On ‘The Ravanayan’ and women traveling alone.

On ‘The Ravanayan’ and women traveling alone.

Most ancient stories, including several considered sacred by contemporary societies, are riddled with sex, violence, and gore.  In the Old Testament, Samson goes berserk and murders a thousand men with the jawbone of a donkey.  In the Iliad, Achilles goes berserk and drags a corpse across the battlefield, hoping to defile the body of his foe.  In the Edda, Thor goes berserk and starts smashing skulls with his hammer. 

In the Ramayana, an army of monkeys and an army of demons meet murderously on the battlefield.  From Robert Goldman, Sally Sutherland Goldman, and Barend van Nooten’s translation of the Ramayana:

In that terrible darkness they slaughtered one another in battle: the monkeys crying, “Are you a demon?” and the demons crying, “Are you a monkey?”

Kill!”  “Rend!”  “Come on!”  “What, running away?”  Such were the tumultuous cries that were heard in that darkness.

A tremendous din could be heard as they roared and raced about in that tumultuous battle, though nothing at all could be seen.

In their towering fury, monkeys killed monkeys, while demons slaughtered demons in the darkness.

And as the monkeys and demons killed friend and foe alike, they drenched the earth with blood, making it slick with mud.

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The weapons described in the Ramayana are so fantastical that some Hindu nationalists cite these passages as evidence that ancient Indians had access to advanced military technology, like atomic bombs.  Which, um, they didn’t.  These claims are equivalent to the Christian archaeologists who scour rocks for evidence of Yahweh’s genocidal flood in the Old Testament.

Ancient myths tend not to be literally true.

But, even to a generation raised on Mortal Kombat and action flicks, mythological battle scenes are pretty intense.  Especially in the Ramayana, what with those magical weapons, flying monkeys, and angry demons.  Luckily for us, Vijayendra Mohanty and Vivek Goel have collaborated to produce The Ravanayan, a gorgeous series of comic books depicting this story.

Divine arrows that explode on impact?  Yup.

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The Ramayana is an intricate, expansive myth.  Whenever I attempt to summarize it to someone, I begin tentatively – the story includes deep meditations on fate, and its chains of causality often seem involuted and intertwined.  One action causes another, but the second action also caused the first. 

For instance, Rama kills Ravana because Ravana kidnapped Rama’s spouse.  But also, Rama was born for the express purpose of killing Ravana.  Their collision was pre-ordained.

In some tellings, Ravana is a demon.  A monstrous figure who, like Lucifer, initiates an assault on the gods and must be stopped.  Because Ravana is immune to harm from deities, though, Vishnu must be incarnated as a human to slay him.  During Vishnu’s tenure as a human, other characters intentionally waste his time because they are waiting for Rama / Vishnu’s divinity to fade sufficiently for him to be able to fight Ravana.

In other tellings, Ravana is an enlightened figure.  Ravana is vegetarian, whereas Rama’s vice-like passion for hunting is so strong that he abandons his spouse in order to pursue (and kill) a particularly beautiful deer.  By way of contrast, Ravana exemplifies asceticism, forebearance, and learning … but is doomed by love.  In the essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas,” A.K. Ramanujan writes that:

In the Jain texts … Ravana is a noble hero fated by his karma to fall for Sita and bring death upon himself.

And, in some Shaivite interpretations of the Ramayana, the supposed villain has orchestrated the entire affair for the good of the world.  In these tellings, Ravana is like Jesus, intentionally sacrificing himself to potentiate salvation for others.

Mohanty and Goel’s Ravanayan follows this tradition.  In addition to stunning illustrations (seriously, check out Goel’s pictures of Brahma, a creator who contains galaxies), their books offer deep psychological insight, especially in their explanations for Ravana’s seemingly irrational behavior.  In their telling, Ravana is perfectly aware of the pain that he is causing, but he believes that the only way to save the world is by sacrificing himself and those he loves.

Goel’s Brahma.

Goel often depicts Ravana alone, repulsed by the suffering that he himself must cause in pursuit of greater good.

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Precisely because Mohanty and Goel do such an excellent job depicting other portions of the Ramayana, I was disappointed that their series skips the Shoorpanakha episode.  In this scene, an adventurous woman is traveling alone when she meets Rama and his brother.  The two are so gorgeous and charming that she feels smitten and begins to flirt.  The brothers tease her briefly … then mutilate her face by hacking off her nose and ears, a standard punishment for sexual impropriety.

As it happens, the woman whom Rama and his brother have abused is Ravana’s sister.  Shoorpanakha returns to her brother’s kingdom to show Ravana what was done to her.  Only then does Ravana decide to kidnap Rama’s spouse, hoping to punish the brothers for assaulting his sister.

In ancient India, it was unacceptable for a woman to travel alone.  Much worse, Shoorpanakha felt infatuated and attempted to act upon her desires.  Female desire was seen as inherently dangerous; Rama and his brother could been seen as exemplary men despite this assault because Shoorpanakha deserved to have her face sliced open.

Although Mohanty and Goel don’t show Rama and his brother disfiguring Shoorpanakha, her depiction in the first volume of their series is decidedly unsympathetic.  She is described as “wildness itself, chasing after anything that moved.”  When she and her siblings find an injured jungle cat, her younger brother says they should nurse it back to health; she wants to eat it. 

And then, as part of his plan to sacrifice himself for the sake of the story, Ravana murders Shoorpanakha’s husband in order to send her mad with grief. Because no sane woman would be so bold, possessed of such unnatural appetites, as to want to seduce the beautiful, charming, divine men she meets while traveling.

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The Ramayana is thousands of years old.  It’s unreasonable to expect ancient stories to mirror contemporary sensibilities.  We know now, obviously, that many people whose cells contain two x chromosomes enjoy travel, adventure, and sex.  They shouldn’t be judged for their desire.  And certainly not assaulted in retribution for it, as Shoorpanakha was.

Except that … they are.  The New York Times recently ran an article on some of the women who have been attacked while (and quite possibly for) traveling alone.

Women are still punished for their appetites.  For perfectly acceptable behavior, things that would seem strange for men to fear.

If the world were different, I probably wouldn’t fault Mohanty and Goel for their depiction of Shoorpanakha.  After all, they’re working with ancient source material.  The original audience for the Ramayana would have shared a prejudice against adventuresome women.

But, until our world gets better, I feel wary of art that promotes those same prejudices.

A beautiful comic book could change the way kids think about the world.  In The Ravanayan, Mohanty and Goel push readers to feel empathy even for a story’s traditional villain.  I just wish they’d done more.  Our world still isn’t safe for women.  Shoorpanakha, too, has a story that deserves to be heard.

On the value of religious misinterpretation.

On the value of religious misinterpretation.

