References to “karma” have pervaded popular culture for some time, and with many in the liberal blogosphere enjoying the fruits of epicaricacy as a result of Bush administration scandals coming to light, the k-word is getting thrown around quite a bit, and I’m afraid it’s unleashed my inner pedant. There are various ways to interpret the word, but I see a few common themes that come up repeatedly in popular usage, so those are what I’ll free-associate about here.
A simple-but-obvious thought: Couldn’t “karma” be used interchangeably with “law of averages” or “God’s wrath”? If you’re the kind of person who would feel ridiculous about invoking God’s wrath to explain Tom DeLay’s troubles, why do you feel any better about invoking karma?
“What goes around comes around.” Apparently, to many, this is profound. Actually, it’s a sequacious truism. Simply by existing, you will have a variety of experiences, some pleasant, some not. One is limited only by imagination in drawing causal lines of connection between events separated by space and time. How can this be disproved? Two events may have nothing in common other than sharing a vague, tendentious description of being “good” or “bad”, yet one is smugly assumed to have resulted from the other with the intent of evening out some cosmic ledger or imparting a lesson.
If I spit in someone’s face and they punch me, no one would call this “karma”. It seems to be a simple example of cause and effect. It’s only when there is no intuitive link between two actions or events, or a significant stretch of time between them, that this idea comes into play. If I find a wallet loaded with cash, and decide to keep it for myself instead of looking up the owner’s phone number and returning it, an observer would call it karmic justice if I were to lose my wallet some day, or if any other kind of financial misfortune occurred.
The truly dedicated can find proof in any sort of misfortune, of course – one person tried to chalk up a rough day I once had, involving car trouble, to the fact that I was often aloof and unfriendly to him. (Guilty as charged; he was an obnoxious fucker.) The same old anthropomorphic pettiness usually ascribed to an irascible deity is in this case applied to the universe as a whole. Ironic, considering that many people who would reference karma would most likely hate to be thought of as belonging to “organized religion”. God (or the universe) apparently takes offense at slights and arranges for certain situations to arise as punishment later, which may or may not effect any changes in the person’s personality or attitude (that part seems to be left unexplained). How does an impersonal universe feel a sense of moral outrage at injustice and move to react to it?
The unexamined facile definitions of “good” and “bad” really get to me. How can we measure the inherent or total value of an event or action? Where does the ripple effect from an action ever end? Also, there’s a facile assumption of being able to quantify what an action means to everyone involved. How can happiness and pain be measured in the same way as a financial transaction? By what standard can you assert that two separate events are somehow equivalent? Is there some sort of metaphysical currency that serves to measure their value, thus giving us some idea of how to judge the appropriate reaction to a particular action? (“karmic units”, or “KU”, perhaps?)
And the narcissism; oh, how it galls me. In order to believe that the world is constantly rearranged in response to your actions, what does this imply as far as other people’s agency? Are they simply unaware instruments of karmic retribution? Are they held responsible for actions that they undertake in the course of bringing about your comeuppance? And how do you know that decisions you make under the guise of free will aren’t simply part of the whole plan as it relates to someone else’s karma? Are you really so sure that you aren’t just a supporting actor in someone else’s drama?
Let’s consider Stalin as an example – how does karma fit with his life? Must he be reincarnated and brutally murdered millions of times to pay off his karmic debt? Or does he just have to live one life of unrelenting, utter misery? (I’m granting the dubious assumption of reincarnation here, because I don’t think even the most gifted sophist will be able to convince anyone that Stalin dying in bed as an old man was somehow fair.) Or, on a more sinister note: was he just a convenient way to quickly pay off millions of other people’s karmic debt?
All this relies on the ancient dichotomy between free will and determinism, which I mercifully won’t bother with here. I will mention what seems obvious to me, though: our ability to conceptualize and use symbolic representation developed slowly over the course of our evolutionary history. There never was a clear point in time where we were either “completely” self-aware and self-conscious (the way we think of ourselves now), or completely controlled by outside forces, which would seem to throw a huge monkeywrench into the whole scheme.
Personally, I think all this becomes moot when thinkers and authors like these pull the rug out from underneath the whole idea: there is no permanent, abiding essence or identity to attach this kind of responsibility to in the first place.
So, I’m slogging through yet another “scientist said/creationist said” article on the upcoming court battles over trying to sneak creationism into schools via the Trojan horse of Intelligent Design, feeling depressed over the absurdity of it all, when a possible compromise occurs to me.
It seems clear that the creationists have set up a false dilemma here, trying to make it seem that finding any fault with evolutionary theory somehow makes their ancient mythology more respectable by default. What’s more, it’s clear that the figure of a loving, personal father-figure God is the keystone of this particular myth. If it weren’t for the tantalizing idea of a happy afterlife with this loving God, no one would be clinging so desperately to it to begin with (and it’s interesting to note that this particular vision of an afterlife is nowhere near universal).
