Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Bass Heaven

Hitchens on the Labour Party

Labour’s Lost?

No, Prime Minister

Britain’s Labour Party, the author’s first political home, when he was a young idealist, now stands for nothing in his eyes. Unless one counts the Nixonian power lust—dirty tricks included—of Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
By Christopher Hitchens August 2009

Prime Minister Gordon Brown took office in June 2007, and it’s been downhill for the Labour Party ever since. Illustration by André Carrilho.

Finally all other emotions were lost in the overflowing sense of relief that his days of waiting for achievement were over.… To Gordon it seemed no more than the inevitable entrance into a kingdom which was his by right of conquest. —Alec Waugh, The Loom of Youth.

Early this past June it became hard to distinguish among the resignation statements that were emanating almost daily from Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Cabinet. The noise of collapsing scenery drowned out the individuality of the letters—one female minister, I remember, complained that she was being used as “window dressing”—but there was one missive from a departing comrade that caught my eye. It came from James Purnell, a man generally agreed to have done a more than respectable job as minister for work and pensions, and it began like this:

Dear Gordon,
We both love the Labour Party. I have worked for it for twenty years and you for far longer. We know we owe it everything and it owes us nothing …

I sat back in my chair. Yes, it’s true. One suddenly could recall a time when membership in the Labour Party (or “the Labour movement,” as it would call itself on great occasions) was a thing of pride. I remember deciding to go and join it in 1965, on the very first day that I was old enough to be eligible, and leaving the battered old union hall where I had signed up, delightedly clutching a membership card that called for common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange.

Yes, well, you don’t need to tell me that there were some drawbacks to this position (though now that practically everything in sight is being nationalized by liberals and conservatives I occasionally allow myself a smirk). But in the political battles of those days, about inequality and exploitation, about nuclear weapons and apartheid and Vietnam, one went to a Labour Party meeting expecting, and getting, a fight over important matters of principle. There were even occasions when some of us would say, and mean it when we said it, that we would rather lose an election than give up on our ideals.

And now look. The British Labour Party has just, in elections to the European Parliament, received its smallest share of the vote since 1918 (when it was a new and young third-party force). Its candidates in local elections have trailed in third and even fourth place, losing ground in working-class districts to openly Fascist groups such as the British National Party. This is not a defeat. It is a humiliation. And on exactly what question of principle was Labour brought so low?

If you can’t answer that question, you are in good company. The main if not the sole “issue” appears to be the self-love and the self-pity of a prime minister—Gordon Brown—who has never won a general election or even a contested leadership election within his own party. He is in power only in order to be in power. He is in power only because he believes he has long had a natural right to be prime minister. For many years he waited as a resentful dauphin, swallowing his envy and bile. And then, like the fruit of the medlar tree, he went rotten before he was ripe.

Gordon Brown is Labour’s Richard Nixon.… The buttoned-up suit, the mouth slightly agape, the physical awkwardness, the alarming smile which seems to appear from nowhere as if a button marked “smile” has been pressed in his head. —Robert Harris, The Sunday Times, September 10, 2006.

The author of Fatherland wrote those words as Brown was staging the near-incredible “My turn! My turn!” tantrum with which he disgraced the transition between Tony Blair and himself. And the Nixonian diagnosis has recurred to many minds since then, because of the discovery of a “dirty tricks” operation run at the very heart of Brown’s own government. “Filthy tricks” might be more like it: the prime minister’s chief political aide, a bloated and mediocre nonentity named Damian McBride, was found using official e-mail channels to spread the rumors that David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party, suffered from an embarrassing ailment; that his economics spokesman, George Osborne, had been caught with hookers and a dildo and photographed in drag; and so forth. (There was also a planted slur about Mr. Osborne’s wife that not even Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid The Sun was prepared to print.) This you might think was foul enough: using the taxpayers’ money to smear the opposition party with baseless insinuations. But what shocked me much more was how unshocked the Labour Party was. “Put it like this,” said a stalwart old comrade of mine. “The Tories and the press are only now finding out how Brown has been bullying and threatening his own colleagues.” Fat Boy McBride, of course, was given the heave-ho as soon as his picknose activity was unmasked, and it was claimed, as is customary, that he had acted alone and without permission from his boss. I have asked around a good deal and have not met or heard from anyone—anyone—who believes that this cover story is true. Instead, and this in a party that used to pride itself on open debate, you hear dreadful whispers about carpet-biting, furniture-hurling spasms by someone whose contorted face reproduces the awful slobbering mask of a weak king.

Ivan Lewis, a Labour M.P. and junior minister, developed a few mild criticisms of the Brown regime and suddenly discovered that news of indiscreet text messages of his, addressed to a female subordinate, had found its way from government channels to the gutter press. Martin Bright, political editor of my old lefty magazine the New Statesman, was effectively hounded out of his job because he was rash enough to object to the Labour machine that was then running the mayoralty of London.

Gordon had his fingers on the pedestal of fame, and he intended never to loose his grasp. —Alec Waugh, The Loom of Youth.

The true definition of corruption, it seems to me, is the diversion of public resources to private or politicized ends (see above). There are other and lesser definitions, such as milking the public purse or abusing the public trust by “creative accounting.” The cloudburst of lurid detail about the expenses racket, which has made the current Parliament into an object of scorn and loathing, is a cloudburst that has soaked members of all parties equally. However, the Brownite style is by far the most culpable. It was Brown’s people who foisted a Speaker on the House of Commons who both indulged the scandal and obstructed a full ventilation of it. As if that weren’t bad enough, Gordon Brown still resists any call to dissolve this wretched Parliament—a Parliament that is almost audibly moaning to be put out of its misery and shame—because he still isn’t prepared to undergo the great test of being submitted to the electorate. Say what you will about Tony Blair, he took on all the other parties in three hard-fought general elections, and when it was considered time for him to give way or step down, he voluntarily did so while some people could still ask, “Why are you going?,” rather than “Why the hell don’t you go?” For the collapse of Britain’s formerly jaunty and spendthrift “financial sector,” everybody including Blair is to blame. But for the contempt in which Parliament is held, and in which a once great party now shares, it’s Blair’s successor who is the lugubrious villain.

