Sunday, August 30, 2009


A downtown street on a windy morning, paper and other trash blowing in fits and starts across the intersection. Red weathered skin and dull eyes, a haunted man wrapped in stale cast-offs. Can you spare a quarter? Here you go. God bless you sir.

God bless pockets of clinking change. If I could recreate the scope and wide-angle visions of this walking life in words, I’d plunk it down into your skull right away, with appropriate chants and prayers. All elusive, though, a passing thought and I go on, we go on, crossing the street when the light changes.

What would Walt Whitman do if he could see America now? Would he clutch his head in agony and bellow like some poor tortured animal? I sing the god epileptic. The dreaming masses squirming to eat free. Out of business sale, everything half off.

There was a day when, out of fear and no wonder, I gave in and bought a ticket for the home town fair. Mom and Dad woke me up at three in the morning, light on suddenly, shouting in tandem. We overheard that phone call, we read your diary, we know what you’re doing. You are taking drugs, don’t lie about it. We cannot allow it.

Mean facial contortions and vicious yelling I omit here for sake of retrospective justification. Volenti non fit injuria. Hey, it’s okay, don’t worry about me.

From now on you will come directly home from school. You are not allowed to see any of your friends. They are not your friends. Real friends would not give you drugs.

Au contraire, mon pere. I would define my friends precisely as those who give me drugs. I speak to you from the future, from the realms of dialectic.

Waiting for the bus, surrounded by youthful characters smoking and swearing and saying god knows what, I seek no advancement, I ask for no difference in my condition. Freedom comes the long way, roundabout the mountainous landfill and under the arching forest of clotheslines—tramp tramp tramp, the tramps are marching. Without fear, finally, I can breathe the fetid atmosphere. Oh see can you say why the spawn’s yearly flight while so loudly he wailed despite all their scheming. America, show us your hairy ass. Let loose, I pray, a thunderous fart to astound and dismay the cowering world.

So then, that day, when all I could muster was hysterical pipsqueak bargaining—let me keep my long hair, damn it, and I promise to see a shrink—there was another way before me. Two roads diverged in the yellow fucking wood—one of them rutted washboard, the other with a school crossing sign. And I followed the one with the trail of crackerjacks, back from the witch’s house, you know, never mind that you left us out here, father, in the first place.

In this other life I ran away, truly, hooking up with the underground teenage bus route. With desperate stealth I blazed a cunning journey west. A new name, an altered visage, concealed in poverty the best disguise. Across the country, fending for scraps, living free on the back roads, a tough street kid, older than his years, I bartered the occasional ass-fuck for a roof and to score the needed dope. Years pass. The family has all but given up. All that’s left is a blistering good-bye note of undying hate. No, not really, it’s better without a note. There are no reasons.

The pain in the story is incident to the joy of revenge. They thought they could murder me, but I was stronger. Oh vagabond loner in a torn leather jacket, you decided your own fate. I salute you. Later you became—what? The notorious artist, voice of an outcast generation. There he is, at the table in the corner. You can glimpse him through the smoke. Cool but not aloof. If there is one man in this city who can help you, it is he, forcing his heart and nerve and sinew and so on. And which is more, you’ll be a man, my son. Pass the whiskey.

The reality, I know, is in the sick and dirty morning, my bones on the sidewalk, waking to find the next fix and avoid the next cop. Shivering as my teeth fall out, I crawl to the gutter and heave. Dead dog for dinner again. With vermin.

To live it is not the same as to dream it. The mewling pupa curls into a ball. If you can forgive, good. Even better would be to forget, he said. Daddy, were you playing a lead role in your story? I understand. Whenever I try to forget, I remember again.

I’ve arrived. I know most of the passengers by now—silently we say farewell. The bus drives away and I walk two blessed blocks and a half to home. Three squares, a bed, and someone to call me honey. Shut out the howling winds with song, in stereo. If I could give you all this, the days and times behind me, tramp tramp we march ahead and all for love of course—I would, and no delay. I would give it to you and hold back—nothing.

America, where are you? I’ve left messages. My letters have all been returned. I filled out a missing country report, but the police have no leads. Are you cold and hungry? I don’t expect you to come back. Just let me know you’re okay, and I promise not to bother you again. Your mother is inconsolable.

Dear dad, I’m off to the wars. Don’t worry. I’m doing fine, civilizing the natives. All is forgotten. Can you spare a quarter? God bless you sir.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Left as Straw Man

If you take a look at the history of the “left” in the United States—and I mean really study the reality of it—and then compare that with the notion of the “left” as framed by conservative or “mainstream” discourse in this country, you just have to laugh. It’s a melancholy type of laughter, I suppose, but nonetheless the comparison is funny in a gallows humor type of way.

I am loosely defining the left as those who are in favor of a truly participatory democratic process, and who oppose the domination of government and society by class interests, which has primarily meant capitalist interests but has also included military and police forces considered as classes. Usually this has also involved a belief in justice conceived as human rights, not just in the sense of the three rights mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, but also the rights to adequate food, housing, health, and socioeconomic equality. There is of course plenty of room for differences within this definition of the “left,” but I think this covers it in broad outline.

