Saturday, May 31, 2008

Happy Birthday, Walt Whitman

The good gray poet, ne'er-do-well and dreamer, destroyer of poetical forms and warper of syntax and sentence structure, practitioner of "adhesive love" (what we today would call homosexuality), America's "national poet" was born on this day in 1819. I decided that this year, in honor of the old gentleman's birthday, I was actually going to read "Leaves of Grass," and I have to say -- the more I read, the more I like old Walt. Sure, he is often silly, his word inversions are strange and inserted in the middle of sentences for no reason I can fathom, and the frequent use of Lo! and O! are off-putting in the way that so much 19th-century poetry is. But when you read something like "The Wound Dresser" you can smell the gangrene and blood in the Army field hospital, and some of the pieces in the "Sons of Adam" and "Calamus" sections of "Leaves" are the most brilliant celebrations of human lust in all of American letters. So my recommendation to you is: stop what you're doing, get ye to your local bookseller, and buy a copy.

What, are you still sitting there at your keyboard??? To the bookseller! Move!!!

It's the birthday of poet Walt Whitman born in West Hills, Long Island, New York (1819). He grew up in Brooklyn and lived in New York City for most of his life. He began working as a printer's assistant from a very young age, and in the '40s and '50s he worked for a series of newspapers in Brooklyn and Manhattan. He always loved New York. In one editorial, he wrote that New York City was "the great place of the Western continent, the heart, the brain, the focus, the main spring, the pinnacle, the extremity, the no more beyond of the New World."

It was in New York City, in 1855, that Whitman published the first edition of his poetry collection Leaves of Grass. He couldn't find anyone to publish it for him so he sold a house and used the money to publish it himself. There was no publisher's name or author's name on the cover, just a picture of Whitman himself. He wrote the poems in a new style, a kind of free verse without rhyme or meter. He said in one preface to the book, "Here are the roughs and beards and space and ruggedness and nonchalance that the soul loves."

Leaves of Grass got mostly bad reviews, but Ralph Waldo Emerson called it "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed." Whitman printed Emerson's comment on the second edition of the book, and he wrote an anonymous review of it himself, hoping to spark sales.

Whitman continued to add poems to Leaves of Grass and publish it in different editions throughout his life. It eventually went through nine different editions; Whitman compared the finished book to a cathedral that took years to build, or a tree with visible circles of growth. In the 1880s, the Society for the Suppression of Vice called it immoral in a Boston newspaper, and that's when it finally started to sell. Whitman used the money to buy a cottage in Camden, where he spent the rest of his life.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Quote of the Week

“I don’t know which comes first: that which you love most, or that which you do best.”

- Israel Horovitz

Thursday, May 29, 2008

On this date in 1932

The gathering of the "Bonus Army," men who served honorably and simply wanted their government to do for them what it had promised it would do, began on this day in 1932. When the American Army, to its undying shame, charged in and drove out these veterans with tear gas and tanks, they were commanded by a young general named DouglasMacArthur; two aides that were by his side as the veterans were dispersed were young officers named Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton. All "heroes" have a history: an important lesson for our time

From The Writer's Almanac:

It was on this day in 1932 that World War I veterans began arriving in Washington, D.C., demanding their military bonuses about 15 years early. Congress had approved the bonuses as a retirement plan back in 1924, and those bonuses weren't supposed to be paid until 1945, when the soldiers had reached the age of retirement. But it was the Great Depression, and most of those veterans were out of work and living in poverty, and they were desperate for early bonuses to help them survive.

The Bonus March was the idea of an unemployed former Army sergeant named Walter Waters, who stood up at a veterans' meeting in Portland, Oregon, on March 15, 1932, and said that every man at the meeting should hop a train to Washington, D.C., and demand the money that was rightfully his.

Walter Waters and his men arrived in Washington, D.C., on this day in 1932. Over the next few months, about 25,000 others joined them. They had been congregating in D.C. for almost a month when the bonus bill finally came to the floor. It was passed by the House of Representatives, but it was defeated in the Senate two days later. Many of the Bonus Marchers went home, disappointed, but the original group of men stayed behind, vowing to remain until they received justice.

President Herbert Hoover ordered the Army to drive them out of town. Several Army battalions of cavalry and tanks advanced on the veterans, tossing tear-gas grenades and setting the shantytown on fire. Over the next week, newspapers and newsreels showed images of veterans fleeing the burning shantytown with their families, through clouds of tear gas and smoke, followed by tanks and mounted troops waving swords. It was a public relations disaster. When presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt read a newspaper article about the eviction, he said, "This will elect me," and he was right.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Back from the Dead

By now most people have noticed in passing the “odd” medical story about the woman who was dead for seventeen hours and then “came back,” apparently none the worse for wear. Most people I’ve discussed this with fall into one of three camps:

  1. those who aren’t familiar with the details, and assume this was just another of those “patient’s heart stopped for a few minutes” stories.
  2. believers, who are in full-throated “Halleluia! A miracle from the Lord!” mode.
  3. rational materialists/secularists like myself who uncomfortably mumble something about “the mysteries of the human body” and then don’t want to think about it any more.

To emphasize the important, often-overlooked details that make this case so problematic: the woman was dead. And we’re not talking about the sort of “heart stopped, then restarted” return from the “dead” that is almost commonplace these days. Rigor mortis had set in. Freaking rigor mortis. The woman had no brain waves for seventeen hours. I believe the medical-science types when the tell me that brain activity is what we “are.” I believe them when they tell me that when brain activity ceases, we cease. To ask where we “go” when our brain activity ceases is a medically absurd question, because we don’t go anywhere when our brain activity ceases. When brain activity is gone, we no longer are. Period. I believe this. I do. When this woman’s brain activity stopped, she no longer was. And then, seventeen hours later, she was again.

So the question, the one that squats there and leers and mocks our hubristic belief that we understand life and death, is this:

Exactly where the hell was she for those seventeen hours?

They said Thomas suffered two heart attacks and had no brain waves for more than 17 hours. At about 1:30 a.m. Saturday, her heart stopped and she had no pulse. A respiratory machine kept her breathing and rigor mortis had set in, doctors said.

"Her skin had already started to harden and her fingers curled. Death had set in," said son Jim Thomas.

However, Thomas was kept on a ventilator a little while longer as an organ donor issue was discussed. Ten minutes later the woman woke up and started talking. "She (nurse) said, 'I'm so sorry Mrs. Thomas.' And mom said, 'That's OK honey. That's OK," Jim Thomas said.

Monday, May 26, 2008

All Good Christians Should Buy Their Cars Here

And the rest of us should send them a nice letter telling them to just please kindly STFU.

Keiffe and Sons, a Ford dealership in Mojave, California, has a new radio ad in which they try to court Christian car buyers by announcing that they believe that non-Christians in America should "sit down and shut up."

"Did you know that 86% of Americans say they believe in God? Since we all know that 86 out of every 100 of us are Christians, who believe in God, we at Keiffe & Sons Ford wonder why we don't tell the other 14% to sit down and shut up. I guess I just offended 14% of the people who are listening to this message. Well, if that is the case then I say that's tough, this is America folks, it's called free speech. None of us at Keiffe & Sons Ford is afraid to speak out. Keiffe & Sons Ford on Sierra Highway in Mojave and Rosamond, if we don't see you today, by the grace of God, we'll be here tomorrow."

Friday, May 23, 2008

Quote of the Week

For anyone who is alone, without God and without a master, the weight of days is dreadful.

Albert Camus

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

On Flattened Cities and Drowned Cities

I was getting dressed at the locker room of my gym the other morning. The TV in the corner, tuned to one of the news channels, was droning and humming monotonously. I wasn’t really listening to whatever the talking head was saying. Suddenly the picture changed to a scene of many parachutists pouring out the side door of a cargo plane, sailing down towards the ground with a sense of purpose. The talking head came back on camera and said:

“The Chinese response has been extraordinary. As a point of reference, after Katrina it took the US government twice as long to get less than half as many people on the ground.”

Those words put the hook in me, and I sat down in front of the TV and got to thinking about the question: Why was the US response to Katrina so shameful? And why was the Chinese response to the earthquake so much better?

While there are undoubtedly many factors involved, two immediately elbowed their way to the front of the queue and demanded to be heard.

