Most of us are familiar with the scene in the fantastic 1999 film, The Matrix, where Cypher and Neo are chatting about their introduction to life outside the matrix via Morpheus’s offer of a choice between the red and blue pills. Cypher laments that he wished he’d taken the blue pill instead, making it clear he’d have preferred to be living a happy fantasy rather than risking everything by fighting against the machines.
One of the great things about Cypher’s character is that you can empathise with him. Nobody can blame him for wanting a simple, easy life — especially as he’s not The One. At that point in the film we all know that he’s just as likely to end up a smudge on the ground as make old bones.
I mention The Matrix because that’s how I’ve been feeling lately. And this is where I may lose you as a reader. Either way, so it goes…
Over the last few weeks I’ve been consuming the works of two prolific writers and speakers, both world experts in their fields: Noam Chomsky and the late Howard Zinn. Chomsky (now 82) is regarded by many as “the Einstein” of his field of linguistics and cognition at MIT, though outside the classroom he talks almost exclusively about political science. Zinn was regarded similarly in his field of history at Boston University.
I first encountered Chomsky in the early 2000s via his book Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies [Amazon|UK], a collection of essays and papers focussing mainly on Central American politics and history over the last 40 years. It’s an astounding book that left me truly stunned, wondering about the rest of the world if even half it it was true. He provides full references and consistently avoids a simple answer to, “If the mainstream media is wrong, biased, controlled or corrupt, then where should we turn to get reliable information?” His answer is typically a variation of Ben Goldacre‘s, “I think it’s a bit more complicated than that.” There is no single source, type or medium of reliable, unbiased or uncorrupt information. You need to look at the mainstream, the margins, including sources you may dislike, and analyse what’s going on for yourself.
Damn. I’m going to have to think for myself. And that’s the point.
Zinn is a fairly recent discovery for me, though most people know him via his groundbreaking A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present [Amazon|UK], where he included the viewpoints of non-Europeans in the discovery and conquest of North America. I’ve not yet read it, but I understand that it’s a polarising work, and your reaction to it will depend upon whether or not you’re prepared to revise your views on official history. Interestingly, the FBI kept a large file on him, most notably due to his influence on Martin Luther King, Vietnam anti-war campaigning and the McCarthyist hysteria of the time.
And this is where I think many of Chomsky’s and Zinn’s detractors come from: many seem to regard them as un-American or even traitors. Both authors present alternative versions of recorded history, removing the infantile notion of good (us) versus evil (them), and add insult to that injury by presenting other reasons why such things did or are happening in the first place. It’s not as simple as the official version; it’s not even as simple as the counter-accusations or popular conspiracy theories. It’s a complex mix of power, greed, acquisition, control, domination, influence and coercion, and furthering of interests.
The use of past and present tense is deliberate — these things are still happening. Consider the endless stream of major and minor wars in the 20th and present century, the provision of “foreign aid” weapons and training to brutal and sadistic regimes, the quiet growth of internal enforcement agencies into international intelligence agencies (as has just happened with the DEA), the dismantling of union-protected workplaces that made our workers cheaper than those in some developing countries, and national elections of leaders whose candidates can be differentiated only by their party’s logo. To name a few.
Neither Chomsky nor Zinn pretend to be 100% certain about everything they say. Both admit they may be wrong, and are open to evidence-based correction. Nor should you take it from me as fact, an amateur hack who spends his spare time consuming non-mainstream information, wondering about the world and sharing the occasional thought here whenever I’m not playing computer games or socialising with friends. Use, refine and practise your analytical skills and skepticism to examine what these men say, compare it against what you see, know and/or suspect, read the papers and articles to which they refer, and then judge for yourself.
