Category Archives: Individualism

Thinking of the Senior

There are many things in the news and in my personal intellectual explorations to be written about this week, but I have to set those aside for the moment to acknowledge today as Father’s Day in the United States and a few other countries. (Finland has its Father’s Day in November for some reason, but that’s beside the point; part of me is still very much American.) In fact with all the fuss here over Midsummer I would have forgotten this holiday entirely were it not for some touching posts by some of my Facebook friends.

I’ll leave aside the question of how being a father changed my own life and how it continues to be central to who I am, even though at this point my own sons are very much on their own and rarely in touch more than once or twice a month these days. I fully accept that, because at their ages I was even less in touch with my own father. What I want to say is something about how my relationship with my own father has laid the groundwork for who I have become, and the sort of credit and blame he deserves in that regard. I’m pretty much at peace with who I am, so I happen to think of it primarily as giving him the credit he deserves, but those who have a more critical perspective regarding me as a person might want to blame try to him for part of what I like about myself.

20150621_193037I write this sitting in the little camper trailer that I have as a working residence on the “job site” of the country place I bought this winter, with money from a small stock portfolio that my father transferred into my name sometime a while ago; I’m not exactly sure when. There were times when my sons were much younger when I really would have liked to start this sort of project, but for lack of money I was unable to, but such is life. The uniqueness of this current opportunity would have been lost had I been able to follow in my father’s footsteps too closely in that regard. Let me unpack that a bit for you.

I am in fact the last of my siblings to start reenacting one aspect of our unusual childhood that we all found particularly valuable: “The Farm”. The original farm, as far as we were concerned, was a place on the Massachusetts/Vermont border that Dad bought back when he was living and working as a business consultant in New York City –– back when he was in his early thirties and none of us kids had hit puberty yet. It was a small former dairy farm in a town called Heath, with a fair amount of open field space, a line of old apple trees across its wind-swept gentle ridge line out back, a classic New England stone fence along the north side of the property, a forested patch with lots of sugar maples running along its western border; and a house, a barn and a few odd out-buildings, each with their own serious structural challenges. We worked together, with a few odd hired helpers and experts, to repair and rebuild this place into an environment that we each in our own way found to be therapeutic.

The letting go of this place was a sort of emotionally complex experience for each of us, and we each in our own way tried to hold onto part of it, while at the same time “being honest with ourselves” about the whole matter: what we were each able to take away from the place emotionally, what aspects of the experience we could hope to recreate and build on later, and what limitations there were to the experience for each of us to try to overcome in our respective re-creations thereof. So here’s my current retrospective on that formative experience meant in my own life.

The word “heath”, for which the town was named, is not all that actively used in everyday speech anymore, but it basically refers to an area where the soil is poorer than that of the surrounding territory and where farming becomes a lot more difficult. Though strictly speaking not much of the town was composed of heathland in the strictest sense, the name was still appropriate. It was not a particularly highly prized area: no major national parks or tourist attractions close by to speak of; just relaxed farmlands where white people had got rid of the native Mohawk tribes centuries ago, and where they had been trying to eke out a modest living for themselves from the stony soil ever since. It was as generic as rural New England gets. Yet for our purposes that was perfect. It was a place to practice skills of simple self-sufficiency, to get nostalgic for simpler ways of life, and to have the space to find a sense of peace with oneself.

The Heath farm had its own collection of “interesting” neighbors. There was the family in the next house to the north who would very much have been “hillbillies” had they lived in the southern half of the Appalachian chain rather than its northern end. They lived a rather poor, simple life, killing whatever non-domesticated animals happened to wander through their fields for food, regardless of whether those creatures were “in season” or not. My brother brought his pet rabbit over to their house to get together with their rabbits for breeding purposes (successfully), and we got a second rabbit in exchange for the service, but that was about the extent of our interaction with them.

Across the street from them lived the manager of the Montgomery Ward’s catalog shop in the closest proper shopping district (thirty-some kilometers away). That fellow and his wife seemed to have a sort of dream of living simply but stylishly off the land, in harmony with nature, but in all sorts of little details it never seemed to work for them, particularly when it came to their animals. They had a set of very expensive bird hunting dogs that never really learned to hunt, in spite of their spending more on a state-of-the-art training collar than I’ve ever spent on a car in the years since. They also had a cow that they never really learned to milk. In fact the milking process turned into such a brutal daily a contest of wills between man and cow, driving the latter to panic and the former to frustrated hysterics, that they had to virtually give the beast away for the safety of all concerned. It was quite the show while it lasted though. This couple also happened to provide the strongest basic supply of neighborhood gossip for anyone who was interested in such. Even so, they were probably the neighbors on that road that Dad built the strongest friendship with.

Then sort of across the street from our place, a bit to the south, was this academic researcher of some sort, who I never actually got to talk to other than seeing him drive doing various errands with his old red tractor, yelling, “Hello neighbor!” to everyone whose path he crossed. He had a reputation for trying to borrow things a bit too freely, for taking other little liberties on other people’s property and for generally not fitting in with the local community. More than anything else, Dad seemed to be concerned about not being too closely compared with him.

The next piece of property south of there, on both sides of the road, belonged to the last working dairy farm in the area. Dad always appreciated this particular farmer’s work ethic, and they both clearly enjoyed chatting together about all things practical and agriculture-related. But on some level there were differences between their perspectives that mutual respect wasn’t going to cover. The farmer was part of one of the “original” families in the town, who all kept a certain emotional distance from the various “newcomers”, and beyond that he had his own private stresses in life. He had a batch of kids, none of whom were all that interested in following in his footsteps. Meanwhile no one ever seemed to see his wife, until one day the news came out that she had died, from liver failure as rumor had it. It wasn’t too long after that, when the last of his kids were ready to leave the nest, that the farmer sold off everything, pulled up stakes and left town, not looking back. But by that time we too were starting to emotionally let go of our connection with the area.

Looking back at that time it’s easy to conclude that the Heath farm was part of a particular era in Dad’s life that had was quite thoroughly over by the time he sold the place. Dad went through a string of marriages, each lasting pretty close to seven years, each involving its own challenges and “growth experiences” for him. The farm was pretty strongly tied to his second marriage, and by the time his third marriage came along for many reasons it was no longer a viable option to hang onto the place. We all sort of recognized and accepted that, but as I said, somewhere in our hearts we never let go of those experiences.

Perhaps somewhat ironically, it was through the career and investment decisions that Dad made during the course of his third marriage that he was able to give each of his children enough of an investment portfolio so that I have now been able to use part of that money to finance this sort of modest rural escape dream of my own. Thus in virtually every way this cottage project brings aspects of my relationship with my father to mind for me. It has almost all of the aspects that made the Heath farm so special for me at least –– things that I strongly speculate were important all to my siblings as well: simplicity for its own sake, understated natural beauty surrounding the place, interactions with neighbors with lots of “character”, and working to turn an essentially unwanted property into something beautiful and desirable. The only major aspect of the original model that is missing for me is being able to share it with my own children. But that has to do mostly with timing issues, for which I don’t really blame anyone, least of all my father.

The comparison and cause-and-effect relationship between my own experience of divorced-fatherhood and my father’s is a more complicated question. What I can say for sure is that he and I both made significant mistakes in our marital decisions, both in terms of who each of us married, when and why; and how each of us failed in our attempts to build and maintain those relationships thereafter. (My father’s current marriage appears to be going strong for him, hopefully on course to see him through the rest of his life now, so perhaps he’s learned more from his mistakes than I’ve learned from mine, but that is sort of beside the point here.) I can further state that my mistakes in these areas have been entirely different sorts than his mistakes, and I don’t see my mistakes as evidence that he screwed up in terms of being a bad role model for me. There are still many things about some of his mistakes that I do not understand, mostly because they have to do with things that were not talked about in front of children when I was a child, and which were not really any of my business anymore once I became an adult; but I don’t believe that such an understanding would have prevented me from making my own mistakes in marriage in particular.

The relevant issue is that the relative roles men and women in society and in marriage are still changing. Women have (largely justifiably) demanded greater respect for their contributions and capabilities, and that has effectively destroyed the traditional status quo of what men and women have felt culturally entitled to demand of each other. There are many cultures which are still resisting such changes, but such resistance seems largely doomed to failure. As much as they might try to deny it, the most culturally conservative branches of Christianity, medieval Islamic traditions, African tribal traditions, Chinese Confucian traditions and other such systems which seek to keep women “in their proper place” are continuously having to make new compromises as women’s rights become more widely recognized and accepted. Nor can we take any of their fights against such compromises to be “a bold moral stand” of any sort. Thus we are in a position where we still don’t know what new cultural norms will arise for regulating romantic relationships and marital mutual responsibility. So there is really no mystery to the matter of marriages continually breaking up more as traditional gender roles get shuffled around.

My father had his own reasons, which I only partially understand to this day, for choosing to set aside “traditional marital responsibility,” before that was particularly popular or respectable thing to do. I, on the other hand, tried to find personal security through dogmatic belief in traditional gender roles and moral codes, only to find that I could not depend on such standards to safeguard my future happiness or domestic tranquility. My father didn’t provide a “positive role model” in that regard, but I can’t imagine that it really would have mattered for me if he had; things had changed too much. Beyond that the hypotheticals run way too deep for me to even begin to sort them out.

What my father did offer to me was a role model of how to remain dignified and keep a sense of personal honor even when things don’t work the way you want them to, and even when your honor comes under the bitterest attacks. The farm in Heath was part of that. It was an exercise in looking for sustainable values in an ever changing world. That isn’t to say that Dad found them there, but he made my siblings and I part of his process of looking for them, in such a way that each of us in turn has continued looking for such values in ways we each started to develop for ourselves at the farm.

Part of that for me has been seeking out a balance between religious and non-religious aspects of my life; or perhaps I should say, a balance between trying to spiritually connect with other people and trying to spiritually connect with simple, less societally oriented aspects of the world around me. It’s sort of an Ecclesiastes 7 thing (particularly relating to verses 15-18), which could be taken as both an earlier and more profound variation on Aristotle’s idea of the “Golden Mean”.

And that in turn is a big part of what I am doing here at my little place in the Finnish countryside. That is also why I cannot help but think of my father extensively every time I come here. That is what makes it particularly appropriate for me to be spending America’s Father’s Day here on my own.

I’m not sure how far others can relate to what I’m saying here. I’m even less sure about how many might agree with my socio-ethical perspectives on these matters. These are just my own rambling thoughts about what my father –– the man I am named after –– means to me on this holiday. So here’s wishing you, David Robert Huisjen, Senior, the finest of days celebrating your paternal status; and here’s wishing fathers everywhere the sort of deep satisfaction that should go with knowing your importance in your children’s lives.

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Filed under Ethics, Happiness, Holidays, Individualism, Parenting, Philosophy, Respectability

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?

KarlMarxFriedrichEngelsShanghaiChina2009_500

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.

pope_john_paul_ii

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.

 

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

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.

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Bauman, Ballistics and the Purpose of Education

This week I have begun my autumn studies again, taking an intensive “summer school” course run by the University of Helsinki. Already my cynical and contrary nature has got me into trouble with the lead instructor of the course, but that was sort of to be expected. Also as expected I have met some fascinating individuals and thinkers from a number of different countries, and I have been challenged to expand my frame of reference accordingly.

The essence of the course curriculum thus far has been to reinforce that cynical adage, “Remember, you are entirely unique, just like everyone else.” More specifically, the idea has been to de-essentialize the concept of culture –– to make “culture” something of a dirty word –– to imply that within each given “culture” there is too much variety for the word to have a proper meaning. The focus of the ideological agenda underlying this denial is to completely subjugate acquired statuses to achieved statuses. According to the ideology in question, one’s ethnic heritage, sex, land of birth and genetically determined physical attributes should be considered entirely irrelevant; and one should be assigned status based strictly on ones chosen identity constructs and one’s accomplishments within one’s chosen field: Native born, taller, lighter skinned or more masculine individuals should never automatically have a higher status than immigrants, short people, dark skinned or feminine/effeminate folk; but academics should always have a higher status than manual laborers and “scientific” thinkers should always have a higher status than “less scientific” thinkers. Stereotypes must also be limited to areas of achieved status: the instructor is perfectly comfortable saying that wives who have converted to their husbands’ religion of Islam are all a certain way, but God forbid if anyone say that Finns in general are prone to display particular cultural characteristics.

Those of you who are familiar with my style of thought and interaction might understand then how my responses to such premises might get me into trouble. I’m all for as much equal opportunity and acceptance of idiosyncratic identities as we can possibly socially engineer, but I also believe in accepting human variety and the rich quilts of identity factors that make each of us who we are for what they are. I find denial of the existence of ascribed status factors on ideological grounds to be naively counterproductive at least; a mark of deep social-psychological maladjustment at worst. Anyway…

Donskis in HelsinkiProbably the most valuable academic input I have received from this course thus far has been a reminder of the value of the works of Zygmunt Bauman, and encouragement to read some of his works of the past decade. My last consideration of Bauman was actually back in the 90’s, by way of a philosopher of my own generation (actually 2 weeks younger than me) named Leonidas Donskis. Donskis visited in Helsinki briefly as he was finalizing his doctorate here, and through mutual acquaintances I became his unofficial tour guide for part of that time. Among other things he told me that Bauman would have been his official opponent in his defense of his PhD dissertation, were it not for the fact that Helsinki refused to make an exception to the rules to allow the distinguished professor to smoke within the university’s auditoriums: The chain-smoking Bauman refused to put himself in a position of having to philosophize for over two hours without his pipe!

bauman w pipeI remember enjoying immensely my chats with Donskis about Bauman and other intellectual matters, but since then I hadn’t read any of Bauman’s subsequent works… until this week. After the first day’s summer school lectures I went and raided the B shelf of the sociology section of the university library, to my own deep satisfaction. I have found Bauman’s works thoroughly inspiring again, providing a fresh yet familiar and suitably authoritative perspective on many of the issues which occupy my mind these days. In particular, in the interview-based book On Education, “co-written” by Riccardo Mazzeo last year (2012), he has provided a beautifully elegant explanation for the varying purposes of education, which contains the best argument I have yet to come across as to why philosophy needs to be part of compulsory schooling, especially in “Western” countries in our current era.

Bauman tosses out the analogy of ballistic missiles as a starting point here. The earliest forms for these were cannonballs and artillery shells, where if you knew the weight and aerodynamic properties of the projectile, the positioning of the barrel out of which it was fired, and the explosive force of the gun powder propelling it, you could calculate with little or no error where that sucker was going to land and what sort of damage it would do once it got there. By adjusting the charge, the barrel position and perhaps the flight properties of the projectile, within certain technical limits you could pretty much choose where you wanted it to go and how much damage you wanted it to do… as long as you were shooting at a fixed target. If you wanted to take out a fortified wall, with enough power and persistence you could do it. If you wanted to take out a bunch of soldiers dug into their trenches, the right sort of rocket would do the job. But if you’re shooting at a fast moving rider, or tank, or fighter jet, which can see your missile coming and change course to get out of the missile’s path, the missile’s usefulness becomes much more limited.

ArtilleryEnter “smart bombs”. These weapons are equipped with electronic sensors which either pick up on the heat signature or the magnetic properties of what they are designed to destroy, and to continuously change course while in flight until they make contact with their desired target. They are designed to “think for themselves” somewhat about how to achieve their pre-determined goals. They can still be fooled by some rather basic strategic expedients, but their advance over basic pre-aimed rockets, bullets and artillery shells is obvious.

This sort of military technology could be taken significantly further though: A further robotized missile could, conceivably, be fired into an enemy encampment with programming that would allow it to “choose” the most valuable target that it would be capable of destroying once it got there. So if the missile in question were able to sense and identify a strategic bunker which it would not be able to penetrate, a fighter/bomber jet idle on the runway and a mess tent with two soldiers in it having coffee, its programming could enable it to automatically target the jet rather than the less strategically valuable individual soldiers and the less plausibly destroyable bunker.

These levels of sophistication in military technology correspond, albeit imperfectly, in Bauman’s analysis, with three levels of educational sophistication identified over 50 years ago by Gregory Bateson. At the most basic level you have what has elsewhere been called “mug and jug” education: where the teacher pours information from her ample reserves of such (the “jug”) into the passively receptive student’s intellectual receptacle (the “mug”), with hopes that this information to be uncritically accepted and reliably remembered. This strategy was effective and perfectly workable when the student was expected to follow a preset pattern of performing simple repetitive tasks with relatively few variables involved, yielding reliable results. If the student was to be a factory worker, a farm hand, a plumber or a vending machine maintenance man, having a basic knowledge of mathematics, language, physics and biology which enabled him to perform these routine tasks was really all that was necessary. By analogy it was a simple matter of treating the student like a basic ballistic projectile to be fired at given “fixed targets” of working life.

Education in "the good old days"

Education in “the good old days”

As these targets have become less fixed, however, it has become more necessary to “program” students to track on moving targets, leading to what Bauman describes as Bateson’s “deutero-learning” formulation –– aimed at developing a “cognitive framework” by means of which to absorb and process information, thus allowing for continuous “course corrections” throughout working life. The current vogue for “life-long learning” is based on this sort of premise.

The third level is where the military analogy begins to break down in terms of capturing Bateson’s original formula. It involves the deconstruction of the cognitive frameworks used in the second level of education, thus enabling the learner to critically analyze, reject and/or maybe rebuild the cognitive structures in question. In other words the student can question the prescribed targets of her/his education and choose for herself/himself what is worth “shooting at”. Bateson (according to Bauman) speaks of this as a “counter-educational” phenomenon to be avoided. Bateson saw it as pathological; Bauman sees it as inevitable.

From Bauman’s perspective, given the unpredictability of the future for which we are educating young people, we cannot reliably tell them what challenges they will be facing once they arrive at their “target”. Thus, rather than giving them solid instructions as to “the only right way of doing things” or “the goals of professional life” they should set out to attain, we should be equipping them to “choose their own targets” based on criteria we can help them develop. We need to enable young people to decide for themselves what sorts of goals are worth pursuing once they see what the as yet unknown future looks like. This entails the risk that they will choose entirely different sorts of goals than their parents or teachers had in mind, but it puts them in the position of being equipped to make responsible decisions based on better information than what we can offer them, given the distance at which we stand from their ultimate objectives.

