Category Archives: Freedom

Crisis Update for Summer of 2017

It is going on two years ago that I posted here about my emergency heart surgery and my brush with my own mortality in the late summer of 2015. Since then I’ve physically recovered better than would have been expected in most ways, but in all honesty I’m still struggling to find the new, post-operation “normal” in my life. Over the past year in particular I’ve been facing various forms of existential crises that in some ways have been more difficult for me than the heart surgery recovery itself. This was crystalized for me in the realization this spring that in 2016 I was actually conned out of more money than I was able to earn during the course of the year!

I’m not talking about paying more for little treats for myself than what I should have paid; I’m talking about being tricked into paying for something essentially useless, that quite literally cost me significantly more than my year’s salary. This has led to some significant stress handling difficulties for me, and it has forced me to re-evaluate the direction of what’s left of my life. For those who have been tracking on my life and ideas here –– friends, family, regular readers and those who are otherwise in the habit of praying for me –– as I did following the surgery a couple years ago, I feel I should explain this in a bit more detail.

For 18 years now –– basically the last third of my life –– my primary employer has been the City of Espoo’s municipal board of education. I got into the business of being a school teacher two years before that, teaching philosophy at an adult high school, and based on recommendations by friends and colleagues who were impressed with my work, Espoo’s Etelä Tapiolan lukio (South Tapiola High School) hired me to teach the  same subject area.


My primary subjects to start with there were philosophy and religious education, and in addition to those I was asked to teach psychology as well. Working with the basic background I had in the subject from my studies in theology, and with a bit of help from my friends, I managed to teach myself enough of that subject to bluff my way through teaching it to teenagers fairly well also. In my second year at Etelä Tapiola they started offering a modified international version of the British secondary school diploma system, as designed by Cambridge University, known as the AICE Programme. Within that system I began teaching sociology as an “AS-level” examination subject. That soon became one of the school’s most popular courses, and I found it very interesting and rewarding to teach it. The following year I was asked to start teaching the required “value subjects” –– religious education and ethics –– at the middle school level, in the English-speaking classes at Pohjois Tapiolan yläaste (North Tapiola Middle School): the primary “feeder school” for the English-speaking line at Etelä Tapiola at the time. This line at “Pohjis” eventually evolved into what is now Espoo International School. I had some reservations about that part of the work to start with –– the idea of trying to get 13-16-year-olds to take religious education seriously, which many of them clearly saw as the academic subject they were required to take which had the least relevance to life as they know it, did not sound like a particularly rewarding career path –– but I ended up making myself quite at home in that aspect of my career as well.

This career opened up for me, I have to admit, not just because I was good at it, but because really no one else wanted it. I can count on the fingers of one hand, without using my thumb, the total number of native English-speaking people in the world who are qualified to teach religious education in Finland, and there are actually many good reasons for that. In fact the biggest challenge I faced over the course of my first seven years teaching in Espoo was my epic struggle to become officially qualified to do the work that I was doing! That is obviously a very long and very painful story that I won’t go into just now. In any case, to start with I was brought in to teach in a program that was being phased out, without any clear indication of what sort of program would follow for those studying in English to get university entrance qualifications through in Espoo’s public school system. Over the course of my career these systems have frequently been in flux, but somehow I’ve managed to keep going with them for a remarkably long time by Espoo standards.

My passion for this work, across all of the subjects that I have taught, has been for getting teenagers engaged in discussions about the very meaning of life: what counts as truth; what counts as “normal”;  what sorts of goals are worth working towards; why should we bother with various sorts of expectations we are faced with; what kinds of things all people should theoretically be entitled to, just because they are people; and how we can constructively relate to those who come from entirely different religious, cultural and ideological backgrounds. Especially while I was struggling for official qualification in the field I wasn’t making much money at this, but I received strong feedback that I was making a difference for some of these kids, and helping all of them to think more carefully about what they were doing with their lives. And then when my sons, who went to an entirely different school in the next city, started to get a bit of extra recognition within their extended peer networks for having a father who was recognized as a rather cool teacher, that made up for a lot of the grief I had to deal with along the way.

But as my sons became adults another major shift happened in my career: Etelä Tapiolan lukio switched over from its improvised combination Finnish-British system to being part of the de facto mainstream in English-speaking international secondary education: it became an International Baccalaureate school. This was helpful for the school in many ways, but one of the side effects was that the subjects that I was most passionate about teaching no longer fit into the school’s curriculum. I could no longer teach philosophy, psychology, sociology or higher level religious education: I was asked to take up the IB “Theory of Knowledge” class, and to do middle school student guidance counselling to fill the gap in my hours and keep me on staff, but these weren’t where my heart was at. Finally, for the 2011-12 school year, I decided to take a sabbatical break, which I spent in Cape Town, South Africa, not really sure if I would be coming back to Espoo from there or not.

I didn’t find any way to permanently settle in there in Cape Town though, and I didn’t find any other alternative employment right away, so in the fall of 2012 I did return to Espoo International school, now as only a part-time teacher of middle school religious education and ethics. The salary for this actually turned out to be less than my sabbatical pay had been, but I had no childcare, alimony or mortgage payments to make any more, so I decided I would just tighten my belt and live with it. To keep myself out of trouble I applied to start working on my PhD at the University of Helsinki and I was accepted directly into that program for the next spring semester. Things looked pretty tolerable at that point.

I won’t go into any details about how things at the middle school have deteriorated for me since then, or how my extended sick leave for emergency heart surgery figured into the big picture. Suffice to say, my salary has progressively decreased, the workplace stress has progressively increased, and the feeling of making a positive difference in those young lives has largely faded away for me. Gradually I came to realize that my long-term unemployed friends here actually, quite literally, have a higher economic standard of living than I do. And then, as frosting on the cake for this stage of burn-out, came the realization that a loan I had arranged, to help some working men in western Kenya start a business providing safe drinking water for people in their region –– for a sum significantly more than what my 2016 salary turned out to be –– was money that I would never see again!

The bulk of that money had gone into buying what was supposed to be a top-of-the-line borehole drilling machine, which in spite of all the hype associated with it, turned out to be an essentially useless piece of equipment in the area where it was intended to be put to use. I have since come to the conclusion that those selling these machines are among the lowest level of con artists.

VD basic

I will follow up in a later blog with more details of the con I fell for here, giving more specific warnings to keep others from falling for the same. For now I will simply tell you that machine I was conned into helping my Kenyan friends buy is called The Village Drill (abbreviated hereafter as VD), designed and marketed by a group of Mormon engineers from Utah operating under the generically religious sounding corporate name of WHOlives. I was referred to these people by a former clergyman, who now self-identifies as a “serial entrepreneur” and a “motivational speaker.” That in itself should have set off all sorts of warning lights for me, but I mistakenly believed that I could trust the integrity of this individual I knew from 2/3 of my life ago regardless of his “career shifts.” That has turned out to be the most expensive mistake of my life thus far. When a man who has been through multiple divorces tells you that something else has been his most expensive mistake in life, that should tell you something!

The VD –– in the words of one established expert in the field I have since been talking to –– is essentially “a beefed up version of manual rotary jetting with a little more capacity to drill through clay and soft/weathered rock”. The third column of the chart below indicates what such a machine is best suited for:

In short, there is nothing particularly revolutionary about this machine. It is not at all suited for the sort of geographical conditions found in the area north of the west end of Kenya’s Rift Valley, it is priced at roughly ten times what a diesel or electric powered drill of comparable size and weight goes for, with lower penetrating capabilities than such motorized machines (from which it borrows its basic drilling technology), it has significant maintenance problems, and for all that it comes with no warranty and with seriously deficient customer support.

Consequently the only customers that WHOlives has had for the VD thus far –– according to a report they managed to slip into a peer-reviewed engineering journal last year –– have been “either non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or wealthy individuals in the developed world who donated them for use in developing communities.” In other words they have been trying to go after people with deep enough pockets where they can afford to lose money; and if the poor people of Africa end up not getting as much as promised in the process, “at least they tried.” Of course this report leaves out mention of at least one Kenyan start-up, funded with a loan arranged by a rather gullible school teacher from Finland, but in that regard I will be in touch with the journal in question to suggest corrections and retractions later.

So now what do I do? I’m trying to try to avoid getting too cynical about this mess. My Kenyan connections made their own significant mistakes in this process, but they tried very hard to get this massively overpriced sub-optimal piece of Mormon engineering to work and I really can’t want to blame them for failing at it. I was the one to blame for the biggest mistake in the process: suggesting the damned VD system to begin with! But be that as it may, as things now stand I need to dig myself out of this hole before I can do anything else in Kenya regarding which local people there can say “hakuna matata” when I lose more money. In other words I won’t be able to travel to Kenya this year to further work with pastoral training programs and I won’t be able to make any personal donations to keeping the school lunch program that I helped initiate there running. This grieves me significantly, but there are times that I have to accept that –– largely because of mistakes I have made in terms of misjudging who I can trust –– certain things are just beyond my control.

And part of the problem that losing more than a year’s pay draws my attention to is that I cannot continue on with a career that has such a low level of pay to draw from. Things have come dangerously close to the old adage, “I pretend to work and they pretend to pay me,” being literally true. As one of my cleverer students pointed out in her final exam essay this spring, the primary difference between an employee and a slave is that the employee has the functional possibility of quitting an unsuitable job. I now need to see if I do indeed qualify as an employee in this regard, and if it turns out that I am thought of as a slave, I need to try to find a way to escape!

Under the circumstances I am quite willing to do any honest form of work for which an employer would be ready to take on a man of my age, with my particular set of linguistic and academic abilities, in the sort of health I am in, even if they don’t pay an entirely livable wage for such work. I am not proud or squeamish at this point. But one thing I am not willing to do is continue teaching middle school lessons 2-3 hours per day, every day of the week, to the exclusion of any other occupation, for less than a subsistence wage. And at this point there is no reason for me to expect that the middle school’s administration values my work enough to make the adjustments necessary to keep me working there voluntarily. This is now a matter of mutual understanding between myself and the principal there. So effectively that means that, while I am officially on vacation at the moment, in practice I am unemployed already. I honestly have no idea where my next salary is coming from, and when.

The principal of Etelä Tapiolan lukio, has been kind enough to nominally keep me on staff there to co-teach a class one hour a week, just to keep my foot in the door, so to speak, so I can stay in my employee housing for the time being, but I am very seriously looking whatever work I can find at this point. At the same time of course I am trying to double down on finishing my doctoral studies, however much easier said than done that may be under the circumstances.

Overall though I have to admit, I’m perhaps now more than ever in the position of Kris Kristofferson’s most famous lyric: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Though I am a US citizen by birth, I am also a naturalized citizen of a civilized country that actually believes in human rights –– that provides basic health care to all citizens and won’t let me freeze or starve to death, or die for lack of the basic prescription medicines I’m now on, because of my lack of capacity to pay. Beyond that I really don’t own anything that creditors would find it worthwhile to repossess. So in effect I’m confident at least that things really can’t get any worse for me. All I really stand to lose is time –– time during which, under other circumstances, I might have been able to do more good in the world rather than struggling with the uncertainties of my basic subsistence.

Even so, at least for now, life goes on. It remains to be seen where this freedom will lead me, but I’m sure I’ll find out soon enough. For those of you in the habit of praying, please remember to mention me as you do so.




Leave a comment

Filed under Education, Freedom, Purpose, Time

Shoveling… it

I had an ironically beautiful day on Saturday with a bunch of my more religious friends. A friend from church has a hobby farm of sorts, leaning towards the basic ideals of more “sustainable living” and all, but him being about my age, in part due to the aches and pains that come with the aging process, he has been unable to keep up with all of the different spring cleaning issues that have to be dealt with there. As he has done a number of random favors for many of us, and as he has the sort of warm smile that everyone likes to help bring out, the church arranged for about 20 of us to spend the day at his place helping out with some basic chores.

evans farm view

Much of the work I did was, together with others, (carefully) moving old logs and scrap wood around into new piles, burning off some of it, and scything down the weeds that had been growing around where the old wood piles were. Eventually though it came time for me to join the proud teams doing the “real work”: cleaning out the mostly composted sheep manure, thoroughly intermingled with the sheep’s straw bedding, which in a few different sections of the barns and sheds had built up over the course of a couple of years to about waist-high. It had got to the point where that job couldn’t be procrastinated any further because the animals were starting to bang their heads on the ceiling rafters!

By the time I picked up the pitchfork and started to help break up and remove this mass of …it, there was already a strong sense of gung-ho teamwork going among the guys who had spent the whole morning on that task. In fact there were two teams not so subtly trying to out-do each other in the poop scooping process. One team was using a fleet of wheelbarrows; the other, an old trailer of the sort my car can pull. Each team had a de facto self-appointed leader who was barking out instructions. (I was thankful to join into this particular task late especially so as not to slip into that sort of role!) And the leaders were each trying to psych up their teams over how they were doing better than those on the other side.

evans manure dump

Without going into any more personal detail regarding the social dynamics of the day than that, it was just fascinating to watch as religious people got more and more excited and competitive about their capacities to shovel… it.

As this was just a one day gig, with no particular pay or bonuses or long-term status factors riding on it, and as it therefore required a certain sort of odd sense of humor and non-standard set of motivational strategies to get the job done, it seemed that these guys were letting their most primitive competitive instincts, and at the same time their most basic male bonding instincts, run rather wild. I admit, this invites all sorts of comparison with what we religious people tend to do together and why under more “normal” circumstances as well, but I’ll leave that to the reader to contemplate.

In any case, this experience also brought to mind my discussions last week with my cousin in the agriculture industry, who in spite of being an otherwise very decent and respectable sort of guy, has happened to drift into the circles of rural white working class Trump supporters. Suffice to say, he’s spent his life surrounded by more manure than most people can imagine, both literally and figuratively, to the point where he seems to have lost his sensitivity to both. In some ways I can deeply respect him for that very reason, and I feel it would be rather crude and insensitive for me to even try to get him out of all that …it, but on the other hand I hope I can enable him to see the difference between it and non-it again, especially when it comes to the way …it piles up in politics.

Anyway, one huge part of the political mentality my dear cousin is part of is to say that socialism is wrong because it takes away the sense of satisfaction that people get by accomplishing things and thus earning things for themselves.  Or in my cousin’s own words, “Do you not feel better about achieving your own success on your own watch, rather than getting something just because you have a hot breath? I am free to fail and free to succeed every day. That is the beauty of this country.”

When I replied to that by saying that I don’t feel better about achieving things on “my own watch” rather than getting things as a matter of right because I happen to be a living, breathing human being, it seems that my cousin and I hit something of a cultural disconnect. I don’t think he was able to relate to what I was saying. But then watching, and taking part in, all of the …it shoveling on Saturday brought his perspectives to mind again, both in terms of the motivation/reward structure for work and in terms of the pride of accomplishment side of things. So I thought it might be worth writing something here to see if I can bring in some sense of mutual understanding on these issues.

Evans workers

One of the biggest questions in politics and economics is, how can you convince people to work together with each other for the common good – so that everyone comes out better through their cooperation with each other? There are two extremes which we can say really don’t work. One extreme is to split up all proceeds of every joint effort even-Steven, which then, in order to motivate people to do their fair share, requires finding ways to seriously threaten and punish those who don’t do what they’re told. At the other extreme we have radical competition where those who compete most ruthlessly and aggressively can hoard as much of the benefits of the system as they can grab for themselves, leaving both the lazy and those who are simply playing along and taking part on a basic level hurting, with little or nothing to show for it. The former is the risk involved in politics going too far to the left; the latter, when politics drift too far to the right.

Right-wing politicians tend to try to threaten people, like my cousin, with the idea that if those damned “leftists” take charge it will lead to a loss of choice in how much of what sort of work each person has to do. The argument goes that if people are otherwise guaranteed enough to get by on safely, the only way to get them to work harder and cooperate with others in general will be to beat them over the head with various things or throw them in jail if they don’t follow the rules set by some abstract, far away authority figures who are not to be trusted. Beyond that there are those lower class individuals who are not to be trusted because rather than working together with everyone else they’d probably just like to glean the benefits of the system without contributing anything. So we need to find ways of keeping them on a particularly short leash. Let’s just say that in terms of constructing pictures of Marxist monsters and lazy sleaze balls to scare people into voting for them, right-wing populists have proven themselves capable of shoveling an impressive amount of …it.

Left-wing politicians have been far less effective, particularly in the United States, at constructing a fear of imaginary “bad hombres” on the other side. The basic narrative is that those who get to a certain point of privilege — whether or not they got there by playing fair (and usually they haven’t got there by playing fair) — tend to lose track of how the cooperation has to work in practice among those down there picking up the poop with the pitchforks. In order to keep these characters at the top economically from becoming fat, lazy, disconnected and abusive, they need to be required to stay in contact with those on the lower end of society, and to give something back to the others, whose own hard work made their success possible, as well as to those who haven’t been able to properly participate in societal production systems (yet). Part of the government’s basic job is to keep people working together, and that requires keeping those bastards at the top from isolating themselves too far from the rest of society. The true bad guys, according to this narrative, are those who, once they are at the top, refuse to care about or have anything to do with those they “defeated” in the process of getting there. This type of …it can be piled just as high as the right-wing sort, but we haven’t seen that done in quite a while; in US politics probably not since the time of George McGovern.

Between these extremes though there is a broad range of ideological and practical alternatives to consider in terms of how to get the necessary piles of …it properly moved about: how can we positively motivate people to pick up the pitchforks, and how to negatively motivate them in terms of how much of their basic safety and well-being can/should be made contingent on the amount of …it they get shoveled? My cousin’s mileage may differ on these matters, but I strongly believe that in keeping with basic human dignity people should not threatened into shoveling …it, either as the consequence of extreme left or extreme right wing political structures. Human innovation and cooperation have progressed to the point where we can make enough for everyone to live relatively safely and securely, so there isn’t any valid reason to let people and/or their children suffer and die if they can’t prove that they’ve shoveled their fair share of …it.

How do we pay to keep people taken care of? That part can be negotiated, but the important thing is to remember that money is nothing but a complicated set of human agreements by which we find ways of continuing to work together. If monetary systems cease to serve that purpose, they inevitably collapse. So if we want to keep any particular kind of money worth anything, we have to make sure that it serves as a functional, responsible means of distributing the fruits of our collective labors, and that would include demonstrating a collective respect for the human dignity of other people in general. The rest is details.

evans grill

In terms of positive motivations, there’s a lot to be said for allowing people to compete with each other if that’s what they’re into. There’s also a lot to be said for giving people who accomplish more than others extra rewards in terms of finer food or nicer stuff to show off to their friends if they’re so inclined. That being said, going back to the example of our little pitchfork party on Saturday, the lunch, dinner and sauna time afterwards were available to everyone, regardless of how much of …it they forked out of the sheds as we went. Things could have been arranged in such a way that only those who had moved more than X number of barrow loads of …it would be entitled to the finer pieces of meat on the grill, or the nicer cakes for desert, or whatever. It could be argued that such a distribution system would have felt better and would have been more encouraging for those who got the most work done, and would have ensured that they would do an even better job next time. I would disagree. I think it just would have reduced the satisfaction we all experienced in working together and knowing we were doing something good for a dear friend. I don’t think the bratwurst and fruit salad would have tasted any better to me if they would have been a special prize for the amount of …it I shoveled, and frankly I think that those who would have wanted that sort of prize system are probably just a bit childish in that respect.

Evans house

I realize that there’s a difference between professional efforts and weekend volunteer work, but in terms of how we are motivated overall — and in terms of where, if anywhere, threats should figure into the process – I think this is more of a difference in degree rather than a difference in type. The political and economic structure which best enables freedom, which brings out the best in workers, and which most enables people to trust each other in working together is not likely to be the one which has the biggest stick to beat people with if they don’t do as they are told. How masters can get the most mechanical labor out of their slaves for the least investment is a different question, but shifting the form of the question in that direction should in itself show that there is something wrong with that form of thinking. Would you agree, Cuz?


Anyway, this also sort of brings me to the matter that, when it comes to this blog, I haven’t really bothered to shovel much …it here in the past couple years – maybe in part because no one pays me for it, maybe because I’m not so sure how much good my shoveling efforts here do for anyone, maybe because of the limits of my own capacities for shoveling such these days. Whatever the case, once in a while it feels good to get a barrow load or two of …it out into the blogosphere for everyone else to be able to enjoy the smell together with me. If anyone has anything to say about how it might be more effectively shifted or spread around, I’d be happy to hear from you.

1 Comment

Filed under Economics, Freedom, Human Rights, Philosophy, Politics

Charlie and the Martyr Factory

Like most people in the western world, prior to this past week I had never heard of the publication Charlie Hebdo. Had someone shown it to me last month I probably would have thought of it as nothing more than a further example of poor taste in European humor; one low water mark among many. This week, however, the name became synonymous with martyrdom for freedom of speech; of the pen being more fearsome than the sub-machine gun. Given my occupational disease as a philosophy teacher of over-analyzing everything, I can’t help but think there must be a lesson in there somewhere. Let’s see if I can tease one out.

The word martyr is more than a little overused these days, especially in relation to (both sides of) conflicts involving Muslims. Some emotionally disturbed individuals who have been brainwashed into believing that they are worth more dead than alive have made a cliché out of strapping all kinds of explosives to their bodies and attempting to end the lives of as many “infidels” or “bad guys” as possible together with their own. Others have made a point of made a point of attacking those loosely defined as “the enemy” in seemingly senseless, reactionary ways, which actually serve an important strategic purpose of drawing irate counter-attacks from the enemy, which in turn kill a fair number of innocent women, children and everyday workers going about their business. These “collateral damage” victims then can be elevated to the status of “martyrs” as well, as a means of recruiting new fighters to the reactionary cause. Others set out to establish as strong a media presence for themselves with their hatemongering towards the other side as possible, so that if they have the fortune (good or bad being a question of perspective) to get killed for their stated views, their voices will be all the more amplified.

In this sort of cynical economy of martyrdom, it is frankly rather amazing that some Muslim activists still don’t get it. The global political arena being what it is, making martyrs of those who critique your position is the worst possible sort of strategic blunder one can make. Killing off those who mock you and try to make you look stupid only reinforces the message that you deserve such mockery and derision. If your primary strategic asset is a store of “martyrs” that you can use as means of recruiting new hot-blooded reactionaries –– who in turn can quickly destroy themselves and become new “martyrs” for the cause, enabling you to recruit still more young militants –– the last thing you want to do is make martyrs out of your opponents. It is thus merely a matter of common sense that, tasteless as some of the cartoons in question may have been, “responsible voices” throughout the Muslim world have joined the western media consensus in crying out against this past week’s killings in Paris. Then the fact that the attackers also took the life of a honorable Muslim French police officer in the process of martyring cartoonists and publishers just adds insult to injury.

Martyrs don’t have to be perfect people. Some of the most iconic martyrs of the last generation have been deeply flawed individuals in many aspects of their personal lives and their strategic judgment. The core issue, however, is that they stood for something that their enemies found deeply threatening, and they refused to back off on the matter even though they knew some people might try to kill them for it. On this basis ideological opponents can no longer belittle the significance of the deaths of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Stephen Biko, Anna Politkovskaya or even the Kennedy brothers by pointing out their human failings; the best they can do is try to co-opt and pervert the essence of what these heroic people stood for and were willing to die for.

Suicide cases are more ambiguous. It was harder to make a case for considering Bobby Sands and the other IRA gunmen who starved themselves to death in British prisons in the 1980s worthy of the title of “martyr”. Those who have burned themselves to death in public as a means of making their various political points have perhaps been more effective in terms of their deaths bringing others into the fight. Suicide bombers… well, their primary effectiveness is in terms of making their enemies afraid of their insanity rather than inspiring respect for their dignity and courage among their comrades. It takes a pretty desperate or confused mind to call that martyrdom. Sadly there seem to be quite a few such desperate and confused minds out there.

But if there’s a point to all this it’s that people can more readily relate to the victims than to the aggressors, and if you want to win the battle for hearts and minds, you can’t do that by trying to violently stomp out the opposition. The best you can hope to accomplish with any form of violent action is to prevent violent aggressors on the other side from attacking innocent parties, particularly those who actually have nothing to do with the feud you’re involved in.

The process of struggling for control, especially of hearts and minds, involves a certain inherent moral hierarchy: It begins with important ideas, moving on from there to media dissemination, civil activism, (democratically determined) government policy, and from there possibly to violent action. Each layer in this structure can lead to the activation of the next one up. The ultimate strength and legitimacy of actions on any layer here depends entirely on the level of support they have from the layers immediately below them (with what should properly underlie important ideas being a separate essay topic unto itself). Whenever an action from a higher level is used to combat an opponent’s action from a lower level in this hierarch, the higher level action effectively morally discredits itself in the process. This is how martyrs are made. This is what wise operators will try to avoid. Let me try to unpack this step by step.

political influence levelsIf you come across an idea that you don’t like –– that is influencing people to do things you see as harmful or destructive –– the first thing to do is to confront that idea on the level of ideas, with a better opposing idea: you need to prove the opposing idea wrong. If you try to counter the idea with a weaker idea, and if you try to make up the difference by just shouting louder than the other guy, you may get more people to hear you in the short-term, but in the long term you discredit yourself and your cause by doing so.

Of course any idea needs to be heard to have an impact on society, for better or for worse. If the other side is trying to drown you out with their volume, sometimes it becomes necessary to find ways of raising your own volume or visibility to counter that. Fighting media tactics with media tactics is thus a morally acceptable practice, as long as you don’t surrender the integrity of your ideas in the process (which, sadly, most politicians seem to do). What you don’t want to do beyond that though is to use mob tactics against their media. The term for fighting against an idea by mobilizing an emotional mob against it is demagoguery. This is what Kierkegaard accused his opponents of doing. This is part of why today we remember Kierkegaard’s name, but not the names of his opponents.

