Enemy of All Mankind

“On Sept. 7, 1695, the pirate ship Fancy, commanded by Every, ambushed and captured the Ganj-i-Sawai, a royal vessel owned by Indian emperor Aurangzeb, then one of the world’s most powerful men. Aboard were not only the worshipers returning from their pilgrimage, but tens of millions of dollars’ worth of gold and silver.

What followed was one of the most lucrative and heinous robberies of all time…[and led to the first global man hunt…]

…Until now, historians only knew that Every eventually sailed to Ireland in 1696, where the trail went cold. But Bailey says the coins he and others have found are evidence the notorious pirate first made his way to the American colonies, where he and his crew used the plunder for day-to-day expenses while on the run.”

-William J .Kole, “Ancient coins may solve mystery of murderous 1600s pirate.” Phys.org. April 1, 2021.

Laying low as a slave trader. Tempted to check out the book. Also, the title reminded me of this scene.

Devouring Time Swallows Us Whole

When I die, I want the ashes scattered in the wind, overboard on some slow moving ship, that leaves a trace for an hour, maybe two. Our lives are like ships traveling in the night; silently, we move along. If the water is small enough, we can make quite the impression, maybe even block transit and be a name on everyone’s lips for days. But, then it ends, and before long, no one remembers it at all. Maybe with the help of the written word, it lasts a moment more. But, even when it doesn’t fade, the paper still whole and not flaked yellow, disintegrating, even then time eventually wipes the significance and meaning down to a streak wiped with cleanser. A mere memory, a blotch on its way to becoming a clean slate with a few more rubs of the sands of time.

Everyone an Ozymandias, except with a little self-awareness, we realize that we can look upon our works and despair. Every place is dunes, with an occasional oasis or flower, struggling for life, this moment. And in the fullness of time and across the landscape, every spot has its moment, and some have many, but the only constant across them all is that time will wipe it all away, and return it to a clean slate. Nothing remains, except a tell-tale blemish that only an expert can read. Indecipherable by the mass of humanity, as each of us are, every moment. We are even a puzzle to ourselves, most of the time, already dead. In the end, time devours us all, leaving no trace, a true wake of meaning. The last human skull, in a field, a nest for a bird that hasn’t evolved yet.

On Being Evil

Are you a good person? If you ask most people this question, they’ll answer, “Yes.” Of course they are. They might think to themselves, “I’m not a monster. I’m not like X.” Pick your monster, let X equal Hitler for illustration purposes here.

But, what’s the threshold for good? Does the same thinking apply in the opposite direction? Do we think to ourselves, “I’m not a saint. I’m not like X.” Pick your saint, let X equal the Buddha for illustration purposes here.

If we draw a line, with the most evil person that ever lived, assuming talking about “the most evil” could be quantified in some way based on objective analysis of the horror that was a direct result of their existence, and drawing it to “the most good” quantified in a similar way, where do we sit? Are we on trajectories over the course of our lives, moving in more evil or more good directions? Does it vary based on specific features that are dominant at a particular historical moment?

Is it easier to be good, or evil, in a particular time and place? Was it easier to be good when humanity was living in pre-history, in small bands before the dawn of the agricultural revolution? Are there some eras where evil and good don’t even apply, e.g., if you worked 18 hour days in one of the early factories after the Industrial Revolution? Or, perhaps being literate and being exposed to new ideas makes us more inclined to be evil, or good.

When I think on these things, I come to one conclusion. We aren’t good. We aren’t bad. We are people in a particular situation, and we all think that what we are doing is good, in some sense of that word.

Hitler, for instance, believed that some people were sub-human, and if you got rid of these lesser humans, humanity as a whole would be better off. Even saying it in that way implies a value judgment because if some “people” are sub-human, they are still human. Hitler’s argument seems to be that they aren’t really people at all, so it should be said differently under that assumption. If you accept the perspective that people are people, then Hitler’s line of thinking is evil.

