Sunday, January 27, 2008

Reflections: Thought Exercise

Here is a little mental exercise which may provide some insights into the relationship between Truth and Freedom:

First, consider the epistemological implications of Rebecca Goldstein’s statement concerning the quintessence of Spinoza’s philosophy [the following excerpts are from Goldstein’s book, Betraying Spinoza]:

Reality is ontologically enriched logic.

How does what we are—the conditions of our existence—relate to what we can know?

Next, consider the following excerpt from a letter written by Spinoza in response to the letter of a former tutee, who has converted to Catholicism and subsequently written to Spinoza, condemning Spinoza’s system of thought:

If you ask me in what way I know [that I understand the true philosophy], I answer: In the same way as you know that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles: that this is sufficient, will be denied by no one whose brain is sound, and who does not go dreaming of evil spirits inspiring us with false ideas like the true. For the truth is the index of itself and of what is false.

As explained by Goldstein:

Spinoza is claiming here that since he has relied on nothing but a priori reason to deduce his system, just a mathematics relies on nothing but a priori reason, his conclusions (granted that his deductions are valid) enjoy precisely the same degree of certitude as mathematics. His conclusions, just as those of mathematics, must be necessary truths, those which could not possibly have been otherwise.

Now consider the following statements of D-503, the thoroughly conditioned and indoctrinated narrator/protagonist of Eugene Zamiatin’s fictional dystopia, the United State, in the novel, WE:

The ancient god created ancient man, i.e., the man capable of mistakes; ergo, the ancient god himself made a mistake. The multiplication table is more wise and more absolute than the ancient god, for the multiplication table never (do you understand – never) makes mistakes! There are no more fortunate and happy people than those who live according to the correct, eternal laws of the multiplication table. No hesitation! No errors! There is but one truth, and there is but one path to it; and that truth is: four, and that path is: two times two. Would it not seem preposterous for these happily multiplied twos suddenly to begin thinking of some foolish kind of freedom? – i.e., …of a mistake?


Both Spinoza’s philosophy and the totalitarian doctrine of the United State claim to provide man—in direct opposition to religion—with his only hope of salvation. With this in mind,

1) Compare and contrast the relationship between Spinoza’s philosophy and the totalitarian doctrine of the United State, as expounded in Zamiatin’s novel.

2) If Spinoza’s philosophy cannot be shown to be fundamentally in error, what is the relationship between intellectual freedom and Objective Truth? Does the latter negate the former?

3) Consider the question: If, as is implied by the above, what we normally mean by “freedom” is a logical impossibility, what, then, are the implications for our concept of “free will”?

4) Is political “freedom” actually—if paradoxically—bondage to imaginative error and avoidable contingency?

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Readings: ...And One More for the Road

After Thursday's trip to the swamp, I feel the need for an intellectual shower bath. I don't mean to discourage further discussion of my political rant, but I want also to get back to "home base," as it were.

On my Christmas gift wish list this year was On the Road: the Original Scroll, published to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac's seminal novel of the Beat Generation. This edition presents the novel as it was originally typed-out, in the space of a few long days and nights, on a roll of taped-together sheets of tracing paper, 120-feet long. This new edition publishes for the first time Kerouac's manuscript, minus the good services of the editors of the version that was eventually released to the public in 1957. As spontaneity is one of the key philosophical tenets of Kerouac's artistic m.o., the Original Scroll is a book I am very keen to experience first-hand.

Unfortunately, my request was misunderstood, and I found the 50th Anniversary hardcover re-release of the edited version under the tree instead. While that is a nice book to have, I still wanted the Original Scroll--so I bought it this past week with some cash I had received for my recent birthday.