That does not mean that mass participation in the implementation of ideas is to be forbidden. The contest between groups of supporters of different ideas as groups is not demagoguery, it’s democracy.  Democratic coalitions should most certainly be allowed to challenge each other’s positions, and in the process they should be fully entitled to organize, campaign, protest and vote on behalf of the ideas they collectively believe in. For one group to use their position of political advantage and (temporary) authority to officially prevent opposing viewpoints from being fairly represented is a practice commonly referred to as tyranny. It was (theoretically) in opposition to just these sorts of abuses that the United States of America determined to rid themselves of English imperial rule some 240 years ago.

From here we come to the case of tensions arising between different self-determinant and self-governing peoples. When the legitimate autonomy of both sides is mutually recognized, and negotiations –– sometimes particularly intense negotiations –– are carried out on this basis, we are not talking about tyranny, but rather diplomacy. Sadly however, diplomacy has historically remained a rather abstract concept in international politics when it is not backed up with a certain amount of military preparedness and capacity for violent reaction on each side. When this military capacity becomes too one-sided, and when the dominant side in question uses its dominance to disregard the other side’s interests, this is properly known imperialism, a phenomenon closely related to the disease of colonialism. The historical abuses carried out in this regard by competing European nations with all of their colonies in Africa, Asia and the Americas are quite universally acknowledged by most educated people these days as having been in many respects morally inexcusable; but that does not necessarily imply that would-be imperial powers in our own time have learned anything from the moral mistakes of their predecessors.

Then we come to the word terrorism. These days this term is broadly used in reference to any group which does not represent a recognized national government, but which still attempts to use violent means of achieving their political interests. Given the way that some warring parties refuse to recognize those they are fighting against as having a moral right to fight back, the term is frequently over-used, and the difference between “terrorists” and “freedom fighters” tends to get very fuzzy at best. When Nelson Mandela can be officially labeled as a terrorist and without the term being used in reference to Augusto Pinochet, its moral significance obviously becomes rather questionable. Regardless of what we call them though, we can say for sure that those who use violent means to try to frighten others into submission stand on morally shaky ground. When a group uses its capacity for violence as a substitute for developing stronger ideas and building communal solidarity around them, moral justification is no longer a bona fide possibility for them.

The process of seeking out valid justifications for violence –– be they religious, ideological, utilitarian or in any other sort –– is more than I want to explore here today. Suffice to say, the number of violent actions which we see around us in the world today that might have some sort of valid moral justification is tiny at best, and as many intelligent Muslims have already joined western commentators in pointing out, the attack against Charlie Hebdo certainly doesn’t qualify as justifiable.

Hopefully intelligent leaders on all sides will take this stupid tragedy as a signal that it’s time to start de-escalating these cycles of violence –– regardless of how emotionally satisfying the feel to certain sorts of conservatives, and regardless of how profitable they are to certain American businesses. I’m not holding my breath waiting for current conflict leaders to take such de-escalating action, but I can still hope.

Meanwhile I can’t imagine that I would be important enough where any radical extremist would consider killing me to be worth their trouble, but regardless of my trivial status I hereby stand in solidarity with all of the “martyrs” whose ideas have been considered so threatening that the various powers that be have decided to be violently silence them. Though I write my own ideas pretty much entirely by keyboard (and I generally use pens only for marking up my students’ texts and my research source materials), I hold this pen aloft to say, long live the power of ideas, and shame on all those who attempt to silence them by demagogic, tyrannical or violent means!

20150111_213743All honor to those who, regardless of their other short-comings, have dared to stand up for their own ideas, however crazy or tasteless those ideas may be. All honor to those who dare to think in exciting new ways, and to those who dare to challenge their ideas on an intellectual level, in a spirit of mutual respect. All honor to those who abide by the principle that the way to challenge faulty ideas is simply with better ideas; those who believe that if violence has any legitimate use at all it is to be found in the restrained exercise of such to prevent greater and more random violence from befalling the innocent.

Long live the principles that Charlie has come to stand for. Now can we please take some steps towards shutting down this martyr factory?!

Leave a comment

Filed under Death, Ethics, Freedom, Human Rights, News, Politics, Pop culture

The Best Politicians Money Can Buy

In keeping an eye out for the Hobby Lobby decision coming down, I’ve been watching the news regarding the US Supreme Court  this week, so of course I noticed with great consternation the decision that they handed down on the McCutcheon case: On a strict party line vote (I dare you to claim there was nothing political about that!”) the “conservative” justices have taken yet another step towards undermining the democratic process in the US by removing limits on how much the rich can spend on buying politicians.

surpreme-courtYet even so, the reason this bothers me is not because it represents some radical new problem for American politics, but rather because it further manifests the symptoms of the disease which has affected the US political process for some time, which has expanded exponentially in the time that I’ve been an expat: There is an ever growing perception there that the proper way of deciding political contests is by seeing which side can get donors to chuck the most cash at them. What’s wrong with this picture?

I do get a fair amount of regular information about this matter: By signing various on-line petitions against some of the more gross injustices and political absurdities I’ve seen and heard about over the years, I’ve somehow ended up on a couple of candidates’ fund-raising mailing lists. In some ways I don’t mind; deleting these posts takes relatively little of my time, and meanwhile the titles on these mailings make for an interesting barometer of the political climate in the States. But as a matter of principle, even if I had the money I would not donate to them. I believe that if Americans are too stupid to see through the “bath salt” (regular readers know what I mean by this expression) of political advertising –– if they are not capable of making informed decisions in their own best interest without letting political image consultants, professional spin doctors and media barrages make up their minds for them –– it won’t help for me to toss money at the problem to try to counter-balance what the oil companies and arms merchants are contributing to the other side.

This goes with something I try to remember to practice as a teacher: Even though I’m quite physically capable of screaming to make my voice heard over those of literally hundreds of rambunctious teenagers when necessary, tempting as it is to use that ability to quiet down the classroom at times, I know that in the long run it is counter-productive. There is really nothing to be gained by having a continuous acoustic arms race with my students. The best hope for maintaining a productive learning atmosphere is for me –– through some combination of humor, human interest and rational argument –– to convince them that what I have to say worth listening to, and that there is a certain value in ordered discussions in which we show respect to each other by taking turns talking. If they can’t get those ideas into their heads then shouting them down doesn’t really do much good.

unruly_classroomThe analogous political situation in the US has long since become a hopeless screaming contest in this regard. This week the Supreme Court further ratcheted up the volume with all of the justices there who were appointed by Republican presidents voting to remove limits on how much advertising billionaires can buy unlimited for their candidates of their choice. This is quite directly intended to increase the political power of interests which are working to make more and more of America’s public water supplies undrinkable, destroy forests, increase cancer risks, equip more people with hardware enabling them to kill each other, prevent corporations from being held responsible for injuries and deaths caused by the defective products they’ve been producing, prevent consumers from finding out about the “efficiency boosting means” which have been utilized in producing the food that they eat  , and to prevent basic nutrition, health care and education from being recognized as human rights. But that can only work if Americans continue to let political advertising make up their minds for them and cause them to vote against these most basic interests of their society. As long as political advertisers are capable of “convincing turkeys to vote in favor of Thanksgiving”, and American voters show less enlightened self-interest than the poultry species in question, I seriously doubt that the situation can be improved by lower income people like myself contributing to further increases in political advertising!

Turkey_3Yes, I realize that “if everyone were to think like me” on this one it would lead to a situation where the only message that the “turkeys” will hear is that of what a privilege it is for them to be part of the Thanksgiving celebrations. The psychopath billionaires could declare automatic victory within the status quo political system, blackmail candidates to support the agendas they dictate or be locked out of the corridors of power, and in the process increase their power do whatever they want with their workers, and with the lands and seas from which they extract their raw materials and into which they dump their refuse. My point here, however, is that unless people develop a basic understanding of who is pulling their elected leaders’ strings, and until they cease to let paid-for media propaganda make up their minds for them against their own basic interests, limiting the amount of political propaganda they are exposed to from one side or the other –– or trying to “balance this out” by further increasing the propaganda volume “the good side” –– will remain either useless or counter-productive.

Sadly it comes down to this: if the American people really don’t want to come together as a society and work together to make things better for everyone –– if a sense of solidarity and a neighborly ethic of “having each other’s backs,” regardless of differences in race, religion, ancestral origin and social class really don’t have any place in their thinking –– then there’s no point in trying to convince them to vote for officials who would insist on sensible government programs for things like protecting their basic drinking water and making sure children don’t suffer from malnutrition. Recent history has taught me never to underestimate the sheer stupidity of large sectors of the American electorate in such regards, but that’s not a problem that can be solved through campaign finance reform or increased political spending in favor of “sensible” candidates.

1999_Mijail-Gorbachov-There is relatively faint hope of halting the process of cultural decline that this is causing in the United States. Sooner or later, unless the “Muricans” suddenly become far more capable of thinking for themselves in defiance of what the best financed PACs tell them to vote for, the US will inevitably go the way of their Cold War adversaries, the Soviet Union: the level of environmentally careless industrialization and military spending being carried out at the expense of the basic well-being of the population will become intolerable, leading to calls for “Glasnost” (greater political transparency), inevitably followed by “Perestroika” (the re-structuring of key bureaucracies), after which they whole oppressive house of cards comes tumbling down. So what remains to be seen really is how much worse things have to get before a critical mass of American people start to stand up for the principle of Glasnost against super-PAC action.

Thus rather than pinning my political hopes for my homeland to a process of economic competition for propaganda dominance, I will continue here in my own Quixotic ways using whatever networking tools are freely at my disposal to try and convince people around the world, and citizens of the US in particular, of some very basic political principles:

1)      Democracy cannot work without a strong public education system, particularly in social sciences and humanities subjects. If the people who choose their nation’s leaders are not aware of the issues at stake when they make such decisions, or if they leave these decisions to be made by those who have even less understanding and/or moral conscience than they do, societal decay is more or less inevitable. The best hope of preventing this is for society to make a significant investment in training all members of future generations to play an active role in the political process.

2)      The extent to which people are working together to build a better future for all concerned is not reliably measurable by GDP statistics. Economic growth for its own sake is an unsustainable policy direction and a futile rallying cry. Far more relevant statistics for measuring the health of a society are those regarding infant mortality, violent crime, school drop-out rates, imprisonment, chronic illnesses and other factors reducing people’s active life expectancies. If you want to look at the positive side of what we need to do the indicators actually become more difficult to statistically measure: mutual respect between neighbors, quality of life for young people, available means of contributing to each other’s well-being (with employment being the most tradition and problematic measure of this), and freedom to pursue constructive personal goals. “Productivity” is at best an imperfect means of achieving these more important human goals, not an end unto itself. This is too often forgotten by competitors on both sides.

3)      The greatest risks for humanity as a whole involve competitive polarization in society choking out cooperation and compassion. When we stop thinking of others as fellow human beings worthy of our care and respect as such, and when we start accepting excuses for allowing other people to be treated as disposable commodities or morally inferior opponents in the struggle to survive, it’s not only these others that we put at risk. The alienation of the super-rich from those whose work makes their fortunes possible, and the self-alienation of religious and ideological extremists from anyone who doesn’t accept their dogmas or live up to their moral requirements constitute the greatest threats to humanity in this regard.

4)      The fact that the vast majority of politicians on both sides of the aisle are “dirty” does not excuse total passivity in the political process, or voting for those who advance the interests of wealthy sociopaths and others seeking to further polarize society. One essential moral responsibility that all citizens of (even theoretically) democratic nations have is to use their voting rights responsibly. If you haven’t figured out how to do that in a way that expresses implied respect for the rights and needs of all members of society, you are part of the essential problem in your nation’s system of government. Fix that about yourself!

It’s probably best to leave this week’s rant at that. Of course I’ll be accused of America bashing again here by some, but I can live with that. Let me just say that the more evidence I see of people in the US respecting themselves and each other in the political process, the greater my respect will be for the national culture there as a whole. As long as the ignorance and gullibility of the population there at large facilitates a court-approved, multi-billion dollar industry in the buying and selling of politicians however, my respect for the intelligence and integrity of my countrymen as a whole will remain rather limited.

You don’t like it? Take an active role in fixing it!

Leave a comment

Filed under Education, Empathy, Ethics, Freedom, Human Rights, Politics, Social identity

That Old Time Religion

In looking into philosophical perspectives on the “proper” role of religion in politics, a few weeks ago I stumbled over the work of Brian Leiter on the subject. This was a fortuitous discovery in terms of providing me with a quality example of the sort of discourse which is respected in the field in which I am doing my dissertation. For other purposes it seems to be an example of how painfully wrong-headed thinking can be presented in excellent style.

leiter coverThe book of Leiter’s that I have out of the library at present is entitled Why Tolerate Religion?, published last year by Princeton University Press. Its approach is primarily that of judicial philosophy: considering the subject of what sort of approach to the subject would be most just from an international law perspective. The practical case that he focuses on is one of a Sikh boy in Canada who considers it to be his religious duty to carry a small but deadly bladed weapon –– his ceremonial kirpan –– to school with him each day, in spite of the school’s blanket prohibition on students carrying weapons to school with them. For the Canadian court this was actually a bit of a no-brainer: the rule was established to insure student safety, and never in the history of Canada has a Sikh used his kirpan offensively against any fellow student or citizen, thus allowing a devout Sikh student to carry one poses no significant threat to the safety the rule was established to protect. Beyond that it was unanimously recognized by the high court judges as a healthy part of the young man’s social, moral and religious identity, which Canadian and international law goes to great length to protect.

kirpan permission

Leiter, however, has a bit of a problem with the principle of the matter. Why is it that such provisions are made just for religious folk? What makes religion so special as a legal and political factor? Why can’t any kid who has a major existential and traditional commitment to his blade carry one to school?

His way of further exploring the issue gets more and more problematic as he goes along. The decisive wrong turn he takes in chapter 2 is, setting aside Durkheim and the rest of the sociological tradition which follows, to define religion in general in a particularly hostile manner: Religion is the field where things are taken as “matters of faith”, which, siting legal philosopher Timothy Macklem, Leiter takes to be things, “where the quest for reasons is impossible but commitment [even without reasons] is potentially valuable” (pp. 31-2, bracketed phrase Leiter’s). On this basis Leiter’s essential definition for religion (p. 34) is essentially anything which 1) issues categorical demands for action, and 2) does not answer to evidence or reason. Given that essential definition for the entity he stands in opposition to, it is hardly surprising that he comes to the conclusion that legal provisions for the toleration of such are philosophically not justified.

Leiter’s negative perspective becomes somewhat more understandable when it is placed in the context of his personal negative experiences in Texas, which he states outright in the preface: “My interest in the topic of religious toleration arose when teaching at the University of Texas–Austin and witnessing in the years 2001 to 2008 the pernicious influence of reactionary Christians on both politics and public education in the state.” (p. ix) In exploring the realm of religious culpability in political matters he goes as far as saying, “religious believers overwhelmingly supported George W. Bush, widely considered one of the worst presidents in the history of the United States, whom many think ought to be held morally culpable for the illegal war of aggression against Iraq as well as the casualties resulting from domestic mismanagement.”

It is not hard to see where his negative perspective on the matter comes from then. Jeffrey Stout comments that his difference of perspective on religion in politics with his fellow Princetonian philosopher of the subject, Richard Rorty, primarily stemmed from the fact that Stout viewed religious influences in politics through the lens of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Desmond Tutu, while Rorty viewed them through the lens of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. I would thus agree with Leiter in one particular unstated premise of his work: many politicians who have used Christianity as a demagogic tool in the political process, and many of the rank and file of the “religious right” who follow them, have a distinct tendency to make asses out of themselves.

Setting aside this particular cultural problem for the time being, however, let’s go back to the basic matter of what makes religion religion, particularly in legal terms. The obvious, and obviously outdated, definitions on the subject have to do with belief in God or gods. In de facto legal matters questions of religious rights and requirements for religious tolerance always essentially come back to what people understand as, in James Madison’s words, “duties that we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging them.” We all know that Buddhism officially counts as a religion without believing in the relevance of a creator to our day-to-day moral lives, but that doesn’t really change the essence of the issue in legal or philosophical terms: karma provides an essential philosophical place-holder for God in this given system, thus implying a certain requirement of respect for that traditional understanding of the universe on much the same grounds as for those who believe in more active divinities. The primary point is that there are transcendent bases for our particular moral actions, based on factors that really can’t be reduced down to a strictly materialist perspective.

Another aspect of religion as religion that is particularly relevant here is that it is a communal phenomenon, never merely a manner of personal spiritual experiences. St. Paul speaks of the community of Christian believers as analogously forming a “body” which takes on the role of being “the bride of Christ”. Refusal to associate with others in that same “body” makes one’s Christian identity as such somewhat subject to question. And in this respect it should be pointed out that Christianity is quite certainly the most individualistic of all significant world religions; if Christianity has this communal aspect built into its very fiber, a fortiori other religions certainly do as well. No system which does not equip people to relate constructively not only to their understanding of God, or whatever else is “out there”, but also to their fellow man –– “brothers and sisters in faith” or otherwise –– deserves the title of “religion”.

A third factor which, especially in sociological terms, is essential to the definition of religion, is a multi-generational tradition. Some group which is just starting out, worshipping someone, or worshipping according to the principles laid out by someone who is still alive or who has died less than a generation or two ago, doesn’t technically get to call itself a religion; they are still just a “cult”. That doesn’t have to be a pejorative term, other than in indicating the fact that the belief in question has yet to stand the test of time and enable its community of believers to thrive within their given social environments. Questions of what legal rights cults should be entitled to as such are, strictly speaking, matters of freedom of conscience more than freedom of religion. That may not make a great difference in terms of moral philosophy, but in terms of judicial decision making it can have some rather important implications.

If we change around this fundamental definition of what counts as religion in this way it essentially screws up Leiter’s whole argument against taking religious toleration as a foundational principle in moral and legal philosophy, but it combines with some of his other arguments in ways that lead to interesting conclusions that Leiter hasn’t really taken into account. Primary among these is the virtue of tolerance as tolerance. Tolerance as a virtue is, by definition, a matter of respecting compromise for its own sake. If I am entirely indifferent towards some particular practice, such as my Muslim friends’ religious practice of always putting on their right shoe first in the morning, then there is no justification for speaking of “toleration” in that context. Likewise if I compromise with someone merely because I am not in a secure position from which to overpower and completely subdue them, then that is not exercising any essential social virtue; it is merely a matter of calculating the maximum realization of my selfish personal interest in what I see as non-ideal situations.

Leiter effectively lays out three essential arguments for what he calls “principled toleration” in this sense: toleration as an ideal state of affairs rather than as a matter of indifference or as a strategic position taken for lack of capacity to completely dominate the other. The first is taken from John Rawls’ Theory of Justice, essentially assuming that religious and moral values are things we are socialized into, with little choice in the matter, thus becoming an involuntary aspect of who each of us is as a person to the same extent as skin color, handedness and raw athletic capacities. On this basis it would make sense for someone entering into the “game” of human life without knowing what “cards they will be dealt” in this regard, to agree ahead of time to a rule according to which rejection of the other person based on religious identity would not be allowed. This would also include a provision that religious majorities should grant certain basic rights to religious minorities. To do otherwise would be just as unjust as penalizing “lefties” or red-heads or tall people for having those characteristics.

Rawls’ argument is a deontological one –– based on understandings of moral principle for its own sake. The other arguments (or broad categories of argument) that Leiter lays out are more utilitarian: based on providing the greatest pleasure to the greatest number of people in practice. First among these is the assertion that freedom is an important aspect of satisfaction in human life unto itself. In some ways, as applied to religious or other moral convictions, this runs contrary to the essential deontological argument given above: if people really are able to choose what they believe to be right or wrong on transcendent bases, then there is no point in making provisions for acceptance of what were assumed to be involuntary matters of personal and social identity. But given the uncertainty we are left with in regard to the extent to which we are able to choose anything in practice, and given the extent to which at least an illusion of being able to determine our own destinies remains an important motivational factor in human psychology, it is not unreasonable to leave both justifications in play without them cancelling each other out.

Leiter’s third potential argument for principled toleration of religious difference is based on John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, which he labels as the epistemic argument for toleration. It basically says that 1) processes of moral learning serve to increase overall human happiness, and 2) proper moral learning can only take place in an atmosphere of some accepted diversity –– where there are possibilities of choosing between what we come to see as better and worse options, none of which are strictly excluded. Thus leaving the door open to various “experiments in living” is an essential aspect of increasing human happiness by way of enabling people to discover the sorts of “moral truth” that cannot be arrived at merely by means of authoritative instruction.

Leiter’s negative attitude towards the value of religion as such keeps him from accepting the idea that religious beliefs are worthy of special toleration on the above grounds, but again, that comes as no serious surprise. The practical issues in question essentially fall into two categories: 1) Under what circumstances should people be granted exceptions from otherwise universally applicable rules based on their religious beliefs? And 2) Under what circumstances can we consider particular laws to be unjustifiable based on their intent to violate the religious convictions of particular groups? Setting aside the sensitive issues of Leiter’s resentments towards Bush fans, the go-to practical examples here are, respectively, Canada’s acceptance of Sikh kirpans in schools and France’s ban of Islamic headscarves in schools. Without going through the details of his arguments against religion as a basis for judicial decision-making on these matters, let me close here by giving my own semi-religious perspective on such matters.

gurbaj-singh-mutali-kirpanExceptions to rules need to be granted all the time, and not merely on religious grounds, but religious grounds provide some of the strongest grounds for making such exceptions. I teach teenagers in a public school, so I here imaginative pleas for exceptions to established rules based on all sorts of premises pretty much daily. There are rules requiring students to be present (and on time) for all basic lesson periods. There are rules regarding the level of work students should be expected to do at home between lessons. There are rules regarding when students are allowed off of school premises during the school day. There are rules regarding when students are allowed within school buildings for purposes other than attending classes (mandatory outside recess periods). Rarely does a working day go by for me without some student appealing to me to allow an exception to one or another of these rules. All of these pleas, when they go beyond the level of “Pleeeaase Mr. Huisjen!” have a certain common structure of 1) acknowledging the essential purpose of the rule, 2) presenting some factor of greater personal or moral importance than the factor which the rule is intended to safeguard, and 3) making a case for the exception being small enough so as not to endanger the principle which the rule has been instituted to protect. In these regards the level of discretion that I must exercise as part of my work is not essentially any different from that which any policeman or judge must exercise. Our own human psychological limitations will always come into play, but as matters of principle we can generally tell when those three bases for a valid excuse are being met and when they are not. Given the nature of religion as I see it, I have no problem with students having time off to observe religious festivals that are not built into our school calendar because they concern small minorities within the school community, or with Muslim kids staying inside to do their salat together on part of their outside recess break, or any other minor infringement of school rules based on their families’ religious practices. In terms of their role in enforcing respect for tradition transcendent standards for morality and social participation, I see religious observations as doing far more good than harm. If, like Leiter, I saw them merely as irrational cultural practices childishly demanding to have their own way, I might be less charitable, but in this matter I believe he is just categorically wrong.

When it comes to rules being instituted with specific prejudice against given religious groups, I believe the case is more complex, involving the balance between religious identity and broader social solidarity on the one hand, and between the utility associated with given religious practices according to religious teachings themselves and the harm that comes about through their practice on the other. Thus I strongly support laws against female genital cutting of any sort, regardless of religious justifications for such; in part because it is a matter of physically altering the girl for purpose of keeping her within the religious/tribal community, in part because the physical harm caused far outweighs any purported benefits brought about by such an operation. Just because some claim that it is a religious procedure does not, in my considered opinion, justify its tolerance or continuation. If laws against it seem to target some particular religious group, so be it.

4headscarves_Said_TzarnaevYet when it comes to the famous headscarf ban, I find this rule clearly unjustified. The religious motivation at issue is admittedly somewhat questionable: an assumption that for a woman to reveal her hair in public is a means of drawing masculine attention, in ways that may cause problematic responses from the men in question. I don’t believe there is any justification for men making unwanted sexual advances towards women based on their hair being exposed. The very thought strikes me as absurd, regardless of its having been dignified by various Islamic mullahs over the centuries. But that does not mean that I accept a prohibition on women modestly covering their hair, based in part on their sense of religious identity, to be justifiable either.

Along the same lines, I believe that if women wish to dress in such a way that the outlines of their nipples are visible through their clothing, that may reflect a particularly edgy intent on their part, and there may be good reasons to institute dress codes against that level of exposure in some cases, but their choice to dress that way is not a justification for any masculine lack of restraint in approaching them. I fully support the ethic behind “slut walks” to shame those who would blame women for violence against them based on how they choose to dress. But that being said, even though I do not see many of the religious arguments mandating the wearing of padded bras and/or thicker sweaters to be rationally justifiable, I would certainly not support a dress code which forces girls to make keep their nipples visible regardless of any religiously instituted cultural modesty requirements they might wish to observe to the contrary! To me the headscarf ban really makes no more sense than that.

Questions of what is essential and what is incidental to any given religion will always be subject to debate, both within the religion in question and among its outsiders. A fortiori, what is essential and what is incidental to religion in general is also going to be somewhat contentious in many contexts. This does not justify making straw men out of religious values for attack as Leiter has done. I would agree that there are many times when tolerance should not be limited to religious matters, but it that does not follow from there that religion should not be a very specific basis for toleration.

For the rest, I’ll leave it between those who believe differently than I do and their God (or whatever else they believe in).


Filed under Freedom, Human Rights, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Tolerance

Reconstructing Hillbilly Values

NBC peacockI grew up during what might be called the second half of the first television generation. My parents came from lower middle class farm families that never had televisions at home during their elementary school years at least but they became aware of that side of American culture by way of their richer friends with more liberal parents, and by the time I came along living rooms were being designed around these ubiquitous devices. Broadcasting in color was an innovation that occurred in the United States during my childhood, so these days my personal antiquity is well established.

From its earliest years though, television has had seriously nostalgic elements to it. It has always promoted an ideal of simpler times. Sometimes this was a matter of providing a secondary market for B-movies of the 30s and 40s, but besides the actually old stuff they broadcasted, there has seemingly always been a market for comic depictions of the world as it was in one’s parents’ times and earlier. In some ways this would explain how the “cowboys and Indians” genre became established in film in 20s and 30s, about one generation after such lifestyles had faded into the mythical past.