First, credit must be given to China’s “activist” concept of government. Regardless of what one may think of China’s strange mélange of communism, corporate fascism and free-market enterprise (I personally am not a fan), one is forced to acknowledge the fact that the people in power in Beijing view it as a proper function of government to be part of the solution. Unfortunately for the American citizens living in New Orleans, their government was being run by members of a political movement whose core belief was that government was, by definition and in all circumstances, part of the problem. This movement was openly committed to slowly and painfully starving government to death, forcibly downsizing it until it was “small enough to drown in a bathtub.” Instead, all their political philosophy succeeded in doing was drowning a major American city.

Second, and in many ways much more important, is the strong element of communitarianism in Chinese culture, a cultural element that is very old and exists independently of the communist political philosophy of China’s current government. Communitarianism privileges the interests of the community over the needs of the individual. The concept of social solidarity – especially in times of crisis – is understood as something mandatory, not optional. Tens of thousands of ordinary Chinese citizens, some from as far as a thousand miles away, got themselves to the earthquake zone any way they could and threw themselves into the rescue efforts. It never occurred to them not to do this; in Kantian terms, they were faced with a categorical imperative. In the US, on the contrary, in spite of some relatively small islands of solidarity and volunteerism, no mass commitment by the people took place. With the population conditioned to worshipping that uniquely American “I got mine, so fuck you” form of “rugged individualism” – what might be more accurately and honestly described as a form of Social Darwinism – the best among us felt a brief twinge of conscience and eventually wrote out a check for twenty or thirty bucks and considered that we’d done enough. And the rest? We stared at the horror on TV, and we tsk-tsked, and we blinked in bovine incomprehension, and then we flipped the channel to watch American Idol as our fellow citizens suffered and died.

The Iraq invasion made me feel anger at my country for the first time in my life. But our response to Katrina – especially when compared to the disaster in China, where the people and the government dealt with the situation properly – made me feel something even worse: shame.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Quote of the Week (one of my all-time favorites)

The World is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.

--Thomas Paine

We need more heroes like this

More and more career military types are bravely stepping forward and refusing to play their assigned roles in the farcical "legal" proceedings at Gitmo. Sometimes, a loud and clear "Sir, no Sir!" is the real heroism.

More members of the military turn against the terror trials.

By Emily Bazelon and Dahlia Lithwick
Posted Tuesday, May 13, 2008, at 6:35 PM ET

Legal commentators have argued for years about whether there might ever be legitimate trials for the so-called "enemy combatants" we're holding at Guantanamo Bay. Some say no. Others, like our friend Ben Wittes, argue that the evidence is inconclusive. They want to see what the Guantanamo military commissions produce before pronouncing them a failure.

We may never get there. Key actors are declining to play their part in a piece of theater designed to produce all convictions all the time. These refusals, affecting two trials this week, suggest that the whole apparatus—seven years and counting in the making—cannot ever be fixed. The trials are doomed, and they are doomed from the inside out.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Robert Rauschenberg R.I.P.

I'm with the Abstract Expressionist who, upon seeing one of Rauschenberg's atrocities, was heard to exclaim: "If this is Modern Art, then I quit!" That being said, I have to honor the man for having lived life "with no time out," and with having made his vision of what art means visible and commercially viable. I can't stand his stuff, and the fact that he's died doesn't make me like his stuff any more than I did before he died, but all artists in all media are ultimately kindred spirits, so I say "Well done, and well lived."

NEW YORK (AFP) - Robert Rauschenberg, 82, one of the towering figures of 20th century art, died at his home in Florida overnight, a spokeswoman for the Pace Wildenstein gallery in New York told AFP Tuesday.

I wanted something other than what I could make myself and I wanted to use the surprise and the collectiveness and the generosity of finding surprises," he said in a 2005 interview with Art Info magazine, in which he discussed the iconic series.

"If it wasn't a surprise at first, by the time I got through with it, it was," he explained. "The object itself was changed by its context and therefore it became a new thing."

Rauschenberg worked across genres, and was known for assemblage, conceptualist methods, printmaking, painting, sculpture and was even active in the field of choreography.

Obama field workers experience American race relations in the year 2008

Despite all the rainbow-coalition hugs and kisses at the Obama rallies, his campaign's field workers on the ground and on the phones get to experience another side of 21st-century America. When I see the naive Obama supporters on the internet saying "Race will NOT be a factor in this election! America's beyond all those old fashioned attitudes!" I don't know whether to laugh or cry. This is going to be one seriously ugly election; I'll be curious to see how many ways the McCain campaign can cook up to hint at the N-word without actually coming out and saying it. I have this very bad feeling that Obama is going to lose -- and racism (which I have taken to calling "America's birth defect") will be the reason.

For all the hope and excitement Obama's candidacy is generating, some of his field workers, phone-bank volunteers and campaign surrogates are encountering a raw racism and hostility that have gone largely unnoticed -- and unreported -- this election season. Doors have been slammed in their faces. They've been called racially derogatory names (including the white volunteers). And they've endured malicious rants and ugly stereotyping from people who can't fathom that the senator from Illinois could become the first African American president.

The contrast between the large, adoring crowds Obama draws at public events and the gritty street-level work to win votes is stark. The candidate is largely insulated from the mean-spiritedness that some of his foot soldiers deal with away from the media spotlight.

Meeting cruel reaction
Victoria Switzer, a retired social studies teacher, was on phone-bank duty one night during the Pennsylvania primary campaign. One night was all she could take: "It wasn't pretty." She made 60 calls to prospective voters in Susquehanna County, her home county, which is 98 percent white. The responses were dispiriting. One caller, Switzer remembers, said he couldn't possibly vote for Obama and concluded: "Hang that darky from a tree!"

Friday, May 9, 2008

'Kill Them All!' Camus and Administrative Murder

Now that the Supremes have cleared the decks to begin the nasty business of administrative murder again, I went back and re-read an essay I'd put together a couple of years ago. I think it's held up well. Originally published here.

“Every society has the criminals it deserves.”

Camus, ‘Reflections on the Guillotine’

My sister would have been terrified, the night her junkie boyfriend beat her to death in that filthy motel room. Terrified, and disoriented; she would have been struggling to understand what was happening to her. Beating a human being to death is apparently not an easy thing to do. According to the coroner’s testimony, it took about five minutes for her to die. What was she thinking, in those five minutes? At what point in that five-minute period did she suspect she might die in that squalid room? At what point did she know she would die there, and then?

I would lay awake at night, for months after her death, unable to turn off the endless broken loop playing in my brain that kept repeating these questions. More than answers, I wanted revenge: hard, bloody-fisted revenge, bitter and uncompromising Old Testament revenge. More: I wanted to stand before those in power, point my finger at all the world’s Death Rows, and scream at the top of my lungs “Kill them all, and let God sort them out!” I was slowly going mad with my ache for revenge.

But. But. Revenge is not justice.

During the worst of my dark night of the soul, I came across an old friend who I had not thought about in years, decades: Albert Camus. I found myself re-reading his seminal essay, “Reflections on the Guillotine” (found in the closeout bin of a used bookstore). I read that tired, used old paperback copy until it literally fell apart in my hands. Camus’ demand that one must apply one’s reason to the question of ‘administrative murder’ finally penetrated my grief and my hate. Despite how I feel – indeed, because of how I feel – I am compelled to stand against the death penalty. It is important to discuss why.

One has the image of Camus as a tough, Bogartesque, amoral existentialist, largely on the basis of his fiction, most especially “L’Etranger”. However, Camus’ thought was driven from a deep moral center. In many ways we might look at Camus as our last great Moralist, and the one who was arguably most successful in deploying a humanist morality from an atheistic ground.

Camus had his own moment of truth with the question of administrative murder when his father returned from witnessing his first execution by guillotine, an event his father had been eagerly anticipating. His father came home, trembling and as pale as the grave. He vomited, then fell on his bed shaking, then vomited some more. It took days for his father to recover from the experience. He refused to ever speak of what he had seen and heard. Camus, who adored his father, knew from that moment that the question of administrative murder was one that would become one of the basic issues of his life.

Camus would eventually evolve a set of rational arguments which, in their cumulative effect, would strip away any and all pretexts for state-sanctioned execution, and reveal it for what it was: primitive, atavistic, an exemplar of all that is low in the human spirit. Given the renewed enthusiasm for the execution of criminals in recent years here in the United States, perhaps it is time to dust off Camus’ plain and uncompromising analysis and deploy it against the current situation.

