Sunday, February 15, 2009

Man Hands On Misery To Man

Copyrighted to Himalayan Academy Publications, Kapaa, Kauai, Hawaii.
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Few of us have our heads so stuck in the sand that we've never heard of the doctrine of reincarnation, which says, in so many words, that when we die, our spirits will be reborn in another body in order that we suffer and atone for the nasty things we did in our current life. It says we will keep dying and keep being reborn over countless lives until we finally learn all the errors of our ways, at which point we are absorbed into the Godhead, or attain Nirvana, or otherwise achieve undifferentiated eternal bliss.

The reincarnationsts say that to have to keep being reborn, and get our just desserts for the sins we committed in our past lives, ensures not only perfect justice - so that bad things happening to good people are satisfactorily explained - but also gives us an opportunity to put things right without having to roast in Hell for all eternity, the fate of wayward Christians.

And, say the reincarnationists, what else but having lived previous lives, explains a child prodigy like Mozart, who was obviously a musician in his previous life.

But is justice served if we suffer in this life for things we did in previous lives we don’t remember? It might make sense if we remembered, but we don’t.

The reincarnationists get around this by saying that the self that is reborn is an impersonal self which, nonetheless, has been annealed by all it has experienced and done in its previous lives, which represents a sort of unconscious memory. Besides, say the reincarnationists, just because we don’t remember something, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, like being born, for none of us remember being born, but we were. Yeah OK.

But the reincarnationists seem to want to shift their, like, goalposts, whenever they are trapped by their own logic, for, having used common logic to infer that we are reborn because it just wouldn’t be fair if we didn’t suffer for our sins, they are caught in a bind by the fact that we don’t remember our past lives, since it definitely isn’t fair to suffer for something we don’t remember having done.

So the arguments of the reincarnationists cannot be falsified, which bespeaks that they are not rationally held in terms of Karl Popper's Principle of Falsifiability, whereby a proposition is only valid if it can be falsified through any of the conditions supporting it changing, or being found not to be true.

The word “karma” is from Sanskrit, meaning energy, and a word much beloved by reincarnationists who, licking their chops, use it to rationalize the evil we do, which we must atone for in our next life. Thus our evil deeds create a build-up of bad karma that can only be dissipated in the following life, through atonement or suffering on the part of the perpetrator of the evil.

The problem is that punishing in this life, a doer of bad deeds which he did in a previous life, and which he is now suffering for, creates more bad karma, which, in turn, which means someone else must inflict suffering on the punisher in his next life, which creates yet more bad karma, and so on. The result is an unending string of bad karma through lifetime after lifetime after lifetime. Does this make sense?

Assuming reincarnation, it means there’s someone out there somewhere who is the reincarnated spirit of Hitler, and thus living a life of unremitting suffering, and even horror, because, unbeknownst to him, he is atoning for all the bad things Hitler did. But because his memories of being Hitler have been erased, he is a different person from Hitler, which means Hitler got off free from all the things he did.

Since, under the laws of Karma, the sufferings we undergo are our punishment for wrongs we did in our previous life, the deaths of the eleven million people who perished in Hitler’s concentration camps were their deserved punishment for the bad things they did in their previous lives. Since Karma must be allowed to run its course, we shouldn’t help anyone in trouble, or otherwise alleviate their suffering, for if we do, we are interfering with their Karma, and so are preventing them learning the lessons that will make them better beings.

So the moral implications of a belief in reincarnation are, to put it mildly, problematic.


Despite the logical inconsistencies of reincarnation and its dubious, if not abhorrent morality, it isn’t out of the question that it may be true, there being, after all, untold evil wherever we look.

Reincarnationists, with the desperation of drowning men, have seized on accounts of psychiatric patients hypnotically regressed by their therapists to periods before they were born, who have told of their previous lives, and even of periods between those lives. Unfortunately for the reincarnationists, most of these previous-life stories were found to be regurgitations by the patients from books they read, or films they saw.

What, then, about those few cases where there was no connection to a book or film? Well, how about that the patients were influenced by suggestions from their therapists eager to elicit the sort of information they wanted, for people under hypnosis are in a state of mind amenable to suggestions, and are also amenable to invasions from mischievous disembodied spirits.

