3.30.2010

Passing Thought

While I was watching LOST tonight I got a sick feeling when I thought about what would happen if/when America really ever does get itself into a Civil War again... in the 19th century, you could sometimes/sorta count on people to line up across from each other and fire rifles from about 20 yards. Civil War in this century, though? No rules of engagement? Dirty playing? Yuck.

But if it does happen, I'm moving back to Michigan and fighting on Glenn Beck's side; just... for the record.

Ethics and Ontology Video

I posted a new video on my YouTube Channel. Look for me over there. You can leave comments here if you want, or there.

And start your own channels, friends. I miss seeing your, uh... "Faces."

Excerpt of Interest

From the Trimorphic Protennoia (circa 150 C.E.):
I am the first one who descended on account of my portion which remains, that is, the Spirit that (now) dwells in the soul, (but) which originated from the Water of Life and out of the immersion of the mysteries, and I spoke, I together with the Archons and Authorities. For I had gone down below their language and I spoke my mysteries to my own -- a hidden mystery -- and the bonds and eternal oblivion were nullified. And I bore fruit in them, that is, the Thought of the unchanging Aeon, and my house, and their [Father]. And I went down [to those who were mine] from the first and I [reached them and broke] the first strands that [enslaved them. Then] everyone [of those] within me shone, and I prepared [a pattern] for those ineffable Lights that are within me. Amen.

3.25.2010

New Form, Same Idea

Check out my nascent YouTube channel. Maybe this'll do the trick for me. I've only posted one video so far. Not sure if I'll do this often or seldom.

Thoughts?

3.23.2010

Mizpah, Mizpah, Mizpah...

I've been really struggling to stay engaged in the "mainstream" of contemporary political and cultural discourse for the past year or so. I can't say whether this has to do with moving to the Bible Belt, or with having a child, or whether I just have good rational reasons for my alienation. In any case, with the exception of my academic papers, which necessarily have to be acceptable to an academic audience, I'm about through with that audience.

It's not a matter of despair--this pulling away isn't the result of a frustration or anything like that. I just don't share the fundamental values of mainstream academics. Phrases like "progress" and "social justice" really are empty phantasms to me. All of the talk about ethics and moral obligation--most of it generated by French atheists--seems so much prattle and masturbation to me now.

Even in the realm of religious discourse, I have difficulty going along with the academic interpretations. We may look at Acts 4, the same text, together:
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.
But where my progressive friends see a progressive political movement there, I see an unlegislated, anarcho-libertarian groundswell of moral sentiment.

See it's not that I disagree on the ends, or even the means; I disagree on the definitions. When you say "Justice," you think in terms of tax dollars and collective enterprise and large-scale shifts in culture. I only think of having the patience to stay an extra half-hour after office hours, without complaining or resenting, because a student is running late. You think of injustice abroad; I think of it in myself. Whereas most academics take voting very seriously, as the highest kind of moral question, I'm aloof with Thoreau:
All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail.
Maybe it's not even that we disagree, but only that I'm tired of talking about it. Somewhere--I know I've read this--Socrates says something like, "A little philosophy in a man's youth is a good thing; but too much into adulthood can be a detriment." Or better still, take my friend's not-ironic-enough quote from John Locke:
Be sure not to let your son be bred up in the art and formality of disputing, either practicing it himself, or admiring it in others; unless, instead of an able man, you desire to have him an insignificant wrangler, opiniator in discourse, and priding himself in contradicting others; or which is worse, questioning everything, and thinking there is no such thing as truth to be sought, but only victory in disputing.
For Wrangler, that's funny and old-fashioned. From my view, it's crystalline wisdom. Fundamental, foundational, disagreements, everywhere I look. I guess I feel like I'll be on my way now, off to practice what I sought for so long. I wrote an aphorism once that went: "The Devil loves to talk about ethics." In an effort to avoid falling into that very trap, I'm going to clam up for a while.

I've blogged something like a thousand pages in the past six years. I have six readers to show for it. Ya'll know what I think by now.

[Leaving myself room for flex: if I do return, the content will probably be a little annoying... pictures of my baby, personal stories, reflections on my spiritual practice, announcements about my church, etc.]

My Latest Conspiracy Theory

Google "Marx" or "Communism" or "Social Justice" and you get a bunch of boring text. But just try Googling "Hayek," and this is what you get:


Distracted? Forget about sound theoretical economic principles all at once? Which one did you click? -- the link about F.A. Hayek on Wikipedia, or...

Well played, Obama. Well played.

11 Minutes of Good Audio

If you click here, you can hear a good lecture on the difference between a theory/philosophy and the reality it points toward. An important difference. The speaker is Adyashanti. The talk is called "The Welcome Mat."

3.22.2010

Resource Alert!!!

Big hat-tip to Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic. Check out C-Span's ridiculously awesome video archives (Beta), now available for screen-sucking.

Congratulations are in Order! [The Gentleman from North Carolina is recognized: "Question on a point of order--"

Well, a sincere congratulations to my pro-healthcare-bill friends. Honestly, three cheers. The truth is, I don't know enough to know how this'll turn out. Here's hoping it goes well.

Last night, I watched a new ABC series called "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution," which will air weekly for a while at 10pm on Sundays (I think). Watch it, if you have time:



The most striking part of this episode is when Jamie shows up at the local elementary school, where students are being fed "Breakfast pizza" (i.e., pizza) for breakfast and chicken nuggets for lunch, with canned gross vegetables and a mandatory two servings of "grain" (i.e., white-bread rolls). Somehow, what these lunch ladies are feeding the students is the result of government (FDA) standards. If you watch nothing else, watch the part from about 34 mins.-35:30. He says, "The American regulations are all screwed. Why would you want to give kids rice and bread? It's gonna make 'em fat."

