This is not about Ferguson. I really don’t know about Ferguson. I didn’t hear the 70 hours of testimony from 60 witnesses. I didn’t even watch the news as much as I should have. I know that racial inequities and injustices persist in America, that law enforcement has partly created its own problems in minority communities, that these things can and should be addressed in public policy, that composite statistics can help steer that policy, but as a general rule I’m reluctant to use an individual criminal case as a venue to redress social problems. I have friends both liberal and conservative who seem more eager than I am to take sides up front based on preconceived notions about race relations. But even if those preconceived notions are correct, not every white cop is a racist and not every young black man is a thug. With individual lives at stake, specific cases should not be prejudged on political grounds. At least that seems a good general rule.
It’s commonplace now to hear how modern physics increasingly dovetails with the ancient world view of the Eastern mystics. If this is true of our evolving conception of the objective universe and how it works, it is also true in the vast space of the subjective universe, the space of the psyche.
Before Freud, you had “faculty psychology,” which seemed well seated upon the Western classical world view – a symmetrical row of nice, neat boxes, each representing a “faculty” (appetite, emotion, desire, reason, etc.). Freud’s theories signaled a paradigm shift to “depth psychology,” with layers of unconscious drives and desires and memories folded beneath our conscious awareness, influencing our everyday behavior from invisible, forgotten spaces in the depths of the psyche.
“Depth psychology” is still the dominant paradigm for the psyche, and even Freud’s attackers draw upon Freud for their weapons, but his breakaway student, Jung, expanded the “depth” of depth psychology. Freud’s locus of interest is the individual psyche, and his case histories typically trace back antecedents of adult behaviors to the formative infantile development of the individual. Jung traces the roots of the psyche deeper still, to a place that transcends the individual altogether; hence we get the universal archetypes of the collective unconscious, a deep space of psychic phenomena shared by us all. You can think of it as our common grazing land, or if you prefer a high-tech metaphor, it’s the “cloud” wherein our fundamental data are stored and from which we all download to configure our own machinery. Either way it is here, in this transcendentally deep “subjective inner world,” that Jung finds “the instinctive data of the dark primitive psyche, the real but invisible roots of consciousness.”
It’s a short stretch from Jung to the akashic record of the mystics. The akashic record in the Eastern mythos is the record of everything normally considered past, present, and future (in our clumsy linear sense of time). Every thought, every movement of every leaf, is contained in this vast database, as it were. But the akashic record is more than a database. It is the ultimate reality. All our daily actions are reflections of, or abstractions from, the akashic record. We are right now living the akashic record, experiencing it from one orientation point. Through yoga, meditation, or other spiritual practices, you can almost picture your self-reflection carrying you down to the Freudian depth of childhood and then infancy, then breaking through to the Jungian depth of the collective unconscious, and finally arriving at the level we metaphorically call the akashic record. At this point, we’ve not only carried depth psychology to a point where Western psychology merges with Eastern mysticism, but we’ve inadvertently married the “objective” and “subjective” universes that provided the point of departure in the opening paragraph of this fine blog entry. Cosmic consciousness, as the very compound of the phrase suggests, simultaneously expresses ultimate reality in both its objective and subjective aspects. When you hit that ultimate depth, the inside becomes the outside, the innermost psyche finds itself expressed as the objective cosmos. So om mani padme hum, and I’ll see my physicist friends on the other side.
Originally posted on fall of the fishman:
White stone, a cathedral of sorts, Medea
roiled a red and golden heat, the fleece gone,
and none left to bury the dead.
She changes masks: fierce, taut, then upsprung
wails while a world apart hands behind folding chairs
touch, pirouette, pause, and touch again.
(A variant opening of my novel, Mr. Robert’s Bones)
No oaks adorned the city of the dead. Not even much grass. Just a hodgepodge collection of miniature stone houses on cement slabs divided up by cement walkways. Some of the little houses formed rows; some angled out or blocked walkways entirely, and so the rows became labyrinths.
One white stone tomb had a fresh inscription:
So fresh was this simple inscription that the burial party had not yet abandoned the little house to sink or swim among its neighbors in the labyrinth. It was, however, a hot, southern summer day, and as the priest closed with a “requiem aeternam dona eis,” they walked as quickly as was decorous from among the flora and fauna of the dead to the live oaks of City Park Avenue and the broad, neutral ground expanse of Canal Street, some to ride the streetcar home, some to imbibe a café au lait or small bourbon, to shake their heads and speak sadly of the deceased, while thinking inwardly quite other thoughts, for all we know.
