Make humanity great again

I’ve long been uncomfortable with the high level of arrogance inherent in Western Civilization. Through the ages, humans have been inexorably downgraded in terms of cosmic importance, but it’s done little to stem our collective hubris. Every religion that’s ever existed provides no empirical reasons to believe in any of their metaphysical tenets, many of which place humans above the rest of Creation. Divorced from a providential sense of importance we are only special from a global perspective due to our canny abilities to take massive quantities of raw materials and turn them into massive amounts of manufactured eventual garbage, as well as the creation of technology that is capable of destroying tremendous amounts of human and nonhuman life.

This is admittedly a bleak and pessimistic overview. I would be remiss if I didn’t note that some of the “manufactured eventual garbage” has enabled us to, among other things, transport our bodies at fast speeds to faraway places; systematically investigate and understand the cosmos at the largest and smallest scales; share, store and transmit vast amounts of information; diagnose and treat diseases; and travel beyond our planetary confines. Not to mention other fun and awesome things like literature, music, the arts, and skateboards. More seriously, some of us have developed empathy and compassion for unrelated humans, and perhaps more notably nonhuman animals, which I think is one of our more admirable traits. [1] Unfortunately, empathy and compassion are often reactions to monstrosities perpetrated by other humans. On the whole, any and all positive characteristics need to be considered in light of our 8-12,000 year onslaught against each other and the rest of the biosphere.

We are destroying ecosystems and extirpating entire species and only recently beginning to grasp the true extent. [2] The only other biological comparison on par with our illustrious death march is Proterozoic oceanic cyanobacteria, which produced enough oxygen to wipe out much of earth’s anaerobic biota eons ago. The obvious difference is we are aware, though, I’m not sure that’s an entirely accurate way to phrase it. One can’t be certain to what extent the individual humans (not to mention humans in charge of other humans) participating in direct and indirect ecosystem disruptions are aware of the harm they are doing spatiotemporally. Did a Canadian fisherman trawling in the North Atlantic in the 1950’s necessarily know they were destroying the local cod population? Did a mining company CEO in the 1990’s know on some level the devastation that mountaintop removals cause, the cessation of which would hurt their company’s bottom line? Did they just not care?

Certainly there is a large difference between a working class fisherman in an industrialized nation and a CEO of a transnational mining company. The former does such work as part of their livelihood and likely noticed diminishing returns but still continued fishing, with the hope that the cod would return. The latter is, in my mind, more grotesque with regards to power and responsibility. They largely don’t give a shit, their transparently disingenuous corporate website environmental propaganda sections notwithstanding. The point is, in an age where information is widely available some of these individuals must know or have been made aware of the idea that their actions in some capacity have negative impacts. Those negative impacts aside, it’s patently obvious that extractive industries will eventually run out of things to extract in a discrete area, which necessitates the movement to a new area, be it fish or coal. On a finite planet with finite resources, eventually we’ll run out nonrenewable resources and are largely reliant on the ecological resilience of harvested wild animal and plant communities (not to mention the vagaries of agricultural systems and its associated environmental factors). [3]

Overall, those who derive the most profit off of organic life and abiotic phenomena care about the aforementioned in terms of how to best utilize it for their own narrow-minded ends. [4] We are a culture that richly rewards this type of behavior. If the Bramble cay melomys in Australasia goes extinct due to ecosystem mismanagement so fucking what? If there’s no monetary or utilitarian value for humanity, or something we don’t find to be cute or iconic, the vast majority of people won’t give it a passing thought in the unlikely event they are even made aware of it. This is summed up well by Paul Kingsnorth:

Today’s environmentalism is as much a victim of the contemporary cult of utility as every other aspect of our lives, from science to education. We are not environmentalists now because we have an emotional reaction to the wild world. Most of us wouldn’t even know where to find it. We are environmentalists now in order to promote something called “sustainability.” What does this curious, plastic word mean? It does not mean defending the nonhuman world from the ever-expanding empire of Homo sapiens sapiens [Latin: ‘wise man’], though some of its adherents like to pretend it does, even to themselves. It means sustaining human civilization at the comfort level that the world’s rich people — us — feel is their right, without destroying the ‘natural capital’ or the ‘resource base’ that is needed to do so.

“It is, in other words, an entirely human-centered piece of politicking, disguised as concern for ‘the planet.’ In a very short time — just over a decade — this worldview has become all-pervasive. It is voiced by the president of the USA and the president of Anglo-Dutch Shell and many people in between. The success of environmentalism has been total — at the price of its soul.”

Anthropogenic climate change has finally been accepted on a large-scale, resulting in paltry global attempts at mitigating its effects. However, despite this newfound acceptance we have yet to collectively take meaningful actions to lessen our consumptive lifestyles. Fossil fuel extractions continue apace with no end in sight. The prospect of the imminent accessibility of the Arctic’s seabed has wealthy, powerful humans falling all over themselves for the privilege of plundering, environmental concerns be damned. There doesn’t appear to be much standing between them and their greed.

