8.31.2009

Coincidentally...

Multiple Choice Quiz:

1. Who said this?: "It is I who am the light which is above them all. It is I who am the All. From Me did the All come forth, and unto Me did the All extend. Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find Me there."

A. Jesus
B. Walt Whitman

2. Who said this?: "You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, but I shall be good health to you nevertheless, and filter and fibre your blood. Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you."

A. Jesus
B. Walt Whitman

But, really, I mean -- c'mon. That's pretty interesting, no? Especially since Jesus didn't really say that until 1945 (after Walt), when the Nag Hammadi text of the Gospel of Thomas was discovered.

For a long time, my favorite line in "Song of Myself" has been this one: "The prostitute draggles her shawl, her bonnent bobs on her tipsy and pimpled neck." It's my favorite because it demonstrates so precisely that principle of perception I have called "the ethics of seeing." No one could write that line who has not looked closely, without shame or judgment, at just such a prostitute.

Remember yourself as a child, visiting the big city. You looked that closely, at the beggars, the prostitutes... but if you were like me, your Roman American parents urged you not to stare, to mind your own business, etc.

I acknowledge that there does seem to be an ethics of doing. It would be nice to support legislation meant to assist that permanent underclass of prostitutes and pimps, beggars, etc. But I think there exists an "under-ethics," a kind of structural foundation to the whole game, that often goes unremarked (as, perhaps, it must). It does not require action; indeed, we might say it requires a lack of action, if the action of moralizing and judgment may be considered action. Simply the looking. Is it testable?: can I write one line of poetry evincing half the sympathy that manifests in Walt's line about the draggling prostitute?

It may be that a government can coerce certain kinds of apparently-ethical behaviors. But I am still convinced that the kingdom of heaven is within, and no government can touch (or remedy) that. The end of the Bush era was a welcome change. But I am still wary of the moralist who speaks confidently of the next reform bill in Congress, still tempted to mutter, "Reform thyself."

Charity Endureth All Things

I think I know only two other people who have read Herman Melville's The Confidence Man, and one of them was my dissertation advisor. And it's probably a good thing, if what Simon Critchley said in today's NY Times is even remotely true: "There is a theological core to money based on an act of faith, of belief. One can even speak of a sort of monetary civil religion or currency patriotism." Critchley's essay is a really clear description of the situation (or "problem," as Melville might've had it).

But Critchley takes an explicitly cynical view of money:
Plato defines a “simulacrum” as something that materializes an absence, an image for something that doesn’t exist in reality, for example the god Poseidon or Bob the Builder. Such is money, in my view.
It's good that anyone is asking the question, what is money? -- but I'm not sure Critchley gets the answer right. In his view, money is effectively smoke & mirrors, and it acts to keep us from realizing that there is a giant void holding society together. (Incidentally, I think it's generally true that those on the political left in America imagine money as a simulacrum, whereas those on the political right sense that money is somehow "actual" or "real.")

That could be true, of course -- but it could also be true that the value of money is a real reflection of a fundamentally human kind of interpersonal trust: it could be that money is a real indicator of the social compact. To say that it has no real value is simply to refuse to participate in the social compact.

Maybe we are reaching that point in history (2012 approaches), but if we are going to walk away from the idea of civilization, I'd rather we do it consciously, directly, and intentionally -- not as a lack of interest in the idea of civilization, but as a purposeful endorsement of barbarism. Do we want to let the next quarter's "consumer confidence index" determine when we should stop pledging allegiance?

I wonder if the veil of the temple was woven out of money.

Critchley says later in the essay, "Money is our metaphysics. In that God we trust."

8.27.2009

After Reading Krugman and Ferguson

The question, it seems to me, is whether economics is "political" or not.

That is, is the distribution of scarce resources bound to laws of reality like the falling object is bound to laws of physics? Or, is economics a cultural/political subject that can be shaped any way we like.

If economics is like physics, Ferguson is right, and we're screwed.

If economics is like cultural studies, Krugman's right, and, with some deft movin' and shakin', we'll be good as new soon.

I know what I suspect--that Ferguson is right; but I don't know if what I suspect is correct, because if Krugman is correct, then what I suspect is just a function of my cultural biases.

Fascinating.

