Robin Hood: Liberal Icon, or Tea Bag Rascal?

Of course, he’s both in the new Russell Crowe film. That’s how Hollywood works: create a fantasy world where all our problems are magically resolved. When it comes to the big problem of personal growth, the film is simple enough: go on a quest, meet a romantic interest. This might be considered escapist since, really, what are we doing going hither and yon, and putting our redemption on an ecstatic union with our soul mate, when really what’s required of us to improve ourselves is typically that we give up on egoism and try solidarity for a change.

Few films are about collectivism. And those that are depoliticize it, make it part of a wish-fulfillment (set in the past, or on another planet) rather than a challenge for the here and now.

So, this latest Robin Hood, the film is definitely against monarchs, especially ones who can’t really fight. Its definitely against leaders who fight endless wars, scorn the common people and practice a leadership style that doesn’t brook disagreement.

So, George W Bush is in the house. He’s the subtext for much of the film’s subtle criticism.

And his foil is Senior Crowe’s Robin Hood, who is loyal (to a point, and that point is when he’s sure its against his self-interest), respectful of women, one of the boys (but more contemplative and moody, not one to patronize Hooters but not critical either of his compadres), and interested in a “purpose-driven” life (something more than war or the accumulation of wealth or hanging out with the guys; a life that values diversity, loyalty and communalism, the logical developments of the Enlightenment ideals of Liberté, égalité, fraternité).

So far, so liberal.

But this is not a film that will offend conservatives and may even excite Tea Partiers and Survivalists. The reason being that it presents us with a notion we hold sacred, “rights,” but limits the meaning to the lowest common denominator of everyone in the audience.

T.H. Marshall** a british sociologist from the 1950s, and one of the most important theorists of the welfare state, argued in a 1950’s lecture, “Citizenship and Social Class,” that there are 3 types of rights: civil, political and social. The 18th C gave us civil or procedural rights (freedom of speech, thought and faith, the right to own property and to conclude valid contracts, and the right to justice). Civil rights, Marshall said, lead to political rights (the right of individuals to participate in government, to share in the direction of the republic). Social rights, finally, give substance to the first two rights by creating a welfare state that reduce risk and insecurity and create equal opportunities for all people to grow, to educate and enlarge their worldviews. “You can’t choose what you don’t know.” Social rights require that the government redistribute wealth. Social rights also burden individuals with the duties of citizenship: for democracy to work, you have to be educated enough to know when money is corrupting your leaders and profit is eclipsing humanism, and humanism is eclipsing ecological sanity/health.

The welfare state in the egalitarian society imagined by a constitutional Republic uses the rhetoric of “rights” not to abolish class differences (which socialists call for) but to prevent the accident of your birth from determining what you are capable of. Thus, the government helps those who have lost their jobs, who were born poor, who fall afoul of drug addiction, who need help with child care and health maintenance and college tuition.

Robin Hood comes out unapologetically for civil and political rights. That bad ol’ King promises to sign a charter that would ensure these rights, and then he reneges on his promise once he’s exploited his loyal lords and knights to defeat a foreign enemy. The King’s betrayal becomes the focus of the film, casting the drama in the ideologically conservative terrain of revenge and ensuring that justice is nothing more complicated than a simple contract: you scratch my back, I scratch yours and if you stop scratching, I am free to do whatever I want.

The political message that comes through loud and clear in Robin Hood is that if your government taxes you “unfairly,” then no matter how fancy your commander in chief dresses (and the King dresses very fancy), you are free to (in the words of Herbert Spencer) “to drop connection with the state–to relinquish its protection, and to refuse paying towards its support” (Social Statics: 1851).

You allow everyone to opt out of paying taxes because they don’t like some decision the leadership makes, then you undermine “the power of the government to help the people realize commonly chosen ends” (Wolfe).

The film dresses up its libertarian values in the puckish attire of anarchistic fantasy, so the middleclass professional resentful of having to fork over hardearned money to Welfare Queens drive their cadillacs to the grocery store for cigarettes and beer can escape to a world where they shoot arrows at corrupt officials and live without the burdens of taxed property.

[**I read about Tawney in Alan Wolfe’s The Future of Liberalism]


Daniel Pink on Satisfying Work

Daniel Pink argues in his new book and youtube lecture that science shows us that “we” are most motivated by improvisational collaborations and self-mastery.

I don’t know about the “science” rhetoric here.

Abraham Maslow argued the same thing as Pink in the 1940′s:

More recently, Csikszentmihalyi (he of the unpronounceable name) wrote about this topic in the book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, though his context was art, not work.

My initial feeling is to thumbs up Mr. Pink’s findings. Also, I like the youtube lecture–the use of the white board cartooning.

And who can object to a vision of work which imagines a collectivist spirit replacing selfish, money grubbing? Sounds peachy.

But for whom is this new paradigm applicable? Software engineers are the only ones in the examples. What about workers in the public sector? Daycare workers?

Why does Pink think that most people can have creativity and humanitarianism at work? Most people sell their labor and they do so without the protection afforded by collective bargaining. Why isn’t Pink writing that book about work?

