Saving Alexandria

One of the most dangerous speeches given by a public intellectual in recent memory was that of Richard Dawkins at the just held Atheist Rally in Washington DC.  Dawkins is a brilliant scientist, and a member of what the philosopher and fellow atheist Daniel Dennett has termed “the brights” a movement seeking to promote a naturalistic as opposed to supernatural view of the world. All this is for the good, and the brights were originally intended to be an inclusive movement that aimed to pull religious as well as non-religious people into a dialogue regarding some of the deeper questions of existence in so far as religious persons shared the same materialist assumptions and language as the secular and scientific mainstream of the movement.

This inclusiveness might have resulted in some very interesting public conversations, something that the neuroscientist David Eagleman has called possibilism- the space between what science definitively knows, and what religion and philosophy imagine. Instead, we have Dawkins’ speech in which he calls on atheist to challenge, “mock”, and “ridicule” the beliefs of religious people. Not only is this an invitation to incivility- where atheist are encouraged to intellectually mug religious persons who probably have not asked to engage in such conversations- it threatens to inflame the very anti-scientific tendencies of modern religion that Dawkins, rightly, opposes and detest.

To challenge religion where it has an immoral, intolerant, or dangerous effect on the larger political society is a duty of all citizens whatever their non-religious or religious persuasions.  Persons of a secular bent, among whom I include myself, need to constantly remind overly zealous religious people that theirs is not the only view and that the separation of church and state exists, not merely for their own, but for all of our protection.

Yet, the last thing science needs is to get into a fist-fight with sincerely religious people about subjects that have no effect whatsoever on the health of the public sphere. When the crowds roared in support of Dawkins’ call that they mock people who hold what he considers absurd beliefs such as that of Catholics regarding transubstantiation (an example he actually uses) one is left wondering whether the barbarians of the future might just as likely come from the secular rather than religious elements in society.

Continued in this vein, Dawkins would transform the otherwise laudable atheist movement into a lightening rod aimed right at the heart of science. No one should want a repeat of what Piss-Christ did to public funding for the arts.

Up until now, the ire of religion towards science has remained remarkably focused- evolution, reproductive technology, and, to a limited and much more dangerous extent- global warming- the last thing we need is for it to be turned on physics- cosmology, neurology or computer science.

Should the religious ever turn their attention to the singularity movement, which, after all, is a religion masking itself as science, they could stifle innovation and thus further exacerbate inequality. If the prophets of the singularity prove to be correct, they may find themselves in a state of war with traditional religion. A cynical minority of religious people may see the singularity as a major threat to their “business model”, but the majority may be reasonably inspired by their dispute with singularians over the necessarily spiritual question of what it means to be human, something the religious hold, with justification, to be their own turf.

Here, the religious may ironically actually hold the humanist higher ground. For it is difficult to see how the deep extension of the human lifespan and creation of artificial forms of intelligence promised by the singularity movement are humanistic ends given the divergence in mortality rates and educational levels between the developing and developed world. In other words, a humanist, as opposed to a trashumanist version of the future would aim at increasing the life expectancy of countries such as Chad, where a person is not expected to live past 50, rather than trying to extend ever outward the lifespan of the wealthy in the developed world. It would also be less inclined to race towards creating a new species of intelligent beings than towards making the most of the intelligent beings who are already here-us- through the old fashioned methods such as education- especially for girls.

In the not too far-off future, class and religious struggles might merge in dangerous and surprising ways, and the explosive growth of religion in the developing world might be mobilized in the name of traditional belief, and in the humanist cause of protecting the species.

Even should none of this dystopian scenario come to pass, religion is already full of anxiety in regards to science, and science imperialistic in its drive to submit every aspect of reality human and non-human alike to its “models” of reality. This anxiety and imperialism has been detrimental for religion and science both.

The confrontation between religion and science has resulted in religion becoming vulgar in the need to translate religious concepts into the “truths” of science- think the Shroud of Turin or the Creation Museum.

At the same time, science turns it sights not so much on undermining the religious world-view as the very nature of belief itself. It is equally vulgar for scientist to strap electrodes onto someone’s brain in the hopes of finding “the god spot” or some such nonsense- as if it means anything that religious belief is “proven” to be a part of neuro-anatomy- what else could it be?

