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A good friend alerted me to a site with some brilliant and thought-provoking cartoons. Just couldn’t resist sharing! Below is a sample: for the full experience, see link. The artist’s own site is as this link.

What does it mean to be an individual? What is society? And where are we going? Paweł Kuczyński, a famous cartoonist from Poland, poses these and many other questions in his work.

Elections

His fascinating illustrations have garnered significant popularity for their highly topical subject matter; it’s said that they often reflect the very essence of what’s going on around us in the modern world.

Kuczyński, moreover, has his own unique style of drawing which is quite unlike that of any other artist. He explains that he always thinks through the idea for every illustration very carefully, trying to endow each one with as much meaning as he can express.

We put together a selection of 20 of Kuczyński’s best drawings. Their combination of subtle humour and thought-provoking ideas throw up a whole number of uncomfortable questions about the nature of the world we live in.

Social Divide

Free Trade Hall, Manchester. (For source of image see link)

I rediscovered this from among some discarded drafts from the past – or do I mean the future? It is personally as well as historically significant that this address will have been given there. At the turn of the last century my grandfather had his leg amputated and could no longer work as a railway signalman. As a result his two eldest children, 14 and 16 years old respectively, had to leave school so they could earn enough to keep the family. Whenever they could they scraped together the money to take him on special occasions to hear the music that he loved at the Free Trade Hall.  As it resonates with my recent post with a link to a review of The Econocracy, it seemed worthwhile giving it an airing now. If I live long enough I’ll probably re-blog it on the date it will be delivered if things continue to go badly.

Last night, Professor Ben Trend delivered the following address to an appreciative audience of financial consultants in the Free Trade Hall, which has been recently reclaimed for use by the meritocracy as a concert hall. It partly replaced a performance of a well-loved selection of the favourite scenes from La Traviata[1] which was cancelled after soprano Lira Carissima had understandably declined surgery for a ruptured appendix. Professor Trend stepped forward at the last minute to place her sacrifice in its full context and in a fine gesture agreed to halve his fee of £300,000.

After paying fulsome tribute to Lira Carissima, to the plain delight of his audience he continued:

Financiers, Ladies and Gentlemen.

It is hard for those of us born into the middle of the 21st Century to appreciate how lucky we are. Recently however a document fell into the hands of one of our researchers which brings home very forcefully indeed the extent of our good fortune. It is heart-breaking to read the anguish experienced by the far-sighted writer of this precious fragment of social history. He struggled almost all his working life against the obscurantist philanthropy of the National Health Service. Those of us who have for so long enjoyed the benefits of the Wealth Service may pity, but can barely understand, the true nature of his predicament. A considerable effort of imagination is required here.

Even the well-educated amongst us may find it hard to credit how backward-looking English society was at that time. We all know that the true value of money was poorly understood in those days, but most of us fail to grasp how extremely primitive and sentimental their mind-set was. For example, the belief that human life was in some way valuable in and of itself was still amazingly prevalent.

We have to really struggle to remember that this was a society that saw as somehow tragic the richly meaningful death of a security guard shot as he defended a payroll. The concept of fiscal martyrdom, which comes as naturally to our minds as oxygen does to our lungs, was quite unknown to them. They knew, but saw as regrettable, that human beings could lay down their lives for their wealth in an emergency.

What they could never envisage is what is commonplace nowadays: people, in heroically cold-blood, euthanase when their personal balance of payments in terms of society sinks into the red for more than six consecutive months. Nowadays we take for granted that even those entitled to dialysis, such as Bank Managers, Accountants and Economists, for the most part refuse it because it costs too much. Many of these deeply spiritual people consider that a heart by-pass is, on balance, too high a price to pay for the continuation of their services: it makes them unacceptably expensive to run.[2] This is in touching contrast to the mindless self-interest of those in earlier times who used to cling to life for years regardless of the inordinate expense incurred as a result by the National Wealth, sorry Health Service: it is only fair to add that they were able to do so only with the help of spendthrift medical teams in a context of culpable and widespread collusion on the part of the electorate[3] as a whole.

