Saturday, October 25, 2014

Religion and Violence

Part of the problem with "the real reason" for human violence, I suspect, is that it simply does not exist. My kids, for example, fight like puppies (not always fairly or kindly), and when asked, "Why are you punching your brother, after I explicitly asked you not to?" often look up with genuinely blank faces (and even on occasion answer honestly, "I don't know"). I suspect many people genuinely don't know why they are violent (in ways that historically prove helpful--look up the benefits of play-fighting with kids--or not, e.g. jihad). They just are, and so inevitably their mind works to create justification(s) (Deus vult! national security! etc.) for a prior existing condition (must punch someone!).

The really intractable problem here is that it is genuinely wrong (bad practice) to arrest people for thought crimes, but that is essentially what I see us having (in many cases). By thought crime here I don't mean "carefully planned, conscious crime" but pre-rational determination toward violence (without any pre-determined method or justification).

Rather than take an approach like Karen Armstrong, who seems to suggest that religion is never to blame (as a legitimate rationalization of violence: I don't believe this), I prefer to observe that religion is simply one of many tools available to foster and culture (the old word would be civilize) human violence (which is simply there in humanity, an unavoidable part of our biological heritage).  Sometimes, we use our tools to express violence well (in ways that improve quality of life); other times, we don't.  Religion, like all our tools, is in itself neutral.  It is neither evil nor good.  How we use it determines what it is in individual circumstances (its immediate valence for good and for evil).

When people talk about transcending religion, leaving it behind, etc., what they are really advocating, it seems to me, is leaving behind some aspect of humanity whose momentary expression (as violence or superstition or whatever) they don't particularly like (indeed, they might hate it--with righteous indignation).  To seize upon some momentary justification for genocide (or some other awful crime in recent human history) as itself the cause for all genocide, to proceed in the righteous struggle against genocide on the assumption that (for example) de-converting people from Islam en masse will radically alter our species' expression of violence--to me this seems fundamentally wrong (ineffective, resting on a misprision of the reality that we are a genocidal species--we commit crimes of violence, historically, including the crime known as genocide, and we invent stories to illustrate, explain, and facilitate this aspect of our character).  If we got rid of Islam today, then tomorrow would bring us another myth equally obnoxious.  If we got rid of all Abrahamic religions, the same thing would happen.  If we got rid of every traditional religion, we would simply re-invent them (and tell ourselves, as many Nazis and communists did in the last century, that our crimes against one another were justified by some modern and progressive myth--clothing our genocide, etc., in the trappings of science). 

This is why I roll my eyes when people talk of abandoning religion for something better.  There is nothing better.  People really are that stupid (and violent, and whatever it is that you don't like that you are calling 'religious').  What we can do, what we should do, is learn to confront the evil we carry inside ourselves (Christianity gets this part right with its doctrine of Original Sin).  This evil is not something separate or separable from us (Christianity gets this wrong: Grace and Salvation are bullshit, at least as commonly taught among most believers; I don't mean that nothing good can ever come from believing in them, only that most people seem to derive more lie than truth from them).  We must learn to live with ourselves as we are--with tendencies toward crime that are inseparable from our other tendencies, which as often as not are those same tendencies, in different (and better) circumstances.  We have an instinct to love: this instinct carries implicit an imperative to hate.  We have an instinct to protect what (and whom) we love: this instinct carries implicit an imperative to destroy what (and whom) we hate.  Religion, and other forms of collective and individual culture, can help us prune these tendencies.  It can direct us toward better or worse ways of expressing ourselves in whatever circumstances we might be.  But it cannot remove these tendencies entirely, not even when we make the mistake of externalizing our evil and assigning it to religion that we dislike (for any reason).  Leaving my childhood religion behind might help me become a better person, empirically speaking, but there is no guarantee that this must happen.  I will still be a human being, no matter what I do.  I will still carry with me all the causes and conditions for superstition and violence and other potentially criminal behavior that comes coded into humanity (my own and everyone else's).