Its a bit of “white collar porn:” imagining that you can get fulfilled (get your socialism on) at work. If that’s true, awesome, but most people who will read Dan Pink’s stuff are highly educated intellectual workers with stalled out careers. Historically, those people don’t care about the stalled out careers of people below them, but b/c of the financial downturn, more of us are in the same boat. So, are white and blue collar workers teaming up to elect better leaders? Are we teaming up with Walmart workers to get those folks better work conditions?

No, silly. Instead, we turn to self-help books, quasi-spiritual/job advice manuals like we’ve seen since the
1970′s (What Color is Your Parachute?). There have been several recent critiques of this literature: McKee’s Self-Help, Inc and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided.

I feel on the verge of a Marxist rant, but Pink is not helping people with shared interests bond together; he’s giving the educated part of people made “redundant” a fantasy of creative, “socialist” work. He’s killing progressivist impulse, not nuturing it.

“The Truth Must be Ecstatic” (Werner Herzog)

I was given a DVD of Peter Joseph’s movie: Zeitgeist. I watched it and its follow-up as well as the documentary on him.

Joseph (not his real name) has real bohomeian/DIY street cred because he’s a trained musician, college drop out, and a very articulate autodidact who is a disciple of a futurist Jacque Fresco (

At its core, his critique is of the money system (something Ezra Pound also critiqued

He also critiques work.

“Abolition of work” rhetoric ranges from manifesto-type hyperbole (Black: to sober cultural analysis (White:

Joseph doesn’t really add anything to Pound, Black, White are saying, but they work in the textual medium and so their appeal is restricted to those who can tolerate print culture.

Joseph’s genius (as a self-styled, self-made entrepeneur, he qualifies as “genius”) is as a popularizer/myth-maker/motivational speaker.

So, he takes his critiques and mixes in some Walt Disney in the form of a very visual utopian society of particular kinds of building/design and robots that take over jobs from human beings and liberate us from the monotony of work.

Its not nitpicking to fault him for a bogus critique of Christianity (“christ really didn’t exit”) and a bogus critique of 9-11 (“it was the US govt that did it”, the latter view he has since “moved away from”).

He might justify these misrepresentations (is “lies” too strong?) by suggesting that to break through to people you have to create an Ecstatic version of the Truth. He just can’t lay out the facts. Stephen Duncombe says as much in his book on the Left:

So, he’s the new generation of Leftist/Progressive activist, but he’s really more of an anarchist (who are long on talk and short on action).

I mean the idea that “small is beautiful” has been with us for a while:

And there are activist groups working for small scale community, as in Transition Groups:

The Transition movement is a real, grass-roots progressive movement whereas this guy Peter Joseph does at times appear to be a snake oil salesman. He is creating a personality cult around himself like Jim Jones and David Koresh.

He’s  a former advertising video editor, which is how he comes by his skills to put together these films which are really anarchist versions of the Inconvenient Truth. We could say “Inconvenient Truth: The Next Generation.”

His first movie started out its life as an avant-garde performance in Brooklyn by a guy who was sick of work, sick of the world in all its corruption, which he then uploaded to the internet, where it went viral.

He’s a brilliant speaker and not a bad person, I think, although I do agree that he’s irresponsible, just as much a manipulator of people’s emotions as the authoritarian patricians (the Man) he scolds. The wikipedia page summarized criticism of some of his arguments:


“The postmodernist belief in the relativism of truth, coupled to the clicker culture of mass media where attention spans are measured in New York minutes, leaves us with a bewildering array of truth claims packaged in infotainment units. It must be true—I saw it on television, at the movies, on the Internet, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, That’s Incredible, The Sixth Sense, Poltergeist, Loose Change, Zeitgeist the Movie.”[27]

A more severe overall treatment is given by Jane Chapman, a film producer and reader in media studies at the University of Lincoln, who analyzes Zeitgeist (“A fast-paced assemblage of agitprop”) as an example of unethical film-making.[28] She accuses Joseph of deceit through the use of unsourced and unreferenced assertions, and standard film-making propaganda techniques. While parts of the film are, she says, “comically” self-defeating, the nature of “twisted evidence” and the false attribution of Madrid bomb footage as being in London (which she calls a “lie”) amount to ethical abuse in sourcing (in later versions of the movie, a subtitle is added to this footage identifying it as from the Madrid bombings). She finishes her analysis with the comment:

Thus legitimate questions about what happened on 9/11, and about corruption in religious and financial organizations, are all undermined by the film’s determined effort to maximize an emotional response at the expense of reasoned argument.>>

I wouldnt be surprised if he continues to gain fans, given how viral networking/facebook/youtube works.

He’s definitely NOT just a New Age guru giving you a way (other than Prozac) to avoid depression, which is my criticism of “intentional circles” and the New Thought movement. He has his sights set on activism and his tough talk about the corruption of the system and the lies that have kept people in the dark for centuries (conspiracy theory!) is the catalyst for getting people to “wake up.” I hope he directs some of his movement to the actual ongoing grassroots organizations (like Transition groups and social justice volunteer groups like nonprofits that do community building/tutoring/etc).