There is no universal truth, and I’m not declaring that this is it — but it makes you think. However, if you’re unwilling to have your perception of world history and current events challenged, you may want to choose the blue pill…
Here are some of Noam Chomsky’s works that you might want to look at:
- An American Addiction [Amazon|UK]
- Case Studies In Hypocrisy [Amazon|UK]
- Class War: The Attack On Working People [Amazon|UK]
- The Clinton Vision: Old Wine, New Bottles [Amazon|UK]
- The Emerging Framework Of World Power [watch online]
- For A Free Humanity [Amazon|UK]
- Free Market Fantasies: Capitalism In The Real World [Amazon|UK]
- The Imperial Presidency [Amazon|UK]
- The New War On Terrorism: Fact And Fiction [Amazon|UK]
- Propaganda And The Public Mind [Amazon|UK]
- Prospects For Democracy [Amazon|UK]
Here are some of Howard Zinn’s works that you might want to look at:
- Artists In A Time Of War [Amazon|UK]
- Class And War In US Society [AK Press]
- Heroes & Martyrs [Amazon|UK]
- History And Democracy [free download]
- Howard Zinn On War [Amazon|UK]
- The Myth Of The Cold War [free download]
- Stories Hollywood Never Tells [Amazon|UK]
- War And Civil Disobedience [Amazon|UK]
- You Can’t Be Neutral On A Moving Train [Book: Amazon|UK; DVD: Amazon|UK]
(I haven’t read or seen all of these yet). Both have released many more works, but I think that will keep you busy for some time.
Where to begin? Perhaps to say that this post may polarise your opinion.
There have been certain events within the Catholic Church recently that have, well… baked my noodle. To that end, I’ve spent a number of hours researching, writing and re-writing this post to try to find the best way to convey its contents. I have no bias against Catholicism in particular, save for the fact it’s a religion with which I’m familiar. Should any Catholics reading this subsequently feel the need to don their victim hat, please be aware that I am not singling out your faith: I have the same level of respect for all religions…
There is no denying that the world’s major religions have inspired great works of art, kindness, love and majesty, and it can be a source of comfort to some. But there comes a point when one must ask if that contribution, knowledge and legacy sufficiently counters all the vile deeds done by, or in the name of, those religions?
It turns out that a sect of the Catholic Church in Ireland raped and brutalised (or worse?) children under their care and had been doing so with the knowledge and support of Church authorities for most of the 20th century, at least, in a time when the Church leader was still one of the highest ranking people within the social class system. Naturally when the facts were inevitably made public the Church did what all moral, ethical, pious, right-thinking organisations would do: first it threw its full weight behind covering it up and threatening the victims into silence, and then fought it in the courts. What’s more, some of the clergy claim to be unaware that such behaviour is illegal!
Yet, sadly, none of this is news. For those who may be unaware, that exact same sect did the exact same thing in Australia and Canada, news of which broke over 20 years ago. To underline how “not news” this is, this sect’s worldwide historical record of child abuse even has its own dedicated page on Wikipedia. Yet, despite the worldwide media coverage, a few words of apology from that nation’s Church head is all it’s taken for the media to go away, for the legal system to merely deal with those priests who haven’t been moved out of jurisdiction quickly enough, and it is allowed to go on as if nothing happened. Until it crops up again somewhere else.
Are we so frightened of a god we can’t see and are so scared of that god’s wrath that we sacrifice our children to it? What kind of god allows his sheep-herders to do this? Back to reality: why do we as a society permit it? We allow this to happen.
A friend’s father was a first-hand recipient of god’s love under that sect’s care. He is scarred for life, and it haunts him daily. I did know some others, but they chose to take their maker to task sooner than their natural lifespans would otherwise have permitted.
Yet according to the head of the Catholic Church in England, it is I who am not human. His exact words were (in this BBC interview excerpt; emphasis mine):
Whether a person is atheist or any other, there is in fact, in my view, something not totally human if they leave out the transcendent; if they leave out an aspect of what I believe everyone is made for. Which is a search for transcendent meaning — we call it “God.” If you say that has no place, then I feel that it’s a diminishment of what is to be human. Because to be human, in the sense I believe humanity is directed, because made by God, I think if you leave that out then you are not fully human.
One could see this as a poorly worded and delivered “they just don’t know what they’re missing.” I’ll concede that, but I think his track record and public speaking experience makes that extremely unlikely.
So we have this from the man who is the national representative of the organisation who gave the world such expressions of humanity and god’s love as this sample selection:
- The Spanish conquest of the Americas with it’s convert-or-die theology. The current Pope considers this to have been a justifiable purification.
- Collusion with the Nazi Party in the 1930s.
- The Pope-driven military campaigns known as the Crusades, originally to take back Jerusalem from the Muslim Seljuq dynasty in the 11th century, and later extending to various religious, economic and political enemies for another 500 years.
- The elite leaders of the Nazi Party. Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and Joseph Goebbels were born and raised good Catholic boys. Despite popular pulpit fantasy, none of them were raised in a liberal or atheist household.
