If you decide to make the sky fall

9 10 2014

I am not a Christian, Muslim, or Jew.

I am not Hindu, or Buddhist, or Jain, Taoist, Bahá’í, Wiccan, Yazidi, Shinto, Zoroastrian, Sikh, or any sort of pagan or animist.

I am not spiritual, and believe in neither demons nor angels nor supernatural vibes of any sort.

I am agnostic, which means I lack knowledge, along with faith and belief. I do not know if none, one, some, or all of the above traditions holds any or the entirety of truth. I do not know if some other tradition holds any portion of truth.

And I’m all right with that. I call myself a “doubter”, and that doubt works for me.

I’m also all right with others who have do have faith in some tradition or another, and, contra Hitchens, do not believe that “religion poisons everything”.

Or should I say, that religion uniquely poisons everything. I think religion is a powerful human invention and thus, like any powerful human invention, may poison its adherents or the course of events, but not that it necessarily or always does so.

It is also possible that religion (l.a.p.h.i.), may serve as an antidote to other invented poisons.

All of which is a rather long prologue to a rather convoluted post on the rather convoluted topic of the role of Islam in the world today, viz., is it uniquely bad in its effects on co-religionists and non-co’s alike?

There is today far more violence among Muslims and between Muslims and non-Muslims than there is in other world religions*. This doesn’t discount other intra- and inter-religious violence or aggression, nor other less-deadly forms of intolerance, but given conflicts across parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, it’s pretty clear that there are. . . issues in Islam.

Are these issues unique to Islam? A little trip through history points to “no”, and had pundits existed in the 16th century, they may have raised similar questions about the aggressiveness and intolerance of Christianity.

Are these issues endemic to Islam? Whatever the violent history of Christianity, it’s mostly not violent today*, which leads some to note that aggression is therefore not an essential part of Christianity. Can Islam work its violence out of its system as Christianity has, or is supremacism and aggression so interwoven in its scripture and traditions that it cannot transform itself as Christianity has?

Trick questions!

Christianity is a sprawling complex of tradition and change and interpretation which has sometimes been violent, sometime intolerant, sometimes triumphalist, and other times, not. That Christianity is currently not at the center of strife in the world* does not mean that its aggressiveness has been bred out of its system. It’s sidelined, but extirpated? Eh.

Islam is also a sprawling complex of tradition and change and interpretation, and thus like Christianity, can find within that complex support for both aggression and tolerance. It is thus difficult to determine whether any one strand within is always and forever at the center of what it needs to be Muslim.

So, why trick questions? Because what counts as essential has been and is contested in history, and what must be interpreted in this way today may be interpreted in that way tomorrow. That is the condition of all human inventions.

None of this is to shield Islam or any other tradition (or human invention) from criticism, and that there may exist no absolute and eternal standards of how to treat one another doesn’t mean one can’t construct and apply our own provisional and worldly standards.

Which is a rather convoluted way to say: of course Islam may be criticized, as should be those who find in Islam justification for horrid acts.

That Muslims are not unique in their religious—or ideological—justifications is also no barrier to criticism: your mom probably pointed out to you long ago that “everyone else is doing it!” is no excuse for your own bad behavior.

One last turn around: If you’re going to go after an entire religious belief system and its effects on adherents and non-adherents alike, then fer-cryin’-out-loud, look at the entire belief system, not just at what you don’t like.

Is there poison in Islam? Yes. But that doesn’t mean Islam is all and only poison.

Or maybe it is. It’s possibly that after thorough study one might conclude nothing good has ever or will ever come from Islam—or any religion.

But I kinda doubt it.


*Crucial caveat: people living in countries having bombs recently dropped on them by Christians might contest this notion of Christianity as not-aggressive.

h/t for link to Sullivan, and this entire damned post was set off by the Maher-Harris-Affleck kerfuffle


Humans from earth, pt II

20 01 2014

Why ontological?

I like to make everything ontological, is one answer, but also because this is the level at which the question of being qua being occurs.

What does it mean to be human?

I suggested in the last post that biology may be a necessary-but-not-sufficient condition of humanness, and I hold to that—for now. It is entirely possible that at some point in the future humanness will be extended to non-biologically entities, although I don’t know that such recognition will be so extended during my lifetime. (After I’m dead? Let the living sort it out.)