There is an introduction, written by the book's editor, Howard Cunnell, which nicely sums up what I believe to be most important in Kerouac's body of work:

Long before his readings in Buddhism Kerouac was intuitively attempting to reconcile a worldview that saw his lived experience both as one made painfully meaningless by his hard-wired knowledge of mortality and as one to be celebrated in every detail and at every moment precisely because, as he writes in Visions of Cody, we are soon "all going to die." Kerouac escapes this encircling loss in the act of writing. To say what happened. To get it down before it is lost. To make mythology from your life and from the lives of your friends. This urgency pushes Kerouac to strip his writing of "made-up" stories. Life's impermanence and the inevitability of suffering inform and motivate Kerouac's heightened sensitivity and responsiveness to the phenomenal world. What Allen Ginsberg called his "open heart" and Kerouac himself described as being "submissive to everything, open, listening" results in a body of fiction in which the representation of the magical nature of entrancing and life-affirming fleeting detail is the outstanding feature.

Kerouac was about living in the moment. He was about being awake(!).

I am also reading the novel WE by Russian author, Eugene Zamiatin. As the synopsis on the book's cover states, WE is: "Recognized as the inspiration for George Orwell's famous 1984." The synopsis goes on to state, WE tells the story of the minutely organized United State, where all citizens are not individuals but only he-Numbers and she-Numbers existing in identical glass apartments with every action regulated by the "Table of Hours." It is a community dedicated to the proposition that freedom and happiness are incompatible; that most men believe their freedom to be more than fair exchange for a high level of materialistic happiness.

It's kind of a prescient critique of the Bush administration's neocon philosophy.

These two books represent opposite poles. It is going to be interesting to read them simultaneously.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Interlude: BOYCOTT !!

I’m going to let the Rodak Riffs Express miss the curve, jump the tracks, and roll down the embankment into that miasmic swamp called Politics. Sometimes it's called the Slough of Despond, but for now we’ll keep it simple and call it Politics.

When I got home from work today, there was an envelope in my mailbox with my name and address on the front of it and the return address of the Democratic National Committee on the back. Inside was a questionnaire, and a letter signed by Howard Dean, M.D. I guess I’m supposed to be flattered. Not only do they want to know my MasterCard number, but they also want my advice. Well, listen--here’s my advice, Democrats:


I’ve seen enough, already. Hillary Clinton has put me right into the Saul of Tarsus School of Feminism. I’m fully matriculated. Shut yer damn’ trap, kick off them sensible shoes, get yer lard ass out into the kitchen, and bake me some friggin’ cookies, bitch!

As for that political genius, Slick Willie, he’s cashed in his last chip at my table. I held my nose and forgave him for NAFTA. I gave him a pass on Monica. She did snap her thong at him, after all. She did brag about “earning her presidential knee pads.” And she didn’t get the “DNA” cleaned off that blue dress. Sure, he was “weak,” but she was no victim. I thought it was pretty cool when WJC blew his sax on Arsenio, too. Shit, I was easy. All of that said, in the words of the old R&B standard, “I used to love you, but it’s all over now.”

Clinton still has it. He’s still smart. He still knows what it takes to win. But now I’ve drifted—nay, leapt!--over into the camp of the Clinton haters. They’ve been telling me all along that the man was evil. And now I see it. He’s evil. Bill Clinton, “the first black president," has shown himself willing to ride back into the White House perched on the sturdy flanks of his blue-ribbon mare by making a friggin’ pickaninny out of Barack Obama.

Clinton’s seductive rhetoric of disinformation is designed to split the Democratic Party along racial lines--and it’s working. It’s the political war of all against all: Whites vs. Blacks vs. Hispanics. The Clintons are appealing to the very worst aspects of the American character. They are doing it as surely and as shamelessly as any crypto-fascist Republican campaign strategist ever did it before--and I’ve fucking well had it.

I take the Republican field of candidates as a personal insult. The Democrats make me ashamed. Talk about fear and loathing on the campaign trail!

I’m calling for a boycott of the 2008 presidential election. Only a 5% turn-out of eligible voters will ever show these corrupt, amoral bastards that we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any more!

If you must go to the polls, vote only for your local candidates and issues. Leave the national portion of your ballot blank. You’ll feel better about yourself in the morning. Trust me.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Readings: Quote du Jour

Reality is ontologically enriched logic.

