A salutary reminder to conservatives of how wrong the nicest leftist can be. https://t.co/pFFthBoBqF— BD Sixsmith (@BDSixsmith) January 2, 2016
A salutary reminder to conservatives of how wrong the nicest leftist can be. https://t.co/pFFthBoBqF— BD Sixsmith (@BDSixsmith) January 2, 2016
If you're a committed leftist, you need to start to criticize this kind of self-parody, because it's killing us. https://t.co/WnNEIlRF0R— Fredrik deBoer (@freddiedeboer) December 19, 2015
For the vulgar 2nd Amendment adherents, a reminder that the constitution is a garbage document. Burn the damn thing. https://t.co/LbYbCiR9jT— Amber A'Lee Frost (@AmberALeeFrost) December 2, 2015
Now I am still
no more words.
Because this isn’t what is actually on the Antiracists’ mind. The call for people to soberly “acknowledge” their White Privilege as a self-standing, totemic act is based on the same justification as acknowledging one’s fundamental sinfulness is as a Christian. One is born marked by original sin; to be white is to be born with the stain of unearned privilege.
The proper response to original sin is to embrace the teachings of Jesus, although one will remain always a sinner nevertheless. The proper response to White Privilege is to embrace the teachings of—well, you can fill in the name or substitute others—with the understanding that you will always harbor the Privilege nevertheless. Note that many embrace the idea of inculcating white kids with their responsibility to acknowledge Privilege from as early an age as possible, in sessions starting as early as elementary school. This, in the Naciremian sense, is Sunday school.
Think of it. A certain class of white person, roughly those who watched 30 Rock and Mad Men, lustily pumps their fists at the writings of a Coates who says that he is surprised that white people—i.e. ones like them—are interested enough in black people and racism to even bother reading his work. Coates is telling these people that they are sinners, in a sense, and they are eagerly drinking in the charge, “revering” him for it. This, ladies and gentlemen, is worship, pure and simple.
In a dazzlingly archetypical display of horseshoe theory, this particular brand of millennial social justice advocates have warped an admirable cause for social, economic, and political equality into a socially authoritarian movement that has divided and dehumanized individuals on the basis of an insular ideology guised as academic theory.
Educating the general public about the trials of being a larger woman is a worthy endeavor. But calling thinness a “privilege” presumes that thin people do not understand the suffering of anyone deemed by the western world to be “fat,” or do not have their own struggles. West and her brand of pro-fat feminism also wander into the rocky territory of oversimplified identity politics, trying to equate dress size with other oppressions such as racism, sexism and poverty, and ignoring that one’s weight is not an inherent privilege.
In this new liberalism, dissociation from America's characterological evil was not simply a means to a better world; it was an end in itself, a gesture that proved the decency of individuals and the legitimacy of institutions...The point is that America met the great challenge of the 1960s by inventing a faux human virtue — the idea that a vicarious or merely symbolic dissociation from America's evil past counted as a timeless human virtue like courage or honesty or perseverance, all of which require selflessness and sacrifice.
Dissociation is an artificial virtue because its entire reason for being is to avoid the selflessness, sacrifice and risk that true virtue inevitably involves. It gives us a road to the decency and legitimacy we want while sparing us the difficulty and struggle of true virtue. Dissociation turns virtue into a mask. It gives us the means to construct a "face of The Good." It counts the mere mouthing of glossy ideas of The Good the same as an honest struggle toward what is actually possible.
For example, how does a people emerging from four centuries of racial oppression actually overcome all the damage done by that oppression and reach a true and self-evident equality with others? Dissociation spares America the need to wrestle with this. It asks us only to identify with public policies contrived around vague effusions of The Good, like multiculturalism, diversity, gender equity, etc.
Is there any other production house operating today that is more obsessed with narratives of the workplace and employment? The basic Pixar story is that of an individual seeking to establish, refine, or preserve their function as an instrument within a system of labor. The only way Pixar is able to conceptualize a protagonist is to assign them a job (or a conspicuous lack of one) and arrange the mechanisms of plot to ensure that they fulfill that job. This is why Joy can only accept Sadness once she comes to understand what it is she does.
