Thursday, August 23, 2007

still worth believing

For there’s a mighty judgment coming –

But I may be wrong

Leonard Cohen

Considering some of my reading matter of late – Boyer’s Religion Explained and Dennett’s Breaking the Spell [still unfinished], I found last night’s SBS Hot Doc, ‘Jonestown – The Life and Death of People’s Temple’, something of a godsend, so to speak.

The doco featured interviews with former Temple members who somehow escaped the carnage. One of them said ‘I’ve never in my life believed in heaven, but there was a time, in the Temple, when it seemed that we’d created a heaven on earth. Now,’ she said tearfully, ‘the idea of a heaven on earth has been destroyed too.’

I doubt that even the most confirmed atheist, after watching this program, would feel cynically disposed re this woman’s remarks, for the achievements of the People’s Temple were indeed spectacular, and would greatly repay analysis from anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists.

You might describe Jim Jones as a latter-day shaman. His movement obviously borrowed heavily from Christianity, especially some of the proto-socialist pronouncements of Jesus, but it was closer to what might be called negro spiritualism, straddling the boundary between folk religion and organized religion. It’s worth dwelling on the areas in which he was successful, and reflecting on the reasons for that success.

The key word here is community, especially as opposed to individualism. Jones started out with a tithe system, asking new members for some twenty percent of their earning or their savings, in exchange for substantial community support. Later, members were asked to give up everything.

The community support was real though. No razzle-dazzle glass cathedrals here, but community gardens, day-care centres, supported accommodation for the elderly, and a sense of family for the dispossessed and alienated. Jones himself was a neglected child, and clearly identified with black Americans, with whom he mixed from an early age.

Modern Western individualism has its winners and losers. Those who see themselves as losers – suffering under dysfunctional families, lack of skills, racial or cultural discrimination – might well prefer to give up this individualist struggle for the sake of a more secure, supportive, communal existence, in which the quid pro quos – a shitload of work and a shitload of loyalty to the group in exchange for a full belly, a safe haven and people who look out for you – are clearly spelt out. Add a touch of charismatic hocus-pocus to make you feel that you’re part of something that’s more than just the sum of its parts, and you might start to feel that you’ve found not only a home but a heaven.

It’s important to note, too, that modern individualism is a very recent phenomenon, and the People’s Temple, probably especially before the last year or so of Jones’s descent into drug-drenched paranoia, offered a community much more like the tribalism which humans have practiced throughout most of their history. This tribalism, in which the group mattered far more than its component individuals, was spectacularly successful from an evolutionary perspective, providing an organizational structure that has helped us colonise the entire planet, successfully out-competing all other species.

It seems to me that modern Christian churches play on this notion of tribalism (they would of course call it something else – like fostering close-knit communities) in their recruitment drives. It’s undoubtedly the best card they have to play, and they’re surely right to make the connection between declining church attendance in the non-American west, and what they might call rampant individualism. They tend also to associate individualism with spiritual malaise – a churchy buzz term.

No doubt spiritual malaise can cover many sins, but from the viewpoint of the Christian churches, the most disturbing one is the lack of belief in the same thing.

The members of the People’s Temple all seem to have believed in the same thing, that being the wisdom and power of their shaman-ruler. This belief was a binding force that gave the community incredible strength, unity and energy. Imagine such a community springing up a few thousand years ago, with no sophisticated outside society with its comforts and possibilities such as TV, radio, the national lottery, Hollywood and the stock exchange to entice people away, and no wider State with its laws and police to worry about. The only real threat to such a community’s survival and thriving might be another community in the vicinity with even stronger binding forces, an even more charismatic shaman-ruler (real or mythical) which might either poach people from the first community, or strengthen its own sense of community by attacking this other community with its false shaman-god. Such threats would make it seem imperative to the first community (though probably not consciously) that it needed a stronger binding, a stronger connection with its shaman, more religion.