But, Hitler’s line of thinking is the norm. Humans are tribal, and outsiders are always not quite as human as insiders. If you think that some people are better in some fundamental way – whether that is because they subscribe to a particular idea/dogma, such as a religion or they belong to a particularly ethnic group – whether that is a Han Chinese in modern China, white Englishman in Colonial America, or any colonizing civilization’s view of aboriginal hunter/gatherer groups, or simply because you know them – how much different are you from Hitler? What differentiates Hitler’s view from the tribal view?

Beyond views, there are actions. Does the ability to act in the world make us capable or greater evil or good? If someone has the same views as Hitler but is unable to act on them as he did, are they also evil? Is it the idea that some people aren’t people the evil part? Or, is it the causing, in one way or another, the deaths of millions the evil part? Well, it seems they both are evil, right? It’s just more evil if you act on and the scale of your actions amplifies the evil in some way.

The same idea applies the other direction. We all want to be good. But, is it enough to have good ideas? Or, does the good need to impact the world in some significant way? If we do smaller acts of kindness, are we less good than a Bill Gates who can do something like eradicate a disease? Is Bill Gates good? Is he more good than the Dalai Lama or the historical Buddha? Why or why not?

When we look into our hearts, we know that the desire to be and do good competes with other desires. We also want to be comfortable and materially well-off. We want to be important, respected, possibly famous. We want to be accepted by the communities in which we are part, some of which may not be good communities. We may want power or control over our environment. And on and on. All of these desires compete, and while everyone wants to be good, we very often want these other things more.

I think it helps to understand that none of us are inherently good or bad. None of us are “good people”. Luck and circumstance plays a very important role in who we are. We are the sum total of a vast network of influences: genetic, environmental, psychological and so many others. But, perhaps, the important thing is that we always have a choice in what we think and do, and perhaps it is helpful to realize that we may be rationalizing some evil, and that we are in fact being and acting evil. That the good we believe we are or doing might be evil and perhaps, it is time to stop.

Zuihitsu: 2021-03

Collecting these little ideas has become a major focus. Here’s this month’s installment.

