Category Archives: Government & Politics

One Nation under Many Gods: In a Fractious and Fractured Political Age, New Age Mysticism Still Unites Americans

 A version of the reverse of the Great Seal of the United States printed in a 1909 U.S. Government booklet on the Great Seal. According to Henry A. Wallace, this was the version that caught his eye, causing him to suggest to President Franklin Roosevelt to put the design on a coin, at which point Roosevelt decided to put it on the back of the dollar bill.

 

A newly published article at Salon by Mitch Horowitz is typically insightful and well-written, and well worth your time.  And despite the headline, it’s not really about Steve Bannon. I mean, yes, it does contain the revelation that Horowitz knows Bannon, and that his view of the man diverges sharply from the widespread popular one that reigns in the mass media:

Although the media have characterized Bannon as the Disraeli of the dark side following his rise to power in the Trump administration, I knew him, and still do, as a deeply read and erudite observer of the American religious scene, with a keen appetite for mystical thought.

But the article’s overall topic is much broader, as indicated in the provided editorial teaser: “If you think New Age alternative spirituality is solely the domain of lefty hippies, you don’t know your history.” In just under two thousand words Horowitz discusses such things as the influence of Manly P. Hall on Ronald Reagan, Madame Blavatsky’s promulgation of the idea of “America as the catalyst for a revolution in human potential,” Donald Trump’s association with Norman Vincent Peale, FDR’s decision to put the eye-and-pyramid of the Great Seal of the United States on the dollar bill, Hillary Clinton’s visioneering meetings Jean Houston (who once told Bill Clinton that he was an “undeveloped shaman,” at which point he got up and walked out), and more. Horowitz’s basic point is that none of this represents a conspiracy, notwithstanding the claims of the paranoid conspiracy theorizing crowd:

Rather than fomenting secrecy or subterfuge, America’s embrace of esotericism is often characterized by a chin-out earnestness, something that many observers and conspiracy-mongers miss.. . . . Today, cable television producers and radio hosts often urge me to postulate some kind of occult “pact” between the Bushes and the dark side (cue up Skull and Bones). But such things are fantasy. The truth is, Americans have always been, well, a little strange. As a historian, I feel affection for that aspect of American life. Shadowy figures have long hung around the fringes of power in many nations; but rarely have they done so with the ingenuousness and transparency of those I’ve been considering.

And to cap it off, he ends on a note that is positively eloquent and inspiring:

If there is a central principle in American life, one valued across our political spectrum, it is a belief in the protection of the individual search for meaning. The presence and persistence of esoteric and unusual religious ideas in our political culture, including in its most conservative quarters, serves as evidence that that core principle is still working. In the U.S. military, religiously observant service members and veterans can now choose among more than 65 “emblems of belief,” including pentagrams, druidic symbols and every variety of mystical insignia. We are truly one nation under many gods — a fact that unites us across our fractured political divide.

FULL TEXT: “Steve Bannon and the Occult: The Right Wing’s Long, Strange Love Affair with New Age Mysticism

WE SLEEP – John Carpenter’s ‘They Live’ as Prophecy (video essay)

Love this video essay from filmmaker (and former Buddhist Studies scholar) Daniel Clarkson Fisher. Perhaps you will, too. It’s great stuff, excellently conceived and executed. Perhaps I don’t agree with absolutely all of the political statements made in it. But I agree with enough of them. And anyway, it’s about Carpenter’s They Live. So what else matters?

From the included interviews:

Slavov Zizek: They Live from 1988 is definitely one of the forgotten masterpieces of the Hollywood Left. It tells the story of John Nada — nada, of course, in Spanish, means “nothing,” a pure subject deprived of all substantial content — a homeless worker in L.A. who, drifting around, one day enters an abandoned church and finds there a strange box full of sunglasses. And when he puts one of them on, walking along the L.A. streets, he discovers something weird: that these glasses function like “critique of ideology” glasses. They allow you to see the real message beneath all the propaganda, publicity glitz, posters, and so on.

John Carpenter: I was reflecting on a lot of the values that I saw around me at the time, mainly inspired by Ronald Reagan’s conservative revolution. There was a great deal of obsession with greed and making a lot of money, and some of the values that I grew up with had been pushed aside. So I decided to scream out in the middle of the night and make a statement about that. And They Live is partially a political statement. It’s partially a tract on the world that we live in today. And as a matter of fact, right now it’s even more true than it was then.

