Review of Aaron James’ “Surfing with Sartre”

Aaron James’ new book, Surfing with Sartre: An Aquatic Inquiry into a Life of Meaning, addresses major questions in philosophy from his unique perspective as both a philosophy professor and former surfer. James argues that the surfer mentality offers a unique perspective on philosophical issues like: knowledge, freedom, happiness, society, nature and the meaning of life. Why? In the introduction James says:

Surfers often have a certain natural lightness about being, about the meaning of their personal existence. Those more at sea existentially can certainly appreciate the surfer’s good fortune. And it is hard to dislike people so thoroughly enthralled by living … Surely most of us could learn to live lighter, by sliding over life’s problems. (4)

 One of his salient themes is that “what the surfer knows suggests that we should … get used to an even more leisurely, surfer-friendly style of capitalism, in which we all work, but a lot less …” (5) He claims that working less is an ethical imperative because work “as we now practice it emits gases … that are steadily warming the planet. So … as long as we do something less consumptive of ecological resources than working … we contribute to society by making the climate change problem a little less terrible … ” (6-7) Leisure activities are thus “a new model of civic virtue. The real troublemaker is the workaholic, whose labor-intensive striving makes the problem of global warming worse …” (8)

And these issues of profound ethical importance: “If climate science is even roughly correct … would it be morally okay for us to further enrich ourselves in work, without limitations, if many billions of living or future people are thereby put at grave risk of profound injury? Or are we obliged to adapt?” (8)Would it really be so hard to work less, and enjoy life more he wonders.

While it is true that most of us derive our sense of self from our work, it doesn’t have to be that way. The Protestant work ethic nurtured capitalism, but now we should reject it and use our time more productively than for wholesale destruction of the ecosystem. This is the main point of the book, that the surfer mentality is “on the right side of history.” (9) We should adapt our lifestyles to a changing planet.

The book devotes most of its pages to the surfer mentality’s insights regarding philosophical problems, using Sartrean philosophy as its foil. Key insights include that: 1) being in the moment provides more comfort than material possessions; 2) we should reject hard determinism and choose the surfer mentality; 3) intense pleasure and self-transcendence can be experienced by being in the flow; and 4) a hyper competitive society destroys humanity and nature. This leads James to state:

In a more leisurely capitalism, we’d have a less competitive way of life. We’d all work, but a lot less, and we’d spend more of our time getting attuned, living from love, practicing for its own sake, and transcending status preoccupation for a happier contentment. (288)

The book’s epilogue relates its insights to the question of life’s meaning. But he changes that question to: “What are the meanings, plural, of life. If that’s the question … then we just enumerate the many different ways life can have meaning … Friendship. Worthy projects. Creative activity. Music. Surfing. Nice parties. Or whatever … ” (292) James rejects the view that there must be one meaning to explains all these multiple meanings. So for James the meaning of life “can be nothing more than the various ways life is meaningful to us …” (292) The hard part is choosing from the many ways that life can be meaningful.

Of course this analysis ignores the question of the meaning of the cosmos itself. But even if we could discover such a meaning—say the super meaning was to enjoy an eternal feast in heaven—then we could just ask about the meaning of heaven. Maybe we wouldn’t like such a long party! But independent of our answer to the question of universal meaning, James points out that there is plenty of meaning in life already.

Still James admits that many people won’t be satisfied because they want to be “part of something bigger ….” (293) Here he recommends that we just add that meaning to our list, and connect our daily activity with that meaning: “being part of a collective enterprise could never be more than one source of meaning among many on a long list … So our list of meanings can grow longer … to cover big parts of history.” (295) In fact, “… many of our activities would come to seem much less important to us if we came to know that an asteroid would destroy the planet soon after our death.” (298) So being part of history is already an important part of meaning in our lives.1

Considerations about the future are connected with James’ concern about the destruction of the biosphere.

We living people are enjoying the carbon-based prosperity party. And though we’ll be dead before our emissions completely befoul the global ecology, if we don’t take rather dramatic steps to control their production, our story will be one of having indulged in the feast and skipped out on the check, without paying our bit, let alone helping with the dishes.

