Monday, January 4, 2010

Beauty, Nature, Divinity, Secrets

In his Peri Kosmin Kai Theon (On the Cosmos and the Gods), Sallustius wrote of the Gods that
Those who make the world are Zeus, Poseidon, and Hephaistos; those who animate it are Demeter, Hera, and Artemis; those who harmonize it are Apollo, Aphrodite, and Hermes; those who watch over it are Hestia, Athena, and Ares.

One can see secret suggestions of this in their images. Apollo tunes a lyre; Athena is armed; Aphrodite is naked (because harmony creates beauty, and beauty in things seen is not covered).
And of myths he wrote that
They also represent the activities of the Gods. For one may call the world a myth, in which bodies and things are visible, but souls and minds hidden. Besides, to wish to teach the whole truth about the Gods to all produces contempt in the foolish, because they cannot understand, and lack of zeal in the good, whereas to conceal the truth by myths prevents the contempt of the foolish, and compels the good to practice philosophy.

But why have they put in the myths stories of adultery, robbery, father-binding, and all the other absurdity? Is not that perhaps a thing worthy of admiration, done so that by means of the visible absurdity the soul may immediately feel that the words are veils and believe the truth to be a mystery?
Aphrodite, in her nakedness, represents the visible beauty and harmony of the Kosmos, whereas Athena, with her armor, shield and spear, represents the invisible beauty and harmony of Nature that lies beneath the surface. In fact, Aphrodite is not merely naked, but alluring: hers is the beauty that does not merely invite, it positively seduces.

Athena's beauty, on the other hand, is not merely covered, but defended at the point of a spear: it must be fought for, and at great risk. But to win the fight requires more than simple courage. It also requires strength, skill, endurance and judgement.

Nigeria and the Pew Forum's Blatant Double Standard on "Religious Restrictions"

On Christmans Day 2009 a Nigerian Jihadist came unthinkably close to blowing up Northwest Flight 253 in mid-air. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the would-be-suicide-bomber, was motivated by religious hatred. He had grown up in a nation where religious freedom is in theory guaranteed by law, but where religious violence has become a normal and pervasive feature of society.

In 1999 predominantly Muslim states in northern Nigeria began officially instituting Islamic Courts to impose Sharia Law. Protests by non-Muslims were met with violence, and in one city alone, Kaduna, at least 2,000 people, mostly Christians, died.

In the fall of 2002 religious riots erupted in Nigeria in protest against the Miss World contest, which was scheduled to be held in Abuja. The contest was moved to London because of the violence, which claimed as many as 200 lives. According to one BBC story, "hundreds of Muslim youths have gone on a rampage in Nigeria's capital, Abuja ... people armed with sticks, daggers and knives set fires to vehicles and attacked anyone suspected of being Christian."

In 2004, 900 people were massacred in clashes between Muslims and Christians in northern and central Nigeria. Human Rights Watch released a 75 page report critical of the Nigerian government for it's failure to prosecute "those responsible for this cycle of violence". The title of that 2005 report was simply "Revenge in the Name of Religion".

In December of 2008, Time Magazine ran an article under the title "Religious Violence Rages in Nigeria". The article was written just one week after "violent clashes left at least 300 people dead" in the Nigerian city of Jos.

When the Pew Forum released its report on "Global Restrictions on Religion" in December of 2009, Nigeria was given a score of just below 6 on a scale (going up to 10) measuring religious "social hostilities". Incredibly, the same "study" ranked the nation of India as being fully 50% worse than Nigeria on the same scale. In fact, India was ranked as among the absolute worst places on earth in terms of religious "social hostilities".

The Pew Forum and others (especially American based right-wing evangelical Christians, many of whom have close ties with Pew) have decided to wage a propaganda campaign against the nation of India and the Hindu religion. The signature feature of this campaign is the cynical misuse of the issue of religious tolerance as a club with which to beat Hindus and Indians over the head. But as the near tragedy on Flight 253 makes clear, properly understanding and assessing religious tolerance and religious violence isn't just a matter of fairness, it is a matter of life and death.

The combined death toll due to religious violence in Nigeria since the year 2000, according to a "timeline" of religious violence in Nigeria published by Reuters is well over 5,000. The number of people who have died in religious violence in India during the same period is much smaller, despite the fact that India's population is almost 10 times that of Nigeria. In fact, while Nigeria is the the most populous nation in Africa, India's population is larger than that of the entire African continent.

This is not to say that there has been no religious violence in India. There has. There is also religious violence in the United States and in every other nation. There have been two significant outbreaks of religious violence in India since 2000: in Gujarat in 2002, and in Orissa in 2008. Even the most wildly inflated estimates for these (and all other, much smaller-scale incidents during the same period) do not add up to even half the death toll in Nigeria during the same period. And in both Gujarat and Orissa the outbreaks began with unprovoked murders of Hindus. In Gujarat a train car full of Hindu religious pilgrims were burned alive, and in Orissa an 80 year old Hindu holy man and four of his devotees were gunned down in cold blood.

