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



Symbolic castration and the role of the Father- is Zizek a Father figure? Or are we Oedipalized subjects?

As my friend Landzek over at the Constructive Undoing blog has suggested, the academic propensity to continually reference what one says and back it up by an unending stream of authorities is a product of our culture, a culture that is trained to “go to the authorities”, thus reproducing power. Here I’m tempting to quote Foucault and Lacan, but I will try to “authentically” reproduce their arguments on my own, as well as synthesize them. The author, the omniscient third person narrator, conveys authority by virtue of being a kind of “wise detached figure” who replicates, in psychoanalytic terms, the detached Father figure. When authority is unquestioned by use of these micropractices, power replicates itself. To Zizek’s credit, he continues this psychoanalytic tradition by continuing to elaborate on the concepts of symbolic castration. But where does the source of symbolic castration come from? Is it a natural process that every child must go through, according to Freud? This is the heart of the anthropological critique of Freud, first made by anthropologists such as Bronislaw Malinowski, and later theoretically by radical psychoanalyst and one-time disciple of Jacques Lacan, Felix Guattari.

The video above by Zero Books correctly locates the source of the search for a Father figure in a societal event, in the lack of authority that currently evades the “establishment” -the bumbling buffoon in the White House, but also the weak opposition of the Democratic party. But it refers, by virtue of Zizek’s Lacanian pedigree, to a Freudian theory of the universality of the Oedipus complex (which as a rule, Zizek tends to evade in his theoretical work, due to certain improvements by Lacan).

It is here that the contribution of Bronislaw Malinowski to the debate about psychology must be brought into play. In all literature on this subject, with the notable exception of Deleuze and Guattari, contributions from the field of anthropology are, as a rule, ignored. Malinowski, in his book Sex and Repression in Savage Society, in addition to presenting his own concrete ethnographic material on the psychology of peoples from southeastern New Guinea, contended that the “Freudian dogma of the universality of the Oedipus complex” obscured the diversity of familial structures that existed across time and space in human societies. Despite having certain dated aspects to the work (the word Savage in the title being the most glaring) authors like Zizek tend to forgive Freud’s 19th century underpinnings in discussions about psychoanalysis. Malinowski was a staunch advocate of cultural relativism based on objective data. Any and all philosophizing about the nature of Man without reference to anthropology is, for me especially as an anthropologist, laughable, and bound to come from assumptions driven by our culture. Similarly, we may think- “is the Oedipus complex merely a reflection of our society?”

Surely, however, Zizek would contend this debate has no relevance to contemporary psychoanalysis, which has “transcended” these issues. I would argue that contemporary Leftist intellectuals, Zizek included, have all but ignored the contribution of Felix Guattari to the field of radical politics and “psychoanalysis”. Despite Zizek’s contention that the only salvageable parts of Gilles Deleuze’s legacy is his pure philosophical works, not his work with Guattari, Guattari’s break with Lacan marks an important point in the history of radical psychoanalysis, and is fundamentally rooted in the latter’s skepticism of the political revolution of May 1968 in France, something Guattari viewed as fundamentally reactionary. That debate being too deep to go into in the context of this article, it is important to note that while Lacan shared Guattari’s skepticism about reproducing structures of oppression in a social movement, Guattari took the line of direct critique of the Stalinist French Communist Party that was unwilling to condone the actions of the May 1968 protestors.

Back to the debate about psychoanalysis. Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus contend that our culture has been “Oedipalized” by existing power structures, and that behind every authoritarian father there is a patriarchal Boss, the dehumanizing bureaucratic apparatus, the mind numbing effect of the commute, etc. etc. Truly, then, we must contend that it is OUR society that is pathological, not primitive societies, as originally contended by evolutionary colonialist anthropologists. Malinowski and later Margaret Mead were the first pioneers of this line of thought, and even greater contributors to thinking about the ramifications of this than even radical French philosophers D&G.

But what does this mean for the Jordan Peterson v. Zizek debate? Peterson admits wholesale in the video clip that he is a psychologist who believes we should defend the existing social order, thus proving wholeheartedly Foucault and D&G’s point that the true gatekeepers of society are not its policeman or the army- it is the policeman of the mind, the psychologists, the philosophers even! “The maintenance of the social order is necessary”- society must be defended from intruders, internal and external! This is the paranoid mindset that Foucault defines as the archetypal “fascist psychology”. It is this paranoia that animated the Stalinist purges, it is this that truly defines what fascism is- the paranoiac belief that the Other is coming- right outside your doorstep! The Jew, the Muslim, the capitalist roaders even- it is this paranoia that should be outright rejected, even in the face of real onslaught by forces that seek to do harm on “society”.