The Great Euphemism

“No one dares speak directly of the ceremony. Officials and journalists, who have to talk about it, as if they were aware of both its provocative and its shameful aspects, have made up a sort of ritual language, reduced to stereotyped phrases. Hence we read at breakfast that the condemned has ‘paid his debt to society’ or that has ‘atoned’ or that ‘at five AM justice was done’.”

Capital Punishment is contrary to all International Human Rights codes and the United States is the only Western liberal democracy still practicing this curiously archaic and tribal custom. The United States kills more of its own citizens in the name of justice than any other country in the world with the exception of China and Iran. Additionally, the United States is the only country that continues to openly and explicitly execute children. Yet, the United States is still wrestling, for the most part with the aesthetics of capital punishment. For nearly two centuries, the United States has struggled to reconcile its affection for the death penalty with its image of itself as a just and humane society. In other words, it has been fundamentally engaged in an aesthetic struggle. One bizarre example drags this focus into the light. The state of Texas recently stopped posting the details of executed prisoners’ last meals on their web site, because “we had some complaints from people … that it might be in poor taste to distribute that information on the Web site.”

Something like this virtually cries out for a satirical treatment, yet it is very telling. The act itself is never seen as problematical, yet the sad personal detail of what a human being chose to eat right before the state murdered him is hidden because to do otherwise would be in “poor taste”.

In the 19th century America had grown to dislike hanging, the usual method of executing condemned prisoners. Hangings often took place in public, frequently leading to riots and other “untidy” behavior among spectators. Hangings also were often botched, resulting in slow strangulation or decapitation. Opponents of the death penalty gained adherents by arguing that hanging was cruel and barbaric. To rehabilitate the aesthetics of administrative murder, supporters of the death penalty came up with the idea of electrocution. And after that, with death by injection. Always, rather than give up the addiction of putting people to death, the United States simply struggled for more and more "humane" methods for killing a human being. More and more euphemist ways to describe the act, resulting in an almost drugged state among the citizens, so that “words are emptied of their meaning: a deaf population absent-mindedly registers the condemnation of a man.”

Let us speak plainly. It is imperative that we say what this thing really is. And, having done so, whether it is justifiable, or necessary. For Camus, “there is no other solution but to speak out and show the obscenity hidden under the verbal cloak.” If everyone involved in the act of administrative murder were to simply speak plainly, Camus felt that the executions would stop right then and there.

“It would become harder to execute men one after another, as is done in our country today, if those executions were translated into vivid images in the popular imagination. The man who enjoys his coffee while reading that justice has been done would spit it out at the least detail.”

The citizens of the United States must do away with euphemism and weasel words. If they want to keep killing their fellow human beings, then they must face it, look at it, watch it, see it happen. They must breathe in the smell of it. They must call it what it is. Then, and only then, will they be able to think about whether they have the stomach for it.

Exhibit The Heads

The United States has worked very hard over the years to make administrative murder a “kinder, gentler” process, while simultaneously developing techniques and infrastructure to push the process farther and farther from the public view. One wonders why this is done, if (as proponents of capital punishment argue), “the great argument of those who defend capital punishment is the exemplary value of the punishment. Heads are cut off not only to punish but to intimidate, by a frightening example, any who might be tempted to imitate the guilty.”

It is difficult to intimidate and educate other potential violators if one refuses to “exhibit the heads”. Without the gore, the blood, the sheer horrific spectacle of the thing, the only purpose that administrative murder might be said to serve is as a sort of abstract notification, “periodically informing the citizens that they will die if they happen to kill.”

Camus points out the obvious fact that an exemplary factor, in order to be effective, assumes a model of human nature not currently in evidence. “According to a magistrate, the vast majority of the murderers he had known did not know when shaving in the morning that they were going to kill later in the day.” If a person kills, as is usually the case, in a flash of frenzy, anger, or obsession, the assumption of a quiet, solid attitude of reflection towards the imminent killing on the part of the imminent killer is, quite literally, absurd. “For capital punishment to be really intimidating, human nature would have to be different: it would have to be as stable and serene as the law itself.” This leaves us with no choice but to conclude that, from an exemplary point of view, execution “is powerless in the majority of cases”.

If the United States truly believed in the exemplary value of administrative murder, it “would give executions the benefit of the publicity it generally uses for national bond issues or new brands of drinks.” Or, in the United States, the sort of manic, triumphal publicity given to pro wrestling or NASCAR racing. One suspects that the hiding of the act, when combined with the claims of exemplary value, helps us to uncover a fleeting whiff of the stench of bad faith. “A law is applied without being thought out and the condemned die in the name of a theory in which the executioners do not believe.”

Holy Moses

The United States is, at heart, a country besotted with religion. Religious discourse and imagery infest every corner of the public space. Nowhere is this more apparent than in U.S. attitudes towards administrative murder. For those who believe that administrative murder has value, no rationale for the practice resonates deeper than “an eye for an eye”. In the current weepy, pop-psychology milieu one may choose to wrap this Mosaic desire in phrases like “we desire closure”, but the impulse and the aim remain the same. This law – religious in its heart – is “as old as man; it is called the law of retaliation. Whoever has done me harm must suffer harm; whoever has put out my eye must lose an eye; and whoever has killed must die. This is an emotion, and a particularly violent one, not a principle. Retaliation is related to nature and instinct, not to law. Law, by definition, cannot obey the same rules as nature.”

Here we run into a very thorny problem, because the ache for retaliation, the deep need to kill to repay a killing, has proven uniquely resistant to being overthrown by rational discourse. But we must look at its face and realize that administrative murder, as currently practiced in the United States, is more than an eye for an eye, much more.

“It adds to the death a rule, a public premeditation known to the future victim, an organization, in short, which is in itself a source of moral sufferings more terrible than death. Hence there is no equivalence.”

In order for there to be anything resembling “equivalence” between the first murder (committed by the criminal) and the second murder (committed by the State), the criminal would need to have been a very horrible individual indeed. It would be necessary for him to have warned his victim of the date when he, the criminal, would inflict a horrible death on the victim. Then, keeping the victim confined for a very long time, the criminal would occasionally, and seemingly at random, change the date for the rendezvous, while always reminding the horrified victim that the rendezvous was nonetheless inevitable. Finally, after playing this sadistic game for years – often for decades -- the criminal would march the cowed and despairing victim to a special room, where the criminal would commit the murder. “Such a monster is not encountered in private life.” But this monster is encountered routinely in public life. It is called the State, in its role as torturer, tormenter, and executioner. And it is, perhaps, this utter denial of the important role that freedom plays –must play, of necessity – in every human life that is the worst aspect of this long, drawn-out torture. “The Greeks, after all, were more humane with their hemlock. They left their condemned a relative freedom, the possibility of putting off or hastening the hour of his death.” Those Greeks, in so many ways so fundamentally different and so much better than our Western Judeo-Christian framework of guilt and punishment.

To Err is Human, All-Too-Human

Right in my own back yard in North Carolina, A man imprisoned for 18 years in the murder of a newspaper copy editor was released from prison in December 2003, two days after another man was charged based on DNA evidence. Luckily, he was serving a life sentence rather than having been condemned to death. “Once the innocent man is dead, no one can do anything for him…”

Since 1973, 111 people waiting execution on death row have been released because they were actually innocent. That means 111 could have been wrongly murdered on our behalf. How many of the nearly 900 executed during these years have been innocent?

“The jurist Olivecroix, applying the law of probability to the chance of judicial error, around 1860, concluded that perhaps one innocent man was condemned in every two hundred and fifty seven cases.”

Whether you work with the French jurist’s mathematical calculations, or the even higher numbers that the 111 innocents freed by DNA evidence suggest, the sickening prospect of significant numbers of innocent human beings being subjected to administrative murder must be sobering to any human being with an imagination. And serious attempt to justify administrative murder will have to reckon with this simple fact: innocent human beings will wind up being put to death. Inevitably. It cannot be avoided.

A system that does away with administrative murder would avoid that “chance of error”. There is nothing preventing the State from choosing any other penalty, no matter how harsh, that still manages to leave the condemned alive just in case – just in case – it is discovered in the future that the condemned was, in fact, as innocent as he claimed to be.