I really couldn’t agree more with the implications of Bauman’s ideas here. Given the uncertainty of the world in which we live, the most important thing we can educate our young people to do is to think for themselves about what is ultimately important to them and how they can best realize the broader goals they set for themselves. This makes some form of education in philosophy absolutely essential at the primary and secondary levels of education –– “Philosophy” being the best name currently available for instruction in the collective skill set needed to evaluate the reliability of information we are basing our decisions on, contemplate the significant variables which lie beyond the scope of currently available information, and consider alternative means of determining the best course of action. School systems ignore and belittle these skills to their own peril. We can do far better in these regards, so let’s get moving on the revolution which enables us to do so!

But meanwhile I must get back to the tasks at hand: hopelessly trying to show some resemblance of sincere respect for the powers that be in the academic contexts in which I find myself. Wish me luck…

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Another Lent

wanhat-1This past week I there was a series of “important days” that I failed to properly recognize: the pope’s resignation announcement, followed by Mardi Gras, followed of course by Ash Wednesday, followed in turn by Valentine’s Day. On Friday, and in between, were all sorts of birthdays, anniversaries, annual formal dances for Finnish high school students and all sorts of other things which I should have probably properly paid more attention to, but which I just let slip this year.

Nor am I paying particular attention to Lent this year. Last year I made a point, primarily for health reasons, of spending the season without red meat. I slipped a couple times, but overall I did pretty well at it, and I have since managed to cut back my beef, pork and lamb intake considerably. But having the occasional meat ball or lasagna dish so far this Lent is not a crisis of conscience for me; I’ve decided not to bother repeating last year’s experiment in that regard. The same goes for giving up caffeine, alcohol, pastries, candies and other “vices” that I’ve made a point of setting aside for the season in years past: I don’t feel particularly guilty about my current consumption levels on any of them, and I haven’t had the motivation to plan something along those lines to live without just to prove to myself I can live without it. Nor do I think that God thinks any less of me for my lack of participation in this ritual this time around.

The best I can promise myself is to spend the time until Easter avoiding all sorts of PC time killers, such as solitaire and mine sweeper. Those are on-going little challenges for me: not to waste time with such trivial mind-emptying challenge games. Just as well I could give up Sudoku, crosswords and other things I do on paper to keep my mind semi-active with no other rational purpose. As I don’t own my own television set at this point, intentionally giving that up would seem rather pretentious at best.

Rather than giving things up, what I really need to do in order to feel better about my state of personal discipline and/or spirituality067038-pope-john-paul-ii is to focus on better fulfilling my positive purposes and intentions: to better prepare the lessons I teach, to write more profoundly and creatively, to jump into my new post-graduate studies with both feet… But as the previous pope pointed out, it is much harder to set firm standards for positive requirements than it is for negative ones. It is more important to love your neighbor as yourself, but it is easier to set a solid standard for not stealing and not perjuring.

And once again this brings me to the question of how valuable ritual for ritual’s sake can be in terms of keeping us on track with our day-to-day pursuit of meaning, purpose and direction in life. When we do things the same way every day, every week, every year, how far to those routines serve to enrich our lives, and how far do they go in preventing us from doing things that would otherwise make our lives as wonderful as they otherwise could be? Not a simple question. We all need some things in life to be just automatic matters of habit in order to save energy that would otherwise be needed for contemplating such matters. This is why some people get pissed at philosophers in general; for forcing them to re-think things that they had been comfortably ignoring as routine matters. You don’t think about taking part in daily, weekly or annual worship rituals; you just do it. You don’t think about fastening your seat belt when you get into a car; you just do it. You don’t think about buying your wife or girlfriend flowers for Valentine’s Day; you just do it. Once such things are properly settled in your mind if you stop to think about them you are just wasting time, unless… unless there is good reason to reconsider why you are bothering, and what difference it actually makes. Even then the process can be rather uncomfortable and bothersome.

And there are those for whom strict, unquestionable rules are the only way they can avoid self-destruction –– people for whom, if alcohol would be considered an acceptable lifestyle alternative, they would be seriously drunk every week, and therefore it just makes the most practical sense that they never let themselves drink; not even to think about it.

But as those who know me are aware, when it comes to rituals as a means of keeping my life together, that’s just not my style. The best I can hope for in such regards is to have a set of positive habits in place that can serve as a useful automatic structure for all of my spontaneous decisions. And even there I am nowhere near as regular as I would like to be. For instance you might notice that for the first time this calendar year I have failed to get my blog up over the weekend, like I’ve been making an effort to do. Perhaps I could have done better, but I had other spontaneous priorities. It may be enough by way of explanation to say that I am writing this in the guest room of my son’s apartment in Sodankylä, in Finnish Lapland.

lapland trip 019I am very proud of my older son, though I am far more distant from him than I want to be these days. I spent a year where I chose to live more than 10,000 kilometers away from him, and after I returned we were only spending time together a few hours per month. Then relatively soon thereafter he took his current job as an army drill sergeant within the Arctic Circle, about an even 1000 kilometers from my house. So this last weekend, as this is my last full week off from school during the school year, and as this is the week before my French car goes to “that big parking garage in the sky” and I start using my bicycle and public transportation, I decided to spontaneously drive up and see him.

While I have been here we have not had uninterrupted “quality time” but we’ve been together more than really any time in the past two years, and while he was off of work for the weekend I didn’t want to spend extended amounts of time on line or writing. Thus I have allowed myself to break my “good habits” regarding this blog and post it late, and I actually feel better about myself for doing so.

My son, by virtue of the sort of work he does, lives a rather structured life compared to most people I know. He wakes up early each morning and makes himself some instant oatmeal and coffee. He then commences with whatever active physical routines he has set for himself for the day, most of which involve interaction with the Arctic nature in one way or another: bicycling, skiing, hiking, snowmobiling, playing with his Jeep… His life is rather Spartan, with no extra luxuries or ornamentation visible in his shared GI bachelor apartment. He is neither a teetotaler nor a heavy drinker; neither passive about his career nor obsessed with ambition. I strongly respect him for where he’s at. In some ways I wish I had more of the sort of rituals he does to keep his life regular; in other ways I’m glad I don’t.

lapland trip 015On my first full day up here he asked if I was interested in climbing up one of the better known skiing hills in the region, which is actually next to the Bible society lodge where he met with friends to see in the New Year. I happily agreed, while posting disclaimers about my physical condition being significantly worse than his. “Well, there’s one way to take care of that,” he said. And predictably, as we climbed he got considerably ahead of me, slowing down only enough to make sure I saw where he was going and didn’t give up. The obvious reversal of leadership roles would have been interesting to observe were it not for the physical strain involved. The joys of having fathered a drill sergeant!

lapland trip 022What time I was spending to myself while up here was mostly reading the library book I brought along: Frank Schaeffer’s, Crazy for God. It is the story of another rather Europeanized American man who grew up very religious; who had some significant accomplishments relative to that earlier in his life, though he never properly conformed to the mold he was cast in; who has also set out to reinvent his identity in middle age, partially at least as a writer (in spite of struggling with dyslexia); who also has a military son that he is rather proud of; who also hopes for his children to accept him and find things to respect about him in spite of himself. A lot I can relate to there, obviously.

So I’ve begun this year’s Lent in a rather un-Lenten way, but looking rather for non-ritualized, positive ways to spontaneously “improve myself”. I recognize that many would recommend a more ritualized approach to life than what I’ve taken –– and in many respects they may be right about things –– but like, so what? I live free and focus on connecting with those who are important to me as much as I can. Rituals which don’t serve such purposes –– or which take away from such purposes –– I largely live without. I don’t have the whole thing figured out by any means, but I don’t have a great deal of trust in those who would like to set better ritualized norms for me. I still respect the value of the ritual of Lent, but this year I’ve decided to go without. I guess you could say that I decided to give up Lent for Lent.

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Messing with Texans (my political statement for the fall)

OK, this being Labor Day weekend of an election year, one major political party convention now behind us and another ahead next week, I’m going to break down and write a specifically political piece, putting all my cards on the table and getting it out of my system for this cycle.

As many of you already know, I make no apologies for having political opinions –– rather strong ones at times –– but I try to promote clear thinking, tolerance and respect between people of all sorts of backgrounds, so I rarely prescribe any particular political path or directly endorse any particular candidate or party. To me the most important thing is for people to think rationally and critically about the credentials of those who are asking for our support –– for our permission to rule over us. We need to have some awareness of who is trying to rip us off and what they are trying to get out of us.

But on the other hand we need to build a sense of solidarity with as many people as possible, regardless of their skin color, family background, income level, religious inclinations or country of origin. When we start painting particular groups of “others” as all being the same, and not to be trusted because of the general characteristics of “their type”, we are into fairly dangerous and self-destructive territory.

With that understanding in place –– accepting that such stereotyping is a very dangerous thing to allow oneself to do –– I have to admit then that I too am frequently tempted to consider one particular group of people to be inherently intellectually and morally inferior to the rest of the world: Texans. As wonderful as some Texans might be, their state seems to be the focal point for much of what I consider to be wrong with the US political scene:

  • a strong element of racism left over from the days of black slavery, holding fair skin to be one of the clearest signs of someone being a good and trustworthy person
  • a xenophobia concerning those trying to get into their territory, particularly from “south of the border,” hypocritically combined with an eagerness to use “wetbacks” as de facto slave laborers
  • an oppositional relationship with their natural environment, based on a belief that you have to show nature who is boss: fighting off the sand and wind she throws at you, drilling out whatever resources she has hidden under the surface and showing her no mercy
  • a belief that fossil fuels are a gift from God and the basis of all human advancement, to be utilized in a complete and unrestrained manner; not to be replaced in the name of sustainability or environmental protection by anything those damned tree huggers try to force down their throats
  • a conviction that lawyers, philosophers and other people who think for a living are not to be trusted; that the basic principles of life must be simple to be true
  • tied to that belief in finding truth only in mental simplicity, a conviction that the final truth of life, the universe and everything must be in line with a “straightforward reading of the Bible” as understood within Protestant Christianity
  • a “wild west” belief that the best way to solve any problem is through violence: making sure that all of the respectable folks are always equipped to kill anyone they might feel threatened by, and using the threat of lethal violence as the fundamental basis for civil law and foreign policy
  • a “Dallas” (soap opera) mentality which holds that the “alternative golden rule” –– he that has the gold gets to make the rules –– is entirely justified; and all aspects of social order which do not need to be settled down the barrel of a gun should be given over to this form of control.

The stereotypical image of the problem we’re still facing

I recognize that this is an abstraction in two respects: not all Texans are by any means prone to this sort of mentality, and this sort  of mentality extends far beyond Texas. Even so, Texas seems to provide a focal point for such thinking.  The more directly other states in the US are connected with Texas ––geographically, culturally and/or economically –– the more likely they are to be politically dominated by this sort of cultural ideology.

I “get” why they feel this way, the same as I get why Egyptians would vote for a government by the Muslim Brotherhood, but I really can’t accept either as something I’d accept as the operational principle of my own country. The main point for me, politically, is that I want to do what I can to stop the United States from going even further down this path to perdition.

My hope would be that rather than functioning according to these “Texan” principles, the US would start swinging towards cooperation and mutual understanding with the rest of the industrialized world, particularly in terms of the basic concept of human rights.

Doing this involves a departure from the doctrine of American exceptionalism. It is entirely true that 230-some years ago the US was a unique country in the world, pioneering the concept that a country could be run on the basis of everyone having a theoretically equal say in how the government operates, that the abuse of power should be limited through a constitutional system of checks and balances, that no one could be required to belong or prevented from belonging to any given religious organization, and that human equality in terms of basic rights should be the foundational assumption for all legitimate political action. It is also true that right from the start this new nation had some serious difficulties living up to its own high ideals, particularly in terms of the way it related to those who were on the land before those of European decent arrived, those who were brought in as slaves and those who came in much later, fleeing difficult conditions in other countries. The nation kept learning by trial and error how to better live up to its own ideals, and in the post-war years of the twentieth century Americans finally felt they had learned enough about human rights where they could start teaching the rest of the world about such things. The US thus  began working in earnest to spread the ideals of human equality and freedom to other parts of the world.

The rest of the world was ripe for such evangelism at that time. Autocratic monarchies and authoritarian states had been largely discredited by the World Wars, and were seen in most places as a thing of the past. Most countries had outgrown their failed attempts to enforce religious uniformity within their territories. Thus freedom of religion was already more the rule than the exception; and monarchies which hadn’t already crumbled were starting to function as means of ceremonial implementation for laws which were being enacted democratically.  Many other countries had abolished slavery, given voting rights to women and implemented programs of public education even before the US did. These things were all basically agreed on as essential elements of human freedom, necessary to preserve peace and to enable each human being to reach his or her full potential in terms of what he or she could contribute to society.

With the Nazi atrocities rehashed at the Nuremburg Trials fresh in mind, the victorious nations from World War 2 came together under the auspices of the newly formed United Nations to set some basic goals for basic human rights to be recognized in all countries, so that all peoples would have a reasonable chance of living in peace and freedom. Thus the Universal Declaration of Human Rights came into existence. It wasn’t a perfect document, but it represented the new benchmark for protecting human freedom and equality –– values in which the US (of the Truman era) was still considered to be a world leader. It contained sections for every nation to work on improving its own human rights record in. For the US this included abolishing racial segregation and improving worker safety in a number of economic sectors. For other countries the goals of making marriage completely voluntary, allowing those at all levels of society the right to vote, and allowing people to freely leave their native land and return again whenever they so chose were harder pills to swallow.

But unlike the nations to which the US was preaching about human rights, the US itself never took the task of educating its people as to the content of this declaration seriously. Consequently the US started to become one of the most ignorant countries in the industrialized world in terms of what freedoms people are theoretically entitled to. From there basic freedom ceased to expand in the United States. Inequality between the richest and the poorest, which had been progressively declining since the Civil War, once again began expanding. One area at a time, the US began to fall behind other countries in terms of measures of freedom for ordinary citizens: levels of basic educational competence, average life expectancy, median household disposable income, participation rates in democratic processes…

The US is no longer uniquely free. The only area in which the US is a genuine world leader still is in terms of military spending, reflecting a particularly “Texan” agenda in that regard.  For those who only know of life in the US and in Cuba for example, such as Marco Rubio, the US might still look pretty good by comparison (Newsweek ranked the US as the 11th best country in the world to live in these days; Cuba the 50th); but the there are clear signs that the era of American dominance is drawing to a close and that in many respects there are far better places in this world to live these days. Serious risks for America’s poor and the gap between them and the rich have been growing exponentially since the Reagan years, and the quality of life for the median income family (the folks who have just as many people around them who are richer than they are as they do those who are poorer than they are) has been steadily dropping since the Bush tax cuts came into effect.

Going further down the Reaganesque route of economically castrating government services isn’t going to restore to the US to its heady days of world economic leadership and western cultural hegemony. The way to build a successful nation is for everyone to feel like they have “some skin in the game” but at the same time for everyone to feel like they’re part of the same team.  There are two forms of governmental failure to be avoided: the sort where no matter how hard you work or how lazy you are you end up in the same place; and the sort where the gap between those at the top and those at the bottom –– those with the most power and those with the least –– becomes so great that they lose all contact and sense of solidarity with each other. There are pieces of anecdotal evidence used to argue that the former risk is significant in the United States –– welfare bums, small businesses hindered by regulations, etc. –– but those arguments don’t come anywhere close to standing up under scrutiny. Meanwhile we have some hard working people whose income levels are measured in three or four digit sums and others who rarely break a sweat whose income is nine and ten digit sums! Do you think that might be a problem for maintaining social solidarity?

The solution to this problem is to make sure those who are at “the bottom of the pile” to still have a sense of belonging ; and those at the top are not allowed to turn away from those who are starving, enslaved, dying of preventable diseases, randomly tortured and democratically disenfranchised and say, “Sorry, not my problem.” A functional government needs to build a sense of fair play among its citizens, and the polarization being engineered by the extreme wing of the US Republican party moving in the most counter-productive direction possible in that regard.

In his first term in office Barack Obama prioritized two issues that were anathema to the Republican Party: protecting the human rights of all Americans in terms of health care, and cleaning up the mess that his predecessor had made by leaving serious consideration of human rights out of US foreign policy. Both of these were worthy goals, but it is fair to say that his success in both arenas has been somewhat qualified. His health care plan would be far more efficient if there were public insurance alternatives at least to the private health care plans people must now buy into, or if the “single payer” system got more traction; but if we stop having thousands of Americans dying for lack of access to heath care each year, and if over the next decade a few million fewer Americans go bankrupt from medical expenses than would be the case if Republicans had their way, this new program can definitely be considered progress. Meanwhile the Gitmo and Iraq messes are proving harder to clean up than non-insiders anticipated, and no matter what President Obama does he will never get the good will of the rest of the world towards the US back to the level it was at in October of 2001.

The Norwegians raised some eyebrows by awarding President Obama a Nobel Prize right away for even trying to make these improvements. But what do Norwegians know? They couldn’t even execute their most infamous mass murderer of the century last month. Instead this self-proclaimed crusader for Texan sounding values (fighting against social welfare, loose immigration policies and cultural diversity) will now just spend the rest of his life in prison, renewed in stretches 20 years at a time. So obviously Norwegians are crazy. But then again, they are ranked as having the highest quality of life in the world and the second best political culture in the world, so…

Anyway, getting back to the US situation, between the effort that President Obama put into these projects and the direct obstructionism he has faced in the House of Representatives for the past two years, some would argue that he has accomplished too little on other fronts. In some ways I agree: He was far too soft on the criminal bankers behind the sub-prime mortgage crisis. He was able to neither raise taxes on the rich nor reduce non-human rights related spending (military spending in particular) to bring down the country’s massive public debt levels. He wasn’t able to stimulate enough sustainable new business initiatives to replace all the jobs lost in the US due to his predecessor’s policies.  I too would have hoped for more in all of these areas.