When I first met Gordon Brown, in the late 1970s in Scotland, we were both miles to the left of center. (What I remember best about him is his fingernails, which were gnawed down to the knuckle. Warning: Contents under pressure.) The Labour Party was in due course moved to the right, but not only, or not merely, to catch the votes and donations of the middle ground. Tony Blair, who supervised the makeover (and whose famous Chicago speech linking Slobodan Milošević and Saddam Hussein was delivered exactly 10 years ago), is still a figure who, even his enemies concede, has shown conviction and commitment.

Labour under Brown has forgotten even the meaning of such terms. The sweets and fruits of office are all that count. Take a single example. Brown’s allies leak to the press that the foreign secretary, David Miliband, is to be offered another job in a Cabinet “reshuffle.” Mr. Miliband then lets it be known that he has no intention of moving. So feeble is Brown’s position that he then retains, as the man responsible for Britain’s diplomatic relations, a person who clearly does not enjoy his own prime minister’s confidence in that important role. So, Britain’s allies and enemies both know at once that they are negotiating with a secretary of state who doesn’t count. But who cares about such a trifle? The survival of Brown and the retention of power are the main objectives, and even some of the cronies who hate and fear him are more afraid of the verdict of the voters.

Some of the elements of tragedy are present in Brown, as they were in Sir Anthony Eden, who fretted himself into misery while waiting for Winston Churchill to step down, and as they were in Richard Nixon, convinced that he had been robbed of the 1960 election. Like Eden and Nixon, Brown appears to have gone a little mad while in office. (He is also said to be gravely worried about losing the sight in his remaining eye.) But one’s natural sympathy is canceled by the realization that he is leading from behind, bribing his party to stay in line by clinging to their perks for just one more season, or one more year. The old Labour anthem had a couplet of especial scorn about “the weak and base / whose minds are fixed on pelf and place.”

Labour used to be a party of dissent, but now British policemen are to be seen on video as they mash puddles of blood out of demonstrators against the government and even out of bystanders who are not demonstrating at all. The inclination of traditional Labour supporters was perhaps not all that much in favor of monarchy, but Mr. Brown managed to insult the Queen, and the veterans of D-day on the Normandy beaches, for no better reason than that he wanted to hog the entire stage for himself. He got booed by the crowd on an occasion that is usually almost supernaturally silent, and then he contrived to make an idiot of himself by alluding to Omaha beach—a near-totemic name for anyone with a sense of history—as “Obama beach.” Enough is enough. The Labour Party must make up its mind to throw off and outlive this imposition, or else to endure it further and find itself a dishonorable grave.

As Gordon walked back alone, he had the unpleasant feeling that the best was over.… The friends of his first term … had all gone, scattered to the winds. He alone remained, and with a sudden pain he wondered whether he had not outlived his day, whether, like Tithonus, he was not taking more than he had been meant to take. —Alec Waugh, The Loom of Youth.

Christopher Hitchens is a Vanity Fair contributing editor.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009


Enjoy a serene and tranquil drive in one of Bangkok's picturesque little streets. Breath in that fresh air and thank the good Lord that you are alive to experience such beauty. Deep breath now..............taste the bliss! When there is not martial law and the eminent threat of revolution, take in the sights and sounds of this wonderful place full of positivity and humanist virtue. Why not hire a prostitute, or hire a prostitute; or if your feeling really adventurous, get drunk and then hire a prostitute. Wow! Can you imagine that! The options really are endless in this city of endless joy, morality and unadulterated happiness

So come and relax in the jewel of south east Asia.


You have to love it.


Kay & I and a Bangkok BBQ

Now, those of you that know me know that I am never one to turn down food. Here in Thailand it is a food lovers paradise with lots to choose from including curries, seafood, traditional Thai, good Korean, Japanese etc. For those of you who feel strongly that turkey and ham a la traditional wedding fare is the epitome of extravagant gastronomic experience - then I have news for you my friends: Thailand's where it's at.

Kay and I did some serious munching and boozing this particular muggy evening in the big smoke.


View From a Bus

While traveling back to Phuket from Bangkok I saw this in the middle of the road and quickly snapped the picture through the window.

Weird isn't it?


Burmese Days - George Orwell

Imagine a book that combines E.M. Forster's colonial musing, with something naturalistic and very humanist and you are getting warm in your search for George Orwell's intensely readable and adeptly plotted, 1934 novel, Burmese Days.

This particular cocktail is one part satirical, two parts socialist red, add to this some Indian vindaloo, and a bucket load of English gin; and you ready to drink to the health of one of the 20th centuries greatest writers.

This book is highly recommended to anyone who has a general interest in good old British imperialism, or to individuals who are looking for a fast paced, rip roaring journey through one of the least auspicious postings in the ailing British Empire.

What ever your motive for picking up this book it will have you tearing through the pages like a man chewing coco leaves.

In 1930, Kyauktada, Upper Burma, a woefully bigoted group of English people live working in the teak industry. They frequent the European club, which provides them with an outlet for heavy drinking and predictable slurs of racial superiority to the natives. Orders come from above that a native member has to be accepted in to the imagined corridors of civility; bringing out the worst in the woefully closed society.

For the majority, the thought of a native in their club was too much. How could they accept a 'nigger' considering the 'insolence of the natives’? Club member preferred to sit around drinking and talking about ‘the supineness of the Government and the dear dead days when the British Raj was the Raj and please give the bearer fifteen lashes.' The topic was never left alone for long.

The books main Protagonist James Flory is a timber merchant, whose facial birthmark serves as an outward expression of the ironic and left-leaning habits of mind that make him inwardly different from his fellow Englishmen. The birthmark is mentioned countless times through out, banishing Flory mentally as well as physically, to the periphery of British colonial life.

