Friday, July 30, 2010

In Which We See How Self-Awareness May be Evolutionarily Disadvantageous

chutz·pah [khoot-spuh, hoot-]

noun Slang.

1. unmitigated effrontery or impudence; gall.

2. audacity; nerve.


“Mr. Assange can say whatever he likes about the greater good he thinks he and his source are doing, but the truth is they might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family,” Admiral Mullen said.

Hey, that's always a fun game! Let's see how many names we can substitute for "Mr. Assange" in this sentence without lessening the accuracy of it. What about...Admiral Mullen? Too easy? Okay, how about...Barack Obama? Rick Stengel? Or maybe...

Actually, you know what? This game isn't very fun after all. It just never ends.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Become Who You Are

One of the most thoroughly useless, idiotic pieces of advice any of us got while attempting to navigate the labyrinth of adolescence was to not worry about what others do or think, "just be yourself". A friend of mine back then unwittingly refuted this platitude with a plaintive question: "But what if wanting other people to like me and approve of me is part of who I am?" Exactly. That was the whole issue, wasn't it? We didn't know who we were, and it certainly wasn't helpful to have absorbed the idea that your character was largely fixed and immutable, and that experimenting with different ways of thinking, talking, dressing, or behaving was a sign of superficiality and deceitfulness. I never even considered that developing one's character partially (or even largely) by imitation could be a positive thing until I read about the psychological concept of modelling when I was in my twenties.

Once again, we find the - ahem - Platonic notion that we all contain some irreducible essence from the beginning, a "true self", and all we need to do is focus or clear away all the debris that prevents us from perceiving it. How much time and energy have been wasted in second-guessing ourselves, groping around and waiting in vain for some clear sign that, yes, this is absolutely who I am, this is absolutely what I was meant to do, the heavens have opened up, the beam of light is shining down, and the angelic chorus is singing; finally I've harmonized my soul with the nature of existence itself?

Most people, if they know anything basic about Nietzsche, will probably cite "God is dead", the Übermensch, and the will to power. But to me, one of the most integral and useful aspects of his philosophy is also one of the most sadly overlooked and unappreciated . These passages are from Julian Young's book Nietzsche's Philosophy of Art, dealing with some of his ideas on the malleable nature of our selfhood, and ways in which we can treat the process of developing our personalities as we would creating a literal work of art. I've snipped and mashed-up a few of the sentences and scholarly references for clarity's sake:

How is art involved in the Dionysian solution? As with the Apollonian, it requires one to view, to create oneself as an "aesthetic phenomenon." Imitating again the techniques of artists in the literal sense, especially the technique of aesthetic distance, one is required to view the self from a distance so that rather than regarding it "in the spell of that perspective which makes what is closest at hand and most vulgar appear as if it were vast and reality itself", rather than its being "nothing but foreground", we learn to see the wood for the trees, to see ourselves "simplified and transfigured", "to see and...esteem the hero that is concealed in everyday characters." ...One is, in other words, to come to view all the details of one's life as fitting together into the kind of coherent unity that we demand of a well-executed character in literature.

There are two aspects to Nietzsche's repeated injunction to "become who you are". The first is the anti-Delphic idea that the self is something one "becomes", that is, makes or creates rather than discovers. It is a fundamental position of the later Nietzsche that there is no real, given self waiting to be discovered, neither a self conceived as a persisting Cartesian object, nor a self conceived in the related Schopenhauerian or Freudian manner, as a set of "real", innate and unalterable, but largely repressed desires. The self, Nietzsche holds, resembles the state; it may be conceived as a "social structure of drives and affects". As such, though its elements may be given, it, like the state, is the product of free creative activity. The second is the idea of becoming who one is as opposed to who one is not, the idea of becoming an authentic rather than inauthentic self.

[...] This, it must be emphasized, is by no means Nietzsche's only technique for accommodating the "questionable": another consists in exhibiting problematic attributes and events not as means to but rather as parts of the good...So, for example, one might see a character trait that in isolation one might regard as a vice as, in the context of one's personality as a whole, having the necessary function of softening, of taking the hard edge off one's virtues, humanizing one's character.

A further technique that applies to only one - but a very important - phenomenon, the phenomenon of death, is to see its occurrence at a given time as demanded by the pleasingness of one's life as a whole, in the way in which the inner logic of a play or piece of music demands that at a certain point it should stop. Zarathustra enjoins: "Die at the right time!" One should, he says, "cease letting oneself be eaten when one tastes best" and not, like a wizen apple, hang upon the branch for too long.

The important thing to notice about all these techniques for coming to terms with prima facie evils in one's life is that one cannot do it without choosing who you are: deciding, that is, what your dominant desires, character traits, emotions, goals and values are. I cannot view a weakness as contributing to the overall attractiveness of my nature unless I know the "artistic plan" of that nature as a whole.

Notice that the process of creating this self is an artistic process, a task of ordering the events in one's life that in some respects is analogous to the writing of a Bildungsroman, a story of the growth of personality from naivety to maturity, and in other respects is analogous to the task of creating a character that will engage the esteem and attention of the reader.

In this outlook, one might spend a lot of time, especially while young, "trying on" different lifestyles and attitudes like one would new clothes, perhaps discarding them immediately, perhaps growing into them, perhaps altering them slightly into something more unique to their individual sensibilities, all without any guilty sense that they were somehow being fake, betraying the self they were "meant" to be. I'm not even suggesting "growth" as a metaphor here, because even that can imply teleology, a set pattern, an established end point, a desired result. This is just about change, not necessarily for the better or the worse. Certain aspects of our characters are more intrinsic than others, of course, but many of the traits we display consistently are just there out of habit; we reached a point where we gave up on seeking new sources of inspiration and settled for the comfort of predictability.

How many of us can honestly claim to be compelling, intriguing characters? How many of us have found a way to be interesting individuals without lapsing into knee-jerk contrarianism? How many of us could look back on the lives we've lived and feel a sense of pride similar to that of viewing a completed work of art? And how many of us have settled for preexisting narratives and clichés instead?

To give style to one's character – a great and rare art! It is practiced by those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their nature and then fit them into an artistic plan until every one of them appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye. Here a large mass of second nature has been added; there a piece of original nature has been removed – both times through long practice and daily work at it. Here the ugly that could not be removed has been concealed; there it has been reinterpreted and made sublime. Much that is vague and resisted shaping has been saved and exploited for distant views; it is meant to beckon towards the far and immeasurable. In the end, when the work is finished, it becomes evident how the constraint of a single taste governed and formed everything large and small. Whether this taste was good or bad is less important than one might suppose, if only it was a single taste!

For one thing is needful: that a human being should attain satisfaction with himself, whether it be by means of this or that poetry or art; only then is a human being at all tolerable to behold. Whoever is dissatisfied with himself is continually ready for revenge, and we others will be his victims, if only by having to endure his ugly sight. For the sight of what is ugly makes one bad and gloomy.

No, Al Swearengen, No

Things you never hear: “Please stop sucking my dick or I'll call the police."

- George Carlin

On another occasion, America's greatest modern philosopher also said:

"I think these pipe-smokers oughta just move to the next level and go ahead and suck a dick. There's nothing wrong with suckin' dicks. Men do it, women do it; can't be all bad if everybody's doin' it. I say, Drop the pipe, and go to the dick! That's my advice. I'm here to help."

"Cocksucker." Such a common epithet, isn't it? Who hasn't used it on occasion? And yet, and yet...has there ever been a more unjustly denigrated activity, a more unfairly maligned pastime? Find me a man, one single, solitary man, I say, who would claim to be opposed to blowjobs on practical or philosophical grounds, and you will have also found a brazen liar. Indeed, Mr. Carlin, there is nothing wrong with it at all.

Isn't it time for the opprobrium to end?

I don't say this out of some p.c. consideration, because I do think language will always evade our attempts to place it under ideological restraints. But neither does it follow, I think, that enlightened individuals can't choose their words more carefully to better reflect their values and more accurately describe the world they see. When you see how many of our most vicious insults are sexual terms rooted in ugly, troglodytic attitudes that should be consigned to the dust heap of history, why continue to use them and validate the mentality that spawned them? And in the case of a word like "cocksucker", which manages to combine misogyny and homophobia, with the aforementioned hypocrisy as a bonus, what cosmopolitan, civilized person could object to making a change?