Religious tolerance is too important to be treated as merely yet another political football in the culture wars being waged by right-wing Christians. These religious bigots, whose aggressive and massive missionary activities in Asia, Africa and Latin America are in large part funded by a significant portion of the US foreign aid budget*, have so far been extremely (and alarmingly) successful in their smear campaign against India and Hinduism. But perhaps the near tragedy on Christmas Day, which came just a few weeks after Pew's India-bashing "report", will finally inspire more people to look below the surface and to question the crude anti-Hindu propaganda being peddled by the Pew Forum and it's right-wing fundamentalist allies.

*[For more on how US tax dollars go to fund right-wing Christian "missionary" activities abroad, see this post and links and references contained therein. See, especially, the 2006 Boston Globe four part series on "Exporting Faith".]

Primitive Accumulation

One of the great questions of history is how did a handful of western European nation states come to so completely dominate the entire planet earth and all of its inhabitants?

While the era of overt European colonialism is officially over, its legacy is alive and well. The European Union and the United States combined account for 54% of the world's Gross Domestic Product, while accounting for only 12% of the world's population. Other measures ranging from military spending to the virulent spread of such western cultural icons as McDonald's and Coke, demonstrate that Euro-American world domination is not only not a thing of the past but is arguably still expanding.

In fact, the continued penetration of Western culture is especially marked in the two most populous (and most powerful) non-western states: India and China (both of which are nuclear powers, one of which sits on the UN Security Council, and which together account for 1/3 the entire human race).

Karl Marx proposed a famous explanation for the Western domination of the world in one of the more celebrated sections of Das Kapital, dealing with the phenomenon of The Primitive Accumulation of Capital:
The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England's Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, &c.

The different moments of primitive accumulation distribute themselves now, more or less in chronological order, particularly over Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and England. In England at the end of the 17th century, they arrive at a systematical combination, embracing the colonies, the national debt, the modern mode of taxation, and the protectionist system. These methods depend in part on brute force, e.g., the colonial system. But, they all employ the power of the State, the concentrated and organised force of society, to hasten, hot-house fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition. Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power.
[Marx, Das Kapital, Volume I, Chapter 31]
The connection between colonialism and Christianity was hardly lost on Karl Marx. Immediately after the above passage he quotes from William Howitt's Colonisation and Christianity: A Popular History of the Treatment of the Natives by the Europeans in all their Colonies (London, 1838):
The barbarities and desperate outrages of the so-called Christian race, throughout every region of the world, and upon every people they have been able to subdue, are not to be paralleled by those of any other race, however fierce, however untaught, and however reckless of mercy and of shame, in any age of the earth.
European Christians have demonstrated over and over the truth of the adage that the mere possession of power is not by itself sufficient to dominate: one must also possess the will to use that power to do violence to others. And even that
comes in degrees, and the greater the degree of that will to violence, the greater the domination.

The European conquest of the Americas (in particular) initiated an explosive feedback loop in which savage violence led to a massive influx of wealth, which led to greater power, which led to even greater savagery and violence, which led to even greater wealth, and so forth.

It is no coincidence that "Great Power" colonialism, the African Slave trade and full-on genocide in the Americas were all taking place simultaneously. Just as it was also no coincidence that the perpetrators regularly inflicted the same level of violence on each other. In fact, spiraling European militarism eventually resulted in catastrophic "world wars" which almost seemed to threaten Christendom with self-immolation.

But it must be emphasized that there was nothing unpredictable about the inter-European wars that scarred the 20th century. in the sense that these horrors were completely consistent with past behavior. These were the same people who had conducted the Inquisition and the witch-hunts. These were the descendants (indeed, they proved themselves the rightful heirs) of the people who had given the world such "idyllic proceedings " as the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre, the Court of Blood, the Thirty Years war, and so forth and so on. In this grisly context even the Nazi Holocaust no longer appears as an aberration.

(Is it unhealthy to dwell on this aspect of western history and recite this nightmarish litany? But shouldn't Russians study the deeds of Stalin, Germans those of Hitler, the Chinese those of Mao, the Spanish those of Cortes? Or should each be excused from such unpleasantness and only be required to be familiar with the evils done by others, but not the evils done by their forebears to others?)

Throughout all of this bloodletting, the United States ended up in the enviable position of being able to participate in the Primitive Accumulation of Capital, but without having its cities and factories bombed as part of the bargain. The United States has been almost completely spared the mess and bother of fighting wars on our own soil, unless you want to count the mind-bogglingly lopsided military engagements known as the Indian Wars, which consistently blurred all distinctions between battles and massacres.

There is no question that free (that is, stolen) land, and free (that is, slave) labor were the engines the propelled the U.S. forward in its formative years, that is, these were the primary sources of the Primitive Accumulation in what was to become the greatest Capitalist state of all time. And there is also no question that the Christianization of the Indians and Africans were central not only to the ideological justification of conquest and slavery, but were central to actually carrying out those very profitable enterprises.