Ian Stevenson in his book “Twenty Cases Suggesting Reincarnation” told of his researches in the Indian sub-continent into children, who remembered their past lives, which, on investigation, appeared authentic, for the details of the deceased people, whose spirits were allegedly reincarnated in the children, had been as the children described them, even though the children could not possibly have known the deceased, or about them, when they were still alive.

However, there were some cases where the deceased had died after the child was born, which ruled out reincarnation, but not an invasion by the disembodied spirit of the deceased. So this presupposed that all of the cases Stevenson investigated could have had a similar cause, namely spirit invasion, which, along with the fact that his researches were in an area of the world where a belief in reincarnation was pervasive, was why Stevenson was careful to say that his cases suggested reincarnation, so didn’t prove it.


The reincarnationists say smugly that most of the world’s peoples believe in reincarnation, which, if true, shouldn’t come as a surprise, since reincarnation is part and parcel of Hinduism and Buddhism, most of whose adherents live in teeming Asia. But what is surprising, is that an alleged thirty-per-cent of Americans believe in reincarnation, despite America being the most Christian nation on earth.

What could be reincarnation’s attraction among the peoples of the West? for Europeans are, similarly, being drawn to reincarnation’s lure. Could it be that, being the narcissists and egotists we who live in the West have become, we cannot bear thinking that our preciously cultivated selves will disappear like a blown-out candle? So we latch on, like engorged ticks, to any doctrine that promises us that our selves, our precious selves, will continue to live, and so we'll continue to enjoy the creature comforts and lifestyles that are as much a part of us as our arms and legs.

But we ignore that the doctrines of Hinduism and Buddhism stress that the material world is illusion, and that our personal selves, our egos, are equally illusory, to be snuffed out when we breathe no more, leaving just an impersonal self at the whim of impersonal karmic forces.

So we comfort ourselves with the western variant of reincarnation, the one espoused by the Theosophists, in which our personalities will continue, to become more perfect with each subsequent incarnation. It's all so wonderfully simple and as comforting as warm milk, never mind it not passing muster in terms of morality, justice, or logic.

And we don’t trouble to ask ourselves how it is, that, despite that we are all becoming more perfect with each successive incarnation, we seem as blood-thirsty and violent as our club-wielding forbears in the caves of fifty-thousand years ago, notwithstanding our iPhones, Blackberrys, BMWs, lap-top computers, eBook readers, Brooks Bros suits, air conditioned offices, and packaged cruise-ship holidays.

Reincarnation’s illogic extends to numbers, for the numbers of us are increasing exponentially, so that the one billion or two billions of us who inhabited the globe fifty years ago - a number that took a couple of hundred thousand years to reach - have now become six billion almost overnight, to become nine billion in another fifty years. So if we are each supposed to have lived countless many times, where have all these billions of new souls come from? for the mathematics are such that they couldn’t, and won’t, all have lived before.

And if we continue the way we are going, by polluting our planet with the consequences which Al Gore lays out in his film “An Inconvenient Truth”, we humans will, for all intents and purposes, become as extinct as the Studebaker in one hundred years or less. Which means there will be almost no bodies for all those disembodied spirits floating out there in the ether to be reincarnated into. How do the reincarnationists get around that?


However, reincarnation, although not making sense literally, does make eminent sense if looked at metaphorically, for we are all genetically a continuation of our forbears - a sort of reincarnation of them - since we inherited our physical characteristics from our mothers and fathers, who, in turn, inherited their physical characteristics from their mothers and fathers, and so on. The same goes for our intelligence and, to some degree, our psychology.

As to karma, the Bible puts it very well, when it says that the sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the sons to the third and the fourth generation, a dynamic captured succinctly in Philip Larkin’s famous poem, “This Be The Verse”, which says:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.

But our karma isn’t restricted to what our mums and dads did to us, for it extends to the effects on us from decisions and actions taken by the leaders, and other movers and shakers on the world’s stage throughout history.