Separate from this, but sharing occasional points in common, is that segment of political culture known as “liberalism.” Liberalism has always operated within the class system, and assumed as an article of faith that the class system is inevitable, yet has argued that relatively equitable conditions should be maintained for all classes in order for the system to work. So-called conservatism, on the other hand, claims that the government has no business trying to maintain even relatively equitable conditions, and that, in effect, it’s every person for himself, with the wealthy wielding power by right. (In detail, the landscape is always more complex and varied, but this will do for my purposes.)

If you study the history of the United States, then, it is clear that the left has never gained anything close to a major share of power in the political process. There have been isolated figures with small followings, such as Senator LaFollette and the Progressive Party in the early 20th century, but in truth there’s never been a powerful leftist faction in Congress, and certainly never in the White House. The left has been active in grass-roots organizations, in the early labor movement, and in social movements of one sort or another, such as the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, and the various peace movements over the years. There has been a certain degree of influence on politics, especially as a general cultural force that seeps gradually into the process, which happened for example in the 1970s as a result of the ferment in the previous decade. But in tangible terms, in terms of who holds the real power in the government, the left has always been isolated on the margins.

Liberalism, on the other hand, has held power within the establishment at various times, and with various degrees of influence. The New Deal, for instance, and the social programs instituted in the 1960s and 70s, attempted to foster and maintain more equitable conditions, economically and socially, in America. It’s significant that liberalism has at the same time held to imperialist foreign policy aims. The Vietnam War was begun under liberal administrations, and supported by most liberals. More recently we saw a majority of mainstream liberals in the Congress, including such figures as John Kerry and John Edwards, vote for the invasion of Iraq. Liberalism does not take an anti-militarist stance, not only because it’s politically taboo to do so, but because liberals identify with the class interests that support themselves through foreign intervention and control of foreign markets.

For someone on the left, therefore, as I have defined it, the political experience in this country has been one of constant frustration and failure. Psychologically, a sense of defeat has been a salient feature of progressive consciousness for generations. I have witnessed this personally as an almost fatalistic attitude, a perpetual underdog role, and a constant underlying feeling of anger and despair. One backlash after another has effectively neutralized the labor movement and stymied the progress of the women’s movement, the movements for racial and ethnic equality, and just about every other facet of leftist political struggle. The use of protests and demonstrations, which for a brief moment in the 1960s seemed a potent force, has become practically meaningless due to a strategy of deliberate indifference and marginalization on the part of the establishment. Whatever satisfaction has been experienced in the ranks of progressives has been almost solely the satisfaction of solidarity with those of like mind and purpose, with actual achievements being sorely limited in scope and effect. Being on the left in this country has been, in terms of real power and influence on events, to be a loser.

Now if we turn from the historical reality of the American left and look at the narratives that have been, and continue to be, presented within the mainstream of public discourse as describing the left, you see a grotesque distortion, a set of assumptions and beliefs divorced from reality yet dominating the political landscape. It is the “right,” the so-called conservative movement, that has written and honed this narrative so that it is now largely accepted without challenge within the establishment and its expression in corporate media.

First of all, the left was lumped together with liberalism as one monolithic entity. Sometimes the distinction is subtly acknowledged by referring to certain politicians as “liberals,” and groups outside the “mainstream,” such as the peace movement, as “left.” Nevertheless, they are essentially treated as synonymous terms. Increasingly over the years, these terms have become interchangeable. In the language of the right, the “left” encompasses everyone from a business-friendly “centrist” such as Bill Clinton all the way over to Noam Chomsky. This is a deliberate strategy. Actual leftists had already been demonized many times over, particularly after World War II, when the right identified them with hostile foreign powers—the Communist bloc—and then persecuted them as threats to the country’s security. McCarthyism was one of the first attempts to connect liberalism with the “anti-American” left in order to gain political advantage and win elections through fear. This strain continued to have a considerable degree of influence on politics, although its more overt varieties—the John Birchers and their ilk—were generally perceived as on the fringes. With the right-wing backlash, first under Nixon and then with the triumph of the hard ideological right under Reagan, the conflation of “left” and “liberal” became more mainstream, until finally the term “liberal” was accepted as a complete negative, an insult. By 1988, the Democratic candidate for President, Michael Dukakis, denied that he was a liberal when asked. He was actually much more conservative than the liberals of the 1960s, but the point is that his campaign considered it political suicide to accept “liberal” as a label.

During the Clinton administration, leftists found themselves in the bizarre situation of seeing the President relentlessly attacked by the right and portrayed as a dangerous leftist. Self-aware progressives knew, on the contrary, that Clinton was in almost every respect an enemy to the left. Yes, he was pro-choice, and tried to throw a few crumbs to progressives in his social agenda, but overall he was a staunch NAFTA-backing corporatist, a traditional imperialist in foreign policy, passive on the environment, never challenging the oil interests, and aiding the erosion of the Bill of Rights in his anti-terrorism policies. It was his administration that helped spearhead the deregulation of the banking industry. He was also fond of trying to out-conservative the conservatives in an attempt to win votes from their base—the regressive “end of welfare” policy being just one example. Meanwhile, less politically aware citizens who tended to be more liberal, at least on social and economic issues, bought into the idea of Clinton as “one of them” because the right-wing fought him as if he were in fact a liberal. The progressive movement was left out to dry.