It seems to be an unspoken article of faith with the religious that the more fervently you believe, the safer you’ll be. The more powerful you’ll be too. Faith moves mountains. And this also needs to be understood in social terms. Faith in numbers seems to increase the security and power exponentially. In such a scenario too much individuality is a danger. Difference is like a chink in the community armour.

Jones extolled the value of work constantly in the People’s Temple. Arbeit Macht Frei. When they weren’t working they were celebrating their community, listening rapt to their shaman. Those interviewed said that they slept little, especially in the early years, sometimes staying awake for days on end. They competed with each other in sleeplessness. A battle for virtue.

Talking was discouraged. I’m not sure how this was done. The voluble Jones could certainly speak enough for dozens, but surely not for nine hundred. Perhaps they were too exhausted, from watching and listening to him, to want to speak. By the end, he had loudspeakers set up everywhere; you could never escape his voice, his increasingly unhinged harangues and warnings and exhortations. Like the paranoid-schizo artist who must fill up every millimetre of space with his own visions, he could only feel safe when all other voices were silenced.

It seems easy enough for an outsider to see him as demented, even pathetic, but the power he had over his people, even at the end, was almost complete. It’s worth noting that the handful of people interviewed in the doco were the dissenters, those who left before the mass suicide/murder, or who refused to drink the cyanide-laced Flavor Aid. In incredible 909 people, including 276 kids, took the poison that day. That certainly represents power, of a kind. To know what was in each and every one of their minds, the extent of their qualms, if any, that would be something.

The implosion of the Jonestown vision was swift and sudden, and by no means inevitable. Intentional communities, as they’re called, are found throughout the USA and elsewhere, and many of them are successful within their own terms. Some have begun with the vision of some guru-shaman, but have outlived that person, who has been mythologized but also reinterpreted, like the Bible, to meet changing needs. The people of Jonestown created something to meet their needs almost in spite of their failing shaman. Those interviewed said that Jonestown was always a sunnier, happier place when Jones himself was absent. He was on the way to becoming superfluous if not detrimental to requirements. Better for him, and especially for them, if he’d died quietly and become a god.

Also, Jones, in bringing out the Flavor Aid, was responding to external pressure. Wider, stronger forces were closing in. His general decline, too, could be largely attributed to those forces. The competition was too great. As I’ve suggested, within a different, less modern context, the community would probably have survived. Perhaps it would have come to an internal power struggle, a palace revolt, and the community might have dwindled gradually or found new impetus under new management. Clearly, though, after all it had achieved, and the collective memory of its bonded community, it had plenty to live for.

Tribalism will probably never die. It offers a great deal, and we all partake of its offerings to some degree. But there are also many things that it can’t deliver. The major difficulty with all religious communities is that their ultimate ideal is essentially one of stasis. Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens. Nobody seems willing to think through the horror of achieved community harmony, righteousness and so forth. The religious like to say that without God, life is without meaning, but it seems to me that it is precisely belief in gods that drains life of meaning, with the god or the sacred text proclaiming the good life which, once attained, must be continued or endlessly repeated, generation after generation to the end of days. Heaven on earth or the dictatorship of the proletariat, these are scenarios that can’t withstand too much contemplation.

The West has changed very dramatically in the past four hundred years. Modern science, democracy, education for all. Stasis, it seems, is no longer the ideal. Progress, whether illusory or not, has grabbed the public and above all the intellectual imagination. The heroes of progress, whether inadvertent or not, are the likes of Galileo, Newton, Darwin and Einstein. More or less idiosyncratic individualists, bucking the status quo, but forging new ideas and understandings with exemplary self-discipline, opening up the possibilities of human activity and achievement, redefining the universe and our place in it, wiping out old certainties, leaving us giddy with excitement and fear.

Such heroics can leave us torn. Many of us, after all, have simple desires. We just want to be happy. We want to belong. We want to feel safe, and loved. What matter the size and behaviour of the universe, the descent of our ancestors, the connection of time and space?

