blow hot or cold
Either have strength or weakness
Either have ownership or take by force
Therefore the sage:
Eliminates extremes
Eliminates excess
Eliminates arrogance

Chapter 22

Yield and remain whole
Bend and remain straight
Be low and become filled
Be worn out and become renewed
Have little and receive
Have much and be confused
Therefore the sages hold to the one as an example for the world
Without flaunting themselves – and so are seen clearly
Without presuming themselves – and so are distinguished
Without praising themselves – and so have merit
Without boasting about themselves – and so are lasting
Because they do not contend, the world cannot contend with them
What the ancients called "the one who yields and remains whole"
Were they speaking empty words?
Sincerity becoming whole, and returning to oneself

2

Five verses from the Tao Te Ching, apropos of a hard day at work.

view /Tao2015
Monday, February 2, 2015 09:25 pm
Rippon Train Station in Virginia
Story
Levi Asher

Exactly one hundred years ago today, there was still some hope that the monstrous war that had just broken out between (in quick succession) Serbia, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Germany, France, Belgium, Great Britain and Turkey might be over by Christmas. A quick victory was what all the military experts on all the sides had promised, after all.

The Great Fraud wasn’t over by Christmas. Today, we mostly think of the First World War as the prelude to the grudge match that followed it, the Second World War, which was somehow even more destructive. Today, the shrill pitch of global politics shows that we have never really managed to emerge from the cloud of moral poison that emerged from Central Europe in 1914. La Grande Illusion still surrounds us today.

The First World War is almost always remembered by historians as a foolish and massive human tragedy, and that's why a mood of dignified sadness and cosmic frustration hung in the air on November 8 in the Celeste Bartos room of the New York Public Library, where an impressive group of historians and activists gathered for a day-long event called Voices for Peace, 1914-2014.

The host was Lewis Lapham, and the theme of the program appeared to have been inspired by Adam Hochschild's important recent book To End All Wars (which I read and reviewed here on Litkicks), a survey of the long-forgotten pacifist and activist movements that tried to prevent the slide to futile madness in Europe in 1914, and a reminder that the philosophy of pacifism has a long tail.

Adam Hochschild, holding the seat of honor next to Lewis Lapham, emphasized the shock of the fast slide to total war, which took nearly every progressive European thinker by surprise. Many political pundits and activists had been absorbed in lofty socialist or idealistic agendas when the war broke out. "The Internationalist dream went up in smoke at this moment," Hochschild said.

I was glad to find Michael Kazin on this panel, as I had also once read his biography of the famous Christian revivalist William Jennings Bryan, a perennial Democratic candidate for President who is now mostly known as the anti-Darwin foil in Inherit the Wind. I'd originally read A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan because I was interested in Bryan's career as a religious revivalist, but I was fascinated by the unexpected discovery that this farm-country traditionalist was also a devout pacifist who did God's work in trying to persuade President Woodrow Wilson not to enter the European war. At the New York Public Library panel, Kazin spoke of the wide variety of anti-war activities in the USA before and after we entered the war in 1917, including a women's march down Fifth Avenue and popular songs like "I Didn't Raise My Son To Be A Soldier".

The final member of the morning panel was Jack Beatty, NPR pundit and author of The Lost History of 1914: Reconsidering the Year the Great War Began. Beatty stated crisply a key point that is too often forgotten: there is a single human emotion that is the engine of war. The emotion is not greed, not hatred, but fear.

After the morning panel we heard stirring tributes by Jessica Tuchman Mathews and David Nasaw to Andrew Carnegie, another famous figure of history who is not typically remembered as a pacifist, though he dedicated his life to the cause. Nasaw referred to Carnegie as a "fool for peace", and told enough stories to justify this honorific that I will certainly feel much more humbled by the benefactor's good intentions the next time I walk into Carnegie Hall.

The afternoon session "Where Are the Voices for Peace Now?" was designed to pivot the conversation from history to activism, and this was the session I was most looking forward to. Lewis Lapham had invited a lively group, anchored by the peace and ecology activist Leslie Cagan. Next to Leslie was Steve Fraser, whose upcoming book The Age of Acquiescence criticizes our society's complacency about abuses of capitalism.

An interesting dynamic became evident as Cagan and Fraser each tried to answer the question "where are the voices for peace now?" in light of their own backgrounds and familiar activist communities. Leslie Cagan spoke of pacifism in terms of its connection to issues of racial equality, environmental policy and gender discrimination. She pointed out that the world's biggest consumer of fossil fuels is the United States military.

Steve Fraser, meanwhile, became so enmeshed in a tangent about economic justice that I started to feel annoyed, because I began to suspect that he believes we will only be able to solve the problem of war after we overthrow capitalism. Personally, while I probably will be happy to help overthrow capitalism, I am definitely not willing to wait to overthrow militarism until that's done first and I certainly do not agree with those who say that peace is impossible until Wall Street is defeated. (I personally think it's the other way around: we won't be able to solve most other problems in the world until we discover peace, and once we do discover peace, many other problems will easily cure themselves.)

The third panelist was David Cannadine, an extremely vivid and confident speaker who at one point deservingly lambasted an elderly questioner who complained about Cannadine's kind words about Barack Obama. As much as I enjoyed Cannadine's performance, I felt that his approach to the panel was disappointing in the same way that Cagan's and Fraser's was: he was not primarily there to speak about pacifism. He spoke convincingly of issues of leadership style, and of the odd twists of history that determine our fate, but he did not indicate at any point during this panel that he felt there were any significant voices for peace worth mentioning today. Nor, for that matter, did Cagan or Fraser.

