Tuesday, April 30, 2013
An Interview with Sadiq Jalal Al-Azm: The Syrian Revolution and the Role of the Intellectual
Over at The Republic:
As opposed to many leftists and Marxists in Syria today and in the world, Sadiq Jalal al-Azm’s position is clear and unequivocal in its support for the Syrian revolution. What are the roots of this leftist ambiguity towards the revolution? And what consequence will this have for the future of the left in Syria?
Due to the nature of this question, I will begin briefly with an introduction about myself. Many ask me if the popular Intifada in Syria against the tyrannical regime, its corrupt government, surprised me or not. My answer is yes and no at the same time. Yes, I was surprised by the timing of the outbreak of the Intifada, with a lot of apprehensiveness at the beginning due to the possibility of quick repression, which I knew was a possibility due to the institutionalized rigidity of the security apparatus in Syria, as well as its repressive ferocity, penetration of the pores of the Syrian body, and its continuous control of nearly all its movements. This reality constituted a type of inferiority complex (in me and in others) due to my impotence in the face of this military regime’s overall power, as well as due to the impossibility of pronouncing a possible “no” against it (individually or collectively). I dealt with this inferiority complex by adapting slowly to this stressful tyrannical reality, and through the careful introspection of the rules and principles of interacting with it, with all that’s required of hypocrisy and pretending to believe and accept, secrecy, word manipulation and circumvention of the regime’s brute force. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to either continue with my normal life and do my routine work and daily errands, or preserve my mental and physical health.
So, why would I not align with this overwhelming popular revolution against this form of tyranny and oppression, regardless of the nature of the convictions that I hold whether they be leftist, Marxist, moderate, or even right-wing?
Bangladesh Needs Strong Unions, Not Outside Pressure
In the wake of the building collapse in Bangladesh, Fazle Hasan Abed in the NYT [h/t: Meghant Sudan]:
I appreciate the unease a Westerner might feel knowing that the clothes on his or her back were stitched together by people working long hours in dangerous conditions. It is natural that people in richer countries are now asking how they can put pressure on Bangladesh and its manufacturers to improve the country’s dismal safety record.
But ceasing the purchase of Bangladeshi-manufactured goods, as some have suggested, would not be the compassionate course of action. Economic opportunities from the garment industry have played an important role in making social change possible in my country, with about three million women now working in the garment sector. I have dedicated my life to alleviating entrenched poverty, and I know that boycotting brands that do business in Bangladesh might only further impoverish those who most need to put food on their tables, since the foreign brands would simply take their manufacturing contracts to other countries.
The rise of manufacturing here has had good effects. In the past, for example, a poor family’s vision for a newborn daughter’s future was often to marry her off as young as possible, since the dowry paid to a husband’s family grows as a daughter gets older. Even after the dowry was outlawed in 1980, the practice continued. A girl would often be married off as young as 13, and would never leave her village, never know a brighter future for herself or her children.
Partly because many women and their daughters now take garment industry jobs — even in factories where workers’ rights are virtually nonexistent — families living in poverty have changed their vision of the future.
Daniel Dennett's new book: "Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking"
Jennifer Schuessler in the New York Times:
The new book, largely adapted from previous writings, is also a lively primer on the radical answers Mr. Dennett has elaborated to the big questions in his nearly five decades in philosophy, delivered to a popular audience in books like “Consciousness Explained”(1991), “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” (1995) and “Freedom Evolves.”
The mind? A collection of computerlike information processes, which happen to take place in carbon-based rather than silicon-based hardware.
The self? Simply a “center of narrative gravity,” a convenient fiction that allows us to integrate various neuronal data streams.
The elusive subjective conscious experience — the redness of red, the painfulness of pain — that philosophers call qualia? Sheer illusion.
Human beings, Mr. Dennett said, quoting a favorite pop philosopher, Dilbert, are “moist robots.”
“I’m a robot, and you’re a robot, but that doesn’t make us any less dignified or wonderful or lovable or responsible for our actions,” he said. “Why does our dignity depend on our being scientifically inexplicable?”
The Terror of Capitalism
Vijay Prashad in CounterPunch:
On Wednesday, April 24, a day after Bangladeshi authorities asked the owners to evacuate their garment factory that employed almost three thousand workers, the building collapsed. The building, Rana Plaza, located in the Dhaka suburb of Savar, produced garments for the commodity chain that stretches from the cotton fields of South Asia through Bangladesh’s machines and workers to the retail houses in the Atlantic world. Famous name brands were stitched here, as are clothes that hang on the satanic shelves of Wal-Mart. Rescue workers were able to save two thousand people as of this writing, with confirmation that over three hundred are dead. The numbers for the latter are fated to rise. It is well worth mentioning that the death toll in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City of 1911 was one hundred and forty six. The death toll here is already twice that. This “accident” comes five months (November 24, 2012) after the Tazreen garment factory fire that killed at least one hundred and twelve workers.
The list of “accidents” is long and painful. In April 2005, a garment factory in Savar collapsed, killing seventy-five workers. In February 2006, another factory collapsed in Dhaka, killing eighteen. In June 2010, a building collapsed in Dhaka, killing twenty-five. These are the “factories” of twenty-first century globalization – poorly built shelters for a production process geared toward long working days, third rate machines, and workers whose own lives are submitted to the imperatives of just-in-time production.
Vonnegut Volunteers for the JFK Campaign, 1960
Why All This Maternal Sympathy for Dzhokhar?
Hanna Rosin in Slate:
In the past week and a half I have not been to a school pickup, birthday, book party, or dinner where one of my mom friends has not said some version of “I feel sorry for that poor kid.” This group includes mothers of infants and grandmothers and generally pretty reasonable intelligent types, including one who is an expert on Middle Eastern extremist groups.
Many of them mention that ubiquitous photo of Dzhokhar with his hair tousled and too few hairs on his chin to shave. Some bring up the prom photo with the red carnation or the goofy video of him wrestling with his friends.* Some mention the “I love you, bro” tweets from his many friends. Some just seem anguished by the vision of that “poor kid” alone in the boat by himself, bleeding for all those hours. All of this sympathy stems of course from the storyline that coalesced early: a hapless genial pothead being coerced into killing by his sadistic older brother. As with such storylines, all evidence to the contrary gets suppressed.
Probably the correct moral response to this misplaced maternal sympathy is the one mySlate colleague had, which is to say: "People, please. Cut that shit out. He's an adult and a mass-murderer." There is evidence that he was not just a pot smoker but a dealer, and also like his brother, he was a fan of jihad. Also the photos of him at the actual bombing site are not so heartwarming, as they show him surveying the crowd he is about to blow up.
Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss discussing 'The Unbelievers'
Eat, drink, write
Suman Bolar in Himal Southasian:
When I tell people that I write about food, I unfailingly receive one of three responses (and sometimes, all three): a) “Oh! You’re a food critic”; b) “You’re so lucky!”; and c) “You’re a foodie! So am I!”
Wrong on all three counts.
First, I am a food writer, not a food critic. Food is meant to nourish and enrich our lives; it exists for our sustenance and pleasure. Food is perfect in and of itself and does not need to be criticised. Cooks, chefs, and restaurants – now those are a different matter entirely. So restaurant critic, yes; food critic, no. Second, I am not 'lucky'. Like any other professional, I have worked hard and spent big to be able to do what I do – I have travelled the world and sampled various cuisines on my own dime, spent time and money tracking down interesting foodstuffs and experiences, attended writing and food-related classes and workshops, and often gone out on a limb with an unpopular opinion and paid the price for my candour. And last, you may be a 'foodie', but I am not. In fact, I don’t even know what that means. Does it mean you’re addicted to food, like a druggie is addicted to drugs? Or does it mean you are a trained cook, in the same way that a techie is trained to work with technology? Or wait! Could it mean that you eat a lot of food? In which case, 'glutton' would probably be a better word to use. If, however, you enjoy trying different kinds of food and learning as much as you can about every aspect of whatever you are eating – if you are, shall we say, hungry to develop an intimate knowledge of everything you consume – then you, like me, are an epicure. Call yourself one.
And now that I have that off my chest: Yes, I love what I do.
Variations on a Gene, and Tools to Find Them
From The New York Times:
CANCERS were once named strictly for the tissue where they originated in the breast, prostate or other part of the body. Now, in the age of genetically informed medicine, cancers may also come with a more specific lexicon: the names of mutated genes deep within tumors that cause cells to become cancerous. Most of these gene flaws — there are scores of them, and they have names like BRAF V600E — are relative newcomers to medical terminology, as are most of the anticancer drugs, still in early testing, that are aimed at them. Development of the new drugs has been spurred by the falling cost of decoding DNA and the prospects of premium prices for drugs that specifically attack the molecular drivers of cancer. Even medical oncologists can be daunted by the complexity of these genes and the therapies intended to fight them, said Dr. William Pao, a physician and scientist at Vanderbilt University who studies cancer mutations in addition to seeing patients. “There are so many genes and so many mutations,” he said. “The human brain can’t memorize all those permutations.”
To guide doctors and their patients, many tools are on the market, including one created by Dr. Pao and colleagues: the Web site My Cancer Genome. The site, which started two years ago, is maintained by 51 contributors from 20 institutions. It lists mutations in different types of cancer, as well as drug therapies that may or may not be of benefit. Most of the drugs are in clinical trials; a few have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The typical user of this information is an oncologist, Dr. Pao said. At the Web site, the doctor can select “melanoma” and “BRAF,” for instance, or “lung cancer” and “BRAF,” and see all types of mutations in the BRAF gene that occur in those instances. The doctor can then check for national and international drug trials aimed at these alterations. Different treatments may work in different molecular subsets of cancer, depending on the mutation. More than 700 oncology drugs are now in development, many aimed at DNA defects, Dr. Pao said, “and the number will only accelerate.” “We are moving away from the tissue of origin to the molecular basis of the cancer, using the mutation to search for a treatment,” he said.
Tuesday PoemSelf Introduction
I am an old man, short and bald
For over half a century
I have spent my life grappling with words:
nouns, verbs, postpositional particles, question marks and the like
Now I rather prefer silence
I do not dislike mechanical tools
Though I love trees, too, including shrubs
I am not good at remembering their names
I am somewhat indifferent to dates in the past
I harbor antipathy against so-called authority
I am cross-eyed, astigmatic and presbyopic
My house has no Buddhist altar or Shinto shrine, but
I have a gigantic mail box that connects directly to my room
Sleep is a sort of pleasure for me
If I dream, I do not remember it when I awake
All the above are facts, but
once I put them down in words like this, somehow they do not ring true
I have two independent children and four grandchildren, do not keep a cat or a dog
In summer I am in T-shirts most of the time
A price may be paid for the words I write
by Shuntaro Tanikawa
from Watashi (I Myself)
publisher, Shichosha, Tokyo, 2007
translation, 2011, Takako Lento
from The Art of Being Alone: Poems 1952-2009
publisher, Cornell Univ. East Asia Program, 2011
Monday, April 29, 2013
The Folly of Perpetual Victimhood
by Jalees Rehman
I grew up in a culture of guilt. One of the defining characteristics of post-war Germany was the "Vergangenheitsbewältigung", a monstrous German word that describes the attempts to come to terms with the horrors of Nazi-Germany and World War II. How could Germans have abandoned all sense of humanity and decency? Why had millions of German actively or passively engaged in the mass murder of millions of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, socialists and so many other minorities? This Vergangenheitsbewältigung resulted in a deep-rooted sense of collective shame and guilt, one which transcended the generation which had lived through the war and even engulfed Germans born after the war and Germans with immigrant backgrounds, whose families obviously had no historic link to the atrocious crimes committed in Nazi Germany. We did not feel blameworthy in the sense of having to answer for the Nazi crimes, but we did feel that the burden of history had foisted a responsibility on us. We felt that it was our responsibility to be continuously vigilant, watching for any signs or symptoms indicating a recurrence of right-wing extremism, anti-Semitism, fascism, racism, militarism, nationalism, discrimination or other characteristics of Nazi Germany. Our obsession with collective introspection at times became so excessive that it paralyzed us, such as when we developed a general paranoia of expressing any form of German patriotism, because it might set us on a path to Nazism. Many Germans also had near-hysterical responses to any discussions about genetic engineering, because it evoked haunting memories of Nazi eugenics. But despite these irrational excesses, I think that we Germans greatly benefited from our post-war soul-searching which helped us build a mostly peaceful country – no small feat, considering our past.