Pixar’s debut film organized a scenario involving sentient toys as a narrative about two men fighting for the same job. In not one but two sequels, it revisited those same characters in a narrative about how bad retirement is, and how awful it is to be made redundant. In Monsters, Inc., it developed a parallel universe populated by monsters and powered by childrens’ screams to tell a story about a workplace duo striving to be the most efficient employees. Up is ultimately a film about how unthinkable it is to retire; even elderly widowers must find a new vocation. In film after film, Pixar presents narratives chiefly concerned with characters trying to be the best at what they do, or otherwise prove their usefulness.
This excess, epitomized as the complete entanglement of an individual’s private life with their employment, is at the core of Pixar’s conceptualization of what it is to be a person: In every Pixar film, the protagonist’s arc is oriented toward the ultimate goal of being an efficient, productive worker—whether employment has been thematized as being a father, princess, robot janitor, toy, ant colonist, harvester of screams, adventurer in South America, or otherwise. For Pixar, to live is to work. Cars is a film about an ambitious racecar who is forced to chill out and not be so competitive, except he really just learns that chilling out and not being so competitive is the key to being an even better competitor. This is coming from a workplace culture that, under the guise of compassion, has erased the distinction between free time and labor time, and expects their employees not to notice that they working that much harder.
At its bottom, this is the logic of pure capitalism. In an economy structured around limitless growth, dynamism must become the natural state of things. Idle capital is unproductive capital and an unproductive worker is a waste of resources. The virtuous citizen cannot only consume but must produce, an imperative that finds its current (and particularly American) incarnation in the entrepreneur, the boot-strapper, the rags-to-riches hero, who is too busy pulling themselves up by their laces to notice that there’s no top to reach. The natural and profitable ideological by-product of this fixation is an abhorrence of collectivism—and therefore organized labor. To be collective, to be one among many, is to no longer be a special individual producer, which is its own kind of death. This is why Toy Story 2 abhors the idea of Woody becoming part of a box set.
History offers evidence of the intractability of the problem of police violence. What should we do then? Quite simply, we must end the police.
Those of us who maintain that reform is actually impossible within the current context are positioned as unreasonable and naïve. Ideological formations often operate invisibly to delineate and define what is acceptable discourse. Challenges to dominant ideological formations about “justice” are met with anger, ridicule or are simply ignored. This is in the service of those who benefit from the current system and to enforce white supremacy and anti-blackness.
It’s a truism that the First Amendment only protects citizens from the government, not from other citizens. Nothing stops a private college from expelling any student who criticizes the administration, and nothing stops a private business from firing any employee who doesn’t support the boss’ preferred candidate. We apparently place our trust in the multiplicity of the market to maintain some semblance of freedom; out of thousands of competing companies, not all will ban the same political positions; if too many did so, other companies would start offering freedom of speech as a benefit and poach the more repressive companies’ employees and customers.
It’s a little concerning that we accept this argument about freedom of speech when we don’t accept it for anything else. We don’t trust the free market to necessarily preserve racial equality – that’s what anti-discrimination laws are for. We don’t trust the free market to necessarily preserve worker safety – that’s what OSHA and related regulations are for. We don’t even trust the free market to necessarily preserve fire safety – that’s why federal inspectors have to come in every so often to make sure you’re not secretly plotting to let your employees fry. Whenever we think something is important, we regulate the hell out of it, rights-of-private-companies to-set-their-own-policies be damned. But free speech? If you don’t trust the free market to sort it out, the only possible explanation is that you just don’t understand the literal text of the First Amendment.
Dostoevsky predicted this: Humans claim to want liberty but then shuck it off when its attendant responsibilities become irksome. I have come to judge "progressivism" itself to be a well-intentioned but deadly error. It overrates human innocence and goodness and underrates human weakness and preference for getting things for free rather than as a result of arduous work. It claims to want equality, but it does not grasp how that demand undermines the motive for initiative and hard work.
We all, as individuals and groups, have an ambivalent relationship to agency because it is always a call to the will. To be free, and to have ultimate responsibility for a problem, is to be called upon to exert one's will to solve it. Agency demands that we find will even if we are mired in inertia. Thus one of the most common dodges in human experience is to deny agency by denying freedom. We say we are not free enough to have agency over our problem. We are not free enough for responsibility. If we can escape freedom, we can escape agency with its difficult call to will, sacrifice, effort and risk.
