Satyagraha

Cultural Psychology

Archive for March 2013

The Two Meanings of Zeitgeist

with 2 comments

Zeit-Geist

The word zeitgeist has lately come to be identified with a movement and ideology associated with a rejection of corporatism and globalization, and a return to a more sustainable way of life.  ‘Zeitgeist’ is a compound of two German words, zeit, which means time, and geist, which means spirit.  In its more common sense today, and the sense associated with the modern movement, it means a spirit of the times, i.e., a prevailing mind-set, attitude or set of values.  Thus, we might say that in the Reagan era (1980-88), the zeitgeist was one of entrepeneurism and economic growth; and in the 60’s, it was associated with “peace, love, and Woodstock.”

Another, older meaning of zeitgeist, less common today, is that of a literal Spirit of Time.  That is, a metaphysical entity —  a Spirit, Angel, Genius, or God’s Providence — is thought of as having a plan for human history, and directing the course of human events.

A minor point, but one not entirely insignificant, is that word in the former sense is a common noun, which would ordinarily be written uncapitalized, i.e., zeitgeist.  In the latter sense, however, the word is a proper noun, and is written Zeitgeist or Zeit-Geist.

It is fairly evident that when people today talk about the Zeitgeist Movement, they are using ‘zeitgeist’ in the former, i.e., non-metaphysical sense.  My point here is that I think people should question this, and give more consideration to the relevance of the latter meaning of the word in this context.

Why?

For several related reasons.  We are all agreed that the problem here is corporatism and globalization, how these have infected every aspect of modern life, corrupted our governments, dehumanized us, produced perpetual war, and are ruining the environment.  But this much granted, a ideological fork in the road is encountered.  On the one hand, we can construe the problem exclusively in terms of materialist-deterministic philosophy; on the other, we can allow that there are or may be spiritual and metaphysical principles at work that affect our existence.

The simple truth is that the overwhelming majority of human beings on the planet do believe in a God or Supreme Being, and do hope for an afterlife — so to this extent, at least, they believe in metaphysics.  Any God worthy of the name would be benevolent, all-wise, and all powerful.  Thus God, almost by definition, would be concerned with human affairs, have a plan for the ultimate success of the race, and would assist us.  God’s power, wisdom and assistance, when directed to the course of history, either directly or through some mediating agency, would fulfill the definition of a Zeit-Geist.

Now as I write this and call to mind those individuals whom I know directly or see on the internet who are associated with the Zeitgeist Movement, in nearly every case I envision someone radically opposed to the points stated in the preceding paragraph.  That is, the Zeitgeist Movement, as it is ideologically represented — say, for example, in the writings of Noam Chomsky — is at the very least a-religious, and, quite frankly, gives one the distinct impression of being anti-religious.  I’d make a friendly wager, in fact, that subjected to some objective empirical test — say performing an automated content analysis of articles in the Zeitgeist Movement literature, this impression of atheism would find more support than not.

If so, I would invite people associated with or interested in the Zeitgeist Movement and its aims to open their minds somewhat.  The problem here is that via our education system and mass media, our culture has had an atheistic-materialistic world-view shoved down its collective throat.  And by whom?  By the corporate establishment.  Noam Chomsky is correct in some ways, but when it comes to religion and philosophy, he has neither expertise nor credibility.  On this issue he operates merely at the level of prejudice and emotion.  He has risen, in addressing matters metaphysical, to his level of incompetence (see Peter principle).  He is to this extent another mouthpiece of the corporate establishment.

Every malicious power structure supplies its own token resistance.  To disguise its real Achilles heel, it invents a nominal opposition that gives the outward appearance of a challenge, but which is ultimately ineffectual.  Noam Chomsky and like-minded ‘Zeitgeist atheists’, however genuine their intentions may be, ultimately serve the materialist system by supplying this nominal opposition and monopolizing the podium.

The most dangerous and serious effect of corporatism and globalization is to destroy mankind’s collective awareness of our divinity.  Chomsky and crew support this vast and destructive delusion.

We are either machines in a value-less, Darwinistic universe.  Or we have something spiritual in our makeup.  If the former is true, then ultimately nothing matters, and the best solution is a bottle of sleeping pills and a liter of wine.  Moreover, the mere fact that we see corporatism and globalization as unjust, as wrong — not just inconvenient, not just a dangerous adversary — but wrong, demonstrates that we have a genuine moral sense.  We evaluate right and wrong by standards that have no real legitimacy in a merely Darwinian universe.  In Darwin’s jungle, if the big monkey oppresses you, you can say he is stronger, but not wrong.  The naturalness with which we make such moral judgements of right and wrong, in an absolute sense, and our utter conviction of their truth, shows that we are something more than just intelligent machines.