It’s all about survival and thriving. To love a child and be loved by a girlfriend gives us a strength to carry on that generally can’t be gotten through abstract speculation about universal forces – though such speculations have radically changed our world. And God is love, ultimately. It’s a very complicated illusion, but the most powerful one we have. People won’t give it up easily. We’re far more needy than we like to admit.

Monday, August 20, 2007

waziristan watch

I’m supposed to start every piece with a quote – what I promised ages ago. Today I want to commemorate David McComb and Born Sandy Devotional. The whole shebang really, but particularly the coda, Tender Is The Night – lyrics here under T , but it really needs to be heard, and then heard within the whole context…

Even depressed and immovable I can switch on the remote, and recently enjoyed, if that’s the word, the 60th anniversary presentation of a political history of beleaguered Pakistan on SBS. Very lengthy, wrapped around the 9.30 news.

A couple of years back in my dilettantish fashion I considered reading histories of every nation or people, never being able to get enough of complexity, duplicity and tragedy apparently, and I did read histories of Iran, Afghanistan, the Serbs and Israel, having presumably a taste for troubled parts.

Pakistan might now be added to the list. Like so many Moslem nations, it seems to find democracy elusive, and with so many Arabian wahhabists brought in to fight the mujahideen fight over the border in Afghanistan, the prospects for democracy there are looking more precarious than ever. I’ve heard that the USA is pressuring Musharraf to make common cause with Benazir Bhutto, presumably to head off any possibility of a takeover of the country by the mullahs, but it seems that Musharraf is still trying to go it alone. This piece in Pakistan’s Daily Times suggests that he has at least this newspaper well and truly in his pocket.

My great fear of and overwhelming contempt for theocratic power gives my interest in Pakistan’s future something of an edge. Of course the Americans are, or claim to be, overwhelmingly concerned that nuclear weapons might fall into the hands of Islamists. I’m more concerned about the plight of the people themselves under Islamism, whether they want it or not.

Apparently Al Qaeda is very much resurgent in Pakistan, and presumably Afghanistan – another massive failure of the Bush administration’s ‘strategy’, if you can call it that. According to this Newsweek piece, Osama’s main man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is behind a series of recent attacks and suicide bombings in Pakistan. Al-Zawahiri has also been cropping up on videos taunting and condemning the Musharraf regime. Some are even saying that his obsession with toppling Musharraf is having detrimental effects on the wider Al Qaeda organization.

The area to watch in Pakistan is the so-called ‘tribal region’ of Waziristan, suspected by many to be Osama’s hiding place – assuming he’s still alive. This area is wedged between Afghanistan and the Punjab. It’s very mountainous, and it has been much radicalized in recent years. Clearly, Musharraf has little control, and the Americans are loath to venture there from Afghanistan for fear of infringing Musharraf’s sovereignty.

Though the north has been radicalized, it seems that Islamism is still a long way from sweeping the nation. The Islamists could well assassinate Musharraf, but they wouldn’t be able to take over the country without a massive struggle, and they must know that the US would never allow Pakistan to fall into Islamist hands. The future looks grimly intriguing for that part of the world.


Friday, August 17, 2007

summa [see also winta] pathologica

Experts say - or one said on the radio the other day - that many people don't recognise or acknowledge their own symptoms re depression. they hear all the talk and they listen as to a TV medical drama. Interesting, even sometimes gripping, but a bit melodramatic.

A suspicious or sceptical person might think too that medical experts would talk up depression, medicalising a state that once was well within the ever-shifting introvert-extrovert spectrum of human responses defined as normal. Try to calculate how many millions of dollars drug companies have made out of this middle-class malady.

Child abuse and paedophilia too were not on the radar in earlier times. Not that they were treated as normal, rather they weren't conceptualised. Children just weren't the centre of attention, on a societal level, for good or ill.

