Sunday, September 16, 2007

Elites Schmelites

The New York Times: Ayn Rand's Literature of Capitalism

I'm not writing to comment on the main subject of the article--a subject which I've now realized isn't worth the time or effort or emotional inolvement it takes for good and decent people to comment on it (but if you feel like being a little queezy, go ahead and read the whole article).

This post is just for a few gems that appear in the article that showcase what I already knew, which is that even vice presidents of companies and university benefactors--wait, maybe even especially some of those--can be as incoherent (or more directly in this case, full of BS) as some of their self-centered children as seen on "Laguna Beach: The Real O.C." (think of those kids getting a copy of Atlas Shrugged and deciding to base their worldview on it!).

Anyway, without further Ayn-du, here are the offenders:

“She wasn’t a nice person, ” said Darla Moore, vice president of the private investment firm Rainwater Inc. “But what a gift she’s given us.”
Ms. Moore, a benefactor of the University of South Carolina, spoke of her debt to Rand in 1998, when the business school at the university was named in Ms. Moore’s honor. “As a woman and a Southerner,” she said, “I thrived on Rand’s message that only quality work counted, not who you are.”
Rand’s idea of “the virtue of selfishness,” Ms. Moore said, “is a harsh phrase for the Buddhist idea that you have to take care of yourself.”

I shudder for (and probably along with) any of the Southerners or Buddhists, both of with which I identify, who may have been there for that speech, and for the women, too. Does this lady have any idea what she's talking about when linking or applying Rand's ideas to any of these? I can only think that maybe she wasn't counting on any Buddhists, feminists, or intellectual Southerners being at the dedication of the business school (maybe because those people all major in humanities, of course), so she didn't have to know what she was talking about?

Or how about this thoroughly thought-out assessment of 60's and 70's radical student culture:

James M. Kilts, who led turnarounds at Gillette, Nabisco and Kraft, said he encountered “Atlas” at “a time in college life when everybody was a nihilist, anti-establishment, and a collectivist.” He found her writing reassuring because it made success seem rational.

Of course anti-establishmentarians, liberals, progressives, etc. are nihilists. Why else would those people fight so much for values and causes, such as people, the environment, and the planet itself, unless they don't have those values and causes, and don't care about anything?! Yes, look at a photo of any march on Washington--do you see the apathy in their faces? Hey, maybe I shouldn't go against a Rand-inspired juggernaut, who is rich and successful and therefore more enlightened, in the arena of "rationality," but isn't he confusing the activist student culture of of the 60's and 70's with the post-80's burned-out cynical Gen-X culture that was the result of over-commercialization?

The perpetual punch-line that is Objectivism, like I said, is hardly news fit to blog. What is worth pointing out is that 1) some the people who say things like this actually run our companies and educational institutions! and 2)many people give heed to the things they say because they are in these positions. Maybe they hear it so much they actually start to think these are the American values--the values elites use to justify and maintain their control of people and society, the rationale that those with authority are authoritative.

As for me, I find my American values are expressed better in some other American voices, like those of Thoreau, or Emerson, or Twain, or Whitman--you know, who wrote things worth actually being passionate about.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Playing Dirty with Semantics

I was reading one of conservative pundit Dinesh D'Souza's posts on AOL's "News Blogs" recently (I'm not sure why, except that I do pointless things sometimes when I have a few minutes to do so, and I find it occasionally entertaining; my ideal, more aloof self wouldn't even bother). Anyway, the post, "God is Dead, But Only in Manhattan" is in response to a long and interesting, if typically (of stodgy academic types) presuming, essay in New York Times Magazine by Columbia University humanities professor Mark Lilla, entitled "The Politics of God." D'Souza takes Lilla to task as one of the "secular liberals" for being that surprised at the continued presence of religious sentiment in the public sphere when, as Lilla declares, we Enlightened Westerners all know better by now.

Sure, there are obvious signs of intellectual hegemony in Mark Lilla's writing: he makes gross simplifications and sweeping generalizations, especially when he seems to speak rhetorically for groups of people for whom he may not actually be able to speak (i.e., the entire Western world), and more than a little arrogance comes out in his de facto assumption that most of what he writes is so obvious and above nuance that it can be accepted without rumination or afterthought. Add to that the fact that he's so covertly dismissive of the perspectives of entire schools of philosophy and contemplative traditions that you almost forget there might be other minds on the matter. In any case, he's preaching to his own choir and embellishing the size of that choir just a little bit to make us think it already includes you and me and anyone with a little sense. Welcome to the world of academia!

