Disjecta membra

(Frivolities, reflections, redundancies)

 Life.— Listen to a festive Irish fiddle, think of peasants dancing outside in the spring, shouting, cheering, clapping, and you can’t not appreciate being alive.

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Life for its own sake.— The universal fear of death shows that in life itself is a profound, though profoundly subtle, pleasure.

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Innate humanism.— When you watch a young child conducting and dancing to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, or a child inquiring about the world’s causes and life’s purpose, or a child painting a picture vibrant with color, you realize that the higher things in life are not taught to people but taught out of them.

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The essence of man.— The human spirit (the self) has three major manifestations, which are experientially united but can be analytically distinguished: to freely create, to freely understand, and to freely love. The frustration of one or more of these urges is what causes psychological disorders.

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Cosmic insects.— Yesterday as I was walking through a suburban neighborhood I heard a chorus of cicadas. It started off slow and quiet, then crescendoed to an almost deafening roar while quickening its tempo, and finally sank to a whimper and stopped. It was an unintelligible noise, insistent and annoying, but brief. –Suddenly I realized that the furious sounds of man’s own history must seem like the cicadas’ chorus to Earth.

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The most dangerous kind of amnesia.— The faster that society evolves, the shorter is its collective memory.

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The closest thing to a saint.— One of the things I admire most about Noam Chomsky is that a man of his moral and intellectual caliber, as close to personified purity as humans can get, has devoted most of his life to studying the sordid world of economic and political institutions—and precisely the most sordid aspects of these institutions. He has surrounded himself with mountains of data on the crimes of power-structures, a nauseating record of infinite hypocrisy and crude economism. Crude technocratic calculations of power and profit. One of the noblest minds and personalities in history has willingly dived into this swamp and swum in it for decades, without losing any of his nobility. His clarity of moral vision is as sharp today as it was sixty years ago.

***

 

Mainstream laziness.— Nothing is easier than to be agreeable. What one should strive for is to be ‘disagreeable’—to provoke people out of their complacency.

 

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Anti-Chomskys.— One of the most tiresome things in the world is the self-certainty, self-righteousness, and self-love of successful or powerful or beautiful or famous or “intelligent” people. It is despicably unoriginal and predictable, and almost never is it at all justified. Ultimately it’s boring, like these people themselves.

 

***

François Furet, who was a very important historian, apparently started out as a Marxist. But then all that stuff with the Soviet Union in the 1950s happened, and he lost his faith in Marxism and went to the other extreme, the idealist extreme. You know, it’s the old story. Thousands of stupid intellectuals totally repudiating everything having to do with Marxism because of disappointment in the Soviet Union. Idiots. In the same category as conservatives in their inability to separate the basic tenets of Marxism from political acts whose enactors claim they have something vaguely to do with Marxism. One of the great things about Chomsky is that he could see through these threadbare appearances and never lose his commitment to materialism, i.e. common sense, just because Stalin and Khrushchev did some bad things. —Even “idealists,” or especially idealists, are not very good at ideas!

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The genius of Marxism.— The power and appeal of Marx’s thought are explained by his fusion of science, morality, and romanticism. Three modalities of humanity—pursuing truth, justice, and the beautiful or self-affirming—are brought together in one great system.

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Dialectical irony.— It's ironic that as man gains power over nature, it becomes increasingly alien to him. The more he imposes himself on it, the less he identifies with it. (And therefore, the less he identifies with himself.)

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Academic indoctrination.— ‘Economics’ is a term of propaganda, inferior as such to ‘political economy.’ It went mainstream due, first, to the discipline’s pretensions to science—whereas in fact it is less scientific than even sociology—and, second, to the bourgeois façade of purging economic problems of their inherently political character so as to obscure the conflict between capital and labor. In fact the economy is the most ‘political’ sphere of all; hence it is proper to call the discipline ‘political economy.’*

 

*On the other hand, the discipline as it exists today and has existed for 150 years shouldn’t be called ‘political economy’ because it ignores the social context, ignores power relations and social dynamics. The term ‘economics’ seems appropriately ‘static,’ abstract, mathematical, pseudo-scientific, sterile.

