Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Ayaan Hirsi Ali - Heretic - Chapter 4: Those Who Love Death: Islam's Fatal Focus on the Afterlife

I'm now looking at more articles linked to by #GenerationCaliphate, and I've just read an article by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, namely, chapter 4 of her book Heretic, in which she argues that an obsession with death permeates Islam - a fear of Hell's fire, a longing for the virgins of Paradise - especially among Islamists, I presume, for we constantly hear their spokesmen insisting that they love death more than we love life, an irreconcilable difference between Islamists and us, but anyway, here's what Hirsi Ali says:
If you want to understand the completely irreconcilable difference I am talking about [between Muslims and Westerners], you need only compare two groups of people: the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks, flying their hijacked planes into the World Trade Center, and the New York City firefighters running up the stairs of the burning Twin Towers, determined to save whoever they could, regardless of the risk to their own lives. The West has a tradition of risking death in the hope of saving life. Islam teaches that there is nothing so glorious as taking an infidel's life - and so much the better if the act of murder costs you your own life. (Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Heretic, 116-117)
This contrast by Hirsi Ali will become more clear if you read the article itself, which is found here. She explains her view that Islam is obsessed with the inevitability of death and Allah's judgement, an obsession that she claims to know not only from her own experience growing up Muslim, but also from her work with Muslim refugees in the Netherlands and her serious study of Islam's central texts after 9/11.

Anyway, take a look at what she has to say.

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Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Generation Caliphate: Links to Articles on Islamism's Apocalyptic Vision

Let me draw your attention to a recent conference on a widely ignored factor in Islamism and Islamism's appeal among Muslims: Islam's apocalyptic dreams. Here's the announcement:
#GenerationCaliphate: Apocalyptic Hopes, Millennial Dreams and Global Jihad

May 3-4, 2015, Boston University

Sponsored by the Center for Millennial Studies, Boston University History Department and Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

Most Westerners associate the terms apocalyptic and millennial (millenarian) with Christian beliefs about the endtime. Few even know that Muhammad began his career as an apocalyptic prophet predicting the imminent Last Judgment. And yet, for the last thirty years, a wide-ranging group of militants, both Sunni and Shi'i, both in coordination and independently, have, under the apocalyptic belief that now is the time, pursued the millennial goal of spreading Dar al Islam to the entire world. In a manner entirely in keeping with apocalyptic beliefs, but utterly counter-intuitive to outsiders, these Jihadis see the Western-driven transformation of the world as a vehicle for their millennial beliefs, or, to paraphrase Eusebius on the relationship between the Roman Empire and Christianity: Praeparatio Califatae.

The apocalyptic scenario whereby this global conquest takes place differs from active transformative (the West shall be conquered by Da'wa [summons]) to active cataclysmic (bloody conquest). Western experts have until quite recently, for a wide range of reasons, ignored this dimension of the problem. And yet, understanding the nature of global Jihad in terms of the dynamics of apocalyptic millennial groups may provide an important understanding, both to their motivations, methods, as well as their responses to the inevitable disappointments that await all such believers.
The conference is over, but this site offers links to related articles by some of the speakers, and here's a foretaste of one of the related articles, this one by Paul Berman:
Why . . . do people who are not clinically insane throw themselves into this kind of [Islamist] insanity? Why do they do so even in the world's wealthiest and most peaceful of countries? They do so because the apocalyptic dreams and the cult of hatred and murder and the yearning for death are fundamentals of modern culture. They enlist because they are unhappy, and the eschatological rebellion against everyday morality satisfies them. The Islamist idea, in its most extreme version especially, offers every solace that a mopey young person could desire. It proposes an explanation of unhappiness. It ascribes the alienation to a conspiracy. Its stipulation of Jewish evil justifies the joys of loathing and murder. It promises a radiant future. (Paul Berman, "Why Is the Islamist Death Cult So Appealing? Explaining Sayyid Qutb, Bin Laden, Djamel Beghal, Chérif Kouachi, Amedy Coulibaly, Hayat Boumeddienne, and those yet to come," Tablet, January 28, 2015)
Berman is good at drawing links back to the Western Fascism of the 1930s - hence his reference to modern culture as a source of Islamism. This claim makes more sense if you've read a bit more of Berman's books and articles, and he certainly doesn't downplay Islam's own central texts and their role in generating Islamism. But I put more emphasis upon Islam's early texts than he does.

