What is Love? (baby don’t hurt me)

So let’s get one thing out of the way- the title of my blog is Amorinoblog because that’s just my last name. But I think it was Jung who said that names sometimes direct the course of a person’s life in unseen ways. The deep unconscious definitely exists, that’s one thing I know for a fact through my experiences as a person. My unconscious is constantly operating and making connections for me and directing my life in ways I never consciously could. But a friend recently drew my attention to the fact that my blog could be read as “amor (love) in blog”. Now that’s something.

My last name is Portuguese in origin, and it translates to cupid or little love, the diminutive form of love. I don’t know the origin of this name or why it was the name of a family in Portugal, but I’ve always felt that my name has a certain guiding role for me or spiritual kind of power. At least personally. In Tibetan culture, indeed most cultures outside of the West, names have power, they are more directly attached to things in the world, their meanings aren’t obscure or etymological. But using Tibetan/Bhutanese culture as an example, children are named after holy or auspicious things such as jewels (Pema) and holy sceptres (Dorje). Sometimes they are just named Karma, pretty straightforward. Name is destiny. Tenzin Gyatso, the name of the Dalai Lama, literally means Ocean of Wisdom.

So what is love? Love for most of us is the personal feeling of loving specifically another person. It is based on certain characteristics about a person, based on familial familiarity, on things like kinship or friendship. Is love these things? On a relative level, the answer has to be yes. Simply “letting go” of these attachments often doesn’t work or is detrimental. But is love an attachment?

First of all, in my mind, there can be attachment that mutually fulfills two people, and attachment that is essentially negative in character. But the fundamental insight that the Buddha had was that love is based on the desire for permanence, a permanence that cannot ultimately be satisfied. Attachment leads to suffering. This does not mean that breaking attachments does not lead to suffering as well.

Is it possible to love without being attached? I think this is the meaning of karuna, or the Sanskrit term for compassion. In ultimate karuna, there is no desire for ANY kind of repayment in one’s love. Most love is selfish- it wants to be loved. Kind of like the John Lennon Love is Real- “Love is wanting to be loved”. Well hate to disagree with John, but real love does not need anything in return. A mother’s love approaches this kind of love, it is a good model for thinking about it, but even a mother desires her son or daughter to repay them with kindness, and this should be our desire as well. But this should, this ethical dimension to love, is what is lacking I think in people’s everyday understanding of love.

Christian love, brotherly love- this of course approaches this concept as well. But ultimately, even Christian dogma reproduces the idea that God is a “jealous” god (maybe more Judaism, but its still in the Bible, so sorry Slavoj). Now from a Buddhist point, the idea that God is jealous is very strange. The whole idea of divinity in Eastern religion is based on the idea that one has achieved liberation from negative emotion. The essential insight of Buddhist psychology is the idea of the near enemy. Love has as its near enemy jealousy, determination has as its near enemy stubbornness, and so on. Maybe the Nichomachean ethics is like this as well, but I’m not sure.

So maybe it could be phrased like this- love is a desire, but Love is a desire to not only help, but free any living being from suffering.

It is the identification of love purely with personal happiness that has caused many problems in our culture, even beyond material structural problems. It has caused us to ignore our neighbor, it has created callousness in the upper classes. This is why Jesus said “I come with the sword”, as well as the famous parable about the eye of the needle- because his message was one of righteous indignation at the treatment of the poor.

At the end of the day, its not that our understanding of love has to be reintegrated into any particular sort of Theology, as fundamentalists claim. True love for me actually isn’t God’s love, unless it is as an ideal. True love is compassion for the suffering.

I also believe, as Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche says in his book Not for Happiness, that we have to modify our Western idea of compassion as trying to materially aid the poor and the meek, the normal objects of compassion for probably most people. Ultimate highest compassion encompasses every single living thing, including our enemies, political or otherwise. For me this is a valuable lesson for leftist movements. We will never sway the masses with hatred. As much hate and resentment as we feel is justified for those that hoard resources at the expense of the “wretched of the Earth”, I feel fundamentally that the idea that revolution can only be achieved by violent revolution has to be wrong. For our mutual survival, it has to be wrong- the stakes are ultimately too high, in an age of nuclear weapons, to repeat the mistakes of the 20th century. Non-violence is the solution of the 21st century, where it was only a glimmer of hope in the 20th.

To me, one of the best exemplars and expressions of love in the recent past was Martin Luther King Jr. He represents for many people still today the hope and promise of a better tomorrow, a real fighter for social justice, who was not afraid to call out hypocrisy, but used his prophetic voice to advocate for a higher calling. It is people like MLK, Bishop Oscar Romero, the Dalai Lama- in short, advocates of Peace and Human Rights, who knew and advanced our notion of what love is. It is fitting that two of the people I just mentioned won the Nobel Prize for Peace, and one of them is in the process of becoming beatified as a saint.

I don’t want to turn this into a debate about non-violent vs. violent tactics of the oppressed- all I know is that despite certain gains made by violent revolution, they came at great cost, and often reproduced systems of oppression in the long run. Whether non-violent revolutions like the Indian revolution ultimately worked is a different story. But I know that our message now for how to change our world has to not only be practical but ethical. Non-violence or ahimsa is both practical and ethical. 

As the Dalai Lama says, “if you have to be selfish, be selfish wisely- love others!”

Also, kudos to the developers of wordpress for making it so that it saves your draft as you write. I accidentally swiped left on my keyboard and thought I lost my post. Saves a whole lot of frustration with that feature



Real skeptics hate Sam Harris

In this article on RationalWiki, the junk science racist book The Bell Curve by Charles Murray is broken apart for what it really is (see the caption for the image of the book- “Eugenics for the masses!”). This firmly demonstrates that the real Skeptic community is not on the side of Sam Harris, who apparently isn’t as deeply ingrained into that ideology as I once thought. How does Sam Harris fit into this? Well he gave a pandering interview to Charles Murray on his podcast “Waking Up.” I’m trying to get through it, but I’m cringing through every second of this non-sourced, non-fact checked drivel.

First of all, to be substantive, Sam Harris claims (as does Charles Murray) that 50-80% of intelligence is inherited. These arguments are partly based on studies done of monzygotic (identical) twins. However, as Jay Joseph indicates in his meta-analysis of twin studies, the advocates of nature over nurture in terms of intelligence have ignored some systemic biases in their data. I will add one more source of bias to the ones Joseph lists, namely WEIRD bias, or having samples that are exclusively from Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic countries. Therefore, even if you control for sociodemographic factors within a certain country, unless you are doing a multi-country analysis from several different regions of the world, you cannot really generalize these psychological studies, even if they have good methodologies otherwise, to the entirety of humanity.

Leaving twin studies aside, the most conservative estimates of the “percentage of intelligence” determined by genetics are 40%. Unfortunately, if you simply trust Wikipedia on this, you will get the same 50-80% figure parroted by Harris. So let’s chock this one up to: the jury is still out. And if this was the only reason why The Bell Curve and Sam Harris’ interview of Murray was troublesome or problematic, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post. Oh no. Of course, Murray racializes the debate.

Now in anthropology, we take the topic of race and intelligence seriously, given the fact that our discipline has had a sordid past tainted by eugenicists, evolutionists, and people that tried to claim that some populations were inherently superior to others. Although the discipline arose largely as a reformist science, several individuals tried to take anthropologist down that eugenicist road in the 20th century. Nevertheless, anthropologist Jonathan Marks does a systematic critique of the Bell Curve in this article. His essential argument boils down to this: “The most direct antecedent of the Bell Curve is a loose confederacy of ideas collectively known as social Darwinism, popular in America in the latter portion of the 19th century.” Not only that: there is a direct line of intellectual connection between Charles Murray and early social Darwinists, through a shady funding organization known as the Pioneer Fund, founded by Harry Laughlin, a bona fide eugenicist who received his degree from Heidelberg University in 1937. You heard me right, a Nazi university. So, not only does Murray cite eugenicists, he cites Nazi sympathizers! It gets worse, because the Pioneer Fund provided money for the Bell Curve to be sent by mail to every name on the mailing list of the American Anthropological Assocation, the American Sociological Association, and the American Psychological Association: every sociologist, anthropologist, and psychologist in the country! Of course most probably threw it away as hogwash propaganda, but still!

So let’s get this out of the way now: everyone claiming that simply calling Murray a racist is a lazy intellectual argument are missing the definition of racist. The definition of racism is, from the Oxford English dictionary:

“The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.”

