21st century religious wars?

April 4, 2021 at 2:04 pm (By Amba) (, )

I’m hiding this here because some of it will be rude to say in public on Easter morning.

These Daily Beast headlines (I’m not bothering to link, they will be paywalled) . . .

. . . together with much recent commentary on how the tribal, zealous, and transporting aspects of religion seem to have migrated over to politics, coalesced in my mind into the realization that we are actually fighting a religious war, just like those that have racked the West throughout so many other centuries.

For the right, “socialism” IS Satan. For the left, science IS gospel. The right has specialized in the crusade of conquest. The left has a lock on penitence. Both practice conversion and excommunication. Each is sure they hold the truth and the other is demonic.

This in turn brought me (by a winding path, admittedly) to the thought that the world would be unimaginably different if the Abrahamic religions had never arisen. And that they may have been the single most toxic and warping factor in human history.

They have certainly been a key to our species’ “success” in the short term—the whole globe having been dragged into this juggernaut by “the West”—but success down a wrong path is mega-failure waiting to happen.

Polytheism, pantheism, nature worship—are they more live-and-let-live, or am I romanticizing them? The impulse to conquest (as opposed to just tribal rivalry and territorial skirmishing) comes with civilization (and its nomadic pastoral predators), which arises from agriculture. But somehow Abrahamic monotheism supercharged it.

It’s fascinating to see how ideas mutate and hybridize, taking on new power and sometimes monstrosity in the process. Neither communism nor democracy would likely exist if not for Christianity. Western Communism x Eastern Confucianism spawned particularly deadly strains.

It’s enough to make your head spin.

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“Retrospective inevitability”

April 1, 2021 at 9:43 am (By Amba)

from 2017

It only just struck me that “Que sera sera” needs a counterpart for later in life. “Que fue fue?” How would you say “What was, was” or “What has been, has been”?

It’s the sense in which the events of your life were, not by any means inevitable, but … the dominoes fell as they did. If you could go back and change any one thing, it would change everything downstream. The meeting of a particular sperm and egg being as contingent as it is, the same people wouldn’t even be here. Dependent co-arising leads to something like “retrospective inevitability.” “It has to have been that way.” If you could erase the bad it would also erase the good. Regrets rot the harvest.

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Creative destruction?

March 30, 2021 at 10:15 am (By Amba)

(Cross-posted to A Cold Eye)

I was thinking about how anything that escapes regulation, coöpts its environment, and grows unchecked, heedless of its place in a whole, is cancer-like. Wealth in late capitalism. The human population.

But there’s no escaping a larger whole. Even cancer plays its part. It creates opportunities for worms. And funeral directors. And pharma companies and cancer centers. Wealth creates opportunities for merchants and crafters of luxury goods, for services and servants, and for thieves and revolutionaries. The growing human population creates opportunities for pigeons and sparrows, parasites and viruses, inventors of ways to extract more, and now maybe even to extract more while destroying less.

It’s a free-for-all. Everything’s eating and competing, hijacking and hitchhiking on everything else. Don’t be so moralistic. Join the party.

As if you had a choice.

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No Map to the Post-Enlightenment

February 22, 2021 at 9:09 am (By Amba) (, )

A friend who lives in Israel (though US-born) wrote to me worried about how the ultra-Orthodox may be taking over Israel, even as some Evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics here seem to be angling to turn the US into a theocracy. I wrote back to him that they seem to be “out to repeal the Enlightenment.” He asked if I had any thoughts about how to counter that. These were the thoughts that came up in response to that question. Some of them surprised me.

I don’t have any very good ideas about what to do about the fundies of all stripes. I suspect we’re at a fork in our evolution where the ability to tolerate uncertainty is the next step, and we may not take it. We’re a very fearful animal, and we’ve learned just enough to begin to realize how tiny we are, how little we really understand, and how little control we have carved out, though it is much more than we’ve ever had before (to our own detriment as well as benefit). The solution, for a sizable chunk of the human population, is to just junk the whole enterprise and go back to absolute authorities and simple stories. The solution for another chunk is to put a quasi-religious faith in science and scientists—in both cases, driven by the longing for authority to keep us safe. The idea that we have to take our fate into our own hands at precisely the moment when we realize we don’t know shit is pretty overwhelming, but it’s the next step and if we refuse it, as we well may, we won’t survive. I guess it’s Existentialism as well as the Enlightenment, except the Existentialists thought life and the universe were meaningless. It’s probably saturated with meaning and potential meaning, and we have allies, one of whom you would call God—not an authority but the guarantor that this isn’t Hell and that it can be navigated and is brimming with promise, not just pain. The part of us that is made in this Great Spirit’s or Holy Ghost’s image is intuition. Although intuition may be more easily fooled by our hopes and fears than reason (or maybe not—reason can easily be pressed into service as rationalization), it’s also a direct way of knowing the score without knowing how you know. Trust is involved, and not the trust of a child who needs the illusion of being safe.