So we should reject all Father figures then, including Zizek, while engaging in productive discourse, not accepting the party line. We should not allow microfascisms to colonize the mind of the movement toward social liberation. But is it New Age speculation to say that we have to move beyond even the “social revolution”? What if what is really necessary after all is a change of heart, a collective change of heart? It is hear that I go beyond critical theory, anthropology, psychoanalysis, or mythology as intellectual reference points, and appeal to general compassion. Human Compassion- not political ideology or Thought- to human sentiment, to Feeling. To define what is right, we need to delve deeper into the territory of compassion, something Peterson in his pseudo-Buddhist wisdom tends to forget about Buddhist philosophy. The absolute pacifist should remember that inaction is a form of silence and passive observance of the status quo, and forgets their ethical obligation to society. But the militant should also remember that the ends do not justify the means if one hopes to create a better social order, for another form of oppression will inevitably replace the existing one. This fuzzy line should be guided by the credo of compassion.

Therefore, in the interest of humanity, we should reject all Father figures- Mao, Jesus, Buddha, Marx, Freud (notice they are all men), and maybe, just maybe, we’ll get somewhere. There is no Big Other- this is Zizek and Lacan’s lasting contribution to psychoanalytic philosophy. We should be merciless in its application.


Edit: I embarassingly put the wrong Zero Books video link. Now its right

A different kind of Marxist


To be a Leninist today is to be an anachronism. So why Marxism? What even is Marxism?

To be a Marxist today is to recognize the structural violence of the global economic system and to want to change it. The problem, however, is the same is in our time as it was in Vladimir Lenin’s time- What is to be Done?

Many today are fed up with the democratic system, and believe it can never deliver the promises of a better society. They believe that without changing the fundamentals of the economic system, our society will perpetuate inequality and violence. It is tempting therefore to view the entire concept of democracy itself as suspect, a bourgeois ideal, and nothing more.

It is this Marxian orthodoxy of the 19th century that we should reject, along with the concept of the dictatorship of the proleteriat. We must own up to the fact that the legacy of 20th century communism was one of abject failure.

The pundits on Fox News like to say the “Left” are dictator apologists, from Nicolas Maduro to King Jong Un, while forgetting to mention that the US currently backs dictatorial regimes and war criminals around the world such as the Saudi kingdom and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. It is tempting to go the route of “naive realpolitik” and believe, like Henry Kissinger does, that democracy is just a word, and believe that the ideal of democracy is in practice unattainable, because the majority of society can decide to democratically oppress the minority, as was the case in Hitler’s Germany.

Therefore, I have to argue against some of the claims made by Zizek himself in his book Did Someone Say Totalitarianism? Zizek is admirable for pointing out the hypocrisy of the West, particularly America, in claiming to support freedom and democracy, while maintaining always that 20th century communism was a miserable failure. However, in this book, he makes to many concessions to actually-existing socialism, such as the argument that the Communist bloc in Eastern Europe lived a decent life except for lack of political freedom, etc. Of course I am somewhat oversimplifying his argument here, but I find it strange that Zizek seems to oscillate between outright defense of the Soviet Union and Maoist China and complete and total anti-Stalinism. This article he wrote on Tibet illustrates what is wrong with his conception of the reality under actually-existing socialism:

In this article, Zizek repeats the old adage that Tibet was a feudal economy probably better off under China anyway, and that most of the violence that occurred in Tibet derived from Tibetans themselves. This falls in line with his narrative that one should stay away from Orientalism and “dreams of utopia” if we want to get closer to the truth.

The reality is much more complicated. This empirically false statement exemplifies what is wrong with Zizek’s critique:

“The Cultural Revolution which ravaged the Tibetan monasteries in the 1960s was not imported by the Chinese. Fewer than a hundred of the Red Guards came to Tibet with the revolution, and the young mobs burning the monasteries were almost exclusively Tibetan”.

It is sad to see Zizek himself fall to such obvious Maoist propaganda, when he see is so deft in seeing through Stalinist propaganda. Elsewhere, Zizek is critical of Mao Zedong, and believes its problematic to view “Eastern communism” or “Latin American communism” or Third World communism in general in a kind of fetishized way. Therefore, it is doubly surprising he didn’t fact-check this story, also given his consistent critiques of the Khmer Rouge, another Communist regime that oppressed and committed genocide against a majority Buddhist populous.

