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Vote Trump for a Pure America!

This exchange occurred yesterday at a Donald Trump rally in New Hampshire. I call the man asking the question a “supporter” because he was wearing a Trump T-shirt.

    SUPPORTER: We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims. Our current president is one. We know he’s not even an American.
    TRUMP: (chuckling) We need this question. This is the first question.
    SUPPORTER: Anyway, we have training camps growing where they want to kill us. That’s my question: When can we get rid of them?
    TRUMP: We’re going to be looking at a lot of different things. You know, a lot of people are saying that, and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening. We’re going to be looking at that and many other things.

So now, not only is Trump on record for wanting to deport an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in less than two years (police raids, families torn apart, train rides to the border) — apparently he is “going to be looking at” “getting rid of” Muslims (or imaginary Muslim terrorist training camps) as well.

The one good thing about getting this kind of hate speech out in the open, is that it exposes the haters for what they are — and I remain convinced that they are so far from the views of the majority of the American people, that they are only setting themselves up for defeat in the 2016 elections if they continue to talk this way. But meanwhile we have to live with their paranoid fantasies, and I worry about the kinds of things people are capable of when their emotions are on edge!

Here’s the report the quote came from.

Is the World Splitting into Tribes?

This article by Koert Debeuf proposes that a global identity crisis began around 2005 which calls into question the “liberal consensus” that we are moving, slowly but surely, toward a future of greater democracy, prosperity, openness and freedom around the world. The consequence, Debeuf says, is a return to tribalization (extreme nationalism) whether in Europe, Asia, or the Middle East. Here is what Debeuf has to say about the current state of Arab society.

    “Most Arabs feel totally lost now. All ideologies are broken. Not one has fulfilled its promises. They don’t know anymore what to make of their religion. The ones with the deepest identity crisis see the Islamic State as the last resort…. For all the other Muslims, the Islamic State is proof of the lack of new ideas. As long as these ideas are not there, most Arabs don’t know what to choose anymore: stability or democracy, religion or secularism, pan-Arabism or nationalism, looking to the West or turning away from it.
    “Traumatized and lost, most Arabs go back to the tribal idea they know best: authoritarian nationalism. This is obvious in Egypt where president Sisi and the military are ruling with force. … It makes the Arab World a telling example of the two main roads of tribalization: authoritarian nationalism and religious fanaticism. Both are each others biggest enemy. The nationalists blame the Islamists for putting their religion before their country while the Islamists blame the nationalists for putting their religion second. The propaganda war between the two camps shows that what we are seeing today is only the beginning of a deep and destructive regional conflict.”

Whether you agree with Debeuf’s conclusions or not (personally I believe he’s too pessimistic), if you enjoy an analysis that makes deeper connections beyond the headlines of the day, this article is worth your time. Debeuf also looks at the rise of nationalist movements in Europe, Putin’s authoritarianism in Russia, and the political polarization of the U.S.

Thanks to War in Context for the link.

Caught in the Middle

I believe in God but not in divine intervention. God doesn’t send prophets or holy books (these are the creations of humans trying to understand God). God doesn’t answer prayers — in fact, God may not be paying attention at all. Humans are part of God’s project, but not a particularly essential part. In fact, there are most likely many races far more advanced than us. God didn’t make humans in his image — God made the universe to evolve, and we are one of the things in it. God isn’t focused on us. God stands back like a scientist, watching the universe dispassionately to see what happens.

I believe the best way to know God and God’s intentions is through science, because the physical laws of the universe are the only clues we really have as to God’s will. The only thing we can know for sure is that God willed a universe (assuming there even is a God, which we can’t know for sure) — and this universe has a complexity that favors life. Life exists here because it is possible, which wouldn’t be true in most of the universes we can imagine. And when something is possible, it will eventually happen. My leap of faith is to imagine this universe was set up on purpose for life to happen.

