“The Enlightenment Was Fine… But Give Radical Protestants Some Credit for Fighting Slavery and Preserving Liberty”

by Sam Buntz

In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin slyly noted the advantages of being reasonable. He wrote, “So convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”

This quote is particularly relevant to the ongoing and intense debate about the Enlightenment, which was kick-started by Jamelle Bouie’s piece in Slate. Bouie argued that, while the Enlightenment gave birth to admirable concepts like human rights and the balance of powers in government, important Enlightenment thinkers like Immanuel Kant and John Locke also held reprehensible racial views. They endorsed systems of racial classification that, by abusing Enlightenment notions of science and reason, placed white people at top of a racial hierarchy and black people on the bottom.

Fortunately, there was another force at work in the world in the 18th Century, in addition to the Enlightenment’s scientific rationalism. This force was distinctly Christian, and it helped add human feeling to the Enlightenment’s powerful but occasionally cold set of ideas.  But before we get to that, we need to discuss the Enlightenment’s strengths and weaknesses.

Bouie is basically accurate in his assessment of how these forms of racial classification developed, just as his opponents are correct in crediting the Enlightenment for generating ideas used to fight racism and in disputing the notion that the Enlightenment “invented” racism. We need look no farther than “all men are created equal.”

But consider Ben Franklin’s quote again. Depending on the hidden assumptions of Enlightenment thinkers, on the motives they entertained in their innermost hearts, they could use reason to reach any desired goal. That goal could be the universal brotherhood and sisterhood of human beings… Or, it could be a crudely racist hierarchy…

These conflicting attitudes could exist in the same person, paradoxically. Just think about Thomas Jefferson: he attacked the slave trade in his original draft of the Declaration of Independence (which other founding fathers cut from the draft), and also proposed plans to gradually abolish slavery. At the same time, of course, he owned slaves, and we are all familiar with the fact that he almost certainly was the father of his slave Sally Hemings’ children. He expressed noxious views still used by racist proponents of eugenics today, arguing that black people were innately worse than white people at reading, writing, and mathematics (but, Jefferson said, better at music).

When he was challenged by Benjamin Banneker, a free black astronomer and author of almanacs, Jefferson wrote back, “no body wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colours of men, & that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa & America…”  Jefferson then sent a copy of Banneker’s almanac to a French abolitionist, the Marquis de Condorcet, citing it as an example that he hoped would prove the equality of all races.

Clearly, Jefferson, like many of the rationalists involved in the Enlightenment, sensed that the full equality of all human beings was the right principle. But major blindnesses prevented him from actually affirming that principle in its full meaning. This was left to later generations. Nevertheless, we find in Jefferson, as a figure who embodied Enlightenment, an expression of both its best qualities and its flaws and hypocrisies. He was unable to reconcile the conflict between his ideals and his prejudices, which dueled within his own being.

We see, then, that reason is usually the servant of the heart. It is like the “sorcerer’s apprentice” in the Disney classic, Fantasia. When left to its own devices, without enlightened human feeling to guide it, it starts flooding the basement with a hoard of marching broomsticks. As Franklin observed, it can serve any motive. It needs higher values to supervise it, values that have been cultivated inside the heart. Otherwise, it becomes destructive or lends its support to injustice. It morphs into an amoral bureaucrat of sorts, mindlessly serving power and human selfishness.

We can see this in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Under the pretense of creating a rational society, its leaders authorized the “Reign of Terror.” Their real motives were not actually “rational” but were driven by dark instincts, lusts, and resentment. They should have been more suspicious of themselves.

All this goes to show that Bouie makes some legitimate points. Enlightenment thinkers often used reason for selfish ends and to justify their own positions of power and privilege. That is all undeniably true. But it leaves open a question of enormous import: how did some members of the Enlightenment manage to cultivate their hearts so that reason was able to act as a benevolent servant instead of as a power-serving bureaucrat?

After all, the Enlightenment is full of examples of true-blue abolitionists, from Thomas Paine to the Marquis de Lafayette to John Adams. They clearly were doing more than playing a mere power game. Paine, for instance, took a stand against executing Louis XVI, even though Paine had supported the French Revolution. If he had been motivated solely by power, he should have personally volunteered to operate the guillotine. Evidently, he was motivated by forces other than power-grasping and vengeance.    

An answer to this question is evident if we look at how the first abolitionists in the American colonies and Great Britain began to attack slavery as an institution. While living during the Enlightenment and imbibing its influence, these early abolitionists had one thing in common: they were often highly religious. In fact, they were Quakers. Later, other Christians would follow the Quakers’ lead in opposing slavery, but Quakerism was nevertheless the major groundspring of the abolitionist cause.

For thousands of years, people in the West had typically thought that slaves were born and not made. Aristotle argued that particular people were meant to be used as property, as a part of Nature’s law. They could not help being slaves. Later Christian thinkers qualified this idea and chiseled away it, but it did not face a stiff challenge until after the English Civil War. (This argument applies to the Protestant-majority part of the world. Slavery ended in the Catholic world for another set of reasons, fascinating in themselves, but beyond the scope of this article).  

Unlike many of the radical Protestant groups that arose during that time, the Quakers managed to keep their heads on their shoulders. While other sects dissolved into debauchery in the wreckage of their Utopian dreams, the Quakers maintained two critical principles: they believed that human beings had a direct connection to the Holy Spirit, who could speak to or influence anyone, while also believing that the tendency to commit sin was always present.