Now, obviously, the FDA has nothing but the best intentions for us and our children, right? Also, admittedly, it's hard to whip-up a fresh stir-fry for 240 students every day. But the fact is, this is a clear clear clear clear clear clear case of a well-intentioned bureaucracy gone horribly wrong. Why is that happening in the case of school lunches? As Jamie says, children in the townships in South Africa are getting much better food than these American children, and we should be upset by that fact.

And obviously, I mean this as a guiding question with regard to our new Healthcare plans. The answer, incidentally, as it relates to the school lunch problem, has to do with an incestuous lobbying relationship between "Big Ag" and the FDA. "We produce corn!" cry the farmers, "...so put it in your school lunches," they add.

So how can we protect public subsidies for healthcare from this kind of perversity in practice?

HINT: We can't. This is the nature of bureaucracy.

Just kidding. I know these seem like the same old Casey-concerns. But now that the victory is yours, whadda think? Do we just trust in Obama's beneficence?

3.19.2010

A Great Step for Equality

I love what I've heard reported as a nefarious idea on MSNBC lately -- an idea emanating from libertarian/conservatives: on census 2010, question #9, "What is your race?," check the "Other" box and write in, "American."

First, I love this because I love civil disobedience in general, and throwing a wrench in bureaucracy is its own reward, somehow.

Second, I love this because it undermines certain government programs that I find perverse and unprincipled (most obviously, affirmative action programs).

Third, this is a very reasonable notion. I have no strong affiliation with any "race" background of my own: I think I'm a little Dutch, a little English, and a little of three or four other things, including Native American. But I don't give a shit, and I've long admired this early excerpt from Crevecoeur's 1782 text, "Letters From and American Farmer":
...whence came all these people? they are mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes. From this promiscuous breed, that race now called Americans have arisen... Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world. Americans are the western pilgrims, who are carrying along with them that great mass of arts, sciences, vigour, and industry which began long since in the east; they will finish the great circle.
Yes, whiners, it's true that "black" people and others are left out of this description. But we of the American race would be happy to have them now. In any case, I can't wait to fill out my census now. I have a cause!

"Second Life" & Transcendentalism

About two years ago, some people were convinced that by now we would all be living in "Second Life," navigating our avatars around in a virtual world. It seems not to have caught on very widely, and I'm glad, because the whole thing didn't appeal to me very much. But there was one thing about that prospect that made me hopeful:

I envisioned a sort of Second-Life mystic, a cross between Socrates and Plotinus, who would walk/float around ruining the illusion for others in the Second Life universe. "This isn't real," he would say. "What you see around you is all an illusion," and, "Your real self is so much more beautiful," and so on.

I used to think that "Second-Life Socrates" would be such an interesting study. Within Second Life, such an avatar would almost necessarily be unpopular. Nobody would want to hang around with the jerk-avatar who felt the need to remind everybody else that the world that fascinated them wasn't "real." Moreover, I thought it would be fascinating to see what kind of ethical systems were produced in Second Life, and what kinds of politics. But the one thing that stayed clear and obvious in my hypothetical scenarios was that the Second-Life Socrates would always be right. So long as he understood that he was only an avatar, he would be speaking the Truth.

And would Second-Life Socrates be accused of corrupting the youth of Second-Life? And would he eventually be convicted and sentenced, given a choice to log-off or execute a self-kill-program known as "Hemlock.exe?" Man, I'd love to be there for that.

3.18.2010

A Product of My Environment(s)

Here's the most interesting thing I've seen in at least 24 hours. Notice that my homestate, Michigan, is a veritable Jerusalem of religious confusion.
Leaving aside how they calculate and manipulate the data, I'm sort of surprised that the patterns are this striking (green swath, red swath, blue swath, light blue). But then, I'm from Michigan, where we think for ourselves. Good job, The Atlantic.

3.17.2010

Post #401

Man, if I didn't write this blog, I would love reading it.

Idaho Passes Symbolic Law

Kind of interesting story. Why do we even have states anymore? Has it always (since the Civil War?) been this much of a foregone conclusion that Federal Laws trump State Laws? I'm learning a lot about government these days. Seriously, why do we have states? Is it like Aquinas' notion of how church doctrine was fundamentally true, but "science" should be able to address anything that church doctrine did not address? The story reports,

BOISE, Idaho — Idaho took the lead in a growing, nationwide fight against health care overhaul Wednesday when its governor became the first to sign a measure requiring the state attorney general to sue the federal government if residents are forced to buy health insurance.

Similar legislation is pending in 37 other states.

Constitutional law experts say the movement is mostly symbolic because federal laws supersede those of the states.

Like, is it Constitutional for a state to secede? Why can California have pot-stands on the corner of every street in Oakland, despite the fact that federal drug laws state that pot is a schedule-1 violation?

I really don't know anymore. Am I asking questions I shouldn't ask? Weird. Honestly, do I have poorer understanding than most of you, or am I the only one who gives a shit? Does nobody give a shit? What an idea! A state full of citizens who don't give a damn. I love it.

"Deem 'N Pass?" "Slaughter Solution?" Dysphemism, anyone?

Sometimes I have this dream where I'm being pushed down a plank-like path, over a precipice. I fight and fight, doing everything I can to fight my way back toward stable ground; but at a certain point, I decide that I would rather leap off the plank than be pushed, if going that way is unavoidable. And it turns out, strangely enough, that I am saved by my own cooperation in the movement. Had I been pushed off, I discover, I would have fallen into a bottomless pit; but because I leap from the edge, I clear the pit and land in an open, if somewhat barren, new land.