More far-fetched than almost anything else was their belief that altruism, by which they meant the preposterous impulse to lay down one’s life for another human being, was in some way inherent in the human species, and that it was perhaps not just genetic but had something to do with what they miscalled `spirituality’. (Many such terms have in our day been given their proper meaning: `spirituality’ as every one now recognizes is based upon devotion to wealth and could never lead to such wasteful extravagance as throwing away one’s life, let alone one’s assets, to save, to give a particularly stupid example, the life of a child). It is so long since even the youngest children or the most primitive tribes in this day and age believed such twaddle that we find such widespread delusion absolutely terrifying.

It is for that reason that such a document as the one I present here today is so valuable. The brave person who penned it was a member of a government audit department, the Special Audit Insurance Negotiation Team as it was called: today he would simply be called a `saint’ in recognition of the true derivation of that word. He was at the vanguard, the cutting edge, of society’s evolution towards the present utopia, a word which is no longer a synonym for some non-existent ideal society given that the world we have now created is perfect in every respect.

I leave you now to savour without further interference this evocative fragment of an early, anonymous and pioneering martyr’s story.

The fragment begins half-way down page fifteen of what was clearly a much longer report.

. . . . . . incredible the moral imbecility of medics who continue to pour wealth into keeping alive such haemorrhaging drains on our resources for interminable periods of time. It is self-evident to any responsible citizen that these so-called physicians should themselves be ablated from the body politic as no longer fit for purpose if they collude with a refusal to comply with the current enlightened legislation that requires the immediate auditing of all those who take more than they give from the balance sheet of society. My recommendation is. . .

We are not sure why so little of this moving communication has survived. Communication technology was in those days very primitive, perhaps because they were more concerned to squander resources on people than on progress. Perhaps he was martyred before he could send it and the heretics responsible destroyed all but this last brief fragment: medics were capable of almost any perfidy to safeguard their extravagance. Clearly, under the circumstances, his choice of words was admirably restrained, a testimony to the self-sacrificing professionalism of this devoted group of civil, in every sense of the word, servants. Here, if any were needed, is objective documentary evidence of the barbarism and heartlessness of the people of those days.

The report’s dispassionate language echoes down the centuries touchingly to us here. Let us end on a moment’s meditation in honour of such self-effacing heroism. Thank you for listening.

There was a standing ovation and flowers were donated for Madame Carissima’s re-cycling into fertiliser.

Footnotes:

[1]. Dollazetti’s `La Traviata’ is named after the original singularly tedious opera about human relationships by the nineteenth century hack, Verdi. This modern masterpiece, by contrast, captivates the imagination with its vitality. It tells the story of a young idealist, Owen Gold, as he rides the heights of bliss upon inheriting a small fortune in shares. The most moving scene in the whole opera is between Gold and his stock broker, Sterling Loss (played most recently by baritone Peseta Domingo on top form). Loss breaks the news that overnight the market has crashed and Gold’s shares have become valueless. This tragic turn of events is played out in a bank vault against a haunting backdrop of safety deposit boxes. In this context, with powerful irony, this location comes to symbolize, not so much a nursery of fulfilment, as a mortuary of hopes destroyed. Gold is grief stricken. He contrives to be locked in the vault over the long Easter week-end. The irony here is again masterly. On the Tuesday morning, after several profoundly moving arias which increase in volume and duration as he suffocates, he is found dead among his shares by the cleaners. One cannot help but admire the way a sterile motif in another of Verdi’s seriously outmoded operas, ‘Aida,’ has been so brilliantly echoed to such good advantage – and invested with new meaning at such a high rate of interest!

[2] Professor Trend, under pressure of time, somewhat simplified this issue in the interests of brevity. Our society is in no way arbitrary and unfair. The picture he paints of the average situation needs to be counterbalanced by how we treat the fully deserving. It would be a travesty of justice if we were to revoke the life licence of someone whose contribution to society significantly outweighed his burden upon it. If, for example, an entrepreneur can prove that he is continuing to generate at least twice as much wealth as his treatment is consuming, no matter how expensive it is he will be allowed to continue to exist. It is a matter of pride to us that the vast majority of the richest 2% worldwide live at least twice as long on average as the remaining 98%.

