Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Not Peak Oil Again? Do Shut Up

I'm sorry, I can't help it. I hear the words "peak oil" and I have to fight an urge to grab my shotgun and head for the hills. It's, like, something weird from my childhood, we don't have time to go into it right now. My point is, after reading this article in Salon on the recent International Energy Agency's report, my head is spinning again. There's a reason why most people do not want to know that bad news is coming before it actually comes, and that is because it is depressing. I don't want to live my life believing that forces beyond my control will soon irreversibly transform and partially destroy much of what I know and love, including, who knows, family, friends, cherished cultural institutions and traditions. That feeling, I have a hunch, is a small taste of a certain kind of dread, one all too familiar to many who have lived to see their worst fears realized. If possible, though, allow me to try and put my thoughts and feelings in order. To begin with, peak oil is only part of the problem, and so, by the way, is international terrorism. The real problems are much deeper - cultural, historical, ecological, spiritual. They are rooted in the origins of the modern free market as it emerged in 19th century England and even before that in the rise of European colonialism in the 16th century (for an excellent analysis of this, read John Gray's False Dawn.) What Gray shows unequivocally is that the "free market" was a political invention conceived in particularly conducive circumstances. The idea that this invention should or could be imposed universally as a global economic imperium is thus absurd. Gray compares this neo-liberal ideology to that of international Communism and predicts that its consequences will prove to be every bit as abortive and destructive. Certainly, international terrorism, economic instability, ecological crises, and hellishly genocidal civil wars are all among the consequences being reaped already. What globalization really signifies is just the opposite of what is claimed by the economic elite. We are told that globalization marks the final triumph of western ideology, the accession of bourgeois values in their most universal, indelible form. Everyone everywhere in the future will acknowledge the supremacy of market forces, privatization, and liberal democracy as the final and most advanced spiritual form of human life. This ideology is so pervasive and powerful that it has completely blinded us to the real story of our time, and this is the massive, unprecedented, and irreversible transfer of modern technology and knowledge from the western powers, where it has presided over a period of unrivalled hegemony, to the rest of the world - to everyone else. The leaders of the western powers do not seem to understand the situation. We are an elite minority which has ruled the world with staggering brutality for over five hundred years. For all of that time, we have exploited and hoarded the world's resources with little thought as to the vast suffering left in our wake. Now, not only is that excess on display for all of the world to see through the media, but the rest of the world is now arming itself with the tools to begin to fight back. This situation does not look good for us. We are vastly outnumbered. In my own lifetime, I have continually struggled with the question of how to interpret the images of global suffering which formed the backdrop to my own prosperous existence. My response to those images has swerved back and forth between left and right, between guilt-addled apology and defiant conspicuous consumption. Yet I think only now am I really beginning to understand them, and I do not know if it is too late. I always thought of my relationship to such suffering as a choice - after all, that was how it was always put to me in those television ads in which Sally Strothers would appear alongside starving Ethiopian orphans and implore that for the price of a cup of coffee I could save a human life. I could choose whether to help or not, yet whether I did so was entirely up to me and either way, my life would go on the same. I stood to gain or lose nothing except for the abstract knowledge that I had done a good deed. What I see now is that my generation has witnessed a colossal blunder - the squandering of one last opportunity to forge a lasting peace with the global South. Poverty was in the final analysis the defining issue of our time, not because as liberal consumers we needed to do something to alleviate our guilt, but because our survival as a people depended on it. The continuation of the old order was never an option. The only question was what the cost of the settlement was going to be. Even in the 2000's, if we had responded to the 9/11 attacks by embarking on a global effort to alleviate poverty (for instance, by investing the nearly $750 billion spent so far in the war on terror on bringing clean drinking water to the world) there might have been a chance to avert the catastrophe which is now almost upon us. Instead, we declared war on the world - a war we cannot win. The two great American disasters of this young century, 9/11 and Katrina, are the beginning of a painful process of awakening to our own precariousness and vulnerability, to the spiritual urgency of our situation. I am very much afraid that it may be too late.