Murray is by definition a racist for claiming that some “populations” (that’s BS code) are intellectually superior to others.

So at this point some would claim “well then I guess being racist isn’t a bad thing by that definition”. Well, fortunately Murray fits into the other category of racist as well:

“Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior” 

Murray is obviously antagonistic towards minorities based on his stated policy prescriptions of curbing immigration and eliminating welfare. (Let’s not even touch the fact that he’s a Koch brothers-funded American Enterprise Institute connected conservative with an obvious agenda- that’s too ad hominem for some people). But I wouldn’t say its ad hominem to point out that Charles Murray is funded and aided by an organization founded by a literal Nazi. So please, let’s call a spade a spade:

Charles Murray, you’re a racist. Sam Harris, you’re at best a racist by proxy, at worst a cynical converted white nationalist working to bring about the next Third Reich. You are now two steps away from being associated with the Nazi Party. The choice is yours, Sam Harris: dissociate yourself with Charles Murray, disown him entirely, or lose whatever shred of credibility you have left. The choice is yours.




The all-too-human search for meaning

When I watch this video about “religious people and scientists finding middle ground”, I find myself not only trying, in terms of my own subjective position and beliefs, trying not to “identify” with either side of this equation. This video is probably immensely helpful for people that in Western society who may be fundamentalists or avid atheists to be respectful or compassionate toward the “other side.” Nevertheless, I find certain subjectivities and certain philosophical points of view not represented here. I am not complaining about this in the interest of a kind of identity politics: far from it. If a fundamentalist Muslim were on this panel, or a fundamentalist Orthodox Christian, there would not be this much agreement or at least good spiritedness. In fact, in this panel of rather liberal-minded religious leaders and only one scientist (the paleontologist) who seems to be avidly a staunch atheist, I find the conversation going down conventional 21st century paths.

Rather, my question is: what does it mean to be having conversations like this? Is it because morality is “innate in humanity” as the paleontologist suggested? Is it evolutionarily based? Or is culture constructed through moments like this? I argue that media like this are representations of performative tolerance, our liberal ideological era’s main tenet, as philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues. And that is not necessarily, as Zizek argues, a bad thing! Perhaps pure tolerance is the framework around which these people are gathered together, but it is also an all-too-human human desire to learn from other people, to listen, to be compassionate, to feel compassionate.

But is there really such a wide birth in the subjective positions being represented here? There is more culturally in common with a pastor and a scientist than most people would care to admit. The outlier is obviously the Buddhist monk, who seems at the end of the video to capture the attention of the other listeners when talking about dying and human suffering. That immanent attention to human suffering is not a language most Westerners are used to hearing on an everyday basis. We are much more comfortable arguing whether God exists or not.

Nevertheless, I have to admit, even given my own attachments to Buddhism, that the Zen monk is not culturally as far removed from the pastor as, say, the native shaman is from any of the people represented in this video, or rather a member of a society that is isolated from modern mainstream society. Take any member of a society from New Guinea, from the isolated Himalayan village, and add them to this conversation, and one will find that the common language of discussion (not just English) and necessary cultural background for even participation in this “debate” is not present.

When a social scientist or a student of culture sees a video like this, he not only sees the cultural dividing lines between the different ideological positions being represented, but he also sees the subjectivities that are represented, the cultural backgrounds from which these people come from.  In modern society, one’s subjectivity is almost always represented by what ideology one holds, rather than what community one belongs to. In Clifford Geertz’ work on contemporary Indonesia, Geertz observed this rationalization of religion firsthand, and the increasing division between Muslim conservative fundamentalists and indigenous reform-minded traditionalists. What this growing ideological divide obscures is the fact that this growing ideological divide in modern Indonesia is contemporaneous with a much more problematic process: modernization and the uprooting of communities themselves.

What anthropologists refer to as traditional societies do not have a common language for participation in a debate like this because it is pointless. Belief in something is not as important as the shared customs and traditions of one’s village, one’s ancestors. In many indigenous societies, this kind of “ancestor veneration” goes to the extent of venerating tradition itself for its own sake. This kind of generalization can only say so much, but it is a fact that the embodied process of creating kin is more important on a daily basis for indigenous societies than belief in this or that metaphysical construct. If beliefs are held so dear by traditional societies, it is because they represent something that is very strong indeed: a seemingly unshakable bond to the way of life that has been passed for generations. This is especially strong in contemporary indigenous societies throughout the globe.

This video ends with the modern liberal tolerant mantra: “It is important to question one’s own beliefs.” This is completely antithetical to the traditional society’s own core ethic: one’s beliefs that were passed down through one’s ancestors are sacrosanct. Sure, modern indigenous people, say in the US, are exposed to all of the ideological fronts and modern forms of scientific knowledge. However, even the modern indigenous person largely stands outside of these cultural debates. Her own traditions teach something far different: that we must learn to love the people who are actually in our lives, rather than the people across the hill. We must learn to love the earth beneath our own feet. We should not seek a metaphorical model of exploration: exploration of different lands, different worlds. Rather, we should be content to be right here. It is, in Deleuzian terms, a territorialist model, rather than a model of deterritorialization.

It should be noted that there is a critique, now parroted by the political right wing, but also by philosophers like Nietzsche, that this kind of tolerance and open-mindedness leads naturally toward believing nothing at all, to a kind of nihilism. Perhaps that is not the right way to put it. The belief in tolerance as a kind of “cultural praxis” is stronger than ever, and it is performatively enacted by members of modern society, even if the pastor may be pissed off by the paleontologist, and vice versa. I believe that is because there is an underlying dimension, a cultural and therefore necessarily political dimension, to this debate that is not being addressed. The paleontologist said it best when he began by stating that he has been combating Creationism his whole career. Why is this the case? Creationism is dangerous, in this scientist’s mind, not only for spreading beliefs that aren’t “testable” (a scientist’s favorite go-to discourse), but for the fact that evolution is *empirically useful*. It goes somewhere. It reproduces invention and progresses biology and science as we know it. The scientist, by fearing Creationism, fears not only fundamentalism, but what comes along with it: lack of appreciation for the empirical work of scientists like himself, but also the spread of potentially dangerous beliefs (like vaccines causing autism). A scientist like this is concerned not only with defending things such as modern medicine, but also probably defending against the political side of fundamentalism: the increased potential to believe in authoritarian regimes. From this perspective, its very interesting to see a Zen monk being represented from a highly industrialized country with a history of authoritarianism, rather than somewhere from the “Third World.”

What do members of the Third World have to say about these defenses of modern medicine? Well, if they are in Africa, they may believe that modern medicine is a godsend, or they may secretly or openly distrust those members of the international community forcing it upon them at the same time as they are meddling in the affairs of their country. The gap between worlds here is immense, and problems like these are what anthropologists deal with on a daily basis. The debate and cultural dividing lines represented in this video seem tame, if not silly, by comparison.

From an anthropologist’s perspective, the cultural dividing lines represented here are not the real lines that divide the world. The real lines that divide the world are between the modern and non-modern worlds, the former colonies and former colonizer countries, the First World and the Third World. Where is that debate? Furthermore, even within the confines of this country, this video and debate do not get to the heart of the problem dividing religious people from scientists: it is essentially a byword for the divide between conservatives and liberals, between Left and Right. Even then, there is more in common between them that meets the eye as well. Distractions inside of distractions…

If anything, this is more evidence that it is almost impossible without training to see one’s own culture in real perspective. The reason is because it takes a difficult look at one’s own subject position and realizing what about it may be not unique, or how it may simply be the product of history. Perhaps that even extends to your personality: now that is an uncomfortable thought for many. These are the kind of tough questions we need to ask ourselves if we truly want to begin a dialogue with people who are “Other”.

A final note: what I see in this debate, even from the Zen monk, is a lot of “I” speak. Perhaps that is the language everyone feels comfortable with. If an anthropologist was in this debate, he would probably make everyone uncomfortable with a lot of “we” speak. If we are going to have debates like this one, we should realize the historical and cultural context in which it is situated: the Scopes “monkey” trial, the “moral majority”, the Puritans, just to name a few American examples. We could also reference the French Revolution and the state-sponsored Cult of Reason, and anti-clericalism in general during the Enlightenment. If anything, I just want one social scientist or historian on panels like these: someone who is used to looking at humans either diachronically or synchronically. Perhaps that is too much to ask for: what does a historian know about religion? “That isn’t the purpose of debates like this!” And so it goes on…

Uncontacted tribes: Dispelling exoticized misconceptions

With the North Sentinelese uncontacted tribe being in the news recently because of the high-profile killing of the missionary who foolishly tried to go to the island, I feel as an anthropology student who knows a fair amount about “uncontacted” tribes that I should try to get rid of the mystique and the exoticism surrounding the label “uncontacted”.

