4.30.2009

Take the Obama-Facebook-Quiz Challenge

This little session--both the question and the response, frankly--is one of the most frivolous things I've ever seen. Needless to say, "frivolous" is better than Bush; but this was unbearably indulgent. Obama really does remind me of Castro when he takes the microphone in prime-time... my teacherly-remarks at the end of his speech would read: "Focus on clarity and conciseness. Wordy at times." Anyway, here's the video:



Now for the fun part: what has surprised, troubled, enchanted, and humbled you about the first however-many-years of your life?

My answers:
  • Surprised: I've been surprised... uhhhh... thaaaaat (just kidding)... I've been surprised at how fresh the mystery seems to me after 31 years.
  • Troubled: I'm troubled by the rigorous sedateness of contemporary "work" in America. I fear that sitting in front of a glow-screen for ten hours a day is bad for people.
  • Enchanted: I'm enchanted by golfing, especially by hitting a good seven-iron onto a par three.
  • Humbled: I'm humbled by the knowledge that there is something in me that is everlasting and universal, and by the fact that I understand that thing not-at-all.

4.28.2009

Controlled Folly, or, The Rhetorician's Predicament

From time to time I have people with advanced degrees in Rhetoric lurk around here... Wrangler, Enthyalias, etc. And Mxrk took a class once I think.

So I've had a question lately: once you understand and really believe that everything is rhetorical and "subjective" (I know that's a messy term, but don't get snagged on it) and without an everlasting foundation in the Truth, how do you participate?

In "final" terms: how do you decide, for example, who to vote for? Do you just position yourself as the audience and justify it in those terms: "Well, whichever argument appeals to me more deftly is the one I follow."

But isn't that a kind of tautology? Or doesn't it beg the question? Something like that -- what I'm asking is, suppose I identify two compelling arguments about the way one should live... let's say one is as an ascetic in a monastery and the other is as a married person with kids and a job. For the rhetorician, neither is intrinsically "correct," and so I'm asking: what is the cause of the rhetorician's decision? More explicitly: what is the cause of personal preference?

For the record: I wish we were all in 215. You'd be able to tell from my tone that this isn't a set-up... I "came around" a couple of years ago, and I agree with almost everything I used to disagree with. Nevertheless, the "itch" I used to feel about Truth (which was to me a question of metaphysics/ontology) has been replaced by an "itch" to understand what motivates (an epistemological/psychological question). In other words, I'm a convert. I'm willing to listen. But I am sort of politely demanding an answer, or else I will come to the disappointing conclusion that the discipline of rhetoric is a rather mundane (if well-branded) version of "common sense."

Any takers?

Possibly relevant observation: In Carlos Castaneda's book, A Separate Reality (the one little Ben gave to Sayid), the guru-mentor Don Juan suggests that every path in life is equal, and therefore every next move is equal... he is stubborn in maintaining that there is no rational basis for action. And yet he goes on, day after day, in a kind of unjustified dance: "controlled folly," he calls it. But... once or twice Don Juan suggests that, although no path is better than any other, it's important that the chooser choose a path "with heart."

4.27.2009

Thou Shalt Not Get Stuck

You come around here almost every day; what is it you're really looking for?

Last week I declared literature as my religion. This week I'm going to concentrate on how one must practice the literary way of life. As far as I can tell, there is but one great commandment in this way: the literary person must read-against-himself. If you think anything long enough to believe it, and especially if you think it long enough for it to take the shape of human language, rush to the library (or out of it, as the case may be!): find a way to undermine it. Monica probably knows what I'm talking about. To perform this ritual as publically as possible, I offer the following--the image of an arrow aimed directly at the heart of my own, our own, religion:

It's been a while since I've quoted E.M. Cioran (d. 1995), that lyrical Romanian-French philosopher who was too difficult for the academic theory crowd of the 1990s. This one's from his book, The Temptation to Exist, from his chapter, "Beyond the Novel" (translated by American poet, Richard Howard):

That literature should be destined to perish is possible and even desirable. What use is the comedy of our questions, our problems, our anxieties? Would it not be preferable, after all, to orient ourselves toward a condition of automatons? Our crushing individual agonies would be succeeded by mass-produced agonies, uniform and easy to endure; no more original or profound works, no more intimacy, therefore no more dreams and no more secrets. Happiness, misery would lose all meaning, since they would have no place to start from; each of us would at last be ideally null and perfect: no one. (published in 1956)
G-d! -- imagine writing that in 1956! Imagine writing not what you believe, but what you doubt, and with conviction. I hope not to meet Cioran in hell.

