Sunday, September 30, 2018

Bearing Witness to an Inhuman World

In our mad rushing hither and thither, in all the teeming metropolises and the deep time of our machinations as clever mammals on this earth, has anyone ever given up because he or she deserved better in life? Has even a single child, man or woman been betrayed and brought low, been shafted by powers in high places, been crushed or torn asunder by natural forces, and forced to reckon with the manifest unfairness of it all? Has any victim recognized the injustice or the absurd abuse of power and chosen to denounce the inhumanity by turning her agency against herself and snuffing the flame of her consciousness?

In the tales of the farcical Western religions of monotheism there was such a victim. His name is Job, and the Bible reinforces its totalitarian logic at that character’s expense, by appealing to an unknowable divine plan that supposedly rectifies all wrongdoings, rendering any resistance to God or any loss of faith the only injustice—which God allows to occur out of his boundless generosity. Thus we have perhaps the most famous example of the fallacy in which the tyrant endures by blaming the victim for that victim’s weakness. The hidden meaning of the Book of Job is satirical: not even the tyrannical Lord God is comfortable with the true reason for Job’s torments, which is why instead of revealing that he’d merely made a bet with Satan to test Job’s faith, the Lord changes the subject, buffeting Job with a litany of irrelevant boasts. The tyrant has no justification because he, too, is trapped by an unsavory script, corrupted as he inevitably is by his excessive power. Thus, although Job learns to despise himself and to “repent in dust and ashes,” the reader can see through the Lord’s bluster and wonder at the fact that while Job can’t answer the Lord, neither can the Lord answer Job. True, Job is weak and ignorant by comparison with God, but God is so morally impaired by his supremacy that like the myriad spoiled, mad kings from history, he may not even recall his last whim, the bet with the cynical angel, and so when challenged by Job to defend the apparent injustice of that man’s suffering, the Lord can only further inflate his swollen ego by testifying to his awesome might.

Religion, then, is no help in the matter. Everyone knows that there’s certainly been at least one person who has suffered unfairly, who has been broken by that suffering and forced to give up on life. Of course, instead of just one such sufferer there have been tens of billions throughout the Anthropocene. But even one is enough. If just a single person has lost everything through no fault of hers, such a monstrous system failure taints any winner’s victory and should subvert the victor’s pride. Every pleasure must henceforth be enjoyed under a banner that points to the world’s metaphysical flaws. All of us are called, then, to withdraw in shame, to be embarrassed at the thought of participating in any endeavour with an open, glad heart. We’re obliged instead to bear witness to the casualties of existence, to cease fooling ourselves and to prevent our being dazzled by the tyrant’s distractions. At a minimum we should be humble in all our thoughts and actions, not merely for any psychological benefit of that virtue, but to demonstrate that we understand the philosophical stakes, that we’re on the right side in the struggle.

Unlike our civilized games, there’s no prize awaiting the existential victor, the noble mind that “fights the good fight, finishes the race, and keeps the faith.” When we train ourselves to forget that life is a joke and not a blessing, when we betray our knowledge of the world’s obvious unfairness, by consigning ourselves to the daily grind in the hope of reaping some petty reward, we become grotesque clowns, silly little pawns of amoral systems and programs. By contrast, when we renounce these games or when we at least play them half-heartedly, knowing in the back of our mind that they’re obscene for excusing a world that creates so many runners only to ruin them with no moral end in view, we win nothing but a shadow or a whisper of honour. On the contrary, the Janus-faced runners are more likely to be ruined in turn, to resemble the crushed and the fallen whose burdens they can’t help but reflect on.

The proper place for a jaded existential outsider is indeed beyond the tent in the forest, apart from the glare of the city lights, adrift at sea with the island of traitors only barely visible in the distance. The voluntary loser should be shunned by the masses that applaud the world, ignoring as they do the axiom that nature is fundamentally hideous. The tragic hero has no wholesome business with the herd, not even as shepherd, since the shepherd is doomed to become the callous avatar of monstrous evolution, the zealous player-of-civilized-games that ravages foreign herds. Thus, that hero has worm-ridden dirt for treasure and cricket song for applause; instead of being adorned with a sparkling medal, the outsider is crowned with a void of twinkling alien stars.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Fools' God: A Rant by Rashad the Cackler

[The homeless old man, Rashad the Cackler is back with another rant. Enjoy as he spills his guts to passersby on a big city street corner.]