The North Sentinelese are perfectly aware of the outside world. An anthropologist actually briefly was allowed on the island in the 1970s. They choose to be isolated from the outside world to maintain their traditional way of life. Furthermore, they are some of the most vulnerable populations on earth due to lack of exposure to viruses like influenza, and are threatened by complete demographic collapse if they are contacted again.

Amazonian uncontacted tribes in particular have had more contact than they desire with predatory loggers and cattle ranchers. Survival International states about the Akuntsu tribe that, “Just five Akuntsu survive. One of the men, Pupak, has lead shot still buried in his back, and mimes the gunmen who pursued him on horseback. He and his small band of survivors now live alone in a fragment of forest – all that remains of their land, and their people.” Pupak’s wound is a daily reminder to him of how the outside world is pressing in on “uncontacted” tribes more every day. Often times, we never hear the stories of Pupak or other members of tribes that were previously “uncontacted”, tribes like the Guayaki or Atchei-Gatu that Pierre Clastres so beautifully renders in his ethnography Chronicle of the Guayaki. 

Therefore, it is unfortunate that just when a story about an uncontacted tribe makes front page headlines, one witnesses the same exoticization and sensationalism being perpetrated by the American media. Take a look at the difference between these headlines, one by CNN and one by the BBC:

‘You guys might think I’m crazy’: Diary of US ‘missionary’ reveals last days in remote island

Andamans: US man’s death puts spotlight on ‘tribal tourism’

It is evident that the second headline from the BBC avoids the sensationalism of spotlighting the diary of the missionary and focuses on the meaning behind the death and the plight of the people who killed this man. For some reason, CNN feels compelled to emphasize the “remoteness” of the island and immediately puts the reader in the position of the white Western missionary rather than the uncontacted tribe. While tragic, this positionality is disturbed by the BBC headline and instead goes deeper than the isolated incident by framing the issue of the Andaman Islands, this tribe, and this killing within the perspective of exploitative “tribal tourism”. Tribal tourism is just one extension of the exoticization of this high-profile tribe that eventually led this man to feel the need to bring the Gospel of Jesus to these “heathens”. While one could analyze at length what this means for contemporary evangelical Christianity or its relation to the history of evangelizing indigenous tribes and colonialism, one should not forget the specifically 21st century nature of this problem and the role the media plays in perpetuating it. Exoticization of tribal people is now demonstrably a deadly thing, and outlets like CNN should be more careful with how they portray sensitive and serious subjects such as these. CNN may be 24/7 news outlet that covers entertainment stories and serious news stories, but they should not sacrifice good journalism for eye-catching headlines and lack of rigorous analysis. Unfortunately, this is par for the course for an outlet like CNN, which has been criticized for being, like Fox News, “infotainment”. All credit to the BBC for writing an excellent piece on this subject. The BBC highlights that the North Sentinelese are continually put at risk by high levels of tourism to the Andaman Islands, with over 500,000 visitors to the island per year, and meanwhile this death reveals an ongoing problem with loosening restricted permit laws for tourists on the Andaman Islands.

If you would like to learn more about uncontacted tribes, visit this link from the leading tribal rights organization in the world, Survival International. The leader of Survival International also released a statement about the Andaman Island killing, stating:

““Tribes like the Sentinelese face catastrophe unless their land is protected. I hope this tragedy acts as a wake up call to the Indian authorities to avert another disaster and properly protect the lands of both the Sentinelese, and the other Andaman tribes, from further invaders.”

Finally, one should read about the Jarawa tribe of the Andamans to understand what the North Sentinelese could become. The “human safaris” that plague the indigenous tribes of the Andamans that have stopped resisting contact have introduced more than just diseases. Rapes by tourists, poaching, and logging now all threaten the way of life of the Jarawa. Further, attempts by the Indian government to completely assimilate the tribe into “mainstream” society are underway. In conclusion, when one writes an article about the North Sentinelese without mention of the Jarawa, like CNN did but the BBC thankfully did not, you are complicit in the destruction of this tribe. Shame on you, CNN.


There is no white genocide in South Africa

This article by CNN focuses on the group known as the Suidlanders, a South African far-right militia group that propagandizes about a coming “white genocide” of white South Africans. As the article demonstrates, the leader of the Suidlanders, Simon Roche, has connections with white supremacists groups and rallies in the US. That should be enough evidence for most people to not take the claims of the Suidlanders seriously, but Fox News and President Trump have been faithfully touting the Suidlander line. The narrative of white victimhood in South Africa has been successfully planted in the US, with global consequences for the spread of right-wing fearmongering and paranoia about minorities. Right-wing groups in South Africa claim that there is an epidemic of politically motivated killings of white farmers, while the statistically few farmers that were killed were killed because of crime alone.

The reason behind the claims of coming white genocide in South Africa is the ongoing changes in land policy in South Africa. The conflation of statistically low criminal murders of white farmers and the government expropriation of land in South Africa amounts to an alt-right conspiracy by the white minority. This conspiracy theory is being globally broadcast by white South Africans to maintain a hold on power after the fall of apartheid.

White South Africans make up just 9% of the total population of South Africa while owning 75% of commercial land. Therefore, the government has embarked on a program of expropriation and redistribution of land. This arguably socialist land policy only seeks to redress the previous ills of the apartheid system, in which land was forcibly expropriated from the masses and given to the ruling racial minority. This has always been the policy since the beginning of ANC rule, but the land reform has only increased in speed and scale. Furthermore, changes have been proposed to seek expropriation without compensation. Why is compensation no longer being pursued? The answer is as much bureaucratic as it is a matter of principle: compensating farmers for the land makes the process of land redistribution take an immense amount of time and costs the government money. Fiscal conservatives should be on board with this. However, they would rather see the economic sub-class of the vast black majority in South Africa to remain virtually colonized subjects.

However, the ideology that the Suidlanders maintain is that South Africa will “become like Zimbabwe”. This excellent article explores how mass shooter Dylan Roof was obsessed with the “white genocide” in Zimbabwe and the fall of white Rhodesia, one of the most oppressive colonial regimes in Africa. So what exactly happened in geographically proximate Zimbabwe? After the fall of Rhodesia, Robert Mugabe’s social democratic ZANU-PF party came to power on a platform of land reform. According to Wikipedia:

“Although many whites had left Zimbabwe after independence, mainly for neighbouring South Africa, those who remained continued to wield disproportionate control of some sectors of the economy, especially agriculture. In the late-1990s whites accounted for less than 1% of the population but owned 70% of arable land. Mugabe raised this issue of land ownership by white farmers. In a calculated move, he began forcible land redistribution, which brought the government into headlong conflict with the International Monetary Fund. Amid a severe drought in the region, the police and military were instructed not to stop the invasion of white-owned farms by the so-called ‘war veterans’ and youth militia. This has led to a mass migration of White Zimbabweans out of Zimbabwe. At present almost no arable land is in the possession of white farmers.” 

It is evident from the quote that the hard numbers of Zimbabwean land distribution were even starker than is the case in South Africa. Forcible expropriation or taking of land by the government did occur, but conflicts arose as a result of white farmers fighting back. There was an exodus of white people from Zimbabwe, and this is what the white farmers in South Africa really fear: not being killed, but being landless, which is ironically just what happened to black South Africans during apartheid. Furthermore, the ANC has gone out of its way to distance itself from the authoritarian tactics of Zimbabwe:

“Last week, David Mabuza, the country’s deputy president, looked to allay fears when he addressed the Land Summit in the northern Limpopo province. He said that no farms would be invaded or grabbed and that farmers did not have to fear for their well-being.

‘As the leadership of the ANC and government, we are clear that the implementation of land reform measures must not result in social fractures and racial polarisation,’ Mabuza said.”

