Wednesday, October 15, 2014

When facts are not just facts: How Sam Harris sneaks ideology into his supposedly objective account of the world

On the October 3 airing of Real Time with Bill Maher, host Maher and New Atheist author Sam Harris clashed with actor Ben Affleck in a discussion about Islam. The clash began by Maher criticizing today’s liberals as being too soft on Islam. Maher says that liberals are supposed to stand up for things like free speech, gender equality, and freedom of religion, but these things take a back seat when such freedoms are at stake in the Muslim world. Instead, says Maher, liberals will defend Muslims whenever they are attacked for being anti-woman, anti-gay, or anti-free speech due to the fact that Muslims are perceived by liberals as a minority in need of rescue. Harris agreed, saying that liberals attack only “white theocracy” but treat Islamic theocracy as a sacred cow. On the other side of the table, Affleck countered that the overwhelming portion of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims are not violent extremists hellbent on killing apostates and homosexuals. This led Harris to “break it down” for Affleck:
“Just imagine some concentric circles…At the center you have jihadists. These are people who wake up in the morning wanting to kill apostates, wanting to die trying, they believe in paradise, they believe in matrydom. Outside of [that circle] we have Islamists. These are people who are just as convinced of martydom and paradise and wanting to foist their religion on the rest of humanity, but that want to work within the system, they’re not gonna blow themselves up on a bus…Those two circles arguably are 20 percent of the Muslim world.”
Here, Harris is doing what he has always done best: Present the “facts” as if they can speak for themselves. While it may at first blush seem that Harris is merely providing Affleck with cold, hard, statistical data, what he is actually doing is painting an intensely ideological picture. Notice how Harris chooses to present his data in terms of concentric rings. Such a strategy forces the listener to imagine a situation in which ISIS and other violent jihadis are at the very center of the hard core of Islam. Instead of using concentric rings, Harris might have asked Affleck to imagine a sheet of graph paper with intersecting vertical and horizontal lines; at the very tip of the upper-right-hand corner, one could draw an extremely tiny dot using a pen with the finest possible tip. This tiny, almost imperceptible mark, would represent jihadis and the rest of the sheet would be other Muslims. But Harris doesn’t use such an image or anything like it, because the graph paper image would clearly imply that jihadis occupy only the fringe extreme of Islam. By using his concentric circles imagery, Harris is able to coyly seduce the listener into buying the notion that ISIS represents the true hard core of Muslims (and, I might note, the concentric rings have the additional ideological benefit of resembling a bulls-eye).


Supporters of Harris’ position have pointed out in comments on another web site that the reason Harris puts jihadis at the center of his concentric rings is that jihadis are the truest of the true Muslims, the only Muslims who, in Harris’ words, take their religion seriously. This is nonsense. There are indeed many passages condoning violence in the Qur’an, but these passages are addressed to people who were fighting a defensive war in a specific place and time (namely, the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century). An example is verse 22:39:
“Permission (to fight) is given to those against whom war is being wrongfully waged.”
Furthermore, as Fareed Zakaria points out in an excellent article from this week, if psychopathic violence really were an inherent part of the essence of Islam, we should expect to see violence of the kind carried out by ISIS all throughout Islamic history. Anyone familiar with Islamic history (which Harris clearly is not) knows that this is not the case. As the historian Zachary Karabell puts it (in Zakaria's article), “If you exclude the last 70 years or so, in general the Islamic world was more tolerant of minorities than the Christian world. That’s why there were more than a million Jews living in the Arab world until the early 1950s — nearly 200,000 in Iraq alone.”

The real answer, I think, is to treat violent jihadis as what they really are – not as strict adherents to Islam, which they clearly aren’t (since they fight aggressive wars, something strictly forbidden by the Qur’an), but instead as fascists. This is the position advocated by Nick Cohen at The Guardian. As anyone familiar with history knows, the natural enemy of fascism is not liberalism, which often collaborates and accomodates fascism, but rather the radical left – socialism. This, I think, explains why Harris’ criticism of Islam is so utterly impotent – as a liberal, he is stuck in the hypocritical position of condemning one type of violence (jihadism) while advocating another (the less exciting but no less ferocious violence of global capitalism).

If Maher weren’t such a cherry-picker, he might have introduced this issue to his panel back in July, which is the only time that I know of that he had two actual leftists on his show (Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! and Marxist economist Richard Wolff). Perhaps then, a truly meaningful discussion, contextualizing groups like ISIS in the history of colonialism, imperialism, and globalization, could have taken place. But if the conversation is left to liberals, all we will get is what we got in Harris’ appearance: Ideological and historically uninformed potshots.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Giver (2014) and the Return of the Repressed

The 2014 film The Giver, the latest of a series of dystopian movies based on young adult novels (e.g. Divergent, The Hunger Games), is set in a futuristic city where every aspect of life is strictly regulated. Babies are genetically engineered rather than born. Children are observed like lab rats throughout their formative years, and upon reaching the age of 18, they are gathered in a formal ceremony where a group known as The Elders dictates their career to them. Adults are paired with a mate of the opposite gender with whom they raise the children that The Elders assign to them. At the end of life, old people are “released to Elsewhere,” a euphemism that has erased the concept of death. The result is a peaceful, ordered city, but one in which there is no freedom or choice.