This really would not be cool. It would be a gross human failure, or, if you will, a great stain, or sin. (299)

Capitalism has produced great things, yet it encourages the self-interest that contributes to the destruction of the planet. So should we continue to enjoy the party and despoil the environment, or live a more leisurely, happier lifestyle? The sun’s light and heat brought us a planet teeming with life, but we now trap its heat in our atmosphere. Will we continue to bury our heads in the sands, or will we make a heroic effort to change things and save the world for future generations? Let’s hope we do the latter.

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Samuel Scheffler made a similar point about our concern for future generations.

Review of “Exile Nation: The Plastic People”

I have recently watched the documentary: Exile Nation: The Plastic People. It is about U.S. deportees in Tijuana who struggle to survive a cartel war zone, and who live in cardboard boxes and sewer pipes, in an ever-expanding underworld of exiles. Most of the deportees have lived in the US since childhood, have extended families in the US, have no relatives in Mexico, and speak no Spanish. Many have waited for citizenship for years but multiple roadblocks block that path. Many of these deportees do the migrant farm work without which Americans wouldn’t enjoy low prices for their food. Here is the trailer for “Exile Nation.”

I encourage my readers to watch this moving film and, if possible, work for solutions to human degradation in the US and elsewhere.

Summary of 10 Stages of Genocide (and the USA today)

“Ten Stages of Genocide” was a document developed by Dr. Gregory H. Stanton, a professor at the University of Mary Washington. Stanton has served as the President of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, and now leads Genocide Watch, a non-profit organization dedicated to the fight against genocide. (“Ten Stages of Genocide” was originally written in 1996 as the “Eight Stages of Genocide,” and revised in 2013.)

“Ten Stages of Genocide” is a formula for how a society can engage in genocide. Genocide cannot be committed by an individual or small group; rather, it takes the cooperation of a large number of people and the state. The genocidal process starts with prejudice that continues to grow. By knowing the stages of genocide, citizens are better equipped to identify the warning signs and stop the process from continuing.1

Stanton notes that:

Genocide is a process that develops in ten stages that are predictable but not inexorable. At each stage, preventive measures can stop it. The process is not linear. Stages may occur simultaneously. Logically, later stages must be preceded by earlier stages.  But all stages continue to operate throughout the process.2

Reflections on Where We Stand in America Today

The USA also has committed war crimes, engaged in unlawful torture, annihilated civilian populations, supported brutal dictators, and overthrown democratically elected governments. The USA certainly committed genocide on the Native Americans and came close to doing so to African-Americans. Let’s look at where we stand on each stage in America today regarding various groups.

1. Classification – The “us vs. them” mentality is everywhere–conservatives vs. liberals; evangelicals vs. secularists; rural vs urban; whites vs. African-Americans, Hispanics; Native Americans; Asian Americans;  etc. SUCH CLASSIFICATION OCCURS IN THE USA, AND IS INCREASING WITH THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION.

2. Symbolization – Certain groups–especially African-Americans, Native Americans and Hispanics—are forced to identify themselves with papers to document residency, with identification to vote and get proper ID, etc. Conclusion – SUCH SYMBOLIZATION OCCURS IN THE USA, AND IS INCREASING WITH THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION.

3. Discrimination – Discrimination against certain groups is rampant—especially of the above ones plus the LGBTQ community. Conclusion – SUCH DISCRIMINATION OCCURS IN THE USA, AND IS INCREASING WITH THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION.

4. Dehumanization – This occurs regarding the above groups. Hate propaganda and hate speech is ubiquitous in the media consumed by millions. Conclusion – SUCH DEHUMANIZATION OCCURS IN THE USA, AND IS INCREASING WITH THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION.

5. Organization – State backed police brutality, and an increasingly biased Department of Justice, especially against the above groups, is well-known in the USA. Militias motivated by hate are on the rise. Conclusion – SUCH ORGANIZATION OCCURS IN THE USA, AND IS INCREASING WITH THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION.