~ Rebecca Goldstein, Betraying Spinoza

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Religion: American Babylon

Yesterday I again picked up the Chris Hedges book, American Fascists, about which I wrote a couple of weeks ago, and began reading at the chapter entitled “The New Class.” In this chapter, Hedges tells of a visit to The National Religious Broadcasters convention in Anaheim, California. As an exemplar of the “new class” of the chapter’s title, he writes about his encounter with a woman who shall remain nameless here. This paragon is an entrepreneur, running her own company; the author of several self-improvement titles; and a regular guest on such Christian talk shows as Pat Robertson’s 700 Club. Hedges also mentions several other women, each of whom combines a form of evangelical Christianity with media celebrity, in a corporate context:

The women, minor celebrities in the world of Christian broadcasting, capture the strange fusion between this new, flamboyant gospel of prosperity and America’s celebrity-driven culture. …Wealth, fame and power are manifestations of God’s work, proof that God has a plan and design for believers. (American Fascists, pp.132-133)

The long excerpt which follows encapsulates the core of what I believe to be the great danger facing this nation—American Babylon--and the rest of the world, in the immediate future, and once again describes the symptoms of what I have diagnosed as the cognitive dissonance of the American far-right polity:

This is the apotheosis of capitalism, the divine sanction of the free market, of unhindered profit and the most rapacious cruelties of globalization. Corporations, rapidly turning America into an oligarchy, have little interest in Christian ethics, or anybody’s ethics. They know what they have to do, as the titans of the industry remind us, for their stockholders. They are content to increase profit at the expense of those who demand fair wages, health benefits, safe working conditions and pensions. This new oligarchic class is creating a global marketplace where all workers, to compete, will have to become like workers in dictatorships such as China: denied rights, their wages dictated to them by the state, and forbidden from organizing or striking. America once attempted to pull workers abroad up to American levels, to foster the building of foreign labor unions, to challenge the abuse of workers in factories that flood the American market with cheap goods. [Note: I think that Hedges is giving America the benefit of the doubt with those contentions!] But this new class seeks to reduce the American working class to the levels of this global serfdom. [Note: The Road to Serfdom redefined!] After all, anything that drains corporate coffers is a loss of freedom – the God-given American freedom to exploit other human beings to make money. The marriage of this gospel of prosperity with raw, global capitalism, and the flaunting of the wealth and privilege it brings, are supposedly blessed and championed by Jesus Christ. Compassion is relegated to private, individual acts of charity or left to churches. The callousness of the ideology, the notion that it in any way reflects the message of the gospels, which were preoccupied with the poor and the outcasts, illustrates how the new class has twisted Christian scripture to serve America’s god of capitalism and discredited the Enlightenment values we once prized. (Ibid., pp.133-134)

Anti-Christ: I have seen the Oligarch and his name is Legion:

A man and a woman
Are two.
A man and a woman and an oligarch
Are legion.

And the merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn over her; for no man buyeth their merchandise any more:
~ Rev.18:11

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Reflections: Christian ReconHUCKionism?

This is going to be straight from the hip. I founded my blog to have a place where I could ruminate, and perhaps occasionally discuss, topics other than politics; particularly literature and religion. But when politics enters the sphere of religion, as it has with the campaign of Mike Huckabee, then politics becomes fair game here. My concern with this topic was awakened again this morning, when I went to the NY Times online to read the Sunday Book Review section, which is a Saturday morning ritual with me. On the front page, I found this. (File under: "Things That Make You Go 'Hmmmm'...")

I have noted elsewhere my uneasiness with the following statement made in a recent stump speech given in Warren, Michigan:

I believe it’s a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God,” Huckabee said Monday night in Warren, Mich. “And that’s what we need to do, is to amend the Constitution so it’s in God’s standards, rather than try to change God’s standards.

