All the Cool Kids are Doing it...

Interesting chart, from Pew Forum, by way of The New York Times:

This makes me wonder whether our collective definition of "mystical experience" is changing*, or whether the rate of experiences of a particular kind really is increasing. Likely at least a little of both, I suspect. The link to the New York Times is worth reading. Interesting cultural change, no? I don't care to weigh in on this poll, preferring instead to simpy remember what Hafiz has said: "Start seeing everything as God, but keep it a secret."

The other most interesting tid-bit from the Pew study, IMHO, was this:

With the exception of white evangelicals, majorities of all major religious traditions report holding at least one of these beliefs or having experienced one of these phenomena. In fact, roughly half of black Protestants (50%), the religiously unaffiliated (48%) and Catholics (47%) answer yes to two or more of these items, as do 43% of white mainline Protestants.

Oh, white evangelicals, when will ye learn?!

*[The poll itself defines "mystical experience" as a "moment of sudden religious insight or awakening." This doesn't really change my point about definitions, tho'.]

[[Also: if you read my post yesterday about Avatar, this link is worth reading... I'm starting to wonder if it might be really cutting edge to turn myself into a Christian Conservative who talks with passion about how war is sometimes necessary in defense of civilization.]]


Movie Review

Real quick, cuz I'm on vacation:

I just saw Avatar, and I find it really strange (no better word for it) how masterful Americans have gotten at producing and consuming obviously anti-American (-imperial) narratives. The movie would make anyone able to follow its simple plot want to leave the theater and say, "Death to America," or at least to the America that has existed ever since it wiped out the Native Americans and took New Mexico from Natives and went into Vietnam and Iraq and so on. I mean, if we all so sincerely feel that Empire is a bad thing, that working against the interest of Natives is bad, why are we still doing this?

How can we watch a movie starring us as the bad guys, and like it? What a strange development in moral history.


Chelsea Handler was in Playboy Recently!?

As I recall, waaaaaaay back in December of '08, everybody agreed that banks and bankers were the devil. What had they done to earn the label? They had gotten involved in loaning money to people who could never pay the loans back. Catch phrase: "predatory lending."

Then the other day, Obama had a meeting with a bunch of CEO fatcats and told them, "Now, I'm strongly urging you to get back into predatory lending." I guess I'm paraphrasing, but I am paraphrasing very precisely. Even Jon Stewart almost gets the ridiculousness:

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That's right: Obama wants banks to start loaning money to people who look like "bad bets." That means that three years from now you're going to have another round of foreclosures unless you continue "assisting" people who find themselves in underwater mortgages. It also means that Obama is trying to inflate another housing bubble, this time right out in broad daylight.

Does anyone... ? I mean, are we gonna... ? Really? And also, although the banks are paying back the loans given them by the American taxpayer, the American taxpayer is not getting a rebate check... nope: for that money, the government is saying, "We'll just hold onto this for a while and see if we can't find something to spend it on." Oh, and the 800,000 doses of children's-potency H1N1 vaccine that were recalled yesterday were a reflection of how the government is going to be awesome at healthcare. Viva La Revolucion.


Funny Rant

Yesterday I got an email from a friend that began, "Am I getting more conservative or just older..." then he went on to complain about the paternalistic impulses of many leftists and proponents of government intervention. I ended up agreeing with everything he said, and was even fired-up enough to add my own Libertarian-style talking points.

Then today I read this article, from Canada's national newspaper, about how "the whole world needs to adopt China's one-child policy."

Meanwhile, in other news, teens are ignoring anti-texting-while-driving laws, everybody smokes pot, and "the Law" in general is fast becoming the butt of jokes. In fact, I saw this video yesterday on MSNBC, and loved it:

Of course, Reagan isn't exactly right about the Founders -- they actually pulled for a strong central government in order to defend against "faction." But whatever. I like this rhetoric. I like the catch-words he uses. I want somebody to start talking about freedom and self-culture and responsibility and individualism and Liberty, goddamit, Liberty. An international one child law? Are you kidding me?

[Note: I know my one reader will say, "Well, but this one-child thing is a lark. It'll never happen." And that's true. But the fact that a major newspaper published it is a little ridiculous, and may be admitted as evidence that some people who are supposedly not-entirely-stupid have crossed a line in the sand. So let's go, team. Wake up. Seriously. I'm sick of hearing people talk about how Congress needs to "get something done" all the time. Maybe they could just take a decade off every once in a while? How much law-making is enough?]

I'm sick up to my neckbone with namby-pamby whiney compassionaters whose moral radar takes no account of the idea of property. Of earned income: Oh, do you think little poor babies need government supervision in the form of free pre-school or something like that?--Well back the F--- off. If I want to sponsor a little poor baby, I'll do it voluntarily. And maybe I could even afford to if all of my income wasn't being taken to prop-up failed business models and banking executives.

I want FREEDOM, and that's what you should want:

You Probably Saw This

For ten years and more, I've been fascinated by Russia -- in particular by the Russian soul. After reading plenty of books and thinking about Russian history, much remains unclear (it's very likely this mysteriousness that draws me to Russia). But one thing I know for sure: when the image above is produced, and Russia comes right out and says, "It was a failed missile launch," you can be sure it wasn't a failed missile launch.

I'm not saying it's a new psychological weapon or anything. But that's no failed missile launch. I wonder what they're up to over there? Here's a link to video.


Obama's War Prayer

I hope the world will remember that President Obama just followed this paragraph--
I [am] mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago: "Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: It merely creates new and more complicated ones." As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's lifes work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there is nothing weak, nothing passive, nothing naive in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.
With this word:
Anyway, if American leftists aren't going to play the role of utopian dreamers anymore, I want to know who will? It's not that I disagree with Obama, but the realism here is darker than I'm accustomed to -- it's too practical. Who will have the audacity to finish on the memory of Gandhi and King without hedging their bets?

I know people who will love Obama's Nobel acceptance speech--most of them rhetoricians. But I believe what the quote at the top right of this page says (I stole it from Os Guiness): "Without truth, there is only manipulation." In paraphrasing George Bush, Obama said, "Those regimes that break the rules must be held accountable. Sanctions must exact a real price." My--more peaceful, I think--solution to this apparently intractable reality is to consider writing fewer rules. Want nuclear disarmament? Then get rid of your nukes. Writing international legislation demanding that other countries disarm makes a mockery of justice and "morality." Otherwise our definitions are bankrupt, as when Emily Dickinson defines "Sin - a distinguished Precipice / Others must resist - ."

It's okay if America can no longer afford to be the shining city on a hill -- that responsibility will fall to some other country with a clearer vision of Justice. I just want to be on record, however quietly, noting the transformation.


Against Moral Government

I don't like when people with political opinions -- most often people on the left -- talk about how fixing poverty is "a moral issue." I object at two points:
  1. These people tend to have no hesitation about whether such a thing is possible. Granted, a sensible "progressive" argument may be made, but I get the sense that people like Chris Matthews (whose proclamations about the government's moral obligations toward the poor tonight prompted this post) have no notion that moral agency is delimited where the scarcities and limitations posed by reality encroach. I may say that the government has a moral obligation to end poverty once and for all, but that doesn't make it so. Similarly, Chris Matthews may say that the government has a moral obligation to create an atmosphere on Mars, but saying so doesn't make it so.
  2. Institutions like governments don't participate in "morality" as I understand it; only individuals can be morally responsible. The rest is a matter for the pragmatists.
Regarding the second point: I'm more and more convinced that people use this kind of rhetoric in order to justify, to themselves, their own felt-but-not-consciously-recognized knowledge that they have arbitrarily limited their own circle of moral sympathy.


Lo, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed

Here's a link to one of the most interesting "mainstream" articles I've read lately. I'm sure it would completely appall Glenn Beck. And here's the appropriate accompanying Herman Melville poem:

Hanging from the beam,
Slowly swaying (such the law),
Gaunt the shadow on your green,
The cut is on the crown
(Lo, John Brown),
And the stabs shall heal no more.

