Sunday, February 6, 2011

The horror of skin pulled tight against ribs,
Anger and lust and grief hijacking
the director's reigns,
until the movies of our lives are lurid snuff films
pieced together footage from the crash site.

The horror of the body and it's uncontrollably,
to find oneself an unformed character,
and the author was
everywhere and nowhere to be found.
And I was surely a fool.
That much I was certain of.

I held a gun to my own back
and made myself do it.
I buried truths I'd known alive,
screaming and scratching at the lids of pine coffins.

I lied. And died a liar.
A dead liar lying
on a cold stone table.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

"Everything solid melts into air..."

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?" (Wallace 2005)


In the social theory of Zygmunt Bauman, the solid world we once navigated has melted into a liquid modern world. In the solid modern world there were enduring social institutions that could be used in designing the trajectory of one’s life project. Yet the liquid modern world is plagued by endemic uncertainty. We can no longer expect stability from social forms, “structures that limit and organize individual choices, institutions that guard repetitions of routine, and patterns of acceptable behavior” (Bauman 2007 : 1). Liquid modernity demands that individuals do for themselves the heavy lifting once performed by these social forms. Before, one could employ social forms to develop long-term life projects. Now, social forms are not cohesive or consistent enough to serve as the frame of reference from which to set a permanent life trajectory.

Bauman identifies two different orientations towards the pursuit of happiness that are presented to citizens of the liquid modern world. Humans can either choose a centrifugal or a centripedal orientation towards their pursuit.

The centripedal orientation is that which Bauman warns us against. The centripedal orientation emerges forcefully from the individualistic, disordered logic of liquidity. In the old solid modern world, selfishness was frowned upon. “Individual interests were once understood to be petty, futile, abominably short—lived, vagrant when juxtaposed with the interests of the social whole: the nation, the state, the cause (Bauman 2008 : 32).” Yet in the liquid modern world, selfishness loses its old stigma. Now, an ideology of privitization instructs individuals to go it alone. Care for one’s own well being is considered the top priority. Responsibility is turned inward, and our highest responsibilities emerge as responsibilities towards ourselves (Bauman 2008 : 88).

The centrifugal orientation is epitomized by Emmanual Levinas (Bauman 2008 : 104). This model is based on obligation towards the well-being of others. Instead of turning away from our communities and towards selfishness, we embrace the pursuit of happiness as an outward looking project. The centrifugal orientation understands “the other as the trigger, the target, and the yardstick of a responsibility to be accepted, assumed, and acted upon…. This centrifugal orientation has all but disappeared from [today’s] view… elbowed out by the actor’s own self” (Bauman 2008 : 107). The centrifugal orientation that Bauman recommends to us embodies the idea that I cannot be well off if my neighbor is poor, because we are all bound up together in “one garment of destiny” (King 1963).

In some ways, the centrifugal orientation is less a normative plea than an easily overlooked empirical observation. In the long-term, our well-being is often inseperable from the other. In today’s interconnected, liquid modern world, “no well-being for one… is innocent of the misery of another” (Bauman 2007 : 3). Like it or not, our well-being is increasingly interdependent with that of even the most remote Others.

The dominant ideology of privitization individualizes both successes and failures. “Individuals are expected, pushed, and pulled to find individual solutions to socially created problems” (Bauman 2008 : 88). “Communally endorsed insurance policies against individual misfortunes… now being… withdrawn” Bauman 2007 : 13). Community-wide solidarity is dismissed as futile. The privatizers deride the centrifugal principles of individual and collective responsibility for the well-being of its members. Ideology dismisses other-oriented ethics as fostering dependency and the infantilizing tendencies of the welfare/nanny state.

The liquid modern world divides people between winners and losers, sinkers and swimmers. “Privitization ideology divides humanity and its own believers into winners and losers… It enables some and disables others” (Bauman 2008 : 92). Humanity becomes divided into winners and losers (Bauman 2008 : 116). Some will flourish if they are equipped, mentally and materially, to practice the art of life. Those who are not properly equipped will sink to the bottom of the liquid modern world, becoming servants to the swimmers. Capitalism’s global triumph makes an increasing portion of the population redundant. “Modern capitalism is choking on its own waste products which it can neither reassimilate nor annihilate” (Bauman 2007 : 29). In a world of Nietzschean Supermen, the weak are offered little more than an apology and a servile position in the new liquid order.