Russell Brand: Don’t trust politicians, big business, or the media

Photo by Eva Rinaldi from Sydney Australia (Arthur Russell Brand  Uploaded by Kafuffle) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Eva Rinaldi from Sydney Australia (Arthur Russell Brand Uploaded by Kafuffle) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s Russell Brand, writing in The Guardian this past Friday the 13th about his recent experience at the GQ awards (from which he was ejected for cracking jokes about the event’s sponsor), and speaking some serious truth to, or rather about, power (with emphases added by me):

What are politicians doing at Glastonbury and the GQ awards? I feel guilty going, and I’m a comedian. Why are public officials, paid by us, turning up at events for fashion magazines? Well, the reason I was there was because I have a tour on and I was advised it would be good publicity. What are the politicians selling? How are they managing our perception of them with their attendance of these sequin-encrusted corporate balls?

We witness that there is a relationship between government, media and industry that is evident even at this most spurious and superficial level. These three institutions support one another. We know that however cool a media outlet may purport to be, their primary loyalty is to their corporate backers. We know also that you cannot criticise the corporate backers openly without censorship and subsequent manipulation of this information.

Now I’m aware that this was really no big deal; I’m not saying I’m an estuary Che Guevara. It was a daft joke by a daft comic at a daft event. It makes me wonder, though, how the relationships and power dynamics I witnessed on this relatively inconsequential context are replicated on a more significant scale.

For example, if you can’t criticise Hugo Boss at the GQ awards because they own the event, do you think it is significant that energy companies donate to the Tory party? Will that affect government policy? Will the relationships that “politician of the year” Boris Johnson has with City bankers — he took many more meetings with them than public servants in his first term as mayor — influence the way he runs our capital?

Is it any wonder that Amazon, Vodafone and Starbucks avoid paying tax when they enjoy such cosy relationships with members of our government?

Ought we be concerned that our rights to protest are being continually eroded under the guise of enhancing our safety? Is there a relationship between proposed fracking in the UK, new laws that prohibit protest and the relationships between energy companies and our government?

I don’t know. I do have some good principles picked up that night that are generally applicable: the glamour and the glitz isn’t real, the party isn’t real, you have a much better time mucking around trying to make your mates laugh. I suppose that’s obvious. We all know it, we already know all the important stuff, like: don’t trust politicians, don’t trust big business and don’t trust the media. Trust your own heart and each another. When you take a breath and look away from the spectacle it’s amazing how absurd it seems when you look back.

MORE: “Russell Brand and the GQ awards: ‘It’s amazing how absurd it seems‘”

Teeming Links – August 30, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Today’s opening word is actually double: two opening words. The first is from John Michael Greer, writing with his typically casual and powerful lucidity. The second is from international studies expert Charles Hill, who writes with equal power. They’re lengthy, so please feel free to skip on down to the list of links. But I think you’ll find something interesting if you first read these excerpts, and ruminate on them, and see if you can spot a deep connection between them.

First, from Mr. Greer:

Plunge into the heart of the fracking storm . . . and you’ll find yourself face to face with a foredoomed attempt to maintain one of the core beliefs of the civil religion of progress in the teeth of all the evidence. The stakes here go far beyond making a bunch of financiers their umpteenth million, or providing believers in the myth of progress with a familiar ritual drama to bolster their faith; they cut straight to the heart of that faith, and thus to some of the most fundamental presuppositions that are guiding today’s industrial societies along their road to history’s scrapheap.

. . . The implication that has to be faced is that the age of petroleum, and everything that unfolded from it, was exactly the same sort of temporary condition as the age of antibiotics and the Green Revolution. Believers in the religion of progress like to think that Man conquered distance and made the world smaller by inventing internal combustion engines, aircraft, and an assortment of other ways to burn plenty of petroleum products. What actually happened, though, was that drilling rigs and a few other technologies gave our species a temporary boost of cheap liquid fuel to play with, and we proceeded to waste most of it on the assumption that Nature’s energy resources had been conquered and could be expected to fork over another cheap abundant energy source as soon as we wanted one.

. . . [T]he fact that Wall Street office fauna are shoveling smoke about, ahem, “limitless amounts of oil and natural gas” from fracked wells, may make them their umpteenth million and keep the clueless neatly sedated for a few more years, but it’s not going to do a thing to change the hard facts of the predicament that’s closing around us all.

— John Michael Greer, “Terms of Surrender,” The Archdruid Report, August 28, 2013

Second, from Dr. Hill:

This vast societal transformation might be called “The Great Virtue Shift.” Almost every act regarded in the mid-20th century as a vice was, by the opening of the 21st century, considered a virtue. As gambling, obscenity, pornography, drugs, divorce, homosexuality, abortion and sneering disaffection became The New Virtue, government at all levels began to move in on the action, starting with casinos and currently involving, in several states and the District of Columbia, an officially approved and bureaucratically managed narcotics trade.

The Great Virtue Shift has produced among its practitioners the appearance of profound moral concern, caring and legislated activism on behalf of the neediest cases and most immiserated populations at home and around the world. To this may be added the panoply of social agenda issues designed to ignite resentment and righteous indignation among the new “proletarian” elite. All this works to satisfy the cultural elite’s desire to feel morally superior about itself regarding collective moral issues of large magnitude even as they, as individuals, engage in outsized self-indulgent personal behavior.