I go into such detail on this period because it is crucial in understanding how the right-wing narrative about the left and liberalism succeeded. It was to the advantage of the liberal establishment to abandon traditional liberalism in order to shore up the support of the upper class, and replace it with a sort of “conservatism lite,”—giving lip service to the notion of equality while relying on corporate power to keep the campaign money flowing. Greed had made liberalism in the traditional sense unfeasible for the political leadership. The old idea was that the system worked better when the government tried to foster more equitable conditions for the people. The right harassed that notion into the margins, and the Democratic Party for the most part abandoned it, in order, they thought, to hang on to a share of power.

The trouble was, that since the right had found a winning political formula, they weren’t about to be co-opted by Clintonesque “triangulation” strategies. Conservatives heated up the rhetoric even more, and after the September 11th attacks, the paradigm of the liberal as dangerous leftist traitor was established as official White House doctrine under Bush Jr. It didn’t matter that most Democrats had stopped calling themselves liberals. The right simply made the word “Democrat” synonymous with “liberal” just as they had done with “liberal” and “leftist.”

A very significant development of the last thirty years was the right’s identification of the media as “liberal.” The “mainstream” media has always been thoroughly establishment, which should be obvious since it is corporate-owned. It’s just that the establishment was not yet thoroughly right-wing. By hounding the media with accusations of “liberal bias,” the right was able to frame themselves as something of an oppressed political minority, with the media as part of a liberal elite opposing the will of “the people.” In response, the media shifted gradually rightward, until conservative dominance of the public discourse was effectively achieved. The “liberal media” became a famous catchword, and the right still clings to it strategically even though it is a patently false description. By continuing to demonize the media, the right can maintain its fictitious identity as a movement outside the establishment, fighting the power of the government with populist anger.

The absurd result, from the point of view of progressives, is that “the left” is treated in the right-wing narrative as a powerful establishment force, even a force of tyranny opposing the will of the citizenry. Rightist demagogues persistently frame themselves as oppressed by a powerful left-wing movement. But the truth is quite the opposite, as you may recall. The actual left in the United States has been isolated to the margins of power for generations. This fact has not changed to any significant degree. Liberalism, on the other hand, has shown faint signs of life within the establishment, simply because the effort to co-opt conservative Republican strategies has failed, and Democrats have been forced in some degree to attempt a more spirited opposition. Nevertheless, Obama still represents a segment of “centrist” political strategy—still supporting the imperialist enterprise, still beholden to Wall Street, still taking an ameliorist approach to social issues. Leftists are in a similar situation as in the Clinton years—howling outside the gates of power, while many of them reluctantly support the President because the right-wing alternative is so much worse. Liberalism has always offered more of an opportunity for the left than conservatism—liberalism allows for the awareness of inequality and injustice as social realities, whereas conservatism doesn’t.

The dominant narrative about our political process that we are presented with today is so riddled with confusion and deliberate obfuscation that it takes a concerted effort of attention and awareness to not be fooled. The left in western Europe, for example, takes overtly socialist positions, which are in line with general developments, since socialist institutions have been effective there to some degree. They also have had much more success gaining real power within the political structure of those countries, although the history of their influence is problematic for a variety of reasons. The left in the U.S., on the other hand, has no access to real power, and yet finds itself in the curious position of being demonized as if it were extremely powerful, while at the same time being confused with an establishment liberalism that won’t challenge corporate or military power. If you hear the term “left” or “leftist” on TV in this country, it has no relation to any actual conditions on the ground. These terms are nothing but straw men set up by dominant conservative forces in order to characterize all their opponents as dangerous and beyond the pale. This extends across the spectrum of policy. In foreign affairs, for instance, it would be virtually impossible to discern from the American public discourse that Muslim fundamentalism is an essentially right-wing movement. Since the left opposes imperialist foreign policy, and that includes the so-called “War on Terror” and the Iraq war, the right simply identifies the left (and therefore liberalism, and therefore Democrats) with Muslim terrorists, even though the social aims of the left are directly opposed to the conservative, intolerant, anti-feminist, anti-labor aims of Muslim fundamentalism.

Recently the right has been attempting to revise historical realities that have seemed inviolable. The latest outrage is the equation of liberalism with fascism and Hitler. There is seemingly no end to the mendacity of the conservative “message.” Before any meaningful discussion of politics can be had in this country, it is necessary, unfortunately, to dispel the fog of rightist rhetoric that surrounds our public conversation. This requires continual alertness, and the work involved in simply dispelling incorrect assumptions might seem like an enormous waste of time. But that was the right-wing strategy, and they have proven adept at it, so that is where a great deal of the battle needs to be fought. The one saving grace, perhaps, is that the lies and distortions become, as if impelled by a natural law, increasingly extreme over time. If you even compare the sort of things said nowadays with what the right could get away with during the Reagan years, you will notice a very sharp increase in the extremist tone. As a result, we are finally seeing the rhetoric becoming too outlandish for a majority of the voting populace, and consequently the first signs of the right painting themselves into a corner where they could become marginalized themselves. The more they sense themselves losing, however, the more desperate and hysterical they become, so that what could be a tipping point for the country in a progressive direction has also the potential for unpredictably dangerous developments. The role of the left will be to oppose right-wing extremist rhetoric at every opportunity while at the same time pressuring the establishment to challenge its investment in a failing class system. The task is not easy.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Spirituality: an Inquiry (Part 2)

