Thursday, January 22, 2015

In the Reflection is the Daughter of Time (by Claire Fan-Chiang 范姜詠欣)

One of the great thing about teaching kids in Taiwan is that so many of them turn out brilliant. Their keen ability to study and remember (gained during their years of hard work learning to read and write their native language Chinese) now and again results in great things--especially when a student decides to take up the pen for more than just the usual dull homework.

The following story by my student Claire Fan-Chiang
(范姜詠欣) is a great example of a serious young creative mind in action. Claire is in junior high school in Taipei. She’s never lived or studied in an English-speaking country. Nonetheless, she’s got a great knack for narrative in English, and pulls of some really fine passages. Claire’s a pretty serious artist too. Her own illustration appears below.

Eric Mader
* * *


A battered green car sped over the muddy road, the rain thumping on its windows. Ingrid glanced down at the fuel gauge and furrowed her brows. The pointer was closing in on the ‘E’, but from what the GPS system showed she was still far from the campsite.

“Damn it,” she muttered.

What a mistake it had been to pass the gas station without fueling the car two hours ago. As she slowed down the car made a deep honking sound similar to a horn blowing through the wind.

The driving seemed endless. Three hours had passed, but she’d seen no landmark through the length of the journey. By now she seriously suspected that the GPS system had broken down. Cursing silently in her mind, she stopped by the road and dug out the map and compass. The compass told her she was driving east when she should have been driving north.


Night was falling, and she had no idea if she could reach the site in time. She was actually more worried about the fuel. It didn’t seem that it could last much longer. Since she had no choice but to head back, she turned the car keys in the ignition to restart the engine.

But the car would not react.

“Damn the bloody hell!”

She kicked hard against the floorboard, frustrated. Still, the car made no sound.

I’m stuck in the middle of the wild.

I’m stuck in the middle of the wild with bears lurking in the forest.

The thought shot a spasm of fear through her mind. Bears are strong and fierce, and her second-hand Toyota didn’t look stable enough to defend her from a bear. But if she got out of the car she would have nothing else to defend herself than the Swiss army blade in her pocket.

However, she was overwhelmed by fatigue, and after sitting there awhile sleep crept up on her before she had made a decision.

* * *
Rap rap rap. Rap rap rap.

Ingrid’s eyes shot open, her olive green irises wide and alert. Her mind raced and her heart pounded. Slowly, she glanced out from the car windows. Outside stood a man, his face slightly illuminated by the snowy moonlight. Wrinkles were etched deep into his face, and he looked around sixty.

“Miss?” His voice was rather muffled, but she could still hear a thick accent in it. “You lost?”

Ingrid got a better image of him now: the man was wearing a hunting cap covering half his forehead; a red stubby nose shaped like a tomato sat between his rosy cheeks. He was rather plump, and his hair was pepper-and-salt. He carried a hunting rifle on his back.

Ingrid’s heart pounded so badly now she could feel it beating in her veins.

Should I trust him?

“Miss? Miss, you okay in there?” The rapping went on, harder and faster. Still, she made no answer.

“Miss? Miss?” The tone begun to change, worry filled it.

“Huh?” Ingrid faked a sleepy voice, as if she had just woken up. “What’d’ya say?”

“Thank God you’re all right! Are you lost?” The old man let out a chortle that sounded like the screech of a dying goat.

“Yeah, I mean, no, not really, you know—I just got tired and slipped off...heh heh. I’m not lost, really, just tired.” Ingrid laughed with some effort, trying to persuade the old man.

The old man laughed. “Plenty of people lose their way down here, missy. No need to be embarrassed. I guess you were trying to go to the campsite north, right?”

“Um…” Her cheeks burned red. “Well…”

“I’m retired. I usually lives by myself in my villa, hunting wild doves and smoking pipes; but my family visit me every vacation,” said the old man. “My villa is not far away from here, and if you don’t mind, why don’t you come and spend the night with me and my family?”

Ingrid blinked. Her instincts told her something was wrong: maybe it was the overt kindness of the man; maybe it was the invitation to spend the night at his villa. But exhaustion won over her instincts and her head nodded before she could stop herself.

The rest of what happened was a blur. All she remembered was that she packed up her things and walked after the old man for a long time. Just as she started to feel she could walk and sleep at the same time, they reached their destination.

As they approached, Ingrid could see the villa was filled with a warm yellow light and silhouettes of people moving inside. A thirst to get inside it as soon as possible burned inside Ingrid’s mind. The scent of porridge never smelt so amazing, and the warm air seem to be calling her into a paradise. The door swung open, and a boy with bright blue eyes and flaxen hair waved at her with enthusiasm, calling her name. Laughter like tinkling glass reached her ears, and her feet moved up the porch and in through the front door.

