Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Brief Spark of Sweetness In an Aching World

12/1999 — 7/24/14

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.

Tom Junod:

The number of rescue dogs rises almost as inexorably as the number of pit bulls, and for good reason: The rescue movement came to its current prominence addressing the impossible plight of pit bulls—a plight that lent moral prestige to the cause of unwanted golden retrievers and Labradors. This is not to minimize the challenges faced by unwanted dogs of any breed; there are, after all, nearly four million American dogs in American shelters. But an unwanted pit bull is different from an unwanted golden retriever in that a market exists for unwanted golden retrievers and golden-retriever mixes; they are literally shipped from animal shelters in the south to animal shelters in the north because there are not enough of them. There are plenty of unwanted pit bulls. An unwanted pit bull generally stays unwanted, and the moral reward for rescuing one—okay, the moral self-congratulation—is doubled by the knowledge that it beat overwhelming odds just to stay alive.

...Every year, American shelters have to kill about 1.2 million dogs. But both pro- and anti-pit-bull organizations estimate that of these, anywhere from 800,000 to nearly 1 million are pit bulls. We kill anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 pit bulls a day. They are rising simultaneously in popularity and disposability, becoming something truly American, a popular dog forever poised on the brink of extermination.

My heart is broken again for the sixth time in seven years. If there's a perspective or a mental trick one can play on oneself to somehow make this more bearable, I haven't found it yet. "Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened." Whether that came from Dr. Seuss or Gabriel García Márquez, I try my best to appreciate the wisdom of it. It happened, and it was good. It could so easily have been otherwise.

This one, like several of my others, came from a shelter too. A friend of ours ran the overflow for her county's shelter. That is, she had dozens of kennels on her personal property where she would house dogs who had used up their time waiting to be adopted, but whom she felt deserved an extra chance. At that time, I was already beginning to feel the exhausting strain of being involved in pit bull rescue, but my ex convinced me to go out and see this ten month-old puppy her friend was raving about.

He was the absolute cutest, friendliest, most docile dog I've ever had. A true ambassador for the breed. It is utterly heartbreaking to think that a chance intervention saved him from being just one more puppy euthanized before he ever had a chance to discover how much he loved the taste of pizza, how good he was at singing along to the harmonica, how his terrier bloodline made him an expert mouse-catcher. It's astonishing to think that such a perfect dog could sit in that shelter for two weeks without anyone wanting to take him home. The thought of thousands, or millions, more like him who weren't and won't be so lucky is unbearable. My mind just blanks out trying to contemplate it. Whenever I win the lottery that I don't play, that's what I'll do with my money — give as many of them a chance to live out long, happy lives as possible. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

You'd Go Out — Bang! — Just Like a Candle!

William Boyd:

I want to start with a luminously beautiful – and luminously profound – quotation from Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography Speak, Memory. He writes: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”

“Common sense”. I believe that the knowledge of this state of affairs is the fundamental truth about our human nature: the fact that our lives simply amount to our individual occupation of this “brief crack of light” between two eternities of darkness shapes everything that makes us human and is responsible for everything good – and everything bad – about us.

I want to start with an acerbic suggestion that all this melodrama about eternal darkness is just so much overwrought adolescent angst. Where is this darkness, except in the gothic imagination of one still living? When one dies, who is there to be conscious of the experience of being dead? As wise old Epicurus said, when we exist, death is not, and when death exists, we are not. Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo. The animals whom you pity for their lack of awareness already know this. If you do your funeral arrangements right, your corpse will be just another feast for the other participants in the neverending circle of life — how narcissistic is it to think that your consciousness is the electricity that keeps the party going?

Monday, July 21, 2014

Close Your Eyes, Tell Me Sweet Little Lies

"You missed one, here." With my pen, I indicated the box still awaiting his signature.

"Ahh, sheesh," he said, with a sheepish shake of his head. "I'm still not all the way awake today!"

It was 3:30 in the afternoon.