The wonder of life is not just the wonder of existence—that there is a world—but also that there is experience of the world. Consciousness, in other words, is both the cause of wonder, and a cause for wonder. Human thought has the power of reflection, so that the human being can not only know that there is the world, but that something within the world experiences the world. I give this the rather dry and analytical title of subjectivity, but abstraction frames all knowledge in terms of things, i.e. objects. So, to continue our practice of describing the development of human consciousness as if it were a deliberate process of thought, we come to this archetypal formulation: There has to be something that experiences all this, and this something is the “I.” Thus we have the idea of the soul, or the self. Another word for this is “spirit,” although the development of culture has caused this notion to vary sometimes from the self.

Everything is experienced by the self, in the context of the self. There is simply no experience outside of this context. The world itself cannot exist for me outside of this context. Contained in this “for me” is the wonder of life, and the apparent contradiction. For we know that the world exists after I die, but for me it cannot be experienced outside of my life.

We come then, to another ancient archetypal thought. If our lives can only manifest by and for our “selves,” then the world as a whole can only manifest by and for its “selves.” These “selves” are the spirits or gods that have created this manifestation and control it, and are in a sense the world itself as experienced by itself.

Why are the spirits plural? Because human beings are plural, and the objective conditions of human life are experienced and dealt with as a community. The manifestations of the world are various—water, earth, ocean, mountains, plants, animals, and so forth. The selves of the world are likewise various. Two factors eventually result in the notion of one “God” instead of many “gods”: first, the gradual development of individual ego-consciousness, which allows greater awareness of the single subjective being within the community; and second, the gradual narrowing of political authority in the community into hierarchies that require greater unity in order to maintain power. This line of thought is a subject for further essays. Suffice it to say that in essence a “god,” whether single or plural, constitutes the “self” of the world.

Although the self experiences everything, we cannot experience the self in the same way that we experience objects, precisely because the self is the subject or context of experience. We only experience its effects, both in terms of our thoughts, desires, and emotions, and in terms of the actions we take in the world. Human beings remain essentially unaware of the metaphorical nature of “soul” and “spirit” as long as they assume that subjectivity is an object like any other. Thus every aspect of human nature becomes reflected in the stories concerning gods and spirits.

The subject-object split finds a perfect analogy in the opposition between life and death. The outside world towers over the individual like a tremendous mountain of fact, while the self is only perceived by a kind of reflective intuition. The self dies, and the world remains. But how could the self really die, since it is the one and only context of all experience, all known life? It must not die, therefore (goes our archetypal conversation) it must survive death. It must be separate from the body—don’t I perceive the body the same way I perceive objects outside of it? So, this “I” that perceives is a separate entity. It travels somewhere else after death, perhaps to a special place, or to a new body. The key to this “as if” progression of thought is that the end of experience is literally unthinkable. We cannot imagine “nothing.” Instead, we imagine the entrapment of an endless darkness, an experience of eternal nullity. The natural urge to survival is transformed by the human capacity for reflection into a fear beyond all other fears. The intuition of eternity is channeled through this fear into a belief in the immortality of the individual self.

The consciousness of death has had the historical effect of a wound on the psyche of humanity. But preceding this wound is the error of separation. The contradiction between subjectivity as context and objectivity as content is a false one. Yet to call it an error is really to use a small word for a much bigger one, one that doesn’t seem to yet exist. An intellectual error can be solved by a mental readjustment—one absorbs the truth of the situation intellectually, and one’s thought adjusts accordingly into a correct path. The contradiction I speak of, however, seems to be inherent in the very act of individuation. If consciousness were just one unified subjectivity, there would be no manifestation, no world. But of course creation, the manifest world with its many forms and living beings, can only exist in plurality. Philosophically, this is one of those “given” truths that Aristotle spoke of, beyond which we cannot go. A plurality of experiencing subjects, then, a plurality of living beings, necessarily involves duality. Duality isn’t just thought up--it is felt, perceived, experienced necessarily as part and parcel of the very individuation which is the manifest world. Logic can only describe. Metaphor, the poetic capacity, is the mental form that seeks to span the divide between life and death, subject and object, pain and pleasure, good and evil, and all the other dualities which make up the content of our experience.

Prior, then, to the fear of death, and in a certain sense the cause of it, is the experience of the self as separate, as a separate entity, as perceived content perpetually unable to directly experience its context. Spirituality is the desire for wholeness. The goal of desire is felt as an end of striving, a cutting off of restless seeking for wholeness, a final satisfaction of the urge to unity. For the individual, this part of religious history emerges later than any other, because its cause lies in the deepest stratum of the mind. It is prefigured in the rituals of communion with nature instituted by human societies and reflected in the ritual and sacramental regulation of everyday activities such as the hunting or cultivation of food, sex and procreation, and so forth. The tribe or community simulates wholeness through ritual. But simulation is ultimately not enough—the self seeks direct unity. The rise of the world religions, and their practices centering on devotion, power, and transcendence, culminates in the mystical quest, or in terms of Eastern religion, enlightenment or awakening.

