Tag Archives: culture

Thoughts on “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Jared Diamond

It is very rare for me to start reading a book and not finish it. I can forge on through thick, dense texts, as evidenced by the fact that I actually read Infinite Jest. But after getting through about a third of this book, I decided it was not worth my time and energy to continue. I estimate I can probably read two or three other more interesting texts in the time it would take me to finish this.

I was very enthusiastic at the onset of this book, since the topic sounded interesting to me, basically an historical analysis of how and why specific cultures became technologically advanced more rapidly than others, leading to subjugation and in too many cases annihilation of the less technologically advanced cultures.

We all know that history has proceeded very differently for peoples from different parts of the globe. In the 13,000 years since the end of the last Ice age, some parts of the world developed literate industrial societies with metal tools, other parts developed only nonliterate farming societies, and still others retained societies of hunter-gatherers with stone tools. Those historical inequalities have cast long shadows on the modern world, because the literate societies with metal tools have conquered or exterminated the other societies. While those differences constitute the most basic fact of world history, the reasons for them remain uncertain and controversial.

(p. 13)

So while the topic sparked my interest, the problem for me with this text is one that I’ve encountered in other historical works: way too much data so that the pertinent information gets lost in a sea of superfluous facts.

Let me say that while I was an English Lit major in college, I did my minor in History, so I read my share of history books, and some told fascinating stories about how history unfolded, and how events and ideas shaped the direction of cultures and the world. But then there are those books which don’t tell a story but instead inundate you with pages and pages of data which no one could remember and really serves no purpose except as footnotes to other more engaging works. In all fairness, I believe Jared Diamond was working to tell a story through data, but there is a point of overkill for me, and he crossed that threshold.

I’m a technical writer and editor by trade, so I am painfully aware that it is important to strike a balance between facts and data, contextual information, and getting to the heart of the matter. If I’m writing a guide explaining how to generate a report, and I bury the central information within pages of supporting information which the user does not need, then the reader will disregard my text and seek information elsewhere. There is a fine art to providing key ideas with just the right amount of context.

As I was reading this book, my daughter told me that she had watched a film based upon this book in one of her history classes. Since the topic is interesting for me, as I said, I think I will see if I can stream the film, and get the two-hour abridged version.

Cheers!

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Thoughts on “Holy Wars, Passion, and Religion” by Umberto Eco

In this essay, Eco explores fundamentalism and the need for critical and objective analysis when thinking about this complicated phenomenon. He basically argues that the problem with our approach to understanding fundamentalism is that we look at it from our own cultural perspective and not from the perspective of the society that spawned the fundamentalist movement. He also argues that understanding fundamentalism in other cultures helps us better understand fundamental movements within our own cultures.

Imagine is Muslim fundamentalists were invited to carry out research on Christian fundamentalism (I’m thinking of certain American Protestants, more fanatical than any ayatollah, who would expunge all reference to Darwin from the schoolbooks). Studying the fundamentalism of others helps us understand our own fundamentalism better. Let them come and study our concept of holy war (I could suggest a very interesting reading list, with some recent works), and perhaps they will view the concept in their own countries with a more critical eye. We Westerners have reflected on the limitations of our own way of thinking by describing la pensée sauvage.

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 244)

Our world has become very complicated, and as such, people have a general sense of being lost, as the speed of change continues to increase exponentially. This is the reason, Eco states, that we need to apply critical thinking in all areas of our lives.

But maybe it’s only a sign that in times of great disorientation (and we are living through such a time) no one knows where he stands anymore.

It is precisely in such moments of disorientation that we need to apply the tools of analysis and criticism—analysis of our own superstitions as well as those of others. I hope that these things will be discussed in the schools and not only at press conferences.

(ibid: p. 246)

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“Back to the Seventies” by Umberto Eco

This short essay on terrorism is included in the book Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism.

Eco begins by asserting the primary goals of terrorist activities.

What is a terrorist act usually intended to accomplish? Since a terrorist organization pursues and insurrectionary utopia, its primary aim is to prevent the establishment of any kind of agreement between the opposition and government … In the second place, terrorism aims to goad the government in power into hysterical repression, which the citizens will then find antidemocratic and unbearably dictatorial, and hence to spark an insurrection among the vast pool of “desperate proletarians or lumpenproletarians” who were only waiting for the last straw.

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 225)

When I think about how divided the US has become following the 9/11 attacks, I can only sense that the terrorists were successful. A wall is now in place that makes it nearly impossible for individuals from the right and the left to find any common ground. Both sides are afraid that the other side will infringe upon or take away their rights. The result is that our fear of the “other” is causing our societal fabric to come apart.

Eco concludes that the most dangerous government response to terrorism is an assault on free speech, claiming that anyone who speaks out against the government is supporting the terrorists.