While that statement may, or may not, have been specifically in reference to abortion law, my uneasiness prompted me to do a little googling in an effort to find out just what kind of Christians Huck hangs out with when the cameras aren't on him and he needs a bit of baksheesh to pay the bills at the Ramada Inn. I will be the first one to affirm a strong belief that we all could use a little more--hell, a lot more--religion in our daily lives. But, that said, I am also (God help me!) a strict constructionist where it comes to the Establishment Clause and the existence of a firewall between sectarian religion and government as guided by secular law. So when Huckabee came out with the above, I flinched. Does Huckabee have connections to folks who call themselves Dominionistists, or to the Christian Reconstructionist movement?

In politics it's always a matter of share-shay the friggin' moolah, am I right? While it's clear that the MSM has not yet become interested in this story, there are quite a few bloggers out there who are. Some of them are just anti-Christian bigots. But some of them treat the topic with a bit of even-handedness and intelligence. This one was particularly disturbing.

I don't know about you, but I do not want a POTUS, or even a Veep, who is beholden to people whose project is to "reconstruct" the United States of America as a theocracy. If that's what you want, grow a beard and go to any one of several available Muslim utopias. I pride myself on being unreconstructed, thank you very much.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Readings: Contemplating Polarities

In concluding my last post I wrote that I would be sharing some more of J. M. Coetzee’s opinions from his novel, Diary of a Bad Year. Since, however, I am now deep into a new novel, House of Meetings, by the British writer, Martin Amis, I’ve lost the fire in my belly for continuing to dwell upon Coetzee. What I’m going to do, then, is post one brief excerpt from Diary of a Bad Year that has to do with birdsong, followed by an excerpt from the Amis novel in which birdsong is mentioned in a totally opposite context.

Here is the Coetzee, which I find particularly beautiful:

What Cartesian nonsense to think of birdsong as pre-programmed cries uttered by birds to advertise their presence to the opposite sex, and so forth! Each bird-cry is a full-hearted release of the self into the air, accompanied by such joy as we can barely comprehend. I! says each cry: I! What a miracle!

Briefly, House of Meetings takes place in Russia. The protagonist and narrator is a survivor of a gulag, as is his half-brother. The narrator, after his release, comes to terms with the system and does quite well financially. His brother, who has the soul of a poet, paradoxically has less success on the outside than he had in the work camp.

In the excerpt below, the protagonist visits the home of the poetically-inclined, misfit brother, just after the brother’s much doted-upon son has been killed in the November 3, 1982 explosion in the Soviet-built Salang Tunnel in the Hindu Kush, where he had been serving as a Russian soldier in the invasion of Afghanistan:

I got to the house on the day after the telegram. All the blinds were drawn. You may wonder how I had the leisure to do it, but I thought of Wilfred Owen: ‘And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.’ He was picturing a bereaved household (or a near-infinite series of such households) in the ‘sad shires’—October 1917. The drawn blind was an acknowledgement and a kind of signal. But the stricken need the dark. Light is life and is unbearable to them – as are voices, birdsong, the sound of purposeful footsteps. And they are themselves ghosts, and seek an atmosphere forgiving of ghosts, and conducive to the visits of other ghosts, or of one particular ghost.
For as long as I could bear it I sat with them in the shadows.

Does not the contrast between the totally polar human reactions to the simple song of a bird, as expressed in these two brief passages, show how entirely dependent upon our personal psychology, our mood, our disposition, is our world-view at any given moment? And does this not show how important it is for us to struggle against giving in to negative emotion?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Readings: Bad Year...Good Book

I’ve been having remarkably good luck finding books that are worth reading of late. Among these is the latest novel by Nobel laureate, J .M. Coetzee, entitled Diary of a Bad Year. I’m about 2/3 of the way through the book at this point, and enjoying it immensely.

Without going into too much detail here, I should say something about the unique format of the text itself. The novel is based on the idea that an eminent South African novelist, known only as “C.”, currently residing in Australia (all characteristics of Coetzee himself) has been commissioned by a German publisher to contribute to a book which will collect opinions concerning the contemporary world, composed by several prestigious writers. Because he is infatuated by her physical appearance, C. hires a youngish, sexy, woman (age 29), who lives on an upper floor in his apartment building (he lives on the ground floor), to type his manuscript. He simply wants her presence in his apartment, where he lives alone.