Was I Ever Illusioned?

Regular readers of this blog will know that my political mood fluctuates wildly. I confess I'm somewhat bipolar when it comes to assessing the current state of affairs, and that whatever happens in Washington, I take it personally. So last fall I got a big high out of the Democrats' victory and I rode that as far it could go. It's been kind of a steady decline from that NPR-fueled rush ever since, as it's become apparent to me (uh, I'm not smart that way) that the present dysfunctionality of the government goes beyond whatever illegal actions Bush and Cheney (for prison!) engaged in today. Let me just offer a few words expressing my opinion on how the Democrats are doing so far. Frankly, I would like to make it exactly three words but this is a family blog, and being a Christian man, I just can't say it. Instead I'll just say that it appears to this observer that the Democrats have absolutely no intention of ending the war anytime soon. To a cynic (I was once called this) it would seem like the Democrats are almost enjoying the catastrophe which has engulfed the President and the Republican party - why would they do anything to bring it to an end, and risk assuming one iota of responsibility for the debacle? Instead, they are content to simply let the conflict burn out of control, all the while pandering to their base (that would be me, but I'm not buying it) with various non-binding resolutions that have no chance of becoming law or of having any meaningful effect. In a nutshell, it's the same pet abortion of a strategy the Democrats pursued to such great effect in 2002 when they voted to give the President the authority to wage the war in the first place. Then as now it was a political calculation the Democrats were pursuing, in complete disregard for the moral consequences of their actions. This is not only disappointing but disgusting, and it is just the kind of cowardice that many Americans have come to associate with the Democratic party. Frankly, I can hardly blame them.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

About the Ferret Posts

Although the occasional appearance of ferret-related posts might seem surprising on a blog dedicated to philosophical and theological concerns, anyone who knows me knows what an important role ferrets play in my life, and how liable they are to make their presence known at any given time. Ferrets have their own spirituality (quite irreverent, not conventionally religious, and frequently profane) and even their own intellectual contributions to make (see the work of Mme. Peaches, the 18th century Dutch ferret, on the topology of tubular spaces.) Think of the ferret posts as deconstructive pauses. With ferrets around it is impossible to take oneself too seriously.

Because I Do Not Hope To Turn Again

I enjoyed reading Gary Kamiya's recent article published in Salon, entitled "I'm Younger Than That Now," in which he struggles with the questions that life poses to him through the aging process. It's certainly instructive to compare today's "mid-life crisis" with Dante's "dark wood" or the "dark night of the soul" of St. John of the Cross, and to see how far we have come since then. Kamiya recognizes that there's a deep spiritual disconnect in today's culture around issues of aging which comes across in our endless affairs of vanity and denial (the immortality industry, etc.) but he can't quite put his finger on what's behind it. Why does our modern society lack understanding about the most basic truths of life and death? What gives us the illusion that we could have complete control over our passage through life, including its end date? Kamiya seeks consolation in the imaginative spirit of literature and religion, but can't quite bring himself to take the risk of accepting it. Instead he hesitates over whether religion is a "fairy tale" and a "childish consolation" or something that "restores the tragic sense of life" before dismissing religion for personal reasons he prefers not to speak of: "For many of us, God isn't an option." Yet without faith of any kind, it is exceedingly difficult to execute the turn which Kamiya recognizes, to his credit, as absolutely necessary. And this is the turn towards freedom. There is a kind of exhilaration in aging as old preoccupations fall away, leaving behind only the sheer satisfaction of life itself, of experience brought to its deepest fulfillment. Kamiya reaches towards this when he writes about the comedic nature of aging, the hilarity that ensues when one realizes there is nothing left to lose. Such joyful moments can also lead to a place of serenity and acceptance, which is the subject of Eliot's Ash Wednesday. Kamiya's failure to understand this poem (he writes of the "terrible line" that opens the poem) is suggestive of his deeper unwillingness to engage with matters of faith. What Eliot discovered through this poem was the liturgical structure of time, its ceaseless ebb and flow, its strange exceeding of limits, concepts, best-laid plans, and above all, its eternal return to origins, its endless flowing forth from eternity in the form of the primal spirit of nature. If religion and the arts are a cultivation of this wildness, then they can also lead us back towards it, can open up the way into it which is also our way forward in the world. I have a feeling that what Kamiya really is seeking isn't the contradiction of a hopefulness without hope but rather a way beyond the bureaucracy and marketing which consumes every inch of our lives and promises false hope for our own deepest fears. The real problem with aging and death in our society is our insistence on thinking of ourselves as agents of consumption, and the answer is to realize once again that we are agents of creativity, of life, and of love.

