The Magic of Marketing

picture: cover of Fishing For Suckers by G T Watkins (1916)
Cover of Fishing for Suckers by G T Watkins (1916)

For the first time in my life, I have taken an interest in marketing. I cannot tell you how shocked and thrilled I am, all at the same time. Each new piece of information hits me like a lightning bolt.

On Saturday, I spent half an hour flipping though every book on marketing in my local bookstore before deciding that one written by someone called Kevin Hogan was the easiest one to understand. Kevin Hogan, unbeknownst to me, is one of America’s best-known marketing gurus.

Mr Hogan’s book is full of brilliant observations, anecdotes and summaries of psychological studies illustrating principles that modern marketers employ with calculated effect. Have you ever heard of the “Pygmalion effect” or the “halo effect”? I hadn’t. Now I understand how these principles can be used to maximize the impact of a marketing pitch.

I have been scouring the web reading blogs on marketing. I found a blog on marketing law firms that lists 20 separate ideas for marketing in three sections. In the first section, number 8 out of 9 ideas is this: “Focus on delivering excellent work and value’. Not number 1. Number 8 out of 9.

picture: book cover
Cover of The Buying Brain by A K Pradeep (2010), which is available from amazon.com

Before I became interested in marketing, the relative position and importance of this piece of advice would have surprised and perhaps even disappointed me. Now I understand that, from the marketing point of view, the value of work performed by a service provider is not a good marketing point by itself. If the customer doesn’t want good quality work – and that is not as ridiculous as it sounds, some customers do want fast and ugly – then “good quality” isn’t relevant at all. It is what the customers think about the service provider that matters. Many customers will assume – wrongly – that most lawyers do good quality work. Overall, customers may feel it is more important for their lawyer to have a quality of confidence, or assertiveness.

The truth is, a professional service provider could be doing the highest quality work in the world in their particular field of expertise, and yet go completely broke because nobody knows who they are, and nobody has any confidence in hiring them. The difference between being successful or not depends on marketing, and the success of marketing depends on techniques, and the success of those techniques depends on psychology, mostly the psychology of the human subconscious, and those people who best understand that psychology and know how to best communicate with consumers will succeed where others fail.

It is vitally important to have these marketing skills and tools because the marketplace is competitive. A service provider or product seller without marketing techniques has as much chance of success as a runner who doesn’t train before a race.

picture: logo of NWF
Logo of the Neuromarketing World Forum

What conventional wisdom tells us about consumer preferences has, in some cases, been proven correct by neural science using the latest techniques of real-time MRI scanning, and in other cases has been shown to be totally mistaken. Neural science is now being used to sharpen marketing campaigns. The use of the latest scientific equipment is out of the reach of the average small business, but adopting the fruits of such scientific research is not. “Neuromarketing” is a growing industry.

Some people may find the entire concept of neuromarketing to be manipulative and dystopian. The fact is, this is what consumers want. They don’t just want a pair of underpants, they want to feel powerful, or sexually attractive, and, when they wear those underpants, subconsciously, they DO feel that way. When you think about it, it’s not a bad deal. You can boost your self-image by buying a pair of designer underpants for a fraction of the cost of a course of psychotherapy. In the novel Pattern Recognition by William Gibson (2005), the character Hubertus Bigend, proprietor of a successful advertising agency, says:

“Far more creativity, today, goes into the marketing of products than into the products themselves, athletic shoes or feature films.”

Why? Because that is what you respond to, dear. That’s why.

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Crimes Against The People

Lavabit's logo
Lavabit’s logo

Mr Ladar Levison, the director of an American email service, Lavabit, that offers encrypted email to its users – including the information-leaker Edward Snowden, who is now in political asylum in Russia – has decided to shut down the service rather than, in his own words, “become complicit in crimes against the American people”, as reported by the UK’s Guardian newspaper.

At the same time, US President Barack Obama publicly announced that he would oversee “appropriate reforms” to the massive review of American citizens’ telephone records being conducted by the National Security Agency, as reported by the NY Daily News. That is, the President has agreed that the NSA program, which was revealed by the leaker Snowden, needs reform. But Snowden is still a traitor, who the US government says should be prosecuted and sent to jail, probably for the rest of his life.