That said, however, isn't it interesting that Dinesh D'Souza makes much the same mistake in taking Lilla as wholly representative of those he disagrees with politically (liberals; by the way I'm not so sure Lilla is), and even seems to use the terms "liberal" and "anti-religious" interchangeably, as if there are no religious liberals/progressives? (MLK anyone? Ghandi? Paul Tillich? Michael Lerner?) And what about polemical miscontstrual of the word "secular," which actually refers to a pluralist and tolerant society, to mean anti-religious? When someone takes over the framing of a debate in a way that suits his or her agenda, it is easily recognizable as sleight-of-hand: if the entire left can be painted as a spiritual Wasteland, people can be repelled from it for something that has nothing to do with its values and principles, and besides that is inaccurate. Of course, Dinesh D'Souza always does that, like many, many others of his ilk, because, as it seems, they would rather not participate in a real discussion. It's probably not what they get paid for anyway.

Then again, who could blame an opportunistic pundit: Mark Lilla's words are just uncomfortably presumptuous enough to create a bad feeling in many people for whatever broad group with which those words can be associated--making it seem representative of out-of-touch social technocracy. But if grouping must be done, let's at least lump him where he probably belongs, with the Hobbesians. Then he's really the secular conservatives' problem.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

More on U.G.

Maybe one reason I can't really get U.G. Krishnamurti's words is because they aren't really being addressed to me.

I have never been obsessed with Enlightenment (I don't know, maybe because I didn't grow up in India for one). For me, the spiritual life is about following a spiritual path and not its destination. To be a Pilgrim without Progress. My quest is only the increasingly better realization that it's Here and Now, whatever it is. If you look at a circle, there's no destination on any point around that circle; there's only one special place, which is the same distance from any place around its circumference: the center of the circle. Which has been called the Tao, or the Source, the One, the ultimate, etc. I don't look to Jesus or Buddha because I want to become them, because I want to transform myself into them personally and then say, "well, there's what I've been trying to do, transform my truth-less self into a truthful Jesus or Buddha." I’ve never thought that that's what Enlightenment is all about. I look to Jesus and Buddha because I see the truth in them and they saw the truth in me (which, sadly, many adherents can't seem to read from them). U.G. seemed never to have thought the truth was in him on his "tragic" journey; he always thought, when he sought it, that it was somewhere outside of him and his journey was an external one. That's why he acquired such a contempt for masters and gurus, upon realizing that the external search was a futile one. He had been distracted by them because of the way he approached the journey, not the way they taught it (although I'm sure some did teach it that way, and cause themselves to be a crutch, and therefore the same as a hammer to the kneecap). But are teachers, mentors, spiritual leaders, a bad thing necessarily, if they are not teaching you to depend on them and to see the answer as inside them and not you? I don't think so. They are helpers, bodhisattvas, and we should be glad they're there. Like Glinda in The Wizard of Oz, who helped Dorothy realize it was inside her to bring herself home, and that she was really close to home all along. But she did it by sending her on this adventure, which seemed at the start external but which Dorothy realized at the end was internal. Why did she have to do that? Because Dorothy wouldn't have believed her, probably. She would have just stayed there confused and frightened in Munchkin Land. The journey wasn't as much about the Wizard, or destroying the Wicked Witch of the West, as it was about what needed to be awakened inside Dorothy.

So here's the thing: you can't belittle the journey. Dorothy didn't, upon her realization that she could in fact have gone home all along, say "well then that whole journey was a bunch of crap" and accuse Glinda of being an obscurant or a false teacher and curse the moment she ever started on the Yellow Brick Road.

And you don't have to be a nihilist, and you don't have to be a fatalist, or deny spirituality, to get anything out of any of this (really, you have to do your own thing anyway, not even falling prey to the idea that you have to do your own thing in order to be doing your own thing). The person whom U.G.'s words are for is really U.G., the one who, previously to his experience on his 49th birthday, sought for external answers and Enlightenment as an event to be found "out there." To everyone else, as he said, "I have nothing to say."