“Capital punishment would then be replaced by hard labor – for life in the case of criminals considered irremediable and for a fixed period in the case of the others.” In other words, precisely the model that has been deployed in the civilized world.

The Dirty Sacrament

The United States, despite its insistent claims that is believes in “the separation of Church and State”, is, at heart, a quasi-religious State. “The supreme punishment has always been, throughout the ages, a religious penalty.“ The executioner is fulfilling some sort of tainted sacral role, deploying administrative murder as a sacrament that is, perversely, intended to somehow save the condemned. While the condemned can be assumed to see things differently, the State believes at heart that administrative murder “destroys the body in order to deliver the soul to the divine sentence.”

Beyond the desire to offer the soul of the condemned up to some higher power (a rather ghoulish, atavistic action if one thinks about it), there is always the hope that the condemned will repent at the last, therefore somehow redeeming his soul by showing penitence and remorse in the death chamber. It is part of the dance, the media recording and distributing the last words, the attitude and deportment of the condemned, and perhaps most significant: that the condemned express remorse and ask the family of the victim for forgiveness. It is important, on a visceral level, that both of these ritualistic elements are satisfied. Otherwise the State and its citizenry somehow fail to achieve “closure”. The State and its citizens have been “cheated”. Being a religious ritual, there is really no requirement that any of the ritual practices be sincere: “conversion through fire or the guillotine will always be suspect, and it may seem surprising that the Church has not given up conquering infidels through terror.”

Given this ritualistic and blatantly religious aspect to administrative murder, we really have to ask ourselves: do we want to ground judicial policy on the basis of religious faith? Is there really, essentially, any difference between the Mosaic ritual of administrative murder in the United States on the one hand, and the ritualistic beheadings of adulteresses in Saudi Arabia? I have tried burrowing down to first principles in both these rituals, and I am unable to find any significant difference between them.

Our Heart of Darkness

“Bloodthirsty laws, it has been said, make bloodthirsty customs.” Nothing demonstrates this truth more than administrative murder. It must be resisted for the reasons we have discussed. These reasons, and one more: one perhaps not obvious but, in my view, of paramount importance.

We do not resist capital punishment for any of the obvious reasons.

We do not resist capital punishment because it is “cruel and unusual”. Indeed, if a society is going to deploy capital punishment, that society should try to make it as cruel as possible. Show us the heads. Is the United States an empire? Then let that empire be Roman -- nailing a human being to a cross and leaving him there to die over the course of several days is a wonderful way to get the attention of the empire’s citizens.

We do not resist capital punishment because of some empathy for the criminal as a fellow human being. Like Camus, “I am far from indulging in the flabby pity characteristic of humanitarians.” If the criminal is in fact guilty (an often problematic assumption, as we’ve seen), then the criminal is undeserving of empathy and is deserving of punishment. That punishment may not, however, extend to death.

We do not resist capital punishment because of any notion that a just and loving God wants us to. I approach this whole premise from the perspective of a humanist and an atheist – which is to say, I consider such a notion absurd. If one cannot use the appeal to God to justify the death penalty, then one cannot use the appeal to God to resist the death penalty.

Ultimately, our one abiding reason not to inflict death upon other human beings is that it is degrading to all involved: all become less human. Not just the criminal, and not just the executioner. All of us.

Camus understood what we might term the American “heart of darkness”, and discusses it in a passage that is worth quoting at length:

“The remarks of one of our assistant executioners on one of his journeys to the provinces: ‘When we would start on a trip, it was always a lark, with taxis and the best restaurants part of the spree!’ The same one says, boasting of the executioner’s skill in releasing the blade: ‘You could allow yourself the fun of pulling the client’s hair.’ The dissoluteness expressed here has other, deeper aspects. The clothing of the condemned belongs in principle to the executioner. The elder Deibler used to hang all such articles of clothing in a shed and now and then would go and look at them. But there are more serious aspects. Here is what our assistant executioner declares: ‘The new executioner is batty about the guillotine. He sometimes spends days on end at home sitting on a chair, ready with hat and coat on, waiting for a summons from the Ministry.’”

The crime of administrative murder “produces one sure effect – to depreciate or to destroy all humanity and reason in those who take part in it directly. But, it will be said, these are exceptional creatures who find a vocation in such dishonor. They seem less exceptional when we learn that hundreds of persons offer to serve as executioners without pay.”

So even if we have no regard for what it does to the criminal, and even if we have no regard for what it does to the executioner, we must, at the end of the day, have a purely self-interested regard for what it does to our society, to us. “The death penalty besmirches our society, and its upholders cannot reasonably defend it.”

The ordinary United States citizen who wrote a letter to the editor of the Salt Lake Tribune, upon the execution of Gary Gilmore, understood the real danger of looking into that abyss within us:

“Had we but the judgment to see, we would have recognized that the issue of the State of Utah vs. Gilmore was not, most significantly, the issue of the fate of Gilmore; it was a question of the fate of the rest of us, and a question of our condition of moral awareness and intelligence.”

Even in a period when the fallibility of the death penalty has been repeatedly exposed, roughly two out of three Americans still support it. In Texas, current United States president George W. Bush personally supervised the executions of 152 people -- and is proud of the fact. That the blood of this slow-motion massacre on the president's hands is a political asset says everything about current U.S. values. As the civilized world goes in one direction on this question, the United States goes in another. Proudly.

If the whole long, desperate struggle of rational thought is to have any meaning, then I must renounce my all-too-human craving for revenge and blood. We all must.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Happy Birthday, Gary Snyder

I've stumbled across one of the few "Beat" writers I've never heard of. Damn it, now I'll have to add him to my long (and always getting longer) list of "writers to read some day." So many books, so little time ....

From the Writer's Almanac:

It's the birthday of Gary Snyder born in San Francisco (1930). He started out as one of the Beat writers of the 1950s and he's had a long steady career as a poet, an environmental activist, a Zen Buddhist, and a hero to the counterculture. He's one of first American poets since Henry Thoreau to think so much about how a person ought to live — and to make his own life a model. His book Turtle Island won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1975.

While he was a student, he spent his summers working as a forest ranger, a logger, and a seaman, and in 1955 he worked at Yosemite National Park on the trail crew. He said, "I had given up on poetry. … Then I got out there and started writing these poems about the rocks and blue jays. I looked at them. They didn't look like any poems that I had ever written before. So I said, these must be my own poems." They became his first book, Riprap (1959).

In 1956, he left the San Francisco Beat scene and went to Japan. He spent most of the next 12 years in a monastery studying Buddhism. He went to India too, where he and Allen Ginsberg and others had a conversation about hallucinogens with the Dalai Lama. His friend Alan Watts wrote, "He is like a wiry Chinese sage with high cheekbones, twinkling eyes, and a thin beard, and the recipe for his character requires a mixture of Oregon woodsman, seaman, Amerindian shaman, Oriental scholar, San Francisco hippie, and swinging monk, who takes tough discipline with a light heart."

He said, "As a poet I hold the most archaic values on earth. They go back to the Neolithic: the fertility of the soil, the magic of animals, the power-vision in solitude, the terrifying initiation and rebirth, the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common work of the tribe."

And he said, "True affluence is not needing anything."

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Army, Flag and Cross

My piece "Army, Flag and Cross" was just published by the web edition of Free Inquiry.

"When Fascism arrives it will be wrapped in a Flag and carrying a Bible."

Sinclair Lewis


It was the first word that came to mind when I saw the bumper sticker. We Americans are a nation of bumper-sticker junkies: they tell you everything you need to know about us, from where we take our vacations, to our politics, to what brand of beer we drink. This particular bumper sticker was on a seemingly ordinary vehicle that was several feet in front of me, grinding along slowly in rush-hour traffic. I had plenty of time to study the content of the thing, and to think about what the thing meant.

It was a ribbon, yet another variant on the ubiquitous American “yellow ribbon.” Across the front, on a field of yellow, were the words “Support Our Troops.” The ribbon looped back and showed a field of white stars on a blue background, evoking the American flag. The cleverest part of the ribbon was the last section, hanging below the “Support Our Troops” slogan. It was red and white, with a stripe, intended to carry forward the American flag theme. But there was a subtle touch on this section of the ribbon, a suggestion of a white sunburst that joined with the vertical white stripe and overlaid it with a horizontal white stripe. It didn’t take me more than a few seconds to realize this was intended to be a subtle evocation of the Christian Cross.

