If it is not possible to change society, is it possible to escape it?
As things have shaped up, Bushís reelection was not the apocalypse it seemed. The peace movement put all its chips on a Democratic victory and busted, but the rightís subsequent efforts to plunder the nationís pension fund failed, as did the plan to pick Iran up, fold it neatly and put it in their back pocket. Bush had gotten the easy stuff out of the way first; at last we see him stymied. Because he canít run for a third term there is even a chance that his party will tear itself up finding a successor. I believe this is the real meaning of the DeLay scandal and Karl Roveís troubles, not a resurgence of the Democrats but rather an internal power struggle among the Republicans.
But in the dark days after Bushís victory, I wanted out. How cold is Toronto, I wondered. What kind of work could I find there? What are the taxes like?
I tried to wash my hands of consumerism. I wanted to switch from Windows to Linux but in the end found it too complicated. I have long prided myself on not drinking Coke while forgetting that Coca-Cola owns Sprite too; in fact, they have over 400 brands, including A&W, Barq's, Dr. Pepper and Mr. Pibb, Tab, Fanta, Fresca, Hi-C, Five Alive, PowerADE, Nestea, Odwalla, Minute Maid, Sunkist and Orange Crush, Canada Dry, Schweppes and Seagram's, Evian and Dasani -- all of which offers an excellent illustration of the foolishness of giving political weight to individual shopping preferences.
I turned to Buddha and the Tao in the hopes of finding peace for myself. I found Buddhism in its original form to be no better than Christianity. It is the worship of a man as a god. Buddha, like Christ, was a priestly title that has degenerated into a proper name. An infinity of Buddhas are required to fill the eternity of time and some on earth await the coming of the next as eagerly as Messianic Christians await the return of their first. Buddhism is not against war and its sacred texts condemn sexual freedoms like homosexuality. While the modern Buddhist strives to empty his mind, originally Buddhists were given morbid subjects to reflect on like the repulsiveness of the flesh.
In the broader context of the Hinduism which preceded him, Buddhaís contribution was to stop the endless and futile cycle of karmic reincarnation by reinventing death under the name of Nirvana. This revival of death, the acceptance and affirmation of it as natural, is the better part of manís wisdom, a silver-grey thread that runs down through Seneca and Whitman to the present day. Like all religion, Buddhism degenerated into a cult of authority and submission, more an obstacle to thinking than a repository of inspiring thoughts.
The Tao Te Ching, which I keep on my nightstand, does a remarkable job of staying on message. That message, after one shucks the mystical evocations of negativity and the sophomoric love of paradox, is simply to let things go. Donít strive or struggle too much, because things have a tendency to work themselves out. Isnít it true that our best efforts often do more harm than good? Let nature take its course. Be quiet, modest, unambitious, and know when to stop; be content and moderate in your desires. A good book for bad times, the Tao tells us to keep a low profile and go with the flow. Keep one eye on eternity and the other, it suggests, on your luggage. If there is such a thing as wisdom, if it is good to be wise rather than wild or passionate, it can only mean this.
The inaction which the Tao endorses is largely the expression of a belief that a benign conclusion does not require our interference, that we may have no real influence on the greater outcomes that affect us; it is a cosmic humility. It is at the same time a kind of thrall to the false purity of the negative, an absurd inner conviction that we can escape danger by sitting still or moving very slowly, as if all the world were a cobra poised to strike.
Taoist inaction draws on the laziness of the natural man who craves rest above all other things, a sane and healthy disdain for work for the sake of work, and the defensive camouflage of the wily servant who hopes to be safely useless. It is arguably the inevitable logical result of an asymptotic quest for efficiency; dividing any effort by zero produces zero. It is a proto-Zen preference for unconscious grace and perhaps a primitive way of referring to contemplation itself. Parts of the Tao could be right out of Heraclitus. The idea of an impersonal force behind things is one step closer to nature than that of a personal one; an element is closer to science than a god, and indeed Taoists are credited with having invented gunpowder and the compass.
A fair amount of Taoism applies to politics and government. Do not expand the empire by conquest, says chapter 30; do not think of weapons as lovely, when they are meant for the slaughter of men, says 31. 57 tells us that the more prohibitions and taboos there are, the worse off the people are. 74 is against the death penalty, putting their civilization ahead of our own in terms of its humaneness, and Lauís translation of 62 displays the true essence of mercy in asking, Even if a man is not good, why should he be abandoned? Chapter 75 is sharp enough to see that the poor are hungry because the rich are greedy, not because there is not enough but because too much is taken away.