Such control cannot be achieved through mere coercion and intimidation. Rather, citizens in this society are given daily injections which numb the passions. As a result, everything from color to romance ceases to exist. Inoculated from desire and emotion, people follow their prescribed courses in life obediently and without hesitation. Just as emotions are controlled through the injections, knowledge is also strictly regulated. No one other than a privileged and carefully-selected few may know anything about what history and society looked like before the present one.

The events of the film are centered around the protagonist, Jonas, who, upon reaching eighteen years of age, is assigned a unique position in society. Unlike his co-graduates, who are to occupy ordinary positions in the community, Jonas is designated as the community’s next Receiver of Memory. This position requires Jonas to travel far from the main city center, to what is known as “the Edge.” Here, he receives training and instruction from the previous Receiver of Memory (who refers to himself as “the Giver” of Memory). By and by (and usually through visions transmitted to Jonas through skin contact with the Giver), Jonas learns about life before the great war out of which the present society was formed. In these visions, Jonas sees color, feels sexual desire, experiences the terror of war, and mourns the death of friends. Jonas realizes that The Elders keep this history hidden as a way to rob the community of its humanity, and it becomes his mission to let everyone feel the same emotions and passions that he now feels after his training with the Giver. He further learns that there is a boundary, far beyond the Edge, which, if it is crossed, will send all of these memories rushing back to the community.

The story of The Giver is directly analogous to Freud’s structure of the mind. At the base of one’s psychology is the unconscious Id, driven by the pleasure principle. The Ego, or self-aware part of a person’s psychology, regulates which desires in the Id may come up into conscious thought, and represses unacceptable desires back down into the Id. Sitting atop the Ego is the Super-Ego, often associated with God or the father, which sets the rules by which the Ego regulates and represses these desires. The goal of psychoanalysis is to open up the entire unconscious Id to the Ego, shining conscious light on unconscious neuroses. This is accomplished through a process known as transference, wherein the psychotherapist assumes the role of Super-Ego.

In The Giver, then, the Super-Ego (at the beginning) is The Elders, who govern the society. The Ego can be any person who follows the rules set by The Elders, but for the sake of the film it is Jonas. The Id, of course, is the repressed history of the world before the great war. The Giver, like a psychotherapist, displaces The Elders as Jonas’ Super-Ego, giving him a new set of rules to live by. These new rules allow Jonas to delve deep into the repressed unconscious of society, where he finds out about love, hate, music, and other passions. The result is a complete transformation of Jonas’ Ego, such that he is able to do what had once been literally inconceivable. He crosses the boundary, and in so doing he brings color, love, and (presumably) hate back into the community.

The result is a very progressive, even radical message for today’s young people. Today’s neoliberal consensus has arrogantly proclaimed the “End of History” – with the result that modern cynical liberals think that history is irrelevant to the present. The Giver illustrates that turning a blind eye to history will lead to a sterile, stagnant society where people only do what the state demands of them. The message of The Giver is that the youth of today must set free the repressed past of our world – including all of its evils and contradictions – if they are to be free.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Paranoid and Dilemmatic Ideology in Punk Rock Music

The term “punk rock” is applied to diverse artists that often have a hard time fitting underneath the same umbrella. As such, punk (like other mega-genres such as hip-hop and metal) is further broken down into seemingly infinite sub-genres like hardcore, emo, ska-punk, and folk punk. Songs and artists are placed into one sub-genre or another based on (aural) aesthetic characteristics like instrumentation and tempo. In this post, I propose a new way of sub-categorizing punk music, based on lyrical content rather than aural features. In so doing, I split the entire mega-genre of Punk Rock into just two branches, which I call Paranoid and Dilemmatic.

Paranoid Punk

The term “Paranoid” is borrowed from the work of the American historian Richard Hofstadter, who wrote about “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” According to Hofstadter, the Paranoid Style is characterized by “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.” Similarly, Paranoid Punk features lyrics about conspiracy theories, stereotypes, and paranoid suspicion.

Source: Wikipedia
The song “9/11 was (an inside joke)” by Star Fucking Hipsters is exemplary of the Paranoid style in punk music. The song, as the title suggests, endorses the paranoid conspiracy theory that the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks were orchestrated by members of the United States political and economic elite: “G-Dub played the king / to wipe the crime scene clean / smart folks know what I mean / Giuliani fixed the job / abetted by the mob / Air Force and CIA / NORAD with Dick Cheney / erased the facts away.”

Star Fucking Hipsters is just one project of prolific front-man Stza Crack, whose other bands include (now-defunct) Choking Victim and Leftöver Crack. Interestingly, Leftöver Crack’s first album Mediocre Generica was released on September 11, 2001. The band’s next album, Fuck World Trade, features cover art of the burning Twin Towers and lyrics boasting about “the tower-tumbling Mediocre Generica.”