Laugh at the homeless wreck of a man who stands before you! Wrinkle your nose in disgust at the rags I wear, coated as they are in weeks-old urine, vomit and body odour. Mock me for my failure to lie for a living in your warped rat race. Here I am with no family to weigh me down or bind me to your monstrous society. Look at me and see the outsider, the scapegoat hurled into the wilderness who survives the void and returns to you with ghastly news.

Mock me, will you! You upstanding believers in imaginary gods? Have you really no inkling that your pride rests on a laughable jumble of errors? You presume the common wickedness in your barbaric nation is excused because your gods permit it as a means to a greater end. That the secular progress which depended for decades on Third World slavery, which is creating legions of bitter anti-globalists who’ve lost their jobs to more productive machines, and which is busy killing the planet—you presume that this marvel of neoliberal ingenuity is only leading more swiftly to the second coming of Jesus, who can now no longer tarry since only supernatural wisdom can extract you from this mess you’ve made. That only God can heal the world you’ve polluted with your sins.

You imagine that a Jewish hippie who supposedly was executed two thousand years ago was really God in disguise, and that that puritanical anarchist, mystic, and pacifist who failed to stop Rome’s oppression of the Jews, because he thought love could conquer the planet—you’re actually convinced that that deluded victim of imperial brutality would reward you champions of American imperialism? Have you forgotten that the American hippies became disillusioned and drug-addled before selling out their ideals as the yuppies of the 1980s? Would you really be astonished to learn that had Jesus been allowed to grow up, he too would have sold out the ideals of his youthful naiveté, succumbing to the temptations of social power like any other cult leader? Or are you truly unaware that Jesus is, in any case, just a fictional character in a work of blatant propaganda for the Christian religion that effectively sold out Jesus’s values on his behalf? The meek little lamb of Jesus: mascot for the Church that spread its good news by the sword.

This is the God you Western fools claim to worship, the one who couldn’t stand the sight of us wayward mortals proceeding headlong to disaster in hell, and so he clothed himself in human flesh to show that he wasn’t some monotheistic abstraction, that he could understand our plight firsthand. Only instead of thanking God for going that extra mile, the Jewish and Roman powers hounded him, spat on him, and nailed him to a cross as a common criminal. What’s the lesson, then, of Christianity? That after we demonstrated the corruptness of our souls, by failing to recognize God’s humility and love for us, we should follow the lead of those first Christians and proclaim Jesus our lord and saviour? That we should be thankful for God’s unconditional love? What, I ask, is the value of such love that holds up Adolph Hitler as being inherently equal to Mahatma Gandhi? If nothing we do matters, because God can forgive all, how can it be just for him to punish unrepentant sinners for eternity? How can our actions be simultaneously meaningless and all-important? And wouldn’t Jesus, in any case, resent our having spurned him in Judea? Isn’t that the point of Christianity’s unforgivable innovation, the doctrine of hellfire? How can God be so loving as to be able to forgive even the sins of Hitler, and so vengeful as to punish nonbelievers forever in hell?

I’ll tell you the true meaning of your religion’s evident grotesqueness. This great religion of humanity that boasts over two billion followers was literally cobbled together by various political committees that canonized certain texts and anathematized the Christian Gnostic ones. And your religion was tainted from its inception, since its primary purpose has always been to make excuses for the absurdity of its founding narrative. The gospel’s implicit message is that Jesus’s values have no place in this world and that God’s love of humanity is a lie, which is why enlightened Christians feel no shame in compromising with every ugly secular expectation. You ignore God with your selfish behaviour just as God’s refused to return like he supposedly said he would, centuries ago.

And you wear the cross around your neck as a symbol, as though Jesus would want to be reminded of our failure to have risen to the occasion of his incarnation as a man. All parents make excuses for their children’s imperfections, but show me a parent who would reward her child in heaven for having murdered her with a gun and for having gone as far as to celebrate the make and model of that weapon, to wear a carving of it on a necklace and to hand down the hallowed tale of that child’s evil so that billions in the future could wonder at the alienness of that parent for having had such a depraved child in the first place. Show me such an inhuman parent and I’ll show you one who deserves to have her children taken from her by the state. 

Monday, September 17, 2018

Yuval Harari on Freewill and Liberalism

In an article that returns to his theme from Homo Deus, Yuval Harari argues that a great flaw of liberalism is its assumption that people have free will. The classic liberal is progressive and revolutionary in insisting that political and economic power should be diffuse, not centralized as in aristocratic or dictatorial society in which a minority rules over the majority. This is because the justification of our power to rule flows not from our bloodline or even from our particular accomplishments, but from human nature which we all share. We have the right to attempt to overcome obstacles to our happiness because of the miracle of our being at liberty to understand and to conquer them. Unlike the other animal species, we have the capacity for self-control, says the liberal; we can think about our actions and plan for the future instead of just reacting instinctively to circumstances. As Harari writes, “Liberalism tells us that the voter knows best, that the customer is always right, and that we should think for ourselves and follow our hearts.”