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Fraudulent economics.— As the economist Robert Brenner remarks, neoclassical economics, unlike the Marxian system, does not have a theory of capital accumulation. It cannot explain it. Since capital accumulation is the very essence of capitalism, the neoclassical system is....a joke. But its function, after all, is an apologetic one, so its explanatory thinness is not surprising.

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“Queer theory.”— The problem with academic interest in the history of gender and sexuality is that it stinks of cultural decadence. It stinks of subjectivism, postmodernism, political correctness, withdrawal into the private self. Unfortunately, in a contemporary history department it is everywhere.

 

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The dialectic of business’s attacks on the public sphere.— On a broad scale, business’s privatization crusade is unstoppable [as of 2010], at least for the foreseeable future. It will not stop until it succeeds in tearing society apart. By that time, new public institutions, more decentralized than the welfare state, will have effectively taken over many necessary social functions—and they will continue to become more powerful. It is impossible to say, however, when the tidal wave of privatization is going to crest and start to break against the ground of these new public institutions. Not for many years, probably.

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Inured to the barbaric.— Given the savage cruelty of capitalism, an essential skill for the labor historian is that he learn to suppress his gag reflex. He must overcome nausea in the face of everything that is horrible and despicable in man.

 

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The inconvenience of having an intellectual conscience.— I read labor history because I feel like I should (it's important). I read intellectual history because I enjoy it.

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Anatomy of human destructiveness.— What makes possible cruelty and violence? Dis-identification with the other. This is the universal condition, the condition even for self-cruelty and -violence—dis-identification with oneself (which is a kind of other). In fact, whether the violence is directed inward or outward, a lack of identification with oneself and with the other is occurring, because the other is a projected instantiation of one’s self and one’s self is an internalization of the other.

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One of the best books ever written.— Every "intellectual" should read from Studs Terkel’s Working before he goes to bed each night. It isn’t ‘how the other half lives’; it’s ‘how the 99 percent lives.’

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A qualification.— Ignorance may be blissful, but its consequences are quite the opposite.

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The spokesman.— To understand the character of mainstream America, all you have to know is that it admires the repellent thing called Thomas Friedman. That fact in itself is a sufficient indictment of our entire civilization: it exposes the racist, imperialistic, jingoistic, dishonest, intellectually vacuous, hypocritical, elitist basis of Western society.

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Drink, fuck, make money.— As you encounter more businessmen and politicians, you realize that the main problem with the world is that it’s run by frat-boys.

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Wisdom in language.— Politicians used to ‘stand’ for election; now they ‘run’ for election.

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The wisdom of posterity.— In 200 years Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, John F. Kennedy will be forgotten; Marx and Nietzsche will still be celebrated.

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The positive side of ubiquitous alienation.— The advantage of living in contemporary America is that I’ll never be disillusioned, because I’ve been dis-illusioned from the very beginning.

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People

 

People are like

ostriches,

long necks with little heads

stuck in the sand.

Very good at hiding

and

running away.

Not so good at having

brains.

***

Human conservatism.— People are not primarily rational creatures. Underlying their opposition to most things is the argument, ‘I’m not used to it.’ Once they get used to it, they’re not opposed to it anymore. (Think of Americans' age-old hostility to gay marriage....until activism made it sufficiently mainstream that people thought, "Well okay, whatever, let them marry, why not?")

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Dangerous intelligence.— The greatest danger for the perceptive observer of humanity is that he’ll become convinced of the smallness of life, and will thus retreat from a life of action into passive resignation.

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The mind-body problem.— Watching people interact, the impression is inescapable that they truly are beings of matter. Earth-bound beings with muddy souls. And one returns to the realm of spirits with relief...

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On the rack.— Only a writer can know what it means to write, as only a torturer can know what it means to torture.