This is why Greek tragedy is so gripping.  It is about looking oneself in the face, honestly, and seeing everything there.  Katharsis is not a matter of expressing or indulging rage (as many modern readers of Aristotle seem to think); it is looking deep into the recesses of one's own humanity, and seeing there the little baby emotions that might become rage (homicidal and suicidal), envy, lust, etc.  It is seeing the strength and the weakness of our species, and realizing that they are the same thing.  The same qualities that make Oedipus king and savior also make him criminal and outcast.  Until we see this reality and accept it, we are fundamentally separate from ourselves--broken, lacking integrity, unable to help others or ourselves without running an unacceptable risk of causing harm (because we think we can love without hating, serve without ruling, help without harming).  We are like children who imagine themselves able to fly because they have wings patched together with feathers and wax.  Such fantasies are cute until we walk to the edge of a real cliff and jump.    

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Lessons from Abroad

The following essay comes from a discussion about the nature of healthcare policy in the United States.  I started out wanting to talk about healthcare, and wound up addressing the entire Spanish economy as an illustration of problems we deal with in healthcare, education, employment, and government--i.e. economic and politics generally.

My personal feeling is that the USA is simply too large to have a coherent, consistent public health agenda that extends nationwide. Europe benefits from smaller administrative regions, with more homogeneous culture(s). In my experience, Europe is a gated community built to exclude outsiders (who respond by seeking to replace rather than assimilate: immigrants from the Third World do not become French, or Spanish, or Scandinavian, by and large). America is the opposite (though we keep trying to repent and become more European; unfortunately, we need cheap labor, too).

When I was living in Spain, there were serious political movements in every place I stayed whose central goal was complete autonomy. I did not meet a single population in northern Spain (over two years, I lived in these provinces: Castilla y Leon, Galicia, Vizcaya) without a significant minority who wanted nothing to do with Spain or Madrid. Some parties even wanted autonomy for smaller regions (there was a party that wanted to get Castilla out of Leon). People grew up in small regions, in neighborhoods where they could point to the house their great-grandparents occupied (which often as not was a cottage predating modern civilization). There was a very strong trend to shut the world out, to suspect "growth" and "progress" as cloaking devices for "rape" and "pillage," and to distrust outsiders permanently (because they are not from here, they do not know this place, they will take our stuff and make good with it somewhere else, somewhere we cannot follow). In America, I can move thousands of miles to a neighborhood where people have never seen me before, and the common reaction is, "Hello! Welcome to the block!" In Europe (Spain anyway), this reaction is still there (particularly if I am talking to foreigners or people who live in the city), but it is supplemented by another: "You're not from around here? Fuck you! Go back where you came from. We don't need foreign shit. It is hard enough to deal with all our own."

Everything is different (healthcare, economics, religion) in areas where people have deep-seated distrust of the novel, the foreign, the unusual. America thrives on imagining the novel optimistically: "This new treatment could work wonders for me! I might survive this illness and even come out stronger than before!" In my experience, Europeans imagine it pessimistically: "This new treatment is probably going to make me die even faster than I was already, smoking two packs a day. Fuck it, and the white horse it rode in on." My experience is colored by the reality that I have never lived in the "really cool Europe" that American Leftists like to gush over. While I met plenty of German, Dutch, and Scandinavian tourists (who were invariably tall, healthy, and very articulate in English), the local populations I met were Iberian (short, not so healthy sometimes, and incomprehensible in English). I know that Spain is not Germany, or Holland, or Sweden (or Finland: man, I love that place, though it does have a rather high suicide rate for being so awesome in so many other ways). If there is anything I learn from my limited experience with Europe, it is that poor people (in particular) do better trusting authority and novelty less. The less we aim at "wealth" (move to a big city, get a nice job and a fancy-ass house, settle down) and the more we aim at "competence" (move to a quiet place, acquire skills that make any particular job unnecessary, and live in the cheapest hovel you can afford)--the happier we will be.

Happy Spaniards knew their neighborhoods (their grocer, their doctor, their teachers), and were busy building those neighborhoods themselves--they did not trust you to come in and fix them. Even when your motives were entirely pure and you had no evil track record, they wanted you out of the way so that they could keep planting and building what they wanted, not what you wanted to give them. My purpose living in Spain, as readers of this blog know, was offering folks a chance to become Mormons. Needless to say, that did not go over very well. But I learned a lot--including two really important things about myself: I am a terrible salesman, and I hate sales. I did not sell the Spanish on Mormonism, but they certainly sold me on hating sales. That visceral distrust and dislike of advertising is something I think Americans could stand to learn.