We have known since the ancient Greeks that there are better ways to describe the natural world than religion. Religion isn’t, or shouldn’t be about that. It’s about the mystery of being, the search for meaning, on a human scale, a scale that science cannot provide, about good and evil.

Science may be extremely good at explaining a mental disease such as schizophrenia, and devising effective interventions. What it cannot do, what religion does so well, is to turn the devastating nature of such an illness into a sphere of meaning that can rescue purpose from the cold indifference of the universe. Without some variant of it we will freeze to death.

Koestler, Kurzweil, Wakefulness

I first looked into the work of Arthur Koestler after I had heard that he had something particularly interesting to say about Pythagoras.  Koestler is one of those writers who, sadly, lies largely forgotten. This is striking given that he was one of the most popular writers of the mid-20th century, and showed a degree of versatility almost unheard of today, writing not only the great anti-Stalinists novel Darkness at Noon, but also penetrating works on the history of science such as The Sleepwalkers.  The value of the man’s work is obscured not just by forgetfulness, but by personal scandal, the most damning of which is an allegation of rape by the wife of Koestler’s friend. An allegation, it must be said, that was made after Koestler had died, and against which he, therefore, was never able to defend himself.

For anyone interested the CBC has a detailed biography of Koestler over at IDEAS.

There are several lessons that can be taken away from The Sleepwalkers, written in the 1950s, that are extremely relevant to the present, most especially when one applies the insight of Koestler with those of a current mystic/scientist- Ray Kurzweil.

Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers reminds us of the spiritual origins of science. This was the case with Pythagoras, who was the first person to conceive of the universe as a mathematical model, right down through Kepler and Newton who were both on a spiritual quest to uncover the “mind of God”.

Koestler also brings to our attention the zig-zag nature of what we would call progress.  There are long dark spells in the history of human knowledge such that “the world in 1500 knew less mathematics than at the time of Archimedes “, and also long plateaus where nothing really interesting seems to happen.   Periods of progress are the exception not the norm, though such periods can be spectacular in how they revolutionize human life.

If we step back to take in the big picture we do indeed see something like an almost linear advance of human knowledge and power over nature the progress from “cavemen to spacemen” in Koestler’s corny characterization.  What we do not see, and this was something that would have been especially apparent to Koestler writing just after the horror-show of World War II, is anything like a corresponding moral progress of human kind.  In fact, periods of the greatest technological and scientific advancement also saw the greatest extension of human cruelty.  And it is this technical progress coupled with moral immaturity that Koestler sees as our greatest danger.

What does all of this have to do with Ray Kurzweil? Well, Kurzweil is the best known prophet of what is known as the Singularity- a distinction which won him a profile in Time Magazine a few years back. The Singularity movement essentially holds that the exponential growth in computer power will eventually result in machines that match and then quickly exceed human intelligence.  This world of post-human intelligence will solve the perennial problems that are now largely in the realm of religion- especially the problem of death. Human beings will be able to integrate themselves with superior machine intelligences, and be able to avoid death by uploading to a digital “cloud”.

Kurzweil is like an Al Gore from the other- side of the sun. He is famous for his slideshows and graphs which show exponential progress of almost everything, but especially the ability of computers. Exponential curves grow very slowly at first and then explode with incredible impact, like the proverbial lilies on a pond that seem to cover almost none of the water until their final set of doublings where they expand to cover everything.  By the middle of this century technological progress will become so rapid and so overwhelming that we will leap into a post-human world seeming overnight.

Members of the Singularity movement certainly bear a striking resemblance to the mystic-scientists of Koestler’s imagining- the very people who gave birth to the scientific world-view in the first place.  It would be a colossal mistake to dismiss Singularians as a bunch of sci-fi addicted kooks. Kurzweil himself is a genius inventor and the figures of some of the very largest tech companies, such as Sergey Brin at Google, are disciples of the movement. Indeed some of the best and brightest in the fields of computer and genetic science are consciously pursuing the religious goals that are at the root of the Singularity movement.

