I cannot quell the pain of the empathy I feel for the billions who suffer a worse existence simply by where they were born. I happened to be delivered to a place where I can speak my mind, but I could have easily been raised in a totalitarian state where I would be unable to freely express my opinions. If I lived in many of the oppressive dictatorships the U.S. has supported throughout our nation’s history—exemplified by U.S. support of regimes in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in the 1980s—I would have been murdered for expressing the views I’ve had for the past five years. It is a privilege to be born into a society where I am free to publish what we do at Can the Man; in many countries this website would be shut down, users denied access, or worse.
In the light of this knowledge I am awed by those courageous individuals who continue to speak out against tyranny as 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai did, knowing that she was risking everything. Because she expressed her belief that every child should have access to education regardless of gender, belief or economic background—she was shot in the head. Miraculously Malala survived, and after her cranium was repaired by numerous surgeries in a British hospital; she continues to speak her mind.
Blatant censorship is a reality in totalitarian governments and those who express themselves live in jeopardy. State retribution is a daily threat that many free thinkers experience in these societies. I know I am fortunate to have this freedom, but how long will it last?
All of my purchases online are being monitored, down to nearly every stroke of the keyboard. Phone lines are frequently tapped, emails hacked; in short, the scariest aspects of 1984 are now realities. In the age of civilian deaths via drone strike the state is often scarier than George Orwell could have imagined. I live in a malaise of paranoia, anger, detachment, escapism, fleeting hope and a search for liberating truth. I am haunted by a nagging feeling that the thin crust of certainty and convenience that we enjoy in this country can easily crumble. Our relatively stable society can quickly disintegrate to mayhem, seen in the harbingers of mass shootings and police brutality; perhaps devolving into the type of state sponsored terrorism seen in totalitarian regimes across the world.
Historically, we live in a democratic-republican country, but, in recent years, our constitutional checks on Executive powers have been drastically curtailed. The erosion of the Posse Comitatus Act and abuses of numerous presidential powers during the Bush years have undermined our freedoms. It is the burgeoning powers of the government combined with our dwindling rights that make it vital to use every opportunity to express one’s opinions freely. We must create a meaningful discussion that challenges people’s ideas and moves the discourse forward to raise awareness in others. I am thrilled to have the right to express myself freely and using this ability is central to my happiness. It is a freedom that should be available to all human beings. A freedom that is pivotal in releasing the masses from the Man’s chains.
The clock reads 12:13 P.M. and I have to make sure I’m conscious enough for my 1:00 conference call. I’ve already been up for seven hours and my eyes feel like wet concrete—the day only half over. (Chugs coffee and returns to page.) People across the globe have depressing stories of their morning commute, rigorous hours, or the seemingly endless workload that only ever gets bigger rather than dwindling. The “zombie” has become a vogue archetype of society and we’re seeing the influence of this science fiction phenomenon spread across numerous genres. The origins of the zombie and its relentless hunt for brains have immediate implications to every one of the Man’s pawns on this planet. A long-standing metaphor for mass-commercialization and consumerism this drooling haggard monster does not allude to some distant hypothetical consequence of society anymore—just look around.
When was the last time you felt truly rested? When was the last time you went to sleep without worrying about the tasks, projects, and everyday errands you might have to complete the next day? My guess would be a long time, most certainly longer than it has been for me. My brain is pummeled by never ending distractions that keep me up late into the night, so that the next morning I’m sluggish with fatigue. Sleep does not come easily to me anymore and feeling the crushing burden of what I have to do the next day does not help. So I lie awake, tossing and turning, rolling over to my 5 A.M. alarm knowing that the time has come to do the dance again.
Unlike the zombies of movies and popular culture, there is no blood dripping from my face and my morning doesn’t start with a hearty serving of brains. During the groggy, off-hours of my day my brain feels incapacitated and numbed by the Man; sometimes to the point that complete sentences and normal thought are impossible to maintain. The forty-mile drive to the office becomes a game of trying to stay awake before driving my car over the rumble strips that indent the margin of the thruway. What is truly puzzling to me is how a company can expect their employees to maintain a rigid work ethic of efficiency and effectiveness when they’re teetering on the edge of becoming brain-dead zombies? The rigors of life are increasingly strenuous and maintaining an equally stressful job does not afford many of us the luxury of adequate rest. Our brains are tired, over worked, and looking for an excuse to shut off. The working class is haunted by the routine that often destroys any indicators that one day was different from the rest. The routine makes everything seem okay—when it most certainly is not.