Some might object that we should not check that impulse, and that extremism is necessary to create lasting social change. But it’s useful to recall that, when it comes to profanity, there were once people who considered themselves every bit as enlightened as we see ourselves today, with the same ardent and appalled sense of moral urgency. They were people who said “Odsbodikins” and did everything they could to avoid talking about their pants.
Note that none of these things involve white people “realizing” anything. These are the kinds of concrete policy goals that people genuinely interested in seeing change ought to espouse. If these things seem somehow less attractive than calling for revolutionary changes in how white people think and how the nation operates, then this is for emotional reasons, not political ones. A black identity founded on how other people think about us is a broken one indeed, and we will have more of a sense of victory in having won the game we’re in rather than insisting that for us and only us, the rules have to be rewritten.
Now it seems strange
How we used to wait for letters to arrive
But what's stranger still
Is how something so small can keep you alive
— Arcade Fire
While the numbers cannot account for how many emails are personal, it stands to reason that few sent on business accounts are — and that people are often too exhausted from the relentless inundation to compose meaningful letters.
“I very rarely get a long email from someone,” said John Freeman, a literary critic and the author of the nonfiction book “The Tyranny of E-Mail.” He compared the current era, in which “everyone is overwhelmed” by his or her inbox, with his time after college in the late ’90s, “when people still did write long emails” and “there was something exhilarating,” he said, about the upstart free technology that enabled connectivity with anyone.
If there was a golden age of the epistolary personal email, it most likely started in this period and ended sometime in the late aughts.
Delight in book collecting, and in showing off one’s book collection, is common, if not universal, among readers and would-be-readers. The biggest reason we spend money on books is because we want to read them (eventually), but that isn’t the only reason: we also like to look at them, and to look at other people looking at them.
...The way I treat my books shows that no matter how important they are to me as things to read, they also exist as decorative objects and status symbols. Luckily for me (and all other similarly afflicted book lovers), recent technological advances have provided something like an alternative to this “literary materialism” in the form of e-books. If collecting physical books distracts me from a humbler and less self-centered reading experience, then eliminating the physical component of the books seems like it would help to eliminate the vanity that comes with them. I could free up a lot of shelf space, make a fair amount of money at used bookstores and clean my environmental conscience, all while getting the same edification that I have always gotten from novels and essays. The only downside is that nobody would be able to tell from visiting my apartment that books are my body and soul.
Here's to a truth we knew
It was a feeling that I shared with you
It could only be hinted at with metaphor
Crudely drawn clichéd form
But I knew what I knew
— TV on the Radio
When it comes to these questions, it’s worth wondering if empiricism hasn’t run amok in the halls of academe. After all, if we go about the business of being ambitious humans armed with an empiricism that grasps and gobbles up and conquers everything up to and including consciousness, it seems reasonable to wonder if we’ll lose something essential to the precarious project of being human—something such as humility. If nothing else, Nagel’s challenge reaffirms the value of humility.
I have no hard proof for this thesis, but I think there’s something to it: Knowing that there are things we don’t know—and may never know—has a humbling effect on the human mind. Humility is a form of modesty that asks us to accept ambiguity. Ambiguity, in turn, is ultimately what brings us together to explore the mysteries of existence through the wonder-driven endeavors we lump under that broad umbrella known as the humanities. If we knew it all, if we understood what it was like to be a bat, probably even Logan Sander would not be a comparative literature major.
In a way, to catch consciousness, to close the mind-body gap, would be to eliminate that humility. It would be to answer most of the big questions—to collapse the umbrella and move into a post-human world. And that might sound great to logical positivists and atheists and neurobiologists. But as the essayist Charles D’Ambrosio reminds us, “Answers are the end of speech, not the beginning.”
Are we really ready to stop talking?