Postscript: you probably know Krugman. He's always on with Stephanouosuosplous on Sunday morning and has an influential column in the NY Times. If you don't know Ferguson, you really should. He's the "conservative" to Krugman's liberal, but he really is a serious intellectual. As far as "ethos" goes, this is a draw.

PPS: If you haven't watched PBS's documentary, The Ascent of Money, hosted by Ferguson, you've missed out:


UPDATE: read more from the Freakonomics blog. Anybody know enough about "deflation" to convince me that Krugman's view isn't insane? Rising interest rates means, in Krugman's interpretation, that "fears of deflation" are diminishing.

Deflation: an increase in the real value of money.

Worth the time...

ALERT: Don't skip this post! There's a big important fight happening and we academics should know about it, regardless of which sides we take after learning the basic layout of the debate.

Clash of the Titans.

Who is correct? Who is more persuasive?

Platonic Fragment (Imitation)

Lou Whittaker and Alan Trammell played 2nd-base and shortstop for the Detroit Tigers throughout the 1980s. Here's a conversation between a human being and a Rhetorican on that topic:
Human: So who should get into the Hall of Fame, Whittaker or Trammell?
Rhetorician: I say Sweet Lou Whittaker should get in.
Human: Why?
Rhetorican: Well, I read two articles--one favoring Whittaker and one favoring Trammell--and the one favoring Whittaker was written by a writer with what I judged to be a superior ethos; that article also used some empirical evidence that stands up to some scrutiny; and, well, I've got Whittaker's autograph and he was nice to me when he signed the baseball.
Human [pauses, then]: You think Whittaker's kindness qualifies him for the Hall?
Rhetorician: you asked who I thought should get in, so--
Human: No I didn't. I asked who should get in. Do you think kindness should be a quality of Hall of Famers?
Rhetorician: Well, no. But--
Human: So being kind doesn't really qualify Whittaker to get into the Hall, even if he's kinder than Trammell? You don't think the Hall of Fame should accept players on the basis of which among them has been kindest to you?
Rhetorician: I guess not.
Human: Then that leaves your other two claims, concerning ethos and logos.
Rhetorician: Well--
Human: So let's take the claim about ethos. You said that the first article was written by a writer you judged to have a superior ethos.
Rhetorician: Right.
Human: Well that begs the question: what defines a superior ethos for you?
Rhetorician: ???
... [then later, after that question has been satisfactorily answered]...
Human: And as for "empirical evidence that can stand up to some scrutiny"--well, I read both articles you're talking about, and they both did that.
Rhetorician: Yeah but I judged the first one to do it better.
Human: Well I judged the second one to do it better. Which one of us is right?
Rhetorician: You don't mean to seriously say that you thought the first article offered better empirical evidence?
Human: I do mean to say that.
Rhetorician: Even though nine out of ten dentists agree with me?
Human: Yeah, despite that.
Rhetorician: ???
So these are my last two questions, I guess: How does the Rhetorician account for his standards, if not by (perhaps secretly) appealing to personal/egoistic interest? You can't look at two opinions and say, "Well, I thought opinion A did better with ethos, logos, and pathos" and expect that to settle the matter. Someone else will certainly judge differently than you.

And: if it is (as I suspect) personal/egoistic interest that determines your standards, then certainly your judgments are colored by the same interest.

So if you're for universal healthcare, I can just assume that's because you think it'll be better for you--even if you say you think it'll be better for me too.

8.26.2009

Doubt

I don't know, though. I might be wrong. I'm really feeling like that right now. I'm probably wrong. I don't know.

I mean, I just pray hope that if I'm wrong about some abstract idea or way of thinking, it hasn't translated into personal immorality or interpersonal injustices or something.

Conclusion

...because if the rhetorician's job is to persuade, what I want to know is how the rhetorician decides which side she will defend, and which side she will oppose. [I am very suspicious here that the rhetorician decides based on nothing other than keeping herself empowered. A motivation that might be described, generously, as amoral.]

A rhetorician may speak of ethics, for example, but on what basis does a rhetorician stake out a position on ethics?

Interlude II (on Plato's Gorgias)

In the Gorgias, Socrates gets Gorgias to admit that "persuasion is the chief end of [the art of] Rhetoric."

