A Question of Will

October 10, 2014

ISISWhat’s with ISIS?

ISIS it the latest demon to come down the pike: irrational, brutal and bloodthirsty, faux-pious, faux-devout; but it’s really nothing more than another instance of what we do to each other —another historical example of what we are, in part, about. There’s nothing new about these men in black except perhaps the modernity of their technological clout.

ISIS (which calls itself the Islamic State) is, in barbaric terms, similar to earlier religious entities. It’s not an expression of an unfathomable god but of the very plain and ordinary human will to dominance and power. God is just a rationale. But God often is just a rationale for the sort of fear-inducing brutality which (today) is ISIS, Death’s latest instrument, which now taints Islam.

Given the late video evidence it’s probable that God says things like this to ISIS:

“Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.”

But in that case god (not Allah, but Yahweh) was not commanding ISIS, but was instead pumping up the Old Testament Israelite king, Saul. It may have been another time, but the divine MO was exactly the same: a convenient god, in service for the political ends at hand.  And Saul, being a shrewd and devout guy, did not shrink from God’s command. He

“…attacked the Amalekites all the way from Havilah to Shur, near the eastern border of Egypt. He took Agag king of the Amalekites alive, and all his people he totally destroyed with the sword.” —Samuel 15.  

Saul may even have beheaded a few; but there was no social media then as we have now so we’ll never know. But if there had been it’s likely Saul would have used it to scare the loin-cloths off potential adversaries.

Nicholas Kristof , in the New York Time recently, suggested the current opinions of many about Islam do not take into account either the lives of non-violent Muslims nor the history of violence which has also been practiced by claimants of other religions.

Kristof notes that Christianity has encompassed the likes of “…the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and also the 13th century papal legate who in France ordered the massacre of 20,000 Cathar men, women and children for heresy, reportedly saying: Kill them all; God will know his own.” And Kristof went on to mention the Congo warlord who styled himself a Pentecostal pastor…” suggesting that all who claim to be sheltered by the umbrella of God are actually themselves the ones who rain death and fashion the lightning bolts they hurl at innocents.

And the beat goes religiously on: on one hand take the Hindu, Gandhi; on the other the fanatic Hindu who assassinated him. And while today’s Dalai Lama is venerated as a humanitarian, the fifth Dalai Lama ordered children to be slaughtered “like eggs smashed against rocks.”

In fact much of what has been passed off as religion has nothing to do with God, neither then nor now. What brings us to the brink of condemnation of all Muslims today is the historical proximity of a hoard of psychopaths who claim the inspiration of Allah. They threaten us here and now, but the so-called god-worshipping psychopaths of the past were no less threatening in their ruthlessness to those who lived in their time. Jews before the Inquisition or “infidels” under the knife of ISIS were and are caught in political cogs, not spiritual ones, because religion really is more about politics than it is about God.

In his The Evolution of God, Robert Wright discusses how in 2300 BC Mesopotamia “The melding of religious beliefs or concepts…(was) a common way to forge cultural unity in the wake of conquest, and often…what gets melded is the gods themselves.” What Wright is talking about are the effects of politics on religions; or more accurately how religions are expressions of political power. And Wright goes on to show how this was true not only in Mesopotamia, but in Israel, and later in Roman dominated Palestine and (I would argue) right up to the present moment.

Wright tracks the many gods of the Middle East and how with every invasion and conquest the gods of victors and vanquished grew more or less powerful. He tracks this political progression of gods from polytheism through monolatry to monotheism until, finally, Yahweh, one of the gods of Israel has defeated all other gods to become the one God. But in the meantime during those centuries of political upheaval and change everyone claimed their god as their protector and made sure their deeds, constructive or destructive, were sanctioned by their god. God is always the perfect, unarguable excuse because my god is always flawless, as the poem suggests:

…….All Gods may contradict themselves
…….without flaw, say men
…….(who always give their God
…….the benefit of a doubt
…….in any argument)

The political forces that make ISIS possible are not new. They have to do with the condition in which people live, their hopes, disappointments, the oppression they suffer, the inequities, their humiliations, grievances, angers, hates, you name it. Roll all of that into the politics of religion along with the global issues we ignore and fail to address and you have a festering planet with a certain future of chronic outbreaks of this or that ISIS no matter how many bombs, drones and troops at your disposal.

Hope is not a question of religion it’s a question of enlightened will.

by Jim Culleny

Related: Bill Maher

Police State

September 20, 2014

With Mute Assent

August 15, 2014

Ferguson 02

There’s are good and prudent reasons not to have armies policing citizens; they have to do with issues of function and mental attitude. A police force is established to protect citizens against lawbreakers, armies are created to fight wars. It’s all about training and mindset. A police force with a military state of mind will find an enemy because, like nature itself, we and our armies abhor vacuums.