  1. You can’t be what you can’t imagine, and imagination is often limited by our sight, or vision.
  2. He who cannot howl will not find his pack.—Charles Simic
  3. Most deliberate misinformation from authorities—especially in places that are mid-range in terms of institutional trust and strict licensing—comes from omission, not saying the truth, rather than outright lying.
  4. You take people as far as they will go, not as far as you would like them to go.”—Jeannette Rankin
  5. People are broken, technologies are broken, cosmologies are broken, gods are broken — everything is broken.
  6. The internet, like bureaucracies, homogenizes.
  7. A weak heart breaks more easily.
  8. Reality is a very subjective affair.—Vladimir Nabokov
  9. Asking for help is a great way of getting help. If you are unsure about how to help, start with little things.
  10. Thinking is not experiencing.
  11. Meditation is not about turning a human being into a stone. It is about turning a stone into a human being.
  12. Our emotions are not a problem. Our denial and misperception of them is what makes them look like problems.
  13. Secrets are things you (or others) don’t know. Mysteries are things nobody knows.
  14. We haven’t come anywhere close to scraping the bottom of the barrel yet.
  15. It is easier to meditate than be good.
  16. The better you know someone, in other words, the higher the stakes of your relationship, the harder it is to reveal the deepest and strangest things about yourself.
  17. It’s a large world, we’re never as solitary as we think, as unique or unprecedented, what we feel has always already been felt, again and again, without beginning or end.—Garth Greenwell
  18. I don’t know where we are going, but I know exactly how to get there.
  19. Science is being; philosophy is meaning.
  20. The difference between magical realism and science fiction might be whether you went to college and what you majored in.
  21. Life is a near-death experience.—George Carlin
  22. The heart of discrimination (against people) is dehumanization. The heart of discrimination (against ideas) is reality testing.
  23. Privilege is synonymous with apathy.
  24. Never make important decisions when you’re tired, emotional, distracted, or in a rush.
  25. Never let anyone define the problem for you.
  26. Seek out information from someone as close to the source as possible, because they’ve earned their knowledge and have an understanding that you don’t.
  27. Be less busy. Keep a learning journal. Reflect every day.
  28. Act as you would want an employee to act if you owned the company.
  29. Intimacy at scale is an oxymoron.
  30. Be faithfully present. Don’t ask for a lot; don’t demand attention; but be comfortingly, reassuringly there.
  31. Bureaucracies by their nature seek to standardize which fosters homogeneity.
  32. People are magicians and can self-hypnotize themselves into any delusion.
  33. “What sane person could live in this world and not be crazy?”―Ursula K. LeGuin
  34. Find ways to say yes to people that matter to you and no to those that don’t.
  35. Most systems get worse as they scale.
  36. How do you avoid emergent sclerosis in the mental models we build?
  37. We often forget that what we know of the world is entirely dependent on our view, our vision of the world, which is possible to evolve and transform into inspiring aliveness, or to stagnate and atrophy into sinkholes of cynicism.—Alex Grey
  38. autonomy, when you can decide both rules and exceptions.
  39. Price isn’t everything.
  40. To speak truth is to create falsehood.
  41. Our present era of decimated attention demands contraction and diminishment.
  42. Underneath your tattoos you’re still a mainstream cunt.
  43. This person was a deluge of words and a drizzle of thought.
  44. Be confident enough in your vision to commit to it.
  45. Pretending to be above and beyond politics is by itself a political position; in adopting it, one has aligned with the state and sided with the powerful.
  46. What is invisible might as well be dark.
  47. One can journey to the end of Earth and the edge of time, but never leave the narrow corridors of prejudice.
  48. When in doubt, nuke the whole thing and start over.
  49. America is a terrible place to be stupid.
  50. “Success is dangerous. One begins to copy oneself and to copy oneself is more dangerous than to copy others.”—Pablo Picasso
  51. Make more and better with less.
  52. Never demolish, never remove or replace, always add, transform, and reuse.
  53. Trivialise what you do, or lower the stakes.
  54. Two out of three: 1) KNOWLEDGE: Will I learn something? 2) FUN: Is it fun? 3) MONEY: Is it financially worthwhile?
  55. Conflict provides information.
  56. When you have power, you don’t have to talk about what you can do. You do it.
  57. Who, or what, is laying eggs in your brain?
  58. Suffering less? Then, you’ll focus more on what remains.
  59. Never write when you can talk. Never talk when you can nod. And never put anything in an email.
  60. Most people overestimate what they can do in one year, and underestimate what they can do in ten years.
  61. Everybody’s ideas seem obvious to them.
  62. We all underestimate our ability to massively change our life when it’s gone off track. Do things differently. Do what scares you.
  63. There’s a benefit to being naïve to the norms of the world — deciding from scratch what seems like the right thing to do, instead of just doing what others do.
  64. To say something means it’ll be misheard, misunderstood or misrepresented to others.
  65. Don’t drink poison in the hope the other guy gets sick.
  66. Few great performances happen without great audiences.
  67. Know how to win or know how to stop.

A New Orality is Coming to Replace Old Literacy

If the past emergence of newspapers was ‘linked to the liberation of the national bourgeoisie’, where is the social media era leading us?

(AM): The social media era has already led us to what Martin Gurri has called ‘the revolt of the public ’. I have described this process as the emancipation of authorship. Before the arrival of the internet, there were approximately 300 million people able to communicate their ideas beyond their immediate surroundings. Now, thanks to the internet, the number of authors has reached 3.4 billion in just 30 years.