In any case, in my earliest memories of television the golden age of half-hour sitcoms was blooming, including some that looked back nostalgically at “simpler times” a generation earlier, when the US was particularly pumped up about their glorious role in World War 2 and the subsequent reconstruction, such as McHale’s Navy and Hogan’s Heroes. Then as we shifted into the 70s, the nostalgia wave began to target the 50s, most memorably with Happy Days and its spin-offs, but also with MASH and Grease in their various televised incarnations.

bevhillBut there was also, from the start, another common variation on the theme: looking at various Rip Van Winkle-like characters who had somehow managed to culturally sleep through all of the changes that had been occurring in society, thus interacting with “normal people” from a comically antiquated and out of touch perspective that was somehow nevertheless refreshing to watch. It could be said that this accounted for much of the appeal of Green Acres and The Andy Griffith Show (later known as Mayberry R.F.D.). But the archetype for this sort of comic nostalgia format was really The Beverly Hillbillies. This show has been on my mind for the past few weeks, in part because it explains something of the recent Duck Dynasty debacle, and in part because of how it relates to the problems of PISA ratings as such.

0412_jed-clampett_280x340This show basically focused on six main characters: each with their own interestingly mal-adapted forms of intelligence. The Clampetts of Beverly Hills consisted of the patriarch Jed, who had become a millionaire through the accidental discovery of oil on the property he owned back somewhere in the rural Appalachians or Ozarks, his daughter Elly May, his late wife’s mother “Granny,” and his second cousin and foster-son Jethro Bodine. From the time of their arrival in Los Angeles’ Beverly Hills, this quartet in was effectively being kept in a comfortable semi-reality by their banker and neighbor, Milburn Drysdale, and his indispensable secretary and the all-around brains of the operation, Miss Jane Hathaway.

Granny-Beverly-HillbilliesJed and his family are all super-human strong, with outsized appetites for food to fuel this energy level. Granny, the feisty matriarch of the clan, keeps them stocked with enough home-style “vittles” to maintain this energy level as well as keeping the mansion clean and brewing up various forms of back-woods magic to help in difficult situations. Jed in turn spends much of his time sitting around whittling, though within his own limits he is always ready to dive in and sort out various problems that fall to the head of an old-fashioned household to take care of. Jethro is the primary “project” for the family. He is apparently the most literate member of the family, the holder of a driver’s license to operate their family car (a vintage truck from the 20s, held together with a fair amount of bailing wire it seems), and in spite of his overall cluelessness, he is the one they are expecting to someday find a wife and establish a brilliant career for himself to do the family proud. Elly May, meanwhile, occupies herself with caring for a Snow White-like menagerie of semi-tame animals while struggling part-time with the dilemma of why she as a girl is not given the same amount of investment that Jethro receives as a boy. Then we have the “plain Jane” Miss Hathaway continuously struggling to be subtle about her major crush on Jethro and trying to maintain a certain level of “this world” reality into her boss’s crazier efforts to make the Clampetts feel at home in Beverly Hills rather than withdrawing their eight-digit fortune from his bank and crawling back into the wilderness from whence they came. It was an interesting enough dynamic to keep the show running for nine production seasons, remaining immensely popular through its entire run.

The best explanation I have heard of for the logic behind the reality TV show Duck Dynasty is that it attempts to recapturing some of the marketing magic of these hillbillies of the sixties, combining that with a bit of the “real family business” appeal of shows like American Chopper, Pawn Stars and the rest: a “poor white trash” rural southern family which is comically out of touch with the modern world, yet through a fluke of their own good fortune they have become rich enough where the modern world sort of has to take them seriously in spite of their on-going cluelessness.

That makes sense actually. Not enough sense where I’d personally be motivated to try and find the means by which to watch the show (as far off the grid of American cable television as I am) but still, sense. The problem is that while CBS could entirely manage every word that came out of Jed Clampett’s mouth, and not really have to worry about the ignorance that made Jed entertaining on TV coming out of actor Buddy Ebsen’s mouth in his private life, A&E have nothing like that sort of control over the Robertson family in general and patriarch Phil in particular.

They say that a big part of what makes the show so interesting and entertaining (I’ve never watched it myself, and I have no plans of ever watching it, unless I need to do so as part of my academic research into American theocratic impulses, so I sort of have to go with what “they” say in this case) is that it showcases a sub-culture as far from the mainstream of modern society as that of any bounty hunter, biker gang veteran, Vegas pawn broker or obese junior showgirl showcased elsewhere in the genre. So… if the exotic culture they’re setting out to exploit in this way just happens to spill out as homophobic, naively racist and almost comically narrow-minded… what are they supposed to do about it? Isn’t that part of the point of reality TV in general –– to add the excitement of an unscripted, unpredictable “authenticity” into the mix? Weren’t they aware of the fact that racism and homophobia are as much part of the “white trash” sub-culture in the southern US as substance abuse is part of so many of the other sub-cultures exploited in this medium?

duck-dynasty-walmart-display4So when it blows up in their faces what are they supposed to do about it? They’re too addicted to the money they’re making off of this franchise, and enthralled with the merchandizing honeymoon this has sent them on with Walmart, to seriously consider quitting now. So one way or another they just have to find a way to stay on that ‘gater and ride it to the end of… whatever.

It has to be said though that this sort of show is put on the air primarily to communicate a message that is important enough to its creators where they are willing to take chances with what they see as trivial matters regarding like the Robertsons’ religious obsessions. The primary message they want to get out is that in America anyone has a chance to become a millionaire, so everyone should keep taking their chances and no one should start taking privileges away from those who have been able to realize their dreams in order to deal with trivial matters like childhood nutrition, health care and education. It effectively reinforces the truth of quote somewhat questionably attributed to John Steinbeck: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” 

By feeding this fantasy self-image via the Duck Dynasty dudes, A&E and their programming competitors have successfully campaigned to maintain public support for “anti-socialist” policies that continue to handicap over 99% of their supporters –– turning turkeys into the world’s most dedicated fans of Thanksgiving as it were. As long as they can keep doing that they’re willing to take their chances with what people think of the Robertsons firmly believing that the universe is less than ten thousand years old, or that blacks were happier in the “good old days” before Martin Luther King and company screwed things up, or that public acceptance of homosexuality is a slippery slope towards all sorts of other unspeakable forms of immoral perversion. In terms of getting Phil and his boys to tone down their message, the network’s “suspension” efforts in December may have entirely backfired, but like, so what? It boosted their ratings and reinforced their own primary message that any idiot can become rich and famous someday all the more. The rest is details as far as the bosses are concerned.

BevH886But I was actually thinking of The Beverly Hillbillies well before this quacker-maker scandal story broke last month. As I said, the show also relates quite effectively in its own way to the problem of PISA testing which I wrote about here a month ago. You see, part of the alternative reality world that dear old Mr. Drysdale was trying to construct for the Clampetts to keep them in California was that it was a land of opportunity for them, particularly in terms of Jethro’s educational possibilities, leading to advances in his career potential. The episode where this message peaked was the finale of season 4: “Jethro goes to college”.

Through paying sufficient private school tuition fees to get schools to overlook his serious lack of academic ability, Jed had managed to enable Jethro to academically make it as far as graduating from sixth grade. As far as Granny was concerned that was about as far as any young person should expect to go in education, but Jed had heard that not only was college the key to career success but perhaps the key to getting Jethro’s love life started. So they went to talk to Mr. Drysdale about it, looking for advice about how to get Jethro into some sort of college. He and Miss Hathaway proceeded to try to talk them out of this scheme, until Jed turned to Jethro and said, “Maybe we can get ye into one of those schools back home.”

bev hills bankAt the mention of his major client possibly leaving town Mr. Drysdale instantly panics and suddenly becomes far more optimistic about the idea of finding some local college for “the boy”. When the hillbillies leave the office he starts to discuss with Miss Hathaway the possibility of paying some college enough to take Jethro in in spite of his short-comings. She sums up the dilemma by asking rhetorically, “What college in the entire country would corrupt its standards to that extent for mere financial gain?” In the mid-sixties that was still a laugh line. These days it would merely sound naïve, with such institutions obviously being more common than those who would refuse to do so.

It doesn’t take too long, however, before Jethro, driving around the streets of Los Angeles, comes across a second floor window advertising a “business college” on the premises. This basically amounts to a small institute where girls were taught basic secretarial skills of typing, taking shorthand dictation, business telephone answering formalities and the like, intended to turn them into somewhat useful little secretaries. A dialog there just before Jethro walks in is scripted to tell that this school is in desperate need of money to keep from going under. So when, for all his obvious cluelessness, Jethro pleads with them to take him as a student, and in the process starts physically throwing the tuition money Jed had given him at them in the process, they relent and allow him to enroll.

Jethro later speaks of it taking two hours to pick up some of the basic skills they taught him, but in the compressed world of half-hour sitcom time it takes precisely 2½ minutes from the moment Jethro walks into his first class until the dean of the school realizes he is a hopeless case and instructs her assistant to “prepare a diploma” because “Mr. Bodine is going to graduate.” The diploma he receives is actually just a blank sheet of paper, but it is fine enough quality parchment so that it’s enough to make Jethro happy. It’s enough to make the family feel that now that Jethro is a “college graduate” he is qualified to work as an investment manager at Mr. Drysdale’s bank.

BevH330Elly May, meanwhile, is left with a very bitter taste in her mouth concerning her own college adventure. Even though Jed cautions her that she “ain’t got whatcha call the ‘educational background’ Jethro does,” he gives her permission to try to find a college that will take her. She immediately rushes out to dig through the yellow pages, and finds a place for herself at “The College of Judo and Karate”. She too “graduates” on her first day, but not with the same sort of satisfaction as her second cousin. As she relates the experience to Granny,

“I went in this big room with this real thick rug on the floor and the teacher come out wearing his pajamas! And when I told him I wanted to enroll he got madder than a rattle snake with a sore tooth… He commenced shouting and chopping away at me. He even tried to trip me! …so I gave him what fer! Bounced him around that rug like a basketball. I didn’t stop throwing him until he offered to grajiate me. But he didn’t give me no cap and gown. All I got was this skinny old black belt!”

And for some reason this seriously reminds me of how many things about our processes of academic evaluation continue to work nearly 50 years later.

Some kids we pass through the system with minimal effort from both teachers and student –– to match their minimal interests and learning capacities –– just to be rid of them; still giving them enough recognition in the process to keep their powerful parents satisfied, grudgingly admitting to ourselves that we make the education we offer that much less meaningful and more abstract as we do so, but… it keeps us fed. In other students we see incredible signs of natural talent and promise, and we do our best to encourage them at it, but as often as not this ends up being in ways that don’t quite match up with the ideas of prestige that their parents have had in mind, so we just back off and leave it at that. What else can we do at times?

To say that the standards by which we evaluate young people in our schools are somewhat abstract –– not necessarily either a fair assessment of their natural abilities and effort nor the most suitable from of preparation for the life challenges that lie ahead of them –– would be a polite understatement of immense proportions at times. Efforts to fix this problem with a greater emphasis on standardized testing have, obviously to those within the profession, made things considerably worse. We can only hope that it will all come out in the wash; that our investment and encouragement in some will bring them that much closer to realizing the potential we see in them, and that the difficult cases that we end up just whisking through will end up doing relatively little damage to themselves and those around them at subsequent stages in their life before they take it upon themselves to backtrack and learn the necessary thinking skills and working habits which we were not able to teach them, or they find a role for themselves in society where such skills are not necessary. We can only hope that the theoretical dynamics of cultural evolution will eventually take place in our educational institutions: dysfunctional aspects, however nominally prestigious they happen to be, will be seen for what they are and eliminated, and genuinely student empowering and enabling programs are set up in their place. The question is really how bad things have to get and how many types of trial and error the systems have to go through in the meantime. Sadly there’s also the undeniable factor that many of the powers that be really don’t want people to be educated enough to seriously question their authority, or to question the importance of continuing to buy so much of the useless crap they keep trying to sell us. But still we can hope…

I’m not holding my breath though. I’ve seen how absurd ideas and practices have a way of going on for generation after generation. One significant part of the whole Beverly Hillbillies background legend was the way Granny would never admit that the south had lost the “War between the States”, and she had all sorts of alternative historical interpretations in place to support the theory that her side had won. I know plenty of fundamentalists of all different sorts (theistic and atheistic) who are still doing equivalent mental gymnastics to this day. I don’t think any form of education reform will succeed in solving that problem any time soon. How long cultures and sub-cultures built on self-deception can last is not something we can predict with a particularly great level of accuracy. We can only hope that they destroy as few lives as possible while they continue.

But that’s not the worst of it. Not only are some hillbilly values and world views slow to die out; there are a surprising number of anti-intellectual folk in the US that consider such perspectives to be worthy of revival; and those who shamelessly speak out in favor of such absurdities, heroes. It’s sad really, though sort of understandable.  As I was saying though, the best we can hope for is that our education systems, dysfunctional as they are, will progressively improve young people’s capacities to critically evaluate the various antiquated and “radical alternative” value systems they continue to be presented with.

Meanwhile then we can still enjoy the comic value of these alternative perspectives on life, bearing in mind that, as with any joke, when a significant part of the audience takes the comically absurd seriously it ceases to be funny. So get what laughs you can as Rome burns.


Filed under Education, Freedom, Materialism, Politics, Pop culture, Purpose, Racism, Religion, Risk taking, Social identity

Opiates of the Peoples

I spent the end of last week and the weekend working on a seminar presentation for this week, speculating on who Pope Francis was referring to as an ideological illness in the church. It involved a lot of background reading, and there is much more I need to do on the subject, but so be it. So I’m writing my weekend blog on Monday again.

When it comes to use of time the perennial question come to mind: how much of my time am I actually wasting along the way? There’s two aspects to this: How hard should I be pushing myself (to accomplish what sort of goals), and then what non-goal-oriented activities –– stress relievers –– should I consider to be particularly dangerous or harmful? Let me explore that latter one for a bit here.

Those of you who are moderately well read in humanities subjects would obviously recognize my title here as a play on one of Marx’ dictums regarding religion in general: it numbs people to the painful realities of their otherwise unrewarding and essentially meaningless existence, and rightly so. If they have to have such an unrewarding and meaningless existence at least we can allow them to become comfortably numb by religious means. It was Lenin who gave this turn of the phrase its more condemning connotation: the religion of Rasputin and company as a vile addiction that keeps people from moving beyond their miserable, abused condition. Of course the issue that both polemic approaches are missing is whether religion has a particular value in and of itself beyond providing a means of escape from the mundane stresses of everyday life. Might there be some eternal value system that is more important than the implications of the “selfish gene” –– the drive to have as many offspring as possible and to keep them alive long enough to have offspring of their own?


But let’s set that aside for the time being. Let’s just assume that we all have goals in life that we spend a certain amount of our time working to achieve, that such work largely defines us as people, and that beyond our work we each have our own forms of “play” that are psychologically necessary for us in order to be able to continue on with our work. Let’s further assume that the balance between how important we consider our work to be for its own sake and how much we do in just to get other things that we “really want” will vary quite a bit from person to person, as will the things that we are ultimately trying to get as rewards for our work. So we have our goal-oriented behavior and we have our personal-amusement oriented behavior. How do we keep those in balance with each other? For that matter how important is it to draw a distinction between them?

Lots of different distracting directions those ideas could take us in. Given that I’m not actually being paid to write this, and I don’t have anyone reviewing this and telling me what is expected of me in this essay, I could easily chase off down one rabbit hole or another here just for the fun of exploring what’s in there, but I’m trying to stick to the job I’ve set for myself in the title here of talking about “opiates” in the figurative sense, and what is potentially wrong with them. The main thing that all such “opiates” would have in common is that they provide a form of distraction from our more goal-oriented behaviors which may end up preventing us from accomplishing our more goal-oriented behaviors. My basic theory here though is that all of the different forms of condemnation of such “opiates” are based on somewhat unquestioned assumptions regarding the value of different forms of work, defined in turn as focused goal-oriented behavior.  This would apply to everything from Marx’ and Engels’ condemnation of religion, to Neil Postman’s condemnation of electronic etertainment culture, to the Catholic Church’s strict limitations on forms of sexual satisfaction, to programs to keep people off of heroin and other actual opiates. All of these are trying to keep people from gaining some false or dangerous form of satisfaction that keeps them from working for more important “true” forms of satisfaction.

Amusing-Ourselves-headlessThere are a number of considerations that follow from this observation. First and foremost perhaps is the question of whether Marx’ observation deserves further analysis here: the idea that people turn to some “false” form of satisfaction because unjust and dehumanizing circumstances prevent them from being able to experience –– being able to reasonably hope for even –– “truer” forms of satisfaction.  Industrial workers of the 19th century drank heavily and then sometimes prayed heavily because those were the only forms of personal satisfaction in life that were open to them at that time. If they would have had some hope of gaining more control of their own destiny in terms of someday owning their own land and workshops, or even enabling their children to get an education and step onto the path of upward mobility, maybe they wouldn’t need to numb their pain so much. By the same token, if more people were able to properly enjoy genuinely satisfying and committed long-term romantic relationships maybe there wouldn’t be such a big market for porn. Are we numbing ourselves just because things around us don’t work well enough for us to be able to hope for better? Is there some way that we can trick ourselves into genuinely hoping for better so that we can achieve more in our goal-oriented behavior? Are there ways in which we can improve society to increase people’s hopes in more or less honest ways? And if we can’t “fix” the situation to allow people sincere hope for a better life through their efforts, are we actually justified in condemning their “opiates”?

In terms of where the rubber meets the road on this one, the breakdown of family structures in the western world has been blamed by moralists on increased mobility, and access to information about other possibilities than that of women staying home and making babies while men go out and push themselves to do whatever they can to provide for the needs of those back in the nest.  There’s some truth to the idea that many people these days don’t have the same sort of family lives their grandparents had simply because they don’t want them, or they aren’t willing to make the same sort of sacrifices their grandparents made to get them. But more to the point, breakdowns in the political systems protecting the basic rights of workers have led to a situation where no matter how hard a man would try to work at basic labor these days he can never make enough to keep a family provided for on his own; and no matter how submissive, loving, nurturing and “wifely” a girl is ready to be, she can’t expect to get the sort of deal her grandmother had as a stay-at-home mom. So why should they behave in a traditional manner designed to improve their odds of getting into such a situation? And can we really condemn behavior that decreases their chances at such a life? After spending much of the weekend reading papal encyclical letters from over the past 40 years, I’ve sort of realized that that is where Catholic moral teaching is really at these days.


Beyond that we have the question of whether there are certain types of goals to be pursued in life that should be “natural” for everyone, that our cultures must be designed to reinforce. This would include, but certainly wouldn’t be limited to, questions of reproduction and genetic continuation of family lines. Should people naturally want to have tribal identities reinforced? Should people’s lives be defined by whatever “competitive edge” they are able to find for themselves? Should ease for its own sake be a value worth relentlessly pursuing, and if so how do we deal with the inherent contradiction in such a proposition? Beyond that then, if none of these goals can be reasonably taken as moral imperatives for everyone, what argument is there for condemning behaviors which limit one’s possibilities of achieving them?

The tragedies we keep finding ourselves faced with are when someone we know –– personally or through their public image –– has the possibility to realize all the sort of things we think they should naturally want, or all of the sorts of things that they’ve seemingly dedicated their lives to attaining, and they “throw it all away” over the “uncontrollable” urge to “play” in some particularly dangerous way, or to numb themselves in some unacceptable fashion.  We sometimes feel sorry for them for not being able to master their inner demons. We sometimes condemn them for “setting a bad example for young people” and “contributing to the breakdown of society” –– defined as a group of people informally cooperating to realize the sort of goals we see them carelessly neglecting. Do I see them as evil? It depends.

injectionYes, I do get angry at the idea of predatory individuals selling drugs near a school yard. Getting kids who don’t understand the risks involved hooked on self-destructive forms of amusement purely in order to profit from their ignorance, without concern for the fact that it could lead to early and painful deaths, is something that I would consider to be objectively wrong… evil even. So how far do I want to take that principle? If I want to protect kids from drugs, what do I want to enable them to have that drugs would steal from them? What else might steal the same things from them just as effectively as drugs?

In my own ideological way I guess the most important thing I’d like to enable kids to have is the possibility of choosing for themselves what sort of goals they wish to pursue in life, be it the standard reproductive/tribal/competitive ones that most of our societies seem to be built around, or more individualized pursuits of their own choosing. Whether such a priority on personal freedom is sustainable in the long run or not is a complicated question unto itself. Suffice to say, things are rapidly changing regardless of whether or not we try to prevent change by maintaining traditional mindsets in our children. So if traditionalism for its own sake, and/or as a means of preventing uncontrollable change in society is a lost cause, why not let them have their freedom?

The limitations on this freedom in turn are of two sorts: there needs to be some form of justice to prevent people from carelessly or maliciously harming others, and there needs to be some possibility of forming connections of love with others which can in turn become more important to us than our own self-determinations. As I was saying to Daisy last month, those are what I consider the ideal essence of religion to be about.

So going back to the “opiate” issue, I’d hope that those who wish to keep people away from these “wrong” forms of satisfaction would really stop to think about why they consider them to be wrong, acknowledging that on more careful consideration sometimes they can be seen to do objective harm and other times they can’t. I would hope that the motivation for condemning such “opiates” would run deeper than just trying to get others to live according to the moralizers’ personal tastes. I would hope that it involves enabling the person in question to be genuinely free to choose what goals they want to work towards, and to seriously consider what forms of “play” could prevent them from realizing those goals. Then rather than considering those “opiates” as in themselves wrong, I would hope that those who condemn them would do so based on what greater forms of satisfaction might be chosen without them; and that from there they would work first and foremost to enable people to have hope of attaining those “better” forms of satisfaction rather than simply moralizing against the ones they don’t like.

And beyond that, no matter how important someone’s work is to them, they will also need to play sometimes. How much of their time, how riskily, involving what sort of extra rewards along the way… are all important questions to be considered. We can perhaps enable people to play in less addictive and time consuming ways, with greater safety for themselves and others, and offering greater opportunities for thrills in the process, but what we won’t be able to do is stop them from playing entirely.  Ideally one should find some form of work that is as much like play as possible –– serving as a continuous form of satisfaction unto itself rather than just being a form of suffering to endure as a means of reaching some goal outside of the process. If work has its own “play” element to it in that sort of way, the amount of play needed outside of work will be considerably less for it.

I must confess that blogging and online interaction are somewhere between work and play for me. I’m not getting paid for this, but it is something I do in a certain goal-oriented manner regardless, feeling ever so slightly guilty when I’m late like this. Yet it is also something I do mostly for the fun and challenge of it. It is a form of “opiate” for me in terms of enabling me to escape from my mundane routines of getting 14-year-olds to remember facts about faraway religions, processing paperwork to let others know how much this information has sunk in for them, and keeping my simple bachelor apartment in relatively livable condition. Does it work? Most of the time. Is it bringing me closer to the realization of other goals in life? Rather hard to say. Is there something more important I should be doing with my time? Not that I know of at this point, but systematic time management has never been my strong suit to begin with.  Are their parts of it I should be ashamed of? Some may be angry at me for spreading heresies here, but I can live with that. Do I have other, more problematic “opiates” in my life to get rid of? Perhaps… but at this point I’m not going to start stressing about playing too much and not working hard enough. Give me a new specific hope to work towards and I might change my mind about that.

So here’s hoping that all of you as well are more or less at peace with yourselves regarding what you’re working for and what play you allow yourselves along the way. Here’s hoping you’re able to live at peace with others in terms of the choices they make along the same lines. Enough for this week.


1 Comment

Filed under Control, Ethics, Freedom, Happiness, Individualism, Philosophy, Politics, Purpose, Religion, Respectability

Scientific Insight vs. Blinding with Science

Together with the many entirely fair critiques of my last entry here was one that I found to be rather off the mark: that it contained a “subtle condemnation of biology and sciences”. I actually believe that this was a misreading by someone who is conditioned to believe that anyone who is in favor of religious perspectives is in all likelihood anti-scientific. There are plenty of inductive reasons why someone might be prone to reach such a conclusion, but I honestly don’t believe that it is applicable to me, at least not in the context of what I was trying to say to Daisy. Yet at the same time I must admit that, like many theists, I do see limits in the extent to which science can replace philosophy and religion in human life. Let me see if I can make a case for that for you.

Richard_DawkinsI see science as a means of searching for understanding of the world we live in, which has resulted in some spectacular insights and, through technological advancement, miraculous changes life as we know it. What I don’t believe in is “Science” as an abstract authoritative determinant of truth in ethical and metaphysical matters –– I’m not a believer within the sort of faith that Richard Dawkins has become high priest of among the so-called “new atheists”. This has been on my mind a fair amount this month, since a friend of mine suggested that some of us participate in Sam Harris’s “The Moral Landscape Challenge” this winter. At this point I am fully intending to do so, even though I don’t think I have much chance of winning, for the same reason that I don’t feel that I have much chance of winning the lottery.

I look at it this way: Given Harris’s ability to top best-seller lists with his attacks on religious beliefs, I’m quite sure there will be thousands of participants wanting to take a crack at him. I’m also quite sure that Harris’s mind is sufficiently made up on the matter where he will allow himself to become confused by seriously considering the merits of any of the arguments he will be presented with. Any reasonably clever under-grad student of philosophy could easily refute Harris’s arguments, but that doesn’t mean he’d be able to recognize the merits of their arguments and admit defeat. Many public intellectuals who are not even theists, and who will be too busy with more prestigious and better paying work to bother with such a challenge –– ranging from Simon Blackburn to Jonathan Haidt –– have already pointed out the multiple flaws in Harris’s arguments. Given his obstinate rejection of their counter-arguments, I’d see it as pretty close to psychologically impossible for his mind to be changed by an argument presented by any of us unknowns. Nor do I see it as particularly likely under these circumstances that he would be able to qualitatively differentiate between those who adequately refute his ideas and those who don’t, to say nothing of being able to judge who best refutes his ideas.

