On Blaise Pascal
The phenomenon of Jansenism has interested me on and off for about ten years now. There are many reasons for this. The most important of these is that I love a good loser. In contemporary Catholic / Christian thought, Jansenism is the big loser: its rigorism, antiquarianism, and apocalyptic opposition to the decadence of contemporary life are in diametrical opposition to modern thought as currently conceived. Even people who are accused of being too strict in terms of morality or religious practice are hardly Jansenists in the sense that Jansenists were. Our ideas of what these things are have moved so far towards the liberal side of the spectrum that even our conservatism is quite libertine when taken in context. More than likely, we are the first to absolve ourselves of any crimes or culpability for anything. What I have done has always been rational, what I want is always sensible, my moral compass is always right, etc.
The one thing you cannot question in contemporary discourse is: what I want. What I want is always legitimate, my desire is always infallible. My vision of the good and happy life is natural, it must be defended at all costs, and imposed on those poor misguided souls who disagree with it. That I think is part of the problem with our civilization as it exists. In order for things to function well, we must assume that the natural order of things tends towards justice and cooperation. Things are never that bad, never that hopeless, and contain a rational kernel that will lead us to a better and brighter tomorrow. This is just as much the psychological center of Marxism as it is Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” pastoral optimism. Perish the thought that things were never meant to work in the first place.
An apology to gutter-punks, or: How I learned to stop worrying and love anarcho-primitivism
I’ve been intending to write this essay for months, but things always got in the way. And now that I have elected to use some time to write it, I am somewhat at a loss. So to begin, I thought I will cite a recent review in the New Yorker of a history of the demise of the passenger pigeon.
In their wake, passenger pigeons left behind denuded fields and ravaged woods; descriptions conjure up those First World War photographs of amputated trees in no man’s land. “They would roost in one place until they broke all the limbs off the trees,” one old-timer recalled, “then they would move to Joining timber & treat it likewise, then fire would break out in the old Roost and Destroy the remainder of the timber.” Their droppings, which coated branches and lay a foot thick on the ground, like snow, proved toxic to the understory and fatal to the trees…If anything, the passenger pigeon is a bracing corrective to notions of a natural world detached from its fecund terrors. The bird’s propensity for eating everything and taking over earth and sky makes it seem, frankly, a little like us. As Greenberg notes, “a widely held view is that this species could not sustain itself without a giant population,” so that decline itself became a cause of further decline. In other words, passenger pigeons lived by collaboration on a giant scale, and may have died by it. Yet what Greenberg sees is not the clash of two irreconcilable species with gargantuan needs but a story of victimizers and victims.
One of the iron laws that I have found out concerning being a parent is that children love the outdoors. Well, at least mine do. Any parent in an intemperate climate where it can get too hot or too cold knows well how much more difficult the day goes when the children are unable to be outside. “Cabin fever” often results in children bouncing off the walls, gratuitously antagonizing each other, and trying the parents’ wits in a seemingly endless test of wills. And they sleep badly. No matter how difficult it might be, one almost inevitably has to prepare the children to go outside, if only for a little while. Once outdoors, they tend to calm down, or unleash pent up energies in far more constructive ways.
I am rather sure that this very concrete reality in my current life has influenced the trajectory of the little intellectual life that I am now allotted. To be direct, my tendency to take the “anti-civ” critique more seriously than the average person may be due to my parenting of very young children. A lot of it has to do with guilt. I live a very, very white-bread middle class life in a U.S. suburb. On the other hand, I am beginning to realize that most of my inherent parental sense when it comes to discipline has to do with curbing my children’s wants and needs in order to conform to a society in which I believe very little. Sit still, comb your hair, don’t scream, don’t make a mess, don’t hit your sister… it is just one continuous monitoring against things that children naturally do in order to make them do the opposite.
Given that I am no longer taken to accepting religious explanations for anything, I have wondered sometimes why I give priority in my thought to the poor, the uneducated, the outcast, and the downtrodden. After all, if one is going to be a “true materialist”, would it not be better to give precedence to those who are thriving, materially speaking? This would be a good indication why being a materialist isn’t necessarily a good thing. But then you have to realize that you are dealing with a loaded term. To explain this better, perhaps it is better to go with an analogy.
Say you are tricked into going on a blind date. The other person you meet ends up being attractive, charming, a good conversationalist, and so on. However, there are little ticks, little hints in the conversation that lead you into thinking that there is more to this person than the façade is letting on. Perhaps you dig into the person’s history some more, maybe only through just “googling” that person’s name. What if the person ends up being a convicted rapist? What if the person ends up being abusive, a sociopath, or otherwise dysfunctional? What if you drive by that person’s house and you realize that she or he is a hoarder, or is already married, and so on and so forth? In other words, in ordinary life, we are taught not to let façades fool us. Just because a person might put their best foot forward in a controlled situation, this does not entail that this is all that there is to know about that person. Or one could even say that one does not know the truth concerning that person.