Take my own case as I listened to the expert saying Do you avoid your friends, do you generally isolate yourself, are you often listless, do you feel overwhelmed, do you find making decisions an intolerable burden? Then it's likely you're suffering from clinical depression. This description, I thought, fitted me to a T [strange expression]. Then swift came the qualifications. I don't always avoid people, I'm sometimes quite decisive, energetic, even chatty. Do I weave in and out of depression? Doesn't this depression description fit all of the people some of the time? Like astrology? It wouldn't be too surprising if, when told that his true horoscopological nature was that of a sentimental homebody, a professor of mathematical logic, who's spent the last thirty years lecturing around the globe, responded with ''oh yes, that description fits me to a T".

There's also the question of how depressive states fit with our more permanent nature or temperament. If depression is a pathological state, is there such a thing as a pathological temperament? Doubtless yes, certainly from an evolutionary perspective. Such a temperament would significantly disable its owner in the mating and seed-spreading-and-nurturing games, almost as surely as a lifetime's imprisonment.

The temperament, though, is ineluctably recalcitrant, the selves are many. Some thrive over a lifetime, some flash up and die in an instant. This unfathomable unpredictability is our foremost hope. Our passions surprise us, as does our tediousness. We never know, so we keep going, to try to find out what we don't know next, maybe out of a futile quest for certainty, or out of curious habit.

Company, of course, is another thing. Are we seeking to escape or extend ourselves? Both, doubtless. In any case other people are marvelous, when seen from the proper distance.

There are many problems here, and perhaps even more solutions. A brisk suburban walk, an evening's intoxication, regularly repeated, a good book, a course in Indian cuisine, the pursuit of One Thing, a lobotomy, a love affair, suicide, a win in some lottery or other. And you just never know.

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Saturday, August 11, 2007

on hares and tortoises and globalisation

The term globalization has so many different resonances for different people, conjuring fear, excitement, anger, even a sense of comfort and well-being. For some, it means connecting with others on the other side of the globe via a computer keyboard and screen. For some it means learning of – and not just learning of but being taken face to face with, being imbued with the adventure of - a cure being developed for cancer in Australia, elections in Sierra Leone, child soldiering in another part of Africa, some strange evangelical display in the US, all in the space of half an hour, all with incalculable, if apparently minuscule, psychological impact. For others, it means nothing.

One hundred years ago, Australia was very much in the grip of the White Australia Policy [an over-arching title referring to a series of Acts and policies designed to maintain our country as a white European, and predominantly British, outpost to the south of Asia]. It was a policy that began to creak and crack at the seams after the second world war – which saw Australia shift in its foreign policy from its traditional ties with Britain to reliance on that Mecca of opportunity-seeking immigrants, the USA.

The Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 rendered it illegal to select migrants on the basis of race or culture, but the White Australia policy was dead well before this. Interestingly, it officially began with the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, the year of federation. They must have considered it a high priority. A few decades before, during the Gold Rush, an influx of Chinese miners had led to riots and to widespread fears of the yellow peril. Australia’s first PM, Edmund Barton, supported the Bill in a speech, saying ‘The doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman.’ The fact that we can shake our heads sagely at such statements is I hope an indication of human progress, and an indication that human progress can occur quickly – one hundred years being a mere blink in evolutionary time. In fact, really, the turnaround was completed within a couple of generations in the middle of this century.

What was it that brought this turnaround, in Australia and other Western counties, paving the way for a more global perspective, particularly among the educated elites?

It’s quite likely that the second world war itself imparted plenty of lessons. Centuries of insularity led the Japanese, it seems, to over-estimate its abilities and to under-estimate and dehumanize its opponents. Ironically, the Japanese had vigorously supported a racial equality clause in the League of Nations charter, which was discussed at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, after the first world war. They were fuelled by resentment over the restrictions against Japanese immigration in the USA and elsewhere. The proposal was vehemently opposed by Australia’s representative at the conference, Billy Hughes, an indefatigable supporter of the White Australia Policy. The eugenicist policies and race hatred of the Nazis, and the inferno they created in Europe, brought about an inevitable reaction. Sympathy for the oppressed from that war, and a realization that a more productive way forward had to be found, led to a desire and a need to rebuild bridges and develop a more co-operative approach.