I often wonder how such blatantly harmful actions can be curtailed. As long as there’s money to be made, nonexistent or hard to enforce laws, and a dearth of options for a percentage of the world’s population to survive in a global economy, it’s hard to see things improving [5]. This is not to entirely disparage incremental progress, but in terms of environmental destruction and ongoing human caused extinctions, it’s fair to ponder the futility of conventional environmentalist tactics in the face of continuing and irreversible damage. [6]

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t express a sense of admiration of those fighting the good fight against the ongoing assault against nature, even if their methods haven’t had a lot of success historically. However, the power disparities appear insurmountable. No one, for the most part, is getting rich off of doing the dirty work of fighting the dominant culture, and many are content to blog, retweet and argue online as part of their armchair activism (like me!). It’s easy and requires little time, little effort and little danger to oneself. I am certainly not exempt from this criticism. On the other hand, there is a mass of humanity that couldn’t care less – they can be seen in shopping malls, on TV, in sports arenas, and soon, at rallies for the U.S.’s president-elect.

*****

Many nature/environmental/conservation writers spend the bulk of their writing describing the enormous problems we face and shoehorn a few reasons for hope into the conclusion. It’s hard not to perceive this as blatant wishful thinking, often in the form of “if we do x, y and z, with those variables being improbable pipe dreams, then maybe things won’t be so fucked up.” [7] The only solution my dumb brain can comprehend is a totalitarian world government that violently controls the world’s resources and severely punishes any opposition in the name of sustainability. In other words, we need to be stopped at gunpoint. Such a government would be highly repressive, and regardless of ideology breed a class of elites dominating the rest of society. This would obviously be a nightmare scenario. But as utterly ineffective as the UN is at preventing atrocities and the manifold failures of US hegemony, it’s hard to see the New World Order prophesied by conspiracy theorists coming to pass anytime soon. Perhaps, though, localized authoritarian regimes will materialize, as the depletion of nonrenewable resources continues. Or, I could be very wrong about all of this. I’m wrong a lot.

I think the hope that most have is for Science to generate magical solutions to wean us off fossil fuels while allowing the maintenance or slight decrease of our hyper-consumptive lifestyles (and just maybe, in the spirit of egalitarianism, allowing for the developing world to attain the Western standard of living). It would also be nice to develop technology to better recycle discarded metals and minerals. These solutions should be clean, cheap, safe, renewable and widely available to all. If Science isn’t able to do that, and if humans aren’t willing to stop destroying the environment, it’s hard for me to be optimistic about what the future brings.

Only by overcoming the severe and near innumerable issues we face environmentally, not to mention our vast array social problems, would conceivably make humanity great in my eyes. That is the essence of this overlong essay: we aren’t great, and we never really were [8]. I’d also add that during or after we tackle the aforementioned problems, we should maximize the possibility we can predict and survive cataclysmic events relatively unscathed. [9] Designing the means for enduring a gamma ray blast, impact event, or supervolcano eruption would be pretty damn impressive. We’d finally earn the translation from the Latin of our species name that we so humbly bestowed on ourselves. It’s too bad that, if any of it ever comes to pass, I’ll probably be long dead and unable to let my fellow humans know my very important opinions on the matter.

Like the environmental writers referenced above, I too will attempt to end on a positive note. It’s an appropriate encapsulation of how I mentally confront the enormity of what we face. From Derrick Jensen, who is admittedly a douche:

I am a complex enough being that I can hold in my heart the understanding that we are really, really fucked, and at the same time that life is really, really good. I am full of rage, sorrow, joy, love, hate, despair, happiness, satisfaction, dissatisfaction, and a thousand other feelings. We are really fucked. Life is still really good.” [10]


[1] It’s worth noting that we do not have a monopoly on empathetic and altruistic behavior. For example, humpback whales have been observed rescuing seals from killer whales, though the degree of intentionality is uncertain. For more: Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce.

[2] Not that anyone is unaware of this sentiment, but the most illuminating book I’ve read on this from a historical perspective is A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations by Clive Ponting.

[3] The following article on our dwindling resources is behind a paywall at Scientific American but here is a link to that issue as a pdf, pg. 56-63: http://elibrary.bsu.az/jurnallar/Scientific%20American_201009.pdf.

[4] I’m referring more to large corporations, and not the global poor and working class, as the latter groups harm the environment in order to obtain the bare necessities of life. A stark account of how this struggle is manifested can be seen in a recent article in Roads and Kingdoms that describes contemporary fishing villages in South Asia.

[5] And note I wrote the bulk of this BEFORE Trump won the election.