6. Polarization – Right wing media broadcasts anger, outrage, and hate. Conclusion – SUCH POLARIZATION OCCURS IN THE USA, AND IS INCREASING WITH THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION.

LAST FOUR STAGES HAVE NOT BEEN REACHED IN THE USA.

7. PREPARATION: Official action to remove/relocate people. Conclusion – SUCH PREPARATION OCCURS TO SOME EXTENT, MOSTLY REGARDING HISPANICS AND AFRICAN-AMERICANS, BUT IS INCREASING WITH THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION.

8. PERSECUTION: Murders, theft of property, segregation into ghettos. Conclusion – SUCH PERSECUTION OCCURS TO SOME EXTENT MOSTLY REGARDING HISPANICS AND AFRICAN-AMERICANS , BUT IS INCREASING WITH THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION.

9. EXTERMINATION: THIS STAGE HAS NOT BEEN REACHED.

10. DENIAL: THIS STAGE HAS NOT BEEN REACHED.

Reflections on Where We Are Going in the USA 

I have written previously about the possibility of civil war in America today. As for the presence of hate speech directed toward certain groups—especially African-Americans, Hispanics; Native Americans;  Asian-Americans; LGBTQ persons and women—the trends are ominous.

There is no way to predict where this will lead. Perhaps we are going through an especially ugly phase brought about by technology’s impact on employment, maybe we are just experiencing a particularly bad political moment, or maybe we haven’t learned how to be proper gatekeepers of the new media landscape which allows individuals to think in protective bubbles of disinformation and lies. Or perhaps the situation is just what you expect periodically from modified monkeys with brains formed in the Pleistocene.

But hate, anger, disinformation, conspiracy theories, and lies have gone mainstream, especially with the rise of right-wing media over the last twenty years, a situation exacerbated by the Trump administration. Let’s hope this is a passing phase, for it is a dangerous one. The anger, hatred, and division sown by right-wing fanatics, along with their attack on expertise, science, education, tolerance, and the liberal values that help humans escape the Dark Ages, is taking its toll. And a society divorced from science and truth, from tolerance, justice, and fairness, is not a place where humans will flourish. In fact, in an increasingly complex world we need to have faith in experts more than ever.

For more detail on each stage, here are some quotes from Stanton’s document:

1. CLASSIFICATION:

“All cultures have categories to distinguish people into “us and them” by ethnicity, race, religion, or nationality … The main preventive measure at this early stage is to develop universalistic institutions that transcend ethnic or racial divisions, that actively promote tolerance and understanding, and that promote classifications that transcend the divisions … This search for common ground is vital to early prevention of genocide.”

2. SYMBOLIZATION:

“We give names or other symbols to the classifications … and apply the symbols to members of groups … When combined with hatred, symbols may be forced upon unwilling members of pariah groups … To combat symbolization, hate symbols can be legally forbidden (swastikas) as can hate speech. Group marking … can be outlawed … The problem is that legal limitations will fail if unsupported by popular cultural enforcement …”

3. DISCRIMINATION:

“A dominant group uses law, custom, and political power to deny the rights of other groups. The powerless group may not be accorded full civil rights or even citizenship … Prevention against discrimination means full political empowerment and citizenship rights for all groups in a society. Discrimination on the basis of nationality, ethnicity, race or religion should be outlawed …”

4. DEHUMANIZATION:

“One group denies the humanity of the other group. Members of it are equated with animals, vermin, insects or diseases. Dehumanization overcomes the normal human revulsion against murder. At this stage, hate propaganda in print and on hate radios is used to vilify the victim group … Local and international leaders should condemn the use of hate speech and make it culturally unacceptable … Hate radio stations should be shut down, and hate propaganda banned. Hate crimes and atrocities should be promptly punished.”

5. ORGANIZATION:

Genocide is always organized, usually by the state, often using militias to provide deniability of state responsibility … Sometimes organization is informal … or decentralized … Special army units or militias are often trained and armed. Plans are made for genocidal killings. To combat this stage, membership in these militias should be outlawed.”