He probably won’t do that, because he’s turning into a cult figure. His thing will go for a while and maybe a long time, like Scientology, depending upon how much capital he’s able to raise. Right now, the website says that he doesn’t not accept donations. Which is a brilliant move, b/c it adds to his street cred. Eventually, he will accept donations for the creation of a center where he will enthrone himself, like any Swami.

He’s not a Dave Eggers, who is a great example of a social entrepeneur.  He’s not a Catholic Worker, which is a great organization for living a sane, spiritual, community-oriented life.

Was Godless Joe a Coward?

Bill Maher, stand-up comic turned talk-show-host and freelance religion-basher, was once fired by a TVnetwork for suggesting that the terrorists responsible for 9/11 were not “cowards.” Was he right?

Depends, of course, on what you mean by coward. In the U.S. we have tremendous respect for athletes and soldiers, personifications of the virtues of strength, cunning, and single-minded dedication to a cause. How much of our daily mental space is taken up with the cultivation and imitation of heroic physical or militaristic prowess? Video games, sports, action movies: are these the staples of our leisure lives? It would seem so, particularly for boys.

Regardless of gender identification, if the drama of single-handedly prevailing over adversity or against a foe is your daily bread, physical courage is probably more your heroic ideal than spiritual courage.

Here’s a litmus test—who would you rather be: Elizabeth Cady Stanton marching to protest the second-class citizenship of women, or James Bond walking away (in slow-mo) while buildings (and bad guys) are engulfed in flames? Both are stalwart individuals, but the source of their strength is different.

I’m not going out on a limb to suggest that Joe Stack, the out-of-work engineer who crashed his plane into the IRS building in Austin, Texas last week because he felt he was being discriminated against, would rather have been James Bond, and it pained him deeply that his ordinary life was not a cinematic triumph over the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Bill Maher, thus, was only half-wrong. (He’s all wrong on a number of other subjects, but we’ll leave that for another day).

In fact, it does take physical courage to kill yourself, but also an equal measure of spiritual cowardice: that is, a refusal to look directly at despair.

Some of us never reach this point because fortune favors us enough—maybe not lavishly, but enough. Even if we’re dealing with more debt and disappointment than Stack ever faced, perhaps we are graced to have in our lives the solace of God or friends or doctrine which doesn’t judge our worthiness by our heroic prowess.

Joe Stack, like Mohamed Atta and his crew, chose a fiery dramatic death because he could not abide despair. The story he told about Life pitted the good guys against the systemic forces of Evil and left no room for redemption.

For Atta and his boss, Bin Laden, the Beast is the Imperial West. For Stack, it is the tax system and legal system, so needlessly complex, imperiously ruled over our “so-called political ‘representatives’ (thieves, liars, and self-serving scumbags).” Like many terrorists, Stack believed that his violence would provoke such a backlash from the powers-that-be that the mystified masses would for once! see the true face of Evil (which otherwise hides its naked aggression and death-dealing behind conventional morality and law). “Nothing changes unless there is a body count.”

No one needs convincing that Bin Laden, Atta, and Stack are bad guys. But in denouncing their sins, most will likely stop at “they killed innocents.” Their status as criminals, in other words, will overshadow their status as sinners against the cause, and the call, of utopianism, defined broadly as a selfless desire to transform the world, to save it from its destructive bent. Social hope on this scale requires courage, of one sort or the other. The sort of courage it takes matters.

In his new book, Faith (2009), Theo Hobson identifies two kinds of utopianism. In one form of utopianism, as every student of world history will recognize, we see the belief that the world is an ordered, just place, or it could be, in fact would be if it weren’t for those [insert your powerful, insidious foe’s name here] that need to be destroyed by violence. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Joe Stack are Utopianists of this stripe. Their actions are justified by reasoned arguments, albeit passionately delivered and tyrannically enforced, but still Reason is involved, even supreme. None of these people were lunatics in the sense of “babbling idiots who made no sense.”

The other form of utopianism we inherit from the prophetic religious traditions, which, though offering distinct views and channels of faith, all rely upon an individual’s willingness to recognize the primacy of sin; the sin of self-absorption, the sin of self-worry, the sin of self-advancement. Utopia, in this paradigm, emerges from God’s Grace, not from bold, visionary leadership. In this account of Utopianism, sin is relevant, more than merely relevant; it is fundamental premise. And by sin we mean simply the state of being “separate from God,” of moving away, rather than toward, God. Is this definition hard to accept? Probably, because it means that we are often sinning (though no one but yourself can tell you this).

For instance, are you sinning when you have hook-up sex, when you lie to your significant other to avoid some discomfort, when you numb out to your surroundings with alcohol, when you cast another person in your words or thoughts as a foil to your own enlightened way of life? To respond with “no,” you would have to believe that selfless love is the basis of your intention. If you can, you are not sinning.

And what about ‘corporate individuals’: are you sinning when your collective places economic rationality above biodiversity? Stockholder return above labor fairness? Partisan victory above bipartisan remedies to social problems? National interest above (international) social justice? To respond with “no,” you would have to show that your warrant for action is an ethic of love. If you can, you are not sinning.