The Quakers did not think humans were utterly evil, nor did they state that they could easily become totally perfect. They worked diligently towards improving themselves, while questioning their sinful tendencies and keeping them in check. In the past, many societies had largely emphasized the sinfulness of human beings at the expense of their direct connection to the Holy Spirit, which made it easier to tolerate something like slavery. In a sinful world, you could only be so good; your standards were lowered accordingly. But the Quakers maintained a humble yet firm commitment to strive towards the Ideal.

Initially, the Quakers became tangled up in slavery. As they colonized Pennsylvania and other parts of America, they purchased and owned slaves. They fell into the habitual practices of their times. But they were not comfortable with this state of affairs. Unlike numerous other slave-owning societies, a large number of Quaker communities felt tension between their behavior in the world and their guiding ideals. Many Quakers came to realize that holding slaves was not part of Nature’s law – it was something they were choosing to do.

As they saw it, they were guided to this intuition by opening themselves to the Holy Spirit. Instead of blindly continuing to follow convention, they looked inside, analyzed their motives, and reformed their hearts. Quaker denunciations of slavery quickly became widespread.  

As David Brion Davis’ Pulitzer Prize-winning study The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture shows, this was a critical development. Christian opposition spread rapidly to other denominations. Even a staunch Anglican monarchist, the great literary critic Samuel Johnson, was able to express his hatred of slavery, allegedly toasting success to the next slave revolt in the Caribbean. From William Wilberforce, the British abolitionist who successfully led the crusade to abolish slavery in the British Empire, to John Brown, who made the Civil War virtually inevitable, the Christian factor in defeating slavery and fighting racism cannot be underrated. It is of the first importance, and would continue to manifest itself throughout American history, particularly in figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Sojourner Truth.  

From all of this information, it should be clear that the “Age of Reason” was about more than just reason. It was also about the heart, and, as Blaise Pascal wrote, “the heart has its reasons which reason knows not.” The goal of the most enlightened figures of the Enlightenment – like Thomas Paine, who came from a Quaker background – was to harmonize the heart and the head, to make thought and feeling work together. They sought to make our most spiritually-illuminated feelings, as opposed to our violent passions, the guide to our use of reason.

Instead of using reason to justify wielding power over others, these thinkers often attempted to reform society under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Dissident Protestant artists like William Blake and Josiah Wedgwood (Charles Darwin’s grandfather) used their art to appeal directly to the feeling of brotherly love, in order to support abolition.

Other Enlightenment figures, like Jefferson, demonstrate what David Brion Davis calls, “the ambivalence of rationalism.” They recognized that slavery was a grotesque insult to humanity and an utterly irrational institution, but they could not extend their hearts beyond what they erroneously imagined to be the limits of reason and advocate immediate abolition. The Marquis de Condorcet, to whom Jefferson sent Banneker’s almanac, expressed disappointment with this ambivalence. He wrote, “Only a few ‘philosophes’ have from time to time dared to raise a cry in favor of humanity, a cry which the Establishment has not heeded, and which a superficial society has soon forgotten.”

Condorcet, a fearless champion of the equality of all races and of the sexes, who epitomized the true spirit of the Enlightenment, was later imprisoned and murdered during the Reign of Terror. There are revolutionaries with hearts… and revolutionaries without hearts.

We should learn from this example, balancing the “Age of Reason” with the outpouring of spiritual feeling and imagination exemplified by the Quakers, William Blake, Condorcet, Josiah Wedgwood, and many more. While Jamelle Bouie is right to note that Enlightenment ideas were sometimes used to justify wielding power over others, it lends proportion to his perspective to consider major historical figures who were not motivated by power. The word for what motivated them – which we have avoided mentioning until this point – is love.

Everyone who ascribes to academic, postmodern philosophies, which claim that all of history is just a power-based contest in which competing identities try to exert their wills against each other, should take this to heart. True, there is a spirit that seeks to create order purely in order to serve its own craving for power. This spirit seems to be dominant throughout much of history. In fact, the Bible calls it “the Prince of this World.” But there is another spirit at work, exemplified by these Quaker abolitionists and by heroic figures of the Enlightenment like Condorcet.

This spirit creates order through love.  


All is Vanity: Reflections on Religion and Identity Politics

by Sam Buntz

I wonder why identity politics prove so appealing to the Far Left and the Far Right…  To those of us who are immune to the appeal, there is something odd in celebrating the least that can be said about oneself.  Sure, you might be a proud pansexual Ukrainian-American, and that’s great. But so are two hundred other people.  What makes you you, as an individual?  What distinguishes you from the general “type”?  The question might sound like copy for a self-help seminar, but it should resonate loudly in the ear of every American. People should walk up to you, grab you by the lapels, and demand an answer.

It’s strange to see forms of collectivism—especially collectivism based on race, which is the lowest variety—gaining a degree of attention and credence in a country that has always seen itself as the harbor of individualism. Admittedly, individualism can go off the rails and become a cult of self-aggrandizement. (I definitely don’t need to provide any examples.  Just look up for a moment or two and you should be able to find blatantly obvious evidence somewhere nearby.) But the individualism of ethically engaged Americans like Emerson and Thoreau still seems to me to be the fundament, even if it’s currently buried under super-sized heapings of squalid nonsense.

The problem of identity looms larger as people scream about it more and more on Twitter. Veins bulge. Hemorrhages bloom. After a few semesters of campus indoctrination, people start prefacing statements with “As a proud [fill in the blank], I must question the administration’s decision not to mandate trigger-warnings on Moby Dick…”  

Why have people begun to cling to the most basic, least compelling descriptions of themselves?  Why prefer the broadest possible sketch of the self? 

