The view from bar-do’i srid-pa

When I woke up this morning, I wasn’t intending to write anything this year to commemorate your death. I had thought that I had finally said everything that needed to be said last year. But I find that perhaps I do have something else to say, or rather, to ask: can you help me find the way out from this intermediate state? Can you help me pry open my eyes, to look away from light and shadow alike?

Bardo

i have been privileged to see and feel so many things
but the most dangerous act would be to interpret them
suspend the mind, levitate my judgement
let experience waft over me like curtains of Tibetan prayer flags
i am gently ushered into the inner sanctum
and buried upon the peaks of the Tien Shan

there is an important distinction between happiness and felicity
– place|state outward|inward existence|essence –
yet i do not understand their dance, their dialectic
even mountains have roots

but Plato cannot be correct, nor can Hegel
there is intimacy, yet not quite sublation
then a finger presses against my lips:
hush, listen to the geological whisper
the song sung in hints

ancient lamas beat their drums and chant
tantric in the rhythm of erosion
and amidst them i find an I
a shard of mind puzzling over patterns in a chunk of quartz

Capitalist realism: homo capitalus / homo financus

Update 31 May, 2012: Some readers, even after braving through the many photos and philosophese, have asked me: “Just what exactly is the ideology or goal of ‘capitalist realism’?” I think what I’m trying to say is simply this: if socialist realism celebrated and promoted the mechanization of humanity, then capitalist realism celebrates and promotes the marketization of humanity. Moreover, both art forms have strong semiotics of the future and of power. However, where socialist realism was explicit in its totalitarian drive (at least, it’s obvious in retrospection), capitalist realism still purports to be liberalist (in the sense that people are allowed to be whoever they want to be “in private”, although what exactly that means, much less the boundaries of the private, is uncertain).

Although this is clearly a critical photo-essay, it’s also, perhaps paradoxically, supposed to be appreciative: contrary to opinions currently in vogue about the aesthetic “superficiality” and psychological “blandness” of either communist or capitalist architecture, the art form is actually quite intelligent, provocative, and in its own way, rather sublime. That’s not to say that it’s morally good; rather, that’s to say it shouldn’t be blithely dismissed or knee-jerkingly condemned.

This post could be alternatively entitled, “How I learned to stop grumbling and love corporate-capitalistic architecture.” As a young boy, I would sometimes visit my father’s stock brokerage firm in 650 Fifth Avenue. I couldn’t decide whether its granite modernist facade was drab, imposing, and soulless, or somehow futuristic, even graceful and attractive. I think in general that has characterized my feelings about most post-Sixties corporate/financial office architecture — until yesterday as I wandered Hammersmith and the City of London for a few hours. I found myself taken in by some kind of obscure metaphysical charm, even sublimity. And then I realized: this stuff’s not at all dissimilar Soviet socialist realism. In fact, I’d dare even call it capitalist realism.

Continue reading

Абай, Штра́ус, и совет от моего отца.

The BBC has published my piece on Abai Kunanbaev, which I was working on while in the United States. It’s entitled, “Abai’s thoughts, Kazakh matters”, which is a play on what struck me as a very Abai-esque quote from a young Kazakh psychologist I just happened to bump into underneath Grand Central Station. The Kyrgyz version was released yesterday; still to come is the Uzbek version, and then the original English version, which I believe will come during the early summer. This is a big moment for me, as it’s not everyday one can get published on the BBC, much less in three languages and about philosophy, that perennially “un-newsy” of disciplines — alhamdulilah!

Like an excitied little boy, I shared the English copy with my close friends, colleagues, and family (I can’t distribute it publicly at the moment due to copyright). My father had the following remarks to make:

Congratulations, Chris! Heady stuff, although that’s nothing new. Reading your description of Abai as Kazakhstan’s first philosopher as a tie in to today’s independent journalists there, makes the whole piece all the more timely. Also, in my opinion, it is very well written, and I could follow it as I read it, not too obtuse although certainly intellectual. Key elements for your first direct BBC contribution. Love, Dad

Not only is this advice I will remember as I continue to seek one path of service as a public intellectual, finding a way to communicate complex and important ideas for a general audience, but it also resonates with the direction many of my thoughts have been turning in recent months.