David Kishik begins his lovely theological meditation The Book of Shem by pondering the inverted grammar that opens Genesis.  Instead of a typical subject verb direct object construction, the first sentence of the original Hebrew text is arranged adverb verb subject direct object.

Wrote Kishik, “This is an odd grammatical construction, not only in English (compare ‘Yesterday walked Joseph’) but also in Hebrew.”  Odd, although not totally outlandish.

Kishik questions whether the grammar was actually strange, however.  What if the book of Genesis opens with a perfectly normal sentence that is intended to convey a bizarre idea, instead.  The first word, which everyone presumes to be an adverb, might instead refer to a power above even Yahweh himself (“Bereshit” in Hebrew, commonly rendered as “In the beginning” in English). 

We would have something like:

InTheBeginning created (a) god, the heavens and the earth.

It seems implausible that Kishik, or anyone, would consider this translation to be what the original authors of Genesis intended.  Even if the translation itself were more plausible, this interpretation is divorced from the actual religious practices that treat Genesis as a foundational text.  Religions use the book, but no religion is defined by a text alone.

It might seem bizarre for InTheBeginning, the mysterious pre-civilized force, to be mentioned only once, at the moment when he creates our Lord.  But Kishik pursues this idea through an entire arc of environmentally-conscious speculation.  If InTheBeginning created Yahweh, then Yahweh’s formidable jealousy becomes comprehensible.  We can understand why Yahweh might compulsively, almost tic-ishly, appraise the quality of his own creations: … and God saw that it was good.

Kishik begins by misinterpreting Genesis, but this allows him to make interesting discoveries along the way.  He concludes that, just as InTheBeginning was a pre-human, pre-lingual force able to create God, there must be a symmetrical post-human, post-textual void for the world to return to.  Although God made a covenant (Genesis 9:11) promising not to destroy the planet, He does not possess total control.

God will not kill us.  But he may not be able to save us.  We humans might destroy this world ourselves.

Indeed, we’re well on our way.

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I was raised in a mostly secular household, and I’m still wary of mysticism (despite my own belief in free will).  I’m quite obviously an outsider to every religious tradition.  But religions shape the way most humans approach the world, so it behooves all people, myself included, to learn and think deeply about them.

Even outsiders must occasionally appropriate the right to critique these texts.

It’s important to understand their standard interpretations.  But, even from the perspective of an outsider, a lot of nuance can be revealed through assiduous misinterpretation.

Kishik’s The Book of Shem, although obviously nonstandard, is an enlightening, pleasurable read.

Or consider John-Michael Bloomquist’s “The Prodigal’s Return,” a poem about teaching in jail, which includes the line:

                  I think Christ died for us

to forgive his father, who until he became a man

and dwelt among us had no way of knowing

what it was like to be Job


In the standard interpretation, Jesus was sacrificed so that God would forgive us humans.  This is a very traditional myth, with variants told by many human cultures across the globe.  Wrathful deities must be appeased through the intentional, unwarranted sacrifice of something good. 

In The Iliad, the Acheans praise Zeus by slitting the throats of a whole row of young men kneeling in the sand.  Abraham bound his son on the mountaintop; the boy survived that day, but a lot of the story’s power comes from the original audience knowing that this sort of sacrifice was common.  They would have realized how close Abraham came to plunging down the knife.  There are numerous stories about the need to murder beautiful virgins to appease volcanoes, or to ensure good harvests, or to bring back rain.

Even though Jesus’s sacrifice makes sense within the framework of traditional mythology, it seems jarring within the context of Christianity, which purports to worship a kind, merciful god.

Within Christianity, it actually makes more sense for God to incarnate himself and suffer greatly so that we humans would forgive Him.  He created this world, and this world causes us to hurt.  Until He feels some of the hurt that He has subjected us to, his apologies would seem insincere.

Loneliness, hopelessness – God subjected Job to these in order to win a bet.  He subjects nearly all humans to these travails as a matter of universal design.  He needs to know the cost that we pay.

After hanging from the cross, He could look to Job and say, I understand how you might have felt.

This is not what the original authors wanted the Bible to convey.  But we’d have a better world if it were.

John-Michael soon learned that being inside a jail – even as a visitor, there to read poetry for ninety minutes and then leave – was miserable.  But he kept going for an entire year.  The people in jail are suffering on behalf of all U.S. citizens – which meant, on his behalf – so he needed to suffer too.

Psychiatry students were once encouraged to ingest many different medications, so that they would understand what the compounds they’d prescribe felt like.

Shared experience – especially painful experience – can bring us together.

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The author(s) of the Ramayana intended for Rama to be the greatest possible man.  Within their philosophical framework, Rama is unambiguously good.  The story is a triumph of the hero.

But it’s helpful to look at the myth with modern eyes and willfully misinterpret it.  When we read the story now, Rama seems flawed because his world was flawed.

Near the end of Rama’s saga his path is blocked by the ocean.  His wife is held captive on an island kingdom; Rama feels helpless, trapped on the shore.  And so he threatens violence against the very waters:

Now, launching a powerful assault, I shall with my arrows dry up the ocean together with its fish and sea monsters and its masses of conch and oyster shells.

This lord of the ocean, abode of sea monsters, thinks that, because I am endowed with forbearance, I am weak.  To hell with forbearance for people like this!

Fetch my bow and my arrows, which are like venomous serpents, for now in my fury I shall convulse the imperturbable ocean.

This passage was translated collaboratively by Robert Goldman, Sally Sutherland Goldman, & Barend Nooten.  And it is troubling to see Rama, the ideal man, threaten physical violence to ensure that the world conforms to his desires.  Goldman and Goldman include the following footnote:

This episode, in its rendition by Tulsi Das, is the setting for his famous verse about how certain things and creatures, including sudras and women, only perform when beaten.  This verse has been the subject of critique and controversy among members of the women’s movement and Dalit advocacy groups in contemporary India.

If we castigate Rama for his words, we are clearly misinterpreting the text.  Rama is good within the text, because this behavior was good within his world.  A man, head of the household, was allowed to beat his wife or servants if they did not meet his expectations.  

Most people would find it difficult to read Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” with a straight face now.  But, in another revealing misinterpretation, proponents of the Dravidar Kazhagam movement have found parallels between the Ramayana itself and a Kipling-esque tale of colonial conquest and oppression.  In the Ramayana, light-skinned north Indians execute a south Indian king, subjugate the local populace, and install their own ruler.  (I’ve written about this interpretation previously, here.)

Hinduism itself, along with the oppressions of the caste system, seems to have reached south India in this way.  The original conquest probably occurred around the time that the Ramayana was composed, although the spread of Hinduism was not yet complete even many centuries of years later, when Kipling’s British white men arrived to make matters even worse.