He is a lonely and depressed individual who takes solace in gin and literature; little else. Flory appreciates the local culture, has native allegiances, and detests the racist machinations of his fellow Club members; but he doesn't always possess the moral courage, or the energy, to stand in defiance of what he sees as wrong.

Flory's Anglophile friend, Dr. Veraswami, the highest-ranking native official, seems a odds on favourite for Club membership, until Machiavellian magistrate U Po Kyin launches a campaign to discredit him that results, ultimately, in the loss not just of reputations but of lives. Whether to endorse Veraswami or to betray him becomes a test of Flory's moral fiber, and a test of the strength of his character.

Against this backdrop of politics and ethics, Orwell throws in some romance for good measure. The arrival of a young bobbed blonde, the attractive but resolutely anti-intellectual Elizabeth Lackersteen; provides Flory with his opportunity to escape his boredom and dark thoughts. Their tense and painful relationship shows Orwell’s ability in presenting nuanced social interactions as well as political intrigues; making him a formidable writing force.
The no-frills prose makes for historical fiction that stands triumphantly outside of time, twisting and turning the reader’s attention with beautiful simplicity.

I for one am going to read the book again to study more closely the wonderfully smooth direction and composition of the prose. It seems at time to flow so effortlessly and have the consistency of velvet or silk on the eye. It is in short: truly wonderful.


Monday, 13 July 2009

Blasphemy law a return to middle ages - Dawkins


THE NEW blasphemy law will send Ireland back to the middle ages, and is wretched, backward and uncivilised, Prof Richard Dawkins has said.

The scientist and critic of religion has lent his support to a campaign to repeal the law, introduced by Atheist Ireland, a group set up last December, arising from an online discussion forum. The law, which makes the publication or utterance of blasphemous matter a crime punishable by a €25,000 fine, passed through the Oireachtas last week.

In a message read out at Atheist Ireland’s first agm on Saturday, Prof Dawkins said: “One of the world’s most beautiful and best-loved countries, Ireland has recently become one of the most respected as well: dynamic, go-ahead, modern, civilised – a green and pleasant silicon valley. This preposterous blasphemy law puts all that respect at risk.” He said it would be too kind to call the law a ridiculous anachronism.

“It is a wretched, backward, uncivilised regression to the middle ages. Who was the bright spark who thought to besmirch the revered name of Ireland by proposing anything so stupid?”

Messages of support for the campaign were also received from the creators of Father Ted Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews, and the European Humanist Federation. The federation, which represents 42 organisations in 19 countries, said it was “appalled” at the new law and it was “a seriously retrograde step”.

At the agm, Atheist Ireland members voted to test the new law by publishing a blasphemous statement, deliberately designed to cause offence. The statement will be finalised in the coming days.

Atheist Ireland’s chairman Michael Nugent said the group wanted to highlight the ridiculousness of the law. Labour Senator and barrister Ivana Bacik told the meeting that an amendment provides for a review of the law within five years. “There’s a great potential to have this very much altered if not removed altogether,” she said. The new law invited people to make complaints to gardaí and would result in “a huge amount” of wasted Garda time, she said.

“So for lots of reasons I think it’s going to be highly problematic . . . and it’s bad lawmaking if nothing else.”

Ms Bacik said the establishment of Atheist Ireland was “long overdue”. More than 150 people attended the meeting in Dublin and the group ran out of membership application forms. “I think it’s also good to see an organisation that has the word atheist in the title because for a long time many of us were in the closet,” she said.

“It’s not fashionable or popular to declare oneself to be an atheist. There are many people in Ireland who would like to describe themselves as atheists and I’m one of them. I think I may be the only self-confessed or card-carrying atheist in the Oireachtas.”

She said there should be space for atheists, agnostics and believers in organised religions. “And that’s the nature, to me, of a pluralist and tolerant and democratic republic, a country in which there is space for all of us, and in which no body’s belief elevates them to any particular position.”

The meeting agreed to campaign for the removal of all references to gods from the Constitution and for a secular education system. Ms Bacik said the education system, particularly at primary level, was “built on sectarian lines. It is a fundamentally sectarian system in which in our equal status legislation, schools are entitled to give priority to children of a particular religion”.

The group also launched a website which provides information on how to formally leave the Catholic Church.

Atheist Ireland believes that many lapsed Catholics, agnostics and atheists are counted in the church’s membership and claims that these figures are used by the church to justify its continued involvement in education.

Atheist Ireland will also encourage people to read the Bible. Mr Nugent said an objective reading of the Bible was one of the strongest arguments for rejecting the idea of gods as intervening creators or moral guides.

Dick Spicer of the Humanist Association of Ireland welcomed the formation of the new group and said it illustrated the changes that had taken place in Irish society. “It’s a sign of how far we’ve come in Ireland, so take hope for the future. This society does move and it does move forward, more so, I think, than we appreciate.”

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Being and Time, part 4: Thrown into this world How do we find ourselves in the world, and how can find our freedom here?

Simon Critchley, The Guardian, Monday 29th June, 2009.

As I already tried to show, Heidegger seeks to reawaken perplexity about the question of being, the basic issue of metaphysics. In Being and Time, he pursues this question through an analysis of the human being or what he calls Dasein. The being of Dasein is existence, understood as average everyday existence or our life in the world, discussed in the last entry. But how might we give some more content to this rather formal idea of existence?

Heidegger gives us a strong clue in Division 1, Chapter 5 of Being and Time, which is a long, difficult, but immensely rewarding chapter and where things really begin to get interesting. The central claim of this chapter - which is deepened in the remainder of Being and Time - is that Dasein is thrown projection (Dasein ist geworfener Entwurf). Let me try and unravel this thought.