Anyway, read the entire article to judge for yourself.

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Monday, May 04, 2015

Nukain Mabuza, Outsider Artist

Nukain Mabuza
Painting a Boulder in the Mid-1970s
Credit Rene Lion-Cachet, via JFC Clarke

From Roslyn Sulcas, I learned of another outsider artist, Mr. Nukain Mabuza, in her article "Athol Fugard Tells of a Great Outsider Artist" (NYT, April 29, 2015), and she says:
The story of Mr. Mabuza, who committed suicide in 1981 after abruptly leaving his home and painted garden the previous year, is a sad and sketchy one.

Born in Mozambique, he moved across the border to South Africa in the 1950s in search of work, eventually settling on a farm called Esperado in 1965. He began to decorate his own dwelling and the stones around him, helped by the farm's owner, who bought him paint. Eventually, the rocks, visible from a passing road, became a tourist attraction, though Mr. Mabuza, who lived alone, never charged people to enter or to take photos.

"The idea of outsider art didn't exist at the time," said J. F. C. Clarke, an artist and photographer whose book "The Painted Stone Garden of Nukain Mabuza" is the only comprehensive written and photographic account of the work, which has never been maintained and is now badly sun-damaged on a derelict site. "He was a humble man, but completely obsessed in a way that is different from the obsession of a mainstream artist. Whatever kind of psychological or psychiatric state it was, he was able to turn nonarable land of no value to anyone into something of immense value to himself."
He was "obsessed in a way . . . different from the obsession of a mainstream artist"? What about Vincent van Gogh? He was obsessive and even cut off his right ear, eventually committing suicide. But he's a mainstream artist. Or?

When Clarke says that no concept of "outsider art" existed then, I assume he meant in the 50s and 60s, for by the 70s there was a book on the very subject.

Anyway, here's a website on Nukain Mabuza.


Sunday, May 03, 2015

Paul McCartney - Out There Tour

My family and I did something together yesterday evening. We attended Paul McCartney's Out There Tour concert held in Seoul's Jamsil Olympic Stadium, and I actually had a great time. I generally steer clear of big events because I'm a little-events kind of guy, but my offspring really wanted to go, and since we had four tickets, I went along. My wife took a few photos as proof:

None of us are in the photo here, but it does serve as evidence, I hope . . . Next, inside Jamsil Olympic Stadium:

I think that's Paul on the big screens. Here's another shot:

A lot of lights! There were even fireworks at one point during the show - exploding into the sky to the tune of "Live and Let Die"! But we were so enthralled to the multicolored lights shooting into the heavens that we took no photos. Finally, here I am:

And that's all for today . . .

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Saturday, May 02, 2015

David Mitchell offers an amusing little critique of his own writing

David Mitchell
Illustration by Sachin Teng

The illustration above by Sachin Teng is borrowed from James Wood's plot-spoiler review in the New Yorker (September 8, 2014) of David Mitchell's most recent literary work, The Bone Clocks: A Novel (September 2, 2014).

In Bone Clocks, Mitchell creates a writer, Crispin Hershey, who has written a novel titled Echo Must Die and whose literary style is modeled after Mitchell's . . . or rather that Mitchell creates a literary critic named Richard Cheeseman who parodies Hershey's style, by which the critic's writing is therefore a parody of Mitchell's style:
"So why is Echo Must Die such a decomposing hog? One: Hershey is so bent on avoiding cliché that each sentence is as tortured as an American whistleblower. Two: The fantasy subplot clashes so violently with the book's State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look. Three: What surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?" (Mitchell, The Bone Clocks: A Novel, 294)
I read these words on my iPad around 5:20 Thursday morning as I stood on the platform at Mangu Station on the Jungang Line waiting for the subway train to Wangsimni Station. Why do I cite this so specifically? Because I want a precise record of the moment I noted this self-referencing moment in Mitchell's most recent novel. Why do I want that? I don't know. I'm a mystery to myself.