To end this interminable comment en pointe: the official policies coming from Madrid make Spain sound like utopia (or at least, like France): free healthcare, job security, political democracy, etc. But the reality on the ground is rather different. You see, making this utopia real requires more economic strength than the nation has (leading some of the least economically depressed regions, e.g. Catalunya and Vizcaya, to produce large numbers of citizens who openly, loudly, and even militantly desire to secede from Spain). This is because there is a high ceiling for legal employment (meaning that employers and the state together have to be able to guarantee healthcare, wages, votes, and acceptable living conditions to legally employed persons, such as I was during my stay). But crap jobs still need to be done, so as we do in America, the Spanish hire foreign slaves (Africans and South Americans, and some Eastern Europeans)--who are willing and able to work for pennies that people have as opposed to the euros that dreamers (officials, humanitarians, managers, EU bureaucrats, Spanish bureaucrats) want to give them. There is this perverse dynamic at play whereby native Spanish youth have nothing to do (employing them would be exploitation, i.e. illegal and punishable as a criminal offense), so they must sit around on the street and in their parents' basements collecting pensions from the state (mostly; it occasionally cannot pay!) while Africans, Arabs, native Americans (many from Ecuador and Colombia), Bulgarians, and Albanians keep everything running for wages. The Spanish folk in my age bracket, while I was there (as a 19-, 20-, and 21-year-old) spent most of their time walking around town, smoking, making out in street-corners, getting drunk, playing video games or watching TV, and harassing people like me. Were they better off than I, health-wise, job-wise, education-wise (tuition was cheap)? In some ways, yes. In others, no

Monday, October 20, 2014

Semper Fidelis

I am increasingly of the opinion that modern Western police (many police, maybe not all) exist to clean up after crimes, to beat suspicious people up (especially if they are poor and otherwise defenseless: worst-case scenario, the cop just goes nuts and starts dropping bodies), and to collect a nice pension.

Crime prevention isn't really part of the picture (unless you think those press conferences mean something useful: I suppose there might also be real utility from classes that some officers give, e.g. explaining to youngsters what they see in terms of crime in any given community and how they would advise avoiding it). One problem I consistently have is that I feel some of the onus (for preventing crime) should be on me, rather than police. I feel that modern police have too much responsibility (protect and serve me, officer! I am too helpless to do anything in the way of protecting myself) and too little liability (saving that grown-up baby's bacon required killing a few lowlifes? no prob! back on the job tomorrow, with a raise!).

Communities that work, it seems to me, are communities in which we all take turns shouldering the real burden of "serving and protecting" ourselves--rather than passing the buck to professional mercenaries (who may or may not be assholes: in my mind, that is a different problem; I suspect many of these are honorable, and many are not). People (especially people in positions of authority or aspiring to such positions) need to spend some time "in the trenches" with soldiers and police, it seems to me. One of the great problems of our time is that we have leaders and citizenry utterly blind (in practical terms) to the realities of human violence. Professors, politicians, and clergy cannot really offer a useful, practical perspective on violence if they are never confronted with it--if they never have to deal with it in real time, with life and limb on the line.

I like the old Swiss model (every able-bodied citizen spends some time in the military / police), precisely because it involves ordinary citizens learning to provide protection and service to themselves, at a realistic cost (to themselves and the whole community). The Left would probably hate me if I became mayor (or anybody with political clout), because I would want to resurrect the militia (local military and police) as something to which every able-bodied voter must contribute. You put in your time--not necessarily in the line of fire, but close enough to see it--or you forfeit your right to vote on anything that involves public defense (because you are not qualified to have an opinion: the shepherd does not take a vote from the sheep when deciding how to fend off wolves). I think this model is the only way to create police and military forces that does not ultimately incentivize corruption. Of course I remain open to counter-argument, but for now that is where I stand.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Building My Identity

This article touches the fundamental problem with identity politics: the real Muslim (the real Christian, the real feminist, the real white man, etc.) does not actually exist. The identities we construct for ourselves are at some point uniquely personal, an expression of the particular self whose idiosyncrasy rejects (and breaks) every universal mould. Identity politics as an exercise require me to identify myself wrongly with people who look like me in some fashion, and then to go out and apply this mischaracterization to other people, as well. Identity politics, even when they are most factual (dealing practically with people who for whatever reason appear to act en masse), ask us to behave as pawns (the agents of some collective to which we must belong, to which we owe our identity). It is unfortunately true that I will owe many of my life's goods to groups that include people and things I find immoral, but that seems to me like something to limit wherever possible, rather than to celebrate. I would not choose to enumerate at great length the ways in which I am and must be the helpless agent of some larger identity (religious, political, cultural) that controls me against my own better judgement. I would prefer to dwell on the ways I can break these moulds, can defeat the mandate that I pick a faceless tribe and then stand with them no matter what.