There it was, encapsulated, complete, uncut, pure: the symbolic essence of an America that has drifted far from civilization, an American that has grown very, very strange.

In looking at the toxic convergence of Army, Flag and Cross in America, I want to parse the words on that deeply evocative bumper sticker – SUPPORT OUR TROOPS – and confront the question: what does it mean to “support our troops”? And have we reached a point where the idea itself should finally be called into question?

The America symbolized by that bumper sticker is an America that has left behind the world inhabited by rational nation-states and slipped off into a world of sentimental Romanticism. Let me take a moment to explain what I mean by “Romanticism” in this context, because it is critical to an understanding of what has happened to America.

Romanticism can be understood as a worldview that privileges strong emotion, emotions such as pride, horror and awe. When one hears the ominous, drum-beating music that opens every American news broadcast today, it is easy to see that the purpose is to scream “War! Terror! Fear! Pride! Revenge!” over and over and over again. The purpose of all this is to derange the viewer’s senses and to conflate these primitive emotions with a feeling of patriotism. Additionally, Romanticism privileges the individual imagination as the single, unshakeable source of Truth, an aspect that plays right into the American insistence on a “personal relationship with God” rather than traditional hierarchical religious practices. As Baudelaire pointed out when speaking of Romanticism, it is not the truth of the thing in question that is important, but rather the overwhelming and exciting personal emotions that the thing inspires. Such is very much the case with America’s fetishistic Romanticism. Expanding the concept to the political level, America’s Romantic nationalism takes as its starting point the “white man’s burden” and American’s unique world-historical mission to “bring” or “give” democracy to the benighted lesser peoples of the world.

We need to look closely at that ribbon I saw on the back of that car, we need to understand the symbolism of it, and above all, we need to understand how the Romantic sentimentalism evoked by that very dangerous ribbon plays out in the real world.


America is a country besotted with religion. It always has been, and many days I fear that it always will be. We must never forget that America’s Puritan ancestors were driven from the countries of Europe because they were religious lunatics whose extremism made them beyond the pale of acceptable European behavior. Considering that this was an era when Europe was knee-deep in blood from its many religious wars, and witches were being routinely hanged and burned for consorting with the Devil, the idea that a group could be “too extreme” was speaks volumes. In America, the Devil has always been real. He has horns and a pitchfork, and he walks up and down the broad back of the American heartland and crouches at moonlit crossroads, tempting the unwary to bet their souls on a roll of the dice. America has a long history of Romantic religious enthusiasms, revivals and fundamentalist upsurges. The forward march of civilization has done nothing to dampen this, and America in the 21st century stands proudly in opposition to the increasing secularism of the civilized world.

One is often left speechless when one reads the public pronouncements of high-ranking military personnel, pronouncements more suitable to Europe at the time of the Crusades than to a developed country in the opening years of the new millennium. For example, we have the infamous “Christian Soldier,” General William G. Boykin, strutting and thumping his chest as he gives speeches (in full dress uniform, it should be noted) to gatherings of hard-right religious groups, loudly proclaiming, “We, in the Army of God, in the Kingdom of God, have been raised for such a time as this!” General Peter Pace, a seemingly sensible and levelheaded Marine who rose to become head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, once defended the leadership of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, stating, “He leads in a way that the good Lord tells him is best for our country.” This increasingly brazen need on the part of our top military leaders to publicly “witness for faith” is alarming, to say the least. I would not be at all surprised if the day comes when we get to witness, live on TV, a battlefield general suddenly spouting fluent Babylonian and falling into a shuddering heap on the ground before rising, transfigured, and leading his troops into holy battle against the infidels.

Is this alarming? Indeed it is, but not nearly as alarming as the well-organized and brilliantly executed strategy of breeding up the next generation of religious-lunatic military personnel starting right down in the pre-teen years. America is experiencing an explosion of organizations that bear a disturbing resemblance to the sort of “youth on the march” organizations that one saw so often in the last century. We have organizations such as the Battle Cry Christian youth movement, a movement – in the very real sense of that word – totally committed to the feverish glorification of military virtues and the manly pursuit of holy war.

Battle Cry holds massive gatherings in stadiums and other large-scale venues all over America. The rallies are high-energy, high-concept, and high-tech, with the frenetic musical beat of a shoot-em-up video game and live “action figures” of Navy SEALs and other military paragons charging on stage, screaming to the crowd that they are proud “Christian warriors,” and acting out real-life scenes from “the war against Islamic Fascism” as they brief the stadium full of kids on their heroic future as part of the “battle plan for Jesus.” These disturbing antics are followed by the reading of an endorsement of Battle Cry by George W. Bush, a moment that sends the thousands of overwrought young people into paroxysms of testifying, swooning, weeping and general adolescent hysteria. This combination of testosterone-laden posturing and the pairing of military and Christian symbolism is a brilliant recruiting tool for the apocalyptic “long war” that so many on the Religious Right crave. One hopes that those kids wake up the next day feeling the way many kids feel the day after a night of binge-drinking and slam-dancing: beat-up, sheepish, and resolved never to engage in that particular form of idiocy again. One suspects not; most of these kids have never felt such overwhelming emotional and physical excitement in their entire lives – and they are going to want more.


Coupled with the resurgence of a broad-shouldered, muscular Christianity is a fetishistic new obsession with the Stars and Stripes as a quasi-religious object. There has always been a certain sentimental attachment to the flag as such in American culture (phrases like “Old Glory” and songs like “She’s a Grand Old Flag” are not recent inventions), but since 9/11 the defense of the flag as a physical object has become increasingly strident and irrational. Everywhere one turns in America, the iconography of The Flag is thrust into one’s face in a way that I have never before seen in my lifetime. The most disturbing aspect of this revitalized Flag-worship is the premise that the flag itself may not be burned or otherwise “desecrated.” Perhaps alone among the nations of the world, America has decided that the actual, physical flag – rather than the ideas it represents – must be protected from the ravages of the unworthy and kept physically pure.

Orrin Hatch, on the floor of the US Senate, made the statement that passing an amendment to the US Constitution prohibiting flag burning was “the most important thing the Senate could be doing.” He made this outlandish claim at a time when the wheels were starting to fall off the war in Iraq, the resurgent Taliban were beginning to give the lie to the illusion of “victory” in Afghanistan, gas prices were soaring, and forty-five million American citizens were without any health insurance. The fact that no one laughed aloud at the idea that preventing the flag from being burned was the Senate’s most important order of business is alarming. Around the same time, President Bush proclaimed, “at this hour, a new generation of Americans is defending our flag and our freedom in the first war of this century." Again, we have this ominous conflation of the flag with the concept of freedom, and one seems to be witnessing the sort of fetishistic relationship more suitable for Napoleon reviewing the colors of the Grande Armée than an American President offering his rationale for the continuing “war on terror.”

Flag-worship in America has revealed a deep well of Romantic, magical thinking, imbuing an object in the physical world with some sort of ineffable magical gris-gris. I will state it plainly: this fetishistic behavior is a form of emotional voodoo. Flags are not worshipped in a free, democratic state.


Free democracies also do not worship their armies. They think of their national armies as necessary evils, when they think about them at all. For over two hundred years, America kept faith with George Washington’s caution that "overgrown military establishments are under any form of government inauspicious to liberty." Even at the height of the Cold War, the military was never glamorized the way it is now. It is impossible to find anything like the current Army-worship anywhere in American history; indeed, to find an equivalent in the 20th century, one is forced to turn to totalitarian societies (Germany, the USSR, North Korea, Saddam’s Iraq). The title of a new “ultimate fighting” television program that premiered in 2007 summed up the new order of things: “Warrior Nation.” This is how modern America sees itself: as the new Sparta. And in the new Sparta, refusal to unconditionally worship the warrior class is one of the few taboos that must never be violated.

Unlike the countries of the Western world, whose citizens have come (through centuries of bleeding) to view war as a horrible aberration and a failure of rational solidarity, America embraces the prospect of spending years, decades, centuries in the righteous work of fighting the long war to “rid the world of evil”. The “warrior” is fetishized and lifted up to a place beyond any possibility of criticism by the “or else!” implicit in the mantra, “Support the Troops.” One imagines grainy newsreel footage of Hitler “blessing the colors”; the mind conjures up old television footage of the massive militarized May Day love fests in Red Square; and we hear the echoes of the manic triumphalism of the military parades put on by every tin pot dictator in the Third World. One is brought up short by the realization: now it is America’s turn.