Self-parody aside, Mitchell's literary style skillfully avoids cliché, easily carries along an intriguing fantasy subplot, and creatively offers a well-rounded writer-character . . .

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Friday, May 01, 2015

Islamic Civilizational Meltdown?

Thomas Friedman

In an article titled "On Trade: Obama Right, Critics Wrong" (NYT, April 29, 2015) - and let's agree to ignore the title for a moment - Thomas L. Friedman offers an intriguing observation on the Muslim world, especially on the Arab Muslim world:
When you look at it from Europe - I've been in Germany and Britain the past week - you see a situation developing to the south of here that is terrifying. It is not only a refugee crisis. It's a civilizational meltdown: Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq - the core of the Arab world - have all collapsed into tribal and sectarian civil wars, amplified by water crises and other environmental stresses.

But - and this is the crucial point - all this is happening in a post-imperial, post-colonial and increasingly post-authoritarian world. That is, in this pluralistic region that lacks pluralism - the Middle East - we have implicitly relied for centuries on the Ottoman Empire, British and French colonialism and then kings and dictators to impose order from the top-down on all the tribes, sects and religions trapped together there. But the first two (imperialism and colonialism) are gone forever, and the last one (monarchy and autocracy) are barely holding on or have also disappeared.
I don't claim any expertise in economics and thus don't know if President Obama is right or not about trade, but I do dabble in history and cultural comparison, and I think that Friedman is either 100% right or 100% wrong on his warning of a "civilizational meltdown." Either we're watching the Islamic world's awful collapse, or we're watching its even more awful resurgence in its most virulent form as the Islamic State expands its influence in various parts of the Muslim Ummah.

What should we do? How should we respond? I don't really know. Whether we do something or do nothing, things just seem to get worse. About all I can do is continue analyzing events . . .


Thursday, April 30, 2015

Technophilia and Technophobia

Alicia Vikander as Ava
Ex Machina
Film Directed by Alex Garland

In an article by Alex Garland, Mr. Garland (or maybe an editor) self-reflexively titles its title as "Alex Garland of 'Ex Machina' Talks About Artificial Intelligence" (NYT, April 22, 2015). I'm sometimes told that self-reflexivity is the basis for consciousness, but I can't quite see how that works. Somewhere between a thermostat and a robot, feedback mechanisms give rise to consciousness? Hmmm . . . But let's see what Mr. Garland has to say:
In the last few years, I've become increasingly fascinated by artificial intelligence, and in particular our escalating fear of it. It seemed to me that our increasingly holistic relationship with technology and abstract clouds of information was compounding this fear and perhaps edging it into paranoia.
Maybe so, but Mr. Garland's first example seems to suggest the opposite of technophobia:
These thoughts were crystallized while writing and directing the new film "Ex Machina." It tells the story of a young male coder in a tech company who is given the job of assessing the level of consciousness in a female-presenting robot called Ava. He's bewitched, gives up the day job and starts making plans to elope.
The young coder experiences not just technophilia, but even techno-erotica! But Mr. Garland finds a different man to cite, a man hugely dependent on technology who worries about smart machines:
The theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking told us that "the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race." Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla, told us that A.I. was "potentially more dangerous than nukes." Steve Wozniak, a co-founder of Apple, told us that "computers are going to take over from humans" and that "the future is scary and very bad for people."
So . . . not only Hawking - dependent as he is on high-tech machines - fears artificial intelligence, so do two others whose names are closely associated with the development of smart technology.

Maybe there is something to worry about . . . but Mr. Garland thinks not, as you'll see if you read on in his article.


Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Sick and Tired

That picture says it all and explains why there's no blog entry today . . .


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Islamists aren't the only 'fundamentalists' to worry about . . .