6. POLARIZATION:

“Extremists drive the groups apart. Hate groups broadcast polarizing propaganda … Extremist terrorism targets moderates, intimidating and silencing the center … Prevention may mean security protection for moderate leaders or assistance to human rights groups.”

7.  PREPARATION:

“National or perpetrator group leaders plan the “Final Solution”… They often use euphemisms to cloak their intentions, such as referring to their goals as “ethnic cleansing,” “purification,” or “counter-terrorism.” They build armies, buy weapons and train their troops and militias. They indoctrinate the populace with fear of the victim group.  Leaders often claim that “if we don’t kill them, they will kill us.”

8. PERSECUTION:

“Victims are identified and separated out because of their ethnic or religious identity. Death lists are drawn up. In state sponsored genocide, members of victim groups may be forced to wear identifying symbols. Their property is often expropriated. Sometimes they are even segregated into ghettos, deported into concentration camps, or confined to a famine-struck region and starved.  Genocidal massacres begin.”

9. EXTERMINATION:

Extermination begins, and quickly becomes the mass killing legally called “genocide.” It is “extermination” to the killers because they do not believe their victims to be fully human. When it is sponsored by the state, the armed forces often work with militias to do the killing. Sometimes the genocide results in revenge killings by groups against each other, creating the downward whirlpool-like cycle of bilateral genocide …”

10. DENIAL:

“is the final stage that lasts throughout and always follows a genocide. It is among the surest indicators of further genocidal massacres. The perpetrators of genocide dig up the mass graves, burn the bodies, try to cover up the evidence and intimidate the witnesses. They deny that they committed any crimes, and often blame what happened on the victims. They block investigations of the crimes, and continue to govern until driven from power by force, when they flee into exile. There they remain with impunity, like Pol Pot or Idi Amin, unless they are captured and a tribunal is established to try them.”

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  1. from the Genocide Education Process
  2. from “The Ten Stages of Genocide.

Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer and Trump

In my last post I discussed Eric Hoffer‘s 1951 classic: The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. Naturally the question arises as to the similarities between Trump supporters in the USA and Hoffer’s true believers.

There is a lot to be said here, but I’ll just mention a few similarities. Certainly Trump supporters have responded to his diatribes against Mexicans, women, politicians, “loser” opposing candidates, and reporters who ask him good questions. His followers share his love of authoritarianism, as well as his view that immigrants, people with darker skins, and women have stolen their jobs. (Even though the evidence that immigrants are a boom to the economy is overwhelming.) Moreover, his followers have no regard for the truth, science, education, expertise, or knowledge. And they loathe the present and want to return to the past. All of the above are characteristics of Hoffer’s true believers.

Trump supporters are mostly white, native-born American males who do not have college degrees, and are economically in the lower middle class rather than among the poorest. In short, they are very much like Hoffer himself (except for the fact that they aren’t erudite like Hoffer.) But Hoffer knew that “undesirables” weren’t the enemy:

That revelation occurred in 1934, when as a transient fruit-and-vegetable picker he was swept up and placed in the El Centro camp at the edge of the southern California desert near the Mexican border, and for the first time had to co-exist with 200 other men. Prior to that, he considered himself “just a human being, neither good nor bad, and on the whole, harmless,” but after a month at El Centro he realized he belonged to “a certain type of humanity, the undesirables.”

Some were lame, some were foreign-born, some were tramps, some were much darker-skinned than the rest but, he concluded, all were the same as the “undesirables” who for generations had fled from Europe and Asia and became American pioneers, the people who for 300 years had built our farms and roads and cities and institutions.

Throughout the rest of his life, Eric Hoffer continued to venerate and celebrate the “undesirables” as America’s real founding fathers.

But what I can say is the Trumpsters are true believers. No matter what he does, no matter how unfit and unqualified, how coarse and file, how angry and vindictive, how insecure and deviant, no matter his connections with Russia or the mafia, his multiple bankruptcies and money laundering, his and his father’s racist past, his lack of concern about his followers interests, no matter how horrific of a human being he is … they still believe. Most of them always will.

