Vanity thought #1350. PENalizing a trophy

While discussing Garland shootings I feel I must also mention recent American PEN award (PEN is the biggest writers association) for courage given to the editors of Charlie Hebdo magazine. Every major news outlet did, after all, so it must be important.

The main story is very simple – Charlie Hebdo staff paid the ultimate price for freedom of speech, those who took their torch from their hands didn’t deviate from the course, and so Charlie Hebdo label has become synonymous with courage in journalism. Millions of people marched across the world in support of Charlie Hebdo, and many protested against it, too, but not in the West, so why would American writers, of all places, refuse to recognize this award, boycott the award gala, and issue a public statement about it?

This kind of thing is exactly what I meant the other day when I said that regarding Charlie Hebdo people only agree on that they shouldn’t have been killed but beyond that there’s no unified reaction. Over two hundred writers, some apparently big names in the literary world, expressed their opposition to rewarding Charlie Hebdo and that came as a bit of a shock to libertarians everywhere. They did not see that coming.

Here you can read their open letter. Note that it’s Greenwald’s site, who is the journalist who broke out Edward Snowden story. He is also gay with all that follows, in case devotees would want to count him among our allies. Sometimes we can have strange bedfellows, pardon the pun.

The reactions to it that I’ve read so far kind of misread the argument, took only a part of it and diverted it onto a familiar track – Muslims should not be given a special position and special protection, and also free speech, end of story. This debate is boring and unproductive and it misses a chance to think outside the box here.

The PEN dissenters do not assault freedom of speech, they are all for it, what they say, however, is that respecting freedom of speech and validating hate speech are not the same, and therefore Charlie Hebdo shouldn’t be rewarded for what they did to Muslims. They wanted clarity on what Charlie Hebdo is being glorified for – for their courage or for their attacks on Islam.

They also say that in Europe Muslims are a disenfranchised minority that can’t really stand up for itself and attacking them therefore is just mean, it’s bullying. Perhaps western audiences are led to believe that Muslims run the show there and sharia law has taken over Europe but that’s not how Muslims there see themselves. They do not have economical, political, or cultural clout, they are poor and unemployed, they live in practically ghettos, and therefore they deserve protection from the media instead of making them a target.

That’s an interesting take on the situation and it goes to the root of the role the media should play in a society, according to western ideas. Media was supposed to be the tool for little men standing up to big men and it should level the field. Media is supposed to keep powers that be in check, not go after ordinary, voiceless people. PEN dissenters said that attacking Muslims is big men punching little men down and therefore it shouldn’t rewarded.

This reminds me of an article I read in the wake of Charlie Hebdo shootings by a British satirist who was at a loss of words. Should Muslims be a legitimate object of satire? The traditional definition is that satire should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted but in case of European Muslims it does exactly the opposite. And if it does so, should it be still called satire? Or is it plain bullying?

Note that all these arguments come from western platform itself, the one that values freedom of speech above all, but then it runs into a dead end because this freedom runs counteractive to what it was supposed to achieve in the first place – protection for the minorities. This baby Frankenstein has all grown up and is ready to consume its creators now.

What started as a legitimate struggle for justice and fairness, the only remaining virtue in Kali Yuga, got corrupted and subjugated and looks nothing but fair. It started with protecting everyone’s rights against unjust oppression but ended with forcing minority to abandon its beliefs. Muslims have to be exactly like westerners now and they have no right to practice their religion in peace anymore, they are forced to contend with perpetual insults and abuse.

When the struggle for fairness fails it no longer works as protecting dharma and therefore it won’t bring auspicious karma. In the last couple of hundred years since Enlightenment this struggle for justice has brought visible dividends in the form of material progress – following dharma always pays – but if honesty and truthfulness are no longer there then good karma will stop coming and Kali will completely take over. Honesty is the last pillar of dharma, after all.

Another interesting observation about satire directed at Muslims is that it doesn’t elicit laughs. When someone draws a greedy politician then everyone knows that greed is bad and if it’s also funny people will appreciate it. When westerners attack Muslim prophet they do it on basis of values not shared by Muslims themselves. Westerners can still laugh, of course, but it goes straight past the intended target. Corrupt politicians understand what corruption is and they understand satire against it, probably even agree with it, especially in principle, but Muslims do not share in “everyone is equal, no one is above others, and so everyone could be subjected to ridicule” idea. Not when it comes to their prophet who is beyond reproach.

