1/30/12

Louis the Lousy Levitator


Louis was a lousy levitator. His main problem, everyone recognized, was that he had chosen a pretty stupid profession. The fact is, levitation isn't possible. The reason being, gravity. That's not to say that there aren't magicians who do levitation tricks. There are, but Louis wasn't a magician. He knew there already were magicians who did levitation tricks. But he wanted to be unique, something different, and so he believed he'd found something nobody else did: actual levitation. He coined himself "The World's First and Only Levitator", ignoring the fact that there were guys in India who also apparently levitated (although probably not, because like I said, it's impossible).

Despite his poor choice of profession, Louis had some pretty good friends, even though they never ever supported his decision to become a levitator. They all pretty much thought it was a dumb idea from the get-go and kept trying to convince him to do something more productive with his time, but Louis was not just a lousy levitator, he also had the misfortune of believing in himself, which, when you're a levitator, is not really a good thing. Furthermore, as a former CPA in a large accounting firm, he was financially well-off, and he'd recently come into a bit of an inheritance from his father-in-law, so he was financially independent enough that he could, at least for a while, pursue levitation full time. A bad idea, no doubt, for a lousy levitator.

But through his own perseverance, and largely through the kindness and patience of his friends, Louis managed to get gigs. Naturally, they were not very good. They mostly involved birthday parties, Bar Mitzvahs, and even, on occasion, country fairs, where people would gather round and watch a pudgy freckled and slightly balding 42 year-old guy just sit there cross-legged with his eyes closed. At first the crowd would be interested, fixing their eyes on Louis, waiting for something to happen. Louis would call for absolute silence, always pointing out before every levitation (he would never call it a "show") that what he was about to do was not a magic trick, nor an illusion, but that he was actually going to levitate, and that he needed absolute quiet in order to attain the level of concentration required for such a task.

After about a minute, the crowd would begin shuffling and getting antsy. Most of the people there would be kids, and unless you can do something spectacular and quick, kids would lose interest very quickly. A murmur would break out, people would shuffle off, or start talking among themselves, and sometimes even just shout out "you're a lousy levitator", or things to that effect. Louis would lose his concentration, of course, insist on silence, often angrily, and this would just rile up the kids and the onlookers who would quickly come to feel that Louis was either a con artist or an idiot, usually the latter (because Louis never levitated for money), and the whole event would just turn into a back and forth taunting session. The more Louis lost his temper, the more the kids jeered and the adults laughed and people began throwing things at him. The typical end to a levitation was Louis storming off hurling curses and abuse, and his friends apologizing to the party host or the fairground manager, who would always say something like "I knew it was a dumb idea" or "I can't believe you convinced me to do this".

This isn't to say that funny things didn't happen. Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that Louis was dead serious in his claim to be a levitator, his always failed attempts at levitation would nevertheless lead to some pretty humorous situations. Once, on a plane, Louis mentioned he was a levitator and so people asked him to levitate. He crossed his legs and closed his eyes, but because the plane had begun its descent, the air stewardess wouldn't let him unfasten his seatbelt. Louis at first protested, but eventually had to agree to keep his belt on, but he proceeded with his levitation anyway. After about a minute, he opened his eyes, quite satisfied with himself that he had in fact levitated, although, he admitted, nobody could've seen it because the belt had kept him down. He showed where the belt had left a mark just under his belly, supposedly from the pressure exerted through the upward force of his levitation, but the other passengers were skeptical, albeit entertained.

There were further comical episodes at his levitation events. Once he was given an unsteady, makeshift platform to sit on so the fairgoers could see him, but just after he began concentrating for his levitation routine, the platform gave out from under him and he crashed down to earth with a roar from the highly amused onlookers. Another time at a birthday party, a five-year-old put a party hat on Louis's head just as he was entering deep concentration. Louis tried to ignore it at first, but then when the other bored kids started painting and drawing on his face, he sprang up, lost his balance, and landed face first in the birthday cake. The birthday girl wept, the children cried, the mother told him to leave at once, and the whole thing ended badly. It wasn't until he was at the ATM taking money out to buy a new cake to take back to the party that he realized he was walking around with a party hat on his head, two big red spots on his cheeks, and a drawing that resembled a horse or a monkey on his forehead.