People who traffic in symbolic manipulation—and that’s most of us, these digital days—are typically inclined to overrate the importance of symbolic manipulation. It’s always tempting to think that to exercise control over symbols—like the Confederate battle flag, which, for the record, I have long despised—is to strike a blow for justice. Again, social media play a key role here: Jerry Gaus once wrote an article “On the Difficult Virtue of Minding One’s Own Business”, but given the hyperpublic character of the web services most of us rely on, and the difficulty of getting any of them to reliably provide intimacy gradients, everyone’s business now seems to be everyone else’s business. In such a environment, ABP—Always Be Policing—is the watchword. Survey and critique others, lest you make yourself subject to surveillance and critique. And use the proper Hashtags of Solidarity, or you might end up like that guy who was the first to stop applauding Stalin’s speech.
Minding your own business, on this commonly-held account of things, is a vice, not a virtue, and those who handle disagreement peaceably are ipso facto deficient in their commitment to justice. To restore a belief to the positive value of disagreement, here, would be a challenging task indeed. When Bernard Williams writes of disagreement as “an important and constitutive feature of our relations to others,” he is speaking a moral language that’s incomprehensible to those for whom free speech is so last century and for whom history is always a story of moral progress.
How might such people come to see, with Williams, the virtue of moral and epistemic humility? How might they be brought to see that it can be a positive good to belong to a society in which people with deep disagreements, even about sexuality and personal self-determination, can live in peace with one another and, just possibly, converse? I have absolutely no idea.
The emphasis on tribalism, tokenism, and toeing the political line is, if anything, more painful in the realm of culture, which traditionally represents the highest aspirations of the individual, than it is in other realms of the life of the mind.
[T]here is something truly dispiriting about not being able to distinguish self-identified radicals from the parodies of us imagined by the right wing. Last year, the wackjob nadir was “Žižek Delenda Est” (“Žižek Must be Destroyed.”) The thesis of the panel—which featured at least one “tankie,” slang for Soviet apologist, or actual Stalinist—was that Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek is some kind of COINTELPRO crypto-Nazi.
Sadly, this is not an exaggeration, and the ineffectual chaos of Left Forum is symptomatic of the state of the left at large. But I do not foresee doom. It’s quite possible the left is at a pivotal moment in political history: these days, Americans actually like the sound of socialism, and the potential for building a new base is incredibly encouraging. But as much as we should be looking to expand, so, too, must we refine our project. The marginalistas distract, disrupt and deter future comrades. So it’s high time we get a little exclusive: tankies, truthers and tofu may supply a steady stream of battle-tested conference anecdotage, but they’re not going to move us any closer to building a better world.
Nearly two thousand years ago, Athenaeus of Naucratis, in his Deipnosophistae, explicitly equated solitary eaters with criminals ("solitary eater and housebreaker!"), and just this year, the historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto, in Near a Thousand Tables, echoed Athenaeus' condemnation almost word for word: "that public enemy, the solitary eater." The fact is, eating in groups — along with speech, writing and warfare — is among the most elemental and universal expressions of humanity.
Creep into thy narrow bed,
Creep, and let no more be said.
Let the long contention cease!
Geese are swans and swans are geese.
Let them have it how they will!
Thou art tired; best be still.
— Matthew Arnold
The more important question to ask is why this word is deemed newsworthy? Why have the concerns of transgender people risen from the margins to the mainstream in what must be the most rapid cultural shift in living memory? Trans people (who constitute less than 0.4 per cent of the population, according to even the most generous estimates) have become probably the most over-represented identity group in history.
There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, ours is an era in which who you are trumps what you do. Personal growth and the non-judgemental recognition of others have never been more culturally esteemed. In this environment, trans people have assumed an important role, as representatives of the marginalised and supposedly excluded. The act of vocally supporting trans people is the easiest way to demonstrate that you are virtuous, that you don’t judge others. If you are pro-trans, then you are probably anti-racist, pro-feminist, gay-friendly and prone to cry over the plight of the poor.
The second and most worrying reason for the rise in interest in trans issues is that gender has become entwined with one’s ‘self identity’. Our gender has become something that we must come to terms with, as a self-conscious act, a perceived imposition that we can affirm, reject or mess around with. Hence the most problematic aspect of the OED’s definition of cisgender is the use of the phrase ‘assigned at birth’. It suggests that doctors, midwives and registrars do not simply record a biological fact when they say what sex a newborn baby is; rather, they are forcing us into a gender box that we are duty-bound to embrace, reject or reformulate.
Don't be so gloomy. After all it's not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.
