Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Rantings and Ravings

Another thing I wrote not originally intending to post here. Apologies for the total lack of diplomacy present. I never say these things and I need practice:


I am plagued by the spectres of religion and nationalism. These are inescapably moral reflections. It strikes me as not only intellectual but also (consequently?) moral laziness – one might almost say negligence – to adopt your freeze-packed “religious and national identity” and thereby forestall all major ethical preoccupation. Who needs sober appraisal of situations when you can accept Christ as your saviour or Israel as your redemption and be done with it? Social injustice? Public corruption? Political repression? Never mind, let’s just sing the national anthem and celebrate the fact that our ancestors may or may not have shared an approximation of this patch of land, a language, and terrified xenophobia for an endlessly prolonged miserable and meaningless collective existence. We must proudly continue in their tradition of supremacist indifference to the suffering of anybody who looks different.

I suspect that “ethnicity”-based nationalism is simply the evolution and modern disguise of race-based nationalism. Both involve the attribution of worth – of “belonging” – to inborn, unchoosable and unchangeable characteristics. It denies a person the right to carve out his own identity and destiny. The fact that this time the focus is on shared history rather than genetics makes absolutely no fucking difference.

What ostensibly does is “ethnicity”’s focus on shared culture, language, and religion. Religion is of course a whole different, probably larger topic, but all three of these things can fall under the general heading of culture.

“Culture”, as per the broadest and most concise definition I have so far encountered, is a set of shared behaviours and beliefs. Behaviours can include language, artistic and culinary preferences, festivals and customs. Beliefs can include of course religion, and generally the philosophies with which a society naturally and probably even innocently indoctrinates its members.

I am more partial to culture because it doesn’t make any sweeping judgements about who you are and what you deserve. If you grow up in a society from an early enough age, you inherit its culture. That’s all there is to it.

I say inherit its culture, but I mean up to a point. Hopefully, at least. Language is the most straightforward of these, but even if I grew up in Israel and can speak Hebrew perfectly well, that doesn’t mean I should hold it above English, or French for that matter, once I learn and master it. The rest are way worse. Because I’m Israeli doesn’t mean I have to like falafel, mizrahi music or “canonical” literature, celebrate Purim or Hannukah or Succot, or have a propensity to hike across the land or clap when the airplane lands. None of these things are exactly bad, but their marking the culture is simply a cold, statistical observation about what happens to be the state of things in today’s Israel. It’s retrospective rather than prescriptive. If in the next 50 years we for some reason get a huge influx of millions of immigrants from Ghana and Vietnam, the definition of Israeli culture will drastically change. That’s just a fact. A country’s culture is defined by its people, not its people by its culture.

Which is of course a gross oversimplification. The inhabitants of a society are strongly affected by the cultural mood of their surroundings, but, unless there’s malicious governmental involvement, the cultural hegemony is not complete. It irritates me when I’m told that because I’m an Israeli, I should be familiar with certain definitive cultural entities. Implicit (and often explicit) in this assertion is the suggestion that if I don’t do this, I’m not really a true Israeli. This is ethnic pride at work, and where it begins to be stupid and annoying, if not yet dangerous.

What people seem to fail to realize is that this cultural baggage, for all its richness, is a limitation. We (at least in the affluent countries) live in a globalized world. One of the awesome things about that fact is that we’re exposed to the treasures of so many other cultures. In times past we were confined to our own country, if that, and had access only to our language, art and food, holidays and traditions, to return to my previous list. We only had that to choose from and enrich our lives with. Today as an Israeli there’s nothing stopping me from making American movies, British music, Chinese food and the aforementioned French language a major part of my life. There does, though, apparently, seem to be something preventing me from taking on the holidays and traditions of other cultures. Why? If I enjoy Halloween or the regular employment of geishas (I can’t think of a proper example for cultural customs), why not make them a part of my life? Why do they belong to the British Commonwealth and Japan? Why do you have to have historical justification for taking part in an activity which you enjoy?

I don’t think you do. I think it’s a totally arbitrary misconception. We accept societies’ cultural exclusivism because we buy into the myth of ethnicity. We actively perpetuate the distinctions between cultures out of a misguided, haughty idealism. We encourage individual conformism for the sake of cultural distinctiveness, so that instead of “ethnicity” providing us with an identity, it robs us of it and blends us into the background of a proud, effectively faceless collective.