. . . There is a logic chain at work here, too: a lack of self-limitation on individual liberty will produce excess and coarseness; virtue will retreat and, as it does, hypocritical moralizing about society’s deficiencies will increase. Widening irresponsibility coupled with public pressure for behavior modification will mount and be acted upon by government. The consequential loss of liberty scarcely will be noticed by the mass of people now indulging themselves, as Tocqueville predicted, in the “small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls.” We will not as a result be ruled by tyrants but by schoolmasters in suits with law degrees, and be consoled in the knowledge that we ourselves elected them.

To retain liberty, or by now to repossess it, Americans must re-educate themselves in what has been made of Burke’s precept: “Liberty must be limited in order to be possessed.” Walt Whitman re-formulated this as, “The shallow consider liberty a release from all law, from every constraint. The wise man sees in it, on the contrary, the potent Law of Laws.” Learning what liberty is and what it requires of us is the only bulwark, ultimately, against American decadence. Pay no heed to the determinists: The choice is ours to make.

— Charles Hill, “On Decadence,” The American Interest, September/October 2013

If you made a Venn Diagram out of Hill’s and Greer’s respective ruminations, and if you meditated for a while on the shared middle ground between them, you might find something that would insightfully illuminate a lot of the material below.

* * *

Is America Addicted to War? (Foreign Policy, April 2011)
This exploration of “the top 5 reasons why we keep getting into foolish fights,” written by Harvard international affairs professor Stephen M. Walt in response to the United States’ military intervention in Libya’s civil war, is obviously and pointedly relevant to what’s going on right now with the Syria situation. “Why does this keep happening? Why do such different presidents keep doing such similar things? How can an electorate that seemed sick of war in 2008 watch passively while one war escalates in 2009 and another one gets launched in 2011? How can two political parties that are locked in a nasty partisan fight over every nickel in the government budget sit blithely by and watch a president start running up a $100 million per day tab in this latest adventure? What is going on here?

The real threat to our way of life? Not terrorists or faraway dictators, but our own politicians and securocrats (The Guardian)
“Convinced national security is for ever at risk, western governments mimic the fanaticism they claim to despise.”

The Leveraged Buyout of America (The Web of Debt Blog)
“Giant bank holding companies now own airports, toll roads, and ports; control power plants; and store and hoard vast quantities of commodities of all sorts. They are systematically buying up or gaining control of the essential lifelines of the economy. How have they pulled this off, and where have they gotten the money?”

Academy Fight Song (The Baffler)
This may be the most exhaustive, devastating, damning, dystopian, and dead-on essay-length critique of higher education in America that I’ve ever read. “Virtually every aspect of the higher-ed dream has been colonized by monopolies, cartels, and other unrestrained predators. . . . What actually will happen to higher ed, when the breaking point comes, will be an extension of what has already happened, what money wants to see happen. Another market-driven disaster will be understood as a disaster of socialism, requiring an ever deeper penetration of the university by market rationality.”

Why Teach English? (Adam Gopnik for The New Yorker)
“No sane person proposes or has ever proposed an entirely utilitarian, production-oriented view of human purpose. We cannot merely produce goods and services as efficiently as we can, sell them to each other as cheaply as possible, and die. . . . No civilization we think worth studying, or whose relics we think worth visiting, existed without what amounts to an English department — texts that mattered, people who argued about them as if they mattered, and a sense of shame among the wealthy if they couldn’t talk about them, at least a little, too. It’s what we call civilization.”

The Humanities Studies Debate (On Point with Tom Ashbrook)
A well-mounted, hour-long NPR radio debate. “Should American colleges and college students throw their resources, their minds, their futures, into the ancient pillars of learning — philosophy, language, literature, history, the arts. Or are those somehow less relevant, less urgent studies today in a hyper-competitive global economy? Defenders of the humanities say this is the very foundation of human insight. To study, as Socrates said, ‘the way one should live.’ Critics say: ‘Crunch some numbers. Get a job.’

Paper Versus Pixel (Nicholas Carr for Nautilus)
“On the occasion of the inaugural Nautilus Quarterly, we asked Nicholas Carr to survey the prospects for a print publication. Here he shows why asking if digital publications will supplant printed ones is the wrong question. ‘We were probably mistaken to think of words on screens as substitutes for words on paper’ [says Carr]. ‘They seem to be different things, suited to different kinds of reading and providing different sorts of aesthetic and intellectual experiences.'”

Japan Opens ‘Fasting Camps’ To Wean Kids Off Of Excessive Internet Usage (International Business Times)
“A government study found that up to 15 percent of Japanese students spend as much as five hours online everyday and even more time on the internet on weekends. As a result, the Tokyo government’s education ministry will introduce ‘web fasting camps’ to help young people disconnect from their PCs, laptops, mobile phones and hand-held devices.”

