Friday, September 24, 2010

The Illusion of Normalcy

The Illusion of Normalcy is what we labor under.
-Economist

Society is organized insanity. Myth is the milk of civilization. It keeps the poor sedated and the rich justified. It keeps the lottery system and the insurance companies fat. Security is a myth. There is only one ending to every story...Death.

"Let death find us as we are building up our matchstick protests against its waves."
Alain de Botton

"Of all the world's wonders, which is the most wonderful? That no man, though he sees others dying all around him, believes that he himself will die." -- Yudhishtara answers Dharma, from "The Mahabharata"

"What would the average man do with a full consciousness of ab­surdity? He has fashioned his character for the precise purpose of putting it between himself and the facts of life; it is his special tour-de-force that allows him to ignore incongruities, to nourish himself on impossibilities, to thrive on blindness. He accomplishes thereby a peculiarly human victory: the ability to be smug about terror."
Ernest Becker

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Hitch on Solzhenitsyn

Hitch on Solzhenitsyn:

To have fought his way into Hitler's East Prussia as a proud Red Army soldier in the harshest war on record, to have been arrested and incarcerated for a chance indiscretion, to have served a full sentence of servitude and been released on the very day that Stalin died, and then to have developed cancer and known the whole rigor and misery of a Soviet-era isolation hospital—what could you fear after that? The bullying of Leonid Brezhnev's KGB and the hate campaigns of the hack-ridden Soviet press must have seemed like contemptible fleabites by comparison. But it seems that Solzhenitsyn did have a worry or a dread, not that he himself would be harmed but that none of his work would ever see print. Nonetheless—and this is the point to which I call your attention—he kept on writing. The Communist Party's goons could have torn it up or confiscated or burned it—as they did sometimes—but he continued putting it down on paper and keeping a bottom drawer filled for posterity. This is a kind of fortitude for which we do not have any facile name. The simplest way of phrasing it is to say that Solzhenitsyn lived "as if." Barely deigning to notice the sniggering, pick-nose bullies who followed him and harassed him, he carried on "as if" he were a free citizen, "as if" he had the right to study his own country's history, "as if" there were such a thing as human dignity.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Values? The Religious Right's Victorian Hypocrisy

Mixing politics and religion has had a precarious and problematic past in human history. And yet humans continue this folly. Today's Republican value voters and demagogues represented by Sarah Palin, Sharron Angle, Glenn Beck, Mike Pence, Christine O'Donnell and Michelle Bachman to name a few represent a movement that hates the free press, celebrates being anti-intellectual and anti-scientific, and is in denial of human fragility and the human body itself. It is corrupt populist neo victorianism that cares more about their tribal language than they do about being true to their values in their personal life.
A Victorian would be offended if one spoke of adultery openly but would be comfortable with performing the act behind the scenes. Carrie Prejean is a good example of this. She speaks publicly about political and public morality but when lawyers showed her a tape of a woman masturbating on camera her response was that this was disgusting but then the lawyers let her know that the woman on the tape was her. I suppose it became less disgusting to Miss Prejean. This Neo-Victorianism is hyper compartmentalization. It cannot see beyond its bubbles of illusion and is so bent on hiding from its own humanity.

The Values? The main value is to deny the reality of the human being and body. It is the denial of human reality. They are hiding from the fragility and reality of humanity through the will to religious and political power. They hate the mirror of reality that exposes their compartmentalization and hypocrisy. They want to silence the artist, the scientist, and the intellectually honest who are facing the fragility and reality of what it means to be human.
There is a glorification of humanity with no reflection or contemplation of the real limits of humanity. There is a rush to judgment and a lack of curiosity.
There is a phobia of sex education but plenty of sex in the lives of their community and children. There is skepticism not of Religious Dogma but of Scientific Inquiry. There is morality but it is political not personal morality. There is a push for education as a means to job production not as a means to pursue the knowledge of reality and truth. There is a love of religion for making humans fallen angels who are the center of Gods attention but a hatred for Evolution which shows the reality of risen apes who are not the center of the Universe.

To be an intellectual and cosmopolitan is somehow anti-American but to celebrate ignorance and tribal identity is somehow patriotic. It is the corruption of Neo-Victorianism in American Culture.