To use Bauman’s metaphor, ours is increasingly a world of hunters and not a world of gardeners (Bauman 2008 : 113). We cannot set up residency on some solid surface and man the grounds long enough to reap what we sow. Instead, we must always be on the move, searching for a shifting body of dangerous and exotic game that eludes capture. Now, there is a bliss to being a hunter among hunters (Bauman 2007 : 110). For those natural swimmers in the liquid modern world, the pursuit is enjoyable and rewarding. However, given the diversity of humanity, some are predisposed to misery in this world. For factors often quite outside an individual’s control, the liquid modern world can offer either feast or famine. The liquid modern world is brutally Darwinian. Those who fail are expected to be the sole absorber of their failure. The weak are, at best, offered an apology from the strong. Where once the weak found strength in numbers, the logic of liquid modernity wilts their former solidarity.

Liquid modern socities are pulled towards privitzation not just by charismatic leaders but by the very logic of liquid modernity. Our individualistic society is not animated by a shared way of life. The liberal order “offers no official guidance on how people are to conduct their lives in a meaningful direction” (Beiner 1995). Liberalism offers an agnostic or neutral sponge to soak up the liquid modern social forms. Liberal societies in the liquid modern world threaten to leave the individual’s interior life as a world without furniture. As Robert Beiner puts it, “we purge our dwelling places of furniture because its presence would derogate from the moral imperative to create every bit of spiritual furniture from out of ourselves. The liberal impulse is an adventure in spiritual self-creation, and it transfers what the greatest poets and artists have been able to accomplish onto the shoulders of ‘Everyman’” (Beiner 1995).

Bauman’s liquid modern theory suggests that this interior decorating dilemma is not unique to liberalism. The social forms that once provided for people, top-down, moral and spiritual furniture, are no longer up to the task. Beiner says that liberalism transfers the burdens of great artists onto the shoulders of Everyman, but in The Art of Life, Bauman argues that it is the liquifying, “mind boggling pace of change” (Bauman 2007 : 11) that imposes the role of artist onto every modern individual.

The threat remains the same though for both Beiner and Bauman. Our interior lives face a crushing poverty given the lack of guidance and spiritual furniture, once available from the old solid social forms. Both see that to demand from everyman the accomplishments of the greatest poets and artists is unrealistic given the resources, material and inborn, that such feats demand.

The liquid modern world is marked by perpetual uncertainty. Violent currents of change can come from any direction as “bolts out of the blue” that leave our life strategies blown to smithereens (Bauman 2007 : 94). These circumstances encourage a method of navigation that is “bland, calculating, petty and unheroic” (Beiner 1995). We risk losing all that makes humanity awesome and heroic with the collapse of long-term thinking, planning, and acting.

Morality is a matter of we-intentions. It involves the overlapping part of ourselves in which expectations are shared within communities. However, once the social forms that structure this type of morality are disintegrated, what is left of our moral personalities beyond a hollow shell? Can substantive morality exist without substantive communites?

Emerson said that, “our chief want in this world is for somebody to make us do what we can” (Ruppert 2003). In the liquid modern world, we are left without the people or institutions that make us do what we can. In the liquid modern world, if little is substantiviely expected of us, and if the expectors are increasingly ghosts of their solid selves, mankind’s accomplishments are likely to become increasinly bland, petty and unheroic.

Without community and the Levinas-style call to sacrifice, we cannot comprehend duty. Without duty, life is boneless and hollow. When we fail to look outward in our pursuit of happiness, our lives take on a perverse inward trajectory, like “a snake eating its own tail” (Bauman 1995 : 33). The cold utilitarian calculation of liquid modernity erodes principles and turns all of life’s focus towards ends and away from means. As the great gonzologist Hunter S. Thompson once put it: “…where everybody’s guilty, the only crime is getting caught. In a world of thieves, the only… sin is stupidity” (Thompson 2003).

Calculation and risk-management surrender the part of ourselves that is informed by emotion and sacrifice. The logic of liquid modernity tells us to achieve security by enclosing ourselves in “defense capsules” of solitude (Bauman 2007 : 11). However, in this risk-averse insulation, we lose the pleasures and possibilities of attachment. Attachment and community offer up the possibility of being heroic and fully human in a way we cannot do from within our anomic defense capsules.

Works Cited:

Bauman, Zygmunt. Liquid Times. Polity Press: Malden, Mass. 2007.

Bauman, Zygmunt. Life in Fragments. Blackwell: Cambridge, 1995.

Bauman, Zygmunt. The Art of Life. Polity Press: Malden, Mass. 2008

Beiner, Robert. “Liberalism: What’s Missing?” Society. Vol. 11, Number 5. July 1995.

King, Martin Luther. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail. April, 1963.

Ruppert, Jack. One of Us: Officers of Marines – Their Training, Tradition, and Values. Praeger Press: Quantico, 2003.