Is that acceptable to contemporary rhetoricians? Or would that be a "No?"

This post will be deleted after I get a few qualified comments.

Interlude (on Plato's Ion)

Please name one or more "influences" that, at some point in your past, had you under their spell -- and from which, in the time since, you have freed yourself.

For example:
  • When I was 17-years old, I loved an inspirational fiction writer called Og Mandino. Haven't read him in fourteen years.
  • When I was 21-years old, I read everything Ayn Rand ever wrote. Haven't read her since I was 22.
And so on. I want to know if I'm the only one who goes through these kinds of infatuations-then-detachments.

Update on the Plato Project

The Good News: we've come to some understanding. My friend Wrangler (his patience unmatched) has finally understood my claims about Plato to a point that I'm satisfied. He doesn't agree, but he understands. My claim was that Plato was much more "mystical" than we tend to imagine in the 21st century rubs Wrangler the wrong way, and that's a very reasonable point of disagreement. In fact, I'm wondering if he's right.

Here's a graph of the view that (I think) Wrangler holds:
So, in this image, we see mysticism as the bottom level and rationality as the top level. For Wrangler (correct me if I'm wrong), these two labels are opposing and mutually exclusive, and Plato represents a departure from the mysticism of his predecessor Parmenides and the "Neoplatonist" Plotinus.

In the bottom right, I have a "wider" view of history suggesting that (possibly?) there's a constant up and down between these two ways of thinking.

Obviously, like any graph, this one leaves a lot of data out (where do the Sophists fit?). But I hope it's a fair and accurate description of Wrangler's view of that time in history. It'll be with this graph in mind, and in an effort to figure out whether this graph is a reflection of reality/history, that I'm heading out to read (under Wrangler's advisement) Plato's dialogue, The Ion.

Wrangler's Plato is writing against irrationality, mysticism, and poetry -- and I'm going to see if that's the Plato I find in The Ion. If it is, I'll have to reconsider the Plato I think I'm seeing in The Republic. I'll report back.

8.25.2009

What Philosophy Was (Supplemental)

In and around ancient Greece, there was a cave in almost every city that was supposed to be a portal to the underworld. A recent History Channel program alluded to early 20th century Inns that used to claim "George Washington Slept Here" as a loose equivalent. To overcome the fear of death, brave souls would undertake a kind of shamanic ritual in these caves. Guided by the village Iatromantis (a shamanic/priest-like figure), the underworld tourist would lie in the cave for three days on his back without moving. Socrates, Plato, Cicero, Parmenides -- all of them participated in this ritualized "death" ceremony (Parmenides probably was an Iatromantis). Click here to watch the History Channel episode dealing with Hades -- in particular, watch the part from 9:30--12:00 minutes. Or read one of Peter Kingsley's books.

I'll grant that this isn't what "Philosophy" is in 2009, but it seems rather important to understand that that is what Philosophy was in the ancient world. If the idea of dying for three days and then being resurrected sounds familiar, well... yeah. But also, yeah. Please take the time to read that second link, the one referring to a poem by Hafiz.

Well, again: I'm happy to forfeit the terminology -- I understand that "capital in the institutional realm in which we live" revolves to a certain extent around a "safer" (i.e., more toothless, less mystical) definition of Philosophy.

But if you want to understand correctly what it was that the famous classical Philosophers were proposing as an alternative to Rhetoric--if you want to have a correct understanding of the historical context of the Platonic dialogues--you have to understand this more complicated definition. As the History Channel suggests, those who went to the caves were effectively part of a "cult," and would have held little resemblance to most contemporary professional Philosophy professors. The easiest distinction to make is to argue, as I have before, that it's hard to imagine a contemporary Philosophy professor dying for his convictions concerning Derrida. But Empedocles, Socrates, and others were willing to go that route for their convictions. If you imagine a person like Socrates as a silly old man who just liked to talk and bicker, I think you're badly misreading Plato.

The "Truth" that seems so out of vogue to most contemporary academics was nothing less than the experience that one underwent in those caves. It was not a silly and oversimple imaginary idea that was unconnected to the actually-existing world, but a vivid (and incommunicable) intellectual/spiritual actuality. It was very likely in these caves that Parmenides first perceived the "Oneness" that obsessed him, that Socrates first conceived of "the Good," and so on. To argue against those experiences from the perspective of one who has not "visited the underworld" may earn a person tenure, but it does not diminish the lasting influence of Wisdom or Truth in the actually-existing world.