Believers in the Singularity will be the first to insist that theirs is not a utopian movement, which is the best give away that we are dealing with a true utopian line of thought. Indeed, from where I sit, it is hard to see the Singularity as anything less than the mother of all utopias with its promise of immortality, universal abundance, machine sentience, and omniscient intelligence. Like other utopian ideologies we’ve seen before Singularians exhibit a weird mix of determinism and human freedom. The Singularity is said to be written in the stars, the destiny of the universe once intelligent life emerges, and at the same time is relentlessly pursued by individual inventors and thinkers.

The Sleepwalkers should provide a cautionary tale for true believers in the Singularity. Koestler makes us aware of the non-linear nature of progress when viewed in the time frame of an individual life, and even centuries. Sometimes humanity gets stuck and just spins its wheels, and even lurches backward. In fact, some of the best critics of the assumptions regarding the current rates of progress held by Singularians today comes from the school that might be called “where is my jetpack?!” These thinkers argue that not only has present realty failed to live up to all of the hype from the middle of the last century- instead of bases on Mars and cold fusion we have the iPhone- but that the very lack of technological progress is the true source of our current economic ills. There is mounting evidence that we may have even hit a plateau in terms of scientific discovery.

Singularians appear almost fanatically driven by the desire to make their vision come true right now. One wonders why someone would push so hard to reach what they consider an inevitable destination, especially where trying to get there so fast potentially puts humanity in such grave danger- how could the earth possibly survive if people physically lived, not just a century, but centuries, and under conditions of hyper-abundance? What will people do to sustain themselves if we ever actually do manage to create sentient machines? And these are only material questions, the moral questions aren’t dealt with at all including the existential value of the fact that we die, so beautifully articulated by one of the few giants of the tech industry who didn’t believe in the Singularity- Steve Jobs.  One wonders, what is the rush?  Only to realize the hurry is because of the fact that the Singularians themselves hope to defeat death. They are terrified of death, in fact so terrified they are willing to risk humanity itself so that they personally will not have to die.

And this is another thing that The Sleepwalkers points out to us. That technical and scientific knowledge does not entail our moral development- quite the opposite. That technological change, especially rapid technological change, seems to go hand in hand with the periods when human beings treat each other the worst from Iron Age warfare, to the religious wars fueled by the Guttenberg printing press, to the industrial revolution and total war.  For Koestler we were at a crossroads hurtling towards utopia or dystopia, and The Sleepwalkers was meant as a warning.  He wrote:

Thus within the foreseeable future, man will either destroy himself or take off for the stars. It is doubtful whether reasoned argument will play a role in the ultimate decision, but if it does, a clearer insight into the evolution of the ideas that led us to the current predicament perhaps may serve of some value.

(It) may serve as a cautionary tale against the hubris of science, or rather, the philosophical outlook based on it.

Our hypnotic enslavement to the numerical aspects of reality has dulled our perception of non-quantitative moral value: the resultant end-justifies-the-means ethics may be a major factor in our undoing.

(Koestler hoped his tale) may have some sobering effect on the worshipers of the new Baal lording it over the moral vacuum with his electronic brain.  *

Perhaps we could have avoided all the carnage and dislocation that occurred in past periods of technological change had we kept our wits about us and thought things through before we acted.  Kurzweil himself has acknowledged that there may be some “bumps in the road” as we approach the Singularity, but working as a consultant for the US Military, and founding a “university” in search of ways to contain the ill effects of a reality he himself is trying to create seems a little like sub-contracting out strategies for climate change adaptation to Exxon-Mobile.

Kurweil himself does not believe in regulating technology. The future is for the technologist not the government to decide. But to the extent that in a democracy we are the government he leaves no role for all of us to have a say in the future world that both we and our children will inhabit.

I have no idea how we might choose our technology in a way that has never been done before, in a reflective way, but I do know one thing, while I may not have time, we have time to think about what we are doing before we cross what may be very dangerous thresholds- we have the chance to finally cease being sleepwalkers and wakeup.

* The Sleepwalkers, 1959, Arthur Koestler, pp. 552-553

We Are, Panem!