The format of the novel is unique. On the top of each page, we get a portion of one of the opinions C. has written for inclusion in the book. Then, somewhere down the page, under a dividing line, we get a piece of the narrative which drives the action of the novel, in the form of C.’s thoughts about the woman, Anya, and her place in his life. Once she is hired, we also start seeing her thoughts, below his, again under a dividing line. At some point, we start seeing conversations between the two, as remembered by C. or by Anya. Once C. has learned that Anya lives with a man named Alan, a Yuppie investment broker, we begin to see the interaction between Alan and Anya on the lower part of the page, below the C. section. (No pun intended.)

Usually the opinions that C. has written extend over several pages, while the thoughts of C. or Anya, or the interactions between C. and Anya, or between Anya and Alan, are contained on one page, or one page and the page that faces it. This means the reader has to decide in what order he will read the various sections of the text. He also has to decide whether Coetzee intends the reader to find any correlation between the opinions C. is composing and the narrative plot of the novel.

The plot comes to center on the attraction of C. for Anya; on Anya’s self-consciously sexy, T&A-oriented, flirtation with C.; and on Alan’s developing plot to use Anya to embezzle C.’s three million dollar fortune, using spyware that he has implanted in C.’s computer on a diskette containing Anya’s transcriptions of C.’s work.

Whew! That’s more summary than I had intended to write. What I had intended was to share some excerpts clipped from C.’s opinions, all of which are interesting, as well as entertaining. Here, for instance, is one that relates well to my own constant refrains concerning dualism and cognitive dissonance:

On talkback radio ordinary members of the public have been calling in to say that, while they concede that torture is in general a bad thing, it may nonetheless sometimes be necessary. Some even advance the proposition that we may have to do evil for the sake of a greater good. In general they are scornful of absolutist opponents of torture: such people, they say, do not have their feet on the ground, do not live in the real world. (Diary of a Bad Year, p.17)

As it is in the United States, so it is in Australia, apparently. Next we can observe that Machiavelli would have made a jim-dandy neocon:

Machiavelli says that if as a ruler you accept that your every action must pass moral scrutiny, you will without fail be defeated by an opponent who submits to no such moral test. … Necessity…is Machiavelli’s guiding principle. (Ibid., p.18)

Here is where C.’s opinion dovetails with what I have posted in the past in the category of “cognitive dissonance”:

Thus is inaugurated the dualism of modern political culture, which simultaneously upholds absolute and relative standards of value. The modern state appeals to morality, to religion, and to natural law as the ideological foundation of its existence. At the same time it is prepared to infringe any or all of these in the interest of self-preservation. …The kind of person who calls talkback radio and justifies the use of torture in the interrogation of prisoners holds the double standard in his mind in exactly [this] way: without in the least denying the absolute claims of the Christian ethic (love they neighbor as thyself)… (Ibid. p.18)

This has gotten long enough. In the days ahead, I may post a few more such excerpts, as I am finding them well worth sharing.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Reflections: But Wait--the Joke's on Us!

In the spirit of full disclosure, and lest we get too carried away by the punch line of my previous post, it must be stated that the very next paragraph after the joke about the converso, the roast chicken, the priest, and the fish, says the following:

Despite the joke, one should not equate the Marrano’s notion of private Jewish identity with the Inquisition’s essentialist—essentially racist—presupposition. The Marrano’s Jewish identity was not so much passively received but actively acquired, even if the activity dare not show itself… Being Jewish consisted in the private performative act—one was Jewish because one avowed oneself to be. (Betraying Spinoza, p.128)

Go ahead, take all the fun out of it, Prof. Becky.