This is not David Cannadine's or Leslie Cagan's or Steve Fraser's fault. They're probably right: pacifism currently has no currency at all as a political philosophy. Former New York Public Library president Vartan Gregorian addressed this directly in his introduction to the event when he pointed out that pacifism never recovered from the debacle of the Munich peace agreement that empowered Nazi Germany to seize Czechoslovokia in 1938. David Cannadine referred to this later when he pointed out that "pacifist" is now considered equivalent to "appeaser". This is indeed the major challenge that any pacifist must be able to respond to today. But anybody who considers this a fatal challenge to pacifism is certainly not trying hard enough.

Just as the afternoon panel failed to name any individual voices for pacifism who are making a significant difference today, it also failed to identify any highly relevant peace organizations in the world. There is Greenpeace, and there is Occupy Wall Street, and there is Amnesty International and Medecins Sans Frontieres, and these are all more or less tangentially pacifist to some degree. But these organizations each have specific purposes other than world peace itself. This panel discussion was called "Where Are the Voices for Peace Now?", but it seems the world has a big empty space where a vibrant peace movement should be.

Or does it? Would we have been able to name some examples of voices for peace today if Lewis Lapham had invited Medea Benjamin, or Yoko Ono, or Nicholson Baker? Maybe so, and I wish they could all have been included, along with many others too. But the truth that was revealed by this afternoon session's scattered attention span is an important truth in itself, and I think it had to be revealed to help us realize what we must do next.

It was such a subtle omission that I barely even noticed it myself until near the end of the question-and-answer session, when somebody else pointed it out: "I'd like to bring this back," he said, "to the main question, which really hasn't been discussed at all. Where are the voices for peace today?"

I left the room with the question still in my head, and I'm going to keep thinking about it. If we don't know where the peace movement is in the world right now, maybe we need to get off our butts and create one.

22

Lewis Lapham, Adam Hochschild, Michael Kazin, Jack Beatty, Leslie Cagan, Steve Fraser and David Cannadine discuss pacifism at the New York Public Library.

view /NYPLVoicesForPeace
Sunday, November 9, 2014 11:08 am
Lewis Lapham, Adam Hochschild, Michael Kazin, Jack Beatty at the New York Public Library
Story
Levi Asher

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.

It's in his strident books (and television appearances) about religion that Sam Harris is at his worst. Elsewhere, he can be surprisingly good. He's most captivating when using his books to explore territory that is new to him. When he steps outside his intellectual comfort zone, uncertainty and curiosity soften Sam Harris's obnoxious voice, and he becomes at times an original and sensitive thinker.

Harris’s new book is called Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, and Harris means something specific by this. He describes a few situations where he or others have felt a sensation of transcendence of the individual self, a feeling that they define as "spirituality". Sam Harris explores the idea that this type of "spirituality" may be scientifically significant. The reason we feel this transcendence, Sam Harris suggests, may be that the individual human self is not actually a scientific thing. The transcendence may actually be real.

The idea that religion's hidden value lies in its emphasis of the scientifically valid phenomenon of the transcendence of the self is the primary message of Waking Up. It's an exciting idea, good enough to make this an interesting and worthwhile book.

Harris acknowledges his debt for this idea to an older contemporary philosopher, Derek Parfit, who has used various explanations, proofs and illustrations to demonstrate that the individual self is not a continuous thing, though it appears to be. The deconstruction of the sense of the individual self is a topic we have explored often ourselves here on Litkicks, particularly in our critique of the philosophy of selfishness that is popular with followers of Ayn Rand.

The highly limited ethical philosophy of Ayn Rand depends completely on a solid and sturdy definition of the self, and it is by pointing out the weakness of this foundation that he have proven Ayn Rand's bold ethical philosophy to be unpersuasive. We've also gone on to explore other considerations about the fragmentary nature of human identity in blog posts with titles like The Elusive Self, The Collective Self, The Shock of the Self, The Ayn Rand Principle and the Two Senses of Self, and Rebooting the Argument Against Egoism.

The idea that the self is an illusion — that we only think we perceive a single continuous “I” that persists through our lives — provides Sam Harris with a single example of a positive aspect to religion. Unfortunately, Harris finds himself so amazed at his own embrace of this one quasi-religious concept that he then devotes large portions of Waking Up to his usual tired religion-bashing, as if to prove to himself and his readers that he hasn't changed too much. Waking Up would have been a better book if he'd left these parts out.

There is a larger deficiency in Sam Harris's model of the self, which is possibly a result of the Derek Parfit idea of the fragmented self being still new to him. While he is able to see that the individual self is a fluid thing, he fails to see the sociological perspective on this, which is that the boundaries of the self does not always have to equate to the boundaries of a single individual human being. The boundaries can sometimes expand to include more than one person at a time.

In everyday life, we often exist within aggregate selves, sharing a community consciousness within working units that seem to operate as group selves, and that even regard themselves in this way. Harris gets far enough to realize that we are not always conscious of ourselves as individuals, but he has not yet made the leap to realize that we are sometimes self-conscious within larger selves which we share with our loved ones and neighbors. This is indeed a fuller understanding of the religious sense of self, and many perplexing facts of our lives and our shared history can be coherently explained once this understanding is gained.

It's also a more realistic understanding of the way we exist in everyday life. Many parents, for instance, see their children standing next to them when they reflect upon themselves. (We see this in action when a parent includes his or her children in his or her Facebook photo.) A team or business or a government or army also takes on the functional characteristics of a cooperative or corporate self; without doing so, it would barely be able to operate as a unit. These are vital points that Sam Harris and others who contemplate the fragmentary nature of the self may not have considered yet, and might appreciate as significant.