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Scary Krishna[murti]

Okay, yesterday I had a post here about my experience dealing with U.G. Krishnamurti, but I don't think I'm ready to post that now, so I'm going to keep it in my private journal and edit it a little bit. (Or I may never post it).

I've now been reading J. Krishnamurti, who is, for me anyway, much better. It is interesting, because they seem to be close together, yet miles apart. Perhaps the kundalini experience revealed what was inside both.

Sunday, July 01, 2007


In a message I sent to a list a couple of days ago, I mentioned that I had begun to grow about as weary of atheist fundamentalists as I have of religious fundamentalists. One person sent me this perplexed or incredulous-sounding question in response: "How can an atheist be a fundamentalist?"

I didn't think about it too much, but this is what I wrote and sent in a matter of minutes:

Bad arguments, emotional, knee-jerk reactions, blaming religion for all the problems in the world (and ignoring both positive religious manifestations and secular atrocities), and most importantly, making the serious philosophical mistake of incorrect epistomological leaps to ontological assertions, such as "science demonstrates that there is no God."

I am really referring to a specific group of people when I say atheist fundamentalists, not all atheists. I mean those who call belief in any kind of God or spiritual reality a "delusion" and insist that everyone think like them (you know who I'm talking about),

[ahem, ahem]

rather than those who say "I don't believe there is a God" or "I don't hold a particular belief in God" (or the position I like more, "I don't know if there is a God or not").

It's really easy to tell fundamentalism when you see it. It lacks any appreciation of the depth of an issue, any nuance in position. It insists on a few fundamental axiomatic things that form the basis of a single necessary worldview, and has evangelists to try to impose that single necessary view on others. It has its own thought police, and instigates inquisitions to make sure no one is straying from the path, or to ostracize and castigate those who are believed to be doing so. So fundamentalism can really be found in any kind of human program, whether it be religion, or politics, or secular philosophy.

It was that last paragraph that I really liked the most, of what I had written. You could say it without talking about what specific kind of system or point of view you're talking about, and still recognize fundamentalism as fundamentalism--even though many people would only consider fundamentalism to apply to religion. I'm no religious apologist, either. I've been agnostic to varying degrees since I left the last fundamentalist religion I will ever be associated with. In fact, many of the critics of the "New Atheists" (the all-star roster of familiar writers like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Vic Stenger, etc.--you know, the abrasive, evangelical ones) have been agnostics (look up the reviews of any of their books and I think you'll be able to confirm that). The thing about them is that they have an ideology to promote; they fervently hold it, and they fervently promote it, like any firebrand preacher. It goes well beyond religion, too; many of these kinds of thinkers would like to do away with any and every thing that is not in accordance with a certain strictly positivistic view, from the phenomenalism and metaphysics of Continental philosophers (atheists such as Sartre included) to radical politics to Dadaism to Postmodernism to any scientifically-explored area on the fringes of what is currently accepted by the mainstream.

What the ideology or point of view all boils down to is what is known as eliminative materialism, which is the view that matter and energy in spacetime, described as a formal system from which there is no deviance, is all there is or ever was, and every single other thing is reducible to that and eliminated as a thing of its own (i.e., the universe is like a computer program, all describable as a series of 1's and 0's). Hence, everything else, and all human things (including minds, consciousness, love, friendship, good, evil, art, beauty, spirituality, all metaphysics, you, etc.), are only complex but mindless patterns of these 1's and 0's that happen to have emerged in this formal system. (also, the formal system is self-existent and requires no explanation itself).