Take just the twentieth century. The First World War begot Hitler and the Second World War, the consequences of which have shaped our world of today. If Dr Alexander Fleming hadn’t discovered penicillin, or Dr Jonas Salk hadn’t come up with the polio vaccine, many of us would not be alive today, or might never have been born because the people who might have become our mums and dads would have died before they could have become our mums and dads, and so on and so on……………

“As ye sow, so shall ye reap”, says the Bible. What could encapsulate more perfectly what karma is? Our actions and words come back to haunt us, as we all know; as Hitler, about to be incinerated in his Berlin bunker, belatedly learned; and as George Bush, five years after baying "mission accomplished" to the world in a flying suit on an aircraft carrier, later realized.

This all does represent a sort of poetic justice without the need for a simple-minded bromide like reincarnation - a dogma for the self-absorbed and the half-educated. As to justice generally, who says there has to be justice? for it may merely be a concept dreamed up by jelly-bellied idealists.

How more comforting to believe we'll dwell for all eternity in the playing fields of the Lord, than that we must endure the travails of life on earth for goodness knows how many times.

Isn't once enough?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Shape of Things to Come

Amazing, innit?

Amazing to think there'll soon be more English-speakers in China than English-speakers in any country else; that the 25% of Indians who are reeely, reeely smart, is more than all of Americans; that the top 10 in-demand jobs in 2010 didn't exist in 2004; that today's learner will have 10-14 jobs before they're 38; that one week of the New York Times contains more information than anyone in the 18th century came across in all their life; that new technical information is doubling every two years; that for students doing a four-year technological degree, half what they learn in the first year will be redundant by the third.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Inside The Tent

Tomorrow, February 12th, will be two hundred years to the day when Abraham Lincoln was born in a one-room log cabin on a farm in southeast Hardin County, Kentucky. How appropriate it is, then, that the beginning days of Barack Obama's presidency should include the two-hundredth birthday of the man who set the slaves free. And how appropriate it is that Obama, like Lincoln, should have begun his political career as a state legislator in Springfield, Illinois. And we wonder why Obama has often compared himself to Lincoln?

As with Lincoln's, Obama's educational background was the law. However, unlike with Lincoln, Obama got to go to the prestigious Harvard Law School, whereas Lincoln was almost wholly self-educated, with only eighteen months of schooling. Lincoln was also a talented wrestler and skilled with an axe. However, there's no evidence that Obama is either a talented wrestler or skilled with an axe.

But Obama likes playing basketball, and may even be talented at it. Although Lincoln never played basketball, if only because basketball hadn't been invented when he was alive, there's every reason to think he would have been good at basketball because he was very tall (6' 4"). He would likely have at least been better at basketball than Obama, because Obama is merely 6' 1".

While Lincoln was skilled with an axe, he avoided hunting and fishing because he didn't like killing animals, even for food. And Obama seems not the sort of person who would hunt or fish because he, too, wouldn't like killing animals, even for food.

Barack Obama, as an avowed student of Lincoln, has learned lessons from how Lincoln conducted his presidency, particularly in inviting his competitors in the Democratic primaries, like Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Bill Richardson, to join his administration. Add to this a prominent Bushite hold-over, Robert Gates at Defence, plus Republicans like Congressman Ray LaHood at Transport, and Senator Judd Gregg at Commerce (replacing Bill Richardson, who had withdrawn), we can see that Obama believes it's better - in the memorable words of the earthy Lyndon Johnson - to have your enemies (and rivals) "........inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside pissing in........".

Thus Obama has formed a "Team of Rivals" - the title of the book about Lincoln's administration, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, who, in an article in the Guardian (UK), says that, while Lincoln's having rivals in his cabinet worked, Obama's having rivals in his cabinet may not work, because today, unlike in Lincoln's day, we have 24-hour news channels.

As Doris Kearns Goodwin says: ".......Lincoln's cabinet meetings were fiery affairs. Members openly feuded with one another and with the president. They castigated each other as liars and scoundrels. Yet this information rarely appeared in the newspapers; we know about it through diaries and letters. In contrast, our 24-hour news cycle significantly lessens the possibility of containing dissenting opinions within the president's official circle. If internal feuds are reported by the nightly news, magnified day by day by the cable shows, dissected by countless political blogs, made fodder for late-night comedy, a modern team of rivals would collapse..........".