What was Levison talking about when he referred to “crimes against the American people,” a rather dramatic turn of phrase? Well, apparently he isn’t at liberty to say. This is what he wrote on his website: “I wish that I could legally share with you the events that led to my decision. I cannot. I feel you deserve to know what’s going on–the first amendment is supposed to guarantee me the freedom to speak out in situations like this. Unfortunately, Congress has passed laws that say otherwise. As things currently stand, I cannot share my experiences…”

He also indicated he would be challenging a government decision in a court action. Various commentators have speculated about what Levison is talking about. The most obvious inference is that Levison has been barred from discussing some government action taken in respect of his business. But what was that action? One suggestion is that the US government has asked him to allow its intelligence agencies to access the secure communications passing through his email servers via a “backdoor”.

Silent Circle logo

The operations of another encrypted email service, called SIlent Circle, have announced that they, too, will be shutting down rather than cooperate with the US Government spying system, as reported by Forbes.com. I find these events very Kafkaesque.

Professor Clinton Rossiter
Professor Clinton Rossiter of Cornell University

In 1948, Clinton Rossiter, an American academic, published his doctoral thesis as book called Constitutional Dictatorship, in which he discussed emergency powers adopted by governments to deal with crises. He started his analysis with the Roman Empire and worked his way forward to the time of writing, looking at various examples of this situation in Western history. He concluded that unless the use of such emergency powers is carefully controlled, the relevant government is likely to be destabilised, which could lead to a collapse of the government altogether.

Dr Rossiter was no stranger to emergency powers and their use. He served his country during World War 2 as a navy officer. He is also described as someone who has a deep respect for his country’s constitutional history.

I think that if Dr Rossiter were alive today he would be alarmed at the comments made by Ladar Levinson, worried about what Edward Snowden represents, and disturbed by the positive attitude of President Obama to the massive surveillance of its own citizens being conducted by the US Government. If we look beyond immediate concerns and examine, as Dr Rossiter did, what history teaches us about governments that misuse their emergency powers, we would see that sooner or later the story of an ever-expanding, secret surveillance apparatus must have a bad ending.

And there we have an irony. As President Obama has pointed out repeatedly, the point of the surveillance is to protect American citizens. The problem is, when a democratic government conducts its activities in total secret, it eventually stops being democratic. Where will the American people be when that happens?

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Neolib Chainsaw Minor Injuries

Picture: Tony Abbott
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott in the Australian Parliament

Tomorrow begins the final week of the current session of the Australian federal Parliament. After that there will be a period of election campaigning before the federal election scheduled for September. At this point in time, the likely winner of the election will be the Liberal Party/National Party conservative coalition, led by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.

The incumbent Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and her Australian Labor Party are living on borrowed time. They actually “lost” the last federal election, not gaining enough seats in Parliament’s lower house to form a government themselves. Gillard formed a minority government with support from a minor Party (one member) and three independent (non-aligned) members, which grew to four after a Labor MP caught in a scandal left the Party.

In effect, it’s a miracle that Gillard has driven the bus this far, with the fuel tank indicator needle hovering on empty. Now the bus is going to coast over the cliff that has been waiting for it from the beginning of its journey.

There are some people in the Labor Party who believe another outcome may be possible. These are the supporters of Kevin Rudd, the Labor PM elected in 2007, who was deposed by Gillard on the ostensible basis that Rudd was polling badly and was going to lose the 2010 election, but also because Rudd, alleged to be a petulant micro-manager, had alienated quite a few of his parliamentary colleagues.

Ever since then, Rudd has sat in the background as a kind of failed messiah, with a coterie of loyal supporters. Rudd convinced Labor elder Simon Crean – who tried to engineer a spill of the Prime Minister’s position a couple of months ago – that he has repented of his prickly management style, and that he is able to return to his former role and lead Labor out of danger at this year’s elections. One thing that cannot be disputed is that Rudd is very popular with the public, and Gillard is not. Gillard is very astute at parliamentary “insider politics”, Rudd had not been so astute. it would be good if they could work together. That time has come and gone.

Picture: Kevin Rudd
Kevin Rudd MP – former Labor Primer Minister

What would happen if Rudd thought he had the numbers, and challenged Gillard? Either he would lose, and the still-divided Party would limp to an election disaster of historical proportions with an unpopular leader (Gillard). Or, he would win, there would be a bloodbath with Gillard’s Ministers resigning or being chopped, and Rudd’s followers being promoted in their place. Without the platform of Parliamentary debate to give them an opportunity to shine, the new team would need to use the media to convince the voters that the new management was serious about taking the country in a better direction.