What I’ve discovered is that this viewpoint of mine, which to me seems frankly to be the only reasonable one, tends to annoy both atheists and traditional believers. The believers think I’m an atheist because I don’t believe in their God with his rules about washing your nose and feet before you pray (Muslims) or not switching on electricity one day a week (Jews) or requiring humans who speak in his name not to have sex (Catholics). I am absolutely, 100% sure that God doesn’t give a damn about petty rules like these — and while God is no doubt loving and compassionate as all the religions claim, it is really up to us to organize our societies and daily lives, and work out our laws of morality for ourselves. Nor do I believe there’s an afterlife, a place our selves go after death, where we can meet Grandma again or rap with Jesus in person. Nor will there be some vast showdown in the sky between Good and Evil at the end of the time, since Good and Evil only exist finally in our own minds. All of these things, and my refusal to accept any religious “truths” without questioning them from every angle, make most religious people think I’m a nonbeliever. And it’s true, I don’t believe in their religions the way they do — though I love to read holy books for their creative power.

On the other hand, a lot of atheists start at the other extreme, and assume there’s nothing good in religion at all. So when I try to talk to them about the purpose of the universe, and how it’s evolving toward ever-greater complexity and perfection so as to grow closer to God, they wonder what I’m doing mixing religious mumbo-jumbo with honest science. They think, “What a waste of a fine mind, to be mixed up with all that superstition.” They don’t want to hear about Sufis or Hindu saints and the revelations they had about the essential unity of all being, including us. They certainly don’t see any particular value in updating these ideas for our time, using all the latest theories of the Big Bang or the natural selection of species. It doesn’t add anything in their minds to speculate on the “unseen” because the unseen isn’t there — only what can be measured and proven is worth talking about. All the rest is an irritant and a distraction to them. Human knowledge is moving in one direction only, and the religious ideas of the past (which for them was an age of ignorance) are best left behind in abandoned monesteries, covered in dust.

(To be continued…?)

Happy Starving Cow Day!

Goulmima, Morocco, 2006. Click image to see larger version.

In my new home of East Hollywood, Los Angeles (also known as Thai Town or Little Armenia), we traditionally celebrate the first day of September by passing around postcards or little figurines of starving cows, or by giving each other knitted cow toys with the bones sticking out, or T-shirts with a starving cow image.

This is to remind each other of the suffering and mortality inherent in life, since it’s sadly ironic (or just horrifying) that an animal we depend on for food is itself starving to death.

Fortunately to properly celebrate the holiday, I just happened to have this photo handy from my travels in Morocco. It was taken in 2006 in a picturesque little town called Goulmima in southern Morocco, on the slopes of the High Atlas mountains.

You can see other random photos I’ve taken on my Tumblr account here. I continue to add more so keep checking back!

Where Are the Space Brothers?

Why won’t extraterrestrials communicate with us, share their advanced technology and give us a jump start?

  1. There are none. We are the most intelligent race in the universe.

  2. There are super-intelligent races, but they don’t know we exist. They haven’t discovered us yet.

  3. They have discovered us, but from their point of view, there is no point to communication. The level of intelligence we would need to understand them is so much higher than what we actually have, that for them to communicate with us would be like our communicating with ants.

  4. They want to communicate with us, and are even impatient for it to happen, but they have ethical standards of non-interference and so, they are waiting for us to reach a certain level on our own. This is their way of valuing our effort. We must make the discoveries for ourselves.

  5. They do communicate, only either: a) only to a few of us; or b) only sporadically and as a whim, when individuals among them find it amusing; or c) we aren’t aware of their communication as communication from outside, and think of it as our own inner voice; or d) our intelligence really is like the ant’s, and we just aren’t picking up that much of what they are trying to tell us.

What Color Is Your Santa?

The Santa is white controversy got me wondering if Ronald McDonald could be Chinese….

Excellent Horse-Like Lady

It got into my head last night to see what North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un has been up to. After all, it seems that he’s more popular in his own country than Barack Obama is in his.

It turns out that the singer in the above video, Hyon Song-Wol, was recently machine-gunned for the alleged crime of making and selling sex tapes. The real reason, however, was probably that she was once the mistress of Kim Jong-Un — whose wife, also a former pop singer, may not have appreciated such a high-profile rival.