Separation is replicated in mythical form in the separation of man from the gods, and later of man from God. In the theistic traditions, this is where the “inner” path begins to diverge from the path of tribal religion, even though it must of necessity remain within it to survive in the social realm. The seeker of God seeks to be united with God. The tribal religion, on the other hand, insists that we must remain separate while worshipping and obeying God from afar. The tribal path, what we now call organized religion, became a form of social organization with its own political interests, thus tragically embedding the contradiction of the separate self in the body of culture, and refusing to budge. In the context of the discussion on atheism with which I began, this is where we remain stuck today, the rise of science having exposed mythology as metaphor and not as literal fact, while organized religion refuses to surrender its position as the arbiter of manifest and objective truth. Here we part ways with the direct analysis of organized religion, at least for the purposes of this essay. Religion has turned against spirituality, its own child, and will continue to struggle in painful throes of illusion as it long as it fails to acknowledge metaphor as its proper (and powerful) realm.

Interestingly, there is a strong and valid strain within spirituality that retains the idea of “God” as a centerpiece of its practice. For the urge to wholeness, we learn, is identical with the urge to love. The love that is experienced in the relationship of selves to one another, the deep connection and caring that unites people together while transcending the limited drives for personal survival and “self-interest,” finds an overarching metaphor in the love of the self for the Self of the World. A theist’s feeling of love for his “creator” is of course analogous to his worldly love for a parent. We are very familiar with this one, since “parent” and “authority” have become fused in the authoritarian version of religion. Present also, yet less often remarked, is the parent’s deep love for the child, the sibling’s love for a sibling, the friend’s love for a friend, and, most significantly, the lover’s love for a beloved. That which transcends the ordinary separations of life is experienced as a source of universal transcendence. Consider this quote from St. Theresa of Avila:

I gave myself to Love Divine,
And lo! My lot so changed is
That my Beloved One is mine
And I at last am surely His.

Devotion to God is an all-consuming practice that aims at complete transformation of the self. Whether the unity is expressed openly, or in more traditional language, the effect is far different from conventional sentiments expressing devotion from afar. Furthermore, there is something inevitable about the expression of spiritual desire in personal terms. Martin Buber, in his classic book I and Thou, makes the case for this relationship as a fundamental aspect of spiritual metaphor. The formulation of “I and Thou” is one of direct relationship, from self to Self, without intermediary. Its significance is not historical, but purely in the context of the soul and its intuition of the Absolute as source and as love. Even when the third person is used, as in the quote from St. Theresa above, the meaning is only understood in the context of this direct relationship. Observe, on the other hand, how the third person dominates in the following quote from John Calvin:

God preordained, for his own glory and the display of His attributes of mercy and justice, a part of the human race, without any merit of their own, to eternal salvation, and another part, in just punishment of their sin, to eternal damnation.

God is now completely “He” (a separate denizen of the objective world) and not a “Thou.” We are out of the realm of spirituality and wholly in the realm of historical authority. I chose the quote for its obviousness, but even if the God described were more benign, the distance would remain. The door to unity has been barred.

In the practice of such “I and Thou” spirituality, the conscious awareness of metaphor becomes practically irrelevant. Insofar as the seeker’s experience is direct, or desires to be, philosophy is beside the point. Nor is this just a phenomenon of the West, although it could be argued that it has found a greater foothold here. Here is an excerpt from the Buddhist text called The Lotus Sutra, addressing the Bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokitesvara:

O you, whose eyes are clear, whose eyes are friendly,
Whose eyes betray distinguished wisdom-knowledge;
Whose eyes are pitiful, whose eyes are pure,
O you, so lovable, with beautiful face, with beautiful eyes!

In a religion with no gods, that moreover denies the reality of the separate self, the urge to direct relationship still finds a way, with all its attendant feelings of love and adoration, in this case directed towards an awakened person. Similar notes are struck in the Theraveda tradition of Buddhism, and indeed in all the religions of India, China, and the rest of Asia.

I maintain, therefore, that the metaphor of the gods, and God, and all other variations of the “spirit” idea are valid metaphors for our intuition of the eternal and its expressions in wisdom, love, and wholeness. They will survive all attempts to argue them away. I choose not to use them myself because they don’t adequately reflect my understanding, but I don’t dare deny their usefulness for others. My arguments against the “literal” truth of religious and mythic language are pertinent to the social and political struggles centering on the place of organized religion in the world. But in terms of the self’s desire for wholeness, and all the expressions that it engenders, they serve only as a reminder of the need for humility, a need that no one would recognize more clearly than the seeker himself.

In the third part of this essay I plan to examine how it is possible to practice spirituality without the idea of God or gods, and what kind of challenges that may present to the seeker.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

The Confederate Party

Since the election of Barack Obama, the racist tone has risen markedly, and alarmingly, in this country. The so-called “birther” movement—people who claim that Obama is not an American citizen—has made this development most explicit. The underlying message is one of revulsion against a black man being the President of the United States. The reality of a black President is so horrifying to the racist mind that it must resort to denial—this man cannot really be eligible to live in the White House. His birth certificate must have been forged. Such insidious nonsense was planned by individuals seeking to exploit racist fears and beliefs in order to undermine the President and ultimately defeat him.