Summary of Eric Hoffer’s, The True Believer

 

Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents … Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.” ~ Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.

Eric Hoffer (1898 – 1983) was an American moral and social philosopher who worked for more than twenty years as a longshoremen in San Francisco. The author of ten books, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983. His first book, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951), is a work in social psychology which discusses the psychological causes of fanaticism. It is widely considered a classic.

Overview

The first lines of Hoffer’s book clearly state its purpose:

This book deals with some peculiarities common to all mass movements, be they religious movements, social revolutions or nationalist movements. It does not maintain that all movements are identical, but that they share certain essential characteristics which give them a family likeness.

All mass movements generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action; all of them, irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance; all of them are capable of releasing a powerful flow of activity in certain departments of life; all of them demand blind faith and single-hearted allegiance.

All movements, however different in doctrine and aspiration, draw their early adherents from the same types of humanity; they all appeal to the same types of mind.

Though there are obvious differences between the fanatical Christian, the fanatical Mohammedan, the fanatical nationalist, the fanatical Communist and the fanatical Nazi, it is yet true that the fanaticism which animates them may be viewed and treated as one …

This book concerns itself chiefly with … the true believer—the man of fanatical faith who is ready to sacrifice his life for a holy cause …

The assumption that mass movements have many traits in common does not imply that all movements are equally beneficent or poisonous. The book passes no judgments, and expresses no preferences. It merely tries to explain… (pp. xi-xiii)

Part 1 – The Appeal of Mass Movements

Hoffer says that mass movements begin when discontented, powerless people lose faith in existing institutions and demand change.

Starting out from the fact that the frustrated predominate among the early adherents of all mass movements … it is assumed: 1) that frustration of itself, without any proselytizing prompting from the outside, can generate most of the peculiar characteristics of the true believer; 2) that an effective technique of conversion consists basically in the inculcation and fixation of proclivities and responses indigenous to the frustrated mind. (p. xii)

Feeling hopeless, such people participate in movements that allow them to become part of a larger collective. “ . . . a mass movement … appeals not to those intent on bolstering and advancing a cherished self, but to those who crave to be rid of an unwanted self because it can satisfy the passion for self-renunciation.” (p. 12)

Put another way, Hoffer says: ““Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the loss of faith in ourselves.” (p. 14) Leaders inspire these movements, but the seeds of mass movements must already exist for the leaders to be successful. And while mass movements typically blend nationalist, political and religious ideas, they all compete for angry and/or marginalized people.

Part 2 – The Potential Converts

The destitute are not usually converts to mass movements; they are too busy trying to survive to become engaged. But what Hoffer calls the “new poor,” those who previously had wealth or status but who believe they have now lost it, are potential converts. Such people are resentful and blame others for their problems.

Mass movements also attract the partially assimilated—those who feel alienated from mainstream culture. Others include misfits, outcasts, adolescents, and sinners, as well as the ambitious, selfish, impotent and bored. What all converts all share is the feeling that their lives are meaningless and worthless.

A rising mass movement attracts and holds a following not by its doctrine and promises but by the refuge it offers from the anxieties, barrenness, and meaninglessness of an individual existence. It cures the poignantly frustrated not by conferring on them an absolute truth or remedying the difficulties and abuses which made their lives miserable, but by freeing them from their ineffectual selves—and it does this by enfolding and absorbing them into a closely knit and exultant corporate whole. (p. 41)

Hoffer emphasizes that creative people—those who experience creative flow—aren’t usually attracted to mass movements. Creativity provides inner joy which both acts as an antidote to the frustrations with external hardships. Creativity also relieves boredom, one of the main causes of mass movements:

There is perhaps no more reliable indicator of a society’s ripeness for a mass movement than the prevalence of unrelieved boredom. In almost all the descriptions of the periods preceding the rise of mass movements there is reference to vast ennui; and in their earliest stages mass movements are more likely to find sympathizers and
support among the bored than among the exploited and oppressed. To a deliberate fomenter of mass upheavals, the report that people are bored still should be at least as encouraging as that they are suffering from intolerable economic or political abuses. (p. 51-52)

Part 3 – United Action and Self-Sacrifice

Mass movements demand of their followers a “total surrender of a distinct self.” (p. 117) Thus a follower identifies as “a member of a certain tribe or family.” (p. 62) Furthermore, mass movements denigrate and “loath the present.” (p. 74) By regarding the modern world as worthless, the movement inspires a battle against it.