Sadhvi Deva Thakur

. . . for there are ladies like this Hindu politician:
Sadhvi Deva Thakur is a leader of All India Hindu Mahasabha, a leading Hindu organization in India. On April 11, 2015, she demanded that Muslims and Christians in India be forcibly sterilized, as they were during Emergency Rule in 1975, when such forced sterilizations were carried out. The following are excerpts from a media report: A leader of Hindu Mahasabha on Saturday [April 11, 2015] stoked a controversy saying Muslims and Christians must undergo sterilization to restrict their growing population which was posing a threat to Hindus . . . . [Specifically, she said,] "The population of Muslims and Christians is growing day by day. To rein in this, [the] Center [the federal Indian government] will have to impose emergency [rule], and Muslims and Christians will have to be forced to undergo sterilization so that they can't increase their numbers," vice president of All India Hindu Mahasabha, Sadhvi Deva Thakur told reporters . . . . [and] also exhorted Hindus to have more children and increase their population so as to have an effect on the world. In another controversial remark, she said that idols of Hindu gods and goddesses should be placed in mosques and churches. Thakur also came out strongly in support of installing a statue of 'patriot' Nathuram Godse [the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi] in Haryana [state near Delhi ruled by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi].
You can read even worse things by other radical Hindu nationalists in the same Memri Report (Special Dispatch No. 6033, April 26, 2015), e.g., "Today there is a need to dig up the [bodies of the Muslims' deceased] mothers, sisters and daughters from graves, and to rape them . . ."

What a horrifying thing to say! What's the world coming to?

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Monday, April 27, 2015

Karl Ove Knausgaard's struggle to recall . . .

Karl Ove Knausgaard
Photo by André Loyning

I've read only excerpts from Karl Ove Knausgaard's writings, but I've been sufficiently opinionated to blog on him, twice. Today makes thrice. What's next, "fierce"? Then "vice"?

Anyway, the novelist Jeffrey Eugenides, reviewing Don Bartlett's English translation of My Struggle, Book 4, has some interesting things to say in "Karl Ove ­Knausgaard's 'My Struggle: Book 4'" (NYT, April 23, 2015) - and I sound remarkably like a man repeating myself, though I beg to differ, for I am repeating others' words - but anyway, here's what Eugenides said, starting off with a quote:
"The last time I was in New York," Karl Ove ­Knausgaard wrote recently in The New York Times Magazine, in his account of traveling through the ­United States [with his family], "a well-known American writer invited me for lunch. . . . I tried desperately to think of something to say. We had to have something in common, we were about the same age, did the same thing for a living, wrote novels, though his were of considerably higher quality than mine. But no, I couldn't come up with a single topic of ­conversation. . . . When we got back to Sweden, I received an email from him. He apologized for having invited me to lunch, he had realized he never should have done it and asked me not to reply to his email. At first I didn't understand what he meant. . . . Then I ­realized he must have taken my silence personally. He must have thought I didn't find it worth my time talking to him."

Knausgaard doesn't reveal the identity of the American writer he had lunch with. But I will: It was me. I may be the first reviewer of Knausgaards autobiographical works who has appeared in one of them. Therefore, I'm in a perfect position to judge how he uses the stuff of his life to fashion his stories. Ever since Knausgaard turned me into a minor character, I have an inside track on what he's doing.
This should be interesting. Let's see:
[B]ack to my lunch with the largely silent author of these books. There is nothing factually incorrect about Knausgaard's account. But, on reading it, I saw what he was doing. Knausgaard wanted to draw a distinction between Scandinavians and Americans when it comes to small talk. In fact, the reason we couldn't talk to each other had less to do with cultural differences than with the fact that we are both nervous people with self-esteem problems who were uncomfortable in each other's presence. That didn't fit into Knausgaard's argument at that point in the article, however; and so, like any professional writer, he used the part of the story that served his need.

That's exactly what he does in "My Struggle." Knausgaard's life is a grab bag of events and recollections, and he uses whatever is handy. He doesn't lie or make things up (so far as I know). But the ­selection process he subjects his memories to in order to fulfill the narrative demands of his writing rises to a level of considerable artifice. Other writers invent; Knausgaard remembers. His raw materials are more authentic (maybe), but the products they create no less artful.
And there it is, Knausgaard's literary method: not lying, just selective editing. If we can believe Eugenides . . .