Friday, April 15, 2016

From The Iliad to the Odyssey

As homicides in New York have fallen sharply over the last two decades, the tit-for-tat violence between crews like 3 Staccs has persisted…[T]estimony has given jurors a look at the warrior subculture of some young men in and around Harlem projects. The gang members described how they would venture into another gang’s territory to commit assaults, and then trumpet their exploits on Facebook, daring their rivals to respond. They would pool money to buy communal guns that they would keep close at hand for fights that escalated…Though some gang members sold marijuana and cocaine, the disputes were mainly about respect and revenge.[1]
It is tempting to characterize the 3 Staccs as ‘barbarians’. In fact they were behaving exactly like Greeks of the Heroic Age. Revenge and the quest for ‘respect’ drove them; they raided enemy territory and fought to win honor for themselves their mates. Stripped of its literary packaging, the Iliad is an account of the gang warfare in the warrior subculture in the Eastern Mediterranean, doing violence for the sake of honor and for the possession of a woman.
Nowadays population is denser and gang warfare is largely restricted to city neighborhoods; then it occupied the Mediterranean, from Ithaca to Troy. But the story is the same: violent young men, under the direction of a few warlords, fighting for the chance to rape and pillage, and to capture slaves, women and loot. This is the way the world was when muscle and guts were what mattered.
These days heroism has receded like the ebbing tide, leaving only isolated pools of violence and machismo in the Global South and elsewhere in urban slums, where young warriors replay the Iliad.
The Odyssey is another matter. According to psychologist Julien Jaynes, it was the transition from the world depicted in the Iliad to the world of the Odyssey that marks the dawn of human consciousness as we understand it. ‘Iliadic man’ he writes, ‘did not possess subjectivity as we do…he had no awareness of his awareness of the world, no internal mind-space to introspect upon’.[2] In the Odyssey, ‘wiley’ Odysseus comes into his own: the Greeks have gotten the idea that there is such a thing as intelligence, and that it is advantageous. Women figure, not merely as spoils of war, but as powerful agents.
The 3 Staccs are not barbarians. They are Iliadic heroes—anachronisms from an age when the whole world was a slum, and all but a few warlords lived in poverty because resources were burnt off in endless warfare. In a warrior culture players are locked into a sub-optimal equilibrium. Each imagines that he can, and will, win consistently and, eventually, get all the loot. But in fact, the game goes back and forth, and the rapers and pillagers are themselves raped and pillaged. In the process, lives are lost, resources are wasted, and everyone is worse off than they would be if they just minded their own business.
The West only escaped that trap when people realized that military adventurism was wasteful: better to invest in plowshares, in manufacture and trade, than in swords. It happened once: we became civilized. Civilization spread and in the end only a minority was left out—in urban slums and in the Global South.
The mystery is: how do we get here from there—from gang warfare to rational self-interested business, from a world where muscle and guts are all that matter to one where intelligence (Odysseus’ wiliness and Penelope’s prudence) is decisive? That is the problem of violence at home and international terrorism. What will it take to get latter day Achaeans to abandon the ethos of romantic heroism, the quest for honor and revenge, in favor of the rational self-interest?
How do we get from the Iliad to the Odyssey?

Friday, March 15, 2013

Awake, My Blog!

OK, I'm going to get back to blogging, and clean out the Chinese spam. Wait and see!

Monday, October 01, 2012

Spiritual But Not Religious

Why on earth would anybody want to be 'spiritual but not religious'--whatever that comes to? Religion provides the machinery to produce religious experience. Why bother with meditation or whatever SBNR people do to get that experience when religion produces it more reliably, with greater intensity and with much less effort?

I poke around on blogs to get an idea of what motivates the spiritual-but-not-religious. One theme seems to be "I don't need religion." How true: we don't need anything beyond the food, clothing and shelter requisite for bare, boring survival. But we want more. We don't need religion--any more than we, as my mother said, need recreational drugs: according to her we can enjoy ourselves without them, and anyone who uses them is sick and weak.

But recreational drugs are great! If you can get high more easily, more reliably and more intensely on drugs, than drugs are a good thing and you should enjoy them--even though you don't need them. I am, therefore, in favor of recreational drugs and of religion--rightly characterized as the opium of the people. We don't need them--but we want them because we enjoy them.

Other SBNR people congratulate themselves on their critical acumen and intellectual independence. They do not, the are proud to say, uncritically buy into dogmatic packages promulgated by religious authorities. Ho-hum: neither do we religious people. We look to religion to provide the machinery to produce religious/aesthetic experience--the buildings and ceremonies--not for some doctrinal package. We can, and do, believe whatever we please. Unlike most religious believers, I enjoy doctrine because I do metaphysics. But I do not see it as a package of doxastic obligations. Christian doctrine is a conceptual playground, where I can monkey around on the metaphysical monkey bars, so to speak. Nothing hangs on getting it right--if indeed there is a right. It's just a lot of logic puzzles to play with.