Finally, and most importantly, if there is a God, if there is Providence, that has a major bearing on strategy.  If there is a Zeit-Geist, a Spirit of Providence, then we stand the best chance of succeeding not by trying to invent a revolution from scratch, but by aligning ourselves with the Zeit-Geist. We should look to see how the Zeit-Geist is already at work today, how it has planted seeds in the past and given us examples for us to follow when the time for change is ready.

This is one reason I look closely at the American Transcendentalist movement of the 19th century. If there is a benevolent Spirit of History presiding over the human race, we would see it working in other historical periods to resist the same oppression of humanity we see today.  It would prepare us for the great and decisive struggle gradually.  It would work patiently and cumulatively, like a wise gardener.  It would have inspired minds in previous generations.  We are wise to look for where the thread of progress last left off, and continue from there.

The ideological literature of the Zeitgeist Movement is atheistic.  But the members of the movement are privately believers.  This disconnect must end for the movement to succeed, so that it harnesses the abilities of the entire individual.

Written by John Uebersax

March 28, 2013 at 10:38 pm

Fiat Lucrum: Berkeley Faculty vs. California Citizens on Online Courses

with one comment

Let There Be Loot!

Fiat Lucrum

California State Senator Darrell Steinberg is co-sponsoring SB 520, titled “California Virtual Campus.” The Senate Bill would potentially enable California students to receive credit at public universities and colleges (UCs, CSUs, and CCCs) for courses taken online from any source.  This would presumably stimulate competition, lower course costs, and make higher education available to more Californians.

Predictably, there is resistance from faculty associations.  The Berkeley Faculty Association, for example, is circulating a petition to oppose SB 520.  The petition states that SB 520 “will lower academic standards (particularly in key skills such as writing, math, and basic analysis), augment the educational divide along socio-economic lines, and diminish the ability for underrepresented minorities to excel in higher education.”

This, of course, is all nonsense.  Nearer the truth is that the Berkeley Faculty Association wants to protect faculty jobs. It is sad indeed when they place their own job security ahead of sensible efforts to make higher education affordable and accessible to more Californians.

That said, anything the State Government touches will be tainted by money.  No doubt many private online universities (e.g., Univer$ity of Phoenix) will jump at the new chance to make money.  Whether online universities are actively lobbying State Senators is anybody’s guess (but what do you think?).

What we ought to do is to simply eliminate expensive and needless accreditation requirements for undergraduate colleges, whether brick-and-mortar or virtual.  Consumers and market competition would then assure the highest quality courses for the lowest price.  We should similarly eliminate four-year degrees, which are meaningless.  People should take classes for the purpose of learning, not to get a degree.  If undergraduate education were completely de-regulated, everybody – minorities included – would follow their natural inclinations to educate themselves, and select high-quality vendors.  A world-class college lecture series would cost no more than to rent a Blu-Ray movie.

The Supreme Court, Gay Marriage, and Prisoners of Plato’s Cave Arguing About Shadows

leave a comment »

shadows on wall of platos cave

Despite my best efforts to ignore the subject, I’ve been forcibly informed that on Tuesday, March 26, 2013 the US Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments on the pending gay marriage case.  The case interests me no more than the arguments amongst prisoners in Plato’s cave about the shapes of shadows flitting on the wall (Republic 7.514ff).

One group with a childish concept of ‘rights’ will face another with an equally erroneous concept of ‘morality.’ No arguments based on logic or explicit first principles will be raised.  The names associated with the foundations of moral philosophy, names like Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Epicurus, and Cicero, will not be mentioned.  One faction of a dumbed-down, culturally illiterate society will square off against the other.  They should name the case Folly vs. Folly.

Her blindfold will spare us seeing Lady Justice roll her eyes in exasperation.

I suspect the Supreme Court will ultimately endorse gay marriage, since, Reason long since having fled the halls of the Court, the matter will be decided politically.  If so, some good may come from the Supreme Court placing itself so far out on a limb that all Americans will start to see that it is better for us have these issues decided by logic and good-will, not animosity, power-politics, and the machinations of demagogues.

But since Fate has thrust the matter before me, I will weigh in on it.

Proponents of gay marriage assert that marriage is a right.  Now is this true?  Is it obviously true?  Should we not begin by defining what a right is, and then supply a reasoned argument why marriage is a right?

And if marriage is a right, is it a civil (legal) right or a natural right?  A natural right is an inalienable right, one that exists, say, in a state of primitive nature before governments are instituted.  Consider this example.  If two strangers (let’s say a man and woman, just to keep the example simple) accidentally wash up on a deserted island and then decided to start making babies, they would not, and could not, be married.  Marriage would have no meaning.  Marriage is a category that produces a relationship of a pair of people to the rest of society. If there is no society, it is meaningless to speak of marriage.