However, Doris Kearns Goodwin goes on to say, "........Still, by building dissent into his inner circle, Obama is more likely to question his assumptions and to weigh the consequences. The story of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation provides a telling example. In the months before he issued the historic order, he listened intently to the arguments within his cabinet over what to do about slavery. The radical members wanted Lincoln to move more quickly; the conservatives cautioned against moving at all. Lincoln realised the search for consensus could be paralysing. In 1862 he told his cabinet the time for debate was over. The time for the Proclamation had come. 'It is my conviction,' Lincoln later said, 'that, had the Proclamation been issued even six months earlier, public sentiment would not have sustained it.' Because of the heated discussions within his cabinet, his timing was perfect..........".

Lincoln, then, was the very opposite of impetuous. He knew he couldn't go too far ahead of (white) public opinion. He had to coax it, to guide it in the direction he wanted. Barack Obama, the student of Lincoln, seems, too, to be following his mentor's nuanced gradualism.

Then President-Elect Lincoln's nuanced gradualism was commented on by the Economist in its editorial of November 24th 1860, just after Lincoln's first election as president. Lincoln's circumspection had been such, that there was almost nothing in his election speeches to frighten southern slave-owners. As the Economist, addressing its English readers, said, "........our English politicians will be tempted not only to wonder at the dismay of the South, but to ask where is the gain to the Anti-Slavery cause in the election of so very moderate and cautious a Republican..........".

But the Economist went on to say, in so many words, that Lincoln was setting the tone for the eventual abolition of slavery, which could only come about when the tide of (white) public opinion would begin to turn against slavery.

As a public service, I've appended the Economist's entire editorial by cutting and pasting it in digestible paragraphs, since I suspect that you who are reading this, will find the Economist's interminably long paragraphs - which were de rigueur in all writing of that time - as tiresome to read as do I:

The success of the Republican candidate for the Presidency in the United States will prove one of the greatest events of modern times, if it indicates, as we trust, no mere accidental fluctuation of public opinion in the direction of the Anti- Slavery cause, but the commencement of a permanent and sustained movement. It will be impossible to say how far this will prove to be as we should wish, till we see the details of the popular vote. It is a discouraging fact that the Republican President will not at first be supported by a Republican majority in either House or Congress, but there is good reason to hope that, now the tide has fairly turned, this defect may be remedied at the next Congressional elections.

It would be a great mistake to suppose that Mr Abraham Lincoln is an extreme man. His views seem to us to fall far short of what may fairly be termed even a statesmanlike Anti-Slavery creed. Few in England have the smallest sympathy with the extreme party of Abolition,—those who maintain that to hold a serf for a single day in slavery after you have the power to release him is a deadly sin,—that Washington and Jefferson deserve infamy for holding slaves themselves, and admitting any compromise on the subject into the Constitution of the United States.

This kind of fanaticism is a species of political insanity. The statesman will believe that the order of the most imperfect Government is better than anarchy, especially if it contain within it principles by which it may be gradually purified and improved. He will accept his position and use all the means within his reach to improve it. He will not throw away the only political instruments within his power because they are indelibly marked with traces of the evil he wishes to remove.

It is not, therefore, because Mr Abraham Lincoln is very far from representing the extreme party of Abolition that we call his views moderate within the limits of statesmanlike moderation. But few Englishmen, only knowing that the Anti-Slavery candidate for the Presidency has at last triumphed, would be prepared to hear what his views really are. That they have roused the South to threats of immediate secession, which in some cases at least may not improbably be in part carried into effect, will scarcely be credited when we lay before our readers what the new President's creed on the Slavery question really is.

