Apr 15

Scientology: A Deserving But Easy Target

With the documentary Going Clear, we are seeing the latest expose of Scientology.

This HBO documentary is based on a book by Lawrence Wright, also called Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. What I find interesting about Scientology is not that it’s such a bizarre cult, but that it’s sort of a symbol for belief systems that are fairly prevalent in the world.

Popular scientist Neil DeGrasse Tyson alluded to what I’m talking about, though in a very limited way, in his recent remarks:

Christians have no right to call Scientologists Crazy

As many atheists like to point out, all religions can be considered irrational, so why single out groups like Scientology or the Moonies as being weird cults?

The real issue, however, goes far deeper -and it’s revealed right in the subtitle of the aforementioned book:

“The prison of belief.”

All rigid belief systems can be considered mental or psychological prisons. This includes: religions, political dogmas (Marxism to neo-conservatism to Objectivism), nationalism (why is one country better than another?), racism, sexism, etc.

Even contemporary scientific materialism can be put into this category. if we consider what has been described as scientific or rational over the ages, we can see how dramatically this shifts from one era to another. The age of quantum physics has actually undermined some of our most basic assumptions about time, space and matter.

How Quantum Physics Refutes Materialism

When it comes down to it, many aspects of society -all societies, in fact- have cultoid tendencies. It’s easy to point the finger at an unpopular group like Scientology (I’m not defending them by any means) -but it’s harder to take a look at some of our own assumptions.

In short, the idea that one “ism” is more rational or less of a “belief prison” than another is entirely subjective.

Cultlike groups like Scientology actually serve a purpose that serves mainstream institutions (in a way similar to how terrorists and violent criminals do so) by showing us how bizarre alternatives are. I think we can learn a great deal by studying books and films like Going Clear -but only if we study them in a broad manner and recognize that brainwashing and mindless conformity occur at many levels of society, not only in "cults."

For more on this topic see:


Mar 15

East Village Selfies: Another Excuse for Moral Outrage

As the New York Post (that anachronistic Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid that’s somehow still in print) reports with typical journalistic objectivity “self-absorbed jerks” have been taking selfies at the site of the recent gas explosion in the East Village. Bloggers and tweeters predictably reacted with outrage. One commentator proclaimed “Everything that is wrong with NYC summed up in one photo.”

If there’s one thing that people seem to like even more than taking mindless selfies, it’s self-righteously condemning others for inappropriate behavior. Whether it’s tasteless Ebola Halloween costumes, some random politically incorrect comment made by a politician or celebrity, there is an almost ritualistic need to sacrifice a certain number of victims each week, mostly on the internet. What's the appeal? For one thing, it’s a form of groupthink that affirms the moral and/or intellectual superiority of the group. It also creates scapegoats who can be blamed for all of society’s ills -as in the above comment about one photo summing up everything that is wrong with NY.

Ironically, we could just as easily say that comments like that sum up so much that is wrong with people today. I'm not saying that taking these selfies was an intelligent or sensitive thing to do -but what difference does it really make? People who take photos when they could be helping someone in need is one thing; taking photos once the damage has been done is really not fundamentally different from what the media does every day.

There is no need to defend the takers of tasteless selfies to question whether it’s truly reasonable to vilify such questionable but trivial behavior to quite such an extent. Selfies are hardly a well thought out political statement; they are trivial, spur of the moment actions.

Of course, tabloid journalism has always engaged in this sort of rhetoric. New York Post headlines, of course, notorious for being ridiculously biased and over the top. What could be more ironic than a tabloid newspaper condemning others for being insensitive to the victims of tragedy?

Some commentators were astute enough to point out that it doesn’t really make sense to single out people taking inappropriate selfies when we live in a society that revels in and glorifies disasters and misfortune. Take, for example, the 9/11 Museum and Gift Shop, which sells souvenirs based on that national tragedy.

Mar 15

Russell Brand: Messiah Complex

Russell Brand is continuing the tradition of radical, visionary comics -the closest analogy is probably Bill Hicks -whose performances are at least as much social commentary as humor. This is his London show from 2013: Messiah Complex. If the YouTube video gets taken down, the show is currently on Netflix streaming as well.

