This week’s recommended reading includes articles and essays about: collapse and global crisis; the manipulation of economics and politics by wealthy elites; the mysteries of consciousness; current hot-button topics in religion and spirituality; fruitful ways of regarding paranormal phenomena; and the value of working consciously to live a real human life in the midst of our current culture of frenetic speed and digital interconnectedness.
* * *
Pascal Bruckner, City Journal Volume 22, No. 2 (Spring 2012)
Teaser: Secular elites prophesy a doomsday without redemption.
[M]any people in both Europe and the United States have recently convinced themselves that the End is nigh. This depressing conviction may seem surprising, given that the West continues to enjoy an unparalleled standard of living. But [the doomsday idea] has nevertheless managed to achieve power in governments, the media, and high places generally. Constantly, [they] spread fear: of progress, of science, of demographics, of global warming, of technology, of food. In five years or in ten years, temperatures will rise, Earth will be uninhabitable, natural disasters will multiply, the climate will bring us to war, and nuclear plants will explode. Man has committed the sin of pride; he has destroyed his habitat and ravaged the planet; he must atone. My point is not to minimize the dangers that we face. Rather, it is to understand why apocalyptic fear has gripped so many of our leaders, scientists, and intellectuals, who insist on reasoning and arguing as though they were following the scripts of mediocre Hollywood disaster movies…Environmental worry is universal; the sickness of the end of the world is purely Western.
* * *
Opening Our Eyes to What’s Right in Front of Our Faces
John Kurmann, Rethinking the World, March 2001
Now, we’re not the first culture to ever experience a collapse, so that doesn’t qualify these as the most interesting of times in and of itself. No, what makes our times so unusual is that the culture we live in, this culture coming apart at the seams, has metastasized into a global super-culture, one to which almost (but not quite) all of the people alive today on the planet belong, by choice or by force. If this rickety contraption completely collapses, as I’m convinced it’s on the verge of doing, watch out, because it’s going to take pretty much the whole world we know with it.
* * *
World needs to stabilise population and cut consumption, says Royal Society
John Vidal, Guardian, April 25, 2012
Teaser: Economic and environmental catastrophes unavoidable unless rich countries cut consumption and global population stabilises.
World population needs to be stabilised quickly and high consumption in rich countries rapidly reduced to avoid “a downward spiral of economic and environmental ills”, warns a major report from the Royal Society…The assessment of humanity’s prospects in the next 100 years, which has taken 21 months to complete, argues strongly that to achieve long and healthy lives for all 9 billion people expected to be living in 2050, the twin issues of population and consumption must be pushed to the top of political and economic agendas…The authors declined to put a figure on sustainable population, saying it depended on lifestyle choices and consumption. But they warned that without urgent action humanity would be in deep trouble.
* * *
Synthetic DNA Created, Evolves on Its Own
Christine Dell-Amore, National Geographic, April 19, 2012
Teaser: “XNA” may help answer basic questions of biology, study says.
Step aside, DNA—new synthetic compounds called XNAs can also store and copy genetic information, a new study says. And, in a “big advancement,” these artificial compounds can also be made to evolve in the lab, according to study co-author John Chaput of the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University…This shows that “beyond heredity, specific XNAs have the capacity for Darwinian evolution,” according to the study, published tomorrow in the journal Science.
* * *
Misinformation campaign targets USA TODAY reporter, editor
Gregory Korte, USA Today, April 22, 2012
A USA TODAY reporter and editor investigating Pentagon propaganda contractors have themselves been subjected to a propaganda campaign of sorts, waged on the Internet through a series of bogus websites. Fake Twitter and Facebook accounts have been created in their names, along with a Wikipedia entry and dozens of message board postings and blog comments. Websites were registered in their names. The timeline of the activity tracks USA TODAY’s reporting on the military’s “information operations” program, which spent hundreds of millions of dollars on marketing campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan – campaigns that have been criticized even within the Pentagon as ineffective and poorly monitored.
* * *
A Small World After All?
Ethan Zuckerman, Wilson Quarterly, Spring 2012
Teaser: The Internet has changed many things, but not the insular habits of mind that keep the world from becoming truly connected.
