Wednesday, February 29, 2012

La Mettrie's Scalpel

If you're like me, you probably wake up in the morning distractedly musing over the precise nature of the relationship between the Good, the True and the Beautiful. Yes? Well, it's your lucky day.


Breaking with the Idealism of Plato, his thought, influenced by the Atomism of Democritus, was thoroughly materialistic in its description of the universe and — though its starting point was quite different — similar in many of its conclusions to that of the Stoics. The physical world, he held, was all there was and was composed of differently shaped atoms whose various combinations formed all matter; there were no divine laws or divine rewards or punishments for human actions, and hence no moral codes that human beings were obliged to obey. The only rational goal was to live life as pleasurably as possible.

And yet, Epicurus wrote: “When we say that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and of revelry, not sexual lust, not the enjoyment of the delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life…. We cannot live pleasantly without living wisely, honorably, and justly, nor live wisely, honorably, and justly without living pleasantly.”

The more virtuous the life, in other words, the less vulnerable to physical suffering and mental agitation it is.

This reminded me of something from Darrin McMahon's excellent book Happiness:

La Mettrie drew openly on this tradition, coming to think of his own thought as an "Epicurean" system, however partial that claim most certainly was... For La Mettrie was not only taking his scalpel to God and the soul; he was snipping the suture that had held Western intellectual life together since the time of Socrates: the link between virtue and human happiness; the link between happiness, reason and truth. Epicurus himself had not dared to go this far. In the Epicurean vision, reason—prudence—was the essential force that allowed one to distinguish between what would cause us pain and what would bring us true pleasure. Far from urging the expansion of desires, Epicurus advised us to limit them as strictly as we could. Bread and water were enough to feed the Epicurean sage. Happiness was virtue's reward. Nor had Augustine, or Blaise Pascal, or any other Christian thinker inclined to mock the pretensions of reason in fallen man, dared to doubt that happiness and truth might not be linked. Reason was admittedly a limited guide. But in its awkward stumbling, it could lead us to the place where a guide more sure would help us on our way. The end of our journey was where happiness lay. In the Christian tradition, it was virtue, through the grace of God, that would take us there. La Mettrie denied these connections and, in doing so, helped make himself a pariah.

...The festering problem remained: If human beings were moved solely, as the utilitarians argued, by sensations of pleasure and pain, then why individuals should sacrifice the one and endure the other for the sake of their fellow men was not at all clear. Despite Enlightenment insistence to the contrary, it was also not at all clear why virtue should always be pleasurable, why being good should be the same as feeling good.

Nietzsche:

The most general formula on which every religion and morality is founded is: "Do this and that, refrain from this and that -- then you will be happy! Otherwise..." Every morality, every religion, is this imperative...

Nobody is very likely to consider a doctrine true merely because it makes people happy or virtuous - except perhaps the lovely "idealists" who become effusive about the good, the true, and the beautiful and allow all kinds of motley, clumsy, and benevolent desiderata to swim around in utter confusion in their pond. Happiness and virtue are no arguments. But people like to forget - even sober spirits - that making unhappy and evil are no counterarguments. Something might be true while being harmful and dangerous in the highest degree. Indeed, it might be a basic characteristic of existence that those who would know it completely would perish, in which case the strength of a spirit should be measured according to how much of the "truth" one could still barely endure or to put it more clearly, to what degree one would require it to be thinned down, shrouded, sweetened, blunted, falsified. But there is no doubt at all that the evil and unhappy are more favored when it comes to the discovery of certain parts of truth, and that the probability of their success here is greater - not to speak of the evil who are happy, a species the moralists bury in silence.

But You're Staring At Me Like I Need to Be Saved


Where he gets it wrong, in my view, is that he both overestimates and underestimates religion. In terms of building community, encouraging contemplation, shared mealtimes and useful hints for living life he concedes too much ground to religion, and overlooks all the ways these things happen every day, in schools and universities, museums and community centres, online and down the pub. He seems to take as read the ancient canard that atheist life lacks meaning, community or joy. Likewise our secular shelves are groaning with “guidance”, only it’s wrapped up in the sugar coating of plot and character and excitement, and disguised as a novel or a film or a book of poetry. For those who like their life lessons complex and find them in art that is rich and ambivalent and disturbing, the literalism of Religion for Atheists will be welcomed with as much enthusiasm as any other self-help manual promising to heal your life, find your soul mate or help you drop two dress sizes.

Where de Botton underestimates religion is in its power as narrative. Religions have almost unlimited resources of drama; the Holy Books are a huge repository of conflict and nastiness – a vengeful, capricious God, hubristic kings, duplicitous apostles, poor, innocent, suffering Job. They’ve got the devil, hell and apocalypse. De Botton thinks these all function as simple lessons, in how to be good and avoid evil, but they are far more subtle and variegated and fascinating than that. The idea of divinity itself, while we may reject it as a fact, is a hugely rich area for exploring what it is to be mortal. Which is to say that the philosophical ideas of religion are powerful – they continue to hold sway over a majority of the world’s population, after all – and we cannot strip them so easily from the material forms in which religion has manifested itself.

Nor should we want to. To try and remake religion with the bad bits taken out is like trying to remake Star Wars with no Darth Vader and Tom Hanks as Emperor Palatine. And, anyway, hasn’t that already been tried by the Church of England? The world of de Botton’s Religion for Atheists is a very polite, ordered, wholesome sort of world but it’s a bloodless book, muesli for the mind. He wants a kind of Health and Safety heathenism that transcends conflict. But religion represents something bigger, darker, with which those of us who are non-believers need to struggle. It’s a dialectic, and a necessary and productive disagreement.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Have I Been Understood?—Dionysus Versus the Crucified


Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s American Nietzsche is a 464-page footnote to Allan Bloom’s comment in The Closing of the American Mind that American readings of the German philosopher have produced “nihilism with a happy ending.” Her sense of Nietzsche is based heavily on the writings of the German-born Princeton scholar Walter Kaufmann, famed for softening the philospher of the übermensch’s writings. Like the apologists for jihad who portray it as an internal quest for purification, advocates for Nietzsche acrobatically rope off his praise for war and cruelty as matters of spiritual struggle.

Sigh.

I bring war. Not between people and people: no words are sufficient to express my loathing of the despicable interest politics pursued by modern European dynasties—politics which make the incitement to self-seeking arrogance among the peoples, setting them against one another, into a principle, and almost into a duty. Not war between classes, either—since there are no higher classes, and consequently no inferior ones... I bring a war which cuts across all the absurd coincidences of nation, class, race, status, level of education, constitution—a war like the conflict between rising and falling; between the will to live and the thirst for revenge against life, between upright honesty and treacherous lies.

If we could do without wars, so much the better. I can think of many more profitable uses for the twelve billion spent every year to maintain the armed peace in Europe, and other means of gaining respect for physiology preferable to field hospitals.

Honestly, I'm just a no-account ne'er-do-well who happens to have a voracious love of reading, a particular appreciation for Nietzsche's provocative style, and a very good memory. I find it difficult to feel charitable toward professional authors and critics who can't be bothered to know what the fuck they're talking about. This isn't that difficult.

Monday, February 27, 2012

When You Eat From It, Your Eyes Will Be Opened

I have a MacBook myself, but I've never been a member of the cult, so I quite enjoyed reading these two articles.

Maureen Tkacik:

Steve Jobs, the book, is very much a product of its time, which is to say, a product of its subject’s fastidious narcissism and the broader culture’s limitless capacity for nurturing it. With any luck future generations will saddle Steve Jobs, the brand, with the blemish of all the jobs (small “j”) a once-great nation relinquished because of brand-name billionaires like Jobs. But we are not there yet.

...But like all the other internal contradictions that seem to endlessly fascinate the punditry elite about Steve Jobs, this apparent conflict between Jobs’ profound affinity for technology and his bizarre unwillingness to allow it to save his life is another pointless straw man that only serves to further elide the very Jobsian simplicity that lies beneath:

There once lived one of those really obstinate assholes who will constantly tell you he couldn’t change his assholic ways if it killed him. It killed him.

There once lived a pathological liar who convinced the world his particular habits of lying were the foundation of his astonishing business success. That turned out to be a lie.

