Amanda Lewis has written a hagiography of the novelist Haruki Murakami, and apparently believes he deserves the Nobel prize. Let’s overlook that the prize is historically a badge of ephemerality, of middle-brow worthiness, of mediocrity.

Lewis believes Haruki Murakami became a more important writer when he got a message to convey. She helpfully summarises his message: individuals are more important than groups, individual perception is more important than historical truth or fact, violence is caused by depersonalisation of individuals. Well, that’s handy. Now we have the message, we don’t need to read the books.

One point of Haruki Murakami’s that Lewis emphasises near the end of her essay is that fact is near-worthless next to hearsay. It is somehow more “true”. Well, of course we are familiar with the idea that a poetic truth has more value, or is more profound than a mundane fact of reality. But it’s not necessarily true. Things that we call profound SEEM important; their actual importance is another thing.

For example, in Murakami’s “After the quake” he says (says Lewis) that the only person emotionally affected by news of a distant earthquake is a four-year-old girl, who has “hysterical fits” after watching news reports, because she has not yet learned the apathy of adults. Wow, what a deep truth about the innocence of childhood and moral degradation of adulthood. Except that a girl who had such fits would be extremely unusual, as four-year-olds feel very little empathy except for people who are close to them. The author’s great “truth” is a cheap poetic device conceived by someone who doesn’t know much about how people’s minds really work. The fact that he is “socially conscious” does not vindicate him. His “truth” is vacuous and inane.

At the end of the essay, Lewis relates some anecdotes about encountering the “Japanese mind”, but is unable to relate this to Haruki Murakami’s thesis in the obvious way: he has developed concern for the value of overlooked individual experience, contrasted with his previous self-professed contempt for the “masses”. But Lewis’s anecdotes show that most people don’t want to be individuals as much as they want to be like everyone else.

Instead of delivering a message, Murakami should be asking questions: What is the value of the individuality of a person who despises this quality in themselves? Of what value is that person, compared with a person who does not think their opinions and beliefs have universal qualities? And is “individuals have value” enough of a take-home message to entitle the novelist to a prize?

I just watched Shadow Prime Minister Tony Abbott at a press conference reiterating at length his simple anti-refugee policy (in case you hadn’t heard, it’s “Stop the boats”. I’m not sure if there should be an exclamation point there). It’s interesting to note that whereas the Liberal Party’s policy used to be a straight appeal to xenophobia (the fear and hatred of foreigners), Abbott now wants to have it both ways: the policy still prevents Australia being invaded by foreigners (AKA potential new Australians), but it is also a humanitarian policy to prevent the “terrible, tragic” deaths of these evil invading foreigners. There’s little doubt that this new angle is simply a ploy to entice humanitarian-minded voters who don’t analyse things beyond their immediate emotions.

Without a doubt, the Labor Party’s revision of previous refugee policy led to increased problems in various areas. While they had good intentions, they didn’t take into account just how complicated the situation is, and how one policy change can have a domino effect of unintended consequences. Once they realised this, they did their best to revert to previous methods, but since this time their early policy has been used as a stick to beat them by both refugee advocates and the Liberal Party. But still it’s hard to believe that towing refugee boats back into international waters is a workable solution; certainly, it hardly lines up with the Liberals’ recent humanitarian pose, to refuse permission to dock to dangerously unstable, leaking boats loaded with women and children.

How much of a danger do unstopped boats represent? For a population of over 20 million, a few thousand extra immigrants does not realistically present a serious problem. Indeed, what is being treated in Australia as an exceptional problem is for countries with land borders (i.e. most countries) just part of the cost of doing business. They expect illegal immigration flow, and have internal services to trace and control such people. How do Australia’s operations in this area compare with other countries? Have we all this time been relying on the sea to do all the work for us?