This show is an irreverent look at several of Brand's heroes -Gandhi, Malcolm X, Che Guevara and Jesus (as he points out, the real one, not the Roman/neo-conservative version) and how he, Russell Brand is actually similar to them in some ways. On a more serious note, he deconstructs the banality of contemporary pop culture -while admitting he's undeniably a part of it.

I found the show more thought provoking than laugh out loud funny, but still one of the best stand up performances I've seen in a while.

Feb 15

"Sir" and "Ma'am" -Not So Quaint Vestiges of Feudalism

2711566140_a6c53328e8_z                                                                        Image by photon_de

“Calling me Sir is like putting an elevator in an outhouse. It don’t belong” -spoken by the character named Emmett in the 1989 cult classic film Road House.

Sir: a man entitled to be addressed as sir —used as a title before the given name of a knight or baronet and formerly sometimes before the given name of a priest.
Origin: Middle English, from sire; First Known Use: 13th century
From: Merriam Webster


As the above etymology explains, the word "sir" comes from a medieval French word. Feudal European societies were extremely hierarchical; titles and rank were part of everyday interactions that no one questioned. In England, the tradition lives on with the enduring institution of knighthood. While the title of Knight is not taken as seriously as it was seven centuries ago, it remains a respectful homage to the old tradition.

The same, of course goes for “ma’am,” a variation on the French “madame,” the counterpart to “monsieur.” “Mister” is another variation on this. All of these forms of address date back to the days of lords, ladies, knights and serfs. In the ostensibly more casual United States, there are still some hierarchies, such as the military, where addressing those of higher rank as "Sir" is compulsory. The real question is, why is this title still used in everyday, casual discourse? Why is a customer waiting on line to buy a mochachino addressed in the manner appropriate to a medieval lord?

Of course, it’s common in modern society for people to have a nostalgic reverence for the days of old, which can be seen in Renaissance fairs and the countless books and films romanticizing Medieval times. This makes it easy to forget that the strict hierarchies of those times (which actually harken back to even older eras, such as Rome) did not provide the vast majority of people with a life that was very glamorous or romantic.

Titles such as "Sir" and “Ma’am” (along with their European counterparts) are something of an anomaly in an otherwise informal cultural climate. Their most common usage today is probably in the business context, such as in retail businesses. It’s ostensibly a sign of respect to address customers or clients in this manner.

However, looking at it from the other side of the counter, so to speak --that is, from the standpoint of people who feel compelled to say "Sir" and "Ma'am" to strangers all day long- is it not a little demeaning and, quite literally, suggestive of lower social rank relative to those they are addressing? It's worth noting that service jobs are among the fastest growing sector of the economy, at least in the United States. This suggests the possibility that the continued use of such formal titles represents a subtle acknowledgment that the days of a hierarchical, feudal society are far from gone.

We can distinguish two types of usage. In one case, when you are trying to get the attention of an adult whose name you don't know, there is not really any socially acceptable alternative. For example, "Sir, you forgot your change." The other type of usage is where it is perfectly obvious who is being addressed, yet the speaker feels it necessary to put in superfluous "Sirs.” or “Ma’ams.” This type of obsequiousness is common at restaurants, hotels and other situations where formality is called for.

This is also the way people in authority, such as police officers, will address civilians in everyday circumstances (i.e. when they aren’t arresting or shouting commands at someone). Significantly, there isn’t all that much middle ground between “Sir, please step out the automobile” and “On the ground with your hands behind your head!” Titles such as “Sir” and “Ma’am,” we can see, inhabit that realm of politeness in a world where the alternative is often coercion, if not violence.

There is yet another angle from which to approach this. "Sir" and “Ma’am” convey something other than respect —they also denote boundaries. Not only a boundary of rank, but of familiarity. The person you are addressing as "Sir" may or may not be of a higher rank than you, but he is almost certainly a stranger, someone outside one’s social circle or subculture.