There once lived a drug dealer named Toxic Bob who taught Steve Jobs how to emit noxious fumes and lie about it. Toxic Bob made billions extracting riches from the earth and leaving the toxins behind for the government to clean up. Toxic Bob now resides in Singapore, where chewing gum is against the law.

Both men stayed very true to their brands.

"Pure" was the ultimate compliment that Steve Jobs could bestow. The word and its derivations appear often in Isaacson’s book. “Every once in a while,” says Jobs, “I find myself in the presence of purity—purity of spirit and love—and I always cry.” For Jobs, ideas and products either have purity—and then they are superior to everything else—or they do not, and then they must be rejected or revised. He wants Apple computers to be “bright and pure and honest.” He orders the walls of an Apple factory to be painted “pure white.” The iPad, he says, must embody “the purest possible simplicity.” He is deeply moved by “artists who displayed purity,” and describes an ex-girlfriend as “one of the purest people I’ve ever known.” Apple, he claimed in 1985, “was about as pure of a Silicon Valley company as you could imagine.” Ive, Apple’s master of design, loves purity as well. He wants his devices not in plain white but in “pure white,” because “there would be a purity to it.” A clear coating on the iPod nano would ruin “the purity of his design.” Ive believes—and says that Jobs shared this belief—that products need to look “pure and seamless.”

...For consumers, to embrace such products was to embrace the higher spirit of modernity—a lesson that Steve Jobs understood all too well. Jobs famously expressed his utter indifference to the customer, who in his view does not really know what he wants. Apple’s most incredible trick, accomplished by marketing as much as by philosophy, is to allow its customers to feel as if they are personally making history—that they are a sort of spiritual-historical elite, even if there are many millions of them. The purchaser of an Apple product has been made to feel like he is taking part in a world-historical mission, in a revolution-and Jobs was so fond of revolutionary rhetoric that Rolling Stone dubbed him “Mr. Revolution.”

There was hardly an interview in which Jobs did not dramatize, and speak almost apocalyptically about, the stakes involved in buying Apple’s products. If Apple were to lose to IBM, “we are going to enter sort of a computer Dark Ages for about twenty years.” Or: “If Apple falters, innovation will cease. We will go into a ‘dark ages’ in computing.” He saw revolutionary potential in the most obscure things; he even claimed he had “never seen a revolution as profound” as objectoriented programming—a niche field that was the focus of his work before he returned to Apple. Occasionally his revolutionary rhetoric spread to non-Apple products as well; Time once quoted him as saying that Segway—yes, Segway—was “as big a deal as the PC.”

No wonder that the counterculture fizzled in the early 1980s: everyone was promised they could change the world by buying a Macintosh. Linking Apple to the historical process (Hegel comes to Palo Alto!), and convincing the marketplace that the company always represented the good side in any conflict, broke new ground in promotional creativity. Jobs turned to the power of culture to sell his products. He was a marketing genius because he was always appealing to the meaning of life. With its first batch of computers, Apple successfully appropriated the theme of the decentralization of power in technology—then also present in the deep ecology and appropriate technology movements—that was so dear to the New Left a decade earlier. If people were longing for technology that was small and beautiful—to borrow E.F. Schumacher’s then-popular slogan—Jobs would give it to them. Apple allowed people who had missed all the important fights of their era to participate in a battle of their own—a battle for progress, humanity, innovation. And it was a battle that was to be won in the stores. As Apple’s marketing director in the early 1980s told Esquire, “We all felt as though we had missed the civil rights movement. We had missed Vietnam. What we had was the Macintosh.” The consumer as revolutionary: it was altogether brilliant, and of course a terrible delusion.

...Jobs, the Modern Man par excellence, did not do market research; all he needed was to examine himself. An Apple manager once described the company’s marketing research as “Steve looking in the mirror every morning and asking himself what he wanted.” That is not just a description of narcissism; it is also the natural consequence of viewing the designer as the medium through which the truth speaks to the world. So what if customers did not like some of his products? Jobs’s mirror told him not to worry. As Isaacson puts it, “Jobs did not believe the customer was always right; if they wanted to resist using a mouse, they were wrong.” He also notes that one of Jobs’s ex-girlfriends recalled that they had “a basic philosophical difference about whether aesthetic tastes were fundamentally individual, as [she] believed, or universal and could be taught, as Jobs believed.” “Steve believed it was our job to teach people aesthetics, to teach people what they should like,” she said. This smacks more of Matthew Arnold and Victorian Britain than of Timothy Leary and California in the 1970s.

As a philosophy, of course, this borders on paternalism, if not authoritarianism—something that Der Spiegel failed to grasp when it celebrated Jobs as a philosopher; but philosophy has no place on corporate spreadsheets. For many people, Apple’s success itself justifies Apple’s philosophy. What’s more intriguing, though, is how a company infused with such conservative ideas emerged as the most authentic representative of the counterculture, with Jobs arguing that he was simply extending the “power to the people” fight to the world of computing. Jobs wanted every household in the world to have an Apple product so that he could teach the bastards proper aesthetics: this was emancipation from the top down. It is a strange way to promote empowerment.

Talk To the Hand


Everywhere we look offence is being taken, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for bad ones, but always in a way that seems to imply that offence is something terrible in itself.

...Increasingly, the statement ‘I find that offensive’ is taken as an argument in itself; the complainant is not called upon to justify his feelings. But without some debate about why it is that we find certain attitudes or words offensive, the quality of public debate is degraded. Indeed, we become so comfortable in our positions that we are in danger of forgetting why we are offended. This is a recipe for intellectual laziness. By engaging with other points of view, we call into question our own positions, refining them when they need refining and discarding them when they are shown to be flawed. That is why the philosopher A.C. Grayling says that the right to freedom of speech is the most important right of all because, without it, it is simply impossible to subject all our other rights to scrutiny.

To ban an opinion is to ban not only the right of a person to express that opinion but also everyone’s right to hear it. In such circumstances the claim to be offended is no more than an assertion of moral superiority—an article of political faith, which, like religious faith, will brook no challenge.

I recall a progressive political blogger once impatiently brushing off comparisons of politically-motivated boycott campaigns to more traditional forms of censorship by saying that the 1st amendment simply guarantees you the right to be free from overt government censorship. Which is true, strictly speaking. Private organizations and righteous mobs are not legally obligated to provide everyone and anyone a soapbox and a respectful silence. But it also shows that if people are determined not to listen, they're just not going to. It's not difficult to make unpopular views known or heard, but it's impossible to prevent ideologues from caricaturing or simply refusing to engage them.

Sometimes these strict defenses of free speech from a more-or-less legal standpoint strike me as slightly archaic, in the sense that its defenders don't seem to recognize that perhaps a more prominent threat to communication and understanding in consumer democracies comes not from tyrannical bureaucrats but from the freely-chosen echo chamber. Absolutists find themselves making incoherent arguments aimed at the culture of offense-taking while using the vocabulary of rights and freedom, all without taking into account that their opponents don't see themselves as literally "censoring" anyone. Convincing people that moral indignation is not an argument and that offense is not necessarily a terrible thing is a different, and far more difficult, point to get across than convincing people to grudgingly allow an unpopular opinion to be voiced.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Dog and a Man Who Walked Together For a Time

8/1998—2/25/2012

When he was about six months old, I rescued him from the projects, where his owners had tested him to see if he was "game", i.e. possessed of good fighting qualities. Apparently he wasn't. When I got him, he was sunburned from being tied out in the yard, with bite wounds on his face. The physical scars mostly faded after several years, but he never did recover from the trauma of it. You couldn't possibly have designed a sweeter, more loyal, loving dog, but only the few members of his pack would ever get to see that side of him. He remained implacably mistrustful of strangers, both people and dogs, and always did his best to scare off any that came within view.

I spent the last few weeks trying my best to be as mindful and present as I could be, appreciating every moment I had with him. Sitting on the back porch during mild days, his head in my lap, brushing his soft white fur, trying to fix the sensation of it against my fingertips in my memory. Quietly watching the rise and fall of his chest, the twitch of his muzzle, during the times when pain medication brought him the chance to sleep soundly. Trying to note every peripheral detail about such moments -- what I was wearing, what else was going on around me, the date and any associated significance -- in order to create a tight web of association around them, each adhesive strand hopefully serving to affix the memory that much firmer in place.