Continue reading

Journalism as sacred dialogue

Today marks my third year as a member of the Baha’i Faith. To commemorate, I would like to explore something which I hope might be a positive theoretical contribution to my religious community: exploring and engaging in journalism as a fundamentally religious endeavor which, in its highest expression, constitutes a sacred dialogue. To develop this, I first need to take some time to explore the ways in which journalism, often rightly recognized as a scientific-like activity, nonetheless has, as it were, a religious soul.

The spiritual principle of detachment dictates that one give and then let go, so what follows herein is something that I am attempting to work out in such a spirit. It is also as much good spirituality as it is good academic etiquette to give credit where credit’s due: the phrase, “journalism as a sacred dialogue”, actually comes from one of my professors, Bart Pattyn, in response to my blog post, “Transcendental Journalism?”, wherein I describe my original intuition. The notion of “journalism with the soul of religion” is also inspired by recent work, as-yet unreleased, of my friend Ben Schewel into the notion of “religion with the soul of science”.

So, to get to the point: my essential thesis is that the journalist is a breed of philosopher as described by Edmund Husserl. As such, he or she can be understood as engaging in an activity that is quite surprisingly spiritual, to the point that it might even be described as in some sense mystical.

By claiming that the journalist is a Husserlian philosopher I mean that the journalist is a phenomenologist. Alternatively, my claim here can be understood that all critical intellectuals are phenomenologists when they are engaged in the study of experience, a definition that encompasses many of the “erudite” professions, from anthropologists to artists. In my view, the journalist and the philosopher are among those who are the most routinely engaged in such a study.  Either way, the journalist and the philosopher are blood siblings, although it is hard to see this from outward appearances — ironically, we must be phenomenologists to understand the deep family resemblance between them.

Without intending to do injustice to the complexity of Husserl’s thought, as I understand him, a phenomenologist is a person who “takes a step back” (“epoché“) from experience by assuming the stance of a “transcendental subject” in order to examine and report upon the former. Husserl could just as well have been describing the journalist. Now, in my experience, many secular Western journalists would prefer terminology like “neutral observer” or “spectator”, but my Islamic colleagues would agree with a Husserlian description of their work. That is because in traditional Islamic thought, going back to al-Ghazzali (“occasionalism“), there really is no such thing as a “neutral observer”; rather, there is the divine subjectivity that holds everything together and that only appears as a neutral observer because it is the perspective that bedrocks all perspectives:

“No vision can grasp Him, but His grasp is over all vision. God is above all comprehension, yet is acquainted with all things” — Qur’an 6:103

I think it noteworthy that Husserl himself has described the “step back” with spiritual terminology: “resolved to understand the world out of the spirit”, “spiritual movement”, “religious conversion”, “fundamental transformation”, “ground experience”, “un-humanize”, and “meditation”. He probably means this in the Buddhistic sense of stilling the mind, but this terminology brings with it a contemplative connotation, namely, that the stance of spectator requires a stepping outside of one’s perspective so as to examine oneself and the world more surgically and meaningfully.

We may ask: “who” is the transcendental subject? Husserl probably has in mind the Cartesian cogito (“I think, therefore I am”), which isn’t necessarily either the “I” we individually associate with, opening the possibility that it is God. I don’t know whether Husserl himself intended this (and if one reads Descartes very closely, he’s actually quite fuzzy about the relationship between the cogito and the divine), but I think the Islamic tradition makes a good case that the transcendental subject is the divine, if not the divine essence, then that aspect of the divine which is the “grasp over all vision”.

What this means, then, is that the phenomenologist — and by extension, the journalist and the philosopher — has a hugely important element of the mystical in the Heschelian or Avempacean sense of them aspiring to unite with the transcendental and absolute, thereby achieving the divine perspective, a.k.a., “objectivity” and “neutrality”. Whether they are successful and how we could assess this is an entirely different matter; what interests me here is this fundamental religiosity at the core of journalistic and philosophical work (ironically, even if the specific journalist or philosopher is a staunch atheist and opponent of religion).

Continue reading

Abai Kunanbaev, 1000 miles, and two continents

I love travelling, but jeeze, I’ve done a lot in a short amount of time. After my last post — a theme which, by the way, I shall be exploring at greater length in this blog in the future — I wrapped up the semester and headed to the United States for two weeks with a close Belgian friend. This was my itinerary: New York City to Philadelphia to Washington, DC to New York City to Boston (with a furlough to Manchester, New Hampshire) to New York City. That’s approximately 1000 miles, the majority of which was covered in a six-day spurt. I also backpacked through several of these cities, and by “backpacked”, I often mean running with 10 kilos strapped to my back, as I tried to make it to various appointments (I proved to be in better shape than I had realized).

