Thursday, November 30, 2017

A Tree Falling in the Forest with No One There to Blog About It

Philosophers disdain cliches as much as anyone, but because hating cliches is itself a cliche, they also sometimes like cliches. My favorite is tree-falling-in-the-forest-with-no-one-there-to-hear-it. 

The tree in this picture fell in the Tennessee forest at some point. The magnitude might not be apparent in the photo, but the tree is huge, and fell a great depth into the ravine. The photo, seemingly so peaceful, is really a representative after-image of what must have been a dramatic event. 

But was it a dramatic event? The air-vibrations from rending wood, and the impact of massive objectivity hitting the earth, were quickly absorbed within the forest. I doubt any one was there. (Animal life might count, but will be ignored for the moment.) But even before absorption, it was simply vibrations, in themselves having no significance. The charm of the Lonely Tree example is that once we imagine a tree falling, we cannot avoid imagining its sound, thus negating the idea that no one is there to hear it. 

The 18th Century philosopher George Berkeley is probably the best resource here. As an empiricist, he believed that we are only justified in claiming to know things if they are derived from sense experience. And since our sense experience has an unavoidable specificity, different from person to person, perspective to perspective, etc., it is impossible to make objective claims about things in the world. For example, I saw this Tennessee tree as very large. You are seeing a small image of it now, and even if you were seeing it with me on the same hike, you would be seeing it from a different place. It would be a different size to you, and since it is a contradiction to say that a tree is both large and not large, the size of a tree cannot be in the tree itself. The same goes, according to Berkeley, about all of our perceptions.  

The Bishop Berkeley's Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous is hack literature, but good philosophy. He takes us through what amounts to a conversion experience for the character Hylas. Berkeley's ultimate point is that, to start from the premise of empiricism is to end up with the conclusion that God exists. This is not, as some might believe, just an extraneous assertion by a preacher, but rather the reasonable inference of a philosopher. 

I confess to having a mild disdain for those who say that they find God in the forest, or within other places where there are surrounded by non-human nature. This seems to me kind of non-social, or even misanthropic. I have quipped that, on the contrary, I find God in awkward church potlucks, where I am challenged, for example, to find the inherent goodness of other people -- in all of their goody-goody, down-home, meat-saturated, plastic-fork essence. 

But I think I have found a way of finding God in the forest. Berkeley's belief is that there must be a God that keeps everything in 'objective' existence through an omnipresent subjectivity. We live and breath and have our being in God. When the tree fell in the forest, it had to be an event with some significance. It had to have been at least a little awkward. It could not have been just a vibration of air, and neither could all of the conversations I've had in my life -- many gone and forgotten as quickly as a tree-crash in the forest -- could have been just the movement of vocal chords.  
-- Tadd Ruetenik 


Monday, August 14, 2017

Hate White Supremacists less; Hate White Supremacy more.

A Press Release Human Family QCA indicates that

"the White Supremacist group, the National Alliance, has been distributing hate literature in the Quad Cities Area ... in at least two locations ...
In response to this promotion of racism and bigotry in our own community, One Human Family QCA is organizing a No Hate Rally. The rally will take place on Wednesday, August 16, from 12:15 to 12:45 p.m. at Vander Veer Park in Davenport."

I encourage people to attend. I support this, and will attend, but with some reluctance. This reluctance has to do with the way the term "hate" has been overused and misused.

First of all, I am pro-hate: I hate the military-industrial complex; I hate income inequality; I hate mass incarceration; I hate state violence against minorities; I hate the death penalty; and I hate consumerism and its degradation of the environment. I am filled with hate.

Second, I am a humanist. I value the humanity of even my enemies.

Here is the problem:

Among those who are rallying against hate, there will be many people, predominantly white, who are part of white supremacy policies without acknowledging it. Their protest against other white people is perhaps a projection of their own insecurities. It's easy to hate someone who signifies something you do not like in yourself. I suspect I will hear many people, both publicly and privately, decry the stupidity of the white supremacists. They'll take a break from pointing out the grammar mistakes in the tweets from Trumpians, Sharpie-up a posterboard from Target, and take the SUV to the park.
White supremacy is a moral abomination. But it is anything but stupid. It is found in the calculations of the CIA, which has consistently subverted governments in Latin America. It is found in the machinations of the criminal justice system, incarcerating people of color disproportionately. It is found in the distribution of wealth, riches hoarded by white people, who are then considered benevolent because they donate to the Democratic Party instead of the Republican Party. It is found in the anonymity of drone strikes, in the mechanical distance with which the United States defends "freedom" around the world.

Whiteness is found in anonymity and objectivity, and white people are frightened when other white people see themselves subjectively, that is, as white people, and then bring torches to rallies. I don't hate the guy yelling in this photo. I feel a sense of pity. He honestly believes that white people are in danger of extinction, when he is really just afraid of the loss of white supremacy.

So I would prefer that, instead of (or in addition to) a No Hate Rally, we have a White Supremacy Funeral Service -- complete with priests, pastors, flowers and blackness.