Hidden in the cap
Is the anguish none can draw;
So your future veils its face,
But the streaming beard is shown
(Weird John Brown),
The meteor of the war.
The image at the top is a painting by, of all people, Victor Hugo -- in commemoration of John Brown. I wonder who'll do the Khalid Shaikh Mohammed version after he's convicted. And, needless to say, I wonder if this is a fair comparison. No really, I do wonder.

All of this reminds me of the one bit of canonized "Theory" that I ever liked, from Jean Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulations:
Against this hegemony of the system, one can exalt the ruses of desire, practice revolutionary micrology of the quotidian, exalt the molecular drift or even defend cooking. This does not resolve the imperious necessity of checking the system in broad daylight.

This, only terrorism can do.


Mostly for Myself

Thanks, Jon. A link to the 50 most interesting wikipedia articles. I strongly recommend #1. We need more projects like Marree Man. Love it.

Note: I've reported on #50 before... glad to see John Cage made the list!


Stanley Fish says. But I say, speaking from second-hand, in-the-know experience: if you want to get the job, don't order veal when you're on a campus visit (unless everyone else at the table does, I guess).



Often, my academic motivation is crushed by my thin understanding that it is impossible to say what needs to be said, and my contingent judgment that the next best thing is silence. What will this come to?


Tribute or Faux Pas... or worse?

I'm glad I found this on YouTube. I just stumbled on this part of a movie on AMC today... I don't even know what movie it is. I typed in "Bojangles of Harlem" to find it on YouTube. Looks like it's Fred Astaire in blackface. The comments on the YouTube page are quite interesting. Half seem to think it's just good old fashioned racist blackface... the other half thinks it's some kind of a tribute to the original Bojangles, a.k.a., Bill Robinson. Check it out:

(The movie is Swing Time -- 1936)


"When in Rome, do as you done in Milledgeville..."

Here's an interesting 7-or-so minutes on one who understood that you have to observe the Devil with tremendous care to know G-d. From PBS.

"The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it." --F.O.


Back to Race, for a Moment

Bet: I'll get zero comments here.

Topic: professional/work culture, whiteness, blackness, and racism.

The Washington Post reported today that 34.5% of young black men (16-24) are currently unemployed. That's a stunning figure, isn't it? The same article quotes Princeton professor Devah Pager:
Black men were less likely to receive a call back or job offer than equally qualified white men... Black men with a clean record fare no better than white men just released from prison.
So now imagine you're on a hiring committee at your average bank. You've narrowed it to two applications. One is from a guy named Delonta Spriggs (borrowing a name from the article just cited); the other is from Bradley West (a made up name).

Obviously, it would be "racist" to just pick the white-sounding name. And, just as obviously, it happens all the time. Setting the racism aside momentarily, the question is, when money (via "performance," and "productivity") is the bottom line, is betting white a rational gamble?

To answer this, we would have to examine white and black culture -- starting with the admission that such a distinction exists. I've written about this delicate, uncomfortable, difficult distinction before. In the post just linked, I nervously suggest a few starters. Basketball goes to black culture. Golf goes to white culture. Veganism to white culture. Loud music goes to black culture. I tried in that post to achieve a neutral perspective, so that these distinctions appear as value-neutral as possible.

But the question of "professionalism" rears its head in a very interesting way in this discussion. If we were to discover that white culture has--always already embedded within it--a greater emphasis on things like dress shirts, timeliness, and so on... then... ? If things like "turning papers in on time" come more easily to white students because of their background in white culture, which values timeliness, then won't a greater percentage of white employees handle the demands of the professional world with greater adeptness than their black counterparts?

All of this is seriously touchy, obviously. And all of it seems problematic. From what I can tell, the source of much of this difficulty is the fact that (increasingly?) people are identifying first by racial group and second by nationality. In other words, there is a decreasing overlap between white culture and black culture -- those identities seem to tug against each other.


[Note: Obviously, we're all adults here. Exceptions are so prevalent that they're almost a rule. We all know black people who are more professional than white people and blahblahblah... but gambling, which business is, must function even in the presence of exceptions.]

So... solutions? Comments? Accusations?

"Scientists" Not Immune to the Temptations of Money and Power?

Shocking. Just kidding--totally predictable.


Two Reasons Not-To-Hate Catholicism

I don't love the Catholic church or the Pope, but I don't dislike or distrust them as much as some people. Here's an interesting article. Benedict says, "Beauty ... can become a path toward the transcendent, toward the ultimate Mystery, toward God." And I like that for two reasons: #1) it reminds us that there is a very real distinction between books like Moby-Dick and The House on Mango Street. In other words, some art is intended very distinctly to influence readers in a particularly "spiritual" way. As Uncle Walt says in "Leaves of Grass":
Do you guess I have some intricate purpose? / Well I have, for the Fourth-month showers have, and the mica on the side of a rock has.
I know some people will be uncomfortable with this distinction, but I think it's real. Sure, there are some ambiguous cases where it's not clear whether the art is propaganda or divine-art... but, for me, it's a worthwhile distinction. Flannery O'Connor's motivation is much different from Sinclair Lewis', and with the Pope, I'd like to see more O'Connors up around these parts.

And #2: it reminds us that "God" should be understood as Mystery, as Ultimate Mystery... I like that: U.M. Ummm... Ummmm... Ummmmmm....


Forgive Them Gaia, They Know Not What They Do (to themselves)

One of my favorite friends suggested this video to her friends on Facebook:

My response, in the spirit of "Devil's advocate," was probably really annoying. I said to her,
It may be my mood, but: the one good reason to die may be knowing that you deserve death, that the universe is justified in killing you off. Where is the poet of lamentations and regret? Where is the poet who will admit to breaking the law not with pride but with sorrow?

(Of course, I suppose we need just laws in order to be able to produce that poet...)
She responded:
Casey - the universe and the law - I don't see how you're connecting them. And if the universe is indeed justified in killing us off, doesn't that make the time we have here all the more worth living? Isn't that a machine against which we can rage without compromise?
And I re-responded:
I mean, yes -- of course. But the machine wins in the end, right? I'm off on one of my religious/mystical tangents lately, and coming at this from that angle... where all of the mystics tell us to give-in, to accept our portion, to say, "Not my will, but thy will be done."

Most of the stuff I've been reading lately is Christian/Gnostic in nature, and it points out that the purpose of the Law (the O.T.) was to show us that we deserve punishment. The poet you linked to--indeed most 'def' poets I have heard--speak in the spirit of raging against, rather than from a position of penitence.

I don't mean it as a judgment so much as a neutral observation. The yogis and gurus say much of the same, right?: recognize that *you are that* and then it will begin to change. If I can see that I have been unjust to others, injustice itself is weakened. I suppose I'm looking for more Simone Weil, and less Simone de Beauvoir. (Nice, huh?)

What do you think? I say all of this half tongue-in-cheek, of course, and wholly in the spirit of dialog. I really do think she's right about what she says, especially regarding the screwed up legal stuff.
I'm thinking that up-in-your-face rhetoric demanding "rights" usually fails, except for the one proclaiming her rights ...no, wait: especially for the one proclaiming her rights. That is, I'm sure it feels good to have a space to holler about how downtrodden you are, especially when you really are downtrodden, but I don't see that it provides any lasting peace to the proclaimers themselves. My thoughts turn to one of those Yoga Sutras of Patanjali again:
Accepting pain as help for purification, study of spiritual books, and surrender to the Supreme Being constitute Yoga in practice.
And the commentary from Satchindananda: "We will actually be happy to receive pain if we keep in mind its purifying effects. Such acceptance makes the mind steady and strong because, although it is easy to give pain to others, it is hard to accept without returning it."


Nothing Stops Going like Ram Bomjon

I hope that by now most of you are at least aware of a story I've been following for years (since 2005 or so for me). Ram Bomjon, a.k.a. "Buddha Boy," is in the midst of his 6-years of meditation en route to becoming (possibly) a Buddha. His followers say he often goes weeks without moving, even to eat or drink. Skeptics are skeptical.