A woman named Chelsea with red flaming hair and a man named Edward greeted her. By the fire an old lady in a grey shawl smiled at her. A girl ran over, brown braids flying behind. They took her things upstairs, and Chelsea led her to the bathroom. Fifteen minutes later she was sitting in the tub, foam covering her body, all the aches from her cold nap having seeped out into the water.

Then she was led to the dining room, the scent of vanilla candles intoxicating. The silverware was well polished, and the mahogany table glowed. Vases held flowers of crimson, yellow and white, while the plates served all sorts of food. Steak tartare, boeuf bourguignon, cotoletta, and ossobuco; mounds of bread and desserts extended to the bottom of the table. The fragrance was killing her.

Chairs were pulled out and the family sat, motioning for Ingrid to join them.

Dinner was fabulous; the food was amazing, the kids charming, and the adults humorous. For a second Ingrid felt that she was part of the family, and she was even longing to stay.

When it was time for bed, Ingrid crawled under the blankets, all her luggage packed neatly under the bed. The pillow was extremely soft and comfortable—the best that she had slept on in her whole life. Her eyelids drooped and sleep engulfed her, whisking her into the land of dreams.

* * *
Ingrid’s eyes opened.

She had a sudden urge to go to the bathroom. The moonlight slanted through the windows and bathed the woods in peace. An owl was cooing somewhere deep in the tree branches, and a few stars sparkled, like tiny shards of glass.

Ingrid swung her legs out from the quilt-covered bed, the tips of her feet touching the cold ground. It was icy, like frost in autumn. She smiled at the thought of frost. She loved the silvery-grey splinters of frost.

She stood up, stretching and yawning, hearing her joints make a faint cracking sound. She went over to the lights and tried to turn them on.

Yet there was no reaction.

She pushed hard on the button, but it stayed stuck in place, too stubborn to budge. Her brows knit, her eyes narrowing into slits of green.

After a whole minute of the pressing-the-button game (in which Ingrid lost spectacularly against the small, black square of plastic) she went across the room and dug through her pack. The large yellow flashlight was hidden deep inside her bag, and when she switched it on, it gave a strong beam of light.

Pushing the door open, she entered the corridor. The faces in the oil paintings seemed stiff and grotesque, the echo of her footsteps hollow. The corridors twisted and turned, and she was soon lost. It felt like walking in a never-ending labyrinth; she would always come back to the same place she had left minutes ago. She had never expected bathrooms to be so hard to find.

Climbing up an icy marble staircase, the ebony banisters glowing, she came finally to a new landing. The painting next to the staircase portrayed a serene woman, her pale fingers curled around a scarlet apple. Ingrid stared at it, a feeling of familiarity nagging at the back of her mind.

A hiss startled her, like the steam breaking suddenly from the lid of a copper kettle. She turned to see a hallway extend behind her; patches of white moonlight shone while eerie shadows of indigo slanted off the snowy walls. She took a single slow step, the floor creaking below her feet. At the end of the hallway was a door.

The door was dark and well polished, sleek and shiny under the silver moonlight. A brass handle glowed, not a single spec of rust could be felt on it. She knocked softly, making a dull tapping sound. No one answered. Ingrid knocked some more, yet there was still no reply.

“Hello? Can I come in?” Ingrid frowned at her voice. Somehow, it was raspy and dry. She cleared her throat several times, waiting for anybody to answer. Half a minute passed and nothing happened.

“I’m coming in,” she called. Wrapping her fingers firmly round the handle, she swung the door open, only to see a large empty bed, windows gaping wide and the curtains blowing. The room was empty, a feeling of desolation curling out from it. Cobwebs draped lazily over the chest of drawers, and a thick layer of dust could be seen on the glass panes covering the bookshelves. The shelves themselves were locked firmly, and they rattled when she tugged them. It was like the sound of bones knocking against each other.

The closet, however, was open. She shone the light at it and saw several pieces of clothing inside. They’d been thrown or stuffed into it without care, a chaotic heap. Behind them and to the side was a mirror, also dust-covered and filthy. Ingrid stepped forwards, slowly and carefully, and wiped some of the dust off. Black smudges appeared on her rosy fingers and soft white palm, resembling soot on snow.

Reflected in the mirror, however, was a smiling figure, the color of olive and putty, a conglomeration of deep purple gashes held together with strands of crimson thread. The eyes were two empty pits black as coal, and a few white hairs stuck out awkwardly from its head.

Held in his hand was a long hunting rifle; his red nose twitched.

“Hi, missy.”