Monday, June 04, 2007

The Evasion of Reality in a Post-Modern World

In a powerful address delivered to graduates of the UC-Berkeley Department of Rhetoric and published here, Mark Danner exposes the moral quicksand into which the Bush administration has plunged this nation. We have entered an age of epistemological crisis, in which facts have become malleable, reality has been elided, and the very notion of truth is considered old-fashioned. I am tempted to name this the fulfillment of George Orwell's dystopian prophecy of 1984, except for one crucial difference. Orwell remained wedded to the old model of centralized distribution, in which the message is distributed and maintained through rigid channels of communication. He never envisioned the rise of the new media and of popular culture. In fact, the run-up to the war in Iraq was an example of a new kind of propaganda, made possible by a new psychology which has become the bedrock of a new form of political organization, the media-state. As the spectacular success of the pre-war campaign demonstrates, such propaganda far exceeds in its capacity to deceive that of the classic campaigns of the 20th century. It is now possible using the organs of the media and of popular culture (for a cinematic example of this kind of fusion, watch Barry Levinson's "Wag the Dog") to mass market political messages to a national audience in carefully orchestrated fashion, and in so doing, to completely control public opinion. This was how the Bush administration managed to achieve its revolutionary political objectives from the period of September 2001 to September 2005, right up until Hurricane Katrina blew up its fabricated image and restored the possibility of a legitimate opposition party. One need only recall the routine "terror alerts" in 2003-04 to see the effectiveness of this type of propaganda. So in an age of sophistry, truth has become an extremely precious commodity. To speak the truth in an age of deception is a powerful act of justice-making. The lies of official power deserve public scorn. The charlatans who speak them deserve disgrace. We must preserve the truth where we find it, and never cease to promote its cause at every opportunity.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Response to Christopher Hitchens

Recent years have seen a resurgence of works devoted to skeptical themes, including Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion," Daniel Dennet's "Breaking the Spell," and Christopher Hitchens' "god Is Not Great." Given the modest contributions which atheism has made to society over the years, this counts as news, and the sight of these dogged intellectuals butting heads with fundamentalists in public debates has at least made for an entertaining spectacle. It also provides thinking Christians with an opportunity to talk about our faith in a meaningful way, as encompassing the full measure of the spiritual and intellectual life. Hitchens' argument can be summed up in his phrase, "Religion poisons everything." This means that everything religious, insofar as it is religious, is bad, and that everything which has been affected by religion would be better off without it. Now as a statement of fact this is simply wrong and almost anyone not blinded by ideology can see that. Yet the argument also fails on a deeper level and it is on this level that the argument is of interest to religious minds. What Hitchens is proposing is a fundamental separation between what faith holds to be true and what reason knows. Therefore, we ought to be able to see this separation at work in a history of cultural achievement. A survey of Renaissance painting, for instance, should clearly reveal an absolute distinction between the contents of faith and the achievements of reason, such that an atheist could clearly point to the difference and identify where the purity of rational achievement ends and the "poisoning" of religion begins. Hitchens himself claims to be a great lover of the arts and even cites the religious poetry of John Donne and George Herbert as among his favorites. Yet this is bizarrely inconsistent, to the point that I would actually question the mental competence of anyone who claims to believe it. To try and separate the "religious" from the "rational" elements in Herbert's poetry is akin to trying to surgically remove the soul from a living creature. There is a kind of suicidal impulse in Hitchens' argument which is by no means peripheral to the "new atheism" which he represents. Dawkins and others have speculated about what would be the best means of "curing" the so-called virus of religion, and all options are on the table. This is not the first time a plan to get rid of either a single religion or all of them has been proposed. I would simply say that whenever public intellectuals begin discussing plans to purify the culture of foreign or undesirable elements, this is cause for concern. It is certainly reason enough for Hitchens and others to reconsider their position.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Ferrets Deny Stinking Allegations