Most media commentators describe Rudd as a long shot at winning the election of even retaining the same number of ALP seats as at present. He is described as someone who could “save the furniture” rather than stop the house from burning down, that is, the ALP’s best hope for retaining enough seats to make a comeback in one or perhaps two future elections, rather than being out of contention for three, which would probably require an alliance or merger with the smaller Greens Party.

Picture: Julia Gillard
Current Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard

Assuming the ALP lose, either very badly, with Gillard as leader, or not so badly, with Rudd (or someone else) as leader, what would a new conservative Abbott government do? It would pursue a neoliberal economic agenda.

According to the Investopedia website, this is the definition of Neoliberalism:

Definition of ‘Neoliberalism’

An approach to economics and social studies in which control of economic factors is shifted from the public sector to the private sector. Drawing upon principles of neoclassical economics, neoliberalism suggests that governments reduce deficit spending, limit subsidies, reform tax law to broaden the tax base, remove fixed exchange rates, open up markets to trade by limiting protectionism, privatize state-run businesses, allow private property and back deregulation.

The Lib/Nat agenda will involve shrinking the public sector – except defence, which will be boosted – by cutting back on the public service, selling government assets, and reducing or freezing welfare benefits. Tax cuts would be implemented if that were possible, but it probably won’t be for some time.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Ever since Margaret Thatcher (who really did shrink government) and Ronald Reagan (who talked about it, but didn’t, but who deregulated banking and other industries), this menu of “neoliberal” political actions has been seen as the gold standard by Australian conservative politicians at both national and State/Territory levels.

Picture: R Reagan & M Thatcher
US President Ronald Reagan and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher

Now, I am going to say something that might seem a bit outrageous to some people. As a political plan of action, as distinct from an economic theory, I think neoliberalism is misconceived. Why? Because it sees the government/public sector and the commercial/private sector as antagonistic to each other. Go back and look at the definition quoted above. It refers to shifting control of economic factors from the government to the private sector, hence Reagan’s deregulation of banking, which many commentators blame for breeding the uncontrolled risk-taking that led to the GFC and multiple bank failures in the US.

Neoliberal political action plans are misconceived because the government’s role is to govern, not to let other people do that job.

Australia has many examples of successful interactions between the government and private sectors. One example is the State government of Victoria giving land to private developers to turn into apartment complexes on the proviso that some of the apartments were returned to the government for public housing. Another example is the State government of Western Australia doing a deal with energy companies to supply natural gas to the domestic market at a lower price than the gas could fetch on the international market. The gas, like any mineral resource, was a public asset in the first instance.

These are pragmatic, home-grown Australian solutions to problems that arise in all countries. Unfortunately, instead of continuing in this tradition of pragmatism, the aspiring Thatcherites in a new Abbott conservative government are likely to unleash a wave of neoliberal “reforms” predicated on the flawed premise that the best way to govern a country is for the government to withdraw from the scene. That is, unless Mr Abbott has the courage to resist the neoliberal ideologues in his camp and do what he will be elected to do: govern Australia.

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The Fluffy Black Dress of Unfreedom

Image
Edward Snowden

American Edward Snowden has stirred up a hornet’s nest. An intelligence services contractor’s employee, he has revealed that the American government is running a vast, secret program called PRISM by which it obtains basic information from the larger US telcos about phone calls made by millions of people.

Snowden is currently in self-imposed exile in Hong Kong, where he fears being assassinated by Chinese triad gangsters at the behest of the US government. Rasmussen Reports say that, In a opinion poll taken after his allegations were made public, 46% of the Americans who were polled said they believed it was likely that their own phone records had been accessed.

The same report said that 59% of respondents, not a very big majority, disapproved of the government’s program. Defending the PRISM program, US Senator Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has oversight over intelligence agencies and their programs, said that it was nothing new and had been under way for seven years, implying the fuss is an exaggerated over-reaction.

What are we to make of all this? I am not particularly disturbed about the US government having “bulk” access to people’s phone records. The government has always had access to private information by using warrants in criminal investigations. The problem is how the government uses the information. And the answer is, we don’t know, because it is done in secret.

