Monday, October 8, 2012

Does America Need a Spiritual Awakening?

I was at a book event at the Chicago Public Library several weeks ago, in which Pankaj Mishra discussed his new work, From the Ruins of Empire. The book profiles thinkers in several Asian countries at the turn of the last century -- Liang Qichao in China, among others -- who turned their intellects to the problem of the West, its material superiority, and how to respond to it.

Lu Xun
The discussion of Mishra's book brought to mind my undergraduate years, focused on the study of Chinese and Japanese history, and I remembered how difficult it had been as a student to begin to even understand the challenge faced by people like Liang. It is not easy -- even with 20-20 hindsight -- to characterize the "West" as it confronted China (and other countries), and the difficulty of doing so in context is nearly inconceivable.

I was amused at the book event to see poor Pankaj field the inevitable questions from the audience: "Why did you choose certain thinkers and not others? Why Tagore and not Gandhi?" And, "Why not Mao?" And I smiled inwardly and asked, "Yes, why not Mao? Why Liang and not Mao? Or, for that matter, why Liang and not Zeng Guofan? or Kang Youwei? or Yen Fu? or Lu Xun? or Sun Yatsen?"

Yes: "Why not Lu Xun?" Most of all, I wondered, "Why not Lu Xun?"

Lu Xun was an author who is said to have defined the spirit of ferment and revolution after 1919 in China, generally referred to as the May 4th Movement. For me, Lu Xun's entire body of work can be boiled down to two elements: his epiphany about the challenge China faced, and his location of the heart of that challenge in his story, "The True Story of Ah Q."

Lu Xun's epiphany about the challenge China faced came when he was a medical student in Japan. Following the logic of several waves of thinkers before him, Lu Xun was intent on gaining expert, material, scientific knowledge in order to be of service to his country. His turning point came when he sat in an audience together with other patriotic Chinese students to view a news slide, which depicted Japanese troops beheading Chinese captives during hostilities in North China. Lu Xun came to the conclusion that China would never respond effectively to the challenges it faced until Chinese people were able to search their hearts and find the spiritual bases of their subjugation, and to overcome them. Until that happened, he concluded, scientific, material "solutions" would be moot. He abandoned his medical studies and became a writer.

Lu Xun's seminal work, "The True Story of Ah Q", is a portrait of a woebegone member of China's lumpenproletariat. Ah Q has many strikes against him. But the most important one, laid bare by Lu Xun, is a self-deceiving habit of mind, as epitomized in several fragments of internal monologue which occurs after Ah Q is beaten up:
Then only after Ah Q had, to all appearances, been defeated, had his brownish pigtail pulled and his head bumped against the wall four or five times, would the idlers walk away, satisfied at having won. Ah Q would stand there for a second, thinking to himself, "It is as if I were beaten by my son. What is the world coming to nowadays. . . ." Thereupon he too would walk away, satisfied at having won.

Whatever Ah Q thought he was sure to tell people later; thus almost all who made fun of Ah Q knew that he had this means of winning a psychological victory. So after this anyone who pulled or twisted his brown pigtail would forestall him by saying: "Ah Q, this is not a son beating his father, it is a man beating a beast. Let's hear you say it: A man bearing a beast!"

Illustration: Ah Q
Zhao Yannian (born 1924)

Then Ah Q, clutching at the root of his pigtail, his head on one side, would say: "Beating an insect—how about that? I am an insect—now will you let me go?"

But although he was an insect the idlers would not let him go until they had knocked his head five or six times against something nearby, according to their custom, after which they would walk away satisfied that they had won, confident that this time Ah Q was done for. In less than ten seconds, however, Ah Q would walk away also satisfied that he had won, thinking that he was the "foremost self-belittler," and that after subtracting "self-belittler" what remained was "foremost." Was not the highest successful candidate in the official examination also the "foremost"? "And who do you think you are anyway?"

After employing such cunning devices to get even with his enemies, Ah Q would make his way cheerfully to the wine shop to drink a few bowls of wine, joke with the others again, quarrel with them again, come off victorious again, and return cheerfully to the Tutelary God's Temple, there to fall asleep as soon as his head touched the pillow . . . . (See "The True Story of Ah-Q -- Chapter Two: A Brief Account of Ah-Q's Victories")

For me, the lesson of Lu Xun is that it is so easy to be dazzled by affairs of state and military technology, and fail to address the need for a spiritual awakening, and the adoption of new habits of mind. This, it seems to me, is the secret to China's ability to revolutionary change during the 20th century, and radically alter its place in the world -- a monumental accomplishment and one that is far from over. And it provides a valuable insight on why people in the Muslim world place such a high value on the spiritual guidance they gain from their faith, from a deep, deep submission to spiritual discipline.

I was reminded of this again while reading a recent exchange about drones and drone warfare. Chicago syndicated columnist Bob Koehler wrote a review of the recently released study, "Living Under Drones.". The suffering in America's "video game war," Koehler says, "is widespread and profound." Longtime antiwar and anti-nuclear activist Penny Kome supplied a counterpoint, expressing the sanguine hope that this new technology can be thought of "as a nicotine patch – a way to kick the US addiction to war.". Koehler responded, saying, "It’s more likely that drone technology is just the beginning of a new and different — and still hideous — type of warfare, with more devastating robo-technology to come.".

