Paradise of Storm

Month: March, 2017

Reza Aslan and the Pageantry of Belief

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by Guy Walker

Nothing has changed: humans are still deathly afraid of other tribes. They’re beasts that should be corralled and caged, every brown-skinned cretin identified with a cone of shame. Of course we are normal; it’s everyone else who has a funny accent, and believes in the wrong god, who should be feared. Before politics, before social structures and traditions, before we choose what we eat, how we fuck, what we wear, the world defines itself by which invisible puppeteer tugs on our strings. Everything else then falls into place.

Reza Aslan’s new show, Believer, seeks to help us better understand the myriad beliefs far unlike our own. At least, that’s what they say their show is about. The six-part CNN program describes itself as a “new spiritual adventure series,” as if it were a hit Indiana Jones and the Temple of Holy Friars television show, starring a cadre of hermetic monks and wild-eyed fire dancers who succeed in wielding our acceptance of other faiths. But Believer views more like an adolescent’s tour of a freak show, the audience gawking at what could be bearded ladies and midgets who swallow swords. It’s the most recent of many failed attempts to normalize fringe religious ideas in an era when other belief systems are widely feared and misunderstood. And the danger is, Aslan only escalates these misunderstandings.

Reza Aslan, the creative writing professor who finds any excuse to mention he has a PhD in religious studies, drew wide criticism for the series premiere in which he met with an Aghori guru, and took part in the Hindu sect’s practice of cannibalism. There was Aslan, cross-legged in the dirt on the banks of the Ganges, the ash of a cremated human smeared all over his face, eating human brain matter, proving to the world that this is what religious tolerance looks like. He later joked on his Facebook page: “Want to know what a dead guy’s brain tastes like? Charcoal . . . It was burnt to a crisp.” So here we are: watching soap commercials in between the episodic performance art of another man-eating cult, everything sensationalized with the cameras and gentle charm of the show’s host; yes, here we are, in the middle of a gruesome reality-show, all decency and reason abandoned like ash in the wind.

The Aghori man—scrawny, mostly naked, with a garland of bloody jawbones around his head—drank his own piss, and threw his feces at Aslan, because the Aghori abhor India’s caste system, and indulge in their perversions to prove how inconsequential the body actually is. This is a fascinating set of beliefs indeed, and they should be documented for those of us who are culturally intrigued to want to learn about them; but it’s not enough to simply document the practices of the Aghori—Aslan and CNN have to show us that he can eat brains too. This clearly isn’t tolerance; nor is it open-mindedness. It’s paparazzi spectacle, meant only to enhance the usually awful ratings of CNN. It creates a buzz, even if it’s a critical article like this one. Our tolerance of other beliefs opposed to (or at least different from) our own shouldn’t be participating in their practices, but rather in gathering a well-versed literacy of those belief systems, and equipping oneself for a most fruitful and lucid argument against archaism and barbarism.

Because barbarism is on the rise. The anti-immigrant reactions intensifying here in the West are as barbaric as they are ignorant. Earlier this month, a Sikh man was shot and hospitalized in Seattle, his shooter telling him to “go back to [his] own country.” Two weeks prior, another apparent hate crime killed a man of Indian decent in Kansas, the shooter also reportedly yelling “get out of my country” before firing in the busy bar. Believer—at least its episode on the Aghori—fuel the already dangerous ignorance spreading in the U.S. about brown people with strange accents. The xenophobic rhetoric most popularized under Trump’s command doesn’t marry well with Aslan’s sensationalistic illiteracy of other religions.

In its totality, Believer offers no deep understanding of cult behavior or the origins of such malfunctioned thinking. In the episode that follows the Aghori, Aslan asks a Hawaiian doomsday cult leader who calls himself JeZus, not why his ideas are so intellectually inept and poisonous, or what led him to want to corrupt the minds of others; rather, he asks him about his levels of stress to keep all his disciples in line. It feels like unqualified exposition because it is. It’s an old tactic used to entertain instead of inform. And in a way it’s understandable to see why: the overwhelming amount of entertainment shoved at us everyday requires the dying, more desperate networks to press antics of garish pageantry.

When seven billion people are simultaneously clamoring for attention, sanity and decency are never going to win. You’re going to have a stampede of fame-crazed zombies begging you to look at the goat cheese salad they had for lunch. Or they’ll croak their torpid witticism at you until you’re forced to take notice. Twitter is often little more than the defeated classes trying to be as outrageous as possible in 140 characters or less; every tweet is inscribed with the assumed precondition of vanity to get as many retweets as possible. There are asses on Instagram with more fanatic followers than all the standing armies in the world, every ass trying to be larger and juicier than the last, until implants go grotesquely awry. We’re in the middle of a global orgy, everyone trying to outperform the person next to them—if there’s a couple having sex normally, then three people are going to do a headstand and fuck in a human triangle, then a group of strangers will twirl upside down from a ceiling fan, naked, jerking off the person next to them. Anything to go viral for a second.

