Do Zizek and Peterson agree on religion?

Spoiler: no they do not.

Jordan Peterson is so fundamentally bad at making arguments that he can’t help but make the naturalistic fallacy every time he opens his mouth. Hierarchy is natural and good, religion is natural and therefore good- that’s his whole spiel, as many authors and columnists have pointed out explicitly. It’s pretty obvious when he engages in these kind of religious apologetics that his ultimate agenda is propping up conservative ideology and politics, but why does it appear in this video that Peterson is making a similar argument to one that Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek often repeats about God and the unconscious? Is it because Zizek is a closet fascist like his detractors claim?

What exactly is Zizek’s argument? Here’s a good video clip summarizing Zizek’s position on religion:

Zizek states in his works many times that the Dostoyevskyian assertion that “If God does not exist, than everything is permitted” is actually true in reverse: “If God does not exist, nothing is permitted”. Why? Because true believers or fundamentalists can violate seemingly inviolable moral law if they “fulfill God’s will” (think jihadists who martyr themselves for the cause of Islam). But why is nothing permitted to those that do not believe? Because for Zizek, they still unconsciously believe in a Big Other.

This bears a strange resemblance to Peterson’s argument that non-believers secretly believe, but not all is as it seems. Peterson is simply falling back on the old “no atheists in foxholes” argument: non-believers unconsciously believe they may be punished in the afterlife if they commit a sin.

Here Peterson commits a fundamental misreading of Christianity. As Zizek argues following Hegel, in Christianity God literally dies on the cross in the act of kenosis or becoming fully man. Thus for Christ, one’s fate in the afterlife should be inconsequential to you when considering what is right and wrong. Thus, atheists, in their conception of a moral law that is higher than God himself (if he exists at all) are more faithful to the spirit of Christianity than Christianity itself. This may seem just as obscurantist as Peterson’s claim, but it is clearly different. For Zizek, atheists who hold certain ethical standards as absolute do not do so because they believe in God, but they simply have been raised in a culture steeped in Christian history.

If Zizek were to raise this point to Peterson, Peterson might do a victory lap and claim religion, irrespective of whether it is right or not, invented art, morality, etc. However, notice how Peterson would attach a value judgement to the idea of absolute ethical standards being good. Absolute ethical standards have sometimes led to draconian laws and a perverted sense of justice – one need only mention the Inquisition. Peterson also, in proper New Age fashion, collapse in his apologetics of religion all religions into one, despite the fact that they hold vastly different moral codes. He would possibly claim that they share certain common elements, but one need only look at the moral system held by the Jains when it comes to food consumption and compare that to any religion that does not promote vegetarianism to conclude that there are complete incompatibilities between religions. If he were to claim that all religions promote love for mankind and certain basic ethical principles, I would actually agree with him- religion’s essential dimensions are the ethical and metaphysical or cosmological, which then concatenate with the social or cultural. But Peterson’s utter lack of nuance makes all of his pithy comebacks about everyone being religious “on the inside” ring hollow to avid atheists. If he were to claim that a central aspect of being human is spirituality, anthropologically I would have to agree with him. I would also agree with him if he couched his language in historicism, by claiming that the main source of inspiration for art and poetry for most of human history was the spiritual or religious traditions that were kept in a particular place and time. However, what Peterson fails to do is differentiate the existential dimension of being human from spirituality or spirituality from organized religion, thus rendering his naturalistic argument, which seems to make a claim about all future, as well as past, art and poetry, a moot point.

The problem is I know exactly where he’s coming from, from a Jungian perspective, and its actually somewhat refreshing to see the New Atheist crowd taken to task and asked some tough questions. The dialogue is actually somewhat interesting, and I’m trying to lay my political prejudices aside in this theoretical debate. But everything, every intellectual terrain, is micropolitics. There is a micropolitics inside of linguistics, inside of anthropology – perhaps to the inside observer they are more than micro!

Peterson fails to understand the lingering legacy of the European Enlightenment. The man is definitive product of reactionary elements in the Romantic movement – Peterson would fit right at home in 19th century Europe, taking what he will from disparate cultures in a hodge-podge manner and filling it out with sophistry. Peterson reminds me most of armchair anthropologists and psychologists of the 19th century like James Frazer, author of the Golden Bough and one of the primary influences of Carl Jung.

One of the gifts of the Enlightenment and German idealism is that rational thought can be decoupled from tradition. Tradition and social custom, as even Diogenes the Cynic knew in ancient Greece, are the antithesis of free thinking. Organicist defenses of social custom and tradition divorced from the content of that tradition ignores many of the ills that have been created by art and poetry throughout the ages. Art has been the most useful tool for propagandists since the rule of Hammurabi, since the dawn of the first empires on Earth. One need only read the Mahabharata or the Iliad to realize that, as Walter Benjamin said in his Theses on the Philosophy of History:

“There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” 

I think we haven’t grappled with the true weight of Benjamin’s realization.

 

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Thoughts on Zizek’s Disparities and preliminary thoughts on The Parallax View

I recently finished Slavoj Zizek’s most recent book Disparities, I even bought the hard copy after having read it once through the library because I believe it will definitely become a major reference. At over 400 pages, Disparities is a whopper of a theoretical treatise, and takes its place alongside Zizek’s other major theoretical works such as Less Than Nothing and The Parallax View (published 2006), which could be said to be its sister work. Zizek tends to structure his books in terms of one specific concept, a feat which is itself hard to do in our current post-ideological atmosphere, in which scholarly works should focus on a specific historical era. However Zizek emphasizes in both The Parallax View and Disparities that Marxist historical materialism should be reevaluated in favor of the maligned dialectical materialism. While rejecting the version of dialectical materialism expounded by the Soviet apparatus, Zizek maintains that Hegelian dialectics provide a theoretical window into explaining the complex interplay of signs, institutions, people, etc. in the contemporary world. Zizek has a knack for what Deleuze might have called identifying “dark precursors”, or rather hidden connections, between such seemingly disparate topics as psychoanalysis, contemporary art, classical literature, architecture, and film, always within the “background” of contemporary politics.

Zizek’s concept of parallax and the concept of disparity, each outlined in the respective introductions of the books, are sister concepts. Zizek himself explicitly says this in his “aspects of disparity”: “Disparity should be added to the series of notions which offer themselves as the ultimate Master Signifiers of dialectical materialism (negativity, parallax, etc)”. His definition of disparity itself he says flows from the usual list of connotations: “disunity, dissimilarity, incongruity”. He states that, “at its most elementary, disparity points toward a Whole whose parts do not fit together, so that the Whole appears as an artificial composite, its organic unity forever ruined”. So adding to the connotations of disparity we have here inharmonious and contradictory, a far cry away from a mere “large difference”. The Hegelian philosophical point of disparity is that, “the organic (immediate, as Hegel would have put it) unity of a phenomenon is by definition a trap, an illusion which masks underlying antagonisms, and the only way to arrive at the truth is to brutally cut into parts this unity in order to render visible its artificial and composed character.”

By contrast, the concept of parallax view is in relation to the concept of disparity, in my mind, the philosophical shift in perspective one makes by shifting focus from one incongruous aspect of a phenomenon to the other. Parallax itself is the contradictory relationship, or the feature whereby something appears different from different perspectives, and the disparity is the actual difference.