[3]. Electorate is a term long since fallen into disuse along with its sister concept democracy. These archaic and misguided aspects of government involved the barely credible idea that ordinary people were sufficiently intelligent and perceptive to choose their rulers. They even held the view, in those days, that pouring more money into education would make democracy more effective. We long ago recognised that an educated plutocracy was the only sensible arrangement. Rich people who understand economics are the only ones fit to govern for the clear benefit of all.

After Monday’s post about the latest Death Cafe meeting this seemed another good poem to follow up with. 

A Sceptic's Walkabout

After yesterday’s post about the latest Death Cafe meeting this seemed a good poem to follow up with. 

Grave & Courtyard v2

Usually I stroll to the Death Cafe from home after an early dinner. This time the situation was a bit more hectic, which might have been a sign of things to come.

I had spent too long in town and was dashing to the Courtyard to grab a sandwich before the six o’clock start. I got there just before 5.30. The reception area and the cafe was buzzing. The queue at the counter wasn’t too bad so I got my order in and my cappuccino reasonably quickly, though there was a bit of a crisis when fake news came through that they had run out of brown bread. I hate white for reasons I won’t bore you with right now. Anyway panic over when they established I’d apparently got there in time to catch the last slices of brown.

By ten to six I’d finished my sandwich and picked up my coffee to take to the meeting room. That’s where the problems started. I pulled open the door to see a room full of clothing, presumably costumes of some kind. I caught up with a member of staff who said the meeting was on the mezzanine floor. I carried my coffee carefully up the stairs and checked out the room at that level – crammed with people I didn’t know definitely not talking about death. Not there then.

On the way back to the stairs I saw the white hair of one of our clan bobbing up the stairs.

‘It’s not on the mezzanine,’ he said. ‘I don’t know where it is.’

I decided to check with the reception desk.

‘It is on that floor,’ the girl at the till told me. ‘It’s past the cafe.’

On the way back to the stairs for the second time I met another death enthusiast.

‘Where’s the meeting?’ she asked clutching her coffee and cake.

‘Follow me,’ I asserted confidently. We trekked up the stairs. She waited with her coffee and cake at a nearby table where I placed my coffee as well for safety while I checked out the room, which turned out to be either non-existent or a Platform 9¾ problem. I opted for non-existent and went back to the table where we sat for a while, she nibbling her cake and me scanning the stairs between sips of almost cold coffee for any hints about where the meeting was going to be.

After about five minutes, I decided it was time to go back to reception again. As I reached the bottom of the stairs, I saw a familiar face talking to what looked like the manager. She didn’t look happy.

‘So we haven’t got a room tonight?’ she probed.

‘I’m really sorry but demand was so high today we’ve had to use every available space,’ he flustered.

‘What do we do then?’ she asked with surprising politeness.

‘Well, there’s a table upstairs on the gallery floor with enough chairs.’

As we could only just hear him speak against the background noise we were not pleased about this, but there was nothing else we could do.

We trooped upstairs again but went one floor higher this time.

Two tables were at the stairwell where the noise was loudest.

We pulled them together and surrounded them with chairs, trying to make sure we would all be as close together as possible.

After a few moments more people trickled in and we got ourselves seated.

I was pleased to see the lady from the train had come. I gave a full account of our first meeting in a previous post. She was someone with a keen interest in consciousness and spirituality.

And there were two new faces as well – and they were young. I was happy to see that as it would make it easier to answer a question I’ve been asked more than once when talking about the Death Cafe: ‘Are there any young people there?’ Brilliant! I could now say an emphatic ‘Yes!’

It was hard going at first to make ourselves heard against the background noise, most of it caused by young children waiting for their programme to start in the main theatre. At least the noise would drop once the doors opened and they went in.

‘When someone is dementing, do their family go through a grieving process even before they die?’ This was an entirely unexpected question from someone so young, one of the new arrivals. Her voice was too quiet at first so she had to  repeat what she said.