Political utopianism, because its ultimate focus is on results, on a rational ordering of who leads and who receives benefits, makes room for the bully to cast himself as beleaguered hero. In his letter, Stack supposedly gave his all to the American Dream; he worked hard, suffered long (100-hour workweeks, not to mention the early lean years as a student eating peanut butter twice a day), and yet he didn’t triumph in the end. His personal failure and humiliation becomes proof that the system has been hijacked by “pompous political thugs” and must be returned, violently if necessary, to its true beneficiaries, the ordinary Americans (whom he refers to as “mindless minions”). Such pessimism masquerading as utopian zeal is only possible when human beings are cast as the saviors of humankind, as they are in the drama of political utopianism.

Religious utopianism, on the other hand, posits that only God can save humanity (from itself). A belief in God, Hobson suggests, is not an intellectual proposition about an entity, as several recent authors have made out; it is a relationship to a particular story about transcendent love and performance of that story/love. (This is not to suggest that the story is a myth, as in a fairy tale. Story is not an insignificant mode of being). This God-relationship begins with the acceptance of (the surrender to) a belief that the weakness and foolishness of love and charity can save not just one soul but all of humanity.

Stack’s letter shows us a strong man who lived in a culture that idealized strong men, only he was broken and didn’t know what to do with that fact. His mind was working fine, cranking out a rationalization of spiritual cowardice, but his soul was defunct, frozen in a muscular rictus of denial.

The Itch of Everyday Ansy

i just read Pema Chodron’s _Taking the Leap_ i’ve been digesting it. She writes:  

We are like young children who have a bad case of poison ivy. Because we want to relive the discomfort, we automatically scratch, and it seems a perfectly sane thing to do. In the face of anything we don’t like, we automatically try to escape. In other words, scatching is our habitual way of trying to get away, trying to escape our fundamental discomfort, the fundamental itch of restlessness and insecurity, or that very uneasy feeling: that feeling that something bad is about to happen( 15)…  Trying to create zones of safety creates suffering. It weakens us, the world becomes more terrifying, and our thoughts and emotions become more and more threatening as well….there is a deep seated tendency to distract ourselves, even when we’re not consciously feeling uncomfortable. Everybody feels a little bit of itch all the time. There’s a background hum of ediginess, boredom, restlessness. The Buddhist explanation is that we feel this uneasiness b/c we’re always trying to get ground under our feet and it never quite works. We’re always looking for a permanent reference point, and it doesn’t exist. Everything is impermanent (17-18).

Over the holiday break, i itched a lot, especially around my extended family. but i also experienced a moment of not itching and it was freeing. my brother in law said he was taking the kids to the minature golf place and did I want to go? when he asked I immediately thought: I hate that shit and its expensive! And SO boring. And I could use the time to read. ANd he’ll take them. works for everyone! so I answered honestly: “no, not really.” and then i felt his desire that i go and oliver’s too and I relaxed into that flow, knowing that it was no different than the flow i might find reading. i expereinced a kinda of spaciousness of no-preference. of not-giving-in-the-itch to read, which felt more like an escape than something i really needed to be doing when my family was gathered together. it reminds me of a zen story by the trappist monk Thomas Merton that i read about in Kurtz and Ketcham’s Spirituality of Imperfection:  He met a zen novice who finished his first year at a monastery and asked him how it went. what did he learn? he expected stories of enlightenment, deepening spiritual practice, etc the novice said: i learned to open and close doors. just that. the discipline of not acting impetuously, not hurrying from one place to another. so, if someone asks me how did my break go? i’m going to say: I learned to play gooney golf.

“We are group animals to a terrifying degree”

Security is the first and foremost reason for social life. …All animals that rely on one another for the hunt, or are prey themselves, have a need to coordinate movements. They tend to follow leaders and conform to the majority…Humans excel at bodily synchrony and actually derive pleasure from it. Walking next to someone, for example, we automatically fall into the same stride. We coordinate chants and “waves” during sporting events…We feel good clapping together but not when no one else is clapping. We are group animals to a terrifying degree” (22).

The Age of Empathy (2009), Frans de Waal

And what about laughing? Its contagious. As is involuntary “pandiculation” (you know, yawning and stretching). Its all what de Waal calls “mood transmission,” the important biological component of “empathy.”

It seems to me empathy also brings suffering in the form of “co-dependence.” When you identify with someone (a partner, a child) really, really deeply, it might be a way of avoiding something. I’m thinking of the way that some parents seem so invested in their children, almost greedy for their time/proximity. I have felt this way about my boys; I don’t want them to grow up and leave. This may have something to do with growing up (13-19) without my dad in my home. I lived with my mom. I’ve never asked him why he didn’t try to get joint-custody. Maybe because he felt guilty since he was the one leaving?

There is also a sense in which developing a resistance to “mood transmission” is a part of listening to another person talk, especially when what they’re talking about brings you pain. I found it very easy to listen to my partner when the topic was her family of origin. I was in no way implicated! Ahhhh, honey…..

It became harder when it was her claustrophobic feelings about being in a settled bourgeois life. I, the ‘bread-winner’, was obviously the lynchpin of said bourgeois life, so it was difficult to hear about her discomfort with stupid ol monogamy; it was easy to let her mood ‘transmit’ itself to my brain wither a self-loathing or a self-defensiveness, or ann icky mixture of the two.