As a country, America has begun to worship the professional military class, and more ominously, American has begun to glorify military ideals: testosterone-rich, sentimental, unambiguous, lacking in any sense of nuance, utterly committed to “the mission,” the unending project to “civilize” the world. The unspoken demand is that the civilian population must now embrace these same values, and glorify these same things. One sees a way of thinking in which military priorities as such become the top priorities of the nation as a whole, and woe betide anyone who is foolish enough to challenge the foundations of this new national religion.

One important facet of this Army-worship reveals it for the sentimental and Romantic thing that it is: Americans love their military but they overwhelming refuse to serve in it, and they overwhelmingly refuse to let their kids get lured into serving in it. Yet these “latté liberal” suburban parents who work so hard to make sure little Melissa and Cody don’t get any crazy ideas about “joining up” are the first to chant the tribal mantra: "Condemn the war but not the warrior." How very problematic this new mantra is, once one examines it, as if one could actually decouple the policy from those who voluntarily implement the policy. The two are coupled, pathologically coupled, and will always be so.

The question that almost no one in America seems willing to ask is: at what point in our history did blind obedience to bad orders become a heroic virtue? Does it really make sense to lionize people for doing something that our rational minds tell us is an extremely bad idea? If one opposes the war, how can one support the troops and still claim to be thinking rationally? The belief that one can do so has the stench of bad faith. The fact of the matter is that the people at the top giving the orders are complicit, but the people who are actually pulling the triggers share in that complicity. No one is innocent, everyone owns their own decisions.

The mental gymnastics that Americans go through in order to give “the warriors” an easy out for their actions tend to fall into two categories: “blame the decision-makers, not the warriors,” and “they only enlisted for economic reasons.” These rationales are alibis, and not particularly good alibis at that.

The first alibi is easily disposed of. Principle I of the Nuremberg Tribunal (of which the United States is a signatory) makes it clear that “any person who commits an act which constitutes a crime under international law is responsible therefore and liable to punishment.” And lest anyone complain that this is too vague, Principle IV gives us all the clarification we need: "The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him." And let us be clear: one always has to make clear moral choices. It’s not very pretty, and no one likes to talk about it, but there it is. There are moments, as Camus reminds us, “when everything becomes clear, when every action constitutes a commitment, when every choice has a price.” This is one of those moments, and to pretend that the people pulling the trigger are not, in a very real sense, “decision-makers,” is both naïve and absurd. Army Lieutenant Ehrin Watada in the US and the refuseniks in Israel understand that, even at the lowest rungs in the chain of command, refusal to say “no” is tantamount to complicity.

The second alibi is one that is popular among many Americans, including many Americans who self-identify as “leftists.” In November 2006, the New York Times analyzed the demographic patterns of military recruits and discovered that, in fact, they are slightly better off in terms of education, neighborhood, family income and job prospects than the surrounding population as a whole. Are some of the American soldiers in Iraq there for economic reasons? Sure, but not very many. Did some of them sign up for the chance to go over and blow away some “rag-heads”? Of course; armies throughout history have always attracted their share of sociopaths. But after removing these two small groups from the list, we are left with the vast majority who went, voluntarily and for their own reasons. They made a moral decision. They made a choice. Having made their free choice, are they somehow magically immune from all blame?

They are immune because they are granted immunity from blame by the sentiment of the American people. They are given the alibi of the “pure warrior” because the donning of the uniform has become equivalent to the donning of priestly vestments in an earlier age. The “warrior” is immediately sanctified, justified, raised up beyond all criticism from us lesser mortals who lack the moral fiber to wear the vestments. The American people, living in the midst of this enormous superstructure of myth and alibi, are incapable of understanding that they have armored themselves against evil by manufacturing not the new Sparta, but rather a dystopian, sentimental dreamland.


In America, it appears that the more pathological the coupling between Army, Flag and Cross, the greater need there is to honor “the warrior.” We should be clear on the fact that this is not necessarily something new. This way of thinking was never more clearly expressed than by Secretary of War Elihu Root, who in 1899 declared, “The American soldier is different from all other soldiers of all other countries since the world began. He is the advance guard of liberty and justice, of law and order, and of peace and happiness.”

As these words were being written, American soldiers in the Philippines were in the early stages of a near-genocidal rampage that would kill more than 600,000 Filipinos. Not new, this warrior-love, but rampant now, and metastasizing.

The American mythos today is saturated with the Holy Trinity of God, the flag and the armed forces. All are glorified and sanctified in a manner that is overtly sentimental, Romantic and irrational. These three pillars of American society support an invigorated sense of Manifest Destiny, a wonderful feeling of exceptional purpose that was lost after the collapse of Soviet communism. Americans are excited again: standing tall, feeling the pride, and above all, “on the march.” This toxic mix of Army-worship, Flag-worship and God-worship has erupted in a nation where every hope and fear can be rendered down to a slogan on one of the many variations on the yellow ribbon. The irony of it all is that the yellow ribbon was originally a symbol of the grinding, endless sense of victimhood that Americans felt during the Iran hostage crisis. Americans everywhere showed the yellow ribbon because there was quite literally nothing else they could do about the situation except sit there and take it. For those of us who live in America – and for the rest of the world as well – an understanding of this dangerous liaison between rampant militarism and the sanctified yellow fetish of the angry victim is critically important. This yellow shroud – and make no mistake, it is a shroud and possibly even a death shroud – is a voodoo fetish designed to buck up the courage of a people who have, in a few short years, devolved into a nation of frantic, ribbon-worshipping victims.

Happy Birthday, Sigmund Freud

Regardless of what you think about him (I personally think he was a fraud and a snake-oil salesman...), it's impossible to escape the fact that Freud was someone whose ideas were incredibly influential in shaping 20th century thought.

From the Writer's Almanac:

It's the birthday of Sigmund Freud born in Freiberg in what was then the Austrian Empire (1856). He started out as a medical doctor and scientist in Vienna, studying the anatomy of eels. He developed a laboratory technique that involved staining tissue samples so that they could be seen more easily under the microscope, and he also made breakthroughs in the use of anesthetic for surgery. One of his superiors in the medical community, however, told him that he would never go far in his career because he was Jewish.

So Freud decided to go into the less crowded field of psychology, where he thought he might be able to break new ground. He was particularly interested in the mental illness called hysteria, which caused patients to suffer from tics, tremors, convulsions, paralysis, and hallucinations. Hysterics were given a variety of treatments, including isolation, electrocution, and in the case of women, surgical removal of the uterus.

Freud learned that some doctors were using hypnosis to treat hysteria, and he went to France to see the use of hypnosis firsthand. Seeing that a patient could be talked out of his or her symptoms gave Freud the idea that the symptoms were a product of the mind and not the body. He learned the method of hypnosis himself and began to treat patients, but he had little success. Then, one of Freud's colleagues told him about a patient named Anna O., whose hysterical symptoms had improved when she told stories about her life. The woman herself named this process of storytelling "the talking cure."

Freud saw her talking cure as a groundbreaking technique for the treatment of mental illness. He thought that maybe all the symptoms of the hysterics he was treating were the result of stories they hadn't ever been able to tell anyone about their lives. He took a couch that had belonged to his wife, covered it with a Persian rug, and asked his patients to lie down on it. Instead of looking at him, he asked them to stare at an empty wall, and he sat behind them as they talked, occasionally asking a question. He called the process free association.

Over the next few years, he developed the idea that his patients were not conscious of all their desires and fears, that many of their own thoughts were hidden from them in their unconscious mind. He believed that their unconscious mind would reveal itself in various ways, through slips of the tongue, jokes, and especially dreams. What made his ideas so revolutionary and controversial was that he didn't just apply them to mentally ill patients, but to all human beings, even himself. When he came out with The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899, it read like a partial autobiography, because many of the dreams in it were his own. He was suggesting that no one can easily understand his or her unconscious mind, not even the doctor who invented the concept.

Freud went on to write many more books, including The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1904) and Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). Many of them were read by the general public, in part because of their scandalous frankness about sexuality. Freud was also a great fan of literature, and he filled his books with references to Shakespeare and Greek mythology.