I'm glad that we're starting to debate drone warfare, but I'm concerned that Americans are stuck at the surface of the problem -- the technology, the politics -- and not getting deep enough into the psychology that allows us to tolerate the injury being done to others. Are we being lured into the same old debates about command chains and throw-weights, and failing to own up to the spiritual bankruptcy that enables us to continue to operate these killing machines? Is this a question for a small number of liberal antiwar activists? Or for every member of the society that considers themselves a person of conscience and/or faith?

This need to get at the spiritual basis of our drone "addiction" is the impetus behind the Awake to Drones project.

* * * * *
Image by Alfonso Munoz, from Windows and Mirrors: Reflections on the War in Afghanistan: The aftermath of war is rarely envisioned by the powers that trigger such events. Such views are usually blinded by greed and massive egos. Those who survive will continue to live with a lifetime's worth of emotional damage beyond the healing of physical wounds. Photography has captured more images than I can mentally handle (and I am the lucky one living removed from such places). I wanted to convey the atrocities like an investigator who outlines the bodies on the scene of a crime, leaving behind a silhouette on the ground where the horrific events have taken place.

Related posts

I'm grateful to my friend, Jim Barton, for framing the problem in a way that is adequately broad, and yet contains a measure of hope.  It's about the future, and whether we have one -- or can construct one -- he said.  Young people today are asking: Do I have an economic future? Does the planet have a future? Will (nuclear) war extinguish everybody's future?

(See A FUTURE: Can we construct one? )

Leveling Up is the creative work that demonstrates just how thoroughly America's new ways of warfare have become intertwined with the other dominant strands in our culture.

(See Level Up, Step Up, Grow Up, Man Up . . . Wake Up)

I wonder if, years from now, we will be thinking back to today and feeling surprise at how little we thought about some of the developments in our world, and in our country, and how we talked about them even less. Someday will I have to explain to my kids, or to my kids' kids, why it was that "people just weren't talking about it" . . . ?

(See Why Weren't People Talking About It? )

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Why Isn't Robotic Killing Taboo?

Raft of the Medusa (detail)
When we think about practices that our society surrounds with taboos -- cannibalism, incest -- we tend to assume that those practices are extreme, and difficult to engage in.

But that is the point of taboos: that is what taboos are intended to make us think.

Because the reality is that the practices that taboos protect us against are the easiest things in the world.

In a society that eats meat, there is nothing easier than grabbing the neighbor's children and cooking them. To sexually active people, the most convenient sex partners are those who live in close proximity.

We have taboos against these practices despite the fact that they are convenient. The taboos reflect a recognition of social disruptiveness that outweighs the benefits of some limited subset of circumstances in which the practices happen -- and, more importantly, even the possible desires of the most powerful people in the society.

Géricault, Raft of the Medusa (detail)
For instance, we seem to encounter cannibalism mainly in hypothetical lifeboats where someone has already hypothetically died, and others can hypothetically survive by sustaining themselves on the flesh of the deceased. But the cannibalism taboo was established to prevent not this far-fetched situation, but the kind of flesh-eating that could be expected to take place every day without it.

Today, drones are set loose by the United States government day after day to kill people in country after country, and in the limited number of cases in which justifications are even proffered, they are extremely tenuous: "Well, we had reason to believe . . . on good authority . . . that the victim was engaged in preparing to plot . . . or was otherwise associate with . . . . " Drone victims in remote regions 6,000 miles away have about as much chance of defending themselves as hypothetical lifeboat passengers.

The problem with drones is that their computerized, high-tech, robotic, automated killing long ago came to outrun -- by a long shot -- any semblance of human agency in controlling them. And it's only getting worse every hour.

Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa

"An over-life-size painting that depicts a moment from the aftermath of the
wreck of the French naval frigate Méduse, which ran aground off the coast
of today's Mauritania on July 5, 1816. At least 147 people were set adrift
on a hurriedly constructed raft; all but 15 died in the 13 days before their
rescue, and those who survived endured starvation and dehydration and
practiced cannibalism." (Source: Wikipedia)

An exaggeration? Hardly. This is exactly the kind of activity that our society governs with taboo. We are indulging a fantasy that "reasonable" use of drones can be determined by logic and policy and jurisprudence, and all the while more and more people are being killed, and the technology is reaching the point of being uncontrollable.

The day will come when we would no more elect to office a person who believes in setting robotic drones loose to kill other people than we would someone who eats the flesh of their next door neighbor or has sex with their sister. Instead, we will cast such people outside of social bounds.

Related posts

I've suggested that it's time for a serious debate on drones, and that a good place to start is with Isaac Asimov's "Three Laws of Robotics."  Here are 10 questions that come straight out of the writings of Asimov and that can help spur the debate.

(See 10 Questions to Spur the Drone Debate )

In my opinion, the reason to focus on drones is this: when we focus on drones, the general public is able to "get," to an unusual extent, the degree to which popular consent has been banished from the process of carrying out state violence. (Sure, it was banished long ago, but the absence of a human in the cockpit of a drone suddenly makes a light bulb go off in people's heads.) It takes some prodding, but people can sense that drone use somehow crosses a line. And that opens up the discussion about how our consent has been eliminated from the vast range of US militarism.

(See "Why focus on drone attacks?")

Beyond recognizing the inherent contradictions of "pre-emptive violence," we must confront an urgent problem related to technology: the automation of "pre-emptive violence" -- e.g. via drone technology -- is leading to a spiral (or "loop" or "recursive process") that we may not be able to get out of.

(See When "Pre-emptive Violence" Is Automated ....