One can immediately see the problems here- if thought itself is a kind of “cutting” or conceptual breaking down into parts, those parts already refer to the whole insofar as they are parts, and not complete objects in themselves. But from another perspective, they are already complete objects- how would an object itself be “incomplete” from something other than a human perspective? Take a mechanical watch for example- when we take apart the watch, and remove say one gear, and put it back together again, we have an incomplete watch, it is missing one part. But from the perspective of Zizek’s dreaded philosophical enemy, Object Oriented Ontology, we merely have a collection of metal objects which are either connected with each other or not. Its function as a timepiece is its social function, but its material stuff, metal, is normally (or should be) unseen, not perceived. If say, one of the metal gears of the watch is broken, or becomes misshapen, than the metal of the gear becomes apparent again, it becomes a problem to be fixed. So the parallax shift one makes in this case is viewing the watch as a cultural product with a specific function to a material object, made using a certain process of production, etc. In this case, the watch is a particularly good example, because the timekeeper is used itself to regulate the flow of material goods, to regulate the labor time of the workers, in order for the whole system itself to function.

But this is why I think Zizek has to critique Object Oriented Ontology in Disparities (and he does give them a great deal of credit for conceptual innovation as well). We can’t ignore the human perspective in certain instances- at the end of the day, for the purpose of cultural critique or analysis, we can try putting ourselves in the position of a purely material object, or a purely “inhuman view”, but if we were to analyze, for example, the production of watches, and analyze purely from the standpoint of “where does the metal come from” in a kind of ecological isolation, without the human entering at all, except as another actor, one ignores that the human actor is the dominant factor, let alone what the subjective experience of that actor is. We devolve into a kind of vulgar materialism in which subjective experience is not a legitimate material factor. In other words, OOO devolves into a kind of idealism if it ignores subjective experience, which is materially felt. Put another way, as Marx tried to do in the latter chapters of Capital, the actual “violations of human rights” of workers can themselves be materially catalogued, through the process of taking meticulous record of how many hours are worked, the rates of certain diseases and ailments, etc.

It may seem like a kind of schoolboy critique, that OOO as object-oriented misses the subjective, but in defining the subject as another object, rather than a special kind of object, or rather putting forward an ontology in which the landscape of everything is flat, one enforces a kind of egalitarianism where there is actually hierarchy. We live in the Anthropocene for a reason- humans are the dominant influence in today’s climactic and ecological patterns, rivaling the role of geological processes, precisely because humanity is an Aristotleian special animal. From an anthropological perspective, this signifies to me an important break- rather than the emphasis on humans as just another animal, in that our brains did not evolve until very late in our evolution, etc. we must continue to ask- if Homo sapiens are apex predators, The apex predator, what does that mean in terms of our global ecological situation? Perhaps the Anthropocene started thousands of years ago- archaeologists are quick to point out that the myth of the “ecological Indian” ignores the extinction of megafauna which corresponded to the colonization of the Americas (similar megafauna extinctions happened previously as well).

But where I tend to disagree with the anthropological “realists” is they ignore the precise way in which humans are able to adapt and manage their environments in a sustainable way- humanity is full of contradictions or disparities. From one perspective, we are  Shiva, destroyer of worlds, we have the power of life and death over all life on the planet, especially now with the advent of nuclear weapons. But that potential for death is also the potential for real “stewardship”, in the real Biblical sense of the world, over the other inhabitants of this planet. Conservation as a science is the acknowledgement of humanity’s profound power to change the planet. Imagine, for instance, if even a fraction of the amount we spent on weapons development in the United States was spent on finding innovative ways to prevent endangered species from going extinct. Attempts to stop the Bald Eagle from going extinct were met with tremendous success, in part due to the sheer fact that the Eagle is the symbol of the nation, and could not be allowed to go extinct in good conscience. Now, the restoration effort of the Eagle represents a broader possibility, but only that- the potential to stop the ecological crisis from unfolding.

Here I have to commend Zizek for being the only socialist writer I know to speak about the fundamental problem of the Ecological Crisis on a regular basis. Only tremendous international cooperation can bring about a change in these global level trends. Zizek’s penultimate book to date, Living in the End Times, is his apocalyptic diagnosis that functions as the material cultural critique par excellance. We live in the era of crises- ecological crisis, refugee crisis, financial crisis, emerging crises around the world such as the famine in Yemen. It is not the emergence of crisis itself that is new- capitalism reproduces itself by crisis, after all- but the scale of the crises that are deepening, to the point where another major financial panic may be all it takes for the Left to actually be able to seize power. We live in an era of moral crisis- the head of the CIA is set to be the former leader of the “enhanced interrogation techniques”. Everything seems to be, like the hoaky Christian apocalyptic thrillers, reaching some kind of grand finale. We must however, resist the temptation that there will be some kind of miraculous tipping point- the point is that precisely this feeling, from a parallax view, is evidence that there are even more tipping points to come. Nothing revolutionary will come of it unless real action is taken.

To end on a properly Zizekian pessimistic note, the success of the Bald Eagle should not be taken as a sign things can get better- they are, from a parallax view, a sign of our selective empathy, a sign that we may care about one large predator, but when it comes to the predator we don’t like, for instance the restoration of the wolf, which is opposed by cattle farmers due to hunting raids by wolves, we turn a blind eye. The image of the polar bear barely able to stand on melting ice should be replaced with a less familiar, more haunting figure- perhaps the seagull covered in oil, a more ominous and yet closer to home image from the BP oil spill. This image is a better representation of the ecological crisis because rather than the nebulous task of “reducing global emissions”, the blame is immediately put onto the real culprit- the fossil fuel industry. The image of the polar bear represents standard conservation, an appeal to the exotic- the oil covered seagull radical conservation. We should in every instance identify how and why certain potentially revolutionary practices have been co-opted into the status quo. The relationship between the co-opted practice and the status quo is precisely such an “inharmonious balance”, there exists a potential disparity which can be widened, if the Green movement can capitalize on the growing frustration at the fossil fuel industry, etc.

So, finally, this is less a review of Disparities and Parallax View and more an attempt at how these concepts can actually be applied. I will attempt a more comprehensive review of Disparities at a later date, but a review of every chapter would probably constitute an article in and of itself.

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

Against another Double Blackmail: Scientism and Primitivism (or Humanism and Anti-humanism)

I have just bought a copy of Slavoj Zizek’s book Disparities, a philosophical tour-de-force that would be considered anyone’s magnum opus were it not Zizek’s 50th or so book. Here Zizek outlines his concept of disparity and comments upon (and differentiates himself from) other philosophical opinions, or in Zizekian terms, recognizes the fundamental disparities between his vision, grounded in dialectical thought and the Hegelian tradition, and the positions of other philosophers. Here he sets up a fundamental opposition, one which runs through the book, between his view and the ontological position of Gilles Deleuze, namely opposing his views on rhizomes and the univocity of being (while still giving credit where credit is due). However that theoretical disagreement is not the aim of my article: my aim is to elaborate on my thoughts inspired by the first chapter of Disparities, called “From human to posthuman…and back to inhuman: the persistence of ontological difference”. In this chapter Zizek addresses and categorizes multiple types of “posthumanisms”, from transhumanism to structuralist anti-humanism. Interestingly, he also categorizes the “Gaia hypothesis” deep ecology view as another anti-humanism, in which humans are seen as a virus on the planet which in its hubris, destroyed the environment. Zizek sees transhumanism (which, briefly, is the theory popularized by Ray Kurzweil in which man will gradually merge with the technological machine and transcend the meek and mortal human) as a kind of reemergence of Soviet biocosmism, an ideology popular in the USSR in which the human being would be gradually overcome in the new Communist utopia.