- The Spanish Inquisition — a religious kangaroo court that ran for almost 400 years — was an era where exquisite forms of torture were finely tuned into an art form. They were only then outdone by the “Angel of Death”, Josef Mengele.
- The unforgivable, systematic abuse of innocent children given to their care.
- The saint of suffering, 1979 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Mother Theresa, who ran her cult of cruelty with an iron fist and who believed pain and suffering were good and necessary, that such experiences would raise her glory and good works up to her sick and twisted god, and that the mountain of donations sat largely untouched because filth and impoverishment was more pleasing to her god of misery.
- The previous Pope, stage name John Paul II, who chose to insist that contraception a sin and thereby accelerating the spread of HIV and AIDS throughout Africa (original article) with its population who have mixed their ancient superstitious tribal beliefs with the ancient superstitious tribal beliefs of the missionaries who came to “help” them.
- The current Pope, stage name Benedict XVI, who not only kept contraception as a sin when he had a chance to alleviate needless suffering, but has recently gone on public record to emphasise the importance of this damaging point of dogma. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he chose to pour salt on it by saying that condoms actually worsen the spread of HIV and AIDS, which is about as reality-based as the belief that some African men have that raping a baby will cure AIDS. As if the previous Pope’s words and deeds hadn’t already sealed the fate of countless thousands from a preventable disease, this one goes a step further.
- Bonus Points: Last but not least, definitive, unquestionable proof of god’s existence by appearing daily on toast, dog flaps, frying pans, potatoes, and countless other domestic items. (It couldn’t be pareidolia — that would just be too preposterous!) I’ve read a book where this god’s fanatics say he created the world, parted a sea, flooded the world, turned water to wine and even raised the dead. Times must be tough all round if gods are reduced to tiresome party tricks these days.
And this Cardinal… this self-aggrandising, deluded fool has the temerity to suggest that I am sub-human. Of course there have been atheists who have done awful things, but I challenge anyone to name an atheist who’s done even a fraction of that in the name of atheism.
Students of history will recognise dehumanisation as a necessary technique to allow normal, civilised people to kill other people without hesitation. All governments do it whenever they’re itching for war. In fact, Hermann Göring said something about it at his Nuremberg Trial:
Of course the people don’t want war. But after all, it’s the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it’s always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it’s a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger.
I’m not suggesting that this buffoon is making a call to arms — modern evangelical Protestantism has been demonising even members of only mildly different sects for years — but rather pointing out the similarities between inflammatory public speeches and those used by propagandists to enable wars. It’s not just Christianity, of course — the media is filled with descriptions of that kind of behaviour by Christianity’s latest major competitor for bums on seats: Islam (knees on rugs?).
Perhaps we simply live in a time where many traditionally quiet religions are experiencing a surge of fundamentalism, which would explain the recent and numerous bizarre squawkings from the Catholic Church, the normally moderate Protestant sects (nutjob fundamentalist sects are a given), and the more recent inventions of the LDS Church, Sikhism and Scientology. Even the traditionally ambivalent or outright pacifist eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism have made news recently for their growing fundamentalism, whose fanatics are, in some cases, beginning to target foreign visitors and tourists.
Part of me suspects this is related to some of the world’s loudest western nations being virtual theocracies — I’m looking at you, Mr Bush — or appeasers of theocracies — I’m looking at you, Mr Blair — and unashamedly proselytising not only their religion but their particular twisted, perverted and intolerant version of it upon the nations they chose to occupy against the majority will of their respective peoples. Nationalism is probably a natural reaction to such consistent transgression. The military rules may say that proselytising in a theatre of war is forbidden, but it clearly happens. Even non-believers are being victimised in these Christianised armies. Is it any wonder that many Muslims refer to the War on Terror as the new Christian Crusades, or the Tenth Crusade?
Having said all that, I won’t speak against allied troops who are on the ground in the countries they have occupied. They are just like you and me, and are doing a job for their country, their squad mates, and often for their families (military service often offers better future prospects). It’s a hard job that someone has to do, and will have to do for as long as we have governments, religions and resource imbalances. Particularly if those governments continue to use religion as a tool in their territorial or resource agendas.