How to live together? Do the great prophets help with this? Jesus mostly counseled people against too strong an attachment to family. Abraham was a radical. A bohemian. His strongest ties seemed to be to strangers. that seems to be the same for bohemians and prophets and disciples.

Speaking of “synchrony,” isnt that what so f-ing cool about playing rock n roll? You’re in sync with these other musicians and together you’re creating sound that enthralls a whole lot of people who are just standing around looking dumb otherwise. You’re making sex limbs out of wallflowers in a many-tenacled beast rock n roll.

Staring/Paying Attention, Beholding, and Martyring: The ‘Ocularity’ of Spirituality


Reading Staring: How We Look (Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Oxford 2009), you learn that “staring is a more intense form of looking than glancing, glimpsing, scanning, and other forms of casual looking. Staring is profligate interest, stunned wonder, obsessive ocularity.”

There are rules about when/where/how we can stare, even though the rules are often broken since there is an element of “vulnerable enthrallment and overriding compulsion” to staring (meaning: we can’t help ourselves).

We somehow feel its wrong to fasten eyes on someone or something, though I suppose we also think its “normal.” We can’t help it. We cannot ignore “compelling visual stimuli” (its evolutionary!). Its also social: we stare (or let ourselves be stared at) to establish social hierarchy. We also stare at a loved one to show that we care enough not to be distracted, to prolong an ocular focus beyond what may be interesting, or comfortable. The ordinary bores us; so why would be stare at our mate? More likely, we stare at strangers. Or images. We stare at those alot: football, clothing models, sexy people in general, our furniture/lawn/car/children/whatever makes us feel grounded. My dad used to cut this huge field on his farm and then, at the end of the day, sit on the porch and stare at it. I’d sit there with him. We’d have cocktails and stare at the freshly mown field. Sometimes a coyote would oblige and give us something to stare at. Usually it was just the completed job, the pecan grove, the highway.

We gawk in spite of ourselves, though many of us, I would imagine, gawk on the sly through various voyeuristic channels: movies, TV, internet porn, “people watching” cafes, etc. How much does our staring shape us?

Men watch football, men watch porn, men watch James Bond: all this heavily-scripted staring offers a controlled stimulation of novelty: the temporary release from social mores that require men not to hurt one another or women to keep their clothes on, the tension of “opposites” (heros and villains, innocents and defilement), the climatic spectacle of domination: the hit, the “money shot,” the explosion (which, as andy samberg sings, cools guys don’t look at).Reclining Nude Amedeo Modigliani

Often staring as a manifestation of dominance veils aggression…As John Berger succinctly puts it: “men act, and women appear.” In other words, the male gaze is men doing something to women. This ocular gesture of dominance acts out the gendered asymmetries of patriarchy as it proliferates in institutionalized cultural forms such as films, beauty contests, advertising, striptease routines, and fashion shows. Laden with sexual desire, predation, voyeurism, intimidation and entitlement, the male gaze often achieves the prolonged intensity of staring (41).

Women hug each other and talk excitedly, facing each other, their hands gesturing, occasionally touching. This is an unusual staring behavior; Garland-Thomson calls it “paying attention.”

The problem of paying attention is how ot keep the interest that triggers staring alive when novelty abates. This type of staring as information collection requires concentrated, focused, and prolonged looking. To pay attention is to make staring productive and controlled, to continue the visual engagement when surprise no longer drives scrutiny, to resist ocular boredom and the lure of distracting newly novel sights….Paying attention is visual monogamy” (20).

Of course, women stare, too, and sometimes at women, or maybe a lot at women (whether for arousal or assessment, or both). And men pay attention, too, but usually to the phenomena they are paid to monitor and find patterns in. They also pay attention to their children.images-1

Women tend to look [in another person’s eyes] more than men, and people of both genders tend to look more at female partne

rs than male ones. A continuous, direct gaze promotes intimacy and personal revelations among women, but it prompts reticence among men (Garland-Thomson 40).

There are certain things we do, I think, just to escape our staring routines. Hugging is a good one. Or kissing. Don’t you close your eyes when you hug and kiss? Or at least you dim your visual field. You’re not scrutinizing or avoiding “eye contact.” You can’t: you’re too close.

Other eye-relaxing activities: Exercise, dancing (particularly Contact Improvisation), walking, swimming, yoga. When you become intensely embodied, your visual awareness dims.

Sleep is replenishing in part because we’re done looking for the day. Its comforting to sit or lay in the dark with someone, to rely on other senses (voice, touch) to communicate, though often the communication is “phatic” (just for sake of it–nothing “deep”).


Garland-Thomson puts together her sense of the ethics of staring by considering two works: Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others and Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just. Sontag suggests that bad staring is looking at a photograph of someone in pain and being relieved that “this is not happening to me” (99). This kind of looking produces unethical “passivity”—the world is simply a horrible place and good thing we’re not the ones who have taken the brunt of it. Bad staring is, in Martin Buber’s language, all “I” and no “Thou.”