Heidegger tends to advance his investigation in concept clusters. One cluster contains three concepts: state of mind, mood and thrownness. State of mind is a rather questionable rendering of Befindlichkeit, which William Richardson nicely translates as 'already-having-found-oneself-there-ness'. OK, it's not particularly elegant, but the thought is the human being is always already found or disclosed somewhere, namely in the 'there' of its being-in-the-world. This 'there' is the Da of Dasein.

Furthermore, I am always found in a mood, a Stimmung. This is mood is the strong Aristotelian sense of pathos, a passion of the soul or an affect, something befalls us and in which we find ourselves. The passions are not, for Heidegger, psychological colouring for an essentially rational agent. They are rather the fundamental ways in which we are attuned to the world. Indeed, musicologically, Stimmung is linked to tuning and pitch: one is attuned to the world firstly and mostly through moods. One of the compelling aspects of Heidegger's work is his attempt to provide a phenomenology of moods, of the affects that make up our everyday life in the world.

This is another way of approaching his central insight: that we cannot exist independently of our relation to the world; and this relationship is a matter of mood and appetite, not rational contemplation.

Such moods disclose the human being as thrown into the 'there' of my being-in-the-world. As Jim Morrisson intoned many decades ago, 'Into this world we're thrown'. Thrownness (Geworfenheit) is the simple awareness that we always find ourselves somewhere, namely delivered over to a world with which we are fascinated, a world we share with others.

We are always caught up in our everyday life in the world, in the throw of various moods, whether fear, boredom, excitement or – as we will see in the next entry – anxiety.

But, Heidegger insists, Dasein is not just thrown into the world. Because it – we – are capable of understanding, we can also throw off our thrown condition. Understanding is, for Heidegger, a conception of activity. It is always understanding how to do something or how to operate something. Understanding is the possession of an ability (etwas können) and the authentic human is characterised by the ability or potentiality to be (Seinkönnen).

So, the human being is not just a being defined by being thrown into the world. It is also one who can throw off that thrown condition in a movement where it seizes hold of its possibilities, where it acts in a concrete situation. This movement is what Heidegger calls projection (Entwurf) and it is the very experience of what Heidegger will call, later in Being and Time, freedom. Freedom is not an abstract philosophical concept. It is the experience of the human being demonstrating its potential through acting in the world. To act in such a way is to be authentic.

Being and Time, part 3: Being-in-the-world (How Heidegger turned Descartes upside down, so that we are, and only therefore think)

Simon Critchley, The Guardian, Monday 22nd June, 2009.

I talked in my first blog entry about Heidegger's attempt to destroy our standard, traditional philosophical vocabulary and replace it with something new. What Heidegger seeks to destroy in particular is a certain picture of the relation between human beings and the world that is widespread in modern philosophy and whose source is Descartes (indeed Descartes is the philosopher who stands most accused in Being and Time). Roughly and readily, this is the idea that there are two sorts of substances in the world: thinking things like us and extended things, like tables, chairs and indeed the entire fabric of space and time.

The relation between thinking things and extended things is one of knowledge and the philosophical and indeed scientific task consists in ensuring that what a later tradition called "subject" might have access to a world of objects. This is what we might call the epistemological construal of the relation between human beings and the world, where epistemology means "theory of knowledge". Heidegger does not deny the importance of knowledge, he simply denies its primacy. Prior to this dualistic picture of the relation between human beings and the world lies a deeper unity that he tries to capture in the formula "Dasein is being-in-the-world". What might that mean?

If the human being is really being-in-the-world, then this entails that the world itself is part of the fundamental constitution of what it means to be human. That is to say, I am not a free-floating self or ego facing a world of objects that stands over against me. Rather, for Heidegger, I am my world. The world is part and parcel of my being, of the fabric of my existence. We might capture the sense of Heidegger's thought here by thinking of Dasein not as a subject distinct from a world of objects, but as an experience of openedness where my being and that of the world are not distinguished for the most part. I am completely fascinated and absorbed by my world, not cut off from it in some sort of "mind" or what Heidegger calls "the cabinet of consciousness".

Heidegger's major claim in his discussion of world in Being and Time is that the world announces itself most closely and mostly as a handy or useful world, the world of common, average everyday experience. My proximal encounter with the table on which I am writing these words is not as an object made of a certain definable substance (wood and iron, say) existing in a geometrically ordered space-time continuum. Rather, this is just the table that I use to write and which is useful for arranging my papers, my laptop and my coffee cup. Heidegger insists that we have to "thrust aside our interpretative tendencies" which cover over our everyday experience of the world and attend much more closely to that which shows itself.

The world is full of handy things that hang together as a whole and which are meaningful to me. In even more basic terms, the world is a whole load of stuff that is related together: my laptop sits on my desk, my spectacles sit on my nose, the desk sits on the floor, and I can look over to the window at the garden and hear the quiet hum of traffic and police sirens that make up life in this city. This is what Heidegger calls "environment" (Umwelt), where he is trying to describe the world that surrounds the human being and in which it is completely immersed for the most part.

Heidegger insists that this lived experience of the world is missed or overlooked by scientific inquiry or indeed through a standard philosophy of mind, which presupposes a dualistic distinction between mind and reality. What is required is a phenomenology of our lived experience of the world that tries to be true to what shows itself first and foremost in our experience. To translate this into another idiom, we might say that Heidegger is inverting the usual distinction between theory and practice. My primary encounter with the world is not theoretical; it is not the experience of some spectator gazing out at a world stripped of value. Rather, I first apprehend the world practically as a world of things which are useful and handy and which are imbued with human significance and value. The theoretical or scientific vision of things that find in a thinker like Descartes is founded on a practical insight that is fascinated and concerned with things.