Westerners have their own taboos in the same category, too. Imagine someone comes up to you says “let’s make jokes your mother’s sexual appetite”. We don’t do that, so “let’s not, why would you even think it would be funny or appropriate? Are you nuts?”

Satirizing Muslims, therefore, is not as straightforward as satirizing politicians, or even Christians. Christians used to rule the world and set the tone for public discussion, they set the morals, they still preach the morals, so catching them on deviating from their own preaching is acceptable. They would understand that, even if jokes about altar boys are getting a bit long in the tooth now. “Yes, we did that and we shouldn’t have, so it’s a fair game” – that’s their typical attitude, but it doesn’t work on Muslims.

Muslims never said “our prophet is only a human, with all kinds of human faults, and so he should be treated like one of us”. If they did and then put Muhammad on a pedestal then criticism could be warranted, otherwise it is not.

That’s why they consider it a hate speech while westerners insist it’s satire – two groups have vastly different backgrounds and vastly different values. Both are right in their own way, as westerners do not mean to hate neither Muhammad nor Muslims in general, but it still perceived as abusive and insulting.

The world is a very complicated place, very diverse, so instead of taking sides and assigning blame it would serve us well to see how everyone simply acts according to his own conditioning. No one is guilty of anything, it’s just modes of nature having fun with us all. Well, we could say that we all are guilty of turning away from Kṛṣṇa but that’s about it, after that the material nature takes over, we just sit and watch.


Vanity thought #1251. Blasphemy

I just checked devotees’ response to Charlie Hebdo killings and was left slightly disappointed. The Pope did it better – he said that if one insults his mother he should expect a punch.

Those who considered his response inappropriate relied on the basic premise that Pope should not punch people and violence should never be an answer. That was disappointing, too, because the Pope wasn’t talking in general, his exact words were referring to a man standing right by his side: “If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch.” How friends interact with each other should not be taken as a rule for treating strangers.

Most, though, got the gist and understood the premise – you cannot insult feelings of others and expect nothing in return. Whether people agreed or disagreed with this statement it is a different matter.

I wanted to say a few more words on the freedom of speech. First, let me repeat myself and say that freedom of speech is never under any threat, it’s provided by demigods just as air and water. Unless they block one’s ability to speak freedom of speech will be there. What the advocates really mean is two things – freedom to publicize their speech and freedom from negative reactions.

Freedom to publicize usually means freedom to use other people’s means, ie media. This freedom does not exist because the owners of publicizing platform will always, always have a say in the content of their medium. They might agree or disagree, promote or block, but they will always have some degree of control. What freedom of speech advocates really want is that this inherent censorship should not be exercised towards them but applied towards others.

There probably are some die hard libertarians who would insist on no boundaries whatsoever but these people are extremely rare, usually have no decision making powers, and they are being contrarian just for the sake of it. We are not going to see their ideas implemented in general societies in our lifetimes so we can discount them altogether.

So, for freedom of speech advocates it’s a judgment call – what should be allowed to say in public and what shouldn’t. They consider their judgment to be correct and they do not think much about judgment of others. They are right and everybody else is wrong and at no time the possibility of being mistaken enters their minds.

Second aspect of freedom of speech is freedom from negative reactions. Reactions will always be there, every word has consequences, even if spoken in private, even if it’s simply a thought in one’s head. We say that in Kali Yuga, unlike previous ages, thoughts are not considered sins but that is not the whole picture. Yes, a thought might not be punished by the law of karma but it doesn’t mean it has no effect whatsoever. One thought always leads to another or is deposited into one’s memory and then recalled – it always influences our future thinking. Thoughts also always lead to actions, especially when take in aggregation and over a long enough period of time. Thoughts give us our next bodies, after all.

So, absolute freedom from reactions is impossible, but that’s only half the issue because what the FOS promoters want is freedom from *negative* reactions.

