Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Spirit Level

A few posts ago I asked the question "have we reached the depths of depravity" after a month of prominent particularly grisly and inhuman killing across North America in the month of May. It appears I posed the question too soon. In the succeeding days, things got much worse, and BoingBoing has taken notice:

Maryland resident Alexander Kinyua reportedly confessed to police that he killed his a man who lived with his family for months by cutting him up with a knife, then eating his heart and parts of his brain.

A professor at Sweden's Karolinska Institute is being held for reportedly cutting off his wife's lips and eating them, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. She was allegedly having an affair. 

California judge has determined that a 27-year-old mixed martial arts fighter accused of killing his friend and sparring partner "by ripping his still-beating heart from his chest after gruesomely beating and torturing" him is mentally fit to stand trial. Prior to the attack, the two had consumed mushroom tea.

So it goes. So it comes as no surprise that a society falls apart and becomes more and more dysfunctional, people are seeking to reject mainstream society and seek alternatives. I was fascinated by James Howard Kunstler's blog entry last week. He writes about a religious commune in his territory of upstate New York, which I find fascinating. They sound like some sort of proto-Amish:
   I dropped by a religious cult commune in the next town over on Saturday. Some of the guys who dwell there have been helping me out on hire with the physical labor of  the rather ambitious garden construction here at Clusterfuck Farm, so I was informed about their weekend festival. The group occupies a former "gentleman's estate" built in the 1920s when the economic growth machine operated at full Ponzi steam. The buildings are quite beautiful; the main house is a Greco-Roman beaux arts mansion; a massive horse barn has large and graceful arched windows; and there are other houses and barns on the large property, which occupies a sweetly enfolding dell of land in this county of hills and valleys.

There was a costuming motif that was not too intense but allowed for visual self-identification among the members: long skirts for women; beards and pony-tails on the men, who all otherwise dressed in ordinary catalog casuals of the day. It set them apart without making them look too kooky. It also reinforced gender differences (the horror!) in a micro-society not dedicated to erasing and transgressing them. I didn't know much about the group's internal workings, but it seemed to me that the men were in charge, and I got the impression that far from representing some clichéd notion of "patriarchal oppression," it produced a reassuring tone of confidence in clear lines of responsibility - a quality now completely absent in outer America's culture of incessant lying, systematic fraud, and consensual evasion of reality.

     I was especially interested to observe the behavior of the children, of which there were very many. For one thing, they appeared fully integrated into their society, not ring-fenced into some special ghetto of juvenile disempowerment palliated with manufactured video power fantasies and endless snacks. They were unperturbed and self-possessed. None were screaming, quarreling or carrying on. They were not hopped up on Big Gulps and Twinkies. They did not require constant monitoring. They danced along with the adults, or circulated confidently on their own, and with their friends, in the crowd.

 ... All this is to say that I retain a broad skepticism about organized religion in general and about American Utopian endeavor in particular. But the country and its baleful culture are now in an even more advanced state of entropic degeneration than was the case in the last days of Vietnam and Watergate. Those two awful conditions were at least settled and the nation moved on. The troubles that now afflict us guarantee a much broader systemic collapse that will surely require great changes in everything that we do and everything that we are. The demoralization of the larger American public is so stark and pronounced that you can smell it in the rising heat.

      What I saw on Saturday on this farm was a wholly different group demeanor: purposeful, earnest, confident, energetic, and cheerful. It mattered too, I think, that this small community's economy was centered on agriculture and value-added production of common household products (they make soaps and cosmetics for the natural foods market).  This was a snapshot of the much smaller-scale and local economy of America's future, techno-narcissistic fantasies aside. I don't know whether these people represent a lifeboat, or if these qualities of character can be enacted in a wider consensual culture, and one not necessarily based on religious doctrine, which I am not so avid about.
Those who know their history know that these sorts of things flourish in times of social degeneration, whether new cults or new religions. As the Mediterranean world fell apart, people turned away from the Roman state religion, which gave very little spiritual succor in an age of constant warfare and plague, to various eastern mystery cults, one one of which evolved from its beginnings as the teachings of an obscure prophet in a backwards part of the empire, to one of the dominant religions of the day. That was, of course, Christianity. To what use was paying tribute to Roman gods, who had been inescapably bound to a Roman state which was now decaying? The priests and politicians had to make sacrifices to the Mars, Jupiter and the Vestal Virgins to save face, but for the common slave, prostitute, merchant, sailor, or displaced farmer, that held little appeal. As the Empire expanded, it encountered a variety of new belief systems from its conquered and tribute peoples, and these belief systems in turn conquered the empire.