Heidegger introduces a distinction between two ways of approaching the world: the present-at-hand (Vorhandenheit) and the ready-to-hand (Zuhandenheit). Present-at-hand refers to our theoretical apprehension of a world made up of objects. It is the conception of the world from which science begins. The ready-to-hand describes our practical relation to things that are handy or useful. Heidegger's basic claim is that practice precedes theory, and that the ready-to-hand is prior to the present-at-hand. The problem with most philosophy after Descartes is that it conceives of the world theoretically and thus imagines, like Descartes, that I can doubt the existence of the external world and even the reality of the persons that fill it – who knows, they might be robots! For Heidegger, by contrast, who we are as human beings is inextricably bound up and bound together with the complex web of social practices that make up my world. The world is part of who I am. For Heidegger, to cut oneself off from the world, like Descartes, is to miss the point entirely: the fabric of our openedness to the world is one piece. And that piece should not be cut up. Furthermore, the world is not simply full of handy, familiar meaningful things. It is also full of persons. If I am fundamentally with my world, then that world is a common world that experienced together with others. This is what Heidegger calls "being-with" (Mitsein)

Being and Time, part 2: On 'mineness'

Simon Critchley, The guradian, Monday 15th June, 2009.

As Heidegger makes clear from the untitled, opening page with which Being and Time begins, what is at stake in the book is the question of being. This is the question that Aristotle raised in an untitled manuscript written 2500 years ago, but which became known at a later date as the Metaphysics. For Aristotle, there is a science that investigates what he calls "being as such", without regard to any specific realms of being, eg the being of living things (biology) or the being of the natural world (physics).

Metaphysics is the area of inquiry that Aristotle himself calls "first philosophy" and which comes before anything else. It is the most abstract, universal and indefinable area of philosophy. But it is also the most fundamental.

With admirable arrogance, it is the question of being that Heidegger sets himself the task of inquiring into in Being and Time. He begins with a series of rhetorical questions: Do we have an answer to the question of the meaning of being? Not at all, he answers. But do we even experience any perplexity about this question? Not at all, Heidegger repeats. Therefore, the first and most important task of Heidegger's book is to recover our perplexity for this question of questions: Hamlet's "To be or not to be?"

For Heidegger, what defines the human being is this capacity to be perplexed by the deepest and most enigmatic of questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? So, the task of Being and Time is reawakening in us a taste for perplexity, a taste for questioning. Questioning – Heidegger will opine much later in his career – is the piety of thinking.

The first line of the text proper of Being and Time is, "We are ourselves the entities to be analysed". This is the key to the crucial concept of mineness (Jemeinigkeit), with which the book begins: if I am the being for whom being is a question – "to be or not to be" – then the question of being is mine to be, one way or another.

In what, then, does the being of being human consist? Heidegger's answer is existence (Existenz). Therefore, the question of being is to be accessed by way of what Heidegger calls "an existential analytic". But what sort of thing is human existence? It is obviously defined by time: we are creatures with a past, who move through a present and who have available to them a series of possibilities, what Heidegger calls "ways to be". Heidegger's point here is wonderfully simple: the human being is not definable by a "what", like a table or a chair, but by a "who" that is shaped by existence in time. What it means to be human is to exists with a certain past, a personal and cultural history, and by an open series of possibilities that I can seize hold of or not.

This brings us to a very important point: if the being of being human is defined by mineness, then my being is not a matter of indifference to me. A table or chair cannot recite Hamlet's soliloquy or undergo the experience of self-questioning and self-doubt that such words express. But we can.

This is the kernel of Heidegger's idea of authenticity (Eigentlichkeit), which more accurately expresses what is proper to the human being, what is its own. For Heidegger, there are two dominant modes of being human: authenticity and inauthenticity. Furthermore, we have a choice to make between these two modes: the choice is whether to be oneself or not to be oneself, to be author of oneself and self-authorising or not. Heidegger insists, as he will do throughout Being and Time, that inauthenticity does not signify a lower or lesser being, but many readers have had reason to doubt such assurances. Theodor Adorno, famously critical of Heidegger, asks: doesn't authenticity end up being a jargon that we are better off without? Let's just say that the point is moot.

Regardless of the twin modes of authenticity and inauthenticity, Heidegger insists early in Being and Time that the human being must first be presented in its indifferent character, prior to any choice to be authentic or not. In words that soon become a mantra in the book, Heidegger seeks to describe the human being as it presented "most closely and mostly" (Zunächst und Zumeist).

Note the radical nature of this initial move: philosophy is not some otherworldly speculation as to whether the external world exists or whether the other human-looking creatures around me are really human and not robots or some such. Rather, philosophy begins with the description – what Heidegger calls "phenomenology" – of human beings in their average everyday existence. It seeks to derive certain common structures from that everydayness.

But we should note the difficult of the task that Heidegger has set himself. That which is closest and most obvious to us is fiendishly difficult to describe. Nothing is closer to me than myself in my average, indifferent everyday existence, but how to describe this? Heidegger was fond of quoting St Augustine's Confessions, when the latter writes, "Assuredly I labour here and I labour within myself; I have become to myself a land of trouble and inordinate sweat." Heidegger indeed means trouble and one often sweats through these pages. But the moments of revelation are breathtaking in their obviousness.

Being and Time, part 1: Why Heidegger Matters

Simon Critchley, The Guardian, Monday 8 June 2009

The most important and influential continental philosopher of the last century was also a Nazi. How did he get there? What can we learn from him?

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) was the most important and influential philosopher in the continental tradition in the 20th century. Being and Time, first published in 1927, was his magnum opus. There is no way of understanding what took place in continental philosophy after Heidegger without coming to terms with Being and Time. Furthermore, unlike many Anglo-American philosophers, Heidegger has exerted a huge influence outside philosophy, in areas as diverse as architecture, contemporary art, social and political theory, psychotherapy, psychiatry and theology.

However, because of his political commitment to National Socialism in 1933, when he assumed the position of Rector of Freiburg University in south-western Germany, Heidegger continues to arouse controversy, polemic and much heated misunderstanding.

The hugely important matter of the relation between Heidegger and politics is the topic for another series of blogs entries. Indeed, to my mind, the nature and extent of Heidegger's involvement in National Socialism only becomes philosophically pertinent once one has begun to understand and feel the persuasive power of what takes place in his written work, especially Being and Time.