The paranoia of Paranoid Punk need not be political. Seminal (and apolitical) punk band The Ramones also fit into the category. Ramones song titles (e.g. “Gimme shock treatment,” “I wanna be sedated,” “Teenage lobotomy”) are replete with references to psychosis and paranoia. Even The Ramones’ love songs are filled with obsessive paranoia and the need to control and conquer the object of desire. Perhaps no song exemplifies this more than “Today your love, tomorrow the world,” which compares romantic conquest to the Nazi conquest of Europe: “I’m a shock trooper in a stupor, yes I am / I’m a Nazi schatze you know I fight for the Fatherland…Today your love, tomorrow the world.”

Dilemmatic Punk

The second branch, Dilemmatic Punk, gets its name from the study of ideological dilemmas in the field of discursive psychology. In their influential book Ideological Dilemmas, Michael Billig and colleagues characterize ideology not as something which is rigid and free from contradiction; rather, ideology as studied by Billig et al. is something which is dynamic and paradoxical.

Unlike Paranoid Punk songs, which streamline the complex dynamics of American and international politics into simple, internally consistent (yet totally wrong) conspiracy theories, Dilemmatic Punk forges a worldview that embraces paradox and seeks out a balance between extremes. For example, “‘Merican” by The Descendents takes a look at the love-hate relationship that many progressive Americans have with their national history: “I come from the land of Ben Franklin / Twain and Poe and Walt Whitman / Otis Redding, Ellington / The country that I love / But it's a land of the slaves and the ku klux klan / Haymarket Riot and the Great Depression / Joe McCarthy, Vietnam / The sickest joke I know.”

Just like Paranoid Punk, Dilemmatic Punk can also be apolitical. The Queers, for example, explore how rejection can stir of feelings of melancholy or rage – “I can’t get over you” and “Strangle the girl,” respectively.


I should note that all of the songs and artists I’ve talked about are, in a word, awesome. By labeling them as Paranoid or Dilemmatic, I am in no way making a judgment about goodness or badness. Instead, I only use these terms in order to probe into punk rock in a way that hasn’t been done before.

Paranoid and dilemmatic ideologies are not only characteristic of punk rock music. Rather, this essay has explored punk music as a microcosm of broader social and political tendencies. It should be easy to see how the division I have drawn between Paranoid and Dilemmatic Punk can be applied to other areas – different genres of music, political movements, characters in fiction, etc. For instance, the film (and book) The Da Vinci Code is clearly conspiratorial, fitting into the Paranoid group. On the other hand, a movie like Free Radio Albemuth, in which the conspiratorial fantasies of characters are constantly undermined, is Dilemmatic.

These categories should prove useful in differentiating between more and less neurotic political ideologies. An ideology which fits squarely within the Paranoid camp will be rigidly internally consistent, but will break down and collapse due to its own repressed contradictions the moment that any outside critical thought is voiced. On the other hand, Dilemmatic ideologies are flexible, dynamic, and embrace contradiction.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Voice and the Object Cause of Desire


On typical talent contest shows like American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, and The X Factor, competitors walk out in front of the judges, show their stuff, and then find out whether they will advance to the next round. Between performances, personal interest segments highlight the performer’s tragic personal history and their desire to become a star. Successful contestants are those who combine a show-stopping performance on stage with a heart-wrenching sob story in the personal interest segment. There is no better example of this than Susan Boyle, the “never-been-kissed” British woman who became an overnight sensation after she sang “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables on Britain’s Got Talent. It wasn’t Susan Boyle’s singing ability alone that made her (sort of) famous – it was her singing ability plus her tear-jerking back story.

Cases like Susan Boyle’s make it seem that TV talent contests are all about the contestants – who they are and what they want. In truth, however, the contestants never rise above mere objects. The subjects on such shows are actually the judges, who select and reject performers as objects of desire. Quite simply, Susan Boyle had nothing to do with her own success; it was the judges who made her a star.

NBC’s The Voice, with its innovative format, makes the objectification of contestants absolutely clear. The Voice doesn’t follow the simple old formula of whittling down the field of contestants until a winner is finally found; rather, singers are grouped into four teams that are coached by each of the judges.

In order to make it onto one of the four teams, contestants must make it through the first round’s Blind Auditions. Judges listen with their backs turned, and if they like what they hear they can push a button that spins their chair around so they are facing the performer on stage. Notably, when this happens, the chair also lights up with the words I WANT YOU. Frequently, one judge turning their chair and signaling I WANT YOU will cause another judge, and then another, to do the same – kind of like how when Tom tells Jane that he likes her, Dick suddenly feels compelled to tell Jane that he likes her too. Like jealous suitors, the judges compete for the performer’s affection, usually by complimenting the singer’s appearance and making remarks about how similar the singer is to themselves.