In Ants Among Elephants, Sujatha Gidla writes that:

When I asked my mother and my uncle about our ancestors, they started with their grandparents’ generation, the earliest one they’d known.

Their grandfather and grandmother were born in the late 1800s in the Khammam district, within what later became the state of Andhra Pradesh, where they lived as part of a nomadic clan.  Their clan did not practice agriculture.  They subsisted on fruits, on roots, on honey, on whatever they could catch or snare.  They were not Hindus.  They worshiped their own tribal goddesses and had little to do with society outside the forest where they lived.

When the British cleared the forests for teak plantations, my great-grandparents’ clan was driven out onto the plains, where the civilized people, the settled ones, the ones who owned land and knew how to cultivate it – in a word, the Hindus – lived.  The little clan, wandering outside the forest, found a great lake and settled around it.  There was no sign of human life for miles and miles.  They took up farming.  The land around the lake was fertile and gave them more than they needed.  They called their new settlement Sankarapadu, after one of their gods.

But soon the civilized people took notice of them.  They were discovered by an agent of the local zamindar – the great landlord appointed by the British to collect revenue in that area – who saw the rice growing in their fields and levied taxes, keeping the bulk of what he extracted for himself.

But that was not enough for this agent.  He and his family and his caste people moved nearby and set about stealing the land by force and by cunning.  They loaned the clansmen trivial sums at usurious rates to buy small necessities such as salt, seeds, or new clothes for a wedding.  Unable to pay off these debts, the villagers gave up their land acre by acre.  My ancestors, who had cleared and settled the area, were reduced to working on their old fields as laborers.

This is what has happened to tribal peoples in India who try to settle down and cultivate land since time immemorial.  It still happens to this day.  What set Sankarapadu apart was that the Hindus who usurped all the fields around it did not settle there themselves.  That’s because the village is surrounded by fetid swamps filled with poisonous snakes, scorpions, and thick swarms of mosquitoes.  The landlords settled on safe and elevated ground several miles away in a village called Polukonda.

In the forest, my great-grandfather’s clan had had no caste.  But in Hindu society everyone is assigned a place in the caste system.  Certain castes traditionally own land, and others have to work for those who do.  For those who must work, the caste you are born into determines the kind of work you do.  There are priestly castes, carpenter castes, potter castes, barber castes.  The more impure a caste’s traditional occupation in terms of ritual law, the lower its status.

When the people of Sankarapadu entered Hindu society with no caste of their own and the most impure occupation of all, that of landless laborers, there was no question where their place would be: at the bottom, as despised outcastes.  Outcastes are also called untouchables because they are supposed to be so ritually unclean that the slightest contact with them will defile even low-caste Hindus.  Untouchables cannot share meals with others, much less intermarry with them, and are made to live apart from the rest of the village in a segregated colony on its outskirts.  Sankarapadu became the untouchable colony of Polukonda, albeit an unusually remote on.

The Ramayana was not meant to be a story of oppression.  But this misinterpretation has value, because it helps us understand the widespread biases of the author’s world — biases that persist to this day and still cause horrific suffering and violence.

Anachronistic critique will invariably lead us to misinterpret religious texts.  That shouldn’t stop us.  I’m curious to know what the old stories would mean if the world were as good as it could be.

On food and willing sacrifice.

On food and willing sacrifice.

Agni_devaIn ancient Indian mythology, fire was a god.  The word for fire is agni, and Agni the god who ate oblations.  Agni served as mouth and gullet for the entire pantheon – when sacrifices were offered to any god, Agni would eat them, ferrying goods from our world to the spirit realm.

When the gods were cursed such that they could not sire children with their wives, Agni, who’d once consumed Shiva’s semen, was asked to stray.  From Robert Goldman’s translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana:

(note, in terms of safety for reading at work, that the following passage is decidedly less circumspect than you might expect based on a familiarity with other sacred texts, e.g. the King James rendering of Genesis 38:9)

[A]ll the gods proceeded to Mount Kailasa, adorned with metallic ores, and charged Agni, the god of fire, with the task of begetting a son.  ‘You are a god, eater of oblations, and should carry out this task of the gods.  Great is your splendor.  You must release the semen into the Ganges, the daughter of the mountain.’

Agni, the purifier, promised the gods he would do this and so, approaching the Ganges, he said, ‘Bear this embryo, goddess, as a favor to the gods.’

Shantanu_Meets_Goddess_Ganga_by_Warivick_GobleHearing these words, she assumed her divine form, and he, seeing her extraordinary beauty, scattered the semen all over.  Agni, the purifier, showered it all over the goddess, so that all the channels of the Ganges were filled with it. 

In ancient Indian mythology, the semen of powerful males will sprout children wherever it lands, no female gamete required.  Numerous heroes were engendered when males chanced across beautiful women bathing and shortly thereafter just happened to ejaculate – their children might be born from baskets, butter jars, or someone’s mouth.

A fetus soon formed from the material sprinkled over Ganges’s body, but although she’d consented willingly to bear the child, she soon declared it to be too powerful, that the embryo was burning her body.  She tucked it into the base of the Himalayas to finish gestation.

Later in the Ramayana, Sita attempts to sacrifice herself – but Agni will not take her.  Sita was kidnapped and so her husband Rama comes to rescue her.  With the help of a monkey army, Rama destroys a South Indian kingdom and slays his wife’s captor.  But he assumes that Sita has been tarnished by rape.  He tells her (in the Robert Goldman and Sally Sutherland Goldman translation):

I have recovered my reputation, and that is the purpose for which I won you back.  I do not love you anymore.  Go hence wherever you like.”

Heartbroken, Sita decides to jump into a fire – she’d rather die than lose her husband.  But the fire doesn’t burn her.  Instead, her presence is said to burn the fire itself.  Agni lifts her from the bonfire and tells her husband that she is beyond reproach.  The man agrees, briefly, to take her back.

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More often, Agni simply burns things.  Objects from our world disappear, leaving nothing but ash.

And we are also like fire.   In David Shulman’s essay for the New York Review of Books, he writes:

Fire_from_brazierFor Vedic thinkers, all that lives survives by consuming other living beings.  Humans, too, have a hungry fire burning in their bellies; they have to sacrifice other creatures to that fire every day if they are going to stay alive.

We are heterotrophs.  Unlike plants, we can’t create ourselves by drinking in water, air, and sunlight.  We have to eat – sacrificing something – to survive.

Much of the time, the sacrifices that allow our lives are violent.  Humans evolved as meat eaters – scavengers, likely, then hunters.  We stalked, killed, and butchered mammoths.  On contemporary industrial farms, plants are culled by nightmarish threshers, ripped from the ground and shaken clean by machines.