[6] It feels shitty writing things like that. Just to pick one example, there are good, courageous people fighting against DAPL. I really hope they win, but I’m skeptical. Oil and gas companies rarely lose. And even under the Obama administration, the state is decidedly on their side, as it always has been. At best, the pipeline will be moved from Native lands, but it’s still, in all likelihood, getting built.

[7] A brief example from the excellent Song for the Blue Ocean by Carl Safina:

So to embrace a sea ethic we need not idealize or distort the ocean’s creatures. Indeed, up to now our view of the sea’s living inhabitants can hardly be more distorted. Instead, we have the opportunity to see them fully for the first time, as wild animals in their habitats, confronted with needs and dangers, equipped by evolution with the capacity and drive to manage and adapt and survive.

“Such a perspective frees the mind and opens door: to a lifetime of boundless inquiry, to a wealth of enriching insights and reflections, to the chance to be more fully human, to manage and adapt and survive.”

This was after 400 or so pages of some pretty depressing shit. It’s a nice sentiment but frustratingly abstract, though concrete solutions and techniques were dotted throughout the text. That book was written in 1998. Here’s a quote Safina gave to National Geographic this past summer:

Over my lifetime I’ve seen big changes; far fewer fish and terribly deteriorated coral reefs worldwide. More mercury in seafood.”

I should point out that the article does highlight success stories, but the referenced quote speaks volumes, as does another recent article of his with the optimistic title of “As salmon dwindle, whales die.” His comments would obviously be far different if his research and activism resulted in evidence that things have gotten better in the two decades since the publication of the book.

[8] Unless one counts our pre-civilized hunter-gatherer ancestors, whose existence encompassed around 90-99% of our time as a species, and didn’t trash the planet.

[9] It’s possible we’ve already done it once

[10] Endgame, Volume 1:The Problem of Civilization

My atheist story

Lately, due to various personal reasons I haven’t felt like writing about much that requires discerning thought. But writing about my atheist story is easy. Moreover, I have written little about atheism on this blog.

I was raised Catholic and had to attend church every Sunday from birth until around age 17. That included CCD classes once per week in the fall/winter. I fucking hated all of it. I didn’t care for school in general, and church represented more time that I had to be bored out of my skull. Despite this, during my childhood and early adolescence, I recall having a vague acceptance that God was real, and so was the Jesus story. I remember wearing a cross necklace or two because I thought it looked cool. [1] I also wore a WWJD bracelet because it seemed like Jesus was a good dude. This was probably around age 13 or 14.

I was not the type that interrupted church classes with pointed questions and attempts to expose hypocrisy or things that didn’t make sense. No, I paid next to no attention, doing the bare minimum in terms of participation and watching the clock miserably (oh what I would have given for a smart-phone back in those days).

I only recall a few what-the-fuck style memories about religion in my early years:

  1. In 3rd or 4th grade I gave some money during the solicitation portion of mass, thinking that the money would go to the poor. I was informed afterwards that that wasn’t the case; instead, the money went directly to the church. Fuck that, I thought, the church doesn’t need another stupid fountain.
  2. During my freshman year in high school, I made it to state for wrestling. By this point it had been drilled in my head that God was responsible for good things happening, while receiving none of the blame for the bad. For as long as I remember I thought this unfair. Anyways, I was told I should be thankful to God for my success. Fuck that, I thought, I’m the one that did this shit, why should I give credit to God?
  3. What the fuck happened to people who died before Jesus’ time? Or peoples who lived in places free of Christianity and had to wait hundreds of years to receive the means for salvation? Seems kinda shitty, Jesus.
  4. I didn’t get how people decided they could pick and choose what parts to believe/follow from the Bible. It seemed to me that either ALL of it was true and needed to be followed or it was flawed, and thus imperfect and definitely not divinely inspired.

By freshman year of high school, I was already a year or so into my chosen rebellion of punk and hardcore music. It was through this that I was introduced to radical politics and to a lesser extent atheism. The latter was manifested primarily via blasphemous lyrics and imagery. Some of the best were Bad Religion, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, Propagandhi, Integrity, Overcast, Converge, Disembodied, Bloodlet and Catharsis. There were also some good Christian punk/hardcore bands in those days (Zao, Slick Shoes, Living Sacrifice, Strongarm): “See mom? This band is Christian so it’s not bad that I listen to this type of music!” Here are some awesome songs:

By junior year I self-identified as agnostic. Despite this, I was still Confirmed. I had skipped classes, finagled my way out of the overnight retreat, and my mom had to convince the priest to do it. Even during this time, I played the sulking teenager, paying no attention and participating only when necessary. In retrospect, it’s too bad I didn’t play the bad-ass punk contrarian. At any rate, I went through with it out of love for my mom, though getting money from the subsequent Confirmation party certainly sweetened the deal.

