Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Who/What Do You Think You Are?

The year’s end often brings up thoughts about fundamentals, and this one is no different. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this odd fact: though we have all kinds of religions and spiritual practices, and though science has brought us insight and evidence about natural processes from the inconceivably huge—the universe, said to have originated 15 billion years ago with a Big Bang—to the infinitely small—particles so puzzling they can hardly be said to have an actual existence beyond a certain probability, yet the whole existence in which we are engaged is still an almost total mystery. Who are we? What are we? We don’t know. We all have beliefs about this; and half-baked ideas from popular versions of science; but when it comes right down to it, we not only don’t know who we are or what we are, but even less about why we’re even here. How we’re even here. Why the human race is even here (sometimes, and often these days, it appears we’re here to fuck up the planet so badly that it becomes unlivable not just for us, but for all else. Even prehistorically, as Edward O. Wilson in The Future of Life says, man, far from being a “noble savage,” was and is “the planetary killer…Eden occupied was a slaughterhouse.”)

But for now, let’s just look at this simple question: Which is primary, matter or mind (sometimes referred to as spirit, soul, etc.)? Science, of course, has few doubts about this. Matter spontaneously generated life (it used to be thought that light energy, a flash of lightning perhaps, was needed to ignite basic chemicals into amino acids; now, much research is focused on life originating in the oceans near the deep vents—sites where exudations of sulfur and heat from the earth’s interior generate anaerobic bacteria, and strange life-forms that require neither light nor oxygen), and from tiny one-celled organisms continued to evolve into more and more complex organisms over billions of years until finally, there was us. In fact, for most of the previous hundreds of years, scientists did not even consider ‘mind’ a fit term to investigate. More recently, though, psychologists and neuroscientists have been looking more seriously into this thing called ‘mind.’ And though they’re still not sure what mind is, or where it’s located, it appears to be some product of matter, specifically the brain, and to have a ‘real’ existence. When it comes to priority, though, most scientists would be adamant: matter comes first. And this has meant, logically, that our era has become the age of materialism. Matter is what matters. All conclusions about origins and purpose stem from that.

Materialism, though, is precisely what many thoughtful people—philosophers, artists, spiritual seekers, religious leaders—find wanting. And so the origin stories that have come down to us from great thinkers and spiritual leaders all put matter secondary to something else: spirit, soul, mind, ideal forms, consciousness, something immaterial. And, that that something immaterial either is or gives birth to mind. In Genesis, God—the great spiritual, eternal being—creates the universe and all in it, including all the various animals and humans, in seven days. God speaks the Word (or is the word), and it is made flesh, or is clothed in flesh. Thus, the breath of some creator God instills life and order into a previously dead and chaotic mess of something, or nothing. And keeps it going. And the task of beings, especially human beings, is to seek to obey and eventually to reunite with that creator God in a more ideal place, an Afterlife. In eastern traditions, including Hinduism and Buddhism, the theoretical base suggests that some sort of Cosmic Mind has priority. From that big mind emerges the forms that are designed to survive in the material world: cells, bodies, and all that drives them from the beginning, mainly desire for increase and security. The task of the human—built as a vehicle for contemplating all of existence, sometimes imaged as the desire of the creator mind to reflect or contemplate itself—is to come to some sort of realization of what is true and real, above and prior to the material self that is secondary and, in some sense, illusory. As Karen Armstrong puts it in the Great Transformation: “The ultimate reality was an immanent presence in every single human being. It could, therefore, be discovered in the depths of the self.” It takes most humans several lifetimes to accomplish this; meantime, the imperishable part keeps recycling through life forms (rebirth or reincarnation) over and over. Plato’s image of the cave provides a concrete image for a similar idea. That is, the ideal forms that are primary and eternal for Plato, are not seen by normal beings, who see only reflections—reality reflected by firelight on the wall of a cave. Most humans, that is, see only the physical world, which is changing constantly, and which was created by a demiurge. Though the world he created was based on the eternal forms, it is really only a weak, pale reflection of the true forms. These eternal forms themselves are accessible only to philosophical reason and exalted perception.