Every time they publish something they expect some results. Sense of satisfaction, pride in their work, recognition by the public, monetary compensation etc. Those are perfectly acceptable and very welcome, they want to legalize against negatives only. If you ask them what they thought should be done about negative outcomes they would probably say that the offended party should just cease and desist, crawl in a hole and never bother them back.

Some would say that they do not mind the blowback in the form of similar mockery, they don’t mind cartoons of themselves, they don’t mind equal insults. Sounds right but the key here is “they don’t mind”. Any response is deemed acceptable as long as it doesn’t really bother them. Why do they mind being killed, for example? Would they mind being tortured? Would they mind being jailed? Would they mind being fired? Would they mind being ostracized by people they were expecting praise from? Would they mind a huge financial penalty? Would they mind a small fine?

There always is a line that they would not allow to cross and any kind of response beyond it would be unacceptable.

I think it should be obvious by now that this “free speech” idea is a childish nonsense, it has no absolute rules and depends on promoters’ personal interests. Foolishly, they want to protect themselves from the law of karma, like that is ever going to work.

One phrase that was in my local paper illustrates it well. When a teacher in one French school tried to organize the minute of silence in memory of Charlie Hebdo victims some kids said “they had it coming.” It’s obvious even to the children but the FOS advocates are so intoxicated by their delusion that they don’t see it. Well, karma tends to work itself around such infantilism, French laws are not going to stop her.

Back to Pope – some objected to his reaction by saying it was a very unChristian thing to do, that Christians should turn the other cheek. This is totally missing the point. It’s an instruction on how to react when *your* cheek has been slapped, not somebody else’s. If you see someone hit a child you do not turn the kid over and beg the abuser to continue.

The Pope wasn’t saying he’d punch anyone who insults him, he said he’d protect his mother. Protecting those who can’t protect themselves is as Christian as it going to get. I think this point should be very obvious but it isn’t. People who understand it regarding Pope’s mother do not show the same understanding regarding Muslims’ prophet.

I’ve yet to see public recognition that Muslims reacted with such anger not due to personal offenses but due to offenses against others. If Muhammad was around they would have probably followed his cue but he isn’t. Not only he cannot personally protect himself from blasphemy, he can’t also forgive, which is an important point for Muslims because without forgiveness there’s no way of avoiding prescribed death penalty. This sounds medieval but only because the word “death” is involved, the principle itself is widely understood in Christianity and in our tradition as well.

If you offend a vaiṣṇava and have no opportunity to beg for his forgiveness you are finished. Truly. You’d have to wait until the material nature brings you together again, possibly in the next lifetime. It’s a bit easier because in Kṛṣṇa consciousness we are not so much dependent on external bodily forms but Islam has no such leeway, if Muhammad is dead it’s over, there could be no forgiveness and punishment is the only answer.

I’m not sure if you could pray to Muhammad but I’m positive that Charlie Hebdo cartoonists never considered such an option and the possibility was not entertained by their killers either.

Devotees’ response to blasphemy should be more nuanced, not because we are “better” but because we know our tradition better than we know Christianity or Islam, but I’ll probably speak about it tomorrow.

Vanity thought #1240. Thankfully, not alone

For a while now I have been pessimistic about future of our world. Intractable problems pop up everywhere and there seems to be no way out of it. Some have been predicting the end of the world for years now but if it’s a train wreck in motion, it’s a very slow one.

2008 economic crisis didn’t kill us and unconventional post-crisis actions also didn’t have as devastating effect as predicted. Dollar didn’t crush, the US didn’t lose her crown, Chinese are slowing down, Islam didn’t take over the world, the West didn’t die, the status quo is practically the same. People all around me do not see things going to dogs at all, life is hard but still full of hope. Things will work out, sanity will prevail, and world peace is just around the corner.

So I suspected that I gave in to old age, or got enclosed in my own bubble, hearing only echoes of my own thoughts, or that I invested myself too much into these views and won’t let them go against all evidence. In any case, it’s bad. Not just because it makes me look foolish and repetitive but because my intelligence seems to be affected, and we can’t get anywhere with weak intelligence in our spiritual lives.