Thompson, Hunter S. Kingdom of Fear. Simon and Schuster: New York, 2003.

Wallace, David Foster. Commencement Speech at Kenyon College, Ohio. May 21, 2005.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Pursuit of Autonomy and Adulthood


It is perfectly absurd for religious moderates to suggest that a rational human being can believe in God simply because this belief makes him happy, relieves his fear of death or gives his life meaning. The absurdity becomes obvious the moment we swap the notion of God for some other consoling proposition: Imagine, for instance, that a man wants to believe that there is a diamond buried somewhere in his yard that is the size of a refrigerator. No doubt it would feel uncommonly good to believe this. Just imagine what would happen if he then followed the example of religious moderates and maintained this belief along pragmatic lines: When asked why he thinks that there is a diamond in his yard that is thousands of times larger than any yet discovered, he says things like, "This belief gives my life meaning," or "My family and I enjoy digging for it on Sundays," or "I wouldn't want to live in a universe where there wasn't a diamond buried in my backyard that is the size of a refrigerator." Clearly these responses are inadequate. But they are worse than that. They are the responses of a madman or an idiot. - Sam Harris

Harris is forcefully dismissive of religion's ability to cure our neuroses. Religious beliefs can function as mind cures, giving us confidence, easing our aches and fears, giving our lives a sense of spiritual pursuit, a groping in the dark which makes us happy in a way that, for some, cannot be filled by any other activity.Harris dismisses it as not fit for any but the "idiot[s]" or "madmen." In Harris's flippancy with the value of religion as mindcure, he pushes aside a modest goal which might not be so modest as prudent.

To me the best argument against religion is that it seems to infantize us in some manner that is not good enough for me or you. If digging for diamonds that aren't there makes this guy happy, then WTF, that might, as I suggested above, be good enough. As Zygmunt Bauman asks, what's wrong with happiness? On the other hand, what a waste, this guy and his family could be far more fulfilled and contributing to the well being of others if they spent their scarce time and energy on searching for the real diamonds based on the best information out there.

They say philosophy asks questions that can't be answered, and religion gives answers that cannot be questioned. Answers that can't be questioned are for children. Can the benefit of religion as a mind-cure, as a noble lie -- can that compare to the autonomy of life with no unquestionable answers, the uncomfortable reality that a restrained atheism is not just one superstition among others, but the absence of superstition.

They say, the truth will set you free...... I go back and forth on how I feel about this. Sometimes I feel like nothing can be more freeing than ambiguity and nothing can enslave us more viciously than a taste of the truth.

Monday, March 1, 2010


John Brown, in Court before execution.

"This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to "remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them." I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say, I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done as I have always freely admitted I have done in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done!"

the emancipation, the martyrdom, the violence, and the submission... It is all tangled up in the John Brown story. Hmmm....

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Against "submission." The Infidel's Advocate

Islam : translated into English, "submission."

Liberalism: an emancipatory doctrine of individual liberty. Freedom.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali was a woman born into a cage. Her fate was sealed by the face of global Islam in Somalia. She was not to be educated. She was not to be seen by any but the husband her parents selected for her, and her family. She was to veil, but not the colorful viels of the past, only the black veils of the new Global Islamic moovement. She was to obey her husband, or be struck, as the Koran stated. She was to provide him many children. She was to submit to Allah, but to know his will through her husband's will.

But she escaped. She applied for refugee status, came to Holland, got a hand full of PHDs, wrote several bestsellers, served in Parliament, renounced her faith, removed her veil, dated, drank alcohol, and became on outspoken advocate for the freedoms she had gained by stepping into a liberal order.

She teamed up with Theo Van Gogh, a distant relative of Vincent Van Gogh, to make a film called SUBMISSION. The ten minute film presents a critiscisim of the way Islam subjugates women and structures violence against them.

Some say Islam is a religion of peace and that those who use it to promote misogny and terrorism are "hijacking" it. In class I was told: "you are trying to make these issues about religion, they are about culture." --- Yet this violence and oppression and darkness are not some abberation, but the logical consequences of specific ideas. Koran, Sharia law, they are the foundation for a Global Islam that is all fringe and no center.

The provocative film was shown on Dutch tv and Theo Van Gogh was killed by a young man with Islamic motivations, stuck to his chest was a note, declaring death for Hirsi Ali, but also death for those moderates who attempted to bridge the differences between them. All were infidels on the death list. No matter whether they were provocateurs like Van Gogh and Ali, or moderates like the mayor of Amsterdam, a man who criticized Van Gogh and Hirsi Ali' strident tone, and preached open ended tolerance.