A central paradox of this connected age is that while it’s easier than ever to share information and perspectives from different parts of the world, we may be encountering a narrower picture of the world than we did in less connected days…My studies of online news consumption show that 95 percent of the news consumed by American Internet users is published in the United States. By this metric, the United States is less parochial than many other nations, which consume even less news published in other countries. This locality effect crosses into social media as well…As we start to understand how people actually use the Internet, the cyberutopian hopes of a borderless, postnational planet can look as naive as most past predictions that new technologies would transform societies. In 1912, radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi declared, “The coming of the wireless era will make war impossible, because it will make war ridiculous.” Two years later a ridiculous war began, ultimately killing nine million Europeans…Increased digital connection does not automatically lead to increased understanding.
* * *
Frank Rich, New York Magazine April 22, 2012
Teaser: The old, white, rich men who are buying this election.
Whatever else happens in 2012, it will go down as the Year of the Sugar Daddy. Inflamed by Obama-hatred, awash in self-pity, and empowered by myriad indulgent court and Federal Election Commission rulings, an outsize posse of superrich white men will spend whatever it takes to have its way with the body politic and, if victorious, with the country itself…If the sugar daddies get their way in November, we know what it means for the country. But it’s equally worth contemplating what will happen if they don’t. Obama is talking the talk of the two Roosevelts, whose reformist zeal and political courage helped bring America back from the brink after the privileged plundered it in the Gilded Age and the Jazz Age. But if he is willing to take on those interests as forcefully as they did, he has yet to show it in his actions and governance. Unless and until he does, it’s hard to see how the sugar daddies could lose over the long run, even if Obama wins on Election Day. They have, after all, only just begun to spend.
* * *
Facts, 360 B.C.-A.D. 2012
Rex W. Huppke, Chicago Tribune, April 19, 2912
Teaser: In memoriam: After years of health problems, Facts has finally died.
To the shock of most sentient beings, Facts died Wednesday, April 18, after a long battle for relevancy with the 24-hour news cycle, blogs and the Internet. Though few expected Facts to pull out of its years-long downward spiral, the official cause of death was from injuries suffered last week when Florida Republican Rep. Allen West steadfastly declared that as many as 81 of his fellow members of the U.S. House of Representatives are communists…Though weakened, Facts managed to persevere through the last two decades, despite historic setbacks that included President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, the justification for President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and the debate over President Barack Obama’s American citizenship…Facts is survived by two brothers, Rumor and Innuendo, and a sister, Emphatic Assertion. Services are alleged to be private. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that mourners make a donation to their favorite super PAC.
* * *
Essential Secrets of Psychotherapy: What Is the “Shadow”?
Dr. Stephen A. Diamond, Evil Deeds, Psychology Today, April 20, 2012
Teaser: Understanding the “dark side” of our psyche.
T]he shadow contains all those qualities we hide from ourselves and others, but which remain active within the unconscious, forming a sort of ‘‘splinter personality’’ or complex, not unlike the relatively autonomous sub-personalities found in multiple personality (dissociative identity disorder) or in so-called demonic possession or demonism. Under stressful circumstances or in states of fatigue or intoxication, this compensatory alter ego or shadow complex can be triggered into temporarily taking total command of the conscious will. The abject negativity and destructiveness of the shadow is largely a function of the degree to which the individual neglects and refuses to take responsibility for it, only inflaming its ferocity and pernicious power.
* * *
Awake or Knocked Out? The Line Gets Blurrier
James Gorman, The New York Times, April 12, 2012
The puzzle of consciousness is so devilish that scientists and philosophers are still struggling with how to talk about it, let alone figure out what it is and where it comes from. One problem is that the word has more than one meaning. Trying to plumb the nature of self-awareness or self-consciousness leads down one infamous rabbit hole. But what if the subject is simply the difference in brain activity between being conscious and being unconscious?..Setting aside what philosophers call “the hard problem” (self-awareness), a lot has been learned about the boundary between being awake and alert and being unconscious since ether was used in 1846 to put a patient under for surgery. Researchers have used anesthesia, recently in combination with brain scans, as a tool to see what happens in the brain when people fade in and out of consciousness — which parts turn on and which turn off.
* * *
Mysteries of the Mind
Marianne Szegedy-Maszak, U.S. News & World Report, February 20, 2005
Teaser: Your unconscious is making your everyday decisions.
[NOTE: This article serves mostly as a channel for the fatuous physicalist-reductionist view of psychic life that became über-fashionable some years ago. But it contains much provocative and fascinating material nonetheless.]