Everything contains the seeds of its opposite, though, and the peril of trying to sustain such intense focus is that it becomes difficult to act when necessary, to shake off the immense, crushing significance of the moment. I was all too aware that I was preparing his last meal this morning. Each slow step we took around the perimeter of the yard thudded in my consciousness like a countdown, knowing it was the last walk I would ever take with him, terrified of reaching the end of it. The way he instinctively started to head back into the house when we were done, pulling gently against the leash, and the way I almost completely broke down when he turned toward me questioningly, wondering why the routine was changing. Those vivid memories may be a comfort to me one day when time softens their edges, but for now...

Yet some pain is as massive and unyielding as stone, against which the waves of our rational awareness break into scattered spray. Which is probably for the best. Not for me the rigid self-control and abstract, over-rationalized "happiness" of Stoicism. I'd rather have the slightly clouded perception and honest sobs of grief that come with watching a particular, irreplaceable experience of happiness slip through my fingers like water.

What I was trying to do in recent days was to preserve the vitality and vibrancy of his presence through sheer force of will, as if by concentrating hard enough, I could resurrect him in living detail whenever I wanted to. As if intense heartache and desire could be focused like a laser to burn a hole in the veil between memory and the moment, allowing him to step back through to me, the corner of his mouth turned up in that happy, welcoming smile of his, the one that's already causing my solar plexus to throb just picturing it.

I know better, of course. Intellectually, I know better. The world of dew is only the world of dew. And yet...oh, and yet...

There will be years and years, each small forgetting a betrayal, each small betrayal a comfort, each small comfort another death. There is no lesson here, no lesson. Narcissus sought himself reflected in the world and found only death. Plums will bloom until there are no more plums. I will join him diffused into the soil, our component atoms intermingled one day soon, a dog and a man who walked together for a time, a brief spark of sweetness in an aching world.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Narcissus Sought Himself Reflected In the World and Found Only Death


The division and other examples show, according to Parfit, that what fundamentally matters is that your psychology flows on, in you or in someone else. But notice that a weak kind of psychological flow between you and others occurs all the time. Friends and family may come to share some of your beliefs and preferences, and sometimes they act to fulfill your plans, as when you ask someone to do you a favor and bring over some milk. What’s more, psychological connections such as these—flows from you to others—usually remain after death, at least to some extent. “Now that I have seen this,” Parfit says, “my death seems to me less bad.” Parfit observes that his position bears some similarity to the Buddhist “no-self” doctrine of anatta, at least on one interpretation. As the philosopher Mark Johnston understands the doctrine in his Surviving Death (2010), "There are no persisting selves worth caring about."

...To refute death, we need to combine our protean nature with the point about higher-order individuals. Given that we are protean, we can change what sorts of events we can survive by changing our pattern of self-concern. For example, a Transporter is able to survive teleportation because she cares deeply about the person who steps out of the receiving station. And given that the Tiger is a higher-order individual, Humanity or Mankind is a higher-order individual too, transcending individual people as the Tiger transcends Tigger and Shere Khan.

What if someone were truly good, a follower of, per Johnston, “the command of agape or radical altruism,” and cared about everyone as if they were herself? That pattern of self-concern would make her a higher-order individual; not quite Humanity, but something like it. If someone conforms to the demands of agape and regards the interests of others as she regards the interests of herself, then she will survive by being partly embodied by those others. She would then “quite literally, live on in the onward rush of mankind,” Johnston writes.

It's a fun, thought-provoking article, and I agree with the general thrust of it. Still, though, it's a metaphysical sleight-of-hand trick to try to segue seamlessly from an individual perspective to a species-wide (or why stop there? Why not universal?) one without a sense of loss.

As far as I know, I haven't come up with any unique thoughts, certainly none that have significantly influenced the wider world. Even if I have managed to repackage certain basic ideas in a slightly different formulation, I didn't invent the language or conceptual categories I used in the process of doing so. All I am is a locus in time of particular experiences combined with imperfect memories of earlier ones. Yet the particular is what makes statements of desire coherent in the first place.

This is saying: I don't want to suffer the pain and fear of dying, so I'll just shift my pattern of self-concern to encompass the broader ideal of Humanity. But surely Humanity will die out one day too, like most species that have ever existed, so then what? Identify with all life on earth? The sun that makes its existence possible? The universe itself? By the time we find something we can be assured of existing permanently, we'll have lost any meaningful way of inhabiting that perspective and deriving peace of mind from it.

And there it is: maybe the quandary is just that you desire to experience joy without suffering.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Variations On a Theme


Yes, in this book, I do want to explore the very specific nightmares of gay sexual/social culture, the places where hypocrisy becomes the norm and is allowed to exist unquestioned, unquestioning, unquestionable. But certainly, that translates into other areas, especially among subcultures and cultures of resistance that originally emerged to challenge dominant norms.

...So often we end up creating new hierarchies that are just as bad as the original ones we were trying to challenge—even in subcultures, or maybe particularly in subcultures, there are rules and regulations. How do we re-imagine the whole idea of belonging? Maybe belonging isn't what we are after at all, maybe we have to create a space where no one needs to belong, what would that look like?

It's interesting, because feminism is where all my politics start—the feminism of challenging power, not accessing power. The feminism of destroying all hierarchies. The feminism of radical dykes and outcasts and freaks and whores that I first encountered when I moved to San Francisco at the very end of my teenage years in the early-’90s.

Yes, I think that feminism has opened up more possibilities for gender, sexual, social and political self-determination. But, I think that, although gay liberation emerged from feminism in many ways—as a rejection of organized religion and the nuclear family, a rejection of police and state control over queer bodies and lives—now, there is a conscious rejection of feminism in most gay male cultures. To me, this is tragic and horrifying.

In some ways I think that gay liberation made it possible for straight people to be more fluid in their gender, sexual and social identities, while gay people are busy salivating over participatory patriarchy and Tiffany wedding bands. And so, part of what I want to do with this book is to bring a queer feminist analysis into gay culture. As an intervention.


But the show’s largest flaw is its preoccupation with translating a particular black experience for liberal white sensibilities. Its eagerness to avoid offense hangs over every tepid sketch about race, sketches already laboring under excessive gentleness and lack of imagination. In each sketch black people are impeded by their own blackness, or more specifically black men cling to an idea of black masculinity, one which Key and Peele suggest is a needless performance.

...In a recent interview, Jordan Peele said:

“Keegan and I, we’re pretty good, I think our personal taste and our personal sense of adventure doesn’t go too much across this line, we don’t like to make fun of victims. We like to make fun of hypocrites, of bullies.”

But who exactly are the bullies in “Key & Peele”? Judging from the majority of their sketches, the main oppressive force the duo faces is a certain notion of blackness, particularly black masculinity. The pressure to conform to race appropriate behavior does exist. Many people of color are familiar with accusations of “acting white,” but this pressure is a symptom of the larger problem — that they are living in a racist world full of racist ideas and are negotiating their own identification with or against that society.


Homophobic reactions from hyper-masculine men aren't uncommon these days, from Busta Rhymes' assault on a male fan for touching him to Jamaican rapper Buju Banton's lyrics that advocate killing homosexuals. Williams says that within the African-American community, such attitudes have a deeper root.

“We can't communicate to each other, so we acquaint everything with being a man [and] show no emotion and nothing weak,” he explains. “You know, a man can't cry, a man can't show vulnerability and we definitely can't be gay. … We are still working on that as a black community. To love ourselves and to communicate with each other and accept each other and our differences. We are still calling an educated brother with proper diction an Oreo cookie. What I am saying [is], it is a lot deeper than the gay issue.”

These are just articles I happened across in the last day or so that seemed to be loosely related. I don't have a coherent point to make in particular, just some random thoughts:

• The feminism that Bernstein describes sounds to me like the anarchism I used to hear people describe -- an almost otherworldly, utopian naïvete. Destroying all hierarchies? Eliminating all coercion? That sort of equality is more like a mathematical abstraction than anything realizable.

• I haven't seen Key & Peele's new show, though I've enjoyed some of their sketch comedy before. But if they do approach from the perspective of challenging notions of black masculinity, the type Williams was talking about in the last excerpt, why is that a less valid racial issue? Are we talking about the same sort of crude machismo that makes so many white liberals guiltily uncomfortable with hip-hop and rap? If so, who else is better placed to address it than two black comedians? (Plus, I don't remember Dave Chappelle ever discomfiting or threatening my white identity, so I'm not sure what she finds so edgy about his comedy.)

