News+and+politics religion philosophy The Blowfly

Tuesday, March 28, 2006


The Decent American: Myth Under Destruction

I wrote about the Iraqi death squads earlier. While writing that, I realized one thing: what is at stake here is the idea that there's something called basic American decency that's been corrupted by this war...

I still find it hard to think that US troops could support and instigate anything like death squads. There's the feeling that as bad as Americans act sometimes, they still have a basic sense of decency about how far is too far.

Sure, there are exceptions like My Lai and individual cases, but that's just it: they're the exception, not the rule. Now I think that I am facing the idea, with this war and the revelations of torture camps etc., that this basic decency is gone, and a deadly rot of corrupt ethics is becoming the norm.

Call me naive, I know. In The Quiet American, Graham Greene painted this long ago. Yet, Greene depicted his American protagonist as someone who thought and believed in an innocent way, and through this innocence committed great evil. Slavoz Zizek says that what's happening now is the "resurgence" of this Greene character, a person, of whom Greene writes, "I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused." I suggest, however, that what's happening today is that Greene's American has lost that innocence and often does evil knowingly and corruptly.

In terms of Iraq, I think people are coming around to the idea that Iraq was not the right thing to do; unfortunately, it is 100,000 dead Iraqis and 2,200 dead US soldiers too late. Hopefully, someday people will realize that they are complict as a society in buying into the fear-mongering and manipulation by the press/Bushites simply out of fear and despair.

As Kierkegaard noted, there are several forms of despair. Despair for Kierkegaard and much of Christian theology is the sin of sins. It is a state where people sin because they have lost hope. And losing hope is the worst sin because one cannot and should not lose hope in a God for whom all things are possible.

The unconscious form of despair, according to Kierkegaard, is the one experienced most by people in today's world. They do not realize they have lost hope and blithely seem unconcerned about their own despair. As such, all their actions are done in hopeless defiance of what is the right thing to do--unconscious as they are of even what the right thing to do is. This alienation and distance from what one's true self is is precisely the dilemma faced by most people in America. As such, they can be swayed and manipulated because their ethical and spiritual core does not exist.

This point is made even more powerfully by Martin Matustik's explication of Frederick Douglass' and Soren Kierkegaard's attack on false Christianity:
Known to Douglass but lost on most contemporary Americans is the danger of an even greater evil: what Kierkegaard called the human capacity for acting “diabolically.” The “diabolical” is anyone who wills oneself to be good without having confronted one’s capacity for evil. Such a person must cling fast to false innocence because this person despairs over the question whether he or she truly is innocent. The politically “diabolical” is any regime that in despair wills its false innocence. The desire to be the innocent source of one’s power - a phenomenon we can call the despair of America - can be confronted, says Kierkegaard, by the breakdown of the false ego and its attachment to power.

Monday, March 20, 2006


The Nullity That Is I

In his book on the public, Alastair Hannay, sums up the modern predicament. Discussing Ground Zero 911, he says:
We need occasionally to step aside. Or meet in some public space where we are put in mind of how little of what we do or achieve counts, seeing things directly and without the interfering spins and refractions of the media or of their influence on our current perceptions. One such place is Ground Zero, where the Twin Towers once stood; these are to be replaced not only by a new tower, this time of Freedom, but also by something less rhetorical, a grove named 'reflecting absence'. It is only a fitting symbol of the position from which reflection over the nature and setting for human fulfillment can take place; sight of the levelled terrain and memory of the terrible events that caused it can free the mind for a moment from its normally healthy addiction to the world, an addiction that easily creates enmity and division. It is a prospect that can produce a sense of human levelling. Kierkegaard said that coming to the point where all you can say positively of yourself is that you are a human being reveals the fundamental nullity of selfhood, the ultimate anonymity, a ground zero in which you stay put but at the same time move on, letting it educate your everyday. He predicted we would end up there and that it would be a good thing if we did." (p. 122)...

nullity: the state of nonexistence [syn: nothingness, void]

It is this state which Hannay alludes to. It is, perhaps, akin to the Buddhist concept of no mind or no self. But Hannay, following the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, is also talking about the state of nothingness that the current spirit of Americanism propagates as it makes its way around the world destroying cultural identity, religious systems and world views, political systems, and traditional notions of self associated with these cultures and traditions.