These points are especially valuable when examining conflicts between different ethnic, religious or national groups. These conflicts are the most dramatic (and often most tragic) manifestations of group psychology -- and they can never be understood without the use of group psychology. The idea that religion is bad because religion causes war is the most popular dumb idea that results from the failure to understand group psychology.

Sam Harris almost understands something great when he declares that consciousness is fragmentary and that the self is an illusion. He would be closer to grasping the real ethical and existential crisis of human life if he declared that consciousness is fragmentary and that the self is elusive.

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Sam Harris almost understands something great when he declares that consciousness is fragmentary and that the self is an illusion. He would be closer if he declared that consciousness is fragmentary and that the self is elusive.

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Saturday, October 25, 2014 06:57 pm
Waking Up by Sam Harris
Story
Levi Asher

You may have heard about Wittgenstein's poker, or Wittgenstein's nephew or Wittgenstein's mistress or Wittgenstein's ladder. For some reason that I don't fully understand, people like to read books about Wittgenstein's stuff.

Well, it's fitting that Ludwig Wittgenstein shows up in a lot of postmodern novels and pop-culture texts, because he really is that good, and his works really are that relevant today. This enigmatic Jewish-Austrian-Catholic 20th Century philosopher and schoolteacher's fame has grown after his death to the extent that he is now widely regarded as the most important thinker of our age.

There are many other literary treatments besides the four freakishly similar titles above. Ludwig Wittgenstein appears as one of the key signifiers in David Foster Wallace's The Broom of the System, a novel I didn't like very much. He also shows up in a new collegiate novel by Lars Iyer, Wittgenstein Jr, a comic whirl about a professor who is not Ludwig Wittgenstein and the unruly students who mock his lectures. I've just started this one and I'm at least enjoying it more than the David Foster Wallace.

But the best stuff I've been reading lately about Wittgenstein is Wittgenstein Day-by-Day, a serious and well-researched Facebook page that tracks Wittgenstein's diary entries as they were written 100 years ago. I've liked this project since its inception, but I began to feel riveted by it when we reached the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One in August. In the autumn of 1914, young Ludwig did the same thing most of his proud fellow young Austrians did. He signed up immediately to fight for his country and his emperor.

This required him to leave England, where he had been carrying on an extraordinarily fruitful collaboration with Bertrand Russell, because England was now Austria's enemy. The 25-year-old logic prodigy found himself on a guard boat called the Goplana on the River Vistula in September 1914. Wittgenstein: Day-by-Day narrates a short daily summary of his daily observations as these new surroundings begin to sink in.

Thursday 17th September, 1914: In his private diary, LW records that the previous night passed quietly, and that he had been on guard duty. The Goplana has sailed up the Vistula to Krakow, whose outskirts, he fears, will be ‘completely occupied by Cossacks’. He also reports that yesterday morning the Lieutenant left the ship and didn’t come back until noon today. No one knows what to do, and they don’t even have money to buy food. Nevertheless he finds himself still in good spirits. ‘Keep thinking about how I can maintain myself’, he finishes.

The young philosopher's format is consistent: he notes the military developments and actions of the day, along with his personal activities and emotions. He tries to find time to "work" -- that is, to indulge himself in his favorite hobby: the analysis of language and meaning, and the attempt to discover the logical foundation of logic itself.

Saturday 19th September, 1914: In his diary, LW records that yesterday evening he had to work up to 11pm on his searchlight. In the night it’s extremely cold, and the men have to sleep in their boots. LW slept badly. He hasn’t changed his clothes or his boots for four days. He worries what will happen to him in Krakow.

LW notes that a proposition like ‘this chair is brown’ seems to say something enormously complicated, since if we wanted to express it in such a way that nobody could raise objections to it on grounds of ambiguity, ‘it would have to be infinitely long’.

(The idea here seems to be that everyday propositions must have a single complete analysis which respects the ‘requirement that sense be determinate’ (Tractatus 3.23), this being equivalent to their being *wholly* unambiguous. Any temporary incompleteness in the specification of a determinate sense can only mean that the end of the analysis hasn’t yet been reached. It’s notable that LW prefers to imagine that the analysis might be infinitely long rather than contemplate the possibility that there’s no single correct analysis, or that the correct analysis represents the proposition as being in *any* respect ambiguous).

If young Ludwig is unhappy about his sudden change of circumstance from Cambridge to the Eastern Front, he barely shows it in this journal. Occasionally he expresses feelings of stress. He consoles himself at times with religious homilies.

Monday 21st September, 1914: In his diary, LW reports that this morning the Goplana arrived in Krakow. He had been on searchlight duty all night. Yesterday, he records, he did a lot of (philosophical) work, but he isn’t very hopeful, ‘because I lacked the right overview’. He also had a discussion with his platoon leader, which cleared the air a little. But today he is a little out of sorts, being still ‘so TIRED’ from many emotions. He notes that he has heard nothing from Vienna, but that he did receive a card from his mother, sent on August 20th. In the evening, though, he received the depressing news that the Lieutenant who had been his commanding officer has been transferred. ‘This news depressed me deeply. I can’t give an exact account, but it’s a compelling cause for despondency. Since then I’ve been deeply sad. Although I am free by the Spirit, the Spirit has left me!’. He ends by recording that he found himself able to do some (philosophical) work in the evening, and that this made him feel better.

From the calm tones of the journal entries up to October 17, 1914, it appears possible that Ludwig Wittgenstein himself did not even know how perilous a position he was in as he stood searchlight duty on this rickety guard boat.