This eliminative materialism is a certain philosophical view (it is often called "metaphysical naturalism", a term which I don't like--see comment*) among many philosophical views about the universe or existence that are pondered, held, discussed, and debated with good arguments for and against almost any one of them that involve things like ways of knowing, logical paradoxes, interpretations of quantum physics, etc. What really sets off certain of the proponents of the eliminative materialists' view as fundamentalists, though, is the rhetorical strong-arming that characterizes their prounouncements. When any of these thinkers say that God is a scientific hypothesis that has failed, or that evolution proves that the universe and all life in it are meaningless, or that consciousness is an illusion, or that we are robots programmed by our genes, or that anything considered paranormal is a priori logically impossible, these are things that are said as if they are intended to be accepted as the Objective Truth in academia, in education, and in the public sphere, and to be made the basis of public policy. And things that seem at least provisionally or speculatively reasonable to me, or part of useful dialogue on an issue, are to these proclamists entirely unreasonable and the result of awful mushy-headed irrationalism. What is the most worrying is that this has also begun to be associated with a kind of New Inquisition throughout science and academia, in which those who disagree with any of these views are either ignored or subjected to more rhetorical strong-arming, with the intent that they are either reformed or silenced or purged from the dialogue. I think it should go without saying that this is not a good environment for discussion, and it demonstrates a situation in which many, even dictators of the program, are so certain that their views are the absolute and only way to think about what is true that there is little room for discussion or further searching anyway.

And in all this, where do I stand? What do I really think is true?

The truth is, I don’t know what's true (much less what’s True). In fact, I go back and forth so frequently, I think the best thing to do would be to not take a position, to remain agnostic to so many of these questions. Maybe, in actuality, it would be best if I went in the great tradition of American Pragmatism: "forget 'Truth'; it's all about what works, and especially about what works for human beings." (I don't know where exactly that tradition went, although some of it exists in Postmodernism now).

The big problem with eliminative materialist/neo-Darwinist fundamentalists is that I don't think they can know any better than I can know (and all I know is that I don't!--and I'm quite familiar with matters of theory and data). Yet they are so sure of themselves, it is almost as if the measure of Truth to them is how closely you think like them and hold their view as the Absolute. Hence the source of rhetorical strong-arming. And what's more, this rhetoric makes it such that that is the case; they make themselves the standard of truth in their own cultures and societies. It becomes the culturally imbedded mindset, the only way to think about the world and hence the only and absolute truth, just as the Church's dogma was for the Medeival world. (No wonder there are some postmoderns talking about the "social construction of truth" and "social construction of reality").

But if it all doesn't satisfy you, if you think there is more to it than that or even that there just may be, even if for good reason, if you're a dissident or discontent, I almost want to say, "you're in a sorry way, partner." I say that because you're walking a path--and will walk it from now until you die--of attack from all sides and from all kinds of fundamentalist absolutism, and of frequent marginalization. If you are too thick into it, you're walking that road with little refuge for peace but your own mind--if you even have that refuge (as, to quote Sally Kempton, "It's hard to fight an enemy that has outposts in your head").

But at least you can know it's better to never give in to that which you can't accept with any conviction, to at least try to stand in awe of that which isn't known and perhaps can't be known, but is still worth wondering about and may still be true, if just because the human mind can ponder it. As Robert Anton Wilson wrote, "That is my heresy; that is why I cannot buy into fundamentalism. I wonder a bit."

Friday, June 29, 2007

The Brave New World Takes Visa

Time for a rant.

I recently saw a Visa commercial showing this morning in this city in which all this commerce is happening like clockwork, mechanically, with classical music (Johann Strauss's "On the Beautiful Danube" Waltz) as in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Donuts dropping in bags, sugar dropping in coffee, synced to the music, and everyone using their Visa card, moving one right after another. No one talking to each other or anything. Then, all of the sudden, this guy pays for his donuts with cash, and the girl behind the counter gives him this funny, glaring look, as if it was because he interrupted the seamless flow of people standing in line to check out and buy things with their Visa cards. She gives him a damn glare because he used cash, and the music stops and everything! She didn't talk to any of the people who were swiping Visa cards, and she didn't say a word to him either. And then, maybe the worst thing, the slogan that appears on the screen at the end of the commercial: "Life takes Visa". Life, for crying out loud. That thing itself, that we all live, takes Visa. Said as if life runs on a credit card.

Aldous Huxley would not be surprised.

If I were ever impressed by a commercial like that--no, if I ever didn't absolutely hate a commercial like that--just take me out and shoot me, because most of what I am is dead inside already.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Sexuality, biology, and the nature of human beings.