Good staring, on the other hand, happens when the starer has a sympathetic response to the misery of another and this feeling is translated into some kind of action. Garland-Thomson finds this ethics of looking sensible enough but points out that it leaves out of the moral reckoning the staree (the person stared at).

Although Scarry investigates “beauty” rather than “repulsive attractions,” together they provide a complete ethics of looking. “Beauty” for Scarry is a perceptual process (not any objectified person or thing or place) by which someone is arrested, taken by surprise, reoriented or disoriented–in any case, beauty “conveys a newness on the entrie world” (22). Beauty is “novelty at work.” Looking at beauty can be ethical when it moves people “towards active stewardship or everyone opporotunty for access to beauty” (187).

We can conclude then that the capacity of both “beautiful” and “repulsive” attractions to make us look is the same: we become ethical starers by being conscious in the presence of something that compels our intense attention. What gives such attractions power is their capacity to vivify human empathy through bearing visual witness (188).

In other words, staring is ethical when it is a kind of beholding, when it is accompanied by a feeling of reverential awe, a transformative newness/respect. Garland-Thomson gives a number of examples of the “visual activism” of disabled people who “put themselves in the public eye”, who say “look at me” instead of “don’t stare.” These people invite starers to look and be transformed by the courage of someone willing to interact through the eyes with people who will undoubtedly at first feel that disability is an assault on the order of things.


“Being seen” is something men are seldom comfortable with. If they can control how they are seen, that’s another thing. But if they are allowing some vulnerable part of themselves (their shame, their dependence) to be seen, then its another story altogether. When men will do this, it is usually within some context where the act is heroic: “opening up” to one’s mate, after all, since supposedly men are not expected to perform this work of intimacy, is something extraordinary. Opening up to a group of people who suffer from the same malady (some addiction or devestating loss) is another context in which men volunteer to be seen, but here again the act is something on the level of martyrdom. Women doing the same thing are just being women–performing their gender’s prescribed role as emotional workhorses.

Regardless of which sex the partners in the exchange identify with, looking masculinizes and being looked at feminizes (41).

To martyr yourself as a man, you become a woman. You give up your entitlement of being the one who looks, who is in control, who knows/dominates others either in a predatory/exploitative or patrician/gentle way.

Supernatural thinking in everyday life

Bruce Hood’s book, Supersense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable (2009), argues that all kinds of people (not just those who identify themselves as religious or superstitious) “infer the presence of hidden aspects of reality” when making decisions in everyday life. This is partly because the tribe tells them its so but also partly, Hood says, because “we are born with brains that infer hidden structures and forces in the real world” (23). “Our brains are designed [by natural selection] to fill in missing information and thus make sense of the world” (11). He points to Gestalt psychology, which demonstrates that ourclosure_smallbrains see patterns by organizing input with certain unlearned rules. The image on the right “illustrates the law of closure, which states that objects tend to be seen as part of a whole. There are no circles or triangles in this image, but our minds fill in the missing information to create these shapes.”

We see rabbits in clouds, and we see God in the Sublime of Nature.

almas“Someone who believes in supernatural forces operate in the world is on the lookout for examples of strange , inexplicable phenomena and conveninetl ignores the multitude of mundane events that do not fit this interpretation” (13). You may have experienced this, as when someone stacks up the evidence that bigfoot really exists. So many people couldn’t all be in on some conspiracy?!

So, is Hood just debunking superstition? Another professional skeptic, like Richard Dawkins or Bill Maher, on the prowl for ‘idiots’? No, Hood says we’re all “less than rational.” For example, in some of his lectures he will pass around the audience a pen that was owned by Albert Einstein. People want to touch it. He challenges them to put on a tattered cardigan that was worn by a mass murderer/cannibal. People don’t want to do that. Of course, he’s lying about the provenance of these objects, but it proves a point: we believe that objects have “energy.” And that is a supernatural belief.


Hood also wears the anthropologist’s hat (maybe the very hat worn by the great Claude Levi-Strauss?) Hood claims the supersense as an evolutionary advantage because it allows us to appreciate sacred values. Sacred values are places, people, ideas and activities that have meaning beyond what might be dervied from their historical significance or pragmatic worth. Like some people believe that Jesus was a great prophet but not the son of God. In other words, he’s not sacred but his teachings have great pragmatic value. Thomas Jefferson thought this about Jesus.

So, what’s so great about sacred values? Can’t we just appreciate something a whole lot but not also believe it to have (supernatural) status? Sure, and that person is called a humanist, one who hold morals independently of metaphysics. But Hood suggests that “sacred values confirm our willngness to be part of the group and share beliefs even when such beliefs lack good evidence” (xv). Its like peer pressure in a good way.

Hood, in sum, presents a kinder treatment to supernatural beliefs than we’ve seen lately by the “new atheists” or, in a non-deistic vein, Barbara Ehrenreich’s latest: Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (2009). Ehrenreich writes another accessible and engaging intellectual history (her previous one was on rituals of joy/dance: Dancing in the Streets). Like Hood, she wants to explain (rather than dismiss–don’t  be fooled by her title, whose tone she borrows from Talk Radio in a kind of inside joke?) the “positive thinking movement,” the cult of cheerfulness. She does critique the movement (instead of acquiring more education or working for the greater good through service, the self-help gurs sell us the idea of unlocking our inner power) but her main purpose is to trace the intellectual lineage of THINK POSITIVE!