It was a mixed experience. On the one hand, I was able to re-connect with many loved ones as well as several of my long-lost relatives. Once again, I felt that swinging by only once a year is simply not sufficient, particularly as my parents get older, but the inevitable frustration arises that I simply don’t have the time or money to go back every, say, six months. Frankly, I wish that I could just put all my loved ones into a suitcase and bring them back with me.

On the other hand, I was also reminded, in rather stark relief, why I’m simply happier being outside of the United States. The massive disparities in wealth and security, the extreme individualism coupled with extreme patriotism, the infrastructural decay and the post-modern yuppie condos, the insane amount of cars and obese people — and all of these phenomena mutually reinforcing, too — drove me batty within only a few days. There was also a strong feeling of powerlessness: this is just how the American system has become and shall remain, regardless of the man (or woman) in the White House.

Continue reading

Transcendental journalism?

“In this Day the secrets of the earth are laid bare before the eyes of men. The pages of swiftly-appearing newspapers are indeed the mirror of the world. They reflect the deeds and the pursuits of divers peoples and kindreds. They both reflect them and make them known. They are a mirror endowed with hearing, sight and speech. This is an amazing and potent phenomenon. However, it behoveth the writers thereof to be purged from the promptings of evil passions and desires and to be attired with the raiment of justice and equity. They should enquire into situations as much as possible and ascertain the facts, then set them down in writing.” — Baha’u’llah, Tarzát #6

When I was in the Alps, I had a productive conversation with a young Italian student who is doing her doctoral work at the Sorbonne. She was curious about my opinion on the “faith and reason problem” as a “religious philosopher” (i.e., a philosopher who is religious and who thinks about religion). I was surprised by my answer.

Continue reading

Totemism and Panopticon

This blog has been quiet for almost a month, first because I was happily secluded in the Alps for the better part of two weeks, and then because it’s examination season here in Leuven. Not only exams, but also PhD applications, grant applications (for neweurasia), and budget paperwork are all due this month. I’m somewhat frayed at the edges at the moment, as there’s not enough me (and what there is, isn’t especially great at time management).

Nevertheless, I would like to share something I have worked hard on these last few weeks for my “Media Ethics” course. Admittedly, it’s an academic Frankenstein’s monster: a paper entitled, “Totemism and Panopticon” (click on the link to read a pdf version), that fuses Foucault, Durkheim, and an immanent critique of Assange’s now well-known essay, “Conspiracy as Governance”, to explore the conflict between WikiLeaks and the United States under the Obama Administration. My use of Durkheim is key, as fundamentally I am proposing a spiritual and identity dimension to the debacle. Here’s my conclusion:

WikiLeaks as a reverse, grassroots panopticon with a peculiar ratio of liberal and democratic beliefs, a murky conception of the publics at stake in its Bolshevik-like endeavor to mobilize and transform the world, and an ambivalance between a Kantian and utilitarian understanding of the proverbial leak has collided headlong with the full totemistic power of the American national self as embodied in national security and the soldier, prompting in turn an equally Kantian response in terms of secrecy. This response is perhaps evidenced by the dogged manner in which the Obama Administration is pursuing legal action against Manning and Assange, the latter under the Espionage Act of 1917, a federal law which, as I understand it, has in mind the concept of leaking toward a specific enemy in officially declared wartime, not a general mass during what is still formally peace time (the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan never receiving formal Congressional declarations), even if that leaking occurred for journalistic-activistic-historical (much less contre panoptic) purposes. Even more remarkable — and all the more telling of the totemistic crisis at stake — was when United States Senator Joseph Lieberman expressed his confusion/disappointment on Fox News that Assange [had not yet been] tried for treason a sentiment echoed by several other pundits on the station, even though he is not a United States citizen.