In this sense, mainstream media stations are in a bit of quandary—they have to keep their corporate monoliths relevant, hip, and edgy amid this lawless extravaganza of entertainment when any runny-nosed teenager with a smartphone can capture the attention of the entire world. It’s hard for CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, who has the charisma of a depressed ewok, to compete with figures like Gigi Gorgeous (who rose to fame giving makeup tutorials on Youtube as a teenage boy; and now, identifying as a woman, recently came out as a lesbian). The luster of celebrity far exceeds the procedural banality of talking heads. Something as bizarre and innocuous as the Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen song—a one minute song experiment combining the words “pen” and “apple,” performed by a man in gold snakeskin pajamas and a thin porno mustache—was still watched over 115 million times. So CNN is left there in the studio, cameras rolling, every news anchor screaming “Look at us! We have something important to say too!”

But they’re supposed to talk about politics, and their ratings are consistently some of the lowest amongst the major news stations, so they stick to awfully insipid topics like Trump’s tweet of the day: self-appointed specialists sit around in monkey suits analyzing the inflammatory content of his 3am outbursts. And they’re not aware of their own absurdity. This is clearly a dead end, and it’s why no one likes CNN.

So what do they do?

They hire Anthony Bourdain to travel the world and eat dumplings. Or Mike Rowe to jump out of airplanes. Or John Walsh to hunt criminals. And finally, Reza Aslan to eat brains.

This cannibal-clickbait works, of course, because the Aghori are far away in India. It allows us to distance ourselves from the idea of it, while also allowing many to reinforce their ideological hostilities against dark-skinned foreigners. If the Aghori were instead a group of white American cannibals, Aslan wouldn’t eat the brain matter even if it were legal. We’re tribal beasts, and eating our own would be unkosher.

There is a point where bad belief needs to be contested without any sensational thrill. What if Aslan came across an operative Warren Jeffs, former President of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FDLS), claiming 70 wives, and sexually abusing his own children? What about Jim Jones, leader of the Peoples Temple, and responsible for the massacre of 918 people, 304 of which were minors? What about Marshall Applewhite, who led the mass suicide of 39 members in order to get onboard a UFO? I trust Aslan and CNN wouldn’t show that he can do these things too.

We shouldn’t pretend to worship other people’s illusory demons; we shouldn’t agreeably nod our heads when others describe their favorite connect-the-dots stick figure traced in the stars. An educator’s role is to nudge us closer to truth. Everything else is just theater.


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A Dialogue of Brutes: the Successful Attack on the Free Press

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by Guy Walker

All that’s left is constant snorting, rummaging through the garbage heap for an edible morsel. Our language has degraded into a pile of censored insults and sensitivies; our press soon nothing more than congratulatory think-pieces on Donald Trump and Steve Bannon. The president’s administration has one main prerogative—more urgent than the wall, the immigration ban, or repealing healthcare: making all dissidence slander.

When Bannon spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference in late February, it was the first time he appeared in public since Trump’s inauguration, his aura of putrid steam billowing across the ballroom like a hypnotic glaze. Supporters finally saw their man—the pale greased-up beast, occasionally scratching himself under his bristled chin—as they’d nod and reassure each other how smart a human turnip actually could be.

He sat there hunched. His gelatinous belly heaved over his sweaty and suffocating crotch, the liver spots that dazzle his face almost peeling at their corners. His eyes, tired and cavernous, are the eyes of complete and impenetrable nihilism—as if he was forced to stare at nothing but cat memes for thirty years, and now seeks revenge on the entire world.

His speech made the usual allegations, posturing conservatives as the underdog, as if they are the political embodiment of Rocky Balboa, knowing well that we humans root and holler for such figures. He said they were being unjustly attacked by the “corporatist globalist media that are adamantly opposed” to their agenda. It’s more a sophomoric tantrum than political rhetoric. It’s what they always blame liberals for doing: snowflakes who “cry and weep” when things don’t go their way—then Trump turns and tweets that SNL is “really bad television” because they made fun of him.

As chief strategist of the White House, Bannon is paralyzingly void of political acumen. He’s squirmish in his suit and tie—his natural, more charitable state is in a bulging-tight wifebeater (because it’s not an undershirt, it’s a way of life)—slouched in his sticky sofa, cursing at the news personality on the television as bits of uncooked pork rocket from his mouth. His ‘strategy’ from the beginning has been to silence dissidence, to insult those who question Trump’s infallibility. In late January, he said “the media”—in general sweeping terms—“should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and listen for a while.” In a way, it makes complete sense for Bannon to hate the news. He was, after all, executive chair of Breitbart News.