Sam HarrisThe 1000-word sampler format he has stipulated adds even further to the randomized aspect of the contest. So which, if any, of the hundreds of competently written refutations that he will inevitably receive will come out as the official winner has to come down to a matter of random selection. (I do believe there will be an official winner, but given what I see as the inevitably random nature of the selection process, I’m not at all sure that the winner will be one of those which competently refutes Harris’s position.) But what the hell, I play free raffle drawings for new cars and the like at the grocery store all the time, so why not participate in this one?

So as this relates to my perspective on science which has just been called into question, as I have been pondering such questions anyway, and as, for reasons stated above, I don’t believe that tipping my hand a bit here would seriously reduce my chances of winning, I’ve decided to start offering some of my thoughts here on why I actually don’t believe that science can answer all of our moral questions for us, and where I believe we should go from there. Harris/Dawkins fans, feel free to comment here and critique my perspective to your hearts’ content.

To start with let me give Harris credit for sincerity in at least one regard: I don’t believe he is doing this challenge thing for the money. He might or might not sell enough extra books on the basis of such a contest to cover the minimal prize money he’s offering, but that’s not the point, for him or for the participants. Like Rick Warren, Billy Graham, Tariq Ramadan and many others, Harris is fortunate enough to have become quite financially secure from book sales that have been an incidental part of his holy war on behalf of the ideals he believes in. His interest in offering such a challenge would more likely be  a matter of hoping that if he can get a few thousand people –– philosophically inclined theists in particular –– to seriously consider his polemics against their position, he might actually succeed in converting a few dozen or so of them in the process. This in turn would advance the meme he believes in, which he has dedicated his life to spreading, thereby doing far more to justify his existence than additional money in his pocket would. This point will be worth coming back to.

benthamAnyway, as hundreds have already pointed out, the essence of Harris’s moral perspectives are borrowed, through some convoluted form of intellectual heredity or another, from Jeremy Bentham –– the fellow whose mortal remains can still be seen in a glass case in the hallway of University College of London. Bentham’s essential belief was that there are really only two things that matter in life: pleasure and pain. Whenever you increase the former and/or decrease the latter for the population at large, you are doing something morally commendable.

S BaartmanNo basic high school level philosophy course is complete without exploring the limits of the validity to this approach. In simple terms we have to ask ourselves, for example, was the exploitation of Saartjie Baartman, “The Hottentot Venus,” as a sideshow freak, a sub-human curiosity and a sexual novelty item in London and Paris a morally right thing to do? You would be hard pressed to find an ethicist these days who would stand up to defend this historic abuse; but since it did give hundreds of Europeans pleasure, a sense of superiority and adventure, increased solidarity and perhaps even increased libido –– all for the nominal price of destroying the well-being and dignity of an African servant girl who probably wouldn’t have had much of a life back in Cape Town anyway ­­–– according to a consistent application of Bentham’s principles it would very definitely have been considered the morally right thing to do. And this case isn’t even hypothetical.

If we consider the defense of innocent victims to be a higher priority than the overall pleasure of the crude and sadistic masses –– as would the vast majority of professional thinkers on the subject, and even “normal people” in the world today would –– in its simplest form, Bentham’s moral philosophy fails right there. So instead of sticking to the simplest form of Bentham’s utilitarian belief, Harris focuses on the negative side of things. He paints a picture of the worst possible condition, where intense suffering for all continues unabated indefinitely. Wouldn’t the prevention of such a situation be a moral goal that everyone could agree on? Rather than focusing on increasing pleasure as a moral goal then, we should simply focus our moral energies on reducing suffering.

The problem with that is something that any middle school student can see quite immediately and intuitively: The simplest and most effective way of eliminating suffering is to eliminate all beings capable of suffering. Would this sort of global suicide solution really be the hypothetical peak accomplishment of human moral action? Highly unlikely. So from there the question becomes, what is there about life that makes it worth embracing and promoting, even if it does involve pain and suffering for many?

BraveNewWorld_FirstEditionHarris doesn’t really take the question that far, and to the extent that he brushes up against this question he speaks of “peak experiences” between the valleys of suffering that somehow might make life worth it. He doesn’t say in very specific terms what these peak experiences might be, but he has faith in science and technology being the best ways of defining them and bringing them about. This in turn leads directly to the justification presented for the dystopian society in the 20th century’s pioneering novel of that genre: Huxley’s Brave New World. Huxley, no Christian apologist himself, doesn’t offer any ideal solutions for the problem of how to find sustainable meaning and purpose in life, but after giving such arguments a carefully constructed coherent expression, he thoroughly demonstrates that the best hope for humanity is not to be found in making people into happy cogs within an immense societal machine. Pretty much every other novel in the same genre thereafter has come to much the same conclusion.

What makes these future horror stories so scary is really the whole idea of people being considered disposable in a system that doesn’t offer any significant amount of choice to those stuck within it. To Harris & Co. these factors don’t really seem to make any difference. Life is essentially random and meaningless for the most part anyway, they believe, regardless of what sort of ideology you espouse. Beyond that people are far more like machines than we care to admit –– following pre-programmed paths and automatically responding to stimuli around us even when we are the most sure that we are choosing our actions and responses for ourselves. So if some group of self-appointed technicians takes it upon themselves to engineer everyone else’s lives so that the average guy can go through life without thinking too much, with a minimal amount of pain and with reliable drug-induced periods of euphoria coming on a regular basis, what’s wrong with that? If you don’t really care about freedom as such, if thinking for yourself isn’t all that important to you, or if you imagine yourself to be one of those who would be in the position of deciding things for everyone else; and if you can’t imagine that life could have any greater meaning than that… nothing.

Philosophers in general tend to be rather addicted to the sensation of thinking freely for themselves, and they are rarely under any illusions that a technocratic totalitarian government would select them as the technicians in charge of things. It thus comes as no surprise that they do not embrace the same sort of Huxleyan vision that Harris does as an ideal for an ideal future. Meanwhile for the less philosophical “normal people” of the Western world there is still the recent historical memory of what happened when the people of Germany and Austria surrendered their freedoms to the technocratic regime of the Nazis (shortly after Huxley’s classic was written) which discourages them from going along with any such system too readily.

Nazi-Swastika-AustriaThe greatest risk/possibility of Huxley’s dystopian vision coming true these days then would actually be if “the one percent” of the population which controls obscene amounts of wealth and power these days were to engineer an Atlas Shrugged style revolution where the rest of the population would no longer be able to challenge their power. In fact this isn’t an entirely unlikely scenario. The “Tea Party” movement’s economic populism seems to have been designed to lay the groundwork in the US for just such a move: convincing the population to think of “entitlement” and “socialism” as dirty words, and to believe that the common folk should be happy just to take whatever the ingenious technocrats in charge of the economy are willing to give them. Government should not try to help the poor majority at the expense of the tiny minority at the top; that would be stealing! If those not within the ruling elite become nothing more than disposable commodities within the system controlled by the unquestioned elite, well… that’s just how life works. Nor, it must be admitted, has the Democratic Party, which theoretically should be the counter-balance to this sort of elitist dynamic, made any decisive moves to reduce this slide towards absolute oligarchical control.

I’m not accusing Harris of being a closet Tea Partier; I’m saying that the Tea Party is the political tool with the greatest possibility of enabling his technocratic ideals to be put into practice, and that should give him pause for thought. I can’t imagine it will.

The irony is that the majority of those who support the sort of “new atheist” dogma which Harris publicly champions seem to have something of an allergy to authoritarian regimes in general, since historically, more often than not, such regimes have had a heavily religious component to them. Harris’s own favorite whipping boy in this regard is the Taliban. But rather than promoting personal freedom, justice and individual liberty as solutions to this problem, what Harris is effectively suggesting is that organizations like the Taliban be replaced with a more competent, secular and scientific form of totalitarian control; what Neil Young poetically refers to as “a kinder, gentler machine gun hand.” How else can the ideal of scientifically detecting and engineering greater states of satisfaction in the population be achieved? But is this really what we want?Neil_Young_2012

The above critique –– tearing down the opposition’s dogmatic position –– is the easy part. Offering a viable alternative is the hard part. When it comes to dealing with real live human beings, with all of their destructive passions and mutual antagonisms, designing a system to help them thrive and meet their individual needs while respecting each of them as intrinsically valuable and entitled to freedom as individuals has proven far easier said than done. So let me start by saying that while I don’t believe that science, in some abstract authoritative sense, can provide us with the ultimate goals that we should be striving towards, I do believe that science as a set of methods of looking for information without any particular ideological baggage attached, and technology as a collection of tools which provide means of achieving personal goals we set for ourselves without determining what those goals should be, are especially useful for promoting human thriving and social stability. At best they are means of keeping ourselves honest as we search for understanding, and of avoiding unnecessary pain and risks in the process. The trick is to keep these particular pursuits within their respective roles as servants rather than as authoritative structures. As long as we don’t let science blind us to other aspects of the human experience, or let technology determine what is important about us as people, we should be OK with them, but that’s far easier said than done.

When it comes to setting goals that are ultimately worth living for, I believe that there are a number of different means by which this can be done, and that the greatest risk for us as humans is when some authoritarian figure or another declares that he has the exclusive (God-given) right to determine which lives have value, on what bases, and which lives are more readily disposable. I don’t believe that making such declarations based on the authority of “science” makes them any less dangerous than basing them on the authority of some deity or another.

Harris points out that presuppositions of given values are inevitably built into the activities of the “scientific community” as such, and science cannot be done without certain presuppositions in terms of basic values, but that does not mean that the validity of such values can be conclusively proven by way of experimentation or scientific observation. This makes it rather absurd to refer to such values as matters of “absolute fact” that can be discovered and declared on the basis of some sort of scientific authority.

I believe the path to greater peace and stability in human society is that of having the humility and sincerity not to claim the sort of exclusive handle on truth which makes us feel entitled to eliminate those who don’t share our perspective.  This points to something that both theocracies and “brave new worlds” have been guilty of. The alternative is to build a system of mutual respect based on empathy and appreciation for our commonality in many important regards. In religious terminology this means seeing other human beings as also made in the image of God and entitled to certain expressions of respect on that basis, given that none of us are entitled to put ourselves in the place of God to judge the ultimate value of another person’s life. In secular terms that would mean recognizing our common heritage and shared long-term interest as part of the same remarkable process of life. This is far easier said than done though, and claims of special revelations and whiz-bang technological innovations cannot be trusted to iron out the moral bumps along the way for us.

But this essay is already more than twice as long as Harris’s little contest rules will allow for, and at that it still doesn’t include some significant points I have in mind on the subject. All in all I don’t see myself as likely to make any serious money off of these ideas, especially not by way of Harris. So why am I bothering with all this?

I guess I have to admit that I too do this to advance the sort of memes I believe in –– which for me include love, justice, tolerance and the spirituality found in the Christian tradition. That doesn’t mean I do this to belittle processes of scientific discovery or to promote any particular power structure based on European cultural traditions, though I recognize that the sort of memes I believe in have often been used to do such things. I have no vested interest in the maintenance of the power of those currently controlling our cultures though, and I don’t see tradition for its own sake as something to be desperately clung to. Nor do I see academic rationalism as a pure, sterile process unto itself as the key to solving all of the world’s problems. I believe in carefully, rationally and systematically thinking things through; and combining that process with connecting with and caring about the messy business known as human life. I see that as my best chance of finding happiness, purpose and longer-term satisfaction in life for myself and those I care about.  I also happen to see that as the essence of the Christian gospel. I recognize that your mileage may vary though, and I don’t give myself the right to send those who disagree with me to hell.

Harris, and others like, him have very different ways of going about giving their lives meaning. I don’t find his approach particularly coherent or promising, but as long as he isn’t using it to belittle the value and dignity of those I care about (or even if he tries to use his ideas for such purposes, but does not do so particularly effectively) I can leave him to it. If he’s offering a podium for presenting what is important to me, I’ll take a crack at it. The rest, as I’m prone to conceptualize it, is up to God.


Filed under Basic logic, Control, Ethics, Freedom, Religion, Science, Spirituality, Tolerance

In Search of the Sweetest Sorrow

E. H. Sothern &  Julia Marlowe in Romeo & Juliet-The Balcony Scene-Photo-B&W-Resized“Sweet sorrow” –– the random comment Shakespeare gave to Romeo about his feelings at leaving Juliet once they had established direct communication about their mutual crush (sorry, it’s hard for me to take their “epic love” more seriously than that, despite the tragic extent they took things to) –– is often taken to be the epitome of an oxymoron –– the basic archetype for such later linguistic absurdities as “business ethics,” “military intelligence” and “Microsoft Works”. On further contemplation, however, to me it makes perfect sense for sorrow to be sweet. Let me unpack that a bit for you.

As I begin this essay the subject for the day in the photo project I am playing along with this month is “sweetest”. I’m trying to avoid the cliché of submitting some cheesy would-be advertising photo of something sugary, so I’ve been thinking about how I might approach the theme in a way that can visually communicate something deeper than that. What is the true essence of all of the different things we take for sweetness? What makes a baby’s smile sweet? What makes the smell of a fresh spring meadow sweet? What makes a lover’s embrace sweet? What do we really mean by this word? I don’t subscribe to my summer school professor’s school of thought in saying that when a word has so many and such varied meanings we should take that as evidence that it has no meaning at all. But can we really get down to the very essence of the concept of sweetness in a way that we can identify some superlative for the category?

StrawberriesLet’s go back to the literal meaning of the term: sweetness is the pleasurable sensation sent to the brain by a certain collection of sensors on the tongue which are designed to detect the presence of sugars in our food. Sensing sweetness is a matter of simple evolutionary advantage: being able to guess with reasonable accuracy, without necessarily even being conscious of the process, which foods have the greatest likelihood of providing our bodies with readily burnable fuel. The positive sensation of tasting something sweet is nature’s way of telling us, for instance, that strawberries are likely to be more useful to our bodies than rowanberries as a source of energy. There are plenty of less sweet foods that our bodies can convert into sugars (and then fats) quite readily, but in evolutionary terms the instant-burn capacity of sugars is very useful for our bodies to be able to identify, and for us to be attracted to.

summer school 218Figuratively speaking then, sweetness might be said to be that which stimulates a positive emotional sensation that we can associate with being energized: something which increases our capacity to go forward, to face challenges, to overcome obstacles, to thrive in life. The “sweet” is that which fuels our passion for life and keeps us from giving up.

The analogy also seems to work in the sense that many things we experience as sweet don’t necessarily “work” in terms of actually providing us with emotional energy to get stuff done; they just give us a good feeling like they might have increased our energy levels, even if they haven’t. The world of media marketing contains many forms of “artificial sweetener” in our day-to-day experience. Or we could say that much of the “sweet” emotional stimuli we experience do not translate into a healthy capacity for action. Without going too far into psychological theory on the matter, this involves the media in question hyper-stimulating our immediate emotional responses purely for the sake of having these emotional responses immediately hyper-stimulated. In other words some films, video games and concert experiences do to our emotional response centers in the brain what triple chocolate fudge cake does to the taste buds on the tongue: blasting them with more stimulation than the rational mind knows what to do with as an end unto itself, entailing a certain number of health risks in the process. Just as that intense chocolate cake experience doesn’t improve one’s capacity for athletic performance, the “sweet” experiences of media events don’t really make us more productive workers, better friends to those around us or more loving family members; they just give us a sort of abstract thrill for its own sake.

In the commercialized society that we live in the “sweetest” of manufactured consumer experiences are given to the rich and dangled like a carrot in front of the poor: a positive incentive to keep them plodding onward. Or in many cases it’s more sinister than that: These addictive hyper-stimulating experiences are given to whoever wants to try them, who might someday have something to offer in return, in exchange for surrendering their freedom and entering into a cycle of debt. The poor are not encouraged to wait for gratification, just surrender their freedom in order to get it. In fact poverty these days can be defined in three essential ways. In ascending order of severity:
–          Lack of “normal” access to the “sweet things” in life,
–          Lack freedom due to debt,
–          Survival risks due to a lack of means to pay for health care and other basic needs, frequently blamed on their addiction to “sweet things” beyond their means.

In some ways this brings to mind the paraphrased version of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism that I’ve been teaching to 13-year-olds (as part of the world religions section of Finland’s national religious education curriculum) this month: 1) Life is a process of suffering. 2) You suffer in life because of your desires. 3) By overcoming desires and attachments in life you can overcome suffering. 4) Following the rest of the teachings of the Buddha can enable you to overcome desires and attachments. In some ways I deeply respect their ethic of escaping from the addictive behaviors we all tend to drift into and the pain we cause ourselves in the process. I would also agree with their assessment that when you open the door to life’s sweetness you also open the door to all of life’s sorrows. But I would flip the moral of that connection the other way around: Rather than rejecting life because it hurts too much, I recommend finding the sorts of sweetness in life that make the sorrows of life truly worthwhile.

buddhaThe best word we have for that process of embracing life in all of its messiness and painfulness, because in spite of those things there is something truly magnificent about life as such, is thriving. In this regard the reason I have for remaining a Christian rather than converting to Buddhism is because, in spite of all the sorrow I’ve experienced in life, I still would rather thrive with all my sorrows than attempt to escape from the thriving that causes them. In fact one of the messiest and most painful parts of life as we know it is one of the things that Buddhism, in spite of its escapist emphasis, still strongly recommends embracing: compassion. This word is usually used to designate the (theoretically) less self-interested end of the spectrum of emotional experiences we designate as love. All of them make life painful and uncontrollable; all of them play an important role in making life worthwhile.

Thus the sorrows associated with love –– embracing the pains and lack of control that go with forming connections with others, in spite of all of the others’ problems –– are the sweetest, most energizing thing we can find in life. Feeling shared sorrow somehow helps us know (or at least believe) that there’s something real in the connection, strengthening us in turn to work for the good of others, and producing the most important possible sense of happiness that we can experience within ourselves in the process. In short, there is nothing sweeter than the right kind of sorrow. If you don’t know what I’m talking about you really need to try it more.

This is not to say that all sorrow should be seen as sweet. Some sorrow is caused by our own stupidity, or by attempting to connect with people who are not capable of such connection; of loving us in return. This is not to say that feeling compassion for those who themselves have no capacity for compassion is necessarily a waste; it just means that hurting ourselves through building up expectations that by loving we can make people and things different from what they are can be a wasteful sort of suffering to put ourselves through. It is the same as many mundane forms of suffering that we go through due to our own stupidity at times: the suffering of food poisoning from eating improperly stored or preserved food, the suffering caused by car accidents when people don’t pay sufficient attention to basic safety precautions, the suffering that goes with frostbite or pneumonia from not dressing warmly enough on Arctic winter days, etc., are all fundamentally wasted forms of suffering. The only use they have, besides potentially eliminating you from the gene pool, is to teach you not to do the sort of things which caused you to suffer in such cases. Sometimes, however, it’s difficult to draw the line between learning from our mistakes and daring to love in spite of knowing that it will cause you pain, and just being stupid.

Highway Car WreckSo fully recognizing the risks involved, but knowing that without love life becomes largely meaningless, I continue my quest in search of life’s sweetest sorrows. Some particularly sweet sorrows that I’ve experienced thus far in life –– besides the romantic sort and those having to do with parenting –– have been the ones I’ve experienced as a teacher in helping young people adjust to the challenging process of becoming adults; or those I’ve experienced in various aspects of interfaith dialog, helping those of differing religious backgrounds recognize that people who don’t share their convictions are still worth befriending and caring about. Then there are the sorrows that I have shared with millions of others throughout the world regarding victims of nature’s or humanity’s cruelties, ranging from the Haitian earthquake victims to child soldier of sub-Saharan Africa to girls in Pakistan who wish to get an education beyond what religious extremists there feel is proper for them. I really don’t want to avoid susceptibility to these sorrows, as they draw out and bring together all that is sweetest and most noble about us as humans in general.

Malala - the iconic girl whose suffering the world in now particularly anxious to share and end.

Malala – the iconic girl whose suffering the world in now particularly anxious to share and end.

Obviously we each have personal limits as to how many such sweet sorrows we can imbibe in how deeply at any given time. Just as obviously, part of the point in consuming such sweet sorrows is to work on overcoming the causes for them. Romeo’s “sweet sorrow,” for instance, was a matter of motivating him to overcome the obstacles to him and Juliet being able to remain together. The sweetness of my sorrow regarding girls in Pakistan who bravely desire an education involves a hope that through a global focus on the problem we might be able to overcome it. Both hopes might be equally tragically naïve.

We are also prone to hunger for the sort of sorrows which, ironically, don’t draw us too far out of our comfort zone –– sorrows that help us feel we are part of a virtuous effort to overcome evils that we actually had no part in. It is easier to embrace the sorrows of those who suffer from natural disasters than it is to embrace the suffering of those whose poverty is compounded by our own greed and/or carelessness. It is easier for Americans to embrace the sorrow of children being denied access to clean water, healthy food and education in Pakistan due to tensions caused by religious extremism than it is for them to embrace the sorrow of children being denied access to clean water, healthy food and education in Detroit due to the collapse of the industrialist economic infrastructure there. It is easier for Europeans to embrace the plight of child soldiers in Africa than to embrace the plight of suicidal teenagers in their own countries. Confronting the causes of others’ suffering within ourselves is far more difficult than confronting causes of suffering for which we cannot hold ourselves responsible. In terms of the basic analogy here though, the latter form of sorrow may be sweeter, but the former is probably more nutritious for us.

Detroit public schools: a form of suffering Americans find more difficult to connect with for some reason.

Detroit public schools: a form of suffering Americans find more difficult to connect with for some reason.

I cannot claim to have mastered the art of selecting the sweetest forms of suffering yet. I’m actually not entirely sure that such mastery is possible. I am sure, however, that suffering is part of the sweetness of life, and struggling to avoid suffering entirely cuts off all possibility for human thriving as well. I would encourage each of you to fully embrace the sufferings that enable us to thrive as humans, and I would ask any of you who has especially profound insights as to how to find the best forms of suffering for each of us to please share them with me. Let’s keep doing the best we can from there.


Leave a comment

Filed under Aesthetics, Education, Empathy, Epistemology, Freedom, Happiness, Love, Philosophy, Pop culture, Purpose, Risk taking, Sexuality, Spirituality

For the Love of Liquidity

I recently began correspondence over research matters with a professor from a distant city whom I have never met but with whom I have a number of shared interests. In the course of establishing a rapport I was rather surprised to find that, based on my recent blogs and other writings, she got the impression that I harbored a resentment towards academia as such and towards postmodern theory in particular. Given that among my teaching colleagues over the past decade and some I’ve been frequently labelled as the most abstractly academically theoretical and postmodern thinkers in the school, it’s one of those ironic situations where I don’t know if I should laugh or cry –– and when in doubt I always go with the former.

But regardless of that fact, given that I have managed to give at least one highly intelligent person such an impression, it is more than possible that others might have come to similar misconceptions about me, and therefore I should take the trouble to further unpack my perspectives on some of the more abstract aspects of humanities theory within academia that I have been writing about here lately.

To start with let me make a somewhat obvious observation: it is factually untrue and thus a gross mis-characterization to refer to those who are lost in their own theoretical abstractions as “tucked away in their ivory towers.” University towers are not made of ivory, and I doubt that they ever have been. In concrete terms university towers (to the extent that universities have any use for towers these days) are made of… concrete. Some older university buildings made of wood, brick or field stone are still rather heavily used, but those materials don’t provide a particularly distinctive image of academia as such. Newer university buildings made of steel and glass are becoming more common, but steel and glass structures are more emblematic of venture/vulture capitalists than of academics per se. Professors can’t really be said to be looking down from their steel and glass towers, literally or figuratively. In practice these days we’d have to say that those professors who suffer from a lack of contact with the non-academic world are seeing that world through the tiny windows of their concrete cubicles, literally and figuratively.

The University of Helsinki's main campus area: No ivory towers to be found anywhere.

The University of Helsinki’s main campus area: No ivory towers to be found anywhere.

For those in the humanities, concreteness is a rather uncomfortable image to relate to. In one sense many of them would much rather be out in the world of Platonic ideals rather than stuck in the hard, cold material reality in which we all find ourselves; thus they try to avoid speaking in concrete terms in general. In another sense they would like to believe that their work has more flexibility to it than do the crude forms of man-made stone in which they find themselves encased. In yet another sense they would like to believe that their work has some sort of inherent nobility and superiority, relating to some more refined substance, like silver or marble or… ivory. In still another sense they want to fantasize that their work is both highly reflective and transparent, like glass or crystal, only without being so fragile. Yet they do not want their work to take on the image of something so pedestrian and practical as Plexiglas.

So with the ivory tower fantasy shot, if they are to establish an alternative image to that of looking at the world from behind their concrete walls, what image are they to use? Given all of these contradictory symbolic elements they are trying to project in their self-images these days, one image that younger professors have started turning to as emblematic of their professional identity is… water. Beyond representing aspects of potential refinement, reflectiveness, transparency and naturalness that professors like to associate with their work, the image of water involves aspects of flow and vitality that every academic would like to believe characterizes her/his work. Images of drinking from pristine bubbling brooks spring to mind, or those of daring young athletes riding wild rapid currents through uncharted territory. Why not? Academics are also entitled to their fantasies.