So I'm not fighting for libertarian politics anymore. We're too far down this plank. Liberty is less valued than equality, and to such an extent that no reversal of valuation is possible. So I'm consciously tuning in. Hurrah for egalitarianism! Let it ride! If communism "social justice" is inevitable, why then let it come now!

To prove that I mean it, I will quote Melville in context:

Our metaphysical hero, Pierre, wanders into the woods near his home, discovering a rock formation he used to visit as a child. Under the rock, there is a nook, just big enough for an adult to slide in. He slides under, then he prays to the rock that leans over him:
"If the miseries of the undisclosable things in me, shall ever unhorse me from my manhood's seat; if to vow myself all Virtue's and all Truth's, be but to make a trembling, distrusted slave of me; if Life is to prove a burden I can not bear without ignominious cringings; if indeed our actions are all foreordained, and we are Russian serfs to Fate; if invisible devils do titter at us when we most nobly strive; if Life be a cheating dream, and virtue as unmeaning and unsequeled with any blessing as the midnight mirth of wine; if by sacrificing myself for Duty's sake, my own mother re-sacrifices me; if Duty's self be but a bugbear, and all things are allowable and unpunishable to man; -- then do thou, Mute Massiveness, fall on me! Ages thou hast waited; and if these things be thus, then wait no more; for whom better canst thou crush than him who now lies here invoking thee?"

I Like This

(...especially her etymological examination of "sophy")

80 Percent of Contestants are like Nazis

Even if you're an immoral bastard, shouldn't you know when you're in a Milgram Experiment?

3.16.2010

A Dead Whale or a Stove Boat!

I'm having much more fun looking at politics as an object than I was when I was participating in politics as a subject. One of the things that angered me last week simply fascinates me this week: namely, Obama's increasing willingness to govern against the polls. Bush did it, of course. But nobody was surprised then. With Obama, it's more of a head-scratcher.

I would've called it "antidemocratic" last week, which would certainly have elicited responses about how he is just governing in a "principled manner," and then we would've all looked like Glenn Beck (me) trying to talk to Rosie O'Donnell (that's you).

But yesterday Obama declared that "we need courage" to pass this bill. And that's true. It never takes courage to do the popular thing. Further down in my source article, Obama said (yesterday), "I don't know about the politics, but I know what's the right thing to do."

Fascinating claim, isn't it? It's a moral claim that is not based in popular opinion. What is the foundation of Obama's sense of moral obligation, then? It can't be "transcendental," can it? Honestly. I'm just asking here. I don't understand.

Now, don't get me wrong. Identifying Obama as a fascist doesn't mean I disapprove (smirk). But seriously, I don't, yet. Maybe governing against the public is the right thing to do. This seems like a real opportunity to re-theorize things like justice, and to talk about our definitions of fascism and freedom, and to go on record either being in favor of passing wildly unpopular legislation because it's the right thing to do, or being against it. But seriously--this is a difficult question. Remember that it was Stephen Douglas who believed firmly that the will of the people should be followed. Lincoln was the one who took a moral stand on the issue that divided the Union.

Here's a relevant excerpt from my dissertation, which I post without any expectation that you'll read it (my readership is at about 15 per day, so I can post dissertation excerpts without much consequence):

What are the alternatives? One method of inquiry tries to complicate our understanding in order to escape from a false binary that imagines authority (or, “fascism,” depending on definitions and perception) as wholly evil and democracy as wholly good. In Mardi as elsewhere, Melville seems at least somewhat skeptical of the virtues of democracy. The “fluent, obstreperous wight, one Znobbi” who accompanies the band of travelers for a moment in chapter 160 speaks a little too enthusiastically in defense of his island, Vivenza[1]:

“Here comes our great chief!” (Znobbi) cried. “Behold him! It was I that had a hand in making him what he is!

And so saying, he pointed out a personage no way distinguished except by the tattooing on his forehead—stars, thirty in number—and an uncommonly long spear in his hand. Freely he mingled with the crowd.

“Behold how familiar I am with him!” cried Znobbi, approaching and pitcherwise taking him by the handle of his face.

“Friend,” said the dignitary, “thy salute is peculiar, but welcome. I reverence the enlightened people of this land.”

“Mean-spirited hound!” muttered Media. “Were I him, I had impaled that audacious plebeian.”

“There’s a head chief for you, no, my fine fellow!” cried Znobbi. “Hurrah! Three cheers! Aye, aye! All kings here—all equal. Everything’s in common.”

Here, a bystander, feeling something grazing his side, looked down and perceived Znobbi’s hand in clandestine vicinity to the pouch at his girdle end.

Whereupon the crowd shouted, “A thief! A thief!” And with a loud voice the starred chief cried, “Seize him, people, and tie him to yonder tree.”

And they seized and tied him on the spot. (430)

In this scene, Melville clearly intends to problematize the dynamics of a democratic government. The short chapter ends with Babbalanja suggesting, “There’s not so much freedom here as these freemen think” (431). This Melville, the man who detected an absurd and even reckless streak in democratic government, has never been explored in any significant depth.

And Melville was conscious that his mistrust of popular governments was anything but unprecedented. In his essay on “Politics,” Emerson describes the central problem:

The philosopher, the poet, or the religious man, will of course wish to cast his vote with the democrat, for free-trade, for wide suffrage, for the abolition of legal cruelties in the penal code, and for facilitating in every manner the access of the young and the poor to the sources of wealth and power. But he can rarely accept the persons whom the so-called popular party propose to him as representatives of these liberalities. (428).