This is where the dog starts to chase its tail. We are told that the process has to be secret because it involves national security. That means that the two bodies that have any official control over the phone data collection process, namely the Foreign Intelligence Security Court and the congressional committees that review intelligence activities, don’t reveal to the rest of the world how PRISM works or anything else, very much.

The Wall Street Journal published an interesting story by Jacob Gershman on the FISC recently. Gershman writes: “Almost everything that’s submitted to the court or decided there is shielded from the public.” Of course it is. So, how then does the American taxpayer/voter know that the PRISM system is being conducted well, or badly? Whether it is being used enough or not enough or way too much?

That’s the problem. A government that operates in secrecy places itself beyond the judgment of its supposed owner, the demos in democracy, the public in the res publica, the people who elect the government.

Image
J Edgar Hoover

Why is it a problem that we don’t know what government officials are doing with personal information about millions of ordinary citizens? Because those officials can and do make mistakes. Some of them have prejudices or misconceptions. Some of them may even be seriously bent, like FBI chief J Edgar Hoover, who was secretly a transvestite, reportedly participated in orgies while wearing a fluffy black dress, and is believed to have been blackmailed into protecting the Mafia. See this report by the UK Independent on Hoover from Frebruary 1993. This was while his agency was arresting thousands of Americans and sending them to jail for a lot smaller crimes than anything the Mafia was doing.

So, no, I don’t think the American people should trust the NSA or the CIA or their local sheriff or the dog catcher or any other government official to exercise the delegated power of the American people in complete secrecy. A constitutional system of checks and balances means exactly that. There must be effective oversight over everything the government does. That’s what it means to have a constitutional democracy. If Americans forget that, they will surely come to regret it. Snowden will probably be accused of treason. But he is giving Americans a timely remider to think about the way their government functions, and maybe to make some adjustment before it runs off the rails completely.

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The Crystal Ball of Science Fiction

British writer H G Wells
British writer H G Wells

Science fiction doesn’t always become reality. We are still waiting for massive spacecraft to make interstellar journeys, as in Star Trek, or to have titanic battles with each other, as in Star Wars. But it is interesting to see how futuristic writers have looked into their crystal balls and forecast, sometimes quite accurately, the shape of the future. The seeds of the future are with us already. If we stop and think carefully about trends in our world today, we can often see where those trends are headed.

What we call “science fiction” are stories set in an imagined future. Authors have been setting stories in imaginary places for centuries. In 1627, Sir Francis Bacon in England published a novel called New Atlantis, in which a group of sea travellers are blown off course by a storm and reach a mythical island called Bensalem. The people of this place live in ways that are advanced compared to Bacon’s England. Science plays an important role for Bensalem’s people. They have an advanced university, to encourage scientific research, and implement the results of this research in the life of their society.

Illustration from the title page of New Atlantis by Sir Francis Bacon
Illustration from the title page of one edition of New Atlantis by Sir Francis Bacon

The British writer H G Wells is known for many engaging futuristic writings, such as The Time Machine, which dealt with time travel, The Island of Doctor Moreau, which dealt with medical experimentation to create monsters, The War of The Worlds, which anticipated Star Wars by describing the invasion of Earth by creatures from Mars with advanced technology, and The First Men in the Moon, which anticipated space exploration.

H G Wells, like Francis Bacon, was a person who enjoyed looking into the future and trying to imagine what it will be like for us. Wells didn’t only write fiction. He also wrote non-fiction works. In 1920, he published a three-volume work called The Outline of History in which he predicts that eventually there will be one government for the whole world.

Incidentally, Wells was accused by a Canadian woman named Florence Deeks of having plagiarised much of this work from a book she had written, called The Web, which she has submitted to the Canadian branch of a British publishing company, but which was rejected.

The United Nations is the closest thing we have to a world “government”, and it is not correct to describe it as a government. It is a standing diplomatic body where independent governments meet to discuss matters and agree on common solutions. But it might be possible for a world government to evolve in the future.

Wells saw world government as our salvation from annihilation by war. Given that he was writing just after the end of World War I, his concern is understandable. Wells wrote: “given a world law and world security, a release from the net of bickering frontiers, world-wide freedom of movement, and world-wide fellowship, a thousand good things that are now beyond hope of dreaming would come into ordinary life.”