The Vistula River was a hotspot in the autumn of 1914, and I'm not talking about wi-fi. He and his boat the Goplana were right in the middle of the Russian invasion of Galicia, a brutal and massive offensive that completely overran Austria's defensive position on its own territory. The Battle of Galicia in 1914 will go down in history not only as a bloody massacre, but also as a failure of management and planning that would crush the confidence of the Austro-Hungarian army, foretelling years of disaster still ahead.

Today, it's commonplace to ridicule every aspect of Austria's entry into World War One, since we know how the war will end. But in 1914 Austria-Hungary had not yet been crushed, and its a notable fact that a young man as bright as Ludwig Wittgenstein would join its army unthinkingly to defend the society that had raised him so well. He was in the First Army, under the leadership of General Viktor Dankl, who would be briefly celebrated on the home front as a hero for this army's early exploits before it became fully clear that the 1914 battles in Galicia had been a Russian rout.

As his journal entries made clear, Wittgenstein manned the searchlight on the Goplana -- almost too perfect a metaphor for a philosopher on a boat! We know that he was thinking about logic as his light beam pierced the dark skies over the gloomy Vistula. Was he also thinking about the decisions his army's leaders were making? Did he feel confident in Austria's fate, or had he begun to question the foundations of the military logic that had put him on this boat?

Wittgenstein's hopeless adventure with the anguished Austro-Hungarian First Army will presumably be continuing to play out as the centenary of the First World War proceeds on Wittgenstein Day-by-Day. This excellent Facebook page is the work of John Preston of the University of Reading's Philosophy Department. Preston also maintains an informative Wittgenstein Chronology.

I don't know if John Preston is thinking about turning these wartime journal extracts and summaries into a book, but I hope he does. It's a no-brainer what the book should be called: Wittgenstein's Searchlight. At least it'll sell.

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For some reason that I don't fully understand, people like to read books about Ludwig Wittgenstein's stuff.

view /WittgensteinSearchlight
Saturday, October 18, 2014 11:40 am
Wittgenstein's journals on Facebook
Story
Levi Asher

D. G. Myers, a celebrated literary critic, professor and blogger, died quietly of cancer in late September. For many like me who only knew D. G. Myers through his writings and online presence, his death was no surprise. We had read about it on A Commonplace Blog or in Time magazine, or in his much-praised podcast for the Library of Economics and Liberty just a few months before he died.

As his cancer worsened, D. G. Myers also expressed his feelings in occasional bursts on his beautiful Twitter account. Always a writer first, his tweets were unfailingly elegant, measured and dignified. Even when he could only manage bitter humor and wry regret for his family's shared suffering as he tweeted his way through chemotherapy during his last weeks on Earth:

D. G. Myers accomplished many impressive things during his literary life: he was a celebrated professor, wrote a book about the history of creative writing programs called The Elephants Teach, was a columnist for Commentary magazine until he got ceremoniously fired for supporting gay marriage. But his online writings and tweets should be numbered among his works. I've extracted just a few samples from his final month to pay tribute to D. G. Myers.

In his last month, Myers knew that he was about to die, and shared this fact with us. He expressed himself often with a bitter sense of humor about the terrible injustice he felt at his own fate: a vigorous man in his early sixties, a father of a close family with young children, a man with so many more books he wanted to read before he died. Myers never raged, because he was too proud a critic to lose his temper, but he also did not go gentle.

He interacted often with other tweeters (including myself), and had a natural, easygoing online voice. Occasionally, he'd offer a raw opinion:

He'd tweet about his struggles to collect his writings before he died, and about the indignities that faced a literary writer who had lost all commercial potential:

He'd tweet about baseball, or writing, or his wife and children, or Israel, or any combination thereof:

Or he'd paint a picture:

Or another:

Sometimes (especially when the physical pain seemed to be getting to him) he seemed to be tweeting koans:

D. G. Myers's religiosity made him unique as a cancer memoirist. He was a devout Jew, and his unabashed enthusiasm for religion clearly gave him strength. He spoke up often on behalf of conservative positions, most of which I disagreed with him about, but I always sensed that he favored conservativism because he favored traditional religion.

Judaism appeared to be one of his major areas of knowledge, and his Biblical and Talmudic inspirations enriched his writing. It certainly also helped him cope with his disease, bestowing upon him a placid and philosophical attitude that was probably alien to his argumentative nature. At least, he must have understood, he didn't have it as bad as Job.

A Jewish son makes a father very proud right here. These might be his best tweets ever:

Or this one might be. It's the one I'll remember the most:

* * * * *

I had a few wonderful interactions with D. G. Myers via our blogs or Twitter. Philip Roth was his favorite novelist, and in 2010 I wrote a smart-ass consideration of Philip Roth. I was very surprised when D. G. Myers called it "a spectacular read". I was actually hoping he wouldn't read it, because I didn't think it would meet his standards. I've rarely felt more honored than by this tweet.

Later, D. G. Myers and I discovered that we had an obscure favorite in common: Richard P. Brickner, who had been my writing workshop teacher at the New School. Myers believed that Brickners's 1981 novel Tickets was an unheralded masterpiece of the 1980s, and I agreed. I've never met anyone else who's even heard of this book.

D. G. Myers and I also shared an interest in the postmodern fiction of the 1960s, though his knowledge of the era is much more scholarly than my own.

Thank you for the photo at the top of the page to Gil Roth of Chimera Obscura, who had the honor of taking the picture that Myers chose for his last Twitter profile. You can listen to the Chimera Obscura/Virtual Memories podcast with D. G. Myers here.