It seems to me that the best way to defeat identity politics (which I regard as evil) or the evils of identity politics (for those who think that identity politics are good) is to quietly refuse to conform to the agenda of your "tribes" (the groups who seek to claim you as their pawn because you practice a certain religion, dress a certain way, come from a certain ethnic background, etc.). My identity is a temporary thing, fraught with many limits such that it inevitably becomes evil, to me and to other people, at some point. In light of this reality, I seek to make that ego as little active as possible in the world around me. I don't lend my weight to causes waged by "my tribes" against others merely because "everybody who looks like you is doing it." I do not know what all academics, all males, all white people (etc.) are up to, as a group. I don't want to put myself in a position where I have to know, where I make myself liable for some kind of gang activity that pretends (inevitably falsely) to speak for "our kind." We have no kind: you are one self, and I am another. Superficial likeness might conceal vast oceans of difference, so vast in my experience that I always assume we are more unlike than like until I see you acting, until I know you--as a person, not a stereotype.

The tribe that I want around me is not a nation, not a race, not an ethnos, nor a worldwide religion. I want real family and friends, people I know personally from historical interaction. If I am to go to war, to make bets with my life, to take risks with uncertain causes and conditions in a troubled world, then I am going to do it not for an imaginary identity or camaraderie (nationalism, racism, chauvinism, capitalism, Christianity, etc.). I am going to do it for friends and family I love, because I see immediately how their survival demands it. I do not care that my friends and family look like me in some superficial way (i.e. that they have language like mine, skin like mine, ethnic background like mine, or religion like mine). I care that they show me moral integrity I can respect, especially where it differs from my own. The more I embrace this integrity, and the people who come with it into my life (from all kinds of odd places), the less I identify myself with the "tribes" that sociology textbooks want to put me in. My friends and family can come from any religious background (I am on intimate terms with many different kinds of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and atheists). They can be any number of races (and they are). They can come from many different countries (and they do). I want to make my identity from them, from their small diversity, rather than take the large monotony of society's tribes as my heritage. I want my ego to reflect the people I love and care about, more than the people who look like me superficially.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Politics of Divergence

It seems to me that there are some communities too large to function democratically (the USA and the EU among them: Massachusetts does not want to live like Texas, and Germans don't want to live like Greeks). Sometimes, the best long-term solution is not "to enable agreement on a generally accepted solution" (or otherwise validate the idea that we all have the same interest where it is clear that we do not and cannot)--but to facilitate diversity, divergence and experimentation, admitting up front that there is no such thing (existent or creatable) as a single policy for all Americans or Europeans. I think the idea of "one policy to rule them all" (whether all the states in the USA or in the EU) is always going to break down catastrophically at some point (even in the domains where it works best, e.g. military alliances).

The use of irreconcilable differences in philosophy to discuss the limits of human ability to suppress divergence is not wrong, of course. Philosophy is one symptom of this human trait. But it is hardly the only such symptom (others would be the observation that people don't visit the same stores on the same schedule, or buy the same things in those stores; we don't all study the same subjects in school; if we do, we don't study them the same way; we don't do the same jobs; if we do, we don't do them the same way; etc.). It is wrong to think that this intractability between you and me boils down to nothing more than a vapid difference of philosophical opinion or expression--that there is nothing serious or intractable behind it. Historically, there is something there. A resistance to monotony and conformity that is always in the end stronger than any force we can bring to bear to make monotony and conformity universal and permanent. We have brought some really powerful forces to bear (e.g. the world wars in the last century, the Civil War in the United States before that) without achieving our object. Some of us see this and conclude that the object is one that we should not waste any more time pursuing, but others are still eager for the scheme of one policy to rule them all.