• Maybe I'm missing something, or maybe I'm just too hopelessly white-cis-male-heteronormative to ever get it, but I seem to recall that the Old Left radicals arrived at opposition to organized religion, the nuclear family, racial/sexual inequality and state control via an Enlightenment-derived sense of common human bonds, however utopian all that may seem now. For all the rhetoric, I really don't see how all these balkanized subcultures are presenting any sort of alternative to the values of consumer culture; it all just sounds like cynical arguing over branding and marketing to me.

If It Creeds, It Leads


De Botton has done us a service by showing why atheists should be friendly to religion. Where he could have dug deeper is the tangled relations between religion and belief. If you ask people in modern western societies whether they are religious, they tend to answer by telling you what they believe (or don't believe). When you examine religion as a universal human phenomenon, however, its connections with belief are far more tenuous.

The fixation on belief is most prominent in western Christianity, where it results mainly from the distorting influence of Greek philosophy. Continuing this obsession, modern atheists have created an evangelical cult of unbelief. Yet the core of most of the world's religions has always been holding to a way of life rather than subscribing to a list of doctrines. In Eastern Orthodoxy and some currents of Hinduism and Buddhism, there are highly developed traditions that deny that spiritual realities can be expressed in terms of beliefs at all. Though not often recognised, there are parallels between this sort of negative theology and a rigorous version of atheism.

Rightly understood, atheism is a purely negative position: an atheist is anyone who has no use for the doctrines and concepts of theism. While not compatible with any kind of literalism, atheism of this strict kind is consistent with many varieties of religious practice. The present clamour against religion comes from confusing atheism with humanism, which in its modern forms is an offshoot of Christianity.

With close to four billion adherents between Islam and Christianity, the two largest religions in the world, Gray is being disingenuous in acting as if modern atheism (which is indeed the rebellious offspring of monotheism, not that that's relevant here) is somehow myopic in its focus on opposition to such doctrines. You gotta dance with them what brung you. Fundamentalists might be insane, but they're at least savvy enough to instinctively understand that trading aggressive proselytizing for peaceful coexistence threatens the exclusivity that forms the core of their beliefs, and that reducing their doctrines to colorful folk rituals is a form of domestication that they find intolerable.

Monday, February 20, 2012

We'll Meet Again In the Milky Way


I had not spent all my life in the big city, where only the moon, a couple planets, and the brightest stars can be seen regularly. I had enjoyed a fair amount of time camping in the Mojave Desert, where the Milky Way stretches across the night sky, but I was not prepared for this. The number of stars I could see was two orders of magnitude higher than what I had ever seen in the desert. The Milky Way, instead of being a wash of white, was composed of many individual points of different colors. Clusters of stars took on a fractal quality with clusters embedded within clusters within clusters. I was awestruck. So many stars! How many had planetary systems? Which ones no longer existed? How insignificant was I in the grand scheme of things? It was profoundly humbling and simultaneously liberating. As awesome as the snorkeling on Maui was, that night of staring at the sky is likely one of the experiences that I will take to the grave.

...Friendship, love, betrayal, death, infidelity, gossip, etc. This stuff does matter and we share stories for a reason. There we were, together under the stars, swapping stories and reflecting on their meaning, a pastime that connected us to all the generations that have proceeded us in an unbroken chain going back to the origin of our species.

Stargazing is one of those activities that seems to evoke contemplation and humility. I wonder what we will lose as our population becomes increasingly urbanized around the globe and the lights and pollution of megacities make access to the heavens less likely and limit our vision to just our own reflected light.

I have yet to experience the view of the night sky from a remote location like that. But I have enjoyed that feeling of humble contemplation while looking through my mom's telescope (which I really haven't done often enough, come to think of it). I remember the first time I looked at Saturn one autumn night -- even though it resembled a slightly fuzzy, misshapen grain of yellow rice, the knowledge that I was really looking directly at the planet itself, surrounded by the void, was a tremendously powerful feeling that no amount of exquisite photography had prepared me for.

Friday, February 17, 2012

'Cause If You Ain't Holdin' Hands, People Say That You're Queer

Katie Roiphe:

The averagely nonjudgmental person may wonder why, in 2012, being single should be a radical act, an interesting topic of discussion, a viable subject for a spate of new books and magazine covers. Why is this relatively ordinary or banal mode of life even worth commenting on? Why, in short, all the fuss?

...This cultural obsession with living alone is a sign or symptom. It fascinates and enthralls us and arouses our curiosity because the general wisdom about how to live life, even in liberal circles, is so narrow, so respectable, so uninspired. (Or as Helen Gurley Brown put it, “There are a lot of half-alive people running around in the world.”)

"He's a flamer!"

"Uh?"

"Yeah, when I went into his bathroom? No feminine products at all, nothin'."

That was my former boss speaking, after we had finished a satellite installation at a customer's house. A middle-aged, apparently single guy with a tidy house? Scented candles, even? Was that a hint of a feminine lilt to his voice? Case closed.

Maybe he was divorced or just casually dating. Maybe he had a girlfriend who didn't want to cohabitate before marriage. Maybe he didn't have time left over after work and hobbies to want to invest the energy in romance. Or maybe he was just a misanthrope who preferred the company of his dogs. I was just momentarily taken aback that anyone would be concerned enough about it to comment. I barely even noticed what the guy looked like, let alone considered inspecting his medicine cabinets for tampons.

The general wisdom about how to live life is narrow and uninspired because, like all things general, it's a lowest-common-denominator wisdom. Intentionally childless couples are treated the same way. The herd has no problem with banishing someone, but a person who voluntarily disassociates themselves from the norm is treated with wary suspicion, if not considered to be giving purposeful offense. Hey, what do they know that I don't? Why wouldn't they like the things I like? What's wrong with me?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

No, Pangloss, No

Sitting in the doctor's office this afternoon, leafing through a copy of Arthritis Today because I forgot to bring a book along. Wait, say what?

To see the 22-year-old spin, leap and flip across the stage, you’d never guess she has juvenile arthritis, or JA – or that she spent the first half of her life in chronic pain. But Elizabeth, crowned Miss Michigan in June, believes the disease was a gift.

“At the time [of my diagnosis], it felt like the worst possible situation. But, looking back, it’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” she says. “Without my chronic illness, I wouldn’t have found my passion for life.”

...“Having [JA] made me appreciate all the little things in life,” Elizabeth says. “I want kids in similar situations to know that having a disease is what makes us unique, and it truly is a gift. You just have to have faith in the silver lining.”

Okay. Having a positive outlook and fighting spirit is a fine thing, of course. Making lemons out of lemonade is a sensible way to cope with the travails of existence. But really, a gift? The best thing that ever happened to you? This sounds like the Stoicism of Seneca, saying that a happy man is content with his lot in life, no matter what it is, or that of Cicero, saying that perfect virtue is enough to keep one happy even under torture. It's an overly-abstract ideal of happiness independent of actual experience, trying mightily to rationalize unpleasantries away. Sometimes, this forced optimism tips over into the sort of territory Barbara Ehrenreich explored in Bright-sided. Sometimes, a trickster deity voids his bladder into your pitcher, and, well, it might be yellow, and it might be tangy, but all your manic determination still isn't going to make it lemonade.

I've said it before, I'll say it again: if you want to harness the power of negativity and hardship, you have to let situations be negative and difficult. Redefining every painful experience after the fact to make it fit your conception of positive is just disingenuous. I've had rheumatoid arthritis since my late twenties; you want to hear my profound wisdom that resulted from it? Here you go: it bites. Hope you don't get it. There are much better ways to learn how to appreciate the little things than to go through years of chronic, debilitating, senseless pain.

Suffering doesn't need to be redeemed in the end. It's okay to hate it and want to avoid it, even as you realize on a more abstract level that you can't, and that we need to have pain and strife and conflict to help define our lives and give them meaning. It's not all for naught if you end up on your deathbed, looking back with a few regrets. Fighting well is more important.