Of the many human inclinations, we (especially of western civilization) are creatures of accumulation. We cram empty spaces with stuff —our houses brim and overflow into landfills; we stuff empty minds with stuff —jam them with useless info while discarding wisdom to make room; we forever invent new stuff and always find new reasons to use it.

We invented the wheel and rolled over everything. We invented the light bulb and lit up the world. We invented vaccination and decimated disease. We invented the atom bomb and gave it an immediate tandem tryout in Japan to demonstrate it worked. We invented guns and (fulfilling the fiscal dreams of the NRA) the world became a collection of armed camps looking for a fight. And now, as the federal government unloads new and surplus military paraphernalia —guns, helmets, grenade launchers, armored personnel carriers, flak jackets, camo suits, boots— on local police forces, an ill wind smelling of teargas and gun power, is filling vacuums of our own making.

Almost inevitably, as a poem says:

cops with army stuff
use more army stuff,
find more reasons

with more reasons
sometimes kill

tasers, small tanks, flack vests
big  muscle guns, jackboots

toughen up
with  army stuff

turn up heat
see if gizmos work
go boom rattatat
zap hurt

The most recent vacuum into which our growing domestic army has been sucked is called Ferguson Missouri, a town in which a war-equipped police force took to the streets to compel both outraged citizens and an inconvenient media to shut up.. Citizens were outraged because another unarmed man, young and not coincidentally black, was gunned down in the street in broad daylight. But no one had to call the police because the police were already on the scene. In fact, the police did it.

The camouflaged Ferguson troops (who could nevertheless clearly be seen) geared up for the apocalypse with heavy armament, in Kevlar vests emblazoned “POLICE”, backed up with tank-like vehicles, faced off with an enemy armed only with signs and shouted exclamations such as: “Don’t shoot me!” Most of that enemy happened to be black because, incident after recent incident, unarmed young black men have been shot and killed by vigilantes and police: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Ezell Ford and now, Ferguson’s Michael Brown. It should come as no surprise that things finally reached critical mass in at least one black community. Call Ferguson a tipping point.

What’s happening? What’s happening  is that our vaunted system, based upon the equal application of law, is being outed as one that is just not. Journalist Glenn Greenwald in his book, Liberty and Justice for Some, lays out the reality that has eclipsed an ideal never realized:

“From the nation’s beginnings, the law was to be the great equalizer in American life, the guarantor of a common set of rules for all. But over the past four decades, the principle of equality before the law has been effectively abolished. Instead, a two-tiered system of justice ensures that the country’s political and financial class is virtually immune from prosecution, licensed to act without restraint, while the politically powerless are imprisoned with greater ease and in greater numbers than in any other country in the world.”

Greenwald does not exaggerate. Our prison population stands now at more than 2.4 million or about 8% of the population —the highest in the world. 40% of these are black, although blacks are only just under 14% of the population. Anyone with an open mind who pays attention to the news knows this has more to do with the way justice is meted out in the US than it does with the inherent character of people of color.

In the aftermath of the economic collapse of 2008 virtually none of the crooks responsible: politicians, shyster bank executives, junk bond marketers, or CEOs of any failed (or too-big-to-fail) financial institution has seen the inside of a jail cell, but anyone stealing a loaf of bread from a convenience store has probably found their way there. Our legal system protects the rich and powerful and their police forces behind heaps of Benjamines stacked higher than the walls of the Department of Justice. In fact, justice is not served it’s dished out to each according to his financial means.

Looking at Ferguson, Missouri —it’s massed police, its clouds of tear gas, is guns, it’s combat gear, its blue-uniformed gun-men, its official belligerence, its killing of unarmed men — is not something that conjures up the American dream. Instead it conjures a glimpse of an American future that signals that the dream and its tortured democracy is dying before our eyes, with our mute ascent.

Jim Culleny


Same as it Ever Was

August 1, 2014

PlatoI read an essay recently by John Michael Greer in his blog, The Archdruid Report. It ends with this:

“(now) I’ll … return to the ordinary business of chronicling the decline and fall of industrial civilization.”

Ominously, the essay ends there after Greer has run through what he suggests are three effective ways to deal with the”…the decidedly mixed bag that human existence hands us.” The Greeks, he says, tackled this mixed bag head-on in three of their schools of philosophy: Epicurean, Stoic and Platonic.