If you're up for it, check out one of the most unsettling YouTube videos I've ever seen--a sort of homage to Cioran:


(If for some reason that won't play, here's a link to the YouTube page.)

4.22.2009

Finally!

Here's a single from Bon Iver's new EP, Blood Bank. I thought it'd never arrive.



Do I even need to mention that this is my favorite song in the history of the world?

Now that's Hip

Can anyone else confirm for me that this is the awesomest ad ever? Other than a Honda Insight, what is this a picture of? Here's a hint:

4.21.2009

Conversion of the Mind

Emily Dickinson's #593:

I think I was enchanted
When first a sombre Girl—
I read that Foreign Lady*
The Dark—felt beautiful—

And whether it was noon at night—
Or only Heaven—at Noon—
For very Lunacy of Light
I had not power to tell—

The Bees—became as Butterflies—
The Butterflies—as Swans—
Approached—and spurned the narrow Grass—
And just the meanest Tunes

That Nature murmured to herself
To keep herself in Cheer—
I took for Giants—practising
Titanic Opera—

The Days—to Mighty Metres stept—
The Homeliest—adorned
As if unto a Jubilee
'Twere suddenly confirmed—

I could not have defined the change—
Conversion of the Mind
Like Sanctifying in the Soul—
Is witnessed—not explained—

'Twas a Divine Insanity—
The Danger to be Sane
Should I again experience—
'Tis Antidote to turn—

To Tomes of solid Witchcraft—
Magicians be asleep—
But Magic—hath an Element
Like Deity—to keep—
Read it a few times. Let it settle in. The note in my Norton Anthology suggested that the Foreign Lady was probably Elizabeth Barrett Browning. This poem helps me approach the great question of pedagogy: can "enchantment" be taught?

Is "Conversion of the Mind" something you know about? I think I recognize the dilation of the senses described in the lines about the transfigured bees and butterflies. Is it something you can talk about? -- Dickinson sort of implies that she knows something about "Conversion of the Mind," but admits that she could not (could not? -- describing a past inability?) describe it. Is it described here? Finally: what is the difference between witnessing something and having it explained to you? I can teach about the chemical compound H20; but can I baptize?

When 'Dumb' becomes 'Evil'

I'm sure by now some of you have seen this:



I remember a couple years ago when another one of those air-headed mannequins made news for being verbally challenged (no, Wishydig, we aren't all equally advantaged). But let's pause for a moment to consider the difference between mental retardation and focused moral hypocrisy. This year's Miss America runner-up is being rightfully trashed for resorting to a Biblical defense of homophobia -- unfortunately, I doubt whether any of the women in the pageant would have answered differently.

But they would have answered homophobically not because they actually feel that way -- rather, they would have answered that way in an attempt to spit-out the least controversial answer. Only guess what: they've all got it wrong, at least if their audience consists mostly of Americans under-50 who aren't snake-handling evangelicals. It's currently more offensive to be a bigot than it is to... not paraphrase Leviticus. I'm sure if she had been asked about whether or not Americans should be free to blaspheme she would have cited Leviticus and demanded that blasphemers be taken outside the camp and stoned to death.

Said Miss California: "We live in a land that you can choose, same-sex marriage or opposite marriage..." Uh, no we don't. We live in a land where very few of us can make that choice. The look on Perez Hilton's face says very clearly what he thinks, but this follow-up including a clip of Miss Homphobia on the Today Show is worth a glance.

And all of this is just another fine example of what I mean by my efforts to reclaim the territory of religion. In other words, I'm not saying that dumb-Beauty should be stoned to death at the edge of the village for using the LORD's name in vain. I'm just sayin' she's a dumb-Beauty.