We all live inside an era of the explosion of authorship. It impacts all the areas of life. In politics, the emancipation of authorship has given people access to the setting of agendas. The elites and the media, their megaphone, have lost their monopoly in this area, a process Martin Gurri describes as the global ‘crisis of authority’. Starting with the first wave of social media proliferation that captured young progressive urbanites—Occupy Wall Street, the Arab spring, the Indignados movement in Spain, and so on—a tsunami of anti-establishment protests has now struck the world.

However, by 2016, social media had spread widely enough to allow other social strata to participate in agenda-setting. No longer was it just the educated, urban and progressive youth who were empowered. A new wave of conservative protests took hold. In a sense, Trump’s ascent was the successful completion of the Occupy Wall Street movement, but based on a different demographic group.

Old media have already shown how they impact society. Now we need to look at new social media. Old media were based at least in part on text, on literacy. Literacy conveys linearity and therefore requires the elaboration of meaning. Now not only has the length of text shrunk on social media, but the necessity of communicating only through text is vanishing as well.

With the progress in media hardware towards the newest social media, a new orality is coming to replace old literacy. The means of digital social communication in the newest media, such as Twitter or TikTok, resemble the vocal-dance communicative performance of primeval humans in our pre-speech era. Interjection, the least semantic form of verbal expression, is becoming the most efficient semantic carrier. Digital orality is based on exclamations and digital gestures. It aims to persuade rather than inform. It operates with emotions and objects—memes, pictures, videos, and so on—directly, rather than with meanings.

This is going to shape agendas in a completely new way, with no requirements for literacy, rationality or fact-checking. The new mode of agenda-setting will most likely bring a new wave of upheavals, this time even more radical. It will start, again, with the younger demographics who are completely out of touch with traditional political parties’ agendas, and who are extremely anti-institutional.

-Andrey Mir, “How to live with polarisation.” Human As Media. March 30, 2021.

I’m inclined to think that this is similar to the two technology revolutions, where most of the population moves in the direction of orality or apps. But, it also has the effect of taking the culture of literacy in a different direction, where tools for writing create increasing sophistication in composition that may make literacy more difficult for the general population. However, there is also more opportunity for diversity of expression and clarity.

And What Do You Do? I Live Here.

“A monk walking through the woods came across a couple strolling and answered their greetings. ‘And what do you do?’ the woman asked. The monk replied, ‘I don’t do anything. I live here.” She insisted. So did he. She thought of life in terms of what one does for a living, but the monk did not. He insisted that he did nothing, he only lived here. She was vexed…

…Is a person only a machine to make money? Is being a parent, a spouse, summed up in what a person does for a living? Is it how much you bring home that makes you what you are? If it is, many a wife and mother has little value, for in terms of economics she may be more like us monks, performing useful and necessary tasks and services. But there is no money in any of it…

…For granted having no income, no job, is a most dreadful worry, it is not the end of everything. Not the loss of humanity, identity, personhood. For trial, trouble, sickness and affliction and death are with us today as they were yesterday and they will be tomorrow. Characteristic of life anywhere. Any time. Only in some times more than others.”

-Matthew Kelty, “Every Reason to Be Merry,” in The Call of Wild Geese: More Sermons in a Monastery. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publicans, 1996.

Upon re-reading The Call of Wild Geese, this passage felt especially relevant in the middle of a pandemic. Who are we if we cannot go into the office? If we are not earning an income? If we are isolating and socializing through screens? Do we have value apart from this life we have constructed? Obviously, we do. The question is: why is this even a question? The answer is that our culture is busy reducing people into categories: type of job, ethicity, religious belief, down the line. None of these things is who any of us are. Yet, the provide a shortcut, just enough to process and move on with our lives and ideas, let’s not have too much disruption please.

Wisdom is Truth that Lasts

“There is no need to know everything, to do everything, to see everything, to hear everything, to know everyone, to go everywhere. In fact, there is much truth in realizing that knowing less and doing less, and seeing less and hearing less, and so less all the way down the line, is perhaps the beginning of real wisdom.

-Matthew Kelty, “The Feast of St. Mary.” in The Call of Wild Geese: More Sermons in a Monastery. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1996.