The ANC is only fulfilling its mandate to end the effects of apartheid, which still linger on. Officially, legal apartheid ended, but economic apartheid, which is perhaps the most damaging legacy of the racial caste system, remained. The fact that historical apartheid is rarely mentioned in US conservative media when addressing this issue speaks to general lack of historical consciousness of the American people and the ease to which the right-wing media is able to perform propaganda tricks to its misinformed audience. It is also a worrying development in a time when the usual conservative propaganda only flirts with “demographic collapse” and fearmongering about minorities rather than embracing downright conspiracy theories. Fox News has seized on Venezuela as an example of why socialism doesn’t work. The Left should seize on Fox News’ and conservative media’s conspiracy theorizing about South Africa as a breakdown in intellectual discourse, the point where Alex Jones becomes indistinguishable from Fox News. In the Trump era, nothing seems to shock anymore. But the idea that the American people can forget the 1980s, the fall of apartheid, and Nelson Mandela and what he stood for I am not willing to accept. The narrative of white victimhood is now routinely trumpeted on conservative media, and is the slow cooking recipe for fascism. However, because of the changing demographic nature of the US, I am hopeful that some of the reactionary views of the white demographic in the US are the last gasps of a dying racist backlash.

There is now a global intersection of right-wing groups in the English speaking world. The Brexiters and UKIPites are talking with Trumpites. The Suidlanders are talking with UKIPers. To counter this growing anti-immigrant, far-right populism that is growing in Europe and elsewhere, we need a real Left alternative, one that offers real solutions to ordinary peoples problems, one that is staunchly anti-corruption, pro-democracy, and doesn’t sell out. This Left alternative is doing the proper thing in South Africa by attempting to address the everyday problems of black South Africans by fixing the systemic problem of the economic legacy of apartheid. This is something that should be celebrated, not decried- if you aren’t a racist.

Is the policy that South Africa is currently pursuing the right one? In terms of expropriating without compensation, I believe a possible compromise should occur in certain circumstances in terms of small commercial farms. However, paying the full value of the land is usually not possible because of price inflation, and meanwhile the  people of South Africa remain economically deprived. According to Al Jazeera, “more than 60 percent of South Africans now live in urban areas, and the struggle over land is no longer a question of resolving historical dispossession but a matter of inclusion in the country’s economy.” 11% of these urban households are “informal settlements”- in other words slums. There are real concerns about this land reform policy will be implemented, such as how beneficiaries of this new policy will be selected. But a simple look at the economic figures- 30% black unemployment in South Africa compared to 6.7% for whites, for example- makes clear the necessity for land reform. Unfortunately, a simple look at the economic figures is deliberately not in the game plan for Fox News and other alt-right media. So remember, if you ever encounter the “white genocide in South Africa” talking points, remember apartheid, and remember the slums of Johannesburg.

Finally, watch this video by Tucker Carlson to understand the scary effectiveness of right-wing on this subject. Notice how the bulk of their claims are built off of lack of statistics, lack of any context about apartheid and its real material consequences, and out of context video footage of a certain radical politician in South Africa who evidently uses anti-white rhetoric. The fact that Tucker Carlson, a person I believe genuinely believes what he believes, can’t contextualize those feelings and rhetoric in the context of the brutal history of apartheid is stunning. What is most worrying of all the synchronicity of the conservative media and the US state department and President. Fox News is now effectively the mouthpiece of the President and faithfully repeats their line.



A defense of skepticism


As an anthropologist, I am usually a proponent of respect for “non-Western worldviews” (whatever that means). However, I noticed something problematic in the comments section of this video by the channel Genetically Modified Skeptic. This video is a deconstruction of the Gaia channel/streaming platform, which is purportedly a channel devoted to alternative medicine and paranormal subjects, but Genetically Modified Skeptic claims it is a essentially a scam. I believe he is correct, and I believe that Gaia is promoting pseudoscience.

However, in the comments section of this video, the argument that this channel is simply “counteracting scientism, which is a new religion”, trying to counterbalance Western rationalism, and promoting non-Western worldviews was prevalent. I saw almost verbatim all of these arguments being employed. I argue that there is a significant difference between counterbalancing rationalism and the Western dualistic extreme of irrationalism, and that categories such as this are a product of the Western mind and its long philosophical history of the Enlightenment vs. Romanticism, reason vs. passion, etc. Spirituality as it is understood by the purveyors of New Age spirituality and New Age pseudoscience is fundamentally different from non-Western worldviews. Furthermore, the Marxist argument of religion as false consciousness can be legitimately employed in this regard, if one takes into account the full and original purview of Marxian thought on religion.

Philosopher Slavoj Zizek talks about how leftists and legitimate intellectuals should distance themselves from the fundamentally irrationalist ideas currently in vogue among some of the “politically correct” Left. Among this crowd, the ideas of postmodernism and deconstruction have been hijacked to advocate for a kind of ecological New Age spiritualism. Funnily enough, the essence of this problematic is found in the “Gaia hypothesis”, a theory proposed by chemist James Lovelock, in which the Earth can be considered a self-regulating biological “organism”. This theory has been co-opted by advocates of New Age spirituality who interpret the hypothesis as a neo-Pagan religion. Furthermore, from a theoretical and scientific point of view, the theory has flaws. One example of a flaw in this theory is that as a self-regulating system, the earth should seemingly be able to adapt to climate change. On a purely semantic level, calling this theory the “Gaia hypothesis” opens up a Pandora’s Box of anthropomorphization and attributions of sentience to entities that do not have any. Zizek goes on to argue that the Gaia hypothesis fits within the capitalist ideological framework of environmentalism as an essentially individual problem: we must “get back to nature” rather than looking structurally at the concrete environmental struggles and policies that shape the planet. Rather than looking at the planet as simply an ecosystem, the Gaia hypothesis stretches this hypothesis and essentializes the concept of ecosystem as inherently stable and permanent, instead of fragile and vulnerable. Viewing Earth as the “providing Mother”, while it has deep roots in ancient religions across the world, is no longer tenable in the Anthropocene, in which human-induced climate change can change the very dynamics that have structured the earth on geological time scales.

The Gaia platform obviously embraces this double-edged sword of a concept. But the concept is not without its merits on a purely formal level: seeing things as interconnected is not wrong. However, the manner in which they are interconnected is ignored in favor of a holistic, largely “essentialist” spiritual worldview. Rather than seeing those interconnections as a potential problem (like the cascading effects of climate change), interconnection has become the buzzword of the New Age movement.

Genetically Modified Skeptic does a good job of summarizing what Gaia is all about, so I won’t repeat his assessment. Rather, I’d like to focus in on why Gaia is not promoting “non-Western worldviews”, but rather cultural appropriations of non-Western worldviews jumbled together with scientific claims that are untenable.

One of Gaia’s video categories on their streaming service is “yoga”. What hasn’t been said before about the cultural appropriation of yoga by white, Western liberals? I’ll try my best to summarize. Essentially, yoga became popular during the 1960s during the counterculture movement as more people began to explore Eastern spirituality. Because these Americans were “open-minded people”, they did not want to adhere to the strict traditions of a particular system, but rather saw yoga as a “consciousness-expanding tool”. The downside of this worldview is that what made yoga effective in the first place, as a system of meaning within a larger cultural framework, dissolved in favor of yoga as either a general spiritual “healing technique” or a purely physical exercise. Sure, the buzzwords about “enlightenment” and “opening the soul” remains, but not in its original forms. One could argue that yoga never really “worked” in this regard, but the fact remains that the proper respect to the original traditions that practiced yoga (Hinduism and Buddhism) was not given. Furthermore, the idea of practicing yoga as a person who is not a devotee of these original faiths is as alien as taking the eucharist without being a Catholic, or wearing a yarmulke without being Jewish as a fashion statement. It is basically a statement of personal choice, a hobby rather than a spiritual commitment.

Gaia enthusiasts may vehemently disagree with me when I say that they do not practice as a spiritual commitment, or may argue that they are free to practice yoga as they please, and that yoga is not the explicit property of Hindus or Buddhists. However, I argue that they are not practicing yoga at all, but rather a distorted version of it. Furthermore, I argue, at least within the confines of Tantric Buddhism, that yoga was never meant to be general practice among the general populous, but it was designed as an esoteric practice only for the most advanced adepts and solitary hermits. There is a reason for this: the original practice of yoga involves practices such as doing 100,000 prostrations, not putting your leg over your head. Yoga in its secular form has become an interesting form of exercise, but that is not the original meaning of the word yoga.