But that makes me wonder about my standard of Beauty. I mean, look at this:

But can beauty not be truth? I'm feeling pretty sure that Miss California wasn't speakin' the Tr-th. On the other hand, Susan Boyle really can carry a tune, despite looking... different... than Miss California. Maybe it really really really is time to reconsider what we mean by Beauty. Maybe my reclamation-of-the-word-Religion-project needs to be a reclamation-of-the-word-Beauty-project too.

4.20.2009

Literature as Religion

Appropriately: a little story, somewhere between fiction and memoir, first:

This weekend I was sitting on a couch in my living room, my wife on the futon. We hadn't spoken or blinked in more than an hour, except to call out the answers to Jeopardy questions. Then a commercial came on advertising some product, emphasizing the "Green" nature of the product. My wife goes, "They're ruining another word!" I laughed and knew what she meant right away. My wife, a poet with a refined ear for the lyric, continued: "It's just like blackberry." She was upset about two years ago when everyone was buying BlackBerry cellphones because she wanted to use the word "the way it used to mean" in one of her poems, but was dismayed at the techno-pop connotations it had picked up.

Anyway, when all of this took place, I was planning my blog-essay on literature-as-religion in my head (yes, even while answering most of the Jeopardy questions). My wife's observation reset the whole frequency of my thinking, though: I realized seconds after we quieted down from that giggle that they've been ruining words for centuries and centuries.

For the past three or four years, I've worked very hard inside my head to reclaim the word religion, if only for myself. I've been working so hard at it that I seem to have forgotten that almost-nobody else was doing the same internal work. In 1997, convinced that "religion" consisted of "what took place in all the churches in town on Sunday," I left religion for good, I thought.

Then I spent ten years forgetting about religion and reading literature (here I want to define my term: by literature I mean precisely philosophical essays, criticism, memoirs, plays, poems, stories, novels, so-called "holy texts," and, if you need a special category to make you feel included, "Theory"). The years of reading culminated in an experience that I have used as the source of my reclamation of the word "religion." The best way I can explain this is to say that what was a mostly-detached, non-participatory intellectual endeavor became a physical, three-dimensional, immersive experience. Read the paragraph around the phrase "hymn of dialectic" on this page, if you're interested. To this day, the difference between what I had been doing and what I found myself doing toward the end of that experience is as stark in my imagination as the difference between studying the chemical compound water through a microscope and getting baptised in a river. I mean, reading critically and reading experientially are way different.

At the same time, I've been aware that others have not shared in my experience, and still understand religion to be what I understood it to be in 1997: in its worst form, "Christianity" as practiced by people in starched shirts and ties on Sunday right after dunking some donuts in coffee and right before making sure to hit the 48-hour sale at the mall before all the good stuff is gone. In other words: the state policy.

So anyway, that "immersive experience" was what allowed me to start rediscovering a lost meaning of the word "religion." In my understanding of the term, authentic-religion is not something you do, so much as it is something that happens to you if you are doing what you believe in with courage and determination.

When I say "Literature is my religion," this is what I mean: the practice that follows from a foundational belief in the power of reading literature can ultimately lead to a moment when words are made flesh. I take Whitman's advice here to be precisely literal:

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem. (See also)
The literary experience may be understood as the culmination of the slow process of literary practice. One may practice literature for years without experiencing a change in their core identity -- but if they are lucky, they will eventually feel (again: even physically) that everything they have known as their identity is excavated and tossed aside as refuse.

And here is the strangest fact of all: almost all of those who practice this religious discipline with me do not understand that they are the devouts, the real true believers. Those who practice with me believe (their belief is implied by the fact that they determinedly peruse the ancient alongside the contemporary) that there is a power woven through the fabric of everything that never settles on a shape, but that does leave discernable hints in places it has visited.

Like every religion before it, the literary way is, ostensibly, capable of being corrupted. Practitioners -- those who have not had the literary experience -- may become fixated on one of these hints left along the trail, mistaking the hint for the power itself (as when, for example, Jesus was mistaken for G-d). But the power moves on, and disciplined practitioners, mentored by those who have been lucky enough to have the experience, seek to find more recent hints, believe that revelation is happening today, is being published by Cambridge and Oxford, Harvard UP, and maybe even on blogs.