We can see that the Blind Auditions are an adapted form of courtship, with the judges as subjects and the performers as objects of desire. The question then is: Why do the judges have to have their backs turned? Shouldn’t the judges be facing the performers so that they can “fall in love at first sight”? Before I explain why the judges' backs are turned on The Voice, check out this TV commercial for

In the commercial and on The Voice, desire is set in motion by a voice without a body. This disembodied voice is what Lacanians call objet a, an “imaginary part-object, an element imagined as separable from the rest of the body.” Objet a is “the cause of desire,” and so whatever it is that objet a leads a subject to desire is the actual object of desire. In the commercial, the man desires the woman because of her voice and vice versa, and then and only then do they turn around to find out what their respective objects of desire look like. Likewise, on The Voice, the disembodied singer’s voice, “separable from the rest of the body,” leads the judges to spin around and declare I WANT YOU, thus objectifying the contestant on stage.

I suspect, then, that the reason for The Voice's success is that it is modeled on a type of romantic relationship that is currently en vogue. The wildly popular and mega-hip Catfish on MTV features millennials who oftentimes have never even seen a photo of their significant other. The only feature of their lover that they can associate with him or her is the sound of their voice. Without even seeing the face associated with the voice, these young people declare – just like the judges on The Voice – I WANT YOU.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Richard Dawkins Down Syndrome Twitter Controversy: Is Morality All About Pleasure?

Richard Dawkins has ignited yet another online firestorm with a provocative Tweet about abortion and Down Syndrome (DS, or trisomy 21). It all started when a Twitter follower of Dawkins asked him (completely hypothetically) if she ought to abort a fetus if it were found to have DS in a pre-natal screening. Dawkins' reply was, "Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice."

Predictably, a stream of criticism, insults, and threats rushed in to Dawkins' Twitter feed. Parents of children who live with DS led the charge; one woman tweeted "I would fight till my last breath for the life of my son. No dilemma."

Dawkins and his supporters defended his terse response by saying that Twitter's 140-character limit constrained what ordinarily would have been a more nuanced and drawn-out reply. In a follow-up statement, Dawkins clarified his position: "If your morality is based, as mine is, on a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering, the decision to deliberately give birth to a Down's baby, when you have the choice to abort it early in the pregnancy, might actually be immoral from the point of view of the child's own welfare."

There's already plenty of debate about whether Dawkins is correct to say that those who live with DS are condemned to a life of pain and misery, so I don't want to make that my focus here. All I'll mention on that topic is that this week a 16-year-old British girl with DS passed 6 General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exams. I'm sure Dawkins' condolences go out to her family.

Instead, I want to focus on Dawkins' comment that his morality is based "on a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering." Is morality really all about increasing happiness and reducing suffering?

The first thing to notice is how strongly Dawkins' definition of morality resembles one of the most basic concepts in Freudian psychoanalysis, the pleasure principle. Simply put, the pleasure principle is the unconscious drive to increase pleasure and reduce pain. In infancy, the pleasure principle governs everything -- infants poop, suck, gurgle, and eat to their heart's (or their id's) content.

Later on, the formation of the ego (the conscious, self-aware part of the mind) causes one to realize that it's not socially acceptable to pursue pleasure at all costs, and the ego starts to redirect these urges in other ways -- towards intellectual pursuits, athletic exercises, and interpersonal relationships. This is due to a contrasting drive to the pleasure principle, the reality principle, which is the ability of the conscious mind to assess the outside world and act upon it accordingly.

If all that mattered were increasing your own pleasure by following the pleasure principle, then there would be nothing in your psychology to stop you from stealing others' food off their plates, robbing them of their money, or forcibly having sex with them. But due to the reality principle, you can assess that the best way to get food, money, or sex is to ask for it, work for it, or pay for it (in no particular order, of course).

So, when Dawkins says that morality is all about increasing pleasure and limiting pain, he is saying that human beings should strip themselves of their conscious minds, forgo the reality principle, and instead subject themselves to the basic whims of the pleasure-seeking id. This is wrong. Morality does not spring forth from thoughtless intuition (something Dawkins relies on more and more in his comments). Rather, moral behavior is the result of careful deliberation. Instead of following the pleasure seeking id, Dawkins should advocate something more like the reality principle, which allows people to assess situations and make reasoned decisions.

Rather than going with the knee-jerk response to tell his Twitter follower (and, indeed, every woman in the world) to abort the hypothetical fetus, Dawkins might have taken a bit more time to consider his position before replying with something like: "I don't know. I'm neither a woman nor an Ob/Gyn." And look at that! Less than 140 characters.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Paranoid Style in American Police Departments

There is already plenty of news and commentary on the killing of Michael Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old African American man who was shot dead by Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson on August 9. As information about the shooting is still trickling in, much of it contradictory and obscure, I don’t think it is appropriate to comment about whether the shooting constitutes murder, manslaughter, or excessive force. Instead, I’ll focus on the broader context of police brutality and militarization, a phenomenon that is far from particular to Ferguson.