In a world wherein all certainties provided by traditional beliefs and cultural norms disappear, the traditionally psychological definition of "self" and personality simply lose any meaning. The bane of the times is the amount of self fragmentation and alienation that occurs within "modern," secularized societies. How many people require some type of medication to simply get through a day in America? The alienation of self that is characteristic of American culture grows--it does not diminish.

It might seem that putting a stop to this spread of nihilism is called for, perhaps via religious fundamentalism (Xtian or Islamic or Jewish or Hindu). Maybe a new political regime will fix the world. Hannay's argument will not abide by such programmatic answers. Why? Because they do not begin at the beginning. Here the beginning is the self--the individual, I who must realize something about myself, otherwise I will simply repeat and contribute to the growing alienation--for myself and for others.

Therefore, Hannay makes a somewhat surprising proposal. Do not oppose the leveling that nihilism and modern consumerist culture brings in its wake. How can allowing this type of culture to continue its world advance be a good thing? One answer might be that such a culture returns the human to his/her basic facticity of being human. Behind this statement is the notion that what has been lost in the modern world is exactly this fact--we have forgotten how to be human.

With all the fantasy notions promoted by science fiction, entertainment, various religious and political doctrines--all destroy or have lost their ability to provide a real picture of who I am as a real human. And until I learn what that means, I simply cannot hope to belong to or create a community of other human beings. All dogmas, ideologies, socio-cultural constructs simply fade away into a world where all values are equal and none means anything.

This is the nullity that Hannay talks about. Its goodness is obviously a two-edged sword. It poses the possibility that I will engage with my own nothingness and die as a self. I'll be seduced by the many false selves that the nihilism of the age holds out as possibilities. These often simply involve losing myself in a mass anonymity wherein I abrogate all responsibility for being an individual and let the group determine who and what I am. One such possibility is the characteristic of our age: passive bourgeois self-satisfaction where one lives like a cow. Another is destructive nihilism where I believe that through acts of destruction I will reach some rock-solid base of authentic and real existence.

But doesn’t Hannay talk about anonymity? Yes, but it’s an anonymity that ultimately does not fade into social and mass forgetfulness. It is instead an anonymity that strips away all pretensions to that “healthy addiction” to the world and the happiness and sense of fulfillment I find there. It is a sober realization that much that we cherish and would die for are perhaps not that important after all. As Hannay notes, it is to accept one's humanity and try to work from there--recognizing one's nothingness while at the same time discovering what exactly that nothingness means in terms of living a human life.

Friday, March 17, 2006


How to Learn Your True Worth During the Plague

For centuries, humans have faced the terror and desolation of plagues. While humans seem well equipped to muster social, economic, and political resources to combat invasion and war, plagues present a uniquely devastating social and personal event.

In history, who can forget the depiction of plague in Thucydides' Peloponnesian Wars? Equally discomfiting and terrible is the description of chaos and moral and physical disintegration described by Lucretius at the end of his great poem, On the Nature of Things. ...

Recent artistic renditions of the Black Plague include Ingmar Bergman’s film, The Seventh Seal? The film plays on the late 50s and early 60s philosophy of Existentialism, and its focus the facing one's own death. This philosophy said that if there is anything that brings home the depth and solitary anxiety of human life it is death.

But humans know death in many forms. There's death by accident and chance, murders, and of course warfare. Then there are the less tragic, more peaceful forms of death, those deaths the ancients called blessed. Each form of death, no doubt, carries its own meaning for each human who dies under its form.