Let me say with some conviction: there is nothing "wrong" with holding on to a favorite hint, especially if it is one you discovered yourself somewhere along the trail. Only continue to understand that these hints are like good luck charms at best: pointing the way, but not the way itself. I keep copies of Moby-Dick like the superstitious keep rabbit's feet, but I try (but who ain't a sinner?) to remember that even Moby-Dick is not the thing itself.

The more I read about the ancient religions the more I am convinced that its adherents would not have recognized "religion" the way that we define the term. Theirs was not an occasional diversion or a part of their whole lives: it was their way of life. I think of the early adherents: Jews leaving Egypt, Christians leaving the Holy Land, Buddhists leaving Hinduism -- I suspect most of them had no intention of starting a new "religion," at least not the kind of religion that currently pervades the Western world. I think they were braves who risked taking up a new set of values, beginning a new way of life -- I think they were willing to let go of aging doctrines in favor of direct (or nearly direct) revelation in the present. I think we are like that now, those of us who practice the literary way of life.

Stay devout, brothers and sisters. Keep up your practice -- trust that the power that moves through everything will aim at you in good time.

4.18.2009

GOOGLE: Caught with a sock in its underwear?

Today I was preparing to write a life-changing manifesto titled "Literature as Religion," or maybe "Literature as Protestantism." So I Googled the phrase, "Literature as Religion," to make sure I wasn't re-writing what someone else had already thought.

Here's the results page. Google tells me it's showing results 1-10 of about 759.

But I'm seriously interested in this phrase, thinking I might make it the title of my first book or whatever... so I'm reading all of the entries. I get to page four, showing results 31-36, and... wait... 31-36? Here's that page. So where are results 37-759?

Well, Google says at the bottom of that fourth results page, "In order to show you the most relevant results, we have omitted some entries very similar to the 36 already displayed.If you like, you can repeat the search with the omitted results included." Ah, so that's where they're hiding the rest of the results.

So I click the link to repeat the search with the omitted results included: Google takes me back to page 1 and says, "showing results 1-10 of about 637." Hmm... not 759, but that would be a nice increase from 36.

But when I get to the fifth page, Google shows me one result: "showing results 41-41 of 41 for 'Religion as literature.' " Here's that page.

Any Google-gurus out there with advice? I need to see more results.

BTW: A Google search for "Literature as Protestantism" turned up zero results. So I have my book title... and a thesis statement. And I'm a more original thinker than you.

4.17.2009

Double-Edged Parody

It is undeniably true that communication is a fundamental tool of human happiness. The value of the twin abilities to use language for the end of self-expression, and to understand language for the end of interpersonal sympathy, cannot be overestimated.

And yet, I look around and see vast inequalities in verbal and written ability. It is true that the historically unregulated field of language has produced a few giants -- poets, orators, and philosophers have mastered the tool of communication; but they constitute a tiny minority. Most human beings wallow from day to day, scraping by on the same 3,000 words, overmatched by the tremendous energy and pace of the dynamic, ever-changing system of language. A large majority of people suffer the ongoing injustice of an unregulated langage quietly, precisely because they do not have the tools to express their outrage effectively.

It's time to begin the revolution. All men and women are brothers and sisters -- that fact is self-evident. Consequently, it would prove a universal benefit to bring the unregulated, shifting structures of language under the control of reason and into the circle of human sympathy, that all may share in the benefits of communication equally. I propose ten solutions:
  1. Abolition of copyright laws on linguistic productions, and the application of all linguistic invention to public purposes.
  2. A heavy or progressive tax on those who insist on using new language [new language being that which is not described in Strunk & White].
  3. Abolition of all right to inherit interesting verbal or written ideocynracies from parents or other extended family.
  4. Immigrants shall be forbidden to use their native languages.
  5. Changes in usage, semantics, and other linguistic categories will be under the sole authority of the state.
  6. Centralization of the means of communication--telephone, texting, email, etc.--in the hands of the state.
  7. Extension of state-owned literary projects, the renewal of awkward and aging linguistic structures, and the improvement of grammar in general in accordance with a common plan.
  8. Equal obligation of all to remain silent (8-10 hours per day). Establishment of linguistic armies, especially for teaching Strunk & White.
  9. Combination of grammar lessons with state-owned literary projects; gradual abolition of all the distinction between regional dialects.
  10. Combination of education with efforts to stabilize national language. Abolition of genre known as children's books. Free copy of Strunk & White for all children.