According to Greer, students of the philosopher Epicurus, Epicureans, start with the premise that life is better than death. Most of us would agree (some more grudgingly than others) while many —those who find their backs chronically against the wall— concur most heroically and press on with life anyway.  But there are those who have an absolutist, otherworldly bent and simply do not value earthly lives, their own or others, so highly—suicide bombers, for instance, or fundamentalists longing for the “end days” and Armageddon. Epicureans do not long for end days and, by and large, most of the rest of us if given the option prefer to stay alive with as little TV-style blood-letting as possible.

The Epicureans of Greek philosophy focus on the pleasures life offers (but, as is typical in Greek philosophy, with moderation). This is expressed, Greer says, in the “…calm realism you…often seen in people who’ve been through hard times and come out the other side in one piece.” We in the contemporary First World, unlike people wrung dry in the great depression, find this view hard to adopt because we’ve been through “…an age of extravagance and excess.” We expect pleasure to be almost infinite. To help comprehend this, think wall-sized TVs with ultra-bass surround-sound, cars that parallel park on their own and landfills of waste the size of tiny Himalayas that dot our landscape: pleasure without moderation.

Another Greek view, which comes at life’s dark side from another angle, is called Stoic. Stoics realize that, good or bad, whatever happens, we’re here now so what are we going to do about it? We each must choose a response. Stoicism is an approach that recognizes the value of change and action (often at the risk of life) to rectify those aspects of life that are unjust, dangerous, absurd, etc. —not because this life has no value, but because it does and the risks involved in change are worth it, not only for ourselves but for others.

Digging heels in against change would not be the Stoic’s way according to Greer. By this standard, there are probably few Stoics in the Tea-Party, the US House of Representatives, on Wall Street, in  extreme religious sects, or among white supremacists where progress is often anathema. Among these groups change is seen as a cramping of decadent me-first life-styles, an assault upon the word of God or a slap in the face of belief in traditional racial or male superiority.

Finally, Greer gives us the Platonists. Plato imagined something beyond perception: a reality behind the perceived, a view which shares something of the magical thinking we find in religion and politics today. Aristocles, nicknamed Plato, taught that this reality is independent of human whim and wish.

Star-gazing astrophysicist, Sir Arthur Eddington, may have been loosely channeling Plato when he said, “Something unknown is doing we don’t know what,”  which is suggestive of what Chinese poet Lao Tzu wrote twenty-six centuries earlier: “Heaven conforms to the Way (Tao). The Tao conforms to its own nature.”

I’m not a Platonist in a magical thinking sense, but may be in a scientific one, which is to say, if scientific method hypothesizes an invisible reality (such as “dark matter”) I’m more inclined to accept it than if it’s a claim of “revealed” truth. Why? Because science, in an attempt to understand that which changes (which is everything we experience), follows a rigorous experimental method designed to get past static “revelation”. The difference between this and a religious approach is that when science hits the wall it says, we don’t know but will continue trying. I like science’s structural humility.

Scientists, when they hit the wall of the unknown, are, like all of us, left only with something like astrophysicist, Eddington’s “something unknown is…” remark.  Being a curious species, it’s frustrating not to know; and being a species which names, we must name it:  God, Tao, The Unknown or Something.

In our time philosophies and religions are at war. Maybe, as the Talking Heads sang, this is “the same as it ever was”.  However, the singular difference is that the stakes are much more profound because our technology is magnificently more powerful and our willful ignorance more catastrophic.

When we have Senators and congressmen who assume the attitudes of priests and shamans while enjoying fortunes built by scientific method we have the symptoms of societal schizophrenia with all of schizophrenia’s delusions writ large. When we ignore the harm we’re doing to the planet and each other for the sake of our religious or ideological beliefs, dismissing the damage with ironically hopeful visions of a biblical apocalypse, we make more certain that we’ll have one —which may or may not be the same as it ever was but is profoundly more unacceptable.

Jim Culleny

The Saga of Cliven Bundy

April 27, 2014

SlavesThe current saga of Cliven Bundy is instructive. It flips over (again) not only the flat rock of racism in our national character, but exposes it more specifically in the pseudo-patriotism of our political right.

To be fair to Bundy there’s an unedited version of his racial ramblings making internet viral rounds that softens, slightly, the general tone of his remarks, but the underlying ignorance and festering racism of them still glares. Bundy is the latest concentrated dollop of the resentments and attitudes of a faction of white America that has lately preoccupied the media, and which is playing havoc with our politics and making it impossible to function rationally as a people.