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Truth in Pope Francis’ Charlie Hebdo Remark

When death threats and riots followed a Danish newspaper’s publication of satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad back in 2005, I found myself in agreement with most Westerners. Liberals and conservatives both argued that Europe’s Muslim communities needed to learn to live with the long-established traditions of free expression in the nations they’d immigrated to. At that time I’d have been happy to see more western European papers reprint the comics, if only in brave defiance of the threats. Likewise immediately following the Charlie Hebdo attack: I found myself agreeing with a friend online that the best thing Westerners could do in response was “draw Muhammad”--keep printing such images until the jihadis realized that the more they attacked, the more their icons would get tarnished.

Then I went and looked through more of Charlie Hebdo’s content in recent years. I no longer felt so convinced. In some ways I could say, yes, “Je suis Charlie”, but in others, no--I was not Charlie at all. The artists working at Charlie have busied themselves not merely satirizing or criticizing the excesses of some Muslims, but aggressively heaping muck on whatever Muslims hold sacred. As they have with any and every other religion.

I think Pope Francis’s recent in-flight comment on the attack, though his words were somewhat ill-chosen, was essentially correct. The right to freedom of expression must be defended, but such freedom has limits. When you wantonly attack what is sacred to millions, you should expect fury in response, and this fury is bound to provoke reaction. As the Pope indicated, reaction is only natural. That the jihadis’ threshold of tolerance is so low, that their resort to physical violence is to be condemned, doesn’t however refute the general truth: there are things people hold sacred, and one shouldn’t trample on them to provoke.

Whereas before I saw Muslim intolerance for such cartoons to be mainly a problem particular to the Muslim religion, I now see these events linked to a wider variety of extremisms at work in the world.

As Westerners we have ourselves fallen prey to certain dangerous kinds of extremism. For one, the extremism of our own market fundamentalists, in the form of neo-liberal capitalism, risks destroying the ecological fabric on which humanity depends. It is obvious to myself and many others that the environmental threats our civilization now poses are much more dangerous than any radical religious movement. And yet how many of us have gotten to the point where we recognize the obvious truth: This is truly a problem of extremism, of radicalism, run rampant in our dominant culture. It is an extremism that insists the planet exists as raw material for a market, and that the planet as well as its populations must submit to the dictates of this “free” market. Submission to the market is called “progress”.

This extremism ultimately threatens all of us and all we hold dear. And the weapons it wields and the forms of ideological persuasion it has in its arsenal far outweigh anything ISIS can muster.

Second, there is the extremism of our mindless faith in technology--an extremism that is now beginning to tamper with the building blocks of life. Genetically modified crops and animals and organisms of all kinds are on the horizon, and it is only our technological arrogance that insists this is business as usual--that it is all for the good of humankind. We really don’t know the monsters we’re on the verge of creating, and our faith that science is good is making us blind to the threat. Science, in service to the technological demands of a capitalism run wild, is no longer a disinterested search for the truth of the universe as much as it is a matter of R&D for huge corporations seeking new and irresistible products. Further, our governments, which should be watching out for our welfare, are all in the pay of these corporations.

And finally, to come back full circle, we have the extremism of our current notions of freedom of speech. We now think it all part of normal political debate to hurl the most offensive insults at those different from us. To willfully knock down anything that may suggest a limit to what we can say or do or be is seen as progressive per se; and of course it goes without saying that anything anyone might consider sacred should be tarnished ASAP so that these benighted medieval people will “finally get over” their “outdated” notions that there is such a thing as the sacred in the universe. Personally, as a Catholic, I believe there are indeed things that are sacred in the universe. And contrary to the thinking of many around me, I know very well that people like myself are not going to go away any time soon. I would certainly not endorse violence against people who desecrate churches, but I do believe there should be strict laws against such desecration.

The Pope’s down-to-earth words on the attack have a basic truth behind them, regardless of being somewhat ill put. One needn’t tiptoe around religious people, but at the same time one shouldn’t intentionally offend them in service to one’s own secular faith. If one does, one can expect, at the very least, to be offended back. And if the offense dealt out to religious people is chronic and repeated, one should not be surprised if, sooner or later, crazies appear out of nowhere to deliver a punch. This is the nature of humanity.

Finally, in conclusion, I’d point out that Europe’s principled support of free expression is not so principled after all. There are many double standards that have long been in play, as argued cogently by Mehdi Hasan in the Huffington Post this week. If you think Europeans truly support absolute freedom of expression, try to publish comic books there downplaying the seriousness of the Holocaust; or try to make a documentary on the joys of sex with children. Freedom of expression has limits, and nearly everyone, religious or not, will have areas that are clearly out of bounds.