For comparison.

4.16.2009

Apology

I want to apologize for that last post. I understand that I sound humorless -- sometimes I wonder if I'm a little autistic. But I want to earnestly proclaim that the apparently self-indulgent passage where I listed my reading accomplishments, a section that almost certainly sounded to my readers like an effort to squelch disagreement, was motivated by a keen awareness of the fact that my audience is a) super-educated b) a liberal arts crowd c) 90%+ "liberal/progressive."

So the important point is this: what my audience takes for "common sense" does not seem common sense to me -- and, as I tried to make clear, that's not because I'm a superstitious, undereducated, God-fearing NASCAR fan (no offense, neighbors).

If it seems common-sense to most of my peers that laissez-faire reforms could not work now because of the widespread inequality of wealth and property, that's not good enough for me. And if a certain "sense" isn't shared, then it isn't "common." If we can't agree on common sense, we need to start over with the discourse... to make everything explicit, to account for our convictions and conclusions, to explain our epistemologies and metaphysical assumptions, and to justify our claims about the "nature" of humankind.

Anyway, thanks for putting up with my disagreeable attitude.

The Most Boring Post of All-Time

Finally, I've received a debatable criticism: responding to my wild claims that A) Bush wasn't a free-marketer, and B) free-market solutions might be preferable to regulation, a friend remarked,
A free market with the scale of imbalanced wealth we have now could not possibly lead to widespread "rags to riches" in a deregulated economy.

It's a very moderate claim, and a claim that I think represents a very broad (probably majority) view right now in America. Before I begin my response, I want to disclose my biases: my dad is a middle-middle class college professor who belongs to a country club, but has never been to Europe. My mom has always worked part time. I grew up in a mostly white suburb. I lived in the same house from the time I was born until I was 19.

I read Ayn Rand when I was 19, and was momentarily convinced. Professors (rightfully) made fun of me, so I stopped talking about Rand. Early in graduate school, egged on by an antagonistic rhetorician who would become a lawyer, I dug deeper and in the opposite direction. I read Marx's Communist Manifesto, Volume 1 of Capital, a bunch of Lenin, some other Russian anarchists, read about Fourier, read Galbraith and a little John Maynard Keynes. I also read the run-of-the-mill "contemporary" intellectual critiques of capitalism: Frederic Jameson's Postmodernism, Foucault's The Order of Things, Baudrillard, a little Zizek, etc. But unlike every-single-body-else, I also took the time to read the defenses of capitalism: Adam Smith, Carl Menger, F.A. Hayek, and capitalism's clearest exponent, Ludwig Von Mises. I glanced at Howard Zinn & Noam Chomsky, as well as Fukuyama.

The point I want to make is this: it is possible that, despite all of this reading, I have been so thoroughly propagandized from the time I was young that I cannot see how blind I am to economic realities. On the other hand, very few of my friends and colleagues in the liberal arts will admit that they might be the victims of propaganda and blindness, despite the fact that I am the only person I know who has read both Foucault and Mises. It's possible that the thesis that follows is bourgeois ideology in disguise as expertise. On the other hand, it seems to me that reading exclusively Adorno & Horkheimer, Baudrillard, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, and Chomsky might produce an imbalanced/propagandized subject. Possible?

My argument is twofold: first, a historical defense; second, a theoretical defense.

Historical: Those participating in this dialogue must understand that prosperity is relative. Evaluating current economic conditions solely against those conditions witnessed in one's lifetime is a mistake. If it is true that "things are worse" in 2009 than you remember them being in 1999, that is no ground to stand on: we must consider 1899 and 1599 and 1299, and we must seek to understand the causes of the living conditions in each of those time periods.

Fortunately, my adversaries' prophets have done much convincing on this point: Foucault made it crystal clear that the narrative of progress is a construct, and that human history is not necessarily a direct line of ascendency from the stone age of scarcity to the postmodern golden age of abundance. That is, progress isn't "natural."