We are heterotrophs.  It’s either us or them.

But sometimes we’re fueled by willing sacrifice.

apple-1122537_1280Fruit-bearing plants co-evolved with animals.  Fruit is a gift.  When a plant bears fruit, it hopes for reciprocity, but in a generalized way.  The plant isn’t trading – it can’t guarantee that any one offering will procure a service.  But over time, many hungry animals have willingly spread the plants’ seeds – that’s the gift we offer in return.

(This is true of all fruit.  I’d say it’s foolish to trust our Supreme Court justices’ opinions on just about anything – I definitely wouldn’t expect them to correctly identify the parts of a plant.  In addition to bananas, grapes, and apples, things like tomatoes, squash, zucchini, and peppers are fruit.  It’s thought that each type of fruit co-evolved with a specific animal that was originally responsible for spreading its seeds.)

Even if a plant gives fruit to us willingly, though, you could wonder whether the fruit agrees with the sacrifice.  No matter what the tree might want, perhaps an apple would rather not be eaten.

Any one cell might prefer not to die.

1024px-Mucinous_lmp_ovarian_tumour_intermed_magCancer is a rough equivalent to libertarian philosophy.  Cancer is the ultimate freedom.  In a multicellular organism, most individual cells will voluntarily cease to grow when their industry infringes upon their neighbors.  They experience “contact inhibition.”  As soon as a cell touches another, it respects the established boundaries as inviolable.

If a cell’s usefulness has waned, it undergoes apoptosis – voluntary suicide.

In a multicellular organism that practices sexual reproduction – even unilateral reproduction like Agni showering sperm over Ganges’s prostrate body – every cell that isn’t part of the germ line is doomed to die.  From the perspective of evolution, your body is like a disposable rocket ship, built only to ferry the lineage of cells in your genitalia forward through time.  Those cells matter – their descendants might survive forever.

The cells in your hand?  They might have children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren – but their line will come to an abrupt end.  Maybe you were bitten by a radioactive super-power-granting DNA-altering spider and the cells in your hand became amazing.  Doesn’t matter.  Their glorious kind will go extinct.

And if the cells in your hand decide that this isn’t fair, and instead liberate themselves from the shackles of self-restraint and suicide, growing as much as possible – well, that’s cancer.  The host organism will die.  And those renegade cells, the ones who adopted the mantra look out for number one, will inevitably also die, starving fruitlessly, progeny-less.

It’s the same old tragedy of the commons, the same reason why there are now so few fish in the sea, and why Easter Island has no trees.  Sometimes personal persistence dooms you more completely than would sacrifice toward a common cause.

On parenting and short-term memory loss.

On parenting and short-term memory loss.

A deep undercurrent of misogyny courses through much of the world’s mythology.  In the Mahabharata (the Indian epic that includes the Bhagavad Gita), the hero’s wife is gambled away by her husband as just another possession after he’d lost his jewels, money, and chariot.  She is forced to strip in the middle of the casino; happily, divine intervention provides her with endless layers of garments.

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In the Ramayana, the hero’s wife is banished by her husband because her misery in exile is preferable to the townsfolk’s malicious rumors.  She’d been kidnapped, so the townsfolk assumed she’d been raped and was therefore tarnished.

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In Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey, a woman asks a visiting bard to sing something else when he launches into a description of the calamitous escapade that whisked away her husband. But the woman’s son intervenes:

Sullen Telemachus said, “Mother, no,

you must not criticize the loyal bard

for singing as it pleases him to sing. 

 

         Go in and do your work.

Stick to the loom and distaff.  Tell your slaves

to do their chores as well.  It is for men

to talk, especially me.”

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In Women and Power, Mary Beard says of this scene:

There is something faintly ridiculous about this wet-behind-the-ears lad shutting up the savvy, middle-aged Penelope.  But it is a nice demonstration that right where written evidence for Western culture starts, women’s voices are not being heard in the public sphere.  More than that, as Homer has it, an integral part of growing up, as a man, is learning to take control of public utterance and to silence the female of the species.

image (2)In What the Qur’an Meant and Why It Matters, Garry Wills writes that:

Belief in women’s inferiority is a long and disheartening part of each [Abrahamic] tradition’s story.  For almost all of Jewish history, no woman could become a rabbi.  For almost all of Christian history, no woman could become a priest.  For almost all of Muslim history, no woman could become a prophet (though scores of men did) or an imam (thousands of men did).

Wills then cites the passage of the Qur’an describing the proper way to validate contracts.  From Abdel Haleem’s translation:

Call in two men as witnesses.  If two men are not there, then call one man and two women out of those you approve as witnesses, so that if one of the two women should forget the other can remind her.  Let the witnesses not refuse when they are summoned. 

Clearly, this is derogatory toward women.  But the phrase “if one of the women should forget, the other can remind her” made me think about why disrespectful attitudes toward women were rampant in so many cultures.

I think that, in the society where the Qur’an was composed, women would be more likely to forget the details of a contract.  But the problem isn’t biological – I would argue that attentive parents of young children are more forgetful than other people.  The parent’s gender is irrelevant here.  My own memory was always excellent – during college I was often enrolled in time and a half the standard number of courses, never took notes, and received almost all A’s – but when I’m taking care of my kids, it’s a miracle if I can hold a complex thought in mind for more than a few seconds.

People talk to me, I half-listen while also answering my kids’ questions, doling out snacks, saying no, no book now, wait till we get home, and then my conversation with the grown-up will end and I’ll realize that I have no idea what we just talked about.

Hopefully it wasn’t important.

Parenting obliterates my short-term memory, even though I have it easy.  I rarely worry about other parents intentionally poisoning my children, for instance.  In The Anthropology of Childhood, David Lancy discusses

image (3)the prevalence of discord within families – especially those that practice polygyny.  [Polygyny is one man marrying several women, as was practiced by the people who composed the Qur’an.]  This atmosphere can be poisonous for children – literally.

Lancy then quotes a passage from Beverly Strassmann’s “Polygyny as a risk factor for child mortality among the Dogon”:

It was widely assumed that co-wives often fatally poisoned each other’s children.  I witnessed special dance rituals intended by husbands to deter this behavior.  Co-wife aggression is documented in court cases with confessions and convictions for poisoning  … sorcery might have a measurable demographic impact – [given] the extraordinarily high mortality of males compared with females.  Males are said to be the preferred targets because daughters marry out of patrilineage whereas sons remain to compete for land.  Even if women do not poison each other’s children, widespread hostility of the mother’s co-wife must be a source of stress.

Even when we don’t have to ward off sorcery or murder, parents of young children have shorter attention spans than other people.  A kid is often grabbing my leg, or tugging on my hand, or yelling fthhhaaaddda until I turn to look and watch him bellyflop onto a cardboard box.