In this disdainful judgment, Emerson and Melville were together, and both men were conscious of a philosophical debt to Plato, whose hatred for democracy legendarily sprung from an unwillingness to forgive a nominally democratic Athens for the condemnation of Socrates. As Will Durant tells it, Socrates’ death “filled [Plato] with such a scorn of democracy, such a hatred of the mob, as even his aristocratic lineage and breeding had hardly engendered in him” (12). Melville, of course, knew this rough treatment firsthand: as the public clamored for more books like Typee and Omoo, his Platonic complaint against democracy may have culminated in the figure of Captain Ahab, who disowns any sympathy with democratic leadership when he soliloquizes on his “Iron Crown of Lombardy” in chapter 37 (182). In a democratic order, there is no place for the crown worn by emperors in the days of the Holy Roman Empire; likewise, democracy does not allow for the natural aristocrat, and treats greatness with no special regard. Captain Ahab, like Socrates, has been deemed impious and mad, has been a monomaniac in Ishmael’s judgment and a fascist according to most critical assessments. But Melville’s familiarity with the classical objections to democracy are brought to life through Ahab. The seemingly abstract and inconsequential debates in classical philosophy between “the One” and “the Many” are reinvigorated in Moby-Dick, and a too hasty preference for “parts and particulars” is, as Emerson said in Representative Men, one of “the twin dangers of speculation” (23).

If there are limits to sympathy—if Ishmael is understood as fallibly transcendental or optimistic, or if he is blind to a great Unity—what is to be done? The impulse of the dialectical imagination is to recoil, to find a solution in reversal: “perhaps Ahab was onto something; maybe the truth lies there!”[2] Although this is a mistake that has been made far less frequently than the reading that overlooks Ishmael’s too-simple observation of the world, it would be no less a mistake. The atmospheres of Moby-Dick will be more challenging and more invigorating for the reader who can pause somewhere between Ishmael and Ahab, who can reflect in the spaces between. The question will continue to arise in the familiar form of either/or: who is more trustworthy, more honorable: Ishmael or Ahab? For the ethical reader, however, the polarity of the question must ultimately be refused. Indeed, the moral imagination must discover itself in this between-position; the true reader of Melville can recognize Ishmael’s confused sense of self as the corollary to Ahab’s disregard for social obligation. In freeing itself from either pole, the moral imagination gains access to a variegated world of perceptions and responsibilities.



[1] Vivenza is a democracy, and is generally taken to represent America.

[2] See Toni Morrison’s “Unspeakable Things Unspoken,” for an interestingly sympathetic reading of Captain Ahab.

3.15.2010

Test Case No. 2

A bill is under consideration in New York that would make cooking with salt illegal in restaurants. The bill, proposed by Felix Ortiz (D), might be justified by an appeal to the greater good.
"In this way, consumers have more control over the amount of sodium they intake, and are given the option to exercise healthier diets and healthier lifestyles," Ortiz said, according to a Nation's Restaurant News report.

But many chefs and restaurant owners said they are tired of politicians dictating what they can serve and what people can eat. They have opposed the city's anti-sodium and anti-transfat campaigns.
Predictably, conservatives rankle.

So... how should we vote? For or against? Good or bad? Yes or no? It certainly might cut down on healthcare costs, which will soon be public costs. [I'm with Elizabeth Alexander, for the record, saying only, "What if the mightiest word is love?"]

Test Case

A speech delivered by Dostoevsky's fictional version (in Demons, 1869) of the infamous revolutionary, Sergei Nechaev:
You are called to renew the cause, which is decrepit and stinking from stagnation; keep that always before your eyes for encouragement. In the meantime your whole step is towards getting everything destroyed: both the state and its morality. We alone will remain, having destined ourselves beforehand to assume power: we shall rally the smart ones to ourselves, and ride on the backs of the fools. You should not be embarrassed by it. This generation must be re-educated to make it worthy of freedom.
Yes or no? Good or bad? For or against?

"Can you look at it, remain with it, be quiet with it?"

I'm starting to see clearly again, thank G-d. I don't know how or why I always get lured again into speaking enthusiastically about politics.

It seems to me so recently that many of my friends were telling me that violent politics are the result of too-confident a belief in social engineering. It was the Enlightenment, wasn't it, with its Hobbesian rage for order, that precipitated the Holocaust? Theories of decentralization were all the rage, and government power (whether left/Clinton or right/Bush) was looked upon with suspicion. "Let us wage war on totality" (Lyotard). That rhetoric is so fresh in my memory.

When that was what I was hearing, I was generally dissatisfied because I felt that that history was oversimple; I felt that blaming the violence of the 20th century on "modernism" was an irresponsible evasion that reflected an underlying unwillingness on the part of academics to admit their own participation in such orders as fascism (Vilfredo Pareto), nazism (Heidegger), and communism (from Fourier to Sartre). Rather than own up for the way those academic theories turned into human rights disasters, academics muddied the waters by changing the terminology. In those days, I just wanted to hear a spade called a spade. To hear someone say that Stalin's acts were brutal because they were based on brutal theory.

Now I see that I will never hear this kind of rectification of names. Because it's not about truth. It is about power, just as the Foucault-lovers admitted a decade ago. Power doesn't own up; it ducks; it dodges. The libertarian theorists are as guilty on the "right" as the now-they-call-themselves-progressives-again are on the left. No more will capitalism solve the world's problems than socialism will.

