Friday, September 26, 2014

What #MuslimApologizes makes me think about: Hyder Ali and Billy Congreve

With the hashtag #MuslimApologies, people are getting a lot of snippets of things Middle Easterns (mostly Muslims) invented.  But this is what this brings to mind, for me: William Congreve.  He is considered to be one of the founders of modern rocket science but here's the thing . . .

He stole it all from Muslim Indians in Mysore.  Hyder Ali and his son, Tipu Sultan, used iron rockets to fight the English, and did so quite successfully for quite some time.  When they were finally conquered, Congreve stole the technology and rebranded it into the Congreve rocket.

But no one goes, "Oh, yeah, modern rocketry was founded by Hyder Ali."  They also ignore the incredible metallurgy used in those rockets, generally superior to the English metallurgy (which is why the English rockets were more complex - English metallurgy was broadly inferior to Mysorean metallurgy of the period; simplicity in weapons is generally a good thing).

This wasn't in some remote medieval period, either.  This was the 1780s and 90s.  This was the Industrial Revolution, which was very much also happening in India until the English stopped it.  They destroyed the schools and cast the whole country into ignorance and part of that was the conquest of Mysore and destroying Indian rocketry.

Stuff like that happened all over Asia, as with Indian metallurgy and rocketry.  After the conquest of India, England wanted to export iron to India, but it was low quality compared to the iron India was producing.  So what did the English do?  Bought up the foundries and closed them.  Capitalism in action!  That was in the 1820s, well past the era most Westerners arrogantly assert that the Muslims had fallen altogether behind the West (and by "the West" we should also remember they mean a small handful of northwestern European nations and the United States).

Then we perpetrate this by placing a European as the person who "started" something.  Rockets don't become interesting to us until an Englishman does it.  Before that?  All that work done by Chinese, Korean and Indians is irrelevant.  The history of European metallurgy is central to the story of civilization, let's ignore Indian metallurgy's superiority by materially destroying it.

This becomes part of a great cycle where the West expropriates the culture of other places, Westernizes it, and then lays perpetual claim to it.  So, universities are inherently Western institutions - I have heard this time and again - despite the model of our universities coming from the Middle East.  Now, universities are fundamentally "Western" institutions despite their Middle Eastern origins.  Mathematics seems to arrive only with calculus - Newton and Leibnitz purified the Eastern albegra and now mathematics are a Western institution.

It's one of the things that made me quit Freethought Dayton!  They were talking about the lack of intellectual accomplishments of the Muslim world, and I was talking about how much of the basis of our modern world was first learned by Muslims - much of mathematics, physics, engineering, astronomy, universities, medicine, metallurgy and so forth and so on were based on the science of Middle Easterns.  Irrelevant because around 1500 (their words, not mine), "they" stopped using the stuff and it became ours.  Except, y'know, they didn't stop using it, I went on to say.  Even to this day, there are great Middle Eastern scientists and engineers.  Ah, they retorted, most of them are in Western schools.  But, I said, those schools are based on Middle Eastern schools . . .  Irrelevant!  Now they're in the West!  It seemed a circular argument to me.  Middle Easterns in Western schools weren't engaging in the cultural activity their ancestors invented, they weren't doing a Middle Eastern thing in a Western environment, the Middle Easterness of it had been altogether stripped away.  The same with math, physics, medicine, so forth and so on.  Despite the continuity from the past to the present and the presence of Middle Easterns at every step along the way.  It's a very good trick, if you can manage it.

We are told a great many lies about the supposed collapse of education in the Asia, in particular, and a great many lies about Western technological prowess.  We both ignore those instances when non-Western technology exceeded our own and don't pay attention to any given technological development until a Western does it well and create willful ignorance about the extent of Western complicity in destroying Asian education systems, economies, etc.  It's a pretty nasty piece of work, if you ask me.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Thoughts on All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel by Anthony Doerr

I just finished All The Light We Cannot See: A Novel by Anthony Doerr.  The short version?  It was okay.  It didn't offend me and I don't think I wasted my time reading it, but I don't think it was really my thing.  It was too literary.

I'm not even passionate enough about it to say too much what I did or didn't like, save in rough.  There are some pretty words and some superficial meanings.  Lessons were learned, but they were lessons I think every reasonably intelligent human already knows - war is terrible, innocents suffer, not all Germans in World War II were evil, hideous and pointless things happen in war and afterward the survivors go on.

If you like symbolism, you'll probably like this book, though.  There's a whole lot of lights a person can't see and ways of interpreting this metaphor.  You can really sit back and think about all the light we can't see.  If you like wrapping yourself in metaphor, you'll probably think more about this book than I did.