Does that mean that the president is fundamentally incompetent? Of course not. What it means is that the American system involves multiple layers of checks and balances, limiting its efficiency but aiding its stability.  Not everyone in the US wants what I would consider to be a sensible government. Those with what I have labeled as a Texan attitude are still in a position to prevent what I would consider to be progress. Philosopher-kings who would try to repair the US are limited by this pesky little thing called the US Constitution, and by the leverage it gives to representatives of those who take great pride in their traditional ignorance.

The only way this can really be fixed is for the US to catch up with the rest of the industrialized world in terms of education regarding human rights. But as long as there is a broad unbroken stretch of red spreading across the middle of US political map, according to the current system for coding such things, I don’t see much improvement in the national education system there forthcoming.

There is, however, still enough of a functional democratic structure in the United States where if those there who are interested in the basic principle of human rights (regardless of how little they understand about it) happen to outnumber those with what I have designated here as a Texan mentality, and if they are willing to get out and vote to prevent this sort of mentality (as revealed in the current incarnation of the GOP platform) from dominating the country, then there is genuine hope that the US can progress towards reclaiming a leading position among civilized Western democracies in more than just military terms.

So yes, I’m endorsing President Obama’s re-election campaign. I believe that he has the best chance of convincing the American people of the importance of respecting human rights and getting government to move in that direction. I believe that he is genuinely interested in the plight of those who have to work two jobs to stay ahead of the bill collectors, whose children are being failed by a school system more interested in stats on some standardized test than empowering young people to participate in society, who are at genuine risk of ending up homeless, whose other basic rights are also endangered on a day-to-day basis; all those Mitt Romney was trying to reach out to in his nomination acceptance speech.

I really don’t believe that the Romneys, with their concerted efforts to avoid admitting how little they’ve paid in taxes –– or Paul Ryan, with all his efforts to posthumously baptize Ayn Rand and overlook how his own opportunities in life were the result of government largesse –– are genuinely interested in protecting the rights of all Americans. Nor do I believe that letting businesses do whatever they want –– treating their employees and their customers with calloused disregard and refusing to pay taxes to contribute to the maintenance of the societies in which they operate, all in the name of improving profitability and competitiveness –– is the answer to the current employment crisis in the US. The answer lies in government protecting the basic rights of all of those it represents and building a sense of solidarity between these people –– even those of different races, religions, occupations and classes –– shaming those whose patriotism runs so thin that they prefer to keep their money in off-shore accounts to having to contribute to the wellbeing of their fellow countrymen.

If you don’t like my perspective on such matters feel free to shrug.

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Filed under Human Rights, Individualism, Politics, Respectability

The Objectivist Mutation

I discovered some years ago that I found Ayn Rand’s followers distasteful. I also discovered that among capital P Philosophers her works are rarely taken seriously, but she still has a very loyal following who consider her to have been the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. There is nothing special about her in this regard; there are hundreds of hack writers and self-appointed gurus with diehard fan bases out there. Life’s too short to pay attention to all of them.

But Ayn Rand’s problem can no longer be ignored. Her fans have already done too much damage not to be taken seriously. And since the Republican Party vice-presidential candidate announced last weekend has been not only an Ayn Rand disciple but one of her evangelists –– confessing that she is the reason he got into politics to begin with –– it is time for everyone to take a serious look at what this ideology has to say for itself.

Rand’s disciples refer to themselves as “Objectivists”. The basic idea behind this name is a claim that they alone see human realities for what they really are. They have thus made an “-ism” out of being objective. It was with this sort of absurdity in mind that Jacques Derrida fought tooth and nail to prevent his concept of Deconstruction from being known as “Deconstructionism”. With all due respect to Taoism, Buddhism, Jainism, Judaism and Zoroastrianism, those quasi-religious movements which have sprung up in the last century or two –– which by their name indicate that they are dedicating themselves either to the teachings of some new guru or an abstract idea which their guru defines as meaning something different than what, if anything, the term would indicate to the proverbial man on the street –– commonly known as “-isms”, tend to be like cheap muesli: mostly nuts and flakes.

From what little I have read of Rand’s works directly, I heartily agree with the recent article in The New Yorker stating that she belongs “in the crackpot pantheon of L. Frank Baum and L. Ron Hubbard”. But like members of any other self-respecting cult, her followers will tell you that the only way you can really appreciate her genius is to read a good deal of her writings for yourself, rather than second and third hand accounts like this one. I will not try to stop anyone who is so inclined, and I will not claim to be any sort of Rand scholar. My point here is merely to say why I refuse to take the Rand cult particularly seriously in intellectual terms, but why I believe that people should take the threat of Objectivist politicians very seriously.

For anyone who wishes to argue back against my points here, I ask that you would not use my site here to evangelize for Rand in the sense of broad spectrum spam or advertising for her writings. (Those who are truly interested in such matters can find more than they will ever want to know at http://www.aynrand.org.) As is the case with all other cults as well, the discussion of the internal minutiae of their beliefs is quite endless, and I really don’t want to go there. Nor, given the disclaimers I have already made, do I wish to address ad hominem attacks against my credibility in saying anything about this subject. I would ask that you merely try to keep me honest by showing where I might be building a “man of straw” in summarizing Rand’s perspectives, or showing where the ideas I consider here are more defensible than I give them credit for.

So anyway, the lady who reinvented herself as Ayn Rand, wherever she got that name from, was actually born as Alisa Rosenbaum, the eldest daughter of a gentrified Russian Jewish family in St. Petersburg in the twilight of the Tsarist times. This apparently made her rather conflicted and escapist from the start. Her family had little in common with the Jews of Anatevka, but they were no friends of the Tsarists either. Her family was disrespected for their ethnicity, but they were still upper middle class and rising. During the upheavals of 1917, as Alisa was hitting puberty, the Rosenbaum family took refuge in among the Tatar Muslims loyal to the White Army in Crimea. That didn’t help much though; once Lenin was thoroughly in power the Rosenbaums lost everything. From this time forward little Alisa developed a serious hatred towards religion, towards collectivism and towards what she saw as the mediocrity around her. These hatreds went on to define her life in every relevant sense.

Alisa graduated from high school in Crimea before her family moved from their temporary refuge on the Black Sea back to their former family stronghold on the Baltic. Back in the town of her birth Alisa became part of the first cohort of girls to ever get a state university education in Russia –– one of the few advantages the Soviet system afforded them. To say she was ungrateful for this opportunity would be a colossal understatement. During these years, like many socially awkward and reactionary teenagers since, she was particularly drawn to the writings of Nietzsche. She also started to build Hollywood fantasy pictures of the United States in her mind.

As soon as she finished her basic 3-year degree, after some delay in getting the papers due to her bourgeois background, she started studying film and theatre. While doing so she started playing with the idea of renaming herself and creating a more thoroughly self-determined personal identity. A year into her film and theatre studies she managed to get permission from the Soviet authorities to visit her Chicago Jewish relatives and to briefly check out the American drama scene first hand. To say that she never looked back would be a colossal falsehood, but she certainly never remotely considered voluntarily returning to the land of her birth. This made her one of the very first Soviet “defectors” to the United States.

Quite soon after her defection Alisa Rosenbaum officially became Ayn Rand. A bizarre fluke of history reinforced her fantasy identity: Standing on a Hollywood street corner, looking like a cross between Betty Boop and Hillary Swank, this bombastic little Russian girl happened to catch the eye of the biggest of the big Hollywood producers as he happened to drive by –– Cecil B. DeMille. As it happened, DeMille’s mother was of Jewish descent (Freudian dynamics, anyone?), and he was just then in the middle of filming King of Kings, a grand costume drama about the life of Jesus, trying to depict the sufferings of the Jews of that period as sympathetically as possible. So he was actively looking for new attractive and still tragically Jewish looking extras for the project. This girl struck him as perfect for such a background role.

The problem was she didn’t quite see herself that way. She saw herself as a great writer who could provide DeMille with important new material. DeMille treated her with more respect than the average film mogul would show to a pretty young girl lost in a fantasy, but try as he might, he couldn’t really take any of the script ideas she sent him seriously.  But that really didn’t make any difference. She had her foot in the door in Hollywood, and through her bombastic style she managed to make enough friends there to have steady work as a costume assistant at least, and to find a husband who was willing to financially support her in the years to come. From there she went to work in earnest on developing her self-made identity as a writer.

Her first theater piece, Night of January 16th, wasn’t any great hit, but is was original enough in style to capture enough of the public imagination to turn a small profit on Broadway; but neither Rand nor the producers were especially happy with the compromises they had reached in terms of her hopes of the show serving as a vehicle to preach her new gospel of the glories of individualism. Her first novel, a semi-autobiographical work called We the Living, managed to catch one of the early waves of pre-Cold War hatred towards Communism that were starting to take shape. But from there one particular problem came to dominate her writing: her inability to “play well with others” became the basis of a radical campaign to justify herself and selfishness in general.

Her first major novel, The Fountainhead, was based on the assumption that creative integrity can never happen through collaboration with others, or based on sensitivity to the needs of others. That assumption is just blatantly false. But her magnum opas, Atlas Shrugged, is based on an even more blatantly false premise: that empathy is a roadblock to technical progress and that the route to an ideal society –– a technocratic utopia –– was by way of pure, unregulated selfishness. From there Rand’s fictional output dried up, and she proceeded to spend the rest of her life writing various types of non-fiction to try to justify the attitudes of her sociopathic fictional heroes, Howard Roark and John Galt –– who as imaginary friends became her closest philosophical allies.

Rather than going through the follies of her fiction in more detail than that, perhaps it is best to move on to the essence of Rand’s “philosophy” in her non-fiction. To modify a quote from an Australian cynic in an entirely different field, Rand’s ideas were both original and philosophically viable, but those ideas that were philosophically viable were not original, and those ideas that were original were not philosophically viable. Let’s look at her own 4-point perspective to see how this might be so.

Metaphysics:

“Reality exists as an objective absolute—facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.”

The common philosophical designation for the sort of view espoused by Rand here “naïve materialism”: a foundational assumption that the material world as we know it –– atoms and molecules and the dances we’ve been told that they do –– is the basis for all other forms of reality. This is one viable way of looking at the nature of life, the universe and everything, but certainly not the only one. Nor was Rand the most eloquent and consistent spokesperson for such a viewpoint. In fact her reductionism in considering such matters is rather problematic. In particular she never really understood the basic argument presented in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason: that the ultimate nature of “things in themselves” (noumena) is really unknowable for human minds; we can only know how things appear to us through our senses (phenomena). In other words Rand made no categorical distinction between the way she saw the world, and the way things really are. She assumed that those who saw the world differently than she did were living according to their “feelings, wishes, hopes and/or fears”, but if they could take her word on such matters they could be delivered from such deceptions. The possibility that she was projecting her own feelings, hopes, wishes and fears onto her disciples was never something she took particularly seriously.

Rand tried to defend her materialistic perspective by way of axioms –– statements which were not necessarily provable, but which need to be accepted as a basis for any argument, including arguments attempting to refute them. This in effect amounts to what Wittgenstein calls a “language game”: you can’t provide any argument that proves the existence of something beyond language without using language to do so. Thus it can be postulated that language is the ultimate reality of the universe, and by Rand’s definition this would be the ultimate axiom. All her other axioms effectively come back to this one. From there she goes on to blur the distinction between the linguistic representation and the ontological existence of particular objects, and of existence in general.

The problem there is that language is also the ultimate embodiment of a particular culture’s feelings, wishes, hopes and fears; and to the extent that concepts are translatable between languages, that only shows that the cultures that produced those languages hold particular feelings, wishes, hopes and fears in common.  Thus Rand’s concept of “objective reality” is ultimately self-defeating.

Epistemology:

“Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.”

To the extent to which there is any legitimacy to that statement it is a rephrasing of Kant’s concept of the synthetic a priori: We take information given to us by our senses, make sense out of it through a process of mental codification, and then we build a set of functional rules for confronting our environment with on that basis.

But the problem here is that Rand slips into prioritizing yet another language game: “The fundamental concept […] on which all the others depend, is logic. The distinguishing characteristic of logic (the art of non-contradictory identification) indicates the nature of the actions (actions of consciousness required to achieve a correct identification) and their goal (knowledge)—while omitting the length, complexity or specific steps of the process of logical inference, as well as the nature of the particular cognitive problem involved in any given instance of using logic.” In other words, if you can put together a set of definitions that don’t prove themselves wrong, you’re being logical about things.

On the surface of it this would seem to be a matter of prioritizing the coherence theory of knowledge, according to which Rand’s hopes and dreams could be seen as having even footing with Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Marxism, Spiritism, etc., so long as things within the system are categorized in a relatively coherent fashion, and so long as its followers could live up to their professed ideals. In practice, however, this was not the case –– logical legitimacy among Objectivists is also based largely on correspondence with Rand’s particular concepts of the nature of reality. Competing theories and patterns of categorization were condemned by Rand as too emotional or mystical. Given that she was looking at the world through lenses of a Hollywood based level of realism, a fog of amphetamine addiction and world class megalomania, her assertions that her individualized senses and basic mental processes set the standard for objective reality become all the more absurd.

The problems with Rand’s theories thus far are relatively trivial and theoretical though. Practical problems and serious damage potential goes with what follows here.

Ethics:

“Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.”

To the extent that there is a legitimate philosophical point to this quote it lies in the strong echo of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics –– in the concept of personal happiness as an end unto itself and the goal of self-interest realized in a balanced and rational way. Aristotle was also big on the pursuit of personal excellence, which Rand was particularly keen on as well.

The starting problem here is that people are notoriously bad at predicting what will actually make them happy, and they are particularly prone to self-destructive behavior when they set no greater goal for themselves than personal happiness. Perhaps paradoxically, the thing that best increases our personal sense of happiness is a deep sense of connection with others, involving such anti-objectivist elements as gratitude, compassion, empathy and altruism.  The more of these you have, the happier you tend to be as a person.

To the extent that Rand herself escaped from misery and depression in life it occurred when she had a sense of connection with other people, but she wasn’t smart enough to see this as the cause. She thought her happiness was coming from the rational success of her individualistic ideals. If she would have seen the true source of what happiness she did experience it actually would have destroyed her theories on the matter. She would have had to admit that a radically self-sufficient and socially aloof character like her Howard Roark is rife with psychological impossibility –– and to the extent that Frank Lloyd Wright, her historical model for this character, experienced happiness in life, he too found it by way of social connection with his clients, co-workers, apprentices, family and other admirers; with his work being merely a means of bringing this about.

A slightly more nuanced explanation of Rand’s view on ethics explores the idea that the preservation of one’s own life, acting in an entirely volitional manner, is key to anything worthy of being called “values.” There is some truth to this: as Kant pointed out as part of his categorical imperative concept centuries earlier, some level of volition is a necessary element of anything worthy of being called ethics, and this is a capacity only known to exist among living creatures. (Whether a storm system really “decides” to destroy a coastal city or not is something we aren’t really equipped to determine, but for now let’s provisionally agree that it isn’t so.)  It does not, however, follow from there that sociopathic selfishness is the best means of preserving life or exercising volition. In fact choosing to love others and align our interests with theirs is in all likelihood a more reliable and fruitful exercise in both regards. As psychiatrist and neuroscience researcher George Vaillant points out, “Mammalian evolution has hard-wired the brain for spiritual experience, and the most dramatic spiritual experience is joy. Developmentally, the child’s smile, the kitten’s purr, and the puppy’s wagging tail emerge at the same time. These social responses are elicited by, and in turn elicit, positive emotion.” Negative emotions, like aggression and fear, are as developed in lower animals as in humans. But “the limbic system differentiates mammals from reptiles, and contains most of what we know of positive emotions and spirituality. Negative emotions help us to survive individually; positive emotions help the community to survive. […] Joy is connection.”

This leaves us with one more primary area of Objectivist thought –– the most dangerous one.

Politics:

“The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, […] as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be […] a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.”

This aspect of Rand’s ideology is based largely on her mistaken understanding of the essence of human happiness as part of ethics, leading to a distorted minimalist perspective on the rights of human beings as such.

Rand actually wasn’t particularly consistent in her views regarding the prohibition on violence. She was fully in favor of the cowboys violently stomping out the Indians and Israelis violently stomping out Palestinians so long as some abstract concept of “civilization” and “advancement” was being promoted in these cases. What she really wanted was for self-aggrandizing sociopaths to be able to hold onto all that they had gained, regardless of the means by which they gained it –– not allowing for the re-appropriation of these resources for any purpose of serving “the public good”.

But let’s accept her theory here at her word. Consistently applied, is the principle of state non-participation in economic matters and its role being limited to the protection of private property and prevention of violent crime practically viable? In short, no. Besides the fact that there is no moral reason why the personal interests of the rich should be prioritized over the personal interests of the poor, there are many forms of human dignity and personal freedom that governments should be protecting for all. These would include freedom from enslavement in any form, the right to choose what form of labor one chooses to sell without the duress of one’s children’s lives being threatened if one does not submit to those who have hoarded all the available resources, the right of all children to have access to the sort of education that would enable them to contribute to society, and the right to believe differently from others without being attacked and persecuted for it. To protect these freedoms the government needs to play some sort of role in regulating the economy; in acquiring the means to protect the lives of children and to insure that every child is given a fair opportunity to achieve greatness, regardless of their parents’ limited resources.

The basic premise of Atlas Shrugged is that there are those who contribute more than anyone else to the advancement of civilization –– who figuratively carry the world upon their shoulders –– and they are entitled to all of the rewards they are able to acquire for themselves. When society tries to demand that they share these rewards with those they consider to be their inferiors, they have the possibility of just dropping the world from their shoulders and letting the system go to hell without them. This sort of risk/threat is unrealistic in all sorts of ways. First of all the possibility to rise up as a “self-made man” requires a social context in which what you have to offer is of use to those who might trade for it. Without a capacity to contribute to the happiness of others, and without an empathetic understanding of how the happiness of others is constructed, these “Atlases” really have nothing of value to offer to anyone else, and their fantasy of carrying the world on their shoulders is just that –– a fantasy. Their sense of entitlement is entirely in vain.

