Wednesday, November 26, 2008

What Would Darwin Say?

I often hear people quote Social Darwinism as a justification for ruthless capitalist exploitation. First of all, this is a misappropriation of Darwin. "Survival of the fittest" was not even a phrase coined by Darwin, but by an economist. In the scientific community, the term is hardly utilized. Social Darwinism led to dangerous ideas like eugenics. Darwin, on reading these theories, cautioned "if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil."
Secondly, his theory of competition applies to species rather than individuals of the same species. Communities of the same species of animals develop traits like cooperation and mutual aid in order to thrive and outsurvive other similar species. I would argue that these traits have evolved in humans in order to allow us to form cohesive communities on a massive scale that are not primarily based on kinship ties. Cooperation and mutual aid is what has moved human societies forward, not competition. While the military-industrial complex does create a lot of money, in general war serves to destroy infrastructure, halt productive industries, and set back a society's development.
When you start to look at everything as a social scientist, things seem a lot less significant. Viewing everything as a social construct, as a product of a particular society in a particular period, frees you to explore ideas more deeply and analyze the roots of seemingly inevitable occurrences and sacred values. Religion is a good example of this, as once you begin to delve into its history and the way humans have constructed religions from the beginning of social life, it becomes clear that it can be nothing but a product of our imagination as it struggles to navigate the natural world. Deeply ingrained cultural characteristics reveal themselves as bonding agents of a particular group. Increased knowledge of various societies and their organization throughout history reveals the temporal nature of any era's superficial values and standards and the magnitude of world history-- in essence, it helps us realize our own smallness and the relative insignificance of our any one individual or group in relation to the immense tapestry of cultures and peoples on earth.

[to be continued..]

Friday, November 14, 2008

Does Marching Matter?

Tomorrow, November 15, massive marches are planned at city halls across the state and the country to protest the passage of Prop 8 and the repudiation of gay rights in several states. While I'll definitely be in downtown LA with everyone else, I always struggle with the actual effects of marches and protests. I often hear people argue that they only alienate the more moderate and people from the other side of the fence. Have they worked well historically? It's difficult to tell when marches are generally part of much wider movements and broader-based campaigns against the establishment. But they have certainly been associated with some of the most transformative social movements of modern history. Gandhi's march to the sea, the marches for women's suffrage, civil rights, and an end to the Vietnam War in the U.S. demonstrate the power that marches can have in their own time and in the subsequent popular imagination. Alienating or not, they ultimately succeeded in winning their goal. Would so many historical movements have succeeded had the visible protest element been removed? Why else do authoritarian governments work so hard and spend so much to suppress media and information?
Does marching matter? I believe ultimately it keeps the issue in the public eye-- whether it changes any minds is debatable. But the expression of support, passion, and, in this particular instance, frustration that can be seen in the mass gathering of people doubtlessly aids the internal solidarity of the movement and preserves the energy and passion of its supporters.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Collective Insanity

With all this furor over Prop 8's sad passage, religion, especially the LDS church, is becoming a hot topic these days. I think it's a good opportunity for all of us to break open the much larger topic of religion in general and its replete influence on politics and law in this country. In a modern scientific society, is it not time for us to analyze our beliefs and bring a critical eye to ideas that, all too often, hold back progress and deny rights over one's own body and mind? Considering that the aggregate divorce rate is 22% higher in Bible Belt states than in 'blue states,' how is religion helping regulate morality and preserve marriage? I just think it's sad to amble blindly through life believing, as almost 40% of Red-Staters do, that Jonah was actually swallowed by a whale..

In 2007 I caught a few minutes of the American Atheists Convention on television, and something former SNL cast member Julia Sweeney said really drew my attention. She said when you're an atheist, you have a stronger belief in your morals, because you have to think logically about your actions. Instead of thinking, "I shouldn't steal because the bible says so," a serious ethical argument takes place elucidating the moral reasons why stealing is detrimental to society and human relations. The temptation to "sin" becomes weaker when confronted with a strong, thoughtful argument rather than an archaic dogma.

The following definition of Atheism was given to the Supreme Court of the United States in the case of Murray v. Curlett, 374 U.S. 203, 83 S. Ct. 1560, 10 L.Ed.2d (MD, 1963), to remove reverential Bible reading and oral unison recitation of the Lord's Prayer in the public schools. It illuminates the humanist tendencies of atheists and their emphasis on improving the earthly world rather than relying on a possible afterlife.

