Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 24, 2011

Steve Jobs, Zen Buddhism and LSD

Filed under: computers,religion — louisproyect @ 6:13 pm

Back in 1987, when I was working at Goldman-Sachs, I sat next to a consultant named Barbara who had the loveliest violet eyes. I think she was attracted to me as well but I could never warm up to her since her values clashed with mine.

No, she was not a Republican. She was a “New Age” person who had been through the 60s counter-culture, eventually becoming a computer programmer just like me. But her real ambition was to start a business treating people with the Feldenkreis Method, a kind of low-key physical and mental exercise that was supposed to deliver health and happiness. I went to one of her evening workshops once and found it pointless, preferring to remain my neurotic, snarling anti-capitalist self.

But the real stumbling block was her often-stated desire to find a husband and move to Mamaroneck, a wealthy Westchester suburb. How had a 1960s free spirit become so bourgeois? That was a question that preoccupied me at the time.

I thought about Barbara while watching the extended segment on Steve Jobs last night on “Sixty Minutes” featuring Walter Isaacson, his authorized biographer. Isaacson went on at length about the “New Age” aspects of Jobs’s personality that were critical to his success in the business world.

Isaacson harps on Jobs’s long hair and his aversion to taking baths, a sure sign of his being “hip”, I suppose. But it was his trip to India, his Zen Buddhism, and most of all his use of LSD that made him atypical of the Silicon Valley world.

He goes on to explain that if you dig a little deeper, it was exactly those things that made Apple the big success that it was and is. The Zen Buddhism supposedly made him attuned to a kind of elegant minimalism that characterized all of his products, to the point of making him averse to on-off power switches.

The LSD was the big thing, however. It “opened his mind” in a way that he never thought possible. While not quite a prophet of the drug as Timothy Leary, Jobs is on record as stating that Bill Gates would have been much more successful if he had dropped acid himself.

I for one do not see any big contradiction between becoming a vicious captain of industry (Apple is the second most valuable corporation in the world, next to Exxon-Mobil) and embracing all of these “New Age” insights.

Despite beat poet Allan Ginsberg and Gary Snyder’s Zen training, as well as that of countless 1950s and 60s bohemians, the actual history of the religion (broadly defined) is one that includes exactly the kind of martial attitude that made Jobs into the top dog he was at the time of his death.

That is what you learn from reading Bryan Victoria’s “Zen War Stories”, a book that reviewer Stephen Heine described  in the following terms:

Brian Victoria’s work, following on the heels of the highly acclaimed but also highly provocative Zen at War (Weatherhill, 1997), continues his withering attack on the embracing of wartime ideology by leading Zen masters and practitioners in Japan. Victoria seeks to show that the attitude characteristic of numerous examples of prominent Zen monks and scholars was not a matter of only benignly resisting, or even of passively accepting, the rhetoric of Imperial Way Buddhism by clergy who were pressured and powerless to stand up to the authorities. Nor was it an example of innocently recognizing historical and ideological affinities between Zen monastic discipline and military training.

On the contrary, the Zen masters discussed here eagerly and enthusiastically endorsed some of the most excessive and reprehensible aspects of imperial ideology in the name of a corrupted vision of spiritual realization as a tool to spread the doctrine of the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere. They also used Zen wedded to hypernationalism and imperialism as a tool to misread the historical records of their own tradition and to help transport Japanese supremacy to China and Korea, while refusing to acknowledge or repent for their actions with the defeat of Japan. This outlook also infected numerous politicians and military figures who turned to Buddhism as a way of explaining away or masking their roles leading up to, as well as during and after World War II.

In part 1 of Zen War Stories Victoria documents several masters who have become icons in the West for their apparent adherence to Zen tradition linked with an ability to address contemporary culture. After showing in chapter 4 that Omori Sogen, praised for his prowess in swordsmanship and other arts, had a fascistic, “Mr. Hyde” side as manifested in the founding in 1932 of the Kinno Ishin Domei (League for Loyalty to the Emperor and the Restoration), Victoria turns to the case of Yasutani Haku’un. In chapter 5, “Zen Master Dogen Goes to War,” we find that Yasutani, known as the teacher of Philip Kapleau and inspiration for The Three Pillars of Zen, wanted to smash all universities for being traitors. He was a fanatical militarist who “transformed the life and thought of Zen Master Dogen (1200-1253), the thirteenth-century founder of the Soto Zen sect in Japan, into a propaganda tool for Japanese militarism” (p. 68).