2

Celebrated professor, literary critic and blogger D. G. Myers kept in touch with his readers on Twitter as he died of cancer in September 2014.

view /DGMyers
Thursday, October 9, 2014 09:25 pm
Literary Critic and blogger D. G. Myers
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Levi Asher

I moved to northern Virginia in 2009. There were a few good surprises down here for this lifelong New Yorker, like the easy proximity of the thrilling Shenandoah mountains and rivers, and the rich, stark beauty of several Civil War battlefield parks that dot the region in a wide arc around Washington DC.

I found a few bad surprises here too, like the fact that this state hates public transportation. Train tracks are everywhere in northern Virginia, but you can't catch a train into Washington DC to see a baseball game or visit a national monument on a weekend, because there are no trains for people. This probably has more to do with Virginia's desire to keep people from Washington DC out than its desire to keep Virginians in. It ends up having both results.

So I found some good and some bad when I moved down to Virginia, and I also found some funny/crazy. Like the politics, which are entertainingly out of control.

I thought New York politics was unpredictable, with the likes of Andrew Cuomo, Mike Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani running around. But our Eric Cantor and Dave Brat and George Allen and Ken Cuccinelli have got them beat. The crazy reached a crescendo this week with the stunning news that our once popular and likable former governor Bob McDonnell has been found guilty of accepting bribes from and delivering favors to a businessman named Jonnie Williams.

This businessman had befriended the governor's wife, Maureen, who was also charged with the same crimes. Only two years ago, many believed that Bob and Maureen McDonnell were destined for the White House. They will now be spending many years in jail.

Normally a husband and wife found guilty together could take solace in each other's company, but this is not possible here because Bob's lawyers unsuccessfully attempted to pin the blame solely on Maureen, who had apparently been the conduit for most of the gifts. Surprisingly, these gifts were not substantial political donations given with insidious intent for major policy changes, but rather trivial and showy displays of wealth traded for minor favors: a Rolex watch, a loaner Ferrari, a Louis Vuitton handbag, a lavish wedding for one of the McDonnells' five children.

Attempting to defend himself while throwing his wife under the bus, Bob McDonnell declared in court that their marriage had broken down years ago, that Maureen had been infatuated with Jonnie Williams, and that she had engineered the bribes without his full understanding, even though he had delivered small favors in return. The jury didn't buy it. Worse, the tawdry testimony shockingly contradicted the public image of this conservative "pro-marriage" Republican politician, because McDonnell's appeal was always grounded in his Christian fundamentalist background, and on his outspoken belief in family values.

If I were a vengeful liberal Democrat, I would be gleeful about the ungraceful fall of Bob McDonnell. This would be especially easy for me because I had always found McDonnell extremely uninspiring, as plastic as a middle-aged Ken doll.

But I'm avoiding the temptation to gloat about the scandal, because I always try to look beyond petty politics towards grander themes. I also can't pretend to believe that Democratic politicians are much less likely than Republicans to get caught committing outrageous crimes. (Yes, I still remember John Edwards and Rod Blagojevich).

After the verdict came out this week, I found myself defending poor Bob and Maureen McDonnell to a few friends who declared themselves disgusted with the former Governor's dishonesty and greed. Curiously to my friends, I could not agree that dishonesty and greed had much to do with the fall of Bob McDonnell. That seemed to me a shallow and superficial explanation. As we so often find to be the case lately, once we even begin to look deeply at the facts of a crime, we find that the common explanation of the motivation does not stand up to close examination.

I don’t think we discover anything interesting by identifying greed as Bob McDonnell's fatal flaw, because this makes greed sound like a disease that inhabited and infected him. Everything would have been fine, according to this model, if a good man hadn’t been spoiled by an unfortunate psychological toxin. Uncontrollable urges of greed infected Bob McDonnell first, according to this model, and then his second sin of dishonesty followed as he began lying to cover his secret tracks.

However, an examination of McDonnell’s evident courtroom strategy contradicts this. He never acted like a person with a guilty secret. The former Governor insisted on testifying extensively in court to protest his innocence. He even made the devastating decision to publicly break with his wife, who is not only the mother of his children but had also always been the public symbol of his political stance in favor of strong "traditional" (read: not gay) marriage, all to establish his innocence. It's hard to imagine a man who knew he was guilty making so dramatic and destructive a choice.

It turned out that he could not persuade a jury to believe in his innocence, but the terrible personal sacrifice McDonnell made to try to prove his innocence strongly suggests that he believed he was innocent himself. The Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde model of a good man with a demonic other side does not match this behavior. Dr. Jekyll would not have bothered to try to prove in court that he did not sometimes turn into Mr. Hyde.

Another reason the superficial explanation falls short is that Bob McDonnell showed no lifelong pattern of greed for wealth. If he'd ever really prized expensive watches and prestige cars and lush weddings for his children, he could have pursued a career in banking or finance instead of electoral politics. He had the born gifts to make a lot of money legally: a winning personality, a capable leadership style, enough brains to earn a law degree. A career in politics is nowhere near as lucrative (even with the bribes) as a career in business or finance, which suggests that Bob McDonnell was more interested in the ego gratification of becoming a successful public figure than in the material gratification of quietly attaining wealth.

So, if Bob McDonnell was not possessed by inner demons of uncontrollable greed, what can explain his crimes? The first key is found in the fact, revealed during the trial, that Bob and Maureen McDonnell were not wealthy at all, that their finances were nearly a mess. As available financial records show, this political family with five kids was always struggling to manage its budget, even while living in the Governor's mansion. They never took the time to cash in on book contracts or speaking engagements, and never managed to put serious money into their own bank accounts even as the Governor's low-tax/high-growth policies helped other Virginians who were much more wealthy than they would ever be.