The task I have set myself in this series of blogs is to provide a taste of the latter book and hopefully some motivation to read it further and study it more deeply. But once you have read Being and Time and hopefully been compelled by it, then the question that hangs over the text, like the sword of Damocles, is the following: how could arguably the greatest philosopher of the 20th century also have been a Nazi? What does his political commitment to National Socialism, however long or short it lasted, suggest about the nature of philosophy and its risks and dangers when stepping into the political realm?
Being and Time

Being and Time is a work of considerable length (437 pages in the German original) and legendary difficulty. The difficulty is caused by the fact that Heidegger sets himself the task of what he calls a "destruction" of the philosophical tradition. We shall see some of the implications of this in future entries, but the initial consequence is that Heidegger refuses to avail himself of the standard terminology of modern philosophy, with its talk of epistemology, subjectivity, representation, objective knowledge and the rest.

Heidegger has the audacity to go back to the drawing board and invent a new philosophical vocabulary. For example, he thinks that all conceptions of the human being as a subject, self, person, consciousness or indeed a mind-brain unity are hostages to a tradition of thinking whose presuppositions have not been thought through radically enough. Heidegger is nothing if not a radical thinker: a thinker who tries to dig down to the roots of our lived experience of the world rather than accepting the authority of tradition.

Heidegger's name for the human being is Dasein, a term which can be variously translated, but which is usually rendered as "being-there". The basic and very simple idea, as we will see in future entries, is that the human being is first and foremost not an isolated subject, cut off from a realm of objects that it wishes to know about. We are rather beings who are always already in the world, outside and alongside a world from which, for the most part, we do not distinguish ourselves.

What goes for Dasein also goes for many of Heidegger's other concepts. Sometimes this makes Being and Time a very tough read, which is not helped by the fact that Heidegger, more than any other modern philosopher, exploits the linguistic possibilities of his native language, in his case German. Although Macquarrie and Robinson, in their 1962 Blackwell English edition, produced one of the classics of modern philosophical translation, reading Being and Time can sometimes feel like wading through a conceptual mud of baroque and unfamiliar concepts.
The basic idea

That said, the basic idea of Being and Time is extremely simple: being is time. That is, what it means for a human being to be is to exist temporally in the stretch between birth and death. Being is time and time is finite, it comes to an end with our death. Therefore, if we want to understand what it means to be an authentic human being, then it is essential that we constantly project our lives onto the horizon of our death, what Heidegger calls "being-towards-death".

Crudely stated, for thinkers like St Paul, St Augustine, Luther and Kierkegaard, it is through the relation to God that the self finds itself. For Heidegger, the question of God's existence or non-existence has no philosophical relevance. The self can only become what it truly is through the confrontation with death, by making a meaning out of our finitude. If our being is finite, then what it means to be human consists in grasping this finitude, in "becoming who one is" in words of Nietzsche's that Heidegger liked to cite. We will show how this insight into finitude is deepened in later entries in relation to Heidegger's concepts of conscience and what he calls "ecstatic temporality".

Being and Time begins with a long, systematic introduction, followed by two divisions, each containing six chapters. I have just finished teaching the whole book in a 15-week lecture course at the New School for Social Research in New York and I estimate that I spoke for about 2 hours a week. As they say here in New York, just do the math! Therefore, in the following 7 short blog entries, I can only give a taste of the book and offer some signposts for readers who would like to explore further.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Stephen Hawking -The Planet has Entered a New Phase of Evolution

From the Daily Galaxy

Although It has taken homo sapiens several million years to evolve from the apes, the useful information in our DNA, has probably changed by only a few million bits. So the rate of biological evolution in humans, Stephen Hawking points out in his Life in the Universe lecture, is about a bit a year.

"By contrast," Hawking says, "there are about 50,000 new books published in the English language each year, containing of the order of a hundred billion bits of information. Of course, the great majority of this information is garbage, and no use to any form of life. But, even so, the rate at which useful information can be added is millions, if not billions, higher than with DNA."

This means Hawking says that we have entered a new phase of evolution. "At first, evolution proceeded by natural selection, from random mutations. This Darwinian phase, lasted about three and a half billion years, and produced us, beings who developed language, to exchange information."

But what distinguishes us from our cave man ancestors is the knowledge that we have accumulated over the last ten thousand years, and particularly, Hawking points out, over the last three hundred.

"I think it is legitimate to take a broader view, and include externally transmitted information, as well as DNA, in the evolution of the human race," Hawking said.

In the last ten thousand years the human species has been in what Hawking calls, "an external transmission phase," where the internal record of information, handed down to succeeding generations in DNA, has not changed significantly. "But the external record, in books, and other long lasting forms of storage," Hawking says, "has grown enormously. Some people would use the term, evolution, only for the internally transmitted genetic material, and would object to it being applied to information handed down externally. But I think that is too narrow a view. We are more than just our genes."

The time scale for evolution, in the external transmission period, has collapsed to about 50 years, or less.

Stephen-hawking Meanwhile, Hawking observes, our human brains "with which we process this information have evolved only on the Darwinian time scale, of hundreds of thousands of years. This is beginning to cause problems. In the 18th century, there was said to be a man who had read every book written. But nowadays, if you read one book a day, it would take you about 15,000 years to read through the books in a national Library. By which time, many more books would have been written."

But we are now entering a new phase, of what Hawking calls "self designed evolution," in which we will be able to change and improve our DNA. "At first," he continues "these changes will be confined to the repair of genetic defects, like cystic fibrosis, and muscular dystrophy. These are controlled by single genes, and so are fairly easy to identify, and correct. Other qualities, such as intelligence, are probably controlled by a large number of genes. It will be much more difficult to find them, and work out the relations between them. Nevertheless, I am sure that during the next century, people will discover how to modify both intelligence, and instincts like aggression."