But thanks for playing!

8.24.2009

What is a Philosopher?

Another Facebook comment has me ragin'. A professor of Rhetoric, in an effort at wit, posts:
Plato Said, I Say

Let's agree that philosophic natures always love the sort of learning that makes clear to them some feature of the being that always is and does not wander around between coming to be and decaying. (485a-b)

Me: No.

Then another professor of Rhetoric laughed, and another supported the laugh. I understand (because I know him) the point that my professor-friend meant to make by posting the excerpt: he means to suggest that he actually prefers the kind of learning that wanders around between coming to be and decaying. A point that would have been absolutely fine in Socrates' view.

Nevertheless, professor of Rhetoric #3 berates Socrates for being a tyrant of ideas: "Why was Plato (as Socrates) always commanding agreement on the very subject that should be debated? Silly toga wearing fool."

Here's my Facebook reply:
He's not commanding agreement; he's simply defining a term. You're free to NOT be a "philosophic nature" (indeed, I'd suggest labeling yourselves as "Rhetoricians," or "rhetorical natures"), but you can't deny that there IS a certain group of people who "always love [that kind of learning]..."

Is it just that you're unwilling to relinquish the label because ya'll consider yourselves to be "philosophic natures?" I don't think that would trouble Socrates... it's not the words that are important, but the distinction between the two groups.

All he's asking is that you agree that there exists a group of people who like to learn about the unchanging being. He's not "commanding" that you sign up.


But, to say "No" (and to "ha," and call Socrates a fool) is not witty in this case -- it's just poor reading. Either that or you're willingly denying the existence of a group of "others" who think differently than you.
This is so clear to me that I can't even envision an attempt at refutation. What I expect is either a long-winded defense that ultimately avoids the point, or some further efforts at wittiness, aimed at disguising the fact that three professors of rhetoric have badly missed the point of a fairly straightforward passage from The Republic! I expect anything but, "Oh yeah, I guess we read that wrong."

In case my necessarily shortened Facebook message was unclear, the point in this passage from Socrates is precisely to get a working definition of a term. It's a very very unobjectionable definition, and that's why Glaucon agrees to it. Best I can tell, the problem here lies in a residual affiliation with the term "philosophy" that these rhetoric professors must harbor: they consider themselves "philosophic natures," and so they cannot conceive of that category as Plato describes it.

But fuck the language here. Let us all agree that one group of people (Group P) always love the sort of learning that makes clear to them some feature of the being that always is and does not wander around between coming to be and decaying, while another group does not (Group R). Then, if you're interested, Socrates and Glaucon are going to continue discussing the group of people that does love that sort of learning (Group P) and the stuff they love learning about.

Let me put this another way because I want it to be really really clear:

Imagine two groups of kindergarten children: Group P and Group R. Now the teacher introduces a certain subject X. Group P grasps the subject, while Group R does not. The teacher gives Group R something else to work on, subject Z. It doesn't mean that Group R is "dumber," or "less able," or "mentally handicapped," or anything like that. It only means that, on this ONE subject X, Group P has a better handle of the material. To be generous: it's very possible that Group R comes to understand subject Z better than those in Group P. Possible.

Now then, imagine Group R getting together at recess and saying, "there's no such thing as subject X!" Well I couldn't blame the kids -- egos are fragile, after all.

***

I guess I'm a little sorry about my tone. But the distinction is so important that it's worth fighting for. Philosophers (in the original meaning of the term, as something separate from Rhetoricians) do something that Rhetoricians don't do. Certainly, vice versa: Rhetoricians are probably sometimes much better than Philosophers at studying the kind of learning that wanders around between coming to be and decaying -- I'll concede that.