Furthermore, while modern yogis and yoga enthusiasts may claim they are combining their spiritual practice into their practice of yoga, and employ some of the same terminology including chakra, without the context of chakra within a larger Tantric worldview, which involves either devotion to a specific god in the Hindu tradition, or the realization of the body as a Buddha body in the Buddhist tradition, the word chakra and the positions of the wheels in the body is virtually meaningless. There is no heart chakra, no real physical heart chakra. It is metaphor for spiritual realization: this is evident enough in Buddhist texts. Some New Age yogic practitioners seem to think that there is some sort of real essential thing called a heart chakra, as the also believe in a real thing called the Self. This is why New Age yoga tends to veer toward the Hindu tradition: but I digress.

From this example, it is evident that New Age spirituality is categorically different from “non-Western worldviews”. There are certain patterns of thought of a Western mind are so deeply embedded that something akin to a “subconscious cultural divide” exists between Western and non-Western cultures. Even when a Western mind seeks to consciously overcome these patterns of thought, the Western cannot help but systematize, analyze, and apply rational systems to what are essentially folkloric and customary habits. I argue that it is hard for the Western mind to understand the philosophical niceties and metaphors that surround the Eastern philosophical mindset. Spirituality among Westerners has always been literal: Gods really exist, spirits are real and tangible if they want to be. From my ethnographic experience, culturally Buddhist people from Asian countries do not experience belief in the same way. Rather, a pragmatic attitude prevails about spirituality: if it works, I believe it. Therefore, there are practices related to spirits, demons, etc. but they are practical endeavors made to appease rather ill-defined malevolent beings to ensure a practical purpose: a good harvest, etc. This is the way it has always been for many traditional societies. The Western rationalist cannot help but make these organic, living breathing traditions into stale, systematized concrete ideas. For instance, the idea of a “guardian spirit” in a tree or forest prevalent among animist societies is intimately connected, as Roy Rappaport and Darrel Posey argue, to concrete traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and specific knowledge about certain environments and cycles. Rather than a vague, holistic idea of “being connected to nature” (a product of real alienation from nature), traditional societies experience being connected to nature as a pragmatic, real, and everyday reality. Knowing the cycles of the seasons is experienced directly, as a part of their practical means of subsistence, as well as their larger epistemological and cosmological framework. However, the Western project and process of abstraction of these experienced cosmologies reifies these belief systems into terms like “animism”. Therefore, the project of “neo-Paganism” “neo-animism” is in vain, because the material substrate in which these belief systems were embedded is gone.

In conclusion, New Age spirituality is a product of the alienated Western consciousness, and in many ways can be interpreted as a product of capitalism and a longing for wholeness that is not essential to the human mind. As hard as it is to swallow, the “search for meaning” that drives Western people living in industrialized countries to seek answers to philosophical questions is not a cultural universal. Where I believe this skeptic channel could adapt their argument is viewing these people not as inherently biologically “insane”, but as the product of complex cultural and historical dynamics that have been given many names: the “Death of God”, the great disenchantment, or more concretely, the rise of feelings of nihilism driven by sociological ills in capitalist society.


There is no spoon: The Matrix and Buddhist philosophy

In this video by The Film Theorists Youtube channel, a compelling plot theory is proposed for the movie The Matrix and the entire Matrix franchise created by the Wachowski Brothers. In this theory, Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) and the movie’s heroes of Zion, the last refuge in the real world of free humans not enslaved by machines, are actually still trapped inside the Matrix. This explains Neo’s powers outside the Matrix that are seen in the later movies in the series.

However, I believe this interpretation misses many important elements. For instance, the Matrix itself isn’t real either. It’s just a movie.

Did I blow your mind yet?

Here’s what I mean: these kind of plot-specific theories about the Matrix miss the symbolic character of the movie. I believe the Matrix should be interpreted not just as a science fiction movie with philosophical elements thrown in, but as a philosophical statement in and of itself. Why is Neo able to use his powers outside of the Matrix? Because its a movie! It’s all an illusion, and we as viewers are meant to see that Neo is just as imaginary as anything on screen. However, we participate in that illusion, even to the point of trying to make theories about the film in order to make it a consistent, logical reality. Sound familiar?

This isn’t just a metacommentary on film as a genre, some kind of ultimate fourth wall reference. In fact, the Matrix is simply a large commentary on the actual nature of reality itself, not the reality of the movie. In short, the point we should draw from characters like Morpheus doubting the reality of Zion is that “there is no spoon” also refers to “real” world.

The Matrix also evidently borrows from Buddhist metaphysical and philosophical concepts. This is not just idle speculation; it is evident from the directors’ comments and movie plot (not to mention the fact that Keanu Reeves is a Buddhist and starred as the Buddha in the movie Little Buddha). The bald orphan in robes who delivers the famous “there is no spoon” line is an obvious homage to Buddhist monks and the philosophy of sunyata, or emptiness. More on emptiness later, but the proof is also in the words of the Wachowskis themselves. Take this quote from a 2003 interview to the directors when they were asked if Buddhism influenced making of the Matrix:

“Yes. There’s something uniquely interesting about Buddhism and mathematics, particularly about quantum physics, and where they meet. That has fascinated us for a long time.”

The intersection of Buddhism and physics has fascinated many scholars, including the Dalai Lama himself, who wrote about it in his book The Universe in a Single Atom. What is usually discussed in this context is the uncanny resemblance of several interpretations of quantum mechanics and the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness. Emptiness, or the lack of inherent existence, is a fundamental Buddhist concept that essentially posits that reality itself is an illusion, in that because all things are temporary and subject to time, nothing really exists independently and thus nothing has any fundamental substance. This seems to be born out by our modern understandings of physics at the most elementary level. Not only are particles like atoms already made up of 99.9% empty space in which a few elementary particles are whizzing about, but these elementary particles themselves are non-substantive because their nature as particles or waves is dependent on a variety of factors (in some interpretations, even whether they are observed or not, although the technical meaning of the term observation is still subject to intense debate among physicists). This physical phenomenon is known as wave-particle duality. Wave-particle duality is also supplemented by the famous Schrodinger equation, made famous by the Schrodinger’s cat analogy in which an elaborate quantumly-determined death trap is set up so that a cat in a box can be dead and alive at the same time. This fundamental indeterminacy of the quantum world (referred to as the probability functions of quantum particles), among many other features and theories of the quantum world, is why Buddhist teachers and physicists have been able to have many prolific discussions. It has also led some physicists to propose that “fundamental particles” do not actually exist: they are merely human interpretations of the strange and indeterminate world of the smallest scales of reality.

However, the Matrix does not only reference the quantum world. In its “levels of reality” schema, the Matrix sets up a situation in which worlds or dimensions are inside of other worlds, layers upon layers of illusion. This bears a striking resemblance to the Buddhist doctrine of interpenetration, which is explored most distinctly in the Buddhist scripture called the Gandavyuha Sutra, a part of the larger Avatamsaka Sutra. Interpenetration is most clearly represented by the metaphor of Indra’s Web, the god Indra’s infinite web of jewels in which jewel reflects all the other jewels. This infinite net of reflections creates the eternal illusion of reality itself. To put his metaphor in the language of the Matrix, there is no escape from the Matrix because we are eternally caught in Indra’s Net. Indeed, the Matrix is Indra’s Web. Who created the Matrix (Reality itself)? There is no answer because all is illusory: this is the answer we are given over and over by the sutras, the Zen patriarchs, the Tibetan tantras, and all Buddhist masters and yogis of the ages. Another way of expressing this ineffable truth is “nirvana is beyond concepts”. 

Something else that must be explored is the idea, foundational to Mahayana, of non-duality. Non-duality is most eloquently articulated in texts such as the Vimalakirti Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, and the Lotus Sutra. In these texts, such ambiguous and mind-breaking teachings (for a Buddhist) are explicated, such as:

“There is no Nirvana, there is no Buddha, there is no Dharma [teachings]”

“Nirvana is Samsara [impure cyclic existence, our world]”

These paradoxical teachings seem to imply that the foundations of Buddhist philosophy, including the promise of freedom, are also fundamentally illusory. Therefore, is Enlightenment, the goal and promise of Buddhism, a lie? No: rather, enlightenment is realizing that nothing like Enlightenment exists as such. This must not only be temporarily realized, but integrated into the fabric of one’s mind, and all subtle traces extinguished.