***

The writer.— For whom do I write? Not really for myself, since I want an audience. But not really for other people either, since I don’t have in mind anyone in particular when I’m writing, and knowing that my works are read doesn’t give me much pleasure. Besides, I don’t have a high enough opinion of most people for their approval to mean a lot. What I’m writing for, then, is something abstract, not concrete. I have in mind, obscurely, an “abstract” audience. Most immediately, the abstraction in question has to be the abstract Other in my consciousness, the “other” in the “self-other” structure that defines human consciousness. My mind is permeated by otherness—I’m aware of myself as an other in the world, a person among people—and it’s this that drives me to create. Getting recognition from concrete people is slightly satisfying because it entails some small recognition from the Other in my mind, and so from myself. Ultimately, then, it’s myself—but in a mediated way—to whom I want to prove my worth, or the supposed “objective justifiability” of my self-respect.

But since the Other that accompanies me (and makes possible human self-consciousness) is abstract, it really can only correspond to another abstract entity. Thus I’m led to imagine things like God or humanity or posterity, universal things “out there” whose recognition or appreciation of me would truly confirm my value. Recognition from them would be as “objectively real” as it can get, and so would basically satisfy me. I create for these things, and I pretend that they exist and aren’t just figments of my imagination. Since they don’t exist, I’ll never be satisfied, never certain of my objective worth (the notion of which, in any case, is meaningless). Still, I have to keep striving, impressing myself on the world, imagining that I’m writing for posterity and all humanity, imagining I’ll be immortal…

 

***

 

The enduring truth of Hegelian mysticism.— The paradox of the self, or human consciousness, is that it’s a concrete abstractness, or an abstract concreteness. It’s incoherent: it’s a fusion of the universal and the particular, abstract otherness and concrete individuality, and it is never at one with itself. It seeks to coincide with itself, to bring the otherness and individuality together so that its self-otherness is abolished and its individuality, its self-love, is fused with objective reality—thereby confirmed and made real (no longer only “imaginary”)—but it is doomed to fail. (This is where Hegel went wrong. He was optimistic, but there is in fact no transcending of the self-distancing inherent in self-consciousness.)

 

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A youthful reaction to Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.— Reading this book by an unconscious literary semi-Hegelian obsessed with self-obsession and fame and self-confirmation or the (imaginary) real-izing of one’s self, the voice of a 1990s culture that has no higher goal than to overcome anonymity through whatever means necessary (MTV’s The Real World or starting an ill-fated literary magazine or whatever)* because that’s how you validate your existence even though it’s quixotic for nearly everyone (and in a deeper sense, for everyone), brings home to me how ingenious is my own solution to the problem. You know what it is. The not caring about present fame, the being born posthumously. It’s an illusion perfectly symmetrical to the illusion of imprinting oneself immortally on the world, which is what is sought by the author and his culture in the present, self-defeatingly (because the present is gone the next moment, but for other reasons too). My illusion is perfectly calculated to achieve my goal, in fact makes its lack of achievement impossible—because if posthumously I’m not celebrated it won’t matter, since I’ll be dead. So I go through life not being disturbed by my anonymity (at least on one level). Millions of others not so intensely aware of Absurdity as I are suicidal, suicides, while I “do my thing” quietly and patiently, guided by faith. In myself.

*Irony: validating yourself, making yourself “real,” by means of reality shows that are in fact less real than anything else (although they are also more real insofar as they’re at the center of culture, i.e., the public reality). And the public recognition that comes from them, or from any media-centered activity, is similarly unreal, meaningless. The only “real” things in life (i.e., the things that make you real) are your family, your friends, your lover, and so on, although these are also (perceived as) unreal in that they’re not the center of the public world, which is seen as the only real world—though it is in fact, as I just said, the fakest.

 

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God-yearning speck of dust.— In dark moments I’m still tormented by this thought: If you can’t be everything, why be anything?