--Tadd Ruetenik

UPDATE 11/30/17: A Symposium called Hate: We Shall Overcome is taking place next month. Somewhat shamefully, I did not attend the rally mentioned earlier. I think I still have the same reservations: the idea of mostly white people getting together to show how they are different from white-supremacists white people is probably not harmful to the cause of justice, but will probably not be as much help as a symposium focused, as T'Challa Ra says above, on radical change to the systems of supremacy. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Wonder Woman and the Jesus Christ Pose

In her final dispatch of the villain, Diana (yet to be named Wonder Woman) strikes a remarkable pose. With a supernatural leap, she levitates with arms outstretched like Jesus, but then absorbs the evil rays from the God Ares and deflects it back towards him, destroying him almost beyond the point of sequel.

Cinematically, it is of course overdone, as is usual. Movies have to compete with the overstimulation of video games. Yet in addition, it is thematically overdone. Wonder Woman become Christ, which impresses John McAteer, Professor of Liberal Arts at Ashford University, who notes the significance of this pose.  He calls it part of a theme of “gentle strength.”

“True heroism,” says McAteer “is love and the willingness to lay down your life for others, not the ability to kill and destroy.” Contrary to the way things are ordinarily depicted, the movie shows men that heroic strength and courage are not incompatible with compassion and gentleness and emotion. Diana is deeply moved by the suffering she encounters and clearly prefers to disarm her enemies rather than kill them. She is shown repeatedly giving her sidekick Steve Trevor a disapproving look when she sees him kill someone during a battle. And her most typical fight move in the movie is to deflect bullets back to destroy enemies’ guns or even cutting their guns in half with her shield.

McAteer is correct to a point, but doesn’t note the things in the movie that indicate something far from pacifism, and, as I believe, far from Christianity as well. Indeed earlier in the movie, Diana is shown advancing from the nihilistic trenches of World War I, deflecting bullets with wristbands and a shield. Her heroism is not really pacifist, since her efforts serve to allow her allies to advance on the enemy, kill them, and take ground.

The movie pulls us more strongly to the side of Wonder Woman’s allies than any other. McAteer is largely correct in saying that the German army is made up of patriotic young men sent to die by generals and politicians on both sides who would never set foot on a battlefield. War is thus portrayed as a tragic battle between brothers, not a contest of good versus evil. Even the “good guys” Diana fights with are mercenaries, motivated by money more than honor. And he notes that setting the film during World War I introduces the theme of a political debate between those who counsel isolationism and appeasement (“peace at all costs”) against those who believe that good can come out of war (“the war to end all wars”). The story of Wonder Woman is the story of Diana’s dawning realization that both sides are wrong.

Yet even if this is Diana’s realization, it is unlikely to be shared by everyone who sees the movie. Diana’s Jesus Christ Pose is one of aggression, not sacrifice. It suggests the doctrine of peace through military strength shared by both Republicans and Democrats in the United States.

The controversy involving the protagonist being played by an Israeli has a little merit, although the movie certainly does not merit censorship. Gal Godot Diana comes from a special, culturally distinct group of long-time warriors in self defense. This group believes that it has a special and sacrificial role in the world. When Diana unites romantically and politically with the American spy Steve Trevor, the implication of the U.S.-Israeli military alliance should not be ignored. One does not, and should not, think in terms of Zionist conspiracies here. There is little value, and much danger, to imputing evil causes to small groups of agents. Rather, one is permitted to see the Trevor-Diana alliance as a symbolic reflection of something else, namely the Military-Industrial Complex, which, more than any mythical Ares, is a real force of destruction in the world. The growing militarization of the humanity is a issue even bigger than The United States and Israel.

Any Christians who see Diana as a Christ figure need also to see the dangers of seeing Diana as a Christ figure. The film brilliantly shows that the wargod Ares is a deceptive figure, working through humans rather than merely against them. Accordingly, the Christ who kills is never the true Christ, and those who look forward to seeing an embodied Christ shooting lightning at the enemy are in danger of worshipping Ares is disguise. Unfortunately, for all of its supposed Christianity, most Americans look for Christ as an avenger in the sky rather than a spirit of pacifism on the Earth.

To some extent, the movie contains, as McAteer believes, an inversion of war values. And yet I never noticed her looking disapprovingly at Trevor for killing. I did, however, notice that Diana overtly mocked a male sniper who believed that war is about cunning and technological sophistication, rather than honesty and risk. Surely she was also by implication mocking the supposed heroism of the Unites States, who maintains a technological superiority over its chosen enemies, and then claims to have more valor. Diana's women fight face to face, while men have developed a sophisticated system of techno-battle.

In addition, one of Diana’s supposed superpowers is nothing more than the ability to understand many languages. Expressing classic Wonder Woman values, the film show that strength comes from the ability to understand and sympathize, and not from detached reason and calculation. Unfortunately, Wonder Woman cannot go too far in this pacifist direction if it wants to make money in a country soaked in overstimulation and martial values.

If any American Christians are offended by Diana's Jesus Christ pose, it is likely for the wrong reasons. The problem is that she is presenting a false Christ of violence in the name of world order. But this is exactly where conservative and neoliberal American Christians show their idolatry: Their Christ is really the god Ares.

--Tadd Ruetenik