South Africa 2011 579The water analogy also provides a functional excuse for their separation/alienation from more practical concerns of everyday life: some would like to think of their theories as being like fresh springs, gushing out a cool, clear stream of life-supporting liquidity, which must be fenced off to keep crude animals from tromping through them and/or pissing in them. Those who can respectfully and responsibly protect and direct the flow of this precious liquid can in turn appropriately channel it down the line to make it available to other users, but at its source they must, for the good of all, painstakingly protect its purity –– or so the fantasy picture goes.

baumanThe irony is in how far this image is from the thought of the current father figure of “liquid modernity” theory, Zygmunt Bauman. In his discussion of the “liquid modern,” the liquid in question is not a pure, clear stream poetically flowing across and cutting through solid stone with its life-giving power; it is more a tsunami of sludge plowing its way across traditional landscapes, taking out whatever farms and temples and government installations stand in its way, leaving anarchy and mayhem in its wake. Some of the structures this tsunami takes out are indeed prisons and oppressive fortifications, but its destructive power is not focused against these systems of oppression. The liquid modern is also destroying traditional means by which life has been protected, order has been maintained and personal meaning has been established. The name of this tsunami which Bauman has been trying to caution people against is consumerism, and his recommendation is that education, rather than riding this wave, should be positioning itself as our last, best hope of somehow limiting the senseless destruction it is wreaking on our societies. Rather than becoming part of the liquid in question, education should establish certain concrete channels, dams, breakwaters and levies; not to overcome the force of this flood, but to direct it in less destructive, more functional directions. The problems I have a with academics are with those who don’t get what Bauman is saying here.

718146-floodsThe essence of postmodern theory in this regard –– a la French speaking post-Marxist-Hegelians such as Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard and Lyotard –– is heralding the collapse of metanarratives of human cultural evolution and the grand march forward from ignorance and superstition towards enlightened self-interest and social harmony. In various ways and from various perspectives, over the past half-century or so French, English and German-speaking theorists, in roughly that order, have been calling “masculine bovine excrement” on the remains of this enlightenment dream. We are not becoming one big happy family, and we probably shouldn’t even try to be. We need to recognize that much of what was done in the name of enlightenment and “progress” was a matter of morally questionable power interests stomping out any form of difference and dissent which got in their way. Over the course of the twentieth century colonialism gave way to international capitalism as the dynamic by which this took place, but for those on the receiving end this makes little difference. Corporations, rather than nation states, have forced their will onto semi-cooperative populaces around the world, proclaiming their benevolent intent, yet crudely stomping out any resistance to their dominance and their control of natural and human resources. But rather than proclaiming a Marxist revolution as the solution to this problem, which has been exposed as just one more means of international power-brokering under false claims of benevolent intent, the postmodernists have promoted “deconstruction,” to use Derrida’s term on the matter. Rather than reinforcing the power of any of the particular elite forces in government or business, the intelligentsia should be pointing out the moral and rational flaws inherent in all of the competing parties’ thinking, encouraging a diversified social order in which no one can claim absolute hegemony.

As noble as these ideas may sound, the de facto anarchy of eliminating all existing structures while replacing them with nothing in particular is highly problematic to say at the least. The hopes of the postmodern theorists were not in fact to pursue a cultural “nuclear alternative” of “mutually assured destruction” of all aspects of culture as such, even though few of them put much effort into coherently stating were the new levies should be built. Bauman, in part due to what he sees as the sheer accident of his extremely long life, has gone further than most of his former contemporaries in the field in contemplating this problem. His basic conclusions, like those of his former fellow postmodernists, are stated in terms that are intended to defy simplification, but I will give it a shot anyway.

One thing that must be accepted as a given here is that people are as lazy as they dare to be. No one likes to do tedious and painful routine tasks that they are told they have to do if things remain pretty much the same whether they do them or not. The old cultural and economic status quo was based on social discipline reinforced by scarcity: People were kept from being lazy because struggle for survival was a natural state of affairs. We sometimes forget how difficult life was just a couple of generations ago –– and how difficult it still is for the poorest 2 billion people on this planet these days. A century ago for families to lose a child or two to some form of disease was more the rule than the exception. When it happens these days it is a rare event, caused by someone out there being the sort of person that cannot be described in polite language. There are plenty of remaining problems in today’s post-industrial societies but there are in fact plenty of resources to keep everyone fed, housed, medically cared for and educated even. The problems have to do with extremely morally deficient individuals preventing these resources from being used to meet these basic needs. Which in turn presents the question, how do we motivate people to work together and to overcome their natural laziness in a situation where they can easily tell that the threat of shortage is quite artificial?

black-friday-shoppers-at-macy-sThis leads to the instant gratification problem of the liquid consumer society. Rather than delaying gratification and disciplining themselves to work hard and produce before consuming, the current expectation is to get a few credit cards, experience whatever you (are told that you) want instantly, and sell yourself into slavery to the system to keep up with the consumer addiction you have entered into. You thus become a cog in the machine feeding the snowballing greed epidemic is endangering the future of the whole planet. If you happen to be one of the less important cogs in this machine you can easily find yourself in the sort of de facto slavery where if you (and your spouse) work less than 60 hours per week (each) for whatever wage you can get, you are likely to lose your family through not being able to afford housing, food, health care and the basic status symbol products that are seen as needed to prevent their children from becoming socially marginalized –– not being seen as a good enough provider. If you happen to be one of the more important cogs in this machine you are expected to be available to the needs of the production system 24/7 as befits your position, so to compensate for your consequent absence from your loved ones’ lives you are expected to provide them with a continuous flow of mass-produced, disposable forms of entertainment and means of superficial human contact. Children raised within these systems, meanwhile, have less and less of a sense of any human relationships, social traditions or status symbol items having a lasting value. They have a vague sense that all of this could lead to oblivion, but for the moment all they feel they can do is go with the absurd flow of things, hoping to eventually find some form of love and meaning in life along the way… whatever those things are.

Given the choice between children on the edge of malnutrition and the problems of Black Friday, most of us would still take the problems of Black Friday.

Given the choice between children on the edge of malnutrition and the problems of Black Friday, most of us would still take the problems of Black Friday.

Bauman is by no means suggesting a nostalgic return to the “good old days”. What we don’t want is to go back to the old system of shortage-driven desperation and authoritarian discipline for its own sake –– even if that is one of the places that the consumerist tsunami is likely to leave us when it ebbs back out again. What we want is to be left with a sense of what and who makes our lives important, and to feel a firm sense of connection with those principles and people –– preferably of our own choosing, and not vulnerable to be taken from us by those who see things differently. Whether we will succeed in finding ways of so anchoring ourselves under the current tsunami conditions remains to be seen, but from Bauman’s perspective our best hope in this matter lies in the development of suitable concrete structures within the education systems of so-called developed countries.

This isn’t a matter of clinging to some pre-modern cultural monuments for the sake of faithfulness to the monuments, nor is it a matter of pretending to have some sort of fixed reference point while being swept along with the tide (a “Janus-faced” approach, as some have tried to call it). It is a matter of getting to know ourselves and learning to care for ourselves through our contact with others –– “Ubuntu” as it is called in many parts of Africa –– without letting the madness of the mob mentality sweep us away in the process. If we can teach young people to seriously look for this sort of beauty within themselves and within the world around them, there is still a chance that we can save the world from ourselves.

Closing disclaimers: This is an amateur essay (in the sense that there ain’t no one paying me to write it) based on my perceptions of the writings of Zygmunt Bauman and company from my recent reading. I can claim with reasonable certainty that I’ve got Bauman’s message right, but unless Bauman himself endorses this essay it remains just my voice among all of his friends and admirers and scholars of his work. Some may dispute my interpretation, but it’s currently not worth my time to take the effort to prove them wrong further than this. Thus please take this for what it’s worth as passing academic perspective, personal advice to fellow educators and a statement of hope for our world. Meanwhile, please don’t anyone else subject me to any further BS about your role in promoting the virtues of liquid modernity as though you were advancing Bauman’s perspective in the matter. And please don’t attempt to label me as anti-academic or anti-postmodern for saying so.

Leave a comment

Filed under Economics, Education, Ethics, Freedom, Individualism, Purpose, Respectability, Social identity, Sustainability

Old Heights

As I type this I am listening to the comforting sound of my fermentation tank bubbling away in the corner of the room. I skipped a few years at this hobby, primarily out of sensitivity to the feelings of particular people about the whole subject of alcohol use in general, but I’m over that again. Even so, given all of the complexities there are regarding questions of alcohol use and intoxication in general, I think the subject is worth deliberating on a bit here.

My wine making equipment when I (thankfully) unsuccessfully tried to sell it off a couple years ago.

My wine making equipment when I (thankfully) unsuccessfully tried to sell it off a couple years ago.

It all goes back to my childhood. I was raised as a teetotaler in the sixties and seventies. Many if not most of my friends were regular drinkers and casual smokers of marijuana, but I always kept my distance from both habits as a matter of principle. There were a few aspects to this choice, all having to do with my rather religious up-bringing.  First of all this was before the term “pro-life” had been invented. If anyone had talked about being “pro-life” in those years it would have meant that they were anti-war and opposed to young men getting sent to kill and be killed in Viet Nam. Homosexuality, meanwhile, was seen mostly as a bad joke in Mel Brooks movies, not a major threat to family life. For lack of any other distinctively Christian political issue, opposition to alcohol use in any form was one of primary ways in which conservative Christians “stood up for what they believed” still the late sixties/early seventies. Billy Graham was seen by many as a too much of a compromiser; what was needed was preachers who had the same sort of fire as Billy Sunday: someone who dared to scream out against alcohol “for the demonic force that it is.” Good kids in our church didn’t question this.

Second, perhaps somewhat more relevantly, many of those I hung out with and was friends with in my early teens were former hippies, 5 -10 years older than me: “Jesus Freaks” by any measure you care to use to define such a phenomenon. Many of these guys had experimented with booze and drugs during the height of Timothy O’Leary’s popularity as a chemical recreation guru, enough to know that there was more harm than good to come from such things. A few still were rumored to sneak the occasional joint on the side, but they were pretty intensively ostracized from the rest of the group. Overall they found the absolutely sober lifestyle to just be more interesting and fulfilling, and I was quite ready to take their word on the subject. This perception was all the further reinforced by my observations of my peers “partying” when I got into my late teens and early twenties. I knew some chronic drunk drivers and some people with other fairly serious problems when it came to addictions and chemical escapism.

But besides all that, among those I knew whose drinking and other chemical hobbies seemed to be pretty well under control, I occasionally received the complement of sorts that “David’s the sort of guy that you can be standing around talking with him stoned drunk, and you can forget that he’s entirely sober.” Sitting around after the shop closed on Friday evening, the other guys who were not driving anywhere would sometimes have 3 or 4 beers while chatting about the events of the week before heading home, and I with my ice tea or fruit juice could be just as loose and animated and talkative as any of them, without needing anything to loosen me up. I really didn’t see the need. I never drank for the same reasons I have never, to this day, smoked tobacco or anything else: I knew the basic dangers and I just never felt like it was something I had to do.

My habits in this matter gradually changed as I got into the restaurant business. I was selling wine to go with fine food, and I thought it was important to know what the various sorts tasted like. I didn’t need the buzz, but I wasn’t afraid of the slight experience of it. It was my own variation on the Buddhist principle of detachment: being preoccupied with avoiding something can be as emotionally harmful as addiction to the vice in question.

The juice of approximately 7 kg of aronia berries, sweetened and diluted to make 25 liters, still has this much inky color to it.

The juice of approximately 7 kg of aronia berries, sweetened and diluted to make 25 liters, still has this much inky color to it.

Since then I’ve adopted habits of very moderate social drinking, that I can easily live without for months or even years at a time, but which doesn’t bother me in terms of my conscience, my health or my lifestyle stability to have a glass or a pint every now and again. I’ve never had any serious worries about slipping down the slope into alcoholism. I can still count on my fingers the number of times in my life that I’ve been drunk enough for the hangover to cause me to throw up afterwards. If anything, for purposes of optimizing the health of my circulatory and digestive systems I don’t drink quite enough alcohol. Even so, of all the regrets I have from my teenage years and early twenties, spending them entirely sober isn’t one of them.

There are two activities for which I make a point of having no alcohol whatsoever in my system: teaching and driving. I’ve never even toyed with the idea of doing either under the influence. Even if this wasn’t a matter of strict regulation, I can’t imagine the risks involved in either being worthwhile. I have, I confess, done both at times under conditions of fairly extreme tiredness, where I knew my brain was functioning at a level equivalent to if I had had a few glasses of wine. I did not run into any crisis situations because of this, but I’ve learned to carefully avoid such risks regardless.

Overall alcohol is not a major factor in my life, but it is a significant matter, pro and con, for many people close to me. Some find a certain amount of alcohol particularly useful as a form of self-medication under certain circumstances, and as an aid to social interaction. Some have had bitter personal experiences of their own alcohol use, or that of someone close to them, getting seriously out of control. It can be noted that in all countries bordering on the Arctic Circle the risks of alcohol abuse run pretty high. Under those circumstances I’m entirely ready to go without alcohol if I’m with someone who, for personal reasons, has a problem with it.

For me this clearly corresponds with the New Testament debate over neat which was leftover from butchering that was done as part of pagan rituals (1 Corinthians 8). Paul’s basic perspective is that the gods which were worshiped in these rituals were nothing but figments of the worshipers’ imaginations, and that isn’t any reason not to eat the meat. But if there are those who have a serious crisis of conscience about it, there’s no point in trying to prove that you’re stronger and that you know more than they do. Just don’t harass them by doing what they’re bothered by in front of them.

At the University of Helsinki's botanical gardens. The variations in the explanatory text in the three different languages have their own comic value.

At the University of Helsinki’s botanical gardens. The variations in the explanatory text in the three different languages have their own comic value.

But these days this leads to the question, “If you’re cool with alcohol, is smoking pot also cool with you?” My short answer: I do not have enough experience on the matter to take an expert opinion either for or against. I’m prone to believe that significant self-medication is more common with marijuana than with alcohol, and that attempting to deal with stress and depression in this sort of a way has its own significant dangers no matter what chemical you use. I know more people who’ve done significant damage to themselves with alcohol than with marijuana, but I’ve seen enough to know that the latter isn’t as harmless as some of its missionaries would have us believe. Speaking strictly for myself, I’m certainly not in strong enough need of the experience to break the law to get it; and even if it were legalized, I’d probably continue to think of it the way I do tobacco: I don’t think much the less of my friends who do use it, but I don’t see much sense in starting myself. For the problems it causes there’s no particular reason for me to bother. There’s probably not much more for me to say about that matter.

So why do I bother making wine? Honestly, part of the reason for taking up this hobby again is just the creative challenge of it. I enjoy working on producing flavors that I can enjoy and that my more seriously culinary friends find particularly nice. I had a fair amount of beginner’s luck in this regard, and I’ve learned to duplicate my successes and somewhat to build on them.

The raw ingredient

Aronia berries: the primary raw ingredient for my brew

Beyond that I believe that consumed in small amounts, as I tend to do, this stuff might actually improve my health somewhat. My primary ingredient is aronia berries (aronia melanocarpa in Latin), which are supposed to qualify as a “super food” for their health effects these days. According to the current Wikipedia entry on then, these berries, with their record-breaking richness in flavonoids, are currently being given to test animals to test theories that they can cure or prevent everything from heart disease to colon cancer to arthritis to eye irritations. Fermenting their juice certainly doesn’t appear to pose any serious health risks. They are currently grown as landscaping plants all over my home town of Espoo, and it seems like I’m about the only one doing anything with them. Given my Dutch heritage (as good an excuse as any in such matters) I hate to see such a resource go to waste.

When it comes to my social life, the overall effect of this endeavor is probably going to be quite minimal, but while there are some minor risks involved, there are also potential rewards. I suspect that overall the effect will again be positive. If I had pubescent children around who would be at risk of getting into my stash, I would probably think more cautiously about the matter. Likewise if I were to have friends with problems with alcohol one way or the other visiting on a regular basis, I would make more of a point of not bothering them in this sort of way. I do remember a few people in particular to whom I shouldn’t offer this year’s product as Thanksgiving table contributions or Christmas presents. But overall my friends find this a pleasing hobby to passively participate in, and for those few casual acquaintances I have whose world view is so narrow that they will think less of me for my wine production, I can easily live with that loss of prestige in their eyes.

So anyone here in southern Finland who wants to stop by and share the experience at the end of the month, or try my recipe for themselves, be in touch. I’m sure we can work something out. And regardless of how you think about such matters, I wish all of you a pleasant start to the autumn season.

Leave a comment

Filed under Ethics, Freedom, Happiness, Religion, Risk taking, Social identity

Master Statuses

As a number of my former students have gone on to study social sciences in Scotland in particular, please forgive me for retelling a crude old Scottish joke that I was reminded of lately. Please forgive me as well for any mistakes I make in approximating the classical form of the joke:

An old Scotsman was sitting at a bar, well into his cups, bemoaning the unfairness of life. “Y’know,” he says to whomever might be listening, “I’ve probably pulled more fish out of the sea than any two of these blokes in here, but nobody calls me ‘McDuff the fisherman’.” He takes a sip on his whiskey and goes on, “I fought in the royal marines and have medals for bravery in combat, but nobody calls me ‘McDuff the marine’.” Another sip. “Give me a bagpipe and I can play you any tune these hills have ever heard, just as loud and sweet and pure as you could ever hope to hear, but no on calls me ‘McDuff the piper’.” Then with quivering lip and a repressed tear he says, “But ye shag just one lousy sheep…”

This basically explains what sociologists mean when they talk about someone having a “master status.” Whatever other virtues and vices a particular person may have, if there is one particular distinction which overshadows all others, which prevent the other things about him or her from being recognized as important, that becomes the person’s master status. Regardless of what else he does in life, Paul McCartney will always be primarily known as “the ex-Beatle.” Regardless of the genius he demonstrated in other areas, Ted Kaczynski will always be known by most simply as “the Unabomber.” Regardless of what artistic and philosophical contributions he may have to offer to the world in his own right, Frank Schaeffer (the fifth) will always be known to most people who have ever heard of him as Francis Schaeffer’s renegade son.

The thing that reminded me of this joke and this state of affairs is the story of Geronimo Aguilar that has been making the rounds this past week. “Pastor G,” as he is said to be known among his friends and admirers, for whatever else his virtues and accomplishments in life, will be known according to the combined master statuses of “megachurch pastor” and “sexual predator,” and he stands a good chance of going back to prison for the rest of his life on that latter account. This isn’t a unique combination of master statuses; they almost seem to go together in the public imagination as readily as “Catholic priest” and “child molester”. Needless to say, the vast majority of megachurch pastors are not sexual predators, and the vast majority of sexual predators are not clergymen of any sort; just like the vast majority of Catholic priests are not child molesters, and visa-versa. But the overlap is familiar enough where it brings a cynical grin to many a skeptic’s face.

pastor-g-geronimo-aguilarIt doesn’t really help that the individual in question looks far more like a porn star than a preacher. With his shaved head, is conspicuously muscular build, his exposed tattoos and his close cropped goatee, one could easily stereotype based on appearances that having his way with women would be a significant part of his life. But then again, reaching out to the unchurched and those caught in cycles of self-destructive behavior in a thoroughly street-credible way might explain most of that image. Or then again, it might not.

Other aspects of the image portrayed in the coverage of this event fit squarely within the stereotype of American evangelical megachurch culture though: acres of retired school busses used by the church to bring in kids from the community to be evangelized; a headquarters composed of a set of strip-mall-style buildings just off a major freeway; an Israeli flag flying next to the stars and stripes on the church roof; a luxurious colonial styled “parsonage” for their leader in the suburbs; a combination of admiration, jealousy and suspicion expressed by outside “community leaders”…

I must also say, however, that frankly the reporting on this scandal is riddled with inconsistencies. To start with it claims in one place that Aguilar started this “ministry” in 2003 (ten years ago by my math), but then he is quoted as saying in his resignations speech that “Serving you all and leading this church have been the best twelve years of my life.” Then that mathematical mismatch is further complicated by the accusation that a girl whose family joined into the church in question when she was 5 years old was seduced by Aguilar just after she turned 18. Something here just doesn’t add up. That seems just to reinforce the message that none of us really know enough to judge, but with such a juicy gossip topic at hand that lack of actual knowledge about the situation isn’t going to slow things down much.

Without rattling off a series of names of guilty parties in such matters, why is it that so many men in high positions of spiritual leadership have such a hard time keeping their pants zipped at strategic moments then? And beyond the question of finding it hard to resist temptation when presented with adoring fans who want them sexually, why is it that so many seem to be prone to using their influence to pressure others (usually women, but not always) into physical intimacy? I can’t claim to know too much about this from personal experience or from having such leaders confide in me directly, but I have been close enough to such cultures to make some valid conjectures about the matter.

Elmer_Gantry_posterMy primary point would be that this is really not based on an Elmer Gantry narrative, at least not as a general rule. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Sinclair Lewis’s character, Gantry is an “elegant drunk” who becomes a fundamentalist preacher just for the thrills and sensual benefits the job has to offer, while never really taking the message to heart or constraining himself to live according to it. This character has really set the standard for condemnation of religious hucksters ever since. The problem is, it doesn’t really connect with what makes corrupt religious leaders tick. Martin Luther King Jr., for instance, had as difficult a time controlling his erotic urges as any religious leader ever, but that makes him neither a huckster nor even a hypocrite –– just one more screwed up human being who was doing his best to leave the world a better place while somewhat carelessly appreciating what life had to offer in the brief time he had it.

The core of the issue, as I see it at least, involves the interaction between the top three ways of searching for happiness in life: control, confidence and connection. (See my “Kristian’s Ethics” series starting here for further explanation of the terms.) Depending on the individual in question, some powerful preachers are essentially motivated by the thrill of being able to have a major impact on the lives of others; other preachers, more by being able to change the world –– put a ding in the universe, as Steve Jobs used to say –– in what they consider to be a positive way; still others, more for that satisfying mystical sense of being deeply connected with God, the universe, and people around them. All of these things can be related to a requirement of having mastery over one’s sexual urges, but all of them also relate to basic forms of satisfaction in life that can have a very sexual element to them. Let me unpack that a bit for you.

Especially those preachers who are in conversion-oriented churches and denominations, when they’re good at what they do –– getting people to make significant changes in their lifestyles and religious affiliations –– they get a certain thrill in the “win” that each convert represents. It is the same sort of thrill that a good litigating lawyer gets from presenting a successful closing argument; that a politician gets from winning a hard-fought election; that a salesman gets from closing a big deal. To deny that much good can come from people having such motivations at times is foolish. Obviously seeking such a thrill can cause people to do some particularly admirable and some particularly disgusting things morally. The danger is that an addiction to the sort of thrill that comes with being able to control people in this sort of way can have the effect of reducing the leader’s moral judgment as to which types of “wins” are morally justified and which are not. Take that far enough and seduction becomes just one more form of victorious control over others to feed that habit.

The sense of confidence in one’s moral value can function in much the same way. When someone is particularly good at problem solving, conflict resolution and social reform, that too brings its own addictive high. It isn’t necessarily about being able to get people to do what they want so much as being able to establish a vision for how things should ideally be and to bring that vision to pass. It starts with wanting to see people getting their thrills from being among believers singing worship choruses rather than being drunk in a pub singing karaoke or high on heroin in some ghetto shooting gallery. Being able to give people hope of better things, make society a safer place, setting up organizations that reduce suffering and increase the peace… all make us feel better about ourselves in a very satisfying way. Part of how that works is also being gracious about allowing some people to do nice things for you in return, so that they too can feel good about themselves as part of the exchange. And when it comes to doing simple things to make each other happy, sexual tensions are often not far below the surface.

Then there is the sensation of feeling deeply connected with others. In some very basic ways the ecstasy of religious euphoria can affect the brain in much the same way as chemical “E” –– “the love drug.” When you start to really feel that you are part of others and others are part of you, and we’re all part of something much bigger than all of us, hugs and kisses between participants become very free and natural. From there the temptation to allow the physical and emotional closeness to keep building becomes very powerful at times. Some are better at keeping this on a Platonic, brother and sister level than others.

So from the perspective of these three forms of satisfaction being intensively in play, it is not terribly surprising that so many religious leaders end up getting caught in embarrassing moral situations. This doesn’t justify their indiscretions, and certainly not their predatory practices, but it might explain how they tend to slip into such so easily at times. From this perspective the Catholic practice of clerical celibacy –– keeping the whole possibility of sexual intimacy off the table once and for all for all of their professional promoters of spiritual love –– might not be as crazy as it sounds to many outsiders. Then again, that clearly has not been a foolproof solution either. The best we can do, I imagine, is to remain on our guard in terms of which trusted individuals might be hoping for what extra forms of satisfaction at times; and to bear in mind what we want our master statuses to be, and how our various actions might end up affecting them.  I still believe that control, confidence and connection are the greatest factors to be developed in having a satisfying life, but I also believe that we need a certain amount of mastery over where they might lead us.

The idea of the master status is that you have one status which takes over everything about your life to one extent or another. It is not that you have a status which causes you to be recognized as a master; it is that the status itself is master and you end up becoming its slave or prisoner. Some statuses make better masters than other. Some we have more control over than others. So as much as it is within your power, choose your potential master status carefully.

Leave a comment

Filed under Control, Ethics, Freedom, Love, Religion, Respectability, Sexuality, Spirituality

Syrup Season

Every school day morning for the past few weeks I’ve cycled to work over ice that‘s just starting to melt in the sun, and every afternoon I’ve returned over slush that is just starting to solidify, with irregular solid chunks of ice buried within. So far I’ve managed to avoid any significant injury or equipment damage in the process. It’s hard to get really frustrated with the conditions even, as they are the surest sign of spring that we’ve got here at the moment.

wannabe syrup

wannabe syrup

The other happy thought that keeps me going these days is that these are prime conditions for doing maple syrup. Relatively few people outside the northeast United States, where I grew up, seem to be aware of this important cultural activity. Around the world there are products labeled as “Maple (flavored) Syrup”. But few seem to have any clear idea of where the real thing comes from, when and how it is produced.

To get good maple syrup you need to have the right sort of trees growing in the coldest possible area. The trees need to be good and hopelessly dead for some months of the year for the process to work. If they aren’t frozen up solid on the top during the winter, you won’t get any decent syrup making sap out of them. Then once they have suffered enough, and they become desperate enough to make leaves to gather what energy they can during the summer, you need the sort of weather that cruelly teases them for a while. So in the morning they need to feel warm enough in the sun where they start saying to themselves, “Yes! We can live with this!” and they start shooting all sorts of energy-rich sap up into the branches to start making leaves. But then later in the afternoon it starts to get cold again, the trees start to think un-Christian thoughts about the weather again, and they start to suck their sap back down into the roots where it won’t suffer from the solid freeze coming again that night… only to be fooled again the same way the next day.