I’m in my very early twenties with the world ahead of me and I already feel as though my life force has been sucked out by way of the capitalist vacuum. I do not want to become “zombified” to the point I accept that exhaustion is a mere consequence of growing up. By raising the idea of the zombie we are given the opportunity to look deeper into the philosophical implications of having a job and lifelong effects a rigorous work schedule can have on our bodies and minds. We’ve all been told at one point to, “do what makes you happy,” but how many of those who are employed can whole-heartily say this holds true to their lives? Collecting industrial debts for a corporate giant is, in all honesty, soul-sucking work. It has diluted my ability to enjoy other things in life simply because the doldrums of my week drain me physically and mentally. Everywhere I look I see zombies, except these aren’t the ones Hollywood has warned us about. Many of us have relinquished ultimate control to the great capitalist machine and I’m wondering—can we ever get it back?
On Christmas morning of this past year, I received Mortality by Christopher Hitchens and decided that a book review section could be beneficial to our readership at Can The Man. After doctors informed Hitchens that cancer had taken over most of his throat the realization of mortality sank in and inspired this brilliant first hand account of death from a “non-believer.” After reading Mortality I was inspired to discuss pieces of literature as a platform for social enlightenment and bring great literature to the minds of others. Religion is a remarkable human invention that infiltrates nearly every aspect of life until now and contemplating death without God is a necessary discussion to furthering the advancement of humankind. Hitchens expounds on this idea in Mortality while raising other questions about the legitimacy of prayer and who, really, will have the last laugh on their death beds.
In 2007 the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life performed a study of religious diversity in the United States; they interviewed more than 35,000 Americans over the age of 18. Not surprisingly, the greatest percentage (78.4) of those interviewed classified themselves as Christian, with the Protestant denomination accounting for nearly half of those individuals. There were interestingly low percentages of Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim populations—only 3.0% combined. The truly interesting number sat next to the group titled, “Unaffiliated,” at an unprecedented 16%. Unaffiliated does not mean that these people are non-believers, but rather they do not subscribe to an organized religion. To put this number in perspective, “Among Americans aged 18-29, one-in-four say they are not currently affiliated with any particular religion.” In thirty years, these may be the nations politicians and leaders. I hope that these people will make their decisions based on moral judgment and common sense, rather than abiding by religious doctrines of organized religion that poison politics, as well as inhibit the passage of necessary legislation for social issues like abortion and gay marriage.
I have not experienced death, but I often wonder if all of my beliefs will fade too if presented the same circumstances as Christopher Hitchens. He did not waver in his beliefs and there were even bets placed that before passing away Hitchens would, “Repudiate my [his] atheism and embrace religion.” Although speculation was rampant that God gave Christopher Hitchens throat cancer because he used his voice to blaspheme, the rest of us understand that cancer is a disease that anyone on this planet is at risk to have. We realize that this cancer was most likely a result of being a lifelong smoker. Hitchens writes, “The vengeful deity has a sadly depressed arsenal if all he can think of is exactly the cancer that my age and former ‘lifestyle’ would suggest that I got.” The dialogue Hitchens evokes in Mortality is one that is not openly discussed in society, that being how does someone begin to comprehend impending doom without the supporting crutch of religion?
While attending the Franciscan St. Bonaventure University I was privy to the study of Catholic history and many nuances that faith has invoked throughout time. For those who do not know, the church would sell “indulgences” promising the buyer that these trinkets would grant favorable status to God in the after life. These indulgences reaped massive amounts of profit for the church while simultaneously deluding the congregation into believing that a splinter of wood belonged to a historical artifact. Hitchens explores this idea in Mortality and claims that indulgences are alive and well within the church. Although parishioners are no longer buying slivers of the “Cross” they instead donate money with the hopes that it results in a spiritual benefit to themselves. Hitchens writes, “The leaders of the church know perfectly well that prayer is not intended to gratify the devout. So that, every time they accept a donation in return for some petition, they are accepting a gross negation of their faith.” As a professed non-believer I feel that prayer is a serious miscalculation of the power of humanity. Furthermore, it disillusions a significant percentage of my peers into believing that God always knows best.
I can empathize with the necessity of prayer when death comes knocking, but even then, as Hitchens writes, “The religion which treats its flock as a credulous plaything offers one of the cruelest spectacles that can be imagined: a human being in fear and doubt who is openly exploited to believe in the impossible.” I will never question the manner in which a person decides to handle their own death, and I hope that many can hold the same respect for me. Mortality is an exceedingly beneficial text for those interested in exploring the realms of death, prayer, and the philosophical implications a life-threatening illness awakes in all those willing to look outside the theistic box—and into themselves.