I suppose in the end it comes to what one wants out of spirituality/religion. What I want is art and elaborate rituals which will, at their best, lead to aesthetic/religious experience--a sort of intellectual/aesthetic orgasm. Of course the SBNR will immediately jump on this, assuming that intellectual/aesthetic orgasms can only be a substitute for the more conventional variety. But not so. The issue isn't other but more: religion isn't a substitute for sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll but more good stuff, more pleasure.

Naturally, for most churches official doctrine impose restrictions or prohibitions on these other pleasures. But who pays attention to this bullshit? They couldn't enforce their silly rules and prohibitions even if they wanted to. And most are all to happy to get our butts on their pews, no questions asked.

So, what does one want out of spirituality/religion? A slam-bang aesthetic/mystical experience. That's what I'm in the game for because religion has nothing else to offer. And because nothing but religion can provide that aesthetic/mystical experience as reliably or intensely, with the least possible effort on our behalf. So if religion dies out, if those buildings aren't maintained, if those ceremonies aren't performed, we will be deprived of that experience--just as we will be deprived of valuable experiences if recreational drugs aren't available.

So I evangelize. Not because I have the slightest interest in "saving souls" or making other people's lives better in any way, but because I want to promote the interests of the institutional church so that it can maintain those buildings and keep the fancy rituals going for my entertainment and for the pleasure of others who, like me, enjoy religiousity.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Romney and the 47%

It's always a kick to discover what other people say about your kind of people behind your back. My best find was a student conversation overheard at my campus. "The professor was wearing a tee shirt," said the first student, "a striped one." The other said, "We're paying to be here: you don't have to stand for that."

So now we know what Romney and the Republican donors who had the bucks to kick in for a $50,000 a plate Republican fundraiser, think of the rest of us--or at least 47% of us. They believe that we're chronic whiners who imagine ourselves victims and are unwilling to "take personal responsibility and care for...[our] lives."

The remarkable thing about Romney's pitch, and the audience at which it was directed, is that in spite of being educated and presumably competent, they were so utter lacking in imagination. That is a characteristic of primitive people--people in "traditional" societies and the lower classes. They just don't get counterfacuals. Ask a bigoted redneck or working class white ethnic how he would feel about things if he were black and the response is invariably, "But I'm not black." Ask it again, "But what if..." and the answer will be the same. They're not capable of achieving the level of abstract thought that makes it possible to understand counterfactuals--including the Golden Rule. They just don't have the imagination. But maybe that's because they can't afford imagination: they're too busy scrounging and fighting for survival.

Uneducated people behave themselves--when they do--because they're afraid of punishment--in this world or the next. Apart from that, they can't imagine any reason not to lie, cheat and steal or, if they're young men, rape and pillage. And that is why the lower classes are so keen on get-tough policies and religion: they simply can't imagine why anyone would behave themselves if it weren't for fear of punishment, in this world or the next.

Remarkably Romney and his supporters--rich, educated people who have the time and leisure to reflect--are just as unimaginative. They can't seem to imagine what it would be like if their circumstances were, though no fault of their own, different--if they'd been born dirt poor, or black, or on the opposite side of the southern border, or in any of a number of circumstances that would have put them at a serious disadvantage. And they can't or won't understand the extent to which circumstances beyond their control including pure dumb luck were responsible for their privilege.

I'm happy--in fact, delighted, with the life I live. I'm not a victim--indeed I'm vastly privileged--and I'm not whining. I've got a much better life than I ever dreamed I'd have. All I've ever wanted in life was to avoid boredom, and in particular, to do a work that was challenging and interesting. I got that. But it was a matter of pure dumb luck--because my family had money, because I lucked out in getting an academic job, because, most fundamentally, I won the genetic lottery and turned out to be smart. But all this is dumb luck. I didn't make it. It is simply a matter of pure dumb luck that I'm a professor and not a Walmart cashier, or a freeway entrance beggar, or a citizen of the Global South living in extreme poverty, or the child of such a citizen, dying of malnutrition in early childhood.

Romney is now pushing the self-serving self-deceiving idea "we made it." We didn't. We got it--from the government, from biology, from fate, from a variety of circumstances beyond our control. And if we have the ability to understand counterfactuals we should recognize that if our circumstances had been different we'd be members of the 47% that Romney has dismissed as irresponsible whiners. If my fate had been different, if I hadn't been able to go to college, I would have gone on welfare. I'm not interested in promoting socialist policies for the sake of the lower classes, whom I detest, but for my sake--because I could have been in their position. I want to see these policies in place because I want to live in a world where no one has their back against the wall with no room to maneuver, because I escaped a life that I would have found intolerable by the skin of my teeth. I don't care about the poor--I care about myself and people like me, people who are a hair's breadth away from being trapped in an intolerable situation.