The pillock and the peerage
On a related note, you may be surprised to know that the inspiration for this post — the former Archbishop of Westminster Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor — is being considered for a Peerage by the British government. If you find that as offensive, and indeed inappropriate in the tireless pursuit of the separation of c
hurch and state, as I do, you may then be pleased to know that there is a petition that UK residents can sign to ask the Prime Minister that this peerage not be granted:
If opposing that honour is is something you agree with, then please consider signing the petition. It expires in March 2010, so you still have some time left…
It has not been my intention to insult or upset you, whatever your beliefs or lack of. Nor has it been my intention to suggest that all clergy, whatever their religion or sect, are guilty of such things. That is clearly not the case, but a partial complicity could be argued whenever a complaint is dismissed, sudden relocation of a member of the clergy is assisted, and any of a number of other possible scenarios.
Rather, is has been my intention to outline how unbelievable it is that the head of any church in any country could possibly consider atheists sub-human when the inhuman behaviour of his peers has resulted in permanent, irreparable damage to thousands of the most vulnerable members of our society. That anyone could say that absence of belief is more important — that it’s in the same ballpark, or even the same game — beggars belief.
Such statements and attitudes are indicative of a sense of priorities and reality so screwed and twisted that it belongs in the dank, darkened tribunals of the Inquisition, not in an age of western enlightenment where art can be created without fear of being tortured or killed, where life expectancy has doubled, where nearly all people have a roof over their heads (or have access to shelter), where life-saving operations can be performed without pain, where we look into space and realise that not only are we looking at faraway objects beyond our solar system but are also looking back in time, where we realise that the orbital motion of stars around galactic cores resembles the motion of planets around stars, moons around planets, all the way down to electrons around atomic nuclei, and that all life on this one blue planet — this pale blue dot — is made from star stuff and coded in a helical ladder combination of just 4 nucleotide bases.
We know all this through science. Religion has fought the discovery of this knowledge every step along the way.
So how — with such magnificent understanding and observation of the universe without and within (of which we’ve uncovered only the tiniest amount) — can we possibly sit by an allow such abuse to happen?
There’s definitely a lot of talk going on about the global economy — along with the obligatory wailing and gnashing of teeth — but it’s either an incredibly slow slide, or perhaps something else is going on or it’s not as straightforward as it appears. I say this after conversations with colleagues and friends who — aside from preventative job losses and the news about banks — have not really seen what all the fuss is about.
Of course it may be that myself and everyone I’ve chatted to is sufficiently insulated from the situation that it’s not affecting us directly yet (it certainly didn’t take long back in early 2001 when I experienced my first redundancy). Yes, it’s likely that one of our glorious capitalist system’s regular “busts” is happening, as part of the recognised boom and bust cycle, but is it actually any worse than the 2-3 such situations over the last 15-20 years? It’s hard to tell when you raise your head above the reportage, which seems prudent as the news media are hardly objective sources of information.
I’m beginning to wonder if this might be a combination of regular bust — exacerbated by globalisation, monopolisation and near-absent regulation (if they’re bringing in the money…) — combined with media hysteria, post-9/11 politics, and the changing face of media and advertising. The news media are currently saying that it’s the worst economic situation since World War 2, which is a highly emotive statement in the UK and Europe. I’m guessing they’re leaving Great Depression references to pull out as a trump card at a later date. Perhaps it’s time to declare shenanigans.
The post-9/11 politics of the West, in particular, is markedly different to society before 2001. These changes can’t be justified by saying it’s a more dangerous world now, as countries like the UK have suffered terrorism from organisations such as the IRA since before World War 2. A cynic might say that the rules changed when an attack happened on American soil — and that might not be entirely incorrect — but that notwithstanding, there has been a systematic worldwide change in global politics since those awful events in 2001. There seems to have been a visible shift in government’s perspective on the public, resulting in a state of perpetual suspicion of the citizen and systematic erosion of hard-won liberties. And with the advances in technology such as biometrics has followed unending attempts at forcing or sneaking through legislation to mandate biometric identification of populations – with all the idealism, hopes, fears and dread that such measures make. And none of that deals with the wars we’ve created and funded, whatever the validity or justification, and the economic costs of prolonged warmongering.