Therefore, I move that we substitute a very similar word for it: "cockbiter". As you can see, this is hardly a drastic adjustment, phonetically speaking, but what a world of difference it makes in meaning! Who has any sympathy for the scoundrel too careless to avoid dragging an incisor along the sensitive shaft? What man doesn't fight to suppress an involuntary shudder at the thought of the sacred trust between tongue and glans being violated by the hostile interjection of bicuspids? Hell, maybe Freud actually got something right for a change!

With our ire more appropriately directed at those ignoble cretins who fail to approach their task with the required skill and gravitas rather than the act itself, "cocksucker" can take its rightful place as a term of endearment and affection. I look forward to that great day when you can go to the "Cocksucker's Day" section of Hallmark to pick out a card to send to your favorite practitioner, but that long journey begins with this simple step.

Change we can believe in, my friends.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Fear of a Black Planet

Maybe I’m wrong and we do need a national “dialogue on race,” but my guess is that if Barack Obama figures out a way to turn the economy around and create some real paying jobs, a lot of this racial angst will disappear pretty quick. If you tune out the hottest parts of the Tea Party rhetoric and just focus on who these people are, what you’ll basically see are a bunch of middle-aged white people who spent their teens listening to Eddie Murphy albums and deep down are a lot more worried about their credit card debt than they are about ACORN taking over the government. Add a little more disposable income to that crowd and this whole debate will recede to tolerable levels. Or maybe not -- but we can all hope, I guess.

Yeah, and if my aunt had balls, she'd be my uncle. No, really, turning the economy around and creating real paying jobs? That's a pretty big "if" to hinge this scenario upon.

For once, I have to totally disagree with Taibbi. I don't think this is just displaced anxiety over economic woes. As he seems to understand earlier in his post, oddly enough, this is a really deep psychological issue for the teabaggers, real lizard-brain stuff, this fear that the other races are taking away everything that's rightfully theirs, and they're either failing to stop it, or they're being restrained from doing so by bleeding-heart liberals. I read something (don't remember where) shortly after Katrina, when there were all sorts of stories about supposed looting, raping, murder, etc. floating around (and as it turned out, it looks like cops and vigilante rednecks were actually the ones taking advantage of the opportunity to kill people). The long and short of it was that whites have always lived in fear of blacks rising up and exacting revenge for slavery on them, dating back to the days of Toussaint L'Ouverture and Nat Turner at least, and that periodically, one thing or another will trigger another outburst of hysteria and projection, with whites typically lashing out in fear somehow, usually with violence. White people sure do love them some preemptive warfare.

On that note, it's worth remembering that in fact, most of our shrill, moralistic, anti-drug hysteria came about as a result of whites noticing minorities indulging in these substances that had previously been seen as just another way to enjoy oneself (among civilized people, that is). It was really stunning to see front page articles in the New York Times from the 1920s soberly discussing the way cocaine transformed the Negro into a violent beast with almost superhuman strength whose only concern while under the influence was rapin' him some white women. Always with the innocent white women being victimized! Some of the urban legends of the time, involving drug dealing minority gangs who kidnapped and trafficked in - you guessed it - our white daughters, who were turned into drug addicts and sold into prostitution, are almost too incredible to believe when you read them today.

The '60s, then, represented a time when our children! happily consorted with those people! while indulging in those drugs!, not to mention men and women looking indistinguishable and refusing to play their role in continuing all we had worked for up to that point. I'm not sure it's possible to overstate how much of a near-psychotic break this induced in a certain conservative mindset, one that will be around for another generation or two, at least.

So I think we could have been enjoying a renaissance of the postwar standard of living for the last few years, and the election of our first black president would have still led to the spectacle we see today. I guess we should just be glad that so far, rhetoric aside, actual violence has been almost nonexistent, unlike previous episodes of Honkies Gone Wild. Progress?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Of Mouse and Men

The first time I really listened to any of Danger Mouse's output was when he worked on Beck's excellent Modern Guilt record two years ago (I'm a huge Beck fanboy). Earlier this year, I was enthralled by the Broken Bells record, where he collaborated with James Mercer of the Shins. And earlier this month, we got the official release of the long-delayed collaboration between him and the late, much-lamented Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse. I've been listening to that disc over and over and over since then.

Can he simply do no wrong?

Monday, July 26, 2010

They're Trying to Build a Prison for You and Me to Live In

L.A. Times:

With no warning one weekday morning, investigators entered an organic grocery with a search warrant and ordered the hemp-clad workers to put down their buckets of mashed coconut cream and to step away from the nuts. Then, guns drawn, four officers fanned out across Rawesome Foods in Venice. Skirting past the arugula and peering under crates of zucchini, they found the raid's target inside a walk-in refrigerator: unmarked jugs of raw milk.

Guns drawn. Against raw foodie hippies selling unpasteurized milk.

A few weeks ago, I was walking down my lengthy driveway to the mailbox. When I got around a small copse of trees, I saw a bunch of people standing around in my neighbor's backyard. As I got closer, I realized they were cops, all decked out in body armor. It appeared they were just getting ready to knock on, or maybe kick down, his back door. I froze for a moment, wondering if I should go back to the house, but I thought that might make me look suspicious, so I kept going. I got my mail and was heading back when one of them called out to "let me holla atcha for a minute." As it happened, I didn't know these people at all, as they had just moved in a couple months ago, and I had yet to even speak to them, so I had nothing to tell The Man.

In our post 9/11 age of ambivalent attitudes regarding civil liberties, you often hear it smugly asked, "If you haven't done anything wrong, what do you have to hide/worry about?" But let me assure you that no matter how boring and nondescript of a life you live, standing next to a guy with Kevlar who's carrying an assault rifle while asking you questions will make you start nervously wondering if there's something, anything you might have done that could turn their attention toward you. And when you see story after story of cops raiding the wrong house - the neighbor's house - or when you read Digby's ongoing coverage of police using tasers against nonthreatening victims simply for the sake of intimidation or commanding "respect", this kind of thing will only make you worry more.

The cops left without entering the house or arresting anyone. But two days later, I had just gotten home in the evening, and ten minutes later, when I happened to glance out my window, I saw five vehicles surrounding the house, and the crew was running around again, assault rifles aimed at all windows and doors. This time, they led the guy away in handcuffs. I never saw any coverage of the story, so I still don't know what he was accused of.

Americans are so terribly afraid of so many things. It's too common to even surprise anymore, the fact that the biggest flag-wavers are usually the most vocal advocates of harsher prison sentences for a wider range of crimes, many of them victimless; the fact that the people who currently see death camps in Obama's shadow were just a few years ago insisting on more, more, more government surveillance for the sake of freedom. Well, they got their wish. And we can only hope that this system will eat itself, because I don't think we'll ever voluntarily renounce it ourselves.

The always-eloquent IOZ said some time back:

And that, dear readers, is how I feel about director of the Center for National Security Studies Kate Martin's observation that "They want to turn these enormous spy capabilities, built to be used against overseas enemies, onto Americans. They are laying the bricks one at a time for a police state."

If you asked me, "What would a contemporary police state look like?" I'd reply that it would look an awful lot like what America looks like right now. I would tell you that subsidized consumer affluence has proven a far more effective method of social control than centrally planned, faux-egalitarianism. I would tell you that someone finally figured out that breadlines breed rebellion but lines at the multiplex for the midnight opening of the next blockbuster do not. I would tell you that keeping up with the Joneses has proven a more effective enforcer of conformity than any book of Dear Leader's wisdom ever did. I would tell you that hope for Vegas vacations beats fear of the work camps for quashing dissent. I would tell you that subtle is better than overt, seemingly random better than routine, carnivalesque better than somber, colorful better than drab. Look at the billions of dollars and man-hours thrown into deciding between a guy from Massachusetts and a gal from New York who evince no convincingly held differences of belief. Has ever a nation been farther from revolution than the United States in the year 2007?

I feel a great many people waiting, breathing shallowly, as if one day at last the whole edifice will tip over and reveal its infested foundation. It won't. I feel as if a great many people are waiting for a president to suspend the government, or for black-hood squads to start snatching people in broad daylight, or for the police to establish checkpoint entrances to our cities and loyalty oaths in our schools. (That last, of course, already . . . ) They are waiting, in other words, for incontrovertible and public evidence that Denmark is rotten, some moment of national epiphany when Candidate-for-Life Benito Giuliani descends through the clouds in his own airline trailing some athletic blond with a camera on his way to a firelit vigil in Yankee Stadium.