Since the passage of the 1997 National Defense Authorization Act, over 5 billion dollars in equipment has changed hands from the US armed forces to local police departments. This gear includes everything from assault vehicles, anti-aircraft guns, and armored vehicles to underwear, cooking utensils, and office supplies. Initially, the program was intended to give local departments the resources needed to combat narco-traffickers in border states, but after 9/11 the program was escalated in order to fend off potential terrorist threats. As a result, in the past twenty years or so, America’s police officers have gone from Andy Griffith to RoboCop.

Unfortunately (and predictably), such military equipment hasn’t been used much to fight either narco-traffickers or terrorists. Rather, cops have preferred to use their combat gear in grossly uncalled for situations, such as no-knock raids on suspected small-time drug dealers, or to put down legitimate exercises of free speech and freedom of association. Scores of innocent people have been maimed, traumatized, and killed in the process.

Why such excessive force? Are the police simply bullies and thugs who want to harm people? Some say hastily yes, but I think the issue is more complicated than that. Rather, police departments are under the influence of a powerful ideology, one which rationalizes over-the-top escalation of force and labels innocent civilians as malicious evildoers.

In a highly influential essay from 1964, the Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter detailed an ideology that he called the “paranoid style” in American politics. This ideology is characterized by “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.” Hofstadter labeled the contemporary movement supporting Barry Goldwater’s candidacy for U.S. president as exemplary of the paranoid style, but he notes that paranoid movements have existed all throughout American history. The paranoid style can be located
“in the anti-Masonic movement, the nativist and anti-Catholic movement, in certain spokesmen of abolitionism who regarded the United States as being in the grip of a slaveholders’ conspiracy, in many alarmists about the Mormons, in some Greenback and Populist writers who constructed a great conspiracy of international bankers, in the exposure of a munitions makers’ conspiracy of World War I, in the popular left-wing press, in the contemporary American right wing, and on both sides of the race controversy today, among White Citizens’ Councils and Black Muslims.” 
And today, I argue, the police departments of America are firmly in the clutches of the demon that is the paranoid style.

One key component of the paranoid ideology is that its adherents invent straw-man enemies, threats both domestic and foreign, and then unconsciously emulate the characteristics of these made-up bogeymen. For example, the KKK’s anti-Catholicism led Klansmen unknowingly to emulate Catholic clergy by donning priestly vestments and developing elaborate rituals reminiscent of the Catholic mass. The John Birch Society, paranoid about Communist plots and cells, “emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through 'front' groups, and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy.”

The modern American police are strikingly similar. After 9/11, American law enforcement has taken paranoia to new heights, arming themselves to the teeth against an enemy that does not exist. This is not to say that the threat posed from narco-traffickers and Islamist terrorists is made up, but such groups do not (and would not) attack the U.S. with armored battalions or fighter aircraft. Due to imagining that such fantastical scenarios are plausible, police do everything they can to stave off these fake threats, and in so doing they start looking more and more like the imaginary foe -- an enemy force set out to destroy American liberty.

How can the police be cured of this pathological way of thinking and acting? The best thing to do would be to publicize police behavior so that it can be scrutinized by ordinary, non-paranoid citizens. Of course, many police cars are outfitted with dashboard cameras, but such cameras conveniently and suspiciously “malfunction” when police are accused of wrongdoing. Moreover, beatings and other forms of police brutality are often committed out of the scope of the dashcams. What really needs to happen, then, is to outfit every cop in America with a camera on his or her chest or glasses, which streams live video to servers maintained by an independent third party. We then would have to hope that cops won’t then turn their 50-caliber machine guns on the servers.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Double (2013) and the Uncanny

Freud describes the uncanny as a special kind of fear; it “is that class of terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.” Whereas we are usually frightened by what is unknown and unfamiliar to us, we experience the uncanny when we are startled by something from the past that had been pushed out of conscious recollection. There are many things that one desires when still a child, but which provoke fear as an adult. The seeds of the uncanny lie anywhere there is an object that we once, as children, associated with joy but which we later, as mature adolescents and adults, associate with fear and loathing.

Consider how many adults are afraid of clowns. (It is interesting to note that there are no adults who like clowns. People who didn’t like clowns as children continue not to like them as adults; those who adored them as children experience uncanny horror as adults.) For a child so inclined, clowns are objects of wonderment and fantasy. When the child matures, she realizes that clowns are just ordinary human beings wearing costumes, and she starts to feel ambivalent about them. The desire for clowns does not ever go away completely, though. It has to be pushed violently down into the unconscious mind, and a great deal of “psychic energy” must be expended in order to keep it there. The conscious mind or Ego begins to develop a fear of the repressed former object of desire, and the sight or mention of clowns is enough to instill uncanny horror. Thus, the uncanny is tightly wrapped up in a crucial and sometimes traumatic emotional turning point in any child’s life, the moment when the child realizes that the world is not a magical place with things like talking dolls, Santa Claus, and the Tooth Fairy. This event in many ways sounds the death knell of the child and ushers in the age of the adolescent; it’s no wonder it should cause so much fear and trepidation!