I do not think European states should codify laws against depicting Muhammad, but I do think, given that there are millions of Muslims in Europe who are law-abiding citizens, that everyone should show at least a minimum of respect for what these people hold sacred. It is, after all, forbidden for Muslims themselves to depict their Prophet, even if they would seek to show him in some glorious manner. To repeatedly show him as a buffoon, as Charlie Hebdo did, is a kind of double insult.

Living sanely side by side requires some mutual give and take. I know very well the Muslim radicals of ISIS refuse to respect this basic rule of pluralist society. But for most of the citizens of France or Germany or the US it should be second nature by now. Too bad, in this generally extremist climate, that some factions in the West have started willfully breaking this rule.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015


The snail: mere presence of life in a small wet clot. The snail: moist pair of lips without face or voice to trouble its progress.

I love the snail, but will it ever love me back?

It will not, it cannot.

On the humid island where I live the snails I see are the size and weight of walnuts, but more precious. They wend their way at a snail’s pace up and down moss-grown cement embankments. At excruciating slowness they harry the smooth stone walls of overfunded government redoubts.

May they finally dissolve the Hai-Ji-Hui in their delicate mucous caress.

That snails never get more than two meters from the ground I consider a great virtue. To hell with eagles on their rocky crags. They sit up there with Leni Riefenstahl. To hell with all that flies above and surveys, in pixellated high-definition.

O, I will shoot it from the sky.

The poets whose words take flight are not my poets. Flying things are too many now. Already when white sails began to scud over seas, raking in empires, flight grew suspect.

And look--before you can blink that bigot Lindbergh had crossed the Atlantic back to Europe.

You can have your Nabokov with his girly lepidopteral perversions. The artist as marzipan-scented fart, it’s not for me sorry. I’ll stay here with my Russell Edson, my Dostoyevksy, my steady poetic of slugs.

In fact the snail is the sexiest of creatures. Is this maybe because it will never love me back?

What is the snail’s experience of time? Can you get yourself into a snail’s head? What is it to have no before and after, no night or day, but only the cool (immobile time) and the less cool (mobile time)?

I sit near the snail, lean toward it, my nose just inches from its own eyeless face--and the snail doesn’t even know, it can’t, that I am here.

I blow a puff of breath on it: its soft antennae retract; that is all.

Though we now share the same space, one cubic meter of dank air, still the snail and I exist in utterly different dimensions.

If the snail could doubt, it would have every reason to doubt my existence. And yours too.

Snail A: “There are huge beings of vastly superior intelligence that move about around us, sometimes stepping on us wantonly, most times just ignoring us.”

Snail B: “Enough of your silly nonsense. You don’t have a shred of evidence. There’s only the cool, the less cool, and the occasional accident.”

Snail C: “You're too confident, B. Actually these huge beings may exist or they may not. We can’t know for sure.”

Snail B: “Pshaw! It’s nonsense.”

Snail A: “It’s not nonsense. They exist. And I believe there is one of them, one of these beings, that even loves us.”

Yes, this discourse is hardly likely. I don’t care. Weirdos like me, who sit by the Hai-Ji-Hui before work, who watch the women walk by with their faces in iPhones--weirdos like me can well imagine such snail talk as this.

Eric Mader

Mosquitoes and the Political Process

What do mosquitoes eat? And why are they such bastards? I begin with these two questions.

Of course it’s wrong to say mosquitoes eat blood. They take blood to nourish their eggs or incubate their eggs or some damn thing. They don’t eat blood. They eat dust mites, or just dust.

Are mosquitoes maybe vegetarian? Now that would be ironic.

What do mosquitoes fucking eat anyway?

The truth is I haven’t learned a thing about mosquitoes since high school biology class. And I’m too annoyed at the little fucks at present to go searching on the Internet about them.

In fact every night as I’m drifting off to sleep there’s always precisely one mosquito in the room to harass me. Yes, there are dozens on the balcony where we wash clothes, seven or eight in the hallway by the elevator, but there’s always only one that comes when I’m falling asleep.

My question is: How do they decide which one? Are they maybe democratic, the bastards?

Democratic vegetarian bastards who nonetheless suck your blood. It’s doesn’t sound exactly counterintuitive when you put it all together like that.

I’m very attuned to the one that comes. I am. I can hear the faint whining of wings from a distance in the darkness. I know when he’s arrived in the room long before he gets near me. And if he flies over my face, be it even three feet away, I feel the ever so faint rush of air on my cheeks.

It’s kind of pleasant really.

Still, if I get up and switch the light on to find and kill him he’ll drop instantly out of sight. In my experience only mosquitoes in Taiwan know to do this. Have they maybe evolved in symbiosis with humans as their main blood source? I believe so. American or Russian mosquitoes are fucking dumb compared to mosquitoes here.