When I mentioned my story to several people, some shrugged. "Probably a meth dealer," they said, as if that settles it. Well, fuck him, then. He deserved it! Let's make some jokes about prison rape and keep whistling past the graveyard.

Little Deviant Acts

I'm of two minds about things like this:

It's a tough line to draw. One doesn't want to be an enabler of stupid expressions of faith, but at the same time, one shouldn't discourage kind intent. Hitchens is in a situation where he's going to have to walk that line a lot.

Hitchens is very gracious about being told that people are praying for him to recover, perhaps surprising to those who have absorbed the message that the so-called New Atheists are intolerant, fire-breathing ideologues. But there is no uniform way to respond to something like that. Some people may be expressing sympathy and trying to impart good cheer the only way they know how. Others may be using the opportunity to flaunt their supposed magnanimity, seizing an easy chance to be seen looking gracious and caring in the eyes of others while getting in a dig at a man they already know doesn't share their beliefs. Each individual has to judge that for themselves. Go along to get along, or attempt to gracefully demur? Nietzsche:

Sometimes to act against one's better judgment when it comes to questions of custom, to give way in practice while keeping one's reservations to oneself, to do as everyone else does and thus to show them consideration as it were in compensation for our deviant opinions: many tolerably free-minded people regard this not merely as unobjectionable, but as 'honest', 'humane', 'tolerant', 'not being pedantic', and whatever else those pretty words might be with which the intellectual conscience is lulled to sleep: and thus this person takes his child in for Christian baptism though he is an atheist, and that person serves in the army as all the world does, however much he may execrate hatred between nations, and a third marries his wife in church because her relatives are pious and is not ashamed to repeat vows before a priest. 'It doesn't really matter if people like us also do what everyone does and always has done' – this is the thoughtless prejudice! The thoughtless error! For nothing matters more than that an already mighty, anciently established and irrationally recognized custom should be once more confirmed by a person recognized as rational: it thereby acquires in the eyes of all who come to hear of it the sanction of rationality itself! All respect to your opinions! But little deviant acts are worth more! 

I've been told that I was in someone's prayers before, and my response was pretty much just to smile noncommittally. They meant well. I wouldn't take the opportunity to lecture someone about my dissonant views right there on the spot, unless I felt the sentiment was being offered in bad faith; I would just attempt to make myself clear beforehand, in a neutral setting, how I felt about such things. If they persist in doing it anyway, I would take that as a sign that it was really all about them.

When it comes to being blessed after sneezing, though, I will say "No, thank you." If they ask why, I'll say that since I'm not at death's door, nor do I believe that my (nonexistent) soul has been temporarily blown out of my body where it can be snatched up by Satan, I don't need to be blessed. No one will be offended (and they already think I'm weird anyway), so I see it as a perfect chance to mildly shock someone into seeing something in a new way, to shake up their complacency. I think we should always seek to do that.

Mars, Janus-Faced

Guards and officials at a prison in northern Mexico allegedly let inmates out, lent them guns and allowed them to use official vehicles to carry out drug-related killings, including the massacre of 17 people last week, prosecutors said Sunday.

Those leaks from Wikileaks seem to show that the ISI, the Pakistani spy agency that essentially created the Taliban, still is really quite supportive of that organization, despite Pakistan being technically allied with several countries trying to destroy it.

And yet, the right-wingers I know are apoplectic at the thought that their tax dollars might be wasted on welfare recipients that don't deserve it. Maybe if we could somehow reclassify the social safety net under something to do with the wars on drugs and/or terror, they'd be okay with pouring endless amounts of money into it.


Plato’s theory of forms, after all, has it that beyond the material world — the all-too-human world that’s anatomized in icky detail in the vast majority of Craigs list postings — are ideal archetypes. These archetypes are the most real things in the universe. A platonic relationship is, therefore, a human relationship that inspires appreciation for the idealized human, the divine. The relationship must be chaste lest it become an end in itself and a distraction from spiritual matters.

- Virginia Heffernan

Sigh. This is why I keep saying, while only barely joking, that Plato ruins everything. Nietzsche famously quipped that Christianity was just Plato's philosophy for the masses, the same overly abstract world-denial. Concepts and ideas are real, of course, but in the same way that our neocortex developed out of, and on top of, our cerebellum and limbic system, concepts and ideas don't exist by themselves, independent and superior to the earthly reality from which they came. Me, I don't trust any idea that isn't still speckled with a little bit of mud and a little bit of blood.

And while they stress their lofty indifferences, the members of the Strictly Platonic crowd are equally passionate about their desire: conversation, conversation, conversation. Live, e-mail, phone, text, chat — platonic people, it seems, want people to talk to. [...] The forum is enlightening because it represents a collaborative effort to define “platonic” — and define it against nearly everything else on Craigslist. You would think the word would be debased by now. But it’s surprisingly intact. Maybe that’s why we still need some notion of platonism in everyday life. Once we’ve stipulated that commercial culture is that which debases everything, we need a popular concept that helps us resist debasement.

See, I could fit in with this crowd. But note the words "passionate" and "desire", those are important. As nerdy as it sounds, I'm at a point in my life where the thought of reading, writing and discussing is more exciting to me than the thought of sexual or romantic adventures. As Henry Rollins once said, "I don't want to know, I don't want to be known, in that relationship kind of way." There's so many ways to know someone, so many angles to approach from. I just happen to not want those sort of entanglements anymore. But make no bones about it, I'm not claiming that I'm pursuing a "better" or "higher" activity; it's just different, like any other question of taste. I wish we could envision a joyful pursuit of intellectual pleasures that doesn't conjure up images of oddball malcontents of one stripe or another, wrinkling their noses in disgust at all the rutting pigs around them. Forget Plato. Listen to Epicurus instead.

Share Not Suffering but Joy

I've always thought that if turtles had a philosophy, it would be Stoicism. When confronted with danger, draw yourself up as tight as you can, hold perfectly still, and maybe it will miss you.

Yes, I'm being slightly unfair for the sake of metaphor, but leaving aside the absurdity of human beings trying to "live in accordance with nature", or that of the notion that there could ever be pure, clear reason detached from emotional considerations, it's still largely a negative philosophy aimed at "reducing vulnerability", and as such, allows itself to be too defined by the avoidance or rationalizing away of pain. There are aspects of it I find useful in small doses and in certain circumstances -- it's worthwhile to meditate, for example, on the fact that all you love will eventually pass away. But as with some manifestations of Buddhism*, the lesson drawn from this is too often to attempt to cultivate a serene detachment in advance to lessen the turbulent emotional pain when the feared event comes to pass, rather than to feel more intensely in full knowledge and acceptance of the inevitable, gladly taking your chances that the pain may be too much for you to bear then.

Life is constant flux. Contingent things are always arising and passing away. But there is no safe vantage point from which to observe it all, no shelter to eventually arrive at. We're already in the thick of it. Open up your heart and dive right in.

To me, a more sensible philosophy to deal with the inevitable losses we all suffer was espoused by none other than Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss: Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened.

*Joel Mendez notices the same parallels, but I disagree that Zen is a good example of the sort of Buddhism that cultivates this sort of mentality. The Zen practitioners I know use Zen as a tool to see through the limits of all conceptual frameworks, especially of "the self". Using it to try to master an ironclad self-control would indicate that you haven't taken the insights far enough, and they would probably smile and ask, "Who is it that's doing the controlling?"

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Cliché Guevara

Until I saw that the link actually went to Fox News, I seriously thought S.Z. was making up the quotations from Glenn Beck here. This was my favorite one:

The other thing this thing is about is incompetence. I mean, how many terrible decisions has this administration made? I mean really — ones that are destroying the country, it's almost like they're intentionally trying to destroy it? Oh, did I say that? I better take another swig of root beer.