"'s okay. No need to save face. You're as awake as you'll ever be. You just made a simple mistake. An oversight that happens to everyone. It's not a weakness or a disadvantage. Hell, if you think about it, the awkward excuse actually makes you look sillier than a momentary lapse of attention! Isn't it funny how complicated we make social interactions just to avoid being seen too clearly? What are we really afraid of? But it's all good. Everything's all right. Smile and enjoy this beautiful day."

Of course I didn't actually say that. I played my part in the social script. Just a sympathetic "heh" and a nod. Too much honesty's liable to get you an ass-kicking. Look away, pretend you didn't see any vulnerability.


Jacob Rubin:

One might also claim that Harris’s watered-down vision of Buddhism, with its emphasis on career advancement, will encourage misuse. This may be fair enough, but it’s not an especially revealing criticism. After all, one of the first things that people do with any tool or philosophy is misuse it. A history of Christianity is largely a history of the abuse of Jesus Christ’s teachings; Buddhism is not exempt from such misprision. On the spectrum of misappropriation, using self-advancement as a lure seems forgivable enough if it leads people to try a technique as subtly transformative as mindfulness. (Indeed, if personal betterment is America’s religion, such an approach might be seen as syncretic.) What can be lost by broadening access to a philosophy of liberation, even if a majority of people conflate it with the more vulgar priorities of our culture?

What can be lost? Well, nothing, unless you count the opportunity to radically change your life, to allow yourself to be overwhelmed by a new perspective, rather than merely reinforcing whatever narcissism already exists. In the same way, nothing is "lost" when spiritual-not-religious types employ the cafeteria approach when deciding which parts of various religious traditions to incorporate into their already-existing identities as suburban American consumers. However, a person in search of self-knowledge and deeply-rooted contentment, as opposed to trendy metaphysical fashion accessories, will probably want to delve a little more deeply into that suburban consumer identity and question the role it might play in their dissatisfaction.

So, no, this isn't really anything but an argument over terminology. A lot of devoted Buddhists will look at what Harris is selling and say, "Eh, whatever; that's not real meditation." Maybe some people will never use it as anything other than yet another optimization technique for maximum efficiency and wealth accumulation. Maybe some of those people will eventually feel dissatisfied with that lifestyle and wonder if there's anything more to this existence. Buddhist traditions, on the other hand, have been evolving and adapting for more than two thousand years; they certainly won't be diminished by yet another passing trend promising yet another way for you to "have it all". The fact is, you can't, but some people aren't ready to accept that yet. So it goes.

Also: "watered-down Buddhism"? How ironic! As we well know, Buddhism is just another solidification of the pure, liquid source of all religion.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Problems Never Solved, Just Rearranged

Jill Lepore:

Every age has a theory of rising and falling, of growth and decay, of bloom and wilt: a theory of nature. Every age also has a theory about the past and the present, of what was and what is, a notion of time: a theory of history. Theories of history used to be supernatural: the divine ruled time; the hand of God, a special providence, lay behind the fall of each sparrow. If the present differed from the past, it was usually worse: supernatural theories of history tend to involve decline, a fall from grace, the loss of God’s favor, corruption. Beginning in the eighteenth century, as the intellectual historian Dorothy Ross once pointed out, theories of history became secular; then they started something new—historicism, the idea “that all events in historical time can be explained by prior events in historical time.” Things began looking up. First, there was that, then there was this, and this is better than that. The eighteenth century embraced the idea of progress; the nineteenth century had evolution; the twentieth century had growth and then innovation. Our era has disruption, which, despite its futurism, is atavistic. It’s a theory of history founded on a profound anxiety about financial collapse, an apocalyptic fear of global devastation, and shaky evidence.

...The idea of progress—the notion that human history is the history of human betterment—dominated the world view of the West between the Enlightenment and the First World War. It had critics from the start, and, in the last century, even people who cherish the idea of progress, and point to improvements like the eradication of contagious diseases and the education of girls, have been hard-pressed to hold on to it while reckoning with two World Wars, the Holocaust and Hiroshima, genocide and global warming. Replacing “progress” with “innovation” skirts the question of whether a novelty is an improvement: the world may not be getting better and better but our devices are getting newer and newer.