Before I go on, it is interesting how both of these ideologies (and they are properly ideologies, because they rely on a fantastical element) are dependent on a utopian view of society, as either being saved by technology, or saved by Nature. Therefore, it is natural to oppose these utopian views of society, which have as their forbears the scientific rationalism of the Enlightenment and Rousseauian concepts of human nature, with the properly Marxist or dialectical answer: that technology is simply a tool utilized by humans in a particular historical and economico-productive context. However, we must go further than Marx here. Technology is neither the alienating object which separates man from his true nature, as in the early Marx, or the means by which to propel man into the Communist utopia, as in the Communist Manifesto of middle period Marx. It is rather, that technology is just one of the means of production, or the means of reproducing society, and is as such neutral, a product and reflection of the social organization. Thus, the material base of society itself must be transformed along with the social organization of society if society is to be truly revolutionized. And, a proper Marxist would recognize that the material base of society does not propel society along as its single causal determinant, and that ideology is also a fundamental determinant, with superstructure and infrastructure intertwined and mutually dependent. Therefore, technology should neither be demonized nor fetishized, because demonization is another form of fetishization which misses the fact that all material goods are the product of labor, human labor to be precise.

However, from the Grundrisse, we can say that Marx toyed with the idea of technology itself doing the dominating. But this is only by design of the capitalist- yes, the machines handled by the factory workers are inherently dangerous, but we should not seek salvation in automation, thereby rendering human labor useless. Rather, we should seek to balance automation with a humane labor policy, enforced strictly by the revolutionary state. It is in this way that fetishizing nature, and lifestylist primitivism, can only do a disservice not only to the cause of Labor, which must by necessity deal with technology for its livelihood, but also the cause of indigenous and tribal people, who do not have to by choice.

However, if forced to pick one of these two poles of the false dichotomy, primitivism and technological transhumanism, I would much prefer primitivism, because at least that goes against the grain of technological capitalism and its commodity fetishism. Zizek has revealed how there are also new forms of ecological fetishism, but it is true that industrialization itself, as Marx recognized, produces new horrors, reductions in standards of living that not only class society entails. The factory itself oppresses not just because of machines which wear down the body, but also the polluted air, the lack of available farm labor, the appropriation of the land by business. Land reform may work in an already agricultural society, but in a society driven by technology, is it possible, or even good policy, to enact a redistribution of land, to agriculturalize an essentially industrial and post-industrial workforce? No, I don’t believe this will work culturally as well as bureaucratically. However, we do need to take the ecological crisis seriously, and seriously think about reorganizing our food production system so that not only the health of the consumer is emphasized, but the health of the producer and the health of the environment is as well (and throw on top of that the health of livestock, to please the animal rights activists and vegans).

To add another sufficiently Zizekian or Hegelian dialectical reversal (one I’m sure Zizek has already said)- transhumanism is not sufficiently anti-human enough, not only because it does not recognize the fundamental antagonisms within the human itself (the inhuman in the human, as Zizek says), but it also posits technology as an inherently moral good. To this we can ascribe this law of human historical development: technological progress does not equate to moral progress, and neither does moral progress equate to technological regress. This is because there are too many other complicating factors. However, as an anthropologist, I will make one more caveat: primitive tribal societies did just fine without modern technology, but that was not the only source of their relative abundance and happiness. It was also the egalitarian nature of their societies, societies which were almost eliminated by the development of class-society and the State, which emerged at the same time. Paradoxically, however, this does not mean we should eschew the state or technology, because neither are fundamentally sources of oppression, only with their coupling and emergence from stratified society. Thus, we should reimagine the State, transform it, just as we should reimagine and transform technology to suit human necessity, and not just the necessity of the elite.

A collection of aphorisms

I am going to do this post in Nietzschean aphorisms because, I feel like it. They are all connected, but cover a wide range of topics.

  1.  All paradoxes about the infinite are not really paradoxes- all seemingly illogical conclusions that come from infinities and the mathematics of infinite series only seem that way, but actually there is a deeper intuition at play. The infinite must contain all within itself and yet be able to add more- that is the definition after all of infinite. Correspondingly, all mathematics about infinities is not fascinating, just simply boring.
  2.  This is what Nietzsche meant by the fact that “mystical explanations are thought to be deep, the truth is they are not even shallow.” However this aphorism itself will be misunderstood by those who think that Nietzsche only thought that religion tricked the foolish. Nietzsche elsewhere in his corpus praised the surface of things, the shallowness, as opposed to pretensions of being “deep”. Therefore, paradoxically, Nietzsche’s statement is a praise of mysticism, or rather, a recognition that those who have “mystical insight” only have relative insight to the “herd”.
  3. One could misinterpret Nietzsche’s above-mentioned aphorism as pretentious, as a claim to immediate understanding of all metaphysical insights. But rather, Nietzsche understood that mystical understandings of the world precisely work from taking what is everyday ordinary experience and making it uncommon. We all have experienced those moments (which may be profoundly uncomfortable) where suddenly we see something we thought we knew very well and suddenly it seems frightening or strange.
  4. Human beings only learn through experience. The constant sensory flux of information, combined with the overwhelming amount of stuff that is in the world and the fact that the world is always changing, means we only learn through repetition. (Oh there’s that thing again- what was it called? Cow!)
  5. This is what Tantric Buddhism or Zen means by the fact that ordinary mind is the basis for everything, or rather, why the ordinary itself is brought out as something to be exalted. Because behind what we view everyday, if we alter our perception, are entire worlds. Like in the scene at the beginning of Blue Velvet by David Lynch, where a dead man is laying on the ground, and they gradually begin to zoom into his ear, and one begins to see the bugs crawling on the grass. Behind our normal human way of viewing the world, there are things that are normally beyond our perception.
  6. Much of the unseen world has been conquered by humanity, through microscopes, telescopes, infrared detectors, or simply exploring places that were ignored, forgotten, or previously uncharted in our own world, like the bottom of the ocean. Most of the world is now aware of things that are invisible- how incredible is that! Things like viruses, bacteria, etc. Therefore, one day, humanity will not only be aware of levels below that of the microbiological (the protein, DNA), but one day organic chemistry will also become ubiquitous, even though it is generally still specialized knowledge.
  7. Most of the world is aware of the atom, probably because of the advances in nuclear physics that led to nuclear reactors and the atomic bomb. But the quantum world is so new of a discovery, that humanity hasn’t had time to situate it into its understanding of the world. With discoveries of phenomena like the Planck length, we have seemingly hit the bottom of the barrel. History should show us that there is no bottom of the barrel. The human can transcend the human, but not through merging with technology. Humanity will simply no longer apply to what we have become.
  8. Through all of the change that humanity has undergone, we are still mortal beings of flesh and blood for whom death is no abstract concept, but an ever-pressing reality. Science will not save us from this. But perhaps now the difference is this- in days gone by humanity accepted the infinite, made peace with it. Now it stands as a dark chasm that is both threatening and a challenge waiting to be explored. The question now is- will we, or have we, already reached those limits? Is knowledge of humanity’s theoretical limitations a prerequisite for a full understanding of what it means to be human?
  9. Heidegger undertook a project of full ontological understanding of Being, through the lens of understanding humanity, or Dasein. One was necessary for the other. Dasein is fundamentally, for Heidegger, a being towards death. If this is Dasein’s fundamental nature, can other aspects of Dasein be changed? Our lifespan? The way we act in the world? The way we relate to each other as a species?
  10. I think of Star Trek every time I want to understand what humans could be someday. The Vulcans are just a picture of what we could become, a society wholly based on logic, with an understanding of who they are in the cosmos. As knowledge continues to build over time, could we not, in some sci-fi future, approximate the Vulcans? Couldn’t all of humanity be given, from the time of birth, the tools to go through the world and all knowledge from prior generations, like the Vulcans do in their Science Academy? In my mind, what humanity has yet to achieve is a kind of worldwide planetary society.
  11. A worldwide planetary society would not be homogeneous, or tell everyone what to do. But it would instead allow the entire world to thrive, and create an end to things like hunger through automatic restitution of lost crops due to natural disasters, etc. It would require basically a UN that we pay taxes to, and is fully functional with no dominance of one nation (cough cough the United States). Only then could humanity look back collectively on our dark past and basically say- what the hell happened?
  12. Zizek is right when we say we need to go further and not admire local organization. We need new international solutions to our problems- international laws with real teeth, levels above the state level that can coordinate things with a degree of actual consistency. As it is, our fledgling attempt at world order has failed- it did not stop Rwanda, it did not Bosnia, or Darfur. And it certainly won’t stop Syria, because we have yet to let go of the doctrine of national sovereignty