The earlier in the season you manage to get some sort of inter-venous tap into the tree to collect some of this energy rich life blood of the maple tree, the more pure sugar water it contains. There’s something particularly sweet about the trees’ time of innocence each spring, when they have their first few dozen false alarms about spring having come. Eventually though a woody cynicism starts to set in, and rather than just sugar water the tree starts sending up more of its deeper brown earthy wisdom as to the disappointments this world has to offer. Eventually the sap becomes too dark and woody for commercial syrup production, and the season comes to an end, leaving the trees to make their leaves and do their best to thrive in peace. The sap is then boiled down to the desired thickness, bottled up and stored for special occasions or shipped off to be sold to those who appreciate the finer things in life.

An assortment of wares at a maple syrup boutique in New England I passed by a couple years ago

An assortment of wares at a maple syrup boutique in New England I passed by a couple years ago

So there are actually an infinite number of grades of syrup to be had from any given patch of maple trees on any given year. Some connoisseurs particularly like the lightest, sweetest, most innocent syrup from the early season; others prefer the darker, more distinctively “mapley” flavor of later season syrups. In Europe and in more southern climates, however, you can’t really shop around much for finer grades and better years of syrup. You take what you can find and you’re thankful for it!

The Finns do something similar to maple syrup from birch sap in the spring, but it’s not as sweet and it has a pretty powerful laxative effect, so it can’t be appreciated as freely as the classic North American confection. I would image it would be rather easy to grow sugar maples in this part of the world, but to the best of my knowledge no one has done it with any noteworthy success; and with all of the problems that have come with other tree species that have been transplanted around the world, it could well be illegal to try. Besides, it takes close to a man’s lifetime before a sugar maple tree even starts to provide a significant amount of tappable sap in the spring. It takes a pretty old forest to really make it worthwhile.


Late season sap buckets, hoping for one last run of sap before the season ends. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

Late season sap buckets, hoping for one last run of sap before the season ends. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

Now buried within this philosophical acceptance of, and sentimental appreciation for, the current time of year, there are far more analogous lessons for life than I can even begin to tease out for you. I’ll just quickly note some of the basic understandings that all this brings to mind for me:

  • The sweetest things in life only come through difficulties and disappointments. 
  • Sometimes naïve hope is worth expressing even if it does end up getting frustrated. 
  • Not everyone can appreciate it, but the unique character that comes out of repeatedly facing difficulties without giving up –– the darker aspects of what comes out of us –– are part of the unique character that makes us special. 
  • When you move on to new adventures in life you can’t always take all of the best of your old experiences with you, but you can bring some little taste of them along, enriching the lives of those you meet along the way in the process. 
  • You need to be careful how you go about replacing things you start to miss. 
  • Every season has its purpose, its beauties and its rewards. 
  • When it comes to changing the world for the better, we need to remember that sometimes the process takes longer than what would allow us to appreciate the fruits of our own labors. 
  • Some of our best intentions may have unpredictable consequences, and sometimes when we are not able to realize our ambitions that might actually turn out to be a good thing.

With those things in mind, let me go on to say to those I know in New England, New York, Michigan and southeastern Canada in particular, count your blessings, friends!

People in other parts of the world have their own special blessings about which you can understand little from where you sit, but your own blessings are something special. Like everyone, you are able to experience some of these blessings due to your own persistence and hard work in life, but there are other aspects which have nothing to do with your merit and everything to do with random factors working in your favor, or your good fortune to be able to harvest what those who came long before you have cultivated. Enjoy your freedom and blessings in tapping into the bounty that surrounds you then, always being careful to protect the trees and keep this wonderful blessing going for those who come after you.

Those too are ideas worth pondering for their broader implications.

And if any of you find it in your hearts to send or bring me some of your early to mid-season syrup, I will do what is in my power to arrange blessings in return on your lives.

1 Comment

Filed under Economics, Freedom, Happiness, Travel

The New Home of the Brave

Among those who were particularly afraid of President Obama getting re-elected, their greatest fears have now been realized. Democrats held the White House, firmed up their control of the Senate and took back a bit of the territory they lost in the House of Representatives. What’s worse, referendums showed the popularity of tolerance for both homosexuality and marijuana in many parts of the country. So they’re now left with the question: “Where can we hide?”

Let’s start by looking at who these wannabe refugees are. There are a few things which were strongly predictive of supporting President Obama’s re-election this year. In particular:
– Any darker skin color (Afro-American, native American, Hispanic, Oriental, Indian, Polynesian…)
– Any sort of university education, and/or
– A religious identity other than Mormon, Catholic or Protestant Evangelical.


So we’re looking for a place where those who are the opposite of these things –– less educated white people, who believe that their perspectives on life come straight from God –– can live free from the fear of having to share too much of their lives with people who are too much different from themselves. They should be allowed to fend for themselves, freely sell their own products on an open market, defend themselves with their own guns, not be exposed to any heathens other than those whom they wish to act as missionaries towards, not be required to face people whose sexuality they are uncomfortable with, and above all, not be required to help take care of those who are too helpless to take care of themselves. Is there anywhere in the world where we could actually send such people these days?

The nostalgic myth is that 300 years ago it was just this sort of perspective that drove people to seek their own sort of freedom in the American colonies. They came to escape all of these things they didn’t like about Europe –– urban moral decay, taxes, economic controls and required conformity to the wrong sorts of religion –– by escaping to a land where they could make their own fortunes without such pollution and interference. Eventually they killed and chased off enough of the darker skinned people they found there so that they had room to raise their families and build their businesses. From there, the story goes, they built a purer religious identity and a viable economic infrastructure for themselves for themselves than the Europeans had, and they then proceeded to sever their political ties with the morally inferior nations back on the other side of the ocean. But now the country that their forefathers built so bravely and so fine has come to resemble the very thing that these ancestors came to America to escape from. So where should they go next? Forget about trying to patch up the gaping historical holes in such a narrative. What we need to do is to help these people find some viable place to run away to.

Looking at the electoral map from this last week, the safest places in the US for those afraid of socialism to hide would seem to be Utah or Oklahoma, where over 2/3 of the population seem to be God-fearing Obama haters. But besides that pesky minority of “takers” within even those states there’s the problem of being landlocked with a nation moving further and further towards socialism. Setting up an autonomous corporatocratic form of government within those territories is just a non-starter. To be truly free from the ills of “failed European models of government” these folks really will have to emigrate to somewhere.  

The first naïve reaction among arch-conservatives has been to consider running away to Canada, but quite obviously that, for them, would be the classic “out of the frying pan, into the fire” move. Canada has socialized healthcare, gay marriage and no Second Amendment. And in fact pretty much every other English speaking country in the world has these same “problems”.

There is one country which rednecks might consider as a refuge. It has English as an official language, a very high percentage of gun ownership, a strong contingent of conservative Christians (especially in its “old money” classes), very low welfare benefits for would-be scroungers, a relatively weak national government and strong cultural prohibitions against homosexuality: the Republic of South Africa. There’s just one problem: for the past 20 years that country has been run by black people, and those on both sides of the racial divide are still coming to grips with that these days.

And once they look beneath the surface there, American conservatives may find that a  weaker national government is not always a good thing and “frontier style justice” has its serious problems in terms of public safety. For that matter, once the current government there gets itself properly organized, greater “wealth redistribution” is somewhat inevitable. Furthermore South Africa has a strong Muslim contingent in the population there which is too integrated into society for those addicted to anti-Islamic fear-mongering to ever really feel at home there.  So no, that would not be the right place for US conservatives to run away to, even if South Africa would be willing to take them.

But all hope is not lost. I have a suggestion. There is a place with miles and miles of unclaimed territory to inhabit, interspersed with token signs of Western civilization and even an American military presence. It has very recently been freed from the yoke of European socialism and it is just starting to work on the project of discovering and developing its wealth of natural resources. The population is almost entirely nominally Christian, but you can easily live far enough away from the rest of them so as not to worry about the corruptions in their beliefs if you don’t want to. I’m talking about Greenland.

Greenland has a coastline which is longer than the circumference of the earth. It is roughly 1000 kilometers across, and about 2½ times as long, north to south. Tucked away in the ice of its far north is the American military base on which the functional development and execution of Reagan’s “Star Wars” program took place –– which is still designated as the home of the 23rd Space Operations Squadron and the 12th Space Warning Squadron. Most of its ice-free territory is much further south though, where Denmark seems to think it has a legitimate claim dating back to settlements at the time of Leif Erikson that no developed nation has ever credibly disputed. After World War 2 the US offered to buy the whole territory from Denmark for roughly the price of one of Mitt’s second homes, but the deal fell through over terms of mortgage payments; besides which, Denmark really wanted to hang onto it for sentimental reasons.

These days in most respects Greenland can be referred to as a country unto itself. Gradually Denmark has realized that the colonial enterprise there would never turn a profit, and taking care of a group of 50,000  Eskimo descendants who didn’t really want to be Danish to begin with wasn’t really their responsibility. So since June 1, 2009 –– the sixth month of the Obama administration –– Greenlanders have been effectively starting to run their country for themselves. Their national budget is still based mostly on a block grant from the Danish government of roughly $10,000 per person per year, but that’s supposed to be a temporary thing; just until the local population starts to develop the resources that the Danes previously wouldn’t let them cash in on: gold, rubies, uranium, aluminum, zinc, natural gas, etc.

So we’re talking about a country with an ice-free area roughly the size of California (and growing) with a population smaller than Bismarck, North Dakota and a capital city with a population the size of Sulphur Springs, Texas. That works out to 7.3 square kilometers (2.8 square miles) per person. So if you don’t happen to like the other people there you can always find an abandoned town or piece of coastline to call your own. You can set up an independent hunting or fishing operation for yourself, or you could develop a whole new industry there from scratch. You can home school to your heart’s content without government interference. There is no big influx of immigrants there to worry about and the total number of AIDS cases in the country you can still count on your fingers.  What more could a self-declared Atlas who feels like shrugging ask for?

You see I’m effectively calling bluff on all those who think that America is losing freedom and squelching the grand entrepreneurial class. Obviously those who invest in off-shore tax shelters are not particularly worried about the good of the country or committed to the well-being of their fellow citizens as a matter of principle. So if you really think that your work and intelligence has its own value that would be better realized in a freer environment, less bound by the regulations of an inter-dependent society, the opportunities are out there. Just save up and buy yourself an old trawler, load it up with whatever stuff you need to build a self-sufficiency cabin there, and when the weather breaks next spring head for Greenland.

Now of course if you discover while you’re there that you do actually need help from the local or the world community –– if you discover that the world you felt like you were carrying on your shoulders really was supporting you the whole time –– all is not lost. Unlike the American pioneers, most of whom died in their search for freedom, these days even this most radically individualistic adventure can be done quite safely. You can take along a two-way satellite radio, GPS emergency tracking devices and all sorts of other fruits of public funding to cover your ass. You could still fall through some ice and drown, or loose a fight with a polar bear, or misidentify a mushroom or two, but overall you’d still be fairly safe these days. The biggest risk is that you’d discover that you are not nearly as self-made and self-sufficient as you thought you were, and you could then reach that horrible place where “socialism” wouldn’t look so bad any more.

To avoid that risk perhaps you should just stock up on canned food and bottled water and squirrel yourself away in your bombproof bunker for the next 10-15 years. You might not believe us, but we’ll let you know if it’s safe to come out after that. If Jesus comes again during that time don’t worry, you won’t miss it. He’ll know where to find you.

Whatever you end up doing, I’d like to say that if you do leave to hide out somewhere or to build a new, freer life we’ll miss you, but we’ve already had too many lies this year based on telling people what they want to hear, so…


Leave a comment

Filed under Freedom, Politics, Religion

KE part 4 (evaluating control-based happiness)

On I go with re-editing and re-blogging my three year old series of posts based on my “Kristian’s Ethics” manuscript.

Having outlined my basic approach and discussed the pursuit of happiness by way of comparison and comfort, I now move on to the third c-word: control. I began explaining this to my son years back by way of a true story (or so the person telling me claimed) that I heard during my years as a bar tender in Helsinki, shortly after the Berlin Wall and all it represented came down:

This Western businessman I was serving told me a story of the culture clashes he had faced while trying to set up a business in Eastern Europe. As he told it, as free enterprise was just becoming possible in that part of the world, he went to this Eastern European country, hired a few local assistants and set up an import/export office. The office was an immediate success in marketing at least; orders started coming in left and right, and to keep up with the demand the entrepreneur himself had to work sixteen to eighteen hour days, seven days a week. The problem was that he had to do most of the work alone; every weekday afternoon at five o’clock all of his local work force would put on their coats and head for the door. Working nights and weekends was out of the question for them. Overtime was a concept that was untranslatable into their language. The business man begged and pleaded and negotiated with these people until finally one Friday afternoon one fellow explained things to him in rather crude terms: “Look,” he said, “I’m done with this shit for the week. I’m going home to open a bottle of brandy. I’m going to get so drunk that I can’t stand up, then I’m going to go to bed and screw my girlfriend until I wear the skin off my dick.  Tomorrow I’ll get up around noon, open the next bottle and start the party all over again, and I’ll keep it going all the way through ‘til Sunday.  Meanwhile, you’ll be here driving yourself crazy with this shit, and if you go anywhere it will only be back to your hotel room to collapse because you’re too tired to do anything else. Why should I want to be more like you?”

The poor businessman couldn’t answer, and he couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for himself. He thought of himself as a free and single playboy, but he wasn’t really living up to it. He kept going with his own rat race while his hired help was getting what he thought he wanted for himself in life.

He wasn’t being as illogical as he thought he was though. Most people, given a chance to see everything about the businessman’s and the worker’s lives, and given a choice of having one or the other for themselves, would still choose the businessman’s life; and as time has gone on more and more Eastern Europeans have become workaholic businessmen themselves. Why? Because he had something that most people consider to be more important than comfort: control. He could control what his company did, where he lived, what he owned, where he traveled, who worked for him, and to a certain extent he could even control the economic relationships between different countries. Compared to that, the only things that the worker could control was (to a certain extent) what time he could come and go, what he drank on the weekend and, if he was lucky, what woman he would sleep with.

I use the term control here less in the sense of having order and predictability in life––though that is an important side effect––and more in terms of being able to cause the things of your own choosing to happen. It involves the exercise of power as a primary element, but also a certain skill at channeling that power with precision and being able to foresee and regulate the consequences of the exercise of this power.

There is a common but erroneous conception of there being good and bad forms of control, with a clear border of sorts between them. The good ones would have names like empowerment, freedom, liberty, self-determination and autonomy. The bad ones would be labeled with terms like tyranny, domination, subjugation and dictatorship. The word authority has a rather variable connotation between these, in that it is technically defined in sociology as “the legitimate exercise of power,” but it is also the primary factor limiting the exercise of freedom or liberty which everyone wants for themselves.

In practice no line can be drawn between “good control” and “bad control,” because we humans are interactive creatures. Everything I choose to do has effects on those around me, and everything those around me do has an effect on me. If I have complete freedom to do whatever I feel like doing, regardless of how those around me feel about it, I am effectively subjugating them. On the other hand, if I have no control over the actions of other, I end up lacking freedom from their harassment and freedom to interact with them in ways that I find satisfying. I illustrated this with a paraphrased version of a story that I borrowed from someplace I can’t actually remember. (Extra points if someone can find the original source.)

Let’s imagine that once upon a time there was a village where there was perfect freedom: everyone could do whatever they felt like doing whenever they felt like doing it. Well, as it happened, what some people felt like doing was going around punching other people in the nose as hard as they could. They claimed that it was part of their basic freedom to use their fists as they wished, and they were perfectly willing to grant the same freedom to those around them. Most of the people in the village, however, preferred freedom from having their noses broken to freedom to break other people’s noses; so they passed a law that forbid spontaneous nose punching.  The nose punchers were deeply insulted by this new law.  They claimed that this was a terrible restriction of their basic personal liberties, and that the village was taking away their greatest joy in life. Eventually many of them moved away to form their own village, where starting a fist-fight when you felt like it was a guaranteed civil liberty. So then you had the pretty-nosed village and the happy-fisted village side by side, and the question must now be asked, which one was more free?

The traditional reciprocity argument of limiting yourself to actions that you can accept everyone else doing doesn’t do much to help us solve this one. In their own ways each village was being perfectly reasonable. And while this may sound a bit absurd to some, if you substitute the nose punching with smoking, trading in pornography, experimenting with “chemical recreation” of various sorts, playing loud music, auto racing or even the building of nuclear power plants, you can see the same dynamic as relevant to issues of our own time. Sometimes in order to achieve happiness it is important to exercise control over more than yourself, and developing means of controlling yourself, your environment and other people in it can be a very important part of any person’s happiness.

So how do we do that? What means of control are we talking about? I would itemize four basic types: physical, political, economic and philosophical control.

Physical control is perhaps best symbolized by various larger vehicles marketed as “freedom machines,” ranging from cruising motorcycles to sport convertibles to SUVs to private jets. Not only being able to go wherever you want whenever you want as fast as you want, but being able to get tons of metal to move at great speeds precisely according to your whim can give guys in particular a great rush. In the old days an important part of this rush was making it happen with the strength of one’s own muscles, and sometimes that still applies, in sports in particular; but less and less it would seem, as sports become more technology and equipment oriented. This also spills over into our primitive violent urges to dominate other people through physical aggression, but in the contemporary world that technique of controlling other people has become largely outdated.

Techniques of influencing other people can be referred to as political control. I use this as a broad term for pretty much any exercise of social influence, down to children manipulating their parents into giving them the toys they want. The means of exercising this sort of control over others are too many to itemize. Carnegie’s famous work, How to Win Friends and Influence People, doesn’t even scratch the surface. Suffice to say, advertisers and lobbyists have worked on getting this down to a science, but it still remains more of an art, and on the micro level at least, women seem to have an advantage over men in this area. But there is one way that more than any other seems to work these days as a means of getting people to do what you want them to: pay them.

This is what I mean by economic control. These days wealth is not, strictly speaking, an abundance of material possessions; it is a measure of a person’s culturally accepted capacity to pay for things –– to get others to give them what they want or do what they want in exchange for a certain portion of their money –– their recognized purchasing power. With certain cultural skills, this form of control can be used to expand itself exponentially these days, until the system becomes so abstract that it starts to crumble from within. Since I am not an economist by training I have to limit myself in terms of how far I try to go in analyzing the monetary system, but suffice to say, it is the major measure of the capacity to exercise control in the world today, and it is in itself rapidly spiraling out of control.

Given my own biases as a teacher though, I consider one form of control to be more important than money: the power of original and valuable thoughts and ideas. I refer to this category with the blanket term of philosophical control. This can include conceptual areas ranging from inventiveness to hegemony, but explaining those would take more bandwidth than I’m ready to use here this weekend. Once again, suffice to say that if you have sufficiently powerful ideas or wisdom, you can usually parlay that into economic wealth. (I’ve never managed it myself, but I do believe it can be done.) Beyond that, there are some things that some people will not do for money, but there are far fewer things that people would not do on the basis of a commitment to an ideal they have become convinced of.

All that being said, Nietzsche’s theories not withstanding, I do not believe the will to power, or the desire for “freedom” and control, to be the ultimate source of satisfaction in human life. While a certain amount of freedom is necessary for anyone to be happy, and while control tends to be more important to people than physical pleasures once we get beyond the basic survival level, obviously the world’s most powerful people are not the world’s happiest people. It has become a cheap cliché to say that money cannot buy you happiness. There can be exceptions to this, but they require that the money is used to gain something other than influence over others. It’s not enough to be in control; we need to have something worth doing with that control. That’s where this serialized theory of happiness is going next.


Filed under Economics, Ethics, Freedom, Happiness, Philosophy

The Gospel According to Anarchy

I’ve been confronted over the past month or so by a number of evangelists for various brands of anarchy. I’m not sure whether this is just my random bad luck or if this means that the movement is actually growing. It’s sort of like trying to determine whether there’s something to the theory of human caused global warming based on how many good beach days you have from summer to summer –– my personal experiences don’t really say how “important” this idea is. But regardless of that uncertainty, as the issue seems to be getting some traction with otherwise intelligent young people, I thought it would be worth addressing properly.

Front line promoters of the doctrineAnarchy, at least in the forms I have seen it lately, seems to form some loose alliance with libertarianism and “Objectivism”. All of these are movements which believe that government attempts to protect the disadvantaged and improve the lives of the poor are counterproductive, and our priority in the attempting to improve our societies should be to eliminated such programs let those with resources at their disposal do as they please with them. From there, they believe, enlightened self-interest and “the invisible hand” of market forces will steer our societies in the healthiest, happiest and most efficient direction possible.

The key to the anarchist argument is the assumption that unbridled natural empathy can be trusted more than democratic institutions; since if there is no empathy in action in the majority of the population, democratic institutions won’t work either, and if there is a strong sense of empathy in the population, we don’t need any form of government to reinforce it.  In some ways this makes them strange bedfellows with the libertarians and Objectivisits, who come closer to the classic Nietzschean line of saying that the priority is to free the excellence of gifted and superior individuals from slavery to the will of the dumb and inferior masses. Rather than caring what the “sheep” want, they feel that they should be free to fly like eagles; and if the sheep don’t like it when they kill the occasional rabbit, who cares?

But for the anarchists, libertarians pose a far smaller threat to their ideals of happiness than “statists” do. This term is used to describe supporters of all forms of government which have powers of “violent coercion” at their disposal. Any government which has its own weapons is inherently a bad thing, they say. The greatest number of deaths and the greatest destruction of property that we have witnessed over the past few generations, if not over the entire course of human history, have been at the hands of governments. The only close competitor really, they claim, would be organized religion acting in a governmental capacity. The implication here is taken to be, if we rid the world of governments, we rid the world of the vast majority of horrendous violence.

Another point of contact between these movements seems to be a bitter resentment among their leaders and evangelists regarding their traumatic experiences in public schools, in the US in particular. There is a strong echo of Paul Simon’s classic lyric, “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.” The fact that US public schools are in trouble –– progressively failing even –– is no great secret. With the rich and the strongly religious pulling their kids out of such institutions, and with those on the radical right seeing them as “socialist breeding grounds” and thus doing everything possible to cripple them, and with many schools facing the additional burden of being the primary social service contact point for some seriously marginalized families without any additional funding to cover their actions in that capacity, it would be truly miraculous if these schools were not failing. So it is not at all surprising to see some disgruntled former students of these institutions wanting to see them scrapped entirely. Having the convenient label of “statist indoctrination centers” to place on the sites of their most traumatic childhood experiences makes them all the easier to hate and reject.

So after putting care for all types of disadvantaged people placed on an entirely voluntary footing, the next practical issue anarchist theorists attempt to approach is that of “public goods”: necessary services which are currently provided by the government, for which users can’t reasonably be billed on a pay-for-usage basis. It is self-evident that an anarchist system would eliminate public parks, national highways, public broadcasting, public fire and police services and especially public schools. Whether people would be ready to live without these things, they claim, is an irrelevant question. The evil statists have conditioned people to be dependent on the government by offering these perks in exchange for some of their liberty and their compliance with the principle of violently reinforced tax collection. Without these evil statists running things on an involuntary basis, anarchists believe that voluntary, competitively structured, privately funded, either charitable or for-service-fee-paying-customers-only services could replace all of these –– theoretically providing better services at less of a cost.

National defense, they admit, is a bit more problematic as a service to be privatized. Can you have a defense against potentially invading empires with nuclear capacities based entirely on voluntary association? Well, they say, if everyone else also sees the benefits of purely voluntary association and the wastefulness of continuous wars, why not?

Then as part of the question arises as to whether expanded “rentacop” services could adequately replace government-based police services and courts in practice. The orthodox anarchist answer to this is that a stronger system of private negotiation services and settlement agencies would arise. Wars between private security companies would be expensive, and therefore it would make economic sense for them to have contractual understandings with each other to settle things by way of hired arbitrators. These arbitrators in turn would be hired on the basis of providing the kind of fairness and justice their clients most want. If clients want to see offenders against their property tortured and killed, they can hire a security company that in turn contracts with an arbitration company that leans towards judgments allowing for the torturing and killing of thieves. If you only want to see those who steal your property imprisoned and/or enslaved until they make full restitution to you and your security provider, you can turn to companies that provide those sorts of services. If you want to be charitable to thieves who only steal from you out of dire necessity, you can hire an arbitrator which provides those sorts of services. In any case the moral character of the customers will ultimately decide what sort of policing systems turn out to be the most economically viable as businesses.

This, to my mind, is where the rational problems with their ideology become most obvious. Everything else seems to be theoretical speculation about how people might relate to each other in some hypothetical utopian system operating according to these people’s anti-authoritarian taste. Like all other forms of utopian idealism, they make certain assumptions about how people’s behavior would change if they were not subjected to the current abuses, but they can’t really be systematically proven right or wrong. But when it comes to the matter of extensive security operations being run for profit without government oversight there are plenty of historical precedents to turn to.

Anarchist theorists themselves like to cite some idealized picture of medieval Iceland as the best precedent, but a far more feasible example would be post-Renaissance and pre-modern Italy. Why not take a look at both?