Imagine Deep History

"To be steeped in history is to cease being Protestant."
Cardinal John Henry Newman

The Cardinal stops too early. A Jewish person or a Pagan could say to be steeped in history is to cease being Catholic as well. And the more you research and study history dogma seems rather provincial, tribal and solipsistic.

The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she contracted in a long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.

~Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Grand Design & Stephen Hawking

"It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going."

This sentence provoked a lot of chatter, most of it implying that Hawking might, at some stage in his career as a physicist, have believed that God could have been a contender. This is not the case. In the first place, even though Hawking invoked the name of God a number of times in 1988 in A Brief History of Time, he clearly never believed in a supernatural explanation. In the second place, science works by concentrating on natural explanations. Anything else would be cheating.

And in the third place, although you cannot prove a negative – that God does not exist – you can deliver partially testable theories of creation that might explain the existence of time, space, matter and energy without His help. And even those physicists who do believe in God and serve as lay-preachers do their best without supernatural feedback. It's what science is good at. It is why people can talk with such confidence about the history of the universe, shortly after the very beginning.

Tim Radford, The Guardian Review of the Grand Design

Power, Money & Justice

The most powerful political and financial elites are virtually immunized from the rule of law, empowered to violate those laws with full-scale impunity and to act without any constraints, while the politically powerless are imprisoned with far greater ease and in far greater numbers than any other country on the planet. Even the most egregious elite transgressions -- the pilfering and plundering that led to the 2008 financial crisis; the illegal surveillance, war and torture regime of the last decade; corporate crimes in virtually every realm -- are shielded from accountability with demands for immunity and leniency, while ordinary Americans have the full weight of the criminal justice system mercilessly crashing down upon them for even petty offenses which are rarely punished in most of the civilized world. The book examines the implications for this development (what happens when two different sets of rules apply for the powerful and the powerless?), documents why the current system is fundamentally different than even the serious, well-known violations of "equality under the law" which have plagued American history, and describes how "law" and the justice system are used to entrench and bolster inequality rather than subvert it.

Glenn Greenwald

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Pope & Historical Complexity

The Pope ignoring historical complexities and ambiguity in his speech in Britain...

Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live. I also recall the regime’s attitude to Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives. As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a “reductive vision of the person and his destiny”...Today, the United Kingdom strives to be a modern and multicultural society. In this challenging enterprise, may it always maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate. Let it not obscure the Christian foundation that underpins its freedoms; and may that patrimony, which has always served the nation well

Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Voltaire, Einstein,...are these Skeptics of Christianity Nazis? Was Socrates, Epicurus, Lucretius,Democritus and Democratic Athens blessed by the Church?
There is a problem with generalizations and ignoring the ambiguities and complexities of history as the Pope does here. It was not Nazi Atheism that was the problem it was the Nazi thirst for power and those willing to worship power. That impulse is universal in humans and is also in the history of the Church. The Church is made of humans of course...humans that carry the same weaknesses of any other group. It is not atheism that is the problem but the lack of vigilant skepticism of human power whatever the form. The Nazis were not all Atheists by any extent some of the Nazis were Catholic and when one studies the rise of Fascism in Catholic Italy in the 20's with Mussolini the Authoritarianism and anti-communism of the Church helped out Fascism. Hitler was inspired by Fascist Italy. If you want to connect atheism and Nazism you would also have to connect the Church to Fascism. Is that the kind of generalizations the Pope wants?
Who supported Franco and Fascist Spain? Franco was raised a devote Catholic. There is much literature on Anti-Semitism and some of its roots can traced to Christian reactionaries towards Jews. Shall one blame Christianity for the Holocaust?
Shall one generalize all priests as pedophiles? The horrors of World War II cannot be laid at atheists in general. Humans and their will to power and lack of skepticism is the problem and that includes the Church as well.
On Christianity and the English people again it is a more complex history. It is not always a good influence considering the religious wars and corruption that is part of the history. Democracy came from Ancient Pagan Greece. The Pagan Roman Republic was an inspiration for the American Experiment. The Renaissance was inspired by Pagan Greek and Roman ideas. Christianity cannot claim it was the only influence in the Western world. There are deeper roots that are in Ancient Greece and Rome that the Church had nothing to do with. The Catholic Church would appreciate that people do not generalize the Church and is seen with complexity and not demonized as pedophiles and crusaders. But the Church should have some reciprocity and not be simplistic and ignore history's complexity with its criticisms of atheism.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Realists do not fear the results of their study.
Fyodor Dostoevsky

Monday, September 6, 2010

Sir Martin Rees: Brains & Post-Human Evolution

Sir Martin Rees:

Our brains are limited. It may take a posthuman species to work out the big questions.