To continue with the theme from the previous post, I think it's clear that progress certainly exists. The more pertinent question is, who benefits from it, and for how long?

Endurance Is the Word

Edmund Fawcett:

At its broadest, liberalism is about improving people’s lives while treating them alike and shielding them from undue power. Four ideas in particular seem to have guided liberals through their history.

The first is that the clash of interests and beliefs in society is inescapable. Social harmony, the nostalgic dream of conservatives and the brotherly hope of socialists, is neither achievable nor desirable – because harmony stifles creativity and blocks initiative. Meanwhile conflict, if tamed and put to use as competition in a stable political order, could bear fruit as argument, experiment and exchange.

Secondly, human power is not to be trusted. However well power behaves, it cannot be counted on to behave well. Be it the power of state, market, social majorities or ethical authorities, the superior power of some people over others tends inevitably to arbitrariness and domination unless resisted and checked. Preventing the domination of society by any one interest, faith or class is, accordingly, a cardinal liberal aim.

Liberals also hold that, contrary to traditional wisdom, human life can improve. Progress for the better is both possible and desirable, for society as a whole and for people one by one, through education above all, particularly moral education.

Finally, the framework of public life has to show everyone civic respect, whatever they believe and whoever they are. Such respect requires not intruding on people’s property or privacy; not obstructing their chosen aims and enterprises; and not excluding anyone from such protections and permissions because they’re useless to society or socially despised.

…These four key ideas also distinguished liberals, point for point, from 19th-century socialists and conservatives, and in the 20th century from fascists and communists. They continue to distinguish liberals from their present-day rivals: competitive authoritarianism (China), ethnic nationalism (India), military populism (Egypt, Venezuela), nationalist Islamism (Turkey) and theocratic Islamism (Iran).

Like I said before, works for me, good enough. There's always room to quibble over details, but I don't have any serious quarrels with that.

I Am No Man, I Am Dynamite

In reaction to this brouhaha, Brian Leiter elaborates upon some Nietzschean basics:

If the smear of Nietzsche as a “fascist” and “anti-semite” has no textual basis, it would be wrong to conclude that Nietzsche is some benign secular liberal: He is not. When the Danish critic Georg Brandes first introduced a wider European audience to Nietzsche’s ideas during public lectures in 1888, he concentrated on Nietzsche’s vitriolic campaign against morality and what Brandes dubbed (with Nietzsche’s subsequent approval) Nietzsche’s “aristocratic radicalism.” On this reading, Nietzsche was primarily concerned with questions of value and culture, and his philosophical standpoint was acknowledged to be a deeply illiberal one: What matters are great human beings, not the “herd.” The egalitarian premise of all contemporary moral and political theory — the premise, in one form or another, of the equal worth or dignity of each person — is simply absent in Nietzsche’s work.

The question about the basis of equality remains a live one in political philosophy: How can it be that we all have equal moral worth given that we are plainly not equal along almost any relevant dimension one can think of (intelligence, rationality, integrity, talents and so on)? Some contemporaries, like Jeremy Waldron, the current Chichele Professor of Social & Political Theory at Oxford, have argued that only with a belief in God can we find a basis for the moral equality of persons. Nietzsche would have agreed, which is why he thought the growing recognition that “God is dead” would be so momentous.

The implications of Nietzsche’s anti-egalitarianism remains a vexed interpretive question, though as I have argued elsewhere, the most plausible reading is that Nietzsche had no political philosophy, that his focus was increasingly esoteric, on transforming the consciousness of select individuals — his rightful readers — about the extent to which morality was really compatible with the flourishing of the kinds of genius he most admired, as exemplified by figures like Beethoven and Goethe. Whether or not that reading is correct, it is clear there is no evidence that Nietzsche supported a fascist state, and overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra calls the “state… the coldest of all cold monsters… whatever it says it lies… Everything about it is false,” concluding that, “Only where the state ends, there begins the human being who is not superfluous.”