Richard Ayoade’s 2014 black comedy The Double is about the uncanny experiences of Simon (Jesse Eisenberg), a shy and lonely clerk working in human resources. Simon is hopelessly and secretly in love with Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), who works in a different department of the same company. Every evening Simon sits alone in his apartment and, using a telescope, spies on Hannah in her equally lonely apartment. One night, Simon sees a man standing on a ledge high up near Hannah’s apartment and looking back at him through binoculars. The man waves, Simon waves back, and then the man jumps to his death. The gruesome scene on the street below attracts a crowd, providing the first-ever opportunity for Hannah and Simon to interact outside of their workplace. The two go out to a diner for a late-night cup of coffee and become friends. Simon at first mistakes this friendship for romantic interest, but the arrival to the company of a new hire, James (also Jesse Eisenberg) sets him straight. James is everything Simon is not – charming, assertive, and virile. One very important similarity exists, however: They look exactly the same.

When, one evening, Hannah confides in her just-a-friend Simon that she “likes” James, Simon experiences painful humiliation and despair. He tells James about it, and surprisingly James wants to help. James maps out a plan whereby Simon will pretend to be James and go on a date with Hannah. The facial resemblance, James admits, is uncanny, but their personality types could not be more different. Therefore Simon must act like James. (In po-mo identity theory terminology, Simon has to do being James.) The plan naturally goes south due to Simon’s insurmountable cringy awkwardness, and Hannah stares back at him in knowing, angry silence until he leaves. By and by, James sees Simon as beyond help, and he takes advantage of Simon’s meekness instead of trying to reform it. While James sneaks off for mid-workday trysts with Hannah, Simon covers his workstation, producing brilliant work for which James earns all of the credit. James also demands the key to Simon’s apartment, which Simon uses to hide his other romantic affairs from Hannah. As James encroaches more and more upon Simon’s identity and sense of individuality, Simon discovers that their bodies have become causally linked; if Simon cuts himself, an identical wound appears on James’ body. At last, Simon has the epiphany that he needs in order to eliminate James: If he jumps off a building into some sort of cushion, then he will survive whereas James will be thrown against hard ground at terminal velocity.

Why is James so uncanny for Simon? There is of course the striking physical resemblance, but what does this have to do with the return of repressed childhood desires as outlined by Freud? The answer to this question arrives when we investigate why Simon sees himself in James. As the film makes clear, no one other than Simon (and James) really notices that the two look alike; therefore, in order to make the connection, there must be something else that Simon sees in James which reminds him of himself. Taking a deeper look at the film, there is indeed a repressed childhood desire of the type discussed by Freud. At various points throughout the movie, Simon sits fixated on a TV screen, watching a series about a space cowboy with childlike awe. The space invader stands up for justice, fights evildoers, and wins the affection of beautiful women. The space cowboy is Simon’s ideal self, the person he wants to become. But life got in the way: His father is apparently dead or out of the picture, his mother is dying with dementia, and he has to work a dead-end job to pay the bills. Simon pushed his desire to be like the space cowboy aside and instead shouldered the burdens of “real life.” But this fantasy never went away entirely, and when James shows up one day, Simon is reminded of his repressed ideal self. As the story develops, it becomes more and more clear that James is not a separate individual, but rather a projection of Simon’s own psychological crises.

NYPD Goombas blame anti-cop rhetoric for the murder of Eric Garner

The Orwellianly-named NYPD Policeman's Benevolent Association today came forward with official comments about the incident of unprovoked police brutality that resulted in the murder of Eric Garner last month. Amazingly, President Patrick Lynch -- backed by a squad of troglodytes reminiscent of the Goombas from the Mario Bros. movie (1993) -- does not attribute blame for Mr. Garner's wrongful death to the officers who assaulted him, stood on his body, choked him, and gradually asphyxiated him to death. Instead, Swinemaster Lynch blames anti-police rhetoric, which he says leads people to brazenly resist arrest when the boys and blue decide to shake them down for no good reason.

It was due to a horrible infection by anti-cop ideology that Eric Garner, in the description of Big Pig Lynch, "resisted" arrest instead of graciously submitting like a properly-trained model citizen.

The suggestion that it was anti-cop rhetoric, and not escalation of force, that caused Eric Garner's death is so stupid that it doesn't warrant any discussion. Of course it is wrong to say that something indirect and abstract like rhetoric could have killed a man, especially when video evidence clearly shows that a gang of professional thugs attacked Eric Garner when he was vulnerable and unarmed and minding his own business.

But in a way, the NYPD Goombas are actually right. Remember that fundamental lesson from psychology: For a person who is suffering from delusions, there can be no question about whether the delusions are real -- for the sufferer, they are as real as anything, and their effects are concretely observed. The same goes for the NYPD's paranoid delusion about society's hatred of cops leading people to become martyrs for the cause of resisting a petty arrest. It doesn't matter whether anti-cop rhetoric is actually the cause of Eric Garner's murder. All that matters is that the police believe it.