In 2006 or 2007, I finally decided I was an atheist. Dawkins’ “spectrum of theistic probability” as described in The God Delusion was the pivotal factor and I rather liked this way to categorize belief. On that scale I wholeheartedly identified with the “De facto atheist” definition of “I don’t know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.” Moreover, the agnostic label never was able to adequately convey my disdain and repudiation of organized religions and their hypothetical deities.

Atheism is a foundational aspect of who I am, though it doesn’t figure too prominently in my day-to-day life. I’m fortunate enough to be surrounded socially by other non-believers, as well as respectful believers that don’t give me any shit (#blessed). I enjoy coming to FtB to consume stories from an atheist perspective, and the writers here do a very good job at addressing the insidious, the absurd and the infuriating. It’s so well-covered that I rarely feel I have anything substantive to contribute. Perhaps that will continue, perhaps not.


[1] I was wrong. It was not cool.

 

 

Noam was right

In 2010, Noam Chomsky, last seen in these parts dunking on Sam Harris, predicted the rise of a Donald Trump-like figure. From an interview with Chris Hedges, he says:

The United States is extremely lucky that no honest, charismatic figure has arisen…Every charismatic figure is such an obvious crook that he destroys himself, like McCarthy or Nixon or the evangelist preachers. If somebody comes along who is charismatic and honest this country is in real trouble because of the frustration, disillusionment, the justified anger and the absence of any coherent response. What are people supposed to think if someone says ‘I have got an answer, we have an enemy’? There it was the Jews. Here it will be the illegal immigrants and the blacks. We will be told that white males are a persecuted minority. We will be told we have to defend ourselves and the honor of the nation. Military force will be exalted. People will be beaten up. This could become an overwhelming force. And if it happens it will be more dangerous than Germany. The United States is the world power. Germany was powerful but had more powerful antagonists. I don’t think all this is very far away. If the polls are accurate it is not the Republicans but the right-wing Republicans, the crazed Republicans, who will sweep the next election.”

Silly Noam, he was off by one election. Sad!

Our luck has apparently run out. It’s pretty obvious he’s referring to the “telling it like it is” brand of honesty, and charisma is being used in a relativistic manner – I, for one, do NOT find Trump to be charismatic or honest. Qualifying what we’re soon to face as “more dangerous than Germany” is legitimately terrifying, considering the source.

Hedges wrote a piece on Friday which references Chomsky’s prior comments and outlines the fun times he sees in store:

The repression of dissents will soon resemble the repression under past totalitarian regimes. State security will become an invasive and palpable presence. The most benign forms of opposition will be treated as if they are a threat to national security. Many, hoping to avoid the wrath of the state, will become compliant and passive. We, however, must fight back. We must carry out sustained acts of civil disobedience, as many have done in streets around the country since the election. But we must also be aware that the democratic space allotted to us in our system of inverted totalitarianism has become much, much smaller.”

But sure Kumbaya singing motherfuckers on the left, let’s give him a chance.

Check out this nice fox!

I am the type of person that watches animal videos and immediately melts into a pile of goo. I wasn’t sure if that sort of thing was frowned upon in this corner of the interwebs. But yesterday Caine posted a great video about an elephant with a prosthetic leg, and it has emboldened me.

In these shitty times, I propose that nice animal videos are good.

Via The Dodo:

 

I could probably post something like this every day, but I won’t! Once a week perhaps?

Donald Trump is bad

I’m not good at coming up with good blog titles.

I never really thought Trump would win. Surely there weren’t enough angry, bigoted white voters to outnumber the various other voting blocs. I was eager to marinate in the schadenfreude of his imminent defeat, and then for him and his ilk to fade away into the shadows where they belong. Such innocent times.

One of the reasons I was never able to believe in the God of Christianity is the existence of terrible humans who have good things happen to them. Roughly speaking, the problem of evil has never been satisfactorily addressed by the Abrahamic religions. The Eastern traditions posit the karmic cycle of samsara, which I think is a rather elegant philosophical solution: shitty people will get what’s coming to them in the next life. It’s nice to think of Trump reaping the reward he’s so justly earned in his next life. How about as an insect preyed upon by parasitoid wasps? But alas, only the emptiness of nonexistence awaits us all. Bummer. Maybe he’ll die soon? Like next week? A boy can dream.

Here are some kind of positive things:

  • Trump appears to not be a fan of continuing America’s role as world police. That’s probably good, right? US hegemony has been an abject failure. But really, he’s changed his mind so often and is so thin-skinned, it’s easy to see ISIS goading him into their desired apocalyptic war with the west.
  • Ummm… Hmm. I guess having someone so odious in the White House that has the backing of the House, Senate, and SCOTUS could galvanize opposition of all kinds, from those working within the system, to more radical anti-state/anti-capitalist types (full disclosure, I was a teenage anarchist).
  • That’s all I got. This is a bad list.