Hyon Song-Wol was executed along with eleven other musicians from her band and a rival pop band. The remaining band members, along with family members of the victims, were forced to watch and then sent off to labor camps, on the principle of guilt by association.

The above song, “Excellent Horse-Like Lady,” from 2005, is Hyon Song-Wol’s greatest hit. In it, she enacts the role of a textile worker who loves her work and is exceptionally good at what she does.

Filled with Animals

Arthur Rimbaud as a modern teenager, by Ernest Pignon-Ernest.

I was puzzled to find this quotation from Arthur Rimbaud as part of a long, fascinating discussion of Walter Benjamin and visionary utopias.

    “The man of the future will be filled with animals.”

Here’s the full context for the quote, from author and professor Finn Brunton. (These lines, by the way, are what made me recall the citation from Benjamin that I discussed in my last post.)

    “We are at every point interpenetrated with the world, in Benjamin’s analysis, and in the future he projected, each technological transformation in our environment will reach the inmost place of our experience and understanding. … For him, in Rimbaud’s words, ‘the man of the future will be filled with animals’; the medicine of the future, Benjamin suggested, in contrast with the Fascist futurism of purity of blood, would be ‘a playground for all microbes.’ What ‘we are accustomed to call “Nature”‘ would reveal its semantic inadequacy, not least because what we are accustomed to call human would have dissolved into it.”

What could that mean, to be “filled with animals”? And where did Rimbaud say it? He said many strange and visionary things — but I’ve read pretty much all of Rimbaud, and even translated him for my own edification and amusement, and I couldn’t remember him saying anything quite like that.

I decided to search on the Internet, and came up with several places where the quote is cited, but none of them mention where Rimbaud originally wrote it. I was starting to grow suspicious. The quote always appears in a postmodern context, such as a discussion of bioengineering and genetics. Here are a few examples: 1, 2, 3, 4.

The earliest citation, the one from which all the others are taken, is apparently to be found in the Paul Rainbow essay “Artificiality and Enlightenment: From Sociobiology to Biosociality,” which appeared in Incorporations, a 1992 book described by its publisher as “a diverse group of reflections and interventions on the fate of the body and of subjectivity within twentieth-century modernity.” Here’s a PDF of the essay as it originally appeared in the book. And this is how Rainbow refers to the Rimbaud quote.

    “In the annex to his book on Michel Foucault—entitled ‘On the Death of Man and the Overman’—Gilles Deleuze presents a schema of three ‘force-forms,’ to use his jargon…. [The first two forms are God and man; Rainbow goes on to describe the third one.] Finally, today in the present, a field of the surhomme, or ‘afterman,’ in which finitude, as empiricity, gives way to a play of forces and forms that Deleuze labels fini-illimité. … The best example of this ‘unlimited-finite’ is DNA: an infinity of beings can and has arisen from the four bases out of which DNA is constituted. François Jacob, the Nobel Prize-winning biologist, makes a similar point when he writes: ‘A limited amount of genetic information in the germ line produces an enormous number of protein structures in the soma….’ Whether Deleuze has seized the significance of Jacob’s facts remains an open question. Still, we must be intrigued when something as cryptic as Rimbaud’s formula that ‘the man of the future will be filled (chargé) with animals’ takes on a perfectly material meaning, as we shall see when we turn to the concept of model organisms in the new genetics.”

If this strikes you as gobbledygook, or some form of aborted Newspeak, I can assure you that you aren’t alone. I’m not presenting this as an example of clear and coherent writing, I’m just trying to get to the bottom of where the Rimbaud quote came from. So bear with me as I explain what Rainbow seems to be saying. DNA contains a potentially infinite amount of information, if you consider its possible transformations and mutations, so now that we’re able to map and manipulate the human genome, the “man of the future” may well be “filled with animals” (by grafting animal DNA to our own, I suppose) as Rimbaud apparently claimed. Why drag the old fraud Deleuze into it? Because he’s French — and because he made the original point about the new type of “overman” and his “unlimited-finite” potential.

Unfortunately, Rainbow still hasn’t told us where Rimbaud said what he supposedly said. He’s simply pushed us back one more step, to Deleuze’s book on Foucault. In a footnote, he tells us that Deleuze uses the quote “L’homme de l’avenir est chargé des animaux” on page 141 of his book. So let’s take a look.