Cancer’s Primeval Power and Murderous Purpose (Bloomberg)
“It is a fundamental biological phenomenon. A single cell ‘decides’ (for lack of a better word) to strike off on its own. Mutation by mutation, it evolves — like a monster in the ecosystem of your body. Cancer is an occupying force with a will of its own. . . . What from the body’s point of view are dangerous mutations are, for the tumor, advantageous adaptations. . . . Susan Sontag called cancer ‘a demonic pregnancy,’ ‘a fetus with its own will.’ That is more than an arresting metaphor.”

New Exhibit Explains Why We’ve Been Fascinated By Witches For More Than 500 Years (The Huffington Post)
“A new exhibit at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, aptly titled exhibition, ‘Witches & Wicked Bodies,’ is paying homage to art’s heated affair with witches. The show dives into darker depictions of witches hidden in prints, drawings, paintings, sculptures and more, shedding light on attitudes perpetuated by everyone from Francisco de Goya to Paula Rego.”

Beyond the Veil: Otherworld Experience as Archaeological Research (Prehistoric Shamanism)
“By ignoring trance experience of the otherworld, anthropologists could only understand part of the world shamanic people lived in. As it turned out, the otherworld and the existence of the spirits informed pretty much everything these people did. . . . The otherworld of the spirits that prehistoric people experienced is not made up, or a figment of a deluded mind, but is something wired into the brains of every human.”

William Gaines and the Birth of Horror Comics (Mysterious Universe)
“Through comics, films and television, ‘Tales From The Crypt’ and EC Comics have proven to be an enduring pop culture franchise and one that’s dear to the heart of many horror fans. Its legacy continues to manifest itself through the innumerable writers, directors and artists whose childhoods were shaped by nights reading those gloriously gruesome early comics by flashlight under the blankets.”

Syria, Russell Brand, and Miley Cyrus: Strange daze indeed

Damascus by night, via Wikimedia under Creative Commons

Damascus by night, via Wikimedia under Creative Commons

Is it just me, or have we been here before? Say, back in 2003, during the buildup to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq? And is something amiss when one of the most reliable voices of reason amid the current World War III scenario is Russell Brand? Or when a (possibly former) entertainment icon for early adolescent girls steals the show by doing a faux softcore stage performance on cable television?

After a week-long mounting media storm here in America, and also in Britain, and also in many other countries, here’s what we’re now faced with:

From CNN this morning:

The United States has concluded Syria carried out chemical weapons attacks against its people, President Barack Obama said Wednesday, a claim that comes amid a looming diplomatic showdown over whether to strike against Bashar al-Assad’s military.

From Reuters yesterday:

President Barack Obama vowed on Wednesday that the Syrian government would face “international consequences” for last week’s deadly chemical attack, but made clear any military response would be limited to avoid dragging the United States into another war in the Middle East.

From The Washington Post this morning:

As the United States and its allies weigh limited military strikes against Syria, their lawyers have been exploring a range of legal frameworks for any operation, including propositions that members of the international community have the right to use force to protect civilians or to deter a rogue nation from using chemical weapons.

However, the Post also reports that

the Obama administration’s efforts to build a legal case are encountering skepticism from U.N. officials and other experts, including former Republican and Democratic State Department lawyers, who argue that the use of force against the Syrian regime, absent a U.N. Security Council resolution, would be illegal.

On the other hand, the Associated Press (via Yahoo! News) reports that

Britain’s leaders said Thursday it would be legal under humanitarian doctrine to launch a military strike against Syria even without authorization from the United Nations Security Council.

Meanwhile, Reuters (via Yahoo! News Canada) reports that

Russia is sending two warships to the east Mediterranean, Interfax news agency said on Thursday, but Moscow denied this meant it was beefing up its naval force there as Western powers prepare for military action against Syria. Read the rest of this entry

Cannabis and Cthulhu: Dr. Sanjay Gupta wakes the Old Ones with his marijuana metanoia

    Cannabis photos by Cannabis Training University (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Cannabis photos by Cannabis Training University (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Okay, please pardon the ludicrously sensationalistic title. But seriously, is there anybody who hasn’t heard about this yet? On the slim chance that there is, here you go. This is Dr. Sanjay Gupta speaking, who, as we all surely recall, is not just a media personality but someone whose medical opinion carries political clout, as seen in the fact that he was offered (but he refused) the position of U.S. Surgeon General by President Obama.

Over the last year, I have been working on a new documentary called “Weed.” The title “Weed” may sound cavalier, but the content is not. I traveled around the world to interview medical leaders, experts, growers and patients. I spoke candidly to them, asking tough questions. What I found was stunning. Long before I began this project, I had steadily reviewed the scientific literature on medical marijuana from the United States and thought it was fairly unimpressive.