I suspect one more point as being part of the misunderstanding here: contemporary academic philosophy is a kind of learning that is somewhat diffuse, difficult to describe, but that does still carry the label "Philosophy," for better or worse (apparently for worse). But please don't take it for granted that what happens in a Philosophy department in 2009 is the same as what happened in the Academy in 385 B.C.E. just because the name hasn't changed. If you have not studied the unchanging and "unwandering" aspect of Being with great care and some success, you are not -- at least, according to Socrates' definition -- a philosophic nature. It doesn't mean you're a bad person or a worse person than any given philosopher. You're just different. And that's okay. And they're different from you. Which ought to also be okay.

You Shall Know the Truth, and the Truth Shall... give you bronchitis?

"Crooked activities of body, speech and mind, and wrangling lead to the influx of bad physique‑determining karma." --from chapter 6 of the Jainist scripture known as the Tattvartha Sutra
In the original printing of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Whitman's name did not appear in the prefatory material--was not on the title page. In its place, this now famous portrait appeared:

It was a genius move. Whitman consciously refused dualism throughout his career, understanding that the mind is the body. In an effort to solidify his only thesis, Whitman showed himself standing comfortable, content, his undershirt showing, his beard untrimmed, his face un-posed. It was the outward expression of an uncomplicated inner-being. The famous portrait might be most effectively contrasted with any of the great portraits of Napolean, always awkwardly straining to look otherwise than natural.

There are two fundamental ways of making sense of this difference, two contrasting interpretations of the difference that I believe reveal one of those perennial splits in academia. One way of accounting for the difference between Whitman's "stance" and Napolean's (which I'm using as representative) is to argue that Whitman's is truer, is more natural, is almost objectively more noble than Napolean's. To hold this view, one must believe that Whitman's posture is self-evidently an improvement on Napolean's--or, in other words, that Napolean's carriage was affected, whereas Whitman's was not.

The second view is a view that I expect would be at least as popular (probably more popular) among contemporary academics: that is the notion that both posturings are equally staged, equally performative, equally affected.

It is the first view that I wish to defend, and the second view that I take as being representative of a larger way of thinking that is currently practiced most deftly by those who identify themselves as "rhetoricians."

But it is difficult to defend the self-evident, of course. I can point only to facts like these: I see far more people on the street standing like Whitman than like Napolean. Or, when I stand like Whitman I feel comfortable and steady, whereas when I stage myself like Napolean my back hurts and I feel awkard.

So, instead of defending, I will attack.

One interesting starting note: when two who hold the view of equanimity (the rhetoricians) gather they will find themselves in comfortable agreement over the most important point. One rhetorician will say to the other, "Well, where I come from, Whitman's stance is probably more comfortable, but there's no truth of posture, so--" and the other will nod in agreement. Once this point has been established, all kinds of interesting points can be made to justify all kinds of different postures--including their own.

The one difficulty that continually presents itself to the rhetoricians occurs when one who is not a rhetorician interjects, saying, "I disagree; I believe there is a true posture, though I struggle to know it and achieve it myself."

It's the second part of this comment that's most damaging. If the interjector were to have suggested that he believed in true posture and that his posture was true posture, the rhetoricians might have easily argued that that's too convenient to be true. But in the admission of imperfection, the non-dualist forces the rhetorician into further self-examination.

What motivation would a rhetorician have to say (and even believe) that the Whitman-posture and the Napolean-posture are co-equal? [Hint: ...including their own.]

---

Let me make a diagonally-related point by way of an imaginary dialog:
Non-Dualist: The Yogic postures are correct and true.
Rhetorician: Well, as a rhetorician, I believe that truth is how you frame it.
Non-Dualist: May I ask a question about that?
Rhetorician: Sure.
Non-Dualist: Have you learned the Yogic postures? Have you practised them?
Rhetorician: There is no more truth to the Yogic postures than to my posture.
Non-Dualist: Wow, that seems like a good way to end a conversation that might not have gone your way...
Rhetorician: Precisely.
Non-Dualist: [shrugs, gives up.]
The point here is that when a rhetorician is confronted with facts that argue for the truth of one position over another, the rhetorican--rather than engaging the conversation at the level of comparative analysis--can always fall back on the line that "there is no truth," and their jobs will never be in danger as long as they remember that. But I worry about their physique-determining karma. :)

8.21.2009

Re: Economics and "the Public Option"

A friend of a friend suggested he might be interested in reading a summary of my reasons against the Obama healthcare plan (numinous tho' it be at this point) -- I'll focus on the "public option" point, which seems to be the centerpiece.