It is clear then that two positions are available to us all. Either we consider material existence the be-all and end-all; which is to say that we are born, our brains generate an entity we call mind, we mature, and we die; one shot and that’s the end of it. OR, we are aggregates of some stuff that is really only a pale shadow of a more fundamental reality—a prior and superior mind or soul that we can unite with through the proper rational, behavioral, spiritual, or contemplative practices. Those who subscribe to the first view are sometimes called ‘realists;’ those who subscribe to the second are sometimes called ‘idealists.’ Which are you?

What has given new life to such questions is the emergence, in recent years, of formerly esoteric practices, mostly from the east, coupled with interpretations of scientific developments that appear to provide real-world support for those esoteric views. Consider this quote from a recent book, The Non-Local Universe: The New Physics and Matters of the Mind, Robert Nadeau and Menos Kafatos, Oxford U Press: 1999:
If the universe is a seamlessly interactive system that evolves to higher levels of complexity and if the lawful regularities of this universe are emergent properties of this system, we can assume that the cosmos is a single significant whole that evinces progressive order in complementary relation to its parts. Given that this whole exists in some sense within all parts, one can then argue that it operates in self-reflective fashion and is the ground for all emergent complexity. Since human consciousness evinces self-reflective awareness in the human brain and since this brain (like all physical phenomena) can be viewed as an emergent property of the whole, it is not unreasonable to conclude, in philosophical terms at least, that the universe is conscious. (p. 197)

What this interpretation leads to—starting from a wholly materialistic view based in the most materialistic of all scientific paradigms, evolution—is the rather idealistic view that the material universe is actually not dead matter at all; it is alive. It is, in some sense that we are still not clear about, conscious. More, that this universal, conscious whole—that which may have given rise to the idea called ‘God’—“exists in some sense within all [its] parts.” Which is to say, in each one of us.

So what are we? Are we truly separate selves going about our daily lives as best we can—which is to stay alive long enough to reproduce our kind in a way that helps them not just survive, but out-compete all other beings? Or are we interconnected manifestations of some incomprehensible whole, some mind that has not only generated us, but which is within each one of us and thus accessible to our self-reflection?

And how can we tell? What would serve as proof of one or the other position? Is there such a thing as proof; or is there simply belief? And what does it matter?

I would suggest that the view one settles on matters profoundly. For what we believe about who or what we are is the basis for all sorts of decisions about how to act—both towards all other humans (not just those in our tribe), and towards the world as a whole. And it is this that will increasingly, I think, become the crucial matter for all of us.

Obviously, there is more to say about this. Later.

Lawrence DiStasi

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Obama Administration is Dead

The just-announced compromise between President Obama and gloating Republicans seems to be the final nail in the coffin of the Obama Administration. This guy, to put it simply, seems to have no stomach for a fight at all. Like some modern anti-hero, when the going gets rough, he caves. So today, as he’s been hinting all along, he announced that he would extend the Bush tax cuts for all Americans, including those making over $250,000/year or even $1 million a year (as Senator Schumer proposed.) No, Obama ate the whole poisoned meal, and tried to defend it to outraged colleagues. More than that, he added a couple of new wrinkles. First, he proposed to provide a year’s drop of 2% in the FICA or Social Security taxes that all Americans pay (progressives have proposed making wealthy Americans pay more by extending the amount of income subject to SS taxes, but Obama, predictably, went the other way). While Obama claims that this will put more money in the hands of working Americans (and it will, short term), other progressives have pointed out that it makes a start in a direction favored by the most rabid reactionaries, who have been trying to get rid of Social Security for 80 years. That is, by reducing the amount going into the Social Security Trust Fund (already raided for years by mainly Republican presidents to finance their shitty wars), the President’s action will add to the pressure to bankrupt Social Security to the point where it will be abandoned as too costly. After all, Americans need their military-industrial complex. But there’s another element to the plan as well, again a major cave-in to slavering Republicans and their millionaire constituency. The hated estate tax would be lowered, on estates worth more than $5 million, to 35%. Democrats, Obama’s party, wanted to make the tax 45% on all estates over $3.5 million (still a lowering from the 55% it had been), but again, the Republican plan won.