Well, I am here to apologize. I apologize because I didn’t look hard enough, until now. I didn’t look far enough. I didn’t review papers from smaller labs in other countries doing some remarkable research, and I was too dismissive of the loud chorus of legitimate patients whose symptoms improved on cannabis. Instead, I lumped them with the high-visibility malingerers, just looking to get high. I mistakenly believed the Drug Enforcement Agency listed marijuana as a schedule 1 substance because of sound scientific proof. Surely, they must have quality reasoning as to why marijuana is in the category of the most dangerous drugs that have “no accepted medicinal use and a high potential for abuse.”

They didn’t have the science to support that claim, and I now know that when it comes to marijuana neither of those things are true. It doesn’t have a high potential for abuse, and there are very legitimate medical applications. In fact, sometimes marijuana is the only thing that works.

[. . .] I have. . . come to the realization that it is irresponsible not to provide the best care we can as a medical community, care that could involve marijuana. We have been terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years in the United States, and I apologize for my own role in that.

— “Dr. Sanjay Gupta: Why I changed my mind on marijuana,” CNN, August 9, 2013

Also see Gupta’s appearance on a recent CNN program devoted to the question of medicine, marijuana, and the legal restrictions on certain substances:

Did you hear all of that? And did you really listen and consider its implications? Methinks this development could prove to represent an authentic sea change in the marijuana legalization wars. When a person of Gupta’s public status and visibility puts himself and his reputation on the line over something like this, the ramifications are immense.

Nor are they limited to the matter of medicine and marijuana as such. Notice that a statement like Gupta’s carries implications far exceeding its nominal topic. We in America have been “systematically” lied to by our government, he says. As in, deliberately and strategically. This naturally leads to further questions. Read the rest of this entry

Teeming Links – August 13, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I invite you to peruse today’s installment of recommended and necessary reading in light of this recent reflection from Walter Kirn, who says his former personal and current authorial involvement with a certain high-profile murderer and impostor has combined synergistically with the rash of apocalyptic awfulness currently infesting global news headlines to generate the impression that we’re all living in a real-life story that’s one part Lovecraftian horror and one part dystopian science fiction:

All summer I’ve been manacled to my desk writing a book about a former friend of mine, the impostor and convicted killer known to the world and the media as Clark Rockefeller.

. . . I couldn’t have chosen a worse few months for such a paranoia-inducing task. Since the end of my old friend’s murder trial in April — a proceeding which taught me a lifetime’s worth of lessons about manipulation and deception — the news from the world of government and politics has been unremitting in its spookiness, a serial ghost story from the Age of Terror. The Summer of Lovecraft, I’ve decided to call it. Snowden. PRISM. Secret courts. The death of Michael Hastings. That program, just outed, that allows the DEA to substitute spurious investigative trails for the ones it actually uses to track suspects. The only winners here? Literature professors. Orwell, Kafka, Huxley, and Philip K. Dick we hardly knew ye, it turns out. But now we’re getting to know ye much, much better.

. . . Tomorrow morning, per my daily ritual, I’ll spend a few minutes reading the headlines before I buckle down to work. I already know what’s in store for me, unfortunately: I’ll learn yet again that what I’m writing about on a small and personal scale is happening in some form on a grand scale.

That much I can trust.

— Walter Kirn, “This Is the Summer of Lovecraft,” The New Republic, August 9, 2013

* * *

4 in 5 in US face near-poverty, no work (Associated Press exclusive)
“Four out of 5 U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives, a sign of deteriorating economic security and an elusive American dream. Survey data exclusive to The Associated Press points to an increasingly globalized U.S. economy, the widening gap between rich and poor, and the loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs as reasons for the trend.”

The Real War on Reality (The New York Times)
On surveillance, secrecy, deception, and the accompanying philosophical danger of “epistemic attack.” “If there is one thing we can take away from the news of recent weeks it is this: the modern American surveillance state is not really the stuff of paranoid fantasies; it has arrived.” [NOTE: Read this one in light of the next item below.]

You’re Being Lied To: The Culture of Conspiracy (Micah Hanks for Mysterious Universe)
“Whether it be the alleged plot to kill JFK, or the conspiracy behind granny’s secret rhubarb pie recipe, many people these days appear to be capable of finding a conspiracy tucked away with nearly every corner and cranny of our culture. In essence, we are living in a literal culture of conspiracy.” [NOTE: Read this one in light of the previous item above.]

Nuke the Cat! Star Script Doctor Damon Lindelof Explains the New Rules of Blockbuster Screenwriting (Vulture and New York Magazine)
“That escalation can be felt across the entire film industry this summer, a season of unparalleled massiveness: more blockbusters released, more digital demolition per square foot, and more at stake than ever. But Hollywood’s gigantism, Lindelof points out, is practically algorithmic — and the effect tendrils all the way down to the storytelling level.”