 Hitchens, Christopher. Mortality. New York: Hachette Book Group, 2012
 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. Pew Forum On Religion & Public Life. June 23, 2008. <http://www.pewforum.org/US-Religious-Landscape-Survey-Resources.aspx>
To many the idyllic state of Maine is famous for two things: Stephen King and lobster dinners. Although back in December of 2009 a curiously underreported news story emerged from the small city of Belfast. In a string of circumstances too bizarre for a Hollywood thriller, James Cummings was murdered inside his home where authorities stumbled upon an array of materials used to make a “dirty bomb.” This device uses explosives like dynamite to disperse radioactive materials during detonation. The devastation possible is drastically less than a standard nuclear missile but dangerous nonetheless. This is a curious discovery that exposes cracks in our national security and opens the door for a deeper philosophical discussion into the human psyche.
James Cummings was the trust-funded son of a wealthy California landowner who bankrolled his yearly income of $10 million. Cummings and his wife Amber reportedly moved to Maine in 2007 where their relationship took a bizarre turn. Cummings was said to have physically, emotionally, and sexually abused Amber and, “Talked incessantly about his love of guns and his fascination for Hitler.” Maine State Police were initially called to the Cummings home to in December of 2008 to investigate what they thought was a domestic homicide.
James Cummings wasn’t the village idiot making pipe bombs, or blowing off a finger with firecrackers. The vast array of dangerous and expensive chemicals listed in the official report would make any nuclear scientist blush: “Four 1-gallon containers of 35 percent hydrogen peroxide, uranium, thorium, lithium metal, thermite, aluminum powder, beryllium, boron, black iron oxide and magnesium ribbon were found in the home.” With his nearly unlimited bankroll Cummings could afford these rare chemicals, but it does not clarify why the discovery of these materials was mere happenstance in a country that spends a fortune on national security. In an exhaustive article by Christopher Hellman the numbers show that the 2012 National Security budget was roughly $1.2 trillion. How is it then that James Cummings managed to slip through very small cracks and evade capture? The world changed after the horrible attacks on the World Trade Center. The American response of fear and anger created a schism in society that has deluded millions into believing all terrorists are radical Muslim men hell-bent on wreaking havoc on American citizens. We must be conscious of the fact that Al-Qaeda terrorists are not the only ones plotting to destroy American lives. If this country is spending an exorbitant amount of money to fight terrorism overseas, why then is the threat of domestic terrorism vastly unknown?
An important idea tackled by George Orwell in 1984 is that a country must always have an enemy for the masses to rage against. This very same control mechanism is prevalent in American society with our identification of the modern terrorist. Let us consider a few enemies the collective American psyche has fought in the last thirty years like the various forms of Communism, Narco-Terrorism, and recently the Islamic radical. The answer to this question is not clear but it is absolutely possible that the American government wants to keep citizens focused on one distinct enemy—even if they don’t pose the greatest threat to our safety. It is obvious that this new generation of terrorism is a grave danger to society but it is equal parts distraction and conjecture. By propagating endless coverage of a dissolving and deadly Middle East through the media it is easy to convince the American public that an increased defense budget is justifiable. The enemy is out there, and we need money to go get them. Two wars later are we any safer than we were in 2001? You might be able to say yes, take airport security measures for example. After 9-11 our fear of these Islamist extremists justified TSA x-ray screeners, full body searches, and countless other invasions of privacy. By believing that the Jihadist is the only enemy we overlook numerous other threats to our well-being.
The human population is increasing at an exponential rate, making it easier for people like Cummings to evade the traditional measures of national defense. Without question he should have been apprehended by authorities rather than murdered by his wife. Much like the perpetrators of mass-shootings Cummings was possessed by the idea that causing irreversible harm to his fellow citizens was justifiable by the way he perceived society to be. The American media and government has disillusioned the masses into believing that increased military action within the borders of countries like Iraq and Pakistan is necessary to protect our freedoms. We are ultimately left with one of life’s greatest mysteries. How can some ideas seem absolutely concrete to one individual, and predominantly farcical to another—and is either side of the argument worth dying for?
PART TWO: DAN DENNETT AND OUR HI-JACKED BRAINS
When we think of memes, generally our thoughts go to off-color humor and advice giving animals on the Internet. They are now a huge web phenomenon that allows people to paste captions into well-known images, making whatever statement they wish. Despite this, the word meme also has an academic context that predates the Internet popularity of the word. Famous secularist professor Richard Dawkins coined the term as a way of characterizing observable transfers within human culture. The purpose of this scientific categorization is to be able to think about, “a unit of cultural transmission”, and the way that it may develop and evolve over time. From a position of anthropology this is a way of looking at all of human culture, which is very abstract and broad, from a position more firmly footed in the hard-sciences. It allows us to understand ideas and cultural traits the way we do species of ants, or birds. This view is generally developed apart form traditional anthropological theory, and as such can be very useful for considering new ideas about human culture and society.