Sort of makes you wonder if perhaps Obama isn’t a closet Republican, doesn’t it?

Whatever he is—and it certainly is not progressive—it now seems clear that he has decided that his only hope for winning in 2012 is to follow Bill Clinton’s example, and turn to the right after a mid-tern ‘shellacking’. It is a bitter pill for progressives to swallow after the euphoria that greeted his election. It is also, unless I miss my guess, the death knell for his administration. Because the one thing Americans despise more than a loser is a president so weak he can’t even muster the courage to use his bully pulpit to fight for what he believes in. Instead, at every turn, Obama has caved in to conservative forces—whether it’s on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Health Care “reform”, or taxes on the rich. Perhaps he long ago concluded that as a black man, he had to present himself as a non-threatening, non-combative intellectual. But he’s done that, and it has backfired every time. According to Republican rhetoric, he’s a socialist, a communist, a Muslim and a Nazi all rolled into one. Why he thinks he can somehow ingratiate himself with them and their constituency now is a mystery no one seems able to solve. The only thing that appears certain to me, again, is that it—plus his continuing cowardice in confronting his enemies—will condemn him to one term. Given the lack of backbone he’s displayed thus far (and sadly, he has tons of company among his Democratic comrades in Congress), perhaps that’s a good thing.

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Wikileaks: An Inside Job?

The news has been alive with alarms about the catastrophe that could result from the latest Wikileaks revelations—over 250,000 cables from the U.S. State Department that could compromise U.S. diplomacy and diplomatic relations for years. Hilary Clinton expressed grave concern about the damage not only to the United States but to the world. The Justice Department announced it would be doing all in its power to prosecute those responsible—chiefly, it seems, Private Bradley Manning, now in custody as the lead, and only suspect in the investigation.

But the real hysteria has centered on those two remaining members of the ‘Axis of Evil,’ Iran and North Korea. Of course, it’s understandable that pooh bahs would be alarmed about North Korea, what with its two recent attacks on the South ratcheting up fears of a renewed all-out war (hard to believe that there has never really been an end to the 1950s Korea “conflict,” isn’t it). Still, the major alarums and trial balloons have concerned Iran. In England’s Guardian, the Nov. 28 headline read: “Saudi Arabia urges US attack on Iran to Stop Nuclear Programme.” The very first sentence adds that “other Arab allies have agitated for military action against Tehran.” These “other allies” include such democratic stalwarts as Jordan, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. All see Iran as a “threat”, as “evil,” or as a “snake.” “Cut off the head of the snake,” Saudi King Abdullah is quoted as urging.

All this was, of course, real music to the Israelis. As prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu was quoted by the Washington Post on Monday Nov. 29, "More and more states, governments and leaders in the Middle East and the wider region and the world believe this is the fundamental threat." Netanyahu went on to expose what he called the “gap” between what Arab leaders say privately and publicly, their public “script” alleging that the “greatest threat is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” while “in reality, leaders understand that this narrative is bankrupt. There is a new understanding,” i.e. the malignancy of a nuclear Iran.