The specter of Marx in anthropology

Anthropology, as a humanistic enterprise, has always had (except for periods of extreme empiricism/biologism and certain isolated schools) a humanitarian mission since its real inception by Franz Boas. With the rise (and maybe fall) of postmodernism in anthropology, which has been always in the context of how to get cultural relativism and the depiction of other cultures right, the question has become not how to depict other cultures, but how to not get it wrong, and see within ourselves as writers of culture possible sources of bias. However, given the enormous influence of political economy, globalization studies, etc. anthropology has still to ask the question- what about Marx?

Anthropology COULD normatively assign Marx the category of another social theorist of the 19th century, and integrate his theories as just one more theory to study along with Weber and Durkheim. Or, it could (and I believe it already has, based on my experience in anthropology) take Marx seriously. I believe the answer why it should is not only an empirical question that someone like David Harvey or David Graeber could answer with judicious use of anthropological data and explanation of the rise of the neoliberal economic order and why it has influenced every local culture. There are a myriad books on this subject, from Graeber’s Debt: A 5000 year History to Wallerstein’s Introduction to World Systems Analysis- the right anthropologist’s have already done a good job of doing this. They have already analyzed colonialism from the right historical perspective, looked at it from the perspective of the colonized with postcolonialism, applied critical analysis. But what I don’t think they have had done a good job of doing is taking philosophy seriously, or justifying their project on a level of fundamentals, ethics, etc.

At first glance, this statement should appear nonsensical, because why wouldn’t anthropology try to accurately describe the postcolonial neoliberal reality of the 21st century? Haven’t they done enough by appealing to notions of human rights, etc?

The political problems of the 1950s and 1960s still haunts anthropology. During the Cold War and the Red Scare, many anthropologists worked for the government to understand the Communist threat, and many of afraid of being accused of having Marxist leanings. But while good critiques have already been made of the sort of public anthropology that sells their soul to corporations, works with the military in Iraq to understand local culture in order to further American foreign policy objectives, anthropologists remain reticent to unabashedly in writing critique capitalism. Now, I say this knowing that some anthropologists (like Graeber) remain professed and “out” anarchists, and many anthropologist’s writings are geared toward working against the established order of things.

But why Marx? Because anthropology still has a commitment at the end of the day, to Fanon’s wretched of the earth”. We remain committed to those who lack the voice to speak for themselves, the powerless. And this commitment, which does not exclude the First World as much as the Third World may be its focus, is fundamentally, and this cannot be denied- a spiritual commitment. This is what Marx himself failed to grasp. Why should he care? Why have compassion at all? Why not embrace the individualism of the modern age?

A “rationalist” or “pragmatic” reason may be that one could easily be oneself in the lumpen, in rags, and that as capitalism ravages our planet, we are beginning to personally feel the heat in our middle class dens (literally). But it is something that we have to own up to- that a commitment to the powerless among us is a fundamentally social commitment, a commitment to what philosopher Slavoj Zizek likes to refer to as the commons- our common social and ecological substance. This is why we cannot pretend that at least in this more deep sense (maybe not in the sense of previous incarnations of the idea in political movements of the 20th century) that the study of society and sociality must be socialist in orientation. To ignore the insights of Marx in history, in the fundamental difference between the haves and have nots, the dynamics between labor and capital, is to be blind to the immensity of human suffering on this planet that is structural, and caused by our economic system working for the few, not the many

Zizek on Deleuze- link to great blog

http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/?p=229

 

This blog articulates my exact problem with Zizek’s critiques of Deleuze in Organs Without Bodies, and my problem with Zizek in general (his unexamined reliance on Hegel as the ultimate horizon of how he interprets everything). I haven’t read all of Organs without Bodies, but it seems like just a recap of Badiou in his book on Deleuze, The Clamor of Being.

My individual thoughts on Zizek and Deleuze that aren’t addressed in this blog:

Zizek’s strength is he tends to rely on history more than Deleuze, while Deleuze is more adept at the anthropological literature. This is representative of the essential divide between them- German/Eastern European dialecticism, materialism, historicism, rootedness, or the common sense attitude (even though Zizek would fiercely deny this), and Deleuze’s typical French concerns with “high” artistic culture, literature (Zizek deals a lot more with ‘lowbrow’ and mundane). But even beyond this divide. I really do believe Zizek, who has clearly tried to read all of Deleuze’s literature, did not understand it. He thinks that Deleuze’s poetics of “flows” can be easily reappropriated to capitalist apologetics, but he doesn’t understand that Deleuze was precisely making a model of capitalism when he introduces the concept of flows in Anti-Oedipus. Fundamentally, Zizek’s disdain for Anti-Oedipus is so obviously misplaced, because there is no fundamental engagement or “encounter” with it. He simply goes straight for the conclusions, does not bother with the theory.

Now as for their politics, its true that Deleuze disdains orthodox Marxism, and all hierarchies, while Zizek sees them as necessary for the creation of a new movement to oppose capitalism. But there is more agreement than meets the eye here, and as always, I think that a real dialogue (despite Deleuze’s dislike for this term) could have occurred, simply if Deleuze had lived!! But now we are talking at cross-purposes, because we are attempting to have a dialogue with the dead. It reminds of a quote from an X-files episode, “we always bury the dead alive”. They cry out to us, but we can’t understand them, we can only hear mumbles and imagine what they would have said.

What do I think Deleuze would have said to Zizek? I think he would have said:

Yes, yes, we must reimagine the Left, and capitalism is the enemy, but you yourself know the value of thinking outside the confines of a particular ideology, there are always unseen microfascisms at play, at best we can only make immanent critique, that is the job of a philosopher, this is why you yourself avoid prescription. A philosopher’s job is to create concepts, not be a historian- you have not understood your job description. In your books I see a consistent becoming in you Zizek, a becoming revolutionary, so many becomings, and your books act act as all books should, as rhizomes, as connections to so many territories of thought and culture. These territories are impossible to fully map, the map is not the territory itself. What we can only do, as philosophers, is point the way to certain territories, whether real or imagined. You, Zizek, your job should be that of a cartographer of the imagined territory of post-capitalist life

This is what I believe he would have said to Zizek, he would quickly see that Zizek’s greatest unfinished task is, as he admits, his greatest challenge- imagining the world without capitalism, which as he says is now more difficult than imagining the end of the world.