Let Them Eat Snark

Many years ago, I used to shop at Whole Foods exclusively (Fresh Fields, actually, pre-merger; that's how old-school I am.) I somehow managed to buy groceries there for the three of us in the household on a $475 paycheck while paying $650 in rent, among other things. Shrug, I dunno. Maybe making meals from scratch, even with organic ingredients, is cheaper than buying prepackaged stuff or dining out. Never mind that, though. Hamilton Nolan is outraged on behalf of the poors who can't afford to shop there:

Whole Foods, the grocery store for pretentious upper class urbanites and those who aspire to be same, wants to make it clear to the world that it is not a grocery store for pretentious upper class urbanites. Not at all. What gave you that idea?

I'm confused -- is it the "upper class" part that gives such offense? Because this is Gawker we're talking about. Beam in your eye and all that. Anyway, Radley Balko did the heavy lifting on this one long ago:

5) Some commenters say they’re boycotting Whole Foods because it’s too expensive. Okay. So. You want a company that pays its employees well, gives them great benefits, demands high environmental and humane treatment standards from its suppliers, caters to a variety of dietary restrictions, offers organic produce, and manages to keep its prices low so working class people can shop there. Oh, and it can’t be part of the “industrial supply chain,” either, whatever that means. Good luck! Of course, you all hate Walmart because it does keep prices low, but does so by paying its employees less and pressuring its suppliers for lower wholesale prices.
7) Some have said the answer lies in farmers’ markets and co-ops. Farmers’ markets and co-ops are swell if you’re a yuppie commune member or an urbanite foodie. But they aren’t going to feed entire cities. If it makes you feel good to shop at those places, go ahead. I love my local farmers’ market. Mine has great heirloom tomatoes. But I also realize that it’s only open five months out of the year, only sells what can be grown locally, and its stock can be limited by bad weather, pests, and just about any other variable that can hurt a harvest. Chain stores utilize the economies of scale. They replicate suppliers, so if something goes wrong with one farmer or a drought hits one part of the country, they can back it up with food from another. So you can go ahead and feel morally superior by shopping at the farmers’ market, but don’t pretend that you’re helping the poor.

Birds gotta fly; fish gotta swim; pretentious, self-obsessed, urbanite hipsters gotta sneer. You know how it goes. Ah, well, at least they're not organizing laughably ineffective boycotts this time around.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

In the Parlance of Our Times

1. Jargogle

Verb trans. – “To confuse, jumble” – First of all this word is just fun to say in its various forms. John Locke used the word in a 1692 publication, writing “I fear, that the jumbling of those good and plausible Words in your Head..might a little jargogle your Thoughts…” I’m planning to use it next time my husband attempts to explain complicated Physics concepts to me for fun: “Seriously, I don’t need you to further jargogle my brain.”

7. Jollux

Noun - Slang phrase used in the late 18th century to describe a “fat person” – Although I’m not sure whether this word was used crudely or in more of a lighthearted manner, to me it sounds like a nicer way to refer to someone who is overweight. “Fat” has such a negative connotation in English, but if you say “He’s a bit of a jollux” it doesn’t sound so bad!

17. Widdendream

Noun – “A state of mental disturbance or confusion” – I can start using this obsolete Scottish word right away: “While working on writing my thesis, I find I am constantly in widdendream.”

1. Toska

Russian – Vladmir Nabokov describes it best: “No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”

13. Wabi-Sabi

Japanese – Much has been written on this Japanese concept, but in a sentence, one might be able to understand it as “a way of living that focuses on finding beauty within the imperfections of life and accepting peacefully the natural cycle of growth and decay.”

19. Duende

Spanish – While originally used to describe a mythical, spritelike entity that possesses humans and creates the feeling of awe of one’s surroundings in nature, its meaning has transitioned into referring to “the mysterious power that a work of art has to deeply move a person.” There’s actually a nightclub in the town of La Linea de la Concepcion, where I teach, named after this word.

20. Saudade

Portuguese – One of the most beautiful of all words, translatable or not, this word “refers to the feeling of longing for something or someone that you love and which is lost.” Fado music, a type of mournful singing, relates to saudade.

I absolutely love these kinds of lists.

You Will Be Assimilated


I hit enter. My eyes immediately jump to the top left of the screen. The page loads and my heart drops. All I can see is blue. Blue, the color of 21st century social mediocrity. The color of people’s indifference towards you.


But if today’s Internet has a Baron Haussmann, it is Facebook. Everything that makes cyberflânerie possible — solitude and individuality, anonymity and opacity, mystery and ambivalence, curiosity and risk-taking — is under assault by that company. And it’s not just any company: with 845 million active users worldwide, where Facebook goes, arguably, so goes the Internet.

It’s easy to blame Facebook’s business model (e.g., the loss of online anonymity allows it to make more money from advertising), but the problem resides much deeper. Facebook seems to believe that the quirky ingredients that make flânerie possible need to go. “We want everything to be social,” Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, said on “Charlie Rose” a few months ago.

...The implications are clear: Facebook wants to build an Internet where watching films, listening to music, reading books and even browsing is done not just openly but socially and collaboratively. Through clever partnerships with companies like Spotify and Netflix, Facebook will create powerful (but latent) incentives that would make users eagerly embrace the tyranny of the “social,” to the point where pursuing any of those activities on their own would become impossible.

...Besides, isn’t it obvious that consuming great art alone is qualitatively different from consuming it socially? And why this fear of solitude in the first place? It’s hard to imagine packs of flâneurs roaming the streets of Paris as if auditioning for another sequel to “The Hangover.” But for Mr. Zuckerberg, as he acknowledged on “Charlie Rose,” “it feels better to be more connected to all these people. You have a richer life.”


But, she said, the “fetishization of connection itself” fascinated her.

“Who cares that we can connect?” she said. “What’s the big deal? I think Facebook is colossally dull. I think it’s like everyone coming to live in a huge Soviet apartment block, [in] which everyone’s cell looks exactly the same.”



I still have a couple friends who periodically complain about my non-presence, and one of them sent the official invite through Facebook itself. I immediately marked all such messages as spam, but the fuckers still get through somehow, sending me reminders telling me that they will add my biological and technological distinctiveness to their own.

"Quantum" Is Not Latin for "Anything Goes"


In the Siberian Tungus language from which it originates, shaman means ‘the one who sees’ or ‘the one who knows’ and refers to a person capable of making a ‘journey’ to the world of spirit while in an altered state of consciousness in order to meet and work with personal spirit helpers and teachers. What the shaman ‘sees’ and what she or he ‘knows’ during this experience of meeting with spirit is that there is no separation between anything that is: no separation between me writing and you reading these words, between a dog and cat, between life and death, between this apparently material reality and the non-material realities of the spirit worlds. This idea of ‘oneness’ is common currency in contemporary culture and is increasingly given credence by certain quantum physicists working with sub-atomic theory, though of course it is a predominantly physical rather than spiritual oneness that such scientists are attempting to describe.

Mark Vernon:

Another critique is the pick-and-choose nature of this cosmic religiosity. It emerges in a number of ways. For example, the entangled nature of quantum particles is highlighted to celebrate our connectedness. What’s overlooked, though, is the colossally destructive power of quantum particles too — the fissions and fusions that release the energy of nuclear weapons. The quantum world is not just a strange place. It’s a hideously violent place too. Spiritualities are wary of celebrating that.

...The conclusion would seem to be that quantum spiritualities represent an à la carte approach to the science. It’s not the science that’s driving the spirituality. Rather, the science is being mined and filleted for metaphors and analogies that fit a pre-existing sense of things.

...So, I don’t think there is such a thing as quantum spirituality. Instead, there’s quantum physics and then there’s the human quest for meaning. They are distinct enterprises. We gain from both. But throwing them together in a spiritual mash-up creates a spiritual mess. Spirituality is not only about the search for rich metaphors. It’s also about the struggle for fine discernment. The bizarre world of quantum physics teaches us that, too: it is extraordinarily hard to interpret the cosmos aright.

I just thought it was highly amusing to happen across these articles in immediate succession.

No, Zeno, No

Julian Baggini:

Buddhism emerged out of the same Vedic tradition as the polytheistic Hinduism, which is rich in supernatural thinking. From this, Buddhism inherited a number of beliefs that are starkly at odds with naturalistic thinking. The most obvious of these is karma. I've heard Hindus, Buddhists and Hare Krishnas bravely try to insist that karma is an entirely scientific principle, being "simply the extension of Newton's law" that "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction". But this is grasping at straws: Newton's three laws of motion concern the conservation of energy in a physical system and can only be extended to morality by either analogy or wild distortion.