The only revolution worth discussing is inward--the only plausible utopia, inward. It is why Plato's Republic called for liberally educated philosophers, why Jesus located the kingdom of heaven within, and why The Upanishads tell you, "Thou art That." In every generation in every culture this voice remains, and it has never been responsible for anything but peace.

So anyway, I'm returning to my wheelhouse, reminded by something vast that there's nothing new under the sun. I know it's a conversation killer, but...




3.12.2010

Good TV

I'm watching the whole episode of the video below on ABC's 20/20 right now. I'll repost the entire episode here when it's available from abc.com. Good start to another (sheesh!) conversation about Mind and how we frame our conversations. Demonic possession or childhood schizophrenia? Ayahuasca, a straight jacket, or lots of Thorazine?


In related news. Man, what an interesting world to live in, huh!?

3.11.2010

Re: Philosophy of Mind, or Consciousness Studies

People like David Chalmers and Patricia Churchland have been rising in "coolness" over the past decade. They're trying to create a "philosophy of mind," or of consciousness. Chalmers is good at explaining the "easy" and "hard" problems of consciousness. Check him out, starting at about 7:30:



One of the things I don't like about the way these folks talk is their use of the collective pronoun "we" with regard to what would be consciousness-studies. Chalmers does it above. Churchland sorta does it too, in the link above. This video, featuring Patricia Chalmers' husband Paul, is summarized by whoever posted it: "This clip opens with the voice of David Chalmers describing the lack of consensus among philosophers of mind on just how we should define 'consciousness.' " [my bold] The kid below does it; listen to how he uses "We" for the first few minutes (starting when he slides into the collective pronoun at :54 seconds):



In my judgment, this kid is no joke, despite his tank-top. I've been following him for a while, clued-in by his sweet tag-name, "ThouArtThat," which is right in my wheelhouse. He's a serious thinker and an engaging speaker. But I don't like his speaking here, which presumes that it's possible for an "us" to come to know anything. I don't think consciousness should be (or can be) studied this way. Instead, I believe the only fruitful way to study consciousness is experientially--in the first person.

If this means we need to keep the subject of consciousness out of academic journals (to preserve the "scientific" angle of study), that's okay with me. The problem here is that consciousness is the great ineffable, as I understand it. To try to describe it in a Science of Mind journal isn't going to get "us" anywhere, because "we" can't study consciousness together. Only I can experience consciousness. And I should. And you, in the form of "I," should. And there, as a first person, I might experience consciousness in a way that is meaningful and insightful.

Then--following the personal experience--I may choose to try to return to the public discourse and make an effort at meaningfully describing my experience. But it must at least include the form of personal (subjective) narrative, and even then, I think, it will be circumspect at best, and misleading at worst.

Note: I think my post here provides a good foundation for a defense of the necessity of literature (or at least "narrative").

Call Me Ishmael

My day began in a class of Early American Literature, with a discussion about how important the process of cultural "canonization" can be. One student seemed to understand; she said: "so are you saying we can only remember certain things in history, and that most will be forgotten?" I asked them, "How many of you [sophomores] have heard of "The Ides of March?" Zero. None.

I explained that there was a time in history where everybody west of Turkey would've known what that phrase meant. Caesar's murder, Shakespeare's representation, etc.

So I asked, "What would ya'll put in a time capsule under the Raleigh, NC state capital building to be opened by college sophomores 200 years from now--stuff to represent your culture?"

Blank stares.

"Well, would you put in, like... movies? Music? Newspapers? Novels? What?"

"Movies, we guess."

"Okay, what movies?--something everybody's seen, maybe?"

"Yeah... like... The Notebook." "Yeah, and like, "The Hangover."

So that was my morning. Then I went to a lecture by a colleague who spent two months last summer living in and studying Jainism in the village of Shravanabelagola, India. In that village of 10,000 people, every morning begins with an auction to see who gets to pour holy liquids (milks, waters, perfumes, etc.) on the feet of the giant statue of a Jain saint. Then they do a little work at market. Later in the afternoon, almost every day, they have a sort of parade, complete with marching brass band and naked monks, etc.

During the lecture, it occurred to me that we have no culture. Oh, sure, there are cultural relics that each individually could serve perfectly as a collective object of group-energy: various good songs, drum circles, football, whatever. But nothing that pervades our culture. This is what I have meant lately by "we." There is no agreement in this country about what should go in our time capsules, and that is clear evidence that we do not share a culture. We do not all begin the day with any prayers. We do not all read The New York Times. We do not all eat organic food. There's nothing we all do.

I'm thinking this is simply a function of living in a country of 300,000,000 people who mostly don't identify by "village," and increasingly not even by state. But what is it to be an American? Who the hell knows?

I long for tribal affiliation. For meaningful group identity.

3.10.2010

Gross National Happiness, Revisited

Here's a relevant link re: our conversation below about motivations other than self-interest (or involving alternative kinds of self-interest, anyway):

This week's "Buddhist Geeks Podcast" is about Bhutan's national policy, which is based on "Gross National Happiness." I've reported on this before, but not in like four or five years. Whacko-awesome idea, huh? Here's the episode description:
Richard Brown–a long time Buddhist and contemplative educator–joins us to share some of the details from his recent involvement in helping the small Buddhist country of Bhutan reform their public education system. Bhutan, which since the early 70’s has had as its main goal to increase Gross National Happiness, wants to create an education system that pulls the best from the West. The main principles they’re holding with this reform, include Contemplation, a Holistic approach, Sustainability, Cultural Integrity, and Critical Intellect. Their aim is to educate their populace in such a way that they’re prepared for the onslaught of some of the more negative aspects of modernity–including the barrage of information and gross commercialization.