To the extent that I am confused by it, though, is that I have absolutely no idea why some quest to find a potentially magic rock was involved at all.  I understand why the potentially magic rock was there - I guess you can't have magical realism without some of that - but the bad guy's quest to use it as his philosopher's stone seemed tacked on because otherwise the love story would be too insipid for words, I think.  It could have been done better, even within the construct of the novel, I think.  Which is a fairly slight critique.

My bigger critique is that I feel that the novel did nothing to link the kinds of stupidity that happened then to any modern stupidity.  This book was written in the particular context of a time and place - this time, this place.  To write a novel about war and do nothing to bring it home that we, today, are engaged in a number of military conflicts around the world seems cowardly.  But the novel is very clear NOT to do that, even though it contains passages that are very modern, none of those people notice the Vietnam War or the modern wars on terror.  No comment was made or, I think, implied about anything modern, except to suggest that the evil dies with us and our good lives on.  As one of the people who read the book with me said, "The book doesn't judge either side."  I pointed out it wasn't a particular virtue to refrain from judging Nazis - they were the bad guys - and that it's okay to judge war since it is so terrible.  I will add, here, than a failure to judge war is itself a judgment.  By taking a "shit happens and life goes on" approach, well, that smacks of nihilism, or would if Doerr were making a point.  But he isn't.  He's just ignoring it, which I find chicken.  That's my serious critique, but I doubt most readers will care about it.

You can google the title to read about the particulars.  If you like that sort of thing, you'll probably like the book.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Purging Freethought Dayton: why it's not okay that Richard Dawkins insults everyone

Since I'm purging Freethought Dayton, I want to say that the argument that it's okay to be a racist and sexist because you're a misanthrope is bullshit.

In the first place, the argument that it's okay to be racist and sexist because you're vile to everyone is just using one vice to defend another.  "Richard Dawkins is a terrible human being generally so it's okay that he's also a racist and sexist!"  Oh, that makes it much better . . . ?  I don't think so.  You can be a jerk and also be a racist and sexist.  Being a jerk isn't somehow a defense.

Secondly, when a rich white man attacks another rich white man it has different significance if that same rich white man attacks a poor black woman.  The structure of society matters.  There is considerable difference in meaning depending on the context.  We all know this.  Something your friends might say - "You suck at your job" - has a different significance when you boss says it.  The social influence that a rich white man has is extraordinary and, to them, almost altogether invisible.  Which is why sexist and racist pigdogs like Richard Dawkins say those kinds of things - he isn't even aware of significance of his status in many ways.  It is also the reason why so many people defend him - they share in his status and like exercising it, too.

Anyway, that's what I think about the argument that it's okay to discriminate so long as you're also a jerk.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Leaving Dayton Freethought and the reasons why I left

Yesterday, I quit the atheist group Freethought Dayton.  As I often do with this sort of thing, I'm going to recap why.

Alas, none of it will have the . . . vigor of my debacles in Miami!  No guy lying about how he had seventy bachelor's degrees and the government had to "bring him back" because of what was in his head.  No stories of murder-suicide.  It was much more pedestrian than that - plain old-fashioned racism.

I will admit I am quite intolerant of racism.  Fairly normal, acceptable levels of racism leave me sick to my soul.  I think no racism should be acceptable!  Broadly speaking, I live up to this.

In particular, I was at an event and people were tossing out bullshit, racist comments about Muslims (which is the most acceptable form of racism allowed in the US, right now).  One person said that Muslims were only interested in technology if it could be used to kill . . . this infuriated me.  He was talking about people whose homes were invaded who have cobbled together a few bombs . . . fighting the most comprehensive and technologically advanced military that has ever existed.  The US spends about half the world's military budget every year but it's Muslims who are in love with weapons technology!  It was absurd.

Another dude said that Muslims stopped thinking after the year 1500 and all intellectual and moral virtues passed to the West (which they also asserted was somehow different than "the Christian world" . . . it made no sense to me, either).  Again, infuriating.  We think of Muslims as racist . . . but this dude is German.  There are people who are still living who remember being locked in concentration camps.  For Westerns, with our elaborate, multi-century history of genocide, conquest and colonization to believe that we are in some fashion morally superior to Muslims since 1500 is the intellectual position of a . . . well, racist.  Indeed, I find it very hard to assert that we're morally superior now, given how many missiles we fire into whatever country we want and how often we get into wars based on thin lies.

That same guy had mentioned something nasty about Muslims every time I saw him.  He seemed to be looking for the chance to talk shit about them.