But why does the Intelligent Designer have to fit this mold? What reason is there (I know, I know, if reason had anything to do with any of this, we wouldn’t be having this discussion) to assume that any deity with the ability to create a universe has to fit our limited conception of “good” or “pleasant”?
If we’re going to insist on anthropomorphizing this hypothetical Designer, what if we secularists postulate in response that He/She/It is more like, say, a mathematical genius in terms of intellect, but cold, aloof and distant emotionally? Like a John Nash, or worse, a Ted Kaczynski? All the brains but no conscience — why is that any less valid of an archetype to build a God around? Think of all the time formerly devoted to discussions of theodicy that this view would save!
There’s no science involved in this case, so they couldn’t use a perverted version of it to obfuscate their aims. I just think it would be refreshingly honest (and amusing) to see people fall back on the real reason behind their defense of Bible study-as-science: the inability to emotionally accept such a bleak viewpoint, as if the universe needs their permission to be the way it is.
Now, you might think, “Oh, come on. It’s an earnest but empty gesture in a culture known for an overabundance of sentimental platitudes, full of kitsch and banality, signifying nothing. It’s a garbage can, ferchristsakes.”
Two words for you, my friend: Ceal Floyer. Go argue with her £30,000 of prize money. At least the work that I stumbled across doesn’t hide behind disingenuous attempts to make superficiality appear as some kind of all-inclusive, everything-at-once deep meaning. No, our anonymous artist has a very sharp point to make. It is meant to draw blood. When that becomes clear to the observer, it is readily understandable why she or he has a desire for anonymity. We do not live in tolerant times.
But enough gloomy history. Let’s focus on the message of this piece and take heart in our artist’s raised fist to an unjust world.
At first, I thought perhaps the artist had been reading Geoffrey Stone’s Perilous Times, and that this work was a skewering of the Patriot Act. We have deliberately trashed our freedom in a moment of panic, in exchange for cheap sparklers and trite clichés on the Fourth of July. Dystopian slogans arose in my head. “Deposit Freedom Here” suggested itself to me. “Freedom is Untidy. Don’t Let Stuff Happen – Keep the Fatherland Clean”. I imagined days of infamy being memorialized in state-sponsored patriotic marches (oh, wait, that actually did happen. Shit.) The straightforward blue plastic background, reminiscent of clear summer skies from my youth, seemed to speak to me of innocence and lack of guile, and the jarring incongruence between that and the sinister malevolence of creeping, star-spangled fascism (represented by the streaks of mud) caused a poignant ache in my heart, a sense of anomie. I thought of the noble, Enlightenment-inspired intentions behind our ideas of free speech and democracy, betrayed by the usual cowardly culprits, fear, greed, and heartlessness, and my blood began to boil.
Then a more ironic interpretation occurred to me. Maybe this artist was making a satirical comment on our gluttonous consumer society, in the tradition of Adbusters. A society that consumes worldly resources far out of proportion to its population. A society where an individual getting their news from cnn.com could see this story and this story less than a year apart. After all, close to 40% of eligible voters didn’t participate in last year’s Presidential elections, one of the most significant events of our time, but we always seem to find time to take in more useless celebrity gossip. Maybe “freedom” means nothing more to the average American than the freedom to buy stuff, which can then be conveniently disposed of once the novelty wears off, never to trouble our beautiful minds again. Stick me behind a barbed-wire enclosure a mile away from where the President is speaking, but you’ll never prevent me from expressing my spirit! Give me liberty or give me ersatz!
And maybe both are correct. Or maybe the point is just to provoke thought in the first place, which in itself is a victory over the forces of reaction. So I salute you, brave artist. Your effort did not go unappreciated.
I recently read a fun book concerning a subject that I’m sure would be extraordinarily popular in high school: the etymological roots of foul language. I’ve long wondered about what seemed to be a too-frequent-to-be-coincidental phenomenon; namely, the fact that many of our most vicious insults are sexual terms. (And I’m still amazed at the apparently unconscious knuckle-dragging attitudes behind ostensible “compliments” like noting an act of courage or integrity by a woman by referring to her having “balls”, as if by her actions, she’s become an honorary guy. Congratulations, toots!) Why the fluid interchangability of love and hate, sex and violence? Is it something peculiar about Americans, with our infamous neurotic attitudes about sex? Well, apparently not:
[Fuck’s] most likely etymological roots are in English’s Continental partners – the Latin futuere (or pungere or battuere), the French foutre, the German ficken. All these words follow the pattern of having two contextual meanings: the first, a physically violent one (to beat, bang, hit or strike); the second, to engage in sexual activity…Richard Dooling says that fuck is related to a widespread Germanic form (Middle Dutch fokken, Norwegian fukka, and Swiss focka), all of which have striking, thrusting, pushing-type meanings.
‘In doing this you will cause pain to many people’ – I know; and I know also that I shall have to suffer twofold for it: once from pity at their suffering, and then through the revenge they will take on me. Nonetheless, it is no less necessary that I should do as I do.