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Seriously, they are exhausting.

Once my two children grow up, I should regain my memory.  But during most of human evolution, mortality rates were so high that families always had small children.  And, unfortunately, our species often established misogynistic patriarchies that believed women alone should do all the work of parenting.

There are a few species, like penguins, in which males and females contribute almost equally to the task of caring for young.  But it’s more common for a single parent to get stuck doing most of the work.  According to game theory, this makes sense – as soon as one party has put in a little bit more effort than the other, that party has more to lose, and so the other has an increased incentive to shirk.  Drawn out over many generations, this can produce creatures like us primates, in which males are often shabby parents.

This is bad for children (in an aside, Lancy writes “I’m tempted to argue that any society with conspicuous gender parity is likely to be a paradise for children.”), bad for women, and bad for men.  Inequality hurts everyone – men in patriarchies get to skimp on parental contribution, but they have to live in a less happy, less productive world.

It’s reasonable for the Qur’an to imply that women are less attentive and less able to understand the intricacies of contracts, given that their husbands weren’t helping with the kids.  Caring for young children can be like a straitjacket on the brain.

In The Mermaid and the Minotaur, Dorothy Dinnerstein writes that:

image (4)if what we mean by “human nature” is the Homo sapiens physique, and the “fundamental pattern … [of] social organization” which apparently prevailed when that physique first took shape, then human nature involves the females in a strange bind:

Like the male, she is equipped with a large brain, competent hands, and upright posture.  She belongs to an intelligent, playful, exploratory species, inhabiting an expanding environment which it makes for itself and then adapts to.  She is the only female, so far as we know, capable of thinking up and bringing about a world wider than the one she sees around her (and her subversive tendency to keep trying to use this capacity is recorded, resentfully, in Eve and Pandora myths). 

She thus seems, of all females, the one least fitted to live in a world narrower than the one she sees around her.  And yet, for reasons inherent in her evolutionary history, she has been, of all females, the one most fated to do so.  Her young are born less mature than those of related mammals; they require more physical care for a relatively longer time; they have much more to learn before they can function without adult supervision.

It hurts to have talents that the world won’t let you use.  What good is a massive brain when your kid is just yelling for more Cheerios?

 

Maybe I’m not doing a good job of selling the idea that “you should pitch in and help with the children” to any potential new fathers out there.  It really does make a wreckage of your brain – but I’ve heard that this is temporary, and I’ve met plenty of parents of older children who seem perfectly un-addled.

And it doesn’t have to be fun to be worth doing.

Experiences during early development have ramifications for somebody’s wellbeing.  As children grow, they’ll forget narrative details from almost everything that happened during their first few years – but this time establishes the emotional pallet that colors the rest of their life.

It’s strange.  After all, most of the work of parenting is just doling out cereal, or answering questions about what life would be like if we stayed at the playground forever, or trying to guess how many different types of birds are chirping during the walk to school.  And yet a parent’s attitudes while doing those small things help shape a person.

 

When most older people look back on their lives, they’ll tell you that their happiest and most rewarding moments were spent interacting with their families.  By caring for your children when they’re young, you help determine the sort of person who’ll be in your family.  If you’re lucky enough to be so wealthy that you’ll still have food and shelter, parenting decisions matter more for future happiness than a few years’ salary.

The costs are high.  But equality, happiness, and establishing a culture of respect should matter to men as well as women.

The best way to show that you value something is to pitch in and do it.

On self-immolation.

On self-immolation.

A lovely young woman from my home town died recently.  Another suicide.  Recent college graduate, Fulbright scholar, compassionate, and sufficiently clever that no one realized the pain she was in.  My wife has the good fortune of working with many wonderful students, but it’s awful that some of the best & brightest pour their all into making sure that no one knows to offer help.

I try to be upfront with people — especially the young students I volunteer with — about the workings of my own mind.  That my own mind is wired such that the world often looks bleak.

depression_by_thecruelone-d48z40t
Depression by sensum on Deviantart.

Part of the misery of growing up with depression, after all, is the mistaken assumption that you alone are broken.  Most people you see from day to day are either not sick that way, or have found ways to accommodate their troubles.  Otherwise you wouldn’t be seeing them out & about!  This is the same reason perusing social media often makes us feel worse about our own lives.  There is “positive selection bias.”  People chose to post pictures and experiences that make themselves look good, and the algorithms choosing what lands at the top of somebody’s feed aggravate the problem.  Other people are getting married, running marathons, cavorting on the beach, birthing beautiful babies!  And nobody’s clicking “like” for your kid’s screaming tantrum video on a day you got sacked.

In my writing, I try to address the philosophical problem of suicide in a non-hokey yet life-affirming way.  It’s true, there is a lot of pain inherent in being alive.  Watching a toddler cry while teething triggers in me a panoramic vision of generations upon generations of teary-eyed kids who’ve suffered the same.  And for secular, science-y types, there isn’t even an externally-imposed meaning to life that would make all that suffering seem necessary.

If things get bad enough, then, yes, the idea of nothing might sound like a step up.  This is described in a darkly comic passage about optimism from Primo Levi’s If This Is a ManAnd I think it’s important to remember, when reading this, that Levi pressed on until he was quite old.  Knowing that he could end things gave him the strength he needed to persevere:

Primo_LeviIt is lucky that it is not windy today.  Strange, how in some way one always has the impression of being fortunate, how some chance happening, perhaps infinitesimal, stops us crossing the threshold of despair and allows us to live.  It is raining, but it is not windy.  Or else, it is raining and is also windy: but you know that this evening it is your turn for the supplement of soup, so that even today you find the strength to reach the evening.  Or it is raining, windy, and you have the usual hunger, and then you think that if you really had to, if you really felt nothing in your heart but suffering and tedium — as sometimes happens, when you really seem to lie on the bottom — well, even in that case, at any moment you want you could always go and touch the electric wire-fence, or throw yourself under the shunting trains, and then it would stop raining.

Knowing Levi’s history — the fact that, despite all the horrors he’d seen during the Holocaust, he did choose to live, adds power to the final phrase.  He didn’t need to stop the rain.  He needed only hope, the knowledge that the rain could be stopped.

Knowing about David Foster Wallace’s life is also what adds so much power — the other way — to my favorite passage from The Pale King.  I love the accountant’s description of heroism; if you’re interested, I’ve written about it here.

Given our world, I imagine I’d feel compelled to write about suicide even if I personally did not suffer from depression.  The death rate in the United States is rising, largely driven by acts of self violence… and that’s even if you consider our epidemics of suicide and drug overdose as separate phenomena.  There’s a compelling argument to be made that these stem from the same root causes, in which case the problem seems even more dire.