More immediately tantalizing—and in a kind of reverse-example to offer to TWO—is the de facto semi-recognition extended to chimpanizees by the National Institutes of Health in their decision to restrict the kinds of federally-funded research which can now be performed using chimps.

TWO (or someone) might argue that this half-recognition is extended on the basis of biology, but if the biology is what matters—if biology is all that’s ever mattered—then why was such protection not extended until now?

Thus, I want to bring forward something which I referenced earlier: the necessity of recognition. It is not enough for one to have the biological substrate of the human, but that those with that substrate be recognized as human.

Recognized by whom? Well, that’s the kicker, ain’t it? It’s an inside game: those who are inside give the status to themselves, and decide who/what else gets to enter or may be forced to leave, and/or those with sufficient leverage  either “break” in and force recognition or so change the terms that they take the insider status for themselves.

In other words, it’s about power, which is an historically-contingent phenomenon.

Now, how did anyone come to recognize themselves as human? That’s a very damned good question, one worthy of a dissertation, but even without knowing the origin of this claimed status, it’s clear that some of claimed that status for them/ourselves, and on the basis of that status have granted them/ourselves certain protections and privileges not given to those lacking such status.

TWO argues that DNA (et. al.) ought to be the standard for recognition as it is “scientifically knowable in a more or less concrete fashion (thus my DNA point above) with a high degree of certainty and clarity”, and, again, as a practical matter, this has a lot going for it. I even think my reservations about the messiness of biology (e.g., what of those with +/- 46 chromosomes) can be assuaged with a very few addenda, such as “created with the gametes and borne of Homo sapiens” to cover those statistically outside of the norm.

(This should hold at least until we figure out artificial wombs and begin decanting our offspring, but again: I’ll be dead when this happens, so let the living figure it out.)

Others might argue for another standard—that we are created in the image of God, say (and let those who make this argument figure out what that means)—or add in various requirements for consciousness or certain characteristics or abilities: the crucial point is that the standard be settled (enough) for us to make practical decisions about those who are human (and not).

Well, that’s one crucial point: the other crucial point is that the standard doesn’t set itself.

We set the standard, and we do so based on commitments to forms of knowledge we find most compelling.

For TWO, the knowledge gained from biology is most compelling, and thus for him ought to serve as the standard. It’s not unreasonable—clarity, intersubjectivity (i.e., “scientifically knowable” by anyone who cares to know it), and concreteness are pretty damned good reasons—but it can’t justify itself, i.e., the reasons to adopt the “Homo sapiens standard” are external to the standard itself.

Huh, not being clear. What I mean to say is the establishment of the Homo sapiens standard  is one thing, and why we should take that standard as dispositive for humanness is another. I may like clarity, intersubjectivity, and concreteness, but why should those be the qualities we use to judge the standard?

This can lead into an epistemological dissolve, but I’ll bring it back to the practical in a moment. Do let me make one further point before doing so: that Homo sapiens is itself an historical construction, and that there has not always been agreement on who belongs in this species.  Again, we could slide down into the abyss on this observation (always a fun ride down, but perhaps a bit much for this particular conversation), but, again, I want to bring that point back up to the practical level.

And then, finally, on to those examples TWO requested. On to part III!

I am iron man

17 02 2010

Or straw man—the same thing, really.

This post’s edition of hay*-covered solemnities concerns that which threatens to bring down/is significantly degrading/has already brought down Western Civilization, aka, all that is Good and Holy in the world: Relativism.

Mind you, the crusade against relativism isn’t confined to the autocratic right; Good Liberals are also apt to say, before observing that what’s okey-dokey in one society might not fly in another, that of course they’re not advocating relativism, but. . . .

I’m not a particularly Good Liberal, tho’ I don’t have anything against them. In fact, the imaginary Good Liberal brings forth exactly the point that needs to be made about relativism: that there is a difference between recognition and advocacy.

I am one of those who merely recognizes relativism (as well as its aliases-slash-cousins social constructivism, anti-foundationalism, and epistemological nihilism), as opposed to those who advocate on its behalf. (I don’t know many people outside of  first-year grad students who are advocates, but I’ll get to that in moment.)

First, recognition. I mean this plainly, which is to say, I relativism as a condition of our (post)modern existence. There is no singular rule, no singular god, no singular absolute standard against which to measure ourselves. There is no transcendent rule, no natural law, no universal order of human life.

