Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Quote of the week

I read this review of "Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America — and Found Unexpected Peace" in the NY Times Book Review last Sunday and there is this one paragraph from the review that has tagged along with me since then so I wanted to pass it along:

To Lobdell, it began to seem not just that religious institutions were no better than secular ones, but that sometimes they were much worse. After all, school systems and Little Leagues don’t defend molesters as tenaciously as the Catholic Church did, and parents aren’t as reluctant to believe the worst about teachers and coaches. It was precisely the cultivation of religious awe — with its traditions, rituals and ceremonies — that made priests seem holy, and thus allowed so much evil to go unreported or disbelieved.

I think really that's the paradox of our present moment: religious people in society think they are significantly MORE moral than the rest of society and AT THE SAME TIME secular people believe (and indeed have ample evidence to prove) that they are significantly MORE moral than religious people. Both sides claim a higher morality and think the other are a bunch of neanderthals. That's what I was trying to get at with my "I and Thou" post last summer (which continues to be one of my all time favorite posts).

The NY Times gives away the first chapter of the book for free (here).

So can we just talk about The Hills for a sec.

As you know The Hills is a spin off of Laguna Beach which is a variation on The Real World. I started watching Laguna Beach because I had never seen a reality show with LIGHTING that good. It was perfect in every scene -- warm glowing oranges, yellows, and browns. You could watch the entire show with the sound off and follow the story line and just marvel at the perfectly lit beautiful people in every scene.

Okay but here's where things get a little weird. In order to get these perfect scenes every time -- Laguna Beach and The Hills are scripted. But here's what's weird about that:

In a regular TV show, people are hired to play a fictional character.

In traditional reality TV, people are hired to play themselves.

In The Hills, real people play FICTIONAL versions of THEMSELVES.

Said differently, on The Hills, real people lease their identities to MTV in return for the right to play fictional versions of themselves on TV. It's like the ultimate form of meta-level self flattery I guess, "I'm so great that they want to create a fictional version of me and hire ME to play the version of me they created (even though I've never done anything worthy of creating a character other than allow myself to be turned into a character)."

But what would happen if Lauren ever wanted to go rogue and play herself -- rather than the character by the same name? I imagine she'd be fired (or killed for the sake of ratings) for not playing herself properly. So at some point then Lauren no longer owns herself (either exterior identity or any expression of an interior identity) -- or at least does not own herself until after her lease runs out and her character is discarded in favor of a newer lease-to-own model (like Whitney). At some point doesn't it go from a fascinating documentary form (the Real World) and become creepy Stepford Single Chicks?

The lighting sure looks great though.

Update #1: in the case of Heidi and Spencer they leased their identity to MTV and MTV turned them into evil super-villains -- that they appear to play with zeal (both on the show and in real life) never in on the fact that the joke is on them (of course the joke is really on us for watching the circus, okay, point taken).

Update #2: This week at least, The Republican Party has become the Heidi and Spencer of American politics -- fuckers that everybody hates but we can't take our eyes off of because they are such a train wreck.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The curse of the axial age

Can I just make an observation? And it's an observation that's gonna make a lot of people, including myself uncomfortable.

But here's what I want to say...

All major religions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism), it seems to me, are all based on the same notion. The notion is that someone (or a group of people) figured it all out 2500 to 1500 years ago (or had a direct transmission from God during that time), that somehow we forgot the thing that they figured out, and now we're all supposed to look backwards (to ancient texts and teachings) for wisdom.