So where has all this “private performative” action landed us today? Well, we have the atheism of Becky and her paramour, the redoubtable Steven Pinker. And we also have the following, clipped this morning from the current Sunday New York Times book review:

Neoconservatives don’t think small. They also tend to spurn empirical methods of inquiry, giving the lie to Kristol père’s famous aphorism that a neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality. It’s truer to say that a neoconservative is a liberal (or, more often these days, just a plain old conservative) who has been seduced by the notion that America is in steep decline and must reassert itself as a moral and military force in an otherwise corrupt world. Neocons bear, Heilbrunn writes, “an uncompromising temperament” and a prophetic cast of mind, and they “use (and treat) ideas as weapons in a moral struggle.”

No, this is not a non-sequitur. Keep reading:

Did someone say “prophetic”? There’s no point denying it: neocons tend to be Jewish.

(Ah, ha!)

There are plenty of prominent exceptions — William Bennett, the former education secretary, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late United States senator, diplomat, White House aide and sociologist, were both Roman Catholics — but neoconservatism’s priorities, which range from strong support for Israel to vehement opposition to affirmative action, are heavily influenced by the values, interests and collective historical memory of the Jewish people.

Wow. The warmongering Israeli lobby aside, this is very nearly offensive stuff, isn’t it? In fact, the reviewer rounds off the paragraph above with:

Heilbrunn carries this conceit to the outermost boundaries of good taste by dividing his book into sections whose names are derived from the Old Testament: “Exodus,” “Wilderness,” “Redemption” and “Return to Exile.”

Yeah. Well, to sum up: it certainly seems like there’s material here for another one of Woody Allen’s semi-serious flicks, like The Front. Only this time he should write and direct it, as well as starring. He could play the role of Norman Podhoretz, or the elder Kristol. (It’s too bad Zero Mostel is gone; he’d make a perfect Richard Perle.)

And yet you call me an anti-Semite. Shit, I’d go see it.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Readings: Some Essentialist Humor

One of the books I’m currently reading is Betraying Spinoza: the Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity by my old friend, Rebecca Goldstein. It’s a good read, and I recommend it. But I’m not going to write a review of it here, but rather share something that I got a kick out of, from the chapter entitled “Identity Crisis”.

Goldstein does an excellent and very engrossing job of putting both Spinoza the man and Spinoza the philosopher in the larger context of the Spinoza the Jew. Although we know him as a native of Amsterdam, Goldstein shows how and why it is not incidental that Spinoza was a Sephardic Jew—a descendent of those Jews who were expelled from the Iberian peninsula during the Spanish Inquisition, and who settled in Amsterdam, even then a liberal city.

There were also, however, “secret Jews,” called Marranos, who had remained in Portugal or Spain, ostensibly having been converted to Christianity, but practicing an increasingly heterodox form of Judaism behind closed doors and shutters. It was, in part, this double life that gave rise to the “identity crisis” of the chapter’s title.

Goldstein writes:

The continued inquisitorial persecution of conversos had added yet a new dimension to the mystery of personal identity, merging it with the mystery of Jewish identity. What is it to be Jewish? Is it a matter of creed, of culture, of family or blood—or, as we would now put it, of genes? Having once been Jewish, can one then cease to be Jewish? Or is a Jew essentially a Jew, no matter what religion he might practice or even think himself to be a member of? (Betraying Spinoza, p.126)

I think that is enough to set up my purpose in writing this piece, which is to share the following--perhaps the truest answer to the questions posed above:

A Sephardic friend tells me his grandfather used to tell him a joke that perhaps goes back to Marrano times. A Jew has undergone a conversion process, in the course of which the priest has put his hands on the Jew’s head and repeated several times, “You were a Jew, now you’re Christian, you were a Jew, now you’re Christian.” A few weeks pass and the priest comes on a Friday to see how his converso is getting on. The priest finds, to his shock and dismay, that the New Christian is not eating fish for his Friday night dinner, as he ought to be as a good Catholic, but rather a roasted chicken. The Jew, ordered to account for himself, explains that he had simply put his hand on the chicken’s head and repeated several times, “You were a chicken, now you’re fish, you were a chicken, now you’re fish. (Ibid. P.127)

I love it!