There is no inherent meaning. There is no essential good and bad.

But this does not mean that no rule is possible, no standards may exist, and no judgments of good and bad are allowed. It simply means that any questions of judgment cannot be thrown back to an absolute or transcendent marker.

It simply means that questions of meaning have no necessary relationship to capital-T-Truth.

It simply means that capital-T-Truth may not much matter.

To recognize all of this is not to say this is good or bad. As the saying goes, It is what it is.

Those who think this is bad tend to mourn the loss in culture of an overarching purpose/underlying order; some try to figure out how to live with this, some blame those of us who point out the fractures for causing them, some deny any fractures exist, likening them to surface cracks distracting us from a deeper unity.

Perhaps they’re right, the denialists. I have no way of knowing.

And I’m fine with that.

Some might think this makes me an advocate of relativism, but it simply means that I refuse to take epistemological sides. I look through time and space and see so many ways of living, so many ways of being, and instead of choosing one over the other, shrug and note that outside of a way of being, I can’t say that one is absolutely or transcendentally better than the other.

Again, this doesn’t mean I can’t have my own preferences or that I can’t judge. It does mean that I have to lay out the terms of that judgment, terms which have no final grounding in any sort of metaphysic. Terms which can be rejected, in other words.

It’s not as if I’m completely at sea. I live in a particular time and place, and can call upon the values and concepts of this time and place—this way of being—in order to make my arguments and interrogations. But I have no ultimate trump card, nothing to throw on the table to say, absolutely and finally, Ha! I win. Instead, any wins are provisional, subject to override and undertow, and thus in need of constant defense and elaboration.

Nothing can be taken for granted.

That’s my starting point—nothing can be taken for granted—and while I understand that life might be easier if I could, epistemologically, take a few things for granted, that’s not something I choose. Instead, I choose the nothing.

But this doesn’t make me an advocate for nothing and, to be fair, I don’t think most advocates for relativism choose nothing, either. Even Nietzsche, who’s sometimes held up as the grandee of nothing, recognizes rather than advocates nothing. His great challenge is, Precisely what will we do with all this nothing? Now that God is dead, what?

What he did advocate, an embrace of the life of the Overman, repelled many, but the advocacy for the Uber-life is but one response to the condition of nothingness, not its apotheosis.

Anyway, I snarked earlier that only the eager young joyfully embrace relativism (and no, I’m not just talking about an earlier version of me), but this isn’t quite right, either. Rather, there are those who, in the name of its corporate-friendly version, diversity, admonish that it’s not acceptable to judge those from other cultures or with other ways.

If this is what people choose, well, it must be okay.


Not that one might can’t say ‘Whatever’ to the choices of others, but that one must say this. In a sense, this type of advocate implicitly accepts the charge from the absolutists, et. al.: absent something eternal and outside of ourselves, we can make no judgments.

Again, the crucial point is not that no standards may exist, but that no standard must exist.

There is another dimension, of course, which adds some urgency to these issues, which is the consideration of power. It’s too late (cursed that 9-5 job!) for me even to finish the exegesis on relativism, much less sketch out the implications of power, so allow me the upshot when I say that such a consideration argues in favor of setting standards.

But that’s another post.

*I know hay isn’t the same thing as straw, but gimme a break: I’m not in Wisconsin anymore, and my audience is muuuuuch more sophisticated than those persnickety rural types who insist upon dunning us sophisticates with their petty knowledge of, oh, farming and plants and nature and everything. Honestly.

Never enough

9 12 2009

Be beautiful.

Be smart (but not too. . .).

Be supportive.

Be thin.

Be a wife. Be a girlfriend. Be a mother.

Be everything.

But not enough. It won’t be enough, not for him.

Let it be stipulated that not every man cheats. Let it be stipulated that women cheat. Let it be stipulated that monogamy is not for everyone.

Let it be further stipulated that athletes and politicians and corporate moguls and celebrities are not like the rest of us.


I look at these everything-women and their caddish men and think Women are fucked.

Told constantly by magazine writers and self-help authors and media representations and advertisements and sexperts that if women would only lose the weight and change the hair and brighten the smile and maybe engage in a little bo-nip-tuck-tox (and, of course, shave/wax/defoliate one’s nether and whatever other  regions) you too could earn yourself The Man of Your Dreams™, we are confronted with the scenario in which said Man simply decides that one is nowhere near enough.