If I could tell the mosquito, the one that comes, to just bite my hand and get it over with I would. But how can I tell him--what language do mosquitoes speak? I’m guessing it’s a dialect of Mayan. I’m also guessing even if I told him he wouldn’t just bite my hand and get it over with, but would keep fucking buzzing round my wife and I and causing her to flail her arms in the dark and groan and make things worse in general. He wouldn’t listen to my offer no matter how fluent my Mayan was because he enjoys being the fucking annoying little bastard they elected him to be.

I’m nearsighted now, but can remember looking at mosquitoes close up back when I was younger and could see. I remember their upper bodies were covered with soft brown fur, which kind of made them look like tiny bloodsucking deer.

At least in Wisconsin, where I grew up, the mosquitoes had fur.

My question is: How short would people have to be for it to be cost-effective to make mosquito fur coats? I’m guessing if people were two or three centimeters tall that might be about right. And we’d have to shoot the mosquitoes out of the sky; we’d hunt them.

But if we were only three centimeters tall, we’d probably be too worried about ants to think much about luxuries like fur coats.

It’s 1:40 a.m. now. I’ve gotten up and left the mosquito in the other room with my wife and am here at my computer with yet another fucking mosquito in the study. Perhaps this one was voted in as vice president.

Sorry but I just killed the vice president. Callous I know. And how can I do it anyway--kill a few of the poor bastards every day without even bothering to learn their language first? Think about it. There’s something unjust there.

Yes, I know very well that calling them bastards isn’t quite right either--not because they deserve better, but because the mosquitoes that bite are the female of the species, the males just hang out in swamps and read the papers. And since the pejorative term bastard is usually applied only to males, it was kind of incorrect to keep calling them bastards here.

But I wanted this to be a feminist piece.

Eric Mader

Sunday, January 11, 2015

It’s Time to Eradicate Christianity: I mean, look what happened at Charlie Hebdo!

We must finally shut up Christians once and for all! It's the only reasonable course of action, no? The attackers who killed twelve people in downtown Paris last week did so in the name of their prophet Muhammad, who was the founder of Islam, which is a religion, as everyone knows. Well, think about it, Christianity is also a religion, as are Judaism, Buddhism, Sikhism--so it only follows that it’s time to eradicate these “outmoded” belief systems. We must eradicate them now! They have no place in our modern secular world.

Yes, my title is intentionally extreme. It’s a caricature of what I see coming regularly from the pens of atheists and their followers. To tell the truth, in recent years a month doesn’t go by without me reading one or another article that begins bewailing some recent atrocity committed by extremist Muslims, only to morph quickly into an argument against religion in general, then more specifically into an argument against Christians and Christianity. Jeffrey Tayler’s January 9th piece in Salon, with its transparent title "We must stop deferring to religion; Laughable absurdities must be laughed at", performs this same old dishonest shuffle using the Charlie-Hebdo attack as fodder.

Tayler lists a series of recent terrorist atrocities and points the finger directly at Islam: "There are many other well-known examples [of such attacks]. The point is, Islam is implicated in all." But then, oddly, in the next paragraph, he proceeds to shift the whole weight of his argument:
Faced with this uncomfortable but persistently deadly reality, what should we and our politicians (and pundits) do? For starters, we need to cease granting religion--and not just Islam--an exemption from criticism. If we do not believe the fables foisted on us (without evidence) by the faithful, we need to say so, day in and day out, in mixed company, and especially in front of children (to thwart their later indoctrination). We must stop according religion unconditional respect, stop deferring to men (and mostly they are men) who happen to preface their names with the titles of reverend or rabbi or imam, and de-sanctify the sacred, in word and deed.

Laughable absurdities--be they virgin births, parting seas, spontaneously burning bushes--deserve not oblique pardons (“We don’t have to take everything in the Bible literally”), but outspoken ridicule; courses in “religious studies” in campuses across the country might better be referred to as “lessons in harmful superstition, dangerous delusion, and volitional insanity.”
Uh-huh. How did the argument shift suddenly from the serious problem of radical jihadism to the whole of humanity's religious culture? The answer is clear: it shifted on the dime of Tayler's personal hatred of religious people. (Never mind the lame misunderstanding of academic religious studies he reveals in his last line. Such lapses are typical of him, and characteristic of the New Atheism generally: they know virtually nothing about the subjects they harangue us on.)