— Harry Lime
Slavery, universal and unquestioning religious faith, aristocratic government, disregard for the suffering of others: these are the very miserable grounds on which some of the major achievements of civilization in the past were built. Hence the thought: we cannot have those desirable things now, because we have got democracy, freedom of conscience, various kinds of equality (nearly), kindness and hygiene instead. If these really are the only options, then we do not have much choice.
The organic conception of civilization reinforces this view. It stresses the interconnectedness of everything that occurs in a particular society in a particular epoch. Therefore the achievements of a time and place are thought of as inescapably bound up with, and often produced by, the defects of the era. If the passage of time sees the removal of those defects it must also remove the possibility of parallel achievements.
According to this view the great public monuments of post-war Britain had to look like Milton Keynes and the Millennium Dome — because of democracy and a National Health Service and universal education and freedom of opinion. The seventeenth century could have as its greatest public monuments St Paul's Cathedral and the other churches of Sir Christopher Wren because it has oligarchic aristocratic government, poor sanitation, short life expectancy, little freedom of opinion and little public education.
However, we could employ the idea of civilization in a more hopeful way. We could see civilization as seeking to equal the best achievements of the past while disentangling them from the misfortunes upon which they once depended. The idea is that we could aim for the same level of civility, grandeur, grace and beauty, but without building on those obviously intolerable foundations.
Here is someone who has never seen a cat. He is looking through a narrow slit in a fence, and, on the other side, a cat walks by. He sees first the head, then the less distinctly shaped furry trunk, and then the tail. Extraordinary! The cat turns round and walks back, and again he sees the head, and a little later the tail. This sequence begins to look like something regular and reliable. Yet again, the cat turns round, and he witnesses the same regular sequence: first the head, and later the tail. Thereupon he reasons that the event head is the invariable and necessary cause of the event tail, which is the head's effect. This absurd and confusing gobbledygook comes from his failure to see that head and tail go together: they are all one cat.
The cat wasn't born as a head which, sometime later, caused a tail; it was born all of a piece, a head-tailed cat. Our observer's trouble was that he was watching it through a narrow slit, and couldn't see the whole cat at once.
Erasmus calls his book a 'praise' of folly; this is meant ironically. He does not like folly. But as he multiplies the examples of human stupidity, greed, corruption and confusion, something else begins to emerge: the sheer normality of messing things up. Erasmus is no longer castigating an aberration, which — with a bit of coaxing and prodding — could be put right. He seems to be describing our fate.
If we take this seriously, the pursuit of civilization cannot be cast as the project of removing folly from the world. It has to aim lower: at coping and trying to flourish, given the crooked timbers of humanity.
...In an intimate way, tragedy is founded on the fact that not all good things are compatible: it may be (for most people) impossible to have a happy marriage and a raucous erotic life; or to have a well-paid job and follow your own vocation; it may be that you cannot live in the place where you most want to live; responsibility is tedious and frightening; yet taking responsibility is important. The longing to live an interesting and enjoyable life is always confronted by poverty, fragility, bad luck, death. Things we want to control are often beyond our control. We do not choose the political, moral or economic world in which we have to live; you can wear yourself out seeking genuine progress and end up making none.
So the ambition of civilization, in the face of this, is to strengthen us to face disappointment and suffering. The tragic dimension of life cannot be removed by planning and legislation. Instead we have to cultivate what are called 'stoic' virtues: the capacity to do without, to postpone pleasure, to make ourselves do things we do not want to do (when there is good reason to do them); to put up with minor irritations, to avoid complaint and useless criticism.
In a civilized society, these virtues are communicated and inculcated from generation to generation. There is a species of 'take control of your life' rhetoric that is superficially connected to this, but is in fact radically different. The message of 'take control' is that you will have to suffer a little now (go on a diet, be assertive, work hard), but soon, as a result, you will be successful, rich, famous and beautiful. The reality, however, is that we have to practice the stoic virtues not as a means to securing happy celebrity, but as a way of coping with tragedy. We have to be controlled, effortful, patient and uncomplaining without the expectation of any special reward.
The ancient Greek moralist Theophrastus coined a useful term, microphilotimos, which means 'attaching importance to unimportant things'.