The issue of conditions in refugee detention camps is similarly an area of confusion and hypocrisy. The same institutions are accused by the Liberal Party of mollycoddling lawbreakers, and by refugee advocates of abuses of human rights. The issue of young people in these places is controversial, but critics seem unwilling to understand the problem in detail.

First, there is the notion that keeping people in detention is inhumane, especially if they are young. This doesn’t bear examination: teenagers generally spend most of their time confined either in school or at home, and this is regarded as normal, nonabusive, non-trauma-inducing. There is no reason that a refugee teenager should be regarded as especially psychologically vulnerable in this situation – indeed, considering these people are supposedly escaping war and deadly persecution, you’d expect they’d just be glad of a bit of peace.

Second, there is the matter of self-harm. Given the above argument that detention should not in itself be considered a cause of gross psychological trauma, what credence should be given to regular reports of self harm? All else being equal, I think we must assume that a lot of people have been advised, either by fellow-refugees or by refugee advocates, that these dramatic gestures are a good way of “gaming” the system – getting special treatment and privileges, even release into the community.

But all else may NOT be equal. One matter that gets little attention is the consequence of keeping a lot of teenage boys and young men confined together (supposedly for the safety of women and young children – does this mean that when infant boys reach a certain age they are removed from their mothers and put into the men’s section?). Those who are aware of how things work in prisons, schools and deprived neighbourhoods, know that unless these situations are strongly regulated a culture of violence and bullying can dominate. And considering these people come from societies with much more old-fashioned entrenched notions of masculine dominance, this is an imminent problem.

In this case, what is needed to prevent psychological problems in vulnerable people is MORE regulation of their lives – closer monitoring and stricter discipline against bullying and gang activities. This might make the more violent inmates feel psychologically repressed and unhappy, but, you know, fuck ’em.
Anyway, I am surprised that this aspect of life in detention has not been reported on.

This linked article collects short pieces on the reconciliation of religion and atheism:
After God: What can atheists learn from believers?

The title is a bit of misdirection, as it’s not suggested that atheists can learn anything useful from what believers in religion may tell them. Rather, the main subject is ways in which the lives of the godless can be improved by elements of religion.

The backlash against the blinkered aspects of the “New Atheists” has in fact been quite blinkered in itself – yes, the NAs may not know every nook and cranny of the theology they are arguing against, and the history of the USSR shows that a (supposedly) godless nation may perpetrate all the horrors of the religious state and then some, but underlying the backlash argument is the thought that, because the NAs deny the existence of God and the spiritual, they are obviously wrong, and any specific citings of St. Augustine are more for the sake of form than necessity of argument.

In terms of cognitive development, both groups are stuck at certain points analogous to those which children pass through. The religious are at the stage of believing that morality comes from authority (i.e. murder is wrong because God forbids it/it’s against the law), of wishful thinking (willpower and prayer can affect the world), and magical thinking (events occur due to will of supernatural entities, morally-determined providence or karma; non-sentient things have moral qualities).

The atheists are at a later step, where they understand the distinction between the world and the self: the world is distinct from the individual’s mind and body and so cannot be moved by will alone; events in the world are not necessarily directed at them personally by benevolent or malevolent powers; the moral status of a thing or event derives from the judgement of the observer, not the thing itself. From this stage naturally arises disbelief in divine will, souls, magic, ghosts, and moral absolutism (not the same as rejecting morality, but rather understanding that other views may exist).

When it comes to intellectual and moral development, we always imagine that we have reached the final stage. The atheists are a step beyond the believers, but there is another step to take: There is no use in knowing the world if you do not know yourself.

It is a fallacy to attribute religion to religious institutions. Obviously the belief came first. Also, I think that if atheists are honest they will admit to the weaknesses of which they accuse the believers. I’ve observed in myself, precisely due to my desire to be a strict atheist, all sorts of thoughts which are supposed to derive externally from religion or superstition. Have you ever willed a car to start or a computer to work faster? Have you ever prayed to get to a destination on time? Do you believe deep down that certain moral standards are indivisible? Have you ever felt that a dead person was somehow still present?