Except for one teenage boy who lingered at the tomb. Unlike most teenage boys, he did not seem uncomfortable in his suit, did not seem pinched by the dress shoes, which he had used not five minutes earlier to crush a military line of ants marching from one little house to another, throwing the whole insect army into catastrophic disarray. His grief at the loss of the deceased, however, was real. He wiped his fist hard into one eye, then blew his nose into a handkerchief, and left.
When darkness fell on the Canal Cemeteries, it seemed to swallow time itself. Ten hours might have elapsed before another drench of sunlight, or ten years, or twenty. The darkness of the little houses spread out in a black tide across the neighborhoods of the city. A president shot, his brother next, and another voice, a great black voice, also shot dead. Closer to the scene, a black woman, first colored teller at the Redemption Bank on the corner of Canal and Carrollton, her white-stocking legs, shoes clip-clopping the floor as her youngest boy played behind her desk, then relieved of her duties and left to raise her two boys on nothing. And then she too was in the grave, a memory waiting to be dug up when called upon.
On another hot, southern, summer day, forty-six years after Robert Marigny was relocated to the blank stone walls of his permanent residence, Mrs. Broussard stepped onto her own screened porch, then turned back toward the house and yelled, “Come girls, Miss Ladybug brought us a peach pie.”
The porch extended across the whole front of the white, wood-frame house. Bees buzzed in the cat’s claw vines grasping insidiously through the newels of the porch balustrade. A faint odor of sweet pea hung in the air, marking the territory of the porch as if in defiance of the upstart azaleas that stood across the thick grass on the easement of St. Peter Street.
Seated on frayed wicker chairs at Mrs. Broussard’s porch table were the acclaimed maker of that peach pie, fragile and birdlike but sprightly for her eighty years, and a portly fellow whose dress and manner suggested an exaggerated attempt to play the part of the southern gentleman. His bushy brows sat above puppy-dog brown eyes, giving him a sentimental and endearing countenance that seemed oddly to complement rather than contradict his pompous manner. The fleshy lips of this grand gentleman, Mr. Claude Marigny by name, seemed pursed into an eternal pout, even when they were moving. He slowly fanned his balloon of a head with a straw hat, and with his other hand wiped his brow with a handkerchief.
“Not just a peach pie,” bellowed Mr. Claude, “but the nectar of the gods. A confectionary masterpiece.”
“Ooh-ooh, Claude Marigny,” piped in Ladybug. “Ain’t you something. I could listen to you talk all day, baby.”
“How you talk, Mr. Claude,” said Mrs. Broussard. “You ain’t even had none yet.” Mrs. Broussard was as loving a woman as woman could get, but also tended a little toward the no-nonsense end of the spectrum, which had an occasional, if not salutary, at least deflationary effect on Mr. Claude. Her small, sinewy arm brushed a strand of gray hair back toward an otherwise neat bun.
“Let the girls sample the wares,” tossed off Mr. Claude, alluding to the two granddaughters who had come to stay with Mrs. Broussard for the summer. “I’m afraid my digestion has been unsettled by my rapscallion neighbor, Mr. James.” He mopped his brow with the weary movements of a martyr.
“As if he had not enough decorative garbage, now, commingling with the decrepit appliances and indecipherable chunks of machinery, is – dear God, listen to this, Mrs. Broussard – a hot dog cart! A broken-down hot dog cart! In the front yard for all to see.”
“Different people keep their houses different, Mr. Claude,” rejoined Mrs. Broussard. “Some people say Mr. Robert’s house” – and her francophone pronunciation of Robert as Ro-bear was no affectation but the common parlance of the place – “your own brother’s house, oughta be torn down, it being empty so long and full of bad memories.”
Mr. Claude bristled but kept himself in check. “You tell them to never mind my brother. Robert’s house is a monument to an older order. Mr. James’s house is a monument to disorder and chaos. The camel’s nose under the tent, Mrs. Broussard.”
Delivery of this fine homily must have miraculously restored Mr. Claude’s digestion, as he shoveled a huge bite of pie into his maw and chewed thoughtfully, watching a squirrel dart along a power cable crossing St. Peter St. It paused halfway to the far side of the street, apparently seized with panic or wonder at how it had gotten there.