Now someone might reply.  “No, you are wrong.  It is God who marries two people.”  Well, fair enough — we can easily clarify that.  Marriage exists both as a religious and a secular institution in today’s society.  We are not considering here the issue of religious marriage.  That is for churches to consider, not the Supreme Court.  Our focus of attention here is exclusively secular marriage, of the kind that would require two people to get a marriage license, register at City Hall, check “married” on a census survey, etc.

Now since, as our example suggests, a secularly defined marriage does not exist without a society, it would appear to be more a civil right than a natural right.  Again:  having sex is a natural right; but being designated by society as “married” is not a natural right.

This suggests that marriage, if a right at all, is a civil right.  Civil rights are decided by legislation.  There is nothing inherent in the nature of civil rights that unconditionally demands that all people, in every case, are entitled to exactly equal treatment.  Cases in point:  children are not allowed to drink alcohol; felons are not allowed to vote (in some states).  But let’s stop with this.  There is plenty of room to argue either way here — that gay couples should or should not, based on issues of justice and society’s best interests, enjoy a civil right to be married.  This should be discussed, but it should be done in a constructive and unprejudiced manner.

However it must also be asked whether marriage is a right at all.  There are other paradigms for looking at marriage which seem at least as plausible.

We can, for example, see marriage as a privilege.  Let’s again consider the state of a primitive, aboriginal society, before the development of a formal government.  In a clan or small tribe, we can likely find examples of the principle that not everybody is sanctioned by the community to be married.  Consider the nature of marriage: it is a ceremony attended by many others, perhaps the whole village.  It is a cause for community celebration. There are dowries to be paid. Moreover, the married couple typically must show some evidence of being able to contribute to the life and welfare of the community — as judged by the standards and values of that community.  In the traditional wedding ceremony, we still have the part that says, “if anyone has any just reason why this couple should not be united, let them speak now or forever hold their peace.”  Presumably this part is in there for a reason. Doubtless there have been many times when this option has been exercised.  Any number of objections might be raised.  “The man is a lout, an alcoholic!”  “The woman is unfaithful!”  “They are both lazy good-for-nothings, who never help with the community labor, and will do nothing but produce more mouths to feed.”  The point is that the community has some, and perhaps a great deal to say about who should be allowed to be married. If marriage is a privilege, how else is a community to decide this except by legislation, or at the ballot box.  That is what the citizens of California did:  they went to the ballot box, and the majority voted against gay marriage.

Do I agree with that?  I’ll say this much:  that an issue like this is of sufficient gravity that it should not be decided merely by a simple majority vote.  Here is a case where a super-majority — say a 2/3 or 75% majority might demonstrate sufficient consensus to decide an issue.

Or what if, along similar lines, we see marriage as an award, an honor granted to certain couples based on merit? If we go back to the origins of marriage in primitive society, that is not an entirely implausible model, and not one that should be dismissed without fair consideration.  If a young couple has made a sufficiently good impression on their family and village, people will help them out with a place to live, gifts, etc., as though to say, “we’d like to have more people like you; get working on it!”

In that case it is absurd to claim that everyone is entitled to “equal treatment under the law.”  If marriage is an award, then one can no more insist that everyone is equally entitled to marriage than that everyone equally deserves a ticker-tape parade just because an astronaut gets one, or a reception with the president because the Super Bowl winners get one.   But, you might ask, who decides who gets the ‘award’ of marriage and who doesn’t.  That is society’s prerogative, just as in the case of other awards.

No doubt in the Supreme Court case someone will raise the issue of uniform enforcement:  if a gay couple is married in Massachusetts, and it isn’t honored in California, that will make the administrative tasks of the federal government impossible.  That is a specious argument.  By this reasoning we should simply eliminate the individual states altogether as administratively inconvenient, and adopt a single, uniform national code of law.  Further, by such reasoning any state could pass a strange law concerning marriage (e.g., permitting marriage for children under the age of 12) and the other states would have to honor it.

There is one potentially interesting topic likely to emerge in the case.  If gay marriage is considered a right based on “equal treatment under the law,” how can society then deny a right to polygamous marriage?  What will be interesting is to see the fancy footwork as the pro-gay marriage attorneys try to side-step that question.

Meanwhile the United States is in a state of perpetual war, a matter which concerns all our welfare and basic issues of justice 100 times more than the issue of gay marriage.

No comments please.  This subject hold no interests for me.  I write only to bemoan the fact that this topic is being mishandled by all parties.

Technology Tools for the Modern Scholar

with one comment

monk1

Lately I’ve been reading an essay by the Christian Transcendentalist and anti-war writer, Caleb Sprague Henry, titled, The Importance of Elevating the Intellectual Spirit of the Nation (1837).

It’s an excellent essay, and supports my growing conviction that people were more literate and intellectually sophisticated in the 19th century than they are today, and that those of us who are interested in elevating culture should spend more time reading 19th century works like this one.