Local ferrets on Thursday denied allegations that they stink. "My clients have been tested repeatedly in the past two years, and have never tested positive for anything," said a spokesman for the ferrets. "We are all tired of the rumors, innuendos, and outright lies. Please respect the privacy of my clients at this time." The ferrets proceeded to deny any knowledge of shoes which have recently turned up missing.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Journey Towards Truth

When I first started this blog a couple of years back my hope was to create a kind of Christian conversation around political, cultural, and social issues, using in particular the resources of the so-called "theological turn" in French phenomenology and Anglican theology. I don't think that conversation ever really got off the ground at least in part because I was too preoccupied by the soap opera of Bush-era scandals to make my central thesis understandable, which is that the errors of modern political movements are the result of fundamental failures to reason clearly, and especially, to reason clearly about matters of faith. What I really meant to be writing about from the beginning was the way in which philosophic wisdom can work together with Christian faith to shed much needed light on the causes of evil and injustice in the modern world, and to provide an alternative to the dominant discourse of global capitalism. It has always been my conviction that politics is, like theology, an art of interpretation, which simply means that to exercise power is to express one's attitude towards truth. Behind every public policy and every political action is an epistemology, a theory of what constitutes valid judgments and beliefs, of what counts as evidence, of what can be proved and what must be taken on faith, of such fundamental concepts as recollection, anticipation, discovery, conjecture, proximity, testimony. All of these concepts are the unspoken content of what is reported in the news on a daily and hourly basis. Even more profoundly concealed from our sight is the relationship between politics and ontology, which means the relationship of visible icons of power to a perceived invisible order, which may be variously located in the cosmos, the intellect, the will, or in the categorial structures of a priori reason. Thus, it is my contention that the seemingly intractable shortcomings of our present political and cultural situation, which we are all aware of to some degree, can be traced back to their source, and once exposed, can be overcome. In that sense what I am trying to develop might be called a "journalistic philosophy," or to use the language of phenomenology, an eidetic analysis of political and cultural discourse. Yet this is only one half of the problem. We have only focused on the possibility of using phenomenology as a resource for placing political actions in their proper context. The other half of the project is to show how Christianity - both natural theology and revealed truth - may also provide such a resource. This will be the subject of the next post.

It's Not Going To Stop Till You Wise Up

That pithy line from Aimee Mann has always spoken to me of generational conflict, the way in which one generation hands to the next in almost ceremonial fashion its failures, burdens, unresolved traumas, addictions, superstitions, divisions, prejudices, and misunderstandings. It is a kind of inverse of education, a shrinking from responsibility, a failure of parenting. Such handings over can take place in small ways or large, in the intimacy of family life or on the overexposed surface of the world stage. Of all the painful rites of passage kept alive by human beings, surely the most grievous of them all is war. War is passed on like a curse from generation to generation, like a loathsome possession which clings to us despite our efforts to get rid of it. And it is part of the irony of war that it is so frequently propagated by those who fail to comprehend its uniquely awful burden, its plague-like symptoms, its sapping of human strength and possibility. These are the politicians with blood lust in their eyes, those who crave the trappings of credibility and moral purpose which accrue to public officials in a so-called "time of war." They seek nothing more than to enhance their own power by inflicting suffering and death on the innocent. Their appearance in positions of power marks the beginning of cultural and psychic decline, of a widespread failure of the ability to distinguish what is true and good from what is false and evil. This Memorial Day I am grieved by the thought that my brothers and sisters from the post-Vietnam generation, most of whom are younger than I am, are even as I write this being scarred by the psychic and physical wounds of war, inflicted upon them by a generation whose own moral failures continue to reap the most horrifying of consequences. It is the dates that mark the beginning and end of their truncated lives that startles me the most. These are children of the 1980's and 1990's, too young to remember the Reagan years, Iran-Contra, the Challenger explosion, Mikhail Gorbachev. They were raised on Bill and Hilary, on Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich and Monica Lewinksy's blue dress. Their graduation dates begin with "20." They arrived in this world barely two decades ago, and now they are already gone. Those that survive will live to bear the burden of their own damaged lives, to tell the story of the war they did not choose for themselves. I thought of this today while I was reading this article on the booming grave-stone industry in the Boston Globe. Read it and ponder what it means on this Memorial Day that these children are being sent to their deaths.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Obama Asked "How Long Have You Been a Black Senator"