In particular, Yasutani tried to argue that Dogen’s famed pilgrimage to Song China in 1223 was triggered not by a longing for Buddhist Dharma but by disgust with the new Shogunate and infatuation with preserving the Imperial House. According to Victoria, Yasutani’s corrupted spirituality did not end with a support for militarism. He was also even more “ethnic chauvinist, sexist, and anti-Semitic” (p. 68) than his teacher Harada Daiun Sogaku, whose “most memorable wartime quote is: ‘[If ordered to] march: tramp, tramp, or shoot: bang, bang. This is the manifestation of the highest Wisdom [of enlightenment]” (pp. 66-67).

The LSD story is even more against the grain of the New Age love-in sensibility. For the full story you need to read Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain’s “Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond”, all of which can be read here.  Like Zen Buddhism, LSD fit in well with the designs of the national security state that started off experimenting with it as a way to drug enemy armies into mass confusion and helplessness.

But it became even more important as a way to disorient America’s enemies within during the Vietnam War, namely that sector of the left that was open to the idea that LSD was as necessary in transforming the individual as radical politics was in transforming society.

I particularly recommend the chapter on “The Great LSD Conspiracy” that includes these revealing paragraphs:

Nearly a decade before Kesey was introduced to psychedelics as part of a government-funded drug study in Palo Alto, the CIA embarked upon a major effort to develop LSD into an effective mind control weapon. The CIA’s behavior modification programs were geared toward domestic as well as foreign populations; targets included selected individuals and large groups of people. But in what way could LSD be utilized to manipulate an individual, let alone a subculture or a social movement? LSD is not a habit-forming substance like heroin, which transforms whole communities and turns urban slums into terrains of human bondage. Whereas opiates elicit a predictable response, both pharmacologically and socially, this is not necessarily the case with psychedelics. The efficacy of acid as an instrument of social control is therefore a rather tenuous proposition.

The CIA came to terms with this fundamental truth about LSD only after years of intense experimentation. At first CIA researchers viewed LSD as a substance that produced a specific reaction (anxiety), but subsequent studies revealed that “set and setting” were important factors in determining its effects. This finding made the drug less reliable as a cloak-and-dagger weapon, and the CIA utilized LSD in actual operations — as an aid to interrogation and a discrediting agent — only on a limited basis during the Cold War. By the mid-1960s the Agency had virtually phased out its in-house acid tests in favor of more powerful chemicals such as BZ and related derivatives, which were shown to be more effective as incapacitants. But that did not mean the CIA had lost all interest in LSD. Instead the emphasis shifted to broader questions related to the social and political impact of the drug. A number of CIA-connected think tanks began to examine the relationship between the grassroots psychedelic scene and the New Left.

An accurate investigation would have shown that sizable amounts of street acid first appeared around college campuses and bohemian enclaves in 1965. This was an exceptionally creative period marked by a new assertiveness among young people. LSD accentuated a spirit of rebellion and helped to catalyze the expectations of many onto greatly expanded vistas. The social environment in which drugs were taken fostered an outlaw consciousness that was intrinsic to the development of the entire youth culture, while the use of drugs encouraged a generalizing of discontent that had significant political ramifications. The very expression of youth revolt was influenced and enhanced by the chemical mind-changers. LSD and marijuana formed the armature of a many-sided rebellion whose tentacles reached to the heights of ego-dissolving delirium, a rebellion as much concerned with the sexual and spiritual as with anything tradition ally political. It was a moment of great anticipation, and those who marched in that great Dionysian rap dance were confident that if they put their feet down on history, then history would surely budge.

But the mood had changed dramatically by the end of the decade, and the political fortunes of the New Left quickly plummeted. There were many reasons for this, not the least of which involved covert intervention by the CIA, FBI, and other spy agencies. The internecine conflicts that tore the Movement apart were fomented in part by government subversion. But such interference would have been far less effective if not for the innate vulnerability of the New Left, which emphasized both individual and social transformation as if they were two faces of an integral cultural transition, a rite of passage between a death and a difficult birth. “We had come to a curious place together, all of us,” recalls Michael Rossman.

As politics grew cultural, we realized that deeper forces were involved than had yet been named, or attended to deliberately. We were adrift in questions and potentials. The organizational disintegration of the Movement as a political body was an outer emblem of conceptual incoherence, the inability to synthesize an adequate frame of understanding (and program) to embody all that we had come to realize was essential for the transformation we sought.

An autopsy of the youth movement would show that death resulted from a variety of ills, some self-inflicted, others induced from without. There was the paramilitary bug that came in like the plague after Chicago, a bug transmitted by provocateurs and other government geeks who were welcomed by the Movement’s own incendiaries. A vicious crackdown on all forms of dissent ensued, while domestic violence played on the TV news as a nightly counterpoint to the appalling horror of Vietnam. It was the war, more than anything else, that drove activists to the brink of desperation. If not for the war, the legions of antiauthoritarian youth would never have endured the totalitarian style of the dogmatic crazies and the militant crazies who combined to blow the whole thing apart.