The Art of Attention (Sven Birkerts for Aeon magazine)
The peculiar vividness of the world becomes clear when we slow down and attend, learning to see all things anew. “To pay attention, to attend. To be present, not merely in body — it is an action of the spirit. The things of the world are already layered with significance, and looking is merely the action that discloses.”

Grotesque Horror Through a Kid-Sized Window (NPR)
Novelist Erin Morgenstern on the enduring personal impact of Stephen King’s It, which she read at age 12. “It was filled with things I didn’t understand juxtaposed with things I did — like a fascinating, if morbid, glimpse into the future. It showed me that the things hiding under your bed and lurking in the sewers don’t disappear just because you grow up.”

Wonders_and_the_Order_of_Nature_by_Lorraine_DastonMonsters, Marvels, and the Birth of Science (Nautilus)
Interview with Lorraine Daston, executive director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin and author of Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750. She traces the central role played by the emotional-spiritual “Bermuda Triangle” of terror, horror, and wonder — the latter tinged with awe — in the birth of modern science, as early figures such as Francis Bacon tried to shake people out of the complacency of their established assumptions about the world by highlighting anomalies and monstrosities in nature.

Byron and Mary Shelley and Frankenstein (The Byron Centre for the Study of Literature and Social Change, PDF)
Absorbing 2000 lecture delivered to inaugurate the University of Nottingham’s Byron Centre. “Victor’s dream of what he could accomplish became a monstrous reality that outlived him; and Mary Shelley’s waking dream, which became the novel Frankenstein, has outlived her — what she called her own ‘hideous progeny’ has given her a kind of immortality. Both Byron [in his poem “The Dream”] and Mary Shelley seem to be saying that sleep, which mimics death, yields dreams that yield art that can transcend death and mutability.”

Necronomicon_31st_Anniversary_EditionThe Necronomicon: 32 Years Later (New Dawn)
A 2009 essay by Simon, author of the most famous (notorious) putative Necronomicon, who offers an interpretation of current world conflicts, and especially the Iraq war and associated disruptions, as illustrations of occult principles at work. “It may be that the Middle East conflict is a metaphor for a deeper spiritual struggle — a jihad — taking place within our own hearts and minds as our modern sensitivities wrestle with our ancient instincts. However we characterise it, a Gate has been opened.”

Gods in Mind: The Science of Religion Cognition (The Templeton Foundation)
An utterly fascinating project. “At present, scientific descriptions of how people think about God and gods are fragmented across subdisciplines of the psychological, cognitive, and social sciences. . . [T]here is little sense of an integrated and global conception of how God or gods are represented in mind. This funding competition is designed to promote integration of existing lines of research and to generate and test new hypotheses emerging from such integration. ”

 

 

Teeming Links – July 9, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The presiding reflection for today’s offering of recommended and necessary reading and viewing comes from British novelist and essayist Tim Parks, who elicits an important truth about the silence that so many of us seek, or say we think we seek, amid a culture of clamor:

Arguably, when we have a perception of being tormented by noise, a lot of that noise is actually in our heads — the interminable fizz of anxious thoughts or the self-regarding monologue that for much of the time constitutes our consciousness. And it’s a noise in constant interaction with modern methods of so-called communication: the internet, the mobile phone, Google glasses. Our objection to noise in the outer world, very often, is that it makes it harder to focus on the buzz we produce for ourselves in our inner world.

. . . Our desire for silence often has more to do with an inner silence than an outer. Or a combination of the two. Noise provokes our anger, or at least an engagement, and prevents inner silence. But absence of noise exposes us to the loud voice in our heads. This voice is constitutive of what we call self. If we want it to fall silent, aren’t we yearning for the end of self? For death, perhaps. So talk about silence becomes talk about consciousness, the nature of selfhood, and the modern dilemma in general: the desire to invest in the self and the desire for the end of the self.

. . . What silence and meditation leaves us wondering, after we stand up, unexpectedly refreshed and well-disposed after an hour of stillness and silence, is whether there isn’t something deeply perverse in this culture of ours, even in its greatest achievements in narrative and art. So much of what we read, even when it is great entertainment, is deeply unhelpful.

— Tim Parks, “Inner peace,” Aeon, July 26, 2013

* * *

Taken (The New Yorker)
Under civil forfeiture, Americans who haven’t been charged with wrongdoing can be stripped of their cash, cars, and even homes. Is that all we’re losing?

Big Banks Conspiracy is Destroying America (Paul B. Farrell for Marketwatch)
How market manipulation is now standard policy as all banks have become Goldman wannabes. “Goldman Sachs has become just another second-stringer in the new global Big Banks Conspiracy as capitalism appears about to self-destruct Adam Smith’s ideal and trigger the third major market crash of the 21st century, followed by a collapse of the economy, driving America and the world deep into a new Great Depression. Be prepared.”