Photo: Trotsky
Leon Trotsky

In a way, uniting the world under a common philosophical system has been the goal of all kinds of ideologues, such as Marxist leader and theorist Leon Trotsky, who predicted a world revolution where workers everywhere would overthrow oppressive and corrupt rulers and unite in creating a new world. Trotsky was critical of the Soviet state under Stalin for having betrayed the ideals of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Eventually he was brutally murdered by Soviet agents while living in exile in Mexico.

Picture: Trotsky RB book cover
The cover of an English version of Trotsky’s book The Revolution Betrayed (1936)

A world-wide workers’ revolution is a far-fetched idea today, and probably was far-fetched when Trotsky suggested it. Was it as far-fetched as space travel was when H G Wells wrote The First Men in the Moon? If a world government is unlikely to happen via a workers’ revolution, could it come about by some other means? Some science fiction authors are writing about the idea.

Picture: cover of Radio Freefall novel
Cover of the novel Radio Freefall by Matthew Jarpe, published by Tor.

In his very amusing and enjoyable novel Radio Freefall, American writer Matthew Jarpe describes the efforts of a communications mogul called Cheeseman to take over the world through gaining control of the Internet and the flow of world-wide communication via a corporation called WebCence, which gains control of the Internet by being asked by governments to police the Internet and protect them from hacking and cyber threats. Jarpe writes: “In order to take over the world, the world itself first had to be transformed into one whole entity that could be held and controlled. So that was step one. Unification.” Jarpe explains how the various groups that make up the world’s citizens were convinced that unification was a good thing: big business, the workers, the “democratic” politicians and the non-democratic leaders. The first phase of unification was the joining together of regional groups of countries into trading blocs, which led to these joining into mega-countries, which amalgamated, and eventually the few isolated smaller countries that were left all gave up and joined too.

Let’s play a game of the imagination, seeing as we are imagining what the future might turn out like. Imagine, for a minute, that in the future there will be no distinction between literary genres, that Bacon’s New Atlantis, H G Wells’ The Outline of History, Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed and Jarpe’s Radio Freefall will all be regarded as musings about what might happen or what the author would have liked to see happen. This is an invitation to see the commonality among these works, rather than to focus on perceived differences.

It is interesting to try to place these works in a spectrum. Radio Freefall is written as a sci-fi novel under today’s definitions of literary genres. And yet it presents some interesting political comments. The books by Trotsky and H G Wells are presented as part fact and part theory, and yet the truth of the “facts” that are identified depend entirely on the philosophical viewpoint of the authors. Trotsky talks about social classes in a Marxist manner as though those things are real, but he starts to erode or augment that system, depending on how you look at it, by identifying a new class, the Soviet bureaucrats, who used to be workers but became attached to and dependent on the Soviet state and promoted that State for its own ends.

Picture: Russian Bolshevik-era poster
Russian Communist poster showing a colossal V I Lenin pointing the way.

Wells has his own concepts that he assumes are true. Wells would have understood Marxism but probably disagreed with it. Is there common ground between Wells and Trotsky? Can we read the works of the two authors as presenting two versions of the same thing, i.e. historical analysis? What’s the difference, after all, in terms of correspondence with reality, between the Communist posters of the heroic and benevolent V I Lenin pointing the way to a utopian classless society and the cover of Radio Freefall?

And then we have Bacon’s work. Clearly intended to be a fantasy, but in the sense of a parable, of presenting a more pure version of the world he lived in. The residents of the fabled island of Bensalem are Christians, which in Bacon’s day was a mixture of all types of beliefs based on various sources. And on top of that stratum Bacon builds an edifice of fable in order to illustrate and promote his ideas about the importance of science, which is based not on faith or fables at all but rather on on observation and reason.

Looking at all of these writings, and comparing them, and examining the assumptions that frame them as members of one genre or another, or as presenting fact or theory or opinion or fiction or whatever, confirms that there are many different ways to describe our human experience.

Is there a common streak of optimism running through the literature we have considered? A wish for the future to be a better place? The Latin motto from the New Atlantis title page says: Time Brings Forth Hidden Truth. But the future is an elusive quarry, as we have seen. Perhaps the hidden truth is already here, now. “How near the truth, yet how far we seek.” Not just in other places. In other times, too.