As it happens, I was out and about yesterday, and at one point I stopped in my local chain bookstore. And when I say "local", I'm referring to a small town that exemplifies Real Myrrhkah, with all that entails, both positive and negative. So as you can imagine, the display stands up front are overwhelmingly top-heavy with bait for the kind of people who probably only visit a bookstore if Beck or Rush (the reactionary blowhards, not the musicians) have urged them to. There's more teabag worship there than you'll find in some quaint English hamlets, is what I'm saying. And while I've noticed this hyperbole before, it was especially striking to see, collected in one place, how many books are basically about "How X is DESTROYING AMERICA and Y may be our last chance to save it!", with X representing something to do with leftism the majority of the time. Check it out for yourself (and that's just the ones that literally have "destroying America" in the title; many others hum the tune without actually singing the lyrics). It's a little counterintuitive to me to think that a nation that survived the Civil War and the Great Depression is too feeble to resist the merciless onslaught of the ACLU and secular liberalism, but then again, I'm not exactly the target audience here.

(Update: Okay, forget Beck -- this is my new favorite "destroying America" example, from the intellectual giant who brought us "Wang Dang Sweet Poontang". He even invokes Che himself!)

Continuing with the theme from the last post, it's equal parts amusing and sad to see a group of people who, by all rights, should be thrilled at how much power and influence they have in this country, living in a delirious fever dream, beset on all sides by the forces of darkness, always one small misstep away from complete ruin. Once again, I say John Calvin should be considered one of the Founding Fathers for the psychological, if not political, influence he's had on this country.

I do realize that people generally need to feel a sense of psychological balance. After all, don't you start to feel leery when it seems like too many things are going right for you lately? Don't you start nervously anticipating the inevitable reversal of fortune, to the point where it adversely affects your ability to enjoy what you have? But this -- this is just pathological, to be this terrified of the phantom of radical leftism in a nation where milquetoast liberalism has been in pell-mell retreat for the last few decades, with no hopeful signs of a renewed vibrancy in the foreseeable future. I mean, if we're truly living in the glorious U.S.S.A., wouldn't you think that I could get my books from AK Press in less than three or four weeks? 

The Grinding Years

We would rather be ruined than changed.
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.

- W.H. Auden

James Wolcott, apparently feeling the need to punish himself for who knows what reason, subjected himself to a bold, fresh piece of falafel, and came away wondering if time had stopped back in 2005. 2005? Oh, I can only dream of such a far-off, science fiction-y day and age, surrounded as I am by reactionary relatives and acquaintances whose calendars haven't shuffled off old pages since, oh, 1988 or so. Just the other day, my brother was bewailing the omnipresence of Communists in the Obama administration, and it wasn't until I checked in with Media Matters that I realized that he wasn't engaging in hyperbole (at least, not intentionally) -- his hero Glenn Beck has apparently been on a Red Scare-tear lately.

Wolcott then asked the perennial question:

If you've won, why are you still whining?

Why, indeed. Thankfully, many smarter, better writers than me have addressed this mystery of why the reactionaries can't seem to ever be happy with what they own or accomplish, so let me turn the floor over to them (for the most part) and stand in the wings, pensively stroking my beard and nodding sagely.

I recently quoted this from Matt Taibbi, but it applies here as well:

The problem not only with fundamentalist Christians but with Republicans in general is not that they act on blind faith, without thinking. The problem is that they are incorrigible doubters with an insatiable appetite for Evidence. What they get off on is not Believing, but in having their beliefs tested. That's why their conversations and their media are so completely dominated by implacable bogeymen: marrying gays, liberals, the ACLU, Sean Penn, Europeans and so on. Their faith both in God and in their political convictions is too weak to survive without an unceasing string of real and imaginary confrontations with those people -- and for those confrontations, they are constantly assembling evidence and facts to make their case.

But here's the twist. They are not looking for facts with which to defeat opponents. They are looking for facts that ensure them an ever-expanding roster of opponents. They can be correct facts, incorrect facts, irrelevant facts, it doesn't matter. The point is not to win the argument, the point is to make sure the argument never stops. Permanent war isn't a policy imposed from above; it's an emotional imperative that rises from the bottom. In a way, it actually helps if the fact is dubious or untrue (like the Swift-boat business), because that guarantees an argument. You're arguing the particulars, where you're right, while they're arguing the underlying generalities, where they are.

Once you grasp this fact, you're a long way to understanding what the Hannitys and Limbaughs figured out long ago: These people will swallow anything you feed them, so long as it leaves them with a demon to wrestle with in their dreams.

You know, when Junior Bush was handed the election in 2000, I, being the indefatigable optimist that I am, and worn out from eight years of anti-Clinton hysteria, tried to see the bright side of it: At least, I naively thought, they'll finally stop their incessant goddamn complaining. They've got things going their way now, maybe they'll finally be something close to happy. Of course, they proceeded to spend the next eight years convincing themselves that a doormat of an opposition party was somehow preventing a Republican-owned White House and Congress from...well, I'm not sure how, exactly, they thought the Republicans were being stifled. But whatever the stories they told themselves, the howls of perpetual outrage and the vein-popping, bug-eyed tirades only increased, and I quickly realized that nothing short of the utter extinction of everyone and everything they considered an enemy would suffice to soothe them (and of course, like all fanatical revolutionaries, they would have soon started extirpating heretics to keep satiating their bloodlust). They would rather be ruined than changed.

Speaking of revolutionaries, let me reiterate something I learned from the anonymous wisdom of the Internet once: the idea that "conservative" is the opposite of "liberal" is a tired old myth. Conservative is the opposite of radical. Liberal is the opposite of authoritarian. The famous revolutionary movements of the last few centuries have almost all been both radical and authoritarian. We're all familiar with the results.

In what may be proof that we all know deep down that God really is dead in our modern world, today's "conservatives", apparently not trusting Him to make things right in His own good time, have given in to pipe dreams of utopia in the here and now. I know it's de rigueur for the time being to favorably quote David Frum as one of the blessedly few sane conservatives, but as John Cole reminds us, you know, fuck that guy. He's perceptive enough to realize that Republicans have a marketing problem, that's all. But anyway, remember when that crazy fuck actually wrote a book called An End to Evil without being shuttled off to a madhouse? Does it get more starry-eyed utopian than that?

A genuine, sane conservative like John Gray points out the danger of this kind of thinking:

The search for meaning is dangerous when it spills over into politics. It's not only dangerous when it produces the communists, the Jacobins and the Nazis, but also in the context of democratic or liberal meliorism, because it creates a preference for policies which satisfy this need for meaning rather than have an actual effect.

And then there's this poetic passage from Steven Ozment:

The belief that momentary feelings of unity or visions of perfection can survive permanently into everyday life this side of eternity is the ante-room of nihilism and fascism. Such beliefs give rise to ahistorical fantasies, which can never materialize beyond the notion. To the extent that they are relentlessly pursued, they progressively crush the moments of solace that precious moments of grace can in fact convey. Historically such fantasies have spawned generations of cynics, misanthropes and failed revolutionaries who, having glimpsed resolution, cannot forgive the grinding years of imperfect life that still must be lived.

Politics is one of the least satisfying activities in adult life. Of all the things we could be doing, what kind of healthy, balanced person would seek to find meaning and satisfaction in a venue that is about nothing but compromise, imperfection and the lowest common denominator? Michel Foucault said that paying attention to politics was important because it's about "the society in which we live, the economic relations within which it functions, and the system of power which defines the regular forms and the regular permissions and prohibitions of our conduct." All true. Maintenance work is necessary. But it shouldn't consume anyone to this extent. The desideratum is in the doing, not the achieving.

Friday, July 23, 2010

There Are No Believable Gods

Returning briefly to that Roger Friedland post, this also caught my eye:

Almost everybody who claims to belong to a religion also believes in God. A lot of students -- just shy of a third -- don't identify with any religion. But just because somebody doesn't belong does not mean they don't believe. About a quarter of those unaffiliated nonetheless believe in God. Most commonly, they believe in a higher, ordering power or cosmic force, but not God, not the big Who. True atheists are a tiny minority in the sample -- about eight percent.

"A higher ordering power or cosmic force." guys are members of the cult of the Theory of Everything? Seriously, what the fuck does that even mean otherwise?