When I mentioned that was racism, they asserted "Islam isn't a race!"  Since one of the common definitions of race is a group of people united by culture, language and religion, I beg to differ.  I mean, right then, I said, "It is common to refer to Islamophobia as a form of racism."  I further said that I had no interest in arguing the semantics of bigotry - even if Islamophobia isn't according-to-Hoyle racism (hint: it is, this is particularly true because almost all Muslims aren't white), it's a vicious form of bigotry - which is the problem regardless of the name, that they were telling ignorant lies about a huge, diverse group of people in order to smear them and make it easier to hate them.

They also asserted that Richard Dawkins isn't racist, despite his support for guys like Geert Wilder and his numerous examples of hate speech against Muslims.

Taken together, the group is racist.  Of course, they will deny that - "Islam isn't a race!" they will chant, covering their ears in case some information slips inside - but all racists deny it!  The KKK denies it!  Nazis deny it!  While they're not as bad as the KKK, they're still pretty darn racist.

It is also somewhat ironic, as Islamophobia is derived and sustained primarily by reactionary Christians!  Nietzsche said that god is dead but we will live for centuries in his shadow - this is what it looks like.  It looks like atheists, without consideration, enacting the principles of the very people they claim to reject.  (Pro tip: the reason why you want to acknowledge that the West is also the Christian world is that it helps you to see where your thinking is influenced by religious biases you consciously reject.  It's the same reason you should acknowledge that advertising works on you, so you can better observe its action on you with a mind to preventing it.)

(I didn't stay in the group to see what I figure will be a pretty big splurge of racism this coming weekend.  Freethought Dayton - which is run altogether by white people, which is almost entirely white - has a table at a local African-American cultural festival.  A bunch of white dudes will be trying to convince black people to be more like them!  As far as I could tell, none of them understood the cultural history of African-Americans and their relationship with churches - that from slave days, the church was the one place where they could go and NOT be watched by their overseers and masters.  It was the one place in all the world they could go to be safely black.  Lacking this kind of historical context - and it's not like I'm going to be there to tell it to them, now - I can only imagine that they'll come off as a bunch of patronizing crackers telling the Negroes how they're getting it all wrong.  It is my understanding that black people in America have seen quite a lot of this.)

Additionally, man, atheists are assholes.  I've noticed this whenever they get together - almost all of them seem bound and determined to prove they're the smartest person in the room.  Since no one knows everything, they often come off as real tools, speaking about things about which they have no knowledge because they can't stand the idea that someone, somewhere knows something they don't.  It's tedious.

It is also one of my bigger problems with a lot of religions - that show of utterly certainty, the inability to admit that maybe your book written in the Iron Age isn't 100% up to the challenges of the modern world, and the constant assertions that they're right and everyone else is wrong.  It's another way atheists are living in the shadow of god.  Until they learn to say "I dunno", they'll be perpetrating the same kinds of intellectual mummery as Christians.  Admittedly, about somewhat fewer things, but it'll still be there, poisoning the well for people like me.  I could have tolerated that if not for the racism, though.

Anyway, that's my review of Dayton Freethought.  While there are some good people there, there are too many racists for my taste - a culture that tolerates xenophobia and Islamophobia, and many members who express both.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Dune and the US State Department

I think someone at the US State Department should read the sci-fi novel, Dune by Frank Herbert.

In it, the villain of the piece, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, sends his cousin, Beast Rabban, to rule the planet Arrakis.  The Baron tells Rabban to "squeeze and squeeze".

For those of you who aren't in the know - and shame on you, since Dune is one of the greatest novels of the 20th century - Arrakis is a metaphor for the Middle East.  A desert world, it provides the "spice" which is necessary to sustain the interstellar travel needed to support human civilization as well as having many, many other uses.  Control of the desert society of Arrakis is largely over control of water as hydraulic dictatorship - the Harkonnens control the water, so they control the population of Arrakis and, thus, the control of spice.

Except that's not really what the Baron has in mind.  It's what he says, but with his orders for Rabban to squeeze and squeeze, the Baron knows that this will do nothing but intensify and spread opposition to Harkonnen rule and make Rabban the particular target of their hatred.  The Baron's plan is to whip the population of Arrakis into a frenzy and then recognize their suffering, execute Rabban and install a relatively gentler rule under his nephew, Feyd.  It is worth noting that Rabban is an idiot - it's part of the reason the Baron is using him like this. Rabban is too stupid to see through the Baron's plan.

Which is to say that Vladimir Harkonnen better understands Arrakis than the US State Department understands the Middle East.

The United States is about to start a fight with the Islamic State.  The model that the President of the United States is going after is the "successes" the US has had in Somalia and Yemen.  Oh, sure, both places are war-ravaged places where al-Qaida cells continue to proliferate in great numbers than ever, real hellholes, but the reasoning is that neither has attacked the US, recently.  Therefore, success stories!