This illustrates the crucial role played by paranoia in horrifyingly violent and racist organizations like the NYPD. Because the police believe that they are under siege by an anti-cop society, they act as if they are being attacked from all sides. This causes the cops to lash out, which consequently stirs up anti-cop sentiment, which reinforces the cops' ideological belief that anti-cop sentiment is to blame.

Unfortunately, I am skeptical that knowing the psychological workings of things like police brutality can do anything to effect any change. Big city police departments like the NYPD have budgets in the billions, and are better armed than many countries' armies. Police operate behind a blue code of silence that makes any protocol decision an inherently top-down, authoritarian procedure. But alas, I suppose we can take refuge in the fact that these things are at least somewhat interesting. And now, if you'll pardon me, I was just about to finish chewing my own thumb off.

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Zero Theorem (2014) and Faith vs. Reason

The late twentieth century and early twenty-first century are marked by several key ideological shifts. The collection of uprisings and popular movements of the late 1960s, collectively referred to as “1968,” ushered in the rise of identity politics to replace the “old” politics of class or national consciousness. Before 1968, politics had been marked by one type of optimistic belief or another. Leftists believed that a new world could be forged through class struggle; American liberals believed in an “American dream” whereby successive generations would prosper ever more; black Civil Rights campaigners led by Martin Luther King, Jr., believed that social justice was commanded by an almighty God. Starting with 1968, however, people’s politics stemmed less from their metaphysical beliefs and more from a sense of belonging to a particular identity. This resulted in the fragmentation of the “New Left,” whereby a movement once united by the tenuous and abstract notion of class was broken up into various single-issue groups campaigning for environmental justice, animal rights, a free Palestine, LGBTQ rights, etc. The decline in the importance of belief and the rise of identity politics has over time developed in some people into an outright aversion towards people who profess strong beliefs. People who hold such hostile opinions about belief are well known, and are often referred to under the umbrella term “New Atheists.” Another popular term for such people is “anti-theists,” since not only do they not believe in God, but they are morally opposed to believing in God. In this essay, I refer to them as unbelieverists, using the suffixes -ism and -ist to show that an ideological system is involved. According to unbelieverists, irrational belief is the cause and culprit of all of the world’s evils – genocides, massacres, wars – and the antidote is science and reason.

Of course, it isn’t hard to see why people might be skeptical of passionate belief; the horror stories of twentieth-century fascism, communism, and religious extremism are all that need to be referenced to demonstrate that believers are often the most violent, dangerous, and destructive of human beings. But unbelieverists aren’t just skeptics of belief; rather, they are contrarians – gainsayers and negators of anything and everything that believers believe. The guiding principle behind this philosophy is that belief is irrational, so therefore the negation of belief must be inherently rational. But anyone who thinks about this for just a moment knows that this isn't true. Martin Luther King, Jr., was acting on his Christian faith when he led Civil Rights rallies and marches, but only a fool would say that he was immoral or irrational for doing so.

Belief may be irrational, but it does not automatically follow that acting on a belief is an immoral or even an irrational action. To say so would itself be irrational. Nevertheless, unbelieverists often do say as much. According to the late New Atheist author Christopher Hitchens, religious belief is inherently immoral, poisoning a person's consciousness so that she or he can do no good. Physics professor Lawrence Krauss also equates science and reason with morally positive traits like fairness, openness, and full disclosure, and religion with negative traits like deceit, trickery, and hidden agendas. Richard Dawkins recently stated that teaching children about hell is more immoral than fondling them repeatedly. I have never heard any of these people comment on the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr., but I wonder whether they would say that his religious belief made him an inherently immoral man. (Hitchens, of course, is well known for his attacks on Mother Theresa, but he preferred in his rare discussions of Civil Rights to talk about how Christians since MLK have tarnished the legacy of Civil Rights rather than confront the problem of MLK's faith ouright.)

Unfortunately, we are not able to run an experiment in order to find out what a world without beliefs would look like. However, it is possible to peer into such a society using the medium of film. The 2014 Terry Gilliam film The Zero Theorem provides us with a suitable example. The film’s protagonist, Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), is an anomalous believer in a society of unbelief.  During the daytime, Qohen works for the Mancom corporation doing research using hyper-rational data more complex than numbers.  Every evening, Qohen sits eagerly beside his telephone at home, waiting for it to ring.  In stark contrast to Qohen the ardent believer, the society at large is one in which belief has ceased to exist. The head of Mancom, a man called Management (Matt Damon), is an absolute atheist, a man who despises irrational belief and embraces the cold logic of business.  Mancom is Management’s brainchild: A rational, centrally-planned organization, uninfected by belief and instead thoroughly governed by practical reason.  Workers at Mancom are not indoctrinated with any kind of belief system; they aren't told that their work is for the betterment of society or the improvement of the economy. Rather, the workplace walls are plastered with purely pragmatic platitudes aimed at increasing production like, “Don’t ask – multitask” and “Everything is under control" (and "Arbeit macht fun!"). 