As with many hot-button issues, the problem with U.S. gun policy debates is that each side has a point (and therefore fallaciously concludes that the other side must be completely wrong). The first step toward resolution is acknowledging valid points on both sides. Gun rights advocates are right that a good guy with a gun at the right place can save lives, and wanting a gun to protect one’s family is not unreasonable. When a deranged shooter opens fire in a mall or movie theater, I agree with my conservative friends that an armed bystander can make the difference between a rapid end and an escalating tragedy. But gun control advocates are right that a populace saturated with weaponry is a more dangerous place overall. It’s hard to believe that the discrepancy of 11,000 gun homicides a year in the U.S., compared to 90 in Spain or 70 in the UK, is completely unrelated to a plentiful access to guns (and handguns in particular). Put 5000 guns into one city and 50,000 guns into another city of the same size, and you will have more gun violence in the second city.
The second step toward resolution is weighing those valid points to see which side carries the most weight in terms of personal freedom and public safety. For example, of those 11,000 homicides, how many were “justifiable”? The number that can be assigned to the scenario my conservative friends rightly tout – where a good guy stops a major tragedy in a public place – is a very small number, but lump them in with self-defense and all other “justified” killings and you get about 5% of the total (FBI numbers for 2012). That still leaves about 10,450 criminal gun homicides, a number far disproportionate to those numbers from the UK or Spain. (And this doesn’t count suicides and accidents, which bring gun deaths in the U.S. to a steady 31,000 per year.)
From a public safety standpoint, this leads me to conclude that the valid argument against extensive gun ownership statistically carries more weight than the valid argument in favor of extensive gun ownership. Assuming that public safety is a compelling state interest, I think this is a starting point for discussion. At least some regulation is necessary. Then finer distinctions can be drawn. Traditional hunting rifles have a valid recreational use and let’s assume are less prone to criminal use than handguns, assault weapons, etc. In any event, there is little or no interest on any side to ban hunting rifles. Different weapons – handguns, assault weapons, etc., each may warrant different treatment. Another consideration might be jurisdiction. Is it true, as Obama said in the 2008 campaign, that there are two different gun cultures – a (primarily rural) sportsman culture and an inner city culture – and that the same approach might not work for both (i.e., different jurisdictions might reasonably want to enact different policies)? And it is reasonable to have background checks to weed out felons, mentally ill applicants, etc. Resistance to all compromise is not a solution. Witness the National Rifle Association’s hard lobbying against a bill that would bar people on terrorist watch lists from purchasing guns. As a staggering tribute to the gun lobby’s power, Senator Lindsey Graham and other Republican leaders spoke out against the bill and it failed. Thus, “Membership in a terrorist organization does not prohibit a person from possessing firearms or explosives under current federal law” (GAO government report, 2010).
In any event, step one is acknowledging that just because you favor one approach (and I obviously lean to one side), it doesn’t mean that one side is 100% right and the other 100% wrong. Indeed the binary framework is itself misleading. It’s more like a scatter graph with “all guns should be banned” at one end and “access should be unrestricted to all guns in all places for all people” at the other end. Almost no one is at either extreme. It would be best if we could all resist the false binary of “us versus them” and negotiate our way through the many sensible compromise points along the gradient.
/song on a quiet night/
our nights, white moth wings,
sweet sad dreams of siren flame
light on each launch borne
/crime in a meadow/
bees drone the clover
fat lemons fall everywhere
she pulls back her hair
The recent beheadings and crucifixions in Syria and Iraq in the name of religion is atrocious in its own right, but raises a larger philosophical comparison between secular ethics and religion-based ethics, to the advantage of the secular. Of course, most religious people are horrified by ISIS’s actions and consider them to have no basis in religion whatsoever. I will grant the justice of that position, but it leaves open the question of whether a religion-based ethics is more risky in principle than a secular ethics.
To judge the risk requires pinpointing the essential difference between a religion-based and a secular ethics. The Christian theologian and proto-existentialist, Kierkegaard, is most helpful here. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard sees ethics as fundamentally as secular issue, a derivative of universal rational principles. Religious persons can follow those principles but that is not essentially a function of their religious nature. It simply means that they are following a set of rational principles in addition to being a religious person. The key difference is centered on Kierkegaard’s pointed question: “Can there be a teleological suspension of the ethical?” I.e., can the inscrutable commandments of God overrule “normal” ethical principles?