Roughly one decade ago, "mirror neurons" were among the hottest items in neuroscience research. These neurons in the brain of an individual were thought to fire upon observing behaviors in other individuals: When I see someone eating a delicious piece of chocolate, my mirror neurons fire and help create a proxy sensation or awareness in my brain that mirror the observed behavior so that I might have some sense of eating the chocolate myself. If this were true, mirror neurons would play a central role in generating a sense of empathy. Newer scientific research has questioned whether "mirror neurons" truly exist, but there is little doubt that our brain has some neurobiological substrate that enables empathy, even if it does not consist of the exact same set of anatomically defined neurons as has been previously suspected. I therefore still like to use the "mirror neurons" metaphor, because it aptly evokes the image of a neurobiological mirror in our mind. I would like to extend that mirror metaphor and also propose that our mind might contain "guilt neurons", which fire when we observe some degree of resemblance between ourselves and perpetrators of crimes. Part of being immersed in the post-war German tradition of collective guilt and soul-searching is that it endowed me with ultra-sensitive hypothetical "guilt neurons". When I hear about a tragedy or crime, I not only feel the natural empathy with the victims, but in a reflex-like manner ask the question whether I bear some degree of responsibility – not blame – for this tragedy and crime and how to best work towards preventing it in the future. This "guilt neuron" activity is strongest when I sense that the perpetrator is a member of an in-group that I also belong to, such as crimes being committed by fathers or husbands, by Germans, by scientists or physicians, by Muslims, by people with a South Asian heritage and so forth.
When Anders Breivik in Norway committed his mass murder in 2011, I felt a very deep sadness, because I could really empathize with the victims and their families. He killed teenagers and young adults attending a youth camp of the Social Democratic party. His victims could have been my children, and a couple of decades ago, I might have attended a similar youth camp in Germany. My guilt neurons were silent – I did not feel much of a responsibility because I had little to nothing in common with the perpetrator. He despised everything that I supported – diversity, feminism, progressive-liberal thought and the environmental movement. But I felt that there were people who ought to have felt some degree of responsibility. His manifesto quoted extensively from far-right bloggers and authors in the United States and in Europe, who seemed to have shared his world-views. Does this mean that everyone promoting anti-immigrant or far-right views in Europe and the US should have been blamed for the deeds this mass killer? Of course not! They did not directly provide him with the weapons and they did not ask him to murder the social democratic youth – but shouldn't one take some responsibility for promoting hateful messages that denigrated immigrants, Muslims and citizens with progressive-liberal thoughts? The responses of the far-right politicians and authors who might have unwittingly influenced Breivik were quite disappointing. Instead of undergoing an introspective analysis, the far right just issued perfunctory condemnations, stating that they would never have endorsed the murders. The politicians and far right bloggers continued to engage in their hateful rhetoric, even tried to seize the opportunity to portray themselves as unfairly maligned victims. The Breivik acts of terror did not seem to have activated the "guilt neurons" of the far right.
The week following the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15, 2013 was a very sad week for me. Boston is one of my most favorite cities in the world. It is the first US city that I ever visited. I spent many months there when I was a student in the 1990s. Boston eased me into American culture by cushioning the culture shock that Europeans experience when they first visit the US, mostly because it reminded me a lot of my home town Munich, famously known as the "Weltstadt mit Herz" ("city of the world with a heart)". Like Munich, Boston is wonderfully suited for long city walks. The Bostonians were extremely hospitable and friendly. I remember seeing beautiful sunsets in Boston, spending hours in the wonderful bookstores in Cambridge and Boston and being thrilled by the plethora of universities and their libraries in the Boston area, which seemed like an endless treasure trove of knowledge. I was thus devastated when I saw the tragedy of the bombings unfold – more or less live on the Internet and on Twitter revealing painful descriptions of victims who had lost their limbs at a marathon. I was haunted by the image of the young boy Martin Richard holding up a sign which said "No more hurting people" in 2012 – only to be murdered in the subsequent year at the Boston Marathon bombings. The idea of this beautiful city, normally bustling with activity and creativity, being forced into a lockdown because of some psychopathic killers was heartbreaking.
On Friday morning, I heard the news that the perpetrators had been identified; two Muslim immigrants with Chechen origins. They were brothers, the older one - 26 year old Tamerlan Tsarnaev - had been killed in a shoot-out. The younger one - 19 year old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev - had not yet been captured and an ongoing manhunt was still paralyzing the city of Boston. There were vague reports of "Islamist connections" of the older brother based on his alleged Youtube video playlists. The younger brother was a college student at the University of Massachusetts and had a Twitter account with the handle @J_tsar, from which he had sent his last tweet on April 17, two days after the Boston Marathon bombing. His last tweet was a re-tweet of the conservative Muslim cleric, Mufti Ismail Menk: "Attitude can take away your beauty no matter how good looking you are or it could enhance your beauty, making you adorable." Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's last self-authored tweet was "I'm a stress free kind of guy", one day after the bombing – both tweets seem rather cynical in the context of someone who had helped inflict so much suffering. His Twitter feed of the past months was a combination of mindless blather, evoking the traditional cliché of the banality of evil, but it also contained a number of tweets which indicated that he saw himself as a Muslim, even quipping about how Muslims at his mosque thought he was a convert to Islam instead of being born a Muslim.
The specific motives of the two brothers were not yet known when the news broke. Did they murder and maim their fellow citizens because they felt it was consistent with or even mandated by their view of Islam? Was it a political statement regarding the war in Chechnya and they just happened to choose innocent civilian targets in Boston because it was easier than planting bombs in Chechnya or Russia? Were they psychopaths seeking notoriety and infamy without any specific religious or political goals? Were they aided by a terrorist organization or acting as individuals?
Multiple Muslim organizations and prominent Muslims strongly condemned the Boston Marathon bombings, expressed their condolences for the victims and made it very clear that such acts of terror were inconsistent with Islam. Muslim organizations routinely issue such statements when Muslims commit acts of terror, but the question remains whether such statements are enough. Since I possess overactive German guilt neurons, I feel that as members of the Muslim community in the US, we have a deeper responsibility to undertake an introspective analysis and explore why US Muslims engage in forms of violence. Some might argue that there is no need for such introspection, since we do not yet whether the motives of the Tsarnaev brothers were in any way linked to Islam. Even apart from the Tsarnaev brothers' motives, US Muslims need to understand that there is an unfortunately high level of tolerating suicide bombings or violence against civilians. A Pew survey conducted in 2011 revealed that 13% of US Muslims thought suicide bombings or violence against civilian targets could be justified to defend Islam (rarely justified: 5%; sometimes justified: 7%; often justified: 1%). The Pew survey compared the results to those obtained from surveying Muslims in Pakistan, of whom only 7% felt that such violence could be justified in the name of Islam. Sadly, this degree of acceptance of suicide bombings or violence against civilians among US Muslims has not budged since 2007. This suggests that there is a disconnect between US Muslim organizations (which categorically condemn all attacks against civilians) and the US Muslim community.
Even though the 13% represent a small minority within the larger US Muslim community, they might be the ones who are most likely to be radicalized and it is thus important to understand what motivates them to endorse suicide bombings and violence against civilians. One hypothesis that can be explored is whether the Muslim self-perception of collective victimhood may contribute to their willingness to endorse violence. During the past 15 years that I have lived in the US, I have noticed that in Friday sermons (khutbahs), discussions, lectures, articles and books, American Muslims often perceive themselves as collective victims. Khutbahs routinely end with prayers for people in need, but in my experience, there is a rather one-sided portrayal of the global Muslim community as victims - khateebs (khateeb = person who gives the Muslim Friday sermon or khutbah) frequently mention the plight of Muslims who are oppressed and persecuted in regions such as Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir or more recently, Burma. However, there is little mention of prayers for victims in situations where Muslims are the primary perpetrators, such as is the case when Sunni Muslims murder Shia or Ahmadiyya in Pakistan, or when they kill or persecute Christians, Jews or atheists. The buzzword "Islamophobia", which is not really a phobia in the psychiatric sense, is frequently used to depict Muslims as victims. There are many cases of anti-Muslim hate speech and discrimination, but the haphazard use of "Islamophobia" to bludgeon legitimate criticisms of Muslims or Islam is rendering this term useless. An exaggerated "Islamophobia" view of the world also perpetuates the one-sided portrayal of Muslims as victims instead of promoting a more balanced view, one which would also include some discussion of anti-Western hostility that is found among Muslims ("Occidentophobia", incidentally is also not a true "phobia").
Is there any evidence that such a sense of collective victimhood could affect one's moral judgment? A remarkable study conducted by the social psychologists Michael Wohl and Nyla Branscombe lends credence to this idea. In a paper entitled "Remembering historical victimization: Collective guilt for current ingroup transgressions" published 2008 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Wohl and Branscombe examined the acceptance of Israeli acts of violence against Palestinians by Jewish Canadians. Using a web-based questionnaire, they surveyed Jewish Canadians in two different conditions, one which included showing the participants a website that reminded them of the Holocaust and the suffering of Jews and one condition in which participants just saw a neutral website. Importantly, participants who were reminded of the suffering of Jews in the Holocaust (prior to answering the questions) experienced significantly less guilt about Israeli actions against Palestinians. In a different set of experiments, Wohl and Branscombe then asked Americans how they felt about the harm inflicted by American troops on Iraqis. The American participants felt far less guilt regarding the American attacks, when the participants were reminded of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Interestingly, they also felt less guilt about the Iraq war when they were reminded of the Pearl Harbor attack. This suggested that it was not a causal link between September 11, 2001 and Iraq that had made them endorse American violence, but merely the sense of collective victimization - independent of whether the perpetrators were the Japanese military or Muslim terrorists.
Considering these data, it might be important to study whether Muslims who are continuously reminded of historical or ongoing collective victimization - being victims of "Islamophobia" or of military actions in Palestine, Kashmir or Chechnya - could promote a justification for violent acts, quite similar to the participants studied by Wohl and Branscombe. Conversely, a more balanced and realistic view of history and current affairs which would depict Muslims as both, victims and perpetrators might lower the likelihood of Muslims endorsing violence.
On the Friday after the Boston Marathon bombings, prior to heading to the Friday sermon, I wondered whether the newly disclosed information that the bombers were US based Muslims would help promote a process of soul searching in the American Muslim community. Unfortunately, the twitter feed of one of the most popular English-language Muslim blogs, MuslimMatters.org, known for its überconservative or right-wing ideas, did not suggest that this would occur. Some of its tweets and re-tweets on Friday morning suggested an all-too-familiar reaction of American Muslims. The religion of the Tsarnaev brothers was supposedly not relevant and had no bearing on the attacks; "only the perpetrator is responsible for the crime"; "If it wasn't you, then don't feel guilty. Do not take the burden of others upon your shoulders when they are wrongfully placed there"; and there were tweets about how Muslims might need to be vigilant about potential "Islamophobic" backlashes: "Please contact your local CAIR chapter if you experience any type of violence as a result of the tragedy in Boston: cair.com."