Beyond that, the human and material resources they take for granted in the process of realizing their grand schemes really cannot be taken for granted. There is no reason why they should have any access to such things unless they are genuinely providing benefit to all, and this mutual benefit needs to be structurally insured as a precondition for their empire building projects to be accepted as permissible. If they are not able to attain such permission from legitimate representatives of those with whom their businesses must interact, these “Atlases” –– better known as robber barons –– have been known to proceed by means of violent takeover of the resources they require.  Governments actually have a legitimate role to play in preventing that sort of violence from being exercised.

Those who are actually capable of “playing well with others” and realizing their dreams through the joy of social interaction don’t need to hoard resources and ignore the needs of others to be happy in life. On the contrary, they genuinely find fulfillment in contributing to the well-being of others, and doing so is far more important to them than individual monument building. That doesn’t stop some from compensating for what they are lacking in terms of interactive ability (including, but not limited to, sexual capacity) through a process of individual monument building, but that does not justify such a practice as a basis for societal reward structures. Governments should have higher priorities than defending these monumental manifestations of insecurity.

There is one limited sense in which I agree with the defense of Howard Roark that Rand wrote into The Fountainhead: the process of social evolution requires that certain individuals will be (correctly) seen in their own time as “freaks” or “mutants,” and broadly rejected as such before the advantage of the mutation they represent becomes evident. Thus broad social acceptance cannot be the basis for determining what is ultimately of value, nor can conformity with tradition, else progress could never happen. Freaks need to be allowed to stand on their own merits. Geniuses need to be given some space to experiment, even if no one else “gets it” for a long time afterwards.

The quote from “Fountainhead” engraved in stone at Disney World

But there’s a balance to all this: in evolutionary terms mutation is not an end unto itself. Just because someone doesn’t fit in doesn’t make them inherently virtuous or valuable. Most mutants just die off childless and are forgotten by the rest of society other than as objects of morbid curiosity. If they have some unique value it must ultimately be measured by the extent to which they make society stronger and safer for their own offspring and others they are capable of caring about. If they lack such a capacity for caring it is hard to say how much pity should be accorded to them.

Ayn Rand was definitely a freak of sorts. Her thought processes carried some of the mutations that came into the western intellectual genome through the works of such diverse thinkers as Machiavelli, Hume, Comte, Spencer, Nietzsche and Huxley; but into this she added her own freakish belief in the virtue of radical selfishness. While she never succeeded in passing on her physical genetic code, Rand did succeed in passing on these intellectual mutations to future generations, through the likes of the infamous banker Alan Greenspan, Justice Clarence Thomas,  rock star Neil Peart, talk radio phenomenon Rush Limbaugh, former presidential candidate Ron Paul, his more right wing son Rand (!) Paul, Senator Ron Johnson and, most disturbingly, current vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan. Time will tell whether this mutation will eventually die out before completely destroying American society, which is in dire need of solidarity rather than more justifications for selfishness. Let’s hope…

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Filed under Empathy, Epistemology, Ethics, Happiness, Human Rights, Individualism, Philosophy, Politics, Social identity

Integrity

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 dictionary.com:

Noun

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…

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

Angst

I’ve recently been reexamining my perspective on Heidegger. I haven’t really changed it much, and I’m not interested enough to be a full-fledged Heidegger scholar, but I have been reexamining my perspective.

Certain early impressions regarding this guy remain in place. Among them, one of the reasons he made a particularly good Nazi had to do with his German ethnocentrism and his thing about the German language in particular. He believed that the German language and culture were far superior to anything else that was going at the time and anything that had ever been, and on that basis he decided to attempt to reinvent philosophy on a purely German basis. If his ideas couldn’t be translated into other languages, so much the better for proving the superiority of his own language. As a byproduct of this exercise though he got so busy playing with his language that he frequently forgot what the hell he was talking about.

 

Yet in spite of this fundamental flaw in his perspective, Heidegger remains one of the top 10 most important, original and influential philosophers of the 20th century, regardless of whose list you are going by. His work clearly influenced all continental philosophy for the second half of the century, and arguably the French post-modern movement could not have come into being without him. So for better or for worse he is a force to be reckoned with. And beyond all that, if I were to try to analyze exactly what the core question of my own philosophical pursuits is these days it would have to be something like, how much am I as a person an autonomous individual capable of truly independent thought and action, and to what extent am I just an element within the society and ecosystem within which I find myself? Together with that comes the consideration of what I am ultimately free to do and what is essentially worth doing with my freedoms, such as they are. Call it irony or coincidence, or indirect cause and effect beyond what I am capable of analyzing, but those are precisely the questions that seem to have occupied Heidegger’s mind. So the question is, does Heidegger have anything useful to say about this relevant to life as I know it? That’s what I’ve been trying to reconsider lately.

Heidegger’s main work –– the only one that anyone really talks about –– is called Being and Time, and his main point there seems to be that time sets the conditions for all forms of being. I say “seems to be” because, as I said, he got so busy playing with his German etymologies that even professionals specialized in interpreting Heidegger aren’t really sure what he’s on about sometimes. So rather than continuously repeating that point let me just say to anyone who would wish to critique my understanding of Heidegger as missing his point, “Duuuh!” All of this is merely my layman’s understanding of what Heidegger’s point might have been, on the optimistic assumption that his words actually related to anything beyond themselves. That disclaimer in place, as always, alternative perspectives are more than welcome in reply here.

So anyway, Heidegger’s basic epiphany was saying that what makes life really real is knowing that we’re all going to die. This is self-evident on one level, and deeply problematic on another. Of course human life is of limited duration for everyone, but is that really what it is really all about? Isn’t that sort of like saying that the true beauty of the Mona Lisa lies in the fact that it is framed? I don’t know; perhaps for Heidegger the best he could say about his life was that at least it wouldn’t go on for ever.

So anyway, time frames our lives –– our fundamental sense of being –– giving it profound limitations; setting the boundaries within which the game is played. And within those boundaries we do our best to… score… in some way or another. But what counts as scoring, and why should we really care about it?

In fact Heidegger wasn’t interested in such sports analogies. What he cared about was authenticity –– figuring out some way of being “the real me” without going all existentialist about it. (Heidegger had a real problem with being compared to any Frenchmen.) And what makes a person authentic? Angst –– being a bit uneasy about everything –– having a creeping sense that you don’t really fit in, and eventually this is going to lead to your death.

Angst, as Heidegger describes it, is a bit of a “fish out of water” experience, but that’s the beauty of it as far as he’s concerned, because only when it is out of the water can the fish get the whole concept that there is such a thing as water. That sense of not taking our social and material environments for granted –– not assuming that the way things work in our familiar surroundings is the only way things possibly could work; nor that all of the ways in which we have been tossed about and conditioned to “fit in” within our environments are really a necessary part of who each of us is –– only happens when we become alienated from such conditions. This is what makes a person a genuine, authentic human being, at least as Heidegger saw it.

Then from there –– from that exalted position where you can’t really breath but at least you feel above everyone else –– you can sort of look down on the rest of the world and decide if there’s anyone or anything you feel like caring about. This act of choosing to care –– from a position of defiant self-sufficiency arising from angst-ridden state of alienation –– is the sweetest thing life has to offer as far as Heidegger was concerned.

But of course this only works when you feel as though it’s entirely up to you who you care about and who you don’t. If you can’t choose to be kind to some and be a total bastard to others it isn’t really “caring” as Heidegger saw it; it’s “inauthenticity”. To really care in a valuable way, according to Heidegger’s way of thinking, first you have to get deep into the angst thing: you have to get all messed up about the fact that your life is pretty tightly limited by death and all, which could happen at any time, when you least expect it. Then you have to let that angst keep you from fitting in “like a normal person” in your circumstances. And only after than, when you’ve pretty much given up on everything else, can you find your own way of connecting to people entirely according to your own autonomous tastes in the matter.

To be perfectly honest about it, I really don’t see that as a recipe for happiness and success in life. I don’t see angst as a purpose unto itself as something that I’d want to pass on to my sons and students as a way of enriching their lives, nor is it something that I want to have in ever increasing doses of in order to “keep my edge” as some idiots seem prone to think. And still, ironically perhaps, I continue to experience far more than my fair share of angst and alienation in life; Heidegger would be truly envious of me in those regards.

Yes, I do see this angst –– this sense of my life being disturbingly limited and “different” from those around me –– as having enabled me to think about certain things in deeper ways than some people with fewer such challenges in their lives are able to. But is it worth it? Let’s just say that given a choice in the matter I’d prefer to have a lot less of it.

My preferred basis for establishing purpose and meaning in life is to be aware of angst and what it can teach you, but as a lifestyle choice to stay out of it as much as possible. Rather than thriving on isolation and alienation, I recommend thriving on a sense of harmony with the people and the world around me. I would hope that we can each take part in building something resembling “God’s kingdom” –– a system of empathy and mutual support that extends beyond cultural prejudices and boundaries of tribal identity, even if it does end up becoming more structurally enforced and less subject to our autonomous impulses than what Heidegger might have had in mind.

Rather than waking up every morning wondering how much closer I’ll come to death that day, I want to wake up each morning wondering what sort of lasting positive impact I might be able to have on things that day, which might continue long after I am gone. As I see it my personal authenticity does not depend on who or what I can isolate myself from, but on who and what I can form meaningful connections with. And while nothing relating to human understanding is perfect and eternal, the more refined and firmly established I can make things, the better I suspect it will be for all concerned.

And yes, this also comes down to the perennial $10,000 question: Did Heidegger’s philosophy make his enthusiasm for the Nazi party inevitable, or was he just an otherwise wise and profound thinker that happened to be incredibly stupid and/or immoral in that one particular area? My personal take on the matter: angst can cause people to do some pretty crazy and unbalanced stuff. If he was feeling isolated, morbid and out of sync with everything around him on purpose it would seem extremely likely, if not inevitable, that he would gravitate towards the type of organization that gives its insiders an intense sense of belonging while at the same time offering a sense of freedom to radically hate “the others”. So yes, given the opportunity, of course Heidegger became a Nazi.

But the irony remains: I am in a fairly deep state of situational angst these days. As I approach the end of my sabbatical year’s adventures –– in which I have broken free from social expectations and environmental pressures and moved half way around the world in search of new connections and possibilities –– I have precious little idea what is coming next. As fascinating as this adventure has been, it has not led to any lasting new arrangements for me, and thus I am now in a position where I have no idea what sort of home or job I will have three months from now! The things we do in search of authenticity…

I'm currently watching with fascination to see where my path might lead.

So while a life of Heideggerian angst is really the last thing I’m looking for these days, at the moment it seems to be the core essence of life as I know it. Funny how these things work! Under the circumstances there’s really only one thing I can say for sure: I’m not going to let it make a Nazi out of me.

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Filed under Empathy, Ethics, Individualism, Philosophy, Social identity

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.

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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.

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

Selfish Shellfish

Someone recently posted a graphic version of this quote that made it onto my Facebook account: “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”  (attributed to John Kenneth Galbraith). This struck a chord with me in terms of my distain for those who try to eliminate protection of the weak at the expense of the wealthy from political discourse, but it also made me stop and think about how we toss around this particular S-word.

Truth being told, I’ve been accused of it a fair number of times myself, mostly by those whose agendas I’ve prioritized lower than my own. I see the same thing happening around me all the time: X is angry at Y because Y refuses to offer X help with a particular project she’s having difficulty with –– even though, as X sees it, Y is not doing anything particularly important just then. Thus X tells everyone how selfish Y is in refusing to help her. It can be a matter of giving money to someone who feels in need, allowing someone to use your durable goods, letting the other person set the agenda for your shared time or any number of other things. If you don’t do what the other person feels entitled to expect of you, you’re selfish, at least as she sees it. (I don’t know why it is that these accusations tend to come far more from women than men, but it does seem to happen that way in my observations.) What justification is there for that?

The most obvious, and cliché explanation for the charge is that those who accuse others of selfishness are simply jealous of them, for reasons of varying validity. If someone has been “blessed by fortune” with wealth, beauty, important talents, power or other valuable things, those who are less blessed consider it to be “only fair” that the blessed person gives a share of his fortune to them as well. Moving within the realm of this basic explanation of things, the “modern conservative” referred to above follows the standard rhetoric of saying, rather naively, that people make their own fortunes; and in any case if a fortunate person wants to give to someone else because he cares about that person, it really should be up to him to decide to do so. There are many levels on which I disagree with the structure of this whole debate, but I think it needs to be peeled apart backwards to make sense of the matter.

To start with, whether or not we personalize the forces that give some more tokens of value than others –– whether or not we consider the distribution of wealth, strength, intelligence, etc. to be the work of the God of monotheists (or any other god), or even the workings of karma –– it will always be a moral imperative for the one in a position of privilege to use what he has for the benefit of others, and not in a capricious way. The Christian message, and that of any other monotheistic religion worth its salt, will tell you that what you receive in these terms is according to God’s mercy and his plan for this world, not according to your own merits. Therefore, to show yourself worthy of such favor, you must pay it forward to others in need of such mercy. If you show mercy to others merely as a means of gaining further influence, however, that hardly counts as a way of proving yourself worthy of the mercy you have received. If you pick recipients for the favor you pay forward based on whatever form of favoritism you care to use it’s probably rather unrealistic to expect that to earn you favor with the higher power you believe in.

If you believe in karma, on the other hand, then regardless of which of Hinduism’s off-chutes you follow, the most credible way to further improve your karma is to have compassion on others, whether or not they conform to your taste. You hurt them, or fail to help them overcome their suffering, and you can expect that it will come back to bite you in the ass, if not in this life then the next one. Magical incantations to keep this from happening are popular, but not particularly credible.

And if you don’t subscribe to any particular religious understanding of where your blessings come from, that doesn’t mean that you yourself are the source of all of them or that you are entitled not to care about others. On the contrary, atheists too must acknowledge themselves to be part of something bigger than themselves –– part of a culture and economy, fast going completely global. Within such an economy it is necessary for those who by random chance have ended up in more advantageous positions to contribute to the stability of the whole through making sure that those without such advantages are still able to have dignity and hope in life. (More on this to follow.)

So regardless of a person’s ethical premises, I categorically reject their moral right to choose not to care about those who are most vulnerable and in need. That makes me an anti-conservative in many respects. Whether it makes me an all out liberal is a different question. Just because I don’t subscribe to excuses for indifference towards the rights of others doesn’t mean I subscribe to liberal dogmas of complete egalitarianism or absolute pacifism. There is, for instance, a matter of balance required when looking at the question of whether or not we make our own luck. Sometimes we undoubtedly do; other times we really can’t take credit for all of the good things we manage to experience and accomplish for ourselves.

Against stereotypical liberals I would say, I believe jealousy is just as bad a vice as selfishness. Wanting others to have less just because you don’t want them to have more than you is hardly more virtuous than them wanting to keep all their toys to themselves just to prove that they have more than the next guy. Both are fixated on childish motivations of comparison, not recognizing that there are more important things in life than that.

That isn’t to say that all selfish people are that way merely to prove their place in the competitive games that they play. Sometimes it’s just a matter of such folk feeling comfy with what they’ve got and not caring about anyone else enough to inconvenience themselves. And if it truly is a matter of their merit and the “have-nots’” laziness, why should they bother to chip in? I mean, didn’t Aesop have a point with his fable about the ant and the grasshopper?

Short answer: he might have at the time, but things have changed a lot in the last two or three thousand years, and they’re changing faster all the time these days. The fable works as an analogy for those of varying motivational levels within a non-mechanized herding or subsistence farming community perhaps, but in the age we live in success is never about pure individual accomplishment, but rather about finding a place within the culture where you’re particular contributions are valued and where you are fortunate enough to get something in exchange for what you are able to do for others.

When it comes right down to it if you’ve got more than the next guy it’s not because you did more lifting than he did. You have what you have either because you’ve found people who happen to like what you have to offer enough to pay you for it, or because you’ve figured out how to screw the system to get what you want without giving anything of value in return. Either way, it really can’t be put down to individual merit. At best the rich show superior social adjustment and self control, but they have what they have only because of playing a particular role in the society they are in. Thus caring about the others in the society would seem like the only morally consistent and responsible perspective one can take.

But the problem comes when “caring about others” is used, not as a basis for requiring active participation in the maintenance of the society one is part of –– contributing to the protection of basic human rights for all other members as well –– but as means of manipulating people to live according to the tastes of those others, preventing them from having any form of satisfaction that the others don’t approve of. When the “selfishness” accusation is a tool in the power struggle to keep people from enjoying anything that could incite jealousy in others, something is fundamentally wrong.

Let’s be clear about one thing: there is nothing wrong with being happy or seeking for satisfaction in life. The problems come when this search for happiness is conducted on the basis of comparison with others, in ways that isolate us from others and even from ourselves. In order to prevent this our pursuit of happiness really needs to include the factors of confidence and connection: We need to be able to believe that we are working to make this world a better place, not just using whatever it offers as a source of passing amusement; and we need to recognize that, as John Donne put it, none of us are islands unto ourselves –– we are all part of the mainland of humanity, and the rest of creation. When we fulfill ourselves as much as possible by seeking to have a positive purpose in life and seeking harmony with the world around us, if someone labels us as selfish for not doing what they had in mind we don’t really have to worry about their opinion.

But then there’s a certain amount of truth to the line my high school English teacher used to say: “Your freedom ends where my nose begins.” If you are carelessly destroying the world I have to live in, I have a right to object. Everyone else also has the right to object. We don’t get to object to your having your own kind of fun, as long as you’re not damaging the world we live in. What counts as “damage” in such cases might even be a matter of extended negotiations. The main point is, if my children and future grandchildren, and others that I care about, cannot have a safe and sustainable life because of stuff you have done without really giving a damn, you should expect me to challenge you about your selfishness.