The answer involves fending off a felt sense of modern absurdity.  In a world where nothing appears to makes sense—where atoms and neutrinos wander aimlessly in a cosmic void—taking hold of a simple, blatant fact about yourself (like your race and gender) and becoming an intense partisan of that fact, starts to make a limited degree of sense.  If there is no spiritual order, if the materialistic conception of the cosmos is it, then becoming a race-cheerleader seems slightly reasonable.  It offers the consolations and comforts of belonging with minimal effort.  You don’t have to investigate who you really are. You just bask in rays of self-affirmation, cheaply earned.

It’s often assumed that Christianity is losing strength in the West because of a widespread sense of this modern futility and absurdity.  People no longer see the sun and moon as mysterious creations of the Divine.  They see a ball of hot gas and a rock. The disenchantment of reality, initiated by thinkers like Freud and Marx, is reaching its final phase. According to Marx, reality boils down to economic conflict. According to Freud, reality boils down to fundamental sexual conflicts in the psyche.  Rather than liberating people from the supposedly benighted ignorance of the religious worldview, these sages have left the world a bleaker, more joyless place—a prison of absurdity. Paraphrasing Algernon Charles Swinburne, the world has grown gray with their breath.

While it’s true that religion has grown weaker because of this felt sense of absurdity, it would be equally accurate to say that religion is waning in the West because it lacks the stomach for wrestling with these modern dilemmas and confronting this felt sense of absurdity head on.  After all, the world’s major religions don’t argue that life in our world is not absurd.  They typically argue that it is

Let’s consider Christianity and Judaism for starters.  They posit that the first humans were in a situation that initially made sense: Paradise, Eden.  They were in tune with God, and existed in a state-of-being that gently conformed to their own properly managed desires.  Then, by grasping after forbidden knowledge, they fell into a state of absurd suffering.  “Cursed is the ground because of you,” God tells Adam, after The Fall. “Through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.  It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.  By the sweat of your brow, you will eat your food, until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”   

A life of meaningless toil.  Followed by death.  Absurd, no?  

The book of Ecclesiastes famously repeats the refrain, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity!”  This is sometimes translated, less euphoniously but with some measure of accuracy, as “Meaninglessness, meaninglessness, all is meaninglessness!”  This is the condition the primordial humans fell into: an existential void.  In Hebrew, the word translated as “vanity” and “meaninglessness” is actually hebel, which refers to mist, breath, or vapor.  It suggests that existence is like fog, impermanent and insubstantial.  

So, the Judeo-Christian tradition fully recognized this felt sense of absurdity millennia ago. 

Furthermore, in Christianity, it is by entering into this absurd condition, subjecting Himself to it, becoming human, and dying an apparently senseless death, that God opens a pathway for liberation to humanity. The cross becomes a symbol for the ultimate absurdity (crucifixion as punishment for sedition) transfigured into the ultimate meaning (eternal life).  The early Church Father, Tertullian once cried out, “I believe because it is absurd!”  If he meant that he believed in Christianity because it was ridiculous, his claim would be laughable.  But if he meant that he believed it because it was in tune with the existential absurdity through which we suffer, embracing it yet transcending it, his point becomes very profound indeed. 

With the Eastern Religions, the sense of absurdity is also nothing new.  The Buddha observed that life is characterized by impermanence (like the aforementioned Hebrew hebel-fog), which leads to suffering.  Hindu philosophy sees the universe as Maya – a cognitive delusion, a dirty trick of the mind – compared in a classic analogy to a rope we momentarily mistake for a snake.  Yet, again, both religions insist on the universe’s meaninglessness in order to transcend it.  Both the Buddhist monk and the Hindu yogi seek liberation via meditation, escaping from absurd suffering, from Maya, into the eternal and timeless.  

So, it’s not as though we are short on ammunition – on ideas – to combat the destructive simple-mindedness of identity politics.  They’ve been there forever, yet we’re allowing them to rust unused in storage.  Many clerics are conveying a message of existential import to their congregations – but, broadly speaking, how many people are actually aware of these spiritual ideas, which can literally save one’s life?  Even though these ideas have been getting the job done for centuries, they seem to be getting short shrift.  Nevertheless, for those who are willing to search for them, they can renew a sense of hope, transfigure modern absurdity, and help us to follow the theologian Paul Tillich’s advice: “Keep yourselves open for the creative moment which may appear in the midst of what seemed to be waste.”         

“Donald Trump is My Id”

by Sam Buntz

In my dreams, I behave much like Donald Trump. For starters, there is little continuity between what I may be saying or doing and the last thing I said or did.  As in a classic Trump press conference, nothing bears any clear cause-and-effect relationship to anything else. One moment, he’s praising a stack of Trump Steaks, and the next he’s threatening to throw CNN’s cameraman out the door. Then he’s talking about Marco Rubio’s propensity for flop sweats, while shaking drops of spray from a water bottle to illustrate his point.  Similarly, in a typical dream, I will be back in high school Spanish class, taking an incomprehensible test in the nude, before suddenly smashing the front window of a K-Mart with a brick and getting arrested by a police officer with a falcon’s head.

The anti-logic of dreams governs Trump’s actual existence: he senses no sequential relationship between anything that happens in his life, whether he’s giving a speech or tweeting or eating breakfast—he can’t quite remember the last thing he did, and he’s only wildly, flutteringly conscious of what he’s doing now.  He’s running on pure impulse.  My dream-self can relate.

No. Scratch that.

I can relate.

My Freudian Id surfaces in dreams, and acts out. Primal sensations of aggression, terror, buffoonery, lust, and humiliation (often self-induced) explode out of my subconscious and play before me in lurid and disturbing splendor. When I see Trump defending his dick-size during a debate or claiming that Ted Cruz’s dad killed JFK or that “second amendment people” might want to assassinate Hillary, it strikes me that he is my Id.  He is my dream-self brought into the wide-awake world.