The idea that somehow "only the perpetrator is responsible for the crime" is puzzling since we routinely look at context of a crime. When Adam Lanza went on a shooting rampage, murdering children and terrorizing an elementary school, American society did not just respond with "only the perpetrator is responsible for the crime". There was an extensive effort made to re-evaluate gun laws and the mental healthcare system, and there was a general shift in the public opinion on gun control. It may be important to clarify the difference between "blame" and "responsibility". As a society, we should take responsibility to help each other and care for each other, and when we fail to do so, there is no shame in taking responsibility for that failure. That does not necessarily mean that we are all to "blame" for the acts committed by the Tsarnaev brothers or by Adam Lanza. Also, there is no need to expect that only Muslims have a responsibility to act in response to the Tsarnaev crimes. One should explore all the factors that resulted in the tragedy, such as failures of law enforcement to detect the planned plot, addressing how they accessed the weapons and training that enabled them to commit their crimes or whether there had been warning signs that could have alerted family members, friends and colleagues. Muslim soul-searching is just part of the greater soul-searching process that involves society-at-large in response to the tragedy.
As I headed towards our Friday khutbah in Chicago, I wondered whether the khateeb would broach this difficult subject. The first part of the khutbah was about Moses and David, and how these two prophets should be our role models because they exemplified steadfastness in their faith, gratitude and prayer, thanking God even under most difficult circumstances. The second part of the khutbah specifically addressed the Boston bombings. The khateeb strongly condemned the terror attacks, and said that Muslims are never allowed to kill innocent civilians. He then explained the horrors of the Chechnyan war and how Muslims suffered at the hands of the Soviet and Russian military. However, instead of an analysis and introspection addressing how we could help reduce the recurrence of such acts, the khateeb indicated that he wanted to mention one other event in this context. He said that after the Boston attacks, an interfaith service had been planned and that the initially proposed Muslim representative had been vetoed by some members of the Boston community. The objection to this particular choice stemmed from the suggested imam's alleged ties to Islamist groups. A different Muslim representative was then chosen for the Interfaith service. Our khateeb then made a rather bizarre statement in a defiant tone and said that Muslims should choose their own leaders instead of allowing "Zionists" to make decisions for the Muslim community! Rather than look in the mirror and think about potential reasons for why some US Muslims justify violence with religion, Muslims were again being portrayed as victims of alleged "Zionists". The promising first part of the khutbah had focused on Moses and David and emphasized the shared Abrahamic traditions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, but the same khutbah had ended with the spreading of unnecessary conspiracy theories and regurgitating the image of the victimized Muslims. I left the khutbah with a heavy heart.
In the subsequent days, I observed how Muslims attempted to downplay the Muslim connection of the Tsarnaev brothers but I also saw how right-wing, anti-Muslim American groups began asking for massive profiling of Muslims merely based on their faith or ethnicity. We need to move beyond the two extremes - the one-sided portrayal by anti-Muslim hate-mongers of Muslims as purely evil perpetrators and the equally one-sided portrayal of Muslims as perpetual victims. We can then achieve a balanced and honest view of the role of Muslims in American society with a realistic and equitable distribution of responsibilities and expectations.
As with most unfathomable crimes, there are probably many factors that come together, there is no one single all-explanatory cause. The vast majority of supporters of far-right ideology do not go on shooting rampages like the Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik did. The vast majority of homes containing an arsenal of guns do not give rise to child murderers such as Adam Lanza. The vast majority of Muslims who watch Islamist Youtube videos do not commit terrorist attacks. In all of these cases, we have to carefully analyze the risk factors that lead to the tragedies and work together to reduce the risk of recurrences. I do not want to live in a libertarian heaven with dormant "guilt neurons", where everyone is exclusively responsible for their own actions and where we can expediently shrug off any responsibility for the suffering of fellow humans or for the crimes committed by others. The strength of a society depends on the willingness of its members to engage in introspection and shoulder responsibilities.
Jack Kerouac’s Pile of Shit, or St Jack in the Wilderness
"One should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn." – Rhinoceros Horn Sutta
“I am Lazarus, come from the dead,/Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all” - T.S. Eliot
Sixty-three days after his solitary stay on Desolation Peak, Jack Kerouac came down the mountain leaving behind him a “column of feces about the height and size of a baby.” Though Kerouac may not be everyman – at times he’s jubilant, at times morose, verbose, braggardly, brilliant, invariably drunk, incessantly dissecting, sullen, always writing, experimenting, vagabonding, observing minutely, oedipally strange, holy, obnoxious, and not infrequently full of shit – nonetheless, Jack’s ordinary failure in the wilderness is perhaps a more honest reckoning on the meaning of wilderness for us everyfolk than all the successful accounts written by the hard men of the great American Wilderness tradition.
In the summer of 1956, at the suggestion of beat-poet and Zen Buddhist Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac worked as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in Washington State’s North Cascades. It’s a story he tells in Desolation Angels, a “chapter” of The Duluoz Legend, his sequence of thinly veiled autobiographical novels. Jack went to the mountain with big ambitions. Coming out of the wilderness a couple of months later he left behind that great mound of shit, and the carcass of a murdered mouse, Kerouac’s first kill (“it looked at me with ‘human’ fearful eyes”). But what had Kerouac taken away with him; taken down from the solitude to the cites and to his now famously garrulous writer friends? That is, what was the value of Jack’s time in the wilderness, to him or to us?
Kerouac was no ordinary nature poet; nor was he a rhapsodic wilderness advocate. Rather, Jack’s expectations for his wilderness experience thus come not from the American tradition, at least not directly. Rather they are formed by escapades with Snyder and by way of Snyder they came from Han Shan to whom Kerouac’s novel Dharma Bums is dedicated. At the beginning of Dharma Bums, (recording events that occurred in 1955-56) Kerouac describes visiting Japhy Ryder (i.e. Gary Snyder) in his shack near Berkeley and Japhy talks to him about the difficulty of translating Han Shan’s poem Cold Mountain from the original Chinese. Han Shan (AD 577 to 654) whose real name was Chih-yen was a poet of the Tang dynastic period (618 – 907). The poet abandoned his family in his middle years becoming a Buddhist monk withdrawing from a life of reasonable comfort and retreated to the inaccessible sanctuary of Cold Mountain (T’ien-t’ai Mountain) where he remained for thirty years. He once attempted a return, and upon discovering that half of those he loved had died he returned to Cold Mountain.
Jack is impressed with the similarities between Han Shan and Ryder. “That’s like you too, Japhy, studying with eyes full of tears.” Han Shan, Ryder said, was “a mountain man, a Buddhist dedicated to the principle of meditation on the essence of all things… he was a man of solitude who could take off by himself and live purely and true to himself.” Ray Smith (i.e. Kerouac) responded, “That sounds like you too.” “And like you too, Ray”, Ryder generously replied.
Han Shan’s story of retreat (and unsuccessful return) is Thoreau’s, Muir’s, and Abbey’s in the American tradition, but also with greater or less degrees of fidelity it is that of Jesus, the early Christian ascetics, and even that of the anonymous poets of the early Irish tradition (“Cold, cold!/Cold to-night is broad Moylurg,/Higher the snow than the mountain-range,/The deer cannot get at their food.”). Yeats as well, jaded from city life, replicated in the little microcosmos of Inisfree the familiar pattern: “Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee”. Even Nietzsche’s story shares in the grand tradition: the philology professor retired from the University of Basel in 1879 and retreats to the mountains for moutainy succor. Nietzsche’s most famous protagonist, Zarathustra, inaugurated his blistering attack on traditional morality by coming down from the mountain.
Off went Kerouac then inspired by Han Shan and encouraged by Snyder. Off went he to discover “the meaning of all this existence and suffering and going to and fro.” Off went ascetic, poetic, monkish Jack to the wilderness. Good ascetic that he is Jack has left behind liquor and drugs and plans to come face to face with God or at the very least face to face with himself.
When, eventually, he came down Jack did not descend from the mountain top, as other have before him, with a lesson that life is better, purer, living up there in that thin air, and that one should hastily return there. The mountain wilderness was for him a temporary retreat and not the destination. Nonetheless, dipsomaniacal Jack returned affected enough by the experience to devote the first part of Desolation Angels to it, a section he called Desolation in Solitude, and to make his time on the mountain the foil against which his more sociable times in Seattle and San Francisco could be assessed (Desolation in the World).
What specifically had Kerouac hoped to achieve on the mountainside? “There alone”, he proclaimed, “I will come face to face with God or Tathagata and find out once and for all what is the meaning of all this existence and suffering and going to and fro in vain…” And certainly his stint there was not without its pithy Buddhist insight, though perhaps he found little of the equanimity or the stolid and enduring insight that one finds in the accounts of ascetic masters such as Han Shan.
Without his provisions of booze and drugs, and subjected to unrelenting boredom, Jack comes to an insight that was significant enough that he records the time and date (afternoon of 8 August 1956) it descended upon him. Recognizing that the “void’ (this is Buddhist Jack influenced by Buddhist Gary) is not disturbed by life’s vicissitudes he wonders: “Why can’t I be like Hozomeen [the mountain]…and ‘take life as it comes’?” “Is Hozomeen bored?” Jack ponders. The mountain will pass too; it too is a “passing through” but unlike him the Void is “inexhaustibly fertile, beyond serenity, beyond even gladness, just Old Jack [the mountain] (not even that)…” Solid insight to be sure and one that Jack plans to bring down the mountain with him. “Hold still, man, regain your love of live and go down from the mountain and simple be — be — be the infinite fertilities of the one mind of infinity, make no comments, complaints, criticisms, appraisals avowals, sayings, shooting stars of thought… So shut up, live, travel, adventure, bless and don’t be sorry – Prunes, prunes, eat your prunes… it was only the Void pretending to be a man pretending not to know the Void.”
This was his big August insight – a grand seismic revelation, and there were other aftershocks of insight. For example, he prayed in August to “Awakener Avalokitesvara”, and came to understand that “[when] a baby is born he falls asleep and dreams the dream of life, when he dies and is buried in his grave he wakes up again to the Eternal Ecstasy”. And this nugget gave Jack some immediate peace… none of this phenomenal world really mattered. Not his woes, not his misgivings at having left his mother to care for herself in his absence. The world is only “recent”; “there are no awakeners and no awakened.”
There goes Jack: he had his big insights and had a set of principles with which to climb down the mountain, prune-juice tips and all, however, it was still only August and he had 30 long days to go before he got back to “sweet life.” Unlike imperturbable Hozomeen, the dome of Kerouac’s skull hosted memories which clamored “like tics all day perturbing my vital mind…”; memories of a Lowell childhood, sex fantasies inspired by crummy cowboy novels, replays of his solitaire card baseball game, reflections on ex-communists and so on. Mountains may endure, but Jack’s insights from the void prove to be fickle and hard to sustain. Jack sees a vision of Han Shan pointing to the east, yet when he looks “it is only Three Fools Creek in the morning haze…”.
The two poles of Jack’s solitary experience in his assessment of them are the noumena of the visionary moment – “what you see when your eyes are closed”, and the phenomena of endless hours watching out over the mountain – “what you see with your eyes open…the debris of one thousand hours… in a mountain shack”. Jack’s ambitions may have inclined towards the meditative peace of the noumenal, but much of the written account is an itemizing of the detritus of the world: his boredom made tangible in objects strewn about his mountain hut. Stoically he wondered “if my own travels down the Coast to Frisco and Mexico wont be just as sad and mad…” but underscoring just how frightful the experience on the mountain is, he continued: “but be bejesus j Christ it’ll be bettern hangin around this rock –”.