Christianity had a number of things going for it. It was a religion for the poor and outsiders, those rejected by "polite" society (who were expected to observe the 'official' religion). The New Testament prominently mentions that Christ's followers included prostitutes and tax collectors, as well as humble fishermen. As the Roman world fell apart and people all across the Mediterranean world became downwardly mobile, and with some 80 percent of people being slaves, this religion was tailor-made. Although it began as a Jewish cult, early followers, especially the Apostle Paul, made sure that the original Jewish framework was modified and extended so that anyone could join (which is why we eat pork today). Also, many of the early Christian communities, as hard as it is to believe today, were the hippie communes of their day, as described in Acts 4:32:

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. (NIV)

And finally, Christians were called to minister to the sick, which is why even today hospitals retain their religious affiliations. This was not a part of earlier religions. Surely this made many converts in a time when the Black Death was making it's dress rehearsal in the days of the Late Empire, especially the reign of Justinian. Many renounced society then, and a popular trend was to leave society by spending your life sitting on a pillar:
Stylites (from Greek stylos, "pillar", Classical Syriac: ܐܣܛܘܢܐ‎ ʼasṯonáyé) or Pillar-Saints are a type of Christian ascetic who in the early days of the Byzantine Empire stood on pillars preaching, fasting and praying. They believed that the mortification of their bodies would help ensure the salvation of their souls. The first stylite was probably Simeon Stylites the Elder who climbed on a pillar in Syria in 423 and remained there until his death 37 years later. Palladius of Galatia (chapter 48) tells us of a hermit in Palestine who dwelt in a cave on the top of a mountain and who for the space of twenty-five years never turned his face to the west so that the sun never set on his face. St. Gregory of Nazianzus (Patrologia Graeca 37, 1456) speaks of a solitary who stood upright for many years together, absorbed in contemplation, without ever lying down. Theodoret assures us that he had seen a hermit who had passed ten years in a tub suspended in midair from poles (Philotheus, chapter 28).
In the 600's A.D., the newly emergent religion of Islam would deal the death-blow to what remained of the Roman Empire in the Middle East and North Africa, and several other empires such as the Persians as well. Islam would reshape the world in a way that still has ramifications today.

During the High Middle Ages in Europe, as the famine, plague and political corruption once again staked the human race, a series of Christian ascetics and renunciants arose who left the bustling cities for a life in the countryside:
Anchorite (female: anchoress; adj. anchoritic; from Ancient Greek: ἀναχωρέω, anachōreō, signifying "to withdraw", "to depart into the rural countryside") denotes someone who, for religious reasons, withdraws from secular society so as to be able to lead an intensely prayer-oriented, ascetic, and—circumstances permitting—Eucharist-focused life. As a result, anchorites are usually considered to be a type of religious hermit, although there are distinctions in their historical development and theology. The anchoritic life is one of the earliest forms of Christian monastic living. Popularly it is perhaps best known from the surviving archeological and literary evidence of its existence in medieval England. In the Roman Catholic Church today it is one of the "Other Forms of Consecrated Life" and governed by the same norms as the consecrated eremitic life.
It wasn't confined to the Roman world. In one of his best-known essays, Charles Hugh Smith makes a connection between the Taoism that developed during China's Warring States period and modern times:
The Taoists developed their philosophy during an extended era of turmoil known as the Warring States period of Chinese history. One of their main principles runs something like this: if you're tall and stout and strong, then you'll call attention to yourself. And because you're rigid--that is, what looks like strength at first glance--then when the wind rises, it snaps you right in half. If you're thin and ordinary and flexible, like a willow reed, then you'll bend in the wind, and nobody will notice you. You'll survive while the "strong" will be broken, either by unwanted attention or by being brittle.
And Buddhism, with its emphasis on the causes of suffering, the transience of all things, and its rejection of individuality, seems poised to make a revival as well. It also came into existence during the Axial Age.