Freewill and Liberalism

But Harari points out—following, perhaps, John Gray’s account in Black Mass—that this secular story about human nature derives from Christian theology and is thus dubious on its face. Christians needed to believe we deserve to be punished in hell, because they were saddled with the New Testament and with the moral overtones of Jewish monotheism, which in turn were inherited from Zoroastrianism. If we don’t deserve to be rewarded or punished by God, monotheistic religion is a monstrous lie and Western society lapses into anarchy. Thus, God implants in the human body an immaterial spirit which is free to choose between good and evil, which is free, that is, from natural forces to serve as a spark of divinity in the darkness of the material wilderness. That spirit is the source of our moral responsibility. Alas, cognitive scientists discovered no such spirit in their explorations of the brain and in their untangling of our evolutionary programming. It turns out not just that we’re animals, after all, says Harari, but that we’re “hackable” ones. “Every choice depends on a lot of biological, social and personal conditions that you cannot determine for yourself. I can choose what to eat, whom to marry and whom to vote for, but these choices are determined in part by my genes, my biochemistry, my gender, my family background, my national culture, etc—and I didn’t choose which genes or family to have.” 

Harari supports this by appealing to his Buddhist practice of meditation. We can confirm that we’re not free merely by paying close attention to the source of our thoughts that pop into our head. We don’t choose what to think or to feel, because there is no comprehensive self, no central agency in the mind deciding on the contents of our conscious awareness. Rather, these mental states bubble up by way of the brain’s attempt to reach equilibrium despite the quasi-evolutionary competition between its neural fluctuations. Just as the appearance of intelligent design in biological forms is an illusion—there’s no top-down designer, but only bottom-up struggles and mutations—there’s no homunculus in our skull that’s unbound by external chains of cause and effect, implies Harari. This means it’s possible that engineers and technocrats, politicians and salespeople can know us better than we know ourselves. All that’s needed are “a good understanding of biology, and a lot of computing power,” writes Harari. Corporations and governments might eventually have both, as they harvest terabytes of data from our addictions to social media and the internet, “and once they can hack you, they can not only predict your choices, but also reengineer your feelings.”

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Trump Voters Smarter than Liberals, study shows

Dateline: D.C.—The Machiavelli Institute of Political Pseudoscience shocked the world when it revealed the results of its study that compared the intelligence level of President Trump’s diehard supporters to that of his critics on the left and the right, including “the Resistance” and “Never Trumpers.”

The study found that whereas Trump’s supporters “know their ass from their elbow,” anti-Trump Americans “have their head in the clouds.” Trump’s supporters are mostly members of the hard-pressed working class and thus have street smarts, whereas the critics excel in abstract, academic book-learning. His supporters are “intellectually unsophisticated,” while the critics are more “professional” in presenting their opinions.

But what the supporters learned, along with members of the left-wing insurgency who had supported Bernie Sanders, is that the efficient, licensed elites of the neoliberal class in America had unwittingly betrayed the majority of Americans by not understanding the full consequences of the unfettered capitalism they had championed since the 1980s under Ronald Reagan.

Recognizing that the United States is currently a failed democracy, Mr. Trump’s supporters differ from the millions upon millions of Americans who didn’t vote in 2016 and throughout the twentieth century only in one respect, according to the pseudoscientific study. The Trump voters and the non-voters agree that their political and economic systems are rigged by plutocrats, and that voting for either Democrats or Republicans is thus fruitless for progressive purposes.

“Whereas President Trump may be a useful idiot of Russia,” the study points out, “the American professional classes of liberals and moderate Republicans consist of useful idiots of the sociopathic top one percent who alone can thrive under the amoral conditions of corporate capitalism.”  

The key difference is that those who voted for Trump get their entertainment primarily from politics and the daily news.

By contrast, the nonvoters are opioid junkies or gambling or porn addicts, not news junkies. Thus, Trump’s supporters demonstrated their superior practical intelligence by understanding the hopelessness of their country’s situation, and by insisting, as one Trump voter put it, “that if the American middle class is bound to lose out when the American empire contracts, American consumers can at least attempt to arrange things so that we’ll be amused along our way to certain destruction.”