In any case, Bomjon emerges every so often to speak to his growing crowd of followers. Most recently, he spoke to 400,000 people (!!!) in the remote jungle of Ratanpuri, Nepal. Wikipedia says, "He made two speeches in which he urged people to recognize the compassion in their hearts, and their connection to one another through the all-encompassing soul." And I don't know how I missed it, but here's the text of his longest recorded speech, from 2007:
Murder, violence, greed, anger and temptation have made the human world a desperate place. A terrible storm has descended upon the human world, and this is carrying the world towards destruction. There is only one way to save the world and that is through dharma. When one doesn't walk the righteous path of spiritual practice, this desperate world will surely be destroyed. Therefore, follow the path of spirituality and spread this message to your fellows. Never put obstacles, anger and disbelief in the way of my meditation's mission. I am only showing you the way; you must seek it on your own. What I will be, what I will do, the coming days will reveal. Human salvation, the salvation of all living beings, and peace in the world are my goal and my path. "Namo Buddha sangaya, Namo Buddha sangaya, namo sangaya." I am contemplating on the release of this chaotic world from the ocean of emotion, on our detachment from anger and temptation, without straying from the path for even a moment, I am renouncing my own attachment to my life and my home forever. I am working to save all living beings. But in this undisciplined world, my life's practice is reduced to mere entertainment.
The practice and devotion of many Buddhas is directed at the world's betterment and happiness. It is essential, but very difficult, to understand that practice and devotion. But though it is easy to lead this ignorant existence, human beings don't understand that one day we must leave this uncertain world and go with the Lord of Death. Our long attachments with friends and family will dissolve into nothingness. We have to leave behind the wealth and property we have accumulated. What's the use of my happiness, when those who have loved me from the beginning, my mother, father, brothers, relatives are all unhappy? Therefore, to rescue all sentient beings, I have to be Buddha-mind, and emerge from my underground cave to do vajra meditation. To do this I have to realize the right path and knowledge, so do not disturb my practice. My practice detaches me from my body, my soul and this existence. In this situation there will be 72 goddess Kalis. Different gods will be present, along with the sounds of thunder and of "tangur", and all the celestial gods and goddesses will be doing puja (worship). So until I have sent a message, do not come here, and please explain this to others. Spread spiritual knowledge and spiritual messages throughout the world. Spread the message of world peace to all. Seek a righteous path and wisdom will be yours.
I know most of my seven readers are skeptics, but I enjoy this story. It's nice to think that we may not live in a miracle-less, post-prophet age after all.


"No Why"

This is pathetic. I feel bad for these students -- and keep in mind, these students are the "in crowd."

On Pedagogy and Temptation

It's difficult sometimes to overcome the impulse to teach, when what is required is only to teach. Uhhhm, do I need to explain that?

Yesterday, I took a class-full of students outside because their assigned reading was Thoreau's Walden, and it was 74 and sunny. I tossed out one of those general starting questions, "So, what do you think?" And one student pointed out the section where Thoreau talks about clothing. She read aloud:
...if my jacket and trousers, my hat and shoes, are fit to worship God in, they will do... I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes. If there is not a new man, how can the new clothes be made to fit?
I said, "Well that's Biblical, right?"--and then I did my best to paraphrase Matthew 6:31: "Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?' " But my Southern Baptist students weren't so familiar with that verse. Usually, when I say, "That's Biblical, right," they can finish the verse for me. It always makes them comfortable when something reinforces what they know of the Bible. But now they were looking at me with disapproving eyebrows, probably reflecting on their own history of "church clothes."

I said, "Look, think of Thoreau as America's first hippie. That's what he was. He had long hair. He never got old. He grumbled about the government." They laughed and nodded. Then I said, "So, could this kind of dirty-hippie attitude be compatible with Christianity?"

"No." "No." "No," they agreed.

And it's at that moment that I really wanted to teach -- to shove it down their faces that "YES it could be compatible. In FACT, you hypocrites, you snakes, if Christianity is anything it's not worrying about the clothes you wear or how slim your iPod is!"

But I only teach, and thumb to another part of the text, and say aloud, "Hmmm. Okay. Anything else worth examining closely?"



In that post below I really wasn't picking on Obama. He's not at fault. I fear any American president would be doing the same thing in kowtowing to China.

But I did stumble upon one fun article that I strongly recommend for Obama's economic-apologists: check it out. It features the following chart, which the Obama economic team produced ten months ago:
So... either, you have to admit that Obama's efforts have made things worse than they would've been without a recovery plan, or you have to seriously distrust the ability of his economic advisors to know their heads from their tails.

China and Tibet: a few closing words

I'm almost ready to stop banging you on the head with Tibet and Buddhism, but because the monks asked me very directly over Saturday brunch to speak to other Americans about it, one more post:

Last night I stayed up to listen to President Obama speak to Chinese students on the first day of his four-day trip to China. The New York Times headline this morning reads, "Obama Pushes Rights With Chinese Students." But then the Times fails to mention that Obama failed to mention Tibet, and only half-heartedly alluded to the problem in almost metaphysical abstractions. I think he might have said something like, "In America, we believe that values like free press, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion are universal values," which is simply too weak when the problem is imposing modern cultural order on a group of traditional nomadic farmers and monks by persecuting (i.e., beating, jailing, executing... executing as recently as last week) those in Tibet who would maintain their religious values and beliefs.

So when, after landing a not-even-glancing blow concerning human rights, Obama got to the real point, I was disappointed:
And as I said, I think the commercial ties that are taking place -- there's something about when people think that they can do business and make money that makes them think very clearly and not worry as much about ideology. And I think that that's starting to happen in this region, and we are very supportive of that process. OK?
I'm not blaming Obama. He's doing what any Roman statesman would do... follow the money. But late last week when one of the visiting monks told one of my classes that he was very disheartened when President Obama became the first American President in forty years to refuse to meet with the Dalai Lama ("scheduling conflict"), I became disheartened with him. The monk said, "If we can't count on Americans to speak Truth, the situation will be terrible." I just don't want us to turn into this:

That image is borrowed from today's Times article by Niall Ferguson and some less-important guy. Read it.

If America is willing to sweep under the rug a persecution similar to its own persecution of Native Americans in the 16th-19th centuries for the sake of better GDP, I fail to see how we can maintain any position of moral authority on an international scale. I won't hold my breath for the kinds of trade restrictions that America imposed on Cuba for half a century, but I think it might be the right thing to do. We're still at a point where China needs us more than we need them -- but I worry that's not for long.

In a related story, China censored part of President Obama's Inauguration Speech back in January. And Amnesty International has no presence in China. And let's don't forget the Uighurs. And after promising to make great strides in human rights if they IOC granted them the 2008 Olympics, China just fucking reneged and lied their way into even worse oppression of "separatists" in Tibet.

Okay, I'm done for now. Thanks for letting me get that off my chest. Mention it to your students next time the topic of China comes up -- they'll be stunned silent. All they've heard is good press for China over the past seven or eight years.


How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Wittgenstein

A follow up on my post from the other day:

I was okay with my "History of Ideas" courses (HIST 514 and HIST 515) and with my "Existential Philosophy" course (PHIL 520) and even with parts of my "Theory" courses in graduate school... right up until I was assigned Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, which looked like this:
4.1 Propositions represent the existence and non-existence of states of affairs.
4.11 The totality of true propositions is the whole of natural science (or the whole corpus of the natural sciences).
4.111 Philosophy is not one of the natural sciences. (The word 'philosophy' must mean something whose place is above or below the natural sciences, not beside them.)
4.112 Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts. Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity. A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations. Philosophy does not result in 'philosophical propositions', but rather in the clarification of propositions. Without philosophy thoughts are, as it were, cloudy and indistinct: its task is to make them clear and to give them sharp boundaries.
4.113 Philosophy sets limits to the much disputed sphere of natural science.
4.114 It must set limits to what can be thought; and, in doing so, to what cannot be thought. It must set limits to what cannot be thought by working outwards through what can be thought.
4.115 It will signify what cannot be said, by presenting clearly what can be said.
All of that just seemed too devoid of human feeling to me--too objective. And even as I couldn't read it, I accepted what my teachers and books said: that only Heidegger challenged Wittgenstein in terms of influencing 20th century philosophy and theory. Unfortunately for me, Heidegger seemed only marginally more appealing than Wittgenstein. But trusting my professors, I always felt that there must be "something there," even if I wasn't (yet) able to access it.