The really problematic aspect of all of this is, of course, the shared beliefs. That a society will instill into virtually all of its members a measure of intellectual conformity is unfortunate and probably unavoidable. That this will be seen as a virtue by intelligent people boggles the mind, or at least my mind. We have a wealth of knowledge and speculation at our disposal. There is no longer any excuse to be narrow-minded and frugal in our thinking. We have fully sufficient resources and capability to make up our own minds. This terrifies us. We latch on to soothingly simplistic and ideologically comprehensive organized religion and idealistic nationalism. Who needs to distinguish right and wrong or take a stand when instead you can follow your edicts, glorify your country, and cheer for your football team. Everything is A-OK.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009


I can't guarantee you'll understand a word of what's going on here, and I'm not even sure that I'll like this in the morning, but I've just spent way too long writing this thing, so I'm here showing off before I change my mind:


He sat in front of his computer keyboard, totally at a loss. He didn’t entirely understand what he was doing here in the first place. He’d felt an irresistible compulsion to sit down and write, but how could you feel compelled to write when you didn’t have any specific thing you were anxious to write about? Could he be deluding himself – attempting to pigeonhole himself into the role of “writer” for the sake of some kind of smug self-satisfaction?

He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms, staring defiantly at the computer screen. And why not, he asked himself? Was anything worthwhile ever done not out of emulation and an aspiration for self-realization? Why must everything be justified? Why must the justifications he is only making to himself be so protracted, so clinical, so scientific? He seemed enslaved to the judgements other people weren’t even making. He felt oppressed.

He squinted at the blank screen and bit his lip thoughtfully. There’s a thought – can you be oppressed without an oppressor? It would require you to inhabit an alternative, virtual reality. Staring at the virtual page under his proverbial pen, he wondered what to make of the fact that this was the very method he intended to use to get himself out of his virtual prison.

He was getting a little confused by now. He gazed at the screen for a little while longer, rubbing his temple and forehead, then abruptly got up. He walked over to the fridge to get a drink of water.

Bent down, peering inside it, he paused. What did he need? What are you looking for when you find writing? He searched the bowels of his refrigerator and was embarrassed to be actually surprised they didn’t provide an answer. He stood back up and closed its door distractedly. He looked around in confusion. What was he doing here again?

- - -

Back at his computer, cup of water firmly in hand, he stared intently at the forbidding whiteness of the page in front of him – at the surgical lines, dull grey, and vaguely mathematical-looking implements encompassing it – and realized for the first time how dead it all looked. At the same time he noticed how representative it was of his own state of mind and spirit. He sipped at his water, then laid the glass down and placed his hands resolvedly on the keyboard.

He licked his lips. There was something wrong here. He was trying to fight fire with fire – self-suffocation with self-analysis. It was not a study and exploration of himself that he needed. What he needed was emancipation.

He breathed in deeply and shook his head. A familiar restlessness was beginning to take him. He shrugged wearily and supposed he’d walk it off.

- - -

He closed the door behind him and looked around, and up. It really was beautiful, being outside. He admired how the sky and the trees and the wind and the anonymous smells floating towards him seemed to just happen, with a graceful effortlessness. It was a pity that he only let himself enjoy them when an emotional disquiet more or less forced him out of the house.

But kind of representative too, on second thought. He wasn’t effortless. He’d never been even remotely spontaneous. If he didn’t make a conscious decision to go enjoy himself he simply wouldn’t. That wasn’t the way he was. He was methodical and analytic. It was, as they say of superheroes, his gift and curse. It was his identity.

He walked over to a patch of grass and bent down in it. He put his fingers to a blade of grass and felt gently around it. He scowled at it in confusion. Wasn’t the fact he saw value in this conclusive proof that he was not, in fact, a soulless automaton? The anemic language he seemed enveloped in appeared to obscure something fundamental to his experience of life.

He stumbled over to a nearby bench, now completely exhausted. He leaned his head back and breathed deeply a few times. Then he leaned forwards with his elbows on his knees and his hands joined together, staring underneath them at the grass again.

His mind was the mind of a mathematician. If he could convert ideas into numbers, he’d probably do it – it would make it that much easier for him to know his way around. This was simply how he understood the world. It was not, however, how he enjoyed the world.

A sudden burst of restless energy sprung him up from the bench again. There was a discrepancy here, between how he thought and how he felt – how he talked and how he lived. This was not an insurmountable discrepancy, but it made him uncomfortable and so he ignored it. Instead of keeping his innards and communications separate, what he should be doing is expressing himself.

But the coupling of these two modes of existence seemed so absurd! His “soul” was irrational, visceral, impulsive, and violently alive, while his thinking was cold, calculating, and intensely discriminating. The two seemed antithetical. Yes, the goal here is to express yourself, but can you express yourself in what are essentially mathematical formulas?

Yes, he decided suddenly. Yes. You can do what you want.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

God Is in the Spaces between People

I didn't even like this movie that much, but I'm hoping it might provide a modicum of context for what is on my brain right now. This does, of course, only even have the chance of working if you've actually seen the movie, but hey.