(By the way, who is Paul Rainbow? Is he this guy, the acid freak in the High Sierra who saw a double rainbow and became a YouTube sensation? No, he’s this guy, a professor of anthropology and Foucault specialist at UC Berkeley.)

I will quote Deleuze in the original French, followed by the translation used in the English-language edition. Before going any further, though, I want to note that the phrase chargé de, which Rainbow translates as full of, has a range of meanings in English. It makes more sense to me to translate as loaded with, since the French say chargé for trucks where we would say loaded, or for elevators where we would say packed. Surchargé means overloaded. A battery can be chargé which means simply charged. There’s yet another range of meanings: prendre charge de means to take charge of or take responsibility for, and charger de in this sense means to give responsibility for. A chargé d’affaires, as we all know, is someone who has been given responsibility for various matters. This is the sense used in the translation below. Anyway, here’s Deleuze.

    “Qu’est-ce que le surhomme? … C’est la forme qui découle d’un nouveau rapport de forces. L’homme tend à libérer en lui la vie, le travail et le langage. Le surhomme, c’est, suivant la formule de Rimbaud, l’homme chargé des animaux même (un code qui peut capturer des fragments d’autres codes, comme dans les nouveaux schémas d’évolution latérale ou rétrograde). C’est l’homme chargé des roches elles-mêmes, ou de l’inorganique…. Comme dirait Foucault, le surhomme est beaucoup moins que la disparition des hommes existants, et beaucoup plus que le changement d’un concept: c’est l’avènement d’une nouvelle forme, ni Dieu ni l’homme, dont on peut espérer qu’elle ne sera pas pire que les deux précédentes.”
    “What is the superman? … It is the form that results from a new relation between forces. Man tends to free life, labor, and language within himself. The superman, in accordance with Rimbaud’s formula, is the man who is even in charge of the animals (a code that can capture fragments from other codes, as in the new schemata of lateral or retrograde [evolution]). It is man in charge of the very rocks or inorganic matter…. As Foucault would say, the superman is much less than the disappearance of living men, and much more than a change of concept: it is the advent of a new form that is neither God nor man and which, it is hoped, will not prove worse than its two previous forms.”

Deleuze adds a footnote, which tells us finally where the Rimbaud citation comes from (keep in mind, it’s not a direct quote).

    “La lettre de Rimbaud n’invoque pas seulement le langage ou la littérature, mais les deux autres aspects: l’homme de l’avenir est chargé de la langue nouvelle, mais aussi des animaux même, et de l’informe (‘À Paul Demeny’…).”
    “Rimbaud’s letter not only invokes language or literature, but the two other aspects: the future man is in charge not only of the new language, but also of animals and whatever is unformed (‘Letter to Paul Demeny’…).”

So now we know that the citation comes from the letter Rimbaud wrote at age 17 to his friend Paul Demeny, known as the “Letter of the Seer” because of its famous claim that “the poet makes himself a seer.” We also know that Rimbaud didn’t say “The man of the future is filled with animals,” but something more like “The superman is even in charge of the animals,” which is a very different thing. Deleuze is saying that a new sort of human exists today who is neither God nor man, but a third thing, responsible (through his amazing technological prowess, I assume) even for nature, which includes animals and inanimate things. He uses Rimbaud to buttress this thought.

But what did Rimbaud actually say? Now that we know the source of the quote, we can finally go directly to it. Here is the quote from the letter to Paul Demeny he wrote on May 15, 1871. The translation is my own, based on one by Wallace Fowlie.

    “Donc le poète est vraiment voleur de feu. Il est chargé de l’humanité, des animaux mêmes; il devra faire sentir, palper, écouter ses inventions; si ce qu’il rapporte de là-bas a forme, il donne forme, si c’est informe, il donne de l’informe. Trouver une langue.”
    “So the poet is truly the thief of fire. He is responsible for humanity, even for the animals; he must make his inventions felt, touched, heard; if what he brings back from there has form, he gives form, if it is formless, he gives formlessness. A language must be found.”