What rhizomes will form? What new territories will emerge? What is in the process of becoming? Is it too terrible for us to imagine? Deleuze and Zizek’s biggest point of convergence- ecology. Here Zizek has a lot to learn from Guatarri. Ecology- that’s all there ever is, or was. Ecologies- ecologies of ideas, ecologies of people. If all history is class struggle, all history and prehistory is also a complex web of interactions, flows, some that lead to arrangements of rigidity, some that lead to arrangements of plasticity. It is definitely not that Deleuze is not sufficiently Marxian- Marx was not sufficiently Deleuzian, or Nietzschean, or Conradian, or Sitting Bullian, or Black Elkian. What Marx missed is that for all the benefits of abstraction, immanence and detail is primary. Context, context, context, context

We should always attempt to be as Walt Whitman did, and contain multitudes

 

The Fallacies of Neoliberal Protest, Part 2

Recently, a professor at Cornell University named Russell Rickford wrote a fascinating article about the Black Lives Matter movement called “The Fallacies of Neoliberal Protest”. In this article, Rickford outlines what he calls the “false assumptions” that are “propagated by the corporate power structure [sic]”. He calls these fallacies “dialogue and awareness” “appeal to authority” and “the myth of the disembodied voice”. In short, the first fallacy is the idea that protest should be channeled into legitimate “safe channels”, the second and third fallacy is the idea that the people in power know how to manage effective protest, and the disembodied voice is the idea that people in power will adequately respond to the concerns of the protestors. We see all these fallacies currently at play with the protest movements at Trump’s inauguration. How so?

The Women’s March on Washington, the protest movement that has gained so much traction that plans to protest the inauguration, is essentially a mainstream protest. While it is expected that the March will have 3x the amount of actual attendees of the inauguration in what is expected to be a historic movement, we can safely say certain things about this march. The Women’s March, planned and funded by Planned Parenthood and NARAL, is largely geared toward a single issue, namely the woman’s right to choose and pro-choice movement. Given Trump’s stance on abortion, this is not a bad thing to protest about, and the protest is more broadly a show of opposition toward the incoming Trump administration. It is ALSO true that this opposition has already been co-opted by these previously established “legitimate” power structures and organizations in exactly the way Rickford describes. This is exactly the way wide-scale opposition toward a government is “pacified” and “de-fanged”.

Now, of course, the Women’s March plans to be non-violent, and I am NOT advocating violence. But I believe the “pressure politics” of this protest have been rendered largely impotent, even before it began. Why? Because there is no “day after” for this protest, no concerted movement. People will come to Washington, they will leave on the same Planned Parenthood buses they came in on. Families will come in, experience the “high” of organized activism, the ecstatic moment of being apart of something historical, and then go home.

Precisely by being under the banner of something “legitimate”, opposition to Trump  has been stripped of any power to scare or influence the incoming regime. Yes, I said regime. The incoming regime of the Trump administration is completely illegitimate. In my mind, as Trump was outvoted by 3 million votes, he has absolutely no mandate, and even worse. If it was not for our antedilluvian election laws, we would not have this reactionary holding the highest office of the United States. He deserves to be protested, 100%. But we ourselves our to blame for it, for protesting at the gates of death. We could have broken the electoral college long ago. But now, it seems as if the whole world is panicking the prospect of a Trump presidency, when this is the natural outcome of successive neoliberal policies. Brexit was partially a reaction to corporate neoliberalism which removed all barriers to trade, and Trump is also using anti-globalization sentiments to his advantage by playing the right-wing populist (even though his administration picks demonstrate he is staunchly corporatist).

I like Planned Parenthood, but in this context it also has to be admitted that they are part of an existing power structure, even if that structure is social justice/activism groups. Planned Parenthood’s sponsoring of the march also sidelines economic issues in favor of more identity specific issues (hence Women’s March, even though other groups will also be hypothetically targeted by the Trump administration even more fiercely, like immigrants, Muslims, and people of color).

I think that political will in this country is very dependent on circumstance. And that is ok, to a certain extent. One shouldn’t just protest without just cause. But I believe that these “fallacies” about neoliberal protest and its supposed effectiveness are still in play, especially the “appeal to authority”. If we allow all protest to be guided, managed, and staged, yes we risk the protest devolving into unorganized chaos, but we also also risk the protest becoming part of the existing system. For some, this is a good thing. The protest “should be perceived as legitimate”. The problem with this argument is that civil disobedience, in even wide-scale protest like this one, in the eyes of a reactionary administration, will NEVER be perceived as legitimate. Expect fierce opposition, by reactionary counter-protestors, agitators, and police.

My larger issue with this Women’s March protest, however, is that it does not encompass enough issues. The march is purely an “anti-Trump” movement, and that is how the media will cover it. Sure there will be signs that will say “Save Healthcare”, “protect immigrants”, and “Black Lives Matter”, but if these struggles aren’t given their specific articulations, the existing power structures will not hear the voices of concerned citizens. It does not matter the size of this protest. It could be 1 million, it could be 3 million people. If it continues to be an anti-Trump and nothing but anti-Trump march, and that is the messaging people get, then that is all that will register. Neoliberalism will continue, in its completely unfettered form, and the protestors will all transform back into paranoid and frightened private citizens.

Here is my advice- THINK. Don’t just act. Yes, this is the time for action. But the more we question the ways in which we too, are participating in our own subordination, the more I think we can change the course of history.

Link to “The Fallacies of Neoliberal Protest”: 

Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky: Moral Vectors in current politics

A recent half-debate or exchange of heated emails between atheist author and public intellectual Sam Harris (author of The End of Faith) and famous Leftist intellectual Noam Chomsky exploded over the internet this past year. Followers of Sam Harris’ intellectual career in the past couple years have noticed his resurgence as a popular opinion leader due to his appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher in the months leading up to the election, his series of talks with Cenk Uygur, Maajid Nawaz, and his string of recent video blogs and blogs on political topics.

The crux of their half-debate was on the topic of Islamic terrorism, a topic chosen by Harris. Harris maintained that Islamic doctrine is the main cause for Islamic terrorism and tactics like suicide bombing are built into the logic of the Qu’ran. Chomsky tried shifting the debate to the terrain of US policy in the Middle East. Somewhere in there Harris called Chomsky an Islamic apologist, Chomsky called Harris ignorant about US history (in effect). Sam Harris’ argument against Chomsky is long and complicated, so I’ll link to it at the end of the article. Basically, Harris distinguishes between actors in Middle Eastern conflicts based on intention. Harris believes that one can say with certainty that Bush had “good misguided intentions”, and Hussein was an evil dictator in Iraq. Chomsky and Harris spend most of the email exchange arguing about the bombing of a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan authorized by President Clinton. Harris is on the side of Clinton thinking that there were chemical weapons at this plant. Chomsky goes on to demonstrate, in delicious detail (already published!) why this is not the case.

For the amount of time Harris later spends claiming his detractors are moralizing, I find this argument nothing but moralizing. That term itself is cheap- its a moral debate, aren’t we inherently moralizing? Furthermore, Harris claims later that we should not foolishly label people racists or bigots and shut down the conversation. Harris’ idea that Bush’s intentions are completely pure in the Middle East seems to me to be naive, but I will humor his argument more. If on the basis of moral intentions, we judge these actors in the sphere of foreign policy, Hussein=bad, America=good. But does intention completely justify the actions that come after it? Harris at times comes off as a weird sort of utilitarian (I will get back to this point later). It seems that stupid justifications of imperialism come with the territory of Mill-style utilitarianism, so this is fitting.