Hmm. I wonder if Woody Allen knows that one?

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Reflections: Let Me Count the Ways

When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross. - Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here

I have been pleasantly surprised to find that when one assiduously seeks information and knowledge, in the service of wisdom, knowledge and information will often meet one half-way. This kind of convergence of knowledge and mind, which I take to be a form of synchronicity, occurred for me just the other day.

I had been in the stacks of the university library, looking for a book that turned out not to be on the shelf. As I made my way through the maze of shelves toward the elevator bank, empty-handed, the book American Fascists by Chris Hedges, practically leapt off the shelf, into my hand.

This event partook of the kind of synchronicity I mentioned above, because it promised to provide some answers to a challenge thrown down by skeptical reader, William R. Barker, in the comments section of my post of December 30, 2007. In response to my conjectures concerning a cabal of right-wingers, determined to subvert the freedoms guaranteed by the constitution, in order to take power in America, Mr. Barker wrote: “I wait with baited (sic) breath for you to unmask the conspirators!”

This is easier said than done. As Hedges shows in his book, the conspirators are veritable “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” subverting the national thought patterns in ways which are both subtle and seemingly harmless, if not positive, at the surface level. In expounding upon this theme, Hedges quotes Hitler’s propaganda chief: “As Joseph Goebbels wrote: “The best propaganda is that which, as it were, works invisibly, penetrates the whole of life without the public having any knowledge of the propagandistic initiative.” (American Fascists, p.17)

Hedges prefaces his book with an excerpt from the writer and essayist, Umberto Eco, entitled Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt. In this piece, Eco examines 14 items, some of which, in various combinations, will be fundamental to every fascist movement. I have reconfigured Eco’s list slightly in order to include it here:

Common Elements of Eternal Fascism:

1. The cult of tradition
2. The rejection of modernism
3. The cult of action for action’s sake
4. Making distinctions is a sign of modernism; disagreement is treason
5. Disagreement is a sign of diversity, diversity is evil (racism)
6. Fascism derives from individual or social frustration
7. The only privilege is that of being born in the same country
8. Humiliation at the power and material privileges of their enemies
9. Life is lived for struggle
10. Elitist contempt for the weak
11. Everybody is educated to become a hero
12. Transference of the will to power to sexual matters (patriarchal machismo)
13. Selective populism
14. Fascism speaks Newspeak

Eco’s original piece, which expands upon these items, can be read here. Eco’s title is a play on the title of a famous poem by Wallace Stevens, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. Another interesting example of convergence is that sometime between 1991 and 1994, I used the title and format of the same Stevens poem as the basis of a poem of my own entitled Thirteen Ways of Looking at an Oligarch, the content of which can be seen as a bridge between Stevens and Eco.

Hedges’ book focuses on a fundamentalist, evangelical, right-wing religious movement called Dominionism. In Hedges’ words:

Dominionism, born out of a theology known as Christian reconstructionism, seeks to politicize faith. It has, like all fascist movements, a belief in magic along with leadership adoration and a strident call for moral and physical supremacy of a master race, in this case American Christians. (Ibid., p.11)

In general terms:

Dominionists and their wealthy, right-wing sponsors speak in terms and phrases that are familiar and comforting to most Americans, but they no longer use words to mean what they meant in the past. (Ibid., p.14)

Among those comforting words whose meaning Hedges shows being subverted in this way are: Truth, wisdom, death, liberty, life, love

Some of these “wealthy, right-wing sponsors” include:

Corporations such as Tyson Foods—which has placed 128 part-time chaplains, nearly all evangelicals or fundamentalists, in 78 plants across the country—along with Purdue, Wal-Mart, and Sam’s Wholesale, to name a few, are huge financial backers of the movement. (Ibid., p.22)

So, there you have it, Mr. Barker. This should provide you with enough of a road-map to find some answers to your own challenge, if you want to take the time to do a little digging of your own. To close, I might suggest that you spend some time lurking here, in order to observe the prediction of Sinclair Lewis at work in real-time today.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Reflections: Be It Resolved That...