In adulthood, I haven’t been able to transition philosophically into the, in my eyes, benign ideologies of liberalism/progressivism. I voted for Hillary, but I did so feeling that performing my “civic duty” made me complicit in a sociopolitical system I think is shit. Historically, America has been irredeemably racist and sexist (in addition to other bigotries), and works best for the wealthy. Profound, heady stuff, I know. If you voted, you played the game and the end result, instead of being merely not great, is catastrophically bad. But that’s our hallowed democracy, right? Incremental progress has been made, but that progress, hated by the now fully de-closeted bigots, is being confronted with vengeance.

This is not to boil this year’s election to the very familiar “lesser of two evils” refrain. Nor is it to focus on my insipidly heart-wrenching complicity in that which I do not condone: Trump is far worse than Hillary. I am a straight, white, cisgender male. And I wish the worst for those among that wide swath of privilege that enabled that waste in human form’s rise to power.

I’ll end with two things from two friends. First:

I am scared for our country, for minorities, and for my family, my kids. My young kids watched the election all night because they were afraid of trump winning. Over the last year, they have been told because they are “brown”, when trump is president they have to leave. (They are 2nd generation American born citizens) My kids do not deserve to live in fear. They deserve better than trump.”

Infuriating and heartbreaking. I’ll never know what that feels like, due to my privilege. Second, from my good friend and proprietor of the fantastic metal label/distro Gilead Media:

I will protect women, people of color, immigrants, those of non binary gender identity, and non Christians, and by force if required. Be ready to do the same. If you see someone being harassed, you must act in some way.

“Those with unjust hate in their hearts think it’s open season on us and the ones we love. But this is when we see the faces of those that would oppress us. They will crawl out of the shadows and reveal their true face. Remember every face.”

“They will crawl out of the shadows and reveal their true face,” indeed. This is a good thing. Add that to list above.

School segregation and the liberal elite

Last night I got around to watching the most recent John Oliver piece on school segregation. As par for the course, it was equal parts funny, informative, and depressing. While it covered ground i was aware of, I didn’t know that the South was far more integrated educationally than NYC. I was also unaware of Malcolm X’s sadly still extremely prescient commentary about the hypocrisy of the Northeast’s liberal elite.

A few weeks back I was on a website that posted about Samantha Bee. In the comments there was a snarky post about how Bee and her husband Jason Jones were full of shit because they opposed a desegregation measure in their local school district. I didn’t give much credence to some random internet commenter and put it out of mind. At any rate, it had nothing to do with the article.

After I watched the segment on John Oliver I decided to head over to the Google to locate the origin of the Bee and Jones story. I found it on Chalkbeat, a website I was unfamiliar with (“Education news. In Context.”):

This week marked the second time in less than a year that parents on the sharply segregated Upper West Side gathered in droves to protest a rezoning plan with the potential to make their schools more diverse.

This round, it was parents from P.S. 452 opposing a plan to move their school into a building 16 blocks south, where it would have more space and a new zone that could potentially include more low-income families. The school’s population is 74 percent white and Asian and 9 percent low-income, in a district that is 43 percent white and Asian and 48 percent poor.”

Bee and Jones were present and oppose the plan:

‘Painting any opposition as classist or racist is as bad as it can get,’ said Jason Jones, the former “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” comedian, near the end of Monday’s nearly three-hour meeting.”

Really Jason? Getting morons to display their various bigotries consists of the vast majority of the Daily Show’s field pieces. And you were great at it! Easily in my top 5 (in no particular order: Bee, Jones, Colbert, Corddry, Williams).

From another parent:

‘Why do we have to fix that issue for the whole district?’ one woman asked…While many said that segregation was a serious problem in the district, they found it unfair that their school should have to shoulder the burden of integration”

Fuck. You. Although, I have to say I like it when people, both on the right and left, fail to couch their opinions within the safe confines of politically correct PR-speech. Let your bigotry and hypocrisy flags fly high, I say! It’s little wonder that, per WNYC, Jones urged his community to “stop talking to the press.” Sage advice.

Aside from Slate, the left-leaning media didn’t really cover the story. For the Slate article, the non-liberal commentariat were predictably delighted. An example:

Samantha Bee is a liberal, right up until she thinks about her children having to go to school with black kids. Then, she turns into Strom Thurmond.”

I wouldn’t go that far. And to be fair, I have no idea if Bee or Jones have done any pieces on school segregation. But it certainly seems like a topic that wouldn’t fall outside their oeuvre.

I wonder where Oliver will send his child in a few years. And I wonder about those whom rapturously share and consume the media of the Daily Show and its spin-offs. Do their progressive beliefs end where their children’s perceived well-being begins? And where do I send my kids to school? Nowhere, because my wife and I are deliberately childless. I’d like to think that we’d be compassionate enough to be on board with integration measures, but who knows? People understandably want what’s best for their kids. But I guess the societal benefits of school desegregation are too abstract for most to endanger their precious offspring possibly *gasp* not getting each and every privilege they’ve “earned.”