Three particular features of modernity may be seen — in a pessimistic light — as making civilization either impossible or no longer desirable. We have liberal economic markets. If you can pay, you can have what you want so long as you do not break the law. Whether your choices are good or bad is for you to decide, and you can pursue them until you run out of credit. Therefore the market says: I do not care about quality of choice or whether people consume wisely. I care about whether or not they can pay for whatever it is they happen to want.
We have cultural democracy. Who is to say what sort of art or books or architecture I should like? Everyone's preference is on an equal footing. Some people like Beethoven, some Britney, others both. In the past, elites could trumpet their preferences as superior; they were the only ones in a position to do any trumpeting. Today, there is little cultural authority — there is little deference.
We have freedom of opinion. I am entitled to think whatever I happen to think — irrespective of logic, evidence and self-examination — so long as it doesn't directly and obviously harm other people. No one has any right to tell me what to think. Such freedom is rooted in the profound point that the truths we discover for ourselves are more valuable than those we merely accept on external authority. One is expected to have strong opinions on the widest range of baffling technical matters and impacted problems: how to bring peace and justice to the Middle East; how the economy can be put to rights; the relationship between science and religious faith. The quality of information on which we base our opinions may be low and the quantity slight. But we are perfectly entitled to our own views.
These conditions are associated with a pessimistic view of civilization today. Triumphant vulgarity rules the world (it is said) because the democratic numbers and the market forces always win. Once you have markets, cultural democracy and freedom of opinion, questions about merit and meaning will always be settled by majorities and money. But majorities and money have no real authority on questions of value.
Now on to polygamy. (And no, I ain't kidding.)— Freddie (@freddiedeboer) June 26, 2015
Socially liberal people who recognize the equal dignity of polyamorous relationships need to develop way better anti-polygamy arguments.— Freddie (@freddiedeboer) June 26, 2015
Y'know, fellow left types who say today's not a good day to start talking polygamy, "slow down" is a derided stance for a reason.— Freddie (@freddiedeboer) June 26, 2015
Nevertheless, Ellul’s analysis of freedom holds up, since most of us are not masters but consumers of technology, adapting to it and prone to mistake the valuable tensions involved in pursuing the highest goods for nothing but technical problems to be solved (and surely our technicians are no less prone to this). Recognizing the value of these tensions can be difficult, as in many areas of life the constant improvement of techniques to alleviate them becomes an unquestioned goal. But standardized tests cannot measure students’ curiosity, social networking cannot replicate the fullness of face-to-face relationships, and poll-tested ads are no substitute for political deliberation. Of course most of us know these things; and yet, our social ethos seems fixated on prizing ever better tools as ways of overcoming challenges and relieving tensions that we ought to recognize as indispensable to many kinds of excellence.
Akiva talks at length about our biases and irrationality. Gadamer instead speaks of prejudices, and says that the chief prejudice of the Enlightenment was a prejudice against prejudice.
“Prejudicial” is simply “pre” as in “before” and “judicial” as in “judgment.” Historically, it once meant the provisional verdicts that a judge would mentally arrive at before the time came to render the final judgment. Prejudice is not only necessary here, but good. Making a provisional judgment before the final one allows you to focus on specific questions, to guide your attention to particular matters you might have otherwise overlooked. It’s not only impossible for a judge to sit back without prejudice until the time of rendering a judgment, as the romantics and others have emphasized, they would also be a bad judge for doing so.
Gadamer thought that the romantics, and even Burke, just made themselves into mirror images of the Enlightenment. Where the Enlightment thinkers asserted that tradition was something accepted without reason, and therefore bad, the romantics asserted that tradition was something accepted without reason, but was greater than reason. In both cases it was treated as a black box to be labeled either bad or good.
For Gadamer, tradition is something that only exists if it is participated in, and it is continually created and transformed in that participation.
Yet that is what romantic philosophy would condemn us to; we must all strut and roar. We must lend ourselves to the partisan earnestness of persons and nations calling their rivals villains and themselves heroes; but this earnestness will be of the histrionic German sort, made to order and transferable at short notice from one object to another, since what truly matters is not that we should achieve our ostensible aim (which Hegel contemptuously called ideal) but that we should carry on perpetually, if possible with a crescendo, the strenuous experience of living in a gloriously bad world, and always working to reform it, with the comforting speculative assurance that we never can succeed. We never can succeed, I mean, in rendering reform less necessary or life happier; but of course in any specific reform we may succeed half the time, thereby sowing the seeds of new and higher evils, to keep the edge of virtue keen. And in reality we, or the Absolute in us, are succeeding all the time; the play is always going on, and the play's the thing.