“Einstein averred that “the most incomprehensible thing about the Universe is that it is comprehensible”. He was right to be astonished. Our minds evolved to cope with life on the African savannah, but can comprehend a great deal about the counterintuitive microworld of atoms, and about the vastness of the cosmos.

Indeed, Einstein would have been specially gratified at how our cosmic horizons have expanded. Our Sun is one of a hundred billion stars in our galaxy, which is itself one of many billion of galaxies in range of our telescopes. And there is firm evidence that these all emerged from a hot dense “beginning” nearly 14 billion years ago. (…)

Science is a global culture. Its universality is specially compelling in my own subject of astronomy. The dark night sky is an inheritance we’ve shared with all humanity, throughout history. All have gazed up in wonder at the same vault of heaven, but interpreted it in diverse ways.

It’s a cultural deprivation not to appreciate the panorama offered by modern cosmology and Darwinian evolution — the chain of emergent complexity leading from some still-mysterious beginning to atoms, stars and planets. And how, on our planet, life emerged and evolved into a biosphere containing creatures with brains able to ponder their origins. This common understanding should transcend all national differences — and all faiths too.

As science’s frontiers expand, their periphery lengthens; new questions come into focus. But a fundamental issue then arises: are there some questions that will for ever flummox us? Are there intrinsic limits to our understanding?

Ever since Darwin, we’ve been familiar with the stupendous timespans of the evolutionary past — the billions of years of evolution that led to our emergence. We are more than just another primate species. We are special: self-awareness and language were a qualitative leap, allowing cultural evolution and the cumulative diversified expertise that led to science and technology.

That’s because we humans need not be the culmination of the evolutionary tree: indeed it seems implausible that we are, because astronomy makes us aware that immense time-horizons extend into the future as well as into the past. Our Sun formed 4.5 billion years ago, but it’s got six billion more before the fuel runs out. And the expanding Universe will continue, perhaps for ever, becoming ever colder, ever emptier.

As Woody Allen said: “Eternity is very long, especially towards the end.” So there is time enough for dramatic posthuman evolution, whether organic or silicon-based, on the Earth or far beyond. And for those species that come after us, even the most baffling problems that we can pose may be as straightforward as simple arithmetic is to us.”

Full Post Link

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Unanswerable Prayers

Hitchens on Cancer and Prayer

On those who think he is being punished by a God:

"There are numerous passages in holy scripture and religious tradition that for centuries made this kind of gloating into a mainstream belief. Long before it concerned me particularly I had understood the obvious objections. First, which mere primate is so damn sure that he can know the mind of god? Second, would this anonymous author want his views to be read by my unoffending children, who are also being given a hard time in their way, and by the same god? Third, why not a thunderbolt for yours truly, or something similarly awe-inspiring? The vengeful deity has a sadly depleted arsenal if all he can think of is exactly the cancer that my age and former “lifestyle” would suggest that I got. Fourth, why cancer at all? Almost all men get cancer of the prostate if they live long enough: it’s an undignified thing but quite evenly distributed among saints and sinners, believers and unbelievers. If you maintain that god awards the appropriate cancers, you must also account for the numbers of infants who contract leukemia. Devout persons have died young and in pain. Bertrand Russell and Voltaire, by contrast, remained spry until the end, as many psychopathic criminals and tyrants have also done. These visitations, then, seem awfully random. While my so far uncancerous throat, let me rush to assure my Christian correspondent above, is not at all the only organ with which I have blasphemed …And even if my voice goes before I do, I shall continue to write polemics against religious delusions, at least until it’s hello darkness my old friend."