Richard was a core part of a recent 5-day workshop aimed at starting to plan the reform of their education system. Richard shares many of the details from that workshop, and shares some of the amazing steps that Bhutan has already taken, as a result, to foster the happiness and well-being of their countries inhabitants.
If you only have a minute, listen to minutes 5-6 in the podcast to get a feel for this alternative model of motivation.

Accepting All, Rejecting None

"Produce great persons, the rest follows." --Uncle Walt W.
I'm trying to get my hands on an article published in 1969 titled "The New Socialist Man" by one Thoedore Hsi-En Chen. I got a reallyreally interesting glimpse of something yesterday thanks to the Pure_Sophist_Monster's recent post. I think that the idea of the "New Man" is being surreptitiously smuggled back into public discourse. The idea, as it last manifested (in terms of socialism), argues that human nature is fundamentally changeable, and that, consequently, our systems do not need to adjust to us, but rather, we need to adjust ourselves to fit the system. Or, more clearly, in the words of Thoedore Hsi-En Chen,
While the more realistic and pragmatic Communists recognize the need for material incentives to stimulate the public cooperation, the ideologues argue that the new man should be educated in such a way that he will not expect personal benefits but will find reward in the increase of production, the fulfillment of state plans, and the success of the proletarian revolution. If socialism does not work, according to the ideologues, it is not because the system is not good, but because human nature has not been changed to conform with the new system. Instead of modifying the system, it is more important to change man.
Undoubtedly, we may substitute for "socialism" whatever form of government we want. PSM's complaint was that the letter accompanying the census form appealed to base self-interest (tho' in the guise of communitarian rhetoric) to motivate a positive response. His view is that human nature need not be self-interested--that if only "we" (who?--the enlightened ones?) teach them other ways of performing selfhood, they might be new men, with new principles, new ideas, and new values.

I do accept that there are motivations that are not based in self-interest, but I don't believe the government can enlist us on behalf of those motivations (love, personal loyalty, etc.) because those motivations flourish only in the freedom of choice. If the government wants me to fill out my census form, it better offer me something tangible.

So what's everybody think? -- is human nature infinitely flexible, plastic, malleable, whatever? Can we remake the next generation not in our own image but rather in the image necessary for a better society? If our system is unfixable, can we fix each other instead?

If it was ever fair to call me the Platonist, it's not anymore. I'm very skeptical that we can willfully change human nature in any profitable or meaningful or sustainable way--and, indeed, I think any effort along such lines is dangerous, destructive of its own proclaimed ends, and hopelessly romantic. But I'm probably misrepresenting PSM's view? Comments?

3.09.2010

Three Year Re-Birth Day

Without apologies to my readers, I'd like to mention that this is the three year anniversary (March 9) of the day something profound happened to me psychologically/spiritually. Call it "recovery," salvation, enlightenment, re-birth, raised Kundalini, a nervous breakup, or whatever.

To quickly rehash what you would've seen if you had watched over my shoulder that week: On Tuesday night I couldn't sleep because of a thunderstorm. I ate a small dinner Tuesday before the sleepless night. Wednesday I didn't eat or sleep (neighbors upstairs were partying and pissing off the balcony). Thursday I ate a handful of almonds and went to the bowling alley and freaked out, followed a light-in-the-sky machine to the grand opening of a Kroger and wandered around until I told an employee there, profoundly, "I think I'm... LOST." I didn't sleep that night either (I lay perfectly still on my back in bed all night as I remember it, looking at a star out the window that I took to be the star that received the soul of the Pharoahs). By Friday morning, though I was strung out from not sleeping and eating, I resolved to drive home to Michigan with my then-fiancee without letting her drive. In negotiating that madness, I demanded that my future-wife speak to me only using the collective pronoun "We," avoiding the use of "You" and "I," which I could not distinguish at the time. I made it 4 hrs. and 15 minutes into the five hour drive before I pulled over and told her I could go no further. [note: I added it all up once: I went 84 hours without sleep and with probably 3o calories, without "trying" to do so.]

That night, at dinner with my family, I "knew" that it was to be my last supper -- that I would die that night, sleeping in my brother's old bedroom, when the oak tree in the front yard fell on the house. But during dinner, I could sense that my brother, mother, and father were just somehow sharing a single personality, and I simply watched it hop back and forth from one body to another. After dinner I told my mom I was "hearing voices, sort of," and told my dad I had been smoking pot a lot and everything seemed... "inside out, or something." They responded seriously, as I remember it, but I can't recall their words. Then I watched a show about pomegranates, tucked my wife in to my old bedroom (my parents weren't letting us sleep together in their house until we were married), and went to my brother's bedroom, prepared to die. And I fell asleep. In the morning on March 10th, I confessed a few sins, walked a few miles with my dad, inquiring along the way about all of his family members. I felt like I had a new body.

And I've been perfectly unperturbed since then by anything wild or preternatural or even bizarre. Thank G-d.

Passing Thought

I can NOT believe I haven't seen a political cartoon yet featuring Obama as Ahab and the whale as healthcare reform.

Equal Justice Under the Relevant and Applicable Subsection of the Law

Here's what it says atop "our" [note: I'm no longer using collective pronouns unselfconsciously.] nation's Supreme Court building:

The phrase strikes me as hollow rhetoric, and I'm curious whether it always had that ring. The phrase has its own Wikipedia page, featuring an oration by Pericles and a citation of the supposed modern origin of the quote (an 1891 case, Caldwell v. Texas).