If the human race manages to redesign itself, to reduce or eliminate the risk of self-destruction, we will probably reach out to the stars and colonize other planets. But this will be done, Hawking believes, with intelligent machines based on mechanical and electronic components, rather than macromolecules, which could eventually replace DNA based life, just as DNA may have replaced an earlier form of life.

Casey Kazan

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Virgin Mary 'appears in tree stump'

-We're all saved! The saviour is here! Where you may ask? Why in Ireland of course!

'And if there were a God, I think it very unlikely that He would have such an uneasy vanity as to be offended by those who doubt His existence' - Bertrand Russell.

From the BBC.

Virgin Mary 'appears in tree stump'

Tree stump... or something more?
Some believe the willow stump is in the image of the Virgin Mary

A tree stump which some believe shows an image of the Virgin Mary has attracted thousands of people to a rural churchyard in County Limerick.

Workmen came across the stump at the Holy Mary Parish Church in Rathkeale while cutting down trees on Monday.

"One of the lads said look, our Blessed Lady in the tree," said Noel White, chairman of the Rathkeale Community Council Graveyard Committee.

"One of the other lads looked over and actually knelt down and blessed himself, he got such a shock.

"It was the perfect shape of the figure of Our Lady holding the baby."

As news of the tree stump has spread, people from across Ireland have travelled to the churchyard.

While we do not wish in any way to detract from devotion to Our Lady, we would also wish to avoid anything which might lead to superstition
Fr Paul Finnerty

A petition seeking to make the stump a permanent fixture at the church has got thousands of signatures.

However, local parish priest Father Willie Russell remains unimpressed.

"I have seen the tree ... it's only a tree," he said.

Fr Russell said views were mixed on whether the image looks like that of the Virgin Mary.

The Catholic Church's hierarchy in Ireland also feels dubious about the tree stump, according to Limerick diocese spokesman Fr Paul Finnerty.

"The Church's response to phenomena of this type is one of great scepticism," he said.

"While we do not wish in any way to detract from devotion to Our Lady, we would also wish to avoid anything which might lead to superstition."


Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Generation X - Douglas Coupland

I have now read this book four times and still is feels relevant and very much alive.

Coupland's main characters, Dag, Claire, and Andy, are three young people born between the late 1950s and the early 1970s (i.e., Generation X). They come from upper-middle-class homes; but they are neither financially ambitious nor lazy. Although they do their fair share of complaining, they also try to make sense of their lives and their culture by telling abstract stories to each other; attempting to put some order within the chaos of existence. They see modern ways and consumptive living anathema, and instead choose to live outside the system in a southern state desert.

One passage that you may find useful, although not without the reader having some knowledge of Generation X and Douglas Coupland, is the following:

"When someone tells you they’ve just bought a house, they might as well tell you they no longer have a personality. You can immediately assume so many things: that they’re locked into jobs they hate; that they’re broke; that they spend every night watching videos; that they’re fifteen pounds overweight; that they no longer listen to new ideas. It’s profoundly depressing. "

Perhaps the most "quotable" and comparatively short bits of text are Coupland's definitions of terms within Generation X. Some are funny; all are poignant; none is obvious without some context. I offer the following as examples:

"McJob: A low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future job in the service sector. Frequently considered a satisfying career choice by people who have never held one."

"Clique Maintenance: The need of one generation to see the generation following it as deficient so as to bolster its own collective ego: 'Kids today do nothing. They're so apathetic. We used to go out and protest. All they do is shop and complain.' "

"Mental Ground Zero: The location where one visualises oneself during the dropping of the atomic bomb; frequently, a shopping mall."

"Consensus Terrorism: The process that decides in-office attitudes and behaviour."

"Emotional Ketchup Burst: The bottling up of opinions and emotions inside oneself so that they explosively burst forth all at once, shocking and confusing employers and friends - most of whom thought things were fine."


Tuesday, 7 July 2009

"Han XiZai Gives a Banquet" painted by Gu HongZhong (about AD 910-980) Five Dynasties

"Han XiZai Gives a Banquet" - Gu HongZhong (about AD 910-980) Five Dynasties Period

Aoxomoxoa -The Grateful Dead (Album of the Month)

1 St. Stephen (Garcia/Hunter/Lesh) - 4:25 Lyrics
2 Dupree's Diamond Blues (Garcia/Hunter/Lesh) - 3:40 Lyrics
3 Rosemary (Garcia/Hunter/Lesh) - 2:02 Lyrics
4 Doin' That Rag (Garcia/Hunter/Lesh) - 5:15 Lyrics
5 Mountains of the Moon (Garcia/Hunter/Lesh) - 4:15 Lyrics
6 China Cat Sunflower (Garcia/Hunter/Lesh) - 4:15 Lyrics
7 What's Become of the Baby (Garcia/Hunter/Lesh) - 8:30 Lyrics
8 Cosmic Charlie (Garcia/Hunter/Lesh) - 5:45

If you haven'y heard this album then shame on you. The content is by no means immediately assessable, but it will grow on you slowly; and still sound fresh after a hundred listens. Has been getting serious action on my CDplayer in the last five months.

The Grateful Dead's masterpiece 'Aoxomoxoa' remains one of their best records. In fact, I think it's their best studio record. Phil Lesh, Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia all just jam on this one.

'St. Stephen' became a concert staple for the Dead, and it appears on many of their bootlegs (look at most of the 'Dick's Picks' series and you'll probably find 'St. Stephen' on the bootlegs, say, 10 or 11 times maybe). The vocals are strong, and the guitar riffs are powerful, as only Jerry could deliver.

Other highlights here are 'Doin' That Rag,' 'Cosmic Charlie' and another concert classic, 'Rosemary.'

Overall, this is highly recommended for any Deadhead. Released in 1971, it sounds just as good today as it did back then.

Highly recommended. ENJOY!!!

Uighur Resentment at Beijing's Rule

By Michael Dillon
Historian on Islam in China

The violence in Xinjiang has not occurred completely out of the blue.