When Jack is not questing great noumenal visions or being crowded with memories or wailing about his boredom or engaged in a thousand other distractions and reactions, he finds the time to jot down some astute and lovely observations of nature on the mountain. He observes ‘two butterflies comport, with worlds of mountains as a backdrop.” Later, he reported on a ‘green alpine caterpillar comports in his heather world, a head like a pale dewdrop.” He reported on “Flights of gray birds [that] came merrying to the rocks of the yard, look around awhile, then start to peck at things…”. A bear came visiting and Jack observed “his big mysterious black horseshit by [his] garbage pit…”. These are not the observations of a seasoned naturalist: the descriptions do not come with taxonomic lists nor very precise anatomical descriptions (the caterpillar has “ugly many bud legs”), nor is Jack a remote, objective, observer chronicling nature’s ways from the remove of his hide. When the gray birds look up at a yellow butterfly, no doubt with predaceous eyes, Jack had “the urge to run out the door and yell ‘Y a a a h’…”. He restrained himself, exercising compassion for them one supposes, noting that yelling would “be a frightful imposition on their beating little hearts”. Jack’s nature studies are not self-contained natural history meditations – the pieces variously conclude with complaints of his boredom or drive towards a Buddhist maxim. To illustrate, his meditation of the caterpillar concludes with his cursing the rock that he’s been hanging around. The gray birds yield to thoughts of imprisonment and ends with Jack desiring an ice cream cone. The bear meditation ends with a premonition of the bear as Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva, who will soon “come out of the fog, huge, and come and stare in my window with big burning eyes.”
Desolation Angels cannot be read as a conventional natural history of the North Cascades, nonetheless, it is an ecological book containing observations on fire and ecosystems that anticipate the more technical discussions of the theme in later decades. The life of a fire watcher is more watch than fire. The whole point, of course, if for the watchers to direct the work of fire crews dispatched to quench the flames and protect the resource. But in section 32 Jack takes a sideswipe at his employer The Forest Service regarding the purpose of the enterprise. Testily he calls the service “a vague Totalitarian governmental effort to restrict the use of forest to people…” Angrily he declared, “result, net, is people all over the world are wiping their ass with beautiful trees.” Quite casually he remarked on an issue central to the management of fire. “As for lightening and fires, who, what American individual loses, when a forest burns, and what did Nature do about it for a million years up to now?” Where does this meditation lead? Not to a rethinking of the role of fires in ecosystems (as it shortly afterward does for advocates of the New Forestry. For Jack it leads to a contemplation of the “bottomless horror of the world.” Bottomless horror of the streets of America, of Mexico City, of Frisco; resignation from happiness, confession of his human failures, enviousness of the void.
What, after all, had Jack learned on the mountain? He confessed early in the second half of the novel that though he tried to bring down to the world the “Vision on Desolation Peak”, his friends being “involved in the strictures of time and life, rather than the eternity and solitude of the mountain snowy rocks, had a lesson to teach me themselves…” The world brushed aside his mountain wisdom. Besides, he conceded, the sorts of vision that “wilderness hermitage saints” have seen, and that he had seen “is of little use in cities and warring societies.” In fact, it is his very failure to bring with him a substantial message from the wilds that interests me. His Buddhist precepts were a consolation to him, and in his boredom and despair he tried to steady himself with visions of the Void. But these visions were perishable and were swamped by out competing memories and by the happenings in the phenomenal world. He exercised, as best he could, compassion for living things, although he killed a mouse, and tried to “murder” another. He made some stout observations on other beings and on fire and land management, though these often trailed off without conclusion. All this being said we are up there on Desolation Peak with Jack in a way that we can rarely be with other ascetic devotees. The account is honest, unvarnished. Like Leopold Bloom in Ulysses we are taken into the shitter (literally and metaphorically in both cases) with our protagonist while he craps and looks out upon the world (Bloom reads on the “jakes”, crapping Jack stares out across Lightening Gorge). Those of us who are social creatures – perhaps that is most of us – would fare, or have fared, no better than Jack I suspect. We’d go howling from the Void. We’d return to home with our hard won truths and would try to do the best we can with the world to which we’d returned. We’d be glad we’d gone up but we’d be happy to be down. We’d come back to tell the world, and they’d politely listen to our stories, view our snapshots, read our blog entries, humor us, and then hope we’d shut up and get on with it. Is this the real lesson of wilderness: that it cuts us off only to remind us that we can’t go back to the womb or the cradle? That mountainy phantasma only get us part of the way. Least this seem to sound too negative a chord, let me point out that part of the way is not no way at all.
Wu Chi-Yu 吳其昱 A Study of Han-shan - T'oung Pao, 1957
Dittman, M. J. Jack Kerouac: A Biography Greenwood; edition (August 30, 2004)
References are to Kerouac, J. Desolation Angels, Paladin Book 1990
 Desolation Angels, #48
 Ibid, p2
 Ibid p20
 Ibid p12
 Ibid p23
 Ibid p48Follow me on Twitter @DublinSoil for 140 character updates on my columns. Links to previous 3QD columns here.
by Rishidev Chaudhuri
To my mind, the most fascinating biological systems lie in the uncanny interstices between the physical and the intentional, between systems that can be understood as purely material objects, in the mould of physics or chemistry, and those that seem to require some notion of self (and other) or intentionality or that use complex regulatory loops to maintain themselves as some sort of consistent entity. For example, how should we make sense of the immune system which, on the one hand, seems obviously physical (and hence avoids the debates associated with consciousness) and yet seems to contain at least a primitive notion of self and other, that maintains representations of and long-term memories about its environment and that seems to regulate in a way that feels teleological (or most easily understood this way). These systems challenge us theoretically partly because they are fiendishly complicated, typically consisting of many interacting parts and levels of interactions. But more than this, these parts and levels of interactions seem to form a consistent whole in a way that, say, a gas in a box doesn't, and in doing so they elude our theoretical frameworks. It's not that we know what a good theoretical description would look like and haven't found it yet1. Instead we seem to lack the right level of general principles of understanding and organization. At some point the principles we use to understand physical bodies (energy, entropy, conservation laws and so on) seem to break down, but the principles that we use to understand other subjects in the world (desires, goals, representation and such) don't yet hold. Thus these are material collections that are simultaneously coherent entities, inextricably embedded in the world and insensible without it. At the risk of sounding like one of those Continental metaphysicians whom physicists are always raising their eyebrows at, much of what is exciting about this realm is that it hints at new metaphysics, new categories of making sense of what a system is, what a meaningfully describable entity is, and so on. And reassuringly, these theoretical projects are anchored in the study of physical systems; this doesn't guarantee truth but does provide a set of constraints that nudge speculation in interesting directions.
One direction we might proceed in emerges from taking seriously the mathematics that partially helps make sense of these systems (as it develops) rather than simply treating it as a descriptive tool. Few people still believe that mathematics gives us access to a Platonic realm that links the mind to things in themselves, and yet mathematics seems to offer something more than a set of logical consequences drawn simply from definitions. Somewhere in between, there's a plausible case to be made that mathematics helps clarify and reveal something about the categories that allow our minds to make sense of the world (in addition to creating new ones and perhaps new forms of understanding). This suggests that we could use mathematics the way a psychoanalyst uses projection or free association: we gaze upon what we have produced in making sense of the world and this makes conscious to us the underlying conceptual structures we used. Such an endeavor is somewhat fraught, and is reminiscent of the enthusiasm for chaos theory, catastrophe theory, complexity and all the other late 20th century programs that seemed to promise a universal framework within which to understand complex systems and then, despite many individual successes, fell short. But we have no choice but to push our theoretical frameworks in these ways and perhaps the falling short is a lesson suggesting modesty rather than retreat. Indeed a number of the ideas from these frameworks are important advances, and ideas like feedback loops, strange attractors and catastrophes have been influential in the modern theoretical toolkit. Complex biological systems need more mathematization, not less, and the attempt to conceive of new mathematical forms to account for these systems is still ongoing (though perhaps less programmatically than before). Stretching these forms beyond the scientific and attempting to draw broad theoretical conclusions (for example, about the nature and types of entities we can usefully speak about) is bound to be prone to over-generalization and false trails, but this is true of any attempt at theoretical advance.
Another possible direction is to allow concepts to trickle down from the realm of the Subject. We undeniably relate to subjects in ways very different from objects; even leaving aside the ethical realm, we grant subjects a certain unity of self, and ascribe intentions and internal states to them. Perhaps these concepts can be stepped further down the chain of being. This is even more fraught than generalizing from mathematical structure, of course. It hints ominously at a return to a dubious vitalism that seems to have been theoretically exhausted. And, at a more popular level, it drifts close to a fluffy New-Ageiness and a tendency to confuse sloppy thinking with profundity. Yet these rejected views of the world do contain within them a meaningful lament, and understanding systems as purely instrumental objects throws away a whole realm of being and of theoretical possibility. It has also been a long time since we took subjects very seriously; perhaps it has been long enough that we can return and start to reanimate matter, though hopefully with the accumulated wisdom of the intervening years. After all, the way we relate to objects has extended further and further into the ways we relate to subjects. Both modern science and philosophy have destabilized the subject to an extent that it is unlikely to return in its full grandeur and everything from post-structuralism to neuroscience encourages us to see the self as a contingent and fragmented multiplicity. Theoretically, we rarely speak of subjects as coherent essences and in most of the sciences we shy away from "anthropomorphizing people" (as Morgenbesser is reported to have said of Skinner). So maybe it's possible to let the categories we use to understand subjects leak back into inanimate matter (albeit transformed), much as we previously let bodies rolling down inclined planes, swinging pendulums and collections of gases diffuse up into the realm of subjects. Of course the selves and intentions we might project onto complex biological systems are not ultimately real. But then the selves we use to understand each other probably aren't real either, and yet are essential to our world.
This is all very speculative, but it at least vaguely suggests a theoretical program; this program is already being carried out implicitly (by scientists, with all the benefits and dangers that implies) and would benefit from being dragged into the light. We live in a world increasingly flooded with multi-level measurements of complex biological systems, and our reaction to this data deluge wavers between Promethean enthusiasm and bafflement tinged with fear. In the midst of all this it is good to pay more than lip-service to the idea that we will need new foundational frameworks to progress and to give ourselves permission to occasionally chase thoughts that hover on the edge of the nonsensical.
1The answer doesn't seem to be to write down an approximate Hamiltonian for the immune system, for example.
Pencil drawing on paper!!
"... Diego is a self-taught pencil master whose technique has matured. He started out as a tattoo artist, and developed a passion for creating photo-realistic drawings. Inspired by the works of Japanese artists from the Edo period, like Katsushika Hokusai, he captures people’s imaginations with his precise lines and oriental drawing techniques."
Thanks to Abbas Raza.
Don't Feed the Trolls
by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
Like most things in life, the Internet is a mixed bag. Sometimes, online discussion is very, very good. And sometimes, online argument can go very badly, and there is a name for those who embrace a deleterious argumentative practice that is made possible by the Internet. We are speaking of the trolls.
Thinking one's way into Internet trolling isn't very difficult. There are news stories, blog postings, and opinion pages. With these, there are comment threads for critical discussion. Sometimes on these threads, there are hundreds or even thousands of comments. Now, when there are many people talking in a room, sometimes the best way to be heard is to raise one's voice. But, alas, there's no volume on the internet. To be sure, there is the practice of writing in ALLCAPS, which is the written equivalent of shouting. But anyone can do that, and on the Internet, all such shouting is rendered equally "loud." So the only way to be heard on the Internet is to have content that captures the eye of readers, and in a comment thread, few things attract attention better than comments which are rude and abusive. Thus a troll is born.
We should note that Internet trolls come in many shapes and forms. There are some who post unflattering pictures of their exes online, there are others who bully classmates on Facebook, and there are those who intentionally post false information in the midst of natural disasters. We are not talking about these trolls here, but much of what we say will likely be relevant to them. The trolls we are concerned with are those that dominate discussions with overblown objections and personal attacks, who seem immune to criticism, and who thereby derail Internet argument. A further feature of trolls of this kind is that they seem to thrive on the negative reactions they elicit. Responding to them and defending your view causes them to become even more unhinged. It seems that the best thing you can do is simply ignore them.
But here's the trouble. It seems clear that engaging with critics is a good thing. In fact, it is not merely a good thing; it is what one ought to do. This is an old thought, and one exceedingly well-articulated by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, with the observation that "He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that." The thought is that even if you're right and have excellent reasons to believe so, if you have no reasons that address the other side of an issue, you have no ground to make the comparative judgment that your side is better. The consequence is that those who have critical things to say should be of great interest to us, and we should feel deeply obligated to take up with them. That's a really important reason for why argument matters – even if you're right in a disagreement, you need the grounds for preferring your own side, which requires knowing the other.