The Wikipedia page on "Equal Justice Under Law" links to the Wikipedia page on the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. That article begins (March 9, 2010, 9:45am):
The Fourteenth Amendment (Amendment XIV) to the United States Constitution, as well as the Thirteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, was adopted after the Civil War as one of the Reconstruction Amendments on July 9, 1868.Your mom is gay. [bold added for emphasis]
So I don't know how reliable all of this is. But really, the 14th Amendment is sort of built around the due process clause, I'm learning. Due Process requires that the government must respect all of the legal rights that are owed to a person according to the law.

And maybe this is the root of the problem for me. There seemed to be, in the past, an assumption that this principle of due process was important because there was one law, and it should be applicable to everybody. As one of those pages mentions, this stuff about Due Process and Equal Justice Under Law was the foundation for the important Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case.

But it seems to me that now, "Law" (especially Federal) is willing to divide and subdivide itself, so that different categories of people are governed by different sub-laws. The tax-code is the most obvious offender here, requiring different obligations of citizens based on arbitrary legal divisions. So the phrase "Equal Justice Under Law," at least with regard to taxes, has become an absurd notion, hasn't it?

3.08.2010

Discuss

Always the same. The deliberate consciousness of Americans so fair and smooth-spoken, and the under-consciousness so devilish. Destroy! destroy! destroy! hums the under-consciousness. Love and produce! Love and produce! cackles the upper consciousness. And the world hears only the Love-and- produce cackle. Refuses to hear the hum of destruction under- neath. Until such time as it will have to hear.

The American has got to destroy. It is his destiny. It is his destiny to destroy the whole corpus of the white psyche, the white consciousness. And he's got to do it secretly. As the growing of a dragon-fly inside a chrysalis or cocoon destroys the larva grub, secretly.

Though many a dragon-fly never gets out of the chrysalis case: dies inside. As America might.
--From D.H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature (1923)

3.07.2010

The Experience Project, Again

Man, I've been suckin' way too hard on my lollipop lately. Sorry I couldn't see it myself! Thanks for participating in unsticking me. It looks like it's going to be a perennial temptation for me, getting so involved in playing at political discourse that I start to actually believe something about it.

I'm much closer to my white hot center again after a long weekend in Charleston, SC. That's good for me, but it means I have nothing very interesting to say. You're all doing fine. Keep encouraging those who agree with you, and making fun of or discrediting those who are lamentable. It's all for something, I'm almost sure!

I did have one passing thought this weekend--sort of just caught a glimpse of it. It was when I woke up in a hotel room to my wife saying, "I just finished dreaming that you were lying right there and you woke me up and said, 'look,' and pointed to a copperhead snake at the end of the bed. And you said, 'It slept all night in my pillow and I didn't even know it.' And you weren't really afraid of it at all." And then me saying back to my wife, honestly, "Holy crap. I dreamed of a copperhead last night too. In my dream,..."

And it seems we weren't alone.

3.04.2010

On Hitting the Reset Button

I know I've been writing too long lately (blame my new laptop!), so I'd like to put it all more simply now:

What do you think would make for a better government, if you were allowed to make three major changes?:
A. What we have now, but with three major changes (Choose your own 1, 2, and 3).

B. What we had in 1790, but with three major changes (1. End slavery 2. extend the vote to all citizens over age eighteen 3. Pass a civil rights act)
I anticipate I'll be alone in choosing B, and I can probably anticipate the arguments: "Things are too complicated today for a Bill-of-Rights+3 kind of government," and "That Constitution was written in the context of an agrarian society," and so on. But I've read the Constitution, and the Federalist (and anti-Federalist) papers, and it has always seemed to me that those guys were writing not for an immediate historical context, but on the basis of principles of Justice. I would be exuberant if we could hit the reset button on this government, with a few minor changes.

3.03.2010

Prophecy & Rant

You probably heard that President Obama got the high-end "virtual colonoscopy" recently during his annual physical. Chances are, most of us schleps will have to get the old fashioned colonoscopy, depending on what Kathleen Sibelius decides.

But if you're one of those mentally challenged people who believes that government intervention tends to make things better, I'd like to hear from you. I'm convinced--completely convinced--that I'm an almost unique freak of history because I can walk into a room full of people watching MSNBC or a room full of people listening to Rush Limbaugh, and in either case give everybody in the room a sympathetic listen. So I'm convinced that 100% of people, including even my smart friends, the ones whom I respect and who read my blog occasionally, are reading only one side of this discourse regarding healthcare. I just don't believe that any of you are listening to three hours of Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck or my personal favorite, local personality Tara Servatius (listen live from 3-6pm to WBT-Charlotte 1110 am) to offset your ingestion of the pills that the New York Times is doling out.

Why am I convinced? Because I don't believe that an intelligent person listening to both sides of this public debate can really believe that the common good is best served by introducing a public option embedded in a 2,079 page bill. I'm convinced that most of you have heard the emotional appeals, but not made the effort to think about the rational objections. It's like being on a sinking ship and wanting to save everybody, despite the fact that there is only one rescue boat. It is precisely like that. Because resources are limited. There is only one best cardiologist in the country, so there will obviously be rationing of that cardiologist, and of every other best specialist in the country.

So how should we ration? The market rations by giving those with the most money the best access to the best care. Who gets the best care under a government program? Kathleen Sibelius decides, we know that. Based on what? Nobody knows right now. Did you think the ridiculous order of things as we see them now were produced by markets?--impossible. HMOs alone, which account for a huge chunk of the current problem (ask anyone how they feel about their HMO) were created by Teddy Kennedy and his pals. But what's the solution for bad government intervention? A little bit more, a little bit more...