There is no escaping the fact that Buddhism is full of, as the philosopher Owen Flanagan put it, "superstitious nonsense" and "hocus pocus". Yet Flanagan has written a brilliant book in which he asks the question of what we have left if Buddhism is stripped of its supernatural elements, "naturalised, tamed, and made compatible with a philosophy that is empirically responsible, and that does not embrace the low epistemic standards that permit all manner of superstition and nonsense, sometimes moral evil as well, in the name of tolerance". This would not be "authentic" Buddhism, and Flanagan says he doesn't much care if we don't call it Buddhism at all. But it could it be a coherent life-view nonetheless?

Flanagan's slightly tentative conclusion is that it can. And this is what I think makes it different to many other religions. Take away the empty tomb and Christ is just a moral teacher. Take away Gabriel revealing God's exact words to Mohammed in the Qur'an and you're left with a deluded or deluding cult leader. Take away karma, rebirth, nirvana, deities, oracles, reincarnated lamas and the like for Buddhism, however, and you still have a set of beliefs and practices to cultivate detachment from the impermanent material world and teach virtues such as compassion and mindfulness.

Stoicism, in other words?

No, I kid. Sort of. I mean, I like Flanagan's writings and agree with what he's said about a naturalized Buddhism. I take issue with what I suspect is Baggini's personal rendering of the idea as cultivating "detachment from the impermanent material world", which sounds a little too tinged with asceticism in this instance. The realization, on an intellectual level, that all we are is dust in the wind is a useful perspective to keep in mind when it all seems too much. But it's not a perspective we can inhabit while living day-to-day in a social context. Step back far enough, and absolutely nothing matters because it's all just supernovas and black holes. Move close enough, and the most mundane daily activities are rich with significance. We vacillate back and forth between these poles, and neither one represents ultimate truth.

God's Shadow

Kenan Malik:

The death of God had opened up exhilarating new possibilities for humankind. But it had also created a great despond. Humans could not exist without attributing meaning to their lives. For two millennia that meaning had derived from an individual’s relationship to God. Now that this relationship had been ripped asunder, little wonder that Europe felt itself as if trembling at the edge of a moral chasm. Worse, while God might be dead, ‘his shadow will remain on the walls of caves for thousands of years.’ Modern moral thought, from Kantian notions of duty to utilitarian ideals of happiness, and contemporary political demands, from the liberal belief in democracy to socialist ideals of equality, were simply reworked forms of Christian eschatology. It was necessary not simply to kill God, but ‘to conquer his shadow as well’.

Just the other day, Giles Fraser said, accurately enough, that Nietzsche would have thought little of today's atheists. I would add this excerpt as a poetic way of expressing why Fraser was slightly off-target: Nietzsche would have felt that many of them were simply offering reworked forms of Christian eschatology while remaining unaware of the fact.

My Violent Heart

A few counter-intuitive musings about love on this most saccharine of holidays:

Nietzsche:

If one considers that this means nothing less than excluding the whole world from a precious good, from happiness and enjoyment; if one considers that the lover aims at the impoverishment and deprivation of all competitors and would like to become the dragon guarding his golden hoard as the most inconsiderate and selfish of all "conquerors" and exploiters; if one considers, finally, that to the lover himself, the whole rest of the world appears indifferent, pale, and worthless, and he is prepared to make any sacrifice, to disturb any order, to subordinate all other interests – then one comes to feel genuine amazement that this wild avarice and injustice of sexual love has been glorified and deified so much in all ages – indeed, that this love has furnished the concept of love as the opposite of egoism while it may actually be the most ingenuous expression of egoism.

Slavoj Žižek:

Love for me is an extremely violent act. Love is not "I love you all." Love means: I pick out something; it's again the structure of imbalance. Even if this something is just a small detail, a fragile individual person. I say, "I love you more than anything else": In this quite formal sense, love is evil.

W.H. Auden:

Romantic Love: I do not need to have experienced this myself to give a fairly accurate description, since for centuries the notion has been one of the main obsessions of Western Culture. Could I imagine its counter-notion – Romantic Hate? What would be its conventions? Its vocabulary? What would a culture be like in which this notion was a much an obsession as that of Romantic Love is in our own? Supposing I were to experience it myself, should I be able to recognize it as Romantic Hate?

Saturday, February 11, 2012

E Bellicus Unum

Linda Hirshman:

On Thursday, the Pentagon released a report allowing a trickle more of estrogen into the front lines, with women now officially assigned, instead of informally attached, to battalions. But despite an explicit recommendation from a panel of neutral experts, still no ground fighting, no combat infantry, no special forces. In a press release, the women veterans’ Service Women’s Action Network “regretted” the failure to lift the “unfair” Combat Exclusion Policy, which precludes women from becoming infantry members.

Will they never learn? A year ago, the lame duck Congress finally voted an end to the despised exclusion of openly gay men and women from the service, “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The same arguments – unit cohesion, unfitness for combat – that were used against open gay service now live on as the last barriers to women. For however many women are fit enough and inclined to take those hard-line jobs, as for the many dedicated gay and lesbian service members, the exclusions are an insurmountable barrier to their aspirations and a costly waste of human power for the country.

...But like the gay movement and marriage, feminism has mostly moved beyond the contention that women are morally superior or that war is always and incontestably wrong. If the society is sufficiently threatened, sometimes even liberal states must invoke the willingness to sacrifice, even life itself, for the good of the enterprise. At crucial times in Western history – classical Athens, revolutionary France – full military service was indistinguishable from citizenship itself. Why should women who can serve be excluded from this service to the state?

Merciless Mary, mother of Fuck. "If the society is sufficiently threatened." Well, it's not, so may we consider the rest of your blathering null and void? In fact, this particular society is downright threatening. I'm fairly sure I'll make it to the end of my life without seeing a foreign enemy powerful enough to invade and occupy the lower 48, but I expect to see Uncle Sam setting up shop and constructing military bases in quite a few other far-flung regions of the world between now and then.

This, then, is what I utterly despise about mainstream liberals. Like the Greenwald article stressed the other day, these scum are perfectly fine with unprecedented militarism as long as a member of their tribe is in command of it. Aggressive foreign policy is perfectly fine as long as the soldiers prosecuting it display the superficial diversity of a Benetton ad. Guilty white liberals who obsessively sanitize their language lest they grievously offend each other aren't concerned at all with the actual death and destruction their nation causes elsewhere, and consider it the height of activism to agitate for everyone to have a chance to participate in it. Wherever there's a fight so transgendered endomorphs can suit up in combat fatigues, they'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beating up an OWS protester, they'll be there (cheering the cop on). Fuck every last one of them.

...adding, this seems tangentially related:

The US Navy named a new warship after Gabrielle Giffords on Friday, honoring the former Arizona lawmaker who survived a gunman’s bullet to the head a year ago.

...Mabus also said the ship’s sponsor would be Roxanna Green, the mother of a nine-year-old girl — Christina Taylor-Green — who was killed in the same shooting spree that left Giffords seriously wounded.

Under naval tradition, a sponsor’s “spirit and presence guide the ship throughout its service life,” the Pentagon said in a statement.

Well, of course. What better way to honor the victims of random individual violence than to bestow their names upon a massive instrument of state violence? There's such a pleasing symmetry in imagining the spirit of little Christina guiding a warship on its way to help deal death to other, unimportant, nine year-old girls, wouldn't you say?

Wrecked Against Infinity

Giles Fraser:

It isn't a eureka moment in which Nietzsche comes to understand that God does not exist. Indeed, he is not all that interested in the question of God's existence. The Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson recently told me that he would be an atheist even if God walked into the restaurant. Similarly for Nietzsche, it's not a question of evidence or the lack of it.

He is in a completely different place to the new atheist brigade of Richard Dawkins and AC Grayling. If God walked into the room, Nietzsche would stab him – for his "God is dead" revelation is that humanity can only become free if it rejects the idea of the divine. Christianity is not a mistake. It is wickedness dressed up as virtue.

...Nietzsche's case against Christianity was that it kept people down; that it smothered them with morality and self-loathing. His ideal human is one who is free to express himself (yes, he's sexist), like a great artist or a Viking warrior. Morality is for the little people. It's the way the weak manipulate the strong. The people Nietzsche most admired and aspired to be like were those who were able to reinvent themselves through some tremendous act of will.