Like Mark Edmundson’s critique of self-help and pop transcendence (angels etc) in Nightmare on Main Street, Ehrenreich argues that thinking positively is ultimately just a plug for the status quo. Dont worry be happy translates to: be a good worker, be a satisfied customer. don’t complain. don’t really think about your life…

All this positive thinking, in the religious context, began in the 19th century with the emergence of the New Thought (Emerson, Swedeborgianism). All of those freedom movements sought to oppose the Calvinist harshness that taught you that God was an angry fellow who was watching you and that any time spent not working or praing was idelness and sin.

In the New Thought, God was no longer hostle or indfiferent; he was “ubiqtuious and all powerful Spirit or Mind and since man was Spirt too man was coterminous with God. So no sin since we’re all one with God”….Remember the Church Lady? How convenient?!?!

She traces the “New Thought” from Emerson and  Quinby to Normal Vincent Peal to Dale Carnegie to The Secret. She doesn’t like the Secret: derivative mish-mash of hooey which actually promotes the supernatural belief that you can change other people (voo doo style) by thinking certain thoughts. You can also heal your nearsightedness with positive thinking.

But does it work? Does positive thinking work? Despite the popularity of “positive psychology” at Harvard, recent studies suggest it  does not. Often the positive thinking mantras end, or are vitiated by, worry that our negative expectations are undermining our success! For Ehrenreich, what is better than positive thinking is realistic thinking and shaking off self-absorption.



I’ve become interested lately in losers. And not just because I like to read literature, which is for the most part about losers. Madame Bovary: Loser. Job (of Old Testament fame): Loser. David Lurie (protagonist of J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace): Loser.images

I’ve begun a study of losers, I’ve become a loserologist, because our culture loves winners. It idolizes “warriors”–that’s how Curtis White puts it in his book, The Barbaric HeartFaithMoney, and the Crisis of Nature (2009):

The virtues of the warrior ethic: if you can profit from the skillful use of violence, then you should go ahead and be violent. [This notion] penetrates deeply into the entire culture through our respect for athletes, the military (consider all the oohing when fighter jets pass overhead at “air shows”), the triumphs of business wealth (the Jack Welch story), and every action movie out there where the hero uses uber-skillful and hyperbolic violence to “fight his way through” the enemy in the name of preserving the good, i.e. his own people. Think Bruce Willis and Die Hard.

Ours is not simply a violent culture. It is a culture that believes that violence (especially violence with a skill set) is a virtue. It is really our national religion, if, as Tolstoy said, a culture’s true religion is not the things it claims to “believe” but the ideas that it lives through on a daily basis.*

If you believe, as White does, as I do, that our consumer culture is not sustainable and that we will soon be paying for our excesses, for our worship of false idols (winners, warriors), then looking into this matter of losers is maybe a good idea.

So, first I had to find a loser. I guess first I had to define loser.

That was easy enough: a loser is someone who does not claim her/his emptiness but, instead, lives a life of pride, envy, ambition, “fun.” Everyone immediately thinks Britney Spears! Because she is our culture’s whipping boy for its own guilty conscience. But the better answer for the committed loserologist is: me.images-1

I take my cue here from Siddhārtha Gautama but also from one of his modern interpreters, A. Hameed Ali, who writes in The Heart Dweller (1973) that most people are “ego” most of the time; the ego is basically everything that has been moving us into the world, into action, into relationships, into an identity that we then work so hard every day to maintain:

The core of ego is a feeling, a state of deficiency, of poverty, of emptiness, of saying, “I’m no good. I’m worthless. I’m empty.  Give me more, more, more.  MORE.”  In this state of deficiency, I don’t love myself.  I don’t accept myself. I reject myself – I want to run away, distract myself, maybe go to a movie, see a friend, have sex, eat, fill myself with knowledge, or pretend I’m ok.  I’m always wanting to fill this emptiness, always rejecting it – always afraid of it.  In fact, we’re all terrified by it.  Most of the time people don’t know that this emptiness is what’s driving them and most of their actions.  It’s such a desperation.  Such a race to fill this bottomless pit!  But how sweet it is to say “Yes” to this emptiness!  How courageous it is to say, “I feel empty.  I feel deficient, but I won’t attempt to fill it. Only the hero will take this attitude, for it is a heroic act to see your deficiency, and your neediness and your emptiness and still not try to fill it and avoid it.

So, my first step was to inventory all the ways that I tried to distract myself from my emptiness. First thing that came to mind was smoking. When I smoked, I loved it. It was like finally: something to do with my hands, with the lull in the late afternoon, with the late hours. Hurray for cigarettes! You can take the edge off your ansies with a nicotine buzz. Yessir you can. But then you’re stuck afterwards, suspended in the discomfort zone of a waning mild narcotic high. Its like this: your body’s full of sand, and this sand is what keeps you going, its your stuffing, and its leaking out itty bit at a time, and so you have another smoke to add some more sand, which then begins to leak out again. And so on. No way to plug the leaks. Keep adding sand.