I know: media representations are bullshit, and my rational feminist brain tells me that relationships are complex and compatibility runs far deeper than the skin.


This plain and single woman cannot rid herself of the enduring thought that if only she’d lose five pounds and/or get in better shape and get her teeth and eyes fixed then maybe, just maybe, she could be worth dating.

Irrational, yes. Pathetic, yes. A handy way to avoid addressing the real reasons I don’t date—yes, absolutely, yes.


The thought remains.

As does the apparent evidence that whatever fixes one enacts won’t ever be enough.

Fucked, all around.

Is anybody alive in here?

26 11 2009

It’s far easier to end things than to figure out things past the end.

Upshot: I’m having difficulty with the dystopias.

I did manage to put together a chart, but it’s pretty spongy. I’d put in ‘violent’ here or ‘charismatic’ there, then take it out, move it around.

I don’t have it—I’m missing something; no flow, here.

So let’s just call this Dystopia-Beta

  • I. Cause
    • A. Collapse
      • i. catastrophic (SEE Apocalypse)
      • ii. gradual breakdown
    • B. Evolution
      • i. of species
        • a. human
        • b. non-human
      • ii. of society
  • II. Type
    • A. Chaotic
      • i. non-violent
        • a. few people
        • b. hostile environment
      • ii. episodically violent
        • a. individual predation
        • b. criminal gangs
        • c. militias
      • iii. war
        • a. criminal gangs
        • b. militias
        • c. organized armies
    • B. Corporate
      • i. workers controlled
      • ii. consumers controlled
    • C. Party government
      • i. everything-is-good
        • a. dissenters marginalized
        • b. dissenters jailed/killed
        • c. dissenters re-educated
      • ii. everything-is-grim
        • a. populace atomized
        • b. populace enslaved
        • c. ongoing genocide
      • iii. behind-the-scenes
        • a. omnipresent/tracks behavior
        • b. omniscient/tracks affect & intellect
    • D. Military government
      • i. military in sync with society
      • ii. military opposed to society
      • iii. entire society militarized
    • E. Theocracy
      • i. elite/exclusive
        • a. exploits populace
        • b. suppresses populace
        • c. forcibly converts populace
      • ii. populist/inclusive
        • a. cultic/centered on charismatic leader
        • b. pietistic/communitarian
        • c. dogmatic/authoritarian
    • III. Stage
      • A. Immediate post-
        • i. no control
        • ii. begin control
      • B. Semi-stable
        • i. partial control [against chaos]
        • ii. organized fight for control
      • C. Stable
        • i. evolving
        • ii. eternal

(I have to say, this was a total pain in the ass to put together—all those damned ‘li’ and ‘backslash ul’—but I did it. Still, I am lazy enough that if flow charts require anything near the persnickety-ness of a nested chart, fuggedaboudit. )

Not so great, I know, but it’s a start.

Suggestions welcome.

Walk it down, talk it down

24 11 2009

A taxonomy of terror?

Yes, again with the apocalyptic and/or dystopic pics and books. Blame a conversation with my friend, S.

So, to categorize:

I. Caused by:
A. Collapse
i. slow-motion
ii. sudden
B. Violence
i. natural
a. arising from natural forces
b. arising from altered nature
ii. inflicted
a. by humans
b. by non-humans
c. by supernatural forces

II. Threatened:
A. Avoidable
i. due to intervention by many
ii. due to intervention by few [n.b. S. doesn’t think this should count]
iii. due to supernatural intervention
iv. due to luck
B. Unavoidable
i. due to luck
ii. predestined

III. Post-apocalypse (SEE ALSO: Dystopia]
A. Immediately post-
i. happy-to-have-survived
ii. continued survival uncertain
B. Intermediate post-
i. reconstruction begun
ii. further collapse
C. Long-term post-
i. reconstruction complete
a. society similar to pre-apocalypse
b. society better than pre-
c. society worse than pre-
d. society different from pre-
ii. reconstruction amidst chaos
iii. chaos
iv. no life

(Crap. I’ve GOT to learn html so I can space all this stuff correctly. But you get the idea.)

Tomorrow (or, you know, whenever): Dystopia