...Nietzsche hated Christianity with all the intensity of someone who had once been caught up in its workings, but he would have equally loathed the high priests of new atheism and their overwhelming sense of intellectual superiority. "How much boundlessly stupid naivety is there in the scholar's belief in his superiority, in the simple, unsuspecting certainty with which his instincts treat the religious man as inferior and a lower type which he himself has evolved above and beyond", he wrote. Nietzsche's big idea goes much deeper than a belief that there is no God. His extraordinary project was to design a form of redemption for a world beyond belief. And to this extent he remained profoundly pious until his dying day.

Nietzsche took for granted that most intelligent people had outgrown the need for a personal god and proceeded accordingly; that much is true, that his atheism was not the kind that's interested in amassing a collection of logical proofs for and against. But his view of morality was a bit more nuanced:

Thus I deny morality as I deny alchemy, that is, I deny their premises: but I do not deny that there have been alchemists who believed in these premises and acted in accordance with them. I also deny immorality: not that countless people feel themselves to be immoral, but there is any true reason so to feel. It goes without saying that I do not deny—unless I am a fool—that many actions called immoral ought to be avoided and resisted, or that many called moral ought to be done and encouraged but I think the one should be encouraged and the other avoided for other reasons than hitherto.

This is one of the most important things he ever wrote, and you can tell by the way he went out of his way to be as clear as possible. Are you getting this? Taking notes? There is no true reason to feel one way or the other. There is no objective, external moral authority. But - but! - this is where so many superficial readers start wailing about "everything is permitted" and rambling about how there's nothing left but raping, robbing and pillaging, and you can sense the palpable disgust in the above excerpt at having to spell it out for such dimwitted nihilists (for all the good it did). The desire to proclaim that, in the absence of monotheistic certainty, nothing has any meaning anywhere, anytime, is still a grasping after objective moral truth. Nihilists still yearn to submit to some "higher" universal law that commands them how to act, and they'll settle for Bizarro World morality if they can't have the real thing anymore.

Up to now, the moral law has been supposed to stand above our own likes and dislikes: one did not actually want to impose this law upon oneself, one wanted to take it from somewhere or discover it somewhere or have it commanded to one from somewhere.

Is all that clear? You and I may, after a period of rigorous introspection and dialogue, agree that conventional bourgeois morality suits us just fine as opposed to the alternatives. But we have to do the work to come to that conclusion; we can't just look for a surrogate authority figure to tell us so. No one else can take that responsibility from us, and weakness consists in trying to give it away. He's not urging immorality on anyone; he's trying to tunnel underneath and destabilize the very ground beneath the authority of such ideas. He's asking people to consider why they're so eager to be told how to behave in the first place.

He probably would think very little of most atheists, but not because of an anti-elitist antipathy to people who think they're soooo smart; he was an aristocrat with no love for democracy, after all. His criticism of scholars mentioned by Fraser is based on his suspicion that many secular humanists who think they've evolved beyond religion still parrot Christian precepts without having done the sort of serious examination of them we were just talking about. You might say that, as one who respected Christianity as a worthy opponent, he considered it crass for people to loot God's corpse with no appreciation of the significance of what they'd done.

It does make a certain amount of sense to describe him as pious and concerned with redemption for a world beyond belief, though. I've always found this to be a particularly stirring passage, in which he expresses, yes, a faith in the potential of heroic striving:

All those brave birds which fly out into the distance, into the farthest distance – it is certain! Somewhere or other, they will be unable to go on and will perch on a mast or a bare cliff-face – and they will even be thankful for this miserable accommodation! But who could venture to infer from that, that there was not an immense open space before them, that they had flown as far as one could fly! All our great teachers and predecessors have at last come to a stop and it is not with the noblest or most graceful of gestures that weariness comes to a stop: it will be the same with you or me! But what does that matter to you or me? Other birds will fly farther! This insight and faith of ours vies with them in flying up and away; it rises above our heads and above our impotence into the heights and from there surveys the distance and sees before it the flocks of birds which, far stronger than we, still strive whither we have striven, and where everything is sea, sea, sea! And whither then would we go? Would we cross the sea? Whither does this mighty longing draw us, this longing that is worth more to us than any pleasure? Why just in this direction, thither where all the suns of humanity have gone down? Will it perhaps be said of us one day that we too, steering westward, hoped to reach an India – but that it was our fate to be wrecked against infinity? Or, my brothers. Or - ?

Thursday, February 09, 2012

The Future's Uncertain and the End Is Always Near

My vet wrote to me this morning and said that my oldest dog's worsening limp is most likely to be bone cancer. Then a friend and former guitar teacher of mine, who's only two years older than me, wrote this evening to ask a favor and mentioned that he was diagnosed with cancer two weeks ago.

This just seems like one of those times when all you can do is feel grateful for what you have while you have it.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

White Corrective Politics


One of the reasons I’ve written so much about the complete reversal of progressives on these issues (from pretending to be horrified by them when done under Bush to tolerating them or even supporting them when done by Obama) is precisely because it’s so remarkable to see these authoritarian follower traits manifest so vibrantly in the very same political movement — sophisticated, independent-minded, reality-based progressives — that believes it is above that, and that only primitive conservatives are plagued by such follower-mindlessness.

I noticed the same thing on a lot of the political blogs I used to read, until I finally had trouble seeing anything there but the same tribal signifiers, the same echo-chamber shorthand, the same lazy groupthink. Eventually I took the advice I had once exasperatedly offered my brother during one of his interminable rants and decided to spend my time paying attention to things I actually enjoy. Politics just too easily brings out the worst in people, and life's too short as it is.

Hitler On Ice

SciAm:

The news appears to have originated from Ria Novosti, a state-run news agency, which ran the following quote from an unnamed source with no affiliation: "Yesterday, our scientists stopped drilling at the depth of 3,768 meters [12,362 feet] and reached the surface of the sub-glacial lake."

The same news report went on to discuss an old theory that Nazis built a secret base at Lake Vostok in the 1930s, and that German submarines brought Hitler and Eva Braun's remains to Antarctica for cloning purposes following the German surrender in World War II.

Wow, that takes me back. My former next-door neighbor, who used to sport an X-Files "Trust No One" t-shirt, had some libertarian/survivalist leanings. I remember one day, shooting the breeze with him out in the yard, where he started talking matter-of-factly about how he had been reading that Hitler wasn't dead, they were keeping him - or maybe just his brain - alive at a secret base in Antarctica. I think he said it was the CIA behind it, though. I'm not sure. I was trying to edge away imperceptibly at that point while keeping a poker face. He was also big on his 2nd amendment rights, as you might imagine, so I didn't want to provoke him. Moreover, he told me he didn't like the fact that so many cops also frequented his favorite shooting range, because he didn't really want them to have inside information on what his rifle skills were like.

He moved away a few years before I did, but funny enough, I think he lives just a couple miles up the road from me now. No, I haven't dropped by to see for sure.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Jesus Christ Looks Like Me

Gary Kamiya:

As someone who has spent many happy hours studying Christian theology, from Origen to Hans Kung, as well as modern scholarship about Jesus, I supposed I should be pleased by this eruption of holy fervor among the Republican candidates for the highest office in the land. But there’s just one little problem.

Jesus would have been appalled by the whole pack of them.

We do not know very much about the historical Jesus. But everything we know indicates that the carpenter from Galilee would not have been pleased to learn that this pack of coldhearted, sanctimonious, wealth-exalting politicians were claiming to be his followers.

I’m not saying that Jesus would have been a Democrat. Anyone who pretends to find support for specific political policies or ideologies in the Bible is delusional. Scholars cannot agree if Jesus was a social revolutionary, a tortured mystic, or something altogether different. Even what Jesus himself believed about the most essential aspects of what was to become “Christianity’ – a religion founded not by him, but by his disciple Paul of Tarsus — is unclear. As leading biblical scholar Bart Ehrman noted in “Jesus, Interrupted,” some of the most important Christian doctrines, including the divinity of Christ, the Trinity and the concept of heaven and hell, were not held by Jesus himself: They were added later, when the church transformed itself into a new religion rather than a Jewish sect.