When I watch Trump stoke an arena full of boy scouts, raving at them about a housing developer’s sex life as Rick Perry and a uniformed scout master stand behind him with frozen smiles, I feel like I am watching a video that was somehow taken inside my head at 4 a.m.  A Tibetan Buddhist phrase, “the dreamlike nature of existence,” comes to mind and seems particularly pertinent.

This is why I have a hard time feeling emotions of hatred or even genuine dislike for Donald Trump.  Oh, I strongly disapprove of him.  Intellectually, I recognize that he represents modern decadence in its quintessential form.  Yet, he’s too much a part of myself to viscerally despise.  Instead, I have only bizarre, confusing empathy – like the empathy you might feel for a feral child who was raised by lemurs in an isolated jungle and knows no human language.  The same incoherence exists within my own being.  I can’t deny my dream-self, even if I usually manage to suppress it to a fair degree.  Like Prospero from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, I need to say, “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.”

I would argue that my attitude towards Trump does not betoken my own instability and impending mental collapse.  To the contrary, it is essentially healthy, sound, and in line with the theory and practice of Jungian psychology.

According to Carl Jung, each of us has a “shadow,” part of the personality we refuse to recognize as our own.  The shadow represents things we don’t like about ourselves and which we consequently bury within our unconscious mind.  However, according to Jung, this process of repression allows the shadow to gain control over us.  Since, we refuse to allow ourselves to know the shadow, we remain oblivious to its designs and its capacity for exercising influence over us.  The shadow becomes “blacker and denser” the more we deny its reality.

However, if we acknowledge the shadow, and bring it into the light of consciousness, it stops dominating us.  We don’t need to take arms against the shadow or struggle against it with our willpower—we just need to see it.  The more clearly we observe it, the less its influence can harm us. In a societal dimension, this would mean recognizing the problems or blind spots in the establishment’s way of thinking, which made the rise of a Trumpian candidate inevitable.  It would mean recognizing one’s callous indifference towards so-called “flyover country” and confronting one’s corporate-oriented conception of social good.

Yet, it’s incredibly hard for people who do feel authentic hatred for Trump and for his supporters to acknowledge their own inner Trump.  I mean, I understand the difficulty – but when you go on Twitter or Facebook, you see the consequences: many of Trump’s most vocal opponents are as deranged and terminally unreasonable as he is. Their blanket accusations are made in the same intolerant and un-empathetic spirit, hectoring and bullying without any self-reflection.  Again, refusing to acknowledge the shadow gives the shadow power over you.  You become what you despise.

Because Jungian analysts are hard to come by these days, a simple solution geared towards cultivating a rich sense of compassion for one’s enemies would help. If you can feel compassion towards Trump, you can feel compassion towards your own shadow self.  Hell, if you can attain that lofty goal, you can feel compassion towards anybody.

A professor of Buddhist studies at Columbia University, Robert Thurman (father to Uma), has a solution based on a form of Tibetan meditation.  During the Bush Administration, an interviewer for The New York Times asked Thurman what kind of meditation he practices.  Thurman replied, “Usually, some form of trying to excavate any kind of negative thing cycling in the mind and turn it toward the positive. For example, when I am annoyed with Dick Cheney, I meditate on how Dick Cheney was my mother in a previous life and nursed me at his breast.”  The interviewer responded, “You mean you fantasize about being breast-fed by Dick Cheney?” to which Thurman rejoined, “It’s a fantasy of releasing fear and developing affection. It’s a way of coming back to feeling grateful toward him and seeing his positive side, finding the mother in Dick Cheney.”

The form of Tibetan Buddhist meditation Thurman alluded to is based on the idea that we have all been reincarnating for so long that each individual has been both child and mother to every other individual in one lifetime or another. By meditating on this relation, one learns to feel compassion.  One could imagine being suckled by Dick Cheney or, alternatively, one could imagine suckling him, in order to provoke this feeling.  Quite naturally, the same goes for Donald Trump.

William Blake once said, “We become what we behold.” If we insist on holding a raving maniac within our mind’s eyes for a prolonged period of time, we are going to take on the qualities of that raving maniac. They will seep into us the same way a marinade gradually permeates a block of tofu. But if we acknowledge the maniac within ourselves, we can see that he is just a manifestation of a greater, non-maniacal self. As Thurman recommends, we can find the mother or baby within that maniac.

There’s still time.  Dive within.  See your shadow.  Confront your inner nature and fully integrate it…

Breastfeeding baby Trump is your only chance.

Sufi Elvis: How Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Made Islamic Music Global

by Sam Buntz

If one man can lay claim to being the Elvis of Pakistani Music, that man is Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. August 16th marked the 20th anniversary of his death, provoking tributes in the Indian and Pakistani press but little to no reaction in Europe and America. Yet Khan’s impact on Western music is significant. He was the crucial influence on Jeff Buckley, whose album Grace is one of the milestones of ’90s alternative rock. Nusrat collaborated with Peter Gabriel and Eddie Vedder, while Massive Attack remixed his songs and The Red Hot Chili Peppers sampled them. When Thom Yorke sings “My fake pla-a-stic love!” on “Fake Plastic Trees” from Radiohead’s The Bends, Nusrat is fully present within that italicized “a.”

Buckley paid one of the highest possible tributes to Nusrat’s group, writing, “I’ve seen Nusrat and his party repeatedly melt New Yorkers into human beings… These men do not play music, they are music itself.” Not only have Nusrat’s wildly liberated yet somehow perfectly controlled vocals left their mark on American and European rock and pop, they still bear revolutionary and subversive potential in Nusrat’s home country, Pakistan. In recent years, singers in Nusrat’s tradition—Sufism, the mystical side of Islam—have been assassinated and shrines to Sufi saints have been bombed. Spiritual love songs apparently seem threatening to the purveyors of rigid dogma.