In his article, Harris mentions the My Lai massacre to argue that what distinguishes us from our current enemies is that “as a culture, we have clearly outgrown our tolerance for the deliberate torture and murder of innocents. We would do well to realize that much of the world has not” (Harris blog). Clearly, given the fact that this blog post was written in 2015, after Guantanamo Bay and after evidence has clearly shown that orders from higher ups were given in for torture in Abu Ghraib, this argument rings hollow for many Americans. Which Americans have outgrown our tolerance for deliberate torture? Certainly not Trump supporters…

Harris throughout his debate seems intent on believing that America has the best of intentions, and our enemies only the worst. In terms of the My Lai massacre, this was certainly horrific, but it is prescient that Harris leaves out Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia and other acts of terrorism by the United States. These acts were so horrific that we can almost forgive Chomsky for thinking that reports of Pol Pot’s genocide were exaggerated US propaganda.

Here’s an idea- what if the moral terrain is NOT BLACK AND WHITE. What a concept.

Some background on Harris. Sam Harris, in his book The End of Faith, became well known for his hard hitting anti-theist stance, based on the idea that religion is based on an attempt to fool the public into believing things that are essentially irrational, and that religion is the cause of many ancient and modern problems. His central thesis is that fundamentalism is the only honest form of a religion, because any religion that admits the supernatural must take this literally or be hypocritical. He makes a series of accusations that Islam in particular is a religion based on a conquest narrative, although he says Christianity at certain points in its history also had this strain of belief.

These arguments of course are no more original than Feuerbach and even a certain strain of Marxism, although he delves into the neuroscience of belief and other topics. With current political events about Islamic terrorism being what they are, it is only natural that Sam reemerge as the “voice of reason” not afraid to denounce Islam for what it is: a warlike ideology fueled by irrational beliefs.

I read this book when I was fairly young: 13 or 14, and I found the arguments pretty convincing at the time. Although I was young, I still hold that Harris does not pull punches when it comes to his argument. The fundamentalism question is still an intriguing thought problem. However I think it rests upon an assumption: an assumption that there can’t be a “legitimate” interpretation of a religion that is non-dogmatic and open to questioning. It has been argued that early Buddhism, which was also non-theistic, had this kind of character, when Buddha talks about testing his words like the purity of gold to determine if they suit your mind.

The “ideological mystification”/superstructure argument upon which Harris’ argument is based lacks the cultural-historical or context dependent analysis which has challenged the standard rationalist idea of religion as superstition and means of deception. Harris even lacks the classic Marxist depth of assuming that religion is a tool used by the owning classes to control the proleteriat, or the soul of a heartless world. Harris’ argument isn’t so much anti-organized religion or anti-clerical as anti-religion in all its forms. This is where our opinions diverge. The Absolute primacy of the atheist argument over the deist argument philosophically is not self evident to me either (neither is the other way around). But I digress.

Harris is a part of the growing new school of New Atheism or militant atheism. This community of people, I claim, has taken Sam Harris as a thought leader in the field of politics as well as religion. His analysis about Islam and terrorism has found support among the ranks of people who find the “dominant” narrative about multiculturalism and the idea of religions all being peaceful to be a cheap lie told to the public, a PC fabrication meant to maintain the status quo. For these New Atheists, Islam is seen as a bastion of bad ideas, from backwards ideas about the role of women in society to how to treat members of religions other than Islam.

The proof is in the pudding of the Qu’ran for Harris. He cites passages that run the gamut from stoning the infidel to the right to have slaves. While these passages ARE atrocious, they also ignore the context of the era in which the Prophet Muhammad lived, not to mention the context of modern day Islam, in which, despite the human rights abuses against women in parts of the fundamentalist Islamic world, such as Saudi Arabia, slavery is no longer acceptable (unless it is forced labour in Dubai by migrants, but that has more to do with capitalism than Islam).

In effect, I think Sam Harris is a bad anthropologist. He ignores the context in which the mujahideen, which would later become Al Qaeda, arose (the Soviet-Afghan War, in which Osama bin Laden’s forces were trained famously by our CIA). He ignores the context of the revival of fundamentalism in Iran (again due to CIA-backed overthrow of a democratically elected government). The entire history of the Middle East is stained with the history of colonialism, so deep that the motivations of Islamist fighters against the “evil West” are not evident, maybe even to themselves.

It boggles my mind that when Sam Harris makes the moral argument that Islam is to blame when it comes to terrorist willingness to use suicide bombers, that when we do the same thing and allow civilians to be killed in an attack by drones, or wholesale bombing as in the case of the Iraq War, he does not blame our ideology, he does not blame Christianity for example. Or better yet, he does not blame the doctrine of American exceptionalism. In fact he leaves out our moral failures entirely, or brushes them off as irrelevant.

Now, Sam Harris makes the compelling argument that this is a false equivalency, but there are huge problems with this argument. One is that one can view ISIS tactics against the West as simple total war retaliation tactics against an occupying force. This is anathema in conservative circles to even mention, due to the horrific nature of the terrorist bombings, and they are horrific. But one must question the moral logic of a Just War and acceptable losses entirely to come to that conclusion. The moral weight of overwhelming civilian casualties by American forces in Iraq or Palestine seems not to have hit Sam Harris as deeply as bombings closer to his own place of abode.

It seems over and over that Sam Harris speaks from a positioned subjectivity, and his knowledge of politics is pidgeon-holed by the “popular” political discourse. Whatever is on CNN is the topic of the day. This is shoddy thinking at best, and get everything wrong at its worst. To ignore history and view any event is to be blind. It is all to easy to come to easy morally appealing conclusions about Islam and the clash of cultures. The only problem for Harris is that the Islamic world just needs to adopt our values. This smacks of colonialism to many people in the Middle East, from pan-Arabists to the small but still present community of radical Leftists.

But in Sam Harris-land, liberals ignore hard truths about different value systems in the Middle East that just aren’t compatible with our values. I could go ON AND ON about this debate, but it basically just boils down to Harris believing that liberals’ “PC culture” has eroded critical thinking about Islam. Bill Maher, normally a staunch liberal and quasi-progressive, has been lately the poster child for this kind of anti-PC liberalism. An atheist himself, he falls into Harris’ camp and has been for years on the question of Islamic fundamentalism. Frankly, this resonates with American voters for good reasons, because Islamist terrorism remains a real threat in the minds of American voters who seek security and peace.

Too often though have the desire for peace and security allowed us to use questionable tactics in the war on terror that have just fueled the fires of the enemy. Even Bill Maher, who most of the time is staunchly anti-war, has not taken Obama to ask enough for continuing the several wars he promised to pull out of. Our current bombing of Yemen and the hospital in Sana’a that was destroyed by American-funded Saudi Arabian bombers is continued proof of our less than noble role in the region. Obama not only did not fully pull out of the countries he was supposed to, he expanded the fight to Libya, where he took out Muammar Gaddafi in a move totally equivalent Bush’s deposition of Saddam Hussein. This pattern of regime change seems inescapable to those currently in power. Obama has served as a “neo-con lite” for liberals to feel not guilty about. In fact, conservatives should be ecstatic about President Obama, who dropped so many bombs over the course of his presidency in the Middle East the army ordered that they could not continue due to low supply.

Conservatives, neo-cons, and Harrisites continue to justify our engagement in the Middle East by the phrase “we are at war”. The phrase “we are at war” is not a neutral phrase. Far from being a statement of fact, it is a call to continued engagement. For neo-conservatives, if we aren’t on the offense in a fight against terrorism (which is by no means a war in the traditional sense of the word), we will never win. Chomskyian analysis of foreign policy in the Middle East leads to the conclusion that peace in the region, whether it is the conflict in Palestine or Yemen, has to be won *gasp* by de-escalation. Harris’ arguments for viewing Islam as the primary reason for the reason that these people fight against us is not a neutral argument in terms of the ontological question of what we should do in the Middle East. It assumes an uncompromising Other which must be defeated, instead of a complex process of radicalization that involves a complex interplay between economics, politics, and religion. Many Islamist resistance fighters in Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Middle East for example, are explicitly anti-imperialist, while maintaining their allegiance to an Islamist creed. In other words, they are desperate and driven into the hands of the radicals, who they see as courageous enough to defeat their enemy and a desperate chance at a better life. Islam also provides a sense of community and common culture for which to strive for and is deeply rooted in the everyday life of the people.