The principle can be put like this: Because terrorists exist, anyone who attacks the government is encouraging them. The corollary: It is criminal to attack the government. The corollary of the corollary is the negation of every democratic principle, blackmail of the press. denial of the freedom to criticize, denial of every act of opposition and every expression of dissent. This is not the abolition of Parliament or of the press (I’m not one of those who talk about the new Fascism) but something worse. It is using moral blackmail, holding up to civic disapproval all who express (nonviolent) disagreement with the government, equating verbal violence—common to many forms of heated but legitimate debate—with armed violence.

(ibid: pp. 227 – 228)

This is now were we are as a society. And I am not singling out any one side. The right and the left are both guilty of this as far as I can see. Progressives seek to silence speakers on campus whose ideas and views contradict theirs, and conservatives label opinions contrary to their own as fake news. We have lost the ability to have passionate debate, and the result is fear and hatred of our neighbors. And if we accept the words of Abraham Lincoln that “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” then the terrorists have accomplished what they set out to do.

It’s about time we stopped focusing on our differences and instead seek out commonality. It’s really not too late. We just need to be a little trusting, a little patient, and willing to listen without prejudice.

Thanks for taking the time to read my rambles.

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“Words are Stones” by Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco

What I love about Umberto Eco is that he was able to look at social and political trends and identify the root causes of the trends. In this essay, he shows how fundamentalism stems from literal interpretations of symbols, specifically words.

He begins by pointing out that words are powerful symbols, but that in our current world culture, many people have lost the ability to recognize the subtlety and distinction when interpreting words. We want everything to be black and white, while words exist in the realm of grey, open for interpretation. (Turning Back the Clock: pp 214 – 216)

He then observes that religious fundamentalist movements are based upon strict literal interpretations of text, which by their nature, are highly symbolic.

In historical terms, fundamentalism is bound up with the interpretation of a holy book. Protestant fundamentalism in the United States of the nineteenth century (which survives to this day) is characterized by the decision to interpret Scripture literally, especially regarding notions of cosmology. Any form of education that undermines faith in biblical texts, like Darwinism, is rejected. Muslim fundamentalism is also based on the literal interpretation of a holy book.

(ibid: p. 219)

The problem that Eco sees is that fundamentalism often leads to integralism, “a stance whereby one’s religious principles must become the model of political life and the basis of the laws of the state.” Integralism can lead to theocracy, which ultimately leads to totalitarianism. “Every form of integralism contains a certain amount of intolerance for those who don’t share its ideas, but this amount reaches its peak in theocratic forms of fundamentalism and integralism. A theocratic regime is destined to be totalitarian.”

(ibid: p. 219)

As more laws are being passed that are solely based upon religious fundamentalist beliefs, we seem to be moving closer to a threshold that once crossed will find us in the realm of theocracy. This would land us in very dangerous waters, indeed.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading.

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“The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” by Anne Fadiman

Life is very crazy for me right now. Lots of changes happening. For that reason, I am just going to write a very short post about this book.

This was the selection for our book club. The person who selected it works in healthcare, and it is definitely an important work for people who are responsible for delivering care to individuals and families.

The book chronicles the events concerning a Hmong family and their daughter who suffered from seizures, and the challenges they faced trying to navigate the healthcare system in the United States.

Everyone in the US is painfully aware of how difficult it is dealing with hospitals, insurance companies, prescriptions, and government bureaucracy. Try to imagine how much more difficult it would be if there was a language barrier that prevented you from communicating with healthcare providers, or from understanding the instructions for care that the providers gave you. And as this book shows, those challenges are compounded by cultural differences.

“The language barrier was the most obvious problem, but not the most important. The biggest problem was the cultural barrier. There is a tremendous difference between dealing with the Hmong and dealing with anyone else. An infinite difference.” Dan Murphy said. “The Hmong simply didn’t have the same concepts that I did. For instance, you can’t tell them that somebody is diabetic because their pancreas doesn’t work. They don’t have a word for pancreas. They don’t have an idea for pancreas. Most of them had no concept that the organs they saw in animals were the same as in humans, because they didn’t open people up when they died, they buried them intact. They knew there was a heart, because they could feel the heartbeat, but beyond that—well, even lungs were kind of a difficult thing to get into. How would you intuit the existence of lungs if you had never seen them?”

(p. 69)

Overall, I found the book interesting, but it did drag at points for me, mainly because the author digs deep into the cultural history of the Hmong. And while I understand the importance of the cultural and historical context, it just became a little tedious for me at points.

Anyway, it’s a good book and if you are interested in medical history or social sciences, definitely worth reading. Cheers!

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“Between Dr. Watson and Lawrence of Arabia” by Umberto Eco

While they sit quietly in their apartment, Holmes suddenly says, “You are right, Watson, it does seem a very preposterous way of settling a dispute.”