“What subverted the sixties decade,” according to Murray Bookchin, “was precisely the percolation of traditional radical myths, political styles, a sense of urgency, and above all, a heightened metabolism so destructive in its effects that it loosened the very roots of  ‘the movement’ even as it fostered its rank growth.” In this respect the widespread use of LSD contributed significantly to the demise of the New Left, for it heightened the metabolism of the body politic and accelerated all the changes going on — positive and negative, in all their contradictions. In its hyped-up condition the New Left managed to dethrone one president and prevent another from unleashing a nuclear attack on North Vietnam. These were mighty accomplishments, to be sure, but the Movement burnt itself out in the process. It never mastered its own intensity; nor could it stay the course and keep on a sensible political track.

Now of course Steve Jobs never had any radical politics to begin with. His use of LSD was different from that of the Weathermen who took it in order to get them even more fucked up than they were. By 1970 a deep streak of nihilism had impacted the left making people like Mark Rudd look just six degrees of separation from Charles Manson.

For budding entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, the drug probably had something of the same benefit as EST therapy had for others. If you wanted to succeed in business in the post-60s era, I suppose that some kind of rocket fuel was necessary. The old-fashioned Max Weber Protestant Ethic was inadequate for a changing world.

Back in 1967 when I applied for membership in the SWP, I understood that I had to stop taking illegal drugs. That was not much of a problem for me since I had grown bored with marijuana—a drug that I had loved when I first began using it in 1961. I had only taken LSD a couple of times. I had no idea why people like Timothy Leary or Steve Jobs could view it as some kind of mind-transforming breakthrough.

The second time I took it was at my neighbor Chip’s apartment on West 92nd Street, just a few months before joining the SWP. I was sitting on the sofa waiting for the drug to take effect when I noticed a painting on the wall that had a fish jumping out of the water—literally jumping out of the water. I smiled at Chip and asked him to open his hands which were clasped on his lap. I thought he was playing a joke. He had some sort of remote control device that made the battery-powered painting “come alive”, the kind of novelty that you might have picked up on 42nd Street. At least that’s what I thought at the time. When he opened his hands, I was stunned to see no such device and even more stunned to see hallucinogenic images all across the wall and ceiling. For about an hour and a half, I sat there enjoying my own private version of Walt Disney’s “Fantasia” until the drug worked itself through my bloodstream.

As a tool that would help me see the world in new ways, I have to confess—unrepentant Marxist that I am—that it was Leon Trotsky’s “History of the Russian Revolution” that did the trick for me instead.

June 5, 2009

Macbook Pro: first impressions

Filed under: computers — louisproyect @ 7:05 pm

In response to my wife’s demand that I get a notebook computer in order to free up some space in our apartment and my own growing frustration with my 3 or 4 year old Dell Optiflex (or to be exact, with Windows), I plunked down $1899 and bought a Macbook Pro. This is the one that comes with a 15” screen and 2 gigabytes of memory. For another 400 dollars, I could have gotten one with more memory. Since I don’t plan to run lots of applications at the same time, I didn’t see the need for it.

Around a year or so ago I added 512 megabytes to the Dell in order to get it to run less sluggishly. Now it is slowing down once again, although not to the point of making me want to get rid of it. It is more a function of the daily hiccups of one sort or another that get on my nerves. For example, the Linksys wireless adapter I use has a slight incompatibility with Windows XP that while popping up an obscure error message continues to run. Also, if my wife checks her mail on my computer using Outlook Express, my Thunderbird often stops functioning.

I ruled out getting a Windows notebook computer since Windows Vista is considered such a crappy operating system. Windows 7 supposedly will be an improvement but I couldn’t wait around until 2010 to buy a new computer equipped with it. I also had a queasy feeling that this would be a repeat of Windows ME, Microsoft’s version of Howard Hughes’s “The Spruce Goose” or that bridge in Washington State that collapsed immediately after it was built, the victim of poor engineering and high winds. I bought a Dell with ME in 2001, a year of other disasters far worse than this purchase, and replaced it with another Dell running XP in less than a year. $1000 down the drain.

A Mindset winning an award at a Vintage Computer Show

This will be the first Mac I have ever owned, although I bought two for my mother over the years. My first computer was a Mindset, a company that began with much fanfare in 1984 but went out of business a couple of years later. The machine was an IBM compatible with advanced graphics capability that supposedly would allow it to compete with Atari. I bought it because it looked cool and because I had succumbed to the hype. I wasn’t the only one. The Museum of Modern Art has one in its permanent collection.

After I took a job with Goldman-Sachs, I took advantage of a low-cost offer to buy an IBM computer for home use that supposedly would make me a more productive employee. That was a Model 50 that I kept for a couple of years until I upgraded to a Dataworld, a 386 Intel machine that was considered powerful at the time.