The patterned formula for Trump’s cabinet positions is to nominate someone who condemns the mere existence of that position. Betsy DeVos hates public education. Scott Pruitt sued the EPA many times before being appointed its chief administrator. Rick Perry once said he wanted to dismantle the Department of Energy (he actually forgot the name of this department, but later admitted that this was what he meant). They’re like schoolchildren giggling for wearing their underwear over their pants during Backwards Day, almost purposefully mocking the public for making us accept it.

Everything is reversed. A media tycoon hates the media. A 70-year-old baby plays with his toys of the world’s most advanced nuclear arsenal. Language is meaningless. War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. We’re all floundering in the dark, trying to grab hold of something real.

Writers have long waded into the depths of cliché by referring to the actions of the opposition political party as “Orwellian” (a queer and unfitting word, as George Orwell made a career of opposing tyranny). His concept of Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four is used to describe the more disparaging antics of both the left and the right ad nauseam, leveraged to whatever paranoia is most fitting: from the flailing pettiness of political correctness that spawns from scrawny self-abusing leftists, to the Nixonian litigation of the War on Drugs, condemning every magical cabbage that sprouts its head. But Trump’s administration is something entirely new: a band of shit-smeared pigs haphazardly shuffling pieces on a Scrabble board, squealing triumphantly when they get a three syllable word. When journalists from the New York Times, CNN, and Politico were recently barred from attending a Spicer press briefing—and Breitbart and America News Network greeted quickly in—a new narrative unfolds: only praise will be allowed.

Milo Yiannopoulos, Gavin McInnes, and other professional conservative trolls who pose as free speech advocates, suddenly lose their platform. Their reality-show ideologue hates the freedoms of those who disagree with the minutia of his brutish declarations of absolute power. If he could, he’d fire every dissident, every skeptic and examiner of the truth.

But he doesn’t really need to. A storm cloud of disinformation has overwhelmed the modern political dialectic. The fake news phenomenon is more a pop-culture phenomenon than anything else—it’s yet another symptom of what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer called the “culture industry,” the churlish beast of mass culture that anesthetizes an entire generation through its pageant of entertainments. In Adorno’s 1951 book, Minima Moralia, he writes:

    “Lies have long legs: they are ahead of their time. The conversion of all questions of truth into questions of power, a process that truth itself cannot escape if it is not to be annihilated by power, not only suppresses truth as in earlier despotic orders, but has attacked the very heart of the distinction between true and false, which the hirelings of logic were in any case diligently working to abolish.”

The bucktoothed carnies are in charge now, chanting their new vocabulary, requiring us to debate only in grunts and farts, the most repulsive one winning a garland of Easter basket nesting in order to better resemble their god. Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” moment was testament to this—a lazy-eyed performance art of Gustave Flaubert’s famous remark, “There is no truth. There is only perception.” She tours one news station after the next, her procedural drawl resembling a sticky-fanged bobblehead, a wax paper automaton smiling larger when she lies, shifting her aching buttocks in front of another green screen. It demonstrates the annihilation of truth is a necessary prerequisite for the rise of authoritarianism—it leaves a void that is naturally occupied the quickest by power and aggression.

And it clearly works. A Fox News poll marked Americans’ distrust of “reporters” deeper than their distrust of Donald Trump. The slithering reality-show host who launched his political career by alleging that Barack Obama was a Muslim born in Kenya, and then officially endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, has more favorability than the grossly generalized populace of journalists and talking heads. Bannon’s comments are not actual threats to shut the media up—he’s simply gloating that he can say this and get away with it. He thrives on the inflammatory, on offending entire populations of fragile leftists into yet another frenzy.

Orwell never wrote anything that argued specifically against fascism. He took it for granted that Cartesian common sense wouldn’t let a generation go entirely mad. He was, however, obsessed with language. In one of the most important political essays, Politics and the English Language—written a year before Trump shoved his veiny head out of his mother—Orwell conferred that we “ought to recognise that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language.” He meant the hyper-intellectualization of language—speech used by many economists, politicians, academics with the intent to confuse the reader or listener under a glaze of jargon. He criticized use of ‘pretentious diction’ and ‘meaningless words’ as confabulatory, stupid, and manipulative. If Orwell could look upon today’s political arena, and listen to the level of debate and discourse, he may very well enjoy a fiendish delight in even his most pessimistic concerns being surpassed. There is nothing Daedalean or exaggerated about the Trump-Bannon-Conway approach to their speech, but rather a literal degradation of language, a dogmatically stubborn defense of adult retardation assuming the highest office in the world.

Early-stage fascism is the most opportunistic and consequential, and yet also the most fragile. As the Trump administration takes its first steps forward, it momentarily glances around to see if it can still get away with it—Trump’s affinity for Putin is obvious, as he restricts the press and puffs his chest as he does it. But he succeeds only through the sordid apathy of the public, through our splendor of the culture industry, like bugs flying stupidly towards a florescent lamp.

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