Scholars have questioned whether psychoanalysis is really a science, and today his ideas are no longer part of modern psychology. Many critics mocked his obsession with sex, including the novelist Vladimir Nabokov, who referred to him as "Dr. Fraud" and said, "Let the credulous and the vulgar continue to believe that all mental woes can be cured by a daily application of old Greek myths to their private parts." But Freud had a tremendous impact on Western culture. The idea that people were driven by unconscious desires had a huge impact on literature. It was after Freud's writings became widespread that novelists began to write fiction that took place entirely inside their characters' minds. His work also gave writers permission to start describing more frankly their characters' sexual desires.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Quote of the Week

"Heroism on command, senseless violence, and all the loathsome nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism - how passionately I hate them!"

Albert Einstein

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Collapse Into Silence

An oldie but a goodie. I originally wrote this back in late 2004, and it was published in the online philosophy journal Ontology. I'm currently re-reading Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which made me think of it. Hope you enjoy it.

Collapse into Silence: Pirsig, Tao, and The Parmenides


American mystic and writer Robert M. Pirsig struggled mightily with the question of
how to interrogate the Unspeakable within the mental constraints of Western logical discourse. This struggle took him on an internal journey far from his Midwest, mid-century home, eventually pushing him into the unknown country of mental illness and involuntary commitment. I believe that what Pirsig was pursuing was not an empty Nothing, a no-thing. It was a full, even overfull Nothing, for which he struggled in vain to find a name and a vocabulary. I have taken to calling it the ‘over-full Nothing’ and will continue to use that term here to indicate when we are speaking of Nothing as an ontological term. Pirsig would come to believe that the closest approach to what he was trying to articulate could be found in the Tao, and indeed the Tao’s mapping to the characteristics of this ‘over-full Nothing’ was quite close. However, he failed to latch onto the full significance of something he noted in passing: the striking similarities between his thought and the system of the important Pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides. We will look in detail at the most influential deployment of the Parmenidean ‘over-full Nothing’, in Plato’s infamously obscure dialogue The Parmenides. Plato’s attempt to wrap it in logical discourse runs aground for the same reason that Pirsig’s attempt to do so ran aground 2500 years later. Both of their attempts to encapsulate the ‘over-full Nothing’ within language and logic eventually collapse into silence in the face of that of which nothing can be said.

American Mystic

There was a man once, who went insane trying to wrap the Unspeakable within the syntax of Western logical discourse. He lived in the seemingly mundane circumstances of Midwestern America, but his thoughts were off in another place, another time. Speaking of himself in the third person in his stunning work Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he tells us that he ‘did not try to use his brilliance for general illumination. He sought one specific distant target and aimed for it and hit it. And that was all.’[1] As we shall see, the target that he aimed for and hit is what I am calling the ‘over-full Nothing’. A man possessed of (and eventually possessed by) a brilliant and incisive mind, Pirsig spent several years as a teacher of Rhetoric in Montana and Chicago. It was during this time that his mind took what many of his colleagues would come to think of as a somewhat ‘peculiar’ turn. Pirsig stumbles across something that he knows is real, but that all of his logical and rhetorical gifts are unable to encapsulate. Forced to try and at least make an effort at formulating a discourse for describing his findings, Pirsig adopted the mundane and inadequate word ‘Quality’, but he makes it to clear that, within his evolving system, the word is simply a placeholder for something that is full, erupting, but without any logical attributes. He attempts to capture the essence of this ‘over-full Nothing’ in the following formulation:

‘Quality is not a thing. It is an event … It is the event at which the subject becomes aware of the object…Quality is the event at which awareness of both subjects and objects is made possible …. This means that Quality is not just the result of a collision of subject and object. The very existence of subject and object themselves is deduced from the Quality event. The Quality event is the cause of the subjects and objects.’[2]

In short, Pirsig’s Quality ‘is the parent, the source of all subjects and objects.’[3] To Pirsig this ‘quality event' was ‘the continuing stimulus to create the world in which we live. All of it. Every last bit of it … He felt momentary fright and was about to strike out the words ‘All of it. Every last bit of it’. Madness there. I think he saw it.’[4] As this passage suggests, Pirsig understood that he had just stepped outside the logical mythos that is ingrained into the very intellectual DNA of Western civilization, our gift from the Greeks. He was faced with ‘something’ that could not be denied and yet could not be described. Almost in despair, he found a place to anchor his sanity when he came across another attempted description of the ‘over-full Nothing’, this one found in the 2,400-year-old Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu.[5] Listen as the Chinese sage wrestles with his own attempt to describe the indescribable, from within the somewhat more flexible bounds of a non-Western discourse:

Looked at but cannot be seen … listened to but cannot be heard …grasped at but cannot

be touched. These three elude all our inquiries and hence blend and become one.

Not by its rising is there light.

Not by its sinking is there darkness.

Unceasing, continuous

It cannot be defined

And reverts again into the realm of Nothingness

That is why it is called the form of the formless

The image of nothingness

That is why it is called elusive

Meet it and you do not see its face.[6]

Note this description (or, what is the same thing, this non-description), and compare it to what we will discover later when we look at Parmenides’ own efforts to articulate his own encounter with the ‘over-full Nothing’.

Indeed, Pirsig eventually came to suspect that the Greeks may have had a hand in muddying the waters regarding the permissibility of discussing his ‘Quality’, simply by virtue of the fact that the Greeks constructed a mode of discourse that made such discussion structurally impossible. Pirsig realized that the Greeks had loaded the deck right from the get-go: ‘The world of underlying form is an unusual object of discussion because it is actually a mode of discussion itself. You discuss things in terms of their immediate appearance or you discuss them in terms of their underlying form, and when you try and discuss these modes of discussion you get involved in what could be called a platform problem. You have no other platform from which to discuss them other than the modes themselves.’[7] This importance of Pirsig’s insight into this limiting function of Western logical discourse will become obvious when we get to Parmenides.

We have evidence that Pirsig actually was close to realizing that Parmenides had more to teach him – certainly as a cautionary lesson – than did Lao Tzu, but it appears that Pirsig didn’t really give Parmenides enough attention and never really grasped Parmenides’ critical importance for his project. Here is all that Pirsig was able to get out of Parmenides:

‘Parmenides made it clear for the first time that the Immortal Principle, the One, Truth, God, is separate from appearance and from opinion, and the importance of this separation and its effect upon subsequent history cannot be overstated. It's here that the classic mind, for the first time, took leave of its romantic origins and said, ‘The Good and the True are not necessarily the same,’ and goes its separate way.’ Pirsig spent an enormous amount of time puzzling over this separation, musing about the pre-Socratics: ‘Ancient Greece – strange that for them Quality should be everything while today is sounds strange to even say that Quality is real. What unseen changes could have taken place?’[8]

He was so close to finding a Western kindred spirit here, but he didn’t even know it. There is nothing in his writings or any of his public statements subsequent to the surprising success of Zen to suggest he ever suspected how close he had come to a precursor. He concluded that ‘further study there was unlikely to uncover anything concerning an apparently mystic term.’[9] How wrong he was. He blew right past it. All he had to hang on to, at the end, was his belief that ‘the mythos that says the forms of this world are real but the Quality [‘over-full Nothing’] of this world is unreal is insane…’[10] He apparently never expected that if he had scratched harder at the pre-Socratics, he would have found that one of the most significant of them was saying essentially the same thing.

And what became of Pirsig, as his pursuit of the ‘over-full Nothing’ tapered out into a collapse into philosophical silence, then eventually into a literal silence? ‘Destroyed by an order of the court, enforced by the transmission of high-voltage alternating current through the lobes of his brain…in a process known technologically as ‘Annihilation ECS’.’[11] I believe that a large part of what drove him insane was living with the knowledge of ‘the unbelievable magnitude of what man, when he gained power to understand and rule the world in terms of dialectical truths, had lost.’[12]

We now need to look at one of the first struggles between this dialectical truth and the ‘over-full Nothing’.

Plato Fights for His Life

A battle took place shortly before the birth of Plato, a battle on the nature of ‘what is’. The protagonists in this battle exchanged broadsides that read like the pronouncements of sun-addled Zen Masters. Heraclitus makes oracular pronouncements that induce perplexity and challenge us to make sense of them. Parmenides and his followers argue, or seem to, in a long, strung-out series of what seem to the naïve eye to be logical propositions.[13]

Parmenides insists, obscurely, that one must choose between the way of ‘It Is’ and the way of ‘It Is Not’. We are literally incapable of conceiving of something as ‘not’, so our ‘over-full Nothing’ ‘is’ by default, and perhaps in its essence as well.