I've said before that the Peak Oil movement was about a lot more than our supply of fossil fuels. It is a gathering point for criticism of what modern technology hath wrought. It's an overall social criticism of a society that has eliminated the human scale, and become a market society of impersonal commercial relations, rather than one that celebrates and nourishes our humanity. Today, people are institutionalized since birth - born in a high-tech machine-filled hospital, torn from your mother and put into a plastic bassinet under fluorescent lights, raised by strangers for pay as mom goes out and works, shunted into school at age 5 to sit still at a desk, pay attention, obey your teachers and perform on tests for twelve years, then off to college, debt servitude, a corporate cubicle job, and finally, death, where you will be put on display like a department store mannequin for your friends to gather round and mouth platitudes ("he's gone to a better place..."). And all the while you will have to spend every second of your life in  "competition" - clawing everything from a job to a mate to a place to live from the impersonal marketplace. It is any wonder people want something else? It makes me wonder why anyone has children anymore.

So with interesting timing given Mr. Kunstler's observances of the renunciates of his place, a conference was held called The Age of Limits, featuring some of the more prominent and perspicacious thinkers on the topic of Peak Oil and its ramifications. The topic, from what I understand, was not the science, the geology, or even the economic concerns, but the big questions about what type of society forms in the wake of declining energy supplies, also a topic of this blog. Several of the attendees have reflected this week on the meaning of spirituality in such an age. John Michael Greer, himself an active practitioner in the alternative spirituality movement in the revived Druidic belief system, wrote the following this week:
It’s among the major failures of contemporary Western culture that the keepers of its religious traditions have so signally failed to deal with the core issues of our time.  There’s a history behind that failure, of course.  In what used to be the religious mainstream, well-meaning but clueless attempts to become relevant in the 1960s and 1970s led clergy  to replace authentic spirituality with a new definition of religious institutions as some sort of awkward hybrid of amateur social service agencies and moral lobbying firms, deriving their values from the contemporary nonreligious left rather than from any coherent sense of their own traditional spiritual commitments. Since the vast majority of Americans then and now are on the moderate-to-conservative end of the political spectrum, and have next to no patience with the liberal ideologies that drove this shift, the formerly mainstream denominations ended up with a fraction of their old membership and influence as parishioners abandoned them in droves for more conservative churches and synagogues.

Those latter, meanwhile, had just completed the same transformation in the other direction, surrendering their own  traditional commitments in order to embrace the political ideologies of the contemporary right. This is why so many of today’s supposedly conservative clergy are out there right now urging their congregations to vote for a Republican party whose platform could not be further from the explicit teachings of Jesus if somebody had set out to do that on purpose. Very few American religious groups have avoided falling into one or the other of these pitfalls.

That has had any number of unhelpful consequences, but the one relevant here is that either choice makes it effectively impossible for those who speak for religious institutions to say anything at all about the reality of our nation’s and civilization’s decline.  The denominations of theold mainstream are committed to what, without too much satire, could be described as the belief that everyone in the world deserves a middle class American lifestyle; those of the new conservative religiosity are just as rigidly committed to the claim that middle class Americans deserve, and ought to be able to keep, that lifestyle. Neither can begin to address the hard fact that this lifestyle and nearly everything associated with it are going away forever.

Something has gone very wrong.  That’s the message that’s rumbling like distant thunder through the crawlspaces of the American imagination just now.  Something has gone very wrong, and those whose public claim to power is their supposed ability to manage things so that they don’t go wrong—the captains of finance and brokers of political power who move from photo op to press conference to high-level meeting and back again—don’t know how to fix it.
And attendee Dmitry Orlov, in what I think is one of his best essays, wrote the following:
Our social institutions are failing us. This is not an economic or technological problem but a cultural one. There are billions of people in the world who are able to survive on less than a dollar a day, and yet many of these people are happier than most of the people in the developed nations. This societal failure takes many forms. There is the educational system which mainly trains students to take tests (not a marketable skill), then attempts to teach them a job (which, more often than not, no longer exists). The best outcome that education can achieve—an educated person, versed in liberal arts and basic science—it considers useless.