Any good work of dystopian literature has a number of hurdles to cross.  By far, the biggest of these hurdles is that the work needs to provide its readers with a survivor’s and rebel’s guide to any version of the dystopian world projected in that work. Anyone who has read and taken seriously, for instance, Orwell’ 1984 will be forever on the lookout for anything that smacks of totalitarian surveillance or an over intrusive state. The phrase “big brother” is a protective meme, a warning sign that would hopefully prevent the public from blithely accepting the expansion of the power to survey or control the lives of individuals.

If the Hunger Games Trilogy ultimately provides us with just such a survivor’s and rebel’s guide, as in the case of Orwell’s work, it will only be shown over time. What is clear now is that these books, and the movie that has grown out of them, have without doubt proven enormously popular, which must somehow reflect the underlying anxieties of our society. A good question to ask, then, is what exactly the anxieties the trilogy reflects might be?

The story of the first book, which is the only one dealt with here, is essentially an updtaed version of the myth of Theseus.  The tale is set in some not far off post-American dystopia, called Panem, where the children of the twelve districts of which the state is composed are forced to kill one another for the entertainment of an aloof and decadent elite based in a city west of the Rockies known as the Capitol. This yearly event is called the Hunger Games. The event is part Olympics and part Oscars and is viewed universally throughout Panem either by desire or compulsion.  Only one of the children can ultimately come out of the games alive.

The first book is the story of  Katniss Evergreen, a sixteen year old girl from District 12, what is now West Virginia- a skilled hunter and survivalist.  She forms a partnership with a boy from the same district- Peeta Mellark. Together both of them are able to survive the Hunger Games on account of their skill and romance which stops the game when they both agree to commit suicide rather than kill one another.

Almost everything is fine in moderation, but clearly, the book reflects some of the anxieties surrounding our crossing a dangerous threshold with our, violence, gambling, sexuality, and celebrity/transparency obsessed culture. Suzanne Collins herself stated that the idea for the story originated with her watching “reality” television juxtaposed with footage from the Iraq War. She is trying to hold up a mirror to our own society. We shouldn’t like what we see.

There is nothing inherently wrong with sports, which represent one of the heights of drama and undoubtedly are among the forms of human excellence. There are ways, however, in which this passion for sports can go horribly wrong such as when fanatics from Penn State rioted over the firing of their idol Joe Paterno for doing nothing about the rape of at least one young boy by assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. This was a more violent reaction than that to any political event, ever, at that school, and revealed a kind of morally blinding tribalism under seemingly innocuous slogans such as “We Are, Penn State”! -the battle cry of the university’s superb football team.

There are also ways in which, especially professional sports, clearly resemble the games at the Roman Coliseum, and the Hunger Games.  Kids from poor “districts”, many of them black, see a career as “gladiators” as one of the few valid paths out of a world of poverty. It is certainly the case that we are more humane than the Romans- we do not allow our gladiators to kill one another.  But make no mistake, the most violent of our sports can be crippling, and the types of sports that garner the attention of the masses are increasingly more violent

At least our society does not condone death as a form of entertainment.  Scratch that. Our society does not condone real death as a form of entertainment.  Fake murder, however, is one of the most thriving businesses in an otherwise stagnant economy.  The first person shooter game Call of Duty has 40 million players, more people than all of the people in Iraq, and had the biggest release of any video game in history with 400 million in revenue.  

In the Hunger Games gambling is the passion of the elites of the Capitol who place bets on who will ultimately win the games. In our society, gambling, given one excludes the stock market, is largely limited to the poor, another one of the few conceivable roads out of poverty.  In the United States the poor spend roughly 9% of their income on lottery tickets an insidious invisible tax on the most vulnerable in society.  Those in the middle class with more money to spend are more apt to waste their money in a modern day dystopia like Las Vegas or at one of the gambling islands states have thrown up to counter balance declining revenues from the rich and middle class alike.

The Hunger Games itself has nothing really to say on the issue of sex, it’s a children’s book after all, and its Romeo and Juliet romance is almost nostalgic.  Our own culture, however, is much, much different.  The porn site Xvideos has an incredible 4 billion viewers per month! If each of these viewers was a separate individual that would be more than the population of China and India combined, and more than half the population of planet earth, which given the 50/50 split between males and females, might, on second glance, make sense.  Can anyone even imagine the impact of a political site that had this many viewers?  In fact over 30% of internet traffic is related to pornography. If the internet does ever wake up and become conscious as some propose we may be faced with a globe sized middle-aged pornography obsessed superbrain.