The paradigmatic case for Kierkegaard is when God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. “The ethical expression for what Abraham did is that he meant to murder Isaac; the religious expression is that he meant to sacrifice Isaac.” So Abraham is forced to choose between the universal principles of ethics (against murdering your son) or accepting the “teleological suspension of ethics,” in which he suspends the rules of ethics to satisfy a higher end.
This to me is the fundamental difference between a secular ethics and an ethics based on religion (at least on the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). Religion allows for the possibility that we might suspend normal ethics in light of a higher commandment from an inscrutable God. Otherwise, it is no different from a secular ethics based on rational principles alone (holding God himself subordinate to the laws of ethics).
Although the acts of ISIS are condemned by people of all faiths, the dangers of a “teleological suspension of ethics” can be generalized to some extent, as a risk inherent in religion-based models. In pre-modern Europe, under the hegemonic rule of the Church, we saw the widespread development of those implements that today fill the torture museums of Europe, implements ingeniously designed to create more and more exquisite pain for the ill-fated heretic. Then we had the brutality of the Spanish Inquisition, brazenly carried on in the name of Church and the states under its authority.
With the 18th century Enlightenment, that largely changed. From the explicitly anti-Church philosophes to Kant, the hegemonic control of the Church gave way to a more humanist ethics grounded in rational principles. The ethics of Western culture today is primarily secular, a product of the Enlightenment. And although far from perfect, it has shaken off the worst abuses of the pre-Enlightenment theocratic ethic. At least now, one cannot break out the torture devices and flaunt them publicly as a general strategy of subjection. At least now, one cannot publicly suspend the normal rules of ethics because an inscrutable God has commanded it.
Now back to Kierkegaard, and to Abraham and Isaac. Although Kierkegaard is a Christian and I am unambiguous in my preference for a secular ethics, Kierkegaard may agree with me up to a point. He himself is almost Kantian in his emphasis that ethics is based on rational principles (unrelated to faith) and is therefore universal. The “ethical” and the “religious” are simply incommensurate categories for Kierkegaard. The ethical has to do with social relations and universal principles. The religious concerns only the individual in relation to the absolute. For Kierkegaard, the “religious moment” occurs when an individual, perhaps like Abraham, lives out his or her life among others, bound by the universal principles of ethics, and then one day something ruptures the plane of that living, and the individual’s identity shoots out in a perpendicular line to the absolute. His relation to the absolute (religious) and his relation to others (ethical) “cannot be mediated,” says Kierkegaard, in a jibe at Hegel and his understudies. Abraham cannot be justified on the ethical plane. He is up against an either/or crisis of the sort that most interested Kierkegaard. There is no gray area. Either you do something completely unethical in honor of God, or you reject God.
Kierkegaard may also agree with me that any social order would do best with a secular ethics based on rational principles. He certainly had no patience for state religion, and often disparaged the Christian state of Denmark and “Christendom” in general for their deployments of Christianity into the political or social arena. But he leaves room for Abraham, the “knight of faith” – not as a model of good citizenship or social order, but as a model of the individual wrenched away from his social identity by a connection to the absolute.
I finally disagree with Kierkegaard and reject the “teleological suspension of ethics” in all of its forms; however, I find Kierkegaard well worth reading and I myself have only scratched the surface of his thought. Moreover, no sound reading of Kierkegaard can ever use the “teleological suspension of ethics” to justify the behavior of ISIS or the Spanish Inquisition. In Kierkegaard, that suspension can never be applied as a public practice, but can only occur as a relation between the individual and the absolute. The problem is that so many groups at so many times and places have used a variant of the idea (God’s commandment allows me to overrule ethics) to vicious ends. In the case of the Middle East, this is further complicated by a historical trajectory quite different from Europe. Whereas the Enlightenment – the rise of secular ethics and secular democracies – in Europe can be seen as a liberation from the hegemonic oppression of the Church, in the Middle East of the past half-century, religion (in the form of a resurgent Islam) is often seen as the liberating force that can throw off the shackles of oppressive Western democracies. This inversion of the role of religion is historically explicable, but the ethical dangers are apparent when we see how easily ethical norms can be discarded when religious zeal is in full cry. Better to have a secular ethics based on rational principles. If you want to layer a religious faith on top of that ethics, fine, but don’t start believing that your faith trumps ethics or you become a danger to yourself and others.