But, lest you cling to your superstition and give up on me, I offer the bright side: I forsee one very positive and (in the government's view, "unforseeable," I'm sure) side-effect of centralizing healthcare, and that is that there will arise an increasingly reputable kind of alternative medicine for which individuals may voluntarily pay at their own discretion. So look for your local Ayurvedic "healer" to grow in the public's esteem over the next few decades. When you're 77 and Kathleen Sibelius decides that the taxpayers can't afford to cover the cost of your palliative care, it'll be to the local medicine man you go... but if I'm right, you'll be better off there than you would at (G-d save me from this fate!) a government hospice.

Anyway, leaving the positive side for one more moment, I'm dead serious: I want to hear a theoretical defense of the kind of government we're now living with. I want to hear someone use the word "Justice" while describing the declared right of the IRS to seize money that I earn in my job to give it to the woman I saw in line in front of me at the local gas station who was buying a case of beer with her cash and groceries with her food stamps. And please: try to tell me that this is just anecdotal evidence. Try that.

My gloves are off. I believe I've made the case that there are multiple cultures in this country, and I do not feel an ethical responsibility to support a culture of irresponsibility, poor lawn-care, and grocery-laziness. And I'll go further and say I'm willing to defend this not as a manic tirade, but as a reasonable position within a discourse on political economics. Give this shit a rest, Brother Von Mises:
The plight of Western civilization consists precisely in the fact that serious people can resort to such syllogistic artifices without encountering sharp rebuke. There are only two explanations open. Either these self-styled welfare economists are themselves not aware of the logical inadmissibility of their reasoning; or they have chosen this mode of arguing purposely in order to find shelter for their fallacies behind a work which is intended beforehand to disarm all opponents. In each case their own acts condemn them.

3.02.2010

Tolerating Both Bigoted Intolerance and Utter Absurdity

Oh Lord I want to be in that number, when the saints go marchin' in... --Luther Presley
I'm using the quotes here to provide me with a theme. Read them carefully. I just finished watching LOST--the episode where Sayid kills Dogen (know about the historical Dogen, if you don't!) and marches off with "evil incarnate," the smoke-monster as John Locke. I was texting with a friend: "Would you go with Locke-monster?" My friend replied, "Don't trust the rhetoric--go with him!" And I heartily agreed. And as they all walked away from the temple, apparently followers of pure evil, that good ol' folk tune came to mind: "Oh Lord I want to be in that number, when the saints go marching in...."

What's going on here? What's this about the saints? And where do you get off, Casey, associating smoke-monster Locke with anything but actual, real evil?

Part 1

When I was a kid, my parents told me that what was good enough for other kids wasn't good enough for me. I was to manage higher expectations, and to hold myself to higher standards. It was not a democratic view--I see that clearly now. It was a world view that privileged me, and the people I love, over those who were unfamiliar, unknown, or altogether different. I was to be a city on a hill.

By sixth grade or so, public re-education had begun to try to get me away from that kind of thinking: value everyone equally, that ideology said. And later: values are all relative--it's not that you're not better than everyone else; it's just that "better" and "worse" are meaningless terms. I was instructed to understand that what was most important was maintaining an uncompromisingly democratic view of things, in every respect.
"Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword." --Matthew 10:34
Part 2

A political body cannot exist without sharing significant metaphysical assumptions about the nature of reality. And the reality is, this has always been America's fatal flaw. A nation united by anti-British sentiment could not stay united in the absence of that common foe. The opposition to tyranny has proven too muddled a concept to serve as an anchor. For her, tyranny is the voice ridiculing gay marriage and protesting at abortion clinics. For him, tyranny consists of incomprehensible tax codes and unequal justice under the law. If--when--America founders, it will be a result of faction.

The question for academics is this: what does not count, in your judgment, as legitimate intellectual discourse? As early as the 1650s, Roger Williams was writing "Against the Bloody Tenet of Persecution for Cause of Conscience." But it seems we are approaching (or have "we" passed it long ago?) a moment when we do not share a sense of conscience. The churches are ideological training camps, certainly. But the halls of academia are no less ideological now.

Here is an object for consideration: a new LQBTQIA center on the campus of a public university. From the perspective of (some) Christianity, the idea is a farcical waste of funds at best. From the ideological perspective of most academics, however, the notion is perfectly mainstream, and possibly necessary. (Some) Christians cannot seriously consider the idea of such a center as a legitimate part of any education experience, and are angered by the fact that their taxes are being used to propagate such drivel. (Most) Academics, especially in the liberal arts curricula, cannot seriously consider any argument opposing such a center, and will (rightfully, from this perspective) ignore any opposition rhetoric as bigoted and hateful.

"We," as it were, are no longer sharing a culture, or any foundation. If--IF--issues like this one could be resolved by way of rational discourse, they would have been resolved long ago. But,
What's the reason, Mr. Hawthorne, that in the last stages of metaphysics a fellow always falls to swearing so? --Herman Melville
Part 3

If it were as easy as drawing lines according to skin color or declared religious affiliation or academic credentials, we might simply cordially divorce ourselves from each other. But for better or worse, we have black Christians who vigorously oppose abortion; we have credentialed academics who take Ayn Rand seriously, and all kinds of religious folks who welcome LGBTQIAs. So:
Fuck Jesse Jackon 'cause it ain't about race now. --professional "rapper," The Game
But one thing is clear: each separate culture in this divided, post-union, America understands the other side in terms of moral and ethical evil. And there is no arbiter. No one to intercede on either side's behalf...


...Thank G-d!

Seriously:

Grrrrrrr. You're all wrong. About almost everything. But you don't realize it, because almost everybody agrees with you.