Bob and Maureen were both from modest middle-class backgrounds, and both had worked hard to gain success. Strangely, once they met Jonnie Williams and began receiving his gaudy gifts, Bob and Maureen McDonnell developed a strange habit of getting their pictures taken with these displays of wealth. They were not only eager to drive around in the white Ferrari seen at the top of this page: they were eager to be photographed in it.

Some journalists speculated that a well-publicized photo of McDonnell showing off a new Rolex wristwatch hurt his defense. But it's an essential point that the impulse to be seen wearing a Rolex is different from the desire to own a Rolex. If you ache to own a Rolex, you suffer from greed. If you ache to be seen wearing a Rolex: well, you are suffering from something, but it's probably not greed.

It all comes together when we consider a third essential point: Bob McDonnell was a rising star in a Republican party that worshipped financial success. He was not personally wealthy, but he was eager to continue to rise in a social milieu that valued wealth as a primary proof of grace.

With this last point, we now have enough evidence to piece together an entire theory of Bob McDonnell's downfall. He thought he was supposed to accept these gifts. The whirlwind of his fast rise into national politics, and perhaps the stress of being considered a likely Vice-Presidential pick for the fabulously wealthy Mitt Romney, had left him grasping for a foothold in a world above his station. He was trying, foolishly, to play the game of big-money politics correctly when he accepted the bribes.

It was not urges to gluttony but rather feelings of inferiority that deluded Bob McDonnell into accepting gifts from Jonnie Williams. Jonnie Williams appeared to the Governor to represent something greater than what he himself had: vast wealth in the private sector, a know-how about the muscle power of money, an inborn ease with the world of luxurious possessions.

It's entirely possible that Bob McDonnell didn't care at all about Rolexes or Ferraris. He only cared to be seen with them. He hinted at this during his trial testimony when asked about his wife's acceptance of a Louis Vuitton handbag. "I wouldn't recognize a Louis Vuitton handbag if I saw it," he said. Courtroom reporters speculated that this line didn't persuade the jury, but perhaps it should have. It may be the truest thing he said during the entire trial.

I find it remarkably useful to analyze news events in the way, to look past the surface and try to construct a psychological story that encompasses all known facts of the case and still rings true. This process often has the positive side effect of generating a general sense of sympathy, and indeed I do feel very sorry for both Bob and Maureen McDonnell right now. I didn't like them much when Bob was Governor, and I never thought he deserved to be Governor, but I also don't think that he and Maureen deserve to be utterly disgraced.

Reporters said that Bob and Maureen both wept (separately, in different parts of the courtroom) during the reading of the verdict. I suspect that Bob McDonnell cried because he was surprised, because he really does believe himself to be innocent. In the broadest sense, he really was innocent, too innocent — a babe in the woods, lost in the hall of Rolexes, playing a game whose rules he didn’t understand. It’s because he was so innocent that he was just found guilty.

As sorry as I feel for Bob McDonnell, I feel even more sorry for Maureen McDonnell, who was just demonized and ridiculed (“a nutbag”) by her own husband's lawyers and witnesses in a public courtroom. I’m sure she would have preferred to have spent the time being waterboarded. Maureen's core motivation, it turns out, was her poignant love for a flashy, glad-handing businessman. Her beloved Jonnie Williams also turned witness against her, so it’s disturbing to imagine how alone she feels right now. She seems nearly as tragic a character as Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina.

The entire saga of Bob and Maureen McDonnell seems to take on the dimensions of a Buddhist fable. They were both starry-eyed with maya, with the endless refractions of glittering illusion. The handsome and confident Governor appeared to be Vice-Presidential material, but he was staggering inside, trying to figure out the rules of a game that was playing too fast, all the while trying to deal with the soul-crushing disappointment of a marriage gone bad while smiling for the photos with his wife on his arm. Both were in the grip of mad desire, the wheel of samsara. The luxuriant objects they reached for turned out to be empty. It all dissolved into dust.

I refer to this as a Buddhist fable because the concepts of karma and dharma seem to ring truer in our eternal judgement of Bob and Maureen McDonnell than words like “guilty” or “corrupt”. This is useful when we compare (as we should) their behavior to our own expectations of how we might behave in their place. If we believe the Governor and his wife were suddenly possessed by insane greed for shiny possessions, we can flatter ourselves that they caught a disease we don’t seem to have fully caught ourselves yet, and that, temporarily at least, we are safe from ever making similar mistakes.

But once we understand that they were blinded by maya in the grip of dharma, we can begin to relate more personally to their stories, and hopefully pick up some deeper lessons from the tawdry affair. This is why Buddhist fables are useful. If any of us think we are too smart to avoid ever making the kinds of mistakes Bob and Maureen McDonnell made, even in our own humble little worlds, we’d probably do well to start checking our own maya every day.

5

The Bob McDonnell scandal was about much more than greed. If you ache to own a Rolex, you suffer from greed. If you ache to be seen wearing a Rolex: well, you are suffering from something, but it's probably not greed.

view /BobAndMaureenMcDonnell
Friday, September 5, 2014 11:13 pm
The Buddha watches over Bob McDonnell
Story
Levi Asher

What do we really know about ISIL, the rising insurgent group in Iraq whose violent methods have generated so much fear and anger around the world in the last few months? After violently establishing control of Sunni territories between Syria and northwest Iraq, they've provoked international outrage by beheading an American journalist named James Foley, and by releasing statements threatening vast new acts of terror around the world.