Iceland was first settled by Vikings who wanted to get away from the particular warlords that were running Norway and Denmark back in the ninth century. So a bunch of hearty souls hopped into their long ships and headed west. Some landed in what we know today as Greenland; others, in what is now Iceland. Those in Greenland ended up dying out for a number of reasons outlined rather well by Jared Diamond. Those who landed in Iceland weren’t more intelligent or culturally different from their brothers to the southwest, but they managed to stick things out with their experiment in independence for considerably longer, for a couple of reasons: 1) There was no outside competition for control of that particular chunk of volcanic rock out in the middle of the north Atlantic. 2) The natural geothermal hot springs in Iceland provided means to prevent these people from freezing to death when they accidentally used up all of their timber resources. In both settlements, though, you had a group of chieftains who formed a sort of aristocratic counsel together. Within their own territories these chieftains extracted protection payments from the local farmers and in turn provided a sort of rough and ready security service. There were essentially three differences between this ancient Icelandic government ant the feudal system which was operating in central Europe at the time:
– The subsistence farmers were not considered to be the property of the barons.
– There was relative freedom of religion, including both Christianity and the worship of Norse gods within the society.
– Life was too difficult for any given chieftain to amass enough power to seriously threaten the other chieftains for more than two centuries.
It was not an easy or utopian existence, but they had their own island of immense rugged beauty with no one to bother them for a good long stretch. When times were tough they ate their dogs and then whatever sea birds and half-rotten fish they could find. Sometimes people froze and starved to death, though not so badly as in Greenland. When times were good the chieftains worked on amassing resources which they could use to gain greater power and influence around the island. Eventually things were good enough for them for a long enough period where they could afford a real rip-snorting series of battles for control of the island. That went on for close to half a century before they finally decided that they would be safest from each other if they let the King of Norway decide which of them would be in charge.

In some ways the Icelandic commonwealth, while it lasted, was a very forward-looking political arrangement, but more by accident than design. They were isolated from other human enemies, and the elements made it necessary for them to band together and help each other if any of them were to survive. It wasn’t as though there was no government; the government was just surprisingly cooperative considering the historical era in which they lived. Many of the best features of this commonwealth have long since been incorporated into the democracies of the Nordic countries. Most of those countries still have kings and queens these days, but those figureheads aren’t even allowed to voice an opinion about their nations’ school systems, never mind rule the economy by decree. Overall though this part of the world has long since gotten over its warlike Viking ways, and these nations now set the standard for the rest of the world in terms of democratic governance conducted in a spirit of national solidarity, with particularly solid systems for education, health care and prevention of marginalization. Now don’t take this to mean that these countries are any paradise on earth, but if there are positive lessons to be gleaned from Iceland’s commonwealth period, modern Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Sweden are the places to see them in action.

But if traditional governments in the modern world were to break down entirely it wouldn’t really start to look like medieval Iceland. Italy would be a far more realistic model.

It was at about the same time when Iceland was resubmitting itself to the Norwegian crown that Italy began to be reshaped by the aftermath of the Crusades. Traditional barons and princes who had been legitimized by the church since the time of Charlemagne had bankrupted themselves by financing armies to go down into the Middle East to kill Jews and Muslims. Meanwhile some of the veteran mercenaries of this period came back with the ingenious idea of bringing international commerce to their little peninsula. They had discovered that the Muslims had a thing or two that Europeans would probably pay good money for, and so they started sending ships down to buy and/or steal goods from Asia and Africa that they could sell at home. It didn’t take too long before these merchants were in better shape than the members of the hereditary royalty to hire their own private artisans, educators and armies.

No one was clearly in charge of the peninsula, and power kept shifting between alliances of local rich men who were more or less continuously in a state of low key civil war with each other. Sometimes they would turn to the Catholic Church for diplomatic assistance, and sometimes they would turn to royal families in other parts of Europe to help them settle their disputes without excessive bloodshed, but more often they just went ahead and shed the blood.

This infighting kept the Italians from being able to develop the sort of international empires that their neighbors in Spain, France, Portugal and England did. So about the time when the papal states were squashed down to what we now know as Vatican City, the rest of Italy finally tried to come together under a more systematic and united form of government, so as to be able to better participate as equals in European culture. But this new government took a while in establishing viable police forces and courts, so the previously established system of freelance policing and arbitration of disputes effectively remained in business, continuing to operate so as to maximize their profits under the new, more restrictive political and economic circumstances. The private security companies from Sicily in particular became famous for not only continuing to operate at a considerable profit in their home country, but also for expanding and diversifying their operations into the United States. These companies are collectively known as the Mafia. Used with a small m, this word can be applied to any business which borrows their same models and methods.

So in the mafia we have a historically verified model of what applied anarchy actually looks like. Now it must be admitted that when turf wars between various mafia organizations have been taken care of, these “protectors” really can provide better security and mediation services than many governments. In the Baltic States, for instance, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and before functional state enforcement of law and order was up and running in Latvia and Estonia, businesses operated at the mercy of various “security companies.” In practice gave these “service providers” gave their “customers” little choice in the matter (a mechanic friend of mine tells the colorful story of what happened to a particular car dealer in Tallinn which attempted to opt out of their “security service” contract in those days), but many businesses still considered these mafiosos easier to work with than the kleptocratic Soviet authorities who had preceded them.

In places where organized crime has progressed to the level of powerful cartels operating without much official government interference they also take care good care of their own in terms of providing better education services and health care than the government would. So to say that functional anarchy amounts to a mafia-run style of social organization isn’t necessarily the worst thing that can be said for it. It is just terribly naïve to believe that anarchy will ever result in a more humanitarian form of social organization than what mafia controlled regions have historically had to offer.

If you travel through Estonia and Latvia today, you might still see signs of mafia activity –– some conspicuously wealthy and powerful people that seem to operate as a law unto themselves –– but there is no longer that “wild west” air of people looking over their shoulder all the time and trying to carefully cultivate relationships with mafia-based security companies. Rule of law has functionally returned to these countries now, and on that basis they are rapidly approaching something like a Nordic standard of living. Few if any there, other than the mafiosos themselves, are nostalgic for those exciting times of functional anarchy in the early 90s, or longing for its return.

So with all this evidence against the only aspect of anarchist theory that has been historically tested, why is it so popular these days? As I said to begin with, maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s just one of those marginal Internet phenomena that only has a handful of actual supporters, but which homes in on those of us it considers to be potential converts with everything it’s got. On the other hand, it’s entirely believable that it could be a growing trend in the world today, and I’m willing to offer a few speculations as to why that might be.

To start with, every generation has to have its young idealists who believe that they can radically reshape society by getting rid of abusive old power structures. If nothing else it’s their way of proving to themselves that they are more than carbon copies of their parents. Likewise every older generation since the time of Plato has been worried about the crazy ideas and the lack of “traditional discipline” seen among their young people. Some such young radicals succeed in introducing a few revolutionary new ideas into their societies –– e.g. within just the past couple centuries formerly radical ideas such as the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, freedom of religion and children’s right to an education are so well established as to be largely taken for granted in the “civilized world”. Other radical social theories and experiments are tried out from time to time only to suffer the agony of defeat –– Marxism, especially in its Stalinist and Maoist forms, would be the most obvious example there. But win or lose, there seems to be an existential need for each new generation to have some radical new idea to toss back at their elders, and at this point in history anarchist idealism seems to be the most radical thing available for such a purpose.

Beyond that, while Marx’s crystal ball obviously had some cracks in it when it came to showing him a functional way out of the mess, in terms of seeing where laissez-faire capitalism could ultimately lead, his analyses are starting to look eerily accurate. So besides all of the collapsing dictatorships and imploding revolutionary councils we find all over the world these days, within the best established capitalist countries it seems as though governments are being taken over entirely by what Eisenhower first called “the military-industrial complex”. These sociopaths have in turn formed alliances with a banking sector that has abused the trust of working people for far too long. Consequently we are witnessing an ever-growing “Occupy” movement spreading across the US and the world. So with that as the best government has to offer, it is hardly surprising that young idealists are drawn to the idea of no government at all.

And beyond that still, to again use Nietzsche’s famous analogy, even the fuzziest of little sheep are prone to imagine that someday they will grow up to be eagles –– only eagles that are nicer to the poor little bunnies. There is an illusion deeply ingrained in the American psyche in particular which tells everyone that they don’t have to worry about programs to protect losers, because they are all destined to be winners if they work hard enough at it.  Perhaps Steinbeck said it best: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor there see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” So as millionaires in their own minds, Americans –– especially those with the optimism of youth –– don’t believe that they need a government to help them with anything. “I don’t need government handouts!

Those are only for those who can’t stand up for themselves. So why should I have to pay into such things?” Nor, for that matter, is such a mentality limited to just young Americans.

Then to top it all off, the Internet has made it possible for true believers in this anarchist gospel (and cynical promoters who see a bit of a future for themselves in the business) to reach out to a new audience, taking full advantage of the sort of clichés that cults have been using for years: “This teaching isn’t something to follow if you want to be popular. The masses are still too trapped in their old ways of thinking to ever get it. Beyond that there is a conspiracy out there to keep their minds enslaved. But you don’t have to be taken in by the lies that are taken for ‘conventional wisdom’ any more. If you truly get this you are part of a very select band of much deeper thinkers. You now have access to the truth! And once you have realized the beauty of this truth you just have to share it with others, regardless of how unpopular it makes you!”

To those who have swallowed this sort of indoctrination pitch anything that I might say against their faith will just be taken as proof that I am one of the statist conspirators, or one of their patsies. But to those who are open to what reasoning I have to offer on the matter I say this:
Just because we don’t like the way politicians abuse power doesn’t mean that we can somehow wish away the exercise of power entirely. If there is no organized and established system of power in society then there will always be greedy psychopaths stepping in to fill the void. So even if the majority of people in a society are “good” that doesn’t mean that this generalized goodness will be able to keep forces of violent selfishness from seizing control of that society if the good people don’t democratically organize themselves.

Nor is it enough to exercise influence in just economic terms. If you choose to follow that route exclusively, each person’s influence will be directly proportionate to the amount of disposable income they have at their disposal. From there it is a relatively simple matter for those who already control the vast majority of the resources in the economy to entirely eliminate the population majority’s possibilities to choose anything.

For all its imperfections, especially in its current American incarnation, a representative democracy theoretically enables every man and woman to have the same amount of say and the same level of influence in how the society will be organized. Rich people don’t get to cast any more ballots than poor people do. So the best hope we have of organizing things in the best interest of “good people” is by struggling to get our democracies to function the way they are theoretically supposed to. Of course there are manipulative powerful and greedy people who will try to abuse any system, but that doesn’t mean we should just trash any system that struggles in trying to limit their power.

I believe our greatest hope for improving things is first of all to expose those cases where elections are not being conducted freely and fairly, and to rally the world together to insist that such pretenses at democracy be rectified. Then from there we need to establish education systems, perhaps closer to the Nordic model, which equip voters to make intelligent and informed decisions. The greatest abuses in the American system at present take the form of “super-PACs” which are able to spend billions of dollars on brainwashing the gullible to get the sort of election results they want. But if the American education system was working properly, enabling people to think critically about the information which is being fed to them, this attempt to buy election results by way of super-PACs wouldn’t work anymore.

I’ve been given literally hundreds of pages worth of anarchist propaganda, and this essay far really only scratches the surface of the my differences of opinion with those documents. If anyone feels that there is some particular aspect of anarchist thinking that I should consider more carefully then, please write a reply to me here about the matter, and I will do my best to address it in the weeks to come.

Here’s hoping, my dear anarchist friends, that for you as well the important matter is trying to fix what we can of the things in our world that clearly aren’t working as they should, so that in some significant way we can leave a better world to our children. If working towards such an end is genuinely more important to you than defending your pet dogma, then regardless of our differences of opinion, we still have things to talk about here.



Filed under Freedom, Philosophy, Politics

Catch my Drift?

I began writing this in flight last week, as the new post-South Africa phase of my life officially began. I had just surrendered the keys to my apartment of the previous 10 months the day before, and I was in route back to Finland, where I had arranged to stay with friends until I am “back on my feet.”

It was a strange feeling to be officially homeless just then; not so much frightening as just strange.

Since then I have agreed with my friends to stay on in their guest quarters here behind the garage for the next couple of months, doing yard work and pool repairs and the like to earn my keep, but I still have a limited idea of where life will be leading me from here.

In some ways I feel as though I am living out other people’s fantasy self-image: no long-term commitments to living up to anyone’s day-to-day expectations; and consequently no solid ground under my feet in terms of home, job, family, etc. In some respects I’m in the personal identity equivalent of the freefall stage of a bungee jump. I know that there are mechanisms in place to keep me from smashing onto the rocks below, but that doesn’t keep the feeling of helpless uncertainty from being very real.

As this situation has been taking shape some of my peers and acquaintances –– pretty much all of whom have more stable and anchored life situations than myself –– have been trying to encourage me with optimistic statements of faith that God and/or fate having something wonderful in store for me. Suffice to say, fate and I have a rather uneasy relationship. Yes, on the big scale of things I’ve been luckier than most, but that doesn’t mean that in cases of uncertainty I automatically assume that I’m about to experience some fabulous lucky break. Life hasn’t dependably offered me wonderful things right when I’ve needed them at any particular point along the way. Rather I seem to have batches of unusual, bizarre and painful experiences at times like this. As one fellow recently put it, I often seem to be more “at odds with the universe” than anyone else he knows. So not knowing what is likely to happen next is not a particularly positive experience for me.

I am still what many would call a rather religious person in some regards –– I believe that there is a God out there who fundamentally cares about life on our planet and who even takes a personal interest in funky individuals like myself. I believe that this God has some sort of a plan for my life, and that a lot of what we call “fate” can be more fruitfully considered in these terms. Overall I believe that looking at the world with this sort of optimism makes me a far healthier person, though it also has its risks. I acknowledge that if someone chooses to believe differently than I do in this matter there is little I can do to prove to them that I’m right and they’re wrong. And even if I’m not making a colossal mistake in entertaining such beliefs –– in other words, assuming that I’m essentially right about the idea that there is a God out there who personally cares about us –– that doesn’t necessarily imply that he would have a plan that involves giving me personal importance and/or a sense of bliss in the immediate future. In fact I must admit that trusting my limited understanding of what God might want to do with my life rather than putting a serious effort into practical strategic planning has, in retrospect, led to some of my biggest mistakes in life. In the balance I still think my faith has been a good thing in terms of enriching my day to day life –– believing that there is some sort of divine plan involved in my life has given me the courage to set off on adventures that would have otherwise been too intimidating to even consider –– it just doesn’t give me any immediate assurance that things currently beyond my control are about to work out wonderfully.

And that leads to the tricky question of balance, where I have to decide how tight a grip I must try to keep on things I associate with comfort and familiarity. How much control do I really need? How “in charge” does a person have to be? When is it time to make up our minds about what we want and pursue those goals with tireless determination, and when is it time to just unfurl our sails and see where the wind takes us?

I don’t believe there are general answers to such questions that apply in all circumstances. I must admit that my own process of relating to such things has been largely one of trial and error. Sometimes I’ve been accused of clinging to old ideas and certainties far too tenaciously, and sometimes I’ve been accused of being far too laissez-faire about my own life; oft times by the same people! So what does this tell us? Besides demonstrating once again that one should never take all of the ignorant and incoherent personal critiques that come at you too seriously, perhaps it shows that I have a long way to go before I have my lifestyle experimentation down to a science.

When it comes to taking such risks it’s hard to say which side is better to err on even. On the one hand people who have had long and respectable lives very often reach their end with serious regrets about what they didn’t do than with what they took risks on. On the other hand, the things that get people killed before their time, and which destroy valuable relationships with other people, are when they step out of the role that people expect them to play and set off on particularly crazy adventures without weighing the consequences carefully enough. We all face numerous forks in our lives’ paths; we all puzzle about the roads not taken, and none of us can escape that angst by always going to the left or always going to the right.

But then again it can be argued that the key to putting my situation in perspective might lie in looking beyond my own interests and circumstances, and focusing instead on how I can influence other people’s lives. What I should do to reach out and help those in greater need than myself? As a basic perspective this too has some merit. Rather than looking at how I can improve my own situation I can far better improve my level of satisfaction by putting more of my energy into helping others. Social science research also supports such a theory: the more a person spends time and money on others, the greater their overall satisfaction in life tends to be.

But here too there are some balance factors to be taken into consideration. To start with, just because you are doing unto others as you would ideally have them do unto you doesn’t mean that they, or anyone else, will actually do the sort of things for you that you would like. Being a kind and decent person to others is an entirely separate matter from being part of a kind and decent community. If it isn’t set in law in one way or another you can’t really expect other people to help you out in any way that they can’t see as being in their personal self-interest, and it is to be taken for granted that most people can’t see things as being in their self-interest unless it provides them with short-term physical pleasures or competitive advantages over those around them. In other words when you do things freely for others for that to work in terms of making you happy you really can’t expect anything from them in return. Those who feel cheated because they “freely” helped others but no one helped them in return really don’t have anyone but themselves to blame. If you’re expecting something in return you’re really not giving freely –– naively trustingly, but not freely. To get joy out of giving and helping you can’t really be expecting anything back but the joy of being able to give to and help out others.

And with that in mind it is important not only to be ready to give freely to some, but to give in honest exchange to others. One must have some sort of agreed upon role within the community, or a series of temporary roles, in order to accrue something to be able to give to others and to take responsibility for oneself. Lose track of that and slip below what is necessary for you to safely live on, and you’re in trouble every time.

But before my libertarian individualist friends and relations start jumping on this and thinking that I’ve finally come over to their way of thinking in terms of self-reliance, let me point out that I still consider the healthiest societies to be those which have laws enforcing a basic agreement of solidarity between people. In any traditional society based on self-reliance there still needs to be protections for widows and orphans and other severely disadvantaged folk. There also need to be laws which prevent people from freely and hatefully abusing others who they see as somehow discomforting or intimidating. And ideally there should be some basic understanding in place that assures us that when things get nasty for us there will always be someone there to help. Any society which actively destroys protections for the poor and encourages hate and suspicion towards “outsiders”–– whoever those may be –– is a fundamentally unhealthy society, and in this regard I wish to avoid living in “red” parts of the US in particular until the cultural implosions there have further run their course.

There are other interest groups besides American Libertarians who would like to take this opportunity to point out to me that my approach to life isn’t working so well just now, with hopes that they might convert me to their own religions or ideologies. Is my reluctance to take such invitations seriously a sign of my hanging on too tightly to my old dysfunctional way of thinking? Of course I don’t think so; but I wouldn’t, would I?

Seriously though, I’ve spent a great deal of my life around highly motivated, extremely idealistic and often profoundly intelligent and deeply admirable religious people. I’ve tried to absorb the most functional and admirable elements of each, while not taking for granted the truth of what any of them claimed for themselves. I hope to continue functioning in such a way, receiving from as many admirable influences as I can, but randomly submitting myself to none of those who would hope for such. It would take a far greater argument than I’ve encountered thus far to convert me to some radically new religion or approach to life. If those representing such interests get bitter about my refusal to join them in that sort of way, so be it.

All that being said, my personal drifting process appears to be on-going for the summer. As my dear friends here in Espoo have made this little apartment available to me for the time being, I will be staying here until I wear out my welcome here, or run out of ways to make myself useful, or important new opportunities present themselves. Though I’ve given freely to others whenever it’s been in my power, I don’t feel that I am naturally “entitled” to the hospitality I’m currently receiving, and I am truly grateful for it. Meanwhile I also have to acknowledge that the ugly old low-budget car I just acquired this week may or may not turn out to be dependable in the long run; that’s just part of how these things work. And as far as employment goes, if nothing else becomes available I can still return to a reduced role with my former employer, which could provide me with basic means of keeping body and soul together as they say, but it is no secret that I would prefer to move on. So in all these ways life goes on for me, following its own meandering path.

Or in terms of the previous metaphor, I’ve reached the point where the stretchy rope fastened to my legs starts to take some of my weight –– slowing my fall towards certain death and getting ready to jerk me around for a while. A strange feeling indeed. I’m not sure I’d recommend it to others, but I’ll try to keep you up to date on how things pan out.

The novelty sign really says it all.


Filed under Change, Control, Ethics, Freedom, Purpose, Religion, Social identity, Travel


Once again I’m approaching a major transition in life: my academic year spent on leave here in South Africa is sadly coming to a close. Somewhat to my surprise I have not been able to secure the sort of employment here which would enable me to extend my visa and subsist here as a teacher, writer or businessman. Thus I might then be returning with my tail between my legs to my old life in Finland, in somewhat reduced form, or I might be moving on to some entirely new for of adventure in my life; that still remains to be seen.

It’s too early to put this particular adventure into retrospect of course. Some years from now I should be able to say whether this was a colossal mistake or an outstanding opportunity that I can thankfully look back on. At this point I don’t really know. I’m only aware that things haven’t worked out as I had anticipated, but somehow life will go on. But it is important now to stop and consider how this has affected my fundamental sense of who I am.

One of my new perspectives: looking north from the hills above Simon’s Town

Philosophers and religion teachers like myself tend to have more problems with this sort of question than most other people do, even in the most stable and predictable of times. And in times of major stress like this –– largely flying solo and not even knowing what country I’ll be living in three months from now –– I doubt that any profession could provide me with a more secure sense of identity than what I have. But even though I’m really not into this sort of angst for its own sake, perhaps I don’t even want my identity to be all that fixed and predictable.

The essence of the question in philosophical terms is first to determine what essentially makes me me. Am I essentially just a body, or a non-material conscious entity (soul) functioning within this body, or the sum total of my memories, or just a wave on the vast ocean of consciousness and material cause and effect, or something else entirely? And then once I’ve figured out what I am, the next question is what to do about it. On this mater suffice to say I remain a metaphysical dualist of the monotheistic tradition that does not believe in reincarnation. Other aspects of the afterlife and the effect it can have on our current life remain open to speculation in my mind: as with my adventure in South Africa, I recognize that there could be many things in the afterlife that differ from my expectations, and thus I don’t intend to base my actions on the possibility of earning extra points there. My purpose remains to find value in life before death, and to do so with integrity.

This all comes to mind by way of a discussion I was having with a small circle of on-line friends regarding the question of racism. Much to my surprise, I was recently accused, by someone who I thought knew me fairly well, of having racist attitudes and views; this in spite of the fact that tolerance building and anti-bigotry campaigning have been a core element of my personal and professional identity for many years now. I was able to take this accusation in stride, but it surprised me none the less, and I must admit it caused me to bristle a bit. So in discussing this among virtual friends the first question was whether or not my views really were in fact at core racist, and after that –– at the suggestion of a trusted virtual friend –– why such an accusation would cause me to bristle.

It is a well established principle in psychology that when one becomes irritated or angry at some accusation –– or when a joke or a critique touches a nerve –– there is usually an element of truth to it. If it is obviously false it is unlikely to have any emotional effect on its object. So for instance if someone were to accuse me of having homosexual tendencies the jab would miss entirely; not only because I don’t consider gays to be inferior people, but because I am thoroughly and exclusively enough drawn to women where such a claim would really just show the ignorance of the person making it. To be a true homophobe, and to truly resent such accusations, you have to have a certain fear of your own attraction to those of your own gender; I just don’t. The same principle would apply if someone were to accuse me of being emotionally irrational, blindly ethnocentric, uncaring towards children or a dog hater. Whatever else can be said against me, those things are just patently untrue. Anyone who would say such things about me clearly doesn’t know me well enough to pick their insults carefully. (If anything I’m guilty of going a bit overboard to the opposite extreme on all of those issues.) I would thus be far more amused than disturbed at such accusations.

So if I am disturbed at being accused of racism, does that mean that I am at heart more of a racist than I care to admit? I’m willing to accept that as a possibility worthy of self-critical observation, but overall I still believe that not to be the case. What I am defensive about is not my latent tendencies in this regard, but my overall effectiveness in fighting against such things. As combating racism is one of the core elements of my personal and professional identity, any claim that I come across as a racist is not something I worry about in terms of defending what I am like at heart, but in terms of demonstrating my effectiveness at what I do. If I had built my career around animal rights campaigning and someone were to then accuse me of being a closet abuser of animals I might bristle in the same sort of way, not because it would threaten my core identity, but because it would call my professional integrity into question. That in turn is only hurtful to the extent that I am susceptible to self-doubt in those sorts of professional terms; and given that I don’t know what sort of job I will have three months from now, there are good reasons for me to have some uncertainty about my professional identity just now.

Another day, looking back at the vantage point of my previous perspective

But what does “integrity” actually mean to me? What does it mean by and large in English for that matter? Off to


1. adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.

2. the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished: to preserve the integrity of the empire.

3. a sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition: the integrity of a ship’s hull.

Other sources itemize the same three basic meanings. Two other related words come to mind: integral and integrate. “Integral” is an adjective which describes the sort of elements necessary to achieve integrity: belonging as a part of the wholenecessary to the completeness of the whole, or consisting or composed of parts that together constitute a whole. “Integrate” then is a verb used for the action of making things integral: to bring together or incorporate (parts) into a whole; to make up, combine, or complete to produce a whole or a larger unit. And of course “integrate,” particularly in its noun form of “integration” is commonly used to refer to bringing together people of different races, ethnicities, religions or classes; overcoming segregation. All of these relate to the sense of integrity I am hoping to develop.

Skimming through a book by Tariq Ramadan yesterday, I was struck by his thought (that I have also seen elsewhere in other variations) that there is something profoundly abstract and ultimately dishonest about tolerance and anti-bigotry campaigns which take place within the safety of an ethnically and religiously homogeneous social setting. If you don’t dare to genuinely encounter the “other” on a regular, respectful and equal basis –– without thinking of him/her primarily as a potential convert –– your exercise in overcoming prejudice is self-deceptive. In order to have integrity I need to be ready to integrate “other” elements into my insular little world. I need to confront any fears of difference and assumptions of inherent superiority that I have accidentally built into my sense of self.

But there’s a balance to that necessary as well: I also need to have a sense of self-respect, believing that what I stand for and my own perspectives on what is important in life are just as valid and valuable as those of the groups that would like to convert me to their own ways of thinking. Beyond that I need to recognize some sort of limit in my capacity to integrate. There is such a thing as opposition; as self-destructive tendencies; as evil. I need to be careful not to internalize too many elements that are out to destroy the value that is already within me. And among the elements that are already within me that don’t necessarily agree with each other I need to find ways of prioritizing and rationalizing them so that my identity does not become fractured and unstable as the result of internal conflict. Integrity demands that I become aware of what is most integral to my core identity and what is ultimately superfluous to “the real me.”