— George Santayana, "Josiah Royce", Character and Opinion in the United States
Santayana is seldom found in lists of the great modern philosophers. In part that is because, like other ethical naturalists, including Hume and Voltaire and Schopenhauer, he preferred humanist genres like the essay and the aphorism to the academic treatise or the footnoted journal article. One of his aphorisms has lodged in popular consciousness: “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it” (from The Life of Reason (1905-1906).) This choice of rhetorical strategies, I think, is based on observation of the human animal: if you want to teach the public, stories and jokes and conversational talks are more effective than lectures.
...The naturalism of Santayana, like that of Democritus and Epicurus and Hume, proves that a secular worldview need not assume the form of a militant, evangelical counter-religion. It shows as well that a certain kind of worldly hedonism, by privileging simple pleasures, paradoxically can be a kind of asceticism. You cannot be disenchanted with humanity and the world if you were never enchanted in the first place — that is the greatest lesson of the laughing philosophers.
Burrough does more, offering lessons to absorb. One involves the inner logic that leads sensitive souls of various ideological predilections to embrace violence for political ends. The number of American leftists studying bomb-making over the last couple of decades may be vanishingly small, but the number of Americans is not: Timothy McVeigh and his drums of fertilizer; the Tsarnaev brothers and their pressure cookers; abortion-clinic bombers; young Minnesotans scouring the Internet for ways to travel to Syria to join ISIS—all of them are seekers of a certain kind of Dostoyevskian fantasy of communion. They are radical narcissists detached from reality, certain that their spark would ignite the great silent masses who share the same sense of futility and frustration. They see society as a powder keg almost ready to blow. The book provides rich raw material to draw these connections, even if Burrough’s own analysis, and his engagement with scholarship about what makes violent extremists tick, is thin. (“What the underground movement was truly about—what it was always about—was the plight of black Americans”: This is his reductive conclusion, when his own evidence points to much more.)
Another lesson is about the counterproductive patterns of thought and action recognizable on the left today, such as the notion that there is no problem with radicalism that can’t be solved by a purer version of radicalism, or that the participant in any argument who can establish him- or herself as the most oppressed is thereby naturally owed intellectual deference, even abasement, or that purity of intention is the best marker of political nobility. These notions come from somewhere; they have an intellectual history. The sort of people whose personal dialectic culminated in the building of bombs helped gestate these persistent mistakes.
But boycotts are really one of the few ways for people to cause change, real change. You show your moral and ethical disagreement by refusing to support a business, regime, or conference with your money. There seems to be a basic free speech and association right by saying “I am not supporting this business or regime because of practices X, Y, and Z and I don’t think other people should either” or saying “Conference X invited this crank because of X, Y, and Z to speak and I think that is dangerous even if he or she is speaking on apolitical matters.” Then you have a fight or debate in the public sphere. The conference clearly saw that inviting Yarvin was a mistake and that many people thought he was odious.
This is why many people on the left see conservatism as being nothing more than a maintenance of privilege. The view is simply that liberals are not to do anything to voice their displeasure over anything because that means conservatives might have to do something.
So what are people supposed to do? Just boycott silently? Why shouldn’t they speak out?
It might even be possible that what constitutes the value of these good and revered things is precisely that they are insidiously related, tied to, and involved with these wicked, seemingly opposite things – maybe even one with them in essence.
Across practices, across cultures, and throughout historical periods, when people support and engage in violence, their primary motivations are moral. By ‘moral’, I mean that people are violent because they feel they must be; because they feel that their violence is obligatory. They know that they are harming fully human beings. Nonetheless, they believe they should. Violence does not stem from a psychopathic lack of morality. Quite the reverse: it comes from the exercise of perceived moral rights and obligations.
...At the same time, if violence is motivated by moral sentiments, what is it motivated toward? What are these perpetrators trying to achieve? The general pattern we found was that the violence was intended to regulate social relationships.