This bait-and-switch has become something of a rhetorical cliche on the part of Britain’s and America’s fanatical secularists. They use radical Islam as a stalking horse to go after their real target: the tens of millions of Catholics and Protestants who make up majorities in their own countries. And in the net they cast they manage to catch all the world's other religious people as well. It is both intellectually dishonest and, as David Robertson points out, cowardly. (NB: Though I agree with Robertson’s general argument, there are elements in the piece I don’t agree with.)

And so it is again. I already see them quickly co-opting the tragedy in Paris to argue that religious faith is “irrational” and “dangerous” in essence, and that prominent voices from faith communities must be aggressively pushed from the public sphere, must be ridiculed to the margins of society where they can finally be shut up.

Never mind that Christians have not been guilty of one suicide bombing or attack, or that Christians (Iraqi and Syrian Christians especially) along with moderate Muslims and Yezidis, have made up the great majority of ISIS’ and al Qaeda’s victims during these recent bloody years of conflict. No, the logic seems to be something like: The killers in Paris believed in God. Followers of other religions also believe in God. You do the math.

The absurdity of this kind of reductionism is no less annoying for being spread out over the several paragraphs of an article, as one typically sees in Slate, Salon and like publications. (The liberal press still features occasional dissenting pieces, it’s true, but the general trend is toward ever more bashing of religious people. Even Salman Rushdie allowed the Charlie Hebdo attack to lead him toward ill-considered words on the place of religion in culture.)

That modern Islam has a serious problem does not mean that religion itself is the problem. For one thing, religion is a universal human phenomenon; for another, our modern Western notions of individual liberty and human rights could never have been formulated without the Judeo-Christian base they arose upon.

Yes, that’s right. Balking about it or twisting up your face in a scowl won’t change history.

Do you want to see the first time in history that something like a concept of universal human rights was put into words? In fact it is in the Bible, in the New Testament, where the Apostle Paul writes:
In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. . . . There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Jesus Christ. (Galatians 3:26;28)
This text was written around 55 CE. It is an ancient text, but it offers us an uncannily contemporary-sounding vision of human dignity and equality. And that is no mere coincidence: in fact the New Testament is behind much that is greatest in our Western heritage. Here Paul’s recognition that God became unified with humanity in Jesus Christ leads him to a further recognition of the dignity of human being as such. So that every individual person, regardless of gender, race or social standing, is due a kind of absolute dignity. This biblical teaching is the root of what grew into our modern notions of inalienable rights, freedom of expression, a non-negotiable individual dignity. There’s a reason these concepts first developed in Western Europe. At the time of the Enlightenment and before, European civilization was Christian.

The men who gunned down twelve people last week in Paris did not recognize these rights. But that is no stain on the record of religion itself. It is rather the result of a twisted and radicalized movement that has arisen within the religion founded by Muhammad.

Many supporters of the New Atheism like to argue that “more people have been killed in the name of religion” than for any other cause. This claim is itself a cliche, and it is in fact untrue. That the claim has been repeatedly debunked by historians doesn’t seem to matter to the New Atheists however. They will make hay from whatever they can, and cliches have proven to be one of their most fertile fields. (To see some of the reasons the claim is untrue, one may consult, for instance, Karen Armstrong’s comments on her recent book Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. I’m not going to repeat the various arguments here; in any case Armstrong is certainly not the only scholar to address the silliness of the old claim.)

But also: Even if the claim about religion and wars were true, it wouldn’t settle the issue. Because if we are to judge and condemn world religions by tallying up the numbers of people who have died at the hands of religious fanatics, then we must apply the same method to judging dogmatic secularists--aka today’s prominent atheists. What happens when committed secularists, people like Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins, take the reins of a culture?

To get an idea we may study what happens in societies that outlaw belief in God, that treat religious faith as a social aberration or failure of scientific reason. In fact we have several such societies that did precisely this, and their record is horrendous. Whether we look at the Soviet Union, communist China, or any of the other radically secular projects, we find literally millions of victims. In these societies religion is treated as a kind of mental illness or inveterate stupidity (the way Harris and Dawkins view it), and its adherents are brutalized en mass. Overly confident in its own “scientific” ideology of human “progress”, the cultural elite quickly becomes overseer of a vast gulag.

The answer to violence committed by religious fanatics is certainly not the imposition of a fanatical secularism. The problem with Dawkins, Harris and glib cheerleaders like Bill Maher, is that they are historically shallow. When they talk about history or society, they literally don’t know what they’re talking about. I refer to people like Harris and Maher as “liberal fundamentalists”--which is of course a contradiction in terms, a contradiction they should be ashamed of. Because our liberal Western societies are only liberal to the extent that they are pluralist; our liberal political orders recognize and regularly deal with deep incompatibilities of belief among citizens, which is what makes them valid as liberal communities to begin with. Religious beliefs are not merely among these variously held beliefs--no, in the case of Christianity they ethically underpin the whole project.