We all think like this, even Richard Dawkins. From this, I think we must conclude that our minds are mystically inclined, even if the world in which we live is not. This is something that Carl Jung recognised and explored (though I think deep understanding of the situation will have to wait for radical advances in neuroscience). Jung suggested in The Undiscovered Self that being denied overt religious experience would cause mental collapse, but I think the mind is more adaptable: if the idea of God is consciously rejected, something else will inevitably fill that mental slot, be it Communism, nation, family, sports, or even the idea of “nothing” itself (to paraphrase The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, some people go to church, some keep birds, and some join the Communist Party). In a similar way, monotheistic religions inevitably develop a crypto-pantheon of prophets, saints or similar venerated figures, because this fulfills an inherent psychological need.

Several secular religious forms have already been observed: performances of Beethoven’s 9th symphony have long been regarded, not always consciously, as a kind of eucharist, if not a downright ecstatic mass ritual. English literary culture rests on both the King James Bible and the plays of Shakespeare (I recently watched a documentary in which an actor talked about audiences speaking Hamlet’s soliloquy along with him, which certainly has something of the church about it, and elsewhere the extended analysis of the play texts was nothing less than hermeneutics). In the U.S.A., the national Constitution is revered on a par with the Ten Commandments. In Russia, the great novelists are regarded as something like national prophets. Experiences like childbirth and mountain-climbing have been called “spiritual” by people who’ve never given thought to the condition of their souls. None of these have been accorded the overt recognition given to the institutions of religion.

(Should these be called secular religions or secular cults? Technically, because they are smaller, more personal and less externally dogmatic, they are cults, whereas totalitarian creeds like Communism and Fascism were religions.)

Can we consciously establish broad-based secular religions, as Daniel Dennett and Alain de Botton have suggested? There are some tricky obstacles to overcome, the trickiest of which is: How can you believe in something which you simultaneously don’t believe? But then, there are plenty of paradoxes in the orthodox religions. They are called “Mysteries“.

First, we must acknowledge what is in our minds, perhaps by a catechism – “I have no soul, and yet my soul is everything. The world has no meaning, and yet is utterly beautiful and profound. Ritual is mere action, and yet it connects me to people, places, and myself. There is no “Good” nor “Evil”, and yet kindness is the greatest virtue, and cruelty the foulest sin. Death is the end, but I feel everything somehow eternally remains. I am an animal – and yet I love, and my mind encompasses the universe.” That’s just an improvised suggestion.

Texts of faith: there is something unsatisfying about religious texts created to be such by an individual. Apart from the problem of personal idiosyncracy being transformed by authority into unanswerable dogma, the work of one person rarely has the richness and sheer size that make older religious canons seem so profound. Whatever the new Bible might turn out to be, it must be complex, and the work of many authors (or an author who contains multitudes).

As for secular ritual, there are plenty of things which serve as ecstatic experiences, but few that offer regular solemn observance, and none that offer forgiveness, acceptance and transformation of pain into transcendence. Perhaps such a thing could not exist until a secular faith is consciously created.

Here is an article in the New Yorker, on belief, atheism, and the populous realms between:

Particularly of interest to me is the discovery of Auguste Comte, a French Humanist who indeed founded a Humanist “religion”, the Religion of Humanity. His development of strict and complex doctrines for priests and rituals seems rather oppressive, and therefore a mistake, but I like the idea of Humanist chapels.

Perhaps if I was rich I would build a Hall of Humanity in the centre of the city. It would be a beautiful space, like a cathedral or a great museum, but warm and welcoming, surrounded by a simple garden and with chapel niches containing statues or busts of great people, each with a plaque describing their achievement. Statesmen and public figures would strive for remarkable feats of altruism and expansion of knowledge, in the hope that one day they too would have a place in the hallowed Hall (all appointments would be posthumous, of course). On the other hand, they would be fearful of ending up in the basement of the Hall, where mass murderers and those who have suppressed knowledge, health and opportunity for the sake of doctrine would be placed (I’m thinking now of Tony Abbott and his war on science (and his Health Ministry staffed by alcohol and fast-food lobbyists)). The lighting here would be dark and fearful, and the smell of the sewer would waft up through vents in the floor. Every religion needs its devils.