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A religious irony.— If there is an omnipotent, omniscient, immortal being before whom people have the power of ants, the individual is not worthless; if there is not such a being but instead humans are the absolute sovereigns of nature, subordinate to no one else, the individual is worthless (ultimately). For it is only something like "God" that could give life a deep metaphysical meaning.

 

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Semi-religion in the service of life.— Though God does not exist, in some ways you should act as if he does. Pretend there is a God, a superior, wise, compassionate being whose approval you seek. Maybe then you'll act honorably and be less demoralized by people’s stupidity, or by your own lack of recognition. (For you can pretend that "God" recognizes you, as Plato and innumerable other dissenters in history have comforted themselves.)

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The natural divine.— I believe in Bach, not God. Bach reveals a power beyond my understanding, and when I listen to his music I hear something too powerful to understand.

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God’s values.—  If there is a God, he’s clearly a nihilist. 

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Life’s “meaning” from the perspective of nature.— Richard Dawkins’ famous book The Selfish Gene (1976) has been criticized on many grounds—for example, in his paper “The Objects of Selection” (1997) Ernst Mayr argues, persuasively, that individual organisms, not genes, are what natural selection “acts on”*—but its basic idea that animals are effectively “survival machines” for their genes seems obviously true. Rather than DNA’s somehow being the tool of the organism, as we’re inclined to think, the organism is the tool of its DNA. The DNA constructs a gigantic elaborate system, the organism, to enable it to interact with the environment such that it can replicate itself in indefinitely many generations. The only reason we exist, in short, is to enable our genes to survive in an unforgiving natural environment and to pass themselves on endlessly. We’re tools, that’s all. From the perspective of nature, to lament humans’ lack of moral dignity is therefore absurd: who ever heard of a dignified tool?! Dignity has nothing to do with it. –Nevertheless, Dawkins is right that, alone among all species in our planet’s history, humans have the ability to rise above nature and rebel against its amoral imperatives. We can refuse to be mere “tools.”

Incidentally, I would add that we can also refuse to be the mere tools of institutions—which, in different ways than genes, function so as to perpetuate themselves and/or increase their own power. To achieve freedom and dignity we have to act autonomously vis-à-vis both natural and institutional pressures.

*Dawkins argues that genes are the units of selection, i.e., the things that are selected in the Darwinian processes of evolution, but, as Mayr says, it’s the phenotype, not the genotype, that directly interacts with the environment. And so it has to be phenotypical features, not genes, that are selected or eliminated. Of course indirectly genes, or rather particular clumps of the individual’s genotype, are selected when their phenotype is. But “naked genes” don’t exist: not being “independent objects,” genes are not “visible” to natural selection. (In a sense, the whole debate in evolutionary biology about what the units of selection are seems misguided, because, surely, more than one kind of thing is selected/eliminated by evolution. Entire phenotypes are selected, as are particular advantageous features of phenotypes, as are, indirectly, genotypes and subsections of the genotype.)

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Life against death.— The nothingness of life is proven by the somethingness of death.

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Charisma vs. humanity.— On a quasi-instinctual, animalistic level, charisma is the most important quality in a human being, and if he lacks it he is at a great evolutionary and interpersonal disadvantage. Only on the distinctively human level do reason, intelligence, kindness and so on matter; and on this basis one can rank people in terms of their humanity.

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Aloofness.— Aloofness is not only unpleasant; it is immoral. It means “I’m better than you; you’re not valuable enough to pay attention to. So I’ll ignore you.” That isn’t how you treat human beings.

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There is one reason why nobody is what he thinks he is: luck. To a great extent, luck determines destiny. (At the most basic level it’s the luck of birth—where one is born, who one's parents are, what their income is, etc.—but in general the whole course of life has much to do with chance.)