It's only too easy to respond to an argument like Dinesh D'Souza's post "Is Homosexuality Genetic? Ask the Ancient Greeks." D'Souza, a conservative author/commentator and fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, has written a blog post asserting that, because many older, married men in ancient Greece were engaged in the practice of pederasty (sexual and mentoring relationships with young men), and that that was a cultural practice, sexual preference is a choice and does not have a biological basis. Asks D'Souza,

"If these practices are genetic, why aren't homosexuality and pederasty prevalent in Greece and Rome today? Has the gene pool changed that much?"

Even ignoring the fact that D'Souza both completely discounts studies of the biological basis of sexuality AND refers only to genetics (when there is more to biology than genetics, particularly in the study of sexuality), his argument seems poor to anyone but conservative ideologues (see also this excellent response, "We're all Gay--The Only Question is How Much?" by Cenk Uygur of the Young Turks radio show). I contributed this comment (which can be seen on #44 on the comments):

The problem with an absolutist view is that it lacks any appreciation of the depth of an issue, any nuance. In the case of Dinesh D'Souza, he believes sexuality must be a choice because there is a precedent in which the expression of sexuality has been culturally influenced. A few problems with that:

1)The most important, he overlooks decades of important work in the area since the studies of Alfred Kinsey which suggest that it is not a dichotomy between "gay" and "straight", but that most people fall somewhere in between and, while having preference for one sex, have a latent attraction, to whatever degree, to the other (the expression of which can be culturally influenced, as in ancient Greece or feudal Japan). There is a small percentage of people on the exclusively gay side of the spectrum, just as there was in ancient Greece alongside the mostly heterosexual/slightly bisexual pederasts.

2)By characterizing the scientific studies of sexuality as more controversial and inconclusive than they actually are, D'Souza is showing that his ideology is preventing him from seeing what is there.

3)Even if latent homosexuality could be changed (i.e., "cured"), why should it be? Who is Dinesh D'Souza or anyone to want to change an intimate and personal part of a person's identity (particularly when it does no harm and adds diversity to a society)? What is easier and better, to "cure" homosexuality or to "cure" homophobia?

Now, this actually gets into a much deeper debate, which is "how much power do human beings have to decide themselves and their own behavior?" Some hold to a strict genetic/biological determinism, some hold to a general social/environmental determinism, and many more hold to a combination of the two. Some, however, while believing that both are true, also believe in an important third factor, self-determinism. That is, there is such a thing as mental causal efficacy. I happen to hold such a view, and have spent quite a lot of time researching and pondering on it (particularly how it is quite consistent with modern [quantum] physics, how it is consistent with and even necessitated by the nature of our conscious experience, and how it is necessary for any real ethics and meaning). There are some, however, who take this to way wrong conclusions. One such person is Harvard psychologist and religious conservative Jeffrey Satinover, who has written books on quantum neuroscience, the Bible Code, and how gays can and should change their abberant behavior (which he believes is supported by quantum neuroscience).

Although I share with Satinover the view that our minds actually do something and aren't just unexplainable by-standers or by-products, and that we humans are capable of self-directed neuroplasticity (and I have some experience with such myself, overcoming anxiety disorder through intense mental effort rather than medication), his idea that sexual orientation can or should be changed in such a way (or any way) comes, like D'Souza's, from his conservative ideology--not from either science or from geniune spirituality. There are certain things about us that are just that--things about us. We shouldn't any sooner want to or try to change them than we should or could our skin color or personal history or most deeply personal traits. Who we love in certain (romantic) ways is one of those. And, as I wrote in a previous post, just because our minds have power doesn't mean they have unlimited power--just as we can change our course when behind the wheel but we can't change everything about the vehicle we are driving, nor can we change the road as easily (regarding the road, my friend Jim pointed out this insightful example: the Dalai Lama arguably has more control over his own mind than most people. However, with all the mental power he has, he hasn't been able to drive the Chinese government out of Tibet).

Integral philosopher Ken Wilber has written on this subject in great detail, and what he has written is quite relevant (it can be found about a fourth of the way down the page, here). In Wilber's analysis, those views that have tended to focus exclusively on external factors/realities, like the historical materialism of Marxists and Utilitarians, believe that everything happens to people, discounting or ignoring internal, conscious factors. The typical conservative, meanwhile, focuses only on internal, subjective factors, ignoring or discounting external factors that affect people and which they have little or no control over. It is only an Integral approach, Wilber says, uniting the truths of both realities, that will allow us to move forward. I think so too.