Some have good, reliable hearts, I’m not one of them. Some have tons of determination, that’s not me either. Some have good association and full support of the community, not me really. It so happens that I have to rely on my own intelligence to stay afloat in my spiritual attempts. I have to personally discriminate between what is favorable and what is unfavorable for my service, I have to discriminate between various sources of inspiration, too. I need my wits around me, they are my only tool to stay connected to Lord Caitanya’s mercy. One foolish move, one careless offense, and I’ll be buried in illusion forever, I have not time to get lost and climb back, life is too short to make mistakes.

So I naturally worry that my intelligence might be failing me. If it fails in one area, it can fail anywhere else, too, I need a validation to go on. Luckily, I found it, in another geopolitical analysis of the recent Charlie Hebdo‘s massacre by George Friedman.

He makes a lot of interesting points and connections between history and modern day but details are not important. What I liked about his piece is that he admitted he doesn’t see a way out. There are choices to be made but none of them is good, it’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. Islam and Christianity, or rather its spiritual successor – secularism, are coming head to head and it seems nothing can stop the inevitable collision.

He starts by saying that Charlie Hebdo galvanized the world and galvanized public is dangerous. Last Sunday French held massive demonstrations in support of free speech and free thinking. I wouldn’t dare to say anything against that crowd, their slogans not-withstanding. The examples of danger of disagreeing with proponents of free thinking came right away.

French comedian of Muslim extraction has been detained for a post on his Facebook page. Long live freedom of speech! Poor dude said something about one of the terrorists that went against the prevailing mood and was immediately sanctioned for it. Some said something in his defense but the Prime Minister and Le Monde immediately got on his case and said that freedom of speech should not be confused with anti-Semitism, racism and Holocaust denial, that it was limited by French law, and did not extend to incitement to hatred or racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia.

Muslims are okay, though, by French standards they are like Ubermensch for Nazis, insulting them is a noble thing to do.

It was the same thing with that movie The Interview about assassination of North Korean Kin Jong Un. Presidents and world leaders get killed in the movies all the time but they are always fictional characters, not actual people. There was only one movie where G.W.Bush was assassinated and this is what Hillary Clinton had to say about it: “I think it’s despicable. I think it’s absolutely outrageous. That anyone would even attempt to profit on such a horrible scenario makes me sick.” (Source) That chubby Asian dictator is a fair game, though, it’s perfectly okay to profit from him, he is not really human, right? Right?

Anyway, the new issue of Charlie Hebdo is out and they sure put Muhammad on the cover again. French might be clear about it but the rest of the world is not. In Europe the cover cartoon was widely reprinted but that was not he case anywhere else. Danish newspaper who started the whole affair with anti-Muhammad cartoons in 2006 didn’t print it. In the UK only one major daily printed it, BBC didn’t show it, others either cropped Muhammad out or put a big disclaimer. Same story was in the US with NYTimes, for example, providing only a link to the site where people could view the original, not the cartoon itself.

Muslim leaders in Europe came forward to ask for peace, understanding and tolerance. I don’t know what effect it would have, perhaps some would call them sellouts, perhaps some would understand their message as a call to a long-term struggle against the infidels. Time will tell.

ATM, no one knows what to do with Muslims in Europe. There are millions of them, should they all be held responsible, as Rupert Murdoch said in his widely discussed tweets? Murdock owns a media empire controlling much of the public discussion in both the US and the UK, in case you don’t know. Lots of people mocked him for that statement but polls showed that supporters of this idea and its opponents are split almost equally.

What will happen to Muslims now? One choice is to leave things as they are and simply tolerate occasional sparks of terrorist violence, another choice is to go hard after them. Neither is acceptable. So far people demand moderate Muslims to speak up against terrorism, and many oblige, but what would be the practical effect of this? There already are voices saying that they are apologizing for things they have nothing to do with. They won’t continue in this vein for much longer.

Trying to separate bad Muslims from good ones is also impossible. They are calling for war on radical Islam but no one knows what exactly it looks like. They are not wearing uniforms, you know. Policemen walking the streets and making judgment calls will most certainly get it wrong and real terrorists will strike randomly and without anyone stopping them, so the society will likely to be forced to deal with violence after the fact.

Muslims themselves, of course, should be able to tell who in their ranks is likely to resort to violence and there are calls for Muslims to police themselves, but what if they don’t? They most likely won’t, except, perhaps, paying the idea a lip service.