The book shines a light most severely at our culture of celebrity. As others have pointed out, show like America Idol, are like an updated form of the cults of human sacrifice. We are obsessed with the rise, and much more so the fall, of the artificial demi-gods we have created- think the slow destruction of a person such as Lindsay Lohan who goes through the Christian cycle of fall and redemption.

While in the arena of the Hunger Games no privacy is possible, everything the characters do is observed and televised resulting in the need to fake emotions in order to obtain benefits from “sponsors” watching the games. The result is actual confusion regarding the most private of feelings and suspicion regarding the feelings of others as everything is put on display and is meant to serve a utilitarian social purpose. Does Katniss really have feelings for Peeta or are her actions merely for the benefit of the audience? What are Peeta’s true feelings for Katniss? One wonders what effects social media such as FaceBook are having on the internal emotional lives of their users as the social value of their own emotions and thoughts is subject to constant scrutiny and feedback. All of us have become celebrities in our own constructed dramas.

The people of the districts themselves were once constantly watched by the mocking-jay- a genetically engineered spying bird. This is certainly poetic, and has a deeper literary significance for Collins’ plot, but the sad reality is that all any dystopian government would need to do to obtain full-spectrum surveillance of its people would be to reestablish FaceBook and Google and demand full access to their records.

The Hunger Games, with its fast paced style, and the thrilling narrative of the struggle between Katniss and her allies and the brutal “Careerers” who have spent their childhoods training to kill at the games, indeed, reads like the one is watching a television show such as Survivor, where Collins got the inspiration for her novel.  We become caught up in the very type of spell Collins hopes to free us from. Whether or not that was intentional on Collins’ part I do not know, but one weakness, at least with the first book in the trilogy, is that I found myself no more armed against the society of spectacle than I was before I opened the book- perhaps even less so.   In that sense the first book fails to provide the sort of survivor’s and rebel’s guide to be hoped for.

One can wish the remaining works in the trilogy live up to the high standard set by the genius creators of dystopias past, and provide us with the tools to combat dystopias of the future, though undoubtedly; Collins has given us insight into the dystopian aspects of the present.

Blame Zarathustra

The story in its most simplified form goes something like this: the world has fallen into a deep state of chaos and death. All the old ways have collapsed and everyone is confused and does not know what to do, they are lost. The reason this is happening is that there is a war enveloping the cosmos.  A force of disorder, an order based upon the power of lies, has set itself against the peace and good of the world. They have launched a war for the possession of the future. Each individual must now choose sides in the great and coming battle. They can choose to join the side of evil, lies and disorder or the side of the good, truth and peace. Ultimately, the good will prevail, the unjust will be punished and the peace of the world will be restored, not just for a time, but for all eternity.  This will be the final battle, the birth of paradise.

This narrative makes for great story telling- just think of the world of J.R. Tolkien or Star Wars, and were it the case that such stories were only part of our fantasies there would be no issue, and they would remain what they should be, a great piece of childish fun.

The problem, of course, occurs when such narratives are overlain on political and social reality, for the passion and blindness these kinds of stories engender can be found behind some of the bloodiest events of human history. To name only the most prominent: the religious wars of the Reformation and Counter Reformation, including the English Civil War, the Inquisition, the Terror of the French Revolution, the American Civil War, the internal terror of the Stalinist Soviet Union, Nazism, the Second World War, the Red Scare, the Cold War, Islamist terrorism, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Something about these types of stories seem to tap into a primal element in human beings, nevertheless, their origin can be traced to historical time.

Zarathustra, otherwise known as Zoroaster, was probably the person most responsible for having first created and popularized a version of this story around 1200 B.C.E. What he had discovered was a “technology” that enabled human beings to engage in a kind of mass tribalism. Dividing whole societies or even all of human-kind into two warring armies created what were in effect super-tribes joined to one another with the kind of depth of feeling and exclusiveness that was once the monopoly of extended kin-groups.  It was a passion that was able to override biological instinct and turn “brother against brother”, and allowed human beings to murder one another in “good conscience” on the grounds that they were waged in battle with an army of demons.