Interesting historical article in The New Republic (5 Oct, 2012), explaining how the GOP was captured by crazy hateful ranters, leaving decent small-c conservatives out in the cold:

How the GOP Destroyed its Moderates

The purpose of Twitter

13 November, 2012

I find this site hilarious. C’mon, you know they’d do the exact same thing if they had won!

Anyway, the ridiculous message screencaps reminded me of a recent insight I experienced:

The purpose of Twitter is to transmit stupid thoughts to vulnerable minds.

I hope you are doing your part 😉

Don’t go to Bulgaria

13 November, 2012

Here’s the latest news on the Australian jailed for “murder with hooliganism” in Bulgaria.

I’ve followed this story since it started: basically, Jock Palfreeman was a naive young traveller who found himself targeted by gangs in Bulgaria, and took to carrying a knife in self defense. In a subsequent attack, a Bulgarian ended up dead. Palfreeman was railroaded – abused by the police, who crudely fudged the evidence, which was nonetheless accepted by the court in what I assume was a manner of habitual corruption. The reparation payment increasing at 15-20% per annum is another example of gross unfairness. Sadly, much of Eastern Europe is like this, though Bulgaria may be the worst: racist, corrupt, brutal, dishonest, a 3rd world country with 1st world tech. I wouldn’t go there without a humvee convoy for backup.

I last took this test years ago, when it was on a different site, but my result hasn’t changed, right down to the equal bard-thief ranking. In the detailed stats, it’s nice to see I am not at all evil. 🙂

I Am A: True Neutral Gnome Thief Bard

True Neutral characters are very rare. They believe that balance is the most important thing, and will not side with any other force. They will do whatever is necessary to preserve that balance, even if it means switching allegiances suddenly.

Gnomes are also short, like dwarves, but much skinnier. They have no beards, and are very inclined towards technology, although they have been known to dabble in magic, too. They tend to be fun-loving and fond of jokes and humor. Some gnomes live underground, and some live in cities and villages. They are very tolerant of other races, and are generally well-liked, though occasionally considered frivolous.

Primary Class:
Thieves are the most roguish of the classes. They are sneaky and nimble-fingered, and have skills with traps and locks. While not all use these skills for burglary, that is a common occupation of this class.

Secondary Class:
Bards are the entertainers. They sing, dance, and play instruments to make other people happy, and, frequently, make money. They also tend to dabble in magic a bit.

Callarduran Smoothhands is the True Neutral gnomish god of stone, the underground, and mining. He is also known as the Deep Brother and the Master of Stone. His followers enjoy mining – especially for rubies. Their favorite weapon is the battleaxe.

Find out What D&D Character Are You?, courtesy ofNeppyMan (e-mail)

Detailed Results:

Lawful Good —– X (1)
Neutral Good —- XX (2)
Chaotic Good —- XXX (3)
Lawful Neutral — XXXX (4)
True Neutral —- XXXXXXX (7)
Chaotic Neutral – XX (2)
Lawful Evil —– (0)
Neutral Evil —- (0)
Chaotic Evil —- (0)

Human —- XX (2)
Half-Elf – X (1)
Elf —— XXX (3)
Halfling – (-2)
Dwarf —- (0)
Half-Orc – (-4)
Gnome —- XXXX (4)

Fighter – (-6)
Ranger — (-2)
Paladin – (-5)
Cleric — (-6)
Mage —- XXXX (4)
Druid — (-1)
Thief — XXXXXXXXX (9)
Bard —- XXXXXXXXX (9)
Monk —- XX (2)