A brief aside: Contra the conventional wisdom, I don't see a necessary conflict between agnosticism and atheism. Agnosticism is a statement about the limits of available knowledge. Atheism is a statement about the limits of credible belief. I can fully acknowledge that we don't know everything important there is to know about the universe (and may never be able to do so) while still feeling confident enough to say that, given what we do know, there is no personal God waiting to judge us on our behavior after we die. That God is a primitive artifact of the reptile brain, but funny enough, it's the only kind that most people would have any use for -- better a violent schizophrenic who might at least occasionally answer a prayer than the indifferent Watchmaker God of the Deists.

Anyway, this is probably the most common objection to explicit atheism you'll hear from the spiritual-not-religious crowd, that there might be some unknown principle or force governing everything, so it would be premature to declare against the existence of a god or gods. But when I hear words like principle, power or force, it sounds to me like we're in the domain of science, are we not? What God worthy of the name could be neatly encapsulated in a scientific formula? And this from people who bristle at the idea that they could be explained in terms of natural phenomena, without any need of supernatural metaphysics!

Really, this is just an attempt to continue believing that meaning and validation are "out there" somewhere to be discovered, having been created for us already. But having grown too sophisticated to believe in a literal superhuman father figure who lives somewhere out in space, these people are stuck at the next step, incoherently muddling around, hoping to find preordained meaning by avenues that were never meant to provide it, like science or nature.

You're in the vanguard. It starts with you.

"This is my way, where is yours?" – Thus I answered those who asked me "the way". For the way – that does not exist.

- Nietzsche

Thursday, July 22, 2010

As Above, So Below

I was out driving in the pre-dawn darkness, daydreaming and listening to music, when I made a wrong turn out of habit. I put it in reverse, backed into the nearest driveway, and started to move forward, when I caught sight of a tiny toad in my headlights, hop-hop-hopping for all he was worth to get out of the middle of the road. I'd somehow managed to back right over him and miss him with all four wheels.

As I waited for him to get to the grass, I thought about how easily I could have crushed him and never even known it. And even though it may seem sentimental to stop and wait for a toad to move to safety (where he's probably just as likely to get tortured by a cat or devoured by something else), and even though I didn't mind doing it, I admit I wouldn't have been upset at all if I had run him over and realized it after the fact.

We humans love to imagine ourselves as masters of our own destiny, but we never stop to think about how often we're completely helpless to do anything about the immense wheels of history, economics, politics and nature as they roll heedlessly through our individual lives, oblivious to the destruction they leave behind.

The Scarecrow Shadow of the Nazarene

With all these God-believers, it is striking that most students -- nearly 60 percent -- don't think sexual intercourse before marriage is wrong, at all. If you look at the table below, you can see that very small proportions -- even among the conservative Christians -- think it is absolutely wrong. Eighteen percent of the Evangelical students think such sex is absolutely wrong. That's less than the 25 percent of those students who took a virginity pledge.

[...] That Christian students tend to be more guilty about sex than Jews is not surprising. The history of Christianity is a long struggle against sex. The early Christian ideal was to be so infused with faith in Christ that one did not even experience sexual desire. A faithful Christian who was able to achieve self-mastery could free himself from this world. In this, they promoted the radical idea that women could be equal to men. The leaders of the Jesus movement urged those who could to cease all sexual intercourse in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. It was St. Augustine, writing in the fourth century -- who described himself as being a slave to an "insatiable lust" -- who put forward the position that our sexual desires are divine punishment for our original sin, an obstinate independence of will. That original sin, Augustine argued, was transmitted down through the ages through our semen. This not only made sex shameful, it made virgin birth essential.

There are sexual differences between different forms of Christianity. As you can see in the table above, it is the Protestants, not the Catholics, who are more likely to find sex outside marriage to be sinful. You might expect exactly the opposite. For Catholics, marriage is a sacrament, a visible sign of God's grace; for Protestants it is not. The Protestants broke with the Catholic church in part over sex, that their priests and popes were having it anyway. The first thing their clergy did was to go out and get married. The difference between a Catholic and a Protestant is that the latter faces God alone, without the mediation of a priest who can confess and absolve sins. The Protestant carries his religious fate in his own hands; he or she must look to his own will as a mark of his salvation. Protestantism depends on a psychic structure of self-control in a way that Catholicism does not. Protestantism runs off a guilt that cannot be absolved.

This difference, I think, shows up in young people's private lives. We asked students how their last sexual encounter had made them feel in relation to God. A third of the Protestant students felt distant from God after their last sexual act, compared to a quarter of the Catholics and less than one-seventh of the Jews. Protestants tend to be the guilty ones. But just because Protestant are more likely to think that sex is wrong doesn't mean they are not having it.

The fear of death vs. the most primal expression of life. The irresistible force meets the immovable object. Well, religion had a good run of it, trying mightily to keep the lid tamped down on all those carnal urges, but it was always inevitable that people would rationalize a way to have their God and their sex lives too.

Slightly different context, but this reminded me of a line from an essay by Lee Siegel I read recently:

What all this means is that, finally ... Americans are growing up about sex! For what these women really seem to be complaining about is that sex is no longer treated as though it were some momentous experience that is sacredly separate from the rest of life. Three cheers for that.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Yesterday's Rebels

When I was a teenager, Ice-T's music was such a threat to bourgeois society, he got personally condemned by Poppy Bush and Dan Quayle themselves (and Tipper Gore, too; such raw evil required a bipartisan alliance to oppose it).

Oh, how the mighty have fallen -- now he gets tickets for not wearing a seat belt, that is, when he's not having Twitter slap-fights with Aimee Mann.

I guess he can always console himself with the knowledge that at least he never starred in Are We There Yet?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Long Time Ago We Used to be Friends

You've been gone so long
Where ya been for so long?
I went to places unknown
Rented a room
And I forgot my pen
Shook my twin
And I had to find the feeling again

I recently tracked down an old friend I hadn't seen or heard from in close to a decade. Luckily, it turned out she'd been keeping a blog the last few years, so reading that helped save a lot of time catching up.

She was always one of my favorite email correspondents, a great, entertaining writer whose voice came through clearly. I always thought of her as basically New Agey/spiritual, but she was never annoying about it. Some of that manifested itself as a supremely pleasant, laid-back, "it's all good" attitude, though I always had a sense that she was trying to talk herself into feeling that way as much as anything else, as if she were trying to grow into her own rhetoric, hoping that by envisioning a state of philosophical equilibrium and talking about it repeatedly, it would actually start to seep into her bones eventually. I don't say that to be snide; she had a horribly turbulent life growing up (with plenty more hardship recently), so who could blame her for wanting some mental peace finally?

To my astonishment, it turned out that she had been a Mormon the entire time I knew her, yet she never once said anything about it. I know we talked about religion along with everything else under the sun, but somehow she kept that to herself. I'm almost sure I must have said something offensive at some point about religion in general, but I never got any sense of disapproval from her (though I may have taxed her patience with my foul mouth at times). I don't recall her being much of a political animal, but nowadays, she's very right-wing in her politics, supporting things like Arizona's draconian anti-immigrant laws, Romney for president in 2012, and most galling of all, she's a big fan of Caribou Barbie herself. I almost don't have the nerve to find out what she thinks of Glenn Beck, a Mormon himself.

Anyway, it turns out that she and her family are planning to move back to the area soon, and she was even asking me about the town I live in now, as they had been considering it as a possible destination. I'm really looking forward to seeing her in person again, even as I dread knowing how many topics of conversation will possibly have to be off-limits, or at least approached like one would a minefield (and no, I didn't think it wise to tell her about my own blog; not just yet, at least).

I don't have any grand conclusion about all this. I just think it's worth keeping in mind how there's many a slip twixt the cup and the lip, a lot of room to maneuver between personality and ideology. People can believe some crazy or even ugly things while still basically being good-hearted people. It's absolutely worth striving for intellectual consistency and self-awareness ourselves, even if it is a Sisyphean task in the end, but it's also important to not overlook how many people are worth knowing even if they never do so themselves. She's still my friend in ways that have nothing to do with any cerebral reason or justification.

The Cut of Her Gibberish

Los ticka toe rest. Might like a sender doe ree. Your make a doll a ray day sender bright like a penalty.

Exitease my ray day member half lost a beat away. Purst in like a one way sender war give a heart like a fay.

Cuz I can ford a red eed a only street a wide a ree land. Die-mond make a mid-evil bike a sake a like a ree caste. Cuz I can ford a red eed a only street a wide a ree land. On a ree land. Find a ree land.