And of course, the American media ran with this as the major story of the Wikileaks revelations. Both the PBS News Hour, with its pundits seriously discussing how bad the Iranian situation is, how unstable its leader, how worried the Arab states are about threats to their own regimes from a rising Iran; and Charlie Rose, where other pundits reviewed the “real” threat of a nuclear Iran (still, by the way, without even a hint of a nuclear weapon, though that no longer matters to the alarmists), and the “consensus” in the Arab states about this (the consensus of the Arab monarchies, at least, most of whom quietly sided with Israel against the Palestinians in the original war in 1948; though Hosni Mubarak of Egypt only jumped on the “throw Palestine to the wolves” bandwagon much later, to maintain U.S. aid and save his dictatorial ass increasingly threatened by popular revolt); in both arenas the ‘experts’ shook their heads gravely as they observed that the time is getting short for someone—Israel or the Obama administration—to do something. And the something was clear to all: someone has to bomb Iran’s still peaceful nuclear facilities.

It was amazing really. Out of 250,000 cables released or soon to be released, the big story was Iran: bomb bomb bomb Iran. No wonder Ahmedinejad, Iran’s president, scornfully dismissed the leaks as U.S. propaganda. But even that was taken as a sign that the man is as totally divorced from reality as his unstable nation.

Until, that is, on November 30, we heard from Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, the chief of staff to George W. Bush’s first Secretary of State, Colin Powell. Speaking on KPFA’s “Letters to Washington” show, Wilkerson had some fascinating things to say about Wikileak’s latest revelations. First, he said that all the worry about the leaks threatening U.S. diplomatic relations was a “tempest in a teapot.” Diplomats, according to Wilkerson, know that harsh words often get said in private, that governments all try to spy on each other, and that everyone understands the game. What he was really concerned about, he said, was the lack of capability, not to mention supervision of the alleged leaker, Pvt. Bradley Manning. “I have serious difficulty,” the Colonel said, “accepting the fact that this private downloaded what appears to be over a million documents and then gave them to others…Where was his chain of command when he was doing this? when he was downloading thousands of documents?” And then the Colonel came to the real nub of it:

This looks increasingly like (and I’m not a conspiracy theorist) someone is either jumping on top of this, opportunistically, to take advantage of it, or perhaps they were involved in it all along. And why is the information contained in these latest leaks in particular so proof positive of so many things that the United States, or certain parts of the United States, are trying to get across to the public—not least of which is Israel’s threatened position, that an existential threat exists to Israel and Iran is that threat. ‘Look how perilous, look how dangerous this situation is.’ That comes out of these leaks. (emphasis added)

Remember: this is not some ‘expert’ who may or may not have a private agenda with regard to the leaks or the substance of the leaks; nor, as he says, a conspiracy theorist. This is an army colonel, former chief of staff to the previous Secretary of State. This is a man who knows how Washington works, how diplomacy works, how the world of statecraft works. And his chief concern is not the alleged “damage” to the nation’s diplomacy posed by the leaks; it is the twin questions: 1) how did the United States allow this to happen? and 2) was someone taking the opportunity (either by leaping on what was leaked, or actually facilitating the leaks in the first place) to plant disinformation to affirm things they want affirmed?

And what do they want to affirm? It appears that the main objective is to provide further ammunition undergirding the administration’s—driven mainly by Israel and its U.S. lobbies—position that Iran constitutes the greatest threat to world peace since the Soviets, and the increasing justification for a military mission to take that threat out. As Zeid Rifai, the president of the Jordanian senate is quoted as telling a US official: “Bomb Iran, or live with an Iranian bomb. Sanctions, carrots, incentives won’t matter.” Or, as Major General Amos Yadlin, Israel’s military intelligence chief, warned last year: “Israel is not in a position to underestimate Iran and be surprised like the US was on 11 September 2001.”

I have to admit, it never crossed my mind that the Wikileaks cables could be part of a disinformation campaign. Perhaps it takes someone with inside knowledge of how such things work, like Colonel Wilkerson, to get it. But there it is. And my guess is that increasingly, especially as Obama is further harried by Republican zealots howling for his head, the refrain is going to get louder: Bomb Iran now, or suffer another 9/11.

Will the American public go for it? Normally I’d say no. But given what they’ve swallowed recently, and given the fear in this nation, can anyone be sure?

Lawrence DiStasi