So all in all, Louis was a lousy levitator. Although his friends were as supportive as could be expected for a lot longer than could be hoped for, eventually they too lost patience. Louis could get no more gigs, nobody would have him, nobody believed he could levitate. But Louis believed in himself. He knew he could do it, because when he was by himself he could feel it, he could feel his body rise up from the ground, he could feel a sudden lightness overcome him, and when he was in the deepest state of concentration, he could feel that he was floating above the ground, suspended in the air. He felt as if his body, his big lugubrious hulking sack of a body, would disappear, and that he was just there like a phantom, suspended in the air, a pure consciousness in a pure state of being, drifting, floating, flying over the earth, disembodied and free. It was an incredible feeling of elation for him, and he could think of no other time when he felt so alive, so happy, and so spirited.

Louis believed that he was levitating, he believed in it firmly, and he wanted to share that experience with others, to show them just how amazing it was, and just how wonderful it could make you feel. He thought, if only others could see, if only they knew, they too would join him, they too would levitate with him, and he believed that once a person levitated, they would do nothing else. What was the point? To levitate, to experience pure disembodied incorporeal bliss would be the height of experience from which one would never turn back. It would perhaps even cure depression, heal the sick and the mentally ill, maybe even become a cure for loneliness, nihilism, even, dare he say it, bring an end to war!

Even though Louis was known as a lousy levitator, he believed in levitation, he believed he levitated, and he wanted to believe that others could too, that we all could.

But like I said, it's impossible. Because, you know, gravity.

1/12/12

On the need for ethical autonomy


In the face of a growing and unchallenged discourse of jingoistic totalitarian bullying in the news media, the need for ethical autonomy has never been so pressing as it is today.

Recently, the Prime Minister of Turkey denounced France for a bill approved by the French senate that makes it a crime to deny the Armenian Genocide, calling it a slide to "fascism" in Europe and a "blow to free speech". This is coming from the leader of a country where its own Nobel Prize laureate author Orhan Pamuk was prosecuted simply for referring to "killings" of Armenians and Kurds in an interviewand he didn't even use the word "genocide". He was hounded by the media, received death threats, and now spends most of his time away from his beloved Istanbul, preferring to live in New York. Another well-known Turkish writer, Elif Shafak, was also prosecuted for referring to the Armenian genocide in her book "The Bastard of Istanbul". They were both heckled, spat at and jeered by crowds as they entered the courthouse in Istanbul. These are just the most prominent and well-known of dozens of other cases brought against writers charged with "insulting Turkishness" because they simply expressed their opinion (or a character in a novel expressed the opinionsame thing, right?) that what happened to the Armenians in 1915 was genocide. And yet the Prime Minister of Turkeythe leader of a country in which it is, to all intents and purposes, a prosecutable offense to refer to what happened to the Armenians as "genocide"can say that the bill passed by the French senate is a slide to "fascism" and a travesty of democracy and freedom of speech. Not only can the Turkish PM say this unashamedly, the entire mainstream news media, and most probably an overwhelming majority of the Turkish people, can accept this with no sense of hypocrisy, shame or double standards. No newspaper will dare criticize it. No one will dare challenge it, but not even in a cynical way. People will sincerely agree with it and not see the inherent ethical flaw of their position.

How can this happen? What went wrong here? Why is there no ethical and moral perspective by which to judge right and wrong according to universally applicable standards? Instead of universality, we find that our ethical standards are solipsistic; they delve not on right and wrong committed in general, or to "people", but instead revolve around right or wrong committed to "me" or "us". That means that when we are subjected to wrong, this is known to be wrong, because it affects us, but when we subject others to the same wrongs, we fail to see any wrong there, because that wrong doesn't affect "us", "me", "we". It affects "them" and is therefore, from the solipsistic ethical viewpoint, irrelevant.

This may be due to a variety of factors, chief among which is perhaps no formal and thorough education of ethics in school, and a system based on indoctrination and instruction rather than education. Another is a predilection toward a "might makes right" kind of attitude. Just as we admire and follow strong men of history, political parties today still revolve around the strong man, not to mention the kinds of violent thugs who are canonized on Turkish TV series and films.

Religion also has a major part to play, in that we mostly follow a religious ideology that is based on an unquestioning devotion to one almighty God, a kind of faith that can easily lead down that slippery road where massacring children or blowing up innocent people can be made to sound righteous if committed in the name of that almighty power figure which graciously bestows good and justice upon us and which we should be humbly grateful for, avoiding wrong by fear of eternal torment in Hell and choosing right in return for the blissful reward of an eternity in Paradise. It's not hard to see that a mindset that can accept that kind of foundation to morality, ethics and justice can expect the same kind of approach toward and from a powerful political leader as well.