These two people get on my nerves a little. They're conceited and cynical in the most infuriatingly cheerful way. They're quietly very smug about their half-baked intellectualist ideas of the ways in which the world revolves around them. They irritate me probably quite substantially less than the impression I'm giving here, but what I'm trying to say was that it wasn't the personalities or themes that got to me in this movie. Something got to me quite plainly in spite of them.

It's the way this film seems to define communication. When these two talk, it's not as if they even listen to each other particularly - they just seem to generally inhabit the same thematic universe inside of the same conversation. This leads me to induce that what constitutes true communication, is you going on and the other person actively encouraging you. He doesn't even have to take it in - he just needs to genuinely enjoy being a part of the interaction, and hear you out with something more than politeness.

I know that politeness doesn't cut it because I'm uber-polite, and over the past few years I have had ample occasion to observe that this is generally not enough. Even when I was actually actively listening to people, out of some weird misplaced sense of duty, when the subjects they were talking about did not excite me on a fundamental level, despite my alert attention, their own excitement and the conversation would fizzle out.

Another thing that annoyed me about these characters was their constant insistence on the transitoriness and ethereality of this night, when it seemed quite clear to me that all it was was chemistry between two human beings, which along with being awesome has the convenient advantage of being incredibly earthy and recreatable.

So, taking that into consideration, it puzzles me that I almost never try to communicate with people. I might not have the same level of chemistry with someone in my life as these two characters have, but I certainly share enough "themes" with people to be easily capable of communicating about them. I just keep it to myself. I think this is something I've begun to do fairly lately and I don't really know why.

I doubt it's for a good reason, though. If I recognize that communication with other people is pretty much what makes life worth living, shouldn't it follow that I would try to attain this? Is there anything holding me back except cowardice?

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Sunsets and Community

In the bus, today, out of the corner of my eye I was a little startled to find an unusually bloody, stunning sunset covering most of the sky.

Besides being generally impressive to look at, sunsets seem to create a very particular atmosphere. Lately I've wondered what stands behind this, and if there are any generally accepted theories on the matter. My rash pop-psych suggestion is that the twilight of the sky leads to a kind of twilight of the mind, where you're suddenly both more secure and more questioning - more open, in a word, to whatever may come.

What came was a flashback to Shabbat evening meals in the Kibbutz. People from different families gathered together in the dining room, singing Shabbat songs and psalms. I remember the rabbi being particularly into this. It's a beautiful, mellow memory, and would usually take place when the sky was similarly lighted.

The reason this would require openness is that, the sweetness of this memory notwithstanding, it has been years since I've entertained the notion of community as anything beyond an enormous evil.

Community, to me, means conformity, hasty hurtful judgement, mob mentality, dissolution of the self. I'm not even seriously reconsidering this assessment, but it seems to me I've ignored some of the other things community is.

I've always gotten stuck on community pretending to be love, because I don't like lies in general, and like that specific one even less. Community is a partnership of convenience. That's all it has been and probably all it can be. A community cannot be a family, but what can it be?

Perhaps just a collection of moving human moments. A sunset isn't love either, and doesn't "mean" anything, but that doesn't lead me to disdain it. You don't need to justify enjoying things. What you need to justify is moral convictions.

It's the moral convictions attached to the concept of community that disturb me. Conformity, tribalism, jingoism, even a kind of enthusiastic obedience - in short, the collectivist idea that the group is more important than the sum of the individuals that make it up.

But this doesn't have to be the only way of setting up a community. What's wrong with the idea of an ideologically neutralized community of convenience? A place where people live together for the sake of company and nothing else? I suppose small agricultural settlements are technically like this, but my understanding is these places aren't usually very communal in character. People keep to themselves unless they feel they share an ideology with their surroundings.

I don't know exactly about Islam, but it seems that one of the major things that have kept Judaism and Christianity alive even after the secularization of the political and professional world is the synagogue/church which implies a community - one that even many fervently secular people are eager to take part in. It seems a lot of people feel comfortable refraining from thinking too hard about the religious ideology they're purporting to follow, because what they're really after is the community that comes as a major unexpected perk, as it were.

So what we need is a new religion. A more sympathetic one, with less absolutism. One that recognizes our spiritual, emotional needs and doesn't promulgate any far-reaching moral assertions.

Why do we always have to mix spirituality and politics? The only ideology a community needs is that which involves the way the members deal with one another - whatever can neutralize the dangers that a community represents. A community needs to consider the emotional and spiritual welfare of its members. Otherwise it just needs to enjoy itself.

Community is positive in enjoyment and in action; it is repugnant in thought and in feeling.