How does this parallel with the Matrix? In the theory offered by the Film Theorists channel, the people of Zion (a Biblical reference to the promised land) are unaware that they are also in a dream, a fantasy created by the Matrix. In the movie, we are led to believe that this is a nefarious plot, an elaborate version of the Cartesian “brain in a vat” problem (how do I know if I’m not just a brain in a vat somewhere?). While the Matrix absolutely draws on Western philosophy as well as Eastern philosophy, the inconsistencies and paradoxes of the later movies are best explained not as a plot-hole or an in-canon larger technological conspiracy, but as a purposeful philosophical statement by the Wachowskis. Thus, the people of Zion are still metaphorically attached to the illusion that they exist, and so are we. 

And so, the most abiding question of film theorists and Matrix fans, “what is the Matrix?” can be definitively answered in philosophical context:

The Matrix is you. It is everything. It is Us, trapped by our own illusions and misinterpretations of reality. We are the ones who should take the “red pill”, while realizing that in reality, “there is no red pill”. In the words of the Heart Sutra:

” Form is empty. Emptiness is form. Emptiness is not other than form; form is also not other than emptiness…in emptiness there is no form, no feeling, no discrimination, no compositional factors, no consciousness; no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no visual form, no sound, no odor, no taste, no object of touch, and no phenomenon. There is no eye element and so on up to and including no mind element and no mental consciousness element. There is no ignorance, no extinction of ignorance, and so on up to and including no aging and death and no extinction of aging and death. Similarly, there is no suffering, origination, cessation, and path; there is no exalted wisdom, no attainment, and also no non-attainment.”

There is no You, no Me, and there is no Matrix either.

What should we take from this? I believe there are many answers. One, I believe that we should take what the makers of movies who have something to say about us, about our world, more seriously, even if what is offered on the screen is an illusion. On the one hand, the general viewer must be faulted for not taking the movie seriously enough, or seen in another view, for taking it too seriously (as a coherent story with a narrative that must make sense). The way we watch movies is thus reflective of society as a whole and the way we perceive reality: it can therefore be changed and is not necessarily inherent. The Matrix should therefore also be seen as a cultural commentary, and there are many layers (particularly with respect to the effects of technology on society) that should be explored in more detail, perhaps by other commentators. However, I believe that the proverbial heart of the Matrix lies with its timeless message about reality: that things are not as they appear.

Or are they? It all depends on your point of view.

Check out my other article on Avatar: The Last Airbender and Buddhist philosophy




Politics as herd mentality: stepping back from the crowd

Can even an empancipatory political movement stifle the growth and development of an individual? Can microfascisms in a social group develop and completely dominate a particular subjectivity? I argue that particularly in terms of authoritarian socialism and to some extent in any political mass movement, this is not only encouraged but the modus operandi.

While not falling into Nietzschean extremes of denigrating the ideology of socialism as inherently a “slave morality”, the concept of the herd mentality should be resuscitated  by the critical philosophical project. Why? Because for many people caught in the snare of mass culture, politics is just part and parcel of that grand project of creating a mass culture. Liberalism, conservatism, libertarianism: these are all more than just political leanings. They are cultures, pastimes, and more importantly ways of life. They are modes of subjectivity that furthermore aim to completely take over the individual.

Above all, they are simply diversions, illusions of creating a perfect world. Sure, one of them (in my view non-authoritarian socialism) holds the keys to creating a structurally sound society, but often fixing society’s problems is the end-all and be-all of a political person’s life. But what do I mean when I say diversions?

I mean that when libidinal energy is invested in a political structure, the motive of that libidinal energy can not only be compassionate, but also a kind of dangerous ressentiment no matter what side of the political aisle you are on. Politics can make people do terrible things: it can warp and twist the mind to do things normally unthinkable in the name of “the greater good”. Perhaps we need to revitalize the “smaller good”. In this way, I partly disagree with Zizek’s re-prioritization of the global as opposed to the local. While issues like climate change certainly require global action and cooperation, one of the reasons why I believe the “postmodern condition” has been exacerbated is because of the continuing abstraction of daily life. The politicization of every aspect of life and the continuing complete totalization of life into the mediascape must be fought. Other, pre-modern forms of subjectivity should be encouraged and revitalized to this effect. In particular, attachment to the land, locality, folk belief, and religion is the last thing that the capitalist world order wants. The capitalist world order wants to eventually drown the entire world in one monoculture: it will not just adapt as Zizek believes. While there is a danger of new ethnic folk nationalisms, these are fast becoming anachronisms. The preservation of life as it has been, “folk life”, is a necessity to counteract the effects of globalizing monoculture. Politics is just one way in which one can become ensnared and forget life outside the comings and goings of Power.

When the comings and goings of History and Power seem too much for you- LET GO. Let go of it all. Watch it as the effervescent shadow play of kabuki theater. It is all impermanent, it means nothing. If you feel called to act, act, but still recognize that your actions are like drops of water on an endless beach: they will be washed away by the unrelenting tide of eternity.

This may seem nihilistic or defeatist, and I’m sure some will accuse of “New Age” ramblings, or worse of having the “privilege” to look at everything from a cosmic perspective. But more than that, I want people to be able to look at the rush and hustle and bustle and take a minute to go beyond the troubles of their lives or the world. Step back, and see what can be accomplished when you aren’t a part of a group or a crowd. Let life happen. Listen: be aware of the sights. I address this those I know in my generation who I would describe as brilliant, political people: let go. Find yourself. Stop trying for a moment to save the world. This generation has many troubles, and one of them I feel is the inability to really be with themselves. I hope- no, I pray- that they find some kind of spiritual life. To me, it does not matter what that is, but that is one reason why I feel that something is lacking in this generation compared to say the Boomer Generation. The Boomers tried to find themselves: the Beatniks, the hippies, the Eastern religious acolytes. Our generation seems only lost in comparison. Perhaps I am too quick to judge, but I feel that one of the culprits may be the overpoliticization of our lives. As part of the Iraq War generation, we feel that we have an obligation to rid ourselves of the bad politics of our forbears. I assent to this feeling. But there is a latent problem in this mentality as well, and that is the lack of inward focus necessary to achieving true individual development. When I look around, I see Deleuze’s prophecy coming true all the same, even if problem isn’t consumerism:

Dividuals. No individuals to be found

Trump is a symptom, not the disease

Why is Trump so terrifying for many people? Because he represents the ascendancy of the anti-immigrant far right to mainstream American politics. He is an almost openly racist President, as opposed to a closeted one.
But what is different about Trump that wasn’t already embodied in someone like Ted Cruz or the Tea Party? What’s scary about Trump is that he represents the non-“moderate” wing of the Republican party winning. McCain was a notorious “maverick” and spoke softly, and Mitt Romney also presented himself as a moderate. But those were lies.
Furthermore, past US presidents were also notoriously racist, and in recent memory Nixon particularly comes to mind. The war in Vietnam was a fundamentally racist endeavor. Reagan’s anti-welfare campaign was racist at its core (he popularized the term ‘welfare queen’).
And yet its the anti-immigrant xenophobic rhetoric and actions that make Trump the pariah in the mainstream media (CNN) and has polarized the nation. And yet, when Obama became dubbed “deporter in chief” it barely got any news coverage.
I’ve seen Trump top the list of worst presidents of all time after only 2 years in office. But it would be a victory for the right and for Trump if he managed to make us lose our collective historical memory and forget the horrible policies of the Bush and Reagan administrations. The scandals, the corruption, the racism: now its all out in the open. This is a boon for the left, not a doomsday scenario. The worst possible take from this is that we need to return to the “moderate center”. It was the moderate center that gave us Trump in the first place by their continual failures.
A hardline immigration stance has been a mainstay of Republican politics for many years. So why is Trump such an abominable figure? Why do people continue to absolve people like John McCain, who voted with Trump 83% of the time? If Trump is a nightmare, and McCain is a hero, then by that logic Trump is 83% hero.
The problem is, to the media, its style over substance, rhetoric over policy, sound bytes over reality. McCain was no leader of the resistance, and neither is Chuck Schumer or Nancy Pelosi, who continue to kow tow to Trump’s demands for greater military spending and refused to fight when it came to his nominations for significant positions.
Trump is the symptom of the rot in American society, not the cause.
The veiled rhetoric of the Reagan administration (welfare queens) is being gradually replaced by overtly racist messaging. But at the same time, we should understand that the actions of the Trump administration fall under the historical category of protectionism, which has a long history in the US as well. It is not the first time immigration policy has been the focus of US politics (the Chinese exclusion act) nor will it be the last. As hard as it is for liberals to admit, illegal immigration is a problem, and as much we must be committed to the human rights of refugees and international migrants escaping poverty and war from third world countries, we must see it as a problem so we can attack the problem at its source. Illegal immigration is driven partly by US policies on trade and past US interference in Central and Latin American governments. This has continued to this day, with Hillary Clinton supporting a coup in Honduras in 2009 that drove instability in the region and caused a wave of migration from Honduras.
So in a bizarre way, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama helped get Trump elected!
Perhaps it was even more direct than that. Wikileaks released cables that provide evidence that Clinton ran what is known as the pied piper strategy because Clinton polled more favorably against far right candidates than moderates (because there isn’t that big of a difference between them).
To astute political historians and avid leftists, this all comes as no shock. What may come as a shock is that despite all this, we still need to work within the confines of the existing democratic system. That is where the legitimate fight is, and if you care about short-term policy victories as well as long-term political strategy, we still need to play the political game and defeat Trump electorally. Somehow, we should not kow tow to the “lesser of two evils” mantra that brought us to the situation we are in today. Nevertheless, we should realize that leftists can’t win every battle, and sometimes the ideological ground is not ripe for success. The majority of Americans supported the Vietnam War, for instance: there was a massive protest movement, but politics reflect the ideological state of a country. A revolution will never work if there is not the cultural groundwork for it.
Therefore, the ascendancy of social democrats and social democracy (and even the term “democratic socialism” is an immensely positive trend in American politics today. Not only does it represent a real political alternative to the politics of yesteryear, it is a starting point from which to achieve real radical change.
The recognition that the Trump administration represents something new and dangerous is a good thing for the previously “apolitical” American mind, but it is based fundamentally on an ideological obscuring of the real problems. Perhaps that is why Al Jazeera ran an opinion piece on the new Spike Lee movie BlackKKKlansmen that was a very strident and vehement critique. To some extent, the movie does feed into the larger liberal mentality of “Trump bad, Democrats good”. But the problem is that we shouldn’t completely dismiss what the Trump administration is: it is the ascendancy of the far-right. David Duke did endorse Trump. It is frustrating that blockbuster movies can’t focus on Palestine or other more disturbing human rights issues, but that simply wouldn’t make good material for a hit political comedy.
The truth is, Americans always look at their own problems first. Trump dominates every headline of CNN and MSNBC, and meanwhile Yemen is in tatters. World news simply doesn’t matter as much to the insular and largely content American populous. If Al Jazeera and a professor of Iranian studies is frustrated by lack of focus on imperialism, he should recognize that that is the uphill ideological battle that America has been fighting for a century. Imperialism is one of the fundamental contradictions of modern global politics: it is our collective blindspot, and this isn’t a uniquely American problem. Europe is also to blame. Tony Blair shares the blame with Bush for Iraq.
So as bad as Trump is, we should recognize that when viewed through the lens of foreign policy, there is no recognizable difference between him and any other administration. In fact, Trump may even be slightly better when it comes appeasement of North Korea, preventing conflict with Russia, etc.
The Trump-Russia story is the pinnacle of what is wrong with liberal politics today. A long and worn out legal battle involving Trump administration officials and an unlikely impeachment over “meddling” obscures the actual policies of Trump vis-a-vis Russia, which are largely hawkish. In Lacanian-Zizekian terminology, Trump-Russia represents the objet-petit-a, the unattainable desire, of the liberal establishment, and the traumatic kernel of the Real that America refuses to recognize continues to be our involvement in the Middle East during the Bush administration and beyond. The true weight of the moral atrocities that occurred there, and continue to occur there, due to the US and our imperialist meddling, have yet to be fully realized. Therefore, the “political awakening” to the Trump administration, and the rise in activism around it, is a mixed blessing, because it represents the possibility for further collective forgetting and mis-remembering.
To use a spatial analogy, things that occur in our own backyard, such as mass shootings, far right hate group protests, have a direct traumatic impact because they are imprinted into the American collective memory because of literal spatial proximity. The deaths of hundreds of thousands overseas, on the other hand, remain a statistic, separated by oceans and borders, only made real by TV broadcasts. The American collective imagination always lags by a few decades: the reason 911 was so traumatic was not only did it kill so many people, but America was open to outside attack after so many decades. Our lashing out at this king of offenses in Afghanistan and Iraq was the typical hysterical reaction: an eye for a leg. It is the logic of revenge writ large, born out by America’s fundamentally xenophobic ethos. Our borders are sacred, our sovereignty is supremely sacred, so much so that we can violate other countries sovereignty to maintain our own. In short, it is the logic of America First. 
Thus, we should recognize that while Trump is vocalizing the axiomatic of American exceptionalism and supremacy, this logic was inherent to American politics and history, perhaps since the beginning (Manifest Destiny). Trump is a rule, not an exception, the logical culmination of centuries of American history. It is traumatic only because it is subjectively experienced as a present reality and because it is not viewed in the proper historical context. The present is always more shocking than the past: the immigration crisis is more worrying than Vietnam, because it already happened. But if we want to get out of this mess, we need a properly materialist and firm grasp of history (perhaps even a dialectical one).
Is Trump a fascist? Yes, but Nixon was a fascist, and Reagan was a fascist, and so was Obama and Clinton too. They are all fascists of one form or another, if we are going to play lose with terminology. More aptly put, the American system is more fundamentally authoritarian than the establishment would like you to believe. This should not create more political apathy, but a truly revolutionary change from within: within our consciousnesses and minds, in order to break the chains of mental enslavement to the status quo

“STEM prejudice”: why biological anthropology and archaeology are more popular than cultural anthropology

This article is essentially a repost of a comment I gave to a question on a Reddit forum called r/askanthropology. I thought I pretty much hit the right points. This is the original question on the forum:

“Why does this sub lean so heavily towards physical anthropology subfields, and how can cultural and linguistic anthros get in on more of the action?

I’ve been contemplating this a lot. At my university, in 1964, the #1 requested new department by undergraduates was anthropology. Now, students have not idea what anthropology is, and if they do, it’s usually what I see in this thread — questions that assume primitiveness, looking into the past, etc.

I deeply value and appreciate archaeology, primatology, evolutionary, and all other biological or physical anthropologies. But cultural anthropology has, bar none, the best tools among the social sciences and humanities for understanding the world as we live in it today, and it seems that so many are missing out on this because of assumptions that cultural anthropologists only study “the primitive” — a concept that we almost entirely threw out decades ago! It’s like, in public perception, cultural anthro is still stuck in the 1970s.

It’s extra frustrating, because among most grad students and junior faculty I know across the social sciences, many are reading contemporary cultural and linguistic anthropology to make up for some of the shortfalls in their disciplines — I’ve met sociologists, education studies, geographers, political scientists, and historians who feel this way, and enjoy reading contemporary ethnography.

Some of it may also be other disciplines dumping on cultural anthro. I have heard folks from cultural studies, WGS, and sociology (of course) making very stereotyped tropes about the kinds of work we do, again reflecting that 1970s view of the discipline’s focus on the Other.

Part of this, I think, is the failure of the AAA and cult/ling anthros generally to do good outreach to the public. When our campus does a community outreach day, the cultural and ling anthros often don’t even bother to put up a table, because we don’t want to use racialized tropes to get across what we do. (And there’s understandable reluctance to have a presentation, on a fun day, that would run like “hey, this is what we understand about racisms, domination, subjectification, and social suffering and violence. Oh, and by the way, we understand in large part our complicity in the colonial endeavor, and here is how we’ve theoretically, and today, try to disassemble some of the structures and tropes we ourselves helped produce…”)

But surely there’s a better way to communicate our discipline in ways that excite or engage people. When students finally do “get” cultural anthropology, they’re often astounded and remain ‘anthropological thinkers’ for the rest of their lives.

But I wonder, how do we get out of this rut of misunderstanding and miscommuniciation? Cultural anthropology has changed my life profoundly and forever, and I wish I could better extend that to the public. Current public engagement projects are clearly failing. Apart from introducing anthropology as part of a standard high school curriculum, how do we get even those interested in anthropology — like those that come to this sub — to look beyond physical, and extend our concepts so that we can all understand the world we live in and ourselves in better and more interesting ways? I see more questions that are right in the wheelhouse of cultural and linguistic anthropology being asked over in the r/askhistorians sub than I do here…”


My response:

“I think the public has made an association of anthropology with biological anthropology and archaeology. Whenever I’m in a cab and someone asks me what I do and I say anthropology, they either want to talk about archaeology or human evolution. I think good outreach to the public might have something to do with it. As a cultural anthropologist I feel particularly strong about this and have noticed this in this subreddit.