The reality is, as actual scholars of Tibetan history have pointed out time and again, that most of the monasteries were destroyed directly by the PLA during the initial invasion, as demonstrated by forensic evidence from the mass graves. It is here worth quoting Tsering Shakya, author of “Blood in the Snows”, at length for the actual historical evidence:

Wang’s assertion that most of the destruction in Tibet took place during the Cultural Revolution also fails to tally with the historical record. As he himself admits, the monasteries and temples had been emptied long before, and ‘the PLA had bombed them as it re-established control’ after the 1959 Rebellion. In fact, the destruction of religious sites in Eastern Tibet—outside the TAR—had begun in 1956, under the guise of suppressing local uprisings in Gansu, Qinghai, Yunnan and Sichuan. In May 1962, the Panchen Rinpoche submitted a long memorandum to the Party Central Committee, detailing the terrible failures of Chinese government policies throughout the entire Tibetan region. Two passages prove categorically that much of Tibet’s cultural heritage had already been destroyed. The Panchen Rinpoche writes:

Our Han cadres produced a plan, our Tibetan cadres mobilized, and some people among the activists who did not understand reason played the part of executors of the plan. They usurped the name of the masses, they put on the mask [mianju] of the masses, and stirred up a great flood of waves to eliminate statues of the Buddha, scriptures and stupas [reliquaries]. They burned countless statues of the Buddha, scriptures and stupas, threw them into the water, threw them onto the ground, broke them and melted them. Recklessly, they carried out a wild and hasty [fengxiang chuangru] destruction of monasteries, halls, ‘mani’ walls and stupas, and stole many ornaments from the statues and precious things from the stupas.

Referring only to the area within the boundaries of the TAR when he speaks of ‘Tibet’—the situation was probably worse in other Tibetan districts—the Panchen Rinpoche goes on:

Before democratic reform, there were more than 2,500 large, medium and small monasteries in Tibet. After democratic reform, only 70 or so monasteries were kept in existence by the government. This was a reduction of more than 97 per cent. Because there were no people living in most of the monasteries, there was no-one to look after their Great Prayer Halls [da jing tang] and other divine halls, or the lodgings of the monks. There was great damage and destruction, both by man and otherwise, and they were reduced to the point of collapse, or beyond. [2]

This memorandum to the Central Committee was written four years before the Cultural Revolution.

There is no need to resort to the kind of cheap psychological analysis Wang adduces to explain why Tibetans turned against the sacred symbols of their religion during the Cultural Revolution. The real reasons are far more straightforward. One of these lay in the Party’s need to restrict the inter-factional struggle in an area which, as we have seen, was highly sensitive militarily. As soon as things looked like getting out of hand the Central Committee issued an order that, in these zones, the struggle should not be formulated as a fight between the ‘two lines’. Such conflict was thus essentially confined to the towns, especially Lhasa. The result was that, in most rural areas of Tibet, the ferocity of the Cultural Revolution was shifted away from the battle between the two factions and directed instead towards an attack on tradition, under the call to smash ‘The Four Olds’. In this effort, no stone was left unturned. The Red Guards may not have entered far into the countryside but CCP rule penetrated every crevice of the vast Himalayan landscape. The Party’s hegemony was so deeply entrenched at this time that even the way a peasant slept was said to indicate ideological orientation—someone who lay with their head towards the west was accused of turning away from Chairman Mao, since he was ‘the Sun that rises in the East’. One of the crimes of which the Panchen Rinpoche was accused during his trial by Red Guards in Beijing was of having anti-Party and reactionary dreams. (The Red Guards here, it should be noted, were not Tibetans but Chinese students.)


It is Zizek who here demonstrates his own implicit bias against traditional societies, believing the only thing about Tibetan society that is true was that it was a virtual hell on Earth. This is obviously a different kind of Orientalism, but Zizek, in his infinite wisdom about how we should dispel all illusions, has obviously never talked with an actual survivor of the Tibetan diaspora, or talked with actual Tibetan scholars.

It is inconceivable to him that the Dalai Lama legitimately inspires people around the world, or that Buddhist spirituality is deeply felt by believers and native Tibetans. He can only conceive of it in gross orthodox Marxist sense of “false consciousness”.

So the question continues to be, still, why Marxism?

If Marxism can embrace a truly non-violent spirit, and forget its ideology of “the ends justifying the means”, then maybe true structural violence can be eliminated in a peaceful way. Given Zizek’s embrace of redefining Marxism, revolution, and old Marxist lexicon, it is surprising and painful that he does not apply the same standard to Maoist China. 20th century communism failed to protect ethnic minorities, failed to protect political freedom, and in general failed to deliver to the utopia of equality it promised. If we are to change our economic system for the betterment of humanity, we must not allow demagogues and strongmen to lead us down the road of repressive regimes like the USSR, North Korea, and China, where currently they have almost abandoned any pretense of creating economic equality. I continue to argue Tibet is the theoretical cornerstone of realizing the problem with 20th century Communism.