Those who critique capitalism and the conditions it produces must therefore compare the current conditions to previously existing conditions. The economic system that dominated the Western world before capitalism was Feudalism (mixed with a kind of guild-syndicalism, but that's too technical). What were living conditions like during the Feudal era? First, heirarchy reigned: classes were as rigid as castes, and property (and rights) trickled down from a supposedly divinely-appointed monarch. But worse: food was scarce. Water supplies were unreliable. Disease was rampant. Life expectancy for serfs during the late medieval period did not even approach 40. Let me make one final point clear: the poorest of the poor starved to death.

Europe in 1,000 A.D. was an incredibly difficult place to live. The explicit historical question, then, is what caused the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial revolution? What caused the vast rise in prosperty that led to the arrival, finally, of the notion of the "middle class" in Europe by 1800? We have all heard the horror stories of the industrial age: 15-hour work days, child labor, iron-lung, etc. But what was the result for the poorest of the poor? They lived. In squalor, yes. But they lived, and that was a new phenomenon in history. Women's rights, slow to come, would have been (were) absolutely unimaginable in a Feudal system. The difficult factory work that gobbled up many a young-woman's teen years in the middle of the nineteenth century was horrendously difficult: but it was preferable to prostitution, which was the only choice a woman had in a Feudal system.

I will assume I need to make no remarks about Lenin, Stalin, Mao, etc.

But historical arguments are dull -- there is too much data to wade through, and there is no reason for you to be convinced by that narrative. I do not doubt that you could weave your own tale in defense of regulation. [However, I would be very interested to hear what governmental mechanisms progressives believe are responsible for the widespread rise in Western living conditions between, say 1400 and 1900, if not the expanding free-market]

As for the theoretical defense of capitalism. No, you know -- I don't have the time for that. I'll just mention that the book that I have found most convincing on this point is available for free online (because its author did not believe "intellectual property" should be copywrite-able). Read Ludwig Von Mises' Human Action when you have the curiosity. It's not even 900 pages long. If that seems an unreasonable or too-daunting undertaking, imagine how I felt at 23 wading through every page of Marx's Capital, vol. 1. Okay, okay... but at least read the ten-page introduction to Human Action.

But seriously, if you don't have the time, here's Mises' "for dummies" version: a 51-page critique of socialism that has never, to my knowledge, been challenged on theoretical grounds.

At one point in Human Action, Mises addresses the question of whether capitalism can work when it "begins" under a circumstance of inequality of wealth. Mises answers that inequality of wealth is a reflection of freedom. The point for me is that there was a VAST inequality of wealth at the outset of the American free market, which led, nevertheless, to widespread relative prosperity even among America's poorest: consider what amenities were available to America's poor in 1770 vs. what America's poor had in 1900 vs. what America's poor had in 1990. The progress may be unsatisfactory, but it seems impossible to deny that America's poor have benefitted from the system.

This'll Never Happen, but...

I would like to cordially invite anybody who is reading this to check out some books from their library -- some books that I think have been lamentably under-read*:
  1. The Open Society and its Enemies, by Karl Popper (1945)
  2. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, by Max Weber (1904-05)
  3. The Law, by Frédéric Bastiat (1850)
  4. On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill (1859)
  5. Capital, by Karl Marx (1867)
  6. History of Economic Analysis, by Joseph Schumpter (1954)
  7. Catechism of a Revolutionary, by Sergei Nechaev (1869)
  8. Theory and History, by Ludwig Von Mises (1957)
  9. Principles of Economics, by Carl Menger (1871)
  10. Individualism and Economic Order, by F.A. Hayek (1948)

I'd be happy to debrief if any of you want to talk about any of these. Most of these are available on the internet (see hyperlinks). Most of them lean in the direction of defending the free market, but Nechaev and Marx certainly don't. I've just been disappointed lately by the dialogue (both theoretical and historical) concerning economic regulation. Each of the books I've listed offers a clear epistemology, and that is something I cannot find in our contemporary discourse. If the preference is currently for regulated markets, I'm interested in what ways of knowing have led intellectuals to adopt that position.