Sometimes the nightly news writes the best poetry. In the following lines, describing the aftermath of an accident that took place on the 24 mile-long bridge that I take to work every day, a heartbreaking scene fit for Homer is described:
Moran, 18, said it was dark by the time she found out Monday that Rodriguez was the person who had driven his truck into Lake Pontchartrain – a story she said she’d heard about earlier in the news.
A friend called and told her. She thought he was making a sick joke.
Moran pointed to the rocks near the foot of the Causeway, saying she spent hours there Monday night, flashlight in hand, yelling “Miguel.”
Perhaps they are not as moving to me as when I first read them, but death has been much on my mind of late. Many people who are closest to me in terms of blood are in their last days, but I will not give details concerning this since I am trying to keep this essay as impersonal as possible. But the scene of someone trying to call out to a loved one, deep in a grave of brackish water, has been etched into my mind due to the nearness of death in my own personal relationships. Read More
At certain points, one will have the misfortune of encountering a book where the author thinks that an important historical subject is merely a backdrop for his own personal problems. Santiago Roncagliolo’s nonfiction work on the Sendero Luminoso insurgency, La cuarta espada: la historia de Abimael Guzman y el Sendero Luminoso is such a volume. While this book is informative on the level of telling the story of the origins of Abimael Guzman (who is more famously known by his nom de guerre, “Presidente Gonzalo”) and his Maoist political party, el Sendero Luminoso or the Shining Path, the complete absence in the text of any theoretical and historical complexity means that the void is often filled with descriptions of how the actions of the Sendero Luminoso made the author “feel” as a petit-bourgeois adolescent and young adult coming of age in Peru. If anything, it is his silences and inadvertent personal slips that tell the real story of the corrupt neoliberal society that allowed the Shining Path to flourish around the highlands of Ayacucho, and ultimately threaten the Peruvian state itself. While I could not of course excuse the Sendero’s actions, and in spite of the author protests against not taking sides at many points in the text, I came away from the book somewhat sympathetic to at least the causes behind the Guzman’s Maoist fundamentalism. Though I admit, it is somewhat akin to sympathy for the devil.
Let’s get the ugly stuff out of the way first. The Sendero Luminoso are some bad, bad people. Its founder and ideological progenitor, Abimael Guzman, a former philosophy professor and lawyer from Arequipa, Peru, has the reputation in that country of Osama Bin Laden in this country, at least in the bourgeois media. All you have to do is look at videos such as the following one documenting his capture twenty years on. No translation is needed, I think:
There is reason to compare Guzman to Bin Laden, Pol Pot, and numerous other sociopaths in history. There is first and foremost the massacres of peasants that he ordered, including the brutal killings of 69 peasants, including women and children, in Lucanamarca in 1983. There are the bombs, the murder of leftist leaders, the alleged collaborations with drug cartels, etc. etc. Many of these crimes have been admitted by Guzman directly, and he has said that they were excesses in a state of war. When considering this subject then, one must always have these things in mind first.
I have started a number of posts contrasting my previous traditional understanding of Christianity with my current project of addressing Christian themes from a politically radical perspective. Here I will do the same, but the subject of this essay will be the Fourth Evangelist and supposed Apocalypse author, St. John. Known as “the Divine” or the “Theologian”, it is traditionally thought that the author of the last canonical Gospel and visionary of the end of the world was “closest to the heart of Jesus” and thus the most mystical author of the New Testament, with perhaps St. Paul being a close second. In the ancient church, for example, John’s Gospel was begun at Eastertide since the new catechumens baptized during the Paschal Vigil were deemed sufficiently purified to listen to those most august opening lines of John’s description of the deeds of Jesus: “In the beginning was the Word…”
As I have stated previously, these are pretty stories, but it is too bad that they aren’t true. The fact is that John’s “mystical” passages and his visions of cosmic cataclysm had real world foundations that came out of ancient Israel’s struggle against empire and its most contemporary manifestation of the time: Rome. The two books that I will be reviewing briefly in this essay deal with John’s writings employing similar methodologies and they come to proximate conclusions. The first is Wes Howard-Brook’s and Anthony Gwyther’s book, Unveiling Empire: Revelation Then and Now, which is an attempt to approach the last book of the Christian Bible from a contemporary perspective. The second is José Porfirio Miranda’s doctoral thesis on the themes addressed throughout St. John’s Gospel and Epistles: Being and the Messiah: The Message of St. John. While these works discuss the canonical books in different contexts, both try to place the historical figure of John firmly back on earth: clipping the eagle’s wings, so to speak (the eagle being the symbol of the Fourth Evangelist). However, in the process, they place the emphasis of these books back where it should be: on doing justice to one’s neighbor and struggling against a social order that exploits the many for the sake of the few.