There is the travesty of commerce and finance, with an insistence on growth at any cost, on maintaining inflated standards which make it impossible for people to meet their basic needs if they lack the money for the upscale, high-standard products and services that are considered mandatory, on extreme but impersonal interdependence where everyone is forced to rely on and to put their trust in complete strangers. It is a system that forces everyone to become a gambler—be it with your retirement, or with taking on student loans, or with most other investments. Furthermore, this system of legalized gambling is rigged so as to pool localized, personal risk into centralized, systemic risk that will, sooner or later, bring down the entire economic system.

The outcome of all this is that most human relationships have been reduced to the commercial, client-server paradigm. The intergenerational contract, where parents and grandparents bring up children who then take care of them in their old age, and which is an essential evolved trait of the human species, has been gambled away. There is extreme alienation, which reduces most conversations to scripted interactions on topics that are considered safe, and a great deal of transience, both in where people live and in the people with whom they associate. There is a steady replacement of local, human culture with commercial culture, packaged as a set of popular but short-lived cultural products.

Faced with all this, the natural response for many people is to want to turn their back on society, but without being alone. What institutions do we have that could help them accomplish this? Are there any that predate this now failed society, as well as the countless other societies that have failed before? Yes, there are. Religious institutions have turned their back on more societies than we can count, and have survived. Moreover, they have repeatedly provided a survival mechanism where all else had failed.
For my part, I believe that fundamentalist evangelical Christianity has become so tied to reactionary politics in the United States that it will become completely discredited. Every religion, whatever its origins, becomes a reflection of the society to which it has become embedded. Thus Christianity has become "The Gospel of Prosperity" in which middle class people pray for more wealth, and expect trite explanations when bad things happen to them. Churches have come to resemble downscale social clubs for white people; incubators for a form of reactionary politics dominant in America today in vast stretches of economically abandoned heartland. Organized religion has by-and-large been hijacked by the wealthy and powerful to get the peasants to vote against their own interests (Of course, there are exceptions - the Nicole Foss lecture I attended was sponsored by a Unitarian Church). But in the main, Christianity has been harnessed as a tool of state power, with Islam as a convenient enemy to distract and manipulate the population through fear. As reactionary politics increasingly fails in an age of limits, "evangelical" Christianity may go down with it, just as the Roman State religion became more about group identity and less about how to live in a world falling apart.

So it goes for any religion - it starts at the margin in response to a need, and if it is successful as a "meme" - as more and more believers flock to it, a bandwagon effect starts to happen. The leaders realize they can co-opt the religion for their own purposes, and once it becomes the "official" religion, the authoritarians glom on and it becomes all about in-groups and out-groups, with spirituality falling by the wayside. Religion turning the world into "us" and "them" and justifying a hierarchical power structure appears to be one of the fundamental features that allow modern "city-state" civilizations to emerge. Christianity is our "state" religion, whatever the founding fathers may have wished, as evidenced by the annual ritual of presidential candidates appealing to "faith leaders" and lining up to kiss the rings of high priests like Rick Warren. Go to any religious web site, and Christians seem to preach an acceptance of Jesus as your imaginary friend as the cure to the hopelessness, anomie, alienation, directionlessness and despair of modern society. The very mental anguish that our deteriorating society has unleashed has become fertile ground for these cult leaders, and once people become a follower of these mega-churches they are stripped of their identities and built up again as fag-hating, gun-toting, Democrat-loathing soldiers for the cause. For decades now such people have been taking over the political and military apparatus of the United States. They are now even being primed for genocide. This cannot end well.