Nusrat was a Qawwali performer, the unchallenged master in an incredibly popular genre of South Asian music. His albums are still a perfect discovery for the solitary, collegiate music geek, to be encountered during late night Apple Music perusals or filed under a bent “World Music” card in a used record store.   (This was my experience). When listening to music in other languages, you often sense a cognitive gap. While you intuitively grasp certain dimensions of it, your lack of immediate lyrical comprehension blocks your ability to fully investigate its inner texture. While that gap still exists, Nusrat’s music gives you the illusion that it does not. Qawwali has a direct, driving, and thunderous emotional force, the capacity to convey extremities of joy that are simultaneously stormy and gentle. It’s a feeling distinct from and superior to mere happiness.   The songs are effectively hymns: they whirl the listener out of a set sense of individuality and into a state of being called wajd, or mystical ecstasy. Through this transformation, the goal of Qawwali is ultimately to unite the soul with God.

The Khan family has a six hundred year history in Qawwali. Young Nusrat’s father, Fateh Khan, did not want him to follow in his footsteps—he wanted him to become a doctor.   Fortunately, he gradually loosened up after realizing Nusrat’s potential. After the elder Khan’s death, his son had a dream: his father appeared and touched him on the throat. Nusrat began singing, struck with divine inspiration, and then awoke singing. In the afterlife, Khan senior had changed his mind about his son’s career choices.

It did prove to be a lucrative career choice. Within the next thirty years, Khan and his Qawwali party traveled the globe, from the United States to France to Japan, where the rotund Nusrat became known as “Singing Buddha.” He worked with Buckley (who wrote an essay on Khan and also interviewed him) and became a visiting professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Washington in Seattle. Yet cultural exchange was not always a smooth process. When Nusrat’s music featured during a jail riot sequence in Oliver Stone’s ultra-violent Natural Born Killers, Khan registered his displeasure: “When someone uses something religious in that way, it reflects badly on my reputation.” (The incident is but a paragraph in the annals of the West’s insensitive treatment of the cultural traditions of others.) Notably overweight, Khan died of a heart attack in 1997. His nephew, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, carries on the Khan family legacy and continues performing throughout the world.

The reader may find all of this confusing: if you listen to news reports about Islam, you often hear the generalization, “Islam is against music.” After all, Cat Stevens stopped performing once he converted (though in recent years, he’s been willing to pick up the guitar and play “Peace Train” again). The authority making this statement can range from a conservative American pundit to an ultra-orthodox imam. Regardless of who says it, it is not actually true. There are Islamic musical traditions, often associated with Sufism, throughout the world, from West Africa to Central Asia. Qawwali is the South Asian version, invented 700 years ago by the great Indian poet and musician, Amir Khusro. (Certain Indian sources state that Khusro based Qawwali on inner melodies heard during mystical communion with God). Typically using tabla and harmonium (an addition brought by Christian missionaries), Qawwali singers perform songs that praise God, Muhammad, and other saintly figures, like the Prophet’s son-in-law Ali.

Strictly speaking, a “qawal” is a saying of the Prophet, but the songs can take forms other than the lyrical recitation of such sayings, often cloaking mystical yearning for God in the form of romantic love (as on certain George Harrison tracks). In a religious culture where alcohol is strictly forbidden, the lyrics of many qawals at first seem to be about debauchery: odes to drunkenness and hashish smoking. But, in the context of Sufi poetry, the vocabulary of these songs actually refers to transcendent, divine intoxication—being drunk on love, in other words. The Qawwali attitude towards religious orthodoxy was best expressed by the 18th Century Sufi, Bulleh Shah, who wrote these lyrics, still sung in Pakistan and India today: “Burn the mosque, burn the temple, but do not burn the human heart, for there God is residing.”

The music is paradoxical, both deeply traditional (using the verses of Shah, Khusro, and other poetic giants) and extremely improvisatory. Adherence to poetic discipline unexpectedly sets the soul free.   Nusrat’s “Tumhen Dil Lagi Bhool” (included on the greatest hits collection, Rapture) is a prime example, both full of longing and apocalyptic. We feel a sense of love reaching consummation and of revelatory destruction, the rending of the veil. Buckley’s description is accurate: “I heard the clarion call of harmoniums dancing the antique melody around like giant, singing wooden spiders… Then came the voice of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Part Buddha, part demon, part mad angel… his voice is velvet fire, simply incomparable.” When Nusrat sings solo at the climactic point of the song, he sounds utterly possessed, transported beyond the human world. He generates moments of musical splendor and sacred fear without needing to think about them first—they delight in their own happening.  At such moments, Buckley’s observation that Nusrat has become music is indisputable.

Unfortunately, in Pakistan, Sufism and its musical traditions are under attack. An assassin murdered one of Nusrat’s contemporaries, Amjad Sabri of The Sabri Brothers (after Nusrat’s, probably the most famous Qawwali group in Pakistan). The historic Shahbaz Qalandar Shrine, site of numerous Sufi musical gatherings, was also bombed, killing over 100 people. To feel threatened by music—especially music that is wholly religious—seems bizarre. But Sufism, in many of its forms, destabilizes intolerance.

When listeners are swept into wajd, that state of ecstasy, their gender doesn’t matter: women, caught up in the spirit, will dance publicly at Qawwali performances. The Shahbaz Qalandar Shrine featured Lal Peri, a club-wielding female individualist who made her home on the premises. With its basis in a direct experience of God, Sufism threatens the rule-oriented imams, who are more concerned with the proper length of one’s trousers (ideally, they should imitate the length of Muhammad’s trousers) than with actually getting to know God. A gathering where both the musicians and the audience attain transcendence—without the permission of the imams—renders legalistic orthodoxy superfluous.