Another problem is European multiculturalism which in this case means that Muslims stay together and refuse to share traditional French values, and French themselves do not see them as “Europeans”, too. Muslims came to France for money, not to become French, and national identity in Europe is closely connected to one’s birthplace, one’s ethnicity, one’s people’s history, and therefore Muslims will never become part of French identity, they will always be different. It’s easier in the US because of the ethnically agnostic “American Dream”. EU was supposed to be an equivalent of that but Muslims are not buying it so far.

Now it’s too late to do anything about it, public’s insistence on ridiculing their faith is not going to endear French to Muslim hearts, and the same thing repeats itself across Europe.

And so bit by bit, step by step, the world is heading for an imminent disaster. Russians and the new Cold War, Iran and its nukes, ISIL in Iraq and Syria, and now Muslim extremism in Europe, Palestinian problem going nowhere – people are increasingly drawn into incompatible and very combative camps. World peace is not an option.

I might still be wrong about this but at least I have a company now, so my mind isn’t really failing me yet, which is a good news. Now, knowing that the world is heading for a confrontation between two equally bad sides, it should be easier to chart my own course. A short talk with practically anybody can reveal which way that persons leans to and the beauty of this situation is that all views and values behind them are to be rejected. It should be easier to stop myself from sympathizing and keep my nose clean.

It’s actually a very practical advice – just recently I heard a devotee deliver a long anti-American diatribe, which is not uncommon in ISKCON at all. Now I know where these people are coming from and I know to stay clear, it should help, otherwise I just wasted 1500 words on nothing, which isn’t unusual but still unwelcome.

Vanity thought #1237. Pens, swords, and death

Charlie Hebdo massacre revitalized debates about liberty, freedom of speech, responsibility, civility, protections etc. One good question to start from – why did these two brothers choose their course of action? Why weren’t they satisfied with legal recourse available to French citizens?

Apparently, in France they had none. One way or another, when it comes to ridiculing people’s faith, Muslims always draw a short straw there. Perhaps they could have explored legal avenues to address their grievances but it seems the system is designed in such a way as to discourage such litigation. Society was firmly on cartoonists side and, coupled with perceived injustice and image of victim-hood, I think it’s understandable that these two decided to take matter into their own hands.

Now we see them as monsters, but does it mean that the massacre couldn’t have been prevented? That they always had been monsters, it’s just that no one realized how bad they were? At this point it looks like French society is not going to assume any responsibility for driving disaffected Muslims to extremism. This reaction is totally understandable, too. People on all sides act according to their nature and thousands and millions of words said on the matter don’t really change anything.

Perhaps it’s time to re-examine some of the more prominent liberal values forced on the public. Let’s start with old Voltaire’s declaration that he might disagree with someone but would fight to death for that person’s right to speak his mind. It forms the cornerstone of any discussion on freedom of speech – the right to say whatever you want must be upheld at all cost, and whatever inconveniences occasional hate speech might cause must be tolerated.

Well, Voltaire said this two and a half centuries ago, the West has fully democratized itself since, and yet this particular freedom is still restricted by all kinds of defamation or straight-forward blasphemy laws, or at least by severe social sanctions. Proponents, however, tend to ignore that and assert this dictum as self evident truth. It isn’t, and it should be challenged.

Consider what it means practically. No one, save for controlling demigods, can take away your right of speech. Anyone can say anything they want at any time. This right is never under threat, what FOS people mean is the guaranteed absence of negative reactions. What they mean is “I should be able to say anything and nothing bad would happen to me”. This is impossible, of course. We don’t even need to bring up the law of karma to demonstrate that it would never work. Go ahead, try it on your wife or your boss. Words always have consequences, it’s a law of any interpersonal relationships.

FOS people realize this, of course, and so they imply that there’s limited application to Voltaire’s statement – it’s meant for public debates where all sides must agree to a certain code of conduct. Whatever is said in such forums should not be subjected to sanctions. I don’t know if exact rules are defined anywhere, some might not even realize they exist, but there’s an interesting extension to the modern day internet discussions – no doxing, which means no disclosing of personally identifiable information beyond what is presented by users themselves. Internet wars are not to be taken outside of their context, everybody realizes that things can turn very ugly very fast if people get persecuted in their real lives for their virtual reality comments. Point is, Voltaire’s freedom of speech stance was meant for certain context only, not for EVERY kind of communication.