Camera Projection

Michael Ignatieff:

The image, as mysterious as a nightmare, was taken by the British photographer George Rodger on April 20, 1945, as the boy approached his jeep and the four British soldiers traveling with him on a road in southern Germany. When the image was published in Life magazine on May 7, 1945, the caption read: “A small boy strolls down a road lined with dead bodies near camp at Belsen.”

...The photograph was reproduced in Postwar, Tony Judt’s magisterial history of Europe since 1945. Judt’s caption focused upon the child’s averted gaze:

Shortly after Germany’s defeat in 1945, a child walks past the corpses of hundreds of former inmates of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, laid out along a country road. Like most adult Germans in the post-war years, he averts his gaze.

In Judt’s reading, the child ceases to be, in Werner Sollors’s words, “a poor innocent young bystander walking about a hellish adult world but ... a person deeply implicated in the hell that surrounds him.”

It was only in 1995 that the child in the photograph was given a name and allowed finally to escape his mute servitude as the emblem of Germany’s averted gaze. He was not actually a German bystander at all. He was Jewish, one of the survivors... Once the boy is seen to be a survivor, his averted gaze can be understood in a new way. In Sollors’s memorable words, Sieg, “like so many mythical heroes who got out of Hades ... simply must not look back.”

In reading this, I was struck by the absurdity of trying to read deeper significance into a photograph, which, no matter how artfully taken, is merely a representation of that particular fraction of a second. A film sequence that included the moments before and after the one in question would surely offer many other images suggesting different interpretations. A painting, by contrast, obviously has no inherent meaning that doesn't include the artist's intention. Whatever you see is there by design. A photograph, though, shows you a mere chance moment, a fleeting image removed from context and encased in amber. Beyond the bare facts of the scene, the rest is your own imagination and projection, a fable agreed upon. How do people not feel silly pretending to discover deeper meaning in them?

Naming and Shaming

Weird Al ain't seen nothin' yet. I'm currently reading Todd Tremlin's Minds and Gods, and I... well. Sorry, I'm simply too distraught to beat around the bush. Just look at these elementary errors I've encountered already. Look at them.

Page 15: This is not to say that the kinds of mental mechanisms that would eventually lead to higher, modern modes of thought were not yet being set in place — they where.

Page 18: The bodies of the robust austrolopithecines where more heavily built than those of the graciles but remained of similar size and weight.

Page 22: The facial features of Neanderthal include a low, slopping forehead, large nose, pronounced jaws, and double-arched brow ridges.

Page 24: On the other hand, a focus on superior mental abilities cannot loose sight of the fact that the modern mind is the result of evolutionary development.

Page 39: Heightened fuel demands also make one vulnerable to times of famine and draught.

Page 77: Similarly, if you reach for the light switch in a strange room and your hand instead brushes a fur coat hanging on a nearby hook, it's a safe beat you'll quickly pull away.

I've still got a hundred pages to go, so there's a very good chance I'll find more. I just figured, at this rate, the errors are starting to outstrip my ability to keep them all in short-term memory, so I'd better document them. Oh, and the final insult? Published by Oxford University Press, an august name that formerly would have inspired a good deal of respect from me. Of course, you'd expect this sort of slapdash inattention to detail from your typical Farrar, Straus & Giroux or W.W. Norton, but this...just...gah. I mean, my god, I'd get fired if I signed off on a generic corporate blog post that contained this many glaring mistakes. Whatever OUP is paying their proofreaders, it's more than they deserve. Hint, hint.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Well, The Important Thing Is That You've Found a Way to Feel Superior to Both

Leon Wieseltier:

I am not on Twitter. I am not a snob about it. Some of my best friends tweet. Nor do I believe that my absence from the lists makes me pure; I suffer from other forms of digital narcosis. But the interminable hectoring of Twitter, its infinite discharge of emotion and promotion, holds no attraction for me. It is a medium of communication in which nothing intellectually or linguistically substantial can be accomplished. I refuse to operate mentally at its speed: I have already been sufficiently accelerated, thank you. And I hate the din.