After that, it was 3 or 4 Dells. I really can’t keep track. I do know that I have gone through just about every Windows operating system since the beginning and have frankly gotten tired of dealing with problems that stem from what appears to be at the heart of the architecture. I use a Dell with XP Professional at work that I have no problems with, but will be forced to use Windows 7 if I went that route. The fact that Columbia University does not support Vista makes me wary of 7, which apparently is nothing but an improved Vista.

If I were true to my socialist beliefs, I suppose I would have looked into a notebook running Linux, an open source operating system based on Unix, the operating system I use at work. However, I need to continue to run Windows since some of the applications I use at work, and will need to run occasionally from home, have never been available on a Mac. It is also important for me to use Finereader, an OCR program that is the best available and only works with Windows. The Macbook is using something called Boot Camp which allows you to bring it up either as a Windows machine or as a Mac using OS-X (pronounced OS Ten).

OS-X has this much in common with Linux. They are both based on Unix, in the Mac’s case something called Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) or Berkeley Unix. I use AIX at work, an operating system based on Unix that runs on the IBM servers I have been supporting for around 15 years or so.

The inventors of Unix

Computerworld, a trade publication, reported yesterday that Unix just celebrated its 40th birthday:

June 4, 2009  (Computerworld) Forty years ago this summer, a programmer sat down and knocked out in one month what would become one of the most important pieces of software ever created.

In August 1969, Ken Thompson, a programmer at AT&T subsidiary Bell Laboratories, saw the month-long departure of his wife and young son as an opportunity to put his ideas for a new operating system into practice. He wrote the first version of Unix in assembly language for a wimpy Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) PDP-7 minicomputer, spending one week each on the operating system, a shell, an editor and an assembler.

Thompson and a colleague, Dennis Ritchie, had been feeling adrift since Bell Labs had withdrawn earlier in the year from a troubled project to develop a time-sharing system called Multics (Multiplexed Information and Computing Service). They had no desire to stick with any of the batch operating systems that predominated at the time, nor did they want to reinvent Multics, which they saw as grotesque and unwieldy.

After batting around some ideas for a new system, Thompson wrote the first version of Unix, which the pair would continue to develop over the next several years with the help of colleagues Doug McIlroy, Joe Ossanna and Rudd Canaday. Some of the principles of Multics were carried over into their new operating system, but the beauty of Unix then (if not now) lay in its less-is-more philosophy.

“A powerful operating system for interactive use need not be expensive either in equipment or in human effort,” Ritchie and Thompson would write five years later in the Communications of the ACM (CACM), the journal of the Association for Computing Machinery. “[We hope that] users of Unix will find that the most important characteristics of the system are its simplicity, elegance, and ease of use.”

Apparently they did. Unix would go on to become a cornerstone of IT, widely deployed to run servers and workstations in universities, government facilities and corporations. And its influence spread even farther than its actual deployments, as the ACM noted in 1983 when it gave Thompson and Ritchie its top prize, the A.M. Turing Award for contributions to IT: “The model of the Unix system has led a generation of software designers to new ways of thinking about programming.”

While I couldn’t begin to explain in technical terms how the Macbook makes the best advantage of an operating system so lauded above, all I can say is that my experience with the machine for the past month has been a delight. It is not only lightning-fast, it practically defines the term user-friendly.

The latest version of the Mac notebooks uses a buttonless trackpad. While at first this seems to present problems (and it did take some getting use to), it is far better than the pad on my wife’s Dell. For example, in order to scroll up and down on a website or in a word processing program, you don’t need to use the scroll bar at the right of the screen. You simply put two fingers lightly on the trackpad and move them either up or down to navigate the pages. Here’s more on the trackpad from a guy who looks like a much younger version of Jeff Goldblum:

The Macbook also has an illuminated keyboard which is just what my failing eyesight requires. Furthermore, the keyboard is easier to use compared to the Dell, not to speak of individual keys tendency to dislodge on the latter from time to time. I guess that’s what you get for $500, a bargain but not without its drawbacks. Since I plan to use the Macbook for the next 10 years, I am willing to pay a premium price up front to be spared hardware and software inconveniences.

Oddly enough, the biggest problem I have had with the Macbook is the Windows XP Mr. Hyde partition. To begin with, it took 3 attempts to get XP installed through boot camp, even with the assistance of a technician at Columbia University who works in my department.

After I got XP installed, I went about the business of reinstalling Finereader and the Symantec anti-virus program. During the Symantec installation, the machine shut down with the notorious Windows Blue Screen of Death that I hope was caused by Symantec rather than Finereader. The Blue Screen indicates a fatal error that can only be surmounted by reverting to an earlier version of your environment. I can live with the occasional worm but I can’t get by without having the ability to scan from books or articles.


Bill Gates demonstrating a  Blue Screen of Death

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