Despite economic development, life for some Uighurs is said to be harder
Its root cause is ethnic tension between the Turkic Muslim Uighurs and the Han Chinese. It can be traced back for decades, and even to the conquest of what is now called Xinjiang by the Manchu Qing dynasty in the 18th Century.
In the 1940s there was an independent Eastern Turkestan Republic in part of Xinjiang, and many Uighurs feel that this is their birthright.
Instead, they became part of the People's Republic of China in 1949, and Xinjiang was declared one of China's autonomous regions, in deference to the fact that the majority of the population at the time was Uighur.
This autonomy is not genuine, and - although Xinjiang today has a Uighur governor - the person who wields real power is the regional secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party, Wang Lequan, who is a Han Chinese.
Inward migration
Under the rule of the Communist Party, there has been considerable economic development, but life has been made more difficult for the Uighurs over the past 20-30 years by the migration of many young and technically-qualified Han Chinese from the eastern provinces.
These new migrants are far more proficient in the Chinese language than all but a few Uighurs, and tend to be appointed to the best jobs.
Not surprisingly, this has created deep-seated resentment among the Uighurs, who view the migration of Han into Xinjiang as a plot by the government to dilute them, undermine their culture and prevent any serious resistance to Beijing's control.
More recently, young Uighurs have been encouraged to leave Xinjiang to find work in the rest of China, a process that had already been underway informally for some years.

There was particular concern at government pressure to encourage young Uighur women to move to other parts of China in search of employment - stoking fears they might end up working in bars or nightclubs or even in prostitution, without the protection of family or community.
Islam is an integral part of the life and the identity of the Uighurs of Xinjiang, and one of their major grievances against the Chinese government is the level of restriction imposed on their religious practices.
There are far fewer mosques in Xinjiang than there were before 1949, and they are subject to severe restrictions.
Children under the age of 18 are not permitted to worship in the mosques, and neither are Communist Party officials or the government.
Madrasas - religious schools - are also strictly controlled.

Other Islamic institutions that were once a central part of religious life in Xinjiang have been banned, including many of the Sufi brotherhoods, which are based at the tombs of their founders and provided many welfare and other services to their members.
All religions in China are subject to control by the State Administration for Religious Affairs, but the restrictions on Islam among the Uighurs are far harsher than against most other groups, including the Hui who are also Muslims but are Chinese speakers.
This severity is a result of the association between Muslim groups and the independence movement in Xinjiang, a movement that is absolute anathema to Beijing.
There are groups within Xinjiang that support the idea of independence, but they are not allowed to do so openly because "splitting the motherland" is viewed as treason.
During the 1990s - after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of independent Muslim states in Central Asia - there was an upsurge in open support for these "separatist" groups, culminating in huge demonstrations in the city of Ghulja in 1995 and 1997.
Beijing suppressed these demonstrations with considerable force, and activists were either forced out of Xinjiang into Central Asia and as far away as Pakistan or were obliged to go underground.
'Climate of fear'
Severe repression since the launch of a "Strike Hard" campaign in 1996 has included harsher controls on religious activity, restrictions on movement and the denial of passports and the detention of individuals suspected of support for separatists and members of their families.
This has created a climate of fear and a great deal of resentment towards the authorities and the Han Chinese.
It is surprising that this resentment has not erupted into public anger and demonstrations before now, but that is a measure of the tightness of control that Beijing has been able to exercise over Xinjiang.
There are a number of emigre Uighur organisations in Europe and the United States; in most cases they advocate genuine autonomy for the region.
In the past Beijing has also blamed an Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement for causing unrest, although there is no evidence that this ever existed in Xinjiang.
The authorities in Beijing are unable to accept that their own policies in Xinjiang might be the cause of the conflict, and seek to blame outsiders for inciting the violence - as they do in the case of the Dalai Lama and Tibet.
Even if Uighur emigre organisations wished to provoke unrest, it would be difficult for them to do so, and there are, in any case, sufficient local reasons for unrest without the need for external intervention.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Zen Master Seung Sahn

Zen Master Seung Sahn is one of the most fascinating personalities and wise teachers in Buddhism today. His style is so approachable from the videos, quotes and writings that I have seen/read.

He has a way of teaching serious subjects in fun, innovative and yet always challenging ways. The ability to teach from so many different angles is the sign of a great teacher to me because people learn in various ways and are at different points along the spectrum of practice.

From the 1985 Sumner Kyol Che Opening, Ceremony:

Linc just said, "Zen is very simple. Dishwashing time, just wash dishes; sitting time, just sit; driving time, just drive; talking time, just talk; walking time, just walk." That's all. Not special. But that is very difficult. That is absolutes thinking. When you're doing something, just do it. No opposites. No subject, no object. No inside, no outside. Outside and inside become one. That's called absolutes.

It's easy to talk about "When you're doing something, just do it," but action is very difficult. Sitting: thinking, thinking, thinking. Chanting: also thinking, thinking. Bowing time: not so much, but some thinking, thinking, checking, checking mind appear. Then you have a problem.

But don't hold. Thinking is OK. Checking is OK. Only holding is a problem. Don't hold. Feeling coming, going, OK. Don't hold. If your mind is not holding anything, it is clear like space. Clear like space means that sometimes clouds come, sometimes rain or lightning or airplane comes, or even a missile blows up, BOOM! World explodes, but the air is never broken. This space is never broken.

Yeah, other things are broken but this space is never changing. Even if a nuclear bomb explodes, it doesn't matter. Space is space. That mind is very important. If something in your mind explodes, then don't hold it. Then it will disappear. Sometimes anger mind appears but soon disappears. But if you hold it, you have a problem. Appear, disappear, that's OK. Don't hold. Then it becomes wisdom. My anger mind becomes wisdom. My desire mind becomes wisdom. Everything becomes wisdom. That's interesting, yeah? So don't hold. That's very important point.