What surprises one, when listening to the frustrated as the decry the present and all its works, is the enormous joy they derive from doing so. Such delight cannot come from the mere venting of a grievance. There must be something more—and there is. By expiating upon the incurable baseness and vileness of the times, the frustrated soften their feeling of failure and isolation … (p. 75)

Mass movements also “promote the use of doctrines that elevate faith over reason and serve as “fact-proof screens between the faithful and the realities of the world. (p. 79)

The effectiveness of a doctrine does not come from its meaning but from its certitude…presented as the embodiment of the one and only truth. If a doctrine is not unintelligible, it has to be vague; and if neither unintelligible nor vague, it has to be unverifiable. One has to get to heaven or the distant future to determine the truth of an effective doctrine….simple words are made pregnant with meaning and made to look like symbols in a secret message. There is thus an illiterate air about the most literate true believer. (pp. 80-81).

So believers ignore truths that contradict their fervent beliefs, but this hides the fact that,

The fanatic is perpetually incomplete and insecure. He cannot generate self-assurance out of his individual sources … but finds it only by clinging passionately to whatever support he happens to embrace. The passionate attachment is the essence of his blind devotion and religiosity, and he sees in it the sources of all virtue and strength … He sacrifices his life to prove his worth … The fanatic cannot be weaned away from his cause by an appeal to reason or his moral sense. He fears compromise and cannot be persuaded to qualify the certitude and righteousness of his holy cause.” (p. 85).

Thus the doctrines of the mass movement must not be questioned—they are regarded with certitude—and they are spread through “persuasion, coercion, and proselytization.” Persuasion works best on those already sympathetic to the doctrines, but it must be vague enough to allow “the frustrated to… hear the echo of their own musings in … impassioned double talk.” (p. 106)  Hoffer quotes Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels: “a sharp sword must always stand behind propaganda if it is to be really effective.” (p. 106) The urge to proselytize comes not from a deeply held belief in the truth of doctrine but from an urge of the fanatic to “strengthen his own faith by converting others.” (p. 110)

Moreover, mass movements need an object of hate which unifies believers, and “the ideal devil is a foreigner.” (p. 93) Mass movements need a devil. But in reality the “hatred of a true believer is actually a disguised self-loathing …” and “the fanatic is perpetually incomplete and insecure.” (p. 85) Through their fanatical action and personal sacrifice, the fanatic tries to give their life meaning.

Part 4 – Beginning and End

Hoffer states that three personality types typically lead mass movements: “men of words”, “fanatics”, and “practical men of action.” In the beginning: “men of words” lead the movements. (Regarding the radical positions of the Republicans and Trumpism in the USA think of the late William F. Buckley.) Men of words try to “discredit the prevailing creeds” and creates a “hunger for faith” which is then fed by “doctrines and slogans of the new faith.” (p. 140) Slowly followers emerge.

Then fanatics take over. (In the USA think the Koch brothers, Murdoch, Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Hannity, etc.) Fanatics don’t find solace in literature, philosophy or art. Instead they are characterized by viciousness, the urge to destroy, and the perpetual struggle for power. But after mass movements transform the social order, the insecurity of their followers is not ameliorated. At this point the “practical men of action” take over and try to lead the new order. Now the leaders try to control their former followers.

In the end mass movements that succeed often bring about a social order worse than the previous one. (This was one of Will Durant’s findings in The Lessons of History.) As Hoffer puts it near the end of his work: “All mass movements … irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred, and intolerance.” (p. 141)

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