Three Pieces on Africa
You could say that I am an ungrateful person. When life is best to me, I begin to think of all the things that could go wrong. With a young family, a comfortable home, a job that doesn’t require that I shower afterwards and not before (the true great “American” class divide, according to the late Joe Bageant), I am so far a First World success story. I am by no means at the top of the heap, or even prosperous for that matter. But I don’t have to worry about where my kids’ next meal will come from, whether armed men will come in the night to harm my family, or whether someone will steal my things while I sleep. Like most people in the U.S. imperial polity, I have come to value security and convenience above all things. Perhaps that makes me complicit in the crimes of this country or civilization, I don’t know. But at least I will pay lip service to the idea that the life I lead is not the apex of virtue. People in this country tend to mistake prosperity for godliness. I would like to think that I have enough sense to realize that these two terms, “prosperity” and “godliness”, are diametrical opposites.
The question always arises when I contemplate “First World life”: At what price? What is the price of replacing that gadget that broke, the price of cheap produce at the supermarket, the social price of that piece of jewelry a man just bought for his beloved? Suburbia is perfect for covering up the effort that you don’t see go into the construction of a great thieving empire. Our system works because no one is guilty of anything, and everyone looks innocent. I love my kids, I pay my taxes, I make small talk with my neighbor, I mow my lawn, etc. etc. Some say that city is morally superior, but even there you can withdraw into gentrified enclaves, or into the drugs and distractions that make the city “no place to raise a family”. The hologram goes on, after this commercial break.
Above: An excerpt from Cristóbal de Morales’s Requiem
On Trayvon Martin: There is no way Trayvon Martin was going to get justice under the bourgeois system. That is not simply because of the direct racism of the incident, but of the structural racism of the law itself. Those “creepy-ass crackers” who are cheering Zimmerman’s acquittal do so because they too would like to be able to pursue suspicious (black) kids in their neighborhoods and shoot them if they deem it necessary. Basically, the undercurrent of U.S. discourse nowadays is basically “every man for himself” (gender exclusive language intentional there), so when the hordes start pouring out of their designated sacrifice zones, it’s “lock and load” time. Race is written all over this, really, as it is in Florida’s murder and manslaughter laws. Except if you’re black, because there you are given the benefit of the doubt that you are a criminal up to no good. U.S. drug incarceration statistics don’t lie in that regard.
Some call it a lynching. Perhaps it was, but more important than the historical parallels are the historical discontinuities. Racism in the United States has now morphed from a scary Cyclops of open bigotry to a grotesque Hydra with a dozen heads, and if you strike at one of them, three more grow. In this case, one white man chased down a black kid with some candy, there was grappling, and the black kid ended up dead. And the non-black man walked away. No one knows what really happened; the only other person who does is six feet underground. That is what structural racism is now in the United States: nobody’s fault. There are victims, but no predators. The inner cities are sacrifice zones, but no one nailed them to the cross. Or rather, no one can be blamed for it, everyone has a good excuse. Industrial jobs can be “more efficiently done” elsewhere, so those in the inner cities who expected to take those jobs are just “excess humanity”. We can’t “discriminate” against people on the basis of color, so when we have a “color blind” basis of admission to university, for example, it’s no one’s fault that the universities don’t reflect the color spectrum of the United States. That’s just how things are, and we can do nothing about it. The same is the case for prisons in inverse proportion, etc. etc. There is an old Catholic saying that what the Devil most wants is for people to think he doesn’t exist. The same is the case with racism, I would argue.
With some trepidation, I write yet another essay about liberation theology. I say “trepidation” since I feel that I might be beating a dead horse at this point. After all, I have already put my cards on the table and stated outright that I am not a Christian in even a heretical sense, though I maintain the cultural identity of Catholicism due to sentimental and family ties. The catalyst for this essay comes from such ties. My family is good friends with a group of liberal Catholic laywomen living in a community of common life down the road (basically, nuns). My father-in-law cuts their grass, and they give my children candy whenever we go visit. All of the members there are well into their seventies, and one just made ninety. On the walls of their religious house and chapel are pictures of Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, and other icons of progressive Catholicism. They are indeed from another epoch, and they have a library to show for it. I borrowed a few books for them, one of which will be reviewed below. While I wasn’t planning on doing any more essays concerning liberation theology, a new source of books for a person whose book budget is all of zero dollars cannot be passed up. And as I usually only write about things that I have read, I am forced to subject you, the reader, to yet another set of jottings about a subject near and dear to my heart.
The book in question is José Miranda’s Marx and the Bible: A Critique of the Philosophy of Oppression. A few words concerning the author are appropriate here, especially since Anglophone readers probably have not have heard of his work. Born in Mexico in 1924, Miranda was ordained a priest in the Jesuit order in Spain in the 1950’s and studied economics at the University of Munster in Germany. His pro-working class activism in northern Mexico in the 1960’s forced him to leave again for Europe to do courses in Biblical Sciences in Rome, for which Marx and the Bible was to be his doctoral thesis. Due to its controversial nature, it was rejected as a doctoral thesis, yet he was later awarded a doctorate in Biblical Studies for another work, Being and the Messiah, which is a reading of the Gospel of John. Miranda returned to Mexico in the 1970’s, only to leave the priesthood and enter academia, notably as a philosopher dialoguing with the likes of Hegel, analytical philosophy, and John Rawls. He died in 2001, and several of his books have been translated into English.