Today, long after Sigmund Freud introduced the world to the fact that much of what we do is determined by mysterious memories and emotional forces, the depths of the mind and the brain are being explored anew. “Most of what we do every minute of every day is unconscious, ” says University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Paul Whelan. “Life would be chaos if everything were on the forefront of our consciousness.” Fueled by powerful neuroimaging technology, questions about how we make snap decisions, why we feel uncomfortable without any obvious causes, what motivates us, and what satisfies us are being answered not through lying on a couch and exploring individual childhood miseries but by looking at neurons firing in particular parts of our brains…It is that great tension between the two, the intermingling of the known and the unknown, the conscious and the unconscious, the 5 percent and the 95 percent, that the pioneers exploring this vast and intricate universe of our minds will continue to probe. But there will most likely never be a complete understanding. After all, the enigmas of the mind, and the mechanics of the brain, will forever define the ultimate mystery of simply being human.
* * *
Interview with Christopher Knowles
Frank Zero, New Orleans Paranormal Examiner, Examiner.com, April 18, 2012
[NOTE: Knowles is the author of Our Gods Wear Spandex, Secret History of Rock N Roll, The Complete X-Files: Behind the Series, the Myths, and the Movies, and the unbelievably fascinating blog Secret Sun. And this is one hell of an interview.]
My feeling is that abduction phenomena is tied to what’s happening in the body politic, and the big wave of reports seemed to have something to do with the Cold War. It’s not a new phenomenon — you can read about it in the Book of Enoch and the Mithraic Liturgy- — but it seems that someone was trying to send the PTB a message with that big wave of post-war abductions. I’m sure a lot of abduction accounts were imaginary or hallucinatory, but we heard a lot of experiencers relay messages about nuclear and environmental catastrophe, concerns that aliens might not have so much as a possible cryptoterrestrial race sharing the biosphere with us.
* * *
Distinct “God Spot” in the Brain Does Not Exist, MU Researcher Says
Brad Fischer, MU News Bureau, April 18, 2012
Teaser: Study shows religious participation and spirituality processed in different cerebral regions.
Scientists have speculated that the human brain features a “God spot,” one distinct area of the brain responsible for spirituality. Now, University of Missouri researchers have completed research that indicates spirituality is a complex phenomenon, and multiple areas of the brain are responsible for the many aspects of spiritual experiences…“We have found a neuropsychological basis for spirituality, but it’s not isolated to one specific area of the brain,” said Brick Johnstone, professor of health psychology in the School of Health Professions. “Spirituality is a much more dynamic concept that uses many parts of the brain. Certain parts of the brain play more predominant roles, but they all work together to facilitate individuals’ spiritual experiences.”
* * *
Near Death, Explained
Mario Beauregard, Salon, April 21, 2012
Teaser: New science is shedding light on what really happens during out-of-body experiences — with shocking results.
The scientific NDE studies performed over the past decades indicate that heightened mental functions can be experienced independently of the body at a time when brain activity is greatly impaired or seemingly absent (such as during cardiac arrest)…These findings strongly challenge the mainstream neuroscientific view that mind and consciousness result solely from brain activity…[S]uch a view fails to account for how NDErs can experience — while their hearts are stopped — vivid and complex thoughts and acquire veridical information about objects or events remote from their bodies. NDE studies also suggest that after physical death, mind and consciousness may continue in a transcendent level of reality that normally is not accessible to our senses and awareness. Needless to say, this view is utterly incompatible with the belief of many materialists that the material world is the only reality.
* * *
Should We Bring Heaven down to Earth?
John Meacham,TIME online, April 5, 2012
Teaser: Is heaven where we go when we die, or God’s space in the here and now of this world?
The conversation about the nature of heaven that we tackle in the April 16 issue of TIME is challenging popular piety…If you begin to think about the drama of life in [terms of heaven more as God’s space on earth than as an ethereal region apart from the essential reality we know], you begin to invest more meaning in the here and now — not in the “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” pagan way, but as a way of infusing everything with potentially sacred meaning…The divide isn’t about a secular ideal of service vs. a religiously infused vision of reality. It’s about whether believing Christians see earthly life as inextricably bound up with eternal life or as simply a prelude to a heavenly existence elsewhere. If, like me, you find the former option intriguing, then heaven is the reality one creates in the service of the poor, the sick, the enslaved, the oppressed. It is not Disneyland in the sky but acts of selflessness and love that bring God’s sacred space and grace to a broken world suffused with tragedy. We could do worse than think in such terms.