It took me a longer time than usual to write less than usual here. I guess in part that would be because I’ve allowed myself to get distracted from pretending I’m responsible to enlighten or entertain people here with less productive uses of this machine. Feel free to rebuke me if you feel I have selfishly failed to live up to your expectations here, but if you want me to take your rebuke seriously you may have to help me understand why I should. Meanwhile, for reasons of my own selfish motivations, I’ll try to do better next week.

And if you need further mental stimulation here, try seeing how fast you can repeat the name of this essay 10 times without getting your tongue tangled.

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Filed under Control, Ethics, Happiness, Individualism, Social identity

Camping African Style

The weekend after New Year’s has to be the busiest time of the year for all sorts of outdoor recreational activities in South Africa –– camping in particular. This is the time when the warm weather and longer days reach their most enjoyable, and when families and office workers are stretching out the last glorious moments of their Christmas holidays. It was no small feat then that Z managed to book a place for 14 of us in a popular campground with all of the modern conveniences over that weekend.

But as the group’s official representative it also fell to Z to forward our collective complaints to the camp office. Part of this was requesting a security details to come around and quiet down all the parties going on around us all night over the weekend. Sunday morning, as she sat with tired eyes next to the came fire she gave us a particularly interesting report on her telephone negotiations with the campground administration during the night: In the wee hours of the morning, with drunken parties and ghetto blasters pounding away on all sides of us, she called and woke up the manager. In his groggy frustration over being hauled out of bed to deal with this situation he came out with a rather novel request: “Could you put that in writing for us?” As though at 2:00 in the morning the proper procedure for having peace and quiet enforced would be to find a pen and paper –– or computer and printer –– write a hundred word explanation of the situation, and then get up and deliver it to the office.

To be generous to him, it is possible that he might just have needed a complaint memo in writing after the fact to accompany his security guards’ overtime pay requisition form, but there was something comically Orwellian about the bureaucratic nature of his request. As we joked about this around the breakfast table the group suggested that Z use her credentials as an established journalist to write something with a bit of a bite to it about the experience. She had some reservations about that though, not the least of which was trying to avoid giving herself a reputation as the sort of trouble maker they would prefer not to have back as a guest in the future. So having no reputation to lose here myself, I figured that if something needed to be written about our camping experience I could do it. Not that anyone would take my writing all that seriously, but maybe that would be the point in my writing it.

The campground in question was over on the east side of False Bay, a couple hours drive from Cape Town. Once upon a time, probably during the Apartheid era, it was a very respectable place, with level grassy places for pitching tents, electric outlets at each camp site, a little camp shop, clean and efficient restrooms and showers, and direct access to both a white sandy beach on the Indian Ocean and peaceful little lagoon fed both by the high tide and fresh water from a little river flowing down from the mountains. It still had most of those charms actually; just in rather faded form. The camping sites had no grass left to speak of, and overall the facilities looked as though they had last received basic maintenance about 20 years ago. So it was rather sad to see how they had let the place go in general, as though once it ceased to be a segregated facility they had stopped caring about it.

The crowd there seemed to be predominantly younger folks, lower middle class, of mixed race. Some were there with families but most were just odd assortments of friends. Most were in tents, but a few camper trailers dotted the landscape here and there. In addition to ghetto blasters, our temporary neighbors’ basic camping equipment there included televisions with portable satellite dishes, snorkeling and rafting supplies, (including small outboard motors), gas stoves, large ice chests, acoustic guitars and homemade bongs made out of 2 liter Coke bottles.

The little group I was there with was quite interesting and diverse in itself. Of the 14 of us only 3 were under 40 years old. There was one couple who had been married for over 30 years, a mother and daughter pair, two older singles not in any sort of relationship, two older remarried couples, my girlfriend and I, and a young pair of brothers who were the grandsons of one of the remarried ladies. Most of the group then had some experience of divorce and remarriage. As the majority were practicing Muslims, we had one of the few alcohol-free camp sites in the park, but there were also Christians and agnostics in the group, with no religious tensions arising among us during the course of the weekend. Our group, however, seemed to be in the minority for the campground in terms of our middle-agedness, particular with regard to our party habits, or lack thereof.

The campground’s electric outlets at each campsite were clearly one of its main attractions. At most of the other camp sites these seemed to be used primarily for hooking up entertainment systems; at ours they were used for powering a makeshift communal kitchen, including a refrigerator and microwave oven. What our group lacked in active interest in intoxication we quite made up for in a passion for food.

As I understand it, the group I was with originally took shape as an early morning hiking and fitness club of sorts, but eventually the ritual of after-hike refreshments started to become as important as, or more important than, the hiking itself. Eventually it just evolved into a very fluid community of families and friends with a strong sense of camaraderie and a strong appreciation for food. Thus one of the key elements of this camp experience was taking turns making the communal dinner, and competing with each other both in cooking and complimenting the cooks. A few of the members in better physical shape also did some hiking along the river banks and into the mountains towering above us there to the north, but these were more peripheral concerns than the food and social banter. There was talk of many former members in the group, and the unlikely fame some of them had achieved. Members come and members go, but the likelihood of passing on this group’s traditions to the next generation seems somewhat limited. The second and third generation participants had no particular suggestions as to how to draw in other descendents of active or former members.

Someone joked that my lady friend was taking quite a risk in bringing me along on such an adventure: the group had been known to scare away romantic partners in the past. There is a certain personal intensity involved, joking with each other in ways that push the limits of social acceptability. The sort of trust that this requires does not come easy to some. In all honesty though, I found it quite refreshing.

The highlights of the trip for me were doing sand sculptures at low tide with the youngest members of the group, telling jokes around the campfire at night, and making some comical attempts at fishing along the way. I caught nothing and lost one jig, but had no regrets on that account. One of my more foolish moves was to spend hours walking back and forth through the tidal channel taking photos and letting the salt water wash away my sunscreen from the knees down. The resulting burn was rather painful at times. The group generally looked on me with pity: all of them had had their own experiences of sunburn at one time or another, but most of them were a bit darker than myself, and thus far better naturally equipped to deal with the sun’s rays than I was. The sight of my bright red calves really brought out their compassionate sides.

During this camping time I was also working on my last entry here about communal aspects of religion, and thus I thought it would be worth mentioning both as follow-up and as background for that piece. I wrote there about how I’m not considered to be “a very good Christian” because I fail to conform to the norms of particular congregations –– especially in terms of accepting their dogmas, submitting to their disciplines and practicing their rituals. This leaves me in a bit of an outsider’s position in terms of my group membership. So why not, some have suggested in reply, settle for a more casual and fluid sense of community? In fact that is exactly what I was doing while I was working on the essay in question.

My community membership here in the Cape Town area is still in its early stages, and still very dependent on the contacts I built up on-line before coming here. I’m not really an insider here yet, and it will probably take years before I’m anywhere close, but I really can’t complain about loneliness either. It’s “community lite” for me. I haven’t been figuratively speaking baptized into any group here, but nor am I shunned or placed under interdict by many at least.

The question is, will that level of community connection be enough for the rest of my life, and/or for coming generations? There’s the old proverb that it takes a whole village to raise a child. These days the social definitions of both childhood and of parental roles are in a serious state of flux, and when it comes to child rearing help we’re more and more expecting our fellow villagers to mind their own business. This is how our societies give rise to individualists like me, and many of my former students. Alliances between individualists like us get to be rather unstable at times, and given the speed with which the rest of the variables in our world are changing it’s hard to say whether or not these lighter, freer connections are such a good thing. We think more freely, but we lack an automatic sense of order and unquestioning loyalty to the causes our grandparents held dear. Yet we’re still capable of making friends, albeit on a broader but shallower basis.

Is that the sort of cultural norm I want to spread in Cape Town, and/or wherever else I go? Well, not necessarily, but in some ways, yes. Breaking down tribal prejudices is more important to me than reinforcing emotional certainties. Overcoming destructive hatred is more important than maintaining absolute loyalties. I recognize that those who find it particular useful to instill such hatreds and loyalties in the younger generations as means of maintaining their own cultural norms may feel rather differently than I do about the matter. I realize that some might even find me threatening to their way of life in this regard, but I can live with their suspicions and rejection if necessary.

And this brings me to the question of who we are justified in distancing ourselves from. What reasons do we have to be afraid of particular outsiders? What is it that makes us just plain uncomfortable with particular individuals, and what should we do about it? Who overall doesn’t belong in our social groups? And if we let these outsiders in, do they automatically get a say in the democratic process of setting the rules within the group?

At the campground that weekend if the matter were put to a vote among the campers I’m sure that no curfew rule would have been enacted. We non-partiers were in the minority, but we still insisted on our rights to be allowed to have it quiet enough for children and old farts to be able to sleep. We weren’t about to let that majority set the rules we lived under! If we were aware that party animals would be allowed to set the rules there we wouldn’t have chosen to spend the weekend at that campground to begin with. They weren’t invited into the little social circle that I was being initiated into, so we had to keep them in their place somewhat.

Perhaps the nicest places for enjoying holiday time should be kept clear of “their sort” of people, so that the grass can grow back and the air quality and noise levels can be kept at levels were “decent folks” can feel at peace. Not terribly long ago there was a system in this country to keep the less desirable people in society from disturbing the “better sort,” quite efficiently I might add –– it was called Apartheid. Of course one of the major failings of that system was that it was based on a premise that breeding and skin color were reliable ways of telling the difference between the decent sort and the less respectable folk. But if we were to eliminate that particular aspect of the evaluation problem, could such a system still have a valid use? Should certain areas be set aside for the use of those with a certain amount of status who don’t care to be subjected to the majority? Would there be a particularly fair way of doing that? Could opposition to “the others” in this sort of way create a sort of deeper loyalty and solidarity among the “in crowd” in such contexts? Could this be the key to bringing back “the good old days” of a tighter sense of community? And then there is the sticky little matter making sure that these regulations serve the purpose of keeping “them” out without restricting freedoms for “us.” If such exclusionary systems are enacted, which of us could still be allowed to go all the places we want to go and do all the things we want to do?

As you have probably gathered, I don’t have a final solution to such problems. My strongest suggestions are to have a system where a certain amount of private space is allowed, where public spaces are regulated according to democratic principles as a rule of thumb, but where certain exceptional public spaces are recognized as deserving to be preserved and protected for future generations regardless of shifts in public opinion about the matter, and where above all we avoid dehumanizing those we aren’t comfortable with for whatever reason.

On a less systematic and more personal level, I want to try to look into myself and recognize what it is I’m afraid that those I’m uncomfortable with might actually take away from me, and why that is so important to me in each case. Is it just that they are damaging my health with the way they keep me awake at night? Am I afraid that they might reduce the value of some symbol of my personal success, making me look like less of a winner in life? Am I afraid that they will undo something else that I have worked very hard on? This might require a long discussion unto itself.

Meanwhile, as I mentioned above, one of the greatest highlights of the trip for me was doing sand sculpture with the youngest members of our group. With a bit of help from my friends at low tide I designed and built out of the moist beach sand a scale model of an F-1 race car, just large enough for an 8-year-old to sit in and pretend to drive. We all knew it wouldn’t last, and it wasn’t going to win any art awards anyway, but it was good enough to earn the young ones’ respect for my skill and to form a bond with them based on a shared sense of fun. They went to bed that night and woke up the next morning raring to go back down to the beach to continue our creative efforts together. That positive energy in turn filtered through the rest of the group and further strengthened a positive atmosphere among the older campers as well. If the rest of my life were to be defined by a series of moments like that, I wouldn’t really need any more than that to consider myself to be a happy and successful man. If my creations and communities aren’t as permanent as I would hope, I can live with that.

 

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Filed under Empathy, Individualism, Social identity, Tolerance, Travel

Ideal Religion, part 3

One of the most important aspects of religions that I haven’t yet discussed in this mini-series is the fact that they are inherently social and communal. Born Again Christians in particular often seem to forget this: it’s not only about a personal relationship with Jesus, having your sins forgiven, becoming a better person; it’s also about being part of a community of believers –– recognizing a sense of connection with others who, in spite of their weaknesses and outright stupidity at times, in some fundamental way share a sense of spirituality with you.

This is far easier said than done. The more you accept others as part of yourself, the more conflicts you risk internalizing. Yet for all the difficulties and problems inherent in loving others in this way –– in the broader, non-sexual sense of the word –– being able to do so is probably the most important aspect of religious observance. Various religions have various ways of doing this, and for overcoming the conflicts inherent in doing so. Thus no collection of writings exploring ideal forms of religion would really be complete without looking at this aspect of the question.

I must confess though that this aspect of religious life has probably been the most theoretical of all for me personally. I am a bit of a radical individualist in all aspects of my life, and somewhat to my shame, nowhere is this more true than in terms of my religious observance. I try to compensate for this lack of communal religious identity in my life with an openness to casual association with a rather broad range of religious communities, but I know that doesn’t really cover it. I’ll come back to addressing this particular form of “sinfulness” in my life in closing here. Meanwhile I’d like to look at what I think might make an ideal religion in terms of holding people together and creating a sense of communal belonging.

Could a perfect religious system better enable imperfect people to relate to each other, and to a transcendental purpose greater than all of them, in such a way that would bind them all together as a unit without causing all of the evils of tribalism? Perhaps not, but the possibility is worth exploring. And even if religion as we know it wouldn’t be able to fulfill such a task –– even if there would not be any god –– we would still need to find some sort of institution to serve this purpose if our species is to have any hope for the future.

After some contemplation I’ve come to the conclusion that there are essentially three means by which religious communities are socially bound together (and this is a new theory for me, so please, by all means help me shoot it down if it’s crap or work out the bugs in it if it’s worth saving). Even though the acronym is already taken, I’ll call this my DDR hypothesis, for Dogma, Discipline and Ritual.

The first means by which religious folks distinguish “us” from “them” is in terms of a “purity of faith,” a.k.a. dogma. In order to be accepted as a believer in most religions, one must make a certain standardized profession of faith, and thereafter follow the standardized teachings of this religion. These teachings are not taken to be subject to question or revision. One must be very careful not to “blaspheme” by saying things that go against the official dogma if one wants to be acceptable in such circles.

I have rather mixed feelings about the value of such dogmas. On the one hand they serve the same function within a religion that grammar serves within a language: they provide a sense of “properness” and order, making mutual understanding a much simpler process. On the other hand they frequently block the process of investigation, discovery and intellectual growth. When universities have religious authorities telling professors what they are and are not allowed to teach and investigate, more often than not that’s a sign that something is seriously wrong.

Religious people aren’t just expected to believe what their communities accept as true though; they are also expected to live up to the standards that they believe in as a matter of day to day morality and self-control. This I refer to as discipline.  For those who fail to do so, the religious community has various means of censor and punishment at their disposal, ranging from gossip and social isolation to actually going out and killing the person. (Islam is probably the only religion actively exercising the latter extreme, but there is a history of its use in the vast majority of the world’s older religions.)

Regarding this too I have rather mixed feelings. One needs to have some form of personal self-control to be part of any community, and a community needs to have some means of enforcing their norms in order to remain viable as a community. The problem comes when religious standards (or any other standards) for disciplinary procedures are used as an excuse for unthinking cruelty and for rejecting the value of other people as people. Of course every religious community claims to exercise compassion as part of their disciplinary process, and they all believe that the particular balance they have found between attempting to redeem and attempting to destroy the fallen individual is the right one; but inevitably those looking at such matters from the outside have a more difficult time accepting such dogmatic proclamations regarding how discipline should be carried out. Every religion has testimonies of people who have been saved from themselves through submission to their discipline, and every religion has its tragic victims who have been terribly damaged through the “discipline” inflicted on them.

Perhaps the most inherently and definitively social aspect of religion though is ritual. Rituals, in the strictest sense of the word, are routines followed by a community as part of their religious observance. These include rites of passage such as weddings and funerals; annual holiday observances involving periodic self-denial and self-gratification; ceremonial observances that are built into one’s daily or weekly schedule, such as gatherings for prayer, worship or meditation; and norms that are kept as part of the daily life of the community, such as protecting the ceremonial purity of one’s food, following set patterns in social interactions (e.g. bringing flowers to certain people at certain times) and keeping particular standards in one’s personal dress and hygiene.

The distinction between ritual and discipline as I use the terms here (and I recognize that there are other everyday uses for the terms as well) is that ritual is not a matter of ethical behavior as such. They are not things that it is understood that everyone –– regardless of their personal beliefs –– must do in order to be a good person. For example a good Jew, as a matter of living up to the standards of his faith, should never commit perjury, theft, murder or adultery; but he would also hold Christians, Hindus, agnostics and atheists to the same standard. He might take the offense more seriously if a fellow Jew cheated on his wife than if an atheist did the same –– and he would be less likely to consider the latter case to be any of his business –– but he would still consider the atheist to be a morally inferior person for doing so. But then a strictly observant Jew would also hold himself to standards of not eating beef broth and breakfast cereal from the same bowl, keeping his head covered in public and not wearing wool and linen at the same time; but on those he would not be inclined to morally condemn someone from outside of his faith who fails to keep such standards. These are matters of ritual, which bind together those who practice them as part of their identity, not things which those who practice them take to be general standards for human decency.

Obviously there are some rituals can be extremely harmful and dangerous –– such as Appalachian snake handling, Shamanistic use of hallucinogens and North African “female circumcision” –– but the vast majority of them are basically harmless. The thing that gives rituals a bad name is that they also tend to be senseless. That’s because they really don’t have to make sense to work. What they do is first and foremost to bind together those that follow them as a community, and any other influence they have on one’s practical life is secondary at best. If they serve no other purpose than that, so what? A.J. Jacobs makes an important point in talking about his “year of living biblically”: one should never disrespect the irrational when it comes to rituals. Of the thousands of rituals that we all live by a very small percentage can actually be rationally justified. Yet even so, those who have a certain amount of ritual built into their lives are probably happier and better adjusted than those who don’t.

Is there really any logic in the ritual of young children's birthday parties? Does there have to be?