If one cannot think ‘Is Not’, then one will need to accept the ‘over-full Nothing’ that is ‘reality’ as containing no change, no generation or destruction, no difference, no imperfection. Why? Because – and this is key for Parmenides -- it is ‘full of what is’.[14] For our purposes, the attack on Parmenides found in Plato’s immortal dialogue The Parmenides demands much more attention. It is a strange dialogue, unlike any other that Plato wrote. It comes at the end of his vaunted ‘middle period’, and indeed after the travail of wrestling with the issues in The Parmenides, Plato apparently steps away from writing for several years.

The Parmenides is the only dialogue in which Socrates is unequivocally beaten. Pimp-slapped, not to put too fine a point on it.[15] Also important for us to understand is that, in this dialogue, Plato is defending himself. More, he is defending the cornerstone of his entire philosophy: the theory of Forms. Without the theory of Forms, Plato’s ethical and political philosophies collapse for lack of a structure to prop them up – and the followers of Parmenides, the clever Zeno, deploys a set of arguments that leave the theory of Forms in pieces on the floor. In this part of the dialogue, Zeno demonstrates, with a light touch and a flair for the absurd, that logic cannot be trusted because it is insufficient to encapsulate his master Parmenides’ Being, the One, the ‘over-full Nothing’. Zeno, and then Parmenides, use dialectic to tie Socrates up in precisely the sort of logical knots Socrates would inflict on so many interlocutors later in his career.[16]

I do not propose to drill down into the part of the dialogue in which Parmenides slices and dices the Forms; suffice it to say that most scholars agree that Parmenides lands several blows, most of them serious, on the Forms. As we will see, Plato’s goal in the rest of the dialogue is so say, in effect, ‘OK, my beloved Forms may be discredited, but look at the sort of incoherent Parmenidean madness you’ll have to contend with if you give up the Forms! If we want to remain rational beings, the Forms are all we have to work with!’ He uses the rest of the dialogue to demonstrate the logical absurdity of Parmenides and his followers. As we shall see, this is not difficult to do, since the Parmenidean system stands outside of dialectical discourse.

After verbally overpowering young Socrates, Parmenides is invited to expound on his own ideas. Of course, he is asked to do so using dialectic. As Pirsig noted, this was a clever trap on Plato’s part: ‘How the hell do you ever justify, in terms of reason, a refusal to define something? Definitions are the foundation of reason. You can’t reason without them.’[17] Which is precisely the problem we run into in the second half of the dialogue. We are treated to 20 pages of an absurdist, Bizarro-World imitation of Socratic dialectic,

as Parmenides is shown forcing the ‘over-full Nothing’ onto the Procrustean bed of dialectic. Plato is being mean-spirited and vengeful here, as could be expected from a man who is quite literally fighting for his philosophical life. Plato’s goal is to make Parmenides look absurd, but what he winds up doing, unintentionally, is making dialectic and logic look absurd as a technique for encapsulating the ‘over-full Nothing’.

When we read Plato’s funhouse filter of Parmenides in the second half of the dialogue, we find ourselves confronting something that reads almost exactly like the Tao as Pirsig encountered it. Look at this, and tell me if you don’t agree with me that Parmenides’ worldview looks more and more Asian, not really ‘Western’ at all.

Plato has Parmenides telling us that the One ‘will have neither beginning, middle, nor end’, it ‘cannot be anywhere, either in itself or in another’, and let us make no mistake that ‘if one be the same with itself, it is not one with itself, and will therefore be one and also not one’.[18]

On a couple of levels, this is a delightful farce. The very density and duration of this kind of gibberish (and it goes on like this for over twenty pages) is a big part of the comedic value. Plato is working hard to make Parmenides look completely absurd, and Parmenides is happy to oblige. On another level, one certainly unintended by Plato, Parmenides is having his way with Plato as well: his long, bizarre deployment of ‘dialectic’ in the service of explaining his ‘over-full Nothing’ serves the unexpected purpose of demonstrating that dialectic, logic itself, has surprising and damaging limitations.

Socrates’ new invention, the dialectic, breaks up against Parmenides’ extended koan, reducing the attempt to articulate Parmenides’ ideas to broad comedy. Parmenides is using dialectic as a cudgel to beat dialectic itself to a bloody pulp. To embarrass logic into silence, in effect.

On yet another level – and The Parmenides may well be the most multi-layered of Plato’s dialogues -- we are given a stunning demonstration of the fact that, in the face of the ‘over-full Nothing’, language itself begins to collapse. All that ‘is’ is not real. Anything you can describe is not real. The One, Being, the ‘over-full Nothing’ ‘is’. But not really, not in any sense we can imagine. It is unthinkable, unspeakable, and unknowable. Inside this singularity, nothing is preserved; it is a naked opening-upon.

We try and apply Plato’s beloved dialectic, his clever little parlor trick of categorizing and discriminating, and we find ourselves sinking, and fast. We see:

‘over-full Nothing’ is.

But we can’t even say ‘is’ in this context, because we could then also say ‘not-is’, and that not-is would be equally ‘true’. So we are reduced to being able to say:

‘over-full Nothing’.

But even that is too much discrete ‘content’, and dialectic sets itself up for a situation where all dialectic allows us to say is:


Singularity. No content. No thing. Dialectic has failed – miserably, one should note – to enable us to come to terms with the ‘over-full Nothing’. Beyond the rim of this singularity, logic has no place and dialectic will not stand. Plato knows this, which helps explain his fury at Parmenides. Plato understands that his theory of Forms has been

skewered on his own dialectic, but he turns away from the Parmenidean alternative with the same shudder of instinctive revulsion with which the Greeks reacted to the concept of the Unbounded. Plato forces us to confront the brute fact that Parmenides’ ontology is logically absurd. Parmenides (who either reinvented or encountered the same ontological concepts that fed into the Tao), was not really Western at all, and was in fact trapped in the straitjacket of Western reason.

‘We’ve a real intellectual impasse. Our reason, which is supposed to make things more intelligible, seems to be making them less intelligible, and when reason thus defeats its own purposes something has to be changed in the structure of our reason itself.’ [19] Reason has failed us, indeed language itself has failed us, and at the end of any attempt to penetrate the Parmenidean ontology, our discourse suffers a catastrophic collapse into silence.

Time Tunnel

Imagine with me a long temporal tube, a tunnel. In places it is poorly lit, but in other parts of it we see bright, cold, fluorescent lights. Occasionally, the tunnel pulls a sudden sideways turn or dead end, but for the most part it is as straight and as forthright as a mathematical proof. At one end of this tunnel sits Plato, shouting the good news of the birth of Reason into the tunnel’s maw. At the far end of this tunnel lurks Pirsig, gazing in horror at Reason’s death.[20] Pirsig pursued the ghost of this dead Reason ‘because he wanted to wreak revenge on it, because he felt he himself was so shaped by it.’[21] After Pirsig, facts become fables again. Looking at Parmenides and Pirsig, do we not get the suspicion that the long reign of dialectic and logic was perhaps just an interlude?

The ‘over-full Nothing’ will always remain absurd and inarticulate within the confines of logical discourse. Parmenides didn’t make any serious attempt to wrap the ‘over-full Nothing’ in logical discourse, and Pirsig went mad trying. Perhaps the ‘over-full Nothing’ should be simply left alone.


[1] Pirsig, Robert M, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (New York: Bantam New Age Books, 1988), 74

[2] Pirsig, 214

[3] Pirsig, 22

[4] Pirsig, 225

[5] Pirsig, 226

[6] Pirsig, 227

[7] Pirsig, 60

[8] Pirsig, 302

[9] Pirsig, 302

[10] Pirsig, 318

[11] Pirsig, 77

[12] Pirsig, 341

[13] Grayling, A.C. (ed)., Philosophy. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 347

[14] Grayling, 348

[15] Plato, The Parmenides. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), 488

[16] Plato, 491

[17] Pirsig, 192

[18] Plato, 493

[19] Pirsig, 117

[20] Pirsig, 150

[21] Pirsig, 75