In the examples above, parents are relating with children; recruits and fighters are relating with peers and superiors; boys and men are relating with their friends; families are relating with their communities; men are relating with women; people are relating to gods; and groups and nations are relating to each other. Across all cases, perpetrators are using violence to create, conduct, sustain, enhance, transform, honour, protect, redress, repair, end, and mourn valued relationships. Individuals and cultures certainly vary in the ways they do this and the contexts in which they think violence is an acceptable means of making things right, but the goal is the same. The purpose of violence is to sustain a moral order.
For many, this will seem incomprehensible. Surely pain is terrible. The core of anyone’s morality should be to minimise it, only bringing it about when absolutely necessary. But this presumes that the ultimate moral goods in life are the pursuit of happiness and the avoidance of pain. As reasonable as those might sound to us, they reflect modern, Western ideals. There have been many cultures and historical periods where people did not particularly value happiness, or where they actively sought out suffering because they saw it as morally cleansing.
The dull success of Pharrell’s 2014 track “Happy” wasn’t just down to its repetitive lyrics or its adherence to the saccharine pop-hit formula, but also because it tapped into this ideological hegemony. When Pharrell sings that “happiness is the truth,” he is, in fact, making a profound ideological statement, and one that accords with much that neoliberalism implies. Our immediate physical reality, Pharrell instructs, is unimportant. What matters is how individuals interpret and react to it. We have the agency to choose, our politicians and pop singers tell us, and thus the logic of the market is extended beyond the realms of commodities and services, engulfing our emotional states, too.
I thought my life would be different somehow
I thought my life would be better by now
But it's not, and I don't know where to turn
— Aimee Mann
Some scholars compare human biochemistry to an air-conditioning system that keeps the temperature constant, come heatwave or snowstorm. Events might momentarily change the temperature, but the air-conditioning system always returns the temperature to the same set-point.
Some air-conditioning systems are set at 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Others are set at 20 degrees. Human happiness conditioning systems also differ from person to person. On a scale from one to ten, some people are born with a cheerful biochemical system that allows their moods to swing between levels six and ten, stabilizing with time at eight. Such a person is quite happy even if she lives in an alienating big city, loses all her money in a stock-exchange crash, and is diagnosed with diabetes. Other people are cursed with a gloomy biochemistry that swings between three and seven and stabilizes at five. Such an unhappy person remains depressed even if she enjoys the support of a tight-knit community, wins millions in the lottery and is as healthy as an Olympic athlete.
...If we accept the biological approach to happiness, then history turns out to be of minor importance, since most historical events have had no impact on our biochemistry. History can change the external stimuli that cause serotonin to be secreted, yet it does not change the resulting serotonin levels, and hence it cannot make people happier.
Compare a medieval French peasant to a modern Parisian banker. The peasant lived in an unheated mud hut overlooking the local pigsty, while the banker goes home to a splendid penthouse with all the latest technological gadgets and a view to the Champs-Elysées. Intuitively, we would expect the banker to be much happier than the peasant. However, mud huts, penthouses and the Champs-Elysées don't really determine our mood. Serotonin does. When the medieval peasant completed the construction of his mud hut, his brain neurons secreted serotonin, bringing it up to level X. When in 2014 the banker made the last payment on his wonderful penthouse, brain neurons secreted a similar amount of serotonin, bringing it up to a similar level X. It makes no difference to the brain that the penthouse is far more comfortable than the mud hut. The only thing that matters is that at present the level of serotonin is X. Consequently the banker would not be one iota happier than his great-great-great grandfather, the poor medieval peasant.
This is true not only of private lives but also of great collective events. Take, for example, the French Revolution. The revolutionaries were busy: they executed the king, gave lands to the peasants, declared the rights of man, abolished noble privileges, and waged war against the whole of Europe. Yet none of that changed French biochemistry. Consequently, despite all the political, social, ideological and economic upheavals brought about by the revolution, its impact on French happiness was small. Those who won a cheerful biochemistry in the genetic lottery were just as happy before the revolution as after. Those with a gloomy biochemistry complained about Robespierre and Napoleon with the same bitterness with which they earlier complained about Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette...People think that this political revolution or that social reform will make them happy, but their biochemistry tricks them time and again.