So what about the trolls? In a sense, they take advantage of this obligation we have to clarify and defend our views. They present their challenges, often in insulting form, and then expect a properly-tempered reply. And when they aren't given the kind of reply they demand, they claim victory and announce that their opponents are weak-minded cowards.
That is to say that trolls are free-riders on proper argument. They flout the norms of argument when presenting their objections while holding everyone else to the highest standards of dialectical conduct. That's unfair. In fact, we might say that trolls represent the incarnation of what's fallacious about dialectical fallacies. The troll's game is to mimic argument; he claims to uphold the standards of proper discussion, but in fact exempts his own contributions from those standards. So trolls are merely playing at argument. That's why we have the internet expression, "Don't feed the trolls".
The most obvious reason why it's best to let the trolls go has to do with personal sanity. The world is full of people with keyboards and chips on their shoulders. Taking all of them on is a Herculean task, and it is personally fatiguing. Engaging with the trolls isn't bad only for argument, it's bad for us as arguers. And we think it's even bad for the trolls. It's bad for the argument, because when we engage with trolls, we get bogged down with nasty invectives that incline us less to rational deliberation and more to personal hatred. And engaging with trolls is bad for the trolls, too. In replying, we acknowledge and perhaps even validate their behavior. We hence encourage their trolling.
A further consequence of trolling has recently come to light. Trolling not only ruins the prospects for argument following a post, but it actually skews readers' perceptions of the content of the original posting. Recent research suggests that personal attacks and rude remarks in the comments section following a post on the Internet affects readers' understanding of its content. The phenomenon is called "the nasty effect." [Article HERE, reported in NYT HERE] So trolls not only tend to mess up argument, they also tend to mess up comprehension.
One should not engage with trolls. Trouble is, this advice is nearly vacuous. That one shouldn't engage with trolls seems obvious. The issue really is how do we sort the trolls from everyone else with an objection. Trolls almost always deny that they are trolls, and it's not easy to tell the difference between a troll and someone who has legitimate concerns but inadequate social skills. Those who fall into the latter category deserve our dialectical attention; those in the former deserve to be ignored. How can one tell them apart?
Often it takes a few rounds of sincere engagement in order to determine whether an interlocutor is a troll. And, yes, this means that in cases where an interlocutor is revealed as a troll, one will have wasted one's time in reaching that determination. But trolls have a way of unintentionally revealing themselves. As they are not sincerely interested in argument, but instead are merely posing as arguers, there are a few tell-tale signs that one's interlocutor is a troll. The most obvious sign, of course, is the abusive tone; or, more specifically, the increasing intensity of the abuse. A troll continually intensifies the offensiveness of his or her contributions to the discussion. A second, and related, sign is repetition. A troll isn't really concerned with the argument, and so typically is not particularly adept at recognizing when his or her critical points have been responded to. So trolls frequently simply repeat the content of their initial contribution in increasingly abusive language. Third, since trolls are interested in maintaining attention, they will in the course of an exchange attempt to change the topic of the debate. Typically, this is attempted by suggesting that one's view on the topic of the original discussion commits one to a particular view on some other topic. Finally, when called out on their abusive tone or non-responsiveness, trolls are quick to cry "who me?" or charge the critic with being over-sensitive. They may apologize, but they'll say they are sorry that you can't take a joke.
Still, it's hard to tell if someone's trolling, and engaging with trolls is bad for everyone. So when you're confronted with comments on a thread that look like trolling, you should ask yourself whether this person might have a point, and whether this is the best format for a full discussion about the objection on the table. If the answer to both is No, then you should just ignore the comments. If the answer to both is Yes, then you should take up the conversation. The hard cases emerge when the answers are mixed.
One consequence of our discussion here is that argument is easy, perhaps all too easy, to mess up. We argue over issues that matter, and so we are deeply invested in the outcome of argument. But we're also often in a hurry to get things out and decided. This means that argument is frequently messy, heated, rushed, and often incomplete. That's why there is a real temptation to replace good argument with personal attack. Unlike sincere attempts to reason with one's opponents, personal attacks are highly efficient and often effective. You call someone a name; it hurts their feelings; they blink; and you win. All done. It's easy, even, to imagine getting some measure of satisfaction from this technique. But civility and rationality require that we resist this temptation. Well-run argument is devoted to the objective of figuring things out, getting the right answers. And so making it harder for someone to present her case by producing distracting noise that creates attrition for those in the argument undermines those ends.
Aikin and Talisse are authors of Why We Argue (And How We Should), from Routledge this Fall.
Heidegger and the Reluctant American
by Leanne Ogasawara
In the wake of the bombings in Boston, Katie Roiphe's post at slate caught my attention. She says:
Those obsessively poring over emerging news about the Boston bombers should take a break from their iPhones and laptops and newspapers and read Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, (and see Mira Nair’s film version out later this week). The novel will go further in answering the general bewilderment about the Tsarnaev brothers than the little snippets of their lives we have so far, in answering the bigger mystery: “Why did young men who grew up and studied here, as part of our communities and our country, resort to such violence?” as Obama put it.
The comments to the piece are pretty disturbing and say more about things here than anything else. No, it isn't anything about the immigrant experience, but rather is something inherent to Islam, they say in the comments. But were these young men politized or involved with fundamentalist fanatics? Or were they (at least one of them) mentally ill-- end of story? We just don't know yet, do we?
However, I do think Roiphe makes a good point about identity issues and how cruel and damaging they can be.
In 2000, the conservative critic and Tokyo University professor Susumu Nichibe wrote a book about Japanese virtue and national morality, in which he strongly discouraged teaching a foreign language to Japanese children before they had mastered their own language. I didn't agree with much of anything in his book including that piece of advice (!!), but his description of how bilingualism in languages as different as Japanese and English can cause something which he called cultural schizophrenia stuck in my mind.
I think anyone who speaks two unrelated languages at a high level of fluency will agree that they quite simply think different thoughts depending on the language in which they are thinking at any given time. This is part of the huge attraction, of course, in learning a second language and living overseas--since that experience opens up for a person all kinds of new possibilities: new ways of thinking, new ways of looking at the world, new behaviors, and new ways of understanding the world. It is tremendously expanding.
Japanese is something that has added an indescribable richness to my own inner life and often affords me two very different perspectives on things. At the same time, however, it can be a strain.
The constant cultural comparisons and negotiating back and forth between worldviews can make a person feel the are never wholly at home anywhere. There are also power issues that can generate feelings of humiliation and shame--such as brilliantly portrayed in Hamid's novel. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is at base a novel documenting what it feels like to be between worlds, specifically where one is not in the privileged position (a Pakistani in post 9-11 America).
Maybe unbelievable to me was that the character was only meant to have lived in America four years. Though on second thought, that seemed to be the most common period when people experience nervous breakdowns resulting from culture shock--within the first five years. And, just as Roiphe suggested, what is really interesting about the story is just how so wildly successful by American standards the character was in terms of the "American dream."
Changez repeatedly stated: "I love the United States of America," and it really reminded me of the infamous North Vietnamese spy, Pham Xuan An. "The Spy Who Loved Us," Pham Xuan An adored America. And yet he is said to have been one of the most successful and damaging double agents in history. He worked for Time and counted some of America's most famous Vietnam War journalists as close friends. At the end of the day, though, he remained deeply conflicted; loving America at the same time he worked quite effectively against its interests in his country. One person can hold many conflicting and competing values and worldviews, of course. And those coming from war-torn countries have other challenges as well. Along these lines, Andrew Lam recently wrote about Vietnamese immigrants and violence here.
For me, all roads lead back to my beloved Heidegger. And, I think he was quite right to question the Cartesian claim that there is such a thing as a dis-embodied thinking self (cogito) autonmous from time and world. Heidegger rejected this understanding of personal identity and argued that indeed, our human condition cannot be grasped outside of our everyday projects and situatedness. Everything we know is dependent on our environment (umwelt) and is a necessary reflection of these temporal and cultural limits.
But then how to explain those people who do, in fact, get outside their worldview--outside the culture or the "clearing" into which they are thrown? I would suggest that Heidegger doesn't explain this at all. Maybe he would claim it is not possible to truly be between worlds--and yet, I believe that is precisely what happens and people can indeed take on and negotiate between multiple worlds. This is not to say that anyone can ever get beyond their everyday world into a kind of abstract objective understanding but rather that they will have to deal with multiple cultural projects and mindsets.
I have read more than one article this week about how America is failing such people, and how America needs to re-think how it integrates immigrants. Indeed, I have been taken aback by the way the entire discussion about the bombings has been framed by the media in terms of their being immigrants--see the comments here if you really want to feel concerned. In the Reluctant Fundamentalist too there are descriptions of the "us" versus "them" mentality which affects even such a fabulously successful immigrant as the hero in the novel.
To my mind, though, this is going down the wrong road. Compared to my time in Japan, for example, America is far less challenging--both culturally as well as socially to adapt to and integrate into-- and this is so compared to almost anywhere that I have lived or visited.
I feel the real problem is not how to help immigrants become better Americans-- but rather for Americans to better understand the world outside. For despite its colossal presence in the rest of the world, the country remains almost shockingly insular. We are the globalizers who remain almost utterly un-global in every way. A Facebook acquaintance is giving a university lecture on "deglobalizing Japan," focusing on how fewer Japanese students are going overseas for education now, and I realize that I myself don't know any American-born people who have a foreign language university degree --while I have met quite a few Japanese who have them. It just boggles my mind how insular people are in this country at the same time the mind-set seems to be something like: Good=globalization=Washington consensus/Americanization.
Compared to almost anywhere else our television and music is peculiarly domestic; comparatively few people travel overseas and the non-"immigrant" core of the country not only cannot speak other languages, but their familiarity with foreign cultures and ways of life is shockingly low-level. And, this lack of cosmopolitanism goes right up to the top. Especially in the past two decades, the US administrations have been led by a group of men who have had very little exposure to other languages or overseas cultures. Monoglots and provincials anyone? (for more on that see my other post Cosmopolitanism and the Colonial Imagination).
A friend writes to me that,
Lee Kwan Yew has written extensively on America's incredible capacity to assimilate immigrants. In fact, he says America is the best at it in the world and that it's the backbone of America's success. The fact that we are insular is actually part of that integration because America's message, according to LKY, is that everyone is welcome - so long as they become American. We'll help you and make it easy to become one of us. Just jump on the program. Being insular, in a way, fosters that. It doesn't matter where you come from - you're one of us now. So, in a sense, the very lack of cosmopolitanism is also what possibly fosters the integration.
I think it is undeniable that immigration is the backbone of not only the success of this country but its vitality as wel, and indeed it is possible that our insularity is what allows for the melting pot version of America's pluralistic society. And yet, the insularity comes with its own set of issues--especially when it comes to foreign policy and global understanding, somthing which America sorely lacks, I would argue.
I mentioned this somewhere in these pages before, but I really liked this discussion on Boston College Front Row with writer Cullen Murphy, historian Seth Jacobs, and political scientist Timothy Crawford. Toward the end of the program, Jacobs insists that more damage is done than almost anything else in terms of contemporary foreign policy by Americans basing policy on the idea that the rest of the world is populated by wannabe Americans or frustrated Americans. He says, we assume the rest of the world wants to be just like us and proceed accordingly again and again at our own peril. Our insularity and inability to effectively communicate or understand the world remains at the core of quagmire after quagmire.
And it is to address this that Hamid does such a dazzlingly brilliant job in his novel. For as refined and sensitive as the main character of the novel is in his negotiating back and forth between multiple worlds and multiple selves, it is his American girlfriend Erica that disturbingly stands out for her deep insularity (interiority) and detachment from reality. It is a sad story. Also, it is highly recommended.