My interests in monopsychism and panpsychism also extend to the notions of “mass consciousness” and “public opinion”, hence why I thought using Durkheim would be at least interesting, hopefully a bit funky and creative. The goal in the paper is to get a fix on the public ethos that Assange et al have engendered, specifically in my homeland. By the Greek term “ethos” I mean something akin to the English notions of character, disposition, and fundamental values. With respect to WikiLeaks — specifically WikiLeaks as its own variety of mass media (by dint of it being a digital entity) and as a response to and element of the broader mediascape of today — I also mean ethos along the lines of how the Greeks used the term to refer to the power of music to influence its hearer’s emotions, behaviors, and even morals.

Besides trying to find an interesting new angle to the issue, I also felt duty-bound as a Baha’i journalist to get a fix on what WikiLeaks means for me. Assange et al are a moral confrontation right at the intersection between my religiosity and my professional work. The philosopher, in an essay such as this, tries to sort out the resultant mess – although the philosopher is also torn, between Hegelian and Gandhian instincts.

Continue reading

Bracketing God

Much to my pleasant surprise, I’m in Milan again for Christmas, visiting my good friend Luca. It was a much longer journey here than last year, though, what with the massive general strike in Belgium coupled with an ungodly early flight, but it has been worth it, because immediately upon arriving Luca and I launched into a conversation concerning his views of what first philosophy should be, i.e., in Kantian terms, focus upon the conditions of the possibility for knowledge, and moreover, as a holistic action that does not have praxis, much less activism as its primary goal. The key concept here is Husserl’s epoché, which struck me as a theoretical tool that has vast applicability for religion.

So, here I am, in a library in Milan thinking over this while waiting for Luca to wrap up an essay for his PhD. Once more there is a feeling of fate, purposiveness, necessity. By accident, I happen to be facing the science fiction section (I just learned an Italian neologism: fantascienza), and what do they have prominently displayed there? Copies of Asimov’s Robot Series, Herbert’s Dune Series, and Lem’s Solaris, novels that speak to some of my core interests. Herbert and Lem especially leap out at me because of the difficulties I’ve been having with my would-be Lovelock paper: my professors, although they don’t want to discourage me, have doubts and misgivings about the project, and I’ve been wondering whether I shouldn’t just give it up for something more “easy” and “concrete”, say, the recent incidents in Zhanaozen and the complexities of trying to ascribe “exploitation” in a neo-patrimonial system like Kazakhstan’s. Perhaps the universe is saying with respect to Lovelock: go for it anyway; try, if not Gaia, then something about Nature. But seeing these books also makes me feel that I am somehow supposed to be here in Milan.

I want to try right now to link together several things that have been on my mind these past few months, but there are too many copper ball strands; it’s extremely difficult to see how they wind together as a single ball, and perhaps this is decidely praxis-oriented (or maybe I’m just being surprisingly Husserlian?) So, for what it’s worth, here is my thought process, in raw, literal, unprocessed form (and for those familiar with HTML, they’ll hopefully get the double entrendre implicit here in the way I’m using the blockquote function as a way to “bracket” my internal dialogue, thereby holding it up for analysis, inspection and reflection as though it were a diamond under a lamp):

Continue reading

Leuven, Louvain, Katholieke, Catholique — Ik weet het niet, Je ne sais pas!

Word in the Belgian press is that the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven shall be Katholieke no more — well, somewhat.

Although it’s still to be decided this week, officially, our Dutch name shall be “KU Leuven”, with the “K” no longer signifying anything (humorously, university officials like to emphasize that we shall also no longer be “K.U. Leuven”, either). Apparently, our English name shall be “The University of Leuven — KU Leuven” or “The University of Leuven (KU Leuven)”. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in terms of letterhead, website design, curriculum vitaes, etc.

This decision is part of the ongoing mixture of market- and identity-politics here in Belgium. It has been presaged by earlier identity problems (or continuities, depending on your view): previously, we were the Studium Generale Lovaniense (from our founding in 1425 to 1797), the Université d’État de Louvain (until the 1830s, with a brief closure during the Napoleonic regime), then the Université Catholique de Louvain/Universitas Catholica Lovaniensis until the political crisis of 1968 resulted in two universities with the same charter: the Flemish-Dutch Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in historical Leuven, and the Université Catholique de Louvain in the purpose-built town of Louvain-la-Neuve in southern Francophonic Belgium.