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On Nietzsche.— One cannot overcome oneself, not literally. But figuratively one can, and to do so is noble both morally and intellectually. It is to achieve greater power over oneself, for one is detaching oneself from prior uncritical attitudes and predispositions and consciously trying to commit to new ones. Ironically, so to self-detach is, in a sense, to affirm oneself on a higher level, for the part of the self doing the detaching is the crucial part, the active part. However, the psychological essence of the self-detaching can be, as Nietzsche says, either healthy (deeply self-affirming) or pathological (deeply self-rejecting, however superficially self-empowering it seems to be). An example might be Goethe versus, perhaps, a fanatical ascetic.

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Against Nietzsche.— Nietzsche was indisputably brilliant, but his way of writing doesn’t lend itself to the disinterested pursuit of truth. His impassioned, sarcastic, lightning-quick style is more like literature than proper philosophy or science. Indeed, if his ideas are distilled into their essence, divested of their decorative eloquence, they become no more than interesting perspectives—and there become fewer of them. (His writing is somehow dense and diffuse at the same time.) As for the content of his philosophy, I’ll only make the obvious point that, like so many brilliant psychologists, he greatly overestimates the importance of psychology and underestimates the importance of institutional structures. He reduces everything to body and psyche, to an individual’s physical health, mental character, emotional vitality, and the influence of such asocial elements as climate and weather. It doesn’t occur to him that not everything is affect; it is possible, e.g., for thinkers simply to follow trains of thought that seem plausible to them, their affective or bodily needs having nothing to do with the matter. Reason can be relatively autonomous, and it’s a treacherous task to read something into a person’s psychology from the fact that he holds certain beliefs.* Nor does it occur to Nietzsche that people are so enmeshed in social structures that it is more often these, not individual psychologies, that determine beliefs, even much behavior. –Marxism is the way to go, though Nietzsche is a worthy adversary.

*It can be done, but not in the promiscuous way Nietzsche does it.

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Against Freud.— To think that people desire pleasure more than recognition (self-confirmation) is ridiculous. Virtually every facet of society points to the priority of recognition over mere pleasure. Culture may be partly a sublimation of libidinal drives, but it is even more a manifestation of the human need for the other’s esteem.

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Two kinds of realism.— Humans are innately realists, not nominalists, and realists, not idealists. However, anti-nominalist realism is false, and we can’t know whether anti-idealist realism is true (though it almost certainly is).

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Question and answer.— A: “It’s amazing how boring people are! How can they live with themselves?!” B: “It’s precisely because they’re boring that they’re able to live with themselves.”

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The internal external.— Unconsciously, men see women’s bodies as intrinsically sexy: the delicious sensuality is in their flesh, an essential part of it. It isn’t projected from us to them, a projection of our desire. It is there. But this is how the brain sees everything: all the world’s properties that we perceive are seen as external to us even though the brain constructs them.

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“Can’t take my eyes off you.”— The life of a young man consists of continuous painful sexual frustration.

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Two kinds of women.— Someone once quipped that pet dogs seem to think, “This person feeds and shelters me; he must be God!”, while cats think, “This person feeds and shelters me; I must be God!” –Dogs and cats: two kinds of women.

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An uncomfortable truth.— A woman who puts on high heels has already subordinated herself to men. (It’s self-objectification, albeit unconsciously so.)

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For example, Tucker Max.— One can take it as a rule of thumb that he who is beloved of young women probably has little worth and should be avoided.

 

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Men’s attraction to women in their early twenties is a kind of socially accepted pedophilia.

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A false idol.— The individualist is he whom everyone exalts in theory but condemns in practice.

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A paradox of morality.— Given the absurd suffering in which modern life consists, it is arguably immoral to have a child. I.e., one is wronging a person by—bringing him into existence. If one chooses not to create him, one is doing right by him, this person who does not exist; if one gives him life, one is acting reprehensibly. What an odd state of affairs! It’s actually possible to act morally vis-à-vis someone who does not exist.

 

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The immorality of happiness.— Right now, in this moment, somewhere in the world hundreds of people are burning to death. Someone is being butchered with a machete. Hundreds of women are being raped. Millions of children are starving. And yet I remain a cheerful person.