The challenge with all three of the above is that in order to serve their purpose in holding the community together they can’t be optional. Dogmas are only valuable for holding a community together if everyone believes in them. Disciplines are only useful in building trust between believers if everyone follows them. Rituals are only capable of building solidarity if everyone observes them together. Nor is this matter of universalizing the DDR exclusively a religious concern: Marxist societies and other ambitious ideological groups have had their own dogmas, disciplines and rituals that citizens/members are not allowed to question or ignore. The unique strength –– and the essential failure –– of religions in this regard is that they tend to reinforce these three by telling people that they come directly from God (or the ultimate truth of the universe by any other name). This I have a problem with in principle. It might make religious community functionally stronger to have such a belief, but as I said in my address to all forms of fundamentalism in my last entry here, it’s just plain wrong. The almighty creator of the universe has never given any group an eternal and exclusive understanding of how life, the universe and everything are supposed to work. What we have at best are people who have grasped some small inkling of what is “out there,” how things work and how we can accordingly live in confident humility and mutual respect. To claim that any religious or ideological system of thought is any more than that –– out of fear of living in uncertainty –– is to live in blatant self-deception of the most common sort.

And this brings me back to my “sin” of individualism: Not accepting all of the dogmas and disciplines of any particular religious group as ultimate and eternal, and not following rituals carefully enough to please the faithful in such circles, has left me as a bit of an outsider within all such organizations. I remain a believing Christian in the sense that that tradition provides me with the greatest satisfaction in terms of the criteria I laid out in the entry before last here, but I have yet to find a community of faith that I have felt completely comfortable submitting myself to. In my experience they either tend to take their own systems far too seriously in a presumptuously exclusive sort of way, or they to lack hope and vision for working together to make our world a better place –– or both!

So for me the greatest improvement I could ask for in religion as we know it would be to have the sort of DDR set that builds a powerful and effective of believers without being divisive and without taking ourselves over-seriously. This should ideally enable people to bond with each other in a strong sense of searching for truth together, even while admitting to themselves how wrong they might be. It should provide believers with social support in being the best people they can possibly be, while still remaining open to new understandings of how “best” should be defined in this context. It should enable believers to build and maintain stable routines and celebrate special occasions together, without assuming that these rituals are based on anything more than our human need for routine and solidarity.

I believe that most religions could be practiced in this sort of way at. The shift away from a fundamentalist approach –– always searching for certainty and absolutes –– would be harder for some than for others, but I believe there is hope for sincere communities of all sorts in this regard. There’s nothing impossible about it. It just goes against the historical norm of how religious communities have always promoted themselves. But let me clarify in closing here that though I believe this perspective is applicable to pretty much any sincerely held set of dogmas, disciplines and rituals, I do not consider the specifics of the DDR set itself to be irrelevant. I believe that there certain understandings that are closer to the truth of what is “out there” than others, and we should search those out and take our guidance from them as much as possible. I believe that morality is more than just a matter of taste; that there are certain standards that we should hold ourselves and each other to, and these should not be taken lightly. I further believe that there are some rituals and routines which –– besides being random expressions of solidarity –– really can make us happier, healthier and more productive in and of themselves. All I’m trying to say here is that our understanding of such things will always be less than absolute; and that in terms of the practical matter of building social solidarity, how close our DDR are to the truth really isn’t all that critical anyway.

Beyond that I guess I could sum up by saying that in my personal life I’ve always erred on the side of sincere seeking and open-minded investigation rather than social conformity –– and I don’t regret that for a moment –– but I also see a deep value in the sense of community that hasn’t been among my priorities. In a perfect world I’d like to believe I could have both.  We’ll see.

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Filed under Individualism, Priorities, Religion, Spirituality

Revisiting my Compass Theory for Ethical Objectivists

Kierkegaard is remembered for his “leap of faith”. Pascal is remembered for his “wager”. Nietzsche is remembered for his poetic claim that society had killed God. They were all dead by the time they were my age. If I was to die this year and the world was to go on without me, would I be remembered for anything in particular? Obviously I’m not in a particularly good position to answer that, but one thing I’d like to think might be remembered is my idea of the border area between metaphysics and ethics, which I have dubbed “the Metaphysical Compass”. This week I’ve seen another place where it could be useful as a tool.

Some of my more interesting online discussion partners these days are promoters of an idea of non-theistic ethical realism or ethical objectivism. The basic question they are dealing with is, on the assumption that there is no God telling people what to do, what is it that makes particular things right or wrong? More specifically, is there some other moral foundation that makes certain things –– like rape, torturing children or murder –– always wrong, regardless of culture or era? To say no to this is a rather dangerous sounding position, because it effectively reinforces Dostoyevsky’s character’s claim that without God all things are permitted, and therefore we need God to maintain some sort of moral stability in the world. Some Christian’s have even gone so far as thumping themselves on the chest for creating the position of ethical objectivism by showing how truly unpalatable any purely subjectivist ethical position has to be.

Yet to make ethics an absolute without some stronger metaphysical foundation than evolutionary materialism seems a bit far fetched, to say at the least. We’re not just talking about the old “doesn’t every design have a designer” argument; we’re looking at the fact that in many cultures and at many points in history people have done things that western societies now see as irredeemably wicked, and in doing so these people never batted an eyelash about it. So if those things have always been wrong, why couldn’t those people see how wrong they were? And for that matter what foundation can we really claim that the moral absolutes which we now recognize are based on?

My goal in looking at this question over the years has not been to find a way to force people to accept my own religious or non-religious views, but to facilitate a dialog which allows for a greater level of mutual respect between parties that happen to fundamentally disagree on these matters. I believe that one can be a “real philosopher,” according to whatever definition you care to tack onto that term, regardless of what sort of God(s) or lack thereof one believes in. I believe that a lot of agreement in applied ethics can be reached and a lot of lives can even be saved through cooperation between believers and non-believers if we can find a way to address this issue without ignoring it and without dogmatically damning each other over it.

So my basic premise is this: there are basically four ultimate metaphysical/meta-ethical starting points that philosophers –– and sometimes even non-philosophers –– might appeal to. Depending on one’s convictions, they can be ordered in at least six different ways. The ultimate question is which, if any of them, do we feel safe in prioritizing as the basis for our moral reasoning? Trying to label them as neutrally as possible, these starting points would be the transcendental, the material, the individually existential, and the societal.

Playing this for the ethical realist crowd, let me go over to a rough summary of Karl Popper’s metaphysics, as filtered to me by way of Finland’s Ilkka Niiniluoto: We can talk about “reality” on at least three levels, in each of which we can meaningfully speak of correct and incorrect perspectives.

On the first level we have the external realities of the material world, including such statements as “My sofa is blue” or “This house was built over 50 years ago” or even “Giant hogweed can cause serious skin damage.” All of these statements remain true regardless of who is looking at the situation and how they feel about it. None of them depend on “how you see it.” Science, as we know it, tries to operate primarily on the level of discovering things that can properly be said to be true on this level: things about the basic structure of the material universe that we all live in. We all more or less naively assume that these things are somehow fundamentally real; that we’re not in some illusion orchestrated by “the matrix” or some Cartesian demon or the like. We also trust that the experts our societies have trained and appointed to look into these matters are giving us fundamentally accurate information about them.

Beyond that though we have the level of reality as each of us experiences it. This would include such statements as “Maple syrup tastes better than syrup made from sugar beets” or “My dog is an ideal companion for me” or “This floor needs washing.” All of those are true statements, but not things which can be scientifically proven. They are matters which first and foremost relate to my individual experience of life. They have been confirmed as accurate in the experience of others, and there may even be a popular consensus on all of them (eccentric tasteless fools who can’t appreciate good maple syrup aside), but that is ultimately beside the point. What makes these things true is that I consistently experience them in that way. Making sense of my individual experiences, and arranging them to flow in a more satisfying and sustainable manner is something I can get various forms of therapy to help with, but ultimately it is my own responsibility, my own project and something to be appreciated by me alone. The fact that others can relate to these experiences and have their own equivalents, and that they can be richer when shared with others, don’t take away from the fact that their reality is something that I speak about based on my individual experience of them.

And they further still we have a level of reality that is based on mutual understanding between individuals, which remains relatively constant regardless of any one individual’s perspective. Statements in this realm would include things such as “The price of gold is rising” or “It is illegal to use studded snow tires in the summer” or even “Hitler was a very effective motivational speaker.” All of those statements are true, and anyone who would attempt to deny them is fundamentally wrong. But the factuality of any of them is not based on issues of personal experience, nor is it based on the atomic structure of the physical universe –– at least not in any way that we can communicate with each other about such issues meaningfully on the basis of such a premise. These things are true because people collectively accept them as true. That doesn’t make them a matter of opinion, but it doesn’t reduce them to set of external physical realities either.

Popper was basically satisfied with those three levels of reality. Is that enough? I actually think not. (Poof, my Cartesian self disappears… Never mind stupid philosophers’ joke.) I think we need to speak as well of a realm of truths which are not culturally contingent, not matters of individual experience, and a priori to the structure of the physical universe as we know it. Many of the principles of mathematics would belong in such a category. To say that (in standard base-10 notation) 101 is a prime number is something we assume to be true regardless of culture, experience or physical context. If you have a pod of dolphins out feeding together and they come upon a school of 101 herrings, as long as they are eating these little fish whole and none of them get away, and there is more than one but less than 101 dolphins in the pod, it is impossible that they will all get to eat the same number of little fish. Near as we can tell that would be true in any universe, with any calculating system, and any type of distinct individual items being counted. I would refer to this “fourth level” as the transcendental.

What else besides mathematical principles might go into the category of things we can discover as universally true prior to their being manifest in particular physical forms? It is no accident, from my perspective, that most outstanding mathematical thinkers, all the way from Pythagoras to Whitehead, have also had a bit of a mystical bend to their thinking. They have instinctively felt that there must be other elements to this pre-material and yet post-social level of reality than just the mathematical. Searching for other eternal truths along these lines has been a life-long pursuit for many a young man (and not quite as many, but a fair number of young women as well) who started out becoming fascinated by the mysteries of numbers.  Demonstrating the eternal truth of their other ideas became more difficult, however, especially to those outside of their own religious or quasi-religious fellowship.

statue on New York's upper west side

So if we accept four metaphysical levels of reality, I propose that ethical systems can be grounded on a world view that starts with any of the four, and with some funky combinations of the four besides. When it comes to ethical foundations it is historically most natural to start with the transcendental: Somewhere out there is a personal or impersonal God or Force which sets particular standards as to how we should live, and through some combination of rational analysis and meditation and prayer for guidance we should seek to discover what that God wants for us. There are thousands of variations on this theme –– most of them mutually exclusive. But beyond the conflicts between different claims within this field, there are other problems which lead the non-theistic ethical realists to seek elsewhere for their foundation. In short, some really nasty stuff has been done in the name of God over the course of human history.

So if we chuck out the idea of God as a starting point, the next alternative would seem to be the material world as an ethical starting point. Ethics just evolved, like everything else. This theory is still being worked on quite actively by thinkers like Singer and Dawkins, with limited success thus far. Looking at the “sub-human” animal kingdom as the basis for a theoretical model of how humans should act just isn’t working that well yet. Meanwhile we have the older post-Darwinist materialist thinkers to consider: Marx on the one hand and the likes of Nietzsche and Spencer on the other. From a Marxist perspective, the evolution of societies as moral entities entails subsuming all individualistic drives into promoting the collective interest. Both Nietzsche and Spencer, on the other hand, would have espoused the perspective articulated by Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov at the beginning of “Crime and Punishment”: Some people are more evolved than others, and therefore they shouldn’t be ashamed to stomp out and push aside those inferior beings that get in their way.

Both of these classical materialist ethics programs then have the characteristic of disregarding the value of each individual as an individual. That might be sufficient reason to set aside that whole premise for ethics and move on to something that focuses on individual interests. In this regard we can look to some extent to Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky and company, but a more careful analysis reveals that they were in fact quite thoroughly theists or transcendentalists in their approaches to ethics. Perhaps the fellow who deserves credit for developing a purely individualistic basis for a world view that could work as an ethical foundation would be Jean-Paul Sartre. I still have a personal theory that Sartre’s approach is in part the product of his having been born ugly, but that’s rather beside the point. The main issue is that J-P believed that the only thing that any individual has to worry about is making the most out of his or her individuality, with no excuses and with no serious regard to what others happen to think of it. And that’s all well and good as long as you just want to smoke and drink and hang around with other Bohemian romantics –– being free to screw whoever and whatever is available to you in that regard –– but as a basis for building a family and contributing to the long-term stability of society, Sartre’s approach is rather “challenged”.

So the last of the basic levels of reality to appeal to as an ethical foundation then would be the societal. This can have at least two popular forms: Heideggerian “care” and all the variations on language-based philosophy. Heidegger basically thought that trying to build a strong society was the noblest and most fulfilling thing an individual could do, and thus contributing to the society and the world as a whole trumps the sort of Bohemian interests of a guy like Sartre. Whether that perspective made it inevitable that he would suck up to the Nazis is an open debate still. But besides this we have the French structuralists and post-structuralists who argue that one’s reality is to a great extent based on one’s language and language is essentially a social phenomenon. Therefore we must conclude that our most foundational reality is a social reality, and we must find our place within that social reality before we can move on to discover any other significant realities.

But one of the earliest premises of philosophy has been not to trust the herd instincts of societies to set moral standards. Socrates was democratically condemned to death, and Plato made it his mission in life to prove to the world how wrong that was. No moral foundation that leads to such a sacrilege can be trusted. Instead we need to look at our lives here on Earth as but a shadow of some greater form of reality that we must endeavor to get closer to. In other words he brings us back to the transcendental or theistic realm that some are working so hard to escape from.

There are at least a couple of other alternatives that I’m aware of, both promoted by Jewish boys who had strained relations with their religious traditions. We have Spinoza, who basically said that we really can’t draw any distinctions between the material and spiritual worlds, and we shouldn’t try to abstract ourselves from this force which envelops us and ultimately sweeps us along towards whatever we are destined for. And that’s cool, except it leaves us with no reason to give a crap about anything at all, because our efforts really don’t mean anything or make any difference if we thing that way. And then we have Heidegger’s French translator, Derrida, who says that life is pretty much random anyway, so the point is to avoid the mistake of assuming that there’s a point. Which brings us back to the point where…

We need to recognize that none of our ethical foundation systems are foolproof. Whenever someone comes up with a more foolproof ethical system, inevitably a greater fool comes along right after to foil it. In the end we’re probably not going to agree on which of these foundations our ethics should be based on, or on how completely objective our ethical systems can be; but we can agree that people should be entitled to a certain degree of respect and support, Good Samaritan style, just because they happen to be people, and through open and respectful dialog we can build from there. And if we can avoid abstract black or white dichotomies in the process, so much the better.

For what difference it makes, my own meta-ethical premise is a transcendental one, taken with a great deal of caution and reservation about how much of God’s mind those who claim to be his representatives actually know. But as all of my former students can testify, I’ve never based my grading or respect for others on how close to my own ideology they happened to be. As Einstein famously claimed, I want to know the mind of God (the rest being just details). I want to be able to take some of my understandings in that direction fairly seriously even, but I never want to make the mistake of assuming that I have fully arrived. And knowing how far I am from my goal, if you want to be a kind, empathetic, responsible and constructive participant the world we share on some other basis, I don’t consider it to be my responsibility to further “set you right” on these matters. I only hope that you can offer the same sort of respect to my fellow theists and me, even if respectful individuals are a minority on both sides.

And with the disclaimer that this was written rather off the cuff, with portraits painted in rather broad brush strokes, and apologies for any limitations this essay may have on that basis, I bid you farewell for this time. I’ll come back to plugging philosophy as a school subject next time around.

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Filed under Empathy, Ethics, Human Rights, Individualism, Materialism, Philosophy, Purpose, Religion, Respectability, Tolerance

Shall We Dance?

I’ve always professed a certain moral gratitude to Phil Collins for two things: 1) making it respectable for a man to walk around with 3 or 4 days of unshaved growth on his face and 2) writing a hit song about an inability to dance. The former has done quite a lot to save my face in a literal sense; the latter has done me immense good in terms of saving face more figuratively.

My father has sometimes commented that if he were to have his childhood to do over again, the one thing that he would make a point of doing differently is that he would learn to dance. Among Dutch Calvinist farm boys in western Michigan in the 1950s dancing just wasn’t considered to be an important or respectable thing to do, and he feels sort of sorry to have missed out now that he understands it better. By the time I came along the family culture had changed and loosened up quite a bit, but I too was raised in an environment that considered anything that encouraged “youthful lusts” to be inherently dangerous, and nothing encourages youthful lusts like certain forms of dancing. Thus, somewhat by design, I never really had a chance to learn to dance so well.

Frankly though, I can’t really blame my upbringing entirely; maybe not even primarily. My sense of rhythm has always been a bit shaky at best, and in terms of Howard Gardiner’s multiple intelligence theory, the kinesthetic has always been my weakest point. One of my mother’s moral priorities for her children was to make sure we all learned to swim properly, so I had more swimming lessons than I ever wanted, and I still suck at swimming. Dance probably would have gone the same direction for me. So when it comes to basic physical fitness routines, exercises in charm and attempts to develop romantic attractions, I’ve just had to use other means.

This hasn’t kept me from “messing around” with dance every once in a while though. There are certain forms of dance where, as in karaoke when it comes to singing, it is somewhat taken for granted that those taking part don’t really know what they are doing; where I can thus feel entirely at home. This has included the odd square dance parties I’ve been invited to, school discos, employee Christmas parties and live band performances at restaurants for the middle-aged set. Places where I’ve felt less at home are those where people take their dancing quite seriously. In Finland this would potentially include the “lavatanssi” pavilions scattered around the country. Spilling over from there, some of the dance floors on cruise ships to Sweden or Estonia can be a bit too intimidating for someone of my caliber. Other times, however, these same places too can be strictly for clumsy amateurs, enabling me to fit right in.