...which is why stumbling upon the work of Nāgārjuna is really exciting to me. First, simply because it confirms my suspicion: "we" have gotten nowhere since ancient written history in terms of the complexity or validity of "our" ideas. My repeated complaints that contemporary American academics would do well to broaden their horizons--diminishing the influence of the relatively narrow cross-section of German and French intelligentsia that has dominated "Theory" for three decades--...all my complaints find a little vindication when I discover that Nāgārjuna was saying very similar stuff two-thousand years ago:


If mind could grasp form, it would grasp its own own-being. How could a [mind] that does not exist (since it is born from conditions) really conceive absence of form?


Since one moment of mind cannot within [the very same] moment grasp a form born (as explained), how could it understand a past and future form?


Since color and shape never exist apart, they cannot be conceived apart. Is form not acknowledged to be one?


The sense of sight is not inside the eye, not inside form, and not in between. [Therefore] an image depending upon form and eye is false.


If the eye does not see itself, how can it see form? Therefore eye and form are without self. The same [is true for the] remaining sense-fields.

...And so on. So anyway, the second thing I'm enjoying about discovering Nāgārjuna is that it's giving me other terms by which I can begin to imagine the "things-themselves" that he and Heidegger and Wittgenstein and others have always been talking about. What I believe they have always been talking about is essentially unspeakable, and must therefore be imagined beyond language. And it is immensely difficult to imagine beyond language, especially, I think, for a person who is fluent in only one language. If two thinkers two thousand years and dozens of cultures apart can use twelve or fifteen completely different words to plant the same "thought-stuff" in my mind, then I can hesitate, and dilate, in that space between. So it is through Nāgārjuna that I am beginning to appreciate Wittgenstein and others who have eluded me for so long.

Now I begin to see that the best of all thinkers have always taught the same. Nāgārjuna teaches it as well as any before or after him:
But to the Bodhisattvas [the Buddha], the best among those who walk on two legs, has always taught this doctrine about the skandhas: "Form is like a mass of foam, feeling is like bubbles, apprehension is like a mirage, karma-formations are like the plantain, and consciousness is like an illusion."
And so like Plato's dialectic, like Buddha's teaching, like Jesus' parables, and like Wittgenstein, Nāgārjuna teaches that what he teaches is only a raft, a ladder, a means to an end that does not include the raft or ladder or end itself. I am not surprised to find that my summarizing-textbooks have always taken the mysticism out of Wittgenstein; but now I have discovered it for myself, right there, very explicitly, near the end. Wittgenstein writes, "6.522 There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical." And then concludes, "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."

I guess that means I should shuttup now?


How Government Runs Business (and do NOT argue with me about this)


November 5th: G.S.P. goes to the local post office with a manila envelope that was carefully addressed to a major university. She is applying for a job. The application deadline is November 15th. She gets priority mail, and a tracking sticker, because the job is important to her.

November 10th. G.S.P. goes back the same post office and tells them the tracking sticker says the package has not arrived yet. They say, precisely, "It must have gotten lost." She gives them another package, paying again for priority mail and a tracking sticker.

November 13th. G.S.P. goes back to the same post office and tells them that the tracking sticker shows the package has not arrived yet at its destination (which is less than 200 miles from here). They say, precisely, "Hm. Well, they scan it in when it arrives at the post office where you're sending it. So I guess it hasn't arrived yet." G.S.P. says, "This was time-sensitive material, which is why I started trying to send it on November 5th." Very precisely, the postal worker shrugs, indicating not only that he cannot imagine that G.S.P. might accuse him of being irresponsible, but also demonstrating that he seems unable to fathom that anyone could possibly be accountable.

November 14th. G.S.P. goes back to the post office: "The sticker still says the second package has not arrived. It is Saturday. The deadline is tomorrow. My materials will not be there on time for a job I really would've liked." I tell her to ask them whether they think she should send another package from there, or just drive it the 200 miles to its destination herself. She is too polite. She drives across town to another post office and pays $25.00 to "overnight" a package, which will arrive one day late (at best), at its destination.

Without so much as an apology.


Logic and Logic and Logic's End

The monks I've been hanging out with this week told me that their monastery focuses on the study and interpretation of ancient and modern Buddhist logic and syllogisms. Honestly, I was surprised to learn that there was such a thing. I guess I have/had so swallowed the idea that I've inherited from Greek logic that Logic is universal that I was surprised to discover that there is another logic tradition.

Evidently, Buddhist logic is based on grammar, whereas Greek/Western logic is based on mathematical understanding. So I checked out a book they recommended to me from my library to get started: Master of Wisdom: Writings of the Buddhist Master Nāgārjuna. From what I can tell, Nāgārjuna is sort of the Plato of Buddhist logic. He's early second-century A.D.

Here's my favorite verse so far:
'Is' and 'is not' and also 'is-is not' have been stated by the Buddhas for a purpose. It is not easy to understand!
Of course, I don't understand it in one day. Nevertheless, I am reminded of what I believe to be the most overlooked section of Plato's Republic, a section I have quoted more than once:
And so, Glaucon, I said, we have at last arrived at the hymn of dialectic. This is that strain which is of the intellect only, but which the faculty of sight will nevertheless be found to imitate; for sight, as you may remember, was imagined by us after a while to behold the real animals and stars, and last of all the sun himself. And so with dialectic; when a person starts on the discovery of the absolute by the light of reason only, and without any assistance of sense, and perseveres until by pure intelligence he arrives at the perception of the absolute good, he at last finds himself at the end of the intellectual world, as in the case of sight at the end of the visible.
The point here is that the dialectic -- the process known as "the dialectic" -- is not an end in itself. One who practices that way is destined to become, well, an "insignificant wrangler." The dialectic is designed to bring practitioners to a very particular moment of... whatever: realization, or enlightenment, or awakening, whatever. The master dialectician simply encourages his students to continue practicing dialectic until that insight comes, until the student arrives at the hymn.

I wonder if Nāgārjuna's teachings are similarly directed. If they are, the ends might be similar or even the same... apparently both disciplines have a very distinct purpose, however difficult (even impossible) it is to describe that purpose to the novice.


Follow Up: So, how does the rhetorician of contemporary academia decide that he or she believes there is no end to rhetoric? If I say "practice lifting weights until you can bench press three hundred pounds," and you say, "I could never do that, so I will not practice," aren't you missing something? Especially if I tell you that I thought I couldn't do it when I started, but now I can?


Not Ideas but the Things Themselves

I've been reading Sri Swami Satchidananda's commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Yes, I know how ridiculous that sounds -- but I wish it didn't. I wish we were serious enough about postmodernism and fragmented epistemologies and so on to take seriously the notion that something written long ago might be truer and more resonant than something written after World War II.

Here's the one sutra I'm working on this week:
By cultivating friendliness towards happiness and compassion towards misery, gladness towards virtue and indifference towards vice, the mind becomes pure.
Satchidananda says that if we forget everything else from the sutras of Patanjali, we should remember this sutra. He says there are only these four locks even as you are presented with the only four keys you'll need. When you meet a person who is virtuous, be glad! When you encounter misery, be compassionate! -- and so on. And that's it! Isn't that "tight?"

This Wednesday

Looks like we've discovered and processed all of the gold there is. I can't think of a better use for it than building a GIANT gold pyramid with all of the world's gold. We could put it in Nebraska. It's not backing money anymore anyway, so why not make something awesome of it? The idea that we have collected almost all of the gold on the planet seems to beg for interpretation -- seems to reveal what our purpose has been all along. Why not put the crown on our achievement?