The latest change has been justified along two lines: first, that the Catholic Church is interfering with stem cell research (apparently, the change shall also entail removing the archbishop as chairman, leaving him as chancellor); and second, that the “Katholieke” adjective hurts our reputation in the United States, as it supposedly gives the wrong impression of us, i.e., that in order to have a degree from here means one must subscribe to the Catholic faith. Proponents for the change also argue that the university is becoming more and more pluralistic (that remains to be seen in some faculties, but as an official intention this is true).

Continue reading

Can Nature be exploited? Does the Universe have rights?

This has been a very odd semester, to say the least. Having turned 30, I’ve somehow become antsy; I find myself, for instance, more and more subject to the urge to write fiction, i.e., to “finally get going again” with my childhood passion (and my organization, NewEurasia, may also be taking an arts-cultural turn in its coverage during 2012-13). In terms of the intellectual themes predominating my academic life, I’m starting to move away from strictly Islamological issues and into other terrains that have long interested me, particularly the democratic/liberal theory and environmentalism.

Studying liberalism, of course, intersects with my journalistic work, so it shall come as no surprise to my readers that I’m looking into the phenomenon of “managed democracy” in contemporary Russia and Kazakhstan, and that I shall probably be approaching the topic from the perspective of Claude Lefort. It also feeds into my interests as a member of the Baha’i Faith, namely, whether global democracy is possible, indeed, whether there can be a global understanding of what it means to be “human”.

As for environmentalism, believe it or not, this actually emerges from my background in Averroism, and no, I don’t mean by way of Spinoza; again, it is by way of my childhood resources.

Continue reading

There is nothing to forgive


Graciously look upon Thy servant, humble and lowly at Thy door, with the glances of the eye of Thy mercy, and immerse him in the Ocean of Thine eternal grace. — Abdul-Baha

Today is the second anniversary of your suicide, and somehow, it has come easier — not because there is less to say, less to feel; no, quite the contrary, because there is too much, and all of it so beautiful.

Continue reading

I am the kashkúl, You are the tide

Today I turn 30. As my readers, friends and colleagues know, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Inevitably, it brings up complex feelings — mingled uncertainty and absolute confidence in one’s life choices; a sense of the elusiveness of numbers, not quite mere human inventions, not quite correspondent to the fullness of reality; noticing grey hairs appearing amidst the dark brown, reminding you of inevitability. But overall, I’m feeling good today. The kingdom of the impossible is a bit closer than it was ten years ago, but for now, the horizon’s edge quivers with invitation.

And as I pass this milestone, really, without much effort on my own, I find that I do not want to reflect about myself in an atomistic sense, but about myself in its widest, universal sense: my loved ones who constitute my being — parents and clan, siblings both of blood and spirit, dearest friends, close colleagues, mentors and guides, readers and so many of the young people of Central Asia, even enemies, and all those who have crossed my path and helped me evolve. There are too many names, too many faces, too many moments both inner and outer, so forgive me for not explicitly mentioning specific people (and, indeed, due to the nature of my work in Central Asia, perhaps it’s also a bit wise if I don’t roll out a list of identities). Know that you all are part of me, and that through you, I find You, the Divine Countenance, the supremely agapeic Source.

None of us are monads, self-enclosed wholes; we are small universes, self-enclosed non-wholes seeking completion, an ancient Turkmen carpet of inter-subjectivity and inter-essence, woven with countless threads spun from eternity. And none of us shall perish; we have been bequeathed the gift of existence by the Divine, and I dare say it is not revocable, our ontological dependence notwithstanding. Standing upon the shore, looking out across the surging vastness of being, our individual currents are flowing, yes, for only brief moments as waves cresting upon the surface before before slipping into the depths, but we shall persist, as ripples, as ebbs and flows, as the contour of the coastline, and perhaps even as the bathymetry.

All the rights and wrongs and all the joys and sorrows and all the many, many lessons glistening under the blazing golden sun and the glimmering silver moon of the Divine Essence, so far away but its heat and its light so, so close, I feel the spray of salt upon my skin, and I rejoice: I am the kashkúl, You are the tide.

Spider-Man 2099 in Bishkek

I’ve just published a photo-essay on neweurasia (please forgive the lousy quality of the photos) concerning urban blight and nature in Bishkek. I find the interaction between the architectural embodiment of Soviet ideology and the Schellingian force of the environment fascinating, as their collision is forging a symbiosis of form and growth, a new ecology of sorts.