Yet the more peaceful a death and the longer one has lived, the more it seems to make death's appearance less intimidating, less terrible. Then we say, "Well, they lived a long life." The length of one's life seems to ameliorate the anxiety associated with death. Yet, even here, I wonder how much people who have lived long do not in some way fear the final flickering of the flame.

As Plato noted in Republic, when facing death people begin to wonder about what's after death. They go over what they have done in life and begin to assess their lives in terms of what moral harm they did to themselves and to others. It is then, Plato writes, that some begin to take stories of eternal reward and punishment more weightily.

Yet, some forms of death strike terror into people's spirits more than any other form of death. Natural catastrophes sweep away hundreds, thousands at a blow. One minute people are there, the next they are gone. Yet, it is this suddenness and purely arbitrary aspect that makes death by natural catastrophe different from, let's say, terrorist bombing or war. You wonder how much time people who die this way have to think about their fates. Perhaps they are the blessed, since they don't have to think and ponder the meaning of death any more.

Some people are not willing to grant that there are different types of death, no doubt. After all, seen from a purely objective, third person view, death is death. If you're dead, you're dead. What's different, this way of thinking goes, is a mere fantasy of the mind, the spirit with too much time on its hands a sickly soul a cowardly soul fearing phantoms and illusions of other worlds.

Perhaps these realists are right; but I do not think that many will accept the basic assumption that their own death is not somehow important at least to the one who dies, whether or not they were something in the grander scheme of socio cultural life.

A prominent item in the news is the threat of a new plague, commonly called the avian flu. One way to look at the threat of mass death brought on by this plague is to see its purely social and economic impacts.

The Washington Post reports:
"Prevention is better than a cure. The disease is not only a threat to health, but where it strikes, it jeopardizes economic growth and poverty alleviation," the E.U.'s external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero Waldner, said at a news conference in Brussels.
No doubt, this is the right way to look at it. Yet, I wonder how much of this is not a way to counter the very real terrors raised at a purely human level that the plague poses.

If there are such things as different kinds of death, then that qualitative difference must be subjective; it cannot be captured in quantitative terms. With the concerns over the bird flu, this anxiety is waiting to burst forth from the reports that describe its presence.

Words such as panic are hidden in out of the way paragraphs, for it as if were one to make the events that the words describe prominent, then the very thing itself would manifest itself, bringing social dissolution and untold moral horrors in its wake. Every precaution is taken in these articles to assure us that everything is under control, the authorities have the situation in command, the doctors and disease experts are on site.

And they probably do. No doubt this form of influenza and its minor tremblings will disappear under the attack of modern medicine and organizational and political acumen.

Yet, there is something unique about the threat posed by plague. This form of death carries its own subjective terrors and threats. Unlike wars, where humans band together and support each other in a showing of solidarity where people die for the homeland, sing patriotic tunes, kill for comrades and die in their arms the plague has none of this.

The plague is a uniquely individuating event. As Soren Kierkegaard noted over 150 years ago in talking about cholera:
The Significance of Cholera is in its tendency to train men to be single individuals [Enkelte], something neither war nor any other calamity does they herd men together instead. But the plague disperses into single individuals and teaches them, physically, that they are single individuals. (Journals and Papers, Trns. By Howard and Edna Hong)
For Kierkegaard, at least, the plague turns humans into individuals. Whereas before they stick together, band together, to face a common threat, the plague separates out and leaves you alone with yourself. There's nothing anyone can do for you.

And your death means nothing to anyone. It is both chance and not chance. Some are taken and others not; death seems as whimsical in who dies as in who does not. There's no human agency involved and the time it takes to die is often extended. In its most terrible form, people who otherwise called themselves neighbors suddenly turn against each other and will do anything to survive.

But even more noteworthy for Kierkegaard is the notion that each individual must fight the disease on their own. No one can fight it for you. Through your fight with death you are singled out as the one who will die and no one else. In many cases, there's nothing anyone can do except to provide the medicine and then you are on your own.