Obama himself is one of the most ingratiating and conciliatory politicians to occupy his office. He is not challenging the war machine in the Middle East to a significant degree. He pursues similar anti-terrorist policies as his predecessor, including many troubling aspects of Bush’s illegal detention programs. His economic approach to a large degree consists of attempting to prop up the same Wall Street powers that brought the country into a massive recession, i.e. a very “business-friendly” approach. On social issues he is largely a conventional liberal—nothing earth-shattering here. He has even dragged his feet on gay rights.

But if you listen to right-wing talk radio or watch the Fox “News” channel, you see a different President. Rush Limbaugh and his crowd of extremists paint Obama as a far-left radical, a scary black man who is a racist against white people and seeks to replace the rule of law with a totalitarian state. The charge of racism is particularly significant—racists have learned to project their own attitudes onto their opponents in order to confuse the public. In general, the right has adhered to a strategy of portraying anyone other than the right as dangerous and an actual enemy of the people. In the case of Obama, the rhetoric has gotten even more feverish, less connected with any real conditions, more downright hysterical in its lies and distortions, and all tinged with the blatant flavor of racial hatred. Perhaps it’s because Glenn Beck is the least sophisticated of the bunch (which is saying a lot) that he was the one to blurt out last week that Obama hates white people.

The leadership of the Republican Party sometimes makes a pretense of distancing itself from the rhetoric and thuggery of right-wing media. But only just so much to cover their asses. Most of the time they support it, feed it, encourage it, and refuse to disavow it. This points up a glaring flaw in this country’s political culture, which has infected both parties and all facets of government and media, but which is particularly acute among Republicans. This is that the idea of actually governing for the good of the country has been replaced with the notion that gaining and maintaining power, i.e. “winning,” is the only worthwhile value. The Republican Party has internalized this idea to such a degree that it no longer has any real values.

When LBJ inaugurated the Great Society programs, the Republicans faced a choice. They could have agreed that justice and equality were values that all politicians needed to embrace for the common good, and then perhaps proposed alternative ideas on how such values could be maintained. What they decided to do instead was to enlist racist whites into their party by stoking resentment against blacks and against the liberal programs that were seeking to foster equality.

Civil rights had gained such a major foothold in the consciousness of Americans that the Republicans couldn’t maintain the pure George Wallace-style opposition to racial equality without committing political suicide. So instead, they paid lip service to civil rights while stimulating racial hatred and fear through other “issues” that were actually code words for race. “Crime” was the first of such issues exploited—Nixon’s emphasis on law and order was intended to tap into white resentment at the spectacle of rioting blacks in the inner cities. And since poverty breeds crime, and a higher percentage of African Americans were poor as compared to whites, a higher incident of crime would provide an apparently objective basis to what was really a racial scare tactic. Liberals were “permissive” towards crime, but real Americans like Nixon knew that getting “tough” with criminals was the only thing that worked. This strategy helped win the votes of consciously racist whites, as well as working-class whites who would project their resentments about economic stagnation and social unrest onto liberals who were supposedly selling them out, and by extension onto minorities getting “favored” treatment. Over the years since Nixon, the figure of the black criminal has paid continuing dividends for the Republican Party. The infamous “Willie Horton” ad during Bush Sr.’s 1988 campaign against Dukakis is a perfect example. Later, the gangster imagery from hip-hop culture has been brought up repeatedly as a menacing social force to be condemned by politicians of both parties, far out of proportion to any real effect it had on the lives of the mass of voters.

Under Reagan, the “welfare queen” stereotype was used as a means of demonizing liberal programs to aid the poor. People on welfare were characterized as parasites who were taking advantage of government programs to avoid work. It is a barely disguised version of the old “lazy shiftless coon” image, a staple in racist rhetoric since Reconstruction. Once again, the resentment of working-class whites could be directed against blacks without having to mention race at all. These were just people that didn’t want to work, unlike the decent hardworking Reagan voters who had too much pride to accept a “handout.”

Another part of the strategy was to ridicule and condemn black leaders. Jesse Jackson may have said foolish things, yet no more foolish than a great number of white politicians in the Congress and elsewhere. But by focusing negative attention on Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and others, Republicans sought to discredit the entire movement of justice and equal rights for African Americans. In addition, if any black public figure made a statement that was considered objectionable by right-wingers and their media mouthpieces, other black public figures were asked to condemn or apologize for the statement—I’m thinking of Louis Farrakhan in particular, a militant black Muslim who was repeatedly used as a club to beat other black leaders or spokespeople into silence. Of course, no one would ever ask Senator John McCain, for instance, to condemn something that Senator Jesse Helms had said.