I don't have any problem supporting the idle poor--because if I were in their situation I wouldn't want to be forced to do work. I don't begrudge them their idleness because it is exactly what I'd choose if I were in their position--one of those counterfactuals. I'm still amazed though at Romney and his followers. Can't they imagine the hell in which the 47% live--choosing between poverty and agonizing work, and most often ending up with both? Can't they imagine what work is like for most of us? In the morning, it's like you dive into deep water and see how long you can hold your breath--how long you can do the job before you start going mad, crying, cracking up. That's the way it was for me when I did "real work"--by 10:30 every day I was crying. Yes, I'm a stinking spoiled brat. Yes, most people cope. But I don't want them to have to cope--I don't want them to do what I myself couldn't do. I want them to have the good life that I have because it's a matter of pure dumb luck that I do and they don't. Why is this so hard to understand?

Friday, September 14, 2012

Let's have a demonstration!

Let's get out with signs and tell the world, and the Muslim world in particular, that we Americans do not support the lunatic Islamophobia of "Pastor" Terry Jones and whoever concocted the offensive film that set off this outrage.

Sorry Muslim people. That film is not the behavior of Christians, or Jews, or Americans of any religion or no religion. It was the work of detestable trash whom we repudiate. This is not who we are. The people of Libya have repudiated the murder of our ambassador and other Americans and throughout the Islamic world people of good will have come out to tell us that they reject groups that perpetrate this violence. And for our part we should let them, and everyone else, know that we reject the bigotry of the minority of Americans who insult Islam and promote hate.

How about 2 pm Sunday in front of the San Diego Civic Center for you who are local--with signs, like the one in the picture to get the message across that Koran-burning Terry Jones does not speak for us? And if you are not local, how about getting something going in your area.

OK, it probably won't work. I'm not an activist or an organizer. But on the off chance that some one who reads this, one of my Facebook friends or their friends of friends, is an activist and organizer, please consider this project.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Core Curriculum

I've signed up for a Saturday workshop at school on "core curriculum" and, having just read the "materials" for this monstrosity I'm probably going to drop out--even though they give us $100 and a free lunch for going. The stuff is sickening--inflated, vacuous, pious bullshit.

So what do I think about "core"? I prefer "general ed" of course because it isn't core or central to the mission of a university, which is vocational training for professional occupations. General ed courses are a wonderful luxury. However one of the items I read did ask us to reflect and get clear about what we thought the role of core/GE was. So I did, and here it is:

(1) Brain-Candy. The primary role of GE is to stock students heads with amusements and give them the skills for a lifetime of intellectual entertainment. It takes work to be entertained by art, literature, science and all the good stuff of culture but it pays off magnificently. Uneducated people simply can't enjoy themselves as consistently or intensely as we can if we've learned to understand and appreciate high culture, to understand things that are difficult and intricate. Anna Karenina, the Bach B Minor Mass and San Vitale just pack a much, much bigger hedonic punch than any pop cultural crap, but to get the thrill you have to do some work.

(2) Intellectual Jewelery. We want to adorn ourselves, turn our lives into works of art by acquiring beautiful things--by decorating our houses, having fine furniture, and decorating ourselves with skills and knowledge. We decorate ourselves by learning to play musical instruments and to draw, by reading works in the evolving "canon," by learning about history and politics. The aim is to become what used to be called "cultivated" or "cultured." It's narcissism and snobbery--and I'm all for it.

Of course this won't fly because, incredibly, even though we are vastly wealthy most Americans seem convinced that we're on the edge of economic disaster and have to engage in endless belt-tightening. We're told we can't afford universal health care, can't afford to pay public school teachers decent wages, can't afford decent working conditions or shorter hours. And of course we can't afford hedonistic, narcissistic luxuries like a liberal education. So we have to sell it as something edifying, religious, and "core" to social well-being.

If that's so I suppose colleagues who run projects like core curriculum revision are doing their job, persuading the general public that there should be courses other than business and engineering, that people like me, who don't do anything useful or of practical import should be employed. So these noises, I suppose, have to be made--and in order to make them credibly, they have to be made by true believers. Cynical actors fail because acting is hard.

But I'm a person of little faith and a poor actor. So I think I can do without the $100 and free lunch: time for strategic withdrawal.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Evolution and the Science Guy

Good Lord, what is this nonsense about evolution? When I was a little kid, in the wake of Sputnik, all Americans wanted to promote Science, and there was no nonsense about "Creationism." There were TV shows about life emerging from the primordial soup and that's what we learnt in biology. No one doubted it.

In high school we had an assembly at which a biologist who was a college professor spoke to us about evolution. I remember it well: he was young, very good looking, and the first man I'd ever seen in person who had a beard. I was impressed.

So what happened? As a child I heard that in the Olden Days there were people who objected to evolution, and that it all blew up during the Scopes Monkey Trial. But that was long ago and far away--and now the theory of evolution was established as solid fact, and everyone accepted it. What happened???

Were there people around when I was growing up who were Creationists? I think not. I think there were a great many people who simply never thought about the origin of species. They were mostly poor, uneducated people who had enough problems dealing with their own lives and didn't worry about such things. In was only during the late 70's with the emergence of the religious right that demagogues got these people riled up and recruited them.