“Organic stories” (The New Inquiry)
Thoughts inspired by Facebook’s recent tweak of its News Feed algorithm. “Facebook is like a television that monitors to see how much you are laughing and changes the channel if it decides you aren’t laughing hard enough. It hopes to engrain in users the idea that if your response to something isn’t recordable, it doesn’t exist, because for Facebook, that is true. Your pleasure is its product, what it wants to sell to marketers, so if you don’t evince it, you are a worthless user wasting Facebook’s server space. In the world according to Facebook, emotional interiority doesn’t exist.”

Arthur Machen’s Stories: What Nightmares Are Made Of (The Wall Street Journal)
“Machen’s fiction calls not for debunking but for the willing suspension of disbelief.”

henry-fuseli-the-nightmare-1781Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination (Tate)
“Gothic Nightmares explores the work of Henry Fuseli (1741–1825) and William Blake (1757–1827) in the context of the Gothic — the taste for fantastic and supernatural themes which dominated British culture from around 1770 to 1830. Featuring over 120 works by these artists and their contemporaries, the exhibition creates a vivid image of a period of cultural turmoil and daring artistic invention.”

We all have dreaming minds, and we are all capable of being terrified (Tate Etc.)
A conversation between novelists Patrick McGrath and Louise Welsh, held in conjunction with the above-linked Tate exhibit, about horror, gothicism, Fuseli’s “Nightmare,” and the way the dark-dreaming mind has given rise to a genre that has attracted writers, filmmakers, musicians and artists across the centuries.”

‘Angel’ priest visits Missouri accident scene (USA Today)
A pointedly Fortean or Harpurian (think Daimonic Reality) incident that has achieved shocking media prominence in the past couple of days. “Emergency workers and community members in eastern Missouri are not sure what to make of a mystery priest who showed up at a critical accident scene Sunday morning and whose prayer seemed to change life-threatening events for the positive. . . . Even odder, the black-garbed priest does not appear in any of the nearly 70 photos of the scene of the accident in which a 19-year-old girl almost died.”

 

 

Teeming Links – July 30, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

To preface today’s offering of recommended and required reading, here’s a not-so-idle speculation from Damien Walter about the momentous fact of our collective cultural obsession with losing ourselves in the ever more immersive fantasy worlds that digital technology has enabled for us:

I am a writer and critic of fantasy, and for most of my life I have been an escapist. Born in 1977, the year in which Star Wars brought cinematic escapism to new heights, I have seen TV screens grow from blurry analogue boxes to high-definition wide-screens the size of walls. I played my first video game on a rubber-keyed Sinclair ZX Spectrum and have followed the upgrade path through Mega Drive, PlayStation, Xbox and high-powered gaming PCs that lodged supercomputers inside households across the developed world. I have watched the symbolic language of fantasy — of dragons, androids, magic rings, warp drives, haunted houses, robot uprisings, zombie armageddons and the rest — shift from the guilty pleasure of geeks and outcasts to become the diet of mainstream culture.

And I am not alone. I’m emblematic of an entire generation who might, when our history is written, be remembered first and foremost for our exodus into digital fantasy. . . . Immersion has . . . become the mantra of modern escapist fantasy, and the creation of seamless secondary worlds its mission. We hunger for an escape so complete it borders on oblivion: the total eradication of self and reality beneath a superimposed fantasy. . . . We’re embarking on a daring social experiment: the immersion of an entire generation into digitally generated escapist fantasies of unprecedented depth and complexity. And the most remarkable aspect of this potential revolution is how little consideration we are giving it.

— Damien Walter, “The Great Escape,” Aeon, July 12, 2013

* * *

This_Town_by_Mark_LeibovichA Confederacy of Lunches (The New York Times)
Christopher Buckley reviews Mark Leibovich’s This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral — Plus Plenty of Valet Parking! — in America’s Gilded Capital. “Not to ruin it for you, but: if you already hate Washington, you’re going to hate it a whole lot more after reading Mark Leibovich’s takedown of the creatures who infest our nation’s capital and rule our destinies.”

Who Are We At War With? That’s Classified (Pro Publica)President Obama has repeatedly said the U.S. is targeting Al Qaeda and “associated forces.” But the government won’t say who those forces are.

Halliburton pleads guilty to destroying Gulf oil spill evidence (Reuters)
The government said the guilty plea is the third by a company over the spill, and requires the world’s second-largest oilfield services company to pay a maximum $200,000 statutory fine.

Feds tell Web firms to turn over user account passwords (CNET)
Secret demands mark escalation in Internet surveillance by the federal government through gaining access to user passwords, which are typically stored in encrypted form.