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Brain Chips: the Technological Imperative and the Morality

Rat with a brain chip:
Rat with a brain chip: read the Singularity Hub article.

Our modern technology has helped humanity to achieve many marvels that our ancestors could not even have imagined. The photo above shows a rat that was injured to a degree that it could not perform simple movement tasks. Scientists implanted a microchip into the rat’s brain. When the chip is powered on, the rat recovers a normal level of capacity.

This emerging technology offers hope for injured humans. But it also raises the question of what other things could be done by using brain chips, and whether those things would be good. Could people be turned into assassins and suicide bombers, by implanting chips into their brains? Could political dissidents be silenced and made compliant by this technique? Could people be “reprogrammed” to have their memories changed? When people with brain chips become networked to each other and to other devices, what will it mean to be human?

Ethicists are discussing the issues that arise from this emerging technology. Ellen McGee and G Q Maguire Jr discuss the implications in their paper Ethical Assessment of Implantable Brain Chips. In a sober assessment that accepts the many advantages that this technology will bring, these authors note: “The most frightening implication of this technology is the grave possibility that it would facilitate totalitarian control of humans.” They go on to write: “A paramount worry involves who will control the technology and what will be programmed; this issue overlaps with uneasiness about privacy issues, and the need for control and security of communication links. Not all the countries of the world prioritize autonomy, and the potential for sinister invasions of liberty and privacy are alarming.”

Photo of German stamp.
German stamp showing Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Read thetruthnews.info blog for the story.

Imagine that the next dictator that takes over an advanced country has access to this technology. Imagine that the governments of our “democratic” countries aren’t really democratic after all, and become corrupt and beholden to powerbrokers behind the scenes. What might such technology be used for, in that type of situation?

Who knows? We will eventually find out, anyway. Why? Because nothing seems to deflect the progress of technology. If it can be built, it probably will be. This is called the inevitability thesis. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t make bad choices and better ones.

Perhaps what will become just as important as the potential uses of brain chip technology is what we will allow that technology to be used for. If we cherish liberty, then we will not allow our liberty to be diminished. But do we cherish liberty? Sairy Lligalo, indigenous Ecuadorian author of Kuntur Jaka, says: “there exists a subtle fear of liberty and everyone wants to turn into a slave – for that reason nobody finds themselves truly free.”

According to Sairy Lligalo, the give-away signs that we fear liberty is our need to function in hierarchies in which we give away our authority and power to “superiors” and lose our dignity in the bargain. That, and our enthusiasm for ideologies that relieve us of our responsibility to think for ourselves. So, does it really matter if we have a brain chip or not, if we are mental slaves anyway?

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The Dreaming God

Pic: Hindu god Vishnu Narayana
Vishnu Narayana

Today I heard a beautiful story. It comes from India. I liked it so much I thought I’d share it with readers of my blog.

The picture illustrating this post is of a statuette that depicts the story. The large central figure is the Hindu god Vishnu. He is asleep on a bed made by the body of a multi-headed cobra snake, which has its hooded heads over him as an umbrella. The snake bed is floating on an ocean of milk. This gives the god, in this form, the name “Narayana”, which apparently means he who moves on the waters. His wife, Lakshmi, is giving him a foot massage while he lies on the snake bed. He is dreaming, and from this dreaming a lotus flower grows out of his navel. On this lotus flower is sitting Brahma, the active creator of the universe.

Now here comes a really sweet part. We can sing to Vishnu as he sleeps. We can sing a sweet lullaby to him, gently into his ear, wishing for beautiful and good things to emerge into existence. “Narayana Narayana Om. Narayana Narayana Om.”

What do stories like this mean? From the beginning of time, people of every culture on earth have imagined how the earth came into being, how what we see around us every day came to exist, and how we relate to that world. Some of these stories have come to have the status of dogma among certain groups of people, meaning that the people who believe them refuse to accept that any other stories have any truth or value. Very often people who “believe in” such stories dogmatically don’t even come from the cultures that created the stories. And the history of dogmatism has been so ugly, and has generated so much destructiveness, that many modern people reject sacred storytelling entirely.