Fortunately my wife and I will never have to make any decisions in regard to this topic. I can sit on my high horse and look down on well-to-do liberals who fight tooth and nail to ensure their kids can attend the best schools without the poor fucking everything up. And those kids will grow up, have kids and probably work toward the same end, ad infinitum. Fuck.

DAPL activists kept in dog kennels

Not sure if someone else posted about this already. From the LA Times:

Protesters said that those arrested in the confrontation had numbers written on their arms and were housed in what appeared to be dog kennels, without bedding or furniture. Others said advancing officers sprayed mace and pelted them with rubber bullets.

“It goes back to concentration camp days,” said Mekasi Camp-Horinek, a protest coordinator who said authorities wrote a number on his arm when he was housed in one of the mesh enclosures with his mother, Casey.”

Meanwhile, the State is very proud of their magnanimity:

Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kerchmeier said he was coordinating with Standing Rock officials to assist protesters in recovering teepees and other belongings, calling it a “a great example of communication, collaboration and cooperation.”  He added:  “I am very proud of our officers” who “responded with patience and professionalism and showed continuous restraint throughout the entire event.”

This happened in 2016 in America.

Update on a police shooting in Milwaukee

Sylville Smith was murdered by a police officer named Dominique Heaggan-Brown on August 13th. Since then, it appears the story has largely fallen off the national radar. Heaggan-Brown was arrested last week, but not for the murder and currently faces two charges of 2nd Degree Sexual Assault and two charges of Solicitation.

For the most part, these allegations have nothing to do with the murder, except for a few highlights. Most notably, prior to his arrest he texted the following to a sergeant, believed to be a mentor-like figure for Heaggan-Brown:

Need your help big time but need to handle this the most secret and right way possible.”

Hmmm. It almost seems as if there’s an unofficial system in place for mitigating legal problems for police officers.

Also noteworthy is that Heaggan-Brown was not in hiding, fearing for his life, as the police maintained. No, he was spending time at bars and alleged to have bragged about being able to get away with murder:

Prosecutors said the man — identified as Adult Victim 1 — said Heaggan-Brown bragged about being able to do whatever he wanted without repercussions.”

All of this adds new wrinkles to the ongoing investigation. There are still many unanswered questions about what happened on the day of the shooting. In the immediate aftermath, the police and mayor claimed there was unequivocal video evidence that Sylville was armed and pointing a gun at the officer. Later, once the unrest had died down, it was admitted that the footage was “ambiguous, [and] difficult to interpret.” The video still has not been released, and won’t be until the District Attorney decides not to file charges, because of course he won’t.

It seems as if the police are not willing or able to sweep these new allegations under the rug. It could signify they’ve turned their backs on Heaggan-Brown. On the other hand, no one should be surprised if he’s not arrested for the murder. After all, he is still a police officer and part of an institution that believes they have the right to murder whomever they deem a threat.

Ancient atheism

“When life is yours, live joyously;
None can escape Death’s searching eye;
When once this frame of ours they burn,
How shall it e’er again return”

“There is no heaven, no final liberation, nor any soul in another world”

Sarva Darsana Samgraha by Vidyaranya [1]

When I’m fortunate enough to get out of the city, I like to take time to stare at the stars. Thanks to our scientific apparatus and educational system that explains certain scientific findings, I know that our sun is a star, same as all the stars seen in the night sky. I’ve long considered the sheer scale of the universe to be a powerful argument against a Creator. [2] Why should there be so much matter in the vast emptiness of space if humanity is the all-important center of the everything?

If I were a Scythian nomad, or an aristocratic medieval prince, or a pre-Colombian Amazonian hunter-gatherer I have little doubt I would accept whatever wisdom and knowledge I received from the culture I was born into in regards to the universe and humanity’s place in it. I would gaze at the stars and likely never conceive that they were made of the same stuff as our sun if it weren’t conventionally known. I would fully believe in the deities of the culture and that there was some form of life after death.

It’s with that in mind that I enjoy reading about the metaphysical beliefs of pre-modern peoples, especially those that are iconoclastic with regards to their time period and lay adjacent to the current scientific conception of reality. Roughly contemporary with the Pre-Socratics, a sect of philosophers in Vedic India espoused a view that is recognizably atheist from our modern perspective. [3] I’m referring to the ancient Indian school of Charvaka. I did a search on FtB and it appears no one has written about it. What follows is a brief and very broad synopsis, though every subject briefly described is deserving of far more explication. I should point out that I have a layperson’s understanding and am certainly open to those with more knowledge of Indian philosophy pointing out errors and misconceptions.