But the counter-reaction is the emergence of new religions at the margins. Room will expand for new types of spiritual experiences that really show people how to live in the world today. I've noticed a trend toward entheogenic religions - those that use our knowledge of chemistry to allow people to experience a direct sense of the divine. And just like early Christianity, this type of religion is seen as a threat to the group cohesion and authoritarianism the leaders like to exploit, and thus ruthlessly suppressed (at least our prisoners are not fed to lions--yet.). Even as the religious right becomes ever-more militant and determined to impose their beliefs on society through state power, the opposite reaction is people seeking alternative forms of spirituality, cafeteria religions, and other experimentation.

In the ancient world, a number of ideas developed about how to live in the world. Today we lump these under the unfortunate umbrella of "philosophy," -the love of wisdom- linking the ontological and metaphysical speculations of the ancients with their practical advice about how to live, free from superstition. This is too bad, as there is much to learn from people who lived in times before our modern distractions and where death and war and scarcity were never far from the concerns of daily life. One of the most well-regarded, followed by everyone from slaves to emperors, was Stoicism. I've been a fan for a while, and I think it provides an ideal framework for how to live in the kind of world we're sure to experience in the coming decades. Here are some introductions:
Seneca, who enjoyed great wealth as the adviser of Nero, suggested that we ought to set aside a certain number of days each month to practice poverty. Take a little food, wear your worst clothes, get away from the comfort of your home and bed. Put yourself face to face with want, he said, you’ll ask yourself “Is this what I used to dread?”

It’s important to remember that this is an exercise and not a rhetorical device. He doesn’t mean “think about” misfortune, he means live it. Comfort is the worst kind of slavery because you’re always afraid that something or someone will take it away. But if you can not just anticipate but practice misfortune, then chance loses its ability to disrupt your life.

Montaigne was fond of an ancient drinking game where the members took turns holding up a painting of a corpse inside a coffin and cheered “Drink and be merry for when you’re dead you will look like this.”

Emotions like anxiety and fear have their roots in uncertainty and rarely in experience. Anyone who has made a big bet on themselves knows how much energy both states can consume. The solution is to do something about that ignorance. Make yourself familiar with the things, the worst-case scenarios, that you’re afraid of.

Practice what you fear, whether a simulation in your mind or in real-life.
Stoicism: A Practical Guide For Entrepreneurs (Tim Ferriss blog)
Avi: Could you summarize the essence of Stoicism in one paragraph?

William: Stoics believe that the goal in life is to live in agreement with nature, which for human beings means living in agreement with reason. The perfection of reason is virtue. So Stoics believe it is reasonable to responding to every event virtuously, to do the very best you can under the circumstances, and accept the rest. A Stoic focuses on what is up to her and doesn't worry about anything that is not up to her. The Serenity Prayer expresses the essence of Stoicism: 'God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage the change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.' Stoics believe that the only real good, the only thing that guarantees happiness, is virtue, while the only really bad thing is wickedness. Health, sickness, wealth, poverty, fame, ignominy, life, death, and all such things are neither good nor bad in themselves, because each can be used well and virtuously or badly and wickedly. How we deal with these things which are indifferent to happiness determines our happiness or misery. Our happiness, therefore, is up to us, it is not up to luck, according to the Stoics.
Avi: Stoicism is sometimes labelled a "prison philosophy". Why is this so?

William: Because people fail to understand what Stoicism really is. Stoicism equips you to deal with every circumstance in life, applying for a job, relationships with others, parenting, competing in sports, illness, everything. Stoics believe that people imprison themselves when they choose to make their happiness depend on things beyond their control, whether those things are controlled by other people, the weather, the stock market, or whatever.
Interview with a Stoic: William O. Stephens (BoingBoing)

It seems we're going through another crisis of faith. Writers like Charles Eisenstein have written about how important a spiritual awakening is to our survival as a species. The rebirth of a society and spiritual awakenings tend to go hand-in-hand. But one thing is for sure, the "mainstream" has become something to reject. Leave the crumbling ruins of Babylon and head out into the wilderness to seek your path...

UPDATE:

In an announcement posted Feb. 15 on the government’s website, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti said he would seek legislation requiring the church to pay taxes on all its commercial holdings. About one-third of the 100,000 properties owned by the church in Italy are used for commercial ventures, according to Italy’s Radical Party, which has long campaigned against the tax exemption. 

More here.

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