Let’s get beyond dogmatism and the rejection of dogmatism. Let’s see these ancient stories as beautiful artefacts, and gifts to the whole of humanity. Evocative, and reflecting deep truths. You and I do play a part in the creation of the world that surrounds us. What is outside reflects what is inside and vice versa. And that can be beautiful or it can be ugly. Either way, it is powerful. So, let’s go for the creation of beauty. Let’s whisper the lullaby sweetly together into Vishnu Narayana’s ear, metaphorically speaking.

Pic: Book cover showing Hermann Hesse
Book cover with photo of Hermann Hesse

For many people, these stories can have no value, even metaphorically. We are living in a world where extremists have hijacked religions, and where political ideas and movements that used to inspire people have melted before our eyes. Perhaps extremism is one response, and abandonment of faith another, to the same things?  “Meaningful” narratives are troubled creatures, in our world. In the prologue to his novel and masterpiece, The Glass Bead Game, the author Hermann Hesse provides an imagined history of the 20th Century that includes this passage:

“Thousands upon thousands of persons, the majority of whom did heavy work and led a hard life, spent their leisure hours sitting over squares and crosses made of letters of the alphabet, filling in the gaps according to certain rules. But let us be wary of seeing only the absurd or insane aspect of this, and let us abstain from ridiculing it.  For these people … dwelt anxiously among political, economic, and moral ferments, and earthquakes, waged a number of frightful wars and civil wars, and their little cultural games were not just charming, meaningless childishness. These games sprang from their deep need to close their eyes and flee from unsolved problems and anxious forebodings of doom into an imaginary world as innocuous as possible. They assiduously learned to drive automobiles, to play difficult card games and lose themselves in crossword puzzles – for they faced death, fear, pain, and hunger almost without defences, could no longer accept the consolations of the churches, and could obtain no useful advice from Reason.”

Some of the references are a bit outdated – the novel was published in 1943. The point is still clear and as far as I am concerned is still at least as valid if not more so. Disagree if you want to. Time for one more sacred story before I sign off. This is the story of Jesus and Lazarus from the New Testament, as told by Osho (formerly called Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh):

“The New Testament has the beautiful story of Lazarus. Christians have missed the whole point of it. … Lazarus dies. He is the brother of mary Magdalene and Martha and a great devotee of Jesus. Jesus is far away; by the time he gets the information and the invitation, ‘Come immediately,’ two days have already passed and by the time he reaches Lazarus’ place four days have passed. But Mary and Martha are waiting for him – their trust is such. The whole village is laughing at them. … The corpse has already started stinking; it is deteriorating. … Jesus comes. he goes to the cave – he does not enter into the cave – he stands outside and calls Lazarus forth. The people have gathered. They must be laughing: ‘This man seems to be crazy!’ … But, unperturbed, Jesus shouts again and again, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ And the crowd is in for a great surprise: Lazarus walks out of the cave – shaken, shocked, as if out of a great slumber, as if he had fallen into a coma. He himself cannot believe what has happened, why he is in the cave.”

And Osho then adds his interpretation of the story: “This in fact is just a way of saying what the function of a Master is. Whether Lazarus was really dead or not is not the point. Whether Jesus was capable of raising the dead or not is not the point. To get involved in those stupid questions is absurd. Only scholars can be so foolish. No man of understanding will think that this is something historical. It is far more! It is not a fact, it is a truth. It is not something that happens in time, it is something that happens in eternity. You are all dead. You are in the same position as Lazarus. You are all living in your dark caves. You are all stinking and deteriorating … because death is not something that comes one day suddenly – you are dying every day. … The function of the Master is to call forth: ‘Lazarus, come out of the cave! Come out of your grave! Come out of your death!’  The Master cannot give you the truth but he can call forth the truth. … Truth you [already] are.” (Ah, This! p.6)

Pic: icon of Lazarus rising

OK, sermon’s over. Let’s get back to our crosswords. Or our Playstations. Or to collecting money or real estate or information or getting our abs to look like a washboard, or losing those last 5 pounds. Why not be merciful to ourselves and, as Hermann Hesse said, answer the “deep need to close [our] eyes and flee from unsolved problems and anxious forebodings of doom into an imaginary world as innocuous as possible.” Or maybe we can faintly hear a disturbing voice, calling to us from outside the comforting depth of our cosy caves.

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