Zarathustra was not trying to do this. What he was seeking after was a path to peace.

The Aryan society in which he lived had gone from an age of idyllic pastoralists to one of warriors. The catalyst for this transition had been, as it has been many times since, technological transformation.  Aryans living in what is now southern Russia had come in contact with the more advanced civilizations in Armenia and Mesopotamia to the south.  From these societies the Aryans learned the art of iron weaponry and the chariot, which sparked a wave of war and banditry, as the whole of the steppe was consumed in violence. The gentle gods of the Arayans gave way to the cult of the militarized Indra- the dragon slayer.

Zarathustra, a priest of the old Aryan gods sought out an answer to the bloodshed. Dreams and visitations came to him. Nothing took place on earth which was not a reflection of the things of heaven. Perhaps Indra and his devas- the shining ones- had brought war not just upon the earth, but upon the just gods of old, the amesha- the immortals.

Then, Zarathustra was visited by the greatest of the amesha- Mazda- lord of wisdom and justice.  Lord Mazda told Zarathustra that he was to mobilize the people for a coming holy war against the forces of evil.

Who could challenge the great Lord Mazda, the most powerful of the amesha?  Zarathustra reasoned that Mazda must have a divine opposite, a god of equal power dedicated to disorder and evil- the god of the lie- Angra Mainyu.

Every human being was called to choose sides in the great and looming battle. ..

It was here that Zarathustra introduced his greatest innovation, for he abandoned the cyclical view of history that had been perhaps the only way human beings, up until then, had thought about time.  In cyclical history time spun round and round within regular cycles of birth, strength, decay and death, historical seasons to match the natural one.  Zarathustra broke free from this cycle. The world was racing toward an end of history- a climax and day of judgment. The great battle would end in the victory of Lord Mazda over the forces of the wicked. A blazing river of fire would run from the heavens into hell and destroy forever the spirit of evil. The world would become a final paradise. . .

Zarathustra crafted his tale on the eve of the Axial Age, a period of religious awakening that gave us some of the deepest, most influential, and compassionate figures of human history: the Buddha, Socrates, Confucius.  But his story lived on. It lived on in the The Book of Revelation, in the 12th Iman of the Shia branch of Islam, it lived on in the religious wars, the idea of world revolution found in communism, in Hitler’s anti-Semitic insanity… in the current apocalyptic logic behind the looming confrontation with Iran.

It is the world’s most dangerous fairy-tale, and if we do not someday soon break its spell, its dark side will come true.

Arrested Development

When I was a kid, the original Star Wars trilogy seemed to correspond to my own moral development, at least up until The Return of the Jedi. Star Wars, the first of the three was a classic good vs. evil morality /adventure tale- perfect for my own understanding of the world at the time. The world was simple, clear cut. There were good guys and bad guys, and the best one could hope for was to end up one of the key players on the side of the good guys. The sheer nobodyness of the main characters- Luke was just some kid living on a desert planet, Han and Chewy like futuristic truck drivers, the lowly droids a couple of clowns, contrasted with the sheer scale of what they were up against was democratizing- you couldn’t just be one of the good guys- you could be ONE of the good guys.

The Empire Strikes Back, for my money by far the best of the 3, was released in 1980.  The movie itself introduced elements of mysticism and mythology in its plot line, and also an element of moral ambiguity. Vader, we find out, is Luke’s father- the lines between good guy and bad guy had been slightly smudged.

But if things in the movies were getting morally complicated, things in the real world took on a surreal good vs. evil dichotomy.  It is impossible for me to explain to someone who was not of a certain age during this period of time- and was a boy- how the flare up of the Cold War that took place during this time colored the imagination.  This was the period of Regan’s Evil Empire Speech, and his SDI, aptly panned the Star Wars initiative.

