Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Culturally Detemined Absolutes

Michel Foucault's writing on the history of sexuality sheds a great deal of light for me on a much broader area of human behavior. Foucault begins with the basic premise that deviance and normality in human sexual behavior are both determined, quite arbitrarily, by culture. Isn't the very idea of right and wrong arbitrarily determined by culture? Perhaps the reason that spiritual texts have endured as moral baselines is that there are so few culturally specific rules that make sense as a universal truths. We can agree across time and geography that killing is wrong but imagine how absurd it would appear to the 31st century cultural anthropologist to dig up a few stone tablets with some of the eminent truisms of my short lifetime.

"Communism is evil, capitalism is good"
"Christianity is a religion of peace"
"Islam is a religion of peace"
"Religion is an important part of a child's upbringing"
"Torture is wrong"
"Every human being has inherent rights"
"Killing civilians is acceptable collateral damage"
"Habeas Corpus is an inalienable right for US citizens"

Are any of these statements true? And if true are they True? Would they make sense to someone from another time and culture.

Dostoevsky's famous maxim 'without God anything is possible' serves as a reminder that a moral framework is all that stands between the inhumanity of man and his fellow man. But in our history the moral frameworks have been repeatedly cited as justification for horrible atrocities. A deviant interpretation of Islam justifies 9/11 a deviant interpretation of Christianity justifies the Salem Witch trials and the Inquisition, nationalisms and patriotism yield massacres in Armenia, El Salvador, and The Katyn Forest.

I have never been completely clear on the definition of moral relativism but it seems to me that it should be defined as such: a moral relativist is one who advocates that an action is morally wrong when undertaken by one party but morally correct when undertaken by another. If killing civilians is wrong then it must always be wrong. It cannot be abhorrent when undertaken by those who are classified as terrorists but acceptable when undertaken by those who are classified as conventional military. Everybody thinks they are fighting for the greater good, that the sacrifices of the few are necessary for the good of the many, but that is of little relevance if you are one of the 'few' who are killed in the struggle.

This of course assumes that death is a bad thing. Death in combat has been venerated by a myriad of cultures as the highest aspiration in life. The Roman centurion, the Teutonic Knight, the Samurai, the Kamikaze pilot, the mujahadeen, and the suicide bomber have all sought death in battle as a great reward.

But what about those who believe in reincarnation? If one has lived according to the rules of cosmic ascendancy should not one look forward to death as a release from the tortures of their present life? Assuming for a moment that suicide of any kind is considered a black mark on the reincarnation record the kamikaze pilots and suicide bombers are out of luck but it seems that the major religions which have reincarnation as an underpinning, Hinduism and Buddhism, are fairly hostile toward violence in general. So would a worldwide conversion to these two religions end all wars?

Sometimes I think that if religion can possibly have any value it is in its ability to change a person's behavior for the better. A criminal who discovers Islam or Christianity in prison and changes from a petty thug into a brilliant leader is a testament to the value of religion. I read somewhere once that there are atheist rabbis who continue to do their work in the synagogue and in university because they believe in the inherent value of religion even though they do not believe in God. This idea completely fascinates me. A person is willing to pretend to believe in something that they secretly believe to be false for the benefit of their fellow man. Ironically this is the type of thing that makes me believe in God. Atheist rabbis lead agnostic to belief...film at 11.

And then there are places like Auroville, India. I almost moved there a while back. It was mentioned in a few books by Stanislav Grof and I found their website and started researching the place. I wonder if that is where Steven King got the idea for "the Mother" in The Stand, or the Wachowski brothers for "the Oracle".

A monastery should not have a flag. A monk friend of mine told me about a beautiful dream he has in which the angel Gabriel comes down in the night and takes all the flags in the world away. But religious symbols are flags too. In my dream he takes those as well.

Duvall in Apocalypse Now and Giovanni Ribisi in The Postman. They would be opposed to the removal of the flags of the world. They both defined their identity by the wars of which they were a part, without flags, symbols and ideology wars seem even more pointless.

star wars rebels

David was seven when terrorists blew up the officers club at Rhein Main. Until then he had eaten dinner there with his family on Fridays. It blew up on a Friday. For some reason the image of a terrorist in his mind always included a Volkswagen van, the round bubbly kind with the big VW logo stamped in the metal of the nose. He wanted to know what the terrorists were, beyond their long black beards and dark glasses. Why did they do what they did. His parents explanations seemed groping and insufficient. As if their answers were based on what they should say and should think but rooted completely in ignorance. And fear.