Against Harris, Dawkins, Maher and all their followers who would use the tragedy at Charlie Hebdo to attack religion in general, I would say: There is no feasible way to impose an ethical, one-size-fits-all atheist system on humanity and expect anything but dismal results. At the end of the day, lib-fundies (liberal fundamentalists) pose as great a danger to our Western societies as religious fanatics do--if not even more of a danger, since they naively claim to be fighting for the human rights enshrined in our constitutions. In fact they hardly understand the deep history of these rights.

Those who do not recognize, to begin with, what a fundamental and sacred mystery human being really is, are not qualified to be the central defenders of human rights.

And neither is the neo-liberal elite, whose speedy co-opting of the massacre in Paris is regrettable. To see the leaders of European capitalism holding up JE SUIS CHARLIE placards, as I likely will at today’s Paris rally, leaves a bad taste in the mouth, if only because the neo-liberal religion, namely the Free Market (blessed be Its name) bears much of the responsibility for the desperation that has led so many young people toward extremism. Among world leaders the only one I see who’s directly addressing the serious problems is Pope Francis.

In conclusion I would like to say one final word about Islam. Above I write that contemporary Islam “has a problem”. I think this is obviously true. But I do not want to be misunderstood. To say that Islam has a problem is not at all to say that Islam is itself a problem or that Muslims as such are a problem. No. I’m hopeful that over time, and with sufficient effort, the majority of Muslims will find the wisdom to counterbalance this fanatical movement that is now harming them even more than it is harming the rest of us. I’ve had Muslim friends, I’ve read Muslim books, and know that the Muslim tradition, going back to Muhammad’s time, is rich enough to find both good and bad in it. Just as, of course, my own Christian tradition has at times been mined in order to bring about great good--in order to show the Spirit at work in humanity--but at other times been misinterpreted in order to commit terrible acts.

The tragedy in Paris must not be co-opted to bash Europe’s Muslims or any other religious group. It should force us rather to look at the real causes of the despair now wracking so many young people, pushing them to leave behind what is good in their traditions and to take up instead the nihilistic banner of hatred and revenge.

Eric Mader

Sunday, December 28, 2014



Sunday, December 21, 2014

Resistance to Heidegger: Reading Graham Harman’s Heidegger Explained

Philosopher Graham Harman

It’s a simple enough question, but perhaps difficult of answer: If Martin Heidegger was the major philosopher of the twentieth century, as Graham Harman argues, why has he not become a more central guide to philosophers since? Why has Heidegger’s work not had an impact on the West even remotely similar to that of thinkers like Freud or Marx, or even Nietzsche?

Harman is one of the key philosophers working in the recently rising Speculative Realist movement. Much of Harman’s project emerges from his reading of Heidegger, particularly Heidegger’s brilliant tool analysis, which makes his 2007 book length portrait of the great philosopher, Heidegger Explained: From Phenomenon to Tool, doubly interesting.

I’ve been an occasional student of Heidegger on and off since my university years in the 1980s. As it’s been a while now since I’ve taken up any of the philosopher’s texts, I decided to read Harman’s book to refresh my memory. I couldn’t have chosen better. It’s certainly the clearest and most comprehensive introduction to Heidegger yet published. Harman covers the whole scope of Heidegger’s career, addresses the dismal turn of the war years, and, for me at least, clarified things that had previously been murky at best, specifically Heidegger’s later writing on the fourfold.

But Harman’s work also led me to ask, given my own political (and environmental) concerns, if it is really worth seriously re-engaging in Heidegger’s thought. Can Heidegger stand as a guide or teacher to those struggling with the demands of the present?

Heidegger insists that the history of metaphysics has come to an end and that we await a new beginning in philosophy. One of the main problems facing this new beginning, at least in terms of its calling to those like me who might (modestly) engage it, is that based on Heidegger’s own work we sense that it will prove unproductive. One suspects that any beginning like that hinted at by Heidegger could not actually change the facts of the social world in the ways that seem necessary--given our ever graver ecological/technological predicament. Such a beginning would be, rather, a local philosophical shift: yet another philosophical school easily ignored by the machine now running roughshod over the planet, just as it ignored the philosopher’s work during his lifetime.

I’m aware of the irony of criticizing Heidegger’s new beginning as “unproductive”. One of the salient problems of the old metaphysics of presence is, certainly, its very productiveness. But even so, I suspect that many thinkers continue to neglect the Heideggerian path because they sense, quite simply, that it would not catch--it would gain no hold on the forces now rushing us toward annihilation.