Charvaka is seen as heterodox in terms of arising from the philosophical/theological framework of the Rg Veda, Upanishads, and Mahabharata but neglects to provide justifications for the teachings from those traditions. Arising during the Vedic and Epic periods in Indian history (roughly 1500-500 BCE), Charvaka is grouped spatiotemporally with Buddhism and Jainism as standing opposed to the six orthodox Hindu philosophies: Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Yoga, Samkhya, Mimamsa, and Vedanta. Unfortunately, the primary Charvaka document, the Brhaspati Sutra, dated to roughly 600 BCE, is lost. The primary evidence for its tenets come from rival sects and are preserved in writings dated a thousand years after its founding. The seventh century CE Tattvopaplavasimha by Jayarashi Bhatta is the earliest complete account, though there are arguments for and against its association with Charvaka. [4]

Samkhya and Mimamsa are both atheistic in terms of not positing a creator, but they adhere to the atman/prakrti (roughly equivalent to soul/matter) dualistic conception of the cosmos as the rest of the orthodox philosophies do, with the exception of the Advaita sub-discipline of Vedanta. Buddhism, while atheistic, has both dualistic and monist characteristics that vary by sect, but all reject the soul/atman. However, there is belief in supernatural elements like reincarnation, different dimensions inhabited by gods and demons, ghosts, etc. As far as I can tell, Charvaka is the only school of thought from that fertile philosophical time period to be both atheistic and nominally monist vis-à-vis the atman/prakrti dichotomy [5] while repudiating the fantastical elements contained in the other systems. There is no concern with breaking the karmic cycle of samsara that their contemporaries strive for, since death is final.

There is a sense of hedonic nihilism embedded within the doctrine:

“The enjoyment of heaven lies in eating delicious food, keeping company of young women, using fine clothes, perfumes, garlands, sandal paste, etc.” – Sarva Siddhanta Sangraha, by Shankara

Given the obsession of Buddhism and the orthodox Hindu traditions with suffering and the best way to cope with it, it wouldn’t be too surprising if the impoverished masses didn’t gravitate towards a hedonistic lifestyle they didn’t have access to. Moreover, the ruling classes probably weren’t likely to exploit a “religion” that didn’t advocate piety and obedience, with the promise of a better subsequent life to make up for one’s present shitty life. These could be two of the reasons why Charvaka didn’t last.

It’s wild (to me anyways) to think that during the life of Thales of Miletus in ancient Greece there were dissident proto-atheists half a continent away. I’m humbled by the the thought of early humans being able to cast aside what current atheists regard as illogical beliefs, something that’s fairly easy to do nowadays given widespread access to scientific information. I’m pretty sure if I existed in an earlier era I wouldn’t be able to do the same.


1. Most of the following information comes from A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy, edited by Sarvepalli Radhakrishan and Charles Moore.

2. It turns out that our observation bubble is even larger than previously thought: http://www.space.com/34382-universe-has-10-times-more-galaxies-hubble-reveals.html

3. I’ll reductively classify atheism as the denial of a Creator coupled with a monist conception of reality (i.e. only physical reality is real).

4. The book referenced above definitively places it within the Charvaka paradigm, but the Wikipedia entry for Bhatta cites proponents of arguments against this.

5. I should note Charvaka describes the principle elements of matter as listed as air, fire, earth and water, so perhaps monist is not the best description. However, the existence of a soul/atman is explicitly denied. Consciousness is said to arise from a mixture of the aforementioned elements and ceases to exist upon the body’s dissolution. As yet another aside, Vaisheshika, while still dualistic in nature, has an atomist conception of matter/prakrti.

 

Colin Kaepernick, the NFL and patriotism

Colin Kaepernick is starting again for the 49ers. Let’s check in with how some fans are reacting:

Hmm, seems just a little racist, no?

Shockingly, some fans did not take it well when it was noticed that Kaepernick was blaspheming the flag by not standing for the National Anthem. Combining his protest with how shitty he was last year as well as his injury history, I was certain he was going to be cut after preseason and unofficially blacklisted, even though he is better than a majority of backup quarterbacks. [1] The obvious reason is because Kaepernick was perceived by many, from team owners, to the NFL’s corporate sponsors, to idiotic fans, to be spitting in the face of the nationalism that is interwoven in the fabric of the NFL’s marketing and propaganda. The specific flavor of nationalism on display is sickening. Or, to quote Einstein: “Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.”

There are different degrees of nationalism as one can easily see on Wikipedia, some more benign than others. My wife and I traveled to Estonia last summer. There, I got the general sense that people were proud to be Estonian. For much of the last millennium Estonians have been under the heel of foreign rule. Their national awakening began as a fuck you to Imperial Russia and ended more than a century later with the incarnation of the Republic of Estonia. To be sure, their brand of nationalism is not without its unseemly parts. I was taken aback when one of the most chill dudes I met expressed a blanket distaste for his Latvians neighbors to the south (for reference, the state of Wisconsin is bigger than Latvia and Estonia combined by about 20,000 square miles). It’s that “othering” aspect of nationalism I find so toxic, arrogant and odious.