That mayor traded in holy war for uneasy peace... He made the death list nonetheless.

In 25 years many Western European countries will be majority Muslim.

In September of 2001, well... You know.

Part of the cosmopolitan character of liberalism moves us to believe that there are no such thing as other people's children. If a young girl is being beaten and kept in a social cage next door, then you are complicit if you do nothing. If you are a man, in Islam, you are forced into a submission relationship with your spouse that dehumanizes you too. If your neighbors acceptance of your right to live is contingent on you accepting and retaining his supernatural doctrine, or at the least tip-toeing around it, then he is not a neighbor worthy of the name.

An uneasy peace is not a peace worthy of the name.

Let us not be so open minded, that we cannot muster the defenses to hold a conviction. Global Islam refuses to adopt secular and civic values while exploiting ours to assault or gender equality, our freedoms, the genuine pluralism that underwrites our pursuit of happiness.

The film that got Van Gogh killed and sent Hirsi Ali into hiding, Submission, was not very diplomatic. But you know the old adage about diplomats? A diplomat will tell a man with a gunshot wound to the head that he is "open minded."

I will proudly defend this intellectual territory. Emancipatory liberalism: the docrine whose fruits we enjoy and all should be offered that opportunity. You, I and our sons and daughters, will never have to bow to any priest, king or husband.


Monday, February 22, 2010

the pursuit of happiness

The best things in life are beyond money: their price is agony and sweat and devotion - Starship Troopers

Solemn pride must by yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom. - President Lincoln

We are what we repeatedly do... Excellence is a habit. - Aristotle

Whether you think you can or think you cannot, you are right.

What you give today: you have forever. What you don't give today, you have lost forever.

Pain is temporary. Pride is forever.

Our chief want in this world is to find someone who will make us do what we can. - Emerson

Always do what you are afraid do. - Emerson

The best way out is always through - Robert Frost

Fortune favors the brave. = Publius Terrence

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness which frightens us most. - Nelson Mandela

He who hesitates is lost.

We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard. - JFK

Twenty years from now you will be more dissapointed by the things you didn't do than by the things you did. Sail away from the safe harbor towards undreamed shores. - Twain

It takes a lot of courage to release the familiar and seemingly secure and embrace the new. - Alan Cohen

Ultimately we know deeply that the other side of every fear is freedom - Marilyn Ferguson

It's not that I'm smart, it's just that I stay with the problems longer. - Einstein

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Not talent or genius or education.

Out of sufficiency have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.

Trust yourself when all men doubt you. Being hated, don't give way to hating. If you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run... You'll be a man... - Kipling

Self-trust is the nature of heroism.

A big man makes us feel bigger when we are with him - John C. Maxwell

Happiness depends on disposition, not circumstances. It is, above all, a choice.

To be a great champion, you must believe you are the best, or pretend that you are. - M. Ali

Finish each day and be done with it... Tomorrow is a new day, begin it well... with too high a spirit to be cumbered with your old nonsense. - Einstein

Everyone has his own burden. What counts is how you carry it. - Merle Miller

The optimist sees opportunity in every dangers. The pessimist sees danger in every opportunity. - W. Churchill

If you conquer yourself, the victory is yours. It cannot be taken away from you.

The time is always right to do whats right.

The price of greatness is responsibility.

To be great is to be misunderstood.

Strength comes from seeing the honor in things.

"Good luck" is really tenacity of purpose.

I was never afraid of failure, I'd sooner fail than not be in the company of the best.

Failure teaches success.

A hero is not braver than the ordinary man, but he is braver longer.

Great men have wills, feeble men have only wishes.

Tis' better to be alone than in bad company. - G. Washington

Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all.

All good things are very difficult to achieve and bad things are very easy to get.

The reward of a thing well done is to have done it.

High achievement always takes place within a framework of high expectations.

There is no great achievement that is not the result of patient working and waiting.

You must do the thing you think you cannot do

People become quite remarkable when they start thinking they can do things.

You have a powerful mind that can make anything happen as long as you keep yourself centered.

Success is largely a matter of hanging on after others have let go.

If you're going through hell, keep going. - W. Churchill

Thursday, February 11, 2010


Religious zealots will argue that if one fails to embrace a transcendental moral doctrine, usually their own, a person will be left with nothing to suppress their basest desires and lead them towards a morally bankrupt, nihilistic state of relativism. On the other end of the spectrum, the neo-atheists argue that religion is inherently toxic and destructive. Between these two extremes is the argument I endorse: affirmation of religion’s potential to soothe our pains and deepen commitments to causes shared with humanists, coupled with recognition of religion’s toxic potential and the possibility for non-supernatural sources of morality. Philosophical materialism does not necessarily bring about nihilism, and religion does not necessarily bring about destructive fanaticism.