I’ll devote another post to a general discussion of his essay.  At present the important point is his suggestion that (1) the work of scholars is vitally important in preserving culture, and, (2) inasmuch as scholars seldom receive sufficient support from the public at large or governments, we need to help each other — building up a Brotherhood of Scholars, to use his phrase.

In view of this, the goal of this post is for me to share with other modern scholars some of the technological tools that I’ve found most helpful.  By ‘scholars’, of course, I don’t mean people who do research for selfish reasons — money, glory, or academic tenure.  But rather for those true scholars who feel genuinely called to this work for moral and spiritual reasons:  for God’s glory, and to help humanity.  (If to write such a thing as the last sentence seems incredibly ‘old school’ by today’s standards, that is indicative of the very problem we face today: a disconnection of society from spiritual values.)

Nevertheless, anyone is more than welcome to benefit from the suggestions offered here.

In rough order of descending value, here are my favorite technological tools for scholarship:

Google Books

When I learn of a new book of possible interest, the first thing I do is check Google Books to see if it is previewable there.  If it is an older book, and I’m only interested in a chapter, I click the gear icon on the upper right to see if full text is available.  If so, I cut and paste the plain text into a Word document (unfortunately this can only be done a few pages at a time) so I have my own file.  I highlight when I read, so simply reading in the Google Books preview window isn’t a good option.

If the book is new, then you can’t view plain text, and can only preview page images. In this case I use the next tool.

ABBY Screenshot Reader

This is very simple tool that (1) takes a snapshot of any area of your computer screen, and (2) applies optical character recognition (OCR) to convert any text in the image to editable text.  So, for example, I preview a page of a book in Google Books, press a hotkey to invoke Screenshot Reader, capture and translate the text, and paste it into a Microsoft Word document for later reading.  I might do this for several pages or even an entire chapter, if that’s available for previewing.

Back to older books. If I want to download an older book in pdf format, I usually don’t do this from Google Books.  The reason is that Google Books pdf files are not editable.  So instead I use the next website.

Archive.org

Many older books I want have been scanned and uploaded to archive.org, where they can be downloaded.  Books are available in several formats, including epub and pdf.  Unlike Google Books, these pdf files are usually editable (which means that you can highlight and copy passages from them).

Amazon Books

If it’s a newer book I want, then I may need to buy it.  Often I buy used versions.  A handy feature of Amazon is that it includes a link to used copies of a given title.  I pick a used version that looks promising (good price, not beat-up, reliable vendor), and Amazon centralizes the ordering and billing.

Robert E. Kennedy Library, CalPoly University

This is my nearest university library.  While I have my issues with the CalState University System generally, I’m not one to ‘bite the hand that feeds me.’  As a member of the community (i.e., non-student and non-faculty), I’m allowed to read books in the library — and, importantly, to use the computers for scanning books.  This is a very generous policy, and not all universities, not even all public universities, are so considerate.

Sometimes I bring in a book I’ve bought, or sometimes take a book off the shelves there — and use the large-bed scanners and OCR software to produce an editable pdf version.  By this point it might be apparent to readers that I do not read paper books anymore.  For me, anything worth reading is worth excerpting from — and that’s much easier to do with a pdf file.

I can also use the library computers to download reprints from JSTOR.

The Great Courses

The Great Courses is a great idea.  They offer university-level courses on video or mp3 files.  The mp3 versions especially are a real bargain. I’ve previously listed what I consider to be some of their better courses here.

Automobile mp3 FM transmitter

Want to play an mp3 lecture in your car, but don’t have a port built into the car’s audio system?  No problem.  Buy one of these babies, plug it into your cigarette lighter, and you’re good to go.  It has a built-in transmitter that sends a signal to your car radio.  You supply the mp3 file(s) via a an SD card or USB memory stick that plugs into the unit.

These are great.  The only problem is that the quality varies.  Some put out a weak signal, which produces a lot of static when listening.  To be honest, I buy cheapo imports two or three at a time, and just use the one that works best.

ABBY PDF Transformer

Sometimes I end up with a pdf file that is not editable (e.g., from Google Books.)  In that case I process the file with ABBY PDF Transformer.  This performs OCR and produces an editable pdf file (or MS Word document if you prefer).  However, if you have a new version of Adobe Acrobat, that will do the same thing.

IVONA Text-to-Speech

For a while I experimented with text-to-speech software to convert scanned books and typed documents into synthesized speech.  (I could then, e.g., listen to a book in my car.)  This was an interesting experiment, though eventually I found even the best speech synthesis (the technology is quite amazing) kind of boring to listen to.  It’s probably better for technical material than literature.  Nevertheless, I wanted to mention this as an option.

YouTube

Of course, no list would be complete without YouTube.  There’s a ton of educational and edifying material at YouTube. Just search for “documentaries” to get started.

Written by John Uebersax

March 6, 2013 at 12:15 am