Bible  Comments Off on Immigrants
Aug 222016


There is no question that the Bible is full of bigoted remarks about foreigners, women, gays etc. and I’m certainly not going to support them here. They are used endlessly by so-called Christians to justify their endless malice and persecution. The Sermon on the Mount ought to be a potent counterweight for the modern Christian, but, in my experience, many people adopt their prejudices first and then use the Bible as their justification. I find that approach execrable. One thing the Bible is very clear about, however, is the status of immigrants in Israel – God’s Chosen Land for his Chosen People. Leviticus spells it out in no uncertain terms:

You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God (Leviticus 19:34).

No mincing words there. God is crystal clear. The people of Israel are to treat foreigners as if they were their own. It further states that they are to respect foreign religions and cultures. I would have thought that if this law were good enough for God’s Chosen, it ought to be good enough for the likes of Britain and the United States. Yet Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump reveal the opposite attitude, sometimes under the guise of Biblical teaching.

The bottom line is, “you were immigrants once, so respect others.” Let me shout out the hidden implications of that statement loud and clear – WE ARE ALL DESCENDANTS OF IMMIGRANTS. Unless you are directly descended from Homo erectus in east Africa (or for Genesis 2 literalists, born in the Garden of Eden), someone in your genealogical line migrated to where you were born. For people of European stock in the US, this fact is obvious, but Anglo-Saxons in England are not exempt, nor are Aborigines in Australia. I am perfectly in accord with the claims of indigenous groups all over the world that they should be treated fairly and compensated for their historic losses. But I don’t see anyone as getting a completely free pass. Rather, what we ought to be saying is that NO-ONE has absolute rights to any piece of land, and, therefore, we should all just try to get along on whatever parcel we happen to occupy. No one should be treated unfairly because they or their forebears came from another place – no one.

Among other things, this means that colonizers can neither make the claim that they can treat indigenous peoples unfairly because they now own the land (whether they got it in the first place fairly or otherwise), nor can the indigenous peoples make the claim that they were there first and it’s really theirs. In a lot of cases they weren’t the first there anyway. History is replete with the movement of peoples. By the time that the Spanish got to the New World all kinds of ethnic groups had come and gone. Nonetheless, this fact should NOT be a justification for the oppression of one over another.

Furthermore, sharing of ideas and resources is a good idea. Hybrid vigor is a good thing both physically and culturally. Hybridized stocks of plants and animals generally do better than single strains. Simple example: pedigree (pure bred) cats and dogs take more care and die younger on average than mutts. Inbreeding is not as harmful as people believe, but on average interbreeding is more successful. So too with cultures. Cultures can remain isolated and do very well for some time. But then problems arise. Cultures that learn from one another are stronger. Japan is a pretty obvious example. The Tokugawa shogunate imposed radical isolation on Japan from about 1633 to 1866. Traditional Japanese culture certainly flourished during the period of isolation, but developments in other parts of the world, notably the European Enlightenment and the First Industrial Revolution, passed Japan by completely. Now you can argue, and I certainly would, that the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution were not unalloyed blessings. But they happened. When Perry enforced an end to Japan’s isolation there were a lot of painful changes to come.

The US is a great crucible of cultural hybrid vigor. The banjo is a perfect example. It is the product of African and European instrument traditions coming together. Argentine tango is another hybrid. It was born in the slums of Buenos Aires where people of Italian, Spanish, African, and other heritages all lived and worked together. I suppose you can be iffy about the banjo, but surely not tango. If neither please you, how about jazz, rock and roll, quilts, rocking chairs . . . and on and on. We are all immigrants and our cultures are all hybrids. Get used to it.

The Other

 Philosophy  Comments Off on The Other
Aug 072016


In my last post on the supernatural I spoke about the general desire for humans to distinguish between nature and culture – that is, the drive for people to want to separate human endeavor from nature, even though humans are obviously part of nature. We can subsume this discussion under the general topic of Self and Other which is a mainstay of Western psychology and philosophy. I’ll give my usual disclaimer at the outset. What follows is highly simplistic. I know the issues have been fought over for centuries, and the results are extremely complicated. But there are some root questions that can be raised, nonetheless.

The most basic question is, “What is the Other?” The answer depends entirely on context. In the current political climate in the U.S. and the U.K. “the Other” is general code for “immigrants who aren’t like me.” In this context there are shades of “Other.” “The Other” can differ from ME in having a different skin color, speaking a different language, or looking markedly different in some distinctive way, such as clothing. What things count as markers of “Other” change over time, of course. In the 19th century in the U.S. being Irish marked you as “Other,” but now people of Irish descent have been thoroughly assimilated into the mainstream, and groups such as Mexicans and Muslims are now branded as “Other.”

Beyond questions of nationality and immigration there are also issues of gender, sexual orientation, and the like. Whether it be Hegel, Marx, Freud, Sartre, de Beauvoir, or Lévi-Strauss, Western philosophers and social scientists down to the more modern Lacan, Lévinas, Derrida, et al. want to see the impulse to divide the world into Self and Other as fundamental and universal. Freud, for example, saw the individual’s drive from birth to separate itself from the rest of the world (Me versus the Other) as essential in the development of the ego. In the womb we are physically conjoined to our mothers so that we cannot distinguish ourselves from our environment. But once the umbilical cord is cut we begin the process of crafting ourselves as unique egos separate from “the Other.”

Some social scientists, however, notably Durkheim and Weber, were acutely aware that human behavior cannot be entirely explained by individual actions, and the development of individual egos. Culture steps in and shapes our actions. Even Freud was forced to admit this when he hypothesized the development of the superego. A collective consciousness, or invisible hand, or something, brings us together so that we act in unison, even while asserting our individuality. What emerges is a constant tug of war between the desire to be part of a collective and the desire to be an individual. In some cultures the collective is dominant, in some, the individual. But this is all Western thinking. Traditional Eastern philosophy is quite different.

The old joke about the Buddhist monk and the hot dog seller aside, one of the Buddha’s key tenets is that the separation of Self and Other is normal and in some ways practical, but ultimately damaging. The zen goal is to see the fundamental interconnectedness of everything, and, hence, become one with everything – to merge the Self with the Other. This act is the complete opposite of Western action and Western experience. It goes against the grain in the Eastern world too at a general level, but at least some parts of Eastern philosophy are moving in the opposite direction from the West.

On a really basic and practical level it would help us a great deal if we stopped thinking of the world as divided up into discrete units, but instead started thinking about the interconnectedness of everything. That way we wouldn’t pollute so unthinkingly or waste food effortlessly. But that’s just the smallest of the pieces of the puzzle. That’s just thinking of interrelatedness in a purely cognitive and logical way. Feeling oneness in a spiritual way is much more difficult. I’ll touch on that next.

To be continued . . .