One of the places where the serious and clumsy elements of dance get most thoroughly mixed is in the continuously evolving tradition of the “elders’ dance” in Finnish high schools. The idea of this event, held every February, is that it marks the point at which the high school seniors in practice finish taking lessons and focus purely on their national final exams, leaving the juniors effectively as the eldest students in the school. The tradition is thus designed to make these juniors feel accomplished and mature, by giving them the opportunity to do a very grown-up set of formal dances together. In the past couple decades this has become THE event for Finnish young people to prove that they have reached their full potential for physical beauty and coordination. Their families often spend thousands to buy or rent the most glamorous possible outfits, cars, grooming services and follow-up party locations for that weekend. They spend months in advance learning and practicing the waltzes, tangos, boogies, line dances and structured partner swap dances that they end up giving a series of two-hour performances of. Yet another part of the tradition involves an audience participation round, where parents, younger siblings, aunt and uncles, younger class members, etc. are invited out onto the dance floor to pretend to know how to do some of the simpler dances that the “elders” have so elegantly performed. The secret there, as in many forms of dance, is to have no fear of making an idiot of yourself; and the structure of the event provides a fair amount of safety in that respect.

For me, however, this year’s school elders’ dance, which my younger son was involved in, took on a rather different aspect for me, because I invited a date along: my partner in a budding long-distance, on-line romance. I sent her some links to Youtube video clips of previous years’ dances, which seem to have caused here to take the event far more seriously than I had intended. She too had grown up with a fair amount of religious and cultural prohibition against learning to dance “properly,” and she too, in adult life, has had some fun just playing with dance. So on seeing the polonaises and cicapos and the like that these young people were doing so well, she became inspired to start taking intensive dance lessons, which she has subsequently kept going with over the course of the spring. This in turn has become an important new hobby for a person who is becoming increasingly important in my life… so guess what I have to do.

Last week I was introduced to the famous dance instructor, Tony. I had prepped myself slightly on line on the most basic theories involved, but I had not taken the effort to pull the blinds and clear the floor in my office or living room to do any physically practice. So as I began the basic moves with my partner I managed to avoid giving either of us any serious bruises, but I never advanced to the point where Tony could stop calling out the cadence: “Left… right… left-right… left…” Then once in a while, “Slow… slow… fast-fast… slow…” until I’d lead with my right instead of my left, bringing the chant back to, “left… right…”

All the time in the back of my head I could hear my father’s voice: “It’s to your left. No, your OTHER left!”

These are the sorts of things that one does not do without very deep personal motivation. Contemplating the matter, however, I’ve found that it actually provides a very useful metaphor for many other aspects of life: questions of individuality vs. conformity, the need for personal discipline as a structural foundation for all of our later improvisations, and choices concerning where we want to focus our energies.

Dancing is one of many areas of life where the basic purpose is to learn to do things the same as everyone else, only different. Dance actually helps clarify this paradox. Once one has found the 4/4 groove, locked into a few basic routine moves and established a basic line of physical communication with one’s partner, there are all sorts of twirls, dips, spins and other variations to be tossed in to enable a couple to stand out from the crowd. That does not mean you can use such improvisations as a substitute for knowing what you’re doing; but then again, sometimes only a trained eye can tell the difference, and if such a trained eye becomes a thing of the past, or a sign of pure snobbery, who is to say what the value of the “proper” system is?

But it’s not really that simple either. In order to find satisfying and interesting moves to make to the music, and to make these moves in a way that partners are able to fall into sync with each other, and where these moves can be repeated at will, there really needs to be some form of standardized movement involved. One needs to have a clear idea of what is generally expected and accepted as the norm before random variations really work. The same actually applies in writing, in expressionistic painting, in home decorating and in teaching: Breaking the rules is what makes any given example of greatness great, but that only works when the writer/artist/stylist/instructor has a clear grasp of the rules she/he is breaking. Ultimately greatness in most human endeavors has little to do with how closely one follows the rules; but everything to do with understanding what the rules are, why they became rules in the first place and what sort of purpose the rules serve, before setting out bend and break them.

Sunday school teachers love to give examples of classical musicians, whose solos appear to be so free, soaring, flowing and uplifting, but who must spend hour after hour practicing basic routine scales and mind-numbingly repetitive finger exercises to get to that point. Behind the seeming freedom is always a tremendous level of restraint and pressure. The moral of the story is always to encourage young people to forego playfulness and immediate gratification in favor of long-term development. In some ways that makes sense; in others it doesn’t. As I’ve said, there is a certain understanding of underlying order and structure required for creativity to function, yet on the other hand the whole point of that structure is to enable and enrich playful creativity. Those who are stuck in a fixation on order and discipline quite frequently cannot see the forest for the trees. In stressing the means necessary to accomplish wonderful things, they often forget what it is that is worth accomplishing in life. Structure and discipline are never ends unto themselves; they are means of getting to where we want to be in terms of realizing the unique potential and value that lies within each of us. And a lot of that has to do with wild and crazy playfulness.

So how do we find a proper balance between these factors of disciplined striving for technical mastery and wild and crazy playfulness? For advice on that one might want to turn to someone more “successful” than myself. Near as I can tell though, the best guideline to go by is passion. The great musician playing those mind numbingly repetitive scales isn’t doing so out of fear of discipline from some authority figure, or out of a need to impress his mother or something. He does so because he has a deep internal drive to pursue excellence at his craft. Rather than discipline for its own sake, I believe what we each need to find is some purpose to relate our efforts to… passionately. Going back to the dance analogy, we need to have some sort of music that moves us, and from there we can develop more skillful, sensual and syncopated ways of moving to that music. But without the passion for the music and the motion, the mastery of the discipline can be fundamentally useless, or worse.

At various points in my life I have developed passions for 35mm photography, bicycling, religious thought, cross-cultural interaction, making foods of various sorts and pleasing members of the opposite sex. I cannot begin to count the number of hours I’ve put into each of those hobbies/passions, but in each of those cases I did what I did because of a deep sense of connection that I felt with the endeavor itself, as though it was something that I could be uniquely good at, or that would provide a certain sense of purpose and direction for my life. Obviously in some of those areas I’ve since discovered that my talents are not so formidable or unique, and the efforts I was putting into them were unlikely to yield much in return, but that gave me no sense of regret for the efforts I had already put into them. In other senses I’ve been left with a feeling of longing –– wishing that I could have had the luxury of focusing my life’s on things I could feel passionate about, rather than routine things like writing reports and cleaning up after myself. Sometimes I wish I would have had just a little more discipline, so maybe I could have hit that threshold of greatness. And then sometimes I just settle into a reasonable level of contentment with life as I’ve known it, recognizing that in some respects I’ve been damned lucky to experience the variety of passions that I have.

Shifting to another analogy, one game that I never became much of a master at is Monopoly. It has been pointed out to me by those more skilled at this particular game than myself that I had a tendency to spread my assets around the board too broadly, not focusing enough on particular areas of earning potential. I always told myself that the purpose of my strategy was to allow for variations in luck, where if no one happened to hit the properties where I had my largest resource concentrations, I could still get them on the lesser properties. But if I didn’t have enough on those alternative properties to do much damage and improve my position, my diversification strategy really didn’t do me much good. I suppose the same should be said for my life’s passions. On the one hand I haven’t wanted to risk everything on just one or two endeavors that may or may not succeed; on the other hand I’ve probably put too little of my personal energies into any particular passion to have significant chances of success.

So along comes the possibility of learning to dance. On one level it seems to be something that my personal aptitudes are still not ideally suited for, and which is unlikely to pay for itself in terms of personal benefits that justify the efforts I put into it. On an entirely different level dancing could be as good a later middle age physical hobby for me as any: taking me beyond my old set of limitations and opening up new worlds of experience to be passionate about. In fact, however, the only real motivation for me here is caring personally about someone who, partially because of my own inadvertent actions, has started caring about dancing. So that being the case, I’m planning to make some effort to learn to do it “right,” even if I do cling to my own ridiculous levels of playfulness in the process. So… wish me luck.

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Filed under Happiness, Individualism, Love, Philosophy, Priorities, Purpose, Respectability, Risk taking

Abrahamic Certainty

I’m going to make this week’s blog a double. In part this has happened by accident, in that I was inspired to bite off a bigger theoretical piece than usual here, and by the time I’d finished chewing my way through it I had about twice as many words as I usually allot myself for one of these things. But in part that is a happy accident because I was planning to allow myself to set my writing aside next weekend anyway, as I celebrate Easter in my own radically untraditional way this year. I could have broken this up into two chunks to keep readers coming back more regularly, but why bother? If you find this to be too heavy an intellectual snack for one weekend, read half of it now and save the other half for sometime next week.

Let me also warn you that this entry is written from the perspective of a sincere but questioning faith in God. If you are the sort of person who finds a presupposition of the existence of God offensive, you might want to skip this essay. I have elsewhere explained at some length why I believe in God and what sort of role that faith plays in my life, and this piece is more than long enough without adding in a repetition of those arguments. On the other end of the spectrum, if you are the sort of religious person who finds it offensive to have the authority of your own tradition seriously questioned, you too might want to skip this particular essay. I operate here on the assumption that even the most sincere prophets and saints have made serious mistakes, and that when it comes to seeking for direct spiritual guidance, a certain amount of uncertainty goes with the territory. You are fully entitled to disagree about these matters, but accommodating all of the various authoritative dogmas that might take offense at my approach is another thing I don’t really have time for this weekend.

All of this starts with a personal re-evaluation of Kierkegaard. For many years if people would ask me to list my favorite philosophers I’d have to stop and think, and a different list might come out each time, but Kierkegaard would always come out within the top 5. Kierkegaard prioritized finding meaning in the absurdities of everyday life as the essential task of both philosophy and Christian faith. He drew on both the Bible and on classical Greek and Latin materials to demonstrate how the respectable Lutheran status quo of his time had a fair percentage of BS involved. On those merits I still believe that he was probably the most outstanding and influential genius that the Scandinavian countries have ever produced. At the same time, however, Kierkegaard was rather open about his own human limitations and fallibility. He never claimed to be a prophet, which as I see it is quite a good thing; especially as lately I’ve noticed areas in his thinking where, as a product of his own time and culture, he seems to be quite seriously mistaken.

Kierkegaard is at his best as the cynical humorist and critical analyst. Where has been seen as intellectually weaker is in terms of giving his own final answers to life’s persistent questions. After recognizing that life can only be analyzed by looking backwards, but it can be only lived by looking forwards, and that the analytical
process itself inevitably includes more than a little bit of paradox; for everyday decision making Kierkegaard turned to a form of faith that was riddled with paradox and thin on proofs, which was precisely what he loved about it. For many, however, this involves unjustified and unjustifiable risks: diving into things that you can’t be totally rationally sure of, but where “something in your heart” tells you that it’s right.  (Quotation marks there refer to the term being borrowed from pop culture, not Kierkegaard’s writings.) For some the question follows from there, “Can’t we do better than that?” leading to the answer “Maybe not.”

Recently, as I’ve been contemplating some major decisions in my own life and talking with some close friends about these matters, one of these confidants raised the issue of Abraham’s faith, as considered by Kierkegaard. For those unfamiliar with the story it goes something like this:

Like any rich nomadic herdsman of his time, Abraham had dreams of raising a huge family… but it just wasn’t happening for him. He was on the north side of middle age already, as was his beloved and hot looking wife, and as hard as they worked on making babies, they just weren’t coming. At one point then Sarah, his wife, told Abraham to try to deal with the situation by seeing if he could get her slave girl pregnant. That worked pretty well, and Sarah sort of adjusted to the idea of her new step-son, Ishmael, taking over the family fortune. But then, after they had given up on trying to make babies, and got back to intercourse for the fun of it, as sometimes happens in such cases, Sarah managed to get pregnant and have a son, Isaac. That’s where things started to get complicated. Abraham really loved both of his sons, but his wife clearly came first in his life, and she loved her surprise biological son to the total exclusion of her step-son; and Ishmael, it seems, was not adjusting to this very well himself. Finally Abraham, on Sarah’s orders, sent Ishmael and his mother packing, to go live further south, where they wouldn’t be the subject of so many arguments.

In the next chapter then (Genesis 22) comes the real climax of the story. It says that “God tested Abraham” by telling him to kill and roast his dear son Isaac. Abraham was pretty secretive about this, but he set out to take care of what he believed God had commanded. He took a couple helpers and his son, along with some wood and butchering utensils, and snuck out one morning before his wife woke up. They rode for a good three days “to the place God had shown him,” and then he left the servants behind so he could go do a secret ritual with his son using the wood and a butcher’s knife. The kid was smart enough to notice that something strange was going on, in that there was a conspicuous lack of a sacrifice animal with them, but Abraham just cryptically told him, “God will provide one.”

The happy ending then comes when at the last second God stops Abraham from killing Isaac, and says, “I was just testing. You passed. Don’t hurt the kid!” Then Abraham sees a ram with its horns stuck in a bush (not the smartest animal in the pack, it would seem) so he kills and roasts that creature instead. Ever since then, however, there has been burning speculation about what was going on there. To start with, how did God give these messages to Abraham, and how could Abraham be sure that it was God talking to him? And after that, what lessons does this story really hold for the rest of us? It is one of the major turning points in the patriarchal narratives in Genesis, so it can’t really be ignored; yet it seems to have nothing to do with principles of kindness, trust, cooperation and understanding that religion “should be promoting.”

Kierkegaard latched onto this tale just because it makes so little sense in terms basic humanistic ethical principles being manifest in religion. His take on it was that sometimes you just have to trust God for no other reason than that he’s God. He gets to give the orders because that’s part of what he gets to do, being God and all. So if you try to crunch any religion –– Christianity in particular –– down to a sweet little set of humanistic principles, you’ve rather missed the whole point.

Thus far, in terms of coming to grips with the foundational metaphysical assumptions that monotheistic faiths are based on, I strongly sympathize with what Kierkegaard is saying. My problem with all this comes when I start to look for an answer to the question my friend puts to me: “What would you do in Abraham’s place?” My provisional answer: “I’d make damned sure of my epistemological reasons for believing that it was God talking before I’d do anything.” And that’s the crux of the matter: can any form of personal emotional experience ever be enough to provide absolute certainty that it is God with whom we are dealing?

The alternative of looking for rational certainty of God’s will –– discovering the divine through a series of systematic algorithms –– is something that Kierkegaard has adequately shown to be inconsistent with the core understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition at least. (And as I understand it, Al Ghazali made a similar point from an Islamic perspective 700-some years earlier.) Beyond that it would seem to me to be an implausible proposition on a number of different levels.

In brief, if God had wanted to provide absolute certainty about his intentions and desires for mankind, there would have been a number of ways in which he could have made that more clear. That, however, would have entailed an increased risk of various religious groups claiming that their authority is based on enforcing God’s revealed will for everyone else. That would have turned “true religion” into the most impersonal and authoritarian bureaucracy imaginable. Even without true, divinely inspired intellectual certainty we have some pretty serious problems with authoritarian religious bureaucracies. We can only imagine what it would be like if one of these groups really
did have God’s unequivocal stamp of approval!  Thus God, in all his wisdom, in the interest of remaining personal and relational, has chosen to remain somewhat mysterious and non-systematizeable. All this is to say, faith in God does not necessarily entail an assurance of being perfectly aware of what the God wants in every possible situation; somewhat the opposite in fact.

Now of course no authoritarian religious organization which enforces orthodoxy in its standardized teaching can readily accept the idea that they have anything less than a mandate from God himself to maintain such standards. Thus it would be more the rule than the exception for the ideas in the above paragraph to be labeled as the most evil sort of heresy. But the more dogmatically a religious group insists on maintaining absolute control as God’s sole (or primary) representatives, the more damage they do to their own credibility. The ultimate nature of God clearly beyond human understanding, and thus any group which claims to have an exclusive understanding of him is either bluffing or they really don’t get the question.

In any case, this brings us back to the question of a less rational, more mystical or emotional awareness of God’s intentions and desires for us; and how far we can trust such sensations. Is it possible to “just know” what God wants of each of us, and of each other? If so, to what extent?

Some would say that these matters are best left to those who have a legitimate claim to being apostles or prophets. But what gives such individuals the right to claim such authority? Short answer: we don’t really know, but some individuals’ “messages” in this respect just sort of ring true for their followers and for future generations. But on careful consideration that really isn’t such a great epistemological standard. Given the mutually contradictory nature of prophetic messages from different sources, each seen as “obviously divine” by millions of faithful followers, the only obvious thing is that the vast majority of those “prophets” or “apostles”, (to be charitable about it) must have got at least some of their basic details mixed up. On the other end of the spectrum, the standard job description for a prophet or an apostle says that you’ll be rejected in terms of popular opinion, at least in your own time and your own village, because others just won’t “get it.” So external confirmation in terms of reinforcement from other (potential) believers really can’t be taken as firm evidence of whether or not any given apostle, prophet, guru, etc. is the real deal or not.

Yet even if the authority of a prophet’s or apostle’s message can never be fully confirmed in terms of its overall popularity, that still leaves open the possibility of inter-subjectivity: to one extent or another the issue always comes back to a question of a particular prophetic message “resonating” with what “God says to the heart of the believer”. Along these lines each of the Abrahamic religions officially holds that each believer’s status as a believer is ultimately between the “believer” and God –– not something that anyone else can competently judge; and the voice of God within the heart of the believer –– confirming for that believer the message of the Prophet(s) –– is the only thing which ultimately matters. On this Jews, Christians and Muslims theoretically agree: if God is not in fact speaking directly to your heart, all the rest is really just an empty show.

Such a doctrine actually poses a very limited risk to those who have a vested interest in enforcing orthodoxy. For starters this can easily be turned into an “Emperor’s New Clothes” dynamic: everyone inevitably claims to see the beauty of the message, because not to do so is tantamount to proclaiming one’s own moral and spiritual inferiority! Then once you have enough people proclaiming their personal affirmation of the beliefs in question, a sort of Asch social conformity dynamic kicks in (see, e.g., http://changingminds.org/explanations/theories/normative_social_influence.htm), and people start sincerely seeing things “the way they are supposed to” because everyone else claims to see them that way. So when people are told to “judge for themselves” as to whether or not the “divine message” they have been given resonates with them, chances of dissent are pretty limited.