See Hubert Dreyfus, Heidegger and Foucault on the Subject, Agency and Practices
This was good too: Ten Things Most Americans Don't Know about America
Above photograph by Karen Knorr, The Witness, Humayun's Tomb, Delhi. India Song below.
Drone Image from Truth Out.
Little Brothers, Total Noise and Trickster
"At the end of the day, someone is going to be right."
~Brian Williams, NBC Anchor
Because terrorism in the United States is an (astonishingly) infrequent phenomenon, the April 15 bombing of the Boston Marathon demands of us to make "sense" of it. But at the same time, it is this infrequency that tempts us to draw grandiose conclusions about What It All Means and How Everything Is Different Now. This species of sensemaking should be considered distinct from, say, the kind that goes on in societies that are frequently targeted. Within the context of Pakistan's 652 bombings in 2012, Rafia Zakaria considers a primary purpose of journalism to be the enactment of "rituals of caring, made so repetitious by the sheer frequency of terror attacks; …in preventing the normalization of violence and senseless evil, they keep a society human." Mercifully, this is not the case here. We probably have the luxury of a few months until the next attack, so let us ponder what the Boston Marathon bombings "want" to tell us.
Were we offered a weary reminder of the racism that always seems to be lurking just below the surface of American society? Indeed. Further proof of Americans' abiding ignorance of geography? Check. A prime opportunity for yet another efflorescence of conspiracy theorists? Yawn. Please tell us something new.
Actually, in the case of Boston, conspiracy theory is a pretty good place to begin. The deepest conceptual failure of conspiracy, as an ontological mode, is its presupposition of a larger, unifying order. Since a benevolent conspiracy is not a conspiracy but really just a miracle – and a conspiracy that is indifferent to us is, by definition, impossible to discern – the fact that conspiracies are also evil is entirely redundant. The goal of identifying (and then wallowing in) a conspiracy, is not so much about the subsequent pursuit of justice, as it is about the reassurance that the world is not chaotic; that however you might detest its presence and seek to escape its influence, there is a deliberate design.
The problem is originary: we are sensemaking creatures. In this light, conspiracy is only our most extreme indulgence of that bedrock behavior. The only thing better than every thing meaning something, is if the meaning of every thing belongs to the same something. But confronted with the immediacy of the Boston bombings, the need to quickly interpret – or, more accurately, create – some kind of meaning is difficult to resist, and technologies, old and new, for better or worse, stood ready to lend a perhaps dubious hand.
Philosopher Rick Roderick, in a 1993 lecture entitled "Habermas and the Fragile Dignity of Humanity" makes a brief, telling aside: "in the late 20th century, we are in a situation where interpretation has never been more difficult." Citing television as an example of an object that resists interpretation, he goes on to assert that:
Orwell was a pie-eyed optimist…Orwell's vision of a horrible future – a boot stomping on a human face forever – is a utopian image because he assumed there would be resistance, and human faces. Both of which may turn out to be false. 1984 is not a book that scares me anymore.
Of course, Orwell's worldview in 1984 was shaped by the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and little else, since tuberculosis had claimed him by 1950. Conflict was mostly militarized, explicit and even formalistic; claims of social control were predicated upon the ongoing existence of such wars. Authority physically manifested itself in the form of Franco and later Stalin – whom Orwell found particularly odious – and the accompanying state security apparatus. Resistance was to be rubbed out mercilessly, through surveillance, interrogation and betrayal not only of individuals, but of language itself. But resistance still existed as an oppositional force.
For Roderick, born the year before Orwell's death, this kind of explicit resistance had been subverted. Consider the advent of television: as a one-way broadcast medium, television was the perfect conduit for the population-wide, normalizing activities of post-war consumer culture: material prosperity, entertainment and advertising. This is what Roderick means when he thinks of television as "closed" to interpretation; it is a fundamentally Foucauldian view. And he was largely right, at least while the near-monopolistic broadcast model remained ascendant. But in the same way Orwell could not have anticipated the utter dissolution of resistance as he conceptualized it, pre-Web commentators ought to be excused for not anticipating the way in which commercial communication technologies created the conditions for the collapse of those very same models.
However, one didn't have to wait for the advent of the Web to see television threatened. Television had already sowed the seeds of its own collapse with the rise of cable and the 24-hour news cycle. Pioneered by CNN, which launched on June 1, 1980 (you can watch the utterly banal first minutes of CNN's life here), its insatiable appetite for news was not without unintended consequences. Two years prior to Roderick's comments, CNN had had a watershed moment in its coverage of the first Persian Gulf War, when it was the first network to provide a live feed of the pre-invasion air war. Decisionmakers found themselves laboring under the so-called "CNN effect:" the always-on nature of cable news artificially increased the pace of decisionmaking, and put politicians and even the military in a constant, reactive crouch. While the extent of the effect is debatable, 24-hour cable news should nevertheless be seen as a touchstone in the progressive tightening of feedback loops between those reporting and those making the news. This performative action of the former upon the latter – that is, the idea that "we journalists are performing journalism all the time, and therefore you decisionmakers must be performing decisions all the time, too" – has been further exacerbated by the rise of dozens of competitors to CNN. Which, only logically, leads us to ask whether there is enough news to keep up with the demands made by these entities.
The Boston bombings provide one answer. The yelling about How Everything Is Different Now has generally revolved around social media's decisive insertion into this system of loops, and how social media has brought in a third constituency, namely, everyone else (that is, everyone who has a internet access and the savvy to use and exchange information on said social media platforms).
For a good while CNN's coverage of Boston consisted of false leads, idle conjecture or stupefied filler, later provoking this absolute drubbing from Jon Stewart. The networks in general saw their thunder stolen by Twitter, and Reddit and 4Chan mounted their own crowdsourced "investigations". People were tracked down, identified and terrorized through their Facebook pages. A Saudi student, injured by and running away from the blast, was apprehended by a "citizen" and declared virtually guilty by the New York Post and Fox News. An already-missing student fingered by Reddit's "Redditors" – themselves anonymous – fared better only because he had committed suicide in the Providence River sometime prior to the Marathon itself. For its part, the New York Post's pièce de résistance of yellow journalism included a photo allegedly lifted from one of the Reddit pages.
Finally, the Tsarnaev brothers were identified by the FBI not through any state-owned surveillance apparatus but from footage captured by a Lord & Taylor department store's security cameras. It's worth noting that there are only 60 CCTV cameras in Boston that are controlled by the police – for now. It was an army of Little Brothers that did the job instead, with varying degrees of effectiveness, but, it must be emphasized, with no lack of enthusiasm.
But things got even messier. As the manhunt progressed, NPR and many others began retweeting the Boston Police Scanner, to the point where the Boston Police Department politely asked them to stop, in fear of giving away tactical positions. For their part, the BPD were afraid that they had a real psychopath on their hands, since they had retweeted sentiments such as "I will kill you all as you killed my brother" from what turned out to be a fake Twitter account (which, in a bizarre act of faux posterity remains up).
How do we make sense of this mess? As a way forward, I cite James Gleick's clear-headed commentary in New York Magazine, who in turn references David Foster Wallace. If there ever was a keen observer of our culture, it was Wallace. In his guest editor's introduction to The Best American Essays 2007, he intimates a society immersed in an ever-accelerating
…rate of consumption which tends to level everything out into an undifferentiated mass of high-quality description and trenchant reflection that becomes both numbing and euphoric, a kind of Total Noise that's also the sound of our U.S. culture right now, a culture and volume of info and spin and rhetoric and context that I know I'm not alone in finding too much to even absorb, much less to try to make sense of or organize into any kind of triage of saliency or value. Such basic absorption, organization, and triage used to be what was required of an educated adult, a.k.a. an informed citizen—at least that's what I got taught. Suffice it here to say that the requirements now seem different.
Total Noise is a total nightmare for Wallace, who was the apotheosis of the close reader. It is represents the sheer impossibility of being able to judge the value of anything, of no longer being able to understand what difference any difference might ultimately make. The limitation of Wallace's perspective is that it doesn't take into account the purposive nature of all that noise. It may, in the aggregate, be noise, but every squawk was created for a reason. Every speck of noise was shot off into the ether of cyberspace on the tiny rocket engine of someone's agenda. Some of these reasons, such as the installation of the Lord & Taylor security camera, were incidental, and others, such as the fake Tsarnaev account, channeled the trickster.
Tricksters are not fools. Both may be Jungian archetypes, but let us be clear on the difference. As Helen Lock writes:
The trickster, however, is not playing. He is not confined to his own sphere of activity, "playing the fool," he is a trickster in the world at large. He actually is immoral (or at least amoral) and blasphemous and rebellious, and his interest in entering the societal game is not to provide the safety-valve that makes it tolerable, but to question, manipulate, and disrupt its rules. He is the consummate mover of goalposts, constantly redrawing the boundaries of the possible. In fact, the trickster suggests, says Hyde, "a method by which a stranger or underling can enter the game, change its rules, and win a piece of the action" (204). Unlike the fool, the trickster aims to change the rules of the "real" world; he is the lowly outsider who is at the same time powerful enough to transform and reconstitute the inside, or indeed to obliterate the existence of "sides." …The trickster pushes the limits of the unorthodox in order to transform reality—and as such is distinct from, in many respects the opposite of, the fool.
In this sense, trickster is present in the creators of fake Twitter accounts, and, no matter how well-intentioned, the witch-hunters of Reddit. And, at the same stroke, the Tsarnaevs themselves squarely occupy this role. They may have not thought through their attack, or rather its aftermath, but they were not, in the Jungian sense, fools. Look at what, all together, they have wrought. Gleick, in his commentary, "found the ecosystem of information in a strange and unstable state: Twitter on the rise, cable TV in disarray, Internet vigilantes bleeding into the F.B.I.'s staggeringly complex (and triumphant) crash program of forensic video analysis. If there ever was a dividing line between cyberspace and what we used to call ‘the real world,' it vanished last week."
Of course, the Tsarnaevs' goal was not to rewrite any information landscape but to kill and maim as many people as possible. But as far as individual bits and pieces go, there is very little that is unprecedented. About ten years ago, I was empaneled on grand jury here in New York City, and one of the indictments we handed down was based on incidental security camera footage – exactly the same sort that proved to be the Tsarnaev brothers' undoing. Regarding the thin membrane separating cyberspace from reality, connoisseurs of the Evil Bert meme will recall how Bert wound up alongside Osama bin Laden on posters handed out at a 2001 demonstration in Bangladesh. And Twitter accounts updated by real fugitives while on the run, such as software entrepreneur and accused murderer John McAfee, quickly spawn their own fake counterparts.
Nevertheless, if there is anything new to be gleaned from this, it is the speed with which it is happening. Boston perhaps set a new record for the sheer amount of information generated, of whatever quality. And the media is indeed indispensable to anyone willing to set off a pressure cooker full of nails. As anthropologist Scott Atran writes in Foreign Policy, "their threat can only match their ambitions if fueled way beyond actual strength. And publicity is the oxygen that fires modern terrorism…Terrorists are directly responsible for violent acts, but only indirectly for the reaction that follows… the media is increasingly less a public service devoted to this task than a competitive business that believes it best succeeds through sensation, which violence privileges."
But even this is a mischaracterization of the kind of media landscape that has established itself. When has media ever solely, or even primarily, been about public service? And now, when barriers to entry to participating in – or simply obfuscating – the media landscape have been all but removed, what phenomena will we witness when the next terrorist attack visits our shores?