War trains you to believe that to survive you must rely on others—plague teaches you that you and you alone must learn to survive; how you do so and what or who you rely is another matter. There is no one you can rely on, it leaves you alone—spiritually and physically.

Why does Kierkegaard emphasize the “physical” aspect of this training? No doubt, it has to do with the fact that we are educated bodily into being members of a group. We spend years trying to beat our bodies into a shape and form that others will find attractive, appealing, easy to endure. There is much of this training that predisposes us to act and react at a non individual level but instead on a purely cliquish one.

Why this is important for Kierkegaard is that the modern age is filled with mechanisms, structures, and life forms whose main goal is to train and indoctrinate us into a purely hive like experience. Instead of living and thinking about what life means in any but purely materialistic terms, the plague will train humans to break down that unconsciously formed psychological armor that leads outward instead of inward to the path of self knowledge.

Some historians suggest that the Black Plague laid the basis for the Renaissance. Writers like Boccaccio and his fellow countrymen suffered horribly during this plague and came to see something about themselves that they had not seen beforehand.

Of course, such events do not need to cause change in institutions, society, or political systems. If they do occur, however, perhaps the future plague will change the present advance of nihilism around the world. If it does so, it will be because the plague will teach each of us once again what it means to be an individual.

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Tuesday, March 07, 2006


Just Don't Dirty My Doorstep

Two recent stories on the toll taken by bombing in Iraq. The little-noticed and now forgotten Lancet report, that estimated that some 60,000 Iraqi civilians had died as the result of US bombs, begins to take on new importance. Dahr Jamail, who has reported on this before, also weighs in with his on-the-scene descriptions of the carnage wrought by US "precision bombs."

Now that the Pentagon and the President are feeling the heat for military deaths in Iraq, they think that using air power will mollify some of the war criticism here at home. With elections coming up, Bush wants to give his lock-step myrmidons some wiggle-room on Iraq so they can continue their putsch of the Senate and the House. ...

Once you start telling people that you're using precision bombs, then the rationale gains credence that anyone who dies as a result does so almost magically. A precision-bomb doesn't kill--like a belated birthday present, it's the thought that counts anyway, right? We don't mean to kill, maim, and rip apart men, women, and children--it's the bomb's fault, something wrong in the wiring, or the programming, or not enough grease in the gears. Something like that.

And people will buy this rationale, because

* they don't want to know that innocents die in war
* no Iraqi's innocent anyway, since they're all potential terrorists
* if they don't dirty my doorstep, I don't need to know about it

I've covered this aspect of the war before. In a previous post, I explained that in America people think there are places where's it's okay for other people to kill each other. These are the "killing allowed" zones. Places like slums, depressed areas, high-crime areas, etc. are open zones where, while the death rate is regrettable, there's not much you can do about it. And anyway, human nature being what it is, people will kill and it's better that it happen there--that it have a place to "get it out of the system" before it threatens other areas.

These killing allowed zones are much like red light districts. America's the land of compromise and yankee pragmatism. We all know that people will have illicit sex--for whatever reason--so let's just limit it in scope and let it happen, but make sure that it doesn't dare encroach on the places where good people live. In the same way, Iraq has become the ox-blood part of the American empire.

This is all part of Bush's plan. Like any good posse knows, you trick the bad guys into the canyon and then bushwhack them. The problem in Iraq, of course, is that the bushwhack has now turned into a free-fire zone. In this script, the posse kicks in doors when everyone's asleep, holds everyone at gunpoint, then hauls off the men-folk to jail so they can be properly softened up to get information one way or the other.

There are so many ways to see how this war fits one man's demented lack of ethical depth. Playing into the public unconscious--replaying those old videos of westerns and action movies that we've grown up with--the rationales for this careen from one bad movie to another.

And like any child, the US public greedily holds on to its own fantasies--especially when it's given new presents--rather than make the hard scrabble jump to adulthood, learning what's real and what's not.

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