He is not opposed to a Fugitive Slave Law, though he would modify the one actually in operation. He thinks it would be impossible to uphold the Constitution as between Slave States and Free States without some Fugitive Slave Law, so long as Slave States exist at all. He has not, we believe, declared himself as yet even in favour of prohibiting the internal Slave Trade between the different States,—a measure which is the only efficient step towards the extinction of slavery that is constitutionally within the power of Congress to effect. He has declared himself in favour of abolishing slavery within the Congressional district of Columbia (in which the capital Washington stands), but only under conditions which would entirely obliterate all the revolutionary character of the measure,—namely, that it should be done gradually,—that it should be done only with the consent of a majority of the qualified voters within the district,—and that compensation should be made to unwilling owners.

We have enumerated the three principal articles of a statesmanlike Anti-Slavery creed,—and in two of them Mr Lincoln declares himself either uncertainly, or only in favour of very modified proposals, while on the third he attaches such careful conditions to his adhesion that all its terror to the slaveowners ought to be obliterated. About two years ago he stated, in his controversy with Mr Douglas:

"I do not now, nor ever did stand in favour of the unconditional repeal of the Slave Trade Law. I have never hesitated to say, and I do not now hesitate to say, that I think, under the Constitution of the United States, the people of the Southern States are entitled to a Congressional Fugitive Slave Law. Having said that, I have had nothing to say in regard to the existing Fugitive Slave Law further than that I think it should have been framed so as to be free from some of the objections that pertain to it without lessening its efficacy."

With regard to the abolition of the internal Slave Trade between the different States, Mr Lincoln says : "I am pledged to nothing about it. It is a subject to which I have not given that mature consideration that would make me feel authorised to state a position so as to hold myself entirely bound by it...I must say, however, that if I should be of opinion that Congress does possess the constitutional power to abolish the Slave Trade among the different States, I should not be in favour of the exercise of that power unless upon some conservative principle, as I conceive it, akin to what I have said in relation to the abolition of slavery in the district of Columbia."

Hearing this, some of our English politicians will be tempted not only to wonder at the dismay of the South, but to ask where is the gain to the Anti-Slavery cause in the election of so very moderate and cautious a Republican.

But, in truth, the gain is incalculable. Whatever compromises Mr Lincoln may concede to the South with respect to the limits and the right use of the Congressional or Presidential power, he stands irrevocably pledged to the principle that slavery is wrong, and that the national power, so far as it can be fairly used at all, must be used to limit, to repress, to promote its extinction.

These are his words: “I think we want and must have a national policy in regard to the institution of slavery, that acknowledges and deals with that institution as being wrong. Whoever desires the prevention of the spread of slavery and the nationalisation of that institution, yields all, when he yields to any policy that either recognises slavery as being right, or as being an indifferent thing. Nothing will make you successful but setting up a policy which shall treat the thing as being wrong.

When I say this, I do not mean to say that the General Government is charged with the duty of redressing or preventing all the wrongs in the world; but I do think that it is charged with preventing and redressing all wrongs which are wrong to itself. This Government is expressly charged with the duty of providing for the general welfare. We believe that the spreading out and perpetuity of the institution of slavery impairs the general welfare. We believe—nay, we know, that that is the only thing that has ever threatened the perpetuity of the Union itself. The only thing which has ever menaced the destruction of the Government under which we live, is this very thing. To repress this thing, we think, is providing for the general welfare.”

And he stands explicitly pledged to exterminate, so far as he can do so, the external Slave Trade,—and on the coast of Cuba a co-operation of English and American cruisers will effect this. He stands pledged to abolish slavery in Columbia (the district round Washington) under the conditions we have shown. He stands pledged to oppose and prohibit, so for as he can, the introduction of slavery into the Territories. And though he has refused to pledge himself to resist the admission of new Slave States, his whole influence will be exerted to give the free party in such States ample means for the fair expression of their wishes on the subject.

Yet, on the whole, no doubt the great importance of the election is less in its immediate results than in showing that the tide of public opinion is turning against slavery in the States. We must remember what this means. It is far more significant than the expression of conviction which an English election gives. The most bitter opponent of pure democracy,—and none regard its evils in a graver light than ourselves,—must admit that when the least enlightened, the worst opinion of a nation, at last after a long hesitation, declares against a national crime, the victory is more complete than it would be where the best intelligence and culture of a nation declares against it.