Here, then, is a proposed scenario. On the occasion of the next bombing, likely at a public event, there will be some, as-yet undefined critical mass of Google Glass users present (sorry, critics, it's coming), along with whatever competitor products have been released in the meantime. Uploading video and audio in realtime, they will be guided by members of Reddit, InfoWars, Anonymous or some similar happy-go-lucky vigilante network posing as a social media community. They will likely already have personal drones in the air at the event (no need to order online – the availability of personal drones is demonstrated by the accompanying photo, which was taken today at the Barnes and Noble on 86th and Broadway). A manhunt fueled by hashtags, hacked DMV databases, or disabled smart-city traffic light systems will take place. Moving quickly enough, it may outrun not just the media but law enforcement itself. Digitally distributed vigilantism will become the story itself. At worst, we will see the world's first social media-sponsored lynching. (See Patrick Farley's unfinished web-based graphic novel "Spiders," begun around 2002, for a possible future war created by such nicely messy, embryonic growth).
None of these things might come to pass. It is far likelier that what will actually transpire will be stranger still, and much more ambiguous. But one thing is certain: we have come a long way from fearing a society of command-and-control repression (à la Orwell or the conspiracy theorists), or a society of normalized self-policing, which is what Roderick and Foucault envisioned. As a result of our desire to live in a world of which we can make sense, we have created one in which the trickster is ascendant. And the trickster does not play sides.
Andrew Sullivan Gives the Brothers Tsarnaev Too Much Credit
by Zujaja Tauqeer
Over on his blog, Andrew Sullivan has been pondering the motives behind the horrific Boston bombing. His conclusion: Of Course It Was Jihad.
After reading all of his posts, I reached a different conclusion: by calling this act of terror “jihad”, Sullivan is imbuing Tamerlan Tsarnaev with too much representational power over Islam and giving Tsarnaev too much credit by accepting his (unsaid) claims of carrying out actual Islamic injunctions.
Sullivan maintains that Tamerlan was so far gone in his religiosity that one must conclude that his primary motive for acting was religion. Unlike the Obama administration, Sullivan doesn’t conclude that the religious sanction was all in Tamerlan’s head. He cites Rod Dreher, from The American Conservative, who notes that Muslims like Tsarnaev, when they kill, are sometimes carrying out Allah and the Prophet Muhammad's (pbuh) orders, such that Islam, when taken to its logical extreme, is a spur for violent expression. Islam’s violent and fundamentalist strains derive from the fact that it is a religion whose founder practiced violence. According to Sullivan there are concrete reasons why Muslims exhibit a unique proclivity to violence, post-18th century—modernity has exacerbated the inability of extremely religious Muslim loners to find meaning. Hence, killing of civilians.
Playing up Tsarnaev as a staunch, observant Muslim is made possible solely because of Sullivan’s claim that Tamerlan was acting in obedience to actual religious teachings. While there is in fact ample proof to the contrary in the history and scripture of Islam, Sullivan chooses to ignore that mountain of evidence. Instead he wants us to take the word of a 19th century Roman Catholic, Alexis de Tocqueville, for Tamerlan's jihadism. When it comes to talking about Islam, Sullivan sets aside customary rigor in investigating claims or citing sources.
In assigning jihad as the motive, Sullivan makes the ballsy and dangerous move of taking a term of holy war, imbued with much meaning and carrying with it many stipulations, and grants it just like that to the Tsarnaevs. Terming this act “jihad” is a grave mistake because it grants moral legitimacy to terrorism and accepts the rhetoric of terrorists that their acts are in fact exactly the kind of holy acts they say they are. This argument is nothing new. But I maintain that to describe the Brothers Tsarnaev as jihadis and simultaneously invest them with a reputation as devout Muslims, even though they were in fact acting in direct contravention to Islamic teachings, leads to the offensive and fallacious conclusion that a murderer is a model of what Muslims in their full devoutness would be. It gives undeserved power to the most egregiously insincere and disobedient Muslims who cause suffering to innocents to define the meaning of this religion.
Sullivan and modern critics of Islam in the media seem to have fallen victim to a propensity towards uncritical, unquestioned acceptance of the seemingly attractive belief that Islam sanctions violence. Sullivan’s grounds for calling Tamerlan Tsarnaev a jihadi are factually inaccurate and therefore he has no basis upon which to propound his dangerous claims that “it was jihad”. Jihad as holy war is not something that any Muslim can claim to carry out, and for someone prominent like Sullivan to grant that claim of jihad to a murderer without investigating whether it truly does meet the criteria for jihad is bordering on the irresponsible. Regarding jihad, holy war, the Quran notes, “Permission to fight is given to those against whom war is made, because they have been wronged - and Allah indeed has power to help them. Those who have been driven out from their homes unjustly only because they said, ‘Our Lord is Allah’ - And if Allah did not repel some men by means of others, there would surely have been pulled down cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of Allah is oft commemorated.” [Ch22:V40-41] Jihad is holy war sanctioned under certain key principles, some outlined here, and it is meant for the defence of the freedom of conscience of Muslims, but not Muslims alone; thus the mention of cloisters and churches and synagogues.
Sullivan further maintains that Tsarnaev’s acts and those of other violent Muslims find permission in the violent example of Islam’s founder. By this association with the founder of Islam he gives them greater significance than to the majority of peaceful Muslims who are not given such a favourable association by Sullivan. I'd like to make a salient point here about the Prophet serving as a model by which to compare Muslim acts. The founder of Islam does indeed provide a very concrete comparison for judging whether an adherent is acting in a manner sanctioned by Islam. Islam’s founder was not apolitical, not unaccustomed to war. He was a statesman, a lawgiver. He had to fight wars to protect his people against aggressors and he won and lost battles. He was also fully human, a husband and a father. In the Prophet Muhammad's life, unlike in Jesus', there is substantial evidence and examples of his response to situations of violence which serve as a check on Muslims against acts of terrorism. The historical fact is that Muhammad (pbuh) was founder of a new religion that threatened the establishment in his time. Before he was head of a state, his followers remained persecuted--they either practiced their religion in secret in Mecca or sought asylum in nearby areas (such as Christian Abyssinia or in Medina). Once the Prophet was installed as the leader of Medina after fleeing Mecca with many of his followers, the Meccans initiated hostilities against the state of Medina. He engaged in a series of defensive wars per Quranic injunction, “Fight in the way of God against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! God loveth not aggressors.” [Ch2:V191]. Even with aggressive wars being waged against his people and state, there is historical evidence that he took all reasonable steps to avoid war. One famous example is the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, in which he agreed to crippling demands by his enemies in order to establish a 10-year truce. He did so because “if the enemies incline towards peace, do you also incline towards peace. And trust in God! For He is the one who hears and knows all things.” [Ch8:V62] There is not a shred of evidence of or allowance for initiating or prolonging hostilities when peace is an option.
So there is clear evidence for reasoned third parties by which to judge the presence of religious sanction for acts undertaken by Muslims relating to war and peace. Nevertheless, Sullivan still goes on to credit Tamerlan with having the support of God and Prophet for his actions, thereby giving these acts an unwarranted authority and significance, in spite of the injunction of the Quran that states, “Whoso kills a soul, unless it be for murder or for wreaking corruption in the land, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind; and whoso gave life to one, it shall be as if he had given life to all mankind.” [Ch5:V33].
Even the aggressive wars of the US that may kill civilians in Muslim countries (which some see as explaining terrorist acts by Muslims) would not give sanction to a Muslim to engage in likewise acts. “Do not be people without minds of your own, saying that if others treat you well you will treat them well, and that if they do wrong you will do wrong to them,” the Prophet Muhammad said, “Instead, accustom yourselves to do good if people do good and not to do wrong (even) if they do evil.” Contravening Islamic injunctions on war and peace is thus prohibited, even in the face of overwhelming wrong done by the aggressor—and the Islamic laws of war propounded in Muhammad's time clearly established that innocent non-combatants, women, children, the old, the infirm, even fruit-bearing trees and towns, were not to be targeted. Thus undertaking violence against innocent civilians, even as recompense for the acts of war committed by the US, should not and does not elevate a terrorist to the status of zealous Muslim. It makes him a murderer.
Some unrelated claims Sullivan makes about controversial “Islamic” practices which pose a threat to civilization, again by using another non-Muslim source, namely Sam Harris, are also equally false, e.g. that Islam apparently has ‘texts’ that sanction the murder of infidels and apostates and negates the rights of women etc. There are no core texts in Islam that sanction such acts and therefore those that carry out such acts are not acting on Islamic principles. According to the Quran, “There should be no compulsion in religion. Surely right has become distinct from wrong.” [Ch2:V257] If Sullivan can cite those who claim that violence such as the Inquisition perpetuated by Christendom, indeed even when carried out by Christian states or by the Church itself in the name of Christianity, is in direct contravention to the teachings of Jesus and the Gospels, it should certainly not be a stretch for him to make the same judgment for Islam in view of countries where repressive, power-hungry dictators and regimes (Zia ul Haq in Pakistan; the Taliban and Al-Saud in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia) have imposed unwarranted laws and unleashed terrible violence in the name of Islam, even though their condemnable acts have no evidence in the scripture. Nor is evidence for these abominable practices observed in the powerful historical example of the polity of Medina, a Muslim state of Muhammad’s time. There are in Islam guarantees for women attaining an education, inheriting property, and being able to divorce, rights that pre-empted Western courts and legislatures by over a millennia, which neither Judaism nor Christianity enshrine in their holy texts. Yet Islam is somehow a unique threat to “the emergence of a global civil society.” To say that modernity in inherently in conflict with Islam is an unnecessary and disputable claim and therefore an erroneous marker for jihadi violence. The tension between the developments of modernity, such as the rise of the modern secular state, and Islam cannot be seen to motivate Tsarnaev's actions because the Prophet noted, "Love for one's country is part of faith" and the Quran forbids the breaking of oaths (e.g. oaths of allegiance).
To demonstrate how Muslims are actually supposed to act when it comes to those of other faiths, I'll cite here a treaty signed by the founder of Islam with the monks of St. Catharine's monastery, Mt Sinai (since it gives an example of Muslim-Christian relations and the US is considered a Christian nation).
"This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them. Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them. No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims' houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God's covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate. No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight. The Muslims are to fight for them. If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray. Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants. No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world)".
Sullivan makes many general claims, without proof, about Islam’s supposed violent teachings and the supposed violent example of its Prophet in supporting his claim of jihad and in asserting Tamerlan’s faithfulness to Islam. It is a concerted effort to proliferate factually inaccurate generalities in order to make damaging claims about the proclivity towards violence and primitiveness of the adherents of an entire religion. What’s worse, his anti-Islam claims and false pronouncements on jihad damage the entire endeavour of peaceful Muslims to counter the influence of violent terrorists who claim to be waging a jihad against the US.
Sullivan says all religions have fanatical sides but in view of the Taliban and Tsarnaevs, he concludes Islam’s violent side is “more murderous that most”—which directly contradicts this handy pie chart by Prof. Cole that subjects the claim to historical rigor. More than modernity afflicting the religion and causing violent expression among adherents, it is evident that western exploitation via the processes of colonization and decolonization have caused structural issues in nations where a large part of the Muslim population resides.
There is not a shred of evidence providing either explanation or justification for the Boston bombing being termed a jihad—a religiously sanctioned war—against the US or its people, nor is there any reason to conclude that Tamerlan and his brother deserve the kind of association with Islam and legitimacy that the term “jihadi” grants them. Apart from all that I have mentioned, Prof. Juan Cole, expert historian over at The Informed Comment, compiles this handy list for how the terrorist acts of the Taliban and Tsarnaevs are not manifestations of Islamic beliefs. This evidence should at the very least serve to make a reasoned third party question how the Brothers Tsarnaev, if they really were so devout, could disobey so many Islamic commandments to carry out surprise acts of terror against civilians. Sullivan says that cherry picking from the Quran makes it easy to turn to violence. Suffice it to say that by cherry picking to seek sanction for violence and ignoring all the above-mentioned legal and scriptural checks, those Muslims engaging in acts of violence are inherently not acting in obedience to their religion and therefore there is no basis to grant them the image of observant Muslim ideologues. They are simply violent people. Or as Dreher says in explaining Christian violence, "violence is inherent in the human condition".