Liberal education, improved travel opportunities, trade and new forms of communication have facilitated greater understanding and alleviated suspicions among the open-minded and open-hearted.

But for some, as I’ve said, globalization means nothing. We need to remember them. For one thing, we ignore them at our peril, but more importantly, we need to remember that they have all the capabilities we have, and that they should be nurtured and encouraged in their best endeavours as part of the human family.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

bloody oil

Politics has engaged or distracted me since childhood. The good guys, from the start, were all for helping the poor, easing the burden of work, accommodation, diversity, peaceful resolution, progress, the power of education. The bad guys were always on about frugality, tightening, balancing books, productivity, money, and issues of national security and strategic interest. Things are perhaps more nuanced or muddled now, but the opposing forces are still discernible.

In his book Blood and Oil, Michael Klare argues convincingly that, especially since the second world war, oil has become one of the most vital and therefore most contested resources on our planet. Since that time, the USA has come to rely ever more heavily on imported oil. The biggest oil producer in 1945, it's now down to third behind Saudi Arabia and Russia. The big change of course is on the consumption side. The USA currently consumes well over twice as much as the second biggest consuming nation, and is by far the biggest importer of oil in the world.

Throughout history, powerful nations have sought to expand, in search of resources which would enhance and maintain their power. They've also hoped that by encroaching on rich foreign territory they might render it less hostile and more like themselves. More democratic, more Christian, more white, more reasonable, more fun. Such hopes have even followed in the wake of military onslaughts.

The current US administration is the oiliest in that country's history. Its National Energy Policy, produced in 2001, before the September 11 attacks, is all about securing oil wherever and however it can. For this administration, tied as it has been to a feudal Saudi state whose leadership could totter at any time, Iraq with its under-exploited oil-fields and its detested dictator was an obvious target. They must have been more than a little disappointed at the outcome, in spite of the bonanza for American oil companies.

The difficulty with the 2001 National Energy Policy is its cavalier optimism in regard to its diversification strategy. It simply refuses to face the difficulties involved in seeking to exploit relatively paltry oil reserves in West Africa, South America, the Caspian Sea and of course the Persian Gulf, in some of the most hostile and strife-torn territories on the globe.

America's obsession with securing foreign oil for itself is surely its Achilles heel. Things might get more desperate in the future. Michael Klare spells out the consequences of the dependency dilemma:
the reality that we need more and more imported petroleum every day to sustain a way of life that was born and established when the United States was largely self-sufficient in energy. Because most of our overseas sources of petroleum are unstable or unfriendly or both, we will continue to have to fight - literally - to ensure our access to oil. And unlike earlier wars, in which we could withdraw our forces once the hostilities had come to an end, these encounters will require the permanent presence of American soldiers - for as long, that is, as we remain dependent on these sources for a significant share of our energy.

Even without as much as a peek at the vexed question of peak oil, or the growing consumption, and increasingly aggressive hunger, of China, India and other emerging powerhouses, oil will be a commodity to keep a weather eye on for the foreseeable.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

play on

Four-year-olds often make for the best company, in spite of some obvious drawbacks. Nothing can really compare to the tightening hug of a four-year-old friend, after a period of absence. Pets too can offer something unconditional and nonjudgmental, and more reliably even than children, though we might hesitate to call it love, and in any case it isn't human love. We do have a hankering for our own species, in spite of everything.

We're the most social species on the planet, experts say. Yet some of us are awkward in company, bored with our friends, disappointed with new contacts. We end up talking to ourselves, which eventually palls, but not so quickly as talking to others.