I think its partially because, for better or worse, archaeology and biological anthropology have more “scientific prestige” and create more media-friendly stories about exciting discoveries of lost civilizations and ancient hominids. And to be fair, my interest in ancient Egypt and hominids was what led me to study anthropology in the first place, but I also had a burgeoning interest in world religions and cultures.

I think the public, for reasons that cannot be placed purely on anthropology (funding is severely lacking for cultural anthropology projects) is sometimes simply not interested in cultural anthropology. I think these reasons are largely cultural. Even interest in foreign “Others” seems to be waning next to interest in the “distant past”. In Western society, the “distant past” is a place of mysteries and semi-religious wonder- it’s interesting stuff! Learning about what fuels the conflicts in present day Myanmar or changing dynamics of tribal life in Papua New Guinea is, well, more esoteric to the average person. And I think they could be interested in these cultural anthropology matters, but I think a cultural shift has to occur. You mention other disciplines dumping on cultural anthropology- I think that plays a large part. There is a growing opinion, even among some anthropologists, that anthropology has moved too far from “science” and embraced things like postmodernism. Honestly, I have even experienced this kind of prejudice from archaeologists and biological anthropologists who simply don’t understand what we are doing.

One last note- anthropology has been moving away from study purely of the “primitive”. But non-Western societies are still one of the areas of expertise of cultural anthropologists, and it is unfortunate that more people don’t show an interest in specific cultures and societies that anthropologists specialize in. Melanesianists, Amazonianists, Africanists, etc. we all languish in obscurity now that people like Margaret Meade are no longer center stage in the minds of the American populous. Meade used to write popular news columns. Now the most famous people who write on cultural anthropology subjects, like Jared Diamond, aren’t even trained anthropologists and are actually biologists.

I think there is a larger cultural prejudice against the humanistic disciplines, “STEM prejudice”, and this translates into evaporating funding and a diminishing cultural prominence as public intellectuals. I also just think the public intellectuals of today (people like Steven Pinker, another neuroscientist who feels qualified to talk about anthropology) reflect the times we live in, when the world is no longer full of colonies and anthropology’s place as the prestigious experts on primitive societies no longer exists because we live in a more globalized world where the “Others” wear t-shirts and have cell phones. As you suggest, non-Western cultures no longer have as much of the “exoticism” that led the public to be attracted to cultural anthropology in the early 20th century. I think this has actually immensely helped anthropologists become more empathetic toward the cultures that they participate with, and the dreaded “postmodernism” can take a lot of credit in this regard. “

As an addition, I’d like to add that it also has to do with the continuing rationalization of society that Adorno described in the Dialectic of Enlightenment. You could also chock it up to Western logocentrism (a la Derrida).



Skeptic Magazine’s beef with Sam Harris’ view on torture

Skeptic Magazine’s “Torture Doesn’t Work”

You would expect that an avowedly atheist magazine editor would have “hawkish” views on terrorism and torture like the current guru of the New Atheists, Sam Harris. However, in this video, Skeptic Magazine’s Michael Shermer presents a morally courageous view on torture. My problem with the “New Atheists”, particularly Harris, have always been their conflation of their particular politics and with their notion of being heirs to the Enlightenment and their self-proclaimed rationalism. Nothing screams “Enlightenment” more than apologetics for the Iraq War, the biggest disaster and human rights violation of the 20th century, am I right?

Now, obviously Skeptic Magazine isn’t going to go full leftist and start calling out all the wars, incessantly saying why what the US is enabling (and doing) in Yemen is a violation of everything that makes us human. But at least they haven’t hit rock bottom and start making “Jack Bauer” analogies for why torture is a good thing. I think that combating pseudoscience and religious crackpots is a worthy goal, particularly in terms of calling out fundamentalism and its ties with the right-wing. That’s why I’m a huge fan of Secular Talk’s Kyle Kulinski, who frequently talks about the issue of right-wing fundamentalism in America.

The problem is you can’t divorce pure rationality from politics. Fundamentalism landed its biggest touchdown in the Bush administration, when “God” spoke to George W. on how there is a new “evil empire” and blind faith in American exceptionalism causes unheard-of carnage in the Middle East. It’s good to see that Skeptic Magazine is at least butting the status quo a little bit and isn’t doing non-stop Trump bashing at the expense of real issues. Now, I don’t read the magazine, they could be doing that, but at least this segment seems to disagree with that notion.

I have become more endeared to the idea that certain “superstitions” can lead to becoming detached from reality altogether. Belief in the paranormal is extremely high in the US while belief in our military is even higher. The two are correlated- both are ideological fantasies based on mistaken conceptions of reality. However, as Marx said a long time ago in the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, the critique of religion should evolve into the critique of political economy. The “skeptic” community has yet to evolve from necessarily 18th and 19th century polemics on rationality and Reason.

From Marx:

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

It is, therefore, the task of history, once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world. It is the immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked. Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.” 

Therefore, the criticism of religion still plays a valid role in being a precursor to the infinitely more important material critique of embodied practices, such as torture.

However, can we establish a critique of something like torture without a moral foundation? That moral foundation does not have to be religious, but science itself cannot offer it. One can use data to find out that torture does not work, but I prefer the interpretation of the Catholic Church, who in their recent doctrinal change on the death penalty, say it is “an affront to the fundamental dignity of the human being [sic]”. It is this basic moral reasoning that, a priori and not a posteriori, that seems to be lacking in our culture. Perhaps this is where Buddhist philosophy can step in to talk about the role of unlimited compassion as the highest possible ideal.

Here we enter the long-trodden philosophical terrain of moral philosophy and the sophomoric debates surrounding utilitarianism and Kant’s categorical imperative. Perhaps we should not seek to establish a “true” a priori moral ultimate in the supremely Western fashion of searching for the correct “theory” or “origin”, but rather simply take certain rules, like “the fundamental dignity of the human being” as being a starting point, an assumption of our system. In fact, if we begin to question or “deconstruct” these values, it can lead to all sorts of reactionary critiques of “humanism”.

As an anthropologist, despite the diversity of moral systems in cultures and my belief in cultural relativity, I do not espouse moral relativism even if I fervently believe that emphasizing cultural relativity can lead to a positive moral outcome. That is because the moral is always the foundation of any anthropologist’s endeavors, whether they like it or not.

And that seems to be the problem. The debate rages on in anthropology about female genital mutilation, and the debate rages on in international relations about the value of military intervention. Facts are employed by sides of these moral debates, but no consensus is possible. There seems to be only way to reconcile these debates: a dialectical process of viewing the world in totality which takes account of the major historical dynamics of the past few centuries, namely colonialism, slavery, capitalism, and imperialism. The FGM debate is seen in a new light through this historical lens, as is the value of military intervention. The history of nations and their power games strangely makes many moral problems clearer and provides (I believe) strong answers to these “dilemmas” if seem in the correct historical framework which recognizes the overriding power of capitalism and imperialism in the modern world system. Torture can be seen in this light as well. However, one could argue that capitalism and imperialism itself is in violation of this “fundamental dignity of the human person”, and they would be correct.

That is why Sam Harris basically bugs me. His ignorance of history knows no bounds, as his debate with Noam Chomsky makes extremely evident (see my prior post on the subject: Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky: Moral Vectors in current politics. His arguments in favor of intervention ignore historical precedent, ignore the biggest catastrophes of his lifetime (Vietnam) and betray a quintessentially American “we can never be wrong” mentality. It is the inability to morally scrutinize one’s own country that seems to be a failing of many Americans, who overwhelmingly support their own military. Trust in the military is the highest of any American institution, despite the fact that its the one that is robbing us blind. As Jimmy Dore says, we are a nation of adult alcoholics who keep making excuses for our abusive relationship. We are most attached to those who exploit us the most. Our biggest moral failures (our foreign policy coupled with our domestic policy on poverty) lie in plain sight, so close that they become almost the “background” or “wall paper” from which everything else emerges.

Some people may feel powerless in the face of such extreme moral poverty of our leaders or our institutions. But I would argue an even larger group of people is simply ignorant. What would Buddha have to say about political ignorance? More on that in another post.

For now I will continue to point to the massive failures of our leaders in foreign policy and our moral bankruptcy:

Yemen: The Forgotten War