[And for those who do not have the time or patience to read this all in one sitting, this might be as good a place as any for you to take an intermission. See you after the break.]

But if we set aside the question of why others claim to believe what they believe, and if we ignore the risks inherent in believing differently from the mainstream, if we then take these admonitions to judge for ourselves at face value, we find ourselves in a position
where there is really no categorical difference between the prophet and the true believer: personal spiritual intuition of one form or another is the thing that really counts. What makes the prophets’ or apostles’ spiritual intuitions special is that they are intended to serve as benchmarks for improving one’s own spiritual intuitions.

So when it comes to getting messages from God that might instruct us to do things which go against the grain of popular opinion, as Abraham is said to have, we really can’t flog that one off on the prophets –– leaving it to authority figures to make our spiritual decisions for us. Each truly believing Jew, Christian, Muslim, etc. is personally responsible to listen for God’s voice for her- or himself, and to follow that voice to the best of her/his God-given ability.


But this brings me to the point where my good friend Kierkegaard and I part company. I realized this in going through my personal library this week, thinning out the materials that are not worth lugging around or cramming into my limited personal space. In the process I picked up a book of his essays that I hadn’t opened in a while, and had a read through Of the difference between a Genius and an Apostle. His main point there was to say that, contrary to the message being preached in the various churches of Copenhagen at the time, the Apostle Paul was no genius; or even if he was it would be rather irrelevant. The relevant matter is that he spoke with authority, as one having a message from the Almighty. That much I don’t necessarily have a problem with either. Where I disagree is when it comes to his categorical assumption that acceptance of authority and careful epistemological investigation should be treated as separate, unrelated issues.

Part of this has to do with the fact that Kierkegaard was thoroughly adjusted to his role as the subject of a king rather than being a participant in a democracy. He wasn’t comfortable with the idea of having a leader who pandered to the masses; whose authority was based on being likeable or convincing: “There is something disturbing in the idea of a king who is witty or an artist. […] To ask whether a king is a genius –– with the intention, if such were the case, of obeying him, is in reality lèse-majesté; for the question conceals a doubt as to whether one intends to submit to authority. […] To honor one’s father because he is intelligent is impiety.”

Obviously the cultural assumptions which the reader is expected to bring to such a passage have changed a lot in the past 150 years. Does that mean that we have slipped further from God’s intended design for humanity? I rather doubt it. I don’t actually believe that there ever was any true “divine right of kings.” Frederick VII having ruled Denmark in Kierkegaard’s time was no more a manifestation of God’s will than Berlusconi’s presidency of Italy is today. The practical opportunities for citizens to influence matters may be limited in both cases, but that does not mean that anyone who has succeeded in gaining such power has Carte Blanche from God himself to run things as he pleases. Every holy book worth its salt contains passages on what constitutes good governance and what standards rulers should be held accountable to. Rulers which do not live up to their responsibilities are to be peacefully removed from office wherever possible. Unwise rulers are no longer routinely obeyed merely because they are rulers, and overall the world is a better and safer place for it. This clearly goes against the grain of Kierkegaard’s understanding of how authority is supposed to work, but then again he probably faced far worse disillusionments in other matters.

Part of what this entails is that citizens are at least in part responsible for the state of the government they live under. Rather than unquestioning obedience, what we theoretically owe to our rulers is respectful awareness of the issues they are dealing with, and active participation in the process of encouraging wise decisions. Thus respect for authority, rather than being a passive matter entirely distinct from epistemology, becomes an active matter acutely dependent on epistemology. And for reasons outlined above, this also applies quite directly to spiritual authorities as well.

So that brings me back to the question of what I would do if I were Abraham…

Perhaps, like Gideon and so many other holy men who have been faced with counter-intuitive instructions, I would ask for specific signs to prove to me that the instructions were at least coming from something more than my own disturbed emotional state. Perhaps I’d look up my old friend Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18) who comes from an entirely different religious tradition but still worships and gets messages from the same God, to see what sort of wisdom he could impart on the matter. Perhaps I’d just try to decompress for a while; leaving my foreman in charge of the flocks and all and spending some time just traveling, either by myself or with the wife and kid, depending on which would most effectively help me to be sure that I was thinking straight again. I figure if God would want the kid dead he wouldn’t be in such an all-fired hurry about it anyway.

My overall take on old Father Abraham is that he meant well, but he may have seriously got his wires crossed in trying to figure out what God wanted of him. Isaac actually comes across overall in the narrative as sort of retarded, and given how he was born long after his mom should have stopped having children, that’s more than possible. Having just kicked his smarter, stronger son out of the camp on his wife’s demand to improve the chances for this cute little weakling must have been rough on him. The chances of this little mommy’s boy ever amounting to anything seemed pretty slim. Maybe if he sacrificed this kid to his God, the way his neighbors sometimes sacrificed their kids to their gods, that would earn him extra favor from up above to make sure good things came to the kid who seemed to have better prospects anyway.In spite of all of his confusion though, God somehow got the message through to him just in time not to do it! So Isaac was saved, and Abraham was left with a feeling of God telling him, “Don’t worry. Everything’s cool. I know you meant well, but I have plans for this kid.”

Isaac went on to lead a limitedly successful life. He wasn’t really interested in any other women than his mommy until after she died. His dad then arranged for him to marry one of his cousins, who sort of a became substitute mommy for him. After failing at it for quite a while he finally managed to get his wife pregnant… once. And from there the rest of the stories about Isaac have to do with his wife and son taking advantage of his blindness and stupidity. Meanwhile Abraham remarried and had a big bunch of kids with his new wife, but then left the family fortune to Isaac and his family.

So when it comes down to it Abraham’s success is less down to him earning it through his heroic readiness to kill his weaker son, and more a matter of God being merciful to him in spite of his occasional screw ups, of which killing his son could have been by far the worst. Overall, if I would have been in Abraham’s position I believe I would have made an entirely different set of mistakes than he did, but God could have been merciful to me too in spite of myself. As things stand, some 4000 years or so later, Abraham’s legacy lives on, and those of us who follow in the different variations of the spiritual
path which he pioneered keep doing our best to get the message right in our own contexts. That includes me, and every true believer in any faith, who throws him- or herself on God’s mercy and then tries the best he/she can to live worthily of the mercy thus received. And as near as I can tell, that would also include Kierkegaard.

Like Kierkegaard, I make no claims at having prophetic gifts, but I listen for God’s instruction the best I can anyway. Ultimately, in spite of our uncertainties, we all must live our lives looking forward. We seek whatever help we can get from above. We fail on a regular basis, but we keep trying. Not giving up hope can be easier said than done.

Trusting that God will be merciful to those who call out for his mercy, and who are willing to show mercy to others on that basis, is the first order of business. Seeking valid general rules for living wisely and relating to others respectfully comes next. Getting special wisdom and guidance for unique circumstances where the general rules don’t necessarily apply would come after that. None of those are the exclusive territory of prophets or exceptional saints; they are available to all believers. None of them require special genius, but all of them require careful consideration of what information and sensations can be trusted. All of them require a certain humility, but none require blind obedience to those who claim to speak for God.

And with this in mind, may we each experience his mercy then this Easter, this spring, in our own surprising and revitalizing ways.

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Filed under Control, Ethics, Holidays, Individualism, Religion, Respectability, Risk taking

Individualism

very cold February day

Apologies to those who were disappointed to have searched in vain for my blog last weekend. I’m not sure if there was anyone, in that both of my regular readers know what sort of schedule challenges I was dealing with, but I in the interest of building a regular reader base again here I should be polite about it and apologize when I miss. I should also say that I’ve been thinking rather deeply about matters of how much my value depends on other people, and which other people. And part of the question, dear reader, is to what extent you are part of the validation for my existence.

Recently I’ve been looking at and defending the dualism and individualism inherent in Descartes’ cogito (“I think therefore I am” for the non-philosophers reading this). My good virtual friend Brian wrote recently that it should be rephrased, “We speak therefore we are.” That in fact is a slightly more philosophically viable alternative to the African variation of putting cogito up against the general proverb which can be loosely translated, “A person is a person because the people are the people.” In both cases, however, there is an assumption that Descartes was basically mistaken in believing that his individual existence could be defended according to his individual mental processes. I actually reject that rejection on a couple different levels, while at the same time taking its underlying admonition towards community participation quite seriously. But at the same time I haven’t really reached any final conclusions on this one. I should explain.

First of all, Descartes’ proposal in his first principle is very modest: he could be sure that he himself, in some way or some form, actually existed; just because he could sit around worrying about it. You can’t sit around worrying if you don’t exist. Whatever else you can doubt, that much seems to be as far beyond doubt as anything could possibly be, no matter how paranoid you are. Descartes was not saying that he was necessarily human even; just that in some form he existed. Therefore it is unfair to claim that he was mistaken. Brian has basically admitted that this is correct. Mari, the scholar through whom I have been considering the African perspectives, has made the same observation.

But beyond that there is the question of whether Descartes’ self-sufficiency and in verifying his own existence actually does more harm or good. The argument against him here is two-fold. First of all, he is stressing aspects of his selfhood that have nothing to do with his body as such. He could just as well be a dragon avatar in World of Warcraft, or a human power source in the Matrix or even a character in the Major’s imagination is Sophie’s World for that matter. His not knowing what he is for sure, and his refusal to trust that his body is necessarily part of that identity, is something that many find extremely disturbing. Isn’t it more important to start with what we know to be true about ourselves in terms of our physical existence, which can at least be scientifically investigated and all that?

But more important in the minds of these anti-Cartesians is the matter of recognizing the importance of the community. In order to be truly valuable as a person, and in order to be at peace and harmony with oneself and the surrounding world, isn’t it important to recognize and own the group(s) of people who have socialized us into the identities we now have? Wouldn’t a failure to do so be inherently self-deceptive? And perhaps more importantly, isn’t the acknowledgment of the rights, dignity and value of others key to the realization of our own individual rights, dignity and value? Shouldn’t we listen to the sagacious words telling us that “no man is an island,” and join Van Morrison in responsively saying, “Rock on, John Donne”?

There is much about both of these objections that I can sympathize with, but I ultimately reject both of them as standards for the foundation of my personal identity. To begin with the latter, I quote Abraham Maslow: “What shall we think of a well-adjusted slave?” Is it best to be at peace and harmony with all that tries to oppress us? If you happen to have a vested interest in controlling others you might think so, but most people I know would say of course not.

Maslow believed that everyone needs to have a sense of belonging and social acceptance before they can rise to greater heights, but he does not believe that social acceptance should be the final standard for defining a person’s ultimate value. That ultimate value should be in terms of realizing something within ourselves which has value entirely independent of society’s readiness to accept it. Another important Jewish-American thinker of Maslow’s generation, Lawrence Kohlberg, proposed that when it comes to morally justifying our actions we tend to fall into one of six basic categories, based on our level of personal maturity and development. Those with the most childish perspectives tend to think of what kinds of rewards and punishments they might get from those in charge of their worlds. Those with somewhat more mature perspectives consider how the society works and what they have to do to fit in. Those with the most mature perspectives go beyond worrying about what is socially and culturally accepted to thinking about what ultimately has universal ethical value. The sad fact of the matter is that if instructed by authority figures and socially pressured to commit atrocities, most people would readily do so. The ones who would not are those rare eccentrics who put their personal principles and values ahead of the communally accepted ones. That doesn’t mean that they put themselves ahead of everyone else; it just means that they believe in some higher standards than social acceptability as a guide for their lives.

When it comes to Descartes’ mind/body dualism we get into trickier territory. The question of whether a spirit world beyond the physical even exists is not something that many readers here take for granted. It would also be fair to say that such a concept was probably rather absent from the ancient Hebrew that Christianity is theoretically based on. The Bible’s first hint at the idea of heaven comes in Psalm 49 – my paraphrased version: “God’s going to come and get me after I die. Those rich bastards are just going to rot in their graves.” Even that sort of leaves open the question of whether the soul goes to be with God, or whether the psalmist is expecting God to give him his body back. Moving up to Jesus’ time, following all of the Hellenistic influences on Judaism, the controversy seemed to be whether bodies would be resurrected for a time of divine reward and punishment (the Pharisees) or whether we just die and that’s the end of it (the Sadducees). Jesus’ talk of non-sexual angel-like heavenly beings (Matthew chapter 22) took both sides by surprise. The apostle Paul in turn carried on with the idea that the afterlife would include a resurrection of physical bodies (I Corinthians 15), but he then tossed the blatantly Hellenistic understanding into the mix, that when he died he would be “away from the body, at home with the Lord” (II Corinthians 5). So with all that confusion about whether one’s body is one’s true self in the Judeo-Christian tradition, how can we defend this non-scientific idea on religious grounds even?

So this leaves an important issue open: Is there really more to me than just my body? Is there some greater natural purpose to my life than biological/genetic survival? Or for that matter, on the other hand, must all of my thoughts and motivations and purposes in life be explainable in terms of chemical and hormonal states within my body, combined with the social and cultural influences I have received?

On the one hand there is an important aspect to my body being an important part of who I am. If I am truly in love with a woman, I don’t think that can work without our fully appreciating each other both mentally and physically. One without the other leads to a far less satisfying relationship. And if I hope for romantic love to involve all aspects of my being, including the physical, why shouldn’t religious fervor and spiritual experiences also include all of me?

But even phrasing it that way implies an assumption that each of us is more that our bodies. Can we really escape from that? Can we find a consistent reductionist perspective that says the physical part of me is all there is, and operate honestly in our social interactions on that basis? Perhaps, but being a radical vegan would probably be far easier. Nor do I really see this as a matter of cultural conditioning either. I believe that the human experience, with all of its mysteries, wonders, beauties, pains and inherent longings––including those for truth and justice––is best explained by postulating that there is more to each of us than just our bodies. So like Descartes I strongly personally believe that there has to be something more to what makes me me than just this wonderful body of mine. Whatever else there is to me, that part of me has to operate within this body (most of the time at least), and the question of whether my body and brain getting damaged fundamentally changes who I am is yet another complicated matter; but I’ll go into my perspectives on the Phineas Gage story some other time. Descartes didn’t have the final truth of the matter, and neither do I. All he implied in this regard in “cogito” was that his certainty of his existence didn’t have to depend on his body, per se. That far I’d be inclined to agree.

So the question is, how big a risk is there in following Descartes into individualized self-hood? My friend Brian, citing Thomas Merton, and the African philosophers and theologians I’ve been reading about all seem to consider this a major problem. I’m not so sure.

I do agree that to be complete as persons, each of us needs to be connected with something bigger than ourselves. None of us are biologically or psychologically designed for lives of solitude. We need other people in our lives. We each need to know that we are important, in every aspect of who we are, to others around us. None of us can live without loving and being loved in some way or another. I would even go as far as to say that, as much as I admire Kierkegaard’s thought and writings, he lived an unnecessarily sad life and died younger than he should have due to his failure to get this point.

I’d also agree with the basic concern that in order to be fully human and fully at peace with oneself, one also needs to accept oneself physically, “warts and all,” and one needs to respect the human value of those in one’s community and environment. Not seeing others as important because they’re not entirely just like me, and not accepting myself because I don’t match up to my own platonic ideal for myself can both really mess up a person’s life. But the thing is, I don’t see Descartes as being in any way to blame for such problems.

To me the thing that prevents people from integrating their own identities with a broader sense of what it means to be human is tribalism, in all of its various forms. What isolates people from other people is not an inherent sense of self-sufficiency, but rather a feeling that the only people that matter are those in my own little group –– the ones I was raised with, the ones who worship in the same way I do, the ones who look and dress like me, the ones who speak with a familiar accent… By excluding those who don’t fit into those categories, I effectively make myself less human.

Thus, ironically, to be more harmonized, integrated and complete as a person, I need to dare to step outside of my tribal boundaries. From my immediate community’s perspective I need to be more of an individualist. As much as I may love them, the limits of their world cannot be the limits of my world. God, and humanity, are bigger than what any tribal, cultural, religious or national group can encompass.

Of course I cannot on my own encounter all of the richness of the human experience without particular trusted friends in the process, and in some way those too can become “my tribe”, but when such a tribe starts to limit more than reinforce my sense of who I am in terms of a broader sense of harmony, connection and purpose, it’s time to loosen those ties. For that matter there will always be dangers posed by the defensive structures of other tribes out there. Not everyone will trust me and accept me on the basis of my openness and good will towards them. I can’t safely try connect with everyone out there. But if I as an individual respect each person I encounter as an individual, rather than our seeing each other as representatives of hostile tribes, that vastly improves our potential for harmony with each other.

I’ve mentioned before at some point in my blogs that I sort of self-identify as “the Flying Dutchman.” I’ve also heard rumors that my father before me carried the same label at times. The fact that the original Flying Dutchman was a legendary sea captain attempting hopelessly to get around the southern tip of Africa, and his family name might even indicate a closer family relation, are interesting ironies at this point in my life. Beyond that, the part I do not identify with in the legend is losing all contact with the rest of humanity through blind ambition. The part I do relate to very strongly is a sense of being an outsider––a non-member of whatever tribe I encounter, wherever I go. In some ways though, at this point in life I find that oddly refreshing, in that it enables me to establish many contacts that identifiable members of stereotype-able tribes aren’t able to establish.

I’m actually hoping that many readers will be able to identify with this form of individualism as a means of establishing greater personal integration. I’m hoping you’ll allow me to be a member of your own loose tribal units, and that we can trust each other regardless of our background differences. I’m hoping that these words enable a sense of personal connection between myself and each reader, and among readers here, that somehow helps each of us to be a bit more human, and perhaps a bit more spiritual as well, in the process. If other members of “tribes” I’m currently associated with have a problem with that, that’s their problem, nor ours, and I can live with that. And as I see it, Descartes, wherever he’s at, is part of our same gang.

If this strikes a chord with you I’d appreciate you letting me know, and passing it on.

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Filed under Ethics, Happiness, Individualism, Philosophy, Religion