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Why capitalize “white”?

November 2, 2020 at 5:01 pm (By Amba) (, )

The Washington Post does it, and it drives me crazy.

Why? Why kowtow to the belief of white nationalists such as VDARE that “White” is an identity, a people?

Suppose it were an identity, what would define it? World domination?

European culture, you say? That’s pretty funny considering that European peoples fought each other tooth and nail from prehistory up through 1945 (and didn’t stop then). Here’s a list of European wars, starting only in 1112 BC. I literally don’t have the time to count them. You’ll be amazed.

You may argue, with reason, that Black people too descend from many diverse peoples and cultures—some of whom unquestionably fought each other as well. African people would have been harder to enslave had local enemies not captured and sold one another. Where there is a buyer, sellers appear. Europeans exploited traditional rivalries among Native Americans in similar ways.

Conflict and bids for dominance are a proud and shameful part of our common “human potential” (“one in 200 men are direct descendants of Genghis Khan“), but it’s a part that Europeans magnified to an unprecedented global scale, with a fevered drive to expand and exploit, more-advanced technologies for doing so, and a conviction of entitlement based on divinely bestowed superiority. In 2020, you still wanna base an identity on that? Basically, on “might makes right”?

Technology is only one field of achievement, the one that confers material power and enables its possessors, if so inclined, to overwhelm, expropriate, and even obliterate other peoples’ achievements. It’s far from Europeans’ only achievement, but technology of one kind—the technology of extraction, manufacture, and domination—is the only one in which they were inarguably superior. Technology has its wonders, but it’s a two-edged sword that eventually wounds its wielder. It makes life both better and worse. The balance sheet is a work in progress.

Ironically, “Black” is an identity Black people didn’t ask for. It was welded together out of diverse materials—genetic, linguistic, cultural—by slavery, discrimination, and a disdainful lack of discrimination in the other sense. Just as white police and passersby often can’t tell Black people apart, slave traders and owners couldn’t tell Black peoples apart—didn’t bother to.

But that capital letter is earned. It’s recognition and reparation. It’s Black Lives Matter in one letter. White people, meanwhile, need to retire from their implicit capital letter. What bad timing to make it explicit just as growing numbers are growing sick, really sick, of having the world on their shoulders and their knee on its neck. White people need to explore the freedom of being generic, of losing themselves in the crowd, of being among, not above. Capitalizing their name, meanwhile, is not placing Black people above white people. It’s shining a light.

Maybe a day will come when we can see and speak to each other as individuals with a whole palette of skin tones and a whole panoply of ancestries and influences. We’re just not there yet, but it’s a good place to be going.

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The case that COVID-19 was lab-created …

September 27, 2020 at 11:52 am (By Amba) ()

. . . has moved from the fringe to the center of the argument. It’s getting stronger, and harder to suppress, by the day. Here is the latest analysis.

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To be as objective as possible…

September 27, 2020 at 11:24 am (By Amba) ()

  • Amy Coney Barrett is a good judge, as was Robert Bork, if you take ideological wish lists out of it.
  • If you believe that there needs to be a balance between right and left, between business and government, between striving and caring, etc., etc. (and that too much imbalance opens the Pandora’s box of corruption and cruelty), this is the WRONG time to tilt the balance further to the right.*
  • What Democrats are experiencing is the incredible frustration of watching Trump make a good move at a bad time for an evil purpose.

*The pendulum is never in more danger of swinging to one extreme than when it is at the other extreme. Those of you who dread violent revolution above all—you are guaranteeing it.

UPDATE

  • Barrett is GOING TO be confirmed.
  • For Trump to set up a Supreme Court that could then stop vote counting and reinstall him as president is using the US Government for criminal self-dealing. The confirmation MUST NOT take place until after the election. This should be the laser focus of the Democratic caucus in the Senate.
  • The best outcome that’s possible at this point: The Republicans decisively lose the presidency and the Senate. The lame duck Senate confirms Barrett. Conservatives get the Justice they most wanted; the two other branches are in Democratic hands. Some balance is restored.

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Rooting It Out

August 23, 2020 at 3:35 am (By Amba) ()

Even white people who recoil from white supremacy often harbor unexamined, reflexive assumptions of white superiority.