That set the first ball rolling. Sadly, the white-haired man I mentioned earlier really struggled as he had a hearing problem. Turning up his hearing aid was no solution as it simply made the shouting from below even more of a problem. He wasn’t the only one by any means who was struggling. Most of us had a hard time hearing someone on the other side of the table.

‘It’s not the Death Cafe tonight,’ I quipped, ‘more like the Deaf Cafe.’ It seemed to ease the tension slightly, and fortunately the man with the hearing aid couldn’t hear me. (My apologies to David Lodge for stealing his joke: he published a novel in 2008 called Deaf Sentence about a man struggling with hearing loss.)

From dementia we slid into DMT because the topic had shifted to whether the mind is affected by the brain or somehow separate from it and whether we could somehow access a transcendent realm. I had to do some research when I got home as I’d never heard of DMT.

It was mentioned in the meeting as a pineal hormone with transliminal effects. Wikipedia writes:

N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT or N,N-DMT) is a powerful psychedelic compound of the tryptamine family. It is a structural analog of serotonin and melatonin and a functional analog of other psychedelic tryptamines such as 4-AcO-DMT, 5-MeO-DMT, 5-HO-DMT, psilocybin (4-PO-DMT), and psilocin (4-HO-DMT).

Most of that went over my head. The next bit was more accessible.

Historically, it has been consumed by indigenous Amazonian cultures in the form of ayahuasca for divinatory and healing purposes. It was first synthesised in 1931, and in 1946, microbiologist Oswaldo Gonçalves de Lima discovered its natural presence in plants. In the 1960s, it was detected in mammalian organisms as well.

I can’t find support for the pineal connection (for example):

And although Strassman clearly states that his ideas about DMT and the pineal gland “are not proven”, many people have accepted them as fact. As of June 2010, there is currently no scientific evidence that the pineal gland produces DMT, much less any evidence for the more far-out speculations that Strassman makes about DMT being a chemical modulator of the human soul. When Strassman examined the pineal glands from “about ten” human corpse brains, there was nary a trace of DMT to be found in them. This doesn’t invalidate his theory, since DMT is metabolized quickly, and none of the corpse brains were fresh-frozen. Further tests on fresh-frozen brains could be done. Someday there may be evidence that DMT is produced in the pineal gland, but that day has not yet arrived.

It did remind me though of Aldous Huxley’s work on the ‘doors of perception’ and Stanislav Grof’s on LSD.

Just as the other new comer was about to speak the loudspeaker blared out a fifteen minute warning about when people should make a move to take their seats.

She had to start again. She picked up on what the lady from the train had shared about Faith, Physics & Psychology concerning various books such as those by Fritjof Kapra and David Bohm. She explained her deep interest in matters of the mind, consciousness and spirituality, something which was clearly shared by others present including me.

Somehow, I have no idea now of how, we moved onto exploring virtual selves in this age of the internet and social media. Would we be mourned after we die by other FB users who had never met us? Does excessive reliance on social media cut us off from real contact with other people? We concluded that social media, just like all other leaps forward in terms of tools and technology throughout human history, was a mixed blessing – just like fire, which we can use to keep warm in winter and cook our food or to burn down a neighbour’s hut if he has upset us.

At about this point the blaring began again to summon all the noisy ones downstairs to their seats. Bliss. Silence.

We had a long exploration then of whether there is a soul, a spiritual dimension, a mind independent of the body – all my favourite stuff. I was astonished to find that someone did not agree that agnosticism is the only rational stance if you rely on reason alone. To believe there is or there is not a God is an act of faith.

‘Well, that’s not how I see it?’ a different voice chipped in.

‘How do you see it then?’ I asked trying to hide my shock at this denial of the obvious.

‘I’m not quite sure. I think it’s more a question of acceptance.’

I’m still not quite sure what she meant by that but we went onto explore whether truth was on a ‘huge hill,’ as John Donne expressed it, and we’re all on our different paths towards it or is there a better metaphor.

I think there was general agreement in the end with the other part of Donne’s position as expressed in his third satire (line 77): ‘doubt wisely.’

Whatever else, we all felt at the end of the evening, as we said our goodbyes, that it had been a great experience which we had all enjoyed enormously.