The violence and intolerance done in the name of God does not overshadow the good deeds, just as the anguish and guilt caused by belief does not overpower the comfort and serenity. Belief in God is not a monolithic institution, but an internally diverse phenomenon. At first glance, we might put Buddhism and Islam in the same category the same way we might mistakenly place a shark and a dolphin in the same category. Just because some religious memes prey on their hosts does not mean that all of them do. In times of incredible temptation, loneliness and despair, belief in a stern but loving God can not only comfort people, but enable them to be good when “being good for goodness’ sake” is an insufficient incentive. The toxic religious memes use the larger benevolent ones as “protective coloration,” but with careful analysis we can see past the deception and untangle the destructive strands of religion from the beneficial ones.

Religion has great potential to complement secular humanist projects. To evidence this claims I point to the Archbishop Desmond Tutu who took a defiant stand against the South African apartheid state. Even though the white supremacy of apartheid was a very toxic sort of religiously based meme, Tutu showed that Christianity could be used to spread just the opposite of racist evil. To the inhumanity of racism, Tutu used the gospel to spread a Christian meme that all humans are "God's children. There are no outsiders." "My humanity is bound up in yours," Tutu preached, "for we can only be human together." Religions that were once composed of toxic memes can come to mirror and complement the same values and projects supported by secular humanists.

For both those who claim religion as universal truth and noble lie, philosophical materialism is seen as a course which inevitably leads to moral relativism and nihilism. They claim that with only a materialist worldview, humans can only be “grotesque… “puppet[s] suspended on… chromosomes,” living accidental, insignificant lives. However, morality is not mere artifice that lifts us above primal, bestial amorality. Evolution gave humans an innate, hidden moral grammar, an unconscious process, activated by society that mediates our moral judgments. Humans are moral by nature, and will navigate the world in a morally informed manner whether or not a religious morality is there to guide them.


Secularization theory predicted that religion would slowly lose its significance and place in social life, eclipsed by rational, scientific explanations to the questions that face humanity. This premise has not born out, as religious life not only continues but thrives in the 21st century. Secularization theory is flawed because science cannot always do what religion does. Belief can enrich our lives in ways rational knowledge cannot. Despite the utopian dream of establishing one comprehensive account of everything, there is an epistemological pluralism, a number of incommensurable ways of understanding the universe.

Religion can do things that science cannot. Belief in a loving being which organizes the cosmos can give people the resilience to overcome the worst kinds of adversity. Religion can steel our will against temptation and deliver us from loneliness and apathy. While some people might be able to manage life’s trials without faith, for others it is unsubstitutable. Religious beliefs, even if erroneous, can have a placebo effect on the human mind, curing our aches and anxieties in a way that there is no reason to trade in for universal acceptance of Western medicine. Science itself has shown some false beliefs to improve human capacity, and studies show positive illusions can improve mental health. The choice between science and religion is a false one, as the two spheres are capable of complementary coexistence.

Those who advocate secularization theory as an empirical fact or a normative goal are guilty of the same fundamentalism as the religious fanatics they criticize. Secularization theory mirrors the utopian, universalistic assumptions of Christianity and Islam. Religious and scientific fundamentalists offer a “refuge from uncertainty, promising freedom from thought." In eclipsing religion as the main source of authority, science has mirrored its monopolistic ambitions, “preserv[ing] the comforting illusion of a single established world view. The false dawn of the secular age shows that while it might be a comforting illusion to anticipate an emerging account of the meaning of everything, there will always be multiple ways of knowing that are incommensurable. Epistemological pluralism tells us that science, art, religion and love can all offer insight into our human condition. No one approach to knowing can answer all our questions.

Religions are not so inflexible that we are forced to choose between holy war and total secularization. Despite their claims to “eternal and immutable principles,” religion has changed to meet the demands of modernity. Religious beliefs are adept at ensuring their own replication by adapting to the demands of the day. Modern religions are organized around increasingly abstract conceptions of the divine. Modern believers increasingly use second order beliefs to create religious institutions capable of coexistence. “Systematically masked creeds,” like belief in belief, allow adherents to avoid conflicts with “contradictory creeds that would otherwise oblige the devout to behave far more intolerantly than most people today want to behave. Despite the assertions of the neo-atheists, the existence of religion does not necessitate holy war or sectarian violence. In modern human life, religious institutions needs reform, not total removal.