The Charitable-Industrial Complex (The New York Times)
“As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to ‘give back.’ It’s what I would call ‘conscience laundering’ — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.”

The hour of anthropology may have struck (Toronto Star)
“The strength of anthropology at the moment comes when it turns its eye to our own society as just another tribe or collection of humans trying to make symbolic sense of their experience. We start looking like just another weird bunch of human creatures trying to make sense of their odd predicament, like Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes when he finally gets it.”

The MOOC Racket (Slate)
Widespread online-only higher ed will be disastrous for students — and most professors.

E-book vs. P-book (The New Yorker)
On the persistence of the paper codex book in an age when so many are predicting its demise. “For many people, as a number of studies show, reading is a genuinely tactile experience — how a book feels and looks has a material impact on how we feel about reading. This isn’t necessarily Luddism or nostalgia. The truth is that the book is an exceptionally good piece of technology.”

Thank You, Barnes and Noble (The New Yorker)
Michael Aggers on the literary and intellectual joy that B&N brought to his teen years in a small Pennsylvania town. “It was as if a small liberal-arts college had been plunked down into a farm field. . . . I’ll be rooting for you, Barnes & Noble, however you reinvent yourself. I’ve come to see that, despite your flaws, you were a suburban beacon of knowledge, history, and community — noble indeed.”

Creative differences (Financial Times)
Three great film directors — Orson Welles, Nicolas Roeg, and Roman Polanski — offer a glimpse into the complex life and work of the auteur. “Today’s directors are less monstrous, and altogether more respectful of the tiresome fact that cinema is a collaborative art form. Put it down to sharper accountants, blander movie stars, infernally complex technological demands. It is more difficult than ever to be a legend in your own lunchtime, and that’s a shame.”

The Persisting Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema (The New York Review of Books)
A brilliant essay — deeply informed by an expansive knowledge of history and art, and written by none other than Martin Scorsese — on the signal importance of become literate in the visual language of cinema at a time when we’re awash in a sea of images all around us.

Enlightenment Engineer (Wired)
Meditation and mindfulness are the new rage in Silicon Valley. And it’s not just about inner peace — it’s about getting ahead.

Ecstatic_Healing_by_Margaret_De_WysSpirit Possession Here and Now (Reality Sandwich)
Interview with Margaret De Wys, author of the recently published Ecstatic Healing: A Journey into the Shamanic World of Spirit Possession and Miraculous Medicine. “My acceptance of possession turned out to be my spiritual path. That was my choice and it wasn’t an easy one.”

Mysterious Hum Driving People Crazy Around the World (LiveScience)
It’s known as the Hum, a steady, droning sound that’s heard in places as disparate as Taos, N.M.; Bristol, England; and Largs, Scotland. But what causes the Hum, and why it only affects a small percentage of the population in certain areas, remain a mystery, despite a number of scientific investigations.

Psi in the News – July 17, 2013 (Reality Sandwich)
The latest installment of David Metcalfe’s ongoing roundup of parapsychologically-oriented links. Exceptionally rich.

Jimmy Carter speaks out on NSA scandal and more: “America has no functioning democracy”

I just caught wind of this, and I find it to be entirely worth bringing to the attention of anybody who hasn’t heard about it. In a word: wow.

Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter is so concerned about the NSA spying scandal that he thinks it has essentially resulted in a suspension of American democracy. “America does not at the moment have a functioning democracy,” he said at an event in Atlanta on Tuesday sponsored by the Atlantik Bruecke, a private nonprofit association working to further the German-U.S. relationship.

. . . Carter’s remarks didn’t appear in the American mainstream press but were reported from Atlanta by the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, whose Washington correspondent Gregor Peter Schmitz said on Twitter he was present at the event. The story doesn’t appear in the English-language section of the Spiegel website and is only available in German.

MORE: Jimmy Carter: US “has no functioning democracy”

The piece is at Salon. It also says Schmitz wrote in his Der Spiegel piece that Carter expressed deep pessimism about the overall state of global affairs, saying he sees “no reason to be optimistic at this time” and citing Egypt’s new military dictatorship as an example. Carter also mentioned the influence of Internet technology and social media on current events, and said that while these things have had some positive effects, such as the Arab Spring uprisings, the NSA scandal counters and endangers any positive developments “as major U.S. Internet platforms such as Google or Facebook lose credibility worldwide.”

Note that Carter also recently talked to CNN about Edward Snowden’s NSA whistle-blowing activity and said, “He’s obviously violated the laws of America, for which he’s responsible, but I think the invasion of human rights and American privacy has gone too far. I think that the secrecy that has been surrounding this invasion of privacy has been excessive, so I think that the bringing of it to the public notice has probably been, in the long term, beneficial.”

Amen, anyone? Carter was always an anomaly among American presidents. Now he’s increasingly an anomaly among American ex-presidents.