By the time the 1990s rolled around, right-wing extremism held exclusive power in the Republican Party. The strategy of using code issues and words to encourage racial fear and hatred continued, and now the denial became a blanket one. The official line was that there was no more racial problem in America. Racism was over, and those who continued to talk about it were guilty of “politically correct” oppression of free speech. The attack on “political correctness” (from a phrase that actually began as left-wing self-referential humor) was always primarily an attack on the public consciousness that had been attained regarding civil rights and racial equality. In fact, if a liberal or progressive said something that challenged the prevailing ideology, whether it was about race, economics, the military, or whatever—the phony concern about free speech would instantly go out the window, and the person would be attacked for daring to say such a terrible thing. The double standard continues to this day: a right-winger can get away with saying almost anything, while similarly extreme language from the left meets with swift retribution. It’s interesting that when a right-winger does catch flak, as in the case of Don Imus, it’s when he fails to sufficiently disguise the racist import of his words. “Nappy-headed hos” wasn’t that much different from the kind of thing you hear on Rush Limbaugh’s or Michael Savage’s programs on a regular basis. It was just enough over the line, and Imus had flirted with the line long enough, and he was a prominent enough figure in the media elites, for it to backfire. This is the exception rather than the rule. Day after day, right-wing media gets away with thinly veiled race-baiting.

One of the most insidious Republican tactics is the promotion of self-hating and delusional black conservatives to positions representing the Party. From Clarence Thomas to Alan Keyes and Michael Steele, the Republicans try to fool us by propping themselves up with token black spokesmen representing the tiniest fraction of the African American community.

The Republican Party consciously and deliberately developed a political strategy based on stoking racism in order to win votes. And to a great degree, it worked. They held the White House for 20 out of the 24 years between 1969 and 1992. They undermined the Clinton White House with their disruptive tactics, and gained control of the House for 12 years, from 1994 to 2006. They regained the White House under Bush Jr. and ended up with majorities in both the House and Senate.

Finally, having achieved close to total power in Washington, they wrecked the country. Since they didn’t care about governing, only gaining and keeping power, once they were in power they proved ruinous to everything they touched, from foreign affairs to the economy and the environment. So in 2008, the people elected a new President, the first African American chief executive. And he has a huge mess to try to clean up.

Once again, as it was when LBJ launched the Great Society, Republicans faced a choice. They could have decided to take the high road, and to work with the new President, opposing whatever ideas they might have to Obama’s while abandoning the old strategy of racial division.

Of course they did not. The racial rhetoric we’re hearing now is more frightening than anything we’ve heard since the 1960s. Extremists on the right have openly advocated secession, a word not seriously used since, significantly, the Civil War. Republican leaders, instead of taking a principled stand, tacitly approve of incessant race-baiting from unscrupulous demagogues such as Limbaugh, Beck, and Sean Hannity.

Who knows how much further we could have come as a country by now if the Republican Party had tried to serve the good of the country instead of deliberately fostering the old racial divide? It’s been three decades since Dr. King was assassinated, and yet the Republican leadership continues to aid and abet the most hateful elements in our nation, all for their own petty political gains.

The Republican Party has had plenty of chances to redeem itself. On every occasion it has chosen to align itself with Jim Crow politics. It is now nothing more than the Confederate Party, the standard bearer for white supremacy, the symbol of the old racist hegemony, clinging to memories of slavery and segregation, whispering a multitude of code words for “nigger” into the ear of the populace.

The Republican Party must end. They have lost all claim to legitimacy in the modern world. They represent a test for the United States—whether or not our country can deal constructively with its real problems today, or crumble into fatal weakness and senility, wrapped in a Confederate flag.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Spirituality: an Inquiry (Part 1.5)

The subject I’m tackling is more involved than my initial, recklessly confident, estimation would have it. There is some basic philosophical and anthropological ground to be covered before I can proceed to a clearer explication of spirituality. This is the way with inquiries of this nature. They expand and take on their own life, with scant regard for the author’s original plans or desires. My goal, however, is the same. The path is just more circuitous than I expected. So before we go to part 2 (or who knows how many parts?) I present this necessary interlude.

All life is experienced by a person, a subject. Or to put it in terms of process, all life is experienced as subjectivity. This is actually a tautology, since in my view all life is subjectivity, but because of the innate tendency of thought to objectify everything, it doesn’t seem obvious.

Human thought is self-reflective, which gives it the quality of “thought” as we know it, as distinct from whatever kind of thought other animals have. This of course lends an enormous range to human ability—it also brings into greater relief the realm of emotions. Joy and sadness are two primary emotions. Love, anger, and fear are words indicating other important feelings universally experienced. Emotion and action are always linked, so that it is not wholly accurate to speak of any emotion without taking its expression into account. As a more inclusive category we must mention the axis of pleasure and pain, a duality that extends throughout the physical, emotional, and mental aspects of experience, and finds expression in desire and aversion.

The expression of thought in the form of analysis was a very gradual and difficult process. It constituted the effort, in the most basic sense, to understand and master the phenomenal world, and by the time Aristotle began the process of codifying the thought discipline of “logic,” human beings had lived on the earth for hundreds of thousands of years. But analysis could never be the only form of thought, and it was never meant to be. There is no place in it for the expression of emotions. It can describe emotions, analyze and seek to understand them as phenomena, but expressing them is outside of its purpose, and in fact tends to interfere with it.

Our emotions, I would venture to say, are the very flavor of subjectivity. They are practically indistinguishable from the sense of vitality, the inherent feeling of importance that being alive has for a person. In particular, our memory is suffused with it—humanity’s greatly expanded capacity to remember previous experience involves ever-increasing self-reflection and deeper emotional resonance.