Senator Barack Obama sighed and rolled his eyes recently in response to yet another awkwardly phrased question about his blackness. "Mr. Obama, how long have you been a black senator?" came the question from the front row at a recent press conference, igniting giggles from other reporters seated nearby. Senator Obama attempted to impart a modicum of dignity to the proceedings by explaining to the reporter that he has always been black. "You see, my father is from Africa. The people there are black. Hence, I am black." The discussion then turned to other momentous topics such as Hilary Clinton's hairstyle and whether Sen. Joe Biden is gay.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Political Fiction and Post-Modernism

In my last post I offered a psychological interpretation of how the United States ended up in its present bizarre situation of fighting to the death on behalf of our worst enemy. My conclusion was in effect that the Iraq war is the outcome of a fantasy, a projection of wishes, fears, and resentments onto a distant enemy. This is why at no point have the neo-cons made any kind of substantial contact with reality, and in fact all of the most intense and dramatic political conflicts of the past four years can be analyzed as failed communications between themselves and reality. This raises a rather interesting point about our current epistemological crisis. What we find in the present ascendancy of global bureaucratic capitalism is a curious merging of fact and fiction. It appears that as accounts of reality become more and more empirical, more devoid of the mediating role of symbol and metaphor, they also become more fictional, and even more fantastic. As Garrison Keillor wrote recently on Salon, what is really needed is not better journalism but "a good novelist." It's been a hunch of mine for a long time that fantasy is a medium for which the modern world is uniquely suited. Not only does fantasy drive the entertainment industry but it is really the engine of capitalism. A market must be imagined before it becomes a reality. In a strange way, a market becomes a reality as soon as it is imagined. So why should it come as a surprise that the major war of our time should come into being in the same way as, for instance, a new theme park? From the perspective of its creators, there really is no difference. A new war, a new product, a new religion. They all begin life as fantasies. That's their appeal, their unique defiance of reality. It brings something out in people, allows them to express something about themselves they otherwise wouldn't be able to. The neo-conservatives who brought us the Iraq war would have made marvelous novelists. It is our misfortune that they write public policy for a living instead.