Much of the Tao is unclear but suggestive, like lyrics well sung. At times its gentle mysteriousness seems to be an admonition against trying to understand anything at all. Though it is mildly anti-intellectual, it does not emphasize the busywork of mindless meditation, the mental equivalent of convicts being set to breaking rocks as punishment. Dismissing oneís thoughts may be relaxing at times and even necessary, but it is a poor substitute for training the mind for critical reflection. There is no doubt that each translator and each reader of this work project themselves into the varying ancient ideograms; most passages seem to either mean one thing or the exact opposite. Nonetheless poring over its riddles can still be a useful exercise if it makes your own values visible to you. It brought me back to where I started.
It is a mistake to see our society in merely political terms, as if elected officials wanted votes as an end in themselves to feel popular, or in the merely economic terms of dollars and cents. What society demands from its subjects is total submission and psychic enslavement. This is accomplished not with whips and chains or mere paper currency but with ideas that are not worth the paper they are written on and with the refusal of the basic idea that human beings are worth anything at all.
A friend sent me the results of a survey of conservatives as to the ten most harmful books of the century. Nowhere is it explicitly stated that the indicted volumes should be burned but the suggestion canít be far off. It is not surprising to find Marx at #1 and again at #6, and it is frankly beyond my purpose or powers to sort out the harm in his work from the good. Hitler and Mao are second and third, though I imagine the popularity of their books was more a consequence of their power than a source of it, and Stalin doesnít make the cut as an author. Then there are the secular atheists, Nietzsche, August Comte, champion of positive science and John Dewey, pioneer of progressive education. With such illustrious company to choose from, Darwin and John Stuart Mill are left warming the bench.
But what really shocked me was how many of the other choices relate to sex. #4 is Kinsey, who is accused of promoting homosexual deviance, #7 is Betty Friedanís Feminine Mystique, which she apparently had the audacity to write instead of being a stay-at-home mom. Runner-ups include Freud, Margaret Mead and Simone de Beauvoir. The great minds of the Eagle Forum and the Competitive Enterprise Institute wish to keep the public safe from such harmful ideas as scientific inquiry and equality of the sexes.
The link between reactionary politics and sexual repression only became clear to me recently when I read Emma Goldmanís memoirs and discovered that the crime she and her colleagues were repeatedly sent to jail for in the '30s was distributing birth control information. To a modern American, it may be hard to understand why birth control is a political issue rather than a private choice and why the Papacy opposes it.
Is it because keeping people frustrated and miserable makes it easier to control them? Because power and domination are increased by denying permission whenever possible with no regard for the consequences, and without consequences for the elite who are simply excused from such restrictions? Because sexual freedom and happiness may be a seed of hope for larger freedoms?
Or should it not be explained as a conscious strategy but rather as instinctive hypocrisy or blind obstructionism, opposing any kind of progress or change as an erosion of existing authority? Why would procreation be deemed natural and pleasure not? Is it fear of sex? A means to control women, perhaps even to ensure their availability for sex?
The Christian Church tells us that suffering is our lot and we must not demand a chance at happiness. In 307 A.D., Lactantius gave his flock the following advice: if you canít afford children, donít have sex with your wife. That was where the matter stood for sixteen hundred years. The Churchís official position was that contraception was so obviously wrong that the Bible didnít even feel the need to explicitly condemn it.
If the purpose of sex is children, then anyone who can have sex should. If it is a sin to discharge your seed wastefully, it should be just as much of a sin to leave it in your balls. In what way is spilling milk worse than letting it curdle? Calvin said that withdrawal is equivalent to killing a child before itís born; by that logic, so is not entering.
In 1930, Pope Pius XI caved and endorsed the rhythm method. Todayís more elaborate version involves visually examining your vaginal mucus and taking your cervical temperature daily, and it is even used by some non-Catholics who consider it more organic. The rhythm method has never been very effective because womenís cycles vary and can be disrupted by stress and other factors. It is also less than ideal because many womenís desire ebbs with their fertility.
Pope John Paul II had suggested as recently as 1995 that birth control was in part motivated by the desire of the rich not to share their wealth with a larger population. If he had studied Marx, he would have understood that he had it precisely ass backwards. Useable human wealth comes from labor, not directly from nature. There is not a pre-existing sum of natureís bounty waiting to be apportioned out but rather an endless amount of dirty work that needs to be done in fields and factories, mines and military bases, and the more hands there are to do it, the more profit for the people who own it all.