Management, an atheist, is certain that all that exists is chaos. He's convinced that the universe originates in nothingness and will eventually collapse back into a supermassive black hole. The Zero Theorem, which states that 100% = 0, is the mathematical formula for expressing this fact. For Management, proving the Zero Theorem will be the culmination of his ultimate goal in life. Why? If all is nothing, then wouldn’t that just mean that existence is meaningless? For a believer like Qohen it would, but for Management, the Zero Theorem would provide the only possible meaning that can ever exist: “There’s money in ordering disorder. Chaos pays, Mr. Leth. Chaos comprises a rich vein of ore that, with Mancom’s muscle, will be all mine to mine.” Commodifying the chaos gives meaning to it. Management, the ultimate disaster capitalist, sees the supermassive black hole as the ultimate engine of capital accumulation, which exists to be mined, refined, and sold in order to create the only thing of any meaning to him – commercial value.

In order to mine the chaos, though, Management still needs to prove that chaos is in fact all that there is. Unfortunately, the math hasn’t been forthcoming. The Zero Theorem has been given to numerous researchers and baffled them all. So Management adopts a new approach: He will instill in someone a sense of belief that is so strong that it seems unshakeable, and then he will bring it crashing down. He therefore constructs a myth for Qohen to believe in; this myth is the “call” Qohen sits awaiting at every free moment. Once Management reveals that the “call” is a ruse, he thinks that this will be sufficient evidence to prove that the universe begins and ends in chaos. Qohen, the last believer, will finally be converted by the logic of pure reason, and at last the Zero Theorem will be proven.

At first, it seems that Management’s plan has worked. Qohen is utterly devastated by the news that the “call” was just a conspiratorial hoax. The supermassive black hole that is gradually sucking in everything emerges before him, and he sees all the people he knows drifting into its void. Instead of succumbing to nihilism, however, Qohen’s faith is re-energized. He jumps into the black hole, a leap of faith that proves to be the right choice: Qohen reemerges in a tropical beach paradise.

This scene from The Zero Theorem exposes a critical paradox: Sometimes it is irrational to be rational and rational to be irrational. Management, of course, is rational to a fault, using reason even where it doesn't apply.  Whereas he ought to have known that Qohen’s deeply-held beliefs could not possibly be shaken by cold logic, he nevertheless pursues this course to his own downfall.  Qohen is the exact opposite; he sticks to his beliefs even when it would seem that they have been logically refuted. Instead of succumbing to Management’s logic, Qohen takes a leap of faith into the black hole – which turns out to be the most rational thing he could do!

Was it possible to see this conclusion ahead of time? Indeed, a close examination shows that Management has a strong irrational streak, try though he may to hide it from view. But his irrationality bubbles to the surface in ways that can be noticed if we look hard enough.  For example, note that Management’s atheism oddly takes the form of a fanatical religious belief. Management has invested all of his desire in proving the Zero Theorem, a mathematical equation that all logic seems to indicate is false. Some of Mancom’s greatest researchers have worked on the problem, but to no avail. A truly disciplined man of reason would discard the Zero Theorem for a more nuanced theory, but Management holds to the same dogmatic line. This has a very similar structure to the way that New Earth Creationists defend their beliefs. When presented with overwhelming evidence that he is wrong, Mancom still insists that he is the one that is being the most rational.

Now taking a look at real life, we see that Management’s syndrome of irrationality masquerading as reason is rather common among unbelieverists. Richard Dawkins, for example, deplores religious belief with all the same fervor and rancor as Management does. But Dawkins is far from innocent of speaking out irrationally. Recently, Dawkins made excuses for pedophilia in English boarding schools on the heels of comments he made earlier in the year that teaching kids that hell exists is worse than abusing them sexually.  Importantly, he says that this latter conclusion was reached not through reason but rather through spidey-sense: “It seems to me to be intuitively entirely reasonable that that is a worse form of child abuse.”  Of course, no psychologist or social scientist would ever speak from intuition about child sexual abuse, but Dawkins seems to have no problem with abandoning reason whenever it's convenient.

In fact, Great Men of Reason who speak and act irrationally are the norm, not the exception. Philipp Lenard, the German physicist who won the Nobel Prize in 1920, was convinced that that rise in nuclear physics in the 30s and 40s was due to Jewish influence, and warned agianst “relativity theories produced by alien minds.”  Bobby Fisher, perhaps the greatest ever Master of the hyper-rational game of chess, denied that the holocaust took place and was plagued by paranoid delusions.  My idea is not to suggest that scientists who claim that their social and political views are motivated by the same pure reason that motivates scientific inquiry are somehow more irrational than the average person; rather, what I'm saying is that everyone's political and social beliefs are motivated by one ideology or another.  As all ideologies are to some degree irrational, this means that everyone's politics, including scientists', are irrational to the core.