At the same time, the legacy of Sufism is so deep in Pakistan that it can’t be destroyed. Even today, one of the most popular TV programs in the country is Coke Studio, which showcases Sufi music (and, yes, it’s produced by Coca Cola—cultural imperialism has a sunny side, it seems). Also, Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead recently performed with a Qawwali group in India, led by the Israeli-Sufi Shye Ben Tzur. The experience was captured by Paul Thomas Anderson’s documentary Junoon. Despite the tremendous indifference of the secular and Christian West, these traditions soldier on as best they can and still gain some degree of acknowledgment.

Of course, the United States hasn’t helped bring tranquility and human-heartedness to this state of affairs. Support for the Pakistani authoritarian, General Zia ul-Haq, during the Cold War did not leave the most beautiful legacy. Zia adopted stoning as the punishment for adultery and shored up fundamentalism, even if he did contribute to defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan. The drone policy hasn’t done much to tamp down the lure of extremism either: flying death robots tend not to evoke the most cuddly feelings.   Someone like Nusrat, representing the “better angels” of Pakistani culture, actually does demonstrate a more enlightened way. A path of ecstasy and divine love, Sufism is, in the words of Rumi, “no caravan of despair.” Despite violence and persecution, the Qawwali performers who succeeded Nusrat still continue to offer free passage on their caravan of hope.


Maximum Novelty: Doritos Locos Tacos and Fruit Loop Shakes

by Sam Buntz

At first, the traditional semi-circular silhouette of the taco is visible. But, as the lights come up, you notice something…different.

It’s the coloration: a brilliant orange. Not the natural, beta-carotene-charged orange of a carrot. This is otherworldly—like a glowing tube seen in a cartoon nuclear plant. It’s certainly artificial… therefore, a product of human artifice… therefore, an artifact… therefore, an object of art.

How many man-hours, how many sweat-beads of ingenuity were sunk into this carefully constructed, lab-tested foodstuff? You wonder. All you can say for sure is, “A lot.”

You move closer and notice that the art object has three dimensions. It is stuffed with iceberg lettuce, shredded mild cheddar cheese (a less radioactive shade of orange than the shell), and crumbled institutional beef, technically fit for human consumption. You wish now to move beyond the visual, to experience this taco with your other senses.

You reach out.

You touch it.

You are somewhat like John Hurt curiously approaching an extraterrestrial egg in the first Alien.

Immediately surprised, your hand recoils. Some kind of… substance… has left its traces on your fingers.

Should you lick your fingers? Almost automatically, without thinking, as though conditioned, as though reflexively, you do.

They taste of cheese powder, with a solid streak of umami cutting through. It’s familiar.

The flavor, you recognize, is classic nacho cheese. The original.

You bend over and wipe the remainder of orange umami paste on your socks. There is no napkin.

Against all logic, against perhaps the testimony of your own tastebuds, you decide to eat the whole thing.

The novelty of the object, in addition to its full-bore chemical assault on certain key brain areas (courtesy of the umami cheese powder), compels you. The mere newness of the thing outstrips its goodness. Quality takes a backseat, is rendered irrelevant. The novelty is all.

The aura of two brands, conjoined mystically into one, hovers palpably around the taco. You think you can even feel its energy, its special warmth—a sign of life like the inner heat of a newborn rabbit, nestled in straw.

An image out of your long-forgotten high school English class comes back to haunt you… You can see someone, a male figure at the end of a dock, reaching his arms across the water towards a green light… The artificial brightness of the green light is of the exact same quality as the orange of the taco. There is something almost… lurid about it. Perhaps the bio-luminescent bead that dangles before the jaws of an angler fish has something of the same lurid luminousness. A light leading you on, towards… what?

You eat the taco quickly. So quickly that you don’t even taste it. Scratch that. You don’t eat it so much as consume it, in the fullest sense of the word. You imbibe its brand-name aura and feel the warmth, the light, the life settle in your stomach and spread through all your veins and arteries and nerves, fizzing out of your pores.

And then, like that, it’s gone. The product has been inhaled. It is now being digested, and with digestion, a certain leaden-ness settles in the limbs. Gravity feels like it is pulling you down with more insistence than usual.

Before you collapse into a stupor, you feel like you need dessert. And you recall seeing an ad for a new milkshake containing a multi-colored, ostensibly fruit flavored breakfast cereal, mixed and mashed directly into the shake.

As you drive to Burger King, your education haunts you again. You recall the writings of the renegade priest and archaeologist Pierre Teilhard DeChardin and the work of the psychedelic-apologist Terence McKenna. You read both of these writers on your laptop during an “Introduction to New Media” course in college—not for the course, of course. Just out of a strange personal impulse.

DeChardin theorized that all of creation was moving towards a final moment of Christ Consciousness, when the whole world would become charged with the presence and knowledge of God. DeChardin called this event “The Omega Point” (referencing the Biblical notion that Christ is the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega).

Somewhat later, McKenna, a lover of psychedelic chemicals like psilocybin and DMT, claimed that humanity was advancing towards a point of maximum novelty. Eventually, we would attain a state of infinite novelty, infinite complexity—whatever that might be. Apparently, it involved entering into hyperspace.