What has brought Clive Bundy to notoriety is that Clive doesn’t acknowledge the existence of the federal government which, in his mind, has made it legitimate to graze his cattle on “government” land without paying for those rights —a convenient argument, if nothing else. Other ranchers pay the relatively modest grazing fee ($1.35/acre as opposed to $16.80 on private land) without whining, which makes them automatically “sheeple” in the parlance of some. But his refusal to pay makes Bundy a “freeloader” in the parlance of others. One picks one parlance with care for maximum clout.

Clive Bundy is like an doddering uncle who clings to ignorance as if it were a life preserver and is unapologetic about it because, hey, it’s keeping me alive.

“If I say ‘slave’,Bundy says, “If those people cannot take those kinds of words and not be [offended], then Martin Luther King hasn’t got his job done yet. We need to get over this prejudice stuff.” —a statement that is triply self-serving: hiding behind a word (prejudice) while excusing it and blaming a man who died because of it. As rhetorical moves go it’s almost callisthenic.

What Bundy simply can’t see is that the offence is not in the word “slave” but in the ignorance exposed by his understanding of it:slave 01

“Cliven Bundy’s a-wondering about these people,” said Bundy,  “Now I’m talking about the black community. I’m a-wondering … Are they better off, are they happier than they was in the South in front of their homes with their chickens and their gardens and their children around them, and their man having something to do? Are they better off?”

Wikipedia puts it succinctly: “The treatment of slaves in the United States varied by time and place, but was generally brutal and degrading. Whipping, execution and sexual abuse including rape were common.”

So, the question of being better off is a question either of one’s understanding of “brutality and rape” or ignorance of them. Which of these applies to Bundy is a matter for a shrink.

So forgive me if, while Cliven Bundy’s wondering about the relative better-offness of “black folk” idyllically enjoying their chickens and gardens and children while being the property of white owners who could, by law, rip apart their families, trample their gardens and slaughter their chickens (not to mention their very selves), I’m wondering how Clive has so blithely, so ignorantly, so publically, missed the point of slavery. Or, I’m wondering how something so obvious could bounce around in Bundy’s skull during his sixty-seven years without being snagged once by his prefrontal cortex —his brain’s reasoning center— and wrung dry of its stupidity.

Actually there are studies showing that, “… ‘higher-order’ brain centers, such as the prefrontal cortex, don’t fully develop until young adulthood.” Considering the possibility that Clive and his gun-waving posse may not yet have reached that level of sophistication, we could use a little hurry-up on their part. But the larger, really scary part of the Bundy syndrome is that we now have one of our only two political parties being run by people with higher brain center under-development.

Racism is one of the deeper polluted wells humans drink from —deep, ancient and thoroughly toxic, especially in the global system that has become our world. It’s counter-productive at best and ultimately destructive at worse. Yet so many of us return to it and suck it up without a thought of the harm it brings not just to those we hate, but to ourselves. Though there’s little truth or logic behind malign attitudes of race we go there the instant anyone pumps up fear. What better way to distract a constituency from real perpetrators than to blame “the other”?

Bob Dylan suggested, we’re only a pawn in their game. Roshi Bob, guru, says, If you want to rule the world, pit the poor against the poor,” which is advice the power elite still practice big time. But just swap-out that last part with “… pit race against race”, add it to the first,and you have the complete MO of that same bunch —and they know how to use the Clive Bundys of the world to make life most profitable for themselves and miserable for everyone else.

by Jim Culleny

Gen HaydenHayden’s (General Michael Hayden) take on Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA) report on CIA torture is interesting.

What Hayden’s saying, really, is that you must objectify reality, that is the preferred thing. If you objectify reality and the humans in it, if you turn them into numbers and political ends, that’s the preferred thing. Once reality’s objectified —its humanity removed— you may do anything that’s objectively called for. This is the justification for all sorts of despicable behavior.

Most crimes and ethical lapses require exactly this kind of objectification. You steal because, objectively, it works for you. You kill for the same reason. You collect your huge bonuses, you use the money of millionaires to destroy worker’s unions, you kill universal health care to save your party from dangerous electoral demographics, you do the destructive work of many corporations because, objectively speaking, the people it effects are not people at all, they’re objects. The entire planet is an object only. An emotional, empathetic or sympathetic perspective is out of the question for the Good General, Michael Hayden, CIA operative.

In economics and politics the technique employed by millionaires and billionaires (and those in government who are paid by them) to sleep well at night is to objectify the poor and middle class.

Hayden’s a perfect example of what average Americans are up against.