It's hard for me to overstate just how problematic and troubling that is.
  • It's a gross misreading of history -- a retro romanticism that glosses over the fact that many elements of the best moral and ethical systems of those eras are now considered criminal because they are so backwards.
  • It discounts two thousand years of hard-fought progress on human rights, civil rights, women's rights, and environmental protection.
  • It seems to give short shrift to the extraordinary breakthroughs in art, literature, medicine, the sciences (obviously), and psychology.
  • It seems to deny the divinity of every age and inside every person except those from an era that can only be partially understood through archeology.
  • It's an infantilizing notion that excuses us from taking responsibility for our own moral and ethical decisions here and now.
It seems to me that at best we are setting up a screen -- like hanging a sheet back across history -- and projecting all of our modern wisdom and greatness back on an earlier age (that we really don't understand at all -- nor can we really hope to, nor should we want to). At worst, and this is certainly the case with the Taliban and certain Christian fundamentalists in the U.S., we are permanently tying our modern political, economic, and moral systems to a genocidal 1st or 5th century morality -- which is insane.

It just seems to me that it's no wonder our modern world is so screwed up -- we keep walking backwards into the future. I think the challenge is to name and to own the rather advanced moral systems we practice daily (starting with affirmation of equal rights for all people) that has come to us not through religion, but rather through politics, pluralism, democracy, and modernity.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Fascinating article on Orwell

The April 13, 2009 edition of The New Yorker is out with a fascinating profile on George Orwell ("A Fine Rage: George Orwell's Revolutions"). Like all New Yorker articles it's dense and too damn long but it rewards a careful reading. Alas a subscription is required to read the whole piece but I wanted to bring one particular quote from the article to your attention.
He [Orwell] never really reconciled his hatred of what he called the "power instinct" with a candid assessment of the power instinct that would have to be exercised to effect revolution.
Isn't that really the problem with most lefty revolutionary ideas? Like Orwell we have pretty good a critique of that which we want to tear down -- but almost no critique or appreciation of the power apparatus that we would need to build in order to tear down the shit that we don't like (and what a monster that power apparatus might become once it is unleashed and how we might build power-limiting checks and balances into the movement as we go along). Isn't that really the problem of all of the great communist revolutions in the 20th century -- that they had a correct analysis of the problem of the power instinct of those who were dominating society -- but no willingness to examine the corrupting influence of the new power structures necessary to topple the old order (hence Russia, Cuba, China etc. wage glorious revolution only to replace capitalist authoritarianism with communist authoritarianism)?

And that's one of the reasons that the left is often such a mess -- because our analysis of the power instinct assumes that the problem is those [bad] people -- and that if we just replace them everything will be okay. When in reality the temptation to abuse power is likely something that resides in all of us -- and that no matter who is in power -- we need systems of transparency and checks and balances in order to restrain the corrupting influences that will effect anyone in those positions. Said differently, the blind spot of conservatism is that they think the rich and business people can do no wrong (the problem is seen as them -- in this case the poor) and the blind spot of progressivism is that we think the working class and the poor can do no wrong (the problem is seen as them -- the wealthy and the corporate) when in reality the human condition is such that the problem resides in all of us but is only expressed once we are in power ourselves.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Flow verses detachment -- which is the better path to happiness?

Okay can someone square this circle for me?

1. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi -- the world expert on flow -- argues that we are at our happiest when we become fully immersed in what we are doing.
The line between the actor and the act blurs and, in some cases, disappears entirely.
--Eric Weiner in The Geography of Bliss, talking about flow.
2. Buddhists by contrast maintain that contentment is achieved through detachment -- observing rather than engaging.

It would seem to me then that flow and detachment are in some ways OPPOSITES of each other Yet each, in some way, is claiming to be the path to contentment. And it would seem to me that they can't both be correct.

If we dig down a little bit further, it would seem that evidence from the field of happiness research shows that flow indeed is the path to the greatest bliss. By contrast the practice of detachment, does not actually make claims to happiness at all (indeed Buddhists would encourage us to practice non-attachment to happiness as well as sadness). I think people just get confused about what Buddhism is really all about because endless American Buddhists -- parading about on the pages of the Huffington Post Living section and elsewhere -- conflate Buddhism with all sorts of feel-good new age thinking that may or may not have anything to do with actual Buddhism.