So we are no longer talking about the “man of the future,” or the “superman” either (no matter what Deleuze wants us to think), but simply the “poet” — Rimbaud himself. Of course, he is describing the poet as seer, which still makes him a “man of the future” in some sense — as he says elsewhere, “One must be absolutely modern.” But the poet he’s talking about isn’t “filled with animals,” nor does he predict the genetic engineering of our day in a utopian vision. Rimbaud is simply saying that the poet, after entering profoundly into the rhythms of nature and charging himself there (as a battery is charged), is responsible for bringing back those impressions and translating them into language, so they can be seen, felt, and heard as he saw, felt, and heard them. For this, “a language must be found” (if none exists) — and that is the mission Rimbaud gives himself.

When Body and Image Interpenetrate

Walter Benjamin predicts the Internet, crowd-sourced revolutions, and beyond:

    “Only when in technology body and image so interpenetrate that all revolutionary tension becomes bodily collective innervation, and all the bodily innervations of the collective become revolutionary discharge, has reality transcended itself to the extent demanded by the Communist Manifesto.”

This is from his 1928 essay “Surrealism,” which can be found in the collection Reflections — or online here.

In fact, it could be argued that Benjamin’s reference to a future “when in technology body and image…interpenetrate” looks even further ahead than the Internet we have today. He seems to be describing a situation where the Internet becomes part of our own bodies, so we can receive the impressions of others directly through our own senses, or upload our impressions directly to the collective cloud. Google Glass may be the first primitive manifestation of this, but the full technological realization is still years in the future. Only in this way will we live the “revolutionary tension” of humankind as “bodily collective innervation” — which means stimulation of the nerves. If this is really what the Communist Manifesto is all about, then it was truly a radically futuristic document, one whose ultimate vision will not be realized by technology until some two hundred years after it was written (1848)!


Today I found myself, not for the first time, arguing with a friend about whether the U.S. under Bush was “sincere” in its desire to bring democracy to the Middle East. My position has always been that many of the people around Bush (people like Paul Wolfowitz), as well as Bush himself, were sincere. However crazy their reasoning may have seemed to us, and however full of hubris it may have been (believing that the U.S. could reshape the world merely by wishing it so) there was a plan to turn the Middle East into a series of democratic states (not just take their oil) in the belief that only free Arabs in control of their destiny could help us to fight Al Qaeda-style terrorism. My friend wasn’t buying any of this, so for documentary proof, I went back to this April 2003 article by Josh Marshall, creator of the political news site TPM, in which he lays out the grand vision neoconservatives had at the time (improbable as it was), in the first days of the war in Iraq. The article made an impression on me then that I never forgot, and I still feel it’s the best piece of political analysis of that decade.