The risk isn’t distributed equally.  Like the beloved young woman from the introduction to this essay, suicide takes many of our best and brightest.  It also claims the lives of many who’ve already made tremendous sacrifices on our behalf — the suicide rate among returning veterans is heartbreaking.  We, as a people, are doing far too little to help them.  I’ll include more about this next week when I write about David Means’s Hystopia.

51PqvC8KySL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgI found myself thinking about the problem of suicide — again — while reading Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus.  Her poetry powerfully investigates racial and gendered violence, but I was struck by a strange allusion she chose for “On the Road to Sri Bhuvaneshwari.”  Lewis watches as a buffalo is forced to sniff her stillborn calf during a trip to India, then parallels this tragedy with her own venture into motherhood years later.  Given that my own family is expecting another child, it was a scary poem to read.

The lines about suicide come early in the poem.  Here Lewis is being driven around Uttar Pradesh, a state in northern India.  She will visit a temple celebrating one of the fallen fragments of Shiva’s wife — according to myth, pieces of her body were scattered during Shiva’s grieving, and the sites where they fell became sacred:

I sit behind the driver, admiring

          his cinnamon fingers, his coiffed white beard,

                   his pale pink turban wrapped so handsomely.

                             Why did it take all that?

I mean, why did She have to jump

          into the celestial fire

                   to prove her purity?

                             Shiva’s cool — poisonous, blue,

a shimmering galaxy —

          but when it came to His Old Lady,

                   man, He fucked up!

                             Why couldn’t He just believe Her?

I joke with the driver.  We laugh.

This is such a strange passage because Lewis, who has a master’s degree in Sanskrit and comparative religious literature, is substituting the suicide of Sita, Rama or Vishnu’s wife, with that of Sati, Shiva’s wife.  In a book about racial violence, this is a striking reversal.

To a rough approximation, Shiva is most often venerated by darker-skinned Indians, people who have suffered racially-motivated injustice at the hands of lighter-skinned north Indians.  Shiva is often depicted as an exceedingly grungy god — he chills in cemeteries, his hair is tangled in dreadlocks, he believes in austere living.  In mythology, one of Shiva’s most famous worshipers is Ravana, the scholarly vegetarian south Indian king who is the villain of the Ramayana.

Kalighat_Shiva_mourns_SatiAccording to mythology, Shiva’s wife did commit suicide.  Although Sati loved Shiva, her family thought he was beneath them.  He lived like a dirty hippie!  They didn’t want that grunge-ball to come visiting.  And so, when Sati’s family threw a big party, they didn’t invite Sati or her husband.  Sati, ashamed that her family would slight the man she loved, committed suicide.

This isn’t a story about which you’d write “Why couldn’t He just believe Her?”

But Sita’s suicide?  She was married to Rama, a north Indian prince, but then Ravana, angry that Rama had assaulted Ravana’s sister, kidnapped Sita in retribution.  Rama then gathered an army of monkeys and went with them to destroy the south Indian kingdom.  If you think of The Iliad, you’ve got the basic gist.

Sita lept into the flames because her husband, after rescuing her, considered her tarnished by rape.  Because she had lived away from him, she was no longer fit to be his wife.

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From Sita Sings the Blues.

Here’s Rama’s reunion with his wife:

          As he gazed upon [Sita], who stood so meekly beside him, Rama began to speak, as rage simmered in his heart:

          “So here you are, my good woman.  I have won you back after conquering my enemy in battle.  Whatever there was to be done through manly valor, I have now accomplished.

          “I have wiped clean the affront, and so my wrath is appeased.  For I have eliminated both the insult and my enemy at the same time.

          “Today, my manly valor has been witnessed.  Today my efforts have borne fruit.  Today, having fulfilled my vow here, I am once more master of myself.

          “You were carried off by that wanton [Ravana] when you were left alone, but now, through manly action, I have expunged that affront brought about by fate.

          “What human purpose can man serve if his spirit is so feeble that he will not wipe clean through his own blazing energy an insult he has received?

          “The leaping of the ocean and the razing of [the South Indian kingdom]–today those praiseworthy deeds of [Hanuman, the most powerful monkey,] have borne fruit.

          “Today, through their valor in battle and their beneficial counsel to me, the efforts of [the monkey king] and his army have borne fruit as well.

          “And the efforts of [a south Indian defector], who abandoned his evil brother and came to me of his own accord, have likewise borne fruit.”

          As Rama was saying these words in that fashion, Sita, wide-eyed like a doe, was overcome with tears.

          But as Rama gazed upon her, his anger flared up once more, like the raging flame of a blazing fire drenched with melted butter.

          Knitting his brows on his forehead and glancing at her from the corner of his eye, he spoke harshly to Sita there in the midst of the monkeys and raksasas.

          “In wiping away this affront, Sita, I have accomplished all that a man could do.  In my wrath, I have won you back from the hands of my enemy, just as, through his austerities, the contemplative sage Agastya won back the southern lands that had been inaccessible to all living beings.

          “Bless you, but let it be understood that it was not on your account that I undertook the effort of this war, now brought to completion through the valor of my allies.

          “Instead, I did all this in order to protect my reputation and in every way to wipe clean the insult and disgrace to my illustrious lineage.

          “Since, however, your virtue is now in doubt, your presence has become as profoundly disagreeable to me as is a bright lamp to a man afflicted with a disease of the eye.

          “Go, therefore, as you please, [Sita].  You have my permission.  Here are the ten directions.  I have no further use for you, my good woman.

          “For what powerful man born in a respectable family–his heart tinged with affection–would take back a woman who had lived in the house of another man?

          “How could I who boast of my noble lineage possibly take you back–just risen from Ravana’s lap and gazed upon by his lustful eye?

          “I have recovered my reputation, and that is the purpose for which I won you back.  I do not love you anymore.  Go hence wherever you like.”

(Note: I replaced the term “raksasa,” occasionally, with “south Indian.”  This isn’t entirely accurate.  The word “raksasa” is often translated into English as “ogre,” a race of fantastical shape-shifting creatures, and it would be foolhardy to believe that there is a literal correspondence between this myth and prehistorical events like the conquest of south India by invaders from the north.  But I’m of the belief that it would be equally foolhardy to believe there is no connection between mythology and real-world events.  If you’d like to see the original Sanskrit text of this scene, it’s available here, and my previous essay touching upon the racial implications of the canonical Ramayana is here.)

In traditional mythology, Shiva’s wife did not commit suicide after claiming to be pure and being disbelieved by her husband.  That was Sita.  The wife of the light-skinned oppressor, not, as Lewis alludes, the wife of the dark-skinned oppressed people’s god.