I had lunch with some Tibetan monks today, so I can't take anything seriously, least of all this blog.

A giant gold pyramid might be so dense that it throws the earth's rotation out of whack by creating an imbalance. Awesome.


Question to my Generation?

We're not really gonna do this for the next 40 years, are we?--The desks, computers, proposals, reports, committees, etc.?


Sympathy for the Devil & Co.

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.' But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
Something incredible happens in this parable, and I'd really like to be able to explain it to myself. I tried with my sophomores today (remember, I teach at a historically Baptist school). I had them read it, and then I said, "Who are you in this scenario--how do you enter it as a reader?"

One who was confident in her own reading abilities raised her hand and said, "As the tax collector."


"Because I recognize that I'm imperfect, that I've sinned."

"So you... sympathize... with... the tax collector," I muttered, and then I was lost. I had lost direction. I couldn't even imagine my own purpose for the exercise. Then finally I pulled it together and said, "Okay, so you read this as though you were the tax-collector. How would one who is like a Pharisee have read this parable?"

"They wouldn't have liked it," one student ventured, fishing as if he was trying to tell me what he thought I wanted to hear.


Something incredible is happening in this parable. My thought is ill-formed. But I know I'm... I was going to say, "I know I'm right. I'm confident of my own reading ability and I feel that I'm a better reader than others."

So, if I do claim to understand the purpose of the parable, I make that claim over those who admit that they do not understand it. In making that claim, am I not taking on the role of the Pharisee? But to understand the parable, I must understand that the better of the two characters is the tax collector. I must understand that I'm a sinner to read the parable. To even make it through reading the parable. There's no getting out of this parable. Not for me.

Something incredible is currently happening in this parable.

Is it possible to enter this parable as the Pharisee? Is it even possible for the Pharisee to read this parable? What is required of the Pharisee who recognizes that the tax collector is his superior? Doesn't he say, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner." What is required of the reader who realizes that he is confident that he understands what he reads? Isn't the truth that when a person who is exactly like a Pharisee is confronted with this parable, he will simply enter the parable as the tax-collector? Isn't that what my student did: "One who was confident in her reading abilities?"

I'm stuck in this parable. I don't know how to exit this parable. I suspect that if I could figure out a way to teach it effectively -- to put someone else in its grip -- I might be able to escape this parable.

The Purpose of College

Heard this on a local conservative talk-radio program the other day:
I have had a good deal to do with young men in my time, and I have formed an impression of them which I believe to be contrary to the general impression. They are generally thought to be arch radicals. As a matter of fact, they are the most conservative people I have ever dealt with. Go to a college community and try to change the least custom of that little world and find how the conservatives will rush at you. Moreover, young men are embarrassed by having inherited their father’s opinions. I have often said that the use of a university is to make young gentlemen as unlike their fathers as possible. I do not say that with the least disrespect for the fathers; but every man who is old enough to have a son in college is old enough to have become very seriously immersed in some particular business and is almost certain to have caught the point of view of that particular business. And it is very useful to his son to be taken out of that narrow circle, conducted to some high place where he may see the general map of the world and of the interests of mankind, and there shown how big the world is and how much of it his father may happen to have forgotten. It would be worth while for men, middle-aged and old, to detach them selves more frequently from the things that command their daily attention and to think of the sweeping tides of humanity. --President Woodrow Wilson, October 24, 1914
I love that. The host of the radio-show hated it.

With Apologies for Length, a Serious Question

The Question

A friend who supports the rights of gay and lesbian couples to marry recently commented on Facebook:
"when will America realize that majority vote should not be applied to human rights issues? I seriously doubt interracial marriage would have passed in 1960s if it was put to referendum..."
In so many words, I replied that something about his making the issue a moral issue gave me pause -- after all, it was the emphasis on subjective epistemology that brought homosexuality into the semi-mainstream and out of cultural closet. It's easy to forget, but when MTV featured an openly gay man on "Real World" in (what was that, 1990?) it's first season, people were a little uncomfortable. Nowadays, no sitcom is complete without a gay sidekick, however minstrely he seems.

Anyway, my point was, postmodernism's emphasis on subjective ethics is what gave homosexuality a place in culture. But my friend's appeal relied not on subjective ethics but on an appeal that was idealist (almost objectivist) in nature. My friend was not content to rely on the demos to determine what-Justice-is. He was saying, in effect, "Let me be who I am; but stop being who you are (a bigot)."

The (Related) Digression

With another friend, simultaneously, I've been considering definitions and diagnoses within contemporary psychology/psychiatry. With apologies again for tediousness and length, I'm going to quote an excerpt from my dissertation to disclose my angle & interest in the topic (in blue) :

As Geoffrey Sanborn has demonstrated, Melville was deeply engaged with the problem of the middle space between sanity and insanity at the time he was composing [Moby-Dick]. Through scrupulous archival research, Sanborn proves that Melville read an 1823 article by Sir Francis Palgrave, and that Palgrave’s article was the source for the famous marginalia comments discovered in Melville’s Shakespeare set by Charles Olson in 1933-34. Sanborn quotes from the original Palgrave essay:
In considering the actions of the mind, it should never be forgotten, that its affections pass into each other like the tints of the rainbow: though we can easily distinguish them when they have assumed a decided colour, yet we can never determine where each hue begins…. Madness is almost undefinable. Right reason and insanity are merely the extreme terms of a series of mental action, which need not be very long. (Sanborn’s italics 219)
In his scribbling at the back of the 7th volume of Shakespeare, Melville dropped the “almost” and wrote: “Madness is undefinable” (Sanborn 212).

But Palgrave’s definitions were not uncontested in the first half of the 19th century; in fact, according to Paul McCarthy, most professional psychiatrists were comfortable enough with the term “insane” that they began defining and investigating sub-categories—most interestingly, “moral insanity” (16). In his book The Twisted Mind, McCarthy describes moral insanity has “a mental disease which affects primarily the emotions and may affect the cognitive faculties.” Symptoms include “absence or diminution of feelings to pronounced displays of hatred, fear, or melancholy” (15). As further evidence of Melville’s better-than-superficial familiarity with the contested terminology of his day, McCarthy summarizes the famous 1844 trial of Abner Rogers, a case presided over by Melville’s father-in-law, Judge Lemuel Shaw (52-53). McCarthy reports that Abner Rogers killed the asylum warden at the Massachusetts State Prison while “suffering from delusions and because, in addition, he was driven to commit the crime by ‘an uncontrollable impulse to do violence’” (53). According to the defense, McCarthy writes, “Rogers claimed that he had heard voices stating that the warden would kill him. He therefore acted to protect himself” (52). The verdict would be largely dependent upon Judge Shaw’s definition of two key concepts: insanity and monomania.

If you know me, you'll sense where I'm going with this...

The Synthesis-Question

The concept of "Moral Insanity" is a concept that could not exist within a postmodern schema--this is why behavior like homosexuality, which would very likely have been diagnosed as "moral insanity" in the past, is now considered not a disorder at all. It was the rise of modernism and subjectivism that ended the Victorian era, right?

What I want to know--and this time I mean it!--is what is our epistemological foundation!? Stop jerking me around. Do we believe in transcendent and eternal Justice, or do we believe there is nothing beyond consensus view? And if you insist on having it both ways (as, apparently, most academics do), please explain how you know when to rely on subjective epistemology as opposed to objective epistemology.

The person who is inconsistent in his ideas must either account for his inconsistency or be content to be far less persuasive. When I meet a person who speaks about fragmented and subjective "rhizomatic" ethics when it comes to things like the Ten Commandments, but who speaks about "human rights" idealistically on other matters, I presume that either A) they are unaware of their inconsistent reasoning or B) they are "simply" self-interested subjectivists using the language of objective Rights and Justice to bring about the change they desire to see.

So it was a turn to subjective ethics that led to a revaluation of homosexuality, but now it must be a return back to objective ethics that leads to an understanding that considers gay marriage within a context of human rights. How do we know what is right? Do we let individuals decide?--or do we need to bring the Philosopher Kings back?