While less noxious on the surface, this assumption is far more pervasive and insidious. It’s the vast, nearly immortal underground mycelium from which the scattered poison mushrooms of white supremacy sprout. (The mycelium of the 2,384-acre fungus described at that link also secretes root-destroying enzymes and “kills swaths of conifers,” for an even better metaphor.)

This struck me while talking to a Trump supporter friend (yes, I have some) who told me she has Black friends, even one guy she was sweet on when she was young (he brought her to his church once; she got a side-eye from his mother that would have blistered the paint off a battleship), but—”their values are different from ours.” Although she must encounter scores of Black working people and professionals every day, she seemed to take inner-city gang, drug, and gun culture as the prototype of Black culture and to attribute it to nature or character rather than to poverty and futility. (Never mind that it took working-class white people less than two generations of unemployment and disrespect to fall into opioid addiction, spousal abuse, and family breakdown.)

She’s a bit of a straw woman because she’s been soaking up right-wing talk radio for twenty years. (If you need to know why we’re friends, ask me in the comments.) But a subtler, patronizing version of the same attitudes pervaded the liberal world I grew up in. A lot of white people kinda believe Charles Murray’s insinuations about genetics and I.Q. (Of course, white people wrote the I.Q. tests; let them try and pass the speed I.Q. test of the average rap song.) They feel that the warm dialect Black people speak among themselves is defective, inferior English. The great majority of their interactions with Black and Latino people are those of employers and “help.” Take it from an insider. The separation and hierarchy Isabel Wilkerson identifies as “caste” perpetuate these assumptions and are perpetuated by them, in a vicious cycle.

What is this “white superiority” and where does it come from? It’s a belief in the superiority of European culture, and it’s founded in dominance. In what, exactly, is euroid culture, as I’ve taken to calling it (because then we can say “roid rage” and get a twofer) truly superior? In the technologies of coercion, extraction, and machine fabrication. The firepower to commandeer other lands’ natural resources and the power to wrest and reshape, roughshod, the material world. The miracle of being able to mass-produce cheap, attractive kitchenware for millions while wiping out time-intensive, one-of-a-kind handcrafts. To make expropriated subsistence farmers work for slave wages (or as actual slaves) on coffee plantations built on what was their land, and create a global commodity market coextensive with empire.

What about our art, literature, and music? You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s, and you don’t have to be euroid to love and play Beethoven, or Shakespeare. They are insanely great. But the “Western canon” is narrow and provincial. Saul Bellow once notoriously asked, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” To which my retort would be, “Dizzy Gillespie.” Shamefully imprecise: it’s unlikely that Dizzy’s ancestors were Zulu. But jazz, a syncretistic art form springing from a mighty African root that people of all origins love and play, has a genius that equals Tolstoy and Beethoven, and in at least one respect surpasses them: it’s created on the spot, in front of demanding witnesses, not polished before being published, or practiced, practiced, practiced, perfected, and finally performed.

I remember going through the Metropolitan Museum once, through a gallery of exquisite, finely detailed Asian embroidered silk garments, porcelain vessels, and painted screens . . . and coming out into a gallery of European art contemporary with it: dark, crudely hewn wooden Christs and Madonnas and angels. Gulp . . . we ARE the barbarians.

After that, when my friend Sachiko meticulously peeled her apple, or segmented her clementine after removing every fiber of the white pith, while I just tore into mine and made a mess, I would tell her I was invoking my barbarian privilege. (Also that I had been raised by wolves.)

Not to put down euroid culture . . . just to point out that it is not superior in anything but domination. Its arts and sciences don’t have to go under. They just have to move over. And disarm.

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Social Media Detox 2

August 21, 2020 at 8:46 pm (By Amba) (, , , )

Getting off Facebook again, and for the most part Twitter (I might use it to post links to blog posts if I have anything to share), at least until the election.

I’ve pretty much concluded that the fragile feel-good illusions about the Democratic party and ticket that they have, against all odds, managed to recreate (quite a feat, I have to hand it to them) are all that can just barely save the country and give it a last chance to make good. At full enough flood, that nostalgic resurgence of willfully innocent Kennedy-era idealism might be able to float the country an inch or two over the horrific threshold facing us. Since I recognize that but can’t join in the inspiration (though I feel its pull) or the cheerleading, I’ve decided to stay out of it. So fragile is that gossamer feeling that some of my friends freak out if I express any realism; others are so cynical they seem to think we need another Trump term to trigger revolution, a privileged, romantic idea if I ever heard one. Some other time I’ll post about why I think a revolution is a bad thing to wish for. (Teaser: Revolution was brought to Romania by the Red Army. Romania’s simmering Communist Party seized its chance. The rich were expropriated and set to the lowest manual labor. Yay! Revenge! Some very bright peasants’ and shepherds’ kids got to go to medical school. Yay! Opportunity! As soon as they became full-fledged doctors, they escaped the country any way they could and came to America, where they could make some money and have a nice house, car, and lifestyle. They listened to Rush Limbaugh and now they are all fulminating right-wingers.) Reform is unromantic, but if it’s serious enough (big if), it can actually improve people’s lives, rather than destroying them to save them.