Often the problem with company isn't that we find others disappointing but that we find ourselves so. We're not a patch on the scintillating conversationalist of the hours leading up to our public engagement. Naturally we can't wait to get away again and recover that charm, that erudition, that intense concentration on our own rich view of the world.

I write about myself always, but I prefer, perhaps for that very reason, to employ the plural.

The greatest pleasure I've known, I'm sure, has been in contemplation of the human female form. There have been other pleasures too of course - a woman's kiss, her breath on my cheek, the warmth of her excitement, her moisture - and the bustle of a city of strangers, a star-spangled desert sky, the waves, a tree.

Of course some men are more attractive as sexual or romantic partners than others, and physical appearance plays its by no means always decisive part. Arguably the years between twenty-nine and thirty-eight will be the best, those of most heightened sexual allure, even for the unalluring. As it happened, those were the years I spent as a late-blooming, well-buttoned student on a university campus flecked, as campuses will be, with dazzling, hungry, diffident young women.

The city bars were much frequented too in those days. I rarely go to them now. Omnia vanitas est, I don't like to look sad and foolish. Then, I would visit those bars, sometimes alone, sometimes accompanied, and contemplate the best woman or two there. In my humble opinion and according to a taste I hoped was original but also definitive. Often my choice fell upon the same woman or women each time. Sometimes they worked in the bar, or in cafes where I took my studies, zoo animals, perpetual prey to my gaze. Minor obsessions, ironically treated.

Marcel Proust apparently altered a maxim of La Bruyere to suit himself.
Men often want to be loved and yet do not know how to be, they seek defeat and so are forced to remain free.

One of the great curses of the human intelligence is its need to struggle with the need to love and be loved. It makes for the grandest spectacle. It almost defines art. Of course, there's so much that almost defines art.

Music of any genre can provide pleasure so long as it contains a certain lugubrious weight.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Steiner: the good, the bad and the silly

don't cross it

Steiner or Waldorf schools and the Steiner method have been receiving some publicity lately. Radio National's The Religion Report has produced two programs devoted to the creeping inclusion of Steiner methodology in state secular schools in recent years. Rudolf Steiner, something of a guru to odradek intellectuals of the early twentieth century, was the founder of a 'spiritual system' called anthroposophy, which teaches how to develop the power of the soul, how to get in touch with the spiritual world and so forth. Reincarnation was central to his 'thinking'.
Interestingly enough, Steiner wrote books on Goethe, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche before his anthroposophical enlightenment, and he was certainly one of the most educated and cultivated of spiritualists. He was interested in renovating or modernising religion [essentially Christianity], and he sought to apply his holistic spiritual approach to farming, medicine and the arts. He wrote soulful plays and developed a spiritual dance technique called eurythmy, and he was also a noted architect, designing 17 buildings in all, some of them quite significant. He wanted to put spiritualism on a scientific footing, but obviously didn't get too far in that direction. In any case, the man was no slouch.
Clearly, though, for all Steiner's scientific yearnings, his assumptions about the relationship of colour to spiritual growth, never mind his assumptions about the soul and the afterlife, were never backed up by evidence. However, he seems to have been a genuinely humane type, in spite of dabbling with the eugenic ideas of his time. His influence upon certain strands within the education system mirrors, in a minuscule way, the influence of a much more formidable polymath, Aristotle, on medieval scholarship in toto. Both were indefatigable contributors to a range of theoretical and applied knowledge fields, but something in their approach seems to have led their epigones to congeal their explorations into a quasi-religious dogma. Which isn't to say that eurythmy and drawing aren't great stuff for kids.
The problem is that Steiner-based education has at its centre a belief in supernatural entities, and so has no place in the state secular curriculum, even as an optional extra. We shouldn't be funding this stuff with our tax dollars. Having said that, a lot of government money is going to other, non-state schools, where all sorts of religious effluvia is exuded, much of it far more toxic than Steinerism. I can't see the rot being stopped in the near future.

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pavlov's cat