What’s get lost on FOS brigade is that Muslims and religious people in general are not interested in that kind of debates whatsoever. As I said yesterday, blasphemy, for example, is not up for discussion, and neither is existence of God. There are forums where religious people volunteer to discuss these topics but they are very limited in scope and number. Rest assured, a magazine appearing on your newsstand is not part of those forums. Muslims or any other religious people will not treat it the same way they would treat a speaker in televised debate or even in an online forum where everyone must first tick user agreement and thus give their consent to everything that falls within stated rules. No one asked Muslims if there were ready to see anti-Muhammad cartoons, they appeared completely uninvited and without any disclaimers.

Historically, FOS people accept media as part of public forums covered by FOS rules but Muslims do not see it that way, and there is a historical reason for this – French Revolution itself. Muslims weren’t there, whatever came as a result of it was simply forced on them as a matter of fact. French fought long and hard to define the role of mass media in their society, Muslims, however, are new arrivals with their own ideas and expectations. This naturally leads to demands that they must accept rules and customs of the French society if they choose to immigrate there.

I don’t know the answer to that dilemma. Demands are demands, the world doesn’t move by demands alone, perhaps a renegotiation of the social contract is in order. Perhaps it can be done peacefully, perhaps it needs another bloody revolution.

Speaking of blood – another thing that FOS people miss is that Voltaire lived BEFORE the revolution. He didn’t get to live through the Reign of Terror, he died some fifteen years earlier. During Reign of Terror tens of thousands of people were executed in public squares in the name of freedom and liberty, and, in a way, for the right of the victors to say whatever they wanted without fear of retribution. Jacobins, who perpetrated it, obviously thought that guillotine was mightier than any pens.

I’m sure there are other ways to look at it but this particular perspective is useful to highlight the hypocrisy of FOS team. Jacobins were not contemplating giving their lives for FOS rights, they were taking lives of their opponents instead, and these theme continued through the next two hundred years. More people are being killed to give them democracy than by all terrorist attacks combined.

The underlying reason for this is simple – atheists are all for freedom of thought as long as these thoughts are atheist. They cannot contemplate the possibility that their world view might be incorrect, and they won’t accept the right of religions to exist. They, of course, will deny having such extreme views, but their denial is valid only in the sphere of the afore-mentioned public discourse. Religious views are tolerated only for their academic value, there’s no way atheists would allow actual society operate according to religious philosophy.

They unquestionably assume that society must be secular and rational as opposed to religious and based on faith. They cannot contemplate the possibility of them being wrong and religions being right, nor can they allow religious societies their right to exist outside hypothetical arguments, for real. In their view, all Islamic countries must eventually become secular, just like the West. There should be no freedom to practice any other way of development.

This contradiction between demand for freedom of speech and denial of freedom to live does not go unnoticed by Muslims and even by Christians. All governments everywhere must pay homage to liberal democracy. Usually they do it in exchange for a temporary reprieve, hoping that they are not next in line for a “regime change” and that they do not come in liberal democrats’ cross-hairs. They would plead special circumstances and beg for a special friend status or give promises of democratic reforms. I would argue that there isn’t a single religious government in the world that feels completely safe. With falling oil prices even Gulf states will soon discover how vulnerable they actually are.

The best strategy for all religious governments everywhere is to fly under the radar and hope Uncle Sam doesn’t look your way, that is just simple geopolitical reality these days.

It all leads to the need to think carefully about future co-existence between secular democratic and “tyrannical” religious states and their peoples. Sadly, the world seems to be pushed towards an angry confrontation instead. Kali Yuga rules, and there’s nothing we can do about it but to escape it altogether. The world WILL go down the drain, we just have to make sure we do not get trapped in it.

As with any other such discussion, the result should be the conclusion that intelligent thing to do would be to bail and seriously take to chanting. I think we should rethink our mission, too – are we here to change the course of Kali Yuga and therefore strive to create a better world, or are we here to take as many people as possible on the chanting train and let the world go wherever it is it’s heading, even if it’s to its doom.