While wandering around taking these photos, however, I made another kind of discovery, one more personal than philosophical/aesthetic. I was wandering around behind an apartment block just off Frunze Street when I found a recently-painted mural of what at first appeared to be fairy tell characters from Russian and American (particularly Disney) traditions.

However, toward the very end of the mural, something caught me eye. As I approached, I discovered two very different kind of characters — the world-recognizable Spider-Man (right), and much to my surprise, Spider-Man 2099, a future version of the Wall-Crawler who had his own comic book series for a few years in the early Nineties, as part of the Marvel 2099/World of Tomorrow line-up.

Continue reading

A wraith lingering between Kyrgyzstan and Belgium

It seems that autumn has come early to Kyrgyzstan. Bishkek today is drenched in rain and the air is much brisker than it was yesterday. The change has been swift, sudden — but welcome. I’m not a fan of the summer heat; it’s rather oppressive. Somehow also my mental picture of Kyrgyzstan has usually be constituted with rain (perhaps because so many of the key moments of Kyrgyzstan’s brief history have occurred during rainy seasons).

From a spiritual perspective, it’s interesting that now, on the cusp of my return to Belgium, my favorite season has arrived. Is this how Kyrgyzstan tells me to come back soon? But it also makes me recall something: about a week before my trip to Kyrgyzstan, remarking in a prayer, God, I know that I must leave Leuven, to follow what I think is Your call. But, please, give me just give me one autumn in Belgium. It appears I may be granted my wish, that is, if all goes well with my PhD application.

Continue reading

Journalism on Solaris

If I’m capable of summoning the discipline to complete my PhD proposal and application, what I would like to do is to research ethnic and religious identity among Central Asia’s journalists, particularly how these factors shape their approach to reporting news. In my view, journalists comprise a key group of social architects in a society’s self-understanding, as it is as much through media as education, especially mass media, that a population’s self-perception is inculcated and shaped. Therefore, it is of pressing importance to understand how they construe events.

Incidentally, my time here in Kyrgyzstan has been partially spent doing preliminary “research” in the sense of conversations with various colleagues — anthropologists, activists, journalists, and friends — about my topic. Generally-speaking, there’s a lot of interest, in some cases even excitement, about my would-be project, particularly as it encompasses religious studies, regional studies, media studies, epistemology, some psychology, and anthropology. One of the cooler conversations occurred this past weekend during the Kyrgyzstan barcamp with several members and acquaintances of Internews’ Central Asian wing, in particular Nicolay Kolesnikov, a talended videographer with whom I got along very instinctively despite the language barrier (he will be good practice for my Russian once I start learning it). Nicolay was very sharp, as he immediately intuited that what I’m really exploring is whether journalists are objective.

He caught me, so to speak, red handed: when I suggested that journalists, à la Searle or Wittgenstein, are actually in the act of forging a reality out of the clash of their differing narratives, a clash that occurs ironically from their pursuit of ultimate, objective reality — indeed, they are creating an overlay of one reality over the bedrock of another, deeper one — Nicolay whipped out an analogy I didn’t see coming but which got me seriously thinking: “You know who wouldn’t need journalists? The Na’vi of James Cameron’s Avatar.” According to Nicolay, the Na’vi’s ability to interface with each other, their ecosystem, and even the souls (i.e., minds) of past generations, an ability constituting a combination of racial and geosystematic memory, rendered the problem of subjectivity moot. Theirs is a kind of collective objectivity (or objective collectivity), a unity of perspectives, perhaps in a way that is, at essence, not dissimilar from the Internet.

It was a daring argument, a challenge which, as both an Averroist and Science Fiction fan, I was more than happy to meet: I retorted with my own counter-example, that of Polish author Stanislaw Lem’s famed novel, Solaris, and it’s even more famed film version by Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky. In other words, I upped the ante: he wanted to talk about conglomerate unities/pluralistic panpsychisms, but I went straight for the monopsychic jugular vein.

Continue reading

Scientific journalism un-redax

I’ve been a bit remiss on my “WikiLeaks beat” duties, as like much of the rest of the world I have only recently discovered the revelation of the entire unredacted cache of American diplomatic cables. In trying to figure out the situation — first and foremost ethically — I basically follow the version of events by Nigel Parry, who asserts that he was among the first people outside of the Guardian-WikiLeaks agreement to crack the cache, as well as the views of his more astute readers in the comments section. It’s clear that the snaffu emerges from a critical oversight on the part of Assange, an outright blunder on the part of Leigh (which was what made Assange’s oversight critical), and Lord only knows what game some ex-WikiLeakers and online snoopers are playing.