* * *
Islam’s Origins: Where Mystery Meets History
Tom Holland, History Today Volume 62, Issue 5 (2012)
Teaser: The same spotlight of historical enquiry that scholars have long been shedding on the biblical past is now starting to illumine the origins of Islam, as Tom Holland explains.
Back in the 19th century, Ernest Renan…contrasted the presumed excellence of the sources for the life of Muhammad with the murk surrounding the founders of other faiths. “Islam,” he declared, “was born, not amid the mystery which cradles the origins of other religions, but rather in the full light of history.” Over the past 40 years, however, this proposition has come under brutal and escalating attack — so much so, indeed, that Islam’s birth, to an increasing number of scholars, now appears shrouded in an almost impenetrable darkness…[I]t is certainly no longer possible to presume that there is anything remotely self-evident about the birth of Islam. Forty years ago any querying what Muslim tradition taught about its own origins might have been dismissed as mere crankish troublemaking of a kind that no more merited a response from heavyweight experts than did, say, the attempt to ascribe Shakespeare’s plays to Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford. All that has changed. Indeed it is hard to think of any other field of history so currently riven by disagreement as is that of early Islam.
* * *
In Defence of Obscure Words
Will Self, BBC News Magazine, April 20, 2012
Teaser: We chase “fast culture” at our peril — unusual words and difficult art are good for us, says Will Self.
We are living in a risk-averse culture — there’s no doubt about that. But the risk that people seem most reluctant taking is not a physical but a mental one: just as the concrete in children’s playgrounds has been covered with rubber, so the hard truth about the effort needed for intellectual attainment is being softened by a sort of semantic padding. Our arts and humanities education at secondary level seems particularly afflicted by falling standards — so much so that universities are now being called upon to help write new A-level syllabuses in order to cram our little chicks with knowledge that, in recent years, has come to seem unpalatable, if not indigestible — knowledge such as English vocabulary beyond that which is in common usage…In place of the difficulty involved in seeking out the literary canon, younger people are coming to rely on search engines to do their thinking for them. The end result of this will be a standardisation of understanding itself, as people become unable to think outside of the box-shaped screen.
* * *
Carl Honoré on Slow Living
The Browser, April 25, 2012
Teaser: In a culture obsessed with speed, the author of In Praise of Slow asks us to take a step back, from slower eating to unhurried thinking — and traces the leisurely history of the slow movement.
First, let’s underscore what the whole Slow culture quake is about. It’s not anti-speed. It’s not about doing everything in slow motion. It’s about doing things at the right speed – what musicians call the tempo giusto. Every act has the right rhythm for it, and if you find that rhythm you’re going to do it better and enjoy it more. Particularly in cities, we get infected by this virus of hurry, where our default mode is to do everything as fast as possible. We fall into the trap of trying to do more and more things in less and less time, putting quantity before quality in everything we do…I guess what it boils down to is that slow is ultimately a state of mind. You can be slow anywhere — in the centre of London or in a cottage in the Scottish Highlands. It’s about how you approach and use time. Do you arrive at each moment thinking: How am I going to get this done as fast as possible? Or how can I get this done as well as possible? Once you’ve changed that inner chip, you can start living a slow life.
* * *
The Madness of Art
Brian Morton, Dissent
The usual interpretation of the phrase “the madness of art” conjures up an attractive cliché: the writer as a creature possessed, spilling out words in a divine frenzy. This isn’t the normal experience of the practicing fiction writer, the writer who’s found a way to keep going over the long haul, and it isn’t the idea of the artist that [Henry] James had in mind [when he coined the phrase in his short story "The Middle Years"]…The artist’s calling is to do what one can, to give what one has; the artist’s calling is to explore one’s doubt, one’s task, one’s passion. And the madness of art? The madness of art is everything else…Whatever you decide to call it, the ability to consecrate yourself to the daily task of art isn’t rooted in madness. As James knew, as [his story's protagonist] Dencombe knew, it’s rooted in sanity. The “Middle Years” is a story about the passionate sanity of the artist. It’s a story about the sanity of art.
* * *
This short documentary about shamanism — not just as a subject of anthropological interest, but as a matter of pressing spiritual import for all of us, since it’s the oldest religion on the planet and is experiencing a major explosion of interest in the developed world today — is amazingly powerful. The featured speakers include Michael Harner, Jacob Needleman, Terrence McKenna, and Claudio Naranjo (a powerhouse of a lineup).