Not just platitudes or a priori commitments to one system over another, but substantive discourse involving the debate between historical examples, on one hand, and theoretical deductions, on another. It has seemed to me that we are relying on outmoded definitions -- that modern economies defy terms like "Capitalist" and "Socialist," and in the place of that lack of reliable definitions, I am calling for a clarification of terms. For example, calling George W. Bush a "capitalist" seems wildly inaccurate and unproductive, and referring to China as a communist state allows for many, many contradictions and counter-examples ("Free Trade Zones?", Hong Kong).

I understand that new wine requires new wineskins -- maybe all of this old literature will ultimately not be helpful. But, for example, despite the fact that we aren't living in the world of Kant, a word like a priori occasionally proves useful, and that is a word contemporary intellectuals would not have access to unless they studied some Kant. I suspect that the definitions used by the writers I'm recommending may need amending -- but that discourse would be highly preferable to the one that currently exists, which effectively includes Paul Krugman on one "side," and David Brooks on the other, and a trickling goo of half-literate snipes that follow on the comments page of the Times' op-ed section.

So to put the question more directly: I just want to know why regulators believe regulation is what's needed. In other words: I understand the libertarian argument, even if I don't wholly accept it. But I don't understand the democratic-socialist argument, and feel (therefore) incapable of endorsing or rejecting it.

4.15.2009

Pick me! Ooh! Pick me!

All those who fear G-d will receive the prophet's warning, but all those who disbelief, shall be cast into terrible fire where they will neither live nor die. This doctrine, which G-d commands thee to preach, is that taught in the ancient books, the books of Abraham, and of Moses, who were faithful Muslims. --From the Koran, in translation

Last night I was reading Walt Whitman again because a student had come into my office with her head about to explode: "I can't sleep since I've read Whitman," she said. A bit ironically, I suggested she read Whitman's shorter poem, "The Sleepers." Then I read something else in my complete-Whitman, from his prose works, from a short piece titled "Thoughts Under an Oak--A Dream." Here's what I read that prompted me to post this:
Seated here in solitude I have been musing over my life--connecting events, dates, as links of a chain, neither sadly nor cheerily, but somehow, to-day here under the oak, in the rain, in an unusually matter-of-fact spirit.

And of course, participating in the words, I tried to do the same: I asked myself, how do I find myself here? Why am I reading this? A student responded to an assignment. I answered the student, but her question stuck in my head. I returned to Whitman, but found what I wasn't looking for... then responded with a question.

What chain of events leads us to read what we read? -- that is my question today. For the moment, forget experiences, places, "real-world" decisions. Just books. How do we decide what to read next? (Do we decide?)

Has anyone noticed that in its three incarnations, "my blog" (A Voyage Thither, Q-Majin, Both Wearing Black Masks) has shown noticeably little interest in the Koran, despite a pronounced interest in the holy texts of every other major world religion?

But I say in response (not defensively): I feel that I do not choose what to read next. What to read next chooses me... and the Koran is still waiting. And now, as I begin to wonder why it has waited so long (Does the Koran respect me? Fear me? Think me immature?), I see that I will need to approach it with reciprocal care. I have danced this dance hundreds of times. For example, I have approached Joyce's Ulysses unbidden more than once, only to be turned away before reaching page 50. Among the luckiest pieces of history in my reading experience was the fact that Moby-Dick never approached me until I was in my mid-twenties. If I had read it sooner, either it would have turned me out, or (possibly!) the results could have been disastrous.

There is an inevitability to all of this. Who has written the decision? Who has delivered the sentence? Who has constructed this reading list?

4.07.2009

If a Tree Grows in the Forest and Nobody...

Although I have nothing left to say, others have left bread crumbs, and I mean to continue pointing them out.
CC: "But how can one avoid the desire, the genuine desire, to help our fellow men?"

DJ: "How do you think you can help?"

CC: "By alleviating their burden. The least one can do for our fellow men is to try to change them. You yourself are involved in doing that. Aren't you?"

DJ: "No. I'm not. I don't know what to change or why to change anything in my fellow men."

CC: "What about me, DJ? Weren't you teaching me so I could change?"

DJ: "No. I'm not trying to change you. It may happen that one day you may become a man of knowlege--there's no way to know that--but that will not change you. Some day perhaps you'll be able to see men in another mode and the you'll realize that there's no way to change anything about them."


Fathom the hell completely...