I hope it won't be perceived as a fancy/sneaky/insincere rhetorical gesture if I start with a concession: universal healthcare is the most moral thing to do. That's an important point to make, because I gather from my friend-of-a-friend that he wishes to see morality brought to the forefront in this public debate. So, with one minor hesitation--[having to do with our granting moral agency to the state]--I concede as explicitly as possible that it would be a morally superior state that could supply all of its citizens with healthcare.

One more prefatory point: I don't really expect this short blog post to be convincing, in part because of the moral issue... people on either side are deeply entrenched, and are unlikely to be persuaded by reading a lowly blog post.

Interlude: if this were a semester-long course, I'd start with 8 weeks of this kind of thing.

However. My argument rests on positioning what I will call "economic reality" against morality -- if you go away from this post feeling that tension (even if you go away still disagreeing with me) -- I'll be very satisfied. I define economic reality as a situation in which resources are limited, or scarce. So, I mean to show that healthcare is a scarce resource (like air conditioning or hot dogs or almost anything else) and that the scarcity limits the state's moral agency.

Tonight I went to see District 9 at the movie theater. A large popcorn was $7.00. I declined to purchase.

Now, it's true that buttery popcorn is a scarce resource, but it feels like it's not that scarce. But I'm guessing that most people supporting a public option in healthcare would not support a public option at movie theaters... (right?)... because: those who support the public option deem healthcare far more important than popcorn. Same principle, but moral valuation creates a different policy outlook.

Is there a downside to legislating these kinds of moral valuations? For example, I think it's very important for people to feed their children healthy foods in moderate amounts: to what extent should the government be involved in what we feed our children?--more or less than what the FDA does? To me, these are murky decisions. I have plenty of friends who are 27-years old and single and who would certainly prefer to have healthcare to having no healthcare, but they might prefer to have a Lexus to healthcare.

This is a summary of a pretty typical conservative objection. But I think I have a better one:

Imagine two healthcare providers: one public (A) and one private (B). Both providers have certain costs (drugs, employees, electricity bills, etc.). To meet those costs, Company B, the private company, must charge certain amounts of money to turn a profit--if they don't, they go out of business. This means there's a sort of "natural" price for many of the services provided by the private company. On the other hand, the public provider need not turn a real profit: it can always draw from the tax collector's pocket (or "raise revenues" as the Obama administration's best rhetoricians like to say). But this leads to an important point: the public company need not really compete with the private company: it can simply set prices at whatever level it wants. Indeed, some "health czar" will eventually have to decide just how competitive they want this public provider to be: if they it to provide the same services as the private provider for half the costs to the consumer, they can do that. If they want the public provider to offer the same services as the private provider at one tenth of the costs to the consumer, they can do that. There is no limit (other than tax-payer resentment, which I expect will become very real if the public option becomes law) to the ability of the public provider to meet consumer needs. In other words: it's not really competing, it's undercutting.

One more point: there's a very very deep-set "liberal" myth -- a myth set so deep that most progressives genuinely don't believe they're speaking myth when they describe it. The myth is that the Bush administration produced policies that would've pleased the most dog-eat-dog amoral capitalist of the late 19th century. So you hear things like this: "The economy collapsed because the Bush administration undid some important government protections... we need Obama to put those protections back in to fix the economy."

In reality, Bush's government was all-kinds-of interventionist. To say that healthcare was a field existing in a laissez-faire market at any time in the past forty years is fundamentally either uninformed or disingenuous. In economic reality, "big healthcare" companies have been lobbying congress and have been rewarded in kind for decades. As a result, there is very little competition -- the barriers to entering the market are such that no private company that is not already a "big dog" could ever make a dent in the sector.

Picture the Leaning Tower of Pisa. That was healthcare in 1950. Now picture a long wooden beam supporting Pisa on one side. Now picture a rope tied to the other side. Now picture an "add-on" giving it extra height... height that throws the balance out of whack again, requiring further wooden support beams and more ropes... picture the Leaning Tower of Pisa turning into a tower of Babylon by this repeated process: each adjustment the government makes is, in its way, "necessary" -- and each makes the whole structure more unstable.