Another important balance element in integrity is the degree of flexibility or plasticity it entails. Like the ship’s hull or the empire mentioned in the later definitions quoted above, one’s honesty and moral character cannot be so rigid that it either shatters on impact or destroys all else in its path. It has to be able to flex and absorb a certain amount of opposing force; and in some regards the greater its ability to do so, the greater its overall integrity. Yet at the same time it cannot be so flexible as to consist of formless jelly. Integrity requires a specific form and shape to which its object returns after flexing to its limit, which is capable of withstanding pressure and bearing weight when necessary.

In order to maintain its political integrity a nation needs to be able to allow for emigration and immigration, for legislative and even constitutional reform, for the annexation and liberation of territories, and for major economic transitions from generation to generation. Any nation which lacks these capacities has a fundamental lack of integrity. Likewise any individual person who cannot recognize his own continuous processes of growing and dying, learning and forgetting, loving and letting go, cannot have integrity in relation to others either. One must maintain some sense of identifying form, but one must allow that form to follow its inevitable temporal progressions. If we deceive ourselves into believing that we can become eternal by denying the changes taking place within us and around us, we do ourselves no favors.

Whatever else can be said about my South African adventure then, it has given me an interesting collection of new experiences by way of which to re-evaluate and hopefully strengthen my personal integrity. It has given me a stronger awareness of what new possibilities there may be for integration, and a fresh perspective on what is and isn’t integral for me. As President Obama said after the 2010 elections, I would hope that others could learn the same sorts of lessons I have without having to take the same sort of “shellacking,” but that is not mine to determine. And in fact, even though the best laid plans of mice and men have once again gone the way they generally do in my case, objectively speaking I really haven’t suffered all that big a loss here. Above all, as Popeye would say, I still “yam what I yam.”

Like the shirt says…


Filed under Change, Freedom, Individualism, Love, Philosophy, Purpose, Racism, Risk taking, Spirituality, Travel

Western Philosophy’s Greatest Hits (and Misses)

Looking into what is for me a new social networking site on philosophy this month, I’ve stumbled into some very deep mutual antagonisms. In some ways that is nothing new for me. If anything it encourages me that those groups I’ve had a hand in supervising have actually run quite smoothly by comparison. Open global social networking always seems to provide reactionary people with all sorts of opportunities to spout their resentments, and I’ve often seen such groups become verbal “fight clubs” where people come to beat up on each other just for the rush it gives them.

For those of us who believe in open dialog as an educational tool and a means of promoting peace, however, this presents something of a challenge. On the one hand I strongly agree with the words of the graphic I picked up this week: “Don’t try to win over the haters. You are not the jerk whisperer.” On the other hand I feel that dismissing opposing viewpoints just because the process of establishing communication with them is rather difficult sets its own dangerous personal precedent, so I keep slipping into this “jerk whisperer” role regardless. I don’t actually think the jerks in question will reform, but perhaps a few of those around them will see how silly their arguments are and stop multiplying them. This in turn can reduce the infectious power of the hatred in question. And who knows, maybe a jerk or two can actually be tamed.

So on that note I’ve decided to address my musings for this weekend to a question posed by one particularly rabid sounding hate-monger: “What has ‘Western Philosophy’ achieved?”

On the surface of it this is a rather absurd question. There have been thousands of history books published detailing the positive influences of what we in the West refer to as (capital P) “Philosophy.” Summarizing all of these in a relatively brief on-line essay would seem to be a fool’s errand, especially when addressing it to someone whose point is to polemically blame Western societies for all of the world’s problems. But even so there are those who have been brought up to hate what the “others” stand for, but who –– given clear enough information and progressive safe exposure to these others –– can still learn to relate to their perspectives and accept them as rational and valuable human beings regardless. I’ve actually seen it happen in high school and adult education classrooms time and time again, so once in a while it’s worth a try on line as well.

Many people, presumably including the fellow posing this question, have been brought up with a hatred against colonial abuses perpetrated by Europeans, leftover European colonists and white Americans in particular; and against the various religious and philosophical justifications those groups have used in perpetrating their abuses. So my starting point for effective communication with such folks is to say, I get what you’re upset about and I also get that I don’t get it. I’m sure there are aspects of your suffering that I’ll never be able to relate to, but my point isn’t to justify all of the nastiness that has been committed against “your people,” however you define them. My point is to build a bit of mutual respect as grounds for all of us to move forward from here.

Main street of my old home town

Sometimes it’s also necessary to point out that I personally was not raised in a state of great luxury gained through the abuse of others. I am the descendant of a long like of peasant farmers, most of whom, up until the twentieth century, lived a very rough life, struggling to keep their families fed, often unsuccessfully. My grandparents all struggled through the great depression with little to show for their labors other than being able to send some of their kids to college. My parents eventually fought their way up into the upper middle class, but along the way I saw my mother put in a lot of hard hours as an unskilled manual laborer. I’ve also done my own time in some pretty degrading jobs, so yes, I know something of struggles to get by. But those facts are only relevant in addressing any ad hominem arguments that would be launched against me as a white man attempting to say anything about the sufferings of others.

From there the next step is to consider what stereotypically Western ideas post-colonial people might find particularly offensive. Off the top of my head, based on discussions I’ve had with people “of color” over the years, the list offending ideas would probably have to include individualism, a concept of divine favoritism, runaway capitalism/materialism and a fixation on technologies of violence. I will thus try to address those grievances before going on to explain why I still find the Western intellectual tradition worthy of respect, in particular for its moderate traditionalism, its growing emphasis on human equality, its capacity for eclecticism and its interest in freedom. From there it will be up to the individual reader to decide whether or not Western Philosophy in general has done enough to make the world a better place.


In African philosophy in particular there is a central concept referred to as Ubuntu, roughly

A suggestion for surfers based on African indigenous ethics

translated from the Xhosa language as “I am what I am because we are what we are.” This is the polar opposite of Western individualism: The individual is seen in every way as subservient to and dependent on the surrounding society. Many see this as a more virtuous way of envisioning social organization than the Western approach. Selfish individualism is considered by many to be the essence of what is wrong with Westerners. Africans who are somewhat versed in Western philosophy have gone as far as to say that Descartes’ doubt and skepticism was based on his having spent vast amounts of time alone, and consequently basing his entire perspective on individualized thought. From there it can be argued that all of Western Philosophy in the modern era has been based on Cartesian individualism, in turn causing all sorts of moral abuses. It is also fair to say that Indian (Hindu and Buddhist), Oriental (Confucian, Taoist and Maoist) and indigenous American wisdom traditions would be far more inclined to agree with the African perspective than with the Western one on this issue.

Even so I disagree with this premise on a number of different levels. To start with it is a basic misreading of Descartes: The fundamental proof of being in Cartesian thought is not individualism per se but self-conscious awareness, and there is nothing in Descartes thought which excludes the possibility of this as a collective process. Beyond that, individualism really is not –– in my admittedly westernized opinion –– the root of all evil. Yes, isolationism as an extreme form of individualism has its moral dangers, but so does radical collectivism. And as I see it human rights are fundamentally individual issues: No society has a right to torture to death any innocent victim for the good of the collective. Western societies don’t live up to their ideal in this regard, but that doesn’t make the ideal itself invalid. Love and empathy –– arguably the highest of emotional states and virtues –– paradoxically reach their height as individual experiences of transcending one’s own individual identity and interests.

Like most Westerners, I consider Socrates’ individualism to have been one of his greatest virtues. Following his example, each of us should dare to stand up and say when our societies are wrong. In my case, as an American citizen, I can say that for the US military to be playing police force to the rest of the world, serving the interests of multinational corporations rather than the interests of the people of the world, is morally wrong; especially when it is done at the expense of the dignity an respect for the human rights of the nation’s own citizens and residents. I think that my countrymen are foolish to accept such a policy on an on-going basis, even if I am in a small minority in saying so. But the point here is that Western individualism allows me to say such things, regardless of what the government and the majority of the population have to say about the matter. As I see it this makes individualism an essentially good thing.

Another major failing of many Western societies is that they have operated on an assumption that God is on their side. When a people believe that whatever they choose to do to increase their own sense of power, influence and security is something that is necessarily “the will of God,” we’re in dangerous territory. It could be argued that in this day and age that problem is seen most acutely in Muslim societies such as Saudi Arabia, Taliban ruled Afghanistan and post-revolutionary Iran. But during the Medieval and Colonial periods this was undeniably a prevalent European vice, and Western philosophy does have a well-documented history of helping various tyrants legitimize their claims to power, more often than not using Christian theological arguments in the process.

But as I pointed out in last week’s blog here, the devil in the Judeo-Christian tradition is strongly associated with powerful political empires, so in the purest form of this faith the whole concept of a political empire being on God’s side is almost a contradiction in terms. It certainly has nothing to do with the message of Jesus.

Nor is it unique to Western societies or the Abrahamic faiths for an empire to claim that their god(s) had made them great. There is a computer game called Age of Mythology based on the premise that this was a very common perspective in many primitive cultures. Moreover some would go as far as to argue that the whole point of Western philosophy has been to free people from this form of thinking and to reject nationalist myths and crude superstitions that justify people’s hatreds towards each other. While I have my reservations about the historical accuracy of that claim, I would say that there are many branches of Western philosophy which have done an immense amount of good in this sort of way.

Then beyond this there are the legends throughout the lands invaded and colonized by white men about the crazy things these pale creatures would do to get their hands on gold. Goldrush stories are the most archetypical examples of the many things Westerners have been known to do in their attempts to get rich, and of the other values they (we) have been willing to set aside in that process. The cultural value of ostentatious wealth for its own sake as part of the Western mindset is still considered by many to be the essence of evil within Western culture. If the Western world based its values less on this sort of materialism, and if there were more sensible limitations placed on capitalist business practices, it is argued, the world would be a far better place.

On this I am more inclined to agree with critics than on the previous accusations, but I would still point out that cut-throat competition for power within one’s society and over neighboring people –– which is ultimately what wealth comes down to –– is hardly a uniquely Western phenomenon; it’s just something that has reached a particularly extreme form in Western societies. Even at that it can be argued that among the poor and abused within Western societies –– even the United States, arguably the most socially backwards country in the post-industrialized world –– life-spans are still longer and infant mortality rates are lower than they have been among poor people at any previous time in human history. From the example of my own family, in the generations before they left the Netherlands for the US, my ancestors lost more siblings as children than made it to adulthood. This was more the rule than the exception among the poor in most parts of the world, prior to the last century or two within the Western world. Today that is no longer the case in developed nations, nor is it considered morally acceptable there, even among the ultra-rich to allow children to die of starvation and treatable disease. And through Western technical assistance by way of organizations like UNICEF, Westerners are making a sincere effort to prevent children’s suffering and death in developing nations as well.

This is not to say that 1) there is any justification for dignifying slavery as a benevolent institution, 2) “trickle down economics” is a viable solution to poverty, or 3) the Western world is not culpable for the ecological and economic damages its business practices have inflicted on developing countries and former colonies. What it is to say is that Western philosophy per se is not to blame here; these are general human competitive tendencies that have got out of control. The fact that other cultures have not been able to compete (in economic terms) as effectively on a global scale does not mean that their wisdom traditions are more advanced, or that they might have the answer to controlling runaway competition in the Western world. As the problem is a Western one, so the solutions will be Western ones. Meanwhile not everything is as bad as some would claim, and the finer and nobler of Western thinkers have managed to channel at least some of this runaway economic competition into doing some good along the way.

Some boys in the West never outgrow their fascination with things that go "BOOM"

One final significant critique of Western culture and Western thought is how much it is based on militaristic thinking. The grand age of European dominance (the colonialist period) was based on their capacity to kill off those who dared challenge them. And since then it seems that everything grand which has come out of Western societies –– from medical innovations to transportation technology, to computers and the Internet, to GPS tracking systems –– has come as a by-product of the pursuit of military dominance. Why is it that so much Western development comes to fruition only by way of finding more effective ways of killing and violently intimidating people?

To this all I can say is that violence, like greed, is not an exclusively Western problem; and there are in fact strong traditions of non-violent resistance as a means of confronting the might of empires in the very heart of Western theology and philosophy as well. The most obvious example of the latter would be Francis of Assisi and the monastic order he founded. Nor, in the face of particularly abusive forms of violence from elsewhere, is a defensive capacity for violence always a bad thing, though that is a rather long and complicated discussion unto itself. But in this area I really do hope to see Western society grow in other ways to better keep pace with –– and perhaps someday overtake –– its military development.

That much in answer to the vocal critics of Western thought. But I can’t leave things here with a defense of the perceived evils; I need to close by saying what I consider Western thought to be particularly good for, and/or good at. First among these virtues is that Western thought has a certain respect for its own traditions, but it does not remain the prisoner of those traditions. We aspire to see further than previous generations by “standing on the shoulders of giants” but we do not to let those giants tell us where we are allowed to look or to go. This flexibility and open-mindedness has been the essence of Western liberalism. Yet for all our liberal tendencies we also try to keep in mind that there were many things about our ancient traditions that have a value worth staying in touch with. Conservatives aren’t entirely useless either. Thus the Western philosopher always struggles to find the best possible balance between traditional and innovative thought; he needs to be a moderate of some sort. And it is fair to say that within this tradition Western philosophers have found many uniquely fruitful avenues for innovation.

Among the innovative ideas Western thinkers have formulated there are many ideals that societies have come to progressively accept, but they have been slow in living up to. To me one of the most important of these is the general concept that humans are essentially equal in basic dignity and legal rights. This is based largely on extended contemplation of the implications of the Judeo-Christian belief that all mankind go back to a set of common ancestors “made in the image of God”. It is not a question of other people accepting the proper tribal identity and belief system: each individual is inherently valuable just because they are all part of an extended family with divine connections. This idea has in turn spread among those of all other types of belief systems. It has been a harder sell among those who believe in fundamental inequalities among people as part of the karmic justice of reincarnation, but there too this ideal has started to make inroads. Atheists have struggled to find their own way of consistently supporting the principle of shared human dignity and equality without basing it on an assumption of divine origins for our species, but a few Marxist extremists aside, they too accept the basic principle of respecting the dignity and rights of other people just because they happen to be people. Thus this Western idea, which obviously has a long ways to go before it is consistently respected in practice by Westerners, is perhaps the best hope we have for peace on earth and goodwill among mankind in general these days.

This in turn points to another feature of Western philosophy: just as atheists are able to accept the principle of human equality without accepting the Biblical basis for such a belief, Westerners in general tend to have a strong tendency to borrow useful ideas from diverse sources that they otherwise have little sympathy with. This is called eclecticism and I consider it to be one of the unique virtues of our way of thinking. It’s not that we are the first eclectics in history, but the degree to which this is practiced in postmodern Western society really leaves all the rest in the dust.

Some combinations can really only happen in Western cultures.

And the reason we are able to practice this free borrowing and blending ideas is because freedom itself is perhaps the highest goal of Western thought. There are extended debates regarding what we most need to be free from, what essential external preconditions are necessary in order for us to choose our own actions and how different from machines humans have to be in order to meaningfully decide anything; but in all these debates the desire for freedom remains key to Western thought. I rather like freedom, both as an ideal and an experience to thrive on. Making this freedom as authentic and as complete as possible without doing more harm than good in the process is one of the nobler goals I can think of, making me quite content to be a Westerner.

So yes, from there it’s up to each reader to decide for her- or himself whether or not the Western philosophical tradition deserves any particular credit for improving the world we live in overall. I happen to think it does, but you don’t have to. But if you chose to reject it, the irony is that your right to do so –– your right to discuss these things openly and internationally, and to be free to make up your own mind about them –– is more than anything else the fruit of the Western philosophical tradition.


Filed under Freedom, Human Rights, Individualism, Materialism, Philosophy, Tolerance

Me and Manny

I suppose it is a good thing that these days I end up reading a lot of things that represent the opposite side of various spectra from what I personally believe. It might make me a more rounded thinker. In my last blog I began with a commentary on an on-line American political opinion rag representing the opposite end of the spectrum from my views. This week I’ve been reading the views of one of the more aggressive atheists doing pop philosophy.

A virtual friend asked for comments on Sam Harris’ recent blog, where he talks about how he disagrees with Daniel Dennett, particularly in reference to the matter of “free will”. While I respect both men’s intelligence and eloquence, but I still believe they both have a hold of the wrong end of the stick on this one.

For both of these thinkers the shared premises are that: 1) there can’t possibly be any God; 2) life, the universe and everything need to be explainable in terms of purely physical phenomena, without reference to anything spiritual; 3) intentionality cannot be accorded to random occurrences within the physical universe; 4) human consciousness and volition are in fact byproducts of these random occurrences in the physical universe, and as such are no more than intermediate links in longer chains of cause and effect; and yet somehow 5) human consciousness and volition can serve their own legitimate purposes and have their own inherent values. Where they seem to disagree with each other is how in the world they are going to set about squaring that particular circle.

Dennett’s approach seems to be one of “It’s pretty much an illusion, but we can enjoy the ride for whatever it’s worth anyway.” Harris is more inclined to think that our belief in our ability to choose is causing us to make the wrong choices, particularly if we feel justified in wanting to “get back at” those who do nasty things to us and those we care about. Harris seems quite content to set aside the thorny issue of how people could be free to choose whether or not to promote vengeance as part of their justice system if people are not free to choose whether or not to commit acts requiring judicial intervention to begin with, but that sort of goes with the territory.

In any case, to respond to such a mindset in any rational sort of way, I must dig out a partial theoretical ally of my own, whom I still have some fundamental disagreements with. In my case this would be Immanuel Kant, or just “Manny” for short.

My man Manny

Manny and I agree on some fundamental principles that create their own paradoxes: 1) humans have a combination of rational inclinations and animal drives which influence our actions; 2) the more rational and objective we can be with regard to the standards we set for ourselves and each other, the more likely we are to get along with each other; 3) in order to hold each other morally responsible for anything, we have to assume that there are moral standards “out there” that are more than matters of taste and more than situational conveniences (as a foundational premise for any coherent concept of “human rights,” for instance); 4) traditional religious standards for morality do not provide us with a viable, universal and objective basis for regulating our own behavior and that of others; and yet 5) we need to postulate a certain amount of moral autonomy or transcendental freedom as a presupposition for the question, “what ought I to do?” before we can have any meaningful conversation about standards for human behavior.

Where Manny and I would disagree is in terms of the value of emotions as such, and the inherent trustworthiness of intellect independent of emotions in terms of setting standards for us to live by. But for both of us the necessity of the premises stated above lead back to an open concept of empathy, in turn relating back to some sort of subconscious spirituality holding the whole business together. Neither Manny nor I insist that all other intelligent people must subscribe to the particular dogmas we were raised with in order to remain decent and intelligent people, but neither of us make any apologies for subscribing to a theistic (moderate Protestant Christian) world view.

Manny was sort of aware of his human limitations, but his way of dealing with them was to eliminate as many of the irrational and emotional aspects of his life as he possibly could. In this way he strived to get as close as he could to what he called “the noumenal,” breaking away from the prison of what he called “the phenomenal” world of experiences. As I see it though, Manny was merely an extreme case of what Jungian personality type theorists call an INTJ: As a matter of temperament he was drawn deep within himself most of the time; he was more comfortable existing in an ideal world of possibilities than working with messy physical realities; he wanted to be perfectly rational rather than emotional about everything; and he was an excessively habitual and traditional person, almost to the point of being obsessive/compulsive. He saw the world through the lens of his personality type, and he set out to determine what was rational, moral and desirable for the rest of mankind accordingly. Not that there isn’t a lot of legitimacy to that approach, but there are also other ways of seeing the world, which Manny didn’t pay much attention to.

The primary difference between Manny’s position and my own then is that I would say that what is ultimately right and wrong –– virtuous and evil –– for human kind cannot be considered as a separate question from how the human mind works and how human personalities are constructed. Ethics cannot be purely deontological –– based strictly on what is “out there” without some fundamental consideration for the messy variables that are “in here.” We can’t merely align ourselves with a completely objective model of virtue from the transcendental realm; we need to fix functional virtues that enable us as humans to thrive and develop our understanding of the world around us.

In this regard ethics is a rather different matter from discovering the truth of how many moons there are around Jupiter, or what the melting point of iron is, or even whether or not there is a God. The nature of the question has to do with the nature of how we as organisms and/or as intelligent beings operate in relation to each other. Thus we cannot discover the ultimate virtues of how we should live or what makes actions right or wrong in abstraction from the messy business of everyday human life. This is not to discount the extensive consideration Manny gave to how the human mind works, but it his perspective in considering the workings of our brains seems to have been more one of avoiding the animal impulses and rational mistakes we are all prone to rather than appreciating the beautiful complexities that make us all worthy of appreciation for who we are. That’s just how his mind happened to work.

Rather than bemoaning our lack of objectivity in our human condition and seeking some purely transcendent standard through the closest approximation of pure objective rationality we can muster, I believe we need to embrace our human condition as a gift and from there seek to work out functional rules for maximizing its awesomeness for all parties concerned. In this regard I believe that categorical imperatives need to give way to basic empathy, elements of game theory and awareness of subjective determinants of loyalty. Rather than trying to find a purely rational underlying algorithm as a basis for how we should behave, I believe that ethics needs to start with questions of personal caring, fairness, conflict resolution and necessary preconditions for personal thriving.

OK, I must confess, for all my pseudo-familiarity with Manny here, I’m really not a world class Kant scholar. It might even be that he would have disagreed with me a lot less than I’m assuming here. But the main point here is that when it comes to the matter of “free will” –– at least in terms of how it relates to legal and moral premises –– Manny and I would still be united in opposition to Sam and Dan, a.k.a. Harris and Dennett.

All four of us would agree that we humans are not as radically free as Sartre liked to fantasize, but that doesn’t mean that we are effectively zombies acting entirely according to the dictates of external forces and involuntary internal programming. On the contrary, Manny and I would argue that it’s well nigh impossible to speak coherently about what we’re supposed to do with our lives and how we can justifiably expect others to behave without postulating some degree of moral autonomy as part of our basic premise in the matter.

Now by denying “free will” rather than “moral autonomy” Harris at least may be using ambiguity to his advantage. He may actually be hedging his bets about all of us being “morally insane” in the sense of totally lacking any capacity to choose our courses of action. Manny Kant readily admitted, as do I, that we all are subject to more things “pulling our strings” than we like to admit. There’s no absolute freedom of choice for any of us. If that’s all they mean then there’s really no disagreement on the matter. Manny and I are not trying to say that we are completely self-made men in every regard; we’re saying that we have a certain amount of choice in terms of what we do with what we’ve been given, and it’s what we do with that choice and only what we do with that choice that makes each of us praise-worthy or blame-worthy.

The hard part of all this for Sam and Dan though is that the closer they get to accepting a non-determined element of volitional activity within each individual, the greater the risk of legitimizing the concept of a “ghost in the machine” –– a non-material essence that makes each of us truly human in terms of our consciousness, self-consciousness, existential purposes and abilities to choose. This also comes back to the question of what can be learned from the classic case of Phineas Gage, and subsequently those of James Brady and Gabby Gifford: How much can a traumatic brain injury change who a person essentially is?

Gage with the bar that went through his head

Contrary to reports given in virtually every introductory level college psychology textbook published in the 20th century, recently discovered evidence gives us strong reason to believe that Gage’s doctor was BSing the medical community. The claim that “acquaintances said he was ‘no longer Gage,’” made by a doctor who was trying to milk all the fame and fortune he could out of having treated Gage –– long after the poor fellow passed on as a result of the epilepsy he developed after the dubious treatment he received –– has no substantiation that stands up to critical scrutiny. No such claims of substantial change in personality have been made regarding the two survivors of bullets in the brain from political assassination attempts during my lifetime: Brady remains Brady; Gifford remains Gifford. Certainly they came to behave differently, taking into account the loss of certain abilities, but that doesn’t really make them fundamentally different people.

By way of illustration, if I was driving a car and suddenly a rock were to randomly bounce into the engine compartment –– damaging and disabling one of the fuel injectors and the brake master cylinder –– it would make a major difference in the way the car went down the road, but that would not mean that there had been a change of drivers. So questions of what makes a person essentially who he or she is remains far less decided scientifically than many who have built careers in these sciences would like to believe.

Does this mean that I consider church dogma to be more reliable than scientific investigation of the matter overall? Of course not. Manny and I have already acknowledged that not to be the case. Does that mean that there has to be an immaterial human spirit inhabiting each person’s body? I wouldn’t insist on such based on what evidence I have at least. All I’m saying is that if such a possibility has not been rejected a priori for ideological reasons, it actually makes a fair amount of sense; and by rejecting this possibility as one of the starting premises for their discussion of “free will,” Sam and Dan have put themselves in a rather awkward position. Such is life when one decides what must be the case and proceeds to look for facts to corroborate that perspective.

So as long as I have a choice in the matter, I’ll continue to choose to believe that I have a choice in the matter. And if I get to meet Manny some day we can sit down and talk out our differences on all that other stuff.

Meanwhile a note to all newbies in philosophy, or to any uptight professor in the field  who happens to read and wonder how I dare refer to Herr Professor Kant in such irreverent terms: As long as you’re not taking yourself overly seriously, as long as you remain open to rational counter argument, as long as you’re not assuming that those you disagree with are fundamentally stupid and as long as your writing isn’t being officially graded by someone with absolutely no sense of humor, it’s always worth daring to be a bit of an irreverent smart ass in this field. The whole point of philosophy is daring to question ideas that others hold dear, and to do so without fear. I find that it really helps in that process if you get beyond being in awe of those who’ve made names for themselves in the field, and if you can relate to them with a bit of humorous familiarity, so much the better. Yes, Manny Kant himself probably would have been a bit pissed at some foreigner –– who doesn’t even speak German and doesn’t hold any doctorates in the field –– referring to him with a familiar version of his first name like this, but like, so what? If he’s made it to heaven he must be over that crap by now. If he hasn’t, his hypothetical opinion regarding my form of address makes no difference whatsoever.


Filed under Ethics, Freedom, Philosophy