I have a significant philosophical problem with the existence of a central bank. This is not precisely the same thing as my problem with the existence of authorities with claim to rule the most intimate decisions of my life. At some point in the negotiations (between me and the central authorities who want to control me the way farmers control cattle), I am going to break away--either to run from the policy I don't like or to fight it (with whatever arms seem likeliest to avail). In today's climate, these arms are probably not militant, since the central bank has more firepower than I could ever hope to have--more than I would regard it as safe to use. So probably I will end up advocating for some kind of civil disobedience, in the tradition of Gandhi and Thoreau--and our own Martin Luther King, who did so much to fix problems the Civil War could only bring to a boiling head.

We cannot all live the same life.  At some point, your life would kill me in ways that I don't like, and vice versa.  I must give you room to live as yourself, without me, and you must reciprocate.  If we cannot do this, if we must choose one of our lives as "the one true life" and force it upon the other willy-nilly, then we are deciding to kill someone.  Are you willing to kill me now?  Maybe so.  There are acceptable reasons to want me dead.  But I would hope that these are only invoked when absolutely necessary, when peace between us is really impossible.  I would rather have another Great Depression than kill off half of society (even if that meant avoiding said depression).    

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Defending the Family

Another rant about gay marriage, and the religious Right in America.  This one comes on the eve of the 9th Circuit ruling against the right of states to define marriage as the union between one man and one woman, and the vow of certain state governors to fight this decision.

It seems to me that the surest way to destroy authority (and tradition) is to invoke it in ways that are patently absurd (and in this case, unjust).

The greatest enemy to heterosexual marriage and family, in any traditional sense, right now, in the United States, is the political movement that wants to strengthen these by attacking things outside them. Burning your garden down does not make mine grow better: in fact, if you look closely, you will see that while I have been wasting time and energy trying to kill yours (in vain), mine has become a neglected sea of weeds and garbage. "It's the gays' fault!" No, morons. It is your fault for wasting time attacking the gays instead of minding your own garden, your own business, your own family, your own tradition.

If I want a good garden, I have to go out and work--not find somebody else to blame. If I want to make myself strong, I have to go out and work--not punish you for going to a gym I don't like. If I want a good education, I have to go out and work--not punish you for studying something I wouldn't study. If I want to wear a burkha, I put one on: I don't come to your house and make you wear it against your will, no matter what the majority of people in our area believe about anything.

The worst thing about this political putsch from the Right is that it is so blatantly anti-American (in the old sense: it ignores the separation between church and state and makes "religious freedom" a piece of specious rhetoric). Essentially, these people want to enact their own brand of sharia in the US, and call this "religious freedom" (it is my religious freedom to make you wear a burkha, because if you don't, Satan wins; if you dispute this, it is because Satan owns you, and you cannot be trusted--you must be burned at the stake as a heretic). Hello, Inquisition! Hello, fascism! This is simply absurd (without rational standing) and dangerous (likely to break society more than defend it).

My final word on this nonsense from the Right is that even if letting gays marry did create opportunity for really bad things to happen (somehow, in ways I have yet to perceive), I would be for it. The same way I am for allowing heterosexual, traditional marriages that end in crime (or just divorce, pain, and suffering). You don't ban things simply because somebody somewhere might conceivably get hurt doing them. Eating is dangerous, but we all have to eat--and we don't all have to eat the same thing, the same way, at the same time: that would be bad. Kind of like we don't all have to marry the same way. That would be really bad, for everyone--straights included. But who is going to protect us from that? Who will defend us when one of Jesus' American mullahs receives a revelation commanding us to participate in the one true order of marriage or be damned--in this life and the next? I will take any defense I can get from this dangerous bullshit, including defense from "activist" judges (who in my view are simply doing what we created them to do, i.e. rule on problems within the historical legal framework that constitutes the official life of our society).

Here's a thought. Maybe, just maybe, people will have the moral fortitude to live decent lives on their own, without the mullahs--without a bunch of external "defense" (that seems not to do anything besides grind on the face of those unfortunate enough to appear untraditional from some narrow, hypercritical vantage-point). Maybe my marriage needs to live on its own, without taking yours (or a celebrity's) as some kind of fixed reference point (which it never was anyway). Maybe the best way to strengthen my marriage is to make it owe as little as possible to the kind of culture that values tearing others down more than allowing them the chance to make something beautiful of their lives--something that they choose and do for themselves (with success or failure: the outcome is irrelevant; what matters is that they have the option, the choice, the capacity to try something they want to try).