The entertainment value of President Trump’s antics towers over that of any other politician’s in American history. Even Mr. Trump’s opponents are fascinated by the spectacle of his inhumanity. According to the study, Mr. Trump’s die-hard supporters cast their votes for him not because they expected him to make America great again, contrary to his 2016 campaign slogan, but to avenge themselves against the neoliberal, professional class.

“The vengeance is achieved,” said a spokesperson for the team of pseudoscientists, “when the more realistic voters who brought about the appalling reality of Trump’s presidency force the benighted liberals to realize that the American way of life is precisely as absurd as that reality.” As liberals and deep-state Republican bureaucrats are sickened by the reflection of their Jungian shadow in Trump’s monstrosity, they may become as demoralized as the victims of global free trade and of social-Darwinian capitalism.

Together, then, the majority of Americans can comfort themselves in knowing that while their system can’t be reformed, like any organization run by a cabal of self-destructive psychopaths, such as Lehman Brothers or Enron, the American establishment will collapse of its own accord. Moreover, to compensate for the ruination of their country and of their dreams for a better tomorrow, Americans have at least the prospect of premium entertainmentas long as they continue to vote Republican.

According to the Democratic brand, government works and can get stuff done. But the American working class understand, given their superior wherewithal, that the “stuff” the American systems have gotten done has been the screwing over of the majority of Americans, who haven’t seen their real wages improve in decades and who lost their industrial jobs to hordes of slave labourers in China, India, and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the Republican brand is effectively to entertain Americans on their way out, with that party’s displays of unsurpassed villainy. Even many non-Americans are hooked on the reality TV of American politics, whereas the average American could never even conceive of attending, for example, to a moment of Canadian politics.

“That asymmetry brought Donald Trump to power,” said the team’s spokesperson, “because the majority of Americans aren’t as stupid as many cynical liberals believe. Most Americans either don’t vote at all or vote purely to entertain themselves, knowing that their country has already been debased beyond repair.”  

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Power and the Abuse of Language: A Rant by Rashad the Cackler

[The homeless old man, Rashad the Cackler is back with another rant. Enjoy as he spills his guts to passersby on a big city street corner.]
We’ve got these democratic, capitalistic societies we’re so proud of. That’s how we “progress,” right? By voting and making money and buying stuff we don’t need.

I’ve been trying to figure out, though, why politicians and pundits make a fetish out of the word “appropriate.” I saw it once on CNN: it was a typical American political negotiation. President Trump had dragged a Democratic senator’s wife into the Oval Office and ordered his henchmen to gang rape her right in front of the senator and his children. They went to town on her, because it was televised so they had to make it a spectacle. I saw a Taser and a cat o’ nine tails and a flaming trident. A donkey got in on the action, and in the end they cut her up into ribbons and vacuumed her remains off the carpet.

The press turned to the senator for comment and all he could say was, “Mr. President, that was inappropriate.”

Why are the world’s most powerful English speakers so averse to telling us what they really think? Does power make you hostile to the prospect of looking up some words in a thesaurus? Do you go to law or business school to learn to have contempt for genuine communication?

It’s like the time that politician went on a psychotic rampage in the streets, stabbing folks left and right, and when the press caught up with him, he confessed only that he’d “made a mistake.”

Did you think a Western politician is capable of evil? No, only of “inappropriate conduct, meaning an action not currently sanctioned by some body of bureaucratic regulations. Our leaders can be guilty only of a “mistake,” of something like putting their left sock on their right foot or like dialing the wrong phone number. Their language has made evil impossible at the highest levels of our technocracies, because capitalism and democracy can do no wrong, by definition. Anyway, morality is religious or philosophical, so it’s for losers.

Even when speaking of the social progress we’re supposed to be capable of, politicians fall back on platitudes. When they have no idea how to solve a problem, they’ll say, “We’ve got to move forward.” That’s how you make things better when no one has a clue. You’ve just got to step forwards, never backwards. Because history lessons are anathema, I guess, for businessmen and politicians who need consumers and voters to be as dumb as possible, to enable the sociopathy that always rises to the top.

“Appropriate,” “mistake,” “forward”—these are magic words in so-called advanced industrial societies, for folks who are supposed to have outgrown the need for superstitions. We surrender to managerial platitudes and banalities. And those who care about English and authentic communication? They write books which hardly anyone reads anymore. Writers make a pittance, because Amazon siphons most of the profits. Is that the secret of capitalism? Not that in business you should profit by alienating your workers who don’t control the means of production, as Marx said. No, that’s only for old-school manufacturers. In postindustrial societies, where everyone’s a middleman, the trick is to convince society that your brand of uselessness is actually indispensible. If you’re one of a thousand administrators or vice presidents in your company, you’ve got to “lean in,” since only in a society where everyone’s mass-hallucinating and nothing truly important is happening would the mere effort of leaning in be a sure sign that you’re one of the good ones.