Ehrman told me that the authors of the four Gospels portray Jesus in such contradictory ways that there is no intellectually honest way to reconcile them. Mark, for example, depicts Jesus as doubting and despairing on the way to the cross, while Luke portrays him as calm. Ehrman argues that such contradictory accounts can only be reconciled by creating, in effect, a bogus “fifth Gospel” that does not exist.

But having said all that, we still have the evidence of the Bible itself. And one does not need to believe in the infallibility of that document to see that the Jesus who is depicted in it was implacably opposed to authoritarianism, warmongering, contempt for the poor, exaltation of wealth, conformity, and sanctimoniousness – in short, everything the contemporary Republican Party stands for.

Don't you just love it? 1. Forcefully stated premise. 2. Immediate waffling, extreme qualification of premise and hedging of bets. 3. Forcefully re-stated premise as if step 2 never even occurred. What a fucking hack.

First of all, let's put it plainly: who gives a fuck what he supposedly said? If you don't believe in his divinity, what special moral authority does he hold and why would you be impressed by his fortune-cookie bromides? But anyway, even judging by said document, the guy who was "implacably opposed to authoritarianism" also told his followers that they couldn't be his disciple if they didn't love him more than their family members and yea, even their own life. Then there was that whole "way, the truth and the life" thing, and the odd emphasis on blind faith in him personally being the difference between salvation and damnation. You know, I think that all covers conformity and sanctimoniousness fairly well, too.

Might as well quote this again while I'm at it:

If Jesus was not the prophet of love and tolerance that he’s commonly thought to be, what kind of person was he?

I think he was your typical Jewish apocalyptic preacher. I’m not the first to say that. Bart Ehrman makes these kinds of arguments, and it goes back to Albert Schweitzer. Jesus was preaching that the kingdom of God was about to come. He didn’t mean in heaven. He meant God’s going to come down and straighten things out on Earth. And he had the biases that you’d expect a Jewish apocalyptic preacher to have. He doesn’t seem to have been all that enthusiastic about non-Jews. There’s one episode where a woman who’s not from Israel wants him to use his healing powers on her daughter. He’s pretty mean and basically says, no, we don’t serve dogs here. He compares her to a dog. In the later gospels, that conversation unfolds so you can interpret it as a lesson in the value of faith. But in the earliest treatment, in Mark, it’s an ugly story. It’s only because she accepts her inferior status that Jesus says, OK, I will heal your daughter.

But wasn’t Jesus revolutionary because he made no distinctions between social classes? The poor were just as worthy as the rich.

It’s certainly plausible that his following included poor people. But I don’t think it extended beyond ethnic bounds. And I don’t think it was that original. In the Hebrew Bible, you see a number of prophets who were crying out for justice on behalf of the poor.

Anyway, assuming such a person even existed, given how heavily the "historical" details of his life were cribbed from earlier pagan myths, and overlooking the fact that the Gospels were written as propaganda, as opposed to a scholarly attempt to preserve an accurate historical record, he may or may not have had a genuine concern for the poor and downtrodden (as long as they weren't Gentiles). Or he could have been like many other social revolutionaries since then who masked their own resentment and powermad lust for destruction behind egalitarian platitudes. But one thing should be crystal-clear: if presented with the latest crop of Republican presidential candidates, Jesus would certainly be dumbfounded, flabbergasted and shocked speechless...that the world didn't end in a fiery apocalypse two thousand years ago like he assured his followers it would. I'll keep saying it again and again: the people who most faithfully embody the spirit of Jesus in the modern world are the guys wearing sandwich boards and hollering psychotically about the end of the world.

Monday, February 06, 2012

It's a Steady Job, and He Don't Wanna Be a Paperback Writer

Lisa Levy:

There is a general antipathy about hearing too much about a writer’s day job once he has become successful, and Eliot’s successes piled up as he rose at Lloyd’s: Prufrock and Other Observations was published in 1915; his essays collected in The Sacred Wood in 1921; The Waste Land stormed both sides of the Atlantic in 1922, etc. Like Eliot at the bank, we know Wallace Stevens sold insurance, but nobody wants to think about the poet at the water cooler, or, even worse, pouring over actuarial tables. Same goes for William Carlos Williams being a doctor: Do we want a man so skilled with words to perform our annual physicals? It’s fine for a writer to have a quirky or strange day job, like nude model, “oyster pirate,” even garbage man. Yet the point of the writer’s life must remain to end up at the writer’s desk somewhere, with all that nonsense left behind.

Eliot subverts that plot by continuing to work at the bank even after his poems are successful and he’s made a substantial reputation as a critic. For Eliot to show up every day at a bank, and, as his letters confirm, find the work more conducive to writing poetry and criticism than taking a more literary job might be (and certainly better for his health than starving for his art), upends the way we want writers’ careers to progress. Eliot, the modernist upstart, was also a timid—and incorrigible—bourgeois.

I'm not a serious writer, of course, just happily scribbling my electronic graffiti on the walls of my little Internet alley for my own amusement, but I totally get that. I still miss the newspaper business, and there are times I halfheartedly consider going out and driving around for several hours in the middle of the night just to re-experience the fun of letting my mind wander while performing a job on autopilot, which was so conducive to the sort of thoughts that eventually ended up as posts.

A couple friends of mine are serious writers, though, and one of them works for the county environmental bureaucracy while the other works overnight in a drugstore/pharmacy. Both of them forsook academia and found regular jobs to be much more of a boon to writing stories and poems, which they're pleased with even if they never get published. Something to be said for the comfort and familiarity of humdrum routine, I guess. Épater les avant-garde!

You Say It Is the Good Cause That Hallows Even War? I Say to You: It Is the Good War That Hallows Every Cause

Adam Lee:

I hate that it's necessary to have these fights. Even if we always won, which we obviously don't, there are so many more interesting things we could be talking about - so many real, fascinating, important problems we could be solving - that we're not addressing because the endless battles over antiquated superstition distract us and consume our time and energy. We could be talking about leapfrogging the electric grid by bringing distributed solar to rural India; we could be talking about using genomics to create individually tailored cures for cancer; we could be programming self-driving robot cars; we could be building more observatories to search for habitable extrasolar planets. It's not that no one is talking about or working on these things - but think how much more progress we could be making, if only all the resources and the devotion that are presently being poured into religion were put to more meaningful ends.

I believe that the human race has an amazing future ahead of it. But if we're going to get there, the last thing we need is people putting obstacles in our path.

...I'm not saying that it's always a thankless slog. Activism has its rewards, not least of which is that it feels good to fight on the side of right. In a way, I relish the opportunity to defend my ideals, which I'm certain are the best ones; and even if we have to fight the same battles over and over, it seems we're winning them more and more often. We shouldn't have to be fighting them at all, but I look forward to a day when that will in fact be the case, and I hope I can contribute, in some small way, to bringing that day a little closer.

"I believe that the human race has an amazing future ahead of it"? He sounds like he's running for office. Who the hell talks like that besides politicians? Me, I'll settle for cautiously speculating that humankind almost certainly has a future ahead of it, one which might be both amazing and tedious in varying degrees, unless it doesn't, in which case it won't be. But honestly, we can barely predict what gas prices will be next year; what does it even mean to prognosticate that far ahead in such vague terms? My friends, I believe with all my heart that colorless green ideas will continue to sleep furiously; are you with me?

Ahem. Anyway. Yes, if only life didn't stubbornly insist on thwarting all our attempts to make it go smoothly and efficiently according to one particular plan. If only we could anticipate every contingency and head off every unintended consequence. If only we could control for the infinite number of variables that constantly throw our best-laid plans into disarray. If only we could reason everybody into seeing things our way. Imagine all the people...

Despite what the lowest common denominator of Internet wisdom may have told you, atheism is not a religion. Naïve progressive utopianism, though, yeah, pretty much. In fact, it's essentially Christianity minus the overt supernaturalism. Life is a zero-sum struggle within linear time where every thought, every ounce of energy wrested away from the clutches of darkness is part of an eventual cumulative victory for the forces of light...unless we falter in our will and effort.

I maintain that a cyclical view of history makes more sense, even if it doesn't flatter our vanity and idealism. The same themes of human existence recur in different settings from ancient times to modern ones, and from that perspective, the best way to reach your full flowering as an individual is to invite struggle against worthy opponents who bring out the best in you. Resolving all disagreements and removing all obstacles, even if it were possible, sounds just as flaccid and boring as the idea of heaven.