These MSG-addled thoughts rise and flow and ebb in the brain. It occurs to you that a Dorito taco is certainly novel. So, of course, is a Fruit Loop milkshake. Yet, this increase in novelty and complexity hardly seems related to the manifestation of Christ… It’s novelty for novelty’s sake. It’s as though we’ve had all the real ideas and are scavenging what’s left—strange ramshackle combos, pieced together like idols made of bones and beads and feathers.

Bugs smash against your window, lazy miniature suicides, as you drive towards Burger King on a humid Sunday.

Yes, there is certainly much novelty in the world. It grows more novel and more complex day by day. The weight of the world, the worry and fret, compounds along with the novelty…

Suddenly, you pull your car onto the shoulder of the road and park. You breathe heavily, on the verge of a panic attack, as traffic streams by.

Wait! Hold on! Everybody… STOP! It’s not there, it’s not ahead of you! It’s somewhere back there, not at the beginning, but before that. Somewhere before time, before the first, “Let there be light.” Everyone! We need to stop! Freeze! Put down that e-cigarette! Put down that taco! Put down that gun!

But the arrow of time, loosed from its quiver, continues to sail into perfect cloudless blue.


by Sam Buntz

[Note: the pompous, condescending, politically oracular voice of this piece annoys me now that I re-read it.  I would much prefer writing about books or pop culture or music. So, sorry.  But, on principle, I have erased nothing.]

Lately, I’ve been thinking about this quotation from the Russian writer P.D. Ouspensky: “The marionettes failed to understand the danger that threatened them and could not see that the very same wire which pulls the villain with a knife in his hand from behind a bush makes them turn and look at the moon.”

Ouspensky wrote that sentence during the Russian Revolution. He was observing his society’s massive complacency—buffered by the casual assumption that Russian civilization would continue on its usual course—when, in fact, the Bolsheviks were already destroying its foundations. Everything was in violent transition. Ouspensky said that the experience of national revolution and ensuing chaos convinced him that no one was really in control; we like to kid ourselves and assume that there are boundaries in the world, institutions and sources of authority that can’t crumble, but our world is as unstable and perishable as that reflected in a single drop of dew. If it’s supported by anything, it’s held up by a kind of persistent collective wish—a wish for permanence. The illusion gets itself taken seriously and becomes, for a while, a fact.

The foregoing paragraphs seem to be gearing up for a typical assault on Trump. But that wouldn’t make much sense: to imply that American society is filled with “marionettes,” tricked into looking at the moon and away from Trump, would be insane. People who are willing to agree with a Bill Maherish generalization like “Americans are stupid!”—an applause line Maher has been weakly using for the entirety of his career—would probably mindlessly assent to the claim that we’re ignoring Trump’s attempts to undermine democracy. But they would be wrong. Obviously, nothing is more discussed right now: everyone’s attention is on Trump. He is the only acceptable national topic of conversation, aside from March Madness. Rachel Maddow waves non-revelatory 1040 tax documents in the air, and rambles about Russian Oligarchs, while the Republicans wildly scramble to find a new way to make Trump’s claim that Obama wire-tapped him sound plausible. Today, the new excuse was: “Wait—maybe the British did it?”

But those issues—Russian conspiracies and wire-tapping plots—can’t be the villain with the knife in Ouspensky’s metaphor. They need to be the moon. After all, these conspiracies are primarily sport: I’m not sure how many liberals really believe that Trump is going to be unveiled cavorting with Russian prostitutes on video, or how many Republicans really believe that President Obama is personally overseeing a Deep State conspiracy to undermine Trump. Both of these ideas seem more recreational than not: they’re political fun n’ games, despite how we may froth at the mouth while playing them.

So, the knife-wielding villain needs to be somewhere else in this picture—the malign actor who will enter the play and shatter our pre-conceptions of how it will turn out. We dread his entrance in part because it will shake us into consciousness of the fact that this is not a world in jest, but a world in earnest (to borrow from Frost). The thing that hovers in your peripheral vision, that makes you swivel and adjust your head to put it out of mind, still remains annoyingly and resolutely there—if in the margin and a bit blurry.

Turning and looking at the moon, in Ouspensky’s sense, can take many different forms: for instance, you might figure that you don’t need to waste time campaigning in Wisconsin, or you may distract yourself from real problems by tweeting about the ratings of a reality show you formerly helmed. Variety is infinite. At any rate, it’s funny: the fact you are most eager to ignore may be the fact that is, ultimately, of the most crucial interest to yourself and your condition.

I think that fact is (probably) North Korea.

News stories about North Korea’s nuclear and ICBM programs are odd business. They are always on the front page of the New York Times. They are highlighted and discussed on cable news shows. The media seems to be doing its duty with regard to this issue… Yet, somehow, no one really wants to talk about it. Aside from a few of the more aggressive and military-oriented voices on Fox, talking heads generally deflate when it comes to this topic. It is just now forcing itself on our consciousness. It remained in the penumbra for literally a decade: three different presidents (Clinton, Bush, and Obama) failed to deal adequately with North Korea… Of course, Bush invaded Iraq over non-existent weapons of mass destruction and shrugged when North Korea began testing actual nuclear weapons. Their legacy of ineffective action and inaction is left, hair-raisingly, to Trump.

All that moon gazing is finally bringing us to a moment of reckoning. Rex Tillerson said today that the U.S. isn’t going to open talks with Kim Jong Un—North Korea simply needs to back down or risk a pre-emptive attack on its nuclear capacity. At the same time, The New York Times recently reported that our ability to launch such a pre-emptive attack is in grave doubt: it’s impossible to know where the North Korean government is storing its nuclear stockpile and missiles, and tracking the movements of the country’s leadership is equally imprecise. One of the most terrifying quotes I’ve read on the question came from President Obama. The Times reported that, last year, he told his staff that he would launch an attack to kill the North Korean leadership and destroy their nuclear stockpile—if it could be done. But it couldn’t. This was disturbing because it demonstrated how insanely high the stakes really are.