Surveys show that most Catholics have ignored the proscription at one time or another but it still has a huge influence on policy in places where the poor and teenagers are denied information and access to birth control. It is often the case that a rule which is widely disregarded still retains its authority.
It seems ironic people should take advice about sex from virgins and yet it is inevitable. Authority always commands denial because the very existence of institutional authority is itself a form of denial, the denial of thinking for yourself and making your own decisions on the basis of the best information available. Official Christianity is an anti-sex cult that worships the purity of virginity, beginning with a virgin birth, a descent from divinity more pristine if less brutal than those in the Greek myths that preceded it. Purity is by its nature indissociably linked with ignorance, and organized religion puts a seal of authority on that ignorance.
Forbidding sex for purposes other than procreation would eliminate one of the few reliable sources of pleasure in my life. In my experience, there are two levels of sexual pleasure. The first is the adolescent pleasure of getting off a round even if you donít hit your target, whether it be alone or with company, via hand, mouth or lap; the desperate, urgent, hasty release of a lucky night on the dating circuit, inseparable from the points earned by scoring, the bragging rights, the reflected glory derived from naked proximity to status or beauty. The pursuit of sex can become idle sport, a meaningless obsession, an empty fever dream.
The second is the extended transport that occurs in a mature relationship, when you get past yes or no and deeply into the how. This latter feeling is as otherworldly as breathing underwater with an oxygen tank or ascending through cloud cover on a passenger jet. Pussy is like Dr. Whoís spaceship, small on the outside but infinity within. Peak adult sex is a lot like getting fully and properly stoned, or -- as the expression has it -- ďbakingĒ your brain. Afterwards my mind feels like a single-use flash, its casing cracked and frosted with spent magnesium powder. I am healed by touch, refreshed, reborn, baptized in sweat. I feel genuinely sorry for all the priests and popes who never knew this feeling.
There are two views an atheist can have toward religion. The first is that freedom of worship is an important right, and that all individual religious beliefs should be met with tolerance. At most, the atheist can ask for such respect and tolerance in return from the religious, a modest but unlikely goal.
The other view is that religion is a system of social control that enslaves the populace. Unfortunately under majority rule if enough Christians vote for Bush, I must live under their laws. Given the crucial importance of religion in American politics today, I think the first view of religion is a luxury which the thinking left can not afford.
To what extent are religious beliefs ďindividualĒ anyway? In very few cases are they arrived at individually, and when they are the result is always heresy. Isn't religion itself a form of intolerance, an effort of exclusion which aims to create a special, superior subset of humanity?
Today we can at last give a precise answer to the question of how far back the reactionaries wish to turn the clock: it is no longer just 1973ís Roe v. Wade they want to refight but 1925ís Tennessee v. John Scopes. Covert school board fundamentalists are successfully using the rhetoric of open-mindedness against the consensus of all university scientists. Ceding this ground to the zealots would cost us dearly in the future, just as banning stem-cell research on existing lines will.
The layman believes that the rate of scientific progress is a natural fact, that some necessity underlies the dates we memorize in school, as if the laws of gravity had to await a man of Newtonís credentials in order to make themselves known. We should take a scientific view of science and realize that it depends on the material conditions and resources it is allotted: public education, university chairs and lectureships, properly equipped labs and institutes. If there had been no Catholic Church, imagine what progress science could have made by now, with those resources not arrayed against thinking but in support of it.
Perhaps some middle-class Republicans believe their devotion to their leader will eventually be repaid in a more worldly coin. The U.S. is supposedly fighting a war for oil; meanwhile the price of gas keeps going up. Why? Instability in the Middle East excites negative speculations, and the markets donít like uncertainty. If oil might be more scarce in the future, then it is already more valuable in the present.
I believe that if the U.S. won the war, the price of gas would go up, not down. Fewer suppliers and greater concentration of resources mean higher prices. If you think the U.S. is fighting to save you money at the pump, you are a prize idiot well-deserving of a big blue ribbon. You and the army are both tools and victims at once. Some pay their lifetime in an instant, some are spared to pay over the span of their lives, just as some cows are slaughtered while others are milked.
Are you free? Can you stop working for a while when you get enough money saved up, or are you tied to your employer by benefits? Will you ever again travel for more than a week or two at a time? Do you find that the harder you work, the more work is assigned to you?
When you see they wonít let you out, thatís when you know youíre a slave.
Said Shirazi lives in suburban New Jersey. He is writing about music and television on-line for Printculture.
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