Anyway, I’ll copy some disorganized thoughts I wrote in my journal this morning.

We have to be saved from the abyss if at all possible, and it’s the naïve enthusiasm of the simple (white liberal) folk that will do it. Black people spotted this early on, and it’s why they wisely pushed Joe Biden to the fore. He’s perceived as safe and kindhearted enough for a wide spectrum of frightened constituencies to accept—from the masses of voters to the dollars of donors—and so he, or his handlers, could just barely hold this improbable coalition, with the tensile strength of Jell-o, together just long enough to squeak through the door. Okay, so it’s the same old coalition of the comfortable-enough to be complaisant while the plutocrats fleece us. The difference is that the voters now want to shoehorn the diverse new America into the crude fairness and opportunity of the old (pre-Reagan) America. It was pretty good for them, and they’ve belatedly realized that it wasn’t for everybody. It’s all necessary to survive and to inch forward another half-millimeter toward such justice as glorified chimpanzees are capable of.

The rich must realize they are rich on sufferance, that the only way to enjoy their wealth in peace, without becoming murderers to avoid being murdered, is not to leave the rest of the community behind. To recognize that they are still part of humanity, with reciprocal bonds and obligations, not untrammeled demigods. They have to earn the right to enjoy their wealth in peace, and they can’t be trusted to do it voluntarily. They have to be required to pay the rest of us to grant them that limited license.

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Fall of the Conquerors

July 24, 2020 at 2:20 pm (By Amba) (, , )

Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot had two statues of Christopher Columbus removed from Chicago parks and neighborhoods last night. The immediate rationale was public safety: the statues have become flashpoints for confrontations between police and demonstrators; and, in improvised attempts to pull the heavy statues down, people could get hurt. But, after “an inclusive and democratic public dialogue about our city’s symbols,” in the mayor’s words, you can bet those patriarchs will not be back on their pedestals.

I am totally down with seeing these statues disappear from literally lording it over the public square (yes, I’m aware that there have been ignorant excesses of iconoclasm as well as instances of payback targeting monuments to abolitionists). I would be happy to debate anyone who disagrees.

If we are serious about making this the inclusive and equitable country that it potentially is, about fully extending the promises of the Founders to everyone whose ancestors were drawn here by those promises or driven off or dragged here in violation of them, then yes, we DO have to rewrite history from multiple points of view, and we DO have to stop being unquestioningly presided over by the “heroes” of conquest, colonization, and genocide.

We can’t expect historical figures to have had our perspective,* [see UPDATE below], but it’s time to take an unflinching look at their perspective, and to admit that for most of them, racism was an inextricable strand in it that qualified and tainted whatever noble traits they may have had or deeds they did.

Yes, this change is disorienting when you’ve been taught standard American mythology since you were a little kid. The resistance to it is as intense as if we were losing our civic religion and identity. We are! I am all for it. We’re coming into a bigger-hearted one, and the spirit of the old one is being reborn in unexpected ways as a living part of it (see Hamilton, or AOC invoking the dignity of Congress to call out the fellow representative who insulted her).

I hope the statues reappear in dedicated sculpture gardens where their value as artifacts of history, educational aids, and, in some cases, works of art is preserved.

*UPDATE: This made me think again about that statement:

These ‘historical figures’ were significantly outnumbered by their dead. They were a tiny minority of their own population. Yet we treat them as if they are the only people in history.

When people say, “we can’t judge historical figures by the standard of our time’ what they mean is ‘the monsters did not think themselves monstrous”. What they mean is ‘colonized lives don’t matter’. Because these human beings, living at the very same time, certainly knew that these were monsters. I don’t mean in an abstract political-issues-of-the-day sense, I mean in a very real sense of ‘They’re killing me and selling my children’.

It’s as if we write about serial killers, but only from the perspective of serial killers. . . .

A few thousand Europeans colonized millions of people across the world. They laundered this theft by simply rendering the victims subhuman, an injustice we continue to this day.

We talk about historical figures and historical standards as if these millions of people simply did not exist. . . .

These perspectives matter. All of the lives that were silenced by the whip or the noose before, they are silenced by armchair historians today. People talk about a whites only history where only white feelings mattered, and because white people didn’t feel bad, it simply wasn’t bad.

This simply isn’t true. It was bad. The people living it knew.

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