In my mind, we must Courageously do what is right, and that is refuse to bomb the Middle East in order to stop the bleeding. Peace through strength did not ended well in the 20th fight against communism, and I believe it will not against Islamic terrorism. Harris seems all too willing to ask “tough moral questions” in regards to people that he has never met, and has not dared to question the establishment narrative surrounding Middle Eastern conflicts. It does a disservice for him to pretend that he is in in any way a foreign policy expert, or “just trying to have a dialogue” with Chomsky, in order to push this anti-Islam narrative that has been latched onto by populist right wingers, the alt-right in particular, Trump supporters, and the anti-immigrant Right.

What does Harris get right? In my mind, Harris is right about some things for the wrong reasons. Just like many Americans, he has bought the conservative narrative anti-political correctness, an argument that should not be underestimated, because it narrowly won Trump the presidency. Harris makes the argument on his podcast that Trump won (partially) because of liberal political correctness. I have listened to people in polling stations, and random places around the country, and one theme I hear over and over for why someone voted Trump was fear of terrorism; in this respect Harris is correct. “He will defeat ISIS” they say. He does get something right- there is a certain culture on the Left that does not denounce human rights abuses in countries like Saudi Arabia as forcefully as it should. Harris is right about political correctness, but in a way only slightly more aware than conservatives.  Harris is channeling the anti-PC vector in current politics and has some interesting points to make. But I must in the end disagree with him in the end.

But Harris is wrong because the values he claims to defend are undermined by his willingness to entertain logic (such as his thought experiment about torturing terrorists in a ticking time bomb scenario in his End of Faith book) that goes against Western values, humanist and Christian values, and willing to go down the path of being a talking head about Islam and foreign policy, with no end in sight. Its almost as if Harris is shy about some of his political beliefs, that he is a closet anti-immigrant and Euroskeptic, and just does not want to alienate his liberal fanbase. I think he is simply confused about the matter, and decided to vote for Hillary Clinton, and probably thought that Bernie Sanders was a nutcase on foreign policy.

Harris needs to do some serious soul-searching about the direction of his career as a  public intellectual. Make no mistake Sam Harris: those that follow you on social media and repeat your arguments are not enraged anti-PC liberals, they are conservatives, alt-righters, and Trump supporters. They hound the comment sections of your videos. They dominate the conversation surrounding it. The stupid anti-PC anti-SJW culture on the internet has bred and attracted misogynists, racists, homophobes, anti-Semites, and outright bigots. Those on the staunchly PC side sometimes aren’t the most politically savvy bunch (see my article on Pop Politics articles), but they can claim to staunchly defend the rights of minorities in a day where one religious minority, Muslims, have seen hate crimes against them SPIKE in the rise of Donald Trump.

Harris is one step from normalizing Donald Trump in this regard. In my mind,  the complete moral higher ground of the United States in the realm of the wars in the Middle East is a foolhardy assumption until we stop ALL BOMBING. If we truly want to be better than our enemies, pacifism is the standard we should hold ourselves to.

In my mind, current political narratives are always a double blackmail. “If you hate Trump, you have to like Hillary Clinton”. “If you like Trump, you must be against mainstream conservatives”. The narrative is confused because the ideological lens through which any story is presented is not always clear. In reality, the similarities between Trump and Clinton, or Republicans and Democrats, is too close for comfort for many to admit.

In my mind, in regard to being PC, Democrats and Republicans are both wrong. Liberals sometimes do underestimate our enemies (ISIS, etc.) while Republicans are not afraid to saber rattle. When Russia hacks into our election system, some liberals are quick to make excuses or deflect and not believe Putin is capable of this (our future President is under this assumption as well). But we also should not listen to the likes of Lindsey Graham and turn this situation into another Cold War. In a recent Senate hearing on the Russian hacks, Sen. Lindsey Graham said that “I would do much more than Obama”, and is “ready to throw a rock”. This kind of saber rattling is exactly the kind of thing that actually got Trump elected with regards to Russia. Russia is not and should not be at war with us, either by proxy in Syria or elsewhere. I do not think we should be allied with them either. I think Obama’s step toward sanctions is the right choice for some of the wrong reasons (where were the sanctions after Russia bombed civilians in Syria? Oh wait we are doing that too…).

Russia and America both do not have the higher moral ground here. The two sides of the Cold War are equally culpable for current historical trends in the Middle East. When it comes to the foreign policy of mainstream Democrats, mainstream Republicans, and Trump, give me NONE OF THE ABOVE. Trump is still far closer to a moderate Republican than many realize in terms of foreign policy. We should never normalize bigotry and racism. But if we truly want to not normalize him, we should acknowledge that we should never have normalized our imperialist aggression in the Middle East. Those lives can never be reclaimed.

I don’t expect Sam Harris to convert to Chomsky’s view on foreign policy. But I am of the opinion that he shouldn’t bring a knife to a gun fight again, because he got destroyed in that debate. However I do believe if Harris had a dialogue with Leftist intellectual Slavoj Zizek, they would have a more fruitful and productive debate, specifically about Islam, terrorism, and political correctness. Zizek has written extensively about problems regarding Western intentions in the Middle East and political correctness for example. There are more contradictions in this realm than meets the eye, particularly in regards to humanitarian justifications for intervention. I believe that Harris is probably too easily swayed by the humanitarian argument for intervention. I expect Harris to lean further to the Left if he is given a chance to stand on equal footing with someone, unlike the Chomsky debate. Chomsky was being somewhat uncharitable with him, but probably because Chomsky kept having to explain things that he had already published in detail. Then again, if Harris can’t see our clear moral failure in Iraq by now, I don’t know what will change his mind.

Sources: 

https://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-limits-of-discourse

What’s wrong with Social Democracy?

Take a look at this comic. It’s humorous (its actually very funny) I know, I shouldn’t take it too seriously. Even though it is a leftist comic, and I’m a Leftist, I believe it perfectly encapsulates what Ideology is.

What is Ideology?

Let’s take a few somewhat amorphous quotes from Slavoj Zizek:

“The stepping out of (what we experience as) ideology is the very form of our enslavement to it”

“Every ideology attaches itself to some kernel of jouissance which, however, retains the status of an ambiguous excess”

“The form of consciousness that fits late-capitalist “post-ideological” society – the cynical, “sober” attitude that advocates liberal “openness” in the matter of “opinions” (everybody is free to believe whatever she or he wants; this concerns only his or her privacy”

Let’s take the first quote. First of all, in and of itself, it’s very profound. Let’s say you have a political ideology. When you view things through the lens of your political ideology, and try to subject another’s ideology to your lens, then you are just enslaved to Ideology IN GENERAL.As in, if you say to yourself, “I have a viewpoint”, that viewpoint is fixed, solid, immutable. You are now trapped by ideology, you can now never question your dogmatic beliefs.