This also goes for my consumption: my trips to the mall, to the fast food places, to the Starbucks. Like Kim Gordon (SONIC YOUTH) sings on the album, Daydream Nation:

Come on down to the store800px-Image-Rock_en_Seine_2007,_Kim_Gordon_(Sonic_Youth)_2/You can buy some more, and more, and more, and more/Come on down to the store/You can buy some more, and more, and more, and more/Come on down to the store/You can buy some more, and more, and more, and more/You can buy some more, more, more, more

Kim is right; we are a daydream nation. There’s a backdrop of longing to the lives to a lot of us living here in the land of plenty, a melancholic narcissistic daydreaming gauze. It arises from all our half-measures and missed connections. Even our intimate relationships are narcotics, filling voids. We’re so cloudy, murky.

But loserology can address all that.

When I quit smoking, there wasn’t an easy way to fill the void. Friends said: jog. Friends said: come with us to the movies. Friends said: meet us at the bar. But back then I couldn’t jog; it was boring; movies were boring; drinking was boring. So, I was just uncomfortable for long periods of time and, eventually, the ordinary anguish of living just swamped up out of me in tears, like a broken water main. And after a while, it stopped gushing and my body felt just like what I imagine a baby’s body feels like, with the pink toes and translucent fingers, like there are no bones in you. Just a soft-bodied creature, like a crab after it molts. And sleep welcomes you then, without any struggling find the comfortable spot in the bed, without any tug-o-war with the insomniac part of you.

Now, I’m wondering about my two glasses of wine every evening (doctor approved!), my nursing a new novel every two weeks, my watching my favorite soap opera (House, MD), my fantasizing about a black leather coach or a trip to Mexico. These rituals relax my body, lower my blood pressure, but they also make my sorrow intangible, less likely to find its way up and out. They are sand. Everything, really, except for prayer, meditation, fellowship, service (all those ego-less activities) is sand.

Maybe I should close with a joke about Britney Spears. OMG. She is so superficial.

Divorce and Spirituality

You are “single.” After 14 years of being “married.” Your wife “left you.” Now, you’re on your first post-you’re-all-alone-in-the-world date. You’re nervous, feeling that this might be a mistake. It is a mistake. Not a quick one, either. It unfolds over 4-5 hours, like the death of a thousand cuts. This is a human sacrifice, and the poor victim is sitting across from you chatting away, thinking this might could be something, but you know its not, can’t be, isn’t.

Because there is a ruthless criticism going onside your head.

This woman across the table from you is not your beloved. There’s nothing she could be in this moment that wouldn’t stike you as somehow off, like a pixelated image, like milk that’s just turning, like a water color by a half-lucky amateur. There are aspects that appealing. She has, for instance, body parts that trigger certain emotions in your reptilian brainreptilianbrain2

The brain stem is the oldest and smallest region in the evolving human brain. It evolved hundreds of millions of years ago and is more like the entire brain of present-day reptiles. For this reason, it is often called the ‘reptilian brain’. Various clumps of cells in the brain stem determine the brain’s general level of alertness and regulate the vegetative processes of the body such as breathing and heartbeat.

It’s similar to the brain possessed by the hardy reptiles that preceded mammals, roughly 200 million years ago. It’s ‘preverbal’, but controls life functions such as autonomic brain, breathing, heart rate and the fight or flight mechanism. Lacking language, its impulses are instinctual and ritualistic. It’s concerned with fundamental needs such as survival, physical maintenance, hoarding, dominance, preening and mating. It is also found in lower life forms such as lizards, crocodiles and birds. It is at the base of your skull emerging from your spinal column.

Your ’preverbal clump of cells’ tells you: hey, not bad. This could happen. You’re preened. You’re ready. But you are in the throes of a dogma, of a mystical consciousness that is unintelligible to itself, which happens in the cerebral cortex (only .16 inches thick).

Beauty is ineluctable. Bataille said that if a grasshopper were the size of a lion it would be the most beautiful animal in the world.  My date is a grasshopper and my x-wife is a lion.

After the date had ended, after I’d awkwardly walked her to her door and awkwardly kissed her goodnight and awkwardly mumbled I’d call her and left her standing there as I walked away with the tense relief of a naughty kid stiff legging it away from the Principal’s steady gaze. After all that, I cried in the car, or tried to. It left me feeling like I do after couching up a fake laugh for my boss. I just felt like there should be some kind of outpouring of feeling.

I wanted to call the Lion. I wanted my solace. She’d been my solace for 14 years. Her voice, her touch, pulled me back to the ground. But when I talk to her now, I can only get a little of that, and its always tainted with the awareness that she’s soothing me, not letting me slump on her. She may be holding me up with one hand but with the other she’s holding me away, edging me over to a chair, where she can settle me down and release the weight of my grief.

That’s the thing about spiritual growth–its not “growth” at all. Growth can happen without you being aware of it. My son grew 5 inches one year. He wasn’t aware of it. The better metaphor is birth. Spiritual birth gives you a better idea, because birth is painful and exhausting and messy.

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