And of course the media hysteria. Thanks to the proliferation of what currently passes for journalism, the public seem convinced that every male teacher is an unproven paedophile, that they will be mugged if they walk any town at night, serial killers exist in every village, all parents who discipline their children are child abusers, that all teenagers are knife-wielding, crack-smoking, drunken, granny-bashing louts, that violent games/films cause violent acts (yet comedy doesn’t cause humour on the streets…), and so on ad nauseum. Just watch Sky Two in the evenings, or read any Red Top or Daily Whatever newspaper.
But is there any reliable evidence that it’s statistically any worse than it was a century ago? It reminds me of the 1970s song by the Australian band The Skyhooks, called Horror Movie: Horror movie… it’s the 6:30 news. (I couldn’t find the uncensored lyrics, so you’ve got the video instead). If you go back to 1970 or 1940 or 1910 you’ll find the exact same “society is falling apart, we’re all doomed!” spoken as fact. I’m not sure it hasn’t always been like that so, instead, please cast a skeptical eye on the spoon-fed news and political talking heads.
I don’t know the truth, but common sense suggests that it’s not neat enough to fit into a 15 second soundbyte or 3 newspaper column inches.
It sounds pretty dire at first blush, with my first thoughts wondering about some kind of retribution for one of his books or his regular column in Slate, Fighting Words, but the original source of the news indicates that he’s fine and just has a bit of a limp, some bruises and, presumably, a bruised ego.
I have a mixture of respect and repulsion for Hitchens, as I think his God Is Not Great is a fantastic rational book that summarises, in his unique way, how religion gets in the way of basic human functions at best. My repulsion comes from the way he goes about conveying his message, his apparent wildly-variable political standpoints, and for his all-round attitude to things that has culminated in this event. But I suppose in my attitude he has achieved his desired goal — polarisation of opinion, generation of thought, and getting people talking.
Anyway, reports state that while out drinking he chose to walk around a neighbourhood known, to the locals at least, to be sympathetic to an extremist political party — the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) — and to indiscreetly deface one of their posters in plain sight. And they didn’t take kindly to it, as you might expect from any of the extremist parties wherever you live.
It can’t be just me that sees the madness of this on multiple levels, surely? If nothing else, then how about:
- Out drinking (presumably alone) in a country known for political and religious strife.
- In an area that seemed to be sympathetic or supportive of the SSNP.
- Walking around said country while drunk.
- Brazenly defacing a poster for a political party of another nation.
Without wishing to impugn any nationality: to the Lebanese locals he must look like a drunken, intemperate American tourist defacing an advertisement for another country’s political system. That’s like walking around parts of New York or London wearing a racist t-shirt, or strolling outside one of the growing number of wartime Green Zones with USA No.1 emblazoned on your shirt: you’re not going to get away with it without a limp — sorry. In fact, he’s lucky to just have the limp.
Don’t mistake me: I by no means wish ill of the man, but this has to go down as one of those “What the hell was he thinking?” moments. I hope he learns from it and re-thinks his next surreptitious political protest. Preferably not one in another country where the locals intolerantly see him as an Imperalist Capitalist Pig try to foist his nation’s idea of peace, politics and way of life upon them.
Despite all that, I do applaud his conviction and fearlessness.
I’ve just taken one of those online quizzes of 30 or so questions that determine your political leanings — almost a copy of one I was given in my Engineering Communications class back in university — and then plots your results on a graph with Left and Right as the -x and +x axis and Authoritarian and Libertarian as the +y and -y axis. You answer each multi-choice question with one of 5 answers ranges from Strongly Agree through Neutral to Strongly Disagree. The main difference with this quiz is that it adds a “How much does this matter?” bar which allows you to add a level of importance to your answer, ranging from A lot to A little.
Here are my results for the Political Spectrum Quiz: Your Political Label:
|Political Views: Left moderate social libertarian
Left: 3.2, Libertarian: 1.81
|Foreign Policy Views: -1.9
||Culture War Stance: -4.32
For those of you who have been reading this blog for its short life — and those who know me — my results should come as no surprise. The results are almost identical to the tests I’ve taken every 5 or so years since my first such test over 15 years ago.
Interestingly, the results page goes on to tell me that all of my answers are pretty much the average, though it doesn’t indicate how many people have taken the quiz (it could be just 10 people). The quiz doesn’t pretend to be scientific or of greater significance than it is at face value, but I thought it was worth the 5 minutes it took.
Give it a go and let me know how you got on. It might give you an insight into yourself when you go off and search Google or Wikipedia for the precise meanings of whatever your results say.