    “In their view, invasion of Iraq was not merely, or even primarily, about getting rid of Saddam Hussein. Nor was it really about weapons of mass destruction…. Rather, the administration sees the invasion as only the first move in a wider effort to reorder the power structure of the entire Middle East. Prior to the war, the president himself never quite said this openly. But hawkish neoconservatives within his administration gave strong hints. … Late last month, The Weekly Standard‘s Jeffrey Bell reported that the administration has in mind a ‘world war between the United States and a political wing of Islamic fundamentalism…a war of such reach and magnitude [that] the invasion of Iraq, or the capture of top al Qaeda commanders, should be seen as tactical events in a series of moves and countermoves stretching well into the future.’ In short, the administration is trying to roll the table — to use U.S. military force, or the threat of it, to reform or topple virtually every regime in the region, from foes like Syria to friends like Egypt, on the theory that it is the undemocratic nature of these regimes that ultimately breeds terrorism. … Each crisis will draw U.S. forces further into the region and each countermove in turn will create problems that can only be fixed by still further American involvement, until democratic governments — or, failing that, U.S. troops — rule the entire Middle East. …
    “[According to neoconservatives] the Middle East today is like the Soviet Union 30 years ago. Politically warped fundamentalism is the contemporary equivalent of communism or fascism. Terrorists with potential access to weapons of mass destruction are like an arsenal pointed at the United States. The primary cause of all this danger is the Arab world’s endemic despotism, corruption, poverty, and economic stagnation. Repressive regimes channel dissent into the mosques, where the hopeless and disenfranchised are taught a brand of Islam that combines anti-modernism, anti-Americanism, and a worship of violence that borders on nihilism. Unable to overthrow their own authoritarian rulers, the citizenry turns its fury against the foreign power that funds and supports these corrupt regimes to maintain stability and access to oil: the United States. … Trying to ‘manage’ this dysfunctional Islamic world…is as foolish, unproductive, and dangerous as détente was with the Soviets, the hawks believe. Nor is it necessary, given the unparalleled power of the American military. Using that power to confront Soviet communism led to the demise of that totalitarianism and the establishment of democratic (or at least non-threatening) regimes from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea to the Bering Strait. Why not use that same power to upend the entire corrupt Middle East edifice and bring liberty, democracy, and the rule of law to the Arab world?
    “The hawks’ grand plan differs depending on whom you speak to, but the basic outline runs like this: The United States establishes a reasonably democratic, pro-Western government in Iraq — assume it falls somewhere between Turkey and Jordan on the spectrum of democracy and the rule of law. Not perfect, representative democracy, certainly, but a system infinitely preferable to Saddam’s. The example of a democratic Iraq will radically change the political dynamics of the Middle East. When Palestinians see average Iraqis beginning to enjoy real freedom and economic opportunity, they’ll want the same themselves. With that happy prospect on one hand and implacable United States will on the other, they’ll demand that the Palestinian Authority reform politically and negotiate with Israel. That in turn will lead to a real peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians. A democratic Iraq will also hasten the fall of the fundamentalist Shi’a mullahs in Iran, whose citizens are gradually adopting anti-fanatic, pro-Western sympathies. A democratized Iran would create a string of democratic, pro-Western governments (Turkey, Iraq, and Iran) stretching across the historical heartland of Islam. … Syria would be no more than a pale reminder of the bad old days. (If they made trouble, a U.S. invasion would take care of them, too.) And to the tiny Gulf emirates making hesitant steps toward democratization, the corrupt regimes of Saudi Arabia and Egypt would no longer look like examples of stability and strength in a benighted region, but holdouts against the democratic tide. Once the dust settles, we could decide whether to ignore them as harmless throwbacks to the bad old days or deal with them, too. We’d be in a much stronger position to do so since we’d no longer require their friendship to help us manage ugly regimes in Iraq, Iran, and Syria.
    “The audacious nature of the neocons’ plan makes it easy to criticize but strangely difficult to dismiss outright. … You can hear yourself saying, ‘That plan’s just crazy enough to work.'”

I should note that the article is titled “Practice to Deceive,” so doesn’t that undermine my claim that the Bush administration was sincere? But the article doesn’t claim that their desire to democratize the Middle East was insincere. To the contrary, the duplicity referred to is of the opposite variety — they were claiming to the American people that their plan was far narrower in scope, dedicated only to ensuring that Iraq was free of chemical and biological weapons. Only after American troops were engaged would the full dimensions of the plan become clear, and the American people realize that we were committed to a region-wide project of twenty years’ duration. By then we would have no other choice but to swallow our doubts about democratization and nation-building, and see things through.

Of course, none of this turned out quite as the neoconservatives imagined it then. The Palestinians, for example, saw nothing worth imitating in the fate of their Iraqi brothers. And where democratic elections did occur, the people stubbornly refused to vote for the sort of people the Bush administration had in mind (like Ahmed Chelabi), choosing instead pro-Iranian Shi’a conservatives in Iraq, the Muslim Brotherhood in the Egyptian parliamentary elections of 2005, and Hamas in Palestine in 2006. Eventually, the Bush administration grew considerably less sincere in its desire for democracy in the Middle East, and backed away almost entirely from the original plan. A few neoconservatives (not many) even apologized to us for their naive and deceptive advice. But still, it helps from time to time to go back to this original snapshot of Josh Marshall’s, and remind ourselves of the kind of imperial hubris that was in the air then.