Thus the conundrum facing thinkers tempted (but finally not taken) by Heidegger’s formidable project. We still hope to change or help rescue the world; we still hope to harness some of the power of metaphysics, even if at the same time undermining its totalizing power. Is this hope at all valid? I don’t know. But next to this hope, the philosophy that begins with the “revealing/self-concealing event” seems to lead fatally to a kind of quietism. Or at least it did so in Heidegger's case.

Harman points out in various places, explicating the Heideggerian prognosis, that all attempts to manage technology through technical means (which here would include everything from statistical analysis to environmental protection committees to land use laws) are doomed to failure from the start, as they still function within the metaphysics of presence that fosters technology's rampant growth. But is this prognosticated failure really so absolute? Might not such "technical means" be at least preliminary to, or attendant upon, a developing awareness of the crisis, which awareness, which danger, might then prepare the ground for the more fundamental turn Heidegger envisions?

One could argue that with these comments I’m putting too much of a political or practical burden on philosophy. One does not take up philosophy in order to accomplish certain goals with it. Asked the question of what one can do with philosophy, Heidegger once answered that the point is not what we do with philosophy, but what philosophy does with us. And yes, not since Parmenides discovered that nothing moves has philosophy necessarily been called upon to solve our political ills.

But what is the place of philosophy once those political ills become potentially synonymous with our self-induced extinction as a species? Does the Heideggarian argue that we do not fundamentally exist as "a species”, but always rather as individual Dasein? If Dasein always means my ownmost, historically grounded existence, how do we think our ownmost historically grounded existence as species? Is such a thought possible in Heideggerian terms?

Harman's last three titled sections before his conclusion are "Heidegger's Vices", "First Objection to Heidegger" and "Second Objection to Heidegger". On Heidegger's vices, Harman doesn't merely restate his earlier points regarding the philosopher's disastrous failure of judgment during the war years, but, rightly I think, traces this failure to a more fundamental one: the lack of a any true political philosophy in Heidegger's work. My own sense is that that lack stems from a certain fatality in the periodization of Heidegger's career. First, Heidegger was grappling with concerns other than political ones during the first half of his career--and we should be grateful for this, as his pre-war work culminated in his masterpiece Being and Time. But subsequent to the war, and more problematically, Heidegger's (perhaps prudent) avoidance of writing directly on political concerns had more personal causes. The philosopher was no doubt aware that any attempt to weigh in directly on questions of the West's political order would only serve to re-ignite the painful issue of the war years; it would provide an easy pretext for his philosophical foes to repeat: "Who are you to philosophize on these questions? Haven't we already heard enough in your Rector's Address?" Had Heidegger not made the disastrous mistakes he did during the war, he may in fact have been emboldened over the following decades to develop his philosophy in ways more directly challenging to Anglo-American capitalism on the one hand, and Soviet communism on the other. As is, he shrewdly (and perhaps inevitably) avoided political philosophy altogether.

Which leads readers of Heidegger like myself to ask: What would a true Heideggerian political philosophy look like? I believe strongly that the stances he took during the war in no way represented a rigorous development of his thought. They represented rather a poorly thought out attempt to paste his thought onto a political movement whose deeper meaning offended against that thought.

Thus I'd conclude by wondering if Harman's section "Heidegger's Vices" wouldn't better be titled "First Objection to Heidegger", as it is in this lack of political philosophy, I suspect, that we approach the true cause of Heidegger's incongruously small impact on the contemporary West. Heidegger insisted that thinkers are to be the "shepherd's of being", but apparently viewed the shepherd only as one who watches and waits. In fact, to develop the metaphor, shepherds must also at times ward off wolves and seek out new pasture. I echo my opening question: Why hasn't Heidegger influenced Western cultures to the same degree as, say, Marx or Freud? He is no doubt a similarly epochal thinker.

In the two "Objections" to Heidegger with which Harman closes his book, he raises important challenges to Heidegger's thinking on the status of things and the interrelations of entities in the world. Each of these challenges lead into Harman's own work in what he calls "object-oriented ontology". Not familiar with Harman's work, I'd mainly be curious to know how he might address this question of what a Heideggerian political philosophy would consist in. Perhaps Harman has already taken up this question somewhere in his work. Or it may be another Heideggerian path which he may some day be interested to develop. After reading this masterful monograph on Heidegger, I'm looking forward to reading more of Harman's work.

And of course: If Graham Harman himself can spare the time to answer an amateur, I’d be very curious to know how he might take on these questions. I’ll be sending this link to him and will post any reply.

In any case, Harman’s book should be on the shelf of anyone engaged in the strenuous but always rewarding work of reading Martin Heidegger. Explanations of difficult philosophical arguments don’t get better than this.

Eric Mader