Turning back to America, as a nation state settled and formed by a melting pot of European peoples, an ethnocentric sense of nationalism (as in the Estonian example above) was completely unfeasible. We in America, a country whose existence necessitated genocide and was built by slavery, needed different #brands to get behind: freedom, democracy and liberty. Never mind the fact that these vague ideals have been historically unavailable to whole classes of people and remain elusive to many. Nevertheless, meaningless platitudes aside, America is in no way able to proclaim a monopoly on “freedom.” In the internet age, with widespread access to information, it should surprise no one that there are many other countries (not to mention contemporary hunter-gatherer societies) that could lay claim to being freer than us, as abstract as such a concept is.

I’m less concerned with nationalism as far as “liking where you live” or being proud of your ethnicity or citizenship than in how it’s manifested on a larger scale in terms of international relations – this is the type so prevalent in the NFL and its marketing. With regards to American foreign policy, there is little to be proud of. America has a rich, shameful history of interfering in countries that have governments they don’t like, resources they want, or markets they want access to. Much of it is completely unknown by the general football-loving public (i.e. imperialist adventures in the Pacific, the meddling in Latin America, etc.). [2] More recently, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have undeniably produced an ocean of human misery and destabilized wide swathes of the world with no end in sight. Any idea that the US is or ever has been a “global force for good” is laughable, and it’s an idea shoved down the throats of NFL fans ad nauseam.

The various ways the NFL intersects with nationalism are too numerous to detail here except to note that one of the more disgusting underlying themes is how the former utilizes the latter for vast profit. After 9/11, the NFL’s efforts to ramp up their preexisting patriotic fervor is best encapsulated by the following research-based quote: “[there] is strong evidence that level of involvement in masculinist sports on television is robustly associated with strong feelings of patriotism and with support for the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Bush doctrine of preventive attacks.” [3]

I’m not sure there’s much of an overlap in a Venn diagram of football fans and Freethought Blog readers, so I wouldn’t think anything I’ve written is too controversial. It should be apparent by now that I am a fan of football. Blind loyalty to sports teams is about the only form of tribalism I allow myself and I loathe the omnipresent intrusions of jingoist propaganda into football. It’s no wonder the NBA is far more popular internationally while the NFL lags hopelessly behind. I’m fortunate enough to go to games once a year. As grateful as I am, I will always hate being subjected to aircraft flyovers, gargantuan flags covering the field, fabricated military family reunions, and placards on every seat that, when held up by everyone, has some bullshit tribute to American militarism. I often wonder if I’m the only one who ponders the absurdity of dipshit Americans wildly cheering Black Hawk helicopters overhead in contrast to, say, a Yemeni farmer cowering in abject terror at the sight or sound of aircraft, knowing it may be American and capable of killing them and their loved ones.

Overall, is it too much to ask for the NFL to let me watch humans bashing each other into early dementia in peace?

I purposefully neglected discussing Kaepernick’s rationale for his protest because I wanted to focus on the broader themes of nationalism and the military-football complex. [4] Suffice it to say I don’t think such themes bode well for his continued employment if he performs anything less than mediocre. I’m not very interested in whether or not millionaires are justified in symbolic activism [5] and refuse to take seriously the childishly simplistic idea of disrespect to the flag/military/country. Teams will happily employ scumbags, rapists, domestic abusers, and animal murderers so long as they’re good enough to justify the negative PR their signings entail, with their idiot fans in tow willing to excuse, deny or justify their transgressions. But will teams continue to employ an ungrateful, pissing-on-the-graves-of-veterans THUG with an afro and numerous tattoos whose best days are possibly behind him? We’ll find out in the off-season if his play continues to lag. Until then, I’ll be rooting for him, even though he has a history of destroying my beloved Packers.


 

  1. My pessimism has proven to be premature. There are several factors, not the least is the fact that many rallied behind him, which has unfortunately culminated in a multitude of limp, brand-conscious displays by other players: http://jezebel.com/the-seattle-seahawks-said-nothing-1786503469
  2. http://academic.evergreen.edu/g/grossmaz/interventions.html
  3. http://matchism.org/refs/Stempel_2006_SportsInvasionIraq.pdf; A more extensive study can be found here: http://dukespace.lib.duke.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/10161/9785/FootballFlagsFlyovers.EllenRiversGambrell.5.8.15.pdf?sequence=1 
  4. I also neglected to reflect on the disgusting racism seen in the video above. My analysis: it’s bad and depressing
  5. This is a good perspective: http://deadspin.com/why-does-anyone-care-what-athletes-have-to-say-about-po-1787368964