We must think we know something about ISIL here in the USA, because we've been saying a lot about them. Some American journalists, politicians and commentators are now urging a new war to fight the threat (though others like me are concerned that we don't have a better grasp on the real situation in Iraq than we had when we last invaded in 2003). At times like this, we can discover a lot by applying Occam's Razor to the case.

Occam's Razor, the famous philosophical principle we discussed last week, states that the simplest answer to a difficult question is probably the best one. We may think that we naturally gravitate to simple answers, but often we don't, which is why Occam's Razor can produce amazing results when applied systematically. If we examine ISIL with a strict focus on verifiable facts and obvious conclusions, we may discover that the opposite of everything we thought we believed is true..

So, what do we think we know about ISIL? Based on the media coverage and public conversations I've observed in recent weeks, two of the most popular answers would be:

1) They are fanatic religious fundamentalists, intent on jihad and sharia on behalf of Sunni Islam.

2) They are a powerful military force that will carry out evil acts of murder, abuse and terrorism until they are stopped by a stronger force.

Neither statement, it turns out, survives its first bout with Occam's Razor.

First, are the leaders or supporters of ISIL really motivated by religion? I continue to be amazed at the gullibility of otherwise smart people who fail to see the opportunistic phoniness of military leaders who claim to be religious. When new world leaders make themselves well known through acts of violence or terror, why are we always so eager to give them the gift of complete credulity? Why do we accept their statements of religious belief or ideological purity on face value?

ISIL appears to be led by an Iraqi named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The only thing we know for sure about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is that he is a successful military leader in a region of the world where religion is a strong indicator of ethnic identity and economic status. Because religion has so much cultural and social significance in Iraq, it is obvious that a person who wishes to be a successful military leader in Iraq will claim to be a religious Muslim.

It's nearly impossible to imagine an insurgent military leader in Iraq who does not claim to be a religious Muslim. Similarly, it would be impossible to imagine a successful male conservative Republican politician in the United States (say, a Senator or a Congressman) who does not claim to be heterosexual and happily married to a woman. So does this prove that every successful male conservative Republican politician in the USA is heterosexual and happily married to a woman?

Of course it does not. If an optional personal characteristic is a necessary requirement for acceptance in any field, and if the personal characteristic can be easily faked, then a successful application of Occam's Razor will always shave the belief in the sincerity of this personal characteristic away. The characteristic might exist, but in these circumstances there is no reason to believe that it exists.

We know that an insurgent military force must profess to be religious to gather support in Iraq, and we know that ISIL is an insurgent military force that has gathered support in Iraq. We cannot conclude from this that the militants who lead ISIL have any sincere interest in religion at all. It seems more likely that they are primarily interested in carrying out successful military operations.

I've brought up this important (and often widely neglected) point before, when I suggested in 2011 that Osama bin Laden could very well be a closet atheist. There is no good reason to ever grant credulity to a successful politician or military leader who professes to have personal, spiritual or ideological beliefs that are implicitly required for the roles they choose to play. Occam's Razor says: it's probably part of the act.

The only characteristic that most successful politicians or military leaders share is a strong appetite for power. Once we realize this, we can start to notice the ways in which appetite for power explains their actions. So, is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi actually a religious Muslim? We have no way to know, but we do know that he would have to claim to be a religious Muslim in order to succeed in his chosen role. Do we know if ISIL's ranks are filled with devout Muslims, or even that its wider circle of followers includes many devout Muslims? Again, we really don't know. In an area where religion denotes cultural identity and economic status, it's much easier to believe that large populations are motivated by cultural identity and economic status than by devout interest in religion itself.

So, the first thing we thought we knew about ISIL -- that the group and its followers are motivated by religious fundamentalism, doesn't survive the razor. The second statement above -- that ISIL is a powerful military force that will not stop committing acts of evil until it is stopped by a stronger force -- also performs poorly under close examination.

It's clear from its activities that ISIL is media-savvy, that its leaders are highly aware of the power of publicity. It has been provoking outrage in Iraq and around the world, and it has been gaining strength through its publicity efforts. This is not how a group that wants to be left alone behaves. It's how a group that wants to be attacked by a stronger force behaves.

There is, it turns out, very little reason to think that ISIL will suffer if it is attacked by a stronger force. It's a guerrilla group, after all. A strong and overt military response would give the greatest possible benefit to ISIL's violent and hateful mission, and would ensure its continuing growth. ISIL's Shiite victims in Iraq would be the first to suffer greatly if the current insurgency were escalated to a direct global conflict against the USA. There's no telling how far the damage would go.

ISIL's strategy is to distinguish itself by shocking and frightening its enemies. That's why they put a lot of effort into making and distributing a beheading video. Does anybody think the James Foley video was released by mistake? ISIL made the video to outrage their enemies, to provoke a response. Their greatest dream is that the USA would invade Iraq again.

If we are ever foolish enough to oblige, it would greatly strengthen ISIL's fame, its fundraising, its strategic opportunities and even its perceived moral position within Iraq and all over the world.

This is why I'm really appalled to learn that even some of my smarter friends think a strong show of American-led military strength in Iraq would harm ISIL. This is, of course, the very same amateur's mistake that President George W. Bush made in response to Osama bin Laden's provocation in 2001. At least we currently have a President and commander-in-chief who has probably heard of Occam's Razor. There's at least reasonable grounds for hope that Obama is smart enough to use it at times like this, when so much is at stake.