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 203)

The quote is from another brilliant essay written by Umberto Eco and included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism. Eco is citing Sherlock Holmes, who deduced that Watson was thinking about how war is a foolish way to deal with a problem. And I agree.

Eco goes on to explain that the biggest problem with the way most countries wage war is that they rely on brute force, as opposed to studying and learning the culture of the opposing country and then addressing the conflict on a socio-anthropological level.

And don’t tell me that when a country is at war, there’s no time to listen to social anthropologists. Rome clashed with the Germanic tribes, but she needed Tacitus to help her understand them. When it comes to clashes between cultures, the conflict can be tackled not only by manufacturing cannons but also by financing scientific research, and this is something that the country that managed to get its hands on the best brains in physics—while Hitler was trying to send them to concentration camps—ought to know perfectly well.

(ibid: p. 206)

But there’s the rub. Too many Americans have a distrust of the intelligentsia, calling them “elitists” with venomous disdain.

The war in Iraq seems to be a conflict begun without consulting the universities, due to the American right’s ancestral mistrust of “eggheads” or, as Spiro Agnew called them, “effete snobs.”

(ibid: p. 208)

It’s been more than 15 years since Eco wrote this, and it feels like the issue that he described has only become more stark. I can only hope that these are the last death throes of a dying paradigm that is about to shift. It’s high time we began valuing intelligence instead of blindly worshipping might and power.

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Thoughts on “True Hallucinations” by Terence McKenna

This book has been on my shelf for a while. I picked it up years ago from a used bookstore called Reader’s Corner that was next door to where I worked at the time and is now closed (the sad fate of too many bookstores). I had heard of McKenna but had not read any of his work. Anyway, in my current quest to reduce the number of unread books straining my shelves, I decided to read this one.

Overall, I liked the book. It was certainly well written and the subject is fascinating for me. I am very interested in shamanism and consciousness, and McKenna explores these topics through the lens of psychotropic plants and mushrooms. My one criticism, though, is that he sometimes slips down the rabbit hole of truly bizarre ideas, but I suppose that is par for the course considering the subject matter. Anyway, for this post I will focus on the parts that I thought were interesting and gloss over the weirder stuff.

I have been fascinated by the metaphor of the jungle as a symbol for the subconscious and primordial mind. As McKenna recounts the arrival in the Amazon, he senses the jungle not just as a symbol of the subconscious, but as an actual manifestation of the deeper consciousness.

Everyone in our small expedition felt, I think, the sense of something opening around us, of the suspension of time, of turning and turning in a widening green world that was strangely and almost erotically alive, surrounding us for thousands of miles. The jungle as mind, the world hanging in space as mind—images of order and sentient organization came crowding in on all sides. How small we were, knowing little, yet fiercely proud of what we knew, and feeling ourselves somehow the representatives of humanity meeting something strange and Other, something at the edge of human experience since the very beginning.

(pp. 71 – 2)

Something that has always intrigued me is the ability of sound vibrations to alter consciousness, and hence alter reality. This is done through chants, incantations, and certain types of music (shamanic drumming, binaural beats, etc.). McKenna describes how they used sound vibrations to affect space and experience dimensional shifts.

Further experiments with the psycho-audible warp phenomenon yesterday raise some interesting new questions and enhance our ongoing understanding. I choose the term “audible warp” because my experience thus far, coupled with what I have been told, leads me to believe that this all has to do with vocally generating a specific kind of energy field which can rupture three dimensional space. I do not understand if the field is electromagnetic, but it seems to bend space in such a way as to turn it upon itself through a higher dimension.

(p. 81)

I firmly believe that, as a species, we have barely scratched the surface of consciousness and its power to mold reality. I can’t help but wonder if ancient civilizations had a deeper understanding of the potential of human consciousness. McKenna certainly shares these thoughts.

Perhaps the shamanic traditions of this planet are the keepers of an understanding that uses the human body/brain/mind as its vehicle, leaving the present state of the art, which our own “scientific method” has achieved, a very poor second. This is really an old idea—the siren song of Pythagoras—that the mind is more powerful than any imaginable particle accelerator, more sensitive than any radio receiver or the largest optical telescope, more complete in the grasp of information than any computer: that the human body—its organs, its voice, its power of locomotion, and its imagination—are a more-than-sufficient means for the exploration of any place, time, or energy level in the universe.

(pp. 84 – 5)

The rest of the book goes quite deep into the exploration of consciousness through altered states. There is a lot packed in to the just over 200 pages, and if this is a topic that interests you, it’s worth reading. But be forewarned—there are some very strange ideas put forth here, but if you have the fortitude to sift through it, you will discover some interesting ideas regarding the mind and its hidden potential.

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