Immediately, my first instinct is that this has been a terrible development, as it runs the risk of putting careers and lives in danger, from the many State Department in-country human intelligence assets to the well-intentioned and often empathetic embassy employees whose inner worlds were revealed by the cables. Now, I’m familiar with all the ins and outs of the “blood on hands” debate/dispute, but I do not agree with most of the argumentation either way. My own experience as a journalist working in Central Asia, an informationally unfriendly region to put it nicely, teaches me some very fundamental, if complex facts: informants’ motivations are vastly varied, which means that there will always be someone around willing to talk, but also that authorities’ motivations are equally varied, which means that talking always carries with it an inherent scale of danger depending on the Who and What factors.

In other words, Assange et al cannot shirk responsibility for any one who will be hurt as a result of WikiLeaks’ actions — but then again, they should not have gotten into this business if they are not willing to bear this responsibility — nor can the State Department hide from the light under the veil of security and safety — because again, they should not have gotten into this business if they are not willing to bear certain culpabilities. WikiLeaks can be responsible if authorities track down informants using the leaks and the State Department knows full well that in most cases it can re-generate lost intelligence assets. These two parties are facilitating certain processes and realities, wanting to reap the positives but heap the negatives onto the other (at least in terms of their public relations; privately, I suspect they are more regretful, for the State Department is not so “imperial” nor Assange so “cavalier” as their mutual detractors would have us all believe).

By the same token, a debate that’s been missing has been the one regarding the moral culpability of the informants themselves. That’s because for every informant who is motivated by high ideals and the desire to improve his or her society, there is another who is seeking narrow personal gain. What I find striking is that, although discussing the motivations of informants and the morality of working with them is routine for journalists, diplomatic officers, and intelligence officers, the public discourse about these cables, almost from the get-go, seems to have presumed the innocence of the informants as a whole. If my assessment here is correct, then this is a huge lacunae in the ethical analysis of WikiLeaks — much less the State Department, who is working directly with these informants — about which simple rationalizations like “they’re traitors who deserve what they get” or “sometimes the good guys have to work with bad guys” I feel are unsatisfactory.

Continue reading

The journalistic doors of perception

Next week I fly to Kyrgyzstan to participate in a workshop on Central Asian Islam that’s being hosted by the OSCE Academy, and perhaps even more importantly, to talk with the neweurasia team about the future of our small but highly unique organization in these rather ludicrous economic times. Hard realities need to be confronted and even harder choices need to be made, and not only for other people’s livelihoods and professional futures, but my own.

There is some bitterness, of course. Journalism has proven to be not all that it promised — the quest for truth and justice too often replaced with the resort to spin and the hunt for audience; the ideal of “philosophy put in daily practice” frequently side-stepped by the sophistry of deadlines and an amnesiac news cycle; and for many, even the simple relief of the byline undermined by the lack of compensation. Not only is it hard to make a living as a journalist, it is hard to make a life as one.

Still, for me, as I’ve noted numerous times before, journalism brings some subtle, spiritual leavening. As a journalist, one must be prepared to suffer countless humiliations. I’ve watched as colleagues of mine from Pakistan and Turkmenistan, celebrities and respected minds in their own countries, have been reduced to writing press releases or working in night shops here in the West just to make a living, and I’ve known countless Westerners, myself included, embarrass themselves in displays of wanton self-promotion in their panicked pursuit of the much-coveted — and increasingly vanishing — staff-writer job.

Yet, as the etymology of the word “humiliation” suggests (from Latin humus, “ground; earth; soil”), the travails of journalism somehow reduce the best of us to a lower — and therefore higher — state. We grovel, and so we are closer to the savage, dirty truth of Nature; we despair, and so we are one with the World. We embody the uncertainty that has always defined human history (the frenzied denial of which has led to so many of our species’ horrific acts), and we also hint to its eventual transcendence.

I’m constantly surprised by the ubiquity of atheism among my colleagues, particularly those from the West (my Muslim colleagues tend to suffer from it less). They let the manifold little, transient realities of injustice and insecurity blind them to the Ultimate Reality that is so tantalizingly close within their grasp, much closer than It is among the politicians, much less the philosophers.