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Shamelessness of Demagogues

"Democratic governments are altered by the shamelessness of demagogues."
Aristotle

"Divide and rule, the politician cries; unite and lead, is watchword of the wise."
Goethe

Whether it is the shamelessness of Blago or that of Sarah Palin it is important for a democracy to challenge its demagogues. The importance of a free press and an informed citizenry must balance the potential power of these politically corrupt and divisive demagogues. If you notice Sarah Palin views the free press and media as her enemy which is a sign of a corrupt demagogue who grows their power on divisive identity politics and the ignorance of the people.

"That the Freedom of the Press is one of the greatest Bulwarks of Liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic Governments."
George Mason, Father of the Bill of Rights

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Zarathustra - Death, Truth & Gratitude

Zarathustra, however, remained standing, and just beside him fell the body, badly injured and disfigured, but not yet dead. After a while consciousness returned to the shattered man, and he saw Zarathustra kneeling beside him. "What art thou doing there?" said he at last, "I knew long ago that the devil would trip me up. Now he draggeth me to hell: wilt thou prevent him?"

"On mine honour, my friend," answered Zarathustra, "there is nothing of all that whereof thou speakest: there is no devil and no hell. Thy soul will be dead even sooner than thy body: fear, therefore, nothing any more!"

The man looked up distrustfully. "If thou speakest the truth," said he, "I lose nothing when I lose my life. I am not much more than an animal which hath been taught to dance by blows and scanty fare."

"Not at all," said Zarathustra, "thou hast made danger thy calling; therein there is nothing contemptible. Now thou perishest by thy calling: therefore will I bury thee with mine own hands."

When Zarathustra had said this the dying one did not reply further; but he moved his hand as if he sought the hand of Zarathustra in gratitude.

Nietzsche

Christopher Hitchens on Glenn Beck & Sarah Palin Rally

a quasi-educated Mormon broadcaster calling for a Christian religious revival from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

At the last "Tea Party" rally I attended, earlier this year at the Washington Monument, some in the crowd made at least an attempt to look fierce and minatory. I stood behind signs that read: "We left our guns at home—this time" and "We invoke the First Amendment today—the Second Amendment tomorrow." But Beck's event was tepid by comparison: a call to sink to the knees rather than rise from them. It was clever of him not to overbill it as a "Million"-type march (though Rep. Michele Bachmann was tempted to claim that magic figure). The numbers were impressive enough on their own, but the overall effect was large, vague, moist, and undirected: the Waterworld of white self-pity.




In a rather curious and confused way, some white people are starting almost to think like a minority, even like a persecuted one. What does it take to believe that Christianity is an endangered religion in America or that the name of Jesus is insufficiently spoken or appreciated? Who wakes up believing that there is no appreciation for our veterans and our armed forces and that without a noisy speech from Sarah Palin, their sacrifice would be scorned? It's not unfair to say that such grievances are purely and simply imaginary, which in turn leads one to ask what the real ones can be. The clue, surely, is furnished by the remainder of the speeches, which deny racial feeling so monotonously and vehemently as to draw attention.

Christopher Hitchens

Full Article

American Values? Jeffersonian Democracy vs. Christian Theocracy

Glenn Beck and those on the Republican Right feel that America is based on Judeo-Christian values and identity. But this is a lack of deep historical understanding. Democracy was birthed in Ancient Athens. Athens not Jerusalem is the city that influenced the American Constitution and its values. Greek democracy and the Roman Republic were the inspiration of American Democracy not the Kings of Israel. George Washington was the Roman leader Cincinnatus not the King of a theocratic State. The Philosophy and Democracy of Greece is much more important to broad American values than the religious tribalism and blood sacrifice of the Bible.

Once Christianity went from a minor cult to the Official Religion of Rome it ushered in an era of the dark ages in Europe where there was no religious freedom and where Theocracy ruled Europe until the force of the renewal of Greek and Roman ideas in the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment which influenced the American Revolution and its Constitutional thinkers.
"As you say of yourself, I too am an Epicurian. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us." -Thomas Jefferson, letter to William Short, Oct. 31, 1819

American Rights come from Ancient Greece/Enlightenment not from Ancient Superstition.