In short, we seem to have a cultural propensity to see the question of right and wrong not as independent and universal ethical standards above any and all, to be adhered to by all, but as standards graciously bestowed on us from above by authority figures, who are themselves exempt from those same ethical standards, and who bestow them to us in return for unquestioning devotion and loyalty, but who can just as easily take them away, or deny them completely to those not from their fold. Good and righteousness is bound tightly with devotion to the power source from which it emanates. Whether it's your leader, your state, your father, your God, your prophet, your founder, your teacher, your imam, whatever, this mentality holds fast. To stray is to fall out of the sphere of good and right, and to become unworthy of it as a result. There is no independent frame of ethical reference outside of the sphere of the good-giving power to which you must show unquestioning loyaltyeven (and especially) at the cost of hypocrisy.

Here's another example of this kind of solipsistic ethics, again relating to the Armenian Genocide issue (although there are many other examples):

When we've been accused of genocide by a foreign government or parliament, our media and leaders like to accuse the accusing nation of genocide back. Sweden, France, the U.S. and other countries are all found by Turkey to be guilty of genocide if Turks feel they are accused of being guilty of genocide by that country's legislative committee, or one or both houses of the legislature, or indeed the government itself. Now, besides it being obviously childish and reactionary, this approach is also a prime example of solipsistic ethical standards. Why? Because what is at issue for us isn't the topic of whether genocide was committed against a people which deserves recognition or compensation or healing, etc... which is also always what the issue is about in those parliaments that discuss recognition of the Armenian genocide. What is at issue for us is that we are accused of genocide. So we accuse them of genocide back! In other words, we are not concerned about whether we have committed wrong, we are only concerned with the wrong that is being committed against us by this recognition (to us "accusation"), and therefore we accuse them of the same -- even though these countries often already openly accept, discuss and have condemned whatever wrongs have been committed in the past by their own forebears because they are wrongs in themselves that deserve condemnation, regardless of whether it was their own countrymen who committed them or not.

But when it comes to our country, you'll find an overwhelming consensus that we are victims of French suppression of freedom of speech, when our own country is just asindeed far more sohorrific a violator of human rights standards and freedom of speech (e.g. Turkey ranks 154th in Reporters Without Borders' Press Freedom Index, France ranks 38). And yet, even if our government didn't actively and mercilessly try to suppress and silence opposition and criticism (which it does), the sad truth is that the majority of our news media (and public) would still see things the same way, according to this kind of solipsistic ethical viewpoint. In other words, ethical solipsism seems to be ingrained in our culture.

So what to do? Maybe we can't change the predominant mindset over night, but those who have the capacity (everyone has the capacity, perhaps propensity is a better word) must practice ethical autonomy in the face of an increasingly totalitarian, dictatorial and solipsistic ruling elite; in the face of an increasingly less critical, cowed, silent and self-censoring media; in the face of an increasingly marginalized opposition; in the face of fewer and fewer outlets for free speech and critique; in the face of a growing intolerance of opposing viewpoints from an increasingly nationalistic and religious conservative discourse in politics, society and the media.

But what does ethical autonomy mean exactly? It could mean this:

- It means applying your own ethical standards to the world around you, and shunning the ones that are being forced upon you for the purpose of making you condone the perpetuation of crimes on the part of megalomaniacal and psychopathic institutions that have been corrupted in their pursuit of power through profit or riches or blood or domination.

- It means questioning any and all absolutes and eschewing any world view that uses black-and-white dichotomized expressions to justify the perpetuation of crimes committed against others (e.g. martyr/terrorist).

- It means dropping mainstream media and seeking information from alternative sources, sources that have relatively very limited or no ideological or power interests to promote, cover-up, propagandize or sell.

- It means seeing right for right, good for good, wrong for wrong, by no other standards but your own, from no other but your gut.

- It means applying an ethical magnifying glass to everything. It means sniffing out the turns of phrase and corruptions of language by which lies are sold, it means dragging them out of the equation, and it means not only seeing, but also uncovering and extracting the inherent hypocrisies of all absolutist totalitarian viewpoints.

- Most importantly, it means being a human being first and foremost. It means loyalty to humanity before loyalty to nationality.