Jim Culleny

Ham on Nye

February 20, 2014

Evolution-creationismWe’re heading back to square one. Though we’re well into the 21st century we’re at a point where Bill Nye, The Science Guy is reduced to debating Ken Ham, The Non-Science Guy as to whether the earth is 6000 or 4.5 billion years old. As you might expect that recent debate got nowhere because the frames of reference of the two sides are incompatible. We’ve gone back to a moment dangerously close to that when curious men like Galileo were made to bow before popes and recant ideas about phenomena that were observably true, but which threatened the influence of the church. Unfortunately, the power of religion to uphold stubbornness still exists.

Though we’ve  moved from the tyranny of kings and clergy through a relatively enlightened period (at least as far as science is concerned) we seem to be backsliding — caught in an undertow of misunderstanding of what science is.

This misunderstanding reveals itself in the arguments of creationists who fight tooth and nail to equate science with legend, denying science’s findings, while at the same time living in a world transformed (for better and for worse) by the fruits of science. For example, how many creationists refuse medical treatment when needed?  How many own TVs, cars, refrigerators, use the internet, enjoy tropical fruit in January in New England? All of these have been made possible through application of scientific method.

A huge part of the problem is that, in their beef against evolution, creationists smudge the distinction between science and religion. Let’s be clear, scientists are not suggesting their findings have religious value, it’s creationists who claim that ancient literature has scientific value. They insist the Bible’s story of origins, Genesis, is a valid alternative to scientific theory and should be taught in schools as science.

There’s that word, “theory,” —the hook creationists hang their gripe upon, saying evolution is just theory, not fact. But this is the lens of ignorance creationists use to view scientific method. Creationists do not use the term “theory” the way it’s meant by scientists.  Creationists consider theory to be something like a speculation, a groundless conjecture. But that’s not what scientists mean by “theory.” Here’s one explanation of that meaning: “In modern science, the term “theory” refers to scientific theories, a well-confirmed type of explanation of nature, made in a way consistent with scientific method..” —Wikipedea

So then, what is scientific method?

Scientific method goes something like this:

Someone observes something in nature, mulls it over and hypothesizes. They think, “I bet if we do this, that will happen,” and set off  to test their hypothesis —they try to determine if what they’ve seen and been mulling over will happen again under very particular conditions —they experiment. Then, if their experiments produce the same results over and over, they put forth a theory of that phenomena. They say, “This thing is caused by that thing.” The theory is then tested further by others and, if all results concur it’s accepted as fact which we (hopefully) utilize to advance civilization.

The anti-evolution hang-up for creationists is often capsulized in that word: theory —a term infused with the fundamental humility of good science which knows that with new knowledge, theories change, new facts arise. At its best science is flexible, adaptable, fluid, humble, open-minded and open-ended. This is not true of religious beliefs which are absolutely bound to sacred literature and closed.

Religion has a different way of understanding phenomena. Religious “method” goes more like this:

Someone noticed something in nature, mulled it over and, without the availability of deeper knowledge, surmised, “This must have happened because the Wind God was perturbed,” and then created a story to explain what they’d experienced and what they’d thought about it. Having been an engaging story it was repeated over and over until it became ingrained in the basic lore of a culture. Finally, many of these stories have been accepted, by men, as divine revelation, written down and included in a literary collections as set down by God and deemed irrefutable.

The scientific method has produced advanced medicine, HDTV, bullet trains, pain-free dentistry, air travel, nuclear weapons, IEDs, diabolical instruments of torture, global warming, fracking, and Fukushima.

From religion has come great inspirational art and literature, principles of love, charity, sacrifice, guidelines to social behavior, shamanic medicine, the subjugation of women, diabolical rationales for torture, merciless exclusivity, inquisitions, jihads and convenient moralities sanctioned by gods.

But the problem with equating scripture with science goes beyond the truth of Evolution or Genesis. The problem is that when non-fact-based reality is not only accepted in one sphere but allowed to infect politics it nudges out fact-based reality. A statement made to journalist Ron Suskind by an aide in the G.W. Bush administration illustrates this.

The aide said, “(the) ‘reality-based community’ consists of people who believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. We’re an empire now  (he might as well have said “church”),” he continued, “and when we act, we create our own reality.” With this kind of non-fact-based invention we wind up with a kind of chaos of magical thinking wherein nothing must be examined and validated. We wind up with sound-bite news and party-sanctioned sets of facts, none of which must be proofed.

The famous pamphleteer of the American revolution, Thomas Paine, said that “To argue with a person who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead.”

If you need confirmation of the truth of Paine’s remark check out the Ham on Nye debate. The debater’s answer to the last question put it all in a nutshell:

“What, if anything, would ever change your mind,” the moderator asked?

Ham, The Non-Science Guy said, “Nothing.”

“Just one piece of evidence,” said Bill Nye, The Science Guy.

by Jim Culleny


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