Hollywood and the culture were amplifying the political reality to infuse the world, at least for a particular breed of media-tuned young boys, with an air of looming showdown and apocalypse.  Adults, should have known better, but as a kid I was too busy preparing myself for a hero’s role in a real life version of Red Dawn , amassing troops on my Risk board, listening to jets fly overhead at night thinking “this is it!” and begging my parents to see the horror show of The Day After- which had they let me might have scared me straight.

By the time we get to the Return of the Jedi, the ambiguity is gone. The bad guy is converted, the good guys win, the Evil Empire is defeated. The progress towards adulthood, with the exception of sexy Leia, has stopped. Adults it seems never grow beyond the realm of fairy-tales. Even if, in the real world, such fairy-tales never make sense.

Whether Regan’s aggressive policy towards the Soviet Union precipitated the collapse of  the Eastern Bloc is an interesting historical question, and one in which I have an open mind. The fact of the matter remains that the outcome was not the matter of some “force” of good working for the survival of the human race and freedom, but a piece of extremely good luck. Barring any such force, he might just as likely have gotten us all blown up.

Perhaps the only time this good vs. evil rhetoric made sense was when the Allies battled against the Nazis. But even then, the Allies managed to cross over to the “dark side”, or at the very least, gave the conflict a shade of grey, when they began deliberately killing civilians from the air, and brought Stalin, Hitler’s doppelganger, into the lighter side of the force.

As an adult, the dangers of this arrested development and simplified moral imagination were brought home to me with the disaster of the Second Iraq war.  Adults holding to a vision of  the universe as a drama of good against evil not only made stupid policy mistakes, but also fell into the most grotesquely immoral behavior on a individual level.

Unfortunately, the 9-11 wars, from where I sit, have not proven to be a painful initiation to adulthood, but another version of the Return of the Jedi.  Both the right, and the left,  continue to paint one another as not just misguided, but demonic as the country drifts towards oblivion.

All this got me wondering where this whole good vs. evil fairy tale that is so dangerous, and politically crippling given our destructive capacities, and need for cooperation on enormously complex problems, actually originated.

Some might blame the heritage of a particular aspect of the Abrahamic religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.  For my part, I go a little further back, and blame a bewildered searching prophet who lived on the steppes of Central Asia around 1200 B.C.E.  I blame Zarathustra….

The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom

If as mentioned previously the First Opium War opened China to British drug pushers, it also opened up China to the cultural influence of the West, and one of these influences stemmed from the flood of Christian missionaries who thereafter inundated the country.Obviously there was a lot lost in translation between these Christian missionaries and the Chinese, for after Hong Xiuquan, a member of the Hakka ethnic group in southern China, encountered Christianity he became convinced that he was the brother of Jesus who had been sent to China to rid the country of “devils”.

The devils Hong Xiuquan was talking about included the Confucian meritocracy, themselves the heirs of a practical variant of utopianism.  This resentment towards Confucians was not surprising given that he had failed the civil service exams, based on the Confucian classics numerous time, and thus found himself  barred from a government post that would have granted him a stable income and place in society.

This is one of the stupendous what-ifs of history, like Hitler not getting into art school in Vienna, and going on to almost destroy Europe.  Would the Taiping Rebellion have never happened, would 20-30 million people not be killed if one man was better at taking standardized tests? Can the gods be so cruel in their irony?

As it was,  Hong Xiuquan set to preaching and soon had himself a sect.  In part, the attraction of the sect was a reflection of the dystopian environment around him. Bandits robbed seemingly at will, the Hakka people fought incessantly over sparsequality farmland,  natural disasters rocked the country . The civil and population pressures gave rise to a pernicious practice of female infanticide that overtime caused the natural ratio of males to females to become all out of whack.  Young hot-bloods had too much testosterone in their veins and too little food in their stomachs, and were thus a volatile mix in which  Hong Xiuquan served as a match.  Much of the popularity of the Taiping movement, like the modern day Taliban, stemmed from their ability to bring a semblance of order and security to this otherwise chaotic and dangerous world .

Yet the the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, established in modern day Nanjing, was something much different than the Taliban.  It was a strange hybrid form of utopia, a kind of marriage between what we in the West would understand as Puritanism, abolitionism, feminism, Spartan or  pseudo-totalitarian military organization, and perhaps even a version of Malthusian environmentalism.