In the everyday life of a person, experience is seamless. It is only in reflection that we discern and separate the strands of physical sensation, thought, emotion, memory, and so forth. I am emphasizing emotions here only because the development of analytical thought, what we call science, has by necessity involved the separation of objective knowledge from emotion. It is the entire range of experience, however, that is expressed and manifested as culture. And if we survey all the various aspects of culture, we must admit that emotions are a very large and important element, just as they are in experience. In terms of language, culture takes the form of metaphor. One must understand how general and sweeping this statement is. In truth, all language is representational, and is in that sense metaphor. In a wider sense, however, metaphor expresses the emotional flavor of thought, along with its complex reflective associations. There is no apparent limit to the sophistication of metaphor. From Shakespeare’s second sonnet:

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,

Any first-year literature student can tell you that beauty is not literally a field, and then you can’t dig literal trenches in it. And this is why I maintain that the literal truth is meaningless outside of mere instrumentality. The subjective significance of any phenomenon can only be conceived metaphorically. That does not make it somehow invalid or unreal. On the contrary, it is all the more real in that it expresses the full range of experience, especially including the emotional realm. We don’t, however, turn to Shakespeare to find out how many planets there are in the solar system, or indeed what a solar system is, because that is the realm of analytical thought or science, which has a purpose far more narrow than the general one of expressing human subjectivity as culture. Metaphor, or what the ancients called poetry, is a basic and fundamental form of human expression, which predates science by thousands of years.

I don’t doubt that there are those who would argue that poetry is some kind of irrelevant luxury, something that we don’t need or have perhaps even outgrown. This is nevertheless a false notion. We use metaphor constantly every day, in the ordinary events of life, whether we know it or not. The more complex our usage, the wider our range of expression becomes, and the more freedom we feel intellectually and emotionally. In terms of emotion in particular, the loss of metaphorical range of expression coincides with a loss of affect. And everyone perceives the loss of affect as a frightening thing—we don’t want to be unfeeling machines because experience would thereby have no “quality,” no flavor, i.e. no meaning. Meaning, the sense of importance that we have concerning ourselves as living beings, is always rich in emotional resonance.

I have taken this long route because I consider it very important to understand the link between the basic expression of experience as culture, and the origins of religion and spirituality. Religion, in the broadest sense, is of the same nature as culture—it is a part of culture. More than that, it provided the primary and original structure in which culture manifested. This is because the aspect of experience expressed was considered the primary aspect—but here we are in danger of falling into unnecessary confusion. Religion expressed not merely an aspect, but the idea of subjectivity itself—the experiencer himself, if you will, the soul or spirit, the very fact of experience, of human life in toto.

Prior to any particular experience, any representation of life as content or phenomenon, there is the reality that I am alive, experiencing life, and able to reflect experience in thought and express it through action and language. This is the context for everything else, the one factor, so to speak, that never varies. Speaking logically as I am here, speaking after the fact, it is clear that all events being conditioned by other events, that all experience being subject to change, and all phenomena (the objects of my experience) being subject to change, that the relative nature of existence as we experience it can only be relative because reality itself is not relative, but absolute and unconditioned. Using space as the simplest metaphor available, I would explain it in terms of two objects that we see relative to one another. It is impossible for me to perceive these two objects in relation to each other unless they both occupy a field of space which serves as their background.

This primary awareness, however, is not the product of logic. I only come to it now through logic because I seek to express the fact analytically. Human beings came to this awareness not through a step-by-step process of thinking, but suddenly and without premeditation, with what I call an intuition. An intuition of eternity.

Intuition is a form of thought in which we experience something as true without having a clear perceptual or logical trail leading to this experience. In this general sense, intuition is not necessarily accurate. We may intuit something that proves in the end to be untrue. However, I am using the term in a much narrower and specialized sense. I contend that human beings, by the very fact of subjectivity, combined with the ability to reflect on their own experience in thought, possess an inherent sense of reality as absolute and eternal. Subjectivity itself, the context of every particular experience in a person’s life, represents a direct correlation with reality itself as the context of all individual, limited things.

The philosophical question without an answer: “Why does anything exist at all?” is an expression in analytical form of this primary intuition. The intuition also has an emotional accompaniment: we call it “wonder.” The human stands in wonder at the fact of creation (to use a faintly archaic term), and this wonder is also a kind of awe, a corresponding sense of human limitation in the face of the unlimited reality. My argument is that the intuition of eternity is necessarily produced by the human being’s realization of his own subjectivity, and the corresponding wonder is produced by his realization of self-reflection, of his ability to reflect on his own experience through thought. Metaphors for the absolute are originally and necessarily metaphors for the self.

Language, like every other phenomenon, is limited and conditioned. Therefore it can never express the absolute nature of reality without running up against its own conditioned nature, creating a paradoxical effect, a self-contradiction of expression. The intuition of eternity, and the resultant awe and wonder, are preverbal. The human being struggles to express what he intuits and feels.

It is doubtful, however, that even this primary, preverbal intuition would have enough force to inspire the foundational social structure that we have come to call religion. But there is one limitation, one condition, not only of human life but of all life, that throws the intuition of eternity into sharp relief, that highlights what appears to be a fundamental problem and creates a crisis in the development of understanding—and that is the reality of death. The awareness of death as a universal event constituted the impetus for the formation of religion as the foundation of culture and social organization.