15

We know that an insurgent military force must profess to be religious to gather support in Iraq, and we know that ISIL is an insurgent military force that has gathered support in Iraq. We cannot conclude from this that the militants who lead ISIL have any sincere interest in religion at all. It seems more likely that they are primarily interested in being successful military leaders.

view /OccamIraq
Sunday, August 24, 2014 05:31 pm
Occam's Razor and a map of Iraq
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Levi Asher

I observed a strange reaction among my friends -- especially my fellow liberals -- when a new insurgent group calling itself "The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria" began capturing towns and small cities in war-torn Iraq.

There's really nothing new about this insurgent group, which represents the same Sunni coalition that lost power with the fall of Saddam Hussein and has been trying to get it back ever since. But all of a sudden, several of my friends were up in arms about the insurgency. Why? Because they're fundamentalists.

Indeed, the new insurgency is using Islamic fundamentalism as a way to gain support (and frighten Brits and Americans). It's a smart strategic move: calls to religion have always been useful recruiting tools in time of war. But what amazes me is that some of my American friends are more offended by the fact that the new insurgents are religious than by the fact that they are rampaging through towns murdering political opponents with their families.

The atrocities are perfectly acceptable, apparently ... as long as they don't start bringing sharia into it.

It's a sign of our shrill times that some people are actually more offended by religion than by war. This is fed by the common misconception that wars are commonly fought over religion. This widely-accepted belief (a belief that the late Christopher Hitchens shamelessly dined out on for a decade) must be exposed for the fraud it always has been.

A simple review of world history makes it clear: while religion is often used as a surrogate for ethnic or national identity, religion itself has never been the actual cause of any war. The holy war is a fraud.

All wars work the same way, whether religious identity plays a part or not. When religious identity plays a part, it is as identity rather than as religion. The primary engine of war is the grinding against each other of different groups, variously identified by location, history, language, ethnicity, religion or economic class. The causes, outcomes and consequences of the major wars of recent centuries do not show any pattern of being influenced by religious doctrine or popular religious belief. War is war, whether religious or not.

So why are so many of my friends terrified by the concept of jihad? I don't know, but I know that many of my friends have a natural dislike for religion, which is their right. But I cringe at the idea that political liberalism will ever become identified with atheism. This is a wrong turn, a dead end. Whether you are personally religious or not, it is important to know that religion has not been a harmful influence in the world. Rather, it has been a constant source of healing and comfort and connection. A world without religion is as unthinkable as a world without literature or a world without music.

I've recently been urging my readers to read three philosophers whose work I consider highly relevant for the political problems that plague the world today: Ludwig Wittgenstein, William James and Carl Jung. I chose these three names for several different reasons. One is their common attitude towards religion.

Ludwig Wittgenstein demonstrated the futility of logical or scientific arguments against religious belief. William James wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience, an open-minded treatment of the natural human inclination towards spirituality. Carl Jung enthusiastically explored religious symbolism as a key to understanding the human soul. All three of them also appear to have been privately religious (idiosyncratically, of course, in all three cases, as should always be expected when a philosopher embraces religion).

The kind of religious sensibility that can be found in the private writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein or William James or Carl Jung is not often found in the private writings of a military leader or corrupt politician. This is one reason I rarely take a corrupt or militant politician seriously when they claim to be religious. For instance, future USA presidential candidate Paul Ryan was a devout follower of Ayn Rand until he was suddenly tagged as Vice Presidential material. He suddenly disavowed Ayn Rand and pronounced himself a devout Catholic. Am I obligated not to laugh? Similarly, I never believed the hype that Osama bin Laden was a devout Muslim. I read his biography, and I didn't see a lot of time for private refection in that life story. Osama bin Laden was a clever and egotistical leader driven to political grandiosity by a traumatic Oedipal complex. I don't suspect that there was much room in that crowded brain for thoughtful spiritual reflection, and the fact that Osama bin Laden strove to portray himself as a religious person doesn't mean he did so convincingly.

Remember when Saddam Hussein turned up in a full beard, claiming to be a devout Muslim? Well, whether religion is sincere or not, we do know that religion is often convenient to profess, and so we are not obligated to ever believe that a politician or military leader's religious beliefs are sincere when they are engaging in activities that are harmful to innocent people or to the planet. We can start making better decisions if we stop falling for the ruse.

Have there ever been sincerely religious military leaders? Sure -- it's easy for biographers to discern a politician's private spiritual character from various evidence. For instance, there's little doubt that President George W. Bush was sincerely religious -- though he wasn't much of a military leader. President Jimmy Carter was also sincerely religious. He may not have been much of a military leader either.

As for great military leaders who really have been successful, history shows few examples of deeply religious personalities. Making my own quick survey through the history channels of my mind, I can think of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, who was known to have a deeply spiritual mind. He prayed constantly, and his letters are filled with musings on Biblical lessons.

And I can think of French warrior-saint Joan of Arc, who saw her entire improbable journey of conquest as a direct intervention by God, and who burned at the stake for her devout belief without flinching.

So that's two examples -- but Stonewall Jackson and Joan of Arc are the only two I can think of, and that leaves thousands and thousands of other examples of military and political leaders who used religion as a tool to stir up popular support and ethnic identification, but left behind little evidence that they had any actual profound religious feeling themselves.

I hope we can stop falling for the grand fraud of the holy war. Christopher Hitchens isn't around to argue with us about this today, but it's a fact that he had it wrong. It's amazing how much clarity can be obtained once we take the time to look closely at the real causes of the political mistakes our leaders make. God's usually got very little to do with it.

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All wars work the same way, whether religious identity plays a part or not. When religious identity plays a part, it is as identity rather than as religion.

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Saturday, June 21, 2014 06:59 pm
Joan of Arc and Stonewall Jackson
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Levi Asher