“Your petitioners are Atheists and they define their beliefs as follows. An Atheist loves his fellow man instead of god. An Atheist believes that heaven is something for which we should work now – here on earth for all men together to enjoy.

An Atheist believes that he can get no help through prayer but that he must find in himself the inner conviction, and strength to meet life, to grapple with it, to subdue it and enjoy it.

An Atheist believes that only in a knowledge of himself and a knowledge of his fellow man can he find the understanding that will help to a life of fulfillment.

He seeks to know himself and his fellow man rather than to know a god. An Atheist believes that a hospital should be built instead of a church. An Atheist believes that a deed must be done instead of a prayer said. An Atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death. He wants disease conquered, poverty vanquished, war eliminated. He wants man to understand and love man.

He wants an ethical way of life. He believes that we cannot rely on a god or channel action into prayer nor hope for an end of troubles in a hereafter.

He believes that we are our brother's keepers; and are keepers of our own lives; that we are responsible persons and the job is here and the time is now.”

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Meet the new boss.... ?

As historic and momentous last night's Obama victory is, I can't help but have the sinking feeling that it means much more on a symbolic level than in terms of any tangible change. At least, on some very important issues that are never brought up during political campaigns. For starters, rumor has it that Rahm Emanuel, a former IDF volunteer and prominent Jewish congressman, will be Obama's chief of staff. This news doesn't bode well for Palestinian activists and those of us who hoped for a fairer U.S. position on the Middle East. Moreover, Obama has consistently supported the continued disbursement of agricultural subsidies to American agrobusiness, which leads to the flooding of foreign markets with cheap goods and drives local producers out of business, preventing the growth of markets and industries in the developing world. While large transnational corporations benefit from the boom in (what are often misleading and inefficient) biofuels, poor farmers and producers in Africa continue to struggle to find a way to market their products and must contend with rising food prices and the threat of even more widespread famine.
As for the immigration reform that was briefly bandied about at the beginning of this campaign (remember?), it seems to have slipped quietly away, and the status of so many undocumented workers will most likely remain in the same legal limbo.
What about homelessness? While this issue is constantly relevant for Angelenos, the entire country should be ashamed that millions of people are found in this dire situation in the richest nation in the world, a nation supposedly full of hope and opportunity. What has been said about this demographic on the campaign trail?
And while the country rightfully celebrated a historic step for equality, several states took two sad steps back as they approved bans on gay marriage in Arizona, Florida, and, most disappointing of all, California. Clearly the rhetoric touting equality and individual freedom has not taken hold everywhere, and the contingent of people willing to put effort into taking away the rights of others is stronger than expected.
A long, long road still lies ahead if we want to see real and lasting, not only symbolic, change.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

"A Man's A Man"

Taking advantage of the free ticket Mark was able to get me since he works backstage, last night I went to see the Odyssey Theatre's "A Man's A Man." This new production of the ensemble's first play back in 1969 remains a relevant and timely critique of war and the military lifestyle. Brecht's emphasis on theatricality, such as the actors' use of white(and yellow) face, prevents the audience from suspending disbelief at the same time as it draws you deeper into the plot. In a show described as "shockingly theatrical," the protagonist stops at one point to address the audience, explaining "What Mr. Brecht is trying to say.." Taken in the context of the dominant realist plays of Eugene O'Neill and others popular at the time, it is easy to see how Brecht's onstage audacities created a unique niche in theatre, one which to this day is filled mostly by Brecht himself. Epic theatre concerns itself with philosophic ideas rather than stories, archetypes rather than real people, moral arguments rather than entertainment. Rather than affect audiences emotionally, Brecht attempts to reach viewers intellectually. "A Man's A Man" traces an impressionable packer's inadvertent transformation into a soldier of the British army as he is compelled by the members of a machine-gun unit to replace their missing fourth man. The progressive madness and uncertainty that pervades Galy Gay's reality and transforms him is portrayed with sensitivity and nuance by Beth Hogan. The play not only deals with a change in Galy Gay's occupation, but in his entire identity, as he grows to deny his old self and grow into the role of the soldier he is replacing. Burlesque song and dance anchors the key message (one man is no different than any other, and ultimately none are worth very much) and lends Widow Begbick's canteen a dark, brooding atmosphere.
The technical elements of "A Man's A Man" provide an illuminating introduction to Brecht's devices and conventions of stagecraft and allow the viewer to critically and circumspectly analyze the ideas he presents. Although emotion is by no means absent from the show, it serves to emphasize moral and intellectual propositions, leaving you to ponder the implications of the play long after its conclusion.