Patriarchy, nannies, and terrorism

I'm reading The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner right now and it's completely brilliant. Weiner is a reporter and foreign correspondent for NPR. In the Geography of Bliss, Weiner is trying to figure out what makes people happy. So to travels to happy places -- like Bhutan and Iceland (yes folks in Iceland apparently are incredibly happy) -- and unhappy places like Moldova -- and interviews people to find out what is making them happy or unhappy. He's a funny writer and the book is a nice road trip test for a lot of the happiness research that is starting to emerge.

But what caught my eye last night was a paragraph in his chapter on Qatar. In the book, Weiner travels to Qatar to test the theory -- does money buy happiness -- because apparently Qatar -- thanks to deep pools of gooey black liquid beneath their desert sands -- has lots and lots and lots of money.

But here's the 'graph that hit me:

A generation of Qatari children is being raised by nannies who don't speak their language and have no authority to discipline them. Boys are cherished and spoiled. "Once they reach thirteen or fourteen years old, the family doesn't try to discipline them anymore. They won't monitor their behavior in public. It's a living hell for the teachers, who often are foreigners with no real authority. They young men don't listen to anyone. Not even the police" says Abdulaziz.
--The Geography of Bliss, p. 135

Okay so here's what I want to pair that quote with -- Sam Harris, writing about the socio-economic backgrounds of the 9/11 terrorist. The genius of Harris is that he shows that ideas (particularly religious ones that shape behavior) have consequences (in the case of radical Islam or fundamentalist Christianity -- often disastrous consequences). So he's able to calls BS on liberal arguments that the 9/11 terrorists are probably just understandable products of poverty while also calling BS on conservative leg humping of religious fundamentalism. His reminder that the 9/11 terrorists were largely middle class and college educated is important:

While the religious divisions in our world are self-evident, many people still imagine that religious conflict is always caused by a lack of education, by poverty, or by politics. Yet the September 11th hijackers were college-educated, middle-class, and had no discernible experience of political oppression. They did, however, spend a remarkable amount of time at their local mosques talking about the depravity of infidels and about the pleasures that await martyrs in Paradise. How many more architects and mechanical engineers must hit the wall at 400 miles an hour before we admit to ourselves that jihadist violence is not merely a matter of education, poverty, or politics? The truth, astonishingly enough, is that in the year 2006 a person can have sufficient intellectual and material resources to build a nuclear bomb and still believe that he will get 72 virgins in Paradise.
--Sam Harris, November 2006 in The Huffington Post

With the important caveat that the 9/11 hijackers did not include any Qataris (they were primarily Saudi) -- does the 1st quote above start to explain the 2nd quote? Namely does a culture of male privilege -- in which even young boys have more power than adult women -- in which there are never any checks or balances or consequences or punishment for childhood misbehavior -- lead to adult suicide bombers? Are suicide bombings, from a psychological standpoint, merely childhood temper tantrums from adults with access to lethal technology?

And is it bigger than this -- namely isn't George W. Bush also the product of male privilege, nurse-maid parenting, and a lack of proper discipline in his life? Aren't most dictators across the globe also the direct consequence of the way that male privilege in wealthy households stunts proper moral development? Might the countless corrupt governments and senseless wars across the planet and throughout history be the product of a worldview of male gender superiority that results in boys not ever getting challenged in ways that humble them and lead them to acknowledge and work with "the other" -- whether that "other" is women, people of different races/ethnicities/classes, or our environment?

Look, just so we're clear, I think nannies are great. And in the U.S., nannies often enable women to return to the workplace which further amplifies gender equality. But in petrofamilydictatorships like Saudi Arabia and Qatar -- where wealth without work (certainly not for the royal family and all of their kin) is combined with pathological (and religiously enforced) patriarchy -- does contracting out parenting and undermining the power of women to discipline and raise respectful boys -- lead to adult man-cubs who just love to blow shit up?