“It is a matter of cutting down the input, of controlling what you are subjected to, or creating a context. We desire minimal input, a quiet context, a controlled environment. That is the idea. Cut out the outer to increase the inner. More quiet than most want, less input than many can abide. More control of the environment than many opt for. Why? Because by nature, by temperament, by character, by grace, we are called to this[, the monastic lifestyle]. Maybe we are introverts…

The joy of the monk is no less than the joy of those who share what he has, for the monk knows that it is a gifts and gifts do not last unless shared. The monk is no capitalist who stakes out a claim in order to sell at a profit. No, he freely spends all he has as prodigally as the God who gave it all to him. The people he flees from are the people he carries in his heart, sings for, prays for, lives for, and is glad to meet.”

-Matthew Kelty, “The Call of Wild Geese.” in The Call of Wild Geese: More Sermons in a Monastery. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1996.

Today, I find myself circling back to the work of Matthew Kelty. He was a Cistercian monk, who was a novice under Thomas Merton, and who – I just discovered – was also gay. In retrospect, I can see how some of his commentary might be formed by his being an openly gay man in a religious institution that has a complicated relationship with gayness.

I took a strange route to find him. When I was a teenager, I read David Morrell’s book, The Brotherhood of the Rose. David Morrell is perhaps best known for the creation of the character, of John Rambo, who later devolved into the jingoistic Cold and Drug War action hero/anti-hero. The Brotherhood of the Rose is a typical spy-thriller, but one of the characters has such difficulty with his feelings of guilt over being an assassin that he becomes a Cistercian monk. Monks were something I associated with medieval times. Do modern monks exist, and are they an anachronism?

Of course, monks still exist. Personally, I find them talking to issues that are central to all of our lives. What could be more central in a monk’s life than the fear of missing out that you have spent your entire life in a monastery and have missed whatever is going on outside of the monastery’s walls. One of his homilies, I cannot remember which, talks about how when you go out into the desert, you do not leave your demons behind. You bring them with you, and you have nothing else to do but spend your time with them. You’re going to end up snuggling with those demands and getting to know them real well, in ways that the person dealing with the day-to-day existence of putting food on the table does not have the opportunity to experience. Monks have a lot to teach us.

It’s also an impulse I share. I remember being asked once that if I admired the life so much, why didn’t I become a monk? Well, I didn’t have the faith for it. A monastery is like a psychedelic drug, all of which are based on set and setting. Joining a shared enterprise, dedicated to the spiritual life seems to be a singular joy that is, as Thomas Merton sometimes put it, like a candle in the world, giving it hope. I’m not able to give all, to give all of the prodigious benefits back, because at some level, I worry about the morrow.

“Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?

-Matthew 6:26

Very easy to say. Another matter entirely to live that way. This is why reading people like Matthew Kelty is so important. It reminds us that life is lived, right there, out on the end. You cannot hold anything back for the return trip because in the end, there is never a returning. Everything is transformed and everything we learn turns to meso-facts, things that were once true and are now no longer. Perhaps this is a good definition of wisdom, knowledge of truth that lasts, which we can only get to by putting the other kinds of knowledge aside.

Deformin’ in the Rain: How (and Why) to Break a Classic Film

“…this essay subjects a single film to a series of deformations: the classic musical Singin’ in the Rain. Accompanying more than twenty original audiovisual deformations in still image, GIF, and video formats, the essay considers both what each new version reveals about the film (and cinema more broadly) and how we might engage with the emergent derivative aesthetic object created by algorithmic practice as a product of the deformed humanities.”

—Jason Mittell, “Deformin’ in the Rain: How (and Why) to Break a Classic Film.” Digital Humanities Quarterly. 2021. Vol. 15. No. 1.

I thought this approach of altering a film to better understand aspects of it is a pretty interesting technique that could be applied to a wide variety of artistic media. Film is perhaps more interesting because it can incorporate many different elements.