Baseball Cards and Economics

When I was a kid, I was an avid baseball card collector. The hobby started for me when my dad pulled out an old paper bag of cards from the attic. Just as we started to build a card-house with them, dad knelt down and said, "Whoa, wait. Wait a minute. Wait just a minute before you..." and started calling his brother. They decided (correctly) that a 1956 Topps Mickey Mantle could find better uses than being turned into an external wall on a card house.

True to my over-do it nature, I learned everything there was to learn about baseball cards by the time I was about 12-years old. I learned for example that this card was the holy grail of baseball cards:

When I was a kid, I think this card topped out in value at around $100,000. Now, don't misunderstand: Honus Wagner was a good player. A really good one. But that couldn't explain this card being priced at about ten times its next closest competitor of the T206 variety (which were printed between 1909-1911). What does explain it is supply and demand economics: there are only 57 known copies in circulation as of 2009.

Maybe a better example is this card of Billy Ripken (1988):

[Here's a link for closer inspection] If you look really closely, the nob on the bottom of Billy's baseball bat says "Fuck Face." Needless to say, Fleer stopped printing the card almost as soon as it left the presses. There are far more "clean" reprints than there are of the first printing. The clean version of the card is almost worthless. Last I checked, the "Fuck Face" version was going for about $35.00.

However, very interestingly, scarcity alone did not seem to determine value. For example, there were as many Norm Cash cards printed by Topps in 1968 as there were Nolan Ryan rookie cards printed by Topps in the same year. Nevertheless, the Nolan Ryan card is valued at more than $1000.00, whereas the Norm Cash card probably goes for under $10.00 in most card shops.

It's this last part that I didn't understand as a 6th grader. I still can't say I entirely understand it, though I suspect it has something to do with "sentimental" value. Understanding all of this as I do now, I wonder if there might've been a way to "beat the system" when baseball card trading was at its hottest in the early 1990s -- and I wonder why my dad (and I) couldn't figure it out and seize the opportunity. All it would take is finding a way to sucker old people into handing over their children's leftover baseball cards from the 1960s "by the pound." And I'm sure some traders did this, gambling (probably correctly) that the law of averages would create a situation where they got one or two Nolan Ryan rookie cards for every haphazardly packed-away bag of old cards in the attic.

My question is: is that kind of move unethical? I loved collecting cards because I loved the players and their statistics, I loved the game, I loved spending time with my dad. But I imagine there must've been traders in it for the dollars only, and I feel like I can see now that they were trading on my sentiment -- at least, indirectly.

Follow-up quandry: some day when my dad achieves enlightenment, I'll inherit all of the "even" years of cards (my brother gets the odd years). This means I stand to inherit a 1956 Topps Mickey Mantle, a 1968 Nolan Ryan, and about 200 other cards valued at more than a couple-hundred dollars. Like everything else but gold, these cards are turning to dust. How long should I keep them? I'd estimate their total value to be... well, more than you'd believe. But only if I sell them. Hmmm.


On Not Trusting the Visitors

Boy, was I ever right about ABC's new series, "V." It's a political allegory, and a steeply "conservative" one. In episode one we discovered the aliens are even talking about bringing universal healthcare to the planet!

Anybody watching?

Introduction to College Writing

An email arrived this morning from a student in my ENG 203 class:
hey dr pratt this is h------- and i was currently working on my project for the class discussion for next wed november 11th and was just kind of confused wat your are looking for. I noe i am pose to read the story and explain what the story is about but the rest im a bit confuse for example the 7 minutes of criticism and 7 min of close readings and discussion question. I appreciate your help becasue im not trying to do bad on this assignment thank u.
I replied,

For the criticism part of the assignment, you need to find three scholarly articles related to your author. To do that, start at the library homepage, click "Databases, Articles, Etc.," then click the third option after the link, "Academic Search Premier." Once you're on that page, look about halfway down and find the boxes that say "Full Text" and "Scholarly (Peer Reviewed) Journals." Click both of those boxes before you search for your author or story. Read the articles, and summarize them briefly during your presentation. That should take seven minutes of your presentation.

For the explication -- choose an excerpt (a paragraph from a story or a short poem or a section from a longer poem) by your author and write a close analysis (~250 words) of that text. Focus on the language choices and meaning of the section. If you read this aloud as part of your presentation, and take a couple of questions, that'll take up another 7 minutes.

Best of luck,

Dr. Pratt
I don't know why this exchange makes me laugh so much, but I've been laughing at it all day. The absurdity of it! I hope someone somewhere is keeping a record of it.

Other Ways

I love that mainstreamers are starting to maybe sort-of think of Asperger's and Autism not as "disorders" so much as "other ways." I'm hoping this will open the door to reconsider things like schizophrenia and mania too. Today's New York Times article is worth a glance. Here's how one autistic fella visualizes numbers:

If you're interested, make sure to watch this stunning video which offers (sort of) an inside view of autism.

The other day I asked my students what would happen if we relabeled A.D.H.D. "Surplus Energy/Hypostimulating-Environment Savantism" (SEHES). My students didn't laugh, but I'm sure my blog readers are laughing now... right?

Poll Question

What is the feeling of pity? Is it present in association with goodness and justice? Or is it present in relation to more questionable states? Does feeling pity for others change the way you feel about yourself? Do you feel virtuous when you feel pity?

HINT: Nietzsche's God died of his own pity.

Dear Diary...

A fine metaphor occurred to me last night. It concerns my prime spiritual/psychological weakness. Some of you may not be interested, but I've decided to jump the shark with this blog and just turn it into my 14-year-old-style-diary.

When I played basketball with my dad, who was good at basketball, I knew he was letting me shoot when he could've blocked my shot, letting me dribble when he could've stolen it, etc. But around age 16, this stopped being fun. I wanted to compete against my dad's best game. Somewhere between 16 and 18, I got into a verbal fight with my dad about this problem. I must've been winning, and I said, "Dad, you're not trying your hardest! You don't have to let me win anymore!" But he insisted he was trying his hardest. My paranoia was the result of his (earlier) "faking it."

To explain my spiritual/psychological hang-up, I can use a situation like this. I am like the person who begins to pretend, for the sake of social smoothness, that I am something I'm not. But unlike my dad, who always knew whether he was faking it or playing his hardest, I play my fake game for so long that I literally forget that I'm faking it. [Side-thought: I wonder if there are any women who have gotten so good at faking orgasms that they begin thinking that they're having orgasms, and would answer "yes" if asked by a lie-detector, "are you having orgasms?" -- but who really aren't having orgasms.]

And I suspect I'm not alone. Yesterday, I mentioned that I feel bad about the fact that I respond to people who have "power" over me by smiling and nodding and being agreeable. That's my fake game. But I also think maybe the "game" I play with (say) my wife, is a kind of faking it. It feels real, in contrast to how I behave with (say) my boss... but I wonder.

This is Buddhism. And maybe it's "the kingdom of heaven." It's who you would be if there was no one to please, or who you would be if everyone were pleased by what you were. And this is paradoxical, of course.

In my imagination, "enlightenment" and "salvation" happen as moments in this life -- and they repeat. I'm not sure I agree with the Calvinists about the doctrine of "Perseverance of the Saints." I'm not sure I believe that there's such a thing as "total" enlightenment. When this experience comes, it comes by way of letting go -- letting go of the games you're playing, of all of them, all at once. And the reason it's a "salvation" of a kind is that in that experience, you realize that other beings will always be having that experience, that experience of "dropping it." What's left, of course, is no-self. Is nothing. But there's a communion in the realization of that, I think.

Anyway, when you have that experience of no-self, time keeps ticking. Reality keeps happening. It can only last a few minutes, or at most, a few days. Then, somebody starts urging you to "act normal," and although you find that confusing at first, they give you clues. You start behaving the way they expect you to behave (which is very similar to the way you were behaving before the salvation/enlightenment experience). In other words, having dropped the games, you discover almost immediately that it's more fun to start playing the games again than it is to just stand there with your nothingness.

