Looking through a prism darkly: citizen-spy epistemology


So, this post is regarding the Prism program, and the phenomenon of mass-level metadata accumulation and pattern analysis that it represents. ProPublic has published an extremely useful timeline about how the United States intelligence community has developed to this point (such as we can know on the outside, given the high amount of top secret classification). Meanwhile, my colleague Joshua Foust (who has testified before Senate about over-classification and other problems in the intelligence industry — among other things, that it’s an industry), has published nine points about Prism that the public should think about. The most important are points #3, 7, and 8.

Joshua’s remarks border on the cynical, but nonetheless he is onto something. With respect to his last point, my job here is to explain about why this shouldn’t be a temporary outcry. And the explanatory methodology is simple (and I would say, spiritual). The consequences, however, are complex. (I) On the one hand, the citizen and the spy need to put themselves into each other’s shoes; and (II) on the other hand, the citizen needs to really understand what is being asked of him/her by the spy, but also why the spy shouldn’t be asking this of the citizen, either.

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Wait for the wheel (III): For my axel to become roots


The wheel has turned once more; the fasting is done, the samovars are heated, the tea is served. Naw-Rúz has quietly returned. Today is a holiday older than memory, signifying the cosmic cycle of seasons; the eternal struggle of light and dark; the lesson that must always be re-learned at ever-subtler hermeneutical depths, as we sift through the alluvium of meaning upon the banks of an enigmatic river.

This was the first cycle since becoming a Bahá’í that I performed the full fast: that is, getting up before sunrise to eat, abstaining from food and drink, etc. In previous cycles, I ate bread and water at set times; insomnia made arising so early an impossible challenge; and solitude, wrought by a lack of like-minded colleagues, was disheartening company for the journey. Understandably, I dreaded the coming of the fast this year — but this cycle around proved different. This cycle, I had company, as well as a determination, spurred on by close friends, to step beyond doubt and foreboding to try.

I was always perplexed by my fellow Bahá’ís, who every February would anticipate the fast with excitement, and then seemed so happy to be starving themselves. Now I see why. The air has been thick with providence, and every other day the earth shook with unforeseen encounters and conversations. New insights seemed to creep around every corner. A few of the things I’ve learned, some quotidian, some esoteric, some harsh, some I needed to be reminded about, some that should not have been so surprising. And in the end, I find myself writing this:

I circle
my edge scraping through the mud
damp soil clinging to my spokes

I circle
rolling and whirling and churning
never advancing, never regressing

I circle
digging and sinking and descending
seeking a telos, finding epicycles

I circle
the same lessons with new textures
grinding through sediments of meaning

I circle
the epochs of my life laid like old shores
traces of ancient continents re-discovered

I circle
down deeper to the planet’s burning core
where elements transmutate, matter reshapes

I pray
for my axel to become roots, my hub a seed
and hatching, finally, arising toward the sun

[Note: The image above is by the artist Alphadesigner. It concerns the myth of Ganymede, but I’m more interested in its imagery than its symbolism…]

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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Why Hizb ut-Tahrir is wrong

Hizb Ut-Tahrir is one of the world’s leading radical Islamist organizations. They propose “restoring” the Caliphate as the necessary precondition for “rejuvenating” the global Islamic community. This essay, originally published in three parts on neweurasia, constitutes my attempt to deconstruct their ideology. It’s point of departure is an essay by the University of Ghent’s Bruno De Cordier, also published on neweurasia, in which he defends the cogency of their ideology. (The photograph to the right is of the last Calph, Abdülmecid II.)

Last week, neweurasia ran a post by the University of Ghent’s Bruno de Cordier concerning his views on why the radical Islamist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir has been able to survive as long as it has despite sharp repression of its membership throughout Central Asia and the deep suspicion, even strong dislike for it evinced by the United States and many of its allies.

“I believe that the answer may lie in the extent to which the organization’s platform, if understood in a certain light, may be tapping into very real discontent and aspirations in the general population, and is responding to on-the-ground realities better than secular human rights organizations,” he argues. Fair enough, but let’s evaluate some of his evidence and lines of thought, and while we’re at it, Hizb Ut-Tahrir’s platform itself.

I shall move through Prof. De Cordier’s post and respond to it according to the order he uses therein. This first part shall deal with substance of the arguments for Hizb Ut-Tahrir’s vision of an Islamic super-state, particularly the Caliphate (paragraphs 2-6); the second part with Westernization, Modernization, and transnational integration (7-11), and the question of whether the global Islamic community needs a “defender” (12); and the final part with the bigger yet more fundamental questions of the efficacy and desirability of an Islamic super-state, faith, and “alter-globalism” (13). I’ve got a lot on my plate, but that’s because there’s a lot to dismantle, and much of it very crucial, because as I’ll ultimately argue in the third part, what’s rally at stake are differing visions of what it means to be human.

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Inside Belgium’s heart of darkness

Yesterday Liza and I biked to Tervuren to visit the Musee Royal de l’Afrique Centrale, otherwise known more simply as the Africa Museum. In terms of sheer aesthetic creepiness, this museum is second only to Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum, but in moral terms it may be far worse because of what it says about the history of Belgium, colonialism, and science. Briefly, for those of my readers who don’t know, the Africa Museum was established by King Leopold II to showcase the Congo Free State, but which was in reality an active act of apologetic for, if not even deception about, the horrible brutalization of the Congo’s native peoples. Much of the Africa Museum today remains relatively unchanged since its start, revealing much about the mindset that constituted it.

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The Transcendence has finally come

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Today is the second anniversary of my decision to join the Baha’i Faith, and to mark the occasion, Ben Harvey and I figure it’s about time that we release our long-awaited first book, The Transcendence, which you can download at directly from this post by clicking here.

The file is a simple PDF, a mere 14.8 MB in size and 60 pages long. It launches on full-screen scale when you first open it, but you can escape that if you want.

I should note that this is not the book I’ve been working on for neweurasia that was funded by the HIVOS Foundation. That’s CyberChaikhana, currently completing production at GRACO-Verlag in Berlin and set to be released later this month or in March.

Friends will recall that The Transcendence was my pet project from early 2006 through 2008. It was ambitious: combining poetry, the Rock concept album, and the manga graphic novel to tell a story of a young poet who goes on a quest for revenge against God, along the way exploring several theological, literary, and personal themes. My friend Bruce Schimmel, founder of the Philadelphia City Paper, once called the project “an old-fashioned epic poem”.

In 2007, I enlisted Ben’s talents to illustrate the manuscript, transforming the project into a co-authorship. At the time he was an intern with Studio IL (he’s since moved up the ranks), an up-and-coming artist collective in Philadelphia. Together we share the license, which by the way is a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. My poems may vary in quality, but Ben’s artwork is consistently stunning, even all these years later. I also contributed some artwork. You can view the entire gallery above.

If you’re curious to know more about the back story of The Transcendence, click “Read More” to continue. Otherwise, Ben and I hope you, our readers, find our creation an exciting and powerful experience — and that you’ll do us the big favor of passing either the PDF or this URL around!

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