I’m certainly not writing this to advocate war with North Korea or to criticize Tillerson’s approach (I say Tillerson’s approach because, realistically, I’m not sure we can say that Trump has an approach—this is an issue where it seems like Secretary Tillerson and General Mattis really are being forced to play Atlas and keep the sky from falling). I’m aiming merely to observe our evasive attitude of mind, and ask if our attention is even in our own control. After all, Ouspensky’s metaphor strongly implies that it isn’t: our minds are born along by vast currents of history, that can either keep them afloat or dash them on the rocks, without taking their volition into much account.

I am, however, a “concerned citizen.” The North Korean situation concerns me. Montaigne once wrote, “Do not worry about how to die: you will know how to do it well enough when the time comes.” I’m curious to know if we have a better plan than Montaigne’s to offer to countless civilians in South Korea—and in the North—or if armed confrontation and appalling mass-death are the inevitabilities they increasingly appear to be.

Eat Together: A Movement

A parable:

A long time ago, the gods and demons gathered together to discuss to whom they should give their offerings. After some debate, the demons decided to put their offerings in their own mouths. But the gods, being wise, served the offerings to one another.


In America and in the world today, there is obviously much disagreement and conflict. When has this ever not been true? The history of the human race is a tragically bloody and murderous record.

Yet, we all acknowledge that it’s become easier to isolate ourselves within our respective ideological bubbles, to never hear voices from outside. Many of us rarely have sustained encounters with people whose life-situations are different from our own. Regardless of one’s political beliefs, it’s clear that there’s a civic emergency in America. Too often, people talk past each other, scream at each other, and can’t really see each other. They see labels, see the bearers of despised ideas, and can’t discern the human beings lying behind them. It seems clear that we need more opportunities for unhampered personal encounters—for people to simply meet each other, talk with one another, and share a meal, on neutral ground. Starting a national “Eat Together” movement would be one way of providing such an opportunity.

The various members of a community, from all walks of life, would gather for a shared and totally free meal on a weekday night (perhaps Wednesday or Thursday). That’s it—no agenda. Just food and people. The organizers would not attempt to convert anyone or give political lectures, while, at the same time, the participation of volunteers from all religious and secular organizations would be much desired in organizing and providing these meals. While additionally fulfilling the function of a soup kitchen, Eat Together would actively seek the participation of everyone, from every conceivable background. Its volunteers would not try to reform or convert others to any cause. They would simply serve.

But those who are eating can and should talk about whatever they want. They shouldn’t feel pressured to start a political dialogue, or avoid politics, or talk about any specific topic, or eschew any specific topic. They should simply be together, and interact organically. Words like “dialogue” or “conversation” shouldn’t even be used in promoting the event. The basic message—“Eat Together”—will be the movement’s entire mission statement.

To give credit where credit is due, the practices of one particular community inspired this initiative. In India, the Sikhs have long held open meals with no proselytizing agenda. Tourists to the Golden Temple in Amritsar in The Punjab are likely familiar with this custom: Sikh communities operate a communal kitchen called a langar, offering free vegetarian meals, acceptable to members of all the major religions of India and to those of no religion. While many Sikhs are not vegetarian themselves, they want to offer food that caters to the dietary needs of Hindus and Buddhists and which fulfills the Halal obligations of Muslims.

The Eat Together Movement should observe the same practice in America, in order to bring as many people together as possible. By not serving meat, the movement more easily accommodates Halal and Kosher diets, not to mention explicitly vegetarian religious groups and individuals. Again, this is not to proselytize for vegetarianism or any other cause, but simply to make the meals as widely acceptable as possible. (It shouldn’t be too difficult to provide vegan and gluten-free versions of the meal, as well.)

In addition to the non-proselytizing nature of the movement and the vegetarian menu, there is another important point. People who participate in the event should not try to sit with those they already know, but simply occupy the next available set of seats, sitting next to whoever happened to arrive before them. They can’t self-sequester into religious or ethnic groups within the dining hall. That would abnegate the movement’s purpose. It’s possible that families and single people could eat in different sections, but it would be crucial to deftly assure that all seating arrangements facilitate interactions with people who aren’t in one’s own group.

Eat Together meals could be held anywhere, in any facility sufficient to accommodate a group of the expected size (a gym, a school, etc.). Letting a different religious group or organization offer its own facilities on alternating weeks might be a viable method, as long as they strictly adhere to the “no proselytizing at meals” discipline. A volunteer committee comprised of representatives from different religious congregations and secular organizations would be highly helpful and likely necessary in setting up the meals.

Also, if one were to organize Eat Together meals in a large city, it would be well to ensure that the venue does not fall entirely within the bounds of a neighborhood defined predominantly by one ethnicity or religious group. Meals should be held close to borders and dividing lines, to bring in as many people from the opposite sides of those lines as possible.

Again, the meals will be free, relying on volunteers and on voluntary donations. However, donations won’t be aggressively solicited. Rather, on the way out, people who’ve appreciated the meal, and want to show their support for the movement, can drop money into a collection box.

Breaking bread with another person is one of the most fundamental and natural steps towards establishing friendship; this seems to be a cultural universal. Traditions of communal feasting and hospitality towards strangers exist across the world, in virtually every society. Further, sharing food together is the most natural expression of human unity, an affirmation both of diversity and of the oneness underlying that diversity. If we could create a new tradition like this in America—or even internationally—it would be a major step towards relating to each other in a less fraught manner.   The Eat Together Movement could help us to see one another, respect one another, and ultimately know one another.