(Another note: according to the myth, Sita survived jumping into the fire — it refused to burn her because she was pure at heart.  Rather than launch into an analogy comparing this to the tests used during the Salem witchcraft trials, I’ll just say that she was briefly accepted back by her husband, then kicked out again, and successfully committed suicide several years later by leaping into a temporary crevasse.)

I agree that the story of Sita’s suicide is more powerful.  Even now, here in the United States, one reason so few sexual assaults are reported is because many victims feel ashamed.  There is a fear that friends, family, and lovers will consider a victim of sexual assault to be damaged.  Tarnished.  Many victims fear that others’ reactions will only aggravate the initial trauma.

They’re often right.  Look what happened to Sita.

Agni_pariksha

It’s unlikely that this underreporting problem will go away until prevailing attitudes about sexuality change.  And, yes, even now the victims of sexual assault are at much higher risk of suicide.

Which, if you’re thinking about it: please wait.  Talk to somebody.  The world’s not perfect.  But it gets better.

On computing and word magic.

On computing and word magic.

Art by Bryan Alexander Davis.
Art by Bryan Alexander Davis.

While reading Louisa Hall’s Speak, I was reminded of an essay on the connection between golems & computers that I’d intended to write.  Hall acknowledges George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral as providing inspiration for her project, and I’d also hoped to draw material from Dyson’s book for my essay.

I’d been convinced by William Poundstone’s review of Turing’s Cathedral that there would be a lot about words in it: “For the first time, numbers could mean numbers or instructions.  Data could be a noun or a verb.”

Unfortunately, Turing’s Cathedral did not match my expectations.  Not that it wasn’t good.  I simply had in mind a very specific thing that I wanted the book to say: something about words summoning forth the universe, maybe paralleling Max Tegmark’s idea (described in Our Mathematical Universe) that the underlying descriptive mathematics create the world.  His idea was, in effect, “we exist because numbers can describe us.”

Of course, Tegmark is a physicist, a math brain, so it makes sense that he’d propose that numbers would create reality.  Hall, the author of Speak, has a Ph.D. in English, and so, in her book, words do it.

Ales_golemIndeed, within the context of novels, words do create reality.  Her characters exist because her descriptive language make them so.  For some twelve thousand years at least, Homo sapiens have been spinning myths with language.  Creating worlds, and in the meantime reshaping our own.

I wanted to write about that generative power.  Several years ago I filled three pages of my notebook (my handwriting is very small, so this took me several days) with notes for an elaborate analogy between Turing machines and golems, linguistically-created life forms both. And I wanted so badly to cram it into my novel, but there was simply no way for it to fit it in without risking the adjective “sprawling,” which I don’t see as a positive characteristic in literature.

In brief, Turing machines are lent life because their data also serves as words.  Although the commands are written in a partial script (a numerical versus verbal language), each command can also be treated as a thing to be manipulated.  Golems are also given life by the power of a word.  Plus, the traditional golem myth prominently features the compelling power of the word death, which nicely mirrors the Ramayana — can you tell how badly I wanted all of this to fit in my book?  Math and words and robots and the Ramayana!

Art by Philippe Semeria.
Art by Philippe Semeria.

I suppose I have a bit of explaining to do.  Here’s a summary of the golem story: Clay man was built. Clay man was inscribed with the word truth (in Hebrew, “emet”) on his forehead. Clay man, computer-like, would follow instructions with no flexibility or human intuition. This led to problems, clay man had to be killed, a letter on his forehead was erased (leaving the Hebrew “met,” death or dead), clay man was a man no more.

And here’s a summary of the original invocation of the Ramayana, also featuring the word death: A brigand was robbing and killing to support his family.  One day he was about to kill some monks and one asked, “Your family shares the money you bring home, do they also share your guilt?”

Obviously, I think they should — prospering from evil should transitively mark you with that evil, which in my opinion is the wellspring of the argument that reparations should be paid even now, many years after the end of the most egregious abuses — but the brigand went home and asked his family their opinion and they said, “No.  You do the killing.  Your soul is tarnished.  We simply eat the food you bring.  We are still good.”

The brigand didn’t like the sound of that so he gave up killing (and abandoned his family) and became a traveling bard.  He was chosen by the gods to sing the most glorious epic myth, The Ramayana, but to summon this story from wherever myths live he needed to chant the hero’s name.  This chant would apparently infuse his mind with all the necessary details and plot twists and whatever.  His job was to say “Rama Rama Rama” until, bam!, he knew the story well enough to rattle it off in metered verse.

But he said he couldn’t.  He’d done all that killing and whatnot, remember?  So he told the gods, “It would be an honor, but, no, I am too impure to speak his name.”  Couldn’t chant Rama.  So the gods instructed him to chant “death death death” instead (in Sanskrit, “mara mara mara”), and the syllables bled into one another and, “mara mara ma ra ma ra ma rama rama rama,” he found himself chanting the name by accident and the story came to him.

To the best of my knowledge, computers cannot be manipulated this way.  As far as I know, trying to trick your computer with a palindromic pointer might cause the wrong area of memory to be modified, which could cause further instructions to be mistargeted, and the entire hard drive could be made fubar… but maybe it’s my ignorance that gives me this suspicion.  Maybe computer scientists know secret power words to summon forth the magic.

On military drones.

On military drones.

http://dronesurvivalguide.org/
Drone Survival Guide, an art project by Ruben Pater.

Sleep Dealer is a lovely film.  Flawed, sure — the romantic bits are corny, the characters’ sudden shifts of heart are abrupt — but the ideas behind the film and they way they’re depicted are great.  If you like mildly-speculative science fiction that conveys powerful social commentary, you should definitely look for it.

sleep-dealer-workBut you should look for it soon, because some of the sci-fi components won’t be fiction long.

For instance, the murderous drones.  I watched Sleep Dealer shortly after it was released (meaning, as soon as the Stanford library bought a copy of the DVD), and the drones were pretty shocking.  One character is a soldier who participates in a live-action reality TV show where home viewers are shown a drone’s eye view of the war on terror.

Of course, there are many ways to decide who counts as a terrorist.  In the Ramayana, for instance, it’s considered terrorism for a low-caste man to pray in the same manner as his betters.  If a ruler allows that sort of behavior in his kingdom, women will turn wanton, sons will die before their time.  Here’s a passage from Valmiki’s Ramayana:

On the banks of that pond one ascetic was performing the most austere penances with his legs upwards and head downwards.  There upon approaching him, Rama Said–O you of good vows, blessed are you; I do ask you, now, O you highly effulgent and grown old in asceticism, in what Varna you are born.  I put this question out of curiosity.  I am the son of king Dasaratha and my name is Rama.

su1eFor what are you going through such hard austerities?  Is it heaven, or anything else that you pray for?  O ascetic, I wish to hear, of the purpose for which you are performing such hard penances.  Art you a Brahmana, or an irrepressible Ksatriya or the third caste Vaisyas or a Sudra?  Do you speak the truth and you shall be crowned with auspiciousness.