You sink a my swan. Rolly a get a worst in. Maybe minus way far central poor forty duck a pin.

Milk maid dud bean. Master a load a head. Pill pop a dope a well run general hash pump a gonna led.

- Melvins, "Hooch"

Buzz "King Buzzo" Osborne once explained his lyrical philosophy thus: it's hard to play guitar and concentrate on singing at the same time. It's much easier to just open your mouth and let the, uh, "words" flow, all stream-of-consciousness-like. Besides, he said, fans will get what he means just by the way he sings it. The voice becomes just another instrument, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

So, anyway, I was just sitting around the other day, when I abruptly felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of English teachers had suddenly cried out in terror and anguish. I feared something terrible had happened. So I says to myself, I says, "Self? Did Sarah Palin just say something incredibly stupid again?"

Why, yes. Yes, she did.

So, it appears that Refute was cruising merrily down the weed-choked dirt road of Sarah's mind, hands at ten and two o'clock, music at a sensible volume, on its way to a job interview, when suddenly, Repudiate comes barreling down the old washboard side road, checking its makeup in the visor mirror and texting while trying not to drop that awesome BK® Quad Stacker on the floor, and by the time it notices the sign, there's no way to come to a full stop with all that gravel on the road. You can imagine the rest.

Whereupon Sarah, never being one to let fresh flatmeat go to waste (it's like huntin' without having to use up any precious bullets!), scurries over with her handy Roadkill Removal kit to stake her claim. Now, after a trip to the taxidermist, she's parading around, brandishing the trophy like Trig at a campaign stop, proud of what she's done.

An actual new word would be one thing. Even a portmanteau could be clever, a way to define a nuance that had previously been ignored. But nobody ever saw any shades of grey between "refute" and "repudiate" that needed addressing. Even if you wanted to be generous and chalk it up as a typo, the P and the F are too far apart on the keyboard for that to be plausible. (And what did adding the prefix "mis-" to "underestimate" accomplish anyway? Wouldn't the "mis-" cancel out the "under" in that particular instance?)

Psst, Lewis Lapham: the wait is over. You were looking on the wrong side of the gate. They were inside all along.

Monday, July 19, 2010

A Baby Bootie Stomping on a Human Face — Forever

MOMS: Ever feel alone in how you perceive this role? I swear I feel like I’m surrounded by women who were once smart & interesting but have become zombies who only talk about soccer and coupons.

This was an opening gambit on UrbanBaby this past April. It could have devolved into a sanctimommy pile-on. It didn’t.

I totally feel this way.

I am a f/t wohm—Work Outside the Home Mom—have a career, and I don’t feel smart or interesting anymore! I don’t talk about soccer or coupons, but just feel too tired to talk about anything that interesting.

I freely admit that I have gained “more” than I have lost by becoming a parent, but I still miss aspects of my old life.

[...] But one of the most sobering declines documented in Changing Rhythms of American Family Life is the amount of time married parents spend alone together each week: Nine hours today versus twelve in 1975. Bradbury, who was involved in the UCLA study of those 32 families, says the husbands and wives spent less than 10 percent of their home time alone together. “And do you think they were saying, ‘Gee honey, you look lovely. I just wanted to pick up on that fascinating conversation we were having earlier about the Obama administration’? ” he asks. “Nope. They were exhausted and staring at the television.”

Ha. I always said, from the time I was old enough to have the capability of producing any, that I never wanted to have kids. The best-laid schemes of mice and men being what they are, of course, I ended up raising my stepson from the time he was two, doing so for several years after his mom and I split (we were never married, and I never adopted him, so "stepson" is just convenient shorthand) by myself. I say unto you, I had no problem at all with him once he got to an age where he could be more or less reasonable and actually share adult interests with me. And while he was never a bad kid (slightly hyper in his younger years), I still would not care to do it again, biological offspring or not.

From a selfish perspective, I have to agree with the above sentiment. I can't count how many of my peers are currently in the thick of nurturing toddlers while living in one of those godforsaken cult compounds devoted to worship of The Children Who Are The Future (you might know them as those cookie cutter McMansion subdivisions, where everything is sterilized, sanitized and perfectly manicured to provide the optimal childhood experiences for the little dears). And yes, they never have time for anything else, especially books or conversations. I'm surprised they had the time or energy to fuck long enough to make the second or third kids! They've become so insanely boring it pains me, which is really saying something.

As we contemplate this grim state of affairs, let us take a moment and heed the wise words of America's greatest modern philosopher, George Carlin.

Know You Don't

Eagleman is quick to make it clear he’s not saying there’s a force X; he doesn’t want to be lumped in with the folks peddling New Age flakiness. He just wants to keep an open mind, which is what he thinks science is all about—extend the pier but don’t forget about the vastness of the ocean, expand what we know but remember that what we know is dwarfed by what we don’t know.

[...] Does that mean Eagleman-the-writer wants to believe that he has both a brain and a soul? How does he respond to the question, “Does David Eagleman have a soul?” He pauses again.

“So, I can answer that in two ways. I can tell you from my internal experience, and from my scientific training. Internally, I have felt as I’ve gotten older that I am not the same as my body, despite all of the neuroscience. How do I put this? What’s clear is that I depend entirely on the integrity of my body. As things in my brain change—if I were to develop a tumor, for example—that could completely change who I am, how I think. So I’m somehow yoked to my brain in a very strong way, and the question for all of us is, are we yoked to it 100 percent or is there some other little bit going on? From the inside, I have an intuition that I’m not just equivalent to my body. That said, intuitions always prove to be a very poor judge of reality. So, if you ask me, ‘do I have a soul?’ I would say ‘you know, I kind of feel like there’s something about me that’s a little separate from the biology.’ But I have no evidence for that.”


Fair enough. I don't have a problem with what-if scenarios per se; I found Nietzsche's idea of the eternal recurrence to be a useful thought experiment, myself. At least he admits he has nothing to go on but a feeling to support his hope for a soul. And I think it's clear he does indeed hope there is one. I say that because most people don't spend much time passionately pondering possibilities that they feel are ludicrous on the face of it.

My mom is big on UFOs, ferzample. I don't recall who it was that suggested that the whole postwar UFO phenomenon was basically the attempt of a modern, scientific age to believe in the idea of a new type of higher intelligence taking an interest in us and watching over us to replace the old Bronze Age deities, but I think it definitely applies in her case. While I've always conceded that the possibility of extraterrestrial life is interesting, certainly, I've never been all that worked up about it. It seems obvious that most of the true believers are slightly mad or seeking attention, so my feeling has always been, well, when they land on top of the White House or in the middle of the halftime show of the Super Bowl, rather than abducting trailer park denizens to experiment on with strangely retrograde medical tools, then I'll pay attention. In the meantime, there's enough interesting stuff right here that we don't know much about, and my life doesn't change if I accept, deny or shrug at the possibility or likelihood of intelligent alien life.

The struggle between the brain of a scientist and the soul of a writer continues in Eagleman. Maybe the brain allows itself to imagine a soul in order to take the sting out of mortality of the brain. Maybe the soul allows the brain to pretend to be in control, secure in the knowledge that the soul is immortal.

Hard to say, but in the space between the materialist and mystic, anything’s possible.

Anything's possible. Today, I could meet the love of my life. Or maybe win the lottery. Perhaps it won't be pleasant, though; maybe I'll die in a freak auto-erotic asphyxiation accident. Or maybe the dumb bastard who veered off the road a month ago and smashed through my mailbox and the neighbor's fence before hitting the side of the other neighbor's house will do it again, only this time while I happen to be standing by the side of the road. Hell, we could play this game all day if we want to get creative; these are just mundane examples.

What's likely, though, is that, having already finished work uneventfully, I'll eat, sleep, read, work out and spend time online, like I do many days as a matter of routine. Of course I'm always aware that something unexpected could come up. But it's rare that something completely out of nowhere just barges into your life and throws all into chaos. There's a core pattern that persists and it takes a herculean effort sometimes to dislodge it.

And maybe we'll get lucky and we'll both live again
Well, I don't know, I don't know, I don't know, don't think so

Well, you tell me what you saw and I'll tell you what you missed
You missed where time and life shook hands and said goodbye

You wasted life; why wouldn't you waste death?
You wasted life; why wouldn't you waste the afterlife?