Progress is supposed to be about the maximization of pleasure or some such Enlightenment promise. But real progress is all about perfecting the use of power. The tyrants of old were more bloodthirsty than modern captains of industry, but that’s because we’ve made a science out of domination and exploitation. We don’t waste subordinate populations by slaughtering the males. We put them to work as wage slaves, conquering lesser societies with banking regulations and neoliberal tomfoolery. We don’t trivialize life by publicly torturing criminals, like they did in the medieval period; instead, we sustain the myth that life is precious so that consumers will become so full of themselves that they’ll buy all the garbage we’re selling.

We’ve taken to the next level the sociopathy that accompanies the concentration of power: witness the advent of the machine, the perfect vehicle for cruel logic. This is how we think of progress: poor countries are worse off because they can barely afford the necessities of life; rich countries can afford not just the necessities but the luxuries no one needs, until the rich people themselves can be dispensed with, and the whole postindustrial utopia runs on autopilot. By using our smart phones 24/7, we’re training the machines that will replace human workers and consumers; we’re ensuring our obsolescence, but that’s still progress because the machines will be the more perfect dominators—calculating, remorseless minds running superhuman bodies, ravaging the earth before heading to outer space. 

Monday, September 3, 2018

Clash of Worldviews: Ego and Enlightenment

MODERATOR: Welcome to Clash of Worldviews, the show that subjects conventional wisdom to rude philosophical scrutiny. This evening we have with us in-studio famed spiritual teacher, motivational speaker and author, Ludwig Toll. And joining us by phone from an undisclosed location is escaped mental patient, underground philosopher, and secret society leader, Jurgen Schulze. Our topic is the role of the ego in enlightening ourselves. Ludwig, perhaps you could start us off by telling us what the ego is.

TOLL: Well, the ego is the illusion of our personal self, otherwise known as the mind which is distinct from awareness or consciousness. Awareness is the space in which the mind’s thoughts happen, and the real world is always happening Now in each moment of selfless awareness. The ego is built on delusions of self-control sustained by the ceaseless chatter that goes on in our head, by that noisy monkey on our back which psychologists call our “narrative self.” We think we’re isolated, liberated beings who dominate the world by our powers of reason. We plan for the future and we flee to our memories of the past, but as even physicists tell us, time exists only in our mind’s limited perspective. Moreover, we’re burdened by our emotional attachment to a host of unpleasant memories. Our ego traumatizes us by basing our pride in ourselves on how we’ve managed to overcome past failures or disasters. As unenlightened creatures, we cling to flattering stories that explain away the pain we feel from our attachment to the ego, where the ego consists of all our mental constructions, including our memories and plans. This “pain body,” as I call it, is like a constant weight on our backs. Instead of deceiving ourselves for fleeting moments of comfort, we should learn to identify with background consciousness, to end our fascination with our thoughts of the past and the future, and to awaken to the stillness of the Now.

MODERATOR: So you’d say we should dissolve our ego?

TOLL: That’s what enlightenment is, according to the world’s spiritual traditions—although organized religions often betray those traditions and promote personal attachments as the institutions compete for earthly power. But yes, as Stoics and Buddhists teach, for example, seeing through the illusion of the ego is how we can end our suffering. We become happy when we cease craving that which can’t be, because our personal plans arise from the delusion of our autonomy and mental greatness, and we cease our cravings when we step outside the confines of our mind, as it were, and into the Now of holistic conscious awareness. When we discern that our personal self is a mere construct of consciousness that coexists with everything else in our field of awareness, from a cricket’s chirping to the light glinting off a leaf, we’re no longer trapped in a myopic viewpoint that’s bound to disappoint.

MODERATOR: Jurgen, how do you understand the ego?

SCHULZE: Good question! But why don’t you ask Mr. Toll if he understands the ego.

MODERATOR: Uh, alright. Ludwig Toll, how about it? Do you understand the ego?

TOLL: Mr. Schulze evidently means to trap me. You see, understanding something is a mental activity, so if I say I understand what the ego is, I’m contradicting myself by identifying with my rational processes.

SCHULZE: So you admit that you don’t understand what you’re talking about.