So the US is going to work along that model against the IS.  It's like they're Rabban being told to squeeze and squeeze again and, like Rabban, the US government is full of idiots.  They don't seem to realize that groups like the Islamic State are flourishing because of the political chaos created by the United States after destabilizing the whole area.  We squeeze in one place and something pops out in another.  We squeeze in Iraq and al-Qaida moves to Yemen.  We squeeze in Yemen, IS pops up in Syria.  Our response is to squeeze harder, imagining that things will eventually stop popping out but that won't happen.

Unlike Baron Harkonnen, we have no exit strategy.  There is no relatively benevolent Feyd in the wings or, really, any other plan.  The whole of our strategy is to squeeze and we have no notion at all, not the faintest whim of understanding, on a national level, that what we do in one place has consequences in other places.  That invading Iraq and bombing the shit out of Yemen and other countries, in violation of law and sense, has created the groundswell of resentment that is fueling the growth of these radical organizations.  We squeeze and that's the pressure that drives recruitment in these organizations.  But there is no plan beyond squeezing.

The US government is the Beast Rabban, but without the benefit of a Vladimir Harkonnen!  Which is truly awful.

Someone should really send a few copies of Dune down there.

Monday, September 8, 2014

My Visit to Aldi and Some Thoughts on Choices

Yesterday, the wife and I went down to the grocery store, Aldi, here in Xenia, and shopped.  For those of you who don't know, Aldi is a European-style (yea, Germany-based) chain of grocery stories which offer a greatly reduced number of items compared to the big grocery stores we're used to seeing in America.  In addition to having a smaller number of products, they have less selection in products, though they claim this gives them sufficient cost savings to give high quality goods.  Additionally, they don't bag your items - though they provide shelf space so you can - or provide bags.  To use a cart, you have to put a quarter into a gadget, though you get the quarter back when you return the cart.  This is another cost saving tool, meaning they don't have to have dudes wandering around collecting carts.  Nowadays, they market this as the greener alternative to big box supermarkets that most Americans shop at, though my understanding is the impetus is more pecuniary than environmental . . . but that's a trivial point!

For us, the upshot was, we really liked it.  The store here in Xenia has the right items, broadly speaking.  And given that the store is much smaller than a regular supermarket, we were in and out in half an hour.  Broadly speaking, we didn't feel the supposed lack of choice.  Even the big box supermarkets fail to have things I want, like spices for Asian cuisine.  Broadly, what we can't get at Aldi we can get online or by stopping, now and then, at specialty stores (like liquor stores for beer).

But this made me think about choices.  Recently, when Adrienne was at a convention up in Minneapolis, she spoke to a Danish collegue of hers, Jesper.  He'd been down at FIU and we had hung out a little, he's a nice guy.  At the conference, he mentioned he had forgotten how exhausting being in the United States was - that he had to translate everything in his head and then, surprisingly, to Adrienne and then to me, was the "number of choices".  Being an American has a lot of choices.

Jesper told a story about how he went into a burrito joint because he wanted to try this crazy American foodstuff about which he's heard, so he goes up to the counter and asked for a burrito.  He was then asked what he wanted on his burrito . . .

He had no idea.  He's Danish!  Their main exposure to burritos is, and I'm quoting Yona, who is my main source of all things Denmark, "Middle Eastern-owned fast food places that make them from store-bought components and have no real idea what they're supposed to be like."  The question drew nothing from him so he said, and I can see Jesper in my mind saying this, "A little bit of everything.  Which was not the right choice."

Everything in America is like this.  Once I started seeing it, I saw it everywhere.  Soda aisles with dozens and dozens of choices.  You want toothpaste?  There are a dozen brands and each brand has several different products!  There are forty linear feet of beer shelves at the local Kroger's . . . and that's not even a liquor store!  Americans are constantly asking other Americans what we want with that - do you want onion rings, house chips, French fries or steak fries with that?   What kind of cheese do you want on your hamburger?  It's everywhere!

And it is exhausting.  A supermarket is the precise kind of place that we hate and I'm sure part of it is all the damn choices.  And they're so identical!  How do you know which brand of toothpaste is actually better?!  Worse, most of the brands are functionally identical.

So you're in this supermarket and you're surrounded by choices and most of them are false choices.  But because there is this farcical illusion of choice, the store is goddamn enormous!  It's huge!  You can land aircraft in there, play football games!  So you wander around aisle after aisle, being forced to make false choices, searching around for the lowest price, or the price point you want, surrounded by other sullen faced people doing the same thing, trudging along, back and forth, making these same false choices.

Which is to say shopping in a store where there were many fewer choices was a great relief to me.  Jesper is right.  We have too many choices in America.