So these are some basic parables that try to describe some basic laws of economic reality: a prose essay on supply and demand might be more or less convincing. My favorite books on the topic include Ludwig Von Mises' Human Action, Joseph Schumpeter's Principles of Economics, and F.A. Hayek's Individualism and Economic order.

But back to my starting point--morality. Two thoughts to conclude: 1) it would certainly be more moral for the government to provide all of its citizens with Toyota Priuses and solar panels for rooftops and 5-bedroom houses, but (obviously) the cost is prohibitive. It's possible that we're not in that situation with healthcare... maybe we can afford it. But I'm waiting to be convinced.

And 2) -- a point I've saved for last because its doomed to be least convincing: liberals love to talk about their government being moral on their behalf. Should you get moral points for paying tax-dollars which go on to fund public healthcare and aid programs in Africa? It is my view that a moral perspective must precede a political order, rather than being embedded in it. The difference between the collapse of the soviet union and the hypothetical collapse of the United States will not be a matter of economic policy, but rather, will be a reflection of a lack of genuine interpersonal sympathies that had previously formed the basis for the social contract. To put it romantically: if the union does not exist in our hearts, it cannot be made to exist by political methods.

Sorry about the length -- I'll be very happy to read counterpoints, though I imagine this is (as I suggested at the outset) one of those issues where people are relatively entrenched in their ideologies.

8.20.2009

The Houseboat Summit

I know that it's unusual/eccentric to be able to absolutely delight in an audio file lasting almost an hour and a half. But if you're up for it, check out "The Houseboat Summit," a recording of Alan Watts hosting Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, and Gary Snyder on his legendary houseboat in 1967.


It's interesting how Gary Snyder never speaks unless Alan Watts makes him. Where is the houseboat of my generation, and why haven't I been invited yet?

8.17.2009

Breaking the Lens, or, Refusing the Gaze

I went to climb the big dune in northwest Michigan last week; here's the one picture I took (well, my wife took) with my camera before I dropped it. The last camera I dropped and broke was on the Great Wall of China. It's funny how two of the most inexpressibly awesome places I've ever been tried to stop me from taking their picture:

So, no more video blogging until I can afford a new camera, I guess... donations?

8.16.2009

Being the Lens, or, Meeting the Gaze

Imagine the director/photographer of this scene telling all of the actors to take their places, then saying, "Now, look into the camera; imagine that a _______ kind-of-person just walked in."

I don't know if this version of this picture is big enough to get the feel. If it's not, click here.

Now for a moment look past the obvious intentionally-staged look of the background. Fill in the blank quoted above the picture. In the blank, I would say something like "serious," maybe, or "well-dressed stranger with dark eyebrows." Can I be that? Can I imagine myself in the place of the camera lens? Certainly the people in this picture would not look at the normal/actual me in this way -- the me who's wearing scrubs and no t-shirt and hasn't shaved in three days. So who would I have to be to get that look from those people? My theory is that an author can create this kind of gaze at the reader, but that the reader has to be imaginatively-worthy of meeting the gaze to make the magic happen. And please don't take that worthiness for granted. I know for sure that there are certain gazes that I'm not able or qualified to meet.

This kind of imaginative scene-entry is what I mean to describe when I talk about experiential reading. Maybe I'll figure out a way to "theorize" this in an interesting way some day.

8.04.2009

Image

Here is a pitcher of water with a filter built in. You are standing over a sink, and the pitcher is under a thin and gentle stream of water falling from the faucet. The image begins with the unfiltered water resevoir almost full, and it ends when you -- the viewer -- recognize that the stream of water going in will not be enough to keep the water level steady at "full," and that even if the stream of water going in was enough to keep the water level steady, that would serve no practical purpose, because eventually the pitcher will fill up and will begin to overflow. And the image ends with you shutting the faucet off, and waiting for the water in the resevoir to trickle through the filter.

Sounds True to Me

This is from W.C. Harris 2005 book, E Pluribus Unum: Nineteenth-Century American Literature and the Constitutional Paradox...
This is the crux of the post-theological crisis: in order to describe the world, you must have precisely the kind of authority that gets lost when theology ceases to be a basis. It is just as incumbent on a secular as on a religious account to come up with some ground upon which to argue value, some authority for narrating the world in a particular way.