The terrorists touted in the media as extremist, fundamentalist Muslims are, in their violence, uniquely seen to exhibit their religion, when no other violent extremists of any other religion are vested with such representational power. They should not be.
In falsely painting violent terrorists like Tamerlan Tsarnaev as supremely devout Muslims, Sullivan and others are giving the unwarranted impression that moderate Muslims, who vastly outnumber violent ones, are by comparison lesser depictions of the Islamic faith, less willing to carry out the demands of their religion. They are not.
The 99.9%, whom Sullivan and Dreher so patronizingly think "non-Muslims should encourage, for the sake of peace", are and have always been fundamentally opposed to the killing of civilians. They are the ideologues that are truly extremist in their desire to end bloodshed. They do follow the example of their Prophet—when treating with kindness and justice those who bring war upon their coreligionists. Their full obedience to God and Prophet is manifested not in blowing themselves up, but in fighting for the freedom of conscience of all humans. They are vocal in their condemnation, even when no seems to be listening. It is because they consider themselves to be devout Muslims. For the majority of Muslims who have utterly condemned the tragedy in Boston and disavowed terrorist acts carried out in Islam’s name clearly and explicitly, Sullivan’s is a tough claim to accept.
Zujaja can be followed on twitter.
by Shadab Zeest Hashmi
I write to you of folding, tucking, burying side by side. The silk you worried the centuries into being, has arrived; bolts of it. But when we opened the trunks, all we saw was a smooth tongue: Urdu's cascade, a shimmer in ruins. We had to snap shut and lock your decorous viscera, counting only what sells in the market.
Most days, it is over fifty degrees; memories steal away easily. Guards in their fat stupor don't notice them your side of the border.
Pakistan— land of the thirsty, land of skipped beats: half an oscillation, an unfinished verse. India throbs behind us: Its many drums, torn kites and squalor. To both, dust returns again and again, the powdered ghost of goodbye the British viceroy's last plane.
I write to you of a crazed goat leaping across the stretch of No Man's land— no larger than a cricket pitch. A cawing here, a rustling there; the air weighed down by cannons. Another goat, its ears shaking as it grazes under a dwarf tree, will be the first to hear warplanes.
Miles and miles of rice paddies on both sides of the border, roofed by rancor; Hindu gods bathed in milk on one side, on the other, terraces where we wait for the green-domed country carved for us. I write to you of the armor you forgot to pack, the missing tools. Your silk, dear dead, is a rheumatic sleep fingering a new tangle of history.
Trees please, with fruit
by Quinn O'Neill
Seattle residents have a brilliant plan in the works. They're building America's largest "food forest". It's going to be a 7-acre plot with hundreds of edible plants, including walnut and chestnut trees; blueberry and raspberry bushes; fruit trees, including apple and pear trees; pineapple, yuzu citrus, guava, and persimmons; honeyberries and lingonberries; and herbs. According to this report, "All will be available for public plucking to anyone who wanders into the city's first food forest."
I think this is a fantastic idea. Why haven't we been doing this everywhere?
The potential benefits are innumerable. The most obvious perk might be aesthetic, but lush blossoming trees and greenery are more than just eye candy. Exposure to vegetation also has benefits for mental health, reducing anxiety and improving mood. Memory gains and improvements in mood as a result of nature walks have even been reported in adults suffering from major depressive disorders.
The mechanism underlying the mental boost isn't clear. Neighborhood greenery could encourage people to spend more time outdoors, more time engaged in physical activity, and more time mixing socially with other community members. These factors probably play a role, but they don't tell the whole story. Even looking at photos of vegetation can help to focus attention and reduce mental fatigue and stress compared to looking at similar photos with no vegetation.
Of course, Seattle's food park isn't just about greenery, since much of its botanical offerings will be edible. Given the prevalence of obesity, poverty, and food deserts in the US, we might also expect some improvement in physical health as a result of better nutrition. The park's fruit and berries may not be adequate to steadily supply community members, but this might not be so important. Just encouraging experimentation with novel food items - particularly the more exotic ones - can inspire people to buy them when they go grocery shopping. Shoppers encountering persimmons or guavas for the first time might be deterred by the unknown: Do you have to peel them? Can you eat the seeds? Do they need to be cooked first? With park visitors inadvertently offering free demonstrations of how to eat the foods, overcoming these knowledge barriers would literally be a walk in the park.
Actual experience with healthy foods can be an important influence on dietary choices. Research has shown that school gardening programs can promote healthy dietary changes in students. In one study of second graders, students who received both nutrition education and gardening experience were more likely to choose and consume vegetables in the lunchroom than peers who received only nutrition education. Perhaps experience with new fruits in a food forest could have a similar effect on adults.
Food forests may have environmental and ecological benefits too, as they remove CO2 from the air and offer their blossoms to vulnerable pollinators, like honeybees and butterflies. The park may also help to instill in its visitors an appreciation for the natural environment and the importance of protecting it for future generations. This could be an especially important lesson for today's youth, who spend relatively more time in indoor urban environments and are saturated with technological gadgetry.
Another potential benefit of greener surroundings could be reduced crime. A recent study of Philadelphia neighborhoods found lower rates of assault, robbery, and burglary in communities with more abundant vegetation. The effect was still apparent after controlling for socioeconomic indicators of disadvantage, like poverty and educational attainment.The authors discuss a couple of explanations for the findings. Green spaces encourage people to spend more time outdoors, which discourages crime through greater social supervision. And, the plants themselves have a mentally restorative effect, reducing the psychological precursors to violent behavior, like irritability and loss of impulse control.
Food forests might prove especially benefical in high crime communities. Undoubtedly, there would be additional challenges to implementing them in such places and it might be necessary to hire people for both maintenance and security purposes. But, if establishing a food forest could prevent even a few crimes for which people would end up being jailed, the project might pay for itself. Crime is expensive. In the US, it costs more than $20, 000 per year to keep someone in a state prison. Property damage associated with crime is also costly. Of course, I'm making a bit of a jump from correlation to causation here. It's not clear how much crime, if any, could be prevented as a result of greening a neighborhood, but a reduction wouldn't have to be huge for the park to be a good financial investment in this respect. These neighborhoods also tend to have more than their fair share of poverty, food deserts, obesity, and disease, so there are many other good reasons why a food forest might be worth a try.
A promising aspect of the idea is that it wouldn't necessarily require a tremendous amount of investment or expertise. Similar projects could be done on smaller scales and adapted to the conditions at hand. Gardening programs at schools or community centers are one idea, and on an even smaller scale, a few friends or neighbors could coordinate their own backyard gardens so that they could share their produce and have greater variety. Such projects lend themselves well to organization at a variety of levels. Some communities may even already have gardening clubs or residents with relevant expertise who might be willling to help.
I think the idea offers an oasis of hope at a time when we're outgunned by industry forces that would have us eating processed junk food and medicating ourselves for the mildest of mental health problems. Chemical companies have been stubbornly pushing their profitable insecticides despite concerns about dangers to honeybees, and the corporate media have been ignoring serious environmental issues. It can all be rather disheartening. But in the midst of it all, Seattleites have offered us a reminder that we still have power at local levels to cultivate an appreciation for nature and to positively influence the health of our families and our communities.
Correction: This post originally stated that Seattle residents were building "America's first 'food forest'". This appears to be false. Though Seattle's food forest will be unique in many respects, similar forest gardening projects exist at the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute in Colorado and the Montview Neighborhood Farm in Massachusetts. Additionally, one commenter here has a 5-acre one in the works in Monterey, California.
Photo credit: Tiago Fioreze, Wikimedia Commons
Sunday, April 28, 2013
Physicist Proposes New Way To Think About Intelligence
Chris Gorski in Physics Central:
Alexander Wissner-Gross, a physicist at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Cameron Freer, a mathematician at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, developed an equation that they say describes many intelligent or cognitive behaviors, such as upright walking and tool use.
The researchers suggest that intelligent behavior stems from the impulse to seize control of future events in the environment. This is the exact opposite of the classic science-fiction scenario in which computers or robots become intelligent, then set their sights on taking over the world.
The findings describe a mathematical relationship that can "spontaneously induce remarkably sophisticated behaviors associated with the human 'cognitive niche,' including tool use and social cooperation, in simple physical systems," the researchers wrote in a paper published today in the journal Physical Review Letters.
"It's a provocative paper," said Simon DeDeo, a research fellow at the Santa Fe Institute, who studies biological and social systems. "It's not science as usual."
Wissner-Gross, a physicist, said the research was "very ambitious" and cited developments in multiple fields as the major inspirations.
The mathematics behind the research comes from the theory of how heat energy can do work and diffuse over time, called thermodynamics. One of the core concepts in physics is called entropy, which refers to the tendency of systems to evolve toward larger amounts of disorder. The second law of thermodynamics explains how in any isolated system, the amount of entropy tends to increase. A mirror can shatter into many pieces, but a collection of broken pieces will not reassemble into a mirror.
The new research proposes that entropy is directly connected to intelligent behavior.
"[The paper] is basically an attempt to describe intelligence as a fundamentally thermodynamic process," said Wissner-Gross.
Bee Wilson reviews ‘Cooked,’ by Michael Pollan
Bee Wilson in the New York Times:
In each of the sections — neatly themed as “Fire,” “Water,” “Air” and “Earth” — Pollan seeks wisdom from masters who will teach him one of the four basic elements of cooking. In “Fire,” he learns barbecue from a “slow-moving bear of a man.” In “Water,” he is taught pot cookery — casseroles and braises — by a lively Iranian-American woman who once worked at Chez Panisse. “Air” refers to the rising of bread as he trains himself in the magic of sourdough. Finally, “Earth” is devoted to fermentation, following sauerkraut gurus, cheese makers and craft beer enthusiasts to find out what microbes really do for us, whether in our guts or in our food.
A life involving no home cooking, Pollan convincingly argues, is a life diminished. It’s not just that you probably eat food that’s of worse quality (in Pollan’s world, cooks seldom burn things or give their guests food poisoning). It’s also because the noncook suffers a loss of engagement “with the material world.” And cooking may be the best line of defense against obesity: Pollan cites a 2003 Harvard study that correlated the increase of obesity in America with the decline of home cooking.
If such an absence is indeed disastrous, you might expect that “Cooked” would examine how to get more people to change their habits. Now, Pollan notes, the typical American household devotes “a scant 27 minutes a day” to food preparation. Pollan rounds up the usual enemies of home cooking: “longer workdays and overscheduled children,” and, of course, convenience foods. But instead of considering ways to make cooking easier to fit into time-pressed lives, he sets off on a personal quest — albeit written with all his trademark lyricism — to master techniques that are perversely slow and difficult, from cheese making to kimchi fermentation.
Interpreting Tino Sehgal
Justin E. H. Smith in his blog:
I recently worked as an 'interpreter', to use the term of art, in This Situation, a work by Tino Sehgal on exhibit at the Musée d'Art Contemporain in Montreal throughout most of March and April, 2013. My reasons for signing on to this project are several, including some having to do with the commitments that ensue from friendship, and some, I'll confess, with my seemingly constitutional inability to get my financial situation in order (peers in a similar stage of their careers are using words like 'refinance' and 'diversify'; I'm out in the moonlight scraping together a security deposit for a short-term sublet in Paris). More importantly, I went into it in the hope that I would come out the other end with a properly informed critical judgment about the work and about the state of contemporary art. When I was a lad I enthused about every new thing that came along. I would shell out for CDs with recordings of HVAC sounds in office buildings, and would go to the Pompidou and look at Joseph Beuys' rolled-up carpets or whatever and think some inarticulate thought along the lines of: Fuck you, stuffy old people. In more recent years I have come to feel that modernity was already bad enough, let alone whatever is supposed to have come after it, and I spend most of my time thinking about things one could just as easily have thought about when Oedipus Rex first realized what he'd done. I'm not nearly as contemporary as this thing I've just been involved in, I mean to say, and this necessarily constrains what sort of things I shall be able to say about it.