One of the reasons that memes interest so many people of different fields of thought is because of the vast potential for study of individual memes, or memetics. This is a process that has applications in biology, philosophy, and journalism. Dan Dennett of Tufts University candidly explains in his short TED speech the idea of dangerous memes. Even without delving extensively into the complex philosophical implications of the theory, it is easy to understand Dennett’s idea. He argues that there are a great many people who are ‘ruled” by dangerous memes, or dangerous ideas.
We can use the adjective dangerous to mean two things in this case. Ideas can be physically or biologically dangerous to us if they threaten our survival. For example if your cultural or religious beliefs prohibit you from eating meat and you find yourself in a survival situation where only meat is available, that is a dangerous scenario. That meme, that practice, that idea has become hazardous to your health. Memes can also be cognitively dangerous in that they can poison the way we think, robbing us of our logic. People can become ‘hijacked’ by ideas that they did not develop using reason, which results in pervasive delusions in people all across the world. If you are ruled by the idea that race is a viable method of discrimination against other people, your idea is wrong and can be falsified. We know that there is more genetic diversity within racial groups than between them, and that skin color is determined only by distance from the equator and sun absorption. That meme may have taken hold in someones mind however absurd it may be, and that means that it is very difficult to change. Memes can be dangerous in either way. They may be responsible for unpleasant conversations with coworkers, or they may have caused someone to fly a plane into a building.
Dennett tends to focus on the cognitive repercussions of dangerous memes, and concludes that there are in fact great majorities of people who live their lives ruled by ideas in the same way they might be infected by a flu virus. I find this idea interesting in many ways, and believe that in today’s world we are all being threatened by memes that are both biologically and logically hazardous. Fundamentalist Islam can be highlighted as an individual meme, as it is a set of ideas and practices that are followed in a range of ways but all of which are similar. It is also a set of ideas and practices that can be used to justify things like misogyny, murder and global terrorism. The important point to note about memes like this is that they are now reaching a level of global implication. They have passed beyond the localized scope of concern.
They are flu-viruses that have become dangerous to everyone. You could be a native living in the Trobriand Islands and have no idea what Islam is, and yet a nuclear holocaust has the potential to harm you. Like the 1918 Spanish flu that killed 20 million people, these memes are resilient and in many cases contagious. Offers that include 72 virgins and a front row seat in heaven appeal so greatly to human weakness….we can understand why they spread so easily. If you really believe that killing yourself and others is the path to paradise, then terrorism is a logical choice. These ideas are grand delusions that infect your mind exactly the way Dan Dennett describes. When people believe that they are a justified in killing innocents, their ideology becomes the concern of everyone and it is unacceptable that we live in a world with people ruled by these idealogies.
Today we are already seeing a marked inrease in social maladies and individual psychoses. We can ill afford to stand idly by while memes like fundamentalist Islam are seen as commonplace, and remain unchallenged by reason. There are entire nations ruled by dangerous memes that wish destruction upon all those who think differently. The most troubling thought in light of this is that now with only adequate financing and the appropriate state of psychosis, a single person can purchase materials to make a dirty-bomb. While James Cummings was not a soldier in a global jihad, his case illustrates the same concern. This was a man that believed in Hitler’s insane theories of racial dominance and global destruction, and clearly it was a cause he was prepared to kill for.
If we ignore the prevalence of dangerous memes, then we run the very real risk of putting our entire species in jeopardy. In the past, you needed an army in order to impose your will on the rest of the world, now all you need is a bank account and the courage of your convictions. When we consider this fact along with the prevalence of dangerous memes, we understand how dangerous the world has become. In the case of memes like Fundamentalist Islam, there is nothing that we can do to change the minds of the fanatics. These people are ruled by ideas that transcend any logical understanding of the world. What we can do, is imbue the coming generations with reason and empathy, the vaccines to dangerous memes.
 Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1989.
 Dennett, Dan. Dangerous Memes. TED. February 2002.
 Griffin, Walter. “Parts for ‘dirty bomb’ found in slain US man’s home.” 10, February, 2009. <http://wikileaks.org/wiki/Parts_for_%27dirty_bomb%27_found_in_slain_US_man%27s_home>