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The farce of “progress.”— Aside from during World War II, there has probably never been more suffering among the human species than there is now. And this statement will continue to be true for decades hence, each year seeing the aggregate level of suffering rise.

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“Thank You, God!”— I just watched Matthew McConaughey’s 2014 Oscar speech, which reminded me of something. “First off,” he said, “I want to thank God, because that’s who I look up to. He’s graced my life with opportunities that I know are not of my hand or any other human hand.” The idiocy of thinking that “God” takes special interest in you is obvious. But it’s not only idiotic; it’s incredibly obnoxious—or would be, if God-believers weren’t too stupid to consider the implications. When Syria and Iraq are being torn apart, millions of people are being raped and killed in the heart of Africa, a billion children are living in poverty, and humanity is in danger of ending itself, it’s simply astonishing to thank God for what he has done for you, or to think he cares about you at all. What you’re saying is that all those unfortunate people and humanity’s very existential crisis are less important to God than you, whom he has bestowed with blessings that indicate his love. “[God] has shown me that it’s a scientific fact that gratitude reciprocates.” Okay, Matthew. Evidently the billions of people living in misery are simply not grateful enough, and if they would only be a little more grateful their lives would improve. Their suffering is their own fault, and God is just waiting for them to show some gratitude to justify his intervention on their behalf.

Religious convictions are relatively understandable among people who are desperately clinging to any ray of hope. But it’s contemptible when privileged people use them to justify their privilege, to argue that it’s deserved because they’re “grateful” or “hard-working” or “humble” or “devout” or whatever other fancy enters their head.

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Two options.— You can either spend most of your life ignoring mankind’s suffering, or you can—never laugh again.

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The Prophet

 

I opened my ears and heard the past

sobbing

and the people in the past

sobbing

and I closed my eyes and saw the future

screaming

and the people in the future

screaming

and the bloody bodies slickly dying in heaps

and the suffocating

and the sobbing

***

The last survivor of the massacre at the village of El Mozote in El Salvador—the massacre of 1981 carried out by the El Salvadoran army, which had been trained and equipped by the Reagan administration in order to keep the corrupt and murderous government in power (it would have been overthrown by leftist guerrillas otherwise)—a woman named Rufina Amaya, who witnessed the whole slaughter behind a tree and told reporters about it—and was subsequently vilified in the U.S. media as a liar, as having made up the story of watching her husband and four children be butchered with bayonets—died today [March 6, 2007].

It can be difficult to cope with the knowledge that it’s possible for humans to be as depraved as guardians of elite interests are, as depraved as massacring soldiers are, as depraved as obedient bureaucrats are. The rage, and the rage at one’s impotence to change things, can be suffocating. It can seem that a species capable of the monstrosities that are constantly occurring everywhere doesn’t deserve to exist, and that maybe the best thing to hope for would be the extinction of this life-form capable of Nazism, capitalism, imperialism, and bureaucracy. After all, think of the eons of unimaginable suffering humanity would be spared if, in fact, humanity came to an end. No more misery! No more women having to witness the rape and decapitation of their children, the evisceration of their husbands, the death-by-burning of their babies, all for the sake of permitting a few sociopathic primates to maintain their hold on power. There would be no more Joseph Marzahs, a soldier of the bloodlusting Liberian Charles Taylor who slit open hundreds of pregnant women’s bellies, smashed babies’ heads against walls to kill them, drowned old men, amputated thousands of limbs, pulled out intestines and stretched them across the road to scare passersby, stuck heads on spikes and car bumpers, cooked and ate many people—he was ordered to—raped thousands of women, etc. All the horrors would end and be forgotten, forever.

But, somehow, a kernel of life-affirmation remains, a kernel that apparently cannot be extirpated. Somehow hope doesn't die. It would seem that the last word must belong to Marx: when asked by a reporter, late in life, the enigmatic question “What is?”, he was silent a moment, looking out at the sea where they were standing, and answered, “Struggle.” 

NOTES OF AN UNDERGROUND HUMANIST

© 2014-2019 by Chris Wright