And I’ll end on my usual challenge. Death Cafes are held in many places. Maybe there’s one near you. Do you dare to give it a go?

An Islamic State fighter in Raqqa, Syria, 2014. Photograph: Reuters

Just over a week ago, an interesting piece appeared in the Guardian exploring the issue of fanaticism and terrorism from a somewhat different angle, factoring in what the writer, Olivier Roy, calls nihilism. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

Biographies of ‘homegrown’ European terrorists show they are violent nihilists who adopt Islam, rather than religious fundamentalists who turn to violence.

There is something new about the jihadi terrorist violence of the past two decades. Both terrorism and jihad have existed for many years, and forms of “globalised” terror – in which highly symbolic locations or innocent civilians are targeted, with no regard for national borders – go back at least as far as the anarchist movement of the late 19th century. What is unprecedented is the way that terrorists now deliberately pursue their own deaths.

Over the past 20 years – from Khaled Kelkal, a leader of a plot to bomb Paris trains in 1995, to the Bataclan killers of 2015 – nearly every terrorist in France blew themselves up or got themselves killed by the police. Mohamed Merah, who killed a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012, uttered a variant of a famous statement attributed to Osama bin Laden and routinely used by other jihadis: “We love death as you love life.” Now, the terrorist’s death is no longer just a possibility or an unfortunate consequence of his actions; it is a central part of his plan. The same fascination with death is found among the jihadis who join Islamic State. Suicide attacks are perceived as the ultimate goal of their engagement.

This systematic choice of death is a recent development. The perpetrators of terrorist attacks in France in the 1970s and 1980s, whether or not they had any connection with the Middle East, carefully planned their escapes. Muslim tradition, while it recognises the merits of the martyr who dies in combat, does not prize those who strike out in pursuit of their own deaths, because doing so interferes with God’s will. So, why, for the past 20 years, have terrorists regularly chosen to die? What does it say about contemporary Islamic radicalism? And what does it say about our societies today?

The latter question is all the more relevant as this attitude toward death is inextricably linked to the fact that contemporary jihadism, at least in the west – as well as in the Maghreb and in Turkey – is a youth movement that is not only constructed independently of parental religion and culture, but is also rooted in wider youth culture. This aspect of modern-day jihadism is fundamental.

A good friend alerted me to this illuminating article on conflict resolution. It sheds such a useful light on the problems of conviction that I’ve just been exploring it was a no-brainer to post it now. Below is a short extract: for the fill article see link.

We can all play a role in helping defuse even the most bitter conflicts. Veteran negotiator William Ury shares his hard-won insights.

My passion in life is helping people and societies to move from no to yes. As a negotiator, mediator and cofounder of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard University, I’ve spent more than four decades traveling the world and getting involved in some of the most difficult conflicts of our time, from the Cold War to the Middle East.

One of my favorite negotiation stories is about a man who leaves his herd of 17 camels to his three sons as their inheritance. To the first son, he leaves half the camels; to the middle son, he leaves a third of the camels; and to the youngest son, he leaves a ninth of the camels. The three sons get into an intense negotiation over who should get how many, because 17 doesn’t divide by two, or by three, or by nine. Tempers become strained, so in desperation they consult a wise, old woman. She listens to their problem and says, “Well, I don’t know if I can help you, but if you want, at least you can have my camel.” Now they have 18 camels, so the first son takes half of them, or nine camels; the middle son takes his third, or six camels; and the youngest son takes his ninth, or two camels. Nine plus six plus two adds up to a total of 17 camels. There is one camel left over, so the brothers give it back to the woman.

Many of our negotiations and conflicts today are like those 17 camels — they seem impossible to resolve, with no apparent solution in sight. What we need to do is step back from the situation, look at it through a fresh lens, and come up with an 18th camel. Finding that 18th camel in the world’s conflicts has been my life’s work.

If you think about the human predicament today, we are a bit like those three brothers, because we are one human family. Thanks to technology, all the tribes on the planet can, for the first time, get in touch with each other. And the big question facing us is: How do we deal with our deepest differences, given the human propensity for conflict and the human ability to devise weapons of enormous destruction?