Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Evasion of Responsibility

Any number of Law and Order episodes end with the DA explaining why the murderer can’t be let off the hook because of an unhappy childhood/genetic defect/the bad influence of television shows/whatever because to allow such excuses would destroy all personal responsibility. I’m still waiting for the show in which it is pointed out how often the infliction of heavy penalties on individuals is itself an evasion of responsibility. The semi-moronic monsters routinely put to death in Texas may deserve what they get, but their executions have an added advantage. These grim ceremonies of self-righteousness deflect attention from the fact that the authorities couldn’t be bothered by the abuse and neglect so many of these criminals suffered as children.

The recent efforts of the Federal government to put Zacarias Moussaoui to death have an analogous logic. A number of people have complained about the procedural abuses of the prosecutors in the case—reasonably enough since in an ordinary trial or before a judge with a modicum of integrity, the death penalty would have been taken off the table in the face of such behavior—but I haven’t encountered very many people who recognize the essential dishonesty of the entire proceeding. Moussaoui admitted to planning a terror attack and certainly belongs in prison, but holding him responsible for the 9/11 attacks, which nobody seems to think he had anything to do with, is simply a way for the administration to shift the blame for its own negligence. Moussaoui may not have provided an indirect warning of the possibility of an aerial attack but lots of other warnings were indeed given without effect. 9/11 wasn’t Moussaoui’s fault. It was the fault of Bush, Rice, Ashcroft, and Chaney. Indeed, if you’re in the market for complicated and far-fetched theories to justify prosecutions, it would be marginally more reasonable to execute the five Supreme Court justices who put Bush in office than the bumling, clownish Moussaouoi. Since the competent and vigilant Gore was intensely aware of the danger posed by Ben Laden, et. al, it is extremely unlikely that 9/11 would have occurred under his watch.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Sugar Water

Mystical philosophers have a problem analogous to the challenges that face the marketers of soft drinks. The content they have for sale—states of mind that are same everywhere and at all times—do not differentiate their brands. Coke is too much like Pepsi, Atman is too much like the Urgrund. Hence the need for escalating rhetoric and a huge budget for advertising. Since use and custom dull the appreciation of any insight, it is endlessly necessary to improvise fresh depths of spiritual understanding, not because the world really is infinitely deep, but for the same reason the even baking soda comes in a box labeled “New and Improved!”
Thoughts on the Ludendorf Complex

Intellectuals who desire power but understand their own lack of nerve and charisma are always cruising for a glamorous thug. Of course they tell themselves they’ll be able to steer the beast in the right direction. Unfortunately, the beasts routinely turn out to have their own ideas, and the users end up being used. We know what happened to Plato in Sicily: the bright young man types in the Bible apparently fared better with the kings and the pharaohs; but it should be kept in mind that the successes of the Josephs and the Daniels are more than legendary. They’re mythical.

Thursday, March 16, 2006


Recent studies suggest that the gradual warming of the oceans brought about by increasing greenhouse gases will result in more powerful hurricanes. That hardly seems unlikely, granted that hotter water means more energy is available to power up storms; but even if global warming doesn’t result in Hurricane Gimel bearing down on Biloxi one fine autumn morning, the enormous increase in the population of people living in areas subject to catastrophic floods guarantees that the next century will be the golden age of (semi-)natural disasters. As Mike Davis points out in his incredibly depressing book, Planet of Slums, “With the majority of the world’s urban population now concentrated on or near active tectonic plate margins, especially along Indian and Pacific Ocean littorals, several billion people are at risks from earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis, as well as from storm surges and typhoons.” If Davis had been writing copy for CNN, he would have added, “Even worse, upper middle class Americans may not be able to buy flood insurance for their second homes along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts…”

Speaking about reality’s irritating habit of letting more than one thing happen at once: it has been occasionally noticed that technological progress is proving far better at lowering the cost and increasing the performance of electronics than at supplying safe drinking water, affordable transportation, or decent health care. The inhabitants of the reeking slums of Mumbai may indeed be able to watch the irresistible advance of the ultimate tsunami on a HDTV, even if they have literally no place to go to deposit the bowel movements inspired by the brilliant visuals. What is less often noticed are the military implications of the unevenness of technological progress. I don’t know if SONY has a line of affordable IEDs in the works, but it’s a good bet that the wretched of the earth are going to be able to adapt the universally available consumer electronics to the work of vengeance. The presumption is that the Malthusian die back of the next hundred years will not discommode the First World very much because the poorer countries and peoples don’t have access to the means to so anything about it. Aside from the fact that the haves are vastly outnumbered by the have nots, it is far from clear that even the enormous investment in armaments of the U.S. can defeat the military potential of cheap electronics in the hands of sufficiently determined enemies. Does anybody know?

Monday, March 13, 2006

Joss in Translation

When somebody in these parts says that an act is good or bad karma, they aren’t usually implying much more than the belief that “that sort of thing usually ends well or badly.” What’s invoked is not an iron law of causality as ineluctable as arithmetic but a statistical tendency, a rule of thumb rather than the Dharma. Users of this language certainly aren’t signing on to the dubious hypothesis of rebirth. There is, however, a Sanskrit word that answers to the California usage of karma pretty closely. The term is mangala, which is generally translated rather grandly as auspicious—a reasonable equivalent if you think of such sentences as “If you find yourself constantly lying to your girlfriend, it’s a bad sign.” The terminological niceties are meaningful. Eliding the difference between karma and mangala makes it easy to think that Buddhism is a straightforward elaboration of commonsense that radically differs from other religions by avoiding the assertion of astonishing counterfactual claims. After all, we all eventually learn that actions have consequences. But Buddhism is a religion—a family of religions—after all, which is to say it is a system of false propositions. Taken seriously, dependent origination, the spiritual physics that underlies Karmic law, is as fantastic as transubstantiation.

Many practicing Buddhists, like many practicing Christians, regard doctrinal formulations with a sense of humor. Just as liberal Protestants aren’t scouring Mt. Ararat for the anchor of the ark, undogmatic Buddhists don’t really think that Buddha had a headache because as a child in a former life he hit a fish over the head. Promoting the notion that a comprehensive and implacable system of moral bookkeeping governs the actions of all conscious beings is an edifying claim useful in dealing with the lay people, but such skillful methods (upaya) should be taken with a grain of salt. The question for both contemporary Christians and Buddhists is how much of the fantastic element of their religious traditions they can jettison without jettisoning the tradition itself. In the Buddhist instance, for example, it’s one thing to admit that universe isn’t a despotic retribution and reward machine, but if there is no dharma at all, if some kind of moral law isn’t built into the machine language of the cosmos, karma really is just mangala. But maybe that’s not such a terrible thing to realize. The fact that quite a few Buddhists do seem to realize it is part of the reason the Buddhist tradition continues to appeal to me even though I’m well aware that it comes festooned with the same assortment of warts and boils as the other religions. It isn’t true, but maybe it’s mangala.