Thus, you are especially likely to be “Sirred” or “Ma’amed” by people from closely knit cultures not your own -which could mean people from another land or even a tightly knit small town in your own country. In such cases,  these titles, apart from any polite respect they convey, are also reminders that your are not a local or one of them. In other words, formal means of address can be a form of cliquishness, a way to exclude outsiders.

In an increasingly anonymous world, be called "Sir" or “Ma’am” can also contribute to the general sense of anomie. In some science fiction dystopias, people don't have names but numbers. Yet numbers are at least unique; if you were to be addressed by your social security number, for example, that would at least be a unique number. "Sir” or “Ma’am,” on the other hand, are completely generic. Is this really superior?
If this vestige from feudalism has managed to survive and flourish into the 21st Century, it does not seem likely that it's going to disappear anytime soon. If we are going to evolve beyond them, viable alternatives are needed. After all, you have to call someone whose name you don't know something. There are alternatives, of course, but none are ideal. Somehow, there are more potential options for men, at least in relatively informal circumstances.

“Dude,” “Guy,” Brother” or even just “Man’ are commonly used, though all would be considered too informal or slangy for business. For women, even these options are sketchier. “Sister” is sometimes used, though this tends to be associated with the nunnery (more than “brother” is associated with monks; if anything, it conjures up images of the depression and “Brother, can you spare a dime?”) In black and hippy subcultures, “Brother” and “Sister” and even “Mama” are sometimes used.

Conversely, there is really no circumstance where you can address a woman who is stranger as “Hey, Woman,” the way you can get away with saying “Hey, Man…” The dearth of alternatives is really another topic, though. The real point of this inquiry is to examine the persistence of such anachronistic manners of address in modern society. As any linguist or anthropologist can attest to, words matter. If we are still addressing each other in blatantly hierarchical ways, that says something fundamental about society.

It might be easier to simply pass off “sir" and “ma’am” as nothing more than words that people have continued to use out of habit for lack of widely accepted alternatives. Yet it would be naive to dismiss the feudal associations, especially when we are living in a time when the national economy in the U.S. (as well as the UK, which uses similar forms of address) is becoming more feudal in terms of wealth distribution, income inequality and the rapid growth of the service sector relative to other types of jobs. In other words, the lack of evolution in our language can be seen as a symptom of similar stagnation in society at large.

Feb 15

Reclaiming Spiritual Symbols

An important and enlightening article, by Angela Priitchard, published in Waking Times:

Reclaiming the Spiritual Symbols that Have Been Hijacked and Used Against Us

It’s true that many esoteric symbols have been hijacked for dark and manipulative purposes. One outcome of this is that many “truthers,” conspiracy theorists and others have concluded that these symbols are intrinsically dark.

Symbols such as the cross, swastika, all-seeing eye, pentagram and many others have many meanings and uses -both positive and negative. To simply categorize a symbol as negative (or even as positive) is misleading and simplistic.

David Icke, for example, who I think makes some very good points in some of his teachings, tends to go overboard at identifying “Illuminati” symbols such as the Goddess -which, it is often pointed out, is portrayed in The Statue of Liberty, the Starbucks logo and countless other places. Even the sun itself can be considered an Illuminati symbol, as many conspiracy sites are quick to point out.

A more intelligent way to see this is that symbols have a certain power. So it’s natural that anyone seeking power -for whatever purpose- would try to make use of them. To equate the symbol with the intentions of any particular group who uses them, however, is a serious mistake. It would be akin to reading a book full of hatred and propaganda and concluding “books and words are the tools of the dark forces. We must never use words!”

The major drawback to this approach is that it means relinquishing all of these symbols and allowing them to be used for dark and manipulative purposes. Wouldn’t it be better to reclaim them and use them for our own positive and liberating purposes?

Read the rest of this entry »

Feb 15

Liminal Worlds

Thanks for stopping by. If you ever visited this site before, you may notice it looks different and a lot emptier. I recently switched hosts and decided to revamp the site so it will be gradually getting built up again.