And with that showily dismissive, hand-dusting flourish (as well as what appears to be a veiled confession of an addiction to deviant forms of pornography), his bona fides as a man of the digital people reinforced, Wieseltier proceeds to inform us that he nonetheless simply cannot abide an ersatz intellectual like Alain de Botton being dismissive of Twitter, or digital interconnectedness in general, however mildly. You see, de Botton has a new book out in which he voices the, uh, less-than-startling notion that we might do well to take "Twitter Sabbaths", along with other anodyne suggestions for calmer digital living:

"We need, on occasion, to be able to go to a quieter place..."

"We should at times forego the Twitter feed..."

On occasion! At times! Goodness gracious, summon the constabulary and get this madman off the street!

The ostensible thrust of Wieseltier's "defense" is that de Botton's meek advice is actually subversive encouragement to the "haute bourgeoisie" to be derelict in their duty of being well-informed citizens of the world. A good editor might have pointed out that this might appear quite a foolish tack to take, seeing as how Wieseltier had just got done harrumphing about how nothing intellectually substantial could possibly be encountered on social media anyway. Couldn't this, however inadvertently, be good advice for anyone who wants to be genuinely informed? But he and TNR in general have never bothered to hide their disdain for de Botton or the type of shallow dunces who read him (none of whom are even likely to know how to casually drop a term like "haute bourgeoisie", I mean, ugh), so I think it's safe to say that this conceit, like the self-aggrandizing opening paragraph, is merely a way for Wieseltier to signal his superiority (and, by extension, that of the average TNR reader) under the guise of a broader humanitarian instinct. Too bad he's so clumsy and artless about it. Aren't highfalutin snobs supposed to be naturally good at this?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Shock the Monkey to Life

Heidi Ledford:

Which would you prefer: pain or boredom? Given the choice, many people would rather give themselves mild electric shocks than sit idly in a room for 15 minutes, according to a study published today in Science.

The results are a testament to our discomfort with our own thoughts, say psychologists, and to the challenge we face when we try to rein them in.

“We lack a comfort in just being alone with our thoughts,” says Malia Mason, a psychologist at Columbia University in New York, who was not involved in the study. “We’re constantly looking to the external world for some sort of entertainment.”

Seriously? 15 minutes? I mean, I know this is nothing new, but still, sitting idly and letting my thoughts meander is my default state, and I'm not even into any sort of official Zen meditation or anything. I get intensely irritable when I'm forced to go too long without the opportunity. It's a wonder I ever accomplish anything.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Here He Is, Rock You Like a Hurricane

In which my buddy Arthur is inspired by the Weather Channel:

I’ve finally made it to the big time—but not in the way I’d imagined. Every time I turn on the TV they’re talking about “Arthur”—trash-talking, that is. “Arthur is going to cause considerable damage in the Carolinas.” “Arthur is going to wreck everybody’s Fourth of July plans.”

Well, sorry to rain on your parade, but I am what I am, I do what I do: I’m a fuckin’ hurricane. Which part of that sentence don’t you get? I saw a satellite picture of myself—I gotta say I am one hunk of meteorological manhood—and the weather guy’s tellin’ me what I’m gonna do, like I don't know: “Arthur will be heading up the East Coast, missing most of the major cities, and eventually heading out to sea.” So I yell at the asshole: “YOU DON’T KNOW ME! YOU DON’T KNOW MY LIFE!” Think I talk funny? I’m from the South, dude! That thunder you hear? Well, you could call that my Rebel Yell.

None of you all understand me. I’ve got issues. I been struggling with tropical depression for weeks. I told my parole officer the flip side of depression is ANGER. He looked at me funny and said, “You look like you just sucked up a million six-packs of warm air. If you’re thinking about going off on another toot, just remember you’re looking at five years this time.” So I trashed his office right then and there—knocked the fuckin’ windows out: that blew him away.

Then o' course I skipped town. Figured I might as well head north.

Look, I’m tryin’ to be the calm eye in the middle o’ this storm of controversy, but now they’re talkin’ more shit about me, sayin’ I’m “weak” and won’t be around much longer. Well, maybe they’re right. Maybe I will just drift out to sea. I always was a drifter. Nothing on this fuckin’ land mass to keep me here. I’m sure you’ll all be glad to see me go. But guess what, I got a friend, and he’ll be comin’ all along right behind me. Watch out, assholes, here comes Hurricane Bubba!