Now you chime in and say, “now Stephen, that’s quite unfair, anyone has the right to their opinion!”. This is a typical American statement. The third quote captures the problems with this belief. You can believe whatever you want! Ultimate freedom! What a great society we live in when we get to express and believe whatever we want! Underlying that whole belief structure is the belief that the society we live in has allowed us to form opinions that are rational in the first place. This is Foucault’s “Regime of Truth” problem if you will. At every moment, you have chosen to believe that what you believe is ultimately true and comes from yourself, without recognizing the ways society has influenced you to have a certain belief.

Now let’s ideologically analyze the comic using this method:

The cartoon is titled “Social Democracy in one Senate seat”. You see some young people watching Bernie Sanders speak. They have a preformed idea of what socialism is. The funny part comes from the juxtaposition of them being excited about “real” socialist ideas, then hearing old cranky Bernie talk about Norway and Sweden (which are still capitalist countries, strictly speaking). They walk away feeling depressed.

Here’s where you should start getting suspicious of this comic: the underlying message is- where’s the excitement??? I wanted real Socialism, not Larry David talking about how great the Scandinavian welfare state is! This is the “ideological kernel of jouissance [enjoyment]” Zizek talks about. Why were they disappointed? Bernie wasn’t ideologically pure! He wants a model from a country with a working economy and the highest standard of living in the world- what a sellout!

It’s almost as if the students were expecting him to say “Long live the Soviet Socialist Republic!” or something to that effect (I’m being unfair to the creator of this comic, I know that’s not the socialism he envisions). But it gives the reader with no knowledge of Leftism the impression…”what do those students actually want?”. This is the “Occupy Wall Street” problem, or the day after the revolution problem. Even though the comic does not go on, say to a different panel where they explain what kind of socialism they actually envision, you are left with the impression, “ok they disagree with Bernie because of his support of the invasion of Yugoslavia, and that jobs need to stay in America, and the military jets thing”. But that’s not what makes the comic funny. The underlying funniness is that Bernie is a lame old guy, he’s not “with” the real Leftism of the students.

So what about the positions Bernie advocates for on the podium. “Let’s keep jobs in America”. Well what’s wrong with that?

The problem with that statement in today’s PC culture is that it smacks of jingoism. The fact that Bernie is running for President of the US doesn’t make a difference. The fact that it would be a completely socialist policy of economic protectionism and intervention in the free market doesn’t make a difference. The reason it’s not a “pure enough” belief for the students is its all about America. The policy doesn’t “care” about the Third World enough. Now there’s a lot of ins and outs to what happens to other countries when free trade is adopted, but in general when companies outsource jobs, it exploits horrible labor laws in other countries and moves their factories over there. It kills jobs in the US, and overseas creates an economy based sometimes virtually on slave labor. It’s like when those on the far-left criticize Bernie for not being open borders- that position is very easy to take when you ignore the American economy. It is a position of extreme hypocrisy, where you claim to have the morally righteous position- the poor immigrants! All the while, a permanent underclass grows in America…that could be topic of a whole other long post on the immigration debate in the US. I’m willing to consider arguments from open borders people, but it seems to me that its too idealistic. And there would be nothing the capitalists would like more than for cheap labor to be able to migrate across borders at will. That’s not good for immigrants, its not good for us.

So either the students are pro-free trade socialists, because at least the poor Chinese children have jobs that way (an obvious contradiction), or they don’t think at all.

Let’s move on to the intervention in Yugoslavia. A true Leftist would never use the military!…would they? Obviously, from a hardcore non-interventionist perspective, the intervention was unjustified by its very nature. Unfortunately, this removes all context about the war in Yugoslavia (which I may write a whole other post about). The war in Yugoslavia was a war of aggression waged by a genocidal Serbian regime. Everyone agrees about that (if you are a sane person, and not brainwashed by the Serbian government). However, over the course of my internet adventures, I have encountered some strange pseudo-Leftists who argue that the intervention in Yugoslavia was a pretext by NATO against the completely innocent Serbian regime, who was actually going after Islamic terrorists. Ayiyi! I don’t have time to explain why that’s a complete crock of shit, anyone with any knowledge or time to watch an hour long documentary would know Milosevic was a genocidal maniac who wanted nothing more than to incorporate Bosnia into a greater Serbian state. The problem is, the people who that advocate position do so from a position of, “the American government is evil and has to be doing something wrong”. There are some who even claim NATO bombings killed more people than Milosevic! Do some research man!! These sort of gross ideological mystifications are the same sort of problems Chomsky ran into when he claimed the Khmer Rouge was being unfairly persecuted by the imperialist West and the genocide figures were inflated. It is true that the secret bombings of Cambodia were horrific. The problem comes when one equates that action under the Nixon administration, by all accounts a criminal administration, to the actions of the Clinton administration. “It’s all just imperialism” is a cop out.

Now would I have supported the NATO intervention in Yugoslavia? No, with some caveats. I think retroactively some sort of stronger UN intervention was necessary instead. But it is interesting how it is THAT issue that comes up over and over. It always seems to return to the Balkans, that bastion of ideological confusion. There were some who even claimed that the NATO intervention would just strengthen Milosevic’s hold on power- that didn’t end up occurring, but the fierce partisans of non-intervention in Serbia (coming at just the right time of an ethnic cleansing) seem to have held their tongues after the fact. No surprise that an actual committed leftist from the former Yugoslavia, was not as critical of the NATO intervention. He criticized NATO for depoliticizing the conflict on “humanitarian” grounds, but here’s what he said about its opponents:

“But it’s not only NATO that depoliticized the conflict. So has its opponents on the pseudo-Left. For them, the bombing of Yugoslavia played out the last act of the dismemberment of Tito’s Yugoslavia. It acted out the end of a promise, the collapse of a Utopia of multi-ethnic and authentic socialism into the confusion of an ethnic war. Even so sharp-sighted a political philosopher as Alain Badiou still maintains that all sides are equally guilty. There were ethnic cleansers on all sides, he says, among the Serbs, the Slovenes and the Bosnians. “Serbian nationalism is worthless. But in what respect is it worse than the others? It is more popular and it goes back further in time, it has more weapons at its disposal and in the past it doubtless had more opportunities to act out its criminal passions . . Certainly, Milosevic is a brutal nationalist, just as much as his colleagues in Croatia, Bosnia or Albania . . . From the beginning of the conflict the West has been on the side of the weaker nationalisms (the Bosnian, the Kosovar) and against the stronger nationalisms (the Serbian and, by means of subtraction, the Croatian).” (Zizek, NATO, the Left Hand of God).

So here, the specter of nostalgia for the old Communist bloc (or Tito’s Yugoslavia, which was outside Soviet influence) rears its ugly head. It begs the question: are the students in the comic secret Titoists who would throw Bernie in the gulag?

Here is where there is a kernel of truth in the comic for me. Social Democracy, in Europe, has failed to always not intervene in unjustified wars (Tony Blair invading Iraq), and has only promised to retain the welfare state, while all too often capitulating to the Right in their austerity policies. It’s “program” has failed to galvanize support- even the Jeremy Corbyn wing of the Labour Party has not attracted enough support in Britain. So what is to be done, in the words of Lenin?

What is to be done is to recognize that Bernie Sanders represents a REAL alternative to the extremely conservative ideological atmosphere in the United States, in the Democratic and Republican party. And not to judge him on the basis of so-called purist principles and subject him to ridiculous ideological purity tests.

We should also to recognize that Social Democracy is not a cure-all alternative, and it has its own problems, but I believe they are largely the result of neoliberal influence into those parties. REAL social democracy, like in Norway and Finland, does and should work. That’s my view. The Left of today should not be so quick to judge those who fight the existing powers that be, completely removed from solving the concrete problems of today.