Putting the Neo-Cons on the Couch

The war in Iraq has long been compared to the Vietnam war and it certainly bears some similarities to that ideologically-motivated conflict. I would like to argue, however, that the Iraq war is something ultimately quite different, which I will call a psychologically-motivated conflict. In Vietnam, although the main arguments for U.S. involvement turned out to be wrong (the domino theory, etc.) it was at least true that we entered the war to fight communist forces and that is who we ended up fighting. The Iraq war is different first of all because it has come as a complete surprise to everyone who was directly involved in its planning. Bush's neo-con brain trust thought that the war would end with the capitulation of the Saddamist state and its rapid conversion into a fully complicit U.S. ally in the region. Thus, it has only very recently become clear to these people that the war we are now engaged in is different than the war they initially envisioned. With this comes the dawning realization that our present alignment in the war is nearly arbitrary and that we may be fighting for the wrong side. In other words, very recently Dick Cheney might have woken up in the middle of the night and asked himself why after all the United States is waging a massive military effort to establish an Iranian-dominated Shiite state in the middle of Iraq. And indeed this is a question that all Americans should be asking ourselves as well. Presumably this is the rationale behind Thomas Friedman's recent call to "re-invade" Iraq, the more easily to switch sides in the conflict and attack the very Iraqi army we have labored so mightily to build. Before we all get a little too giddy at that prospect, however, it is worth taking a step back to look at how we ended up here. How did it come about that the Bush administration, alleged master manipulators of the world, made the Duck Soup-like blunder of invading the wrong country and doggedly fighting a war on behalf of its sworn enemy? To answer that question we have to get into the head of our neo-conservative overlords, which is not a pretty place to be. Moving gingerly past their Ted Haggard-like repressed fantasies and resentments, we at least reach the place where they conceptualize power. It was in 1991 that the neo-cons first became fixated on Saddam Hussein. By remaining in power after the Gulf War, Saddam became a mocking symbol to the neo-cons of the failure of the first Bush administration, whose epitaph would be its realist legacy. George H.W. Bush failed as a president because he ultimately could not reconcile himself to the projection of American power, and the neo-cons would forever remember the conclusion of his Gulf War as a cowardly truce, a moment of humiliation rather than triumph. Cue Bill Clinton. During the Clinton administration, the neo-conservative fixation with Saddam grew into an obsession with each year that the wily Saddam successfully evaded U.N. sanctions and weapons inspectors. As their hatred for Saddam increased, so did their hatred for Clinton until the two obsessions fused into one. To get rid of Saddam, the neo-cons first had to get rid of Clinton, and so they focused their rancor on the great project of crippling the Clinton administration and removing it from power. Which takes us to the neo-con anointing of George W. Bush as the heir who would right the wrongs done by his father, banish the usurping Clinton administration into exile, and dethrone the tyrant whose very existence was a blight on the noble kingdom of America. And so off to war the United States went, with the blessing of Iraqi exiles whispering sweet nothings about democracy and WMD, and with the expectation that the fall of Saddam would bring the immediate fulfillment of every neo-con fantasy that had been so lovingly nourished over twelve years of frustration and impotence. Which brings us to today. The Bush administration has only with great reluctance gradually given up its hold on this mythology and acknowledged, three years too late, that there is something more afoot in Iraq than its glorious triumph over Saddam. But when you live in your own private castle, unpleasant, unexpected events aren't supposed to happen, and convincing the Bush administration just to pay attention has taken the collective work of nearly the entire civilized world over the course of three years. So it shouldn't come as that much of a surprise that one of the rumors coming out of the White House is that Cheney is leaning towards backing the Shiites. The fact that the United States would then be fighting a proxy war on behalf of Iran is apparently not a problem for Cheney. The Iraq problem is and always will be for Cheney a Saddamist problem, a Sunni problem. Crush the Saddamist remnants, and Iraq will finally be ours. And Bush will truly be king.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Those Pesky Christian Reconstructionists

I wish Salon would stop publishing articles like this one . It's not that they're not informative, well-written, and fascinating. It's that they scare the hell out of me. For someone who's trying to go straight when it comes to doomsday politics (fingers uncrossed,) these articles are like candy. I just can't resist 'em. But really what's a day without a thought and a prayer for our right-wing friends, aka the Christian Taliban? Who could forget the great R.J. Rushdoony founder of the Christian Reconstructionist movement? It's good to know there's a theocratic movement out there founded by a guy who would have liked to have most of us stoned (no, not that kind of stoned,) and that it has powerful sympathizers in our elected government. But these lunatics are nothing to be afraid of, right? I mean, it's not like there's any historical precedent for a major economic, military, and cultural power collapsing into armed chaos? Ok, no recent precedent ? Look I'm not saying much, I'm just saying let's all say a little prayer tonight that we don't have a major terrorist attack or economic collapse anytime in the next ten years. Because I sure don't want to be answering to this guy for the rest of my time on this planet. Really.