The afterlife is another topic that's certainly interesting in and of itself, especially to see how concepts of it have changed so much over the millennia. But once again, when you see clearly how unlikely it is that primitive conceptions of the self (thoughts and feelings that magically exist independent of brains or sensory organs, possibly contained within a diaphanous spirit resembling the physical body) are still worth entertaining given what we do know about the body and the mind, it kind of takes the zest out of wondering if it's still a possibility somehow.

This sort of agnosticism - regardless of whether you brand it with a new name like "possibilian" - always strikes me as disingenuous. Of course we don't know everything, but we have no choice but to make do with what we've seen to work so far (and once again, sorry, there's nothing but wishful thinking to stand as evidence for these old cherished beliefs). No one can actually live and function in a realm of endless possibility; at some point, you just have to act, even though you'll never have all the relevant information pertaining to your situation. The pertinent questions are: what would you be doing differently whether you believed or disbelieved? And what about your individual existence is so vital that you think it should continue forever, and why would you even want it to?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Idleness, Indolence, Insolence

We have created a monster that is consuming us. And I don't mean that "the Internet is bad" in that hypocritical and falsely ascetic way. I mean that we, along with the phones that travel with us, the texts we type in movie theaters, the instant messages we receive now even on some planes, the social media many of us are expected to participate in on behalf of our jobs, and the complexes and work ethics we have all inherited from our diverse array of guilt-generating forebears, have bubbled together into a frenzy of ceaseless professional engagement that is boiling us dry.

[...] I don't own an iPhone or a BlackBerry because I do not want to receive e-mail all day every day. Increasingly I understand this preference to be naive, impractical and really rather twee. On several occasions in the past year, days when I've run between appointments and not brought my laptop, I've had to call my boyfriend to ask him to log into my e-mail and tell me whether I've missed anything urgent. I should get a smart phone because I live in the real world. And in the real world, where I used to receive a few dozen e-mails a day, I now receive hundreds.

[...] I don't think the notion that we have to be constantly plugged in is just in our heads: I think it's also in the heads of our superiors, our colleagues, our future employers and our prospective employees. There will be judgment, or at least a note made, perhaps by a boss who's tried to reach you unsuccessfully, or an employee who has an urgent question that goes briefly unanswered.

To not be reachable if called upon at any time, except perhaps the dead of night, feels sinful; unavailability betrays disconnectedness, and disconnectedness has come to stand for idleness and indolence. How many people have sent needless e-mails at 7 a.m. or perhaps 11 p.m., with the thought, if not the conscious intention, of communicating an intensity of professional commitment, demonstrating defensively or passive-aggressively or in the hopes of beating the next round of layoffs that they were beavering away at every odd hour of the day and night.

America's excesses are never far from sight: Our endless enthusiasms for boundless capitalism, materialism and hedonism persist. But these three have always had a complicated but close relationship with their uptight buddy, Puritanism, and I can't help feeling these days like Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards have insinuated themselves into everyone's friends and family network, preaching the gospel of a work world without end.

Well, yes. Once again, though, the machines were created to address the perceived need of more productivity, more convenience, so yes, those fucking Puritans and their diseased minds. We're still suffering the effects of living in a country they founded. But honestly, how much of what we do for a paycheck is, you know, vital? And how much of it is just frenetic activity in the service of manipulating manufactured desires? We long ago passed the point where we could produce enough of the essentials for everyone to live comfortably. Most of what we do now is try to convince people they can't live without something they never even knew existed five minutes ago, something that will make them feel special for a moment or two before needing to be replaced with something bigger, better, flashier, newer. Like all drugs.

I think the system will eat itself eventually. In the meantime, though, it's just a question of how much you're willing to do without, how much you're willing to be a pariah, how firmly you're willing to defend your perception of what is absolutely necessary for you to be content, come what may. Personally, I would rather work as a janitor or hanging off the back of a sanitation truck than to become a white-collar professional (and yes, I've done similar work before, so that's not empty bravado). Luckily, I sat down and thought through this at a time when most of my peers were busy trying to craft fake IDs to get hold of beer, so I was able to avoid the debt that traps most people in this hamster wheel consumer society.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

For Here There Is No Place That Does Not See You/ You Must Change Your Life

I'm not completely sure, but I'm getting a sneaking suspicion that this dude isn't too enthused about online interaction:

And blooms of renewal, I suspect, will not be found online as well. The electronic sheen of social media sites is no substitute for communal fabric. There is no animal musk nor angelic apprehensions to en-soul the flesh and tease wisdom out of obdurate will ...

No matter how many restless shades want to friend you on FaceBook nor ghostly texts descend upon you in an unholy Pentecost of Tweets, online exchanges will continue to leave you restless, hollow, and yearning for the colors and cacophony of an authentic agora.

The adolescent purgatory of FaceBook -- with its castings into the Eternal Now of instant praise, acceptance, and rejection -- reflects, magnifies, and acerbates the perpetual adolescence of the contemporary culture of the United States, intensifying its shallow longings and displaced panics, its narcissistic rage and obsession with the superficial.

It devours libido, by providing a pixilated facsimile of the primal dance of human endeavor, leaving one's heart churning in thwarted yearning, locked an evanescent embrace with electronic phantoms, as one, paradoxically, attempts to live out unfulfilled desires by means of hollow communion with the soul-negating source of his alienation.

One can never get enough of what one doesn't need. Ergo, the compulsions and panic of millions of hungry ghosts will hold an ongoing, hollow mass online, in a futile campaign to regain form, gain direction, and walk in meaning and beauty among the things of the world, but instead will remain imprisoned within the very system that condemned them to this fate.

And this is the place, we, as a culture, will remain, for a time. This electronic inferno will be our vale and mountaintop, our sanctuary and leviathan. We will stare baffled into its vastness, stupefied and lost within its proliferate array of depersonalizing distractions and seductions.

The more we try to lose ourselves in it, by surrendering to its shimmering surface attractions, the more tightly we will become bound in the bondage of self.

Naturally, living in the grinding maw of such monsters of alienation will engulf one with ennui and angst. Moreover, the judgment of anyone claiming not to be afflicted should be regarded as suspect.

Oh, is that so? Well, I suspect the judgment of anyone who traffics in such prosaic jeremiads, so I guess we're even!

I should say that I now feel bad for poking at Joe Bageant the other day. The romantic longueurs and the circumlocutory cri du coeur in this essay make Joe look like a model of terse realism. There's even the obligatory quoting of Eliot's "The Waste Land"!

Anyway, I have no use for Facebook, Twitter, et. al., as I keep saying. But the shallow inanity of social networking sites is not somehow an infernal subversion of the true essence of human interaction. Gods, man, have you ever actually spent time listening to what ordinary people talk about? Did you grow up or spend a substantial amount of time in a small town, pre-Internet? Has it ever occurred to you to wonder why most people who did will tell you that all they dreamed of doing was getting as far away as they could, as quickly as possible? You think mindless, suffocating routine is exclusive to big-city life in the digital age?

In a way, though, the romantics are correct that our heightened sense of individuality helps create a stronger sense of alienation. The more facets of our personalities and tastes we develop, the more points of divergence between us make themselves visible, and the greater the impression becomes that no one truly understands us in all our complexity. But the answer to that is not to daydream about what a joy it must have been to live in the same area that your great-great-great grandparents did, doing the same things, seeing the same few dozen people all your life. To his particular credit, unlike most people who take up this banner, Rockstroh doesn't call for any such retreat, but still:

Try this: embrace the bracing pain of your alienation: make a home in being lost. Gaze with wonder upon the sacred scenery of your bewilderment ... Wandering in the wilderness is a holy state.

In other words, in times such as ours, when we embrace our alienation then we will be welcomed home ... to share a common shelter with the multitudes who are also lost.