And it's this, being lured back into "Maya," that keeps you out of the asylum. And that illusion lasts again until you realize that the Self is a collective projection. There's no "Self," no "me," only what all of you expect of me, and a willingness to participate in and as that.

So if I have a spiritual/psychological hang-up, it's in forgetting that Maya is Maya. But if I realize that, if I really am aware that that's my "thing," then maybe it's not a problem at all. What would you like to see me be? Just more of this? Don't you get bored? Always getting what's expected?

The next time you see somebody completely dazed-looking who claims to be bewildered by the pronouns "You" and "I," think carefully about how you participate in reconstructing him or her. Especially if he looks like "me."

Praying like a Pagan

From an online essay about Kierkegaard by Myron Penner, of the Prairie Institute (?):
The contrast here is between two less than ideal examples, and Climacus is asking which one of the two makes the better of an imperfect situation. The contrast is between two different ways of approaching God: in his example, the pagan approaches God through subjectivity while the pseudo-Christian is content to contemplate the idea of God objectively, in a manner disassociated with the rest of his concrete existence. Climacus responds that it is the pagan, who realizes that he is lost but does not objectively know God and so desperately cries out to his false god to save him, who is closer to the total truth. Again, note that Climacus never says that the pagan prays in truth to the true God, but rather that the pagan is praying to his false god in the right way.
I like this contrast. I feel like the pagan, of course, which is maybe better than feeling like a pseudo-Christian, but which not very good, according to most theologians including Kierkegaard.


Trust Yourself, Man!

True to my word, I've been thinking about Self lately. I stumbled upon something interesting: a "modern-English" translation of Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay, "Self-Reliance."

I'm not particularly troubled by this (although, for the record, this isn't a great translation). In fact I think it's neat. I've been arguing for years that my teachers who tell me that Shakespeare wrote in "Modern English" are either crazy or lying. It's time somebody translates the complete works of Shakespeare into "Post-modern" English (or whatever).

"...a word I rarely use without thinkin'..."

I can't find any of the specific recent sources that are moving me to write this, but my vague impression is that too many academics are getting too comfortable with phrases like "social responsibility" and "collective notions." I'm particularly leery about those academics who work on Ethics uttering these kinds of phrases.

A friend recently posted a link on Facebook with this comment appended:
Alarming story over on /. today: not in the short term, but rather in the long term. Privacy continues to erode. Which is, perhaps, a good thing? Are we only ethical when someone is (potentially) watching? Panopticon?
One of his friends beat me to the reply button: "How is that a good thing?"

I remember having, a couple of years ago, a mind-blowing/eye-opening conversation with one of my most "progressive" friends about ethics. I kept trying to get him to review his own behavior, to evaluate his choices, etc. He kept trying to ask me "What about the poor?--what are you doing for the poor?" Then I asked him, "So, you think voting Democrat is an ethical act?" "Yes!," he finally proclaimed.

That completely stupefied me. His notion of ethical responsibility had become entirely impersonal (unless you count trudging to the voting booth as "personal"). Justice, for him, happened entirely at a collective/social level. Societies were just or unjust, but he wasn't interested in justice at a personal level.

I couldn't find any of the specific articles that I've encountered lately -- but trust me, they're out there -- articles that begin by saying things like, "Now that America has turned its focus from self-interest to collective responsibility...." I'm disturbed by this rhetorical trend. I'm not sure if it's occurring more or if I'm simply noticing it more; in either case, I don't like it. Inherent in that kind of syntax is a removal of ethical responsibilities from individuals and to abstractions like "government."

A different friend, a struggling wedding-photographer and part-time Buddhist who lives with his parents, posted this status update yesterday on Facebook: "[J- B-] opposes social control." I clicked the "like" button. As Scottish folk singer Donovan once sang (in one of the great songs of the 20th century), "Freedom is a word I rarely use without thinkin'." I'm thinking now. And I'm talking about Freedom. I feel like I live with a generation of scholars who has no emotional investment in that notion -- and the Devil always attacks where lukewarmism reigns. Now, go: write me a 250 word essay on what Freedom means to you.

No, wait. Here's a list of things I do wrong:
  • I smile and say "Yeah, ok," and then don't follow through.
  • With people who have power over me, I say what they want to hear; with people who don't have power of me, I speak too bluntly.
  • I don't do enough of my (pregnant) wife's errands.
  • I lie by omitting to mention my lustful thoughts.
  • I'm afraid of so much, so afraid.
  • I half-ass it most days.
  • I am not fulfilling my academic potential.
  • I eat much more than I need.
  • I have closed my mind to certain ways of living.
  • My e-passwords are relatively easy to guess.
  • I never send birthday cards, even to my mom.
  • I teach my students things they're not ready for yet.
  • I argue just to have something to do.
Although this is nowhere near a comprehensive list, it is representative of the kinds of list I wish more academics would start generating in response to the recent surge in "ethics-scholarship." I think it would make the world better than the kind of discourse that focuses on vague abstractions about "others" and "social responsibility" and "collective notions of--."

In other words: I believe that Ethics that has to do with reforming the Self could change the world; and that Ethics that has to do with "collective, social notions of responsibility" can change the world... but not the way you'd want to see it changed. The kingdom of G-d is not out there*, is not over here; it is inside, friends. Explore thyself, Soto! All of the wisdom of all ages points in that direction. All of the folly points outward.

N.B. -- I realize, of course, the dreadful irony at the center of this post: in asking other academics to look inward, I fail to set an example for them. Callooh! Callay!

*A reference to saying #3

The Difficulty of Following the Middle Way

Today Paul Krugman is suggesting that the stimulus package is working, but that it wasn't big enough.

Take Krugman as a typical (if "highly qualified") liberal economist and Anti-Krugman as a typical (and as highly qualified) conservative economist. What would each economist say if the stock market crashed and banks ran out of cash by the end of this week?

Krugman: See?--the stimulus wasn't big enough.
Anti-Krugman: See?--the stimulus was a waste of money and didn't stop collapse.

The problem here is that, because of our situation as a deeply-mixed economy, causes and consequences are fundamentally unclear. That is, any economic theory is necessarily based on some degree of faith. That is, the reason that there is no consensus on what caused the '08 collapse isn't just that "economics is so complicated." Rather, there's no consensus because nobody can agree which legislation is causing which problems, and which legislation is helping or not-impeding economic growth. Because it seems nobody knows!

So are economic cycles like sunspots? Entirely unpredictable? If so, then neither Krugman nor anti-Krugman should open their mouths any more. They're wasting everyone's time. If not, can we reach consensus about how legislation effects the economy? If we can, why haven't we?

(No answers today; only questions)



So I was trying to explain to some Christians the other day that they had it all wrong. Here's how it went:
I said, "I talk about what 'G-d' has shown me, but you do what your parents and tradition have told you to do."

They said, "We do what Jesus told us to do."

I said, "If you really followed Jesus, you would do the same things that he did. All I have ever done is to tell you the truth I heard straight from G-d, yet you are trying to crush my spirit. Jesus did nothing like this to anyone! You are doing what your parents and tradition have told you to do."

They said, "God [they used that word as his name] himself is the only one who tells us what to do, and we are his true followers."

I said, "If G-d really were your Father, you would love me, because I came from G-d and now I am here. I did not come on my own authority, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to listen to my message. You are the children of your parents, of lies, and you want to follow tradition. Those of you who know what G-d is will listen to the words I speak. You, however, are not from G-d, and that is why you will not listen."
Then everybody took a deep breath and a drink of Diet Cola and the conversation continued.
They asked me, "Were we wrong in saying that you are no prince or king, and that you are probably insane?"

I said, "I am not insane. I honor G-d, but you dishonor me. I am not seeking honor for me. But there is One who is seeking it and who judges in my favor. I am telling you the truth: whoever concurs with what I say and acts accordingly will never die."

They said, "WHAT!?! -- did you just say we'd never die!?! Now we know for sure you are insane. Moses and Abraham died, and only Jesus didn't die, yet you say that whoever obeys you will never die? Who do you think you are?"