Hearing the words of Rama, the ascetic, whose face was downwards, gave out his degraded birth and communicated to him for what he was performing ascetic observances.

Hearing the words of Rama of unwearied actions, the ascetic, with his face downwards, said.

O highly illustrious Rama, I am born in the race of Sudras; and with a view to reach the region of the celestials with my body I am going through these austere penances.

O Kakutstha, I shall never utter a falsehood since I am willing to conquer the region of gods.  I am a Sudra and my name is Sambuka.

The Sudra ascetic having said this, Rama took out of scabbard a beautiful sharp sword and chopped off his head therewith.

But perhaps you’re more interested in contemporary U.S. policy.  As far as I know, we aren’t murdering anyone for simply praying… but praying with the wrong people might draw our wrath.  Here is a passage from Gregoire Chamayou’s excellent Theory of the Drone (translated by Janet Lloyd):

theory_of_the_drone_finalApart from these “personal strikes,” [killing individuals from an authorized list of suspects] there are also “signature strikes,” here meaning strikes authorized on the basis of traces, indications, or defining characteristics.  Such strikes target individuals whose identity remains unknown but whose behavior suggests, signals, or signs membership in a “terrorist organization.”

In such cases, the strike is made “without knowing the precise identity of the individuals targeted.”  It depends solely on their behavior, which, seen from the sky, appears to “correspond to a ‘signature’ of pre-identified behavior that the United States links to militant activity.”  Today, strikes of this type, against unknown suspects, appear to constitute the majority of cases.

In Sleep Dealer, some people murdered under suspicion of being terrorists are innocent.  It’s clear that the same is true in real life.  The drones fly far overhead & relay a grainy depiction of the world below at high latency to employees who must decide on the basis of sketchy information whether the pixelated figures below should live or die.  The low camera resolution probably helps drone pilots maintain emotional distance when they choose wrong; they don’t have a crisp view of children’s deaths.  That low resolution & emotional distance probably increases the frequency with which they choose wrong, though.  A clear view of shared humanity induces greater restraint.

And the people below, the putative terrorists whom the United States is terrorizing, know that death accompanies mere suspicion, & that incomplete, low-res information often gives rise to misguided suspicions.  Here’s another passage from Chamayou’s book:

hqdefaultDavid Rohde, a New York Times journalist kidnapped in 2008 and held in Waziristan for seven months, was one of the first Westerners to describe the effects that this lethal continuous surveillance produced upon the populations subjected to it.  Evoking a “hell on earth,” he added: “The drones were terrifying.  From the ground, it is impossible to determine who or what they are tracking as they circle overhead.  The buzz of a distant propeller is a constant reminder of imminent death.”

The accounts collected in this region by the authors of a 2012 report titled “Living Under the Drones” are in a similar vein:

They’re always surveying us, they’re always over us, and you never know when they’re going to strike or attack.

Everyone is scared all the time.  When we’re sitting together to have a meeting, we’re scared there might be a strike.  When you can hear the drone circling in the sky, you think it might strike you.  We’re always scared.  We always have this fear in our head.

Drones are always on my mind.  It makes it difficult to sleep.  They are like a mosquito.  Even when you don’t see them, you can hear them, you know they are there.

Children, grown-up people, women, they are terrified … They scream in terror.

One inhabitant of Datta Khel — a place hit more than thirty times by drones in the course of the past three years — says that his neighbors “have lost their mental balance … are just locked in a room.  Just like you lock people in prison, they are locked in a room.”

Drones are indeed petrifying.  They inflict mass terror upon entire populations.  It is this — over and above the deaths, the injuries, the destruction, the anger, and the grieving — that is the effect of permanent lethal surveillance: it amounts to a psychic imprisonment within a perimeter no longer defined by bars, barriers, and walls, but by the endless circling of flying watchtowers up above.

Honestly, Chamayou’s book is great — I highly recommend it.

I even thought I’d hate it; I don’t like reading about war, and I’d seen several pretty critical reviews.  Plus, I simply could not imagine why a philosopher would find it necessary to write an entire book about drones.  To my mind, killing is killing, so why would it matter whether we fought with machine guns, sniper rifles, missiles, or drones?

CaptureChamayou did an excellent job explaining why I was wrong.

For instance, drone pilots operate within the United States in unmarked facilities.  As reprehensible as the Boston Marathon bombing was, and as deranged as I think the perpetrators had to have been, acts of violence against any public gathering are about equally likely to harm those currently employed to murder suspected terrorists in the Middle East.

The use of drones forces an opposing army — if a two-sided war is indeed being fought — to target the general population.  Here’s the heart of the argument in Chamayou’s words:

However, the faults are not solely technical.  They are also politico-strategic.  In 1999, two Chinese strategists suggested that the American preference for “zero dead” offered the United States’ adversaries a rapid, easy, and low-cost means of thwarting the world’s greatest power: “These common American soldiers who should be on the battlefield have now become the most costly security in war, like precious china bowls that people are afraid to break.  All of the opponents who have engaged in battle with the American military have probably mastered the secret of success — if you have no way of defeating this force, you should kill its rank and file soldiers.”  The dronization of the armed forces further radicalizes this strategic fault.  If the military withdraws from the battlefield, enemy violence will turn against targets that are easier to reach.  Even if the soldiers are beyond reach, civilians are not.  As one American soldier explains, “We must understand that attempts to armorize our force against all potential enemy threats … shifts the ‘burden of risk’ from a casualty-averse military force onto the populace.  In doing so, we have lifted the burden from our own shoulders and placed it squarely upon those who do not possess the material resources to bear it — the civilian populace.” 

Chamayou’s analysis of suicide bombers was also enlightening.  Most people I’ve talked to have a reflexive distaste for suicide bombing — some words I’ve heard are “cold” and “cowardly.”  I too think the idea is horrible.  It’s hard for me to even imagine what it would feel like to knowingly strap explosives to my body.

640px-MQ-9_Reaper_in_flight_(2007)But Chamayou builds an argument from the history of military honor, the idea of willing sacrifice in defense of a cause, to work toward the idea that suicide bombers care so deeply about their struggle that they are willing to give up their very lives in defense of their ideas.  Whereas the U.S. cares so deeply about the cause that we are willing to risk a several-million-dollar drone to get our way.

Given that one side cares so much they’ll risk their lives, and the other side cares so much they’ll risk their money, it’s possible that my reflexive moral repugnance of suicide bombing was misplaced.

I am very grateful to Chamayou for giving me so much to think about.  You, too, should read his book.  (Look!  Here’s another link!)