I Wanted to Be with You Alone and Talk About the Weather

Dora Zhang:

The valorization of silence and condemnation of chatter has a long philosophical tradition. “Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something,” Plato reportedly claimed. But taciturnity, the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski argues, is in many cultures a sign not just of unfriendliness but of bad character. The opposite of small talk isn’t big talk, but no talk; not meaningful conversations about the infinitude of the private man, but the potential hostility of dead air. We find the silence of others alarming rather than reassuring, Malinowski observes, and breaking silence with companionable words is the first act in establishing links of fellowship; empty pleasantries are required “to get over the strange and unpleasant tension which men feel when facing each other in silence.” In this analysis, “beautiful day out” is just the evolved form of “look, I’m putting down my machete.”

Drawing on his ethnographic field studies in Papua New Guinea, Malinowski identifies the type of language used in “free, aimless social intercourse” by the term “phatic communion.” Prevalent in “European drawing-rooms” no less than “savage tribes,” such talk takes place when a number of people sit together over a village fire at the end of a day, “or when they chat, resting from work, or when they accompany some mere manual work by gossip quite unconnected with what they are doing.” We tend to think of linguistic communication as a meaningful transmission of thoughts from a speaker to a hearer, but “inquiries about health, comments on weather, affirmations of some supremely obvious state of things—all such are exchanged, not in order to inform, not in this case to connect people in action, certainly not in order to express any thought.” Instead, Malinowski suggests, the function of phatic communion touches on “one of the bedrock aspects of man’s nature in society”: our fundamental need for the presence of others, “the well-known tendency to congregate, to be together, to enjoy each other’s company.”

Sarcastic Theo is so much more rational. Here's to hoping society evolves more in his direction.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Mesmerize the Simple Minded, Propaganda Leaves Us Blinded

Mark Edmundson:

But, some might counter, there is absorption in our culture. And plenty of it. Look at the face of the young man watching TV (during this, the purported golden age of television), the young woman at the movies, the kid in his basement playing his first-person shooter video game. Is this not absorption?

I think not. It pays, I believe, to distinguish between being absorbed and being mesmerized. Modern life avails one of plentiful opportunities to be mesmerized, enchanted, visually inebriated now: The condition is not hard to bring on. In a culture that asks us too often to “pay attention,” we need rest and release, and we can find both through the mesmerizing powers of current electronic culture. Ideally, paying attention should be rewarded by absorption, but when absorption isn’t found, or no one teaches us how to achieve it, then being mesmerized will have to do. Being mesmerized is all about wish fulfillment. It’s about becoming the soldier, becoming the knight, becoming the sports star, becoming the princess. It is a turning away from reality. To be absorbed is to intensify one’s connection with what is real with the hope of reshaping it for the better, if ever so slightly. The engaged and absorbed doctor wants health for his patient; the scientist wants to add to the stock of available knowledge; the true poet hopes to bring beauty and truth, pleasure and instruction, to her readers. These people are not cheering themselves on or inflating their sense of self. They are acting out of love for the world, and, in return, they receive one of life’s best gifts: simple absorption.

Assuming I've understood this taxonomy correctly, "paying attention" is like working a typical job, being "absorbed" is like having a beloved hobby, and being "mesmerized" is like being an unemployed pothead. Eh, whatever. Another pointless exercise in rhetorical bubble-blowing. The only interesting thing about it to me is, once again, seeing how an author's paean to this or that virtue or activity always seems to involve a judgmental condemnation of those who aren't doing it correctly, no matter how petty the distinction. You can't even sing the praises of walking or loafing without simultaneously creating dubious status hierarchies to make sure your readers know you're one of the elect.

I mean, really, I love the simpleton faith here that "reality" doesn't involve significant amounts of illusion, imagination and daydreaming. Hell, his naïve vision of a world of selfless heroes creating endless incremental improvement is quite a mythical fantasy itself.