This bastard profession, with all its hypocrisies and tragedies, has nevertheless pried open some strange, sublime doors of perception for me. Whatever happens — whether I can continue with it in some fashion, or whether I must recede back into obscurity and even more pronounced insecurity — it has been a good journey.

[Photograph by Adrienne Nakissa.]

Thou art even as a finely tempered sword…

Around the world, there have been so many tragedies, both natural and needless, this past weekend, from the terrible famine in Somalia to the pride of American policy-makers playing poker with the fate of the international finance system. And then there was Norway.

I want to offer a prayer, but not just one of mourning — although it is that — nor of solidarity — for it is certainly that, as well — but also of philosophical opposition:

The apparent terrorist, Anders Behring Breivik, claims to have acted alone. If proven true, this would be yet more evidence of the fearsome power of modern technology, not to mention the way it enables radical individualism and ideological atrocity.

Alas, intuitively I feel it shall indeed be (largely) confirmed, as it would also be consistent with his extremely Nietzschean worldview. As is by now well-known, a Twitter account in his name has this quote from John Stuart Mill (out of respect for the dead, I will not link to the tweet):

One person with a belief is equal to the force of 100,000 who have only interests.

Besides the fact that it’s actually a misquote, it’s also woefully out of context, textually and philosophically. The actual quote from Mill’s theories on representative government, reads:

“To think that because those who wield power in society wield in the end that of government, therefore it is of no use to attempt to influence the constitution of the government by acting on opinion, is to forget that opinion is itself one of the greatest active social forces. One person with a belief is a social power equal to ninety-nine who have only interests.”

Moreover, it’s clear that Breivik totally inverted and perverted Mill’s famous maxim from “Utilitarianism”:

“The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest-Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.”

And so, on behalf of Mill, the people of Norway and their dead, and yes, even the lost soul of Breivik himself, I offer this prayer from the Baha’i Writings, one which I feel is vastly appropriate for this situation:

“O My Servant! Thou art even as a finely tempered sword concealed in the darkness of its sheath and its value hidden from the artificer’s knowledge. Wherefore come forth from the sheath of self and desire that thy worth may be made resplendent and manifest unto all the world.” — Baha’u’llah, Hidden Words, Persian #72

Blogging as an act of worship

This is going to be a mad summer for me, full of grant applications for neweurasia, doctorate discussions with professors here at Leuven, writing articles for academic journals, and beginning next week, starting a temporary job scrubbing toilets and mowing lawns from the break of morning into the afternoon. Yes, the man who just appeared on al-Jazeera last night will be a full-time groundskeeper and janitor for a month to help pay his bills.

Does it bother me? At the level of ego, of course it does: survival may dictate that I do this, but yes, it feels very much like abasement. At the level of the spirit, however, it doesn’t: because perhaps in some way I need to do be brought to my knees at this moment — quite literally, considering the number of toilets I’ll be scrubbing.

In practical terms, however, it may very well mean that this blog is going to be somewhat silent for the next month. Short though the job may be, it shall be time consuming. Although the previous times I’ve made such a prediction I always ended up blogging more, nevertheless, circumstances have put me in a reflective mood about this blog, and blogging in general. Why am I doing this?

Immediately, one answer comes to mind: therapy. Fellow Baha’i blogger Ben Schewel wrote a post a few weeks ago discussing the varieties of philosophical actions, but which can also be used as a taxonomy of philosophical motivations. An addition he could could make is Wittgenstein’s use of philosophy as therapy. Wittgenstein is famous for his Philosophical Investigations, which were essentially a journal, but not in the traditional, entirely private sense; rather, they were dually intended for personal exorcism and public reflection and conversation. In other words, it was a blog.

Yet, there is another aspect, something closely related to therapy but deeper. Strangely, when I think over my question, what comes to mind isn’t this blog at all, but Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, and the Baha’i House of Worship that was built there in the early twentieth century. That remarkable building, the first of its kind and a legend among the Baha’is alive today, and the Baha’is who struggled to raise it as the center of the first community ever to be organized according to the Teachings of the Faith, only to witness their work destroyed by earthquakes ideological and geological, somehow feels connected to my writings here and my work on neweurasia.

Continue reading