I answered, "If I were to honor myself, that honor would be worth nothing. The One who honors me is my G-d -- the very One you say is your God. You have never known what you mean when you say 'God,' but I know the reality that is G-d. If I were to say that I do not know G-d, I would be lying like you. But I do know it, and I obey what it teaches me. Even Jesus rejoiced that he was to see the time of my coming; he saw it and was glad."

They said to me, "You were born in 1978; how could you know what Jesus saw?"

Then I decided, what the hell, and said, "I am telling you the truth. Before Jesus was born, 'I Am.' "
Then they went to get their pickup trucks and shotguns, but I ran away and left before they returned.

Of course, all of this is a parable. None of it ever happened. But if it did, it would be spectacular. Also, I plagiarized all of this straight out of the gospel of John. Check it out, verses 8:37-59. Also I sort of changed/updated the situation.

This is my next little blog-project. I want to find ways of eliciting reactions similar to those Jesus elicited. If a person taught the same things he taught, including saying things like, "Aw, hell with what's in the Bible," I wonder what would happen.

Illusion, Thou Shalt Dissipate

A friend emailed me and told me she was having terrors about death -- in particular the part about the cessation of (her) consciousness. I was so pleased she turned to me. So pleased that I turned prideful and wrote 8 paragraphs trying to explain Death away. Then later, I wrote a poem, probably to keep myself from dealing with the same reality.

What Maya Is

The lord Buddha continued: "If any person were to say that the Buddha, in his teachings, has constantly referred to himself, to other selves, to living beings, or to a universal self, what do you think, would that person have understood my meaning?"

The Bodhisattva chooses illusion for the sake of others.
Enlightenment is a value-neutral state.
The fear of death and the fear of life are one.
She who fears living refuses to choose to let go of Maya.
There is no choice until one chooses what she thinks is death.
There is no death.
Only Bodhisattvas may speak.
The only subject of discourse is Maya.
There is no Maya.

The body, standing at a shoreline,
ankles wet in surf, shoulders hot,
eyes tracing horizon—
that body is mind, and nothing else,
and nothing else is mind.

Death exists and nothing dies.
There is nothing that lives.
Nothing lives but Bodhisattvas.
There are no Bodhisattvas.
There is no death.

The Great Self awoke once
in an orange sleeping bag on a red carpet
in a slant of sunlight, roofers pounding above
in steady rhythm. For some minutes,
the Great Self only listened.
Mirror up to the ceiling textured paint,
sweaty brow, limbs, and something else familiar.
Knowing what would become,
for some minutes the Great Self only listened.

Death comes only to Bodhisattvas.
No Bodhisattvas fear Death.
The Bodhisattva chooses others for the sake of illusion.
There is only illusion.
There are no others.
There are no Bodhisattvas.
There is only Separation.

Long Spring and testament reading aside,
Difference serves only as comedy,
And pollutes what takes it seriously.
In three days understanding will rise to meet you—
Take time, then, to listen. Believe that faith
Can heal, and wonder what is meant by trust.

Death is only a figure of speech.
In Maya, only figures of speech are real.
There is no separation. There is no separation.
Death and Maya and Separation are One.
The Bodhisattva who forgets the One experiences Death.

But come back, return the ocean to itself;
The universe is larger than a grain.
Remember that clouds have no intention,
That what appears is not always what is,
What looks a crocodile is often cloud.
To wonder what is meant by trust can heal.
Go home—It willshall ever lead you there;
Forever take what is what isn’t fair.

Separation only is in Being.
All Beings fear Death.
All Beings die.
Being is illusion.
Maya is not. Maya is not.


Prayer for Peace

Dear Universe,

Ong namo guru dev namo. Please forgive me for my rants and manifestos. I have chosen stubbornness and association where only uncertainty and contentment were offered. In remaking me, please protect me from re-entering the dungeon of political discourse. And help me not to judge those who do enter there, O Unnameable One; that dungeon may be a paradise for others, though it be a madhouse for me. I see clearly today, and regret that I have been so blind in recent days. But not my will, but thy will be done.

Amen. Om. Shantih Shantih Shantih.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Challah Bread.
Let it rain.


Your Very Self



"Nutrition is not a simple physiological operation; it renews a communion." --Mircea Eliade, Cosmos and History


Murray Rothbard on Money and the Federal Reserve

Ever wonder why your great-grandpa and his wife were able to raise 8 children on one middle-class income? I just discovered the Mises Institute's channel on YouTube. Give it a listen if you've got a spare half an hour. Watch at least the first ten minutes:

I know that academics tend to think of Libertarians as wackos, but this video hardly features candidates for the asylum. Anyway, I find all of this very convincing.

Anyway, I'm not gonna argue this Austrian-Economics video. Just thought I'd share.

Image and Idea

When I started loving literature, I was drawn to transcendental abstractions and (embarrassingly) axiomatic wisdom. Trite little Nietzschean or Emersonian truths: "Wisdom sets bounds to even knowledge" or "Beauty is the mark God sets upon virtue." I think I liked them because they seemed to answer questions that I hadn't asked yet--maybe I thought I was saving myself time by preemptively learning by rote what can only, really, be learned by experience.

But for the past five years or so, I've been much more attracted to imagistic thought. My favorite line in Whitman's "Song of Myself" is not anything like "Out of the dimness opposite equals advance," but this perfectly "concrete" description: "The prostitute draggles her shawl, her bonnet bobs on her tipsy and pimpled neck."

Think about writing that line. About what you would have had to observe to write that line. Whitman can write that because he has seen it, he has noticed precisely that prostitute, that draggling shawl, that bonnet & that pimpled neck. Think about what it implies about how we ought to look -- about how Whitman's vision contradicts my own father's, who would've told me "it's impolite to stare" at such a draggling shawl, at such a pimply neck. More than any abstraction of philosophy, Whitman's list moves me to widen the circumference of my responsibility.

And it's this, I've finally realized, that keeps me from forgetting about Jesus altogether. Jesus helps me to answer the question of what G-d is. Ecce Homo. Behold even this man. Of course, even more important than noticing dead-Jesus is noticing his contemporary parallels, those who, like him, have been beaten and dragged by civilization. In this view, to refuse to behold Jesus is to refuse to behold G-d. It is no more or less unethical than turning your back on Whitman's prostitute. G-d as I understand it is just those things: Jesus and the prostitute, and more especially their living parallels.

I was listening to a podcast this morning devoted to a Gnostic text called The Thunder, The Perfect Mind. Like Whitman's Leaves, this text steers awareness with images, not with abstraction:
And do not banish me from your sight.
And do not make your voice hate me, nor your hearing.
Do not be ignorant of me anywhere or any time. Be on your guard!
Do not be ignorant of me.
For I am the first and the last.
I am the honored one and the scorned one.
I am the whore and the holy one.
I am the wife and the virgin.
I am and the daughter.
I am the members of my mother.
I am the barren one
and many are her sons.
I am she whose wedding is great,
and I have not taken a husband.
I am the midwife and she who does not bear.
I am the solace of my labor pains.
I am the bride and the bridegroom,
and it is my husband who begot me.
I am the mother of my father
and the sister of my husband
and he is my offspring.
I am the slave of him who prepared me.
It's worth noting that Thunder wasn't discovered until 1940-something... Whitman couldn't have been plagiarizing. But this strategy: notice me, and me, notice both -- is central in both texts. I find it decidedly more effective than a text that might read something like this: "When considering an argument, always be sure to research contrary views."

If you're going to notice only one among pairs, I suppose it seems more noble to notice the whore (not the holy one) and the scorned one (not the honored one)... but these texts demand that our attention be there too. These texts obliterate distinctions. And it's also noteworthy that neither of the texts pushes us to do anything about what we see.

I have wondered before whether Ethics, at a deep level, may only consist of seeing right, or correctly -- no, just seeing. In my view, philosophy (and "theory") generally fail in encouraging this foundation by their refusal to show particulars. What poetry and fiction do right is offer us image where idea is insufficient.