They took the London subway to see Star Wars not long after the attack. When the subway stopped and the lights went out he wondered if the terrorists had done that too. But mostly he thought about the movie and whether or not they would get there in time.

The rebels were fighting the empire. They launched a daring strike at the heart of the enemies fortress, they risked their lives, some of them died, but they struck a mortal blow. It took a great many years for the empire to recover. The empire was forced to become even more ruthless.

There were real life rebels a couple years later. They were called mujahadeen and the CIA was helping them fight the Soviets. They even lived in the desert and dressed like Luke Skywalker and his family on Tatooine before the stormtroopers killed them. They came up with innovative tactics to make up for their inferior numbers and lack of technology. There was an article about mujahadeen dropping rocks onto the blades of Soviet Hind helicopters as they flew through canyons and bringing them down.

The Palestinians were using rocks against tanks, but there weren't any articles about tanks being destroyed by rocks. It seemed like their were lots of rebels. Some were fighting us, some were fighting the Soviets, some were fighting the Israelis. In Nicaragua the rebels were fighting the Sandinistas who were bad because they were Communists. In Angola the communists were the rebels and they were fighting the Portuguese. In South Africa the communists were fighting the Afrikaners and they were bad because they created apartheid.

One time when David was in the waiting room at the hospital he saw a magazine ad for apartheid. It was glossy with beautiful pictures of South Africa and it explained why apartheid wasn't really racism and why South Africa was being unfairly sanctioned. He wondered if the communists and the apartheid people were fighting which side the US was on.

His mom said it was hard for the South Africans because they had to make everything from scratch since no one would do business with them.

In 1980 they moved to California form Germany. David and his brother were so excited to be home. The next time a Star Wars movie came out they could see it right away instead of having to take the London subway or wait until it came to the base.

The Empire Strikes Back started out in a far off planet that was totally covered in snow. The rebels had to hide after their daring attack on the Death Star. It was so awesome to be able to see the movie without waiting in a huge line.

When David was in eight grade a special guest visited their classroom. She had just returned from a trip to the Soviet Union and she had lots of slides and souvenirs to share with the kids. In Moscow there was art in the subway and big gold statues in the parks that no one ever sprayed with graffiti or tried to steal. David was so excited about this place and he went home and told his mom all about it.

Mom was not excited, she was mad. She yelled at David and said she was going to call the school. David did not understand this. When they lived in Germany they visited lots of countries and admired their art and even bought postcards to put in a big scrap book. Sometimes they showed slides of their travels to friends and talked about how beautiful it was there or there and how nice this or that place was.

Then mom explained how the Soviet Union was evil and that if you disagreed with the government they would say you were crazy and then lock you in a mental institution and pump you full of drugs until you really were crazy and then no one would believe anything you said. Dad explained how their elections weren't real because there was only one person on the ballot so you had to vote for who they said and that wasn't really an election.

David's grandparents had visited the Soviet Union back when David's family was still in Germany. Grandma brought back a hand carved bear that lifted a barbell when you pushed a button. Grandpa never said anything about mental hospitals or elections. They showed their slides and mom and dad didn't even get mad.


When David was nineteen he went to the Soviet Union. He had studied Russian for a year. They were in the south of Russia, there were even palm trees. They took a boat to Georgia and he thought about staying there forever. The KGB tour guide thought he was a spy but he was still pretty nice. The American tour guide was mad when he went to Georgia with Arden and Inna but it was worth it.

When he got back from the USSR all he could think about was how much he missed it. His Russian had improved he thought maybe he could work there. He had taken all the Russian classes in the catalog, he started studying Arabic.

It took him a year and three months to get back to Russia. It wasn't the Soviet Union anymore. He married a Russian girl, then got divorced, married another one, came home. The University of Maryland gave him a graduate assistantship to study for a Master's in Russian Linguistics. He had to teach second year Russian in return for his tuition and stipend and live in the Russian speaking dorm in return for his room.