I have but slight enthusiasm for making New Year’s Resolutions. I believe that resolutions should be made as needed, and whenever one is mentally prepared to make them work. This year, however, my physical condition has made this time the right time, so I’ve been giving it some thought.

I noted in a previous post that as the extreme pain I had been enduring, due to a back injury complicated by sciatica, began to subside, I experienced an unexpected psychological deflation: “The strange thing about it, though, is that there is almost a let-down setting in. …I'm now left intellectually flat. Nothing much has greatly interested me since the pain abated.”

Along with slowly regaining my emotional equilibrium, I continue to ponder the psychological state that I’ve been experiencing . I had noted that: “When one is fighting a lot of pain, 24/7, one is never bored. One may be frustrated, and even a little bit frightened, but one is not depressed. In moments of crisis there is no room for depression.” Remembering that Simone Weil had written of the positive spiritual uses of affliction, I thought that I might gain some insight there. In the section on “Affliction” in Gravity and Grace, she writes:

Joy is the overflowing consciousness of reality.
But to suffer while preserving our consciousness of reality is better. To suffer without being submerged in the nightmare.

I don’t mean to aggrandize my own recent pain by suggesting that it has entailed anything like what Simone Weil means by “affliction” in its broadest sense. Affliction is much more than physical pain; but pain is part of it. And, from what Weil has written, it can be understood that the positive aspect of severe pain is that it shocks one awake; it keeps one in the moment.

This insight concerning being “shocked awake” brought to mind the teachings of George Gurdjieff, whose philosophy I had first encountered near the end of my college career. I have known Gurdjieff’s philosophy primarily as presented by his disciple, P.D. Ouspensky, in two books entitled In Search of the Miraculous and The Fourth Way. The Wikipedia article on Gurdjieff (linked above) states:

In his teaching Gurdjieff gave a distinct meaning to various ancient texts such as the Bible and many religious prayers. He claimed that those texts possess a very different meaning in addition to those commonly attributed to them. "Sleep not"; "Awake, for you know not the hour"; "The Kingdom of Heaven is Within"...are examples of biblical statements that point to a psychological teaching whose essence has been forgotten.

Gurdjieff taught people how to increase and focus their attention and energy in various ways, and to minimize daydreaming and absentmindedness. According to his teaching, this inner development in oneself is the beginning of a possible further process of change, whose aim is to transform a man into what Gurdjieff believed he ought to be.

This concept that “sleep” is the normal state of human consciousness is central to Gurdjieff’s teachings. Much of his method involves training his students to awaken, and to stay awake, in order to practice a “self-remembering” that will allow them a kind of salvation. The Wikipedia article on Ouspensky (also linked above) provides the following excerpts on that theme, from In Search of the Miraculous:

Gurdjieff: "A man does not see the real world. The real world is hidden from him by the wall of imagination. He lives in sleep. He is asleep.

Only by beginning to remember himself does a man really awaken. And then all surrounding life acquires for him a different aspect. He sees that it is the life of sleeping people, a life in sleep. All that men say, all that they do, they say and do in sleep.

How can one awaken? How can one escape this sleep? These questions are the most important, the most vital that can ever confront a man."

Putting this all together, I came to the conclusion that there is a positive aspect to severe pain, in that it shocks one awake; it keeps one in the moment and remembering oneself. It turns out that being in the moment is better than being “out of it”—being asleep, in the Gurdjieffian sense. Even though that moment is literally painful, it is a moment of heightened consciousness, and is, therefore, paradoxically (as noted in the Weil quote above) akin to joy. Thus—I’ve come to believe—the unexpected let-down when the pain subsides: it is the feeling of drifting back into the chronic ennui of involuntary sleep.

So, my resolutions for the New Year are two: The first is never again to take for granted, or without gratitude, the simple ability to walk across a room; the second is to try to stay awake, to remember myself, and, in so doing, hope to benefit from more frequent infusions of joy.