Life didn't become meaningless in the last few centuries. We didn't lose anything along the way. We discovered, in our burgeoning self-awareness, that meaning did not inhere in life itself. Now our anomie should be a provocation to forge new bonds and new meaning. I find the wide-open freedom of it exhilarating, myself.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Natural Joe

A few people have urged me at times to check out Joe Bageant's writing. I've tried on a few different occasions to dip into it, but I always leave feeling positively underwhelmed, like I've just spent time listening to a more affable, less curmudgeonly James Howard Kunstler. It's not that I even disagree with much of what he has to say, it's just that I find myself spacing out in the middle of a paragraph, lulled into a daze by the sense that I've heard all this countless times before. To wit:

The uniformity on Planet Norte is striking. Each person is a unit, installed in life support boxes in the suburbs and cities; all are fed, clothed by the same closed-loop corporate industrial system. Everywhere you look, inhabitants are plugged in at the brainstem to screens downloading their state approved daily consciousness updates. iPods, Blackberries, notebook computers, monitors in cubicles, and the ubiquitous TV screens in lobbies, bars, waiting rooms, even in taxicabs, mentally knead the public brain and condition its reactions to non-Americaness. Which may be defined as anything that does not come from of Washington, DC, Microsoft or Wal-Mart.

Yes, yes, we know, modern Western life is sterile, plastic, inauthentic, soulless, dark Satanic Mills, etc. Fill in the blank with your favorite ad-libs. It just strikes me as a composite of the same facile romantic critiques we've heard since, well, the Romantics. And aside from hardcore examples like Ted Kaczynski, hearing this sort of complaint from Westerners, even those who have expatriated themselves to a Mexican village, puts me in mind of something Edward Abbey wrote about Henry David Thoreau:

Henry was no hermit. Hardly even a recluse. His celebrated cabin at Walden Pond - some of his neighbors called it a "shanty" - was two miles from Concord Common. A half-hour walk from pond to post office. Henry lived in it for only two years and two months. He had frequent human visitors, sometimes too many, he complained, and admitted that his daily rambles took him almost every day into Concord. When he tired of his own cooking and his own companionship he was always welcome at the Emersons' for a free dinner.

I'm not interested in hairsplitting debates over personal integrity vs. hypocrisy here; I'm just noting that there aren't many people lining up to defiantly hand back their membership in Western Civilization in order to go native; most of them, despite all their bluster, seem to feel that the problem is just that there's "too much" of our resource-devouring high-tech world, that there has to be some compromise, some way we can still have these things without guilt, perhaps if we just each reduce our personal consumption by some arbitrary percentage. And yet, and yet...everywhere I look, I see more houses being built, more cars being sold, and almost all my fellow thirty-somethings have babies on the way or a few toddlers underfoot. But who dares suggest that maybe the problem is that there's just too many people, full stop? And what would we do about it even if we admitted that?

Look. Our Western consumer lifestyle is unsustainable in the long term. Most of us agree on this. It most certainly cannot be extended to the other several billion people on Earth. But there never was any Garden of Eden. We didn't accidentally trap ourselves in a labyrinthine dystopia, we created it, step by step, as a way of escaping the drudgery of life in pre-modern villages. A whole bunch of those people unfortunate enough to be born somewhere impoverished couldn't give a blistered fuck about Western notions of false consciousness or ecological disaster; they'd be happy to take a chance on suffering ennui with the rest of us if it meant they could have air conditioning, refrigerators, televisions and their own cars, even if only for a little while. Contentedness is not our natural condition, and it's not exclusive to any particular way of life. Very few people manage to carry a sense of it around with them, wherever they happen to be. The rest of us project it somewhere else and continue the endless chase.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Certum Est Quia Impossibile Est

Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

- Lewis Carroll

Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters — the people making decisions about how the country runs — aren’t blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.

“The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon — known as “backfire” — is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”

These findings open a long-running argument about the political ignorance of American citizens to broader questions about the interplay between the nature of human intelligence and our democratic ideals. Most of us like to believe that our opinions have been formed over time by careful, rational consideration of facts and ideas, and that the decisions based on those opinions, therefore, have the ring of soundness and intelligence. In reality, we often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts. And rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs. This reinforcement makes us more confident we’re right, and even less likely to listen to any new information. And then we vote.

This effect is only heightened by the information glut, which offers — alongside an unprecedented amount of good information — endless rumors, misinformation, and questionable variations on the truth. In other words, it’s never been easier for people to be wrong, and at the same time feel more certain that they’re right.

Noam Chomsky has reiterated a similar point many times; namely, that the government or corporate clerisy, despite being "intelligent" by the standards we generally use to measure such things, and despite an impressive pedigree of formal education, are much more susceptible to absorbing propaganda than the rabble, who are more likely to believe what their experience tells them, rather than twist it to fit their preordained conclusions. And while your everyday bumpkin is certainly capable of believing all sorts of stupid shit, I've noticed a similar proclivity for open-mindedness myself among people with no emotional stake in forcing facts to conform to their rigid worldviews. Being more widely read, having a larger vocabulary, and taking an active interest in worldly affairs can just as easily provide an ideologue with that many more excuses, hiding places and smokescreens to preserve their dogmatic principles.

My brother is a typical Fox News foot soldier, a Glenn Beck devotee, the whole nine yards. And yet, he's not truly a drooling idiot, unless you agree with the maxim of the philosopher Forrest Gump, who said, "Stupid is as stupid does." Some months back, I tried to play the role of Matt Taibbi to his Byron York on the issue of the bailouts and the more general theme of taxpayer money. I asked him why he was so outraged over the thought of "welfare" for shiftless minorities, while being apparently unruffled by the fact that he and I and everyone else, for that matter, had just been utterly robbed blind by a bunch of white suit-and-tie-wearing free-marketeers who almost certainly worship Ayn Rand as a goddess. His response was something along the lines of, well, the banksters were forced to make those bad loans to "those" people, even though they knew it was a bad idea, because the bleeding hearts in the government decided that every black and brown person in America should be a homeowner whether they were capable of handling the responsibility or not, so therefore we shouldn't be angry at them for simply figuring out a way to profit from a disadvantageous situation. I pointed out to him that in one of the debates with John Kerry, Bush himself had bragged that his administration had done more than any other to increase the number of minority homeowners in America, and how did that square with his assertion of liberal do-gooders being responsible for it? He dismissed it the same way that his hero Beck has attempted to dismiss all the aspects of Bush's presidency that don't fit with teabagger dogma: by basically calling Bush too liberal on social and domestic issues. George W. Bush. Too liberal. The mind reels.

The other day, when it was widely reported that the "Climategate" pseudo-scandal had officially been debunked, I couldn't resist taunting him with the headline in the New York Times. Immediately, of course, despite only having heard of this story two seconds prior, he snorted at the idea that the NYT could even report the weather accurately without injecting a commie liberal bias into it, before segueing effortlessly into blasting the study as a Justice Department conspiracy against capitalism, followed by a lightning-quick detour into ranting about the Fox-derived obsession with Obama's DoJ and the New Black Panther party. I barely had time to inform him that this was a study done by a British parliamentary commission, and that the American government had nothing to do with it, before he sarcastically responded with, "Oh! Well, if the British say so, it must be true!"

You see what I have to deal with on a regular basis.

What kind of rejoinder is that? Who's asserting anything about blindly trusting anything British? This is what's so wearying about even trying to have arguments with people who possess no intellectual integrity -- every single thing they say is built on a foundation of ridiculous assumptions and outright bullshit. You can't even begin to address their ostensible "argument" -- assuming you can even find a logical train of thought in there - until you clear up all the incoherent debris underneath it all. Trying to argue with them without challenging their assumptions plays right into their hands, much like taking the bait if asked when you stopped beating your wife. You've already validated half of what they're saying just by answering it seriously.

To any neutral observer, he just proved twice in a matter of seconds that he has no clue what he's talking about, and that facts mean absolutely nothing unless they conform to what he's already decided he wants to hear. Yet he manages to blithely continue on, unhampered by the crushing weight of self-awareness that would shame him into silence, simply erasing such incidents from his memory as if they never happened, before changing the subject to whatever else Beck has started ranting about in the meantime. Like I said, he's not an idiot. His brain does work. He can form complete sentences, spell fairly well, and even read for pleasure. But there's something going on psychologically, on a different level, that subordinates those qualities to supporting preconceived conclusions, because it would be too stressful and chaotic to him to have to admit being wrong and start again, without being able to lean on one ideological crutch or another.

This is why I tend to be pessimistic about the idea that humans will always rationally choose to better themselves, that all we need is more information to lead us out of ignorance and self-destruction. Truth-seeking for its own sake is a relatively new ideal; far more ingrained in our makeup is the drive to see what we want to see, to cater to our own narcissism, to reinforce our hopes and fears rather than challenge them.