The more absolutely we are convinced that universal suffrage in America drowns the voice of the best educated and most refined classes in the North, the better satisfied must we be to learn from the elections there that the public opinion is turning against slavery. It shows that the dread and opposition to it has become general at a social level which might remain comparatively unaffected in England, in spite of a perfect unanimity amongst the electoral classes here. The strength of a chain is tested by its least reliable links,—and the least reliable links of the social chain in the Northern States have proved to us that they are strong enough now to resist the bribes and menaces of the Southern party.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

"La maison où j'ai grandi"

Françoise Hardy's is not a name we, particularly we who aren't French, will recognise instantly. This is because Françoise Hardy is no longer young, for, this coming February 17th (2009), she turns sixty-five - a senior citizen. But in the 1960s her name was on the lips of all who followed popular music.

I happened recently upon a song of Françoise Hardy's, "La maison j'ai grandi", which I hadn't heard since 1967 - the year it came out. Thus I didn't remember it instantly. But after I'd played it a few times it all came back - not surprising since we, all of us, forget nothing. All which has happened to us since we were born, all we have learned, all those whom we have known, are stored in our minds as memories, ready to be retrieved when probed.

So I was sucked down the time tunnel to 1967, the year "La maison j'ai grandi" (the house where I grew up) came out, and was played in homes, cafes and bars everywhere. I believe (but am not sure) that "La maison j'ai grandi" was France's entry in the 1967 Eurovision song contest. The winner that year was Sandie Shaw's "Puppet on a String". You who know "Puppet on a String" will surely agree, after you've heard "La maison j'ai grandi", that, compared to "La maison j'ai grandi", "Puppet on a String" is insipid.

"La maison j'ai grandi" is, as its name implies, a song of memories. But are they the memories of Françoise Hardy herself? If so, they must be more poignant to her now - the about-to-be sixty-five year-old - than in 1967, when she was merely twenty-three. In the song, Françoise Hardy sees in her mind her childhood home, the roses in its back garden, and the living trees. But, sadly, neither the house, roses, nor trees now exist because " ville est ....." (the city is there). We must assume Françoise's childhood home and the roses and trees have been torn down and bulldozed over, so a block of flats, or paved parking lot, now stands where the house, roses, and trees once did.

But Françoise had childhood friends who shared her joy in her home, with the flowers and trees, and who empathized with her when, with tears in her eyes, she knew (and so too did her friends) that everything must end, that she must leave. They told her that to leave was better than to stay, for she would discover more things out there than at home.

Nevertheless, when Françoise finally left her home she left her heart there too. However, her friends envied her luck in leaving for the bright lights of a city that never sleeps, day or night ("....une ville qui s'endort la nuit dans la lumière...."). We must assume Françoise's friends, too, would have liked to go to the big city, but their circumstances didn't let them.

But when Françoise left her childhood home she said to herself she would one day return. And one day, a long, long time after, she does, but her home has gone. She is overcome, saying, where is my house? Who knows where my house is? (".... est ma maison?.......Qui sait est ma maison.......?").

The trumpet sounds towards the end of "La maison j'ai grandi" make us aware of Françoise's heartbreak. Only the most stony-hearted of us remain unmoved.

For most of us, what Françoise went through will be familiar, since we, too, will have left our mother and father and the home and town - and often country -we grew up in. We left the nest and confronted the cold big world. Some of us have survived it; some of us didn't. But almost all of us will never again see our childhood home.

But should you do so because you are curious, you'll see it will have changed if it's still there. The wide boulevard which ran past in front, has become a tatty pot-holed side-road; the palatial garden has become a mere plot, weed-covered, unkempt; the large tree at the back is half as high as it was; the house itself, through whose wide corridors you skipped and jumped, has become a nondescript bungalow; the neighbours, in whose gardens you played, have moved away or are dead. Their replacements peer at you from behind curtained windows as you lurk in the road.

You see that your childhood home had become your imaginary homeland, where you could find comfort and succour for a few minutes whenever life's slings and arrows became too much. Because you dared to visit the old house and neighbourhood, your imaginary homeland has vanished and will never come back.