The Taiping replaced the Confucian classic that had served as the gateway to government office with the Bible, vice laws were passed  and came down hard on opium users, gamblers, consumers of alcohol, and prostitutes.  The sexes were strictly separated, and, in one of those classic examples of utopian overreach, sex, even by married couples, was discouraged.

At the same time, the Taiping launched a program of radical egalitarianism that gave the rebellion characteristics somewhere between the French Revolution and the American Civil War.  In a stroke, they abolished private property, banned the barbaric practice of foot- binding women, and declared the sexes equal, permitting women to take exams and serve in government.   They also, before the Emancipation Proclamation was even conceived, abolished slavery (of the Chinese variety).

It was their tight military structure and totalitarian organization of society that made the Taiping so hard to defeat.  They proved as effective at mobilizing society as the civic-republicanism of the French people mobilized against Europe only a few decades before. The degenerating Qing Dynasty that ostensibly ruled China had a much harder time putting down the Taiping separatist than the Union armies had bringing down the Confederacy almost simultaneously.  And unlike with the American war, the British took sides in the conflict and supported the Qing, which may have been a decisive element in their eventual victory.

Many of the policies of the Taping Heavenly Kingdom might be understood as utilitarian responses to a Malthusian environment.  Their prohibitions on sex were efforts to drive the population down,  and sexual equality offered an answer to the distortions of female infanticide.  Women in the kingdom were just as valued as men.

This weird mash-up of different, and contradictory, forms of utopia to Western eyes seems not to make sense.  Yet, when seen from the perspective of what was happening elsewhere in the first half of the 19th century, the strangeness of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom becomes less bewildering.

The Taiping Rebellion occurs in the historical space between the French  Revolution and American Civil War and contains aspects of both.  Perhaps revolutionary concepts blew like pollen across the Central Asia and the Pacific and cross-fertilized with native Chinese elements to create the strange hybrid of the Taiping Heavenly kingdom.

What the French Revolution, American Civil War and Taiping Rebellion all shared is that they were attempts to create what we now understand to be a modern, sovereign state.   What the founding fathers of modern China, Sun Yat Sen and Mao saw in the Taiping utopia was a hopeful harbinger of this new form of the state in China, and therefore, despite their differences in vision from it, admired the rebellion as a failed attempt at necessary transformation.

The current plutocrats ruling China, however, see in the Taiping a dangerous historical precedent that must be guarded against at all costs. What was once the source of partially irrational utopian hopes of the Chinese leadership has become the source of equally irrational dystopian fears. Anyone wondering today about China’s often cruel and  seemingly paranoid treatment of Christians, Tibetans, or fringe religious sects such as the Falun Gong needs to keep the historical experience of the Taiping Rebellion in mind in order to understand the root of Chinese fears.

What relevance does any of this have today? Some have suggested that we keep the experience of the Taiping Rebellion at the forefront of our minds when we think any future large scale disruptions to Chinese society.   One might wonder out-loud how China is going to deal with its massive demographic, environmental and political challenges. One might also wonder how China, now the “workshop of the world”, like the British who cleaned their clock in the Opium Wars, might deal with another tectonic shift coming from automation and localized production that challenges that status.

Given how purely speculative all this is, what interests me most is what kinds of strange cross-fertilizations, like that between the Taiping Rebellion and intellectual flora that originated in the West,  are going on today, and, more important may occur in the near future.

As I wrote in a recent post, it might be a good idea for people in the West to start looking for novel ideas about politics, culture, technology, art to start emerging from the more dynamic developing world, and that would include China, even though it is rapidly aging and therefore probably missing something of the natural utopianism and innovation of youth.

When the history of the Occupy Wall Street Movement is written one of its most interesting aspects might be that it was inspired by a similar movement in the developing world- the Arab Spring.  (Though it might be more accurately called a Mediterranean Spring and have its origin in Greece).   One can only imagine, should China ever bloom into its own spring, what strange and interesting ways of